Still Alice

Julianne Moore stars as Alice Howland, a Columbia University professor of linguistics. She’s a happily married mother of three adults, a daily runner, an accomplished educator, yet something’s going wrong.

We all occasionally go into a room and forget why we went there. Alice starts with a forgotten point she’s making during a lecture, stopping her cold. Then she’s suddenly lost during a jog. The confusion begins to grow frightening. It’s time for her and her husband John to see a doctor, where they receive devastating news. She has a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. She’s 50 years old – 15 years younger than it usually occurs.

We see the growth of the disease (http://www.alz.org/alzheimers_disease_10_signs_of_alzheimers.asp) from Alice’s point of view, not the family’s. Everyone gathers for Christmas dinner, and Alice introduces herself to her son’s girlfriend. Her daughter is thrilled that Alice will make her famous bread pudding, but later there’s a look of confusion as she has to look up the recipe. When it’s time to sit down, Alice introduces herself to her son’s girlfriend. Deterioration is occurring too quickly.

Alice’s work is suffering, and the time has come to admit the truth to the chair of her department, and she’s dismissed. Her husband remains supportive, but he’s still ambitious about his own career and doesn’t agree with her wish to take a year’s sabbatical so they can have some time together before she’s completely lost. She’s disappearing and she knows it.

Alice realizes this horror can be passed down to her children and begs them to be tested. She gets to a point where she feels safe only in the house. At one point she’s so confused she opens all the wrong doors looking for the bathroom. We share her panic and embarrassment.

It doesn’t come from her voice. It comes from her eyes.

Julianne Moore is subtle as she guides us through this heartbreaking ordeal. She is surrounded by a good cast, script and director. But I’m not mentioning anyone else. This film is hers. So, probably, is the Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role.

Birdman

We’ve missed Michael Keaton. If, like me, you were surprised to see him without hair, it’s been too long. And now here’s Birdman. What a way to say welcome back.

Let me quote Peter Debruge of Variety, who said the performance was the “comeback of the century” and described the film as “a self aware showbiz satire” and called it “a triumph on every creative level.”

In Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson, a washed-up former comic book hero who, 20 years after his fame has evaporated, has decided to write, direct and star in his own Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver (http://sun.iwu.edu/~jplath/carver.html) story called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” One of Riggan’s prized possessions is a cocktail napkin with Carver’s best wishes and autograph. He’s going to do him proud. However, he doesn’t know whether he can do it. Will he be welcomed back? Is he good enough? Has he taken on too much? He fights with his inner demon – Birdman – complete with a damning voice and imagined telekinetic powers that go along with it.

Birdman’s cast is superb. Edward Norton is a self-absorbed costar who has so many demanded improvements to Riggan’s script that he commits the outrageous sin during previews of breaking the fourth wall. Riggin’s daughter (Emma Stone) is a supposedly recovering stoner who has been estranged from her father. (Just an aside…Emma Stone is so frightfully skinny she’s a stick figure. Eat a sandwich, Emma!) Stone and Norton play beautifully with each other. And Norton’s been at it for a while. Zach Galifianakis is Riggan’s lawyer and confidant and offers strong support, and Lindsay Duncan plays acid-tongued New York Times critic Tabitha Dickinson with lip-curling joy.

When Michael Keaton won the Golden Globe Award, he thanked the film’s co-writer, producer and director Alejandro González Iñárritu and said that every actor in the room would want to work with him. Iñárritu (http://ntdaily.com/interview-director-alejandro-gonzalez-inarritu-unmasks-the-birdman) strove to make the film look as if it were shot in one take. We saw the gritty backstage dressing rooms of the Broadway theater, and he stripped away a lot of the glamour.

Birdman has been nominated for nine Academy Awards. If it’s constantly referred to as Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), the show will definitely run long.

The Imitation Game

Benedict Cumberbatch has said he doesn’t know why he’s been called upon to play smarties like Van Gogh, Stephen Hawking, and now Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Maybe because he was smart enough to get the role when it didn’t work out for Leonardo DeCaprio.

Alan Turing was a Cambridge mathematician called upon to join a British intelligence agency with the task of breaking Nazi naval codes and win World War II. Just one problem – it couldn’t be done. The Nazis had the Enigma machine with codes that changed every minute, every second, and Turing’s team had to decipher them.

They worked in the top secret Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park. (A British television series, The Bletchley Circle, follows a group of women who worked as code breakers and reunited in the 1950s as detectives without a past.) Turing’s team of cryptologists was composed of mathematicians, linguists, chess champions and intelligence officers. With huge egos.

When Turing’s electro-mechanical machine, known as the Bombe (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombe) wasn’t showing results, his superiors wanted to cut it off, but he wrote to someone who could help: Winston Churchill. He authorized anything they needed. The machine ultimately was capable of breaking 3,000 Enigma codes a day.

