An evil witch returns and a good cause worth remembering
There’s a telling scene toward the beginning of “Maleficent,” a revisionist retelling of “Sleeping Beauty,” from Disney, the same studio that made the classic fairy tale famous again with its animated version in 1959.
For a brief moment, outside the contrived conflict that surrounds this revenge-turned-sweet story, the young faery Maleficent (played as an adult by Angelina Jolie) doesn’t really have anything to do. She’s already met the man of her dreams — a young boy whom she grew close with and has since disappeared into the world of humans — so all she does is fly around Faeryland saying "hi" to everyone while she pines for her lost love.
The next time he sees her, he performs an act of extreme cruelty that alters her life forever.
There’s several moments in the PG-rated, live-action but heavily CGI “Maleficent” where the titular character sits around watching other people and waiting for things to happen. That could be because in order to re-invent the Brothers Grimm fairy tale (and original Disney version) from the villainess’s point of view, there were bound to be a lot of things that don’t make sense, such as believable motivations.
Although it may sound like I’m getting too “deep” for a kid’s movie, some kind of internal life for the main character would have been nice. You can’t cheat, even when you’re aiming for a younger audience. Children can tell when something’s amiss in the storytelling department.
The heavy lifting in the character department, then, is all done by Jolie because Maleficent has little more than a couple of thinly developed and somewhat jarring plot points to turn her from innocent faery to malevolent witch.
On the positive side, all is not completely lost. “Maleficent” has its charms, however shallow they may be. Jolie’s already angular features are emphasized by Rick Baker’s makeup effects and caricatured even further by impressive digital sculpting to recall the classic animated look of the 1959 movie. As Princess Aurora, Elle Fanning is her usual ebullient self, and Sam Riley is credible and surprisingly warm for the barely-there role of Diaval, Maleficent’s asexual raven-turned-human companion.
But the script, at least partially written (and endlessly revised, according to reports) by Linda Woolverton (who wrote “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast”) leaves the actors and digital artists to try to make movie magic out of nothing.
Local film 'Erasure' screening at LAC to benefit charity
The day Lawrence resident Austin Snell turned his living room into a prison cell was an interesting one.
Snell wrote and directed “Erasure,” a psychological drama about a man trying to erase the memory of his wife’s tragic death, and the self-funded feature-length film has scenes that required another location. Luckily his friend Scott Burr, known for designing and creating impressive window displays at Game Nut and The Burger Stand, said he could help. A little ingenuity and $200 worth of materials later, Snell had his prison cell.
“Erasure,” which was filmed mostly in Topeka with actors and crew from northeast Kansas and Verve Media, will have its Lawrence premiere at 7:30 p.m. June 6 at the Lawrence Arts Center. There’s no admission fee, but there is a suggested donation of $2 per person at the door, and all proceeds go to the Douglas County food bank Just Food.
“My goal with ‘Erasure’ was to make a film for very little money in order to raise funds for worthwhile causes. This is the baseline for every film I put out from now on,” Snell says. “I don't intend to make films about these issues or causes, however. I make the films I want to make. Serving a higher cause with the finished product is just a bonus.”
Verve Media Filmmakers is a collective of people Snell has been making films with since he was a freshman at Topeka High School. The members are now divided up across the country, with some working professionally in the film industry. “Erasure” is Snell’s debut feature, and was inspired by an article in “Wired” about fringe scientific experiments with selective memory erasure that are happening right now in real life. The concept may sound similar to the Oscar-winning “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” but Snell says his movie isn’t whimsical at all.
“It’s very dark, and takes the real science a little further than ‘Eternal’ does,” he says. “Think David Fincher directing an episode of ‘Louie.’”
If you’re truly ‘Divergent,’ you should see ‘Tim’s Vermeer’
It may be a documentary, but “Tim’s Vermeer,” opening at Liberty Hall this weekend, unfolds like a mystery novel and then plays like a suspense thriller.
Directed by Teller and narrated by his partner-in-illusion Penn Jillette (who also appears on camera), it’s a crackling how’d-he-do-it — rather than a whodunit — that follows an American innovator/technologist named Tim Jenison on his curious quest to solve one of the art world’s biggest mysteries: How might 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer have actually painted his amazingly photo-realistic works?
