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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2010 Year End Movie Review: David Medsker

No year in recent memory got off to as slow a start as 2010 did. In the end, it turned out to be a pretty damn good year – especially once I compare this list of movies to my picks from 2008 – but there were some rough patches early on, where nearly every movie we were seeing wasn’t merely mediocre but downright bad. The difference between this year and other years was the event movies; no one expects them to be award-winners, but it makes such a difference when they’re at least good (“Iron Man,” for example). This year, with a couple of exceptions, they were not good (“Iron Man 2,” for example).

People like to put down movie critics for being cranky sourpusses, but the truth is most of us want to like the movies we see. “TRON: Legacy,” “Salt,” “Due Date“… I wanted those to be awesome. They weren’t.

Luckily for me, there were just over 10 movies that were awesome, which means I have enough for a list, yay! And here they are, along some movies that were most decidedly not awesome. Happy new year, everyone. Now let’s all close our eyes and pretend we don’t see the 3D. Maybe, that way, it will go away.

Best Movies of 2010

1. Black Swan
The beauty of Darren Aronofsky’s psychological thriller about a fragile ballet dancer is that there is rarely a point where you know whether you’ve swallowed the blue pill or the red pill. The mirror work alone demands repeat viewings, if you’re brave enough.

black swan

2. The Social Network
Where Jesse Eisenberg officially stops being ‘that guy who acts like Michael Cera’ and puts on a showstopping performance as the brilliant but socially inept Mark Zuckerberg. Rooney Mara, meanwhile, is on screen for about six minutes, but makes every second count. And she’s right about the Internet – everything’s written in ink.

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3. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World
The most wildly entertaining movie I saw all year. From the dialogue to the editing to the on-screen sound effects, I had a stupid grin plastered to my face from start to finish. Even better to see Chris Evans and Brandon Routh poke fun at their superhero images. And I want to swim in Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s eyes.

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4. Inception
There is a backlash growing against Christopher Nolan. I do not understand why. His movies are well-plotted, well-acted, smart and gorgeous. What’s not to love? Yes, “Inception” was chatty, but pardon the pun, it dared to dream, and I love movies that go for it. And so did a lot of other people, as its $290 million box office take will attest.

inception

5. Toy Story 3
There isn’t a movie out this year that touches the last 10 minutes of “Toy Story 3” in terms of emotional impact. Terrifying one minute, heartbreaking the next, and armed with a bittersweet yet pitch-perfect ending. I still can’t make it through the ending, or even the beginning, without crying.

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2010 Year End Movie Review: Jason Zingale

Every year has its share of good movies and bad movies, but in 2010, the good ones were especially good and the bad ones sucked more than they usually do. And then there were the ones that fell somewhere in between – films that a lot of us were looking forward to seeing that didn’t pan out quite like we’d hoped. But there was nothing more destructive to cinemas this year than the onslaught of 3D, with studios hell-bent on trying to convince moviegoers that it was the future of movies. Sorry to say, but it was a gimmick in the 50s, a gimmick in the 80s, and it’s a gimmick today, not to mention a giant scam. Nevertheless, the good far outweighed the bad, with new films from innovative directors like Christopher Nolan, Edgar Wright and Danny Boyle, and what’s shaping up to be one of the most exciting Best Picture races in years. That’s not to say that all of my choices are necessarily award-worthy, but in a perfect world, they would be.

Best Movies of 2010

1. “The Social Network

It might sound a bit contrived to say that a movie can define an entire generation, but in the case of “The Social Network,” I honestly believe it. There have been plenty of films made about corporate empires built on ruined friendships, broken promises and massive egos, but never has one hit so close to home as the story of Mark Zuckerberg and the rise of Facebook. It’s not just a product of our time, but something that directly affects the everyday lives of people all around the world. Interesting stuff no matter how you spin it, but David Fincher takes what could have been a boring courtroom drama and turns it into a wildly entertaining character study filled with some of the zippiest and cleverest dialogue that Aaron Sorkin has ever written. There’s not a weak link in the cast – from major players like Andrew Garfield and Armie Hammer, to Rooney Mara’s brief (but important) appearance as one of Zuckerberg’s pre-Facebook girlfriends – but it’s Jesse Eisenberg’s star-making performance as the socially inept whiz-kid that makes “The Social Network” the year’s most enthralling film.

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2. “Inception

It’s hard not to be envious of a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan, because the guy is only 40 years old, hasn’t made a single bad movie yet, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. Though it might have seemed virtually impossible to outdo “The Dark Knight,” Nolan’s seventh feature is better in just about every way – from its incredibly complex and original mind trip of a story, to the stunning visual effects and outstanding ensemble cast. “Inception” is the kind of film that only gets better with each new viewing, and though everyone may have their own theory about the ending (you could ask just about anyone whether or not it fell and they would immediately know what you were talking about), the real delight is watching the journey that leads us there. There are so many memorable moments that it’s hard to keep track, but the last 40 minutes are particularly spellbinding as Nolan manages to juggle four different dream states without tripping once. Can we just give the man his Oscar already?

inception

3. “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Edgar Wright wasn’t exactly a household name prior to directing “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” but that will hopefully all change with this wildly ambitious action-comedy that pretty much rewrites the rules on comic book movies. It’s been said that mimicry is the highest form of flattery, and if that’s the case, then Bryan Lee O’Malley must be blushing, because the film adaptation of his six-volume comic series is not only incredibly faithful to the story, but its quirky humor and breakneck pacing as well. The ensemble cast is terrific (from a pitch-perfect Michael Cera in the title role, to bubbly newcomer Ellen Wong), the fight sequences are playfully unique, and you’d need a Rolodex just to keep track of all the clever pop culture references that are crammed into the script. It’s like dying and going to geek heaven.

