Hidden Netflix Gems – I’m Still Here

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Joaquin Phoenix‘s much-publicized retirement from acting in order to pursue his burgeoning career as a rapper had cries of “Hoax!” surrounding it from the very beginning, and its subsequent critical and audience response was mostly negative. However, despite the apparent trend of people upset at being duped, Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here is a fascinating and frequently hilarious send-up of celebrity culture anchored by an amazingly committed performance from Phoenix. In the film, as in reality, this is the kind of thing that could potentially end a career and forever ruin a reputation, and the courage he displays in sticking to it is very impressive.

In one of the best scenes, Phoenix rejects an offer to co-star with Ben Stiller (who you would never guess by watching is in on the joke the whole time) in Greenberg; in another, he hilariously attempts to obtain a record deal with Sean “Puffy” Combs, who isn’t quite the actor Stiller is, though his performance is just good enough that its weaker elements could be seen as arrogant posturing for the cameras that follow Phoenix everywhere. Then there is the famous David Letterman interview, in which he mumbles and stares blankly at the roaring audience, seemingly unable to fathom why they think he’s so funny (Letterman was not in on the joke, but of course he is unfazed after previous encounters with the likes of Crispin Glover and Harmony Korine).

So, what of the supposed rapping, you ask? Is it any good? The answer is a resounding “not really.” While the filmmakers wisely make it just decent enough to convince us that an arrogant movie star who has lost his mind to drugs and the excess of stardom would believe it was his new calling, his flows are about what you’d see in the mid-range of a good Hip-Hop open mic. The rhymes are clumsy and mostly monosyllabic, the beats generic; Phoenix’s delivery is full of the gruff showmanship of a spoiled rich dude with no real inkling of the dues a great emcee must pay. The funniest part about it is that at his few live appearances as a rapper, star-struck morons who are clearly just tickled to be near an Oscar-nominated actor mostly cheer him on. At one such performance he tells the lone heckler, “I’ve got a million dollars in my bank account – what do you got?” Cue the cheers.

This is why the film works, and why it is has not permanently damaged Phoenix’s acting career. By committing himself so fully to the performance and taking a great risk of being reviled and blacklisted by the Hollywood community, Phoenix has made a strong and convincing statement about our celebrity culture and the idea of reinventing oneself. Beyond any of that, though, it’s a very fun movie to watch, and all the more impressive for making you wonder what’s real even when you know it’s a hoax.

  

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Magic Trip

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Fans of Tom Wolfe‘s seminal 1968 non-fiction novel The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test have been waiting a long time to see Alex Gibney and Alison Ellwood‘s Magic Trip, whether they knew it or not. Though a narrative adaptation of the definitive book on hippie culture is reportedly in the works from director Gus Van Sant and his Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, this is the closest thing to an adaptation we’re likely to see anytime soon. In fact, it’s even better, because the documentary, subtitled Ken Kesey‘s Search for a Kool Place, is assembled almost entirely from the footage Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters shot during their LSD-fueled cross-country road trip beginning in 1964.

This is not to say you have to be a fan of Wolfe’s book to enjoy Magic Trip. Fans of Hunter S. Thompson‘s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and/or Terry Gilliam‘s film adaptation of it, the Grateful Dead, Allen Ginsberg, or Kesey himself will also get a lot of enjoyment out of it, along with anyone who appreciates wild, anarchic adventure. Narrated by Stanley Tucci, the film tells the story of Kesey (best known as the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and a group of friends who set off for the 1964 New York World’s Fair in a hand-painted school bus and then just kept going, traveling all around the country in an effort to expand the consciousness of the entire United States. Along the way, they threw parties with the likes of Thompson and Timothy Leary, and gave a then unknown band called the Warlocks (who later became the Grateful Dead) their start as an unofficial house band.

Kesey is an extraordinarily charismatic figure, a champion high school and college wrestler who turned his back on athletics in favor of writing and exploring the landscape of his mind. He first began experimenting with psychedelic drugs as a volunteer in a CIA-funded experiment, so it could be said that the U.S. government inadvertently sponsored the madness shown in this film. Another fascinating character is Neal Cassady, the Merry Pranksters’ bus driver, a wildly energetic figure who served as the model for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac‘s revered 1957 novel On the Road, which was itself a source of inspiration for Kesey and the Pranksters’ trip. Gibney, who won an Oscar for his amazing 2007 documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, and first-time feature director Ellwood, took on the daunting task of crafting a 107-minute film out of the Pranksters’ days of footage, and they succeeded admirably. Magic Trip perfectly captures the unbridled spirit of a once-in-a-lifetime era, and offers a hell of a good ride to anyone who views it.

  

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Interview with Imogene Co-Director Shari Springer Berman

After years of directing documentaries, Shari Springer Berman made big waves in the independent film world with her first feature, American Splendor, co-directed with her husband and filmmaking partner Robert Pulcini. Since then, the pair has continued making narrative features such as The Nanny Diaries, The Extra Man, the HBO film Cinema Verite and the upcoming Imogene, starring Kristen Wiig and Annette Bening. I had a chance to speak briefly with Berman on Wednesday evening, as part of Columbia University’s panel on women filmmakers.

Ezra Stead: I’ve noticed a strong fascination in your films for a sort of cranky and eccentric, but lovable, type of character, such as Harvey Pekar (Paul Giamatti) in American Splendor or Henry Harrison (Kevin Kline) in The Extra Man. From what I’ve read about your next film, Imogene, with the title character faking a suicide in an attempt to win back her ex, it sounds like that character fits the bill. What attracts you to these kind of characters, and what else can you tell us about Imogene?

