I’m Still Here, () actor Casey Affleck’s mesmerising documentary about the self-destructive career of his friend Joaquin Phoenix, film star, substance-abuser and failed rapper, has been called a car crash by some. That is unfair. To car crashes. The film is so far out, so spectacularly smashed and smoked on the highways of self-mortification, that it has to be called – what – a carmageddon?
Tabloid-surfers know the story so far. Phoenix, two-time Oscar nominee, said a much-publicised goodbye to acting, grew a beard, tried to become a hip-hop singer, failed to be the Eminem of ex-Hollywood, and has been completing the arc of his downfall with drugs, prostitutes and violent quarrels with friends. In the film one of his friends takes revenge – recorded by a night-vision camera – by lowering his trousers and dropping a bodily substance on the sleeping Phoenix’s face.
Earlier scenes feature a hooker from whose breast Phoenix licks cocaine. And there is the infamous David Letterman Show on which, as chief guest, Phoenix barely mumbled a comprehensible word. Letterman says goodbye with, “Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight”.
Is it all true? Or a hoax? Does Phoenix want to be hated? Or to endear himself to us by hamming up his adversities, known or notional? There is a mesmerising moment when rapper P. Diddy, listening to a demo tape the actor has brought into his studio, gives the camera a look that says, “Am I really hearing this? Is there an escape tunnel available?”
As director Casey Affleck does a brilliantly invisible job. We barely even think “fly on the wall”; we assume there are no walls. Someone is stealing a peek into a celebrity’s mind and seeing all the rot inside. It would be enough to condemn a building. But showbiz being the world it is, primeval or punishable behaviour – bear witness, George Michael, Robert Downey, Lindsay Lohan – sometimes helps a career stay buzzed, beatified, even zoned for preservation.
Alamar, () written, directed, photographed and edited by Pedro González-Rubio, is a Mexican film about the miraculous in the everyday. Magic realism in the purest, simplest sense. Part documentary, part fiction, it entrances us with the tale of a bonding holiday between a father and his five-year-old son. It’s a “home movie”, set in a home away from home. The pearly waters of the Banco Chinchorro, the world’s second-largest barrier reef, are the playground for days of fishing, diving and nature-befriending, including the bug-hungry egret – snow-white and spectral – the boy almost recruits as a pet in the stilt shack owned by his grandpa.
It could be a Hemingway story, enriched by Robert Flaherty, the docu-enchanter of Louisiana Story and Elephant Boy. Individual shots are doodles in a visual diary, disconnected yet organic: a boy’s feet balancing on a bobbing boat-edge, a surprised lobster speared in its coral bed. A picture builds slowly, like a coral reef, of parent-child love. Teaching is integrated into play. Pain – that of impending separation – is latent in the pleasure voyage. (The father is separated from the Italian mother, glimpsed at beginning and end).
It is almost a “silent movie”, even amid speech. But by the end, when a bottle with a boy’s message in it, thrown into the sea, is rhymed in the next and final shot with a bubble blown over a Rome park, we realise a perfect story has been told. That of a boy creating his formative memories, fragile, translucent, eternal.
“How about some deer stew?” says someone in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone, () a hillbilly drama that won this year’s Sundance Grand Prix. That’s the kind of thing they say in the Ozarks, at least as commodified for movie folk. Have you noticed how works of art that never make a false step, in terms of shallow minutiae, seldom make a true step in terms of deep perception or ground-ringing echo?
This decent, flat-toned, earnestly naturalistic film is a typical Sundance laureate. A teenage girl (Jennifer Lawrence of The Burning Plain) searches for her bail-jumped father when his disappearance threatens her house and her ailing mother and two small siblings. The literate script (based on a novel by Daniel Woodrell) is delivered by the actors with a lifeless beat. Like a Botoxed face, the movie never shows an interesting wrinkle or passion-attesting lifeline. Amid the rural tableaux and bluesy banjo twangles the most we get – for “vivid”, never mind visceral – are a lesson in squirrel-gutting and a scene of late-night corpse-fishing. Both are as demure as the well-scrubbed little siblings, who end up adopting a brood of orphaned chicks, in a touch for the Sundance slowcoaches. They might not have realised they are watching a tale of the dispossessed, the parent-bereaved, the nest-threatened . . .
Flying over every filmgoer’s roof should be a banner with the bold device, “Never give up”. Not even on Will Ferrell. The moose-faced comic who has stumbled from one half-dud comedy to another now makes The Other Guys () , which is funny from start to end. Ferrell gets a nearly unimaginable cast of “stooges”: Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Keaton, Eva Mendes, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Steve Coogan and, marvellous as Ferrell’s desk-cop buddy, Mark Wahlberg.
This pair wants to leave pen-pushing for the dizzy dangers of street action. Or Wahlberg does. They bicker like marrieds. Like marrieds they learn each other’s guilty secrets. (Wahlberg can ballet dance, a skill developed, he insists, to make fun of wimpy schoolmates. Ferrell: “You mean you learned to dance like that sarcastically?”). Like marrieds they scream around the roads giving each other directions, once they have muscled in on a mission to investigate white-collar crook Coogan.
Top jokes are thrown away, including the 10-second skit of a cop lecturing a school class: “Do your best not to be black or Hispanic. . .” And we can only run past the running gag of the bribes Ferrell/Wahlberg keep taking inadvertently from Coogan. (Damn, they have succumbed to another free Knicks game or Broadway show.) Or the “good cop, bad cop” routine that goes wrong. Or – oh just go and see it. And send me the bill if you don’t laugh.
Don’t send me any bill if you don’t scream during The Horde () . I didn’t scream either. Another day, another zombie movie, this time French. A handful of cops join forces with the multiracial crooks they were stalking, so both parties can escape a ghoul-besieged high-rise. The mayhem is relieved only by a weird apparent subtext about colonialism. “It’s like Dien Bien Phu,” says the garrulous Indochina veteran, fat-bellied and bellicose, they pick up during the carnage. Later there’s an Algeria reference. Should we attribute a subtly camouflaged roman à thèse to the writing-directing duo of Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rocher? Or is that just wishful thinking, to help us get through thinking about the film at all?