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4. “127 Hours

Aron Ralston’s incredible story of survival may not exactly sound like the feel-good movie of the year, but despite all the attention that was placed on the dreaded amputation scene, there’s a really positive message coursing throughout the film. It’s not necessarily something you’ll notice the first time you watch it, either. In fact, while I was engrossed by Ralston’s perseverance during my first viewing (his know-it-all selfishness may have gotten him into the mess, but it’s also what got him out of it), it wasn’t until I saw it a second time that I truly appreciated how much the film is bursting with life. There aren’t too many actors that could have played Ralston without coming off as smug, but James Franco brings an Everyman quality to the role that wins you over immediately. And if he’s the heart and soul of the movie, then Danny Boyle is the brain, interweaving memories/daydreams/hallucinations of Ralston’s family and lost love as he tries to free himself from the boulder. This could have been a really dull film, but under Boyle’s direction, it’s an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind experience.

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Exit Through the Gift Shop

The documentary genre is a tricky business, because it’s automatically assumed that any movie falling under that category is 100% truth, even if a lot of times you’re only getting one side of the story. So when you see a documentary that turns out to be a manufactured lie – like Casey Affleck’s “I’m Still Here” – it’s easy to feel betrayed. Since its premiere at Sundance, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether the events in “Exit Through the Gift Shop” are real or just an elaborate hoax devised by its director, renowned graffiti artist Banksy. The film certainly wants us to believe that eccentric French shop owner and amateur filmmaker, Thierry Guetta, is a real person, and it goes to extreme lengths to set up a back story in which Guetta is making a documentary about the street art movement, only to have the camera turned on him when Banksy realizes that he’s far more interesting.

So is it real or not? It’s hard to say, which is part of the brilliance of the movie. It feels genuine for the most part (although the final 20 minutes certainly have you questioning its validity), but the fact that Banksy is known for his art pranks is what led many to conclude that there was something fishy about Thierry’s story. He sure had me fooled, but it doesn’t really matter, because it’s enjoyable either way. Whereas the truth about “I’m Still Here” may have ruined the illusion, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is only more captivating because of it. That is, if it’s even an illusion at all.

Click to buy “Exit Through the Gift Shop”

  

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Weekend boxoffice: Ben Affleck steals the weekend, but “Easy A” hangs onto to its virtue

A surprise this week. A film that seemed to skew towards an older and more male audience actually grabbed more box office lucre than a high-concept comedy aimed largely — albeit on a weekend where no one made anything close to a cinematic mint.

Ben Affleck and Rebecca Miller in

He might look down in the pic above, but Ben Affleck — whose taken his share of sometimes deserved and sometimes not so deserved lumps as an actor over the years — has something to celebrate today. To be specific, the cowriter-director-star’s heist drama, “The Town,” swiped an estimated $23.8 million for Warner Brothers according to Box Office Mojo’s weekend chart. I’m guessing that the film got a boost from pent up demand for a the kind of plot-centric thriller we adult males seem to crave, as well as the budding  potential superstar presences of Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm, and Blake Lively, not to mention female lead Rebecca Miller. Since older people usually pay a bit more attention to critics, it’s actually possible that the unusually good reviews helped here.

If Cinemascore means anything — and I’m not all that sure that it means all that much — “The Town” might have also gotten a boost from word of mouth, since Anne Thompson tell us it got a better than average B+ all around. Thompson also quotes Warner’s distribution chief Dan Fellman, saying that the studio is looking ahead to award season for the thriller. Moreover, Fellman also reminds us that the film is the largest September opening in Warner’s history (that is to say, September kind of sucks for box office). Though it’s not the kind of movie that usually wins Oscars, the loosened up Best Picture category certainly helps a well-reviewed and reasonably popular film’s chances.

Emma Stone in The PG-13 not-having-sex high school comedy with promising youngster Emma Stone,Easy A,” which was supposed to be #1 as of Thursday night, didn’t quite get there. However, seeing as its budget is reportedly $31 million less than the actually rather modestly budgeted “The Town,” it is by far the most profitable film of this frame with  respectable estimated receipts of $18.2  and an extremely respectable $8 million budget. It’s another fiscal win for Sony/Screen Gems, which has been on a sort of hot streak of late.

The M. Night Shymalan-produced “Devil” took the hindmost of the top 3 with a less than spectacular $12.58 million for Universal, which by now is used to disappointments. Though not directed by Shymalan, the PG-13 film was promoted as if it was and Uni and the man they call “Night” may finally be paying the price for all the almost universally disliked but oddly successful films that bore the once hugely promising filmmaker’s name. Anne Thompson wonders if the two other scheduled films drawn from stories by Shymalan to be directed by up-and-comers on low budgets, “The Night Chronicles,” will happen now. Mr. S., I grew up watching Rod Serling productions, I know Rod Serling’s work. You’re no Rod Serling.

The weekend’s other new release proved that audiences can spot a cheaply made 3D animated family film rather easily for something that is likely a far, far cry from Pixar or Dreamworks Animation. “Alpha and Omega” came in below the predictably sinking-like-a-stone-in-week #2 “Resident Evil: Afterlife” with an anemic $9.2 million.

A number of new films came out in limited release this week. The most impressive per-screen average of the week was $30,000 for the Kazuo Ishiguro adaptation, “Never Let Me Go.” The British science-fiction romantic drama earned $120,000 on four screens for Fox Searchlight, though it’s muted reviews may dim its Oscar hopes, which is really the only root to major success for a film like this at present. The highly buzzed, probable documentary (there are doubters, though everyone agrees it’s no “I’m Still Here“), “Catfish,” may have better Oscar hopes if it reassures the Academy that it really and truly is a documentary. It did well this weekend for Rogue with a $255,000 in only 12 theaters.

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