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Movie Review: The Train Wreck of “I’m Still Here”

I got to see the preview of I’m Still Here last night, another in a long list of reality, documentary, “real life” stories on film. So it’s shot with a handheld video and is grainy and old looking, as well as bad to incomprehensible sound quality in parts. Just like Blair Witch Project and all those other made-to-be-real stories. But it’s a documentary, sort of. Joaquin Phoenix, the star, or anti-star, of this documentary was filmed by brother-in-law Casey Affleck. Now in a way it’s unfortunate that Affleck let the cat out of the bag so early that in fact this is a mockumentary and not really Phoenix’s plummet into eccentric weirdoness. We sincerely hope–though stars going crazy, or doing too many drugs or booze is an old story and Phoenix seems to have had his brush with this in the past.

Joaquin as crazed hip-hop wannabe (from x17online.com)

In some ways, this reminded me of the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop, which had grainy handheld images by a novice videographer, for part of it. But let’s look at I’m Still Here as if it were being filmed as a true documentary. First, if Casey Affleck was revealed as the director at the beginning we then have to wonder, why does an actor with money and names at his disposal decide to use the lowest level of technology available to make this film about his brother-in-law? Only because it will look more like reality, but already I’m suspicious because it’s not some no name Joe and at least the filming should be a little more even, and the framing and sound better. That’s my first raspberry to the film.

Let’s not forget that for Affleck’s directorial debut it does keep production values and costs pretty minimal, and producing a film can be very very expensive. Not to mention paying those high price actors of which Joaquin Phoenix is one. But hey, he’s in on it and he’s Affleck’s brother-in-law and we know the Affleck boys are talented. So let’s do this badass hoax.

Phoenix, as always, is such a consummate actor that he’s believable as the tripped out, pot-smoking, coke-snorting, beer-drinking crazoid who wants to give up acting and become a hip-hop artist. However…through this increasing train wreck of two years, Joaquin gets fuzzier with a big untrimmed beard, uncombed hair, massive sunglasses held together by duct tape, sometimes a torn toque or shirt on his head and generally a slovenly appearance that radiates negative sex appeal. I kept wondering if they put a fat suit on him but it looks too real as he gains weight. Now there are many actors who have put on weight, starved themselves or gotten buff to play a role and I don’t doubt that Phoenix would do this.

However, I find it unbelievable that anyone who actually cared for the man, including presumably his brother-in-law and a sister somewhere (or the brief cameo of his father) would let a man slide for so long without wanting to stage an intervention, and that Affleck would put that in the video. Phoenix is crazed,  he’s drugged, he mumbles, he rants and is basically so fucked up that he’s unappealing to anyone but the sycophants/aids/assistants who are paid to follow and help him. But no one, not publicist nor marketing people nor agents ever say, “What the hell? You need serious help.” They just let him ride and let him slide, and that to me is unbelievable and missing from this mockumentary, hence making it a noticeable fake documentary.

As for the film itself, well there are funny moments because Joaquin is so crazed and the way he dresses so bad (because we know he’s a famous star) that you just have to laugh. His home doesn’t look anything like what a star would live in and seems half unpacked with his assistants living in bare bedrooms with no pictures on the wall and only a single size bed (also unbelievable–no one can love him that much). So yeah we laugh at his crazy looniness and at the lame-ass attempts at hip-hop, which, because the sound is never mastered in any way is hard to hear at times.

But those amusing moments don’t warrant a nearly two-hour film. It’s slow and drags and whereas Exit Through the Gift Shop moved along, had tension, humor, drama and a good story on several levels, I’m Still Here falls flat. So flat in fact that I kept trying to see what time it was when I wasn’t closing my eyes. An hour would have been long enough to document this style of train wreck life, whether real or not. Some judicious cutting would have helped.

If Casey Affleck hadn’t revealed that it was a mockumentary so quickly I’m sure that the critics would debate its veracity for months, (and more people would see the film) but probably Joaquin Phoenix is truly worried that people will believe it and that his movie career will plummet. Plus, he’s gotta get back in shape now. But like the phoenix Joaquin is named after, I’m sure this star will rise higher and that the only truly good thing in this film was the caliber of his acting.  As for Casey Affleck’s directing, well, with the right money and people in the right place, I know I could do as well if not better. I’d only give this film four stars out of ten. Watching my cat groom itself is about on par for the excitement in this film.

