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Film Review

Still Alice

Few diseases are as frightening and cruel as dementia, the most common of which is Alzheimer's Disease. The victim begins to lose short term memory, then most memory until finally all that has made them a unique person is gone. Toward the end most Alzheimer's patients cannot do the most basic tasks and must have constant care. The onset is usually at about 65-70, but a few (5%) have early onset Alzheimer's, which can appear at 50. Most Alzheimer's progresses over 3 to 10 years, but the course of early onset can often be much quicker, for reasons not understood. Death is usually not from Alzheimer's directly but from opportunistic diseases such as pneumonia or infections. Alzheimer's is a mysterious disease, first diagnosed in 1906, and although many millions have been spent on medical research, little is known about cause. Certain generic mutations are associated with the disease and genetic research is continuing but with far less progress than had been predicted 10 years ago. Virtually no drugs or other treatment has proven effective in reversing its course, although a few may slow its progression. Best estimates are that six percent of the population over the age of 65 have Alzheimer's or other dementias, about five million in the United States alone. Most likely we all know someone with this disease and if not, surely will in the future. All of us, after misplacing our keys or cell phone or blanking on a familiar word, have had a twinge of anxiety wondering whether we will be joining this not very select club. And some of us will.

Lisa Genova, a neuroscientist, wrote her first novel in 2007: Still Alice. The directors and screenwriters, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland (married to each other), followed Genova's book closely to produce their new film of the same name: Still Alice. It's the story of Alice Howland who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease. Alice, a 50 year old linguistics professor at Harvard (changed to Columbia in the film), is married to a research physician and has three grown children. Alice is bright, articulate, attractive, respected, loving and with an upper middle class life in Manhattan that until now has been nearly perfect. She becomes forgetful, sometimes forgetting a word or where she put her cell phone. But one day while giving a lecture she blanks and has to restart. When she is jogging on the campus that she knows well, she suddenly loses her way. Concerned, she sees a neurologist, who begins a few simple tests, such as asking her to remember a name and address that are to be repeated back at the end of the consult. He does more testing, like a CAT scan, to rule out other possibilities such as a brain tumor. He suspects she has early onset Alzheimer's and a PET scan soon confirms his suspicions. The news terrifies Alice and devastates her very supportive husband.

Julianne Moore, in one the finest performances of her career, plays Alice. Her facial expressions alone speak a world, although the dialogue is well written. Her performance here should nail an Oscar. Alec Baldwin plays her husband, and he too is excellent. Her three children are portrayed by good actors, and in particular, Lydia, her youngest, who has pushed back against her mother's insistence that she go to college, rather than act. Lydia is played by Kristen Stewart (Twilight series). In one scene, late in the film, Lydia is reading a famous passage from Tony Kushner's Angels in America to her mother. The passage is lyric, and although Alice cannot totally understand it, she responds in the most wonderful way. The scene is a masterpiece. Cinematography is outstanding as well, from the Columbia campus and the Upper West Side to the beach. Interior scenes are all handsome but seem a bit too perfectly decorated. To visualize Alice's increasing fog, the camera often shows her in sharp focus, with everything else blurred. Wordless but effective. The film is beautiful which seems ironic given the story. The tone is elegiac as we watch Alice's persona slipping away, and her determined attempts to hold on to her intellect and dignity. She gives a speech to a group of Alzheimer's patients and their families, which is very moving and clearly her swan song. This is powerful stuff but the directors wisely underplay it. The soundtrack, beginning with piano arpeggios then songs, is lovely. Yet, I felt that Glatzer and Westmoreland told a story that was too sanitized for the often messy and awful reality of living with dementia. She is living an ideal upper middle class life with her loving husband and everyone responds in the most loving way toward Alice, not always the reaction in real life. Alice does have an accident, but otherwise there is not the agitation, roaming, and destructive behaviors often seen in Alzheimer's patients. Although I loved and was very moved by Still Alice, I felt that Michael Haneke's masterpiece film, Amour (2012) showed dementia in a far more realistic way. But definitely see this tremendous film whose story resonates. Screening time: 101 minutes. Just opened at the Clay and does not seem to be playing anywhere else in the Bay Area yet.

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