The real star of “Tim’s Vermeer” is Jenison himself, an affable thinker who has both the intellect and the means to not only discover what he thinks the answer is but also to try to recreate one of Vermeer’s most revered works from scratch using his theory.
Jenison founded NewTek in Topeka in 1985, and is known as the “father of desktop video,” having developed the first full-color video digitizer. Out of a warehouse that doubles as his workshop, he first recreates the room Vermeer was paining in his famous work “The Music Lesson,” and then — without any natural artistic skill as a painter — tries to recreate the painting itself using his hypothesis.
From an aesthetic point of view, it’s sometimes a very ugly movie, with webcam shots and consumer-grade cameras used throughout, but it’s truly a documentary that only could have been made in the digital age. Teller, who has a reputation for demanding veracity, documented every second of Jenison’s project — over 4,500 hours — to make sure nothing was fudged.
“Tim’s Vermeer” makes what seems like a high-brow subject very approachable, laying out the stakes clearly and rounding out the context of the mystery with interviews from experts and people who have had similar theories. But beyond being an exciting suspense tale, the movie gets at some tricky, fundamental questions of art.
If Vermeer did, in fact, use optic assistance to create his masterworks, does that lessen the achievement of the paintings? Does it make them any less artistic? The crossroads between technology and art have always been troublesome, and the movie posits that without either, we might not have some of the art world’s greatest treasures. Certainly without digital video, we wouldn’t have this wonderfully entertaining movie either.
The "Factions" of the Future Look A Lot Like High School
Ever since the “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” film series’ have struck gold, the young-adult fantasy section of bookstores has become fertile raiding ground for the next mega-hit franchise. But for every record-breaking “Hunger Games,” there’s an underwhelming “Eragon” or a “Percy Jackson.” The latest fant-angst-ical cash cow hopeful from Hollywood is called “Divergent.”
Now, I understand that this genre takes teenage issues of alienation and self-discovery that feel like life and death, and blows them up into literal life-and-death situations, but do they have to be so damned obvious about it?
In a post-apocalyptic Chicago, all society has been divided up into five cliques — I mean “factions.” And everywhere you go, the teens somehow outnumber the adults about 1,000 to one. The know-it-alls, the geeks, the jocks, the smart-asses, and the hardcore religious-types are clearly defined groups, and it can be tough if you don’t fit in anywhere.
These cliques — sorry, factions — all play their specific roles in the walled-in near-future city, but if you’re one of the mild-mannered Jesus freaks who has to wear frumpy gray frocks all the time, let’s face it: You’ve been itching to sport tight leather outfits and jump off of moving trains with the jocks for what seems like eternity, right?
The very capable Shailene Woodley lends some authority to a silly, one-dimensional script as Tris, a member of the Abnegation (extremely religious) faction who makes the decision to be Dauntless (jock). The catch is that she’s known the whole time that she’s Divergent (different). As she learns the value of asserting her independence, the fate of the entire city hangs in the balance, and she’s got some quick growing up to do.
Along the way there’s a chaste romance, an excruciatingly long military-training sequence that’s too dumb to be satiric, and Kate Winslet phoning it in as an evil former honor student with fascistic designs. Did I mention that her brilliant plan to take over rule of the city is basically genocide?
Winslet excluded, most of the actors are up to the task of treating this material with the dead serious tone it requires. Ashley Judd is a welcome sight as Woodley’s heartbroken mother in a couple of scenes and Theo James is fine, I guess, as the romantic interest. At least they are working hard to sell it.
When the plot mechanics are moving forward and there’s no time to think, “Divergent” churns on, high on its own dumb inevitability. But at two hours and 20 minutes, it can be rough going sometimes, and the humorless, dumb script asks way too much of its cast.
Baker graduate, Oscar nominee on how visual effects become special
For Patrick Tubach, who graduated from Baker University in 1996, this Sunday won’t be his first trip down the red carpet for the Academy Awards ceremony, but it will be his first time as a nominee.
“I think everyone gets excited about seeing the celebrities, and that’s absolutely a fun part of it, but having been before, I can tell you that one of the best things about it is just that it’s an amazing show,” he says. “It’s like you’re seeing a fantastic Broadway show right before your eyes with all the biggest and best stars in the world sitting out in the audience right in front of you. It’s just a thrilling experience.”
