STILL ALICE, starring Julianne Moore

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Still Alice is a poignant look into the world of Alzheimer’s disease. Alice (Ms. Moore) is a linguistics professor at Columbia who experiences annoying memory lapses on a few separate occasions. As time passes, these lapses intensify and the time between them shortens. She sees a neurologist, who, after the relevant tests, diagnoses her with early-onset Alzheimer’s. The movie follows Alice through the next year or so as navigates her illness with determination and courage.

We also follow her family as they support and care for Alice. Alec Baldwin gives a touching portrayal of Alice’s husband John, a science professor/researcher at Columbia. I appreciated the struggle John has: not only is he solely responsible for arranging her care, he also has to make a living, and that responsibility leads him to make a choice that many people I know would judge harshly.

But the thing is, we can’t know ahead of time how we will react to tragedy. Not everyone is the same. People respond differently in times of stress and loss, and that’s okay. John makes provision for Alice to be cared for while at the same time pursuing his very important work.

This opens up the discussion of when it is ethically acceptable to put a terminally ill spouse in a care facility, or when it is ethically acceptable to move along with your life if the person you are married to doesn’t know who you are. I know the pat answer is that married is married and that you must never ever separate no matter what, but I also think that there is a place for grace to be extended to the healthy spouse. (And yes, I’m aware of the seminary president–no need to send me the link.) Again, not everyone is the same. Not everyone can do what you think you would or could or should do in a given situation. Sometimes, maybe, a person needs to get away so that he can breathe and remember he is a person.

Kristen Stewart plays Alice’s daughter Lydia with that same unemotional flat face we all know and wish we loved. I’m not a fan of hers in anything I’ve seen her in, but I suppose there’s something to be said for flat-and-unemotional if you’re a young girl who has to give up her dreams of Hollywood to move home to New York City to care for your dying mother. I wish she would have smiled occasionally, if only to make her mother happy.

Overall, this is a very beautiful movie and would, I think, be helpful to anyone who wants to learn about Alzheimer’s.

Not that we need a reason to see a movie. I see movies because I like to go to movies. I like the experience of going out, sitting in the big dark room, and being told a story. This one is definitely worth the outing, and I do recommend it.

Of course, you can’t see a movie like this without wondering what it would be like to lose your memories, your ability to recognize your children. You also wonder how your family would respond. It might not be a bad idea to see this movie with whoever your relevant person is and then talk about what each of you would hope for were a debilitating illness such as Alzheimer’s to come knocking.

50 SHADES OF “You saw WHAT?”

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The uproar surrounding Fifty Shades of Grey reminds me of the uproar that surrounded all things Harry Potter, when well-meaning religious people were certain that reading the Rowling YA novels was going to turn Christian children into warlocks and Satan worshippers.

I’ve read a few articles decrying Fifty Shades. Most are concerned that young women who see this movie will be more willing to engage in violent sex play than they would otherwise be, and that men will want to torture their wives. Moreover, there is a feeling that the existence of this movie will move the culture into a greater acceptance of sexual exploitation.

And that it’s pornographic.

SPOILER ALERT. Okay, you’ve been warned.

First of all, Christian Grey is all about consent in the movie (I haven’t read the book). On each occasion and in each situation, he requests Ana’s consent, which she willingly gives, except when she doesn’t. When she doesn’t, he doesn’t. Period. Prior to engaging in the violent sex play, Ana and Christian sit down and discuss what experiences (and implements) she would find acceptable and which she would not. He does nothing without her consent. He doesn’t torture her. She appears to be enjoying each new experience, none of which appears painful. She enjoys being tied up and asks for the tying-up to be repeated.

Whether you think she should enjoy it is certainly your business, as it is her business whether she in fact enjoys it and wants to do it again. Obviously, a person who has been sexually victimized should not see this movie as it will bring back horrifying memories. Please keep yourself safe from bad memories. Do nothing without your own consent, including seeing this movie.

At the end, she gets spanked. Six times with a belt. She says that’s too much and she leaves, apparently for good.

That’s it. Six spanks with a belt. That’s the entirety of the “torture” Christian inflicts on Ana. And she willingly submits to it and can walk away at any time.