Shari Springer Berman: I am attracted to cranky, lovable people. Bob and I … both are; I don’t know why, I guess my therapist could probably answer that question better than I could [laughs]. I guess I love the idea of someone who isn’t overtly nice, and I feel like so many movies, especially Hollywood movies, it’s so about people being nice. One of the biggest notes when I write for studio films … is that the character has to be likable, and I think that people can be completely lovable and not, on the surface, nice. Some of the most amazing people I’ve met in my life are people who are a bit cranky, not necessarily traditionally nice, but underneath, some of the kindest, most giving people you’d ever want to meet … My grandmother was kind of a little bit cold, and very snarky, but I knew she loved me more than anything in the world, and when she said something kind, it was very real. So I like characters like that … and Imogene is definitely a continuation of the slightly brittle but completely lovable, root-for-them, character. Imogene’s mom [Annette Bening] is not one of those people; she’s very out there and wears a lot on her sleeve – who she is, is very available.

ES: You started out making documentaries, and certainly some of the techniques you brought to American Splendor reflect that background. What kind of advantages and disadvantages do you think documentaries have over narrative, and vice versa?

SSB: It’s completely different. I love documentaries because you don’t know what you’re going to get. When you make a narrative film, your whole goal is to know what you’re going to get … In a documentary, when you’re approaching it the way I like to approach it, you go in with sort of a general idea and then you allow it to happen to you, and you’re open to all kinds of things, and there’s something really thrilling about that experience. It takes you in directions you had no idea you would ever go … Docs take years, and you have to just give yourself over to it. Sometimes it’s really boring, but I like the adrenaline of shooting verite footage – not seated interviews … but just going out and covering events – it’s this really crazy adrenaline rush, and I love it … I miss that sometimes. In this movie, Imogene, that we just shot, we wanted to shoot a scene of a guy walking around with this strange outfit … in Chinatown, and my ADs [assistant directors] were stopping everybody and we were just putting this guy in a crowd and letting him walk, and I was like, ‘Okay, you know what? We have to shoot this like a doc.’ I told the Ads to go get a cup of coffee … I’m gonna take over … and we got all this stuff … genuine reactions to this guy walking down this massive street, and it was one of the most fun days … Working with actors is probably my favorite part – that or writing – is my favorite part of the filmmaking process.

ES: How do you and your husband divide up the duties of directing a film? What is your working process like?

SSB: We have different strengths, and I think that’s why it works, because we sort of take different areas and run with it. I do a lot of … sort of organizational stuff, and he spends a lot of time with the camera, the shots. I used to be a casting director, so I do a lot of casting and, obviously, Bob’s involved in it and I’m involved in everything, too, but these are just the things that we each take the lead on … I talk to the actors, that’s my sort of arena, and if Bob wants something [from them], he’ll tell me … but usually, we see eye to eye. I mean, you have to have the same aesthetic approach; if you don’t see the world the same way and you don’t like the same films, then you’re gonna constantly be battling, so luckily, we tend to agree a lot.

  

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GE and Cinelan Announce Short Film Challenge at Tribeca Film Fest

GE and Cinelan, a video publishing company co-founded by Morgan Spurlock and Karol Martesko-Fenster, presented a special preview last night at 92YTribeca in Manhattan. The event was held to announce the opening of submissions for the Focus Forward $200,000 Filmmaker Challenge, and featured the world premiere of four new short films. Focus Forward’s “Short Films, Big Ideas” initiative is a series of three-minute nonfiction films centered around the idea of people or organizations whose innovative efforts in medicine, engineering and other fields of knowledge have had a significant positive impact on humanity.

Illustrating this theme were nine short films presented in the 30-minute program following a cocktail reception in 92YTribeca’s main room. Five of these were 2012 Sundance Film Festival Selections, including the extraordinary opening film, Jeremiah Zagar’s Heart Stop Beating, about the work of two doctors who managed to save a dying man by replacing his heart with a turbine engine of their own design. It was a bold choice to open the program with a film that features open heart surgery footage, but the mood was lightened by Jessica Yu’s Meet Mr. Toilet, a humorous look at the efforts of Jack “Mr. Toilet” Sim to bring proper sanitation to the large portions of the world still lacking it.

Following these first two films were a pair of world premieres: first, Nelson George’s All Hail the Beat, an all-too-brief look at the history of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, whose sounds are still in use today by artists from Kanye West to Daft Punk, despite the fact that it hasn’t actually been manufactured since 1984. Next came Katy Chevigny’s The Honor Code, the most emotionally moving film of the evening, and the only one that focuses on innovation in human thought, as opposed to technological invention. Honor Code uses stylish animation to illustrate the ideas of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and his efforts to end the deplorable practice of “honor killing.”

The other two world premieres were sandwiched between two more Sundance selections: Jessica Edwards and Gary Hustwit’s The Landfill, which documents a small New York landfill where trash is refined into electrical energy, and David W. Leitner’s Newtown Creek Digester Eggs: The Art of Human Waste, which examines the unusually beautiful Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The latter was the least satisfying film of the evening, mostly because it felt too rushed, with too much information crammed into its brief running time. On the other hand, the final film of the program, Phil Cox’s Hilary’s Straws, has a much more leisurely pace in its look at the innovative navigational tool that allowed a quadriplegic woman to sail across the world alone.

The final two world premieres were Steven Cantor’s The Bionic Eye, about research being done to artificially restore sight to patients suffering from degenerative blindness, and Michele Ohayon’s Solar Roadways, a very exciting look at the effort to produce solar-paneled roads and parking lots in order to cleanly and cheaply power nearby communities, as well as electric vehicles. Hopefully, the world premiere films will be available online soon; I would especially like to see The Honor Code and Solar Roadways again. In the meantime, the others are streaming on Focus Forward’s website, and if you have an idea that fits the theme, you can create your own film for the $200,000 Filmmaker Challenge, which you can read more about here.

  

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