Tag: Julianne Moore

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

The Kids Are All Right (2010)

Questions of family, up-bringing and sexuality are explored with tenderness and a great deal of wit in this thought-provoking family drama

Director: Lisa Cholodenko

Cast: Annette Bening (Nic Allgood), Julianne Moore (Jules Allgood), Mark Ruffalo (Paul Hatfield), Mia Wasikowska (Joni Algood), Josh Hutcherson (Laser Allgood), Yaya DaCosta (Tanya), Eddie Hassell (Clay), Zosia Mamet (Sasha)

Nic (Annette Bening) and Jules (Julianne Moore) Allgood are just like any other married couple after years of living together and raising two children: seemingly contented, settled in their ways and routines, missing some of the passion they had in the beginning, locked into their designated roles in the marriage. Nic is the dedicated doctor (with a slight drink problem) whose alpha personality dictates much of how the household is run; Jules is the more relaxed, more bohemian figure, who has rotated through several possible careers while raising their children.

Those children are inadvertently about to shake things up. Both mothers have each given birth to one of the children, using sperm from the same anonymous donor. Older daughter – straight A high-school graduating Joni (Mia Wasikowska) – is Nic’s child; slightly slacker, sports-fixated son Laser (Josh Hutcherson) is Jules’. But both children are curious about who their father is: and, with Joni now old enough to request the information, they discover him to be local bohemian restauranteur Paul (Mark Ruffalo). Meeting Paul – and bringing him into their family life – opens up cracks in their parents’ marriage which will have far-reaching consequences.

Some from the LGBTQ community criticised Lisa Cholodenko’ film on its release for presenting a lesbian marriage in such a largely conventional way. In many ways though that is in fact its strength. This engaging dramady doesn’t see anything unusual or unworldly about a lesbian marriage: in fact it shows that the problems that can beset long-term heterosexual marriages are just as likely to happen in homosexual ones. Nic and Jules are essentially – even if they don’t realise it at first – stuck in a rut. The passion has largely gone after years, the knowledge that you need to make an effort has evaporated, too many conversations are about household and parental duties. Jules quietly, almost unknowingly, resents what she sees as Nic’s dominance in their lives, while Nic privately feels she pulls much more weight in keeping things running. Not that they consciously realise this at first, in conversations that drip with in-jokes and a very casual familiarity (both Bening and Moore are superb at embodying a relationship that has become so long-term it has developed its own language).

But into this drops a bombshell in Paul. Wonderfully played by Mark Ruffalo, Paul is relaxed, playful, optimistic and upbeat. To some in the family – in particular Jules and Joni – he is everything that the more uptight and regimented Nic is not. No wonder these two both find themselves drawn to him. Unfortunately, nice guy that he is, Paul is also superbly unruffled by consequences. Events roll off his back. At first this seems like a great thing. He’s patient, understanding and thoughtful when talking to the kids. He helps the uptight Joni to relax. He gives helpful advice to Laser about his unpleasant friend Clay. But his lack of thought about his actions is there from the start (Laser, astutely, is disappointed in his first impression of Paul as self-obsessed). His advice for Joni openly encourages her to defy Nic’s boundaries. He accompanies Laser to watch Clay attempt a dangerous skating stunt like he’s a bro not a dad. And then there is Jules.

The film also drew fire from the LGBTQ community for presenting one half of its normalised lesbian couple entering into an affair with a man. But for Jules, it’s clear, the relationship is really about getting the sort of attention, focus and (to be honest) sexual interest that Nic seemed to stop giving her a long time ago (at one point, Nic prepares a luxurious bath for Jules – but then takes a phone call from work and abandons the promised massage for work). Paul is flirty, sensual and horny: sure he’s a man, but he can give her the sort of sexual pleasure that absent-minded fondlings with Nic late at night no longer even begin to give.

But that’s all it really is to Jules – a sudden, unexpected craving. There is no doubt that her heart belongs to Nic – just as there is no doubt that both she and Nic will be devastated when the affair comes out. (Cholodenko shoots Nic’s realisation beautifully. During a “family dinner” with Paul, the sound drains out during a fixed shot on Bening’s face which pained, heartbroken realisation and anger crosses across. It’s a tour-de-force for Bening that probably went a long way to securing her Oscar nomination). Paul, conversely, seems supremely unaware of the likely impact of his actions – during that family dinner he shows no compunction about bonding for the first time with Nic (who relaxes as we have never seen before until the truth is revealed) over a mutual love for Joni Mitchell.

Paul is, unknowingly, the serpent in the garden that will unbalance the careful equilibrium in the family. Nic is hostile to him from the start, his presence seeming to play into deep rooted insecurities and a fear of being supplanted. For Jules he presents an exotic alternative chance – a relationship with someone who feels accommodating and deferential to her. It blows open the comfortable but familiar rut the two of them are in. In the cracks, Jules becomes distracted and selfish, Nic doubles down on drinking and demands for obedience to her family rules.

If it sounds heavy going, it surprisingly isn’t. Cholodenko (sharing script writing with Stuart Blomberg) throws in plenty of jokes and moments of sweetness. Bening and Moore are both incredibly good in the lead roles: Moore is bubbly, relaxed, sexy but sad deep down dissatisfied and surprisingly selfish. Bening seems at first merely a domineering control freak with a drink problem, but she is revealed as deeply fragile, loving and devoted, a woman whose love is expressed in ways the objects can find overbearing, however well meaning they are. (Wasikowska and Hutcherson are both also great as their kids.)

The Kids Are All Right bubbles with some well judged moments of comedy, drama and tragedy. This is a film, eventually, about the strength of family. Paul may tempt with his care-free optimism and consequence-free thinking. But this film sides, overwhelmingly, with people like Nic who may sometimes make you want to tear your hair out, but will be there time and again, day-after-day, offering love in a way people like Paul never can. Laser and Joni may tease her, may bridle at her rules – but they love her unconditionally, in a way the film shows us with gestures small and large time and again. So, for that matter, does Jules: her actions grow from wanting a more overt return on the affection she more naturally gives.

It’s a film that wears its heart firmly and shamelessly on its sleeve, as it urges us to both recognise and empathise with this fundamentally loving marriage going through a rough patch. And by normalising families like this, it sends a strong message of inclusivity: after all, if we all share the same problems, doesn’t that all help us realise we are the same?