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Movie Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop

Banksy's art

On the weekend I went to see a movie with a friend, and it’s not the type of movie I normally would see. Usually, I like my escapist mind candy. I see a lot of speculative (SF and fantasy) movies because it’s what I mostly write. I like a good drama; once in a while a good comedy. I don’t tend to go to horror/thriller movies, slapstick humor, chick flicks or documentaries. With documentaries I guess I feel I want to just enjoy a world of make-believe, of fiction, and not have my emotions tossed all over the place. Or I believe they’ll be boring.

So I wasn’t expecting much when I heard we were going to see a movie about graffiti artists, Exit Through the Gift Shop. The movie started out with this guy Thierry Guetta and his obsession with filming everything in sight. There was a little interview/statement at first by some guy in a black hoody whose face was hidden and his voice disguised. The shots are like old home movies, bad angles, out of focus, insipid color. I didn’t think much of the first ten minutes, but then the brilliance of the movie started to unfold.

Now I come from an art background and I know there is graffiti art, those jagged large letters on walls all but unreadable, yet of a discernible style. There are wall murals but they look to be done by artists hired by the establishment. There are some pictures or posters. And there is the slogan graffiti, like the one on the little bathroom in Grandview Park, painted with a simplistic landscape and some crows, but some anti-everything anarchist defaced the art by painting “F**k the pigs!” and “Kill the pigs!” Not particularly intelligent, deep or new and nothing to do with the most recent protest (on upgrading the park facilities) which was when it was painted.

What I had no clue about was the depth of graffiti art, or street art, where people devote their spare time and money to making images and posting them, usually illegally. How this relates to Thierry the obsessive videographer is that when he is visiting family in France his cousin makes these plastic tiles and sticks them up on walls and underpasses, and they, like his name, are all about Space Invader. Street artists have aliases (probably to protect them from police and being fined) and become known for their particular style. They will print 10-20-foot tall images and then paste them to sides of buildings. What I did notice of all the artists shown was that they use blank walls and never deface public art. They might paint over a previous artist’s work if it’s old and known as a graffiti wall.

The better artists have a good style and may also have a message to get across. Thierry in his obsession began filming his cousin and was then filming numerous street artists, in a way documenting a transitory art form that had not yet been captured for history or memory’s sake. One of the most notorious  and political street artists was in Britain and goes by the name of Banksy. As Thierry finally meets Banksy, Banksy tells him it’s time to get this documentary out there for everyone to see this impermanent form of art. But what they don’t know is that Thierry has thousands of cassettes and he’s never looked at any of them or cataloged them in any order. What results is an unwatchable 1.5 hour film.

What is evident through this film is that it’s a bit of a biography of Thierry, a documentary of street art, a commentary on art and value, a look at culture and a very complex, multi-layered piece. Along the way it’s obvious that Banksy and others stepped in to take some of Thierry’s footage and make something truly historic. And street art starts to move into the big LA and British galleries, being auctioned off and worth big money. Banksy tells Thierry to go home and make some art. But what he didn’t realize was how powerful Thierry’s obsession was.

Thierry goes from filming to wanting to be a street artist too. Banksy gives Thierry a quote: “He’s a force of nature and I don’t mean that in a good way.” (paraphrased) Thierry isn’t just doing a bit of street art; he’s doing a lot. Plus he mortgages his house, sells his business and mounts a truly monumental show. In essence, he makes himself an artist almost overnight. And the thing is, this guy isn’t the trendy artist, nor an anti-culture rebel icon. He’s very provincial, sort of an innocent, and not very eloquent, and yet, he has something. This film also is about what is art and can someone create art without going through the long steps of training and gaining notoriety.

The brilliance of this documentary is subtle and so multi-layered that I’m still thinking about it. And yes, it highlights the elusive Banksy, who remains mysterious, but then it looks like, in the end, that he produced the movie. And Banksy, well, he’s subversive, he’s political, he’s talented and really quite brilliant (I hope his head doesn’t swell too much should he read this.) I’ve included one of his images here, which says a lot , and his website from where I found this piece. You can also find out when the film is being viewed in your city. http://www.banksy.co.uk/index.html

Exit Through the Gift Shop is so ingenuous that it’s worth seeing, whether you like documentaries or not, or are interested in culture, art, history, politics or people. And this is a subtly funny film too. I know that when I go for walks from now on, I’ll be looking at graffiti with a different eye. I don’t know how big the street art movement is in Vancouver but I can say that the best of it is truly a form of unique art worthy of appreciation. I would give this film five stars.

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