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Thursday 24 August 2017

Movie Reviews: Still Alice, Kill the Messenger, Chappie

Still of Andy Garcia and Jeremy Renner in Kill the Messenger 2014
Still of Andy Garcia and Jeremy Renner in Kill the Messenger 2014
Chappie
Still Alice

George Byrne gives his verdict on the week's releases

STILL ALICE

(Drama. Starring Julianne Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parrish. Directed by Richard Glaster and Wash Westmoreland. Cert 12A)

It's become very rare in recent years that someone is odds-on to win an Oscar and duly triumphs without the film in which the performance was delivered being seen on this side of the Atlantic. However, that was the case this year with Julianne Moore picking up the Best Actress gong for Still Alice and, it's good to report, a thoroughly deserved victory it was too.

Personally, I thought Felicity Jones was magnificent in The Theory of Everything, as was Marion Cotillard in Two Days, One Night, but watching the nuanced, heart-wrenching turn Moore delivers here leaves one in no doubt whatsoever that Academy voters got it right on the night.

Based on a book by Lisa Genova, Still Alice deals with the all-too-relevant subject of Alzheimer's disease, a topic which film-makers tend to tiptoe around or avoid altogether. Perhaps the best movie on the subject was Sarah Polley's touching 2006 drama Away From Her, in which Vanessa Redgrave gave an Oscar-nominated performance as a woman who loses her faculties and eventually fails to recognise her husband of more than three decades. Moore's turn here is even more impressive, given the fact that her character, linguistics professor Alice Howland, is only 50 years old and devastated at being diagnosed with the condition at such a young age.

Moore's subtlety as we see Alice gradually lose her train of thought while giving lectures or even engaging in conversations over dinner displays an outstanding mastery of her craft and she's matched by wonderful supporting performances. Alec Baldwin is magnificent as her loving husband, showing great emotional depth as he has to come to terms with the fact that his wife is slipping away from him before his eyes, while Kristen Stewart gives an equally strong and unshowy stint as Alice's youngest child, an aspiring actress who's probably closer in temperament to her mother and therefore more likely to come into conflict with her.

When dealing with such a subject there's a danger that film-makers can slip into 'disease of the week' TV movie mode, but that doesn't happen here with Richard Glaster and Wash Westmoreland.

Respectful but never po-faced, the directors don't overdo the emotion but give us a thoroughly engrossing drama about a woman finding herself slipping away and watching how that impacts on her immediate family. In one devastating yet brilliantly subtle sub-plot alone, the horror of what Alice knows is going to happen to her hits like a hammer blow yet doesn't feel like it's been placed there for effect alone.

A deeply moving but occasionally stilted film, Still Alice is worthy of your attention not merely because of the seriousness of its subject matter but the performances of Moore, Baldwin and Stewart, reminding us that there is still great work to be seen on our screens

****

KILL THE MESSENGER

(Drama. Starring Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Oliver Platt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Michael Sheen, Michael Kenneth Williams, Andy Garcia, Barry Pepper, Ray Liotta. Directed by Michael Cuesta. Cert 15A)

Based on the books Dark Alliance by Gary Webb and Kill the Messenger by Nick Schou, Michael Cuesta's film is an interesting if decidedly mixed bag.

In his best role since The Hurt Locker Jeremy Renner plays Gary Webb, a journalist with the San Jose Mercury News who's essentially gifted a story by a Nicaraguan woman who reveals that her drug-dealer boyfriend was involved in a CIA plot to allow crack cocaine be shipped into the US in order to fund the illegal campaign by the Contras in her country.

Naturally, Webb being a troubled and heroic hack (I know of no more troubled or heroic breed) presses upon his editors (Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt) to be given the time and money to follow up his investigations which, inevitably, leads to increasing paranoia as shadowy forces in the higher echelons of the US security agencies try to suppress his story.

For the first hour or so of its two-hour running-time Kill the Messenger plays out like a tribute to All the President's Men, and that's a compliment by the way, as Webb chases down leads, travels to Nicaragua to interview a jailed drug dealer (Andy Garcia) and follows paper trails which indicate that, indeed, the CIA were happy to allow a crack epidemic engulf urban areas of the States in order to fun the Contras.

Unfortunately, where the film runs out of steam is when Webb has published his findings and discovers that he himself has now become the story, as other news outlets question his sources, or lack of them in some cases, and chip away at his credentials.

The impact this has on Webb and his wife Sue (a fine if somewhat underused Rosemarie DeWitt) is touched upon but not given enough prominence, with the result that the final third of the film has a very uneven feel, the entire enterprise almost being sunk when Webb, effectively on gardening leave in a sleepy California town, is visited in the middle of the night by a former CIA spook (Ray Liotta), who may or may not be a figment of the reporter's imagination.

That the CIA effectively admitted that Webb's story was correct a couple of years after it was published doesn't change the fact that Kill the Messenger is a flawed and frustrating film. Engrossing for the first half and subsequently petering out in increasingly disappointing fashion, it features a fine performance from Jeremy Renner and an excellent supporting cast but ultimately doesn't quite deliver the knockout blow the opening sections promised.

***

CHAPPIE

(Sci-Fi: Starring Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley (voice), Sigourney Weaver, Hugh Jackman, Ninja, Yolandi Visser, Brandon Auret. Directed by Neill Blomkamp. Cert 15A)

Neill Blomkamp's debut District 9 was an outstanding piece of work, a truly original sci-fi based in Johannesburg which took great swipes at apartheid while still delivering a thrilling cinematic experience.

The backing of Peter Jackson and his effects wizards at Weta added to the director's career momentum which wasn't entirely derailed by his second feature, Elysium, arguably the first sci-fi actioner to be based around the subject of universal healthcare. Alas, with Chappie Blomkamp has proved that it's third time unlucky.

With a story based around the use of robot law enforcement officers and the attempts by a computer engineer (Dev Patel) to develop artificial intelligence there's simply no escaping the fact that this film is a blatant steal from riffs explored in the past, and far more effectively, by Robocop, Short Circuit and A.I.

Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley voices Chappie, a sentient robot, but unfortunately winds up sounding like Jar Jar Binks, while the decision to cast a South African rap group playing themselves as comedy villains is simply a tragic, tragic mistake.

There is an undeniable visual flair on display here but the derivative story meanders and drags interminably, Blomkamp consigning undeniable screen talents Sigourney Weaver and Hugh Jackman to thankless supporting roles while allowing clueless amateurs to take centre stage. Awful.

**

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