“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.

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Weird Roles

Anthony Michael Hall’s Most Rotten Movies

Catch Anthony Michael Hall in Weird Science on Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Universal/Everett Collection

Anthony Michael Hall was the quintessential ’80s nerd. We love him in classics like The Breakfast Club and National Lampoon’s Vacation. But even the brainiest among us has his weak spots. In honor of Weird Science airing this Rotten Friday, we analyze Hall’s worst movies.

Weird Science (1985) 56%

A low point for John Hughes, Weird Science is way too wacky for its own good. Anthony Michael Hall’s Gary and his pal Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) create the “perfect woman.” Supernatural chaos ensues. The film costars a young Bill Paxton, floppy disks, and a general disconnect from all reality.

The Caveman’s Valentine (2001) 46%

This ambitious drama starring Samuel L. Jackson couldn’t live up to its rich premise. Jackson plays Romulus, a Juilliard-educated, paranoid schizophrenic who lives in a cave. Hall co-stars as Bob, a rich man, who wants to see Romulus play the piano. The plot centers around Romulus investigating a murder, but with so much going on, the movie never quite finds its rhythm.

All About the Benjamins (2002) 30%

Ice Cube plays a bounty hunter who teams up with Mike Epps’ con man to catch diamond thieves. Hall plays Lil J, a small-time drug dealer. It’s definitely a role we’ve never seen Hall in, but overall the movie isn’t funny or original enough to justify its violence.

Freddy Got Fingered (2001) 11%

This showcase for Tom Green’s goofy gross-out comedy is often hailed as one of the worst films of all time. Green plays Gord, a 20-something slacker, who dreams of having his own animated series. Hall is Dave Davidson, a CEO of an animation studio who eventually helps Gord find success. Too bad Tom Green wasn’t so lucky.

Johnny Be Good (1988) 0%

Hall plays against type as Johnny Walker, a star quarterback. Robert Downey Jr. is his best friend and Uma Thurman plays his devoted girlfriend. Despite the support of a future A-list cast, the movie lacks central conflict and charm. Or, as TV Guide put it, “Johnny be worthless.” Ouch.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” Weird Science this Friday at 8P on IFC.

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Season 6: Episode 1: Pickathon

Binge Fest

Portlandia Season 6 Now Available On DVD

The perfect addition to your locally-sourced, artisanal DVD collection.

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End of summer got you feeling like:

Portlandia Toni Screaming GIF

Ease into fall with Portlandia‘s sixth season. Relive the latest exploits of Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s cast of characters, including Doug and Claire’s poignant breakup, Lance’s foray into intellectual society, and the terrifying rampage of a tsukemen Noodle Monster! Plus, guest stars The Flaming Lips, Glenn Danzig, Louis C.K., Kevin Corrigan, Zoë Kravitz, and more stop by to experience what Portlandia is all about.

Pick up a copy of the DVD today, or watch full episodes and series extras now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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Byrning Down the House

Everything You Need to Know About the Film That Inspired “Final Transmission”

Documentary Now! pays tribute to "Stop Making Sense" this Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom/courtesy Everett Collection

This week Documentary Now! is with the band. For everyone who’s ever wanted to be a roadie without leaving the couch, “Final Transmission” pulls back the curtain on experimental rock group Test Pattern’s final concert. Before you tune in Wednesday at 10P on IFC, plug your amp into this guide for Stop Making Sense, the acclaimed 1984 Talking Heads concert documentary.

Put on Your Dancing Shoes

Hailed as one of the best concert films ever created, director Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs) captured the energy and eccentricities of a band known for pushing the limits of music and performance.

Make an Entrance

Lead singer David Byrne treats the concert like a story: He enters an empty stage with a boom box and sings the first song on the setlist solo, then welcomes the other members of the group to the stage one song at a time.

Steal the Spotlight

David Byrne Dancing
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Always a physical performer, Byrne infuses the stage and the film with contagious joy — jogging in place, dancing with lamps, and generally carrying the show’s high energy on his shoulders.

Suit Yourself

Byrne makes a splash in his “big suit,” a boxy business suit that grows with each song until he looks like a boy who raided his father’s closet. Don’t overthink it; on the DVD, the singer explains, “Music is very physical, and often the body understands it before the head.”

View from the Front Row

Stop Making Sense Band On Stage
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Demme (who also helmed 1987’s Swimming to Cambodia, the inspiration for this season’s Documentary Now! episode “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”) films the show by putting viewers in the audience’s shoes. The camera rarely shows the crowd and never cuts to interviews or talking heads — except the ones onstage.

Let’s Get Digital

Tina Weymouth Keyboard
Cinecom/Everett Collection

Stop Making Sense isn’t just a good time — it’s also the first rock movie to be recorded entirely using digital audio techniques. The sound holds up more than 30 years later.

Out of Pocket

Talk about investing in your art: Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz told Rolling Stone that the members of the band “basically put [their] life savings” into the movie, and they didn’t regret it.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Stop Making Sense when “Final Transmission” premieres Wednesday, October 12 at 10P on IFC.

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