Cinema Reviews Thoughts

I’m Still Here

A skilful blend of performance art, documentary and elaborate hoax, I’m Still Here is a clever and frequently hilarious deconstruction of Hollywood celebrity.

Back in 2008, you may have read about Joaquin Phoenix claiming that he was going to quit acting in order to become a hip-hop artist.

You may have also seen the now infamous appearance on Letterman where he came across like a rogue Rabbi strung out on heroin:

It soon emerged that fellow actor, and brother-in-law, Casey Affleck was filming this supposed career meltdown for a ‘documentary’.

I’m Not There is the end result, a spoof in the vein of Borat and Bruno, that goes behind the scenes of Phoenix’s supposed life and blends it with media coverage from the time.

Beginning with some intriguing home movie footage of Phoenix’s childhood, it is essentially a raucous fly-on-the-wall document of Phoenix’s apparent ‘career suicide’ over the last two years.

The actor has clearly put a great deal of effort into creating a sublimely horrible alter-ego.

He has grown a beard, put on weight and not been afraid to perform this role in public, which gives the film an extra post-modern flavour.

We see him meeting with his publicist and agent, attempt to hook up with Sean ‘Diddy’ Combes, berate Ben Stiller about the script of Greenberg, get life advice from Edward James Olmos, rap at a hotel in Miami, take copious amounts of drugs, abuse his assistants and generally act like a delusional celebrity ogre.

The film gets really meta when it incorporates the very idea that this whole project as a hoax.

Phoenix gets paranoid that his assistant ‘Anton’ has been leaking information to the media, which leads to a particularly messy confrontation.

Throughout Phoenix arguably gives the performance of his career in playing this twisted version of himself, in which he toys with the audience’s expectations of who and what he is. It is compelling and ludicrous in equal measure.

When this fake Joaquin is placed in real situations such as concerts, press junkets, airports filled with paparazzi and TV chat shows, the results are hilariously awkward.

At times it is all a bit too similar to the work of Larry Charles and Sacha Baron Cohen: an improvised comedy featuring a central character in real situations, shot in a vérité style on digital cameras.

But unlike Borat or Bruno, in which we know Baron Cohen is playing a role, this has the added dimension of Phoenix playing a version of himself, which has led to a debate about the authenticity of the film.

After premiering at the Venice Film Festival last week and getting a limited U.S. release last Friday, much of the media seemed genuinely confused as to whether it is real or not.

It seems absolutely clear, to me at least, that this whole project is an elaborate joke in which reality has been cunningly blended into the overall mix.

But does anyone actually believe that he wanted to give up acting to become a hip-hop star?

The idea that journalists and critics are actually taking this idea seriously seems like a joke in itself.

Certain sequences, especially the one with Stiller, seem staged and the parts with Diddy are also debatable.

The rapper was either duped or has impeccable comic timing. One line in which he declares an Affleck film (possibly Gone Baby Gone) to be ‘whack’ is priceless.

But there are certain scenes where the mask of the film drops (perhaps intentionally?).

At one point his publicist is caught grinning backstage at the infamous Letterman taping, another features a seemingly scripted gag about Revolutionary Road and there is one piece of dialogue that seems to have been dubbed in post-production.

Note also that the film is a ‘They They Are Going to Kill Us‘ production.

The conceit of the film is cunning as it plays around with our perceptions of who, or what, a celebrity is and gets added spice from Phoenix continuing his performance in areas where other actors wouldn’t normally dare.

Certain moments hold a brilliantly awkward mirror up to modern celebrity: concerts featuring audiences filming everything on their phones, DIY paparazzi posting commentary on the web and a press junket for Two Lovers where Phoenix is ‘offended’ by journalists.

The bit where Phoenix announces his retirement to an entertainment reporter from Extra is pitch perfect, as it cuts the TV footage which ran that night with Affleck’s footage from a different angle.

This is almost the film in microcosm. By contrasting the nonsense world of showbiz journalism with the fake world of the documentary, Affleck has created a hall of mirrors in which one reflects the other.

By feeding the media machine deliberately confusing information during the making of the film, it seems like some outlets have been unable to process the overall joke, as part of the narrative involves their own reporting. Bamboozled? That was probably Affleck’s intention.

The director himself has been supremely coy about all this – his interviews at Venice were brilliantly evasive – and I’m not sure how far they are going to take the concept now that the film is out in the U.S., albeit in limited release.

Are recent reports of sexual harassment charges against the production real or part of the elaborate fake story?