Tubach is nominated as co-visual effects supervisor for his work on “Star Trek Into Darkness.” As part of a team of around 150 artists who work at Industrial Light & Magic in San Francisco, he helped to create all the visual effects in director J.J. Abrams’ sci-fi adventure blockbuster, and also helped identify and design shots that would make exciting 3-D moments.
The Oscars may seem like a long way from Baldwin City, where Tubach lived during his four years at Baker — earning a bachelor's degree in mass communications — but he’s been steadily advancing in the digital VFX industry since it was in its infancy.
“I studied television and film along with radio and journalism as well, and I actually thought I was going to end up in journalism at the end of the day,” he says. “I mean, film is such a foreign industry to someone who isn’t from L.A. and hasn’t really participated in that — and visual effects even more foreign, because you didn’t even know those jobs existed at the time when I was going to school.”
But Tubach’s brother already worked at visual effects company Cinesite in Los Angeles, and he told him about a summer job opportunity working on “Space Jam,” the live-action/hand-drawn animation hybrid movie where Michael Jordan is abducted by Looney Tunes cartoon characters and forced to play interstellar basketball against a bunch of aliens. Tubach was one of many interns who did “paint and roto work” — painting and creating green-screen mattes frame by frame. Once his foot was in the door, he just kept going from there.
As computer-generated visual effects became more advanced, Tubach made his name as a digital compositor. Compositing is the process of putting together all the live-action elements and computer-generated images into one scene and creating the final frames that end up on film. Besides working on effects-driven films like “Armageddon” and “The Mummy,” he also composited key scenes on less likely digital candidates like the Kevin Costner dramas “For Love of the Game” and “Message in a Bottle.”
“There’s so many scenes in films that [audiences] don’t even realize are visual effects. In ‘Message in a Bottle,’ there was all these scenes that were extremely dangerous to film, where [characters are] out on these really high seas, so you can’t really create these stories where you put these people in jeopardy without using visual effects,” he says. “People associate visual effects with flashy computer-generated things, which are great but there are so many movies that are trying to tell a story that you just couldn’t show in the same way without some effects help. It’s not necessarily that you’re trying to create something completely fake — you could be trying to recreate something in the real world that you just can’t go out and film.”
Tubach composited more high-seas shots in “The Perfect Storm,” which was his first job for Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), the company that George Lucas founded way back in 1975. Needless to say, going to work at the place where “Star Wars” was created was a dream come true. Not long after he started at the company, he began work on “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones,” which led into “Episode III” and “Transformers.” It was being part of that Oscar-nominated team that he attended his first Oscar ceremony in 2008.
For “Star Trek Into Darkness,” Tubach’s is one of four names listed in the nomination. And if the movie wins the Oscar for best achievement in visual effects, he’ll be one of the four people onstage to accept. He’s quick to point out, however, that visual effects are a team effort.
“There are so many other people who could easily be there as well. Especially when you work at a company like ILM where everyone is so good at their job — and I wouldn’t be here without all the other artists that contributed to the movie,” he says. “I really feel like what I’m doing is representing a much larger group of people — and I always keep that in mind.”
The process for “Star Trek Into Darkness” started with creating concepts and shots that work from the standpoint of storytelling. At the beginning of the design process, Tubach worked with director Abrams to help out with shooting on set and carry those concepts through into postproduction, rendering the computer graphics into believable-looking images.
When it comes to 3-D, which adds another layer of challenge to any visual-effects project, that means identifying and creating shots early in the process that might be good candidates for a great 3-D moment.
“When the Enterprise escapes from the black ship and they take off — and the Enterprise comes right out at the audience — that’s a moment that we specifically geared the animation to do that. It was thought out ahead of time and we tried to make a cool ‘in-your-face’ moment,” Tubach says.
Buzz about how intertwined the art of traditional cinematography and visual effects are reached a head last year at the Academy Awards when “Life of Pi” director of photography Claudio Miranda and director Ang Lee both failed to mention the visual effects artists who helped realize their film in their acceptance speeches.
Tubach agrees that you can’t talk about one without the other because people on both sides of the production contribute to aspects of both the cinematography and the visual effects.
