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First reviews of ‘Still Alice’ at the Toronto International Film Festival

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HitFlix : TORONTO – Julianne Moore has already had quite a year. In May, she surprised many by taking the best actress honor at the Cannes Film Festival for David Cronenberg’s “Map to the Stars.” On Monday night, “Still Alice” premiered at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival and it may feature one of the finest performances of her already illustrious career.

If you were to read a short synopsis about “Alice,” an adaptation of Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel, you might be slightly concerned. The film introduces us to Alice Howland, a Columbia University professor in linguistics who has balanced a successful career with a happy marriage and three grown children. She’s just turned 50, but notices that she’s starting to forget things. Specific words are dropping out of her mind. She’ll be in the middle of a lecture and forget a phrase or subject matter. Eventually she goes to a neurologist who reveals she early onset Alzheimer’s. It’s rare for her age, but it’s a familial condition she likely inherited from a father she rarely saw in his later years. Rapidly deteriorating, Alice has to decide how she’ll live out the rest of her life knowing she’ll be a burden to the rest of her family.

In the hands of the wrong director(s), “Alice” could be overly melodramatic and laced with saccharine moments meant to force a happy ending. Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland won’t let that happen. The duo behind the critically acclaimed “Quinceanera” let “Alice’s” narrative unspool in as restrained a manner as possible. There are no unbelievable hysterics. There are no self-aware screaming matches. Instead, the focus is on Moore’s heartbreaking depiction of a woman slowly losing her focus, her memory and, to some extent, herself.

Moore’s performance here is reminiscent of her breakthrough role in Todd Haynes ‘ “Safe” and her Oscar-nominated turn in Stephen Daldry’s “The Hours.” In each scene she peels a little bit more of Alice away as the emotional pain of the disease takes its toll. It is incredibly subtle work that has to have been painstakingly thought out. You only realize this, however, walking out of the theater. Moore won’t let you see her working behind the curtain. Another Toronto debut, “The Theory of Everything,” has earned raves for Eddie Redmayne’s stark transformation into Stephen Hawking. Moore’s work here is just as transformative as Redmayne’s, but her arc is mental rather than physical. As anyone who has a relative or friend who has suffered from Alzheimer’s disease knows the Alice we meet at the beginning of the film will not be the Alice we meet at the end. And because of that the film lives and dies on Moore’s portrayal. She succeeds smashingly.

Glatzer and Westmoreland put an accomplished ensemble around Moore to play Alice’s family including Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth, Kristen Stewart and Hunter Parrish. Stewart, as Alice’s youngest daughter, is the family member who seems to be affected by her mother’s deterioration the most (and earns the most screen time), but all of the actors clearly know they are there to support Moore. This is Alice’s story and no one else’s.

Below the line, cinematographer Denis Lenoir avoids the Hollywood sheen instead composing a delicate and natural look. Ilan Eshkeri (“The Young Victoria”) deserves a special mention for his beautiful score that also avoids unnecessarily pulling the audience’s heartstrings.

Variety : When the movies deal with Alzheimer’s, they nearly always approach it from the vantage of the family members who are painfully forgotten as loved ones lose their memories. “Still Alice” shows the process from the victim’s p.o.v., and suddenly the disease isn’t just something sad that happens to other people, but a condition we can relate to firsthand. Julianne Moore guides us through the tragic arc of how it must feel to disappear before one’s own eyes, accomplishing one of her most powerful performances by underplaying the scenario — a low-key approach that should serve this dignified indie well in limited release.

Based on the novel by neuroscientist Lisa Genova, “Still Alice” gives new meaning to the phrase, “It happens to the best of us.” Columbia professor Alice Howland is the sort of character who, even without Alzheimer’s to contend with, is accomplished and interesting enough to warrant her own movie. She has achieved much in her 50-odd years, both as a respected scholar and mother of three grown children, played by Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish.