Unlike in My Fair Lady, where in the end Eliza submits and gets Henry’s slippers, here Ana womans up and leaves. He doesn’t take her against her will and he doesn’t go after her when she leaves. He behaves like any well-mannered gentleman should behave when asking for something he wants. Actually, he behaves better, because he gives her “safe words.” If she is nearing the limit of her comfort zone, she is to say “yellow,” and if she wants the experience to stop, she is to say “red.” That’s his cue to stop immediately. She never uses the words. She doesn’t have to.

One article I read insisted that no one should engage in violent sex because it’s demeaning to women and makes men want to be monsters. I don’t know. My experience in such things is, shall we say, extremely limited, but I don’t think it’s necessarily my business what two consenting adults do in the privacy of their own bedroom, and if men are as willing to seek consent as Christian Grey is, no woman would be forced to do anything she didn’t want to do, and the man would not become a monster. (Maybe that’s what the patriarchy is upset about–this movie allows a woman the choice to have sex or not have sex, as she desires. Not only that, but she is allowed to limit each aspect of the sexual experience, not just whether or not sex occurs.)

Speaking of Ana’s needs and desires, the film is graphic in displaying Ana’s enjoyment of the sex play. This is probably where the tagline “Mommy Porn” (more on that later) comes in. I don’t get hot and bothered seeing naked young women (perhaps other Mommies do), so although Ana’s naked gyrations are certainly graphic, they were more boring for me than anything else. (Again why is this marketed to women? I would think men would enjoy this more.)

The writing and the plot are not deep: Ana meets Christian. Christian wants Ana. Ana gives it a go. Christian has a lot of money. Christian wants to hang her from the ceiling. She says no. Ana falls in love with Christian. Christian doesn’t like that. Christian spanks Ana. Ana leaves. The credits roll.

It’s really a forgettable movie. I wouldn’t recommend it because nothing really happens except the sex and you can see graphic sex scenes in lots of well-written movies.

Is it pornographic? Well, there’s a naked young woman and she expresses the ordinary movements and vocalizations of one who is having a positive sexual encounter. However, there is a discreet lack of (how shall I say this?) orgasmic sounds here. Nobody is moaning loudly or shouting (or what have you). Plus, there is nice music and not a lot of panting and sweating, so it’s more artistic than other scenes of this sort are. For example, the sex scene in American Beauty with Annette Bening and that man with the ugly eyebrows is far more offensive than anything here, as is the conversation (and following house scene) with Colin in Love Actually , because of the trashiness. In sum, I’m not sure Justice Stewart would have recognized pornography here, and he was the expert.

Was I offended? Depends what you mean by that. Christians use the word “offended” to mean (a) it hurt my feelings, (b) you’re worldly and that makes me uncomfortable, (c) it caused me to sin, or (d) I’m entirely grossed out by what you did there. None of these applied here for me, though I can see that “offense” could and would be taken by many people. (This may speak to my being 54 more than anything else. In earlier years, I would have been horrified, no doubt. I just care less now, I suppose, about what adult people do in the privacy of their own homes, especially if, as in this movie, they speak in detail ahead of time about what will happen so that both people are comfortable with the experience.)

What about the movie moving our culture to a place of acceptance of the objectification and sexual exploitation of women. You’re kidding, right? What country do you live in? I can’t turn on the television without seeing women objectified and made into sex objects.

I felt sorry for Christian, because he obviously has deep emotional needs. On the other hand, Ana is a strong woman who is in control of herself and her choices at all times.

Speaking of “Mommy Porn.” I’ve seen this book/movie ridiculed for being Porn for Middle Aged Women. We know what Daddy Porn is. It’s porn. Why is this movie ridiculed for appealing to women? Is it a joke that women might have sexual needs that aren’t being met and that they might read a book or see a movie that fills that void? Are women somehow laughable because they are sexual beings and the movie laughable because it might be titillating to some women? Ridiculing “Mommy Porn” ridicules the idea that women like sex. Why is that funny?

Obviously don’t see this movie. You don’t want to, and you shouldn’t see something that offends you that much. As for me, I only saw it because so many people told me I shouldn’t, and I don’t like it when people tell me what I may and may not read, watch, write, or experience. I have a conscience of my own, thank you very much.