Short Cuts (1993)

Anne Archer and Jack Lemmon are just two of many intersecting lives in Altman’s Short Cuts

Director: Robert Altman

Cast: Andie MacDowell (Ann Finnigan), Bruce Davison (Howard Finnigan), Julianne Moore (Marian Wyman), Matthew Modine (Dr Ralph Wyman), Anne Archer (Claire Kane), Fred Ward (Stuart Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lois Kaiser), Chris Penn (Jerry Kaiser), Lili Taylor (Honey Bush), Robert Downey Jnr (Bill Bush), Madeleine Stowe (Sherri Shepard), Tim Robbins (Gene Shepard), Lily Tomlin (Doreen Piggot), Tom Waits (Earl Piggot), Frances McDormand (Betty Weathers), Peter Gallagher (Stormy Weathers), Annie Ross (Tess Trainer), Lori Singer (Zoe Trainer), Jack Lemmon (Paul Finnigan), Lyle Lovett (Andy Bitkower), Buck Henry (Gordon Johnson), Huey Lewis (Vern Miller)

Helicopters fly over Los Angeles, spraying against medflies. Beneath them, people’s lives entwine over the course of a couple of days. It could only be an Altman film. The man who turned the whole of Nashville into a set for, repeats the trick here with a brilliantly handled adaptation of a series of Raymond Carver short stories into one single inter-linked narrative, that explores a full gamut of emotions in that strange race we call humanity.

The son of TV commentator Howard (Bruce Davison) and his wife Anne (Andie MacDowell) is hospitalised after he is accidentally clipped by the car of waitress Doreen (Lily Tomlin). He’s treated by Dr Ralph Wyman (Matthew Modine), currently feuding with artist wife Marian (Julianne Moore). Marian befriends clown Claire (Anne Archer), who is horrified when her husband Stuart (Fred Ward) and his friends decide not to let finding a dead body spoil their fishing trip. Marian’s sister Sherri (Madeline Stowe) is becoming increasingly exasperated with philandering cop husband Gene (Tim Robbins), who is having an affair with Betty (Frances McDormand) estranged wife of Stormy Weathers (Peter Gallagher) who flew one of those helicopters spraying medflies. That’s not even mentioning a furious baker (Lyle Lovett), a sexually frustrated pool cleaner (Chris Penn) and his phone-sex worker wife (Jennifer Jason Leigh) or Howard’s unreliable father Paul (Jack Lemmon).

There aren’t many directors in Hollywood who could throw this many plates onto sticks and keep them spinning. Certainly very few who could make it look as easy as Altman does. With no less than twenty leading characters spread out across at least nine storylines, many of which intersect but without those taking part of them being aware of it, this is such a carefully woven tapestry even a single loose thread could have led to the entire image unravelling into a sorry collection of fabric. The fact it doesn’t, and the film moves so confidently and vibrantly from place-to-place, shifting from perspective to perspective without ever once confusing or alienating the audience, demonstrates this is the work of a master at the top of his game.

Altman’s verité style is at its best here. There is no need for flash or intrusive cinematic tricks, when the entire film is a brilliant expression of the potential of cinematic narrative. Altman’s camera, with its observational stillness, is perfectly matched with masterful editing (the film is superbly assembled by Geraldine Peroni) that not only makes this a coherent whole, but also finds every trace of reaction and nuance from the characters. Time and time again the camera (and the editing) searches out and finds that little moment of reaction that adds a whole world of depth to the story.

Because, like some of Altman’s best films, this is all about a cascade of little moments that combine into one beautifully enlightening whole. Each story demonstrates a different facet of the human experience, but what they all have in common is the unpredictability of how events many turn out and how people may react to them. There is a wonderful unknowability about people which the film captures. Just when we think we have a person sussed, they will do or say something we don’t expect. A philanderer’s wife will be amused by his cheating than horrified. An abusive baker will have depths of kindness. Feuding couples will find they have more in common than not.

There’s also darkness and sadness. The film is largely anchored by the increasingly heart-string tugging collapse of Howard and Ann’s son – and the pain that can lie in parent-child relationships is also seen in the dysfunctional relationship between jazz singer Tess (Annie Ross) and her talented but depressed celloist daughter Zoe (Lori Singer). As Ann, Andie MacDowell gives one of her finest performances as a powerless mother desperate to do the right thing, her fear and vulnerability as touching as her pain is devastating. Somehow, it’s all the more affecting by knowing how distraught Lily Tomlin’s Doreen would be if she knew the terrible impact of her very minor accident was.

That’s another beauty of this tapestry. As characters ‘guest’ in each other’s stories, we don’t see them in black-and-white but as ordinary people doing their best. Tim Robbins’ cop would probably seem a selfish rogue agent in the eyes of several characters, but as we see more of his home life (dysfunctional but strangely loving), it’s hard not to warm to him. We understand why Ralph (Matthew Modine) is a bit distant with the Finnegans, because he’s distracted by concerns that his wife is having an affair. We can’t be angry at Doreen, because we know she’s such a decent person.

The film doesn’t shy away from the darkness of people, not less the slow bubble of sad-eyed depression in the eyes of Chris Penn, jealous of the people his wife (a very good Jennifer Jason Leigh) talks dirty to down a phoneline – a bubble that will burst before the film’s end. Peter Gallagher’s cocksure and charming pilot has the potential in him to do something quite unpleasant to his wife. Even Tim Robbins’ cop seems only a few degrees from potentially taking the law into his own hands.

Short Cuts is wonderfully constructed – and never feels overbearing or overlong despite its great length – but it’s not perfect. It’s very hard not to notice today that it’s view of the great melting pot of Los Angeles is overwhelmingly white. Nearly every single woman takes her clothes off at some point (Julianne Moore famously does an entire domestic argument nude from the waist down, which is making a point about the impact of long-term marriage but still Modine is fully clothed). Altman at times lets his cynicism (and even slight condescension) for some characters show a little too clearly.

But, despite those flaws, Short Cuts is an almost perfect example of smorgasbord story-telling in cinema. And no one else could surely have done it with such ease and wit as Altman did.