I’m Still Here could be a performance art experiment where even the filmmakers have lost track of the monster they have created.

Phoenix is apparently going to return to Letterman next week, so I’m sure that the debate will rumble on (even if he does or doesn’t turn up).

Either way, the nature of the material has given what is a fairly low-budget film a lot of free publicity.

The chatter will no doubt continue, especially amongst audiences, but the bottom line is that this is still one of the funniest portrayals of celebrity in recent memory.

* UPDATE 17/09/10: Affleck has now told the New York Times that the whole film was a hoax. I guess annoying serious journalists was part of the wider joke 😉

> Official site
> Interesting Wikipedia entry on the film
> Reviews at Metacritic

Cinema Thoughts

The Killer Inside Me

The Killer Inside Me is an interesting adaptation of Jim Thompson‘s dark 1952 novel, although like a lot of films tagged as ‘controversial’ is neither as accomplished or shocking as its reputation might suggest.

Set in a small Texas town, it is the story of a deputy sheriff (Casey Affleck) who is a closet sociopath, covering up his corrupt ways with increasingly cunning and desperate actions.

Among the people who cross his path are a local prostitute (Jessica Alba), his schoolteacher girlfriend (Kate Hudson), the Sheriff (Tom Bower), a local businessman (Ned Beatty), a local union leader (Elias Koteas), the suspicious county attorney (Simon Baker) and a grizzled lawyer (Bill Pullman).

For director Michael Winterbottom, it represents another change of direction in a genre-hopping career which has seen him tackle the novels of Thomas Hardy and Laurence Sterne, the siege of Sarajevo, the Manchester 80s music scene, Afghan refugees, the Tipton Three, the death of Daniel Pearl and a family drama set in Genoa.

Only the second film he’s made set in America, it is a reasonably compelling portrait of Thompson’s literary vision.

John Curran‘s script captures the action and tone of the novel in an efficient manner, using for voiceover to clever effect by drawing us closer to the central character.

The production design and period detail paint a convincingly grimy portrait of small town 50s America, where corruption and dark deeds simmer beneath the surface of a society about to undergo major convulsions.

Unusually for this material, Winterbottom and regular cinematographer Marcel Zyskind have opted for a fairly bright visual palatte, which gives the action a strange and arresting quality in contrast with the shadows and dutch angles reminiscent of classic film noir.

Given that his character dominates the film, much hinges on the performance of Affleck in the lead role, and he is memorably creepy, managing to convey the pathological thinking and sinister charm of someone in a dangerous position of authority.

There are eerie similarities with his role in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (both characters even share the name Ford) and he is fast becoming one of the most interesting actors currently working in Hollywood.

The other performances aren’t quite on the same level, although Beatty and Pullman fit their roles very nicely, and it is a shame that Alba and Hudson feel miscast in their roles, despite containing some of their best work in quite some time.

Overall, it is an impressive adaptation with some fine acting but there is something missing in how the film moves along. At times the languid pacing and mumbling dialogue become distracting, especially when a lot of narrative threads are being weaved and eventually tied up.

This is apparent in the disappointing climax, which not only stretches credibility but is also a little overcooked in terms of the visuals and action.

Given the controversy surrounding this film at Sundance and on its recent UK release, you might be forgiven for thinking that this is one of the most violent films in recent memory.

There are two disturbing sequences (one of which is particularly brutal), but by modern standards of they don’t really compare with the violence in films like Irreversible (2002), Switchblade Romance (2003), Hostel (2006), or the Saw sequels.

I can only assume that some of the more ludicrous attacks are by journalists unaware of how violent some modern films have become and were further stoked by the fact that violence was meted out on female characters.

But is the shocking nature of the acts on screen dictated solely by gender? Is violence somehow less shocking if done to a man? A child? An animal?

In the context of the film, surely the sequence raising most hackles is there to accurately depict the emotional and physical destruction wrought by violence? It is hard to watch, but then it is meant to be.

Some critics have labelled Winterbottom and the film as ‘misogynist‘ because the male characters don’t suffer as much as the females. This is perverse logic. Do we need quotas on how many male and female characters suffer on screen?

When it comes to the climactic scene, another sequence that has caused anger, a certain character’s actions are sadly plausible and, in any case, surely the aim of these scenes was to render Thompson’s material faithfully?

Cinema is a medium with a unique directness and throughout its history many films have pushed the social boundaries with The Wild Bunch (1969), Straw Dogs (1971), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Reservoir Dogs (1992) all attracting controversy for the way in which they depicted violence.

