I’M STILL HERE: The Film Babble Blog Review

I’M STILL HERE (Dir. Casey Affleck, 2010)


The question – is this a hoax or a real depiction of an artist’s very public breakdown has been circling this film since a certain appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman” in 2009.

A bearded shaggy haired Joaquin Phoenix donned a black suit and baffled everybody especially the host (“I don’t come to your house and chew gum”) with what seemed like a drugged mumble distracted from the spotlight and oblivious to the audience’s laughter.

“Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight” Letterman quipped as the segment ended and within minutes the clip was a viral sensation with folks all over the internets asking “WTF?”

The answer some clung to was that it was all a prank – Phoenix was pretending to abandon acting and become a rapper and his brother in law Casey Affleck was going to film this transition for a “mockumentary”, right?

Well, sort of. “I’m Still Here” follows Phoenix around as he goes through misguided motions and we get so little insight into him that whether it’s a prank or not doesn’t matter. He’s a mess and so is this film.

See Oscar nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix snort cocaine! See him surf the internet! See him chew out an assistant for selling information to a tabloid! See him awkwardly try to talk Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs into producing his awful rap songs! See him fall off the stage! See him diss Danny DeVito! See him vomit! See him…you get the idea.

One thing that’s odd, in a movie of numbing oddness, is that there are often subtitles for scenes with possibly inaudible dialogue, but there’s not for any of Phoenix’s rapping performances which are often intelligible. At first I thought we may benefit by reading what’s he’s rapping, but now I think the film makers may be doing us a favor.

It’s a pointless rambling documentary but what’s worse is that it isn’t funny. If Affleck and Phoenix are pulling a prank, they don’t seem to be having any fun with it. So much of it seems to be about Phoenix’s suffering and not knowing what to do next.

Apparently now Phoenix is up for some new roles and is not retiring from acting, but I believe that at one point he was sincere about quitting.

He seems to have taken the idea of an alternate career – rapper – seriously too. Years from now this poorly made boring documentary (not a “mockumentary” mind you – it’s not clever enough for that) will be thought of as an odd unwatchable side note and Phoenix will be back in the spotlight as an actor.

I’m glad Joaquin Phoenix is here, but next time I hope he plays to his strengths – that is his impeccable acting skills and we’ll forget this dismal diversion.

More later…

TWO LOVERS And 2 New DVD Reviews

TWO LOVERS (Dir. James Gray, 2008)

Joaquin Phonenix‘s Leonard Kraditor is the latest in a long line of New York lovelorn schlubs that includes Ernest Borgnine’s comical Marty Piletti and to a darker extreme – Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Phoenix brings a disturbed pathos to the character that, as reports indicate, may extend into Phoenix’s real life. We are introduced to the troubled character in an opening scene suicide attempt off a bridge in Brooklyn (not the Brooklyn Bridge, mind you). He doesn’t go through with it; he surfaces and is helped out of the water by passing pedestrians.

Soaking wet, Phoenix returns home to the disapproving looks of his parents (Moni Moshonov and Issabella Rossellini) and a small cluttered bedroom. That night his parents are having a dinner party and intend to set up their son with the daughter of Moshonov’s business partner played by Vanessa Shaw. They hit it off but Phoenix’s eyes wander to neighbor Gynneth Paltrow, an outgoing free-spirited beauty that he is instantly attracted to. Unfortunately she is involved with a married man (an asshole lawyer portrayed perfectly by Elias Koteas) so their budding relationship is unlikely to bloom.

Phoenix has palpable, if at times awkward, chemistry with both Shaw and Paltrow. An audience will surely pull for him to wind up with Shaw (who’s just as attractive) over Paltrow for more than just “good brunette” over “bad blonde” reasons, but the emotional discord within that Phoenix displays can’t be easily dismissed. We still feel for the guy even when he is being deceptive and come to care deeply whether or not he makes the right choice. Possible Spoiler!: In the end it’s not his choice to make and there is an edge to his actions that come more from fear than true love. As my girlfriend said as we were leaving the theater: “How romantic it is to be someone’s choice over death or being alone.” Good point for sure, but this little spare drama should be commended for its non-contrived storyline and unpretentious tone regardless of its uneasy aftertaste. Resembling a Woody Allen relationship movie without the one-liners, TWO LOVERS is an engaging experience that is sure to be remembered long after tales of Phoenix’s odd off-screen behavior have faded away.

