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I'm Still Here
Joaquin Phoenix's and Casey Affleck's "film" I'm Still Here has one mildly amusing inside joke in it, and that is its title, and that particular play on words will only be meaningful to those who saw Todd Haynes' daring and difficult cinematic treatment of the life and personae of Bob Dylan, I'm Not There. That the joke isn't even all that funny even to those who've seen the Haynes film is only the tip of the iceberg. I'm Still Here is an offensive, suffocatingly smug and self-satisfied piece of faux-introversion that gifts those patient enough to sit through its entirety with the kind of obscene lack of thought one might associate with frat house gang rape - which isn't unrelated to the way one feels after watching it. Phoenix and Affleck are both talented actors who I generally enjoy watching on-screen. Here, they have fallen victim to the single most common mistake made by actors who unwisely reach beyond their given talents: they believed that they knew something about how to tell a story. I'm Still Here proves a whole slew of negative stereotypes about actors, and may very well occasion a renewed interest in dismissing them as a group of infantile chauvinists who relish their own creative byproducts the way pigs relish bathing in their own shit.
A couple of years ago, Joaquin Phoenix, working with co-writer, co-producer, and director Casey Affleck, staged a surprisingly elaborate hoax in which he claimed to be re-inventing himself as a hip-hop artist. Physically, he underwent a transformation that found him looking quite unlike any previously known rapper: a paunchy Phoenix let his hair go and grew a bushy, unruly beard. The hoax never really got beyond the "what's this about Joaquin Phoenix becoming a rapper?" stage, and neither does the film, which documents the hoax with a straight face, pretending that this artistic transformation is really happening.
Only a duo with the combined Hollywood credentials of Phoenix and Affleck could have roped "guest stars" such as Sean "P-Diddy" Combs and David Letterman into the proceedings, which helps invest the film with the weight of legitimacy. A prologue featuring purported archival footage of Phoenix performing with his siblings as a child, and the vérité shooting style, also help generate a sense that Something Interesting must be happening here. However, a baffling and pointless interest in showing male genitalia and some raunchy "crazy musician" behavior thrown in for good measure merely remind us that this is amateur hour at its worst.
But alas, that isn't the worst thing about I'm Still Here. The worst thing about it is its total lack of purpose. If this is all just a big joke, as we now know it to be, whither the hoax? What does it reveal or perpetrate that is in any way significant or meaningful? Is there a satirical angle here? I don't believe there is. Maybe the point was that Joaquin Phoenix got the most press of his life for simply acting like an asshole. That's kind of funny, but it doesn't merit making me watch a film that highlights the exhibition of his jiggly midsection and several penises flopping haphazardly about. I don't believe there is anything to "get" in I'm Still Here, because all it is is a couple of distracted fooles playing around with equipment they haven't the slightest interest in using appropriately. If filmmaking were masturbation, Phoenix and Affleck would win the Oscar for Best Circle Jerk.
Image and Sound
Magnolia's enhanced 1.78:1 image looks good, but not outstanding, probably due to the way the film was shot: on video, in less-than-optimum lighting conditions. Still, everything looks fairly solid, with relatively minor compression artifacts given the circumstances. The 5.1 surround soundtrack is spotty. Scenes are often either poorly miked, or meant to sound as though they are. Some such scenes are subtitled, while others are not. Phoenix wants to be Brando, apparently (and is actually called "the Brando of his generation" by Time Out New York on the back of the DVD case!), so he mumbles frequently, which contributes to the film's imperfect sonic presentation.
There is a pair of audio commentaries, which are highly redundant. The first features Casey Affleck, along with Phoenix and several other cast and crew members. It's pretty formless, one-note, and self-serving. The second commentary features Affleck solo and is much more convincing in terms of Affleck demonstrating an engagement with the material that goes somewhat beyond what I might have expected, based on the final product. A lengthy set of Deleted Scenes (62:38) is playable with or without commentary by Affleck. Alternate Ending Outtakes (6:45) are also available with or without commentary. There are two Audio Conversations featuring Affleck and Phoenix, one with Jerry Penacoli of the television program Extra, and one with journalism professor and film writer Christine Spines. These conversations reflect on the film in hindsight, and on the controversy and press coverage surrounding the hoax. There's also an after-the-fact video Jerry Penacoli Interview with Joaquin Phoenix (6:11).
I'm Still Here is a vacuous film that showcases the unique form of provinciality that results from spending too much time in the world of entertainment. The film is about the dark side of talent, but not in the way that was intended. Skip it.