Reviewed this week are Still Alice, Kill the Messenger, Chappie, Appropriate Behaviour and Diffret.
Steel yourselves and stock up on hankies because this new star vehicle for Julianne Moore comes with a stern flood warning. The good news is that anyone who felt Marion Cotillard was robbed at the recent Academy Awards will see that Moore, extraordinary throughout this tragic drama, was every bit deserving of that Best Actress Oscar.
Alice is a brilliant linguistics professor at Columbia University. She lives an idyllic life in Manhattan with husband John (Alec Baldwin). They have three grown children who adore her, even problematic actress daughter Lydia (Kristen Stewart). We see her jogging each day, eating green salads and hear of her vitamin regime.
So when she begins to forget simple things and is subsequently diagnosed with a rare genetic strain of Alzheimer's, we are as gutted as everyone else. The disease becomes a stalking demon as we are made to watch Alice disintegrate before our eyes while her family scrambles around her. Heartache pervades while big issues are quietly aired - why Alzheimer's sufferers can't walk with pride like cancer patients, and why the loss of the victim's control over their destiny is perhaps the worst symptom of all.
Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland direct with an unflinching eye as they adapt Lisa Genova's 2007 bestseller. Baldwin and Stewart rebound deftly off Moore, whose performance is the entire film's centrifugal force. Anyone who has encountered this illness will wince with familiarity as Alice crumbles helplessly.
A harrowing experience.
In an apparently complete irony bypass one vitriolic review of Kill The Messenger attacks the journalist subject of the story. The irony lies in that the film is about a man destroyed by the vitriol of the press. In the mid 1990s, in the wake of a drugs trial, small town journalist Gary Webb (played by Jeremy Renner) gets information that allows him to cobble together a convincing, if somewhat circumstantial argument, that the CIA allowed the mass importation of cocaine into the US in order to fund an illegal war in Nicaragua. Reagan had been convinced that if the Sandinistas won it was only a matter of time before the pesky commies came swarming. Congress would not fund the war, so the CIA found a way. That way, the mass importation of cocaine, much of which became crack, took a huge toll on life.
Writing the story for his small local paper initially garnered Webb lots of praise. But, whilst it might have been expected that the CIA wouldn't be too happy, it was the big American media organisations, angry at being scooped, who turned against Webb. Rather than focus much on the story, they focussed on ways to discredit it and its author. Just how true the facts of the story are is unlikely ever to be clear. However the more important message is about the potential for good of an independent media, and the potential for evil of a bought and biased one. Directed by Michael (early Homeland) Cuesta it honours the political thrillers of the seventies. There is a fabulous supporting cast including Rosemarie DeWitt, Michael Sheen and Ray Liotta. But it is Jeremy Renner's (pictured) film.
In 2009 South African sci-fi film District 9 caught everyone unawares and catapulted its director (and co-writer) Neill Blomkamp to the big time, fast, arguably too fast. Although not to everyone's taste District 9 was original, clever, evocative, funny and just really good. On foot of it Blomkamp got to go Hollywood for the unevenly received Elysium. Now with Chappie he stays big budget but returns to his South African roots with this tale of artificial emotional intelligence in Jo'Burg. And whilst it shares some of the anarchic wildness that made District 9 so special, it feels like the work of a man suddenly too aware of what could go wrong.
In 2016 the Johannesburg police department has had enormous success cutting crime rates by incorporating Scouts, robot police, into the force. Their success has meant that company boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) has sidelined the bigger, more belligerent robots that Vincent (Hugh Jackman) has been working on for years. His thunder stolen by Scout inventor Deon (Dev Patel) he is on the lookout for any chance to catch him out.
It's a chance swiftly provided. Deon has developed the algorithm for sentience in robots and, denied the chance to try it out on a broken Scout, he steals one. Almost immediately he is kidnapped by gangsters Ninja and Yolandi (Ninja and Yolandi of rave rap group Die Antwoord) who need a robot for a heist they're planning. As the sentient robot (Sharlto Copley) will start out like a child, needing teaching and nurturing, the gangsters become his unlikely parent figures. A suspicious Vincent sees what's happening and makes his move, creating havoc. Some of the plot line is simply daft, why they would let Deon go is unfathomable, how the highly technical computer stuff is so easily accessible to all when I have difficulty making a printer work is also odd. The characters are one-dimensional, the plot thin but cluttered. But, it works on some levels. It looks good, the soundtrack is good, and Die Antwoord, who settle into the acting after a while, add something. It's not brilliant, but it is enjoyably bonkers.
Not even Angelina Jolie's association as executive producer could prevent Difret's premiere in Addis Ababa last year being shut down by authorities. In telling the true story of a landmark court case that forced Ethiopia to confront the custom of "telefa" - the abduction of child brides in rural communities - Zeresenay Berhane Mehari's film had ruffled feathers.
It was almost a badge of honour for the young filmmaker, who had already taken awards at Sundance and Berlin, and now found his film asking long overdue questions about his homeland's traditions.
It tells of 14-year-old Hirut (Tizita Hagere), a girl in rural Ethiopia who is abducted by men on her way home from school. Raped and imprisoned, she escapes from her captors but ends up killing the main perpetrator in self-defence. While incarcerated, local men furiously demand she be executed and her body buried with the dead man. To her side rushes Meaza Ashenafi (Meron Getnet) of the Ethiopian Women's Lawyers Association, who fights doggedly against the murder charge and a patriarchal society that refuses to recognise the rights of a young girl. Heads are banged against walls as Third World politics slows progress to a crawl.
Mehari is workmanlike with a story that tells itself, the only flourishes being slow-moed recesses where we can gather our thoughts.
All in all, this is brave, deft filmmaking.
IFI and selected cinemas
Sunday Indo Living