For the otherwise healthy Alice, there’s no good reason why Alzheimer’s should strike now, nearly 15 years before it traditionally occurs, although, as her doctor points out, the condition can actually be harder to diagnose in intelligent people, since they’re capable of devising elaborate work-arounds that mask the problem. Genova’s book hit especially close to home for husband-and-husband helmers Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (“Quinceanera”), since Glatzer suffers from ALS — another degenerative condition that systematically attacks one’s sense of self.

At first, it’s just a word that goes missing in the middle of one of Alice’s linguistics lectures. But the situation gets scarier when she loses track of where she is during her daily jog. Since Alice’s disease involves short-term memory loss, a number of the tests she faces are ones the audience can take alongside, with the inevitable result that we start to reflect on the blind spots in our memory. Forgetting things isn’t unusual even among perfectly healthy adults, making it easy to identify with Moore, who plays her initial concerns quite casually.

It’s not until Alice learns that the disease is hereditary that the severity of her situation sets in: As if it weren’t bad enough that she will eventually cease to recognize her own children, Alice may also be responsible for passing the condition along to them. This is a tragedy, pure and simple, and yet the directing duo refuses to milk the family’s situation for easy tears. Instead, the idea is to put us inside Alice’s head. We experience disorientation as she would, suggested by a shallow depth of field where things shown out of focus appear to be just beyond her comprehension.

Alice’s diagnosis calls for a form of grieving, during which she tries coming to terms with the fact that life as it had previously existed is now over. She tells the department chair at Columbia U., where she taught, about her Alzheimer’s and is promptly dismissed from her position. She gets lost in her own home and is easily overwhelmed whenever she steps out of it. Though her husband John (Alec Balwin) aims to be supportive, he refuses to let her condition derail his own professional life. Alice begs him to take a year off work so they can be together before she’s too far gone to experience her own life, making visits to retirement homes and making contingency plans (a bottle of sleeping pills stashed at the back of a dresser drawer) for the day when she can no longer answer a series of personal questions about her life.

The directorial couple must have gone through something very similar when Glatzer’s ALS kicked in, forcing him to accept that his body had become his greatest enemy. The pair bring that personal connection to the writing process, emphasizing Alice’s emotions over those of her various family members — although Stewart, whose character steps in as caregiver at one point, gets several intimate, unshowy scenes with Moore. The helmers have made a conscious decision to keep things quiet, commissioning a score from British composer that doesn’t tell you how to feel, but rather how she feels: lost, emotional and anxious most of the time.

Clearly, Glatzer has not yet given up, and neither does Alice, despite her relatively rapid degeneration. It’s a devastating thing to watch the light of recognition dwindle in her eyes, to see the assertive, confident lecturer that she had so recently been reduced to the nervous, scared woman we see delivering one last speech at an Alzheimer’s society confab. After the stiff lifelessness of “The Last of Robin Hood,” the helmers have made a near-total recovery, shooting things in such a way that activity is constantly spilling beyond the edges of the frame, giving the impression that characters’ lives continue when they’re not on camera, even as Alice’s seems to be closing in around her. Just as her kids look for ever-fainter signs of their mother behind those eyes, we lean in to watch Moore the actress turn invisible within her own skin.

The Hollywood Reporter : With some five million Americans (and 36 million worldwide) living with Alzheimer’s disease, the warm, compassionate but bitingly honest Still Alice will touch home for many people. The toll the disease takes on the life of a brilliant linguistics professor is superbly detailed by Julianne Moore in a career-high performance, driving straight to the terror of the disease and its power to wipe out personal certainties and identity. Written and directed by Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, the screenplay is faithful to Lisa Genova’s best-selling novel which has a fan base of its own.