In sum: much ado about not very much and not very well written or acted at all. Forgettable, but not the worst thing I’ve watched at the movies this week. Kingsman was far more offensive, because of the million F-words (in all its permutations), the horrifying domestic violence, the endless dead bodies killed violently and barbarically, and a mother hacking through a door to try to kill her toddler. Now that’s offensive.

TAKEN 3, starring Liam Neeson

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I have not seen Taken and Taken 2, so perhaps there is an inside joke or some plot details that make Taken 3 more interesting than I found it to be in my pathetic ignorance of the other two films.

It’s like a TV crime show, just longer to fill up the two hours. Ridiculous car chases on Los Angeles freeways that have way fewer cars on them than I have ever experienced when driving in LA. This ridiculous: cars driving down the wrong way on the freeway, flipping up into the air, riding along the concrete barriers, and then driving off with nothing more than a dent in the fender; people enduring this vehicular mayhem sans-a-scratch; cars exploding with incredible amounts of fire–I mean, really, my van holds 16 gallons of gas. Is that enough, even without the preceding giant car chase, to make a fireball a hundred feet high with several separate explosions? Of course, I bow to the explosion gods who know these things.

Add to this nonsense, the folly of old guys playing roles in which they single-handedly kill Evil Russian mobsters, and note that the ERMs all have machine guns which destroy everything but Our Hero, but never even graze him. He, of course, kicks away weapons that might help him, trusting in his handgun that conveniently runs out of ammo only when there is another pistol on the ground handy enough for him to pick up. The evilest of the ERMs, gives us more of himself than we want to see in his defining scene. And if they were going to be all bodily like that, could they not have chosen an actor with some discernible abs? Tighty-whiteys have their place, and I’m not saying they don’t, but c’mon, man.

There’s also that tired old saw of the lone guy who can stop an airplane by chasing it with a car. See Argo if you want to see this sort of thing done in a much more highly-charged, yea, even terrifying manner. (See Argo immediately if you haven’t. Obviously.) In defense of the car-airplane scene in Taken 3, at least it’s not as completely inane as the idiotic plane-landing scene in the recent cinematic catastrophe Left Behind.

Movies that I didn’t like that were better than this one: The Equalizer with Denzel Washington, another movie in which an old guy single-handedly kills roomsful of Russian mobsters without getting a scratch . . . oh wait, I’m not sure that one was any better than this one, never mind; Gone Girl starring Ben Affleck, another movie in which a man is accused of murdering his wife, because in GG, there is a lot of tension–we don’t know whether Amazing Amy’s husband is going to go down for the crime. Here, we know from the get-go who is and is not guilty, and that’s a plot fail. Granted, there is a little bit of an “aha” moment, but it isn’t surprising, nor is the motive very complex.

Forest Whitaker, as the lead LAPD officer, adds some star power to the film, not that Neeson doesn’t have that, just that Whitaker’s role is not ridiculous. He isn’t given the world’s greatest script; for example, I’m guessing that LAPD officers don’t typically eat the evidence, nor was it necessary here, but I won’t say more, in case you’re going to see this mildly interesting crime drama.

The biggest problem with Bryan Mills’s (Neeson) behavior is that none of it is necessary. The evidence is so clear and so easily obtainable–indeed, the police do have the relevant evidence to find the killers of Mills’s ex-wife within 24 hours of her murder–that none of his “bustin’ in the doors to wreak justice” behaviors are necessary. Had he allowed himself (as a normal person would do) to be arrested, then talked his head off to the interrogating officers, cooperated, encouraged his daughter to cooperate, he would have been released with apologies within a few days, avoiding all the nonsensical car chases, foot chases in which an old dude outruns young police officers in cars, and so forth.

It’s the script, of course. Everyone does what he can, but you can’t overcome a script that relies on clues from a bagel, and the premise that the LAPD isn’t smart enough to check security cameras. The worst part of the script, possibly, is that this movie ends as The Equalizer ended, with the “good guy” who has done nothing but kill, maim, and disable people throughout the entire event walk away free and clear. I wonder if this happens: if you can escape from police custody by tossing officers out of their cars onto the freeway, terrorize the public by driving like a madman, obstruct justice, avoid arrest, assault multiple officers of the law, beat up scores of people–leaving some with broken bones, some with massive internal injuries, and some dead–all of this to find the real killer, who would have been found anyway in about two days, and then you walk away without any charges against you because, after all, you meant well, and you had your family’s best interest at heart. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t happen.