Children of Men (2006)

Clive Owen and Claire-Hope Ashitey could be the last hope for mankind in the masterful Children of Men

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Cast: Clive Owen (Theo Faron), Julianne Moore (Julian Taylor), Claire-Hope Ashitey (Kee), Michael Caine (Jasper Palmer), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Luke), Charlie Hunnam (Patric), Pam Ferris (Miriam), Peter Mullan (Syd), Danny Huston (Nigel)

Children of Men was overlooked on release. But the more it ages, the more it clearly hasn’t aged it at all. Criminally ignored at the major awards, this might well be the finest film of 2006 and certainly one of the best movies of the noughties. Rich in thought-provoking content and cinematic skill, this is truly great-film-making from Alfonso Cuarón. Dark, grim, edgy but also laced with hope, faith and kindness, Children of Men grows in statue with each viewing, rewarding you more and more.

It’s 2027 and the world has gone to hell. Mysteriously mankind became infertile 18 years ago, and faced with the despair that the extinction of the human race is inevitable, society has collapsed. Cities lie in ruins and war has torn countries apart: Britain “stands alone”, one of the few with a functioning government – even though that government is a totalitarian, nationalist police state. Aggressive campaigns are waged against refugees from around the world, who are herded into hellish concentration camps. In this chaos, Theo (Clive Owen) is a disaffected civil rights activist, now plodding through a dead-end job and smoking weed with his friend, ex-newspaper cartoonist Jasper (Michael Owen). All this changes when he is entrusted by his activist/’terrorist’ estranged wife Julian (Julianne Moore) to protect Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey) who carries inside her something that could change the whole of humanity: an unborn child.

Today Children of Men seems alarmingly prescient. In a world of migrant crises, Brexit, Trump and coronavirus (the film even refers to a flu pandemic of 2008!) the vision of the future it presents seems only a few degrees away from our reality. Rather than a hellish view, it seems more and more like something that could happen. Everything is worn out and grubby. Streets are lined with rubbish, buildings coated with graffiti. Televisions and advertising screens alternate between demands to report immigrants with promotions for “Quietus”, a suicide pill. Fences, armed police, barbed wire and crowds of filthy, terrified and brutalised people are common. Humanity has given-up: there is no hope in the world.

It’s that collapse of any sense of hope and optimism that has driven this collapse of society in Cuarón’s vision. In a world where the extinction of mankind is inevitable, what’s the point contributing to society or worrying about your legacy or the future? Why preserve anything when no-one will be around to see it in a hundred years? By such fragile threads, does society hold itself together. The crushing depression of knowing you live in the final days of humanity is everywhere. There is not a single person alive in their teens: a fact hammered home by the characters visiting a deserted and derelict school. Everyone has lost any sense of purpose, with life a grim daily grind.

Perhaps that’s also why physically the world hasn’t changed much. Unlike most “future set” dramas, this view of 2027 could be 2006, just dirtier and with a few more electronic screens (in fact this has helped hugely in not dating the film). It’s like all life has stagnated. And liberals like Theo have turned into apathetic drunks, drifting blithely through life not bothering to engage or change anything about the shit show all around them

All this makes the film sound impossibly grim – and Cuarón is superb in building this world (including the genius stroke of never explaining, even in the smallest detail, what has caused this pandemic of infertility – the film is refreshingly free of any clumsy scene setting) – but it works because it’s a film laced with hope and a belief in the fundamental goodness of people. The story has overtones of a religious fable: Theo and Kee as a sort of Joseph and Mary travelling to protect an unborn child whose birth could save the world. Specially composed choral music, rife with religious overtones, underplays key moments and scenes subtly leaning into this spiritual journey.

And the goodness that people find in themselves is inspiring. Theo, brilliantly played by Clive Owen who has just the right dissolute cynicism hiding crusading courage, may have given up but actually he’s a deeply empathetic and caring man. Animals instinctively love him. He’s a natural protector, who shows concern in all sorts of ways for people him, who puts himself at risk to protect people and refuses to ever accept defeat. But he’s a million miles away from a super-man, getting increasingly dishevelled, bashed and brutalised, while his struggles with footwear (he carries out action sequences  wearing just socks, then flip-flops and finally barefoot) is both a neat little gag and also a sign of how vulnerable he is in this dangerous world.

Cuarón’s film builds brilliantly on his empathy to carefully and beautifully build the growing understanding and trust between Theo and Kee (equally well played by Claire-Hope Ashitey). Again, it stems first from his protectiveness (Theo also works hard to protect people around him from disturbing sights, twice urging Kee not to look back and that whoever has been left behind is fine), but also from her instinctive trust in him as a good man and above the only one who seems to have her interests at heart (everyone else is concerned only with what Kee can symbolise – Ejiofor’s vigilante Luke can’t even get the sex of the baby right). Kee is vulnerable, but strong and determined, someone trying to carry the burden of being the hope of mankind.

She’s also brilliantly a member of the very migrant community that the government is trying to destroy. Cuarón’s film wants us all to remember that we are all the same deep down, that what happens to one affects us all. The horrors of what the British government are doing in the war-torn slums of migrant prisons (all of Bexhill has become a lawless hell hole, where executions and riots are daily occurrences) reek of everything from Auschwitz to Guantanamo. But amongst these migrants come the only strangers who seek to help Theo and Kee out of simple goodness and humanity. Strangers put themselves at huge risk, and in many cases sacrifice their lives, to help them. It makes a stark contrast with the revolutionaries who claim to fight for the migrants (but show no compunction in shooting them when needed), but really are only interested in their own selfish battles with no understanding of the bigger picture.

This bigger picture is very much like the thematic richness of the film that was missed on its released. It’s almost a victim of its own technical brilliance, which attracted much more attention at the time. Cuarón constructs several sequences to appear as single-takes, and the stunning camera work really helps establish this grimy, brutal world. It’s a wonderfully immersive film, a technical marvel. Every single part of the photography and design is pitch-perfect, and the key sequences are stomach-churningly tense, inspired by everything from The Battle of Algiers to A Clockwork Orange.

