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“I’m Still Here,” Reviewed

“I’m Still Here,” Reviewed (photo)

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Casey Affleck wants us to believe his documentary about actor Joaquin Phoenix’s retirement is real. For his sake, I hope he’s lying.

If “I’m Still Here” is real, then that means Affleck saw Phoenix, his brother-in-law, throwing away his career, his sobriety, and his maybe his sanity and decided to pick up a camera and get it all on film rather than stage an intervention. Instead of helping him heal in private he’s aired his ugliest behavior in front of the entire world. In other words, if “I’m Still Here” is the genuine article, Affleck might be the worst brother-in-law in history.

But while he may not win any awards for responsible familial behavior, he deserves at least a little credit for his filmmaking skills. With his first feature as a director, Affleck has made one of the most convincing and interesting movie pranks ever (that is, if he didn’t make one of the most exploitative and morally questionable documentaries ever). For the moment, let’s assume the former.

In that case, “I’m Still Here” is the “War of the Worlds” of actor meltdown movies. Its execution is so flawless and its internal logic is so strong, that we need the end credits to tell us that the film is not what it claims to be. It’s an interesting film to watch and an even more interesting film to discuss (for that reason, do not go see this movie alone). Since watching “I’m Still Here” on Tuesday I’ve had more conversations about it, about what it is and what it means, than any film this year except “Exit Through the Gift Shop.”

Like “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” “I’m Still Here” is equal parts chronicle of and joke on the intersection of art and celebrity in our society. The facts of the movie are already well-known because they all took place on television. In 2008, Phoenix, sick of “playing the character of Joaquin” in the media (a clue, perhaps?) suddenly announced his retirement from acting and began performing as a hip hop artist. He played a nightclub in Vegas and fell off the stage. He showed up for an interview on Letterman and acted confused and possibly high.

How did we go from the man who starred in “Two Lovers,” a world-class thespian delivering an heart-wrenching performance, to the man who promoted “Two Lovers,” a sloppy, rambling weirdo who makes subway hobos look eloquent in comparison? Phoenix’s documentary fills in the gaps. When he wasn’t insisting he was done with Hollywood, Phoenix was scouring the Internet for hookers, snorting coke off their breasts, belittling his assistants, or practically stalking P. Diddy to try to convince him to produce his album.

Did Phoenix really think he had a future as a rapper? Did he ambush Diddy “Borat”-style or was Sean Combs in on the joke the whole time? I personally believe the truth of “I’m Still Here” lies somewhere in the murk between the two extremes of documentary and fiction. Though Phoenix and Affleck are the film’s credited writers, and some of the parts appear to have been filled by actors, Phoenix looks too legitimately high at times to be acting. Compare him stumbling around, puffing on a joint and doing cocaine to someone like Nicolas Cage in “Bad Lieutenant.” If Phoenix is acting in some of these scenes, he is giving one the greatest and most fearless performances of all time.

But the fact that Phoenix may be legitimately high doesn’t automatically make this a documentary either. Phoenix is a great actor; he’s also one of our craziest. How do we know he wouldn’t get genuinely stoned on camera for the sake of verisimilitude in a fiction film? I’m still not sure. And that ambuiguity is the point.

In 2010, reality and fiction are not only indistinguishable in popular culture, the difference between them is essentially irrelevant. Millions of people tune in every week to watch “Jersey Shore,” never questioning how much of the show is staged for the cameras, or written by writers, or massaged in the editing room. Whether Phoenix was high on Letterman or whether he was pretending to be high, the resultant impact on his career was the same. Whether he’s a terrible rapper or a performance artist aping the affectations of a terrible rapper, his audience wasn’t interested in parsing the difference. They just wanted to see the freak show and get a video of it on their cell phones.

If “I’m Still Here” is real, even in some small way, it is a freak show. Some of Phoenix’s antics are funny, at least until you remember the possibility that he’s not joking. On the other hand, maybe he was joking all along but nobody got the joke, and now he has to suffer the consequences. If Phoenix is as screwed up as he looks in this film, then Affleck owes his brother-in-law an apology (he might also need to explain himself to his wife, Joaquin’s sister Summer, who does not appear in the film). If it’s not then it is one hell of a hoax. This movie has to be seen to be simultaneously believed and disbelieved.