And now, a few new release DVD reviews:

I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG (Dir. Phillippe Claudel, 2008)

Kristen Scott Thomas as a woman recently released from 15 years in prison affects a somber trance as she suffers societal scorn in this drawn out drama. That makes it sound as though this movie is a trial to endure which is not the case. It’s a carefully paced character study with very subtle appeal that lingers for days after viewing. Thomas, going through the motions of reassembling, comes off like an ashamed ghost in the presence of her sister (Elsa Zylberstein) who offers her a place to stay while she gets back on her feet. Zylberstein‘s husband (Serge Hazanavicius) is sceptical of having Thomas around the children because, after all, she went to jail for the murder of her own 6 year old son.

We follow Thomas through these day to day unpleasantries, feeling for her even when we are unsure where our sympathies should really lie. She befriends a few empathetic souls – her probation officer played with aplomb by Frédéric Pierrot and Laurent Grévill as a kindly colleague of her sister’s. I’ll definitely say no further because the film’s biggest asset is in the unwrapping of its intriquing layers. Thomas deserved greater recognition in the now concluded award season for this performance; her work is immaculately measured and nobly nuanced. The film surrounding her is much the same except for some embellished misteps like the inappropriate acoustic guitar flourishes and some abrupt editing. These are minor beefs though, for I’VE LOVED YOU SO LONG is one of 2008’s finest films that just barely missed making my top ten.

ELEGY (Dir. Isabel Coixet, 2008) The track record for movie adaptations of the works of noted novelist Philip Roth is pretty poor. His 1969 bestseller PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT was made into a critically derided forgotten film in 1972 (Ebert labeled it “a true fiasco”) so it wasn’t until 30 years later that Hollywood tried again. The result: THE HUMAN STAIN (Dir. Robert Benton, 2003) which was one of the worst films of the last decade if not ever. Not to be discouraged, 5 years later, Spanish director Isabel Coixet and screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN, yo!), dive head first into Roth’s “The Dying Animal” – the third book in his fictional professor David Kapesh series (if you can call it that).

In this ambitious adaptation, renamed ELEGY (meaning “a mournful poem”) presumably because the original title wasn’t very accessble (sic), Ben Kingsley plays Kapesh as a eloquent man of the arts. We are told how much a celebrated cultural warrior he is from the first shot of him pontificating on the The Charlie Rose Show. His voice-over narration, or commentary, sets up his falling for one of his students with such pithy asides such as: “How is it possible for me to be involved in the carnal aspects of the human comedy?” The student in question, a shy for once Penelope Cruz, 30 years younger than Kingsley is seemingly just as smitten. Kingsley confides in best friend Dennis Hopper as a Pulilzer Prize winning poet who offers: “Stop worrying about growing old, start worrying about growing up.”

Devised as half a mediation on growing old, half erotic obsession study, ELEGY delights in flowery exposition and artfully shadowed sex scenes. Kingley lies to his long time lover Patricia Clarkson about his affair but like everything else it hardly registers. “When you make love to a woman you get revenge for all the things that defeated you in life” Kingsley detachedly remarks at one point and I was like, uh, I never thought of it like that before and you know what? I never will again. Beneath all his sophistication and culture lies a pretty despicable dude that I could never care about, I just cringed at his every labored turn.

Hopper finds a little poetry in his part particularly in a spiel about how women are invisible because men are blinded by their beauty and their soul can’t be truly seen, which is as pretentious as it sounds, especially with the ever present piano tinkling and lush presentation, but still more affecting than the bulk of material here. So disinterested was I that at one point I found myself thinking nothing more than how Kingsley and Cruz have such curiously shaped noses. As “a work of art that reminds you of who you are now” (professor Kapesh’s words) ELEGY just reminded me that I’d rather be washing the dishes.

More later…
 

Coming Soon To A Film Babble Blog Near You…

The next few months are going to be very busy for me so I thought Id give readers a preview of some upcoming attractions:


Coming Soon – Reviews of:

CHE: PART ONE (Dir. Steven Soderbergh, 2008) So epic it had to be cut into 2 separate movies (THE ARGENTINE and GUERILLA respectively), PART ONE opened last Friday at the local theater I work part-time but I havent had a chance to see it yet. Expect a write-up shortly because Ive been really looking to this sweeping biopicalious looking opus that I’m planning on approaching as if it was a TV miniseries. CHE: PART TWO opens on the 20th so I better get to it.

TWO LOVERS (Dir. James Gray, 2008) Yes, my area is usually late getting indie fare like this so my list of films from last year I need to catch up on is endless. Whatever the deal with Joaquin Phoenix and his possibly fake hip hop career *, there has been considerably favorable buzz around this title. Ill let you know when I see it.

* Now I don’t have to mention any of his off screen shenanigins in my actual review.