“One thing you know about making films: it’s not a singular ‘one person does everything’ process — there’s a lot of people involved to make that work,” he says. “In every film that we work on, the DP (director of photography) has a huge influence over the look and feel and the lighting of the entire film, and in fact, we frequently consult with DPs on films and keep them involved in the process long after the physical production of the film. Those two things are not easily separated, and shouldn’t be separated.”
'Jayhawkers' opens at Liberty Hall
After a successful weekend run at the Lied Center, Kevin Willmott's "Jayhawkers" opens this weekend at Liberty Hall. Lawrence residents especially should take note of the movie. Besides being produced and filmed using almost entirely local talent and locations, this impressive ensemble movie tells the story of an important — possibly defining — chapter in the city's history.
Intertwining the stories of basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain and famed coach "Phog" Allen, Willmott puts this specific moment in the 1950s in perspective with the bigger picture of the civil rights movement, as well as connecting it to the tales of "Bleeding Kansas" and the birth of the what is now considered the modern sports superstar. It's a must-see for anyone with a remote interest in any of these subjects, and the film features some stunning black-and-white cinematography from local directors of photography Matt Jacobson and Jeremy Osbern as well.
If you have ‘3 Days to Kill,’ it’s best to check out other film options
I guess the best thing you can say about the new action movie “3 Days to Kill,” starring Kevin Costner as a grizzled old CIA hitman living in Paris, is that the 59-year-old actor has more charm and better comic timing now than Bruce Willis.
Costner is essentially playing the same over-the-hill, reluctant-but-badass gun-toting hero that Willis has been playing for years, and in “3 Days to Kill,” he’s even saddled with something more challenging than killing bad guys with names like The Albino and The Wolf — keeping a teenage daughter out of trouble. And despite a ludicrous plot and abrupt tonal shifts, Costner actually makes it work sometimes.
Speaking of plot, get a load of this: Costner’s retired agent finds out he has terminal brain cancer, so he reunites with his estranged daughter (Hailee Steinfeld) and wife (Connie Nielsen) to make amends. But he agrees to stay on the job when a sexy young agent from America who just walked out of a Marilyn Manson video (Amber Heard) offers him a comically oversized syringe in a foam-lined briefcase. You see, this unnamed “experimental drug” will somehow extend his life, while also racking his mind with crippling hallucinogenic headaches at the most inopportune moments.
It’s easier to accept ridiculous plots like this when the ride itself is entertaining and distracting enough, but “3 Days to Kill,” directed by the slick and hollow McG (“Charlie’s Angels”), grinds to a halt every time Costner isn’t onscreen. Heard in particular has grossly miscalculated her dead-serious portrayal of the red-lipstick, stiletto-heeled handler in a role that could have been light and fun. Marc Andreoni, on the other hand, is right on the money as an underworld limo service owner who gives Costner fatherly advice when he’s not being thrown in the trunk of his car.
Producer/writer Luc Besson’s French production company EuropaCorp has consistently demonstrated for more than a decade that they know how to churn out formulaic, mid-size budget action movies shot in Europe. “3 Days to Kill” is in the “Taken” mold for sure, but with a sillier dash of humor a la Besson’s recent mob-family-undercover misfire “The Family.” It’s a decidedly mediocre effort, with exactly one memorable action scene, and when it pushes too hard into sentimental territory, it feels completely unearned. Let’s hope for the sake of Costner (who recently had high-profile supporting turns in “Man of Steel” and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”) that better material is on the horizon.
In recent years, the Academy Awards have packaged together the year’s Oscar-nominated short films into feature-length packages and sent them out for a brief run in theaters. It’s a rare chance to see short-format standout work from all over the world, and Liberty Hall is showing packages from the live-action and animated film categories through Thursday.
Highlights in the animated program include “Get a Horse!,” which is the odds-on favorite to win. A combination of traditional hand-drawn and computer animation, this new Mickey Mouse adventure from Disney features archival voice recordings of Walt Disney and approximates vintage 1928 character designs. Also featured is “Room on the Broom,” based on a beloved children’s book about a witch who lets various animals ride on her broom, and featuring voice work from British funnymen Simon Pegg and Rob Brydon. The live-action shorts feature another U.K. production,“The Voorman Problem,” starring Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit”) as a prison psychiatrist who examines a patient (Tom Hollander) who believes that he is a God — and that he created the world nine days ago.
