Movie reviews: Still Alice, Kill the Messenger, Chappie

Still Alice *****
Kill the Messenger ****
Chappie ***

There’s a creeping kind of horror at the heart of Still Alice (12), although it’s another organ entirely, the brain, that betrays the story’s heroine, Alice (Julianne Moore).

A professor of linguistics, Alice recognises earlier than most might do the tiny amnesias that lead to a diagnosis of a rare form of Alzheimer’s disease. Compounding Alice’s grief is the fact that she’s a carrier of the rogue gene causing the disease, and that she may well have inadvertently sentenced her children — Anna (Kate Bosworth), Tom (Hunter Parrish), and Lydia (Kristen Stewart) — to a lifetime of knowing that they too will have their sense of self stolen away prematurely.

Directed by Wash Westmoreland and Richard Glatzer (who co-adapted the script from Lisa Genova’s novel), Still Alice is a haunting tale of loss as Alice’s understanding of the world, and her knowledge of herself, is gradually eroded from within. Moore, who won an Oscar for her role, is in phenomenal form, as Alice vacillates between anger, despair, and acceptance, while also suffering bouts of forgetfulness that mean she doesn’t always know she’s losing her memory.

It’s by no means a one-woman show, however; Baldwin is terrific as a loving, confused, and frustrated husband incapable of helping “the most intelligent woman he has ever met”, while Stewart is equally impressive in a quieter role, as a daughter struggling to come to terms with her mother’s mortality.

The tone is sombre and the pace gentle, allowing for a reflective meditation on what it truly means to be aware of your unique existence. It’s all so artfully conceived that it’s difficult to suppress a shudder when the camera slides in and out of focus to mirror Alice’s experience of the blurring, slipping away, and eventual extinguishing of who she is.

Opening in 1996, Kill the Messenger (15A) is based on the true story of American journalist Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), who revealed the connection between the CIA’s funding of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua and the massive importation of cocaine into the US.

When the story — first published in the relatively obscure San Jose Mercury News — breaks, however, the political establishment turns on Webb, attempting to discredit his scoop by digging dirt on his personal life and casting doubt on his sources and conclusions.

Directed by Michael Cuesta, Kill the Messenger is a conspiracy thriller in the grand tradition of All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, even if Cuesta and screenwriter Peter Landesman (adapting from Webb’s own book Dark Alliance and Nick Shou’s Kill the Messenger) are less interested in conventional thrills and spills than they are the conspiracy against journalism.

Renner, to a certain extent hamstrung by the need to play up to the ideal of the noble journalist possessed by a burning zeal for truth and justice (“Some stories are just too true to tell,” a Washington insider tells a heedless Webb), is nevertheless compelling as an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation and subjected to a dirty tricks campaign designed to break him.

Surrounded by a fine cast — Barry Pepper, Rosemarie DeWitt, Tim Blake Nelson, Oliver Platt, and Michael Sheen all contribute handsomely — Renner burnishes his credentials as a serious character actor, giving us a wonderfully rounded warts-and-all portrayal of Webb’s irrepressible belief in the importance of impartial journalism.

Chappie (15A) is set in Johannesburg in 2016, a city where law and order is enforced by a small army of police droids. Rescued from the scrapheap by his creator, Deon (Dev Patel), and reprogrammed for artificial intelligence, Droid 22 becomes Chappie (Sharlto Copley), a childlike creation with the physical characteristics of a machine but the thought processes and feelings of a human being.

Shanghaied by lowlife gangster Ninja, and indoctrinated into a life of crime, Chappie finds himself a pawn in a much bigger battle as vested interests go to war for control of Johannesburg.

Directed by Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Elysium), Chappie is a sci-fi flick that wears its influences on its sleeve. Robocop and Blade Runner are two of its more obvious predecessors, although Blomkamp’s offering is neither as slick as the former nor as sophisticated as the latter.

Sharlto Copley puts in a terrific shift by bringing the robotic Chappie to life, and Dev Patel and Yo-Landi Visser, playing a tender-hearted gangster’s moll, develop a solid chemistry as the trio build an unusual family structure. Elsewhere, however, Hugh Jackman is rather preposterous as a villainous inventor, while Sigourney Weaver’s talents are largely wasted on the sidelines.


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