All that said, I didn’t hate the movie. It was sort of okay, but if you want to see a movie where Mr. Neeson is escaping through the sewers (as he does here), may I recommend the classic 1998 Les Miserables?

BIG EYES, starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz

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I know it’s shameful how many movies I’ve liked recently, since I usually hate everything. Blame it on the Oscar-baiting which occurs every year at this time. Oscar-baiting is the bizarre view that the good folks at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, when culling through all the year’s work, like the most recent stuff best. As if they think, “Wow, I can’t remember Belle, because May was so long ago.”

In any event, we, the viewing public, get a holiday bonanza because of this squishing of all the good stuff into late December. Therefore, I’m liking a lot of movies these days. Or perhaps I’ve just gone soft.

(Even the trailers are amazing this time of year. The Homesman trailer brought me to tears, as did the trailer for The Good Lie. The trailer for The Woman in Gold made me angry to the point of words under my breath, and The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel trailer made me laugh out loud with simple happiness. We’ve all been extremely disappointed by movies that fail to live up to their trailers–there are uncountable examples of this–but I am hoping for the best with all these, especially The Homesman, which stars Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank. Watch all these trailers on youtube immediately, please. I’m not making them clickable here, because then you’ll go away and never come back to read my review.)

Whatever the answer, I loved Big Eyes, the true story of a woman who loves a man and a man who loves himself and wants everyone else to love him too. In his quest for love, riches, and fame, he tosses away truth as if there is no value to it, and certainly no value above his need to be paid and adored.

It’s the 1960s, and Walter Keane is a widely-admired painter of children with big eyes. Haunting, if simple, paintings of children who seem beat-down, emotionally starved. Walter grows famous and rich off these paintings, the prints and postcards of which become ubiquitous. But there’s a secret. There’s a hidden truth. Big Eyes is the story of that truth, the lies which surround it, and the inevitable conclusion, because of course, truth will out sooner or later, not always quietly.

Big Eyes is instructive, perhaps even healing, for anyone who has been in a difficult relationship, particularly one in which a partner seems charming and magnetic in public, but at home is controlling and cruel. It may be even more instructive if you haven’t experienced that type of relationship, but have a friend who complains about a relationship, and you can’t figure out why–his or her spouse or partner seems so nice, whatever could be wrong, you must be exaggerating.

Amy Adams as Margaret Keane is wonderful, as is Christoph Waltz as the charismatic-then-tyrranical husband/artist. Amy Adams can play anything, of course, and Christoph Waltz is magical in every role he undertakes. This one is very near the top, though it’s hard to pick this role over his dentist in Django or his Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, but perhaps only because here he’s wearing ordinary clothes and not blowing people up or getting swastikas carved into his head.

It’s not necessary to see this one on the big screen, so if your movie time and/or budget is running thin because of Imitation Game and Theory of Everything, and you’re looking forward to Selma and American Sniper, you can wait for this one to come out on DVD or streaming.

Definitely a great movie for girlfriends of any age to attend so they can say bad things about Mr. Keane and throw popcorn at him and then go out after and talk about all the awful men they’ve interacted with. That sounds like manhate, but it could also be quite the catharsis. If you want to go out and talk about women who are awful, you’ll have to pick another movie, as Big Eyes is definitely a “Go Girl” show.

THE GAMBLER, starring Mark Wahlberg

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This is my 200th post, woot woot. Now, moving along . . .

The Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg, is too long and too lacking in character development to be worth your time. If you must see it, because you like movies where people are foolish and brutalized and where random women, in random situations unconnected to the plot, walk around (or pole around, as the case may be) sans various garments, do me a favor and wait for the DVD or streaming version.

Here’s the story: Jim Bennett is a college English prof who has a lot of skills, though at the moment his teaching ability is hampered by his uncontrollable gambling, which he does in high-end secret and illegal joints stuffed alternately into lavish mansions with stunning views of the Pacific and seedy back-alley warehouse looking slum-digs. In both of these places, he makes obscene and absurd bets with (1) his and then (2) other people’s money.