And on the horizon:

WENDY AND LUCY (Dir. Kelly Reichardt)

GOMORRA (Dir. Matteo Garrone) The trailer for this is fantastic! I hear the movie is too.

ADVENTURELAND (Dir. Greg Mottola)

And also coming soon:

Celebrating the 25th Anniversary of REPO MAN
(Dir. Alex Cox, 1984)
An undeniable 80
s cult classic and a favorite from my youth. Thanks to Cool Classics @ The Colony I’ll be able to see if it still holds up. If you’re in the Triangle area you really ought to consider coming out for the Wednesday (the 18th) showing at 8:00 PM in North Raleigh. A 35 MM print of this dusted off punk flick with vintage trailers for $5.00 is impossible for me to pass up.

A Film Babble Blog Soundtrack Special – I’ve been working on this off and on for a while. A blogpost tribute to the soundtracks of my life. This will include another patented Film Babble Blog list about soundtracks that think outside the box office, i.e. albums that consist of more than just songs or pieces of music from said film. Works of audio art that are distinct in their use of film dialogue and purposeful re-editing of movie material. Any suggestions for this piece please send them on!

Coverage of the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival 2009 (April 2nd-5th) A wonderful annual event in Durham, N.C. that I’m eager as Hell to blog about. Currently I’m going through the schedules trying to figure out which films I will attend – again, if you have any recommendations, please send them on!

More later…

Oscar Postpartum 2009

I did considerably better this time with my Oscar picks than the several years. I got 18 out of 24. Instead of listing all the categories like last year (and of course because they are listed on my last post as well as everywhere else online), I decided to just look at the ones I got wrong:


BEST ACTOR: My pick: Mickey Rourke for THE WRESTLER. Who won: Sean Penn for MILK. I can’t say I was completely taken aback – I knew it was a tight race and I knew Penn had a slight edge. Still, I loved the underdog comeback story of both the movie and Rourke’s real life back story so I can’t say I’m not disappointed either. Penn did however acknowledge Rourke nicely in his acceptance speech: “Mickey Rourke rises again…and he is my brother.


DOCUMENTARY SHORT: My pick: THE CONSCIENCE OF NHEM EN. What won: SMILE PINKE. I really was just shooting in the dark here – I haven’t seen any of the nominees so I was going by internet research. I feel like even if I had seen them I’d still be taking a wild guess.


SOUND MIXING: My pick: THE DARK KNIGHT. What won: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. I should have known not to vote for the same movie in both sound editing and mixing. Sigh.


FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM: My pick: VALS IM BASHIR (English title: WALTZ FOR BASHIR. What won: OKURIBITO (English title: DEPARTURES). This was because I heard more buzz for BASHIR and neglected to really look into the others. Ill rectify that by checking them all out in the very near future.


As for the 81st Academy Awards broadcast itself I enjoyed host Hugh Jackman though I thought his song and dance numbers went on too long as did the show itself but that, of course, is a given. The “In Memorium” segment was poorly done (give everybody the big screen treatment next time!) and the one presenter presents multiple awards deal seemed to even throw Will Smith when he had to step up to the task: “Yes, they still have me up here… I think Hugh is napping.” My favorite bit of the show was presenter Ben Stiller in fake beard and sunglasses in an obvious parody of Joaquin Phoenix’s now infamous Letterman appearance of a few weeks back.


To his awkard antics (or non-antics) and his declaration: “I just want to retire from being the funny guy”, co-presenter Natalie Portman remarked: “You look like you work at a Hasidic meth lab.”


Ah, another Oscars over. Now back to the daily grind.


More later…

New Release Drama DVD Round-Up

When it comes to Netflix I’m what is considered “a heavy user”. I view many DVDs and often send them back the same day I get them writing about them as I go. Since I realized that most of what I’ve seen lately have been dramas I decided to round ’em up for this post. I also noticed that all of these movies have funerals in them but that would make for a pretty depressing blog post title so I’m going with the drama angle. Okay! Let’s get to ’em:

GONE BABY GONE (Dir. Ben Affleck, 2007)

Ben Affleck’s directorial debut is everything his run aspiring to A-list leading man status (in such blockbuster wannabes as PEARL HARBOR, PAYCHECK, THE SUM OF ALL FEARS and DAREDEVIL) wasn’t – it’s assured, multi-layered and extremely entertaining. Affleck doesn’t appear on camera here *, which is surprising considering his many bit cameos throughout the years, and yes it would be easy to take a pot shot by commending him for that alone but the weight and power of his Boston based crime drama cancels that immediately out. Brother Casey Affleck does the protagonist duty as a small scale private detective who works with his girlfriend (Michelle Monaghan) out of a tiny Boston apartment. When the young daughter of some neighborhood low-lifes goes missing and a media circus ensues, they are hired by the girl’s Aunt (Amy Madigan) to help find her.