At 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27, at the Lawrence Arts Center, Footprints presents “Blackmail,” a 1929 film from master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock, originally released in both a sound version and a little-seen silent version. Besides having the opportunity to see an early work from Hitch on the big screen, you’ll also get the chance to experience the rare silent version of the film the way audiences back in the '20s did — with live accompaniment from musicians in the same room. The stellar five-piece chamber group the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra will no doubt amp up the thrills in “Blackmail,” which famously ends in a dramatic chase that leads to the domed roof of the British Museum.
Also not to be missed: Liberty Hall’s Film Church series continues at 7 p.m. Sunday night with Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek in Terrence Malick’s outstanding debut film, the beautiful and disturbing “Badlands” from 1973. Malick is known for his haunting widescreen images, and with "Badlands," a masterwork of poetic imagery and directionless angst, it's almost as if the visionary writer/director was sprung from obscurity fully formed.
Why you should see ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ more than once
The first time I saw “Inside Llewyn Davis,” opening today at Liberty Hall, my reaction was completely one-dimensional. The movie — which follows one key week in the life of singer/couch-surfer Llewyn Davis (Oscar Issac) as he bounces around the pre-Dylan 1961 Greenwich Village folk scene — seemed to be just another Coen Brothers' film where the cynical writer/directors heap abuse upon their flawed main character for the sake of deadpan comedy.
With its period-specific folk soundtrack (produced by T Bone Burnett) and middle-act Homeric odyssey, it reminded me strongly of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” “Inside Llewyn Davis” also features a series of “bad” decisions that come back to haunt its title character in darkly comic ways, like pretty much every movie the idiosyncratic filmmaking duo has ever made.
But — per usual for the Coens — during a second viewing of the film, I discovered many more layers and, like “Fargo,” was able to laugh way more at Llewyn’s misfortunes because I knew where the story was headed. The music, sung largely by the cast onscreen, became lodged inside my head and the lyrics continued to inform and color the movie as I thought back on them.
After a recent third viewing of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” I can firmly say that it is one of the richest filmic experiences of the year and it should have been on my top 10.
A beautiful, up-close rendition of Isaac singing the traditional song “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Café opens the movie, the lyrics portending things to come. (Dave Van Ronk, whose memoir inspired the movie, did this tune as well.) Llewyn then comes into contact with all kinds of heightened versions of era-specific types, from the gee-whiz soldier boy folkie (Stark Sands) to the snarky, heroin-addicted jazz musician (John Goodman).
Much like the cat that he shepherds around New York City, Llewyn is notoriously independent. Haunted by the recent suicide of his singing partner but confident of his talent, he wants to establish himself as a solo act, and whether he’s trying to or not, he alienates virtually everyone he comes into contact with.
“Inside Llewyn Davis” hinges on questions of artistic integrity. Llewyn sees himself as more authentic than his peers because his version of reviving folk tradition means living like a hobo. Joel and Ethan Coen steer away from any kind of sentimentality, so any time serious discussion of concepts like “success” or “failure” — either commercially or artistically — come up, they are torpedoed like some kind of sick joke. That itself carries a special kind of poignancy.
Thanks to its pithy dialogue, its gorgeous and gloomy cinematography, its subtle debate on identity, and its infectious soundtrack, “Inside Llewyn Davis” has peculiar staying power and will reward those who choose to revisit the Coens' version of MacDougal Street.
Also opening today in Lawrence is "Lone Survivor," a harrowing account of a 2005 Navy SEAL operation in Afghanistan's Kunar province that went awry and claimed the death of 19 U.S. soldiers.
The bulk of the movie's running time is taken up by a detailed, brutal, firsthand account of the firefight itself, adapted from the book of the same name by Marcus Luttrell. As played by Mark Wahlberg, Luttrell is noble and persistent. He's one of the the voices of reason when it comes to making a key decision that will affect the outcome of the mission (to capture/kill a Taliban leader) and the fate of his four-man troop.
What follows allows director Peter Berg to exhibit his talent for creating clear, linear cause-and-effect action scenes. The strategy of "Lone Survivor" is to approximate the reality of the battle, and it is refreshing to see that achieved without the use of handheld shaky-cam.