But the film works because it is underpinned by faith and trust in the human spirit. Mankind is being challenged like never before, but Cuarón shows us that the human spirit can survive. That simple acts of kindness can still happen. That there is a chance of hope. The final conclusion of the film is both sad but also upliftingly hopeful. Cuarón’s direction is just-about perfect, as are the performers (not just Owen and Ashitey but also an almost unrecognisible Caine as an ageing Hippie). With its acute and brilliant analysis of humanity – both in its grimness and capacity for goodness and selflessness – and with its prescient look at how easily our world could collapse, Children of Men is vibrant, brilliant, essential film-making.

An Ideal Husband (1999)

Cate Blanchett, Minnie Driver and Rupert Everett do the best in this Wilde mis-fire An Ideal Husband

Director: Oliver Parker

Cast: Rupert Everett (Lord Arthur Goring), Cate Blanchett (Lady Gertrude Chiltern), Minnie Driver (Miss Mabel Chiltern), Julianne Moore (Mrs Laura Cheveley), Jeremy Northam (Sir Robert Chiltern), John Wood (Lord Caversham), Peter Vaughan (Phipps), Lindsay Duncan (Lady Markby), Simon Russell Beale (Sir Edward), Nickolas Grace (Vicomte de Nanjac)

I have a theory that Shakespearean comedy rarely translates well to screen because what makes it work is its theatricality and how it encourages laughter by interacting directly with the audience. I think you could say the same for Oscar Wilde. Certainly, this film version of An Ideal Husband looks lovely and never misses a single Wildean bon-mot. But it’s overlong, drags rather in its final third and, above all, isn’t particularly funny.

The plot has been freshened up and adjusted in places to make for a more filmic narrative, but the principles are the same from the play. Sir Robert Chiltern (Jeremy Northam) is a pillar of the establishment, famed for his unshakeable dedication to principle and adored by his wife Lady Gertrude (Cate Blanchett) who sees him as a paragon. But all that could be shaken up when Mrs Laura Cheveley (Julianne Moore) re-enters his life, bringing with her shocking revelations that could destroy Sir Robert. So he turns to help to his best friend, the witty and debonair Lord Arthur Goring (Rupert Everett), who is himself in love with Sir Robert’s sister Mabel (Minnie Driver). How will events play out as they start to spiral out of control?

Oliver Parker’s film is cautious, safe and – for all that it tries to open the play out with scenes in parks and Parliament – conservative and safe. You can imagine Wilde himself would probably have wanted something a little more daring had he been involved. As it is, things that work very well on stage (the farcical elements of mistaken identity and a house with a different character hiding behind every door) don’t really work on film. These ideas are inherently theatrical and depend on the heightened unreality of theatre – in the cold hard harshness of cinema, they feel out of place.

Put frankly, the big thing the play misses is the live audience. You can imagine this cast going down an absolute storm in the West End. The lines that demand a wink to the audience, bits of business that invite laughter, just fall flat here. They are rendered lifeless by the demands of being fit into a film, or having to take place in a world that seems real, when Wilde’s plays are all about a sort of bizarre ultra-Victorian world of form covering up a suggestive naughtiness. When the characters go and watch The Importance of Being Earnest at the theatre (a sign of the film’s clumsy opening out, and its lack of wit when left to its own devices) the dialogue style that doesn’t really work in the “real world” of film suddenly feels perfectly natural when we see people speak it on stage.

Parker’s film fails to bring any particular inspiration to events. Instead it seems determined to package Wilde as a heritage product, the sort of thing you can imagine people considering a safe thing for the whole family to sit down and watch. There is no sense of cheek, sex or danger in this like you can get in Wilde. Instead it’s all about attractive actors in period-drama drawing rooms, going about their work with skill. All made to look as pretty as possible with some lovely costumes. It’s Sunday tea-time viewing.

But despite this, some of those performances are spot on. I’m not sure there is an actor alive today better suited to Wilde than Rupert Everett. His imperious drawl, his sardonic wit, his louche manner (not to mention his ability to suggest an illicit wickedness under the surface) make him absolutely perfect. Everett has shown time and again – on film and in the theatre – he has an affinity for the dryness needed for Wilde, as well as being able to communicate the intelligence without smugness. All the successful scenes of the movie revolve around him, and he invariably brings out the best from his co-stars. He’s also far-and-away the funniest thing in the film.

The rest of the cast are more mixed. Cate Blanchett is the stand-out in (sadly) the least interesting main role, the rather stuffy Lady Gertrude (you wish you’d been able to see her let rip as the more wicked Mrs Cheveley) – like Everett she “gets it”. Jeremy Northam also does excellent work in the straight-man role of Sir Robert, but his characteristic dignity and intelligence do very well in the role. Julianne Moore though seems oddly constrained by the period setting as Mrs Cheveley (strange that she did this at the same time as her superior work as a restrained Englishwoman in The End of the Affair) while Minnie Driver lacks impact as Mabel. John Wood and Peter Vaughan – two old pros from the theatre – bring much of the energy and wit in supporting roles.

An Ideal Husband is fine. But watching it you’d wonder what all the fuss about Wilde is about. And that can’t be a good thing. If Wilde wrote a review of it, it would be funnier than anything in the film.

Still Alice (2014)

Julianne Moore excels in Alzheimer’s drama Still Alice

Director: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland

Cast: Julianne Moore (Alice Howland), Alec Baldwin (John Howland), Kristen Stewart (Lydia Howland), Kate Bosworth (Anne Howland-Jones), Hunter Parrish (Tom Howland), Shane McRae (Charlie Jones), Stephen Kunken (Dr Benjamin)

Can we imagine a more difficult illness to deal with than Alzheimer’s? Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is a linguistics professor at Columbia, diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s and slowly finds her capacity to use language – and her memories – slowly fade away. At one point Alice, as her ability to function begins to disappear, wishes she had cancer instead – not only because the illness is easy for others to understand, but it offers some form of treatment however fatal the disease may prove. Westmoreland and Glatzer’s heart-rending film covers the slow decline of Alice’s abilities – from forgetting words in lectures, to getting lost in her own house searching for the bathroom, to struggling to recognise her children.

Julianne Moore is at the centre of this emotionally devastating – but tender and moving film – dominating every scene as Alice. Moore’s sharp intelligence and focus as an actress is perfect for the professor, but her dedication really comes to the fore for the sensitive and truth-laden way she explores the decline that follows for Alice. It’s a performance – like the film – that works hard to avoid sentimentality, and instead follows the heart-rending sadness of slowly feeling your personality disappear. Because what are we really but the collection of our memories and experiences – and when these are gone from us, what is really left? 