But I doubt if The Killer Inside Me will actually be remembered alongside these landmark controversies.

It is an accomplished adaptation, not without its flaws, and when future audiences stop to consider the film, they will have the benefit of doing so without the reductive shrieking from the media sidelines.

> Official site
> The Killer Inside Me at the IMDb
> Find out more about Jim Thompson at Wikipedia

DVD & Blu-ray dvd pick

DVD Pick: Gone Baby Gone

Gone Baby Gone is the highly accomplished adaptation of Dennis Lehane‘s novel about the investigation into the disappearance of a young girl in Boston.

The film’s UK release was postponed due to the (entirely coincidental) similarities with the Madeleine McCann case and despite critical acclaim and some award nominations it probably didn’t get the recognition or box office it deserved.

It marks the directorial debut of Ben Affleck, a high profile actor who’s career had become recently mired in less-than-successful work like GigliPaycheck and Surviving Christmas.

However, here he shows considerable promise as a director, not only through the intelligent script he co-wrote Aaron Stockard, but in how he has put together many different elements to create a serious and absorbing crime drama.

He has had the sense to hire a slew of accomplished actors (Ed HarrisMorgan FreemanAmy Madigan) in key supporting roles but also entrusted the two key roles to younger actors with their careers now firmly on the rise.

Amy Ryan deservedly received an Oscar nomination as the mother of the missing girl, whilst Casey Affleck is highly assured in the lead role as the investigator hired to assist the police in the case.

The technical contributions are all excellent with the cinematography of John Toll and music by Harry Gregson-Williams being particular stand outs.  

Perhaps what is most impressive about the film is the way Affleck has refused to romanticise his hometown – he doesn’t flinch from showing the dark complexities of a modern American city, a place where morals and motivations can get easily blurred. 

The extras on the disc are solid without being spectacular and include the following:

  • Going Home: Behind the Scenes with Ben Affleck (7:05): A 6 minuted EPK-style featurette with on set interviews with cast and crew, intercut with scenes from the film.
  • Capturing Authenticity: Casting Gone Baby Gone (8:56): A featurette on the casting, which is one of the major strengths of the film. 
  • Audio Commentary: Ben Affleck and co-writer Aaron Stockard make an informative and engaging duo as they discuss various aspects of the film and production. One sound point they note early on is that given the nature of the plot, it is a film that repays repeated viewings in order to see the how it unfolds. As a first time director Affleck points out a lot of the technical apsects of how certain scenes worked, describing certain shots, reshoots and various other things of note. One nice touch was the use of non-actors who were recruited from the surrounding areas of Dorchester – it is a credit to the main cast that they blend in so well.
  • Deleted Scenes (with audio commentary): Affleck and Stockard also provide commentary on six deleted scenes, all letter boxed, including extended opening and closing scenes. The longer opening (8:20) shows Kenzie working a case and the “eye-opening extended ending” (3:44) is really basically the same thing we see in the film except with an added voice over from Kenzie to match his narration at the beginning and middle of the movie. Four more deleted scenes are included, all lasting less than 2 minutes, so are relatively minor. The decisions Affleck ultimately made regarding what went in the movie and what didn’t are representative of the keen judgment he showed as director.

Overall, although the extras are good, this is worth getting for the film itself – one of the best dramas to be released this year.

Gone Baby Gone is out now on DVD from Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment [Cert 15]

* Listen to our intervew with Ben Affleck and Casey Affleck about the film *

> Buy the DVD from Amazon UK or get the Blu-ray version
> Gone Baby Gone at the IMDb 
Official UK site for the film
Check out the trailer for the film
Read reviews of the film at Metacritic
Q&A with author Dennis Lehane at his official website

Cinema Interviews Podcast

Interview: Ben Affleck and Casey Affleck on Gone Baby Gone

Gone Baby Gone is a new film based on the Dennis Lehane novel about the search for a young girl who has been kidnapped in an area of Boston.

Ben Affleck makes his debut as director and his younger brother Casey Affleck stars as the private investigator who is asked to help out on the case.

It also stars Michelle Monaghan, Amy Ryan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, John Ashton and Amy Madigan.

I recently spoke to Ben and Casey about the film and you can listen to the interviews here:

Or you can listen to the older version here:


Gone Baby Gone is out at UK cinemas this Friday

> Download the interviews as an MP3 file
> Ben Affleck and Casey Affleck at the IMDb
> Official UK site for the film
> Check out the trailer for the film
> Read reviews of the film at Metacritic
> Q&A with author Dennis Lehane at his official website