Soap tv show

As the Spoof Turns

15 Hilarious Soap Opera Parodies

Catch the classic sitcom Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

The soap opera is the indestructible core of television fandom. We celebrate modern series like The Wire and Breaking Bad with their ongoing storylines, but soap operas have been tangling more plot threads than a quilt for decades. Which is why pop culture enjoys parodying them so much.

Check out some of the funniest soap opera parodies below, and be sure to catch Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

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Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a cult hit soap parody from the mind of Norman Lear that poked daily fun at the genre with epic twists and WTF moments. The first season culminated in a perfect satire of ratings stunts, with Mary being both confined to a psychiatric facility and chosen to be part of a Nielsen ratings family.


2. IKEA Heights

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IKEA Heights proves that the soap opera is alive and well, even if it has to be filmed undercover at a ready-to-assemble furniture store totally unaware of what’s happening. This unique webseries brought the classic formula to a new medium. Even IKEA saw the funny side — but has asked that future filmmakers apply through proper channels.


3. Fresno

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When you’re parodying ’80s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty , everything about your show has to equally sumptuous. The 1986 CBS miniseries Fresno delivered with a high-powered cast (Carol Burnett, Teri Garr and more in haute couture clothes!) locked in the struggle for the survival of a raisin cartel.


4. Soap

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Soap was the nighttime response to daytime soap operas: a primetime skewering of everything both silly and satisfying about the source material. Plots including demonic possession and alien abduction made it a cult favorite, and necessitated the first televised “viewer discretion” disclaimer. It also broke ground for featuring one of the first gay characters on television in the form of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas. Revisit (or discover for the first time) this classic sitcom every Saturday morning on IFC.


5. Too Many Cooks

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Possibly the most perfect viral video ever made, Too Many Cooks distilled almost every style of television in a single intro sequence. The soap opera elements are maybe the most hilarious, with more characters and sudden shocking twists in an intro than most TV scribes manage in an entire season.


6. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

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Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was more mockery than any one medium could handle. The endless complications of Darkplace Hospital are presented as an ongoing horror soap opera with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from writer, director, star, and self-described “dreamweaver visionary” Garth Marenghi and astoundingly incompetent actor/producer Dean Learner.


7. “Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive,” MadTV

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Soap opera connoisseurs know that the most melodramatic plots are found in Korea. MADtv‘s parody Tae Do  (translation: Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) features the struggles of mild-mannered characters with far more feelings than their souls, or subtitles, could ever cope with.


8. Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks, the twisted parody of small town soaps like Peyton Place whose own creator repeatedly insists is not a parody, has endured through pop culture since it changed television forever when it debuted in 1990. The show even had it’s own soap within in a soap called…


9. “Invitation to Love,” Twin Peaks

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Twin Peaks didn’t just parody soap operas — it parodied itself parodying soap operas with the in-universe show Invitation to Love. That’s more layers of deceit and drama than most televised love triangles.


10. “As The Stomach Turns,” The Carol Burnett Show

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The Carol Burnett Show poked fun at soaps with this enduring take on As The World Turns. In a case of life imitating art, one story involving demonic possession would go on to happen for “real” on Days of Our Lives.


11. Days of our Lives (Friends Edition)

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Still airing today, Days of Our Lives is one of the most famous soap operas of all time. They’re also excellent sports, as they allowed Friends star Joey Tribbiani to star as Dr Drake Ramoray, the only doctor to date his own stalker (while pretending to be his own evil twin). And then return after a brain-transplant.

And let’s not forget the greatest soap opera parody line ever written: “Come on Joey, you’re going up against a guy who survived his own cremation!”


12. Acorn Antiques

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First appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, Acorn Antiques combines almost every low-budget soap opera trope into one amazing whole. The staff of a small town antique store suffer a disproportional number of amnesiac love-triangles, while entire storylines suddenly appear and disappear without warning or resolution. Acorn Antiques was so popular, it went on to become a hit West End musical.


13. “Point Place,” That 70s Show

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In a memorable That ’70s Show episode, an unemployed Red is reduced to watching soaps all day. He becomes obsessed despite the usual Red common-sense objections (like complaining that it’s impossible to fall in love with someone in a coma). His dreams render his own life as Point Place, a melodramatic nightmare where Kitty leaves him because he’s unemployed. (Click here to see all airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.)


14. The Spoils of Babylon

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Bursting from the minds of Will Ferrell and creators Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont, The Spoils of Babylon was a spectacular parody of soap operas and epic mini-series like The Thorn Birds. Taking the parody even further, Ferrell himself played Eric Jonrosh, the author of the book on which the series was based. Jonrosh returned in The Spoils Before Dying, a jazzy murder mystery with its own share of soapy twists and turns.