Moore’s work is superb here – she won virtually every prize going, including the Oscar – and the film is told entirely from her point-of-view. Meaning that jumps in time come as a surprise to us, as they would be for Alice. At one point a distressed Alice wakes up at 2am to try and find her phone, before being coaxed back to bed by her husband John (a carefully nuanced and realistic performance from Alec Baldwin). The next scene, the phone is found in the freezer. Alice laughs and says she was looking for that last night – “that was a month ago” John quietly tells their daughter. It’s sudden moments like that, using the language of film, that hammer home the impact of this disease. It turns a whole life into a choppily edited film, where see the highlights but never recall the day-to-day detail.

The film is clear on the burden – and the struggle for us to comprehend what will happen to us. Early in her diagnosis – while recording a series of questions (such as when is your birthday and what is your daughter’s name) – Alice secretly records a video, giving instructions for her suicide when those questions become impossible to answer. It never occurs to her that, when that moment is reached, she will struggle to comprehend the message, let alone recall the 3-4 instructions to find a secret pill stash without multiple referrals to the video. But this is part of the horror of a disease that changes our ability to be who we are. 

Westmoreland and Glatzer (who tragically died from complications from ALS shortly after the film’s completion) bought a personal connection to the material, and the difficulty of a family to watch a loved one slowly succumb to an illness in front of you. Alice’s family are supportive – but they also have their own lives to live. Her husband Jack does his best – but must continue with his career to fund Alice’s medical treatment, plus dealing with the walking death of a woman he has loved all his life. Her elder daughter, Anna, has her own family to raise. The illness does bring Alice closer to her youngest actress daughter Lydia (very sensitively played by Kristen Stewart), but that doesn’t stop Alice failing to recognise her after watching her performing in a play. There is no judgement here, just a recognition of how powerless family members can feel at times to really help those they love – particularly as they watch parts of their personality disappear in front of their eyes.

The film avoids the sentimentality of a hopeful ending. Two thirds of the way through the film has an uplifting moment of triumph – Alice successfully makes a highly personal speech to an Alzheimer’s conference (carefully highlighting her typewritten speech as she goes to be sure she doesn’t repeat herself). Many films would have stopped there, but Still Alice doesn’t avert its eyes from what comes next, as Alice continues to slowly regress, unable to dress herself or recognise even central elements from her life, language and words disappearing from her altogether.

So why Still Alice? Because deep down it’s still her, no matter if the ideas and words have been lost. In the moment – such as greeting her new grandchildren, even if she has forgotten that her daughter was pregnant – she becomes the woman she was. The film’s final conclusion shows that there is still, in there, the loving and warm woman she was – even if she can no longer use words or able to fully shape ideas in her head. 

It makes for a wonderfully involving, realistic, but also warmly realistic and genuine film that avoids sentimental and obvious answers, but instead presents the cold truth and realism of dealing with a condition. With Julianne Moore superb in the lead role, expertly charting the condition, and also capturing the mixture of frustration and agony at the knowledge of what’s being lost to mix slowly in with a more contented placidity. It’s wonderful work in a film that will provoke tears and thoughts.

Hannibal (2001)

Anthony Hopkins rides again in the terrible Hannibal

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal Lecter), Julianne Moore (Clarice Starling), Gary Oldman (Mason Verger), Ray Liotta (Paul Krendler), Frankie R Faison (Barney Matthews), Giancarlo Giannini (Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi), Francesca Neri (Allegra Pazzi), Zeljko Ivanek (Dr Cordell Doemling)

For Dino De Laurentis, The Silence of the Lambs was always the one that got away. Owning the movie rights to the Lecter character, de Laurentis allowed Orion, producers of The Silence of the Lambs, to use the character name for free. De Laurentis was desperate to make his own Hannibal Lecter film, to cash in on Lambs success – so much so he would have put any old crap on the screen so long as it was connected to Lecter. Perhaps Thomas Harris wanted to test that out with his novel Hannibal, a blatantly for-the-money piece of pulp.

Hannibal is everything that Silence of the Lambs is not. Where Jonathan Demme’s film was subtle, insidious and unsettling this is brash, gory and garish. Harris’ serial killer works always circled around the possibility of tipping into a sort of Poesque-Gothic netherworld. Hannibal dives in head first, reinventing its central character as a sort of Robin Hood of murderous psychopaths and introducing everything from vengeful faceless paedophiles, to Dantesque murders and man-eating hogs. The plot, such as it is, sees Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) living under an assumed identity in Florence. Back in America he is being hunted not only by Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore) but also Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, unbilled under a host of make-up) who wants revenge after being hideously disfigured by Lecter. Will Lecter turn the tables on these adversaries?

Both Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster were offered more money than they knew what to do with for this film. Both turned it down, citing the book – and its grotesque and bizarre outcome that see Lecter and Starling becoming lover-killers together – as the major factor. Foster in particular was out-spoken about how she saw the books extremity as a betrayal of the work she did with the character in the first film. 

No such concern for Hopkins though, who took a bumper pay cheque to return. Hopkins always said Lecter was an easy role to play – basically a creepy voice and a lot of actorly tricks – and it certainly makes it easy for Hopkins to coast through the part here. Really Hopkins treats the role no differently from the countless chat shows where he had been asked to say “Hello Claressse”, the only real difference being he was paid about $20million to do it here. This is Hopkins on unthinking autopilot, in a film that tries to play up the black comedy but instead becomes a ludicrous, offensive farce, drowning in blood.

Ridley Scott directs and his painterly visuals and mastery of the epic shot strips comes at the cost of the very things that made the original film so involving and tense. The Hitchcockian suspense and intimacy of Demme’s direction is jettisoned. Instead everything is a dialled up to a brightly coloured 11. The entire film mistakes gore, blood and overblown, cartoonish villainy for horror. Watching people being mauled by wild hogs, or some more unfortunate being lobotomised and made to eat his own brain isn’t scary it’s more gross. And because nothing feels remotely real in this film, it doesn’t even carry much impact.