The team included Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), with whom Turing became close but didn’t have a romance because of his homosexuality. When Turing’s secret was revealed and he was convicted of gross indecency, he endured chemical castration (chosen instead of prison) and died at the age of 42 of possible suicide. This has been argued and never proven.

The film was both a critical and commercial success. Both the National Board of Review and American Film Institute included it in their Top 10 Films of 2014. It received five Golden Globe nominations, three SAG nominations, nine BAFTA nominations, and was honored by the LGBT civil rights advocacy group Human Rights Campaign.

The Imitation Game is a fast-moving, intelligent, entertaining film about a complicated subject that could have missed the mark. Cumberbatch isn’t the only smartie.

The Theory of Everything

As a student at Cambridge, Eddie Redmayne had seen Professor Stephen Hawking across campus occasionally. Years later, he was starstruck to meet him and have the privilege of portraying him in The Theory of Everything. Eddie and Felicity Jones, playing Hawking’s first wife, Jane Wilde, met Hawking and Wilde several times before making the film.

The film was based on Wilde’s book, Travelling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen. Shortly after meeting as students at Cambridge, Stephen was diagnosed with a motor neuron disease (one of which is ALS), with a life expectancy of two years. They refused to believe it. They became engaged. He said it gave him something to live for. They married and had three children.

Redmayne shows a Hawking who smiles as he fights. He needs crutches. He needs a wheelchair. He can’t write. He can’t speak.

It’s only his body that’s betraying him. Nothing and no one approaches his mind.

After 30 years, Jane has become a caretaker and left behind her studies in the arts. Her outlet is her choir – and her choirmaster, with whom she falls in love. And Stephen has fallen in love with his nurse. Jane marries the choirmaster, and Stephen marries the nurse.

Stephen’s second marriage ended in 2006, and he and Jane became closer, enjoying their children and grandchildren. They were on hand with Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones at the UK premiere of the film.

There’s an enormous Oscar buzz. The movie meets some predictable Oscar criteria:

It’s about a real person: Ray. Milk. The Iron Lady. Capote. Lincoln.

It’s about someone afflicted: Charly. My Left Foot. Shine. Rain Man.

An actor looks, well, unattractive: Raging Bull. Monster’s Ball. Syriana. Monster. American Hustle.

And the Academy likes to be highbrow. Just my theories, but they’ve often proved true.

Hereafter

Hereafter is a 2010 film starring Matt Damon, who has grown as an actor and whose portrayal I enjoyed. The movie follows the diverse experiences of three unrelated people who somehow were connected to the afterlife.

Like many who watched the movie expecting to see interesting theories besides “walking into the light,” I found that the film didn’t go in that direction. It did tell the interesting individual stories, but it was unsatisfying because it didn’t expound on the premise. For a movie directed by Clint Eastwood, it was slloww-moving. That surprised me. Eastwood’s direction is usually tight and not boring. (He lost a lot of points with me when he spoke to an empty chair, but I still thought I’d enjoy an Eastwood-directed movie more than this one.)

George (Damon) is a factory worker. As we learn from his brother, Billy (Jay Mohr – where has he been?), George has a psychic gift. He can hold someone’s hand and see enough about the person to give a reading, reaching someone who has died. He made a lot of money doing that, but he has given it up because he felt his life became more about death. He’s through.

Marie (Cécile De France) is a French journalist. While on assignment in Thailand, she is a victim of a violent tsunami, but she survives. Barely. She has vivid memories, including several people walking toward a light during the time she “died.” The timing for this part of the film was unfortunate. One month after its release, the 2011 earthquake and tsunami hit Japan, and that country pulled the film from all theaters.

Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren) are London twins. Their mother is an alcoholic and drug addict. When Jason is sent to the chemist – pharmacy, that is – he’s beset by a teenage gang who steal his Mom’s “rehab medicine,” and he is struck and killed by a car while trying to escape.

Marie’s story is told primarily in French with English subtitles. That’s how the film starts, and you’ll wonder if the whole thing is in French. But non.

Somehow all three stories intersect. Just when you think you shouldn’t have bothered, it redeems itself in the last half-hour or so. It had a $50 million budget and made $105 million at the box office. A lukewarm reception.

Your call. To rent or not to rent.

 

Binge-watching The West Wing

The West Wing is not a new show; in fact, it was on the air from September 22, 1999 to May 14, 2006. Everybody’s binge-watching these days: Breaking Bad, Homeland, Prime Suspect, Angels in America. You’re watching some older shows because the DVDs and boxed sets weren’t immediately available. Long after The West Wing ended, Twitter accounts for many of the characters began to appear in 2010.