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15. All My Children Finale, SNL

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SNL‘s final celebration of one of the biggest soaps of all time is interrupted by a relentless series of revelations from stage managers, lighting designers, make-up artists, and more. All of whom seem to have been married to or murdered by (or both) each other.

Toronto 2010: “Inside Job,” Reviewed

Toronto 2010: “Inside Job,” Reviewed (photo)

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Reviewed at the 2010 Toronto Film Festival.

Roughly halfway through “Inside Job,” Andrew Lo, a professor of finance at MIT, describes an academic study of brain activity that showed that the same part of the brain stimulated by money is the same as cocaine. That this observation is made in the midst of a montage of Wall Street’s infatuation with hookers, blow and the black corporate credit cards used to charge the latter two doesn’t just imply that the pursuit of cash is a drug, but that as a filmmaker, Charles Ferguson has taken the gloves off.

Since his Oscar-winning 2007 doc “No End in Sight,” Ferguson has gone from attacking a war to declaring one on Wall Street with a film that just as easily could’ve been called “No End in Sight II: Financial Edition.” Broken down into four chapters and countless graphs, “Inside Job” is another brilliant, scrupulous breakdown of how giant egos and greed led to a disaster that would imperil the American public.

Yet where “No End in Sight” was solemn, his latest has considerably more sex appeal, casting Matt Damon as its narrator and breaking out Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “Taking Care of Business” to underscore the freewheelin’ ways of financial institutions willing to funnel drug money out of Mexico (Citibank) or help conceal fraud of companies like Enron (Citibank, JP Morgan and Merrill Lynch) to boost their bottom line during the ’80s.

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Laying Out Some “I’m Still Here”-y Theories

Laying Out Some “I’m Still Here”-y Theories (photo)

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Roger Ebert calls it “a sad and painful documentary.” Reuters calls it “an entertaining hoax.” So which is it? “I’m Still Here,” Casey Affleck’s film about a messy year in the life of his brother-in-law, actor-turned-laughing-stock-rapper Joaquin Phoenix, doesn’t open in theaters until Friday but as those early reviews indicate, the jury’s still out on the full extent of its truthiness. For his part, Affleck continues to maintain that the film is 100% real. “I can tell you, there’s no hoax. It never entered my mind until other people commented on the movie.” Affleck told the press at the Venice Film Festival.


Affleck’s not being coy. He’s coming right out and saying: my film is real. But do we believe him? Like everything in “I’m Still Here,” Affleck’s comment could be a put-on. It certainly sounds disingenuous, since at one point in the film Affleck himself interviews an editor from Entertainment Weekly who reported on the possibility that this whole thing is an elaborate prank. I’ve seen the film myself — I’ll have a full review on IFC.com on Friday — and I’m still not sure where I fall on the fact/fiction debate. There seems to be evidence to back up either theory, and plenty to suggest the truth may lie somewhere in between. Let’s look at each possibility along with the evidence supporting and disputing it.

POSSIBILITY #1: The movie is an authentic documentary.

WHAT THIS MEANS: Everything seen in the movie actually happened; Joaquin Phoenix had a legitimate meltdown in 2008 and 2009; he thinks his terrible hip hop music is actually good; his own brother-in-law chose to document his cry for help instead of trying to get him into rehab or therapy.

EVIDENCE FOR: Phoenix’s public behavior during the time chronicled in the film including his strange appearance on “The Late Show With David Letterman”; his history of substance abuse; Phoenix’s complete absence from the film world since “retiring” in late 2008; scenes, like the one in which Phoenix walks off stage from a rap concert and repeatedly pukes in a toilet, that look disturbingly real.

EVIDENCE AGAINST: Repeated leaks in the press stating that the film was staged (like the one in Entertainment Weekly that Affleck confronts himself); the fact that Magnolia Pictures, the company that distributed the film Phoenix was (kind of) promoting during his shenanigans, signed on to distribute this film; the strong unlikelihood that Phoenix could learn to play guitar and mimic the distinctive singing voice and performance style of Johnny Cash perfectly and yet be completely incapable of approximating a legitimate hip hop record in any way at all; scenes, like the one in which Phoenix rages at the world for ignoring his performance in “Reservation Road” while praising Leonardo DiCaprio’s in “Revolutionary Road,” that look blatantly staged.

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