Rather than focus on the destructive effect of the disease on relationships, the drama dives deep into how one woman experiences her own deteriorating condition, placing all the emphasis on Moore’s face and reactions, her vulnerability seesawing with her strength. This insider’s account would be a tall order for any actor to fill without resorting to sentimentality or falling into the obvious, but she never loses control of the film for a second, with able support from Kristen Stewart, Alec Baldwin, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish as family members. The involvement of the Alzheimer’s Association and executive producing names like Christine Vachon, Maria Shriver and Trudie Styler will offer an additional leg up, although word of mouth should provide the strongest incentive for audiences leery of the topic.

Alice Howland (Moore) is a vivacious, charming 50-year-old New Yorker — a respected intellectual who is a precision communicator. Her loving husband, John (Baldwin), calls her the smartest, most beautiful woman he’s ever met, and their three grown children — Anna (Bosworth), Tom (Parrish) and aspiring actress Lydia (Stewart) — are, if not success stories, at least making their way in life. Alice has it all — until she begins to forget words, which are her livelihood as a Columbia linguistics teacher, and worse, starts to lose her bearings in familiar places. She’s frightened enough to consult a neurologist who rules out a brain tumor, but hypothesizes early-onset Alzheimer’s, a rare form of the disease that strikes people under 65.

Alice’s first reaction is to hide it, but after getting confused about a dinner guest, she makes her husband privy to her fears. As her doctor tells them bluntly, her disease is genetic and the chances of their children contracting it are 50 percent. It falls on the family like a bomb, especially when one of the kids tests positive for the rogue gene. But this bad news is quickly sidelined by Alice’s own mental decline as the disease makes terrible, swift progress. While her family tries to cope with the situation, or miserably fails to do so, the cast’s ensemble performance brings out their true colors, including some surprising role changes.

Despite a two-hour running time, the drama is swift-moving, perhaps because the viewer dreads the disease’s progression and wishes time would stop for poor Alice. But it doesn’t stop, and step by step she descends the cognitive ladder, not suffering so much as struggling to stay connected. In one standout scene, she stumbles onto suicide instructions she has left for herself on her computer. Though this is one of the film’s most intense scenes, the directors are able to slip in a moment’s humor to lighten things up.

Not all is doom and gloom here. Another key scene has Alice invited to address an Alzheimer’s conference. Her anxious preparations end in a triumphant monologue about her condition that is truly touching.

Westmoreland and Glatzer have created drama around the porn industry (The Fluffer), the Mexican community in Los Angeles (Quinceanera) and Errol Flynn’s last fling with a teenage girl (The Last of Robin Hood.) Still Alice has a concentration and urgency in the telling that the other films lack. Although not known for daring cinematic fireworks or experimentation, the directors tackle a subject where a restrained, understated approach is the best insurance against sloppy sentimentality. It pays off handsomely in the film’s closing moments, a poignant, poetic confrontation between the generations that draws the best from Moore and reveals unexpected depth in Stewart. The film’s extremely personal feeling is surely related to the fact that Glatzer directed it while undergoing a health crisis of his own — after being diagnosed with ALS, he had to co-direct the movie on an iPad using a text-to-speech app.

Tech work remains humbly in the background, all in the service of keeping the spotlight focused on Moore and mimicking her feelings with an out-of-focus camera, costumes she no longer chooses herself and so on.

ScreenDaily : Offered as proof that there actually might be some things worse than death — or at least more heartbreaking — the exquisite Still Alice presents the sad story of Alice Howland, a brilliant linguistics professor decimated by early-onset Alzheimer’s. A melodrama of substance, the new film from writer-directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (Quinceañera) is led by a precise performance from Julianne Moore, but the film is really an ensemble piece that looks closely at one family’s struggles when its matriarch is alive but slowly losing herself piece by piece.

Still Alice premiered at the Toronto Film Festival and should be an art-house player thanks to a cast that also includes Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart and Kate Bosworth. Good reviews for Moore’s performance will attract viewers, and readers of the source material (Lisa Genova’s original novel) may be intrigued as well. Although there might be a concern that the subject will be too heavy for some audiences, the modest indie success of the low-budget Away From Her (also about Alzheimer’s) suggests that discriminating crowds will be game.