There's not much time between fighting for the audience to contemplate the tricky ethical questions that surround the mission, so the film becomes a tale of courage, professionalism and persistence — things required of all Navy SEALs.
Giant monsters vs. giant robots vs. Shakespeare
In the $180-million Hollywood behemoth “Pacific Rim,” “Kaiju” are giant monsters who come from the sea to wreak havoc and destroy entire cities.
It’s a direct tribute to the Kaiju genre of Japanese monster movies (that began with “Godzilla”) that director Guillermo del Toro has named these meticulously designed CGI creatures after the genre that inspired them, and that’s just the beginning of the references and shout-outs on display in “Pacific Rim,” which has enough bombast and vigor for 100 summer movies.
But it also has a firm grasp on what makes genre storytelling work, and it’s del Toro’s true love and respect for the Kaiju genre (and the tenets of a good action film) that holds “Pacific Rim” up, even in its most predictable moments.
The premise, as you may have already gathered from the film’s marketing, is simple: Giant robots battling giant monsters for the future of the planet. But two concepts immediately make that simple conceit more interesting right off the bat.
First, “Pacific Rim” is not an origin story. In the 18-minute prologue — that’s how long it was before the film’s title appeared on screen — we are not only treated to a spectacularly mounted monster vs. robot fight scene with tragic consequences, but we get loads of background on this protracted war for Earth. The plot begins in earnest not with the ideation and construction of giant robots designed to save humanity, but with society’s abandonment of them.
This positions the flawed human warriors who pilot these giant robots (called Jaegers; German for “hunter”) not as worldwide heroes, but as underdogs fighting for our last chance at survival. The stoic, battle-hardened commander Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is confident that he’s fighting the good fight, even if the rest of the world views he and the Jaegers as relics. In this way, the Jaeger pilots have the same “hero or menace” dilemma as most superheroes.
Co-writer/director del Toro gets so much exposition out of the way in the beginning that he allows the world of “Pacific Rim” to feel lived in, and the detailed production design and CGI work support that completely. It has the rain-soaked, near-fatalistic vibe of a film noir, with traces of the Asian-futuristic world of “Blade Runner,” and mecha anime.
Secondly, the crux of the film is an emotional struggle. In order to pilot a Jaeger, two unique people must form a psychic bond through something called “The Drift.” Essentially, it’s a two-way mind-meld that opens all of your thoughts and past experiences up to another person in the hopes that the two will become one and be able to power the giant robot.
The most affecting scenes in “Pacific Rim” are the ones where former Jaeger pilot Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam) enters The Drift with an emotionally scarred Jaeger candidate named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). The visual representation of The Drift is as exciting as the emotional backstories of the characters involved, and that’s not something you can say for every action movie.
On a micro level, this idea that two very different people can join together to defeat a common foe against all odds is a well-worn one. Put in the proper perspective by the right filmmaker, however, it’s as good as gold. Super-size that sentiment on a global level with Russian, Chinese, Australian, Japanese and American pilots, scientists, and technicians all working together to the save the world and suddenly the corny becomes inspiring.
The climax is similar to some other recent blockbusters (see “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises”), but at least it’s partially earned not just by beating the opponent to a pulp (see “Man of Steel”), but by a certain amount of cunning.
“Pacific Rim” also has a good amount of comic relief (unlike “Man of Steel”), in the form of nerdy scientists Charlie Day and Burn Gorman, whose lightning-quick delivery is in sharp and funny contrast to black-market Kaiju organ-dealer (yes, you read that right) Hannibal Chau, played by genre stalwart Ron Perlman.
If big-budget summer movies are supposed to be entertaining, escapist fun, then “Pacific Rim” is a perfect example of that. I’ll be damned if del Toro’s silly, exuberant, dramatic Kaiju flick didn’t give me that “rah-rah” feeling, amplified of course by the sight of giant monsters and robots bludgeoning each other while towering over our puny cities and coasts.
Speaking of huge summer blockbusters, the least likely person you might think to direct an adaptation of William Shakespeare's comedy "Much Ado About Nothing" would be the guy who directed "The Avengers" — the third highest-grossing film of all time.