The entire film is based around the fact that it’s Hannibal we’re paying to see – especially Hopkins reprising the role – so by Jiminiy we better work a little bit to make this lethal killer from Lambs into something a bit closer to an anti-hero. So instead, Lecter is rejigged as a sort of charming, amoral cannibal. The sort of guy who prefers to eat the rude and unmannered, who loves art and is only really dangerous when provoked. The film carefully gives us reasons to dislike everyone Lecter kills, and slowly falls in love with his sinister magnetism. 

This reduces Julianne Moore – in a truly thankless task – trying to both forge some sort of identity for Clarice from the story that is both unique and a continuation of what Jodie Foster did so well in the first film. It’s not entirely her fault that she fails. This is a film that depowers Clarice, that goes as far as it dares to turn her into a moth around Hannibal’s flame. The film backs away from the romance of the book (even if the film hints at it enough), replacing the eventual ending with something almost as stupid but at least doesn’t turn Clarice into a brain guzzling serial killer.

The plot flies around two arcs, one set around Hannibal in Florence the other on his return to America. Both carry no resemblance to the real world. The first does at a least have a decent performance of nervy greed from Giancarlo Giannini as the Italian detective who (wrongly) feels he can go toe-to-toe with Hannibal. The second revolves around Gary Oldman’s (unbilled – due to an argument over billing or a sly joke, depending on who you talk to) repulsive Mason Verger, a villain so revoltingly gothic you can’t believe in him for a second.

The film looks good and has a decent score, but it’s basically a claret splashed mess that can’t decide whether it’s a horror or some sort of black comedy. It settles for being nothing at all. A truly terrible movie, where everyone is there for the money and I imagine no one thought about the movie for a second once their work on it was done.

The End of the Affair (1999)

Julianne Moore and Ralph Fiennes in a doomed romance in The End of the Affair

Director: Neil Jordan

Cast: Ralph Fiennes (Maurice Bendrix), Julianne Moore (Sarah Miles), Stephen Rea (Henry Miles), Ian Hart (Mr Parkis), Jason Isaacs (Father Richard Smythe), James Bolam (Mr Savage), Sam Bould (Lance Parks), Deborah Findlay (Miss Smythe)

The End of the Affair is one of Graham Greene’s most autobiographical novels, based strongly on his relationship with Catherine Walston, wife of a friend in the civil service. Unlike the affair in the book, Greene’s continued for decades, long after the publication of the novel in 1951 (which had led to the husband demanding an end to it – a demand ignored). Greene’s novel recounts the dangerous passions of an affair, mixed with the powerful anxieties and uncertainties that the Catholic faith can have on relationships. Jordan’s film captures much of this – but in places fails to fully understand the spirit of Greene’s compelling novel.

Maurice Bendrix (Ralph Fiennes) is a moderately successful popular author, excused war service due to having injured his leg in the Spanish Civil War. In 1946, a chance meeting with Henry Miles (Stephen Rea), a staid civil servant brings back vivid memories of Maurice’s wartime affair with Henry’s wife Sarah (Julianne Moore). The affair ended abruptly for reasons Maurice cannot understand, and his love is twisting into jealous resentment. With Henry now concerned Sarah is having an affair – and seemingly unaware of Maurice and Sarah’s wartime relationship – Maurice takes it upon himself to hire Parkis (Ian Hart) a private investigator to find out more. The results though give him profound and affecting insights into both the present and the reasons for the end of his own affair with Sarah.

Jordan’s adaptation gets so much right, it’s almost more of a shame that it gets things wrong as well. The atmosphere of the film is simply perfect. It looks and feels exactly like a classic slice of Greeneland, with its dreary London, rain-soaked settings and gloomy period setting. Roger Pratt’s Oscar nominated photography is perfect for the tragic beauty of Greene’s work, and its matched with a sublime musical score from Michael Nyman that wrings every inch of emotion from the story.

Ralph Fiennes is also the perfect idea of a Greene hero – slightly imperious, bitter, arrogant with an air of prep school smugness mixed with an underlying sense of grim inferiority. It’s hard to imagine any other actor – maybe except Colin Firth – better suited to the slight air of dissolute, not obviously sympathetic world-weary struggle that a Greenian hero needs to exhibit. Fiennes barely puts a foot wrong and could have practically walked off the page.

Equally good is Julianne Moore, who nails a very English type of person, a woman determined to do her best and to set standards, but who carries just below the surface a deep well of emotional pain and sorrow that briefly is allowed to peek through. It’s a heart-rending performance of a person desperate for happiness, but hiding that longing under a veneer of acceptability, who sacrifices what she wants from life to meet the obligations of her faith. 

Because, it being Graham Greene, Faith is the big issue here – the idea of the private deals we make with God and the cost that those impose on us, the sacrifices of our own happiness in surface of something higher than ourselves. Greene’s novel intrinsically understand the eternal struggle felt in Catholicism to do the right thing, to accept the love of God into your life even if it means turning your back on more earthly loves and passions. How these journeys can be hard – unbearable even – but carry a level of reward in themselves. 

It’s that feeling for God – who Bendrix grows to believe has cheated him from happiness on earth – that powers his “diary of hate” that he is writing as the book opens. It’s an idea the film only fitfully engages with. Jordan deviates from the novel’s real intention at a key point, in particular “correcting” a dramatic error he feels Greene makes by having Sarah die “off camera” in the book, of a sudden cold, after confessing to Bendrix her reasons for ending the affair, her pact with God.

This narrative change allows a sequence in Brighton as the two reignite their affair – but it also undermines the tragedy of the book, that suddenness of loss, and also makes Sarah’s death feel like a tit-for-tat punishment for going back on her word. More to the point, the affair restarting has the air of an atheistic view of the Catholic complications here, an idea that these can be easily brushed aside because the “heart wants”. It’s to miss the point of Greene’s world thinking and undermine the small everyday tragedy in favour of something more conventional and “epic”.

It’s a major tweak that undermines the strength (otherwise) of Jordan’s work here – his directing and scripting is otherwise largely faultless. Other changes to the source clarify the message – I think changing Smythe (a gently but arrogantly certain Jason Isaacs) into a priest rather than an atheist Sarah is using to test her faith makes sense, even if it does suggest that she acts under the influence of someone else rather than on her own opinions. Making Bendrix a Spanish war veteran rather someone suffering the effects of a childhood illness adds a political and moral romanticism to the character entirely absent from any of the rest of his personality. But it’s fine.