If you have the boxed set of The West Wing, you’re looking at 47 discs. This is how addictive it is:

  1. You’ll lose sleep.
  2. All your auto-recorded shows will fall off your list.
  3. You’ll want to take a leave of absence from work.

Binge-watching has its benefits. Of course there are no commercials. Another advantage is that you don’t have to wait for the new season after being presented with a cliffhanger.

The West Wing revolves around President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his senior staff. It is somewhat serialized but also includes new plots in each episode. It could really be called a dramedy. You see great stress and drama every week. There’s also a good serving of humor. Creator Aaron Sorkin, who wrote every script for the first four seasons, planned on the President’s appearances once a month. Instead, Sheen was in every episode. Rob Lowe was assumed to be the big draw, but after four seasons he left the show after the emphasis switched to Bradley Whitford’s character. Not the greatest career move.

The cast consisted of 15 major characters in its seven seasons, but there were many cast changes. Eight actors appeared in every season. There were some I didn’t like. OK, I’ll say it: Moira Kelly (who disappeared after the first season); Mary-Louise Parker (sorry, I just can’t stand her nasal and monotone voice); and Mary McCormack (although I liked her in Murder One).

There were people in the background with pretty good resumes. Two pollsters and six former White House staffers (including two former press secretaries) acted as consultants. Former senate aide Lawrence O’Donnell wrote several shows and was also an actor, portraying the president’s father in flashbacks.

The show, the actors, producers, directors and crew won more awards than they had shelves. They included Emmys (26), Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild awards, and the Peabody – twice. In 2013, TV Guide ranked the show #7 in its list of the 60 Greatest Dramas of all time, and its readers voted the cast the Best Drama cast of all time. The Writers Guild of America ranked it #10 in its 101 Best Written TV Series List.

It’s fun to spot the changes in certain issues. There was no medical marijuana (the Surgeon General was almost fired for talking about it), and gay marriage was referred to as a state issue, as it is now, but backing it would be political suicide.

In many ways the political situations stand up to today. Maybe that means there are problems we haven’t solved since 2006.

Read This Book

If you thought The Tonight Show began with Jay Leno as host, and you never saw the show before 1992, you missed The King Of Late Night, the best Tonight Show host ever, often called television’s best host of all time. Johnny Carson.

The Tonight Show actually started in 1954 with Steve Allen as host. He was followed by Jack Paar, Carson, Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien for about 15 minutes, then Leno again, and presently Jimmy Fallon. Johnny Carson was the host for 30 years – the duration of all other hosts combined.

The book is fast-moving, chatty, and a real tell-all – written eight years after Carson’s death. (There are 15 others about him.)

Henry Bushkin was a young lawyer when he met Johnny Carson in 1970. They worked together for 20 years, and when that was over, it was followed by a dismissive ending typical of Carson. (Think of Joan Rivers’ blackball from NBC.) Bushkin describes himself as his lawyer, counselor, partner, employee, business advisor, earpiece, mouthpiece, enforcer, running buddy, tennis pal, drinking and dinner companion and foil. He also cleaned up all Carson’s messes. They saw each other every day. When Johnny occasionally delivered a joke about “Bombastic Bushkin,” Henry was flattered by the name.

Johnny Carson was a brilliant comedian and interviewer. He wasn’t snide to his guests like David Letterman, and he didn’t fawn all over them like Oprah Winfrey. But you’ll read about a personality very different from the man who never forgot a joke in his life and occasionally delivered a Nebraska aw-shucks style. Bushkin shows the two (maybe more) sides of Carson. “… one minute gracious, funny and generous; and curt, aloof and hard-hearted the next.” Beloved by millions, but a man who just overdid it: drinking, smoking (four packs a day), and cheating on his four wives. “… never have I met a man with less aptitude for or interest in maintaining real relationships.”

Carson didn’t want to host The Tonight Show for 30 years. Contract talks, more like fights, were handled by Bushkin, containing byzantine timing and details that kept him on the air. His salary was discussed and guessed in newspapers, but Bushkin refused to come right out with it. Let’s just say it was several million dollars a year, for three days a week.

The Mr. Hyde side of Johnny’s personality came from a horrifically dysfunctional relationship with his mother. Bushkin goes into some detail about her and the effect she had on Johnny. She was never proud of his success and belittled everything about him. Little aptitude for or interest in maintaining real relationships? Guess where that came from.

Johnny Carson died in 2005 of respiratory failure due to emphysema. He left an estate in excess of $450 million. Among his bequests were more than $156 million to the Carson Foundation for the Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Free Clinic, Planned Parenthood, and several other charities.

One of the most famous and beloved people on the planet died alone. We lost one of a kind. Where would the laughs come from now?