The police (particularly Ed Harris as a police detective) are skeptical of the inexperienced but intrepid couple and the dangerous battered barfolk they encounter when they go snooping are little help as well but C. Affleck and Monaghan plug away. Morgan Freeman as a police Captain lends his reliable folksy demeanor (glad he’s not narrating for once) also talks down to our heroes – indeed it is often pointed out how young and green Casey Affleck appears: “he just looks young” Monaghan remarks to Freeman’s scolding. As you should know by now I’ll give no further spoilers but I bet you can see how the couple gets in other their head in a world where nobody can be trusted – Man, that ought to be the tagline!

Hate to call them twists because they are displayed with more class than in many standard thrillers but the turns of the second act are surprisingly successful because of the refreshing lack of gloss or flash. A tad high in melodrama maybe but GONE BABY GONE doesn’t overreach. The supporting cast all bring it – Harris and Madigan (who are husband and wife in real life) both have some standout scenes and John Ashton (who many will remember as a cop in the BEVERLY HILLS COP series) gets in some good gruff gestures. Amy Ryan as the lost girl’s mother plays a messed up “skeezer”, as one drug dealer character calls her, was nominated for Best Supporting Actress and she’s pretty dead on but some of her line readings seem a bit forced so I’ll be pretty shocked if she wins it. Casey Affleck really should have been nominated for this performance over his part in THE ASSASSINATION OF JESSE JAMES…, as much as I liked him in that flick, because he really gets it right in his manner and tone here. On the cinematic chopping block MYSTIC RIVER comparisons are inevitable but Ben Affleck’s moving film makes a case that Clint Eastwood doesn’t own the terrain – I believe a new up and coming director dog has just marked his territory.

* Actually Affleck can be seen moving through a shot in a dark bar but you could blink and miss him. On the DVD commentary co-writer Aaron Stockard calls it his “Hitchcock moment”.

WE OWN THE NIGHT (Dir. James Gray, 2007)

The opening with black and white archive photos (by still photographer Leonard Fried) of 80’s era New York cops brings to mind the grainy real-life riot footage that opened THE DEPARTED. Scorsese’s Best Picture winning crime classic again rears its head as once again we have a premise resembling a good cop/bad cop scenario and Mark Wahlberg as the blunt good cop doesn’t call foul on such accusations. But let’s get past that and see what we’ve really got here in James Gray’s period-piece police Vs. Russian mobsters flick that slipped through the cracks in its release last Fall. With Wahlberg we’ve got Joaquin Phoenix as his druggie nightclub managing brother and Robert Duvall as their grizzled police chief father trying to recruit Phoenix to be a mole. Duvall is one of the few actors that can convincingly pull off such a cliched line as “Sooner or later, either you’re gonna be with us or you’re gonna be with the drug dealers”. Phoenix is indifferent to his Pop’s war on drugs plight as he posits himself as a future “king of New York”. His club El Caribe is obviously modeled on Studio 54 with its clientele selected by bouncers, scantily clad dancing girls on the bar, and non-stop Blondie blaring on the sound system.

When Wahlberg gets shot and Duvall’s life is threatened by the drug running gangsters, Phoenix changes his tune and starts singing like a canary. He even agrees to be wired in order to lead the cops to the bad guy’s lair. Phoenix’s girlfriend (Eva Mendes – looking like a supermodel in a magazine photo spread) is a possible target too but she is disapproving of Phoenix’s new law enforcement involvement. The dialogue is repetitive and too often spells out every action. The story is full of predictable rote elements and the villains appear to be sent by central casting. It is set in the 80’s not for any interesting premise reasons like the opening implies but possibly because the filmmakers knew they were unable to write any cool modern cellphone trickery plotpoints. Which once again brings up the inferiority of this to Marty’s previously mentioned movie. So yeah, when it comes right down to it – skip this slickly produced pap and watch THE DEPARTED again. Wish I did.