Yet here it is, filmed by director Joss Whedon in 12 days during a break in production on "The Avengers," and opening this weekend at Liberty Hall.
Before "The Avengers," Whedon was probably best known as the creator of brilliantly inventive genre-twisting cult TV hits like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Angel," and "Firefly." The familiar Whedon repertory company of Nathan Fillion, Amy Acker, and Alexis Denisof are all present in this low-budget black-and-white version of the Bard's classic, which is also set in contemporary times, using the play's original text.
Movie review: ‘I’m Still Here’
With the release of “I’m Still Here,” the mockumentary has officially come full circle. Actors have already played roles in documentary-style comedies (“This is Spinal Tap,” “Best in Show”), they’ve combined that format with real-life pranks (“Borat,” “Bruno”), and they’ve played fictional versions of themselves for laughs (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Extras”). This time the performance art never ends. Directed by Casey Affleck and starring his brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix, “I’m Still Here” is a rambling mess of a film that has given Phoenix the longest-running and most challenging role of his career: that of a mentally ill, drugged-out former actor named Joaquin Phoenix who wants to become a rap artist. The thing is, he’s such a good actor that he almost pulls it off, no matter how ridiculous it sounds.
If we had less background on the star and his director — if these guys were nobodies just starting a movie career — the setup may be a little more believable. The paradox, of course, is that it wouldn’t be interesting in the slightest because it’s precisely Phoenix’s stature as a celebrity that gives the movie a reason to exist.
As it is, the only real mystery is how many other people were in on the joke. (I use the word “joke” lightly, because although “I’m Still Here” is oftentimes edited for comedic effect, it is rarely very funny.) If his assistant Antony and caretaker Larry — as they are titled in the film — are not also playing some sort of fictional versions of themselves along with Phoenix, then they got a raw deal indeed. They are on the receiving end of a ton of Phoenix’s verbal abuse and goaded into a wholly unnecessary amount of full-frontal nudity.
The reasons for Affleck filming the whole affair are as mysterious as the seeds of Phoenix’s self-imposed flameout and his desire to rap. Perhaps the actor himself was close to quitting the acting business and acted this all out as a catharsis. Even if that’s the case, it’s more than a little suspicious that the guy who has himself directed numerous rock music videos never once mentions a single rap influence or shows any interest in the music side of hip-hop at all.
Instead, there are a couple of scenes where he slops his way through some grandiose lyrical jams that aren’t clever enough to be funny or smart enough to be taken seriously. P. Diddy, the rap mogul who provides “I’m Still Here” with the only forward motion it has, is still asking Phoenix during their second meeting if this is all a put-on. His blank stare while listening to Phoenix’s demos actually provide the biggest laugh in the movie, and Diddy seems to have been genuinely “Punk’d.”
Ben Stiller’s ribbing of the actor’s bearded-sunglasses look at the Oscars is sequenced after a scene where Stiller tries to convince a confrontational Phoenix to co-star with him in “Greenberg.” The setup is perfect because now Stiller’s impression looks like a very public revenge, but who’s to say it wasn’t filmed after the Oscars and sequenced first in the film? Phoenix and Affleck have both worked with indie auteur Gus Van Sant, and this movie feels like a cross between one of his experimental films and an unsuccessful Andy Kaufman publicity stunt.
How far are the pair willing to go with this all-or-nothing filmmaking and acting experiment? If we are to believe they are the only ones in on it, then the answer to that is kind of shocking. But why leave all that wreckage in their path if there’s no real point, no insightful takeaway?
If “I’m Still Here” were more coherent, it could be a satire of one of many things: self-obsessed celebrity behavior, needy actors, the post-movie publicity tour, the cult and power of celebrity, or self-glorifying hip-hop culture. Its lack of focus keeps it from achieving any of these ideas.
In the end, the entire affair is a catch-22. “I’m Still Here” brings up countless questions about media and the amount of falsehoods inherent in it — all of those questions more interesting than actually watching the movie. Maybe it was intended on a wider scale as a send-up of the whole documentary format — a format that’s built on artifice that at some level is masquerading as the truth.
“I don’t want to play the character of Joaquin anymore,” Phoenix says, exasperated. After watching “I’m Still Here,” I don’t want him to either.