Jordan’s film has many strengths. Its tone is excellent and it’s passion inspiring (the tender explicitness of the sex scenes landed it with a bizarre and controversial 18 certificate) and there are superb performances, not just the leads but Stephen Rea excellent as the meek but noble husband and some lovely comic work from Ian Hart as a haplessly efficient private eye. But the film slightly misses, in the end, the point of the novel – which is a real shame. If Jordan had stuck to the book, and its complex themes of guilt and grief and Catholicism we could have really had something here.

Magnolia (1999)

Family dramas come together in Paul Thomas Anderson’s beloved Magnolia

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson

Cast: Jeremy Blackman (Stanley Spector), Tom Cruise (Frank TJ Mackey), Melinda Dillon (Rose Gator), April Grace (Gwenovier), Luiz Guzman (Luiz), Philip Baker Hall (Jimmy Gator), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Phil Parma), Ricky Jay (Burt Ramsey), William H Macy (“Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith), Alfred Molina (Solomon Solomon), Julianne Moore (Linda Partridge), Michael Murphy (Alan Kligman), John C. Reilly (Officer Jim Kurring), Jason Robards (Earl Patridge), Melora Walters (Claudia Wilson Gator), Felicity Huffman (Cynthia), Eileen Ryan (Mary), Michael Bowen (Rick Spector)

After the success of Boogie Nights, Paul Thomas Anderson landed a terrific deal: he could make what he wanted, about anything at all, at any length he liked. “I was in a position I will never ever be in again” is how Anderson remembers it. And thus was born Magnolia, a beautifully assembled labour of love, an imaginative remix of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts with biblical imagery. A sprawling collection of short stories, which leans into high tragedy and melodrama, Anderson’s Magnolia is the sort of film that is always going to find a special place on a film buff’s list of favourite films.

The film follows the lives of several people over a single day in LA. Legendary host of long running quiz show What Do Kids Know? Jimmy Gator (Philip Baker Hall) is dying of cancer and desperate to reconcile with his traumatised daughter Claudia (Melora Walters). Claudia is tentatively starting a relationship with devout and kindly police officer Jim Kurring (John C Reilly). Former champion of Gator’s show, “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith’s (William H Macy) life is a disaster after his parents stole his winnings, and he’s struggling to hold down even the most basic of jobs. Former producer of the show Earl Partridge (Jason Robards) is also dying  of cancer, cared for by his dedicated nurse Phil (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Earl’s wife Linda (Julianne Moore) is wracked with guilt, while Earl himself is desperate to reconcile with his estranged son Frank Mackey (Tom Cruise), now a self-help guru who coaches men on how to pick up women. 

If you can’t see the links between the works of Robert Altman here, then you clearly need to look again. But it’s well worth it, as Anderson is a worthy successor to the master. He directs with a fluid confidence that comes from a director making a picture to please himself. Magnolia is frequently self-indulgent in its style and quirks, but it doesn’t matter when the effect of watching the film is so rewarding. From long takes to having the characters (all of them in different locations) sing along with Aimee Mann’s “Wise Up” at a key moment in the film, there are flourishes here that will annoy some but will be precisely what others fall in love with the film for.

And that love is deserved as this is a thoughtful and intelligent film about the impact the past (and specifically our parents) can have on us. As the man said, “they fuck you up, your Mum and Dad”. Certainly the case here. From “Quiz Kid” Donnie Smith to Claudia Gator, the film is crammed at every level with children (young and old) who have had their lives negatively affected by their upbringings. The past is a heavy burden, and it’s near impossible to shake-off – and in the cases of Donnie and Claudia brings with it a heavy dose of self-loathing. 

But what’s striking is that problems with the past don’t result in the same outcomes for people. Who would have thought that seemingly misogynistic motivational speaker Mackey’s beef with his dad is that Earl walked out on him and his dying mother when Mackey was a teenager? Part of the fascinating psychology of the film is how a son who loved and cared for his mother grew up to encourage men to treat women just as his father treated his mother. Is this some sort of perverse way to feel closer to the father who abandoned him? Perhaps Mackey has defined his life around hatred for his father, along with a deep longing for love – and perhaps his inability to deal with these feelings led to a professional career espousing the exact opposite? One of the neat things about Anderson’s film is that it largely avoids pat answers to this sort of thing. It’s left up to us to decide for ourselves – and perhaps reflect on how every person is an unanswerable riddle.

Whatever the answers are, it’s clear that parental problems are being paid-forward. The new Quiz Kid champion Stanley Spencer is a precocious child genius, being treated as an ATM by his father, who brags about his son while passive-aggressively demanding Stanley keep winning to continue funding his failing acting career. Stanley is a desperately unhappy child, more than smart enough to realise he is a performing monkey but unable to escape. And how can you get out of knots like that? After all, the film shows us one possible future for Stanley with Donnie – but walks a deft tightrope on whether the same life of loneliness and disappointment is inevitable for Stanley or not.

These familial clashes are introduced in the first hour and then simmer with exquisite timing during the film’s second hour. Anderson’s brilliant decision to build the film around a live recording of Gator’s quiz show means we are constantly reminded (as the show plays in the background throughout other scenes) that everything we are seeing is happening at the same time. The second hour of the film is a superbly deft cross-cutting from storyline to storyline, each building in tension. The desperation and entrapment in each scene beautifully spark off and contrast with each other. The sequence is at times marginally undermined by a slightly oppressive music score, but it’s beautifully assembled and shot and carries a real power – a superb balancing act of almost real time action that plays out for a nearly the whole of the second act. 

And Anderson knows skilfully to balance the gloom with real sparks of humanity and decency. Two characters in the film – Reilly’s cop and Hoffman’s nurse – are decent, kind and generous souls who have an overwhelmingly positive impact on every character they encounter. Both characters – and both actors are superb in these roles – are quiet, low-key but humane people who offer a quiet absolution to a host of characters, and opportunities to move on from the burdens of the past. Hoffman’s Phil is a genuinely kind person, who puts others before himself while Reilly’s Jim (surely the best performance of the actor’s career) is such a sweet, well-meaning, honest guy, that you understand why so many people feel bound to unburden themselves to him.