ROMANCE & CIGARETTES (Dir. John Turturro, 2005)

This is a very odd movie. Co-produced by the Coen brothers and made 3 years ago but only now making it to DVD, possibly because the studio didn’t know how to handle it, Turturro with what he calls “a down and dirty musical comedy” is another actor turned director who made a movie that didn’t really catch on. James Gandolfini is an adulterous NYC construction worker whose wife (Susan Sarandon) knows about his mistress (Kate Winslet). They have three daughters (who all look too old to be believable as Gandolfini and Sarandon’s offspring) – Mary-Louise Parker, Mandy Moore, and Aida Turturro who have a riot grrl punk band and are constantly banging away for their piece of the soundtrack. Then throw in Christopher Walken, Steve Buscemi, Bobby Cannavale, and a strangely subdued Eddie Izzard and you’ve got a faultless cast but a weird musical mix. I did mention it was a musical, right? That’s what makes it so odd – the cast members sometimes lip synche to classic songs and sometimes sing on top of them; rarely does the song feature the actor’s voice alone. When it does have Gandolfini or Sarandon or Winslet sing by themselves it seems to be to make a particular point. I just couldn’t figure out what that point was.

I really couldn’t for the life of me really get into this movie but I did appreciate quite a few moments. Gandolfini and Sarandon have a great scene, done in one take, sitting at their dinner table where he admits to her for some reason that he never liked Ethel Merman with her “foghorn of a voice”. He excuses Ernest Borgnine’s abuse of Merman in their marriage that only lasted one week back in the day by concluding “‘You Can’t Get A Man With A Gun’ would drive any man crazy.” Somehow this amounts to one of the only warm exchanges between the couple. Winslet really goes at her role with gusto especially in her introductory dancing scene wearing a scorching red dress in the window of a burning building. She and Sarandon have a ferocious cat-fight while Walken sings along in the background to Bruce Springsteen’s “Red Headed Woman”. See what I mean? Weird.

Turturro’s directional sense does comes through – a shot of cigarette butts littered all over a patch of snow is exceptional and it is obvious he has a good collaborating relationship with everybody in this movie; it may have been a mistake to cast his sister Aida though – she just ends up recalling her Sopranos character Janice. Mary Louise-Parker appears again in a movie she is barely used in – this is a shame as anybody who has seen Weeds knows, she can do better. At one point Gandolfini says when trying to reconcile with his wife: “Maybe I don’t know how to show it like they do in the movies or in books but I love. I have love to give.” Maybe Turturro doesn’t know how to show it either but this film if nothing else is definitely a work of love. Just why did it have to be love of the weird variety?

SHOOT THE MOON (Dir. Alan Parker, 1981)

It’s easy to forget that in the late 70’s and early 80’s there was a genre that held its own against the science-fiction blockbusters that dominated that era – the divorce drama. KRAMER VS. KRAMER, of course, was the leader of the pack but close behind were such families getting torn apart tangents like AN UNMARRIED WOMAN, TWICE IN A LIFETIME, and ORDINARY PEOPLE. Long out of circulation but now newly re-issued on DVD is a pivotal player from those ranks – SHOOT THE MOON which features Albert Finney leaving wife Diane Keaton for a younger woman (Karen Allen). As the film opens we are introduced to the couple with their four daughters (Dana Hill, Viveka Davis, Tracey Gold, and Tina Yothers) and their creaky old house on the outskirts of Marin County in California (many misty shots of the house and valley are throughout the film). We see as acclaimed novelist Finney and his former student now wife Keaton prepare for an evening at an awards ceremony that their marriage is on the outs. Finney calls his lover and the oldest daughter (Hill) picks up the phone to eavesdrop. On their ride there and back to the televised event their car is full of tension as we realize the gravity of what’s not being said and strongly feel the giant gap between the tortured pair. The next morning Keaton confronts Finney, while doing dishes mind you, and he responds not by owning up to his affair but by leaving with a bag that she had already packed in anticipation.

The couple attempts to sort out the rubble and move on with their lives but they keep on hitting emotional roadblocks. Finney moves in with Allen, who except for one signature scene basically has little to do but stand around looking pretty, while Keaton takes up with a contractor played with just the right tone by Peter Weller (ROBOCOP!) that she hired to put in a tennis court on her (actually legally still her and her separated husband’s) property. The film seethes with energy that explodes from underneath in a few surprisingly violent scenes. Finney is compelling as always as he stalks the screen in a manner exposing his stage roots and Keaton displays that the keen quality she can bring to dramatic roles is equal to the comedic skills she is better known for. Dana Hill (who died in 1996 from complications due to diabetes) has perfect poise as the oldest wisest daughter who knows her parents’ faults as well as their habits – she knows her mother smokes pot for example – and she has a great scene in the third act that among other things explains the movies title. It’s interesting to see Tina Yothers and Tracey Gould as sisters for as students of pop culture know they went on to be daughters in competing 80’s TV sitcom families – Yothers in Family Ties and Gould in Growing Pains respectively. A flawed but stirring drama with an absolutely shocking ending, Alan Parker’s SHOOT THE MOON is an oft overlooked film that deserves a place in your Netflix queue.

More later…