Moore plays Alice, an author who lectures on linguistics and teaches at Columbia University as the film begins. But tragedy is about to intervene: Even though she’s only 50, she notices that she keeps forgetting vital things, such as where she is when going for a jog through New York City, even though she’s taken the route many times before. Soon after, she’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, being told by her doctor that the condition will only get worse. The bulk of the film concerns how she and her family, including her husband John (Baldwin) and daughters Lydia (Stewart) and Anna (Bosworth), cope with the news.

Preferring a spare, understated style, Glatzer and Westmoreland mostly let the inherent sadness of the situation speak for itself. (Occasionally, though, Ilan Eshkeri’s score can become a little self-consciously frenetic, a clumsy attempt to echo Alice’s panic at her worsening memory loss.) But despite the rare tonal lapses, the film does a remarkable job of homing in on the story’s core terror: Alice is still physically well and could live a long life, but her essence — her mind, her memories and her spark — will soon disappear forever.

In the wrong hands, this is the stuff of disease-of-the-week sentimentality, but Still Alice stays away from that terrain by focusing less on the illness than on the emotional effects it has on all involved. Of course, the movie is most interested in Alice’s reactions to her diagnosis, but no one in her immediate circle is immune to these changes. Baldwin is particularly good as an ambitious medical researcher who is losing not just his wife but also a woman who was as driven as he was. John shows plenty of compassion for Alice, but Baldwin also reveals the cracks in the husband’s patience, powerless to bring back the woman he once knew, even though she’s right there.

Still Alice is such a rich, well-observed piece that it even finds time to flesh out Alice’s daughters. In the beginning, Anna is the favoured, successful child while Lydia is the disappointment floundering in a go-nowhere acting career out in Los Angeles. But once Alice’s condition is spotted, the two daughters respond in different ways and for very specific, understandable reasons. With nuance, Bosworth and Stewart both play women who seem to have been profoundly shaped by their impressive mother, and we feel the characters’ confusion at having her influence suddenly ripped away from them. (Stewart especially shines, initially playing a prototypical starving-artist type who surprises her family by her response to Alice’s diagnosis.)

As for Moore, this is one of her most complete, layered performances. Almost 20 years ago, she starred in filmmaker Todd Haynes’ Safe, a revelatory social parable-cum-psychological horror movie about a housewife seemingly allergic to the entire world. The more realistic Still Alice finds her again felled by an invisible malady — one just as frightening — and it’s interesting to note her ability in both films to elicit our sympathy so easily. Expertly modulating her facial expressions as Alice becomes more childlike as her disease advances, Moore externalizes the character’s anger and fear, the sense that she can feel her mind going but can’t reverse the damage. But at the same time, it’s not an overly showy performance: There aren’t a lot of for-you-consideration grand dramatic scenes, a modesty that makes Alice’s slow descent all the more painful and human.

To be sure, some will find Still Alice too depressing, too mawkish or too insular to embrace. (Because the Howlands are a well-to-do family, it’s inevitable that a criticism leveled against the film will be that it reeks of upper-class privilege.) But such complaints seem petty in the face of such a quiet, absorbing film. Tearjerkers get a bad rap because of how shamelessly manipulative they are, but Still Alice earns its tears by exploring emotional terrain with restraint and insight. This is a movie about a woman with Alzheimer’s, but it’s really about a family reassessing its bonds. And although none of the characters mentions death, this is one of the most poignant movies about mortality in quite a while: The Howlands are grieving for a person who isn’t actually going anywhere, except in all the ways that really count.

ICS Films : What could be worse than losing the memories of one’s experiences? If a person is shaped by their experiences, are they still the same person once they lose those memories? A film that finds the perfect balance of exploring the perspectives of people both living through Alzheimer’s, as well as living with someone affected by Alzheimer’s, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s intimate and hopeful Still Alice tackles these questions with real wisdom and clarity, and dares to challenge one’s opinion of what Alzheimer’s really portends.