There is a lot to unburden in this film, and some of these moments tip over into melodrama at points. There are tear stained deathbed confessions, and angry, tearful moments of resentment and guilt bursting to the surface. At times, Magnolia is a little in love with these big moments, and indulges them too much, but it offers so many moments of quiet pain that you forgive it.

Not that the film is perfect. Today, even Anderson says it’s too long – and it really is. Unlike Altman, Anderson is less deft at pulling together all the threads in an overlapping story. This is effectively a series of short films intercut into one – the plot lines don’t overlap nearly as much as you might expect, with only Jim moving clearly from one plotline to another. It’s also a film that is driven largely by men. Of the few female characters, all are defined by their relationship to a man (and an older dying man at that), and not one of the female characters isn’t some form of victim. 

Anderson’s failure to really wrap the stories together means you can imagine unpicking the threads and reducing the runtime. Julianne Moore’s role as Earl’s guilty, unfaithful trophy wife (is she unaware of Earl’s own past of infidelity?) could have been easily shed from the film. Moore, much as I like her, gives a rather hysterical, mannered performance that feels out of touch with some of the more naturalistic work happening elsewhere in the film. The most melodramatic of the plots (every scene features Moore shouting, weeping, shrieking or all three), it also ends with the most contrived pat “hopeful ending”. It’s a weaker story that lags whenever it appears on screen.

Magnolia starts with a discussion of coincidence, but it’s not really about that – and the coincidence of all these people seems largely in the film to be reduced to the fact that they are all living in the same city with similar problems. It’s a slightly odd note to hit, as if Anderson slightly shifted the focus away from lives moving into and out of each other, in favour of a series of more self-contained linear stories. (That opening montage discussion of three (fictional) moments of fate and chance, while beautifully done, could also easily be trimmed from the film).

But then, these tweaks wouldn’t change the fact that Magnolia is a superbly made film, or that Anderson is a great filmmaker, even if he doesn’t quite manage to create the sprawling, interweaving, state of the nation piece he’s aiming for here. But as a collection of beautifully done short stories, it’s great. And the acting is superb. Tom Cruise drew most of the plaudits for an electric performance of egotism and triumphalism hiding pain and vulnerability near the surface, Anderson using Cruise’s physicality and intelligence as a performer better than perhaps any other director. Among the rest of the cast, Hall is superb as the guilt ridden Gator, Macy very moving as the desperate Donnie and Melora Walters heartrending as the film’s emotional centre, who ends the film breaking the fourth wall with a tender smile, that is perhaps one of the most beautiful final shots of modern cinema.

All this and it rains frogs at the end as well. But that introduction of biblical bizarreness is both strangely profound and fitting for Anderson’s stirring and inspiring film.

The Hours (2002)

Nicole Kidman’s Oscar winning role produced a gallery of nose based puns, everyone convinced they could sniff out comedy gold

Director: Stephen Daldry
Cast: Nicole Kidman (Virginia Woolf), Julianne Moore (Laura Brown), Meryl Streep (Clarrisa Vaughan), Stephen Dillane (Leonard Woolf), Ed Harris (Richie Brown), Allison Janney (Sally Lester), Claire Danes (Julia Vaughan), Jeff Daniels (Louis Waters), John C Reilly (Dan Brown), Toni Collette (Kitty), Miranda Richardson (Vanessa Bell)

I remember when this film was released that it was garlanded with much praise as an intelligent and compassionate piece of filmmaking and a literate masterpiece. Well I’ve never seen it before and I have to say it holds up pretty well, even though it’s much more of a solid, impressive piece of professional film making than anything you might call a masterpiece.

The film covers three time periods each looking at one day in the life of three different women.  Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway, the day we see encapsulates in microcosm the life of each women. So we have Nicole Kidman as Virginia Woolf struggling to deal with depression while working on Mrs.Dalloway; Julianne Moore as a depressed 1950s housewife trapped in a suburban marriage; finally Meryl Streep as an editor in the 200s who has dedicated her life to looking after a poet friend who is dying of AIDS.

Each of these three plot lines are carefully intercut with both sharp scriptwriting and patient direction (Hare and Daldry’s stage experience here is a real boon for a concept that is actually quite theatrical). Although the opening sequence of the film suggests we might be in for a dizzying series of intercuts (the time period in this sequence switches almost every shot) it soon settles down into some well structured conversation scenes, moving almost in a cycle from our plot lines to another and only rarely directly cutting mid scene from time line to time line.

Of the plot lines I found Meryl Streep’s more modern day plot the most engaging and that Streep’s performance as the patient martyr carried the heart of the film. This was despite Ed Harris’ overblown performance as the dying poet, one of those two scene cameos that draw far more praise than they deserve. But this story has a tragic simplicity and Streep brings a lifetime of vicarious hopes and dreams out from every beat of the day.

Nicole Kidman however won the notice and awards as Woolf. Well deserved as these notices were, this is a more traditional part with clearer “award worthy” acting moments. While these are excellently done (Stephen Dillane is terrific as Leonard Woolf), the Woolf parts don’t quite link with the two other plot lines and, for me, didn’t carry the same emotional force that the tragedy of normal lifes did in the later plot lines.

Julianne Moore also does great work as a depressed housewife who lacks the emotional articulacy to fully understand her feelings, though the decision to introduce a direct link between the 1950s and 1990s plot lines later in the film does mean that the Woolf plot line feels even more like a slightly disconnected story. But this section of the film crackles with claustrophobia and Moore demonstrates the confused sexuality below the surface of Americana.I feel like I’ve been hard on this film, which is a very professional piece of work with some great performances and some real emotional high points. There are some great cameos from classy actors like Toni Collette, Jeff Daniels, Miranda Richardson, John C Reilly, Claire Danes and Allison Janney. It also is a very sensitive exploration of the pressure sexuality and emotions can press on people – even in the 1990s where homosexuality isn’t a dirty secret, Streep’s character still has more than enough confused emotional hang ups to sort out.

It’s a very good film but it’s so professionally done and smoothly assembled, the acting so sharp and on the money, that I’m not sure if there is as much heart behind the scenes in its making than appears on screen.