Losing everything, he gets roughed up, threatened, made to ask something of one of his students that is unconscionable and illegal. He seems to feel nothing about it–no qualms, no conscience, no change of heart.

Stupid things happen: a kid goes to Las Vegas to place a gigantic bet on a sporting event, but when he comes back he doesn’t say, “Dude, I couldn’t do it because I’m like not even 21.” He comes back saying, “Why did I go to Vegas, man,” as if he doesn’t know.

The ending is all wrong, of course, and all rationality to the wind, Bennett takes off running at a sprinter’s pace for the entire night. Without breaking a sweat. Possibly literary license meant to show that he is now free, but frankly, I’m not impressed. Because a gambler isn’t free when he can run all night. A gambler is free when he can come into possession of money and use it in the right way. Every day. All the time.

Also ridiculous is an inappropriate prof-student relationship. Genius English majors don’t run off with broken-down neurosis-ridden used-to-be’s. (Yes, I agonized over that apostrophe.) They go, “Um, no, you’re gross,” and apply more lip gloss.

Nothing good happens in this movie, and there’s that horrible moment where you know you are cheering for the bad guy and when he wins, you have a “whew” moment of relief, but you feel bad, because you know what Bennett needs is an intervention and some very intensive rehab, not a roulette win.

Mark Wahlberg is good in the role, for what that’s worth, and Jessica Lange is great as his mother. Horrible family dynamic well played. John Goodman as Fat Frank the Money Lender is spectacular. If you want to see better movies with these people, see The Departed, Tootsie, and Argo. Right away, if there are any of those you haven’t seen before.

EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS

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Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t like this movie, but I did. It’s the story of Moses and Pharaoh, the Ten Plagues, Passover, and the crossing of the Red Sea. There are wonderful visuals of the cities of Egypt and the Hebrew slaves slaving to build said cities.

The story follows the Bible narrative, with some startling departures. God is not depicted as you expect. You don’t expect God to be depicted at all, really, but there he is. I asked my sons about this and one said, “God can show himself however he wants,” and I suppose this is true. Moses also doesn’t stay in the desert for 40 years. He’s there 9 years. I can overlook this, but lots of people won’t.

I enjoyed the slow pace of the movie–the plagues don’t start for a long, long time, and when they start they go fast.

There’s this beautiful little baby whom Pharaoh loves, and when you see Pharaoh’s father-love for this little boy, your own heart hurts because you know what’s coming. The Tenth Plague (thankfully, no green fog attends) moves slowly and sadly and your heart hurts for the poor Egyptians who after all had no say in the matter.

The eternal question asserts itself: how can a righteous God be so cruel. Not to sully a Bible story by evoking Quentin Tarantino, but the same question is asked in the over-the-top violent movie Django. How much violence is enough or too much when the object of the violence is to secure the beloved? How much violence is too much to repay a nation for enslaving a people for 400 years?

And couldn’t God have freed his people some other, less violent, way? I don’t know. I can say that I didn’t like all the violence, all the plagues. I’d never before thought of the ordinary Egyptians losing their livelihoods, their beloved animals, being eaten up by flies and boils, being beaten up by hail, seeing their hard-worked crops devoured by locusts.

Pharaoh is a sympathetic character. I liked him a lot and wanted him to survive. My heart hurt for him in his losses, his confusion, his desire to be a good king and father.

Moses was well played. He’s a strong and able man who wants to do the right thing in the right way and isn’t sure God knows what he’s doing. God straightens him up on that, and in the end, Moses believes.

I was excited to see that Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad was playing Joshua. Alas, he has a couple of decent lines and a few one- or two-word answers. Not sure this adds to his resume at all. He needs a real part. We know he can play it.

In sum, the large outlines of the story are intact, and there are some major departures (I didn’t list them all here). I will say that this movie has more Bible in it and more about redemption in it than any of the so-called “Christian” movies I’ve forced myself to see lately.

I explained all that to my kids and we all went. They enjoyed it, as did I.

In fact, I don’t want to hear any complaining about the little boy or the crocodiles or the lack of Gershom’s circumcision when there’s drivel out there like Left Behind being touted as “Christian.”