Dr. Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a professor of linguistics at the University of Columbia, an immediate pointer to how intelligent this woman is. The first moment where the audience becomes aware that something is off with her mental state is when she is giving a lecture to students, and suddenly loses her train of thought. Alice laughs it off, saying, “I knew I shouldn’t have had that champagne!” Another incident accentuates her lapses, when her son’s girlfriend visits for a holiday celebration, and Alice introduces herself to her twice. It’s only once Alice loses her bearings on a jog around her university campus that she starts to worry. Realizing something isn’t quite right, Alice visits a neurologist, who conducts memory tests (that also engage the audience, to make them aware of the holes in their own memory). He tells her that though it’s typically doubtful for a woman of her age, there is a possibility that she may have Alzheimer’s.

Alice accepts this news with dignity and proactivity, and shows how resourceful and high functioning she can still be. After being dismissed from her station at Columbia, she finds new ways to challenge herself, creating a memory quiz for herself on her iPhone to complete every morning. And, after some time, she gives a lecture about living with Alzheimer’s (a truly moving speech that pulls the audience into the head of someone who has to live with the disease), where she highlights the words she has spoken, so as to not lose her place as she reads aloud. While Alice has approached her current situation with bravery and gusto, her husband John (Alec Baldwin) nominally accepts the gravity of what this means, but struggles with denial as he thinks she is slipping away from him. When Alice goes for a run and leaves her phone behind, she is unable to receive reminders from John, and misses dinner plans with friends. He is reluctant to accept that things are going to change, and still believes that everything can be perfectly managed, berating her for leaving her phone behind. This conviction persists, and as he is still an ambitious, career-driven man, he flirts with the possibility of taking Alice away from their home and moving out of state to pursue a promotion. Alice continually pleads with him to take a sabbatical year, certain that the amount of time when she will be coherent enough to really enjoy their life together is short. But the call of this promotion is too seductive for John to resist, and their daughter Lydia moves back home to become Alice’s primary caregiver.

Kristen Stewart, also magnificent in Olivier Assayas’s Clouds of Sils Maria this year, provides excellent support to Moore’s Alice, and in a film that did not already have a powerhouse like Moore, she would be best in show. As Alice’s youngest daughter Lydia, Kristen Stewart plays an aspiring actress who moves away from her family in New York City to pursue an acting career in Los Angeles. One gets the impression that Lydia has not been as close to Alice as her siblings (and, as her siblings have pursued careers in law and medicine, Lydia makes the least sense to Alice), but she is the child who best understands how to accommodate and support Alice. In one dinner scene, Alice is intent on entering the date of one of Lydia’s performances in a play into her phone. Her elder daughter Anna (Kate Bosworth) thinks this is futile, and that Alice shouldn’t need to feel pressured to have to remember one more thing that they can already worry about for her, but Lydia argues that there is no harm in letting her do something to make her feel better in that moment. In defending her, Lydia shows herself as the only family member who is sensitive to Alice’s need to still be as independent and high functioning as possible. Lydia seems to be fully aware that Alice is not and does not need to be treated like a victim, and is not keen on feeling the need to start treating Alice any differently. Another key scene takes place after Alice’s husband John suggests that Alice should read one of Lydia’s favourite plays, so that the next time they’re together, they’ll have something in common to talk about. As she’s up in Lydia’s room, along with a copy of Tony Kushner’s Angels in America Alice finds one of Lydia’s old journals. Once she discusses the play with Lydia, Alice accidentally drops a piece of information that Lydia never told her, alerting Lydia to the fact that Alice read her journal. She feels invaded, and is critical of Alice’s choice to do that. Just because Alice has Alzheimer’s does not mean she is suddenly a saint, and Lydia is not inclined to start treating her like one. But in one really moving scene that is among the best parts of Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart’s performances, Alice confronts Lydia, telling her that she remembers Lydia was angry with her, and though she cannot remember why, she wants Lydia’s forgiveness. Theirs is a relationship that highlights the importance of forgiveness, reconciliation of resentment, and the possibility of two apparently different people finding common ground, and the film is as affecting as it is because of such exploration.

Still Alice is proof of the fact that one’s identity is so innate that not even one’s loss of memory is enough to take that away. It shows there is still room for families to have meaningful experiences with their affected loves; a compelling promise to the families of and anyone living with Alzheimer’s that it’s not a life sentence of a condition: Still Alice is a real beacon of hope.

RT @leaf_chick Standing ovation after the screening of #StillAlice at #TIFF14 … #juliannemoore so moving…. Oscar worthy

RT @HitFixGregory And yes another classy addition to Kristen Stewarts resume. #StillAlice #TIFF

RT @RiverofLawrence Omggg #StillAlice was soooo good!!! It got a standing ovation!!! Wow! Wish it was longer!

RT @debsterbread Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Alice in #StillAlice deserves and oscar nomination. Absolutely heartbreaking. #TIFF14

RT @sharonclott Audience member asks to shake #juliannemoore’s hand and gets round of applause #StillAlice #premiere #TIFF14

RT @KillerFilms STILL ALICE gets standing ovation!! Julianne Moore gets her own 2nd standing ovation!

RT @sharonclott Another round of applause ends the #StillAlice Q&A

RT @AmmmieM @TIFF_NET Early-onset Alzheimer’s Day continues. Still Alice was a beautiful, heartfelt, realistic portrayal on film.

RT @WeLiveFilm #StillAlice was spectacular. #juliannemoore #TIFF14

RT @richardjmunday Still Alice was fantastic, thought provoking and tragic, the performance by @_juliannemoore showcased the insidious nature of this disease.

RT @WeLiveFilm SA is a brutally honest look at alzheimer’s. The direction was spectacular as was #juliannemoore #KristenStewart #alecbaldwin
Alec Baldwin and Kristen Stewart, both of them were terrific. I loved the relationship between Kristen Stewart and Moore.

RT @jenannrodrigues There are many great moments between Kristen and Julianne’s characters, and heartbreaking ones too. #StillAlice

RT @RogueDior I liked Kristen’s role. I loved the whole cast actually #stillalice #TIFF14
Julianne has a lot of strong scenes which really brought to light how Alzheimer’s affects a person and their life.

RT @_marzipancakes Still Alice. Beautiful production and a captivating Julianne Moore. Captures the intensity of the loss of “you”

RT @larry411 On a personal note, was fun to see 1/2 the movie #StillAlice was shot in the teeny town of Lido Beach NY on the block where I lived. Spent many hours on that very beach seen in #StillAlice… & took care of my mom through her dementia, as Kristen Stewart’s character did. I suspect many will see their own lives reflected in #StillAlice, as I did. One of #TIFF14’s most important films & Oscar contender.

RT @trizhernandez #StillAlice Thank you for the tears #TIFF14 Great performance Julianne, Good to see you again Kristen

*Spoiler Alert* According to @imTulip 🙂 this personal photo of Kristen that we have already seen in ‘What Just Happened?’ is also in ‘Still Alice’. ♥

RT @JeniferDyck Get the tissues! #StillAlice #tiff

RT @baseball31 Kristen and Julianne’s scenes were both funny and sweet

RT @weimermat Still Alice was fantastic and powerful. So powerful that I left the theatre with a strong desire to learn more about the disease.

RT @JazzBeeP Still Alice has to be the most touching film that I have seen so far this year at #tiff loved it.

RT @QueenMoonRee Still Alice was an amazing movie!! @_juliannemoore did a fantastic job in taking on the character of Alice!!

RT @SSanober #StillAlice #TIFF14 is an emotionally engaging incredible film about #alzheimers #juliannemoore at her best yet!!! What a beauty!

Written by Maud