Bel Canto


The diva, at rest before the storm, enjoys the company of an admirer.

(2018) Drama (Screen Media) Julianne Moore, Ken Watanabe, Sebastian Koch, Maria Mercedes Coroy, Christopher Lambert, Ryô Kase, Tenoch Huerta, Elsa Zylbestein, Olek Krupa, Thornbjørn Harr, Emmie Nagata, Elliud Kaufman, Ethan Simpson, Melissa Navia, Bobby Daniel Rodriguez, Gisela Chipe, Nico Bustamante, Gabo Augustine, Eddie Martinez, Phil Nee, Marisa Brau, Minerva Paz. Directed by Paul Weitz

 

Stressful situations can make us do things we wouldn’t normally do. Our perceptions can change and our emotions can guide us into decisions that upon hindsight are mind-blowing yet at the time seemed reasonable. That’s why hostages can sometimes fall in love with their captors.

In a Latin American country (unnamed in the film but based on actual events that took place in Peru in 1996) a Japanese industrialist named Katsumi Hosokawa (Watanabe) is being pressured by the government to finance a factory there. He is loathe to do it but allows them to throw a party for him in the home of the Vice-President (Kaufman) so long as they invite American soprano Roxanne Coss (Moore) to perform.

Hosokawa is a lifetime opera buff and his favorite opera star is Coss so he is essentially going to the party just to hear her (he later admits he has no intention of building a factory there). For her part, she’s only there for the money and icily instructs her agent over the phone to keep her gigs to Europe and the United States, as it turns out, with good reason.

No sooner has she sung her first aria when rebel commandos break into the house and take everyone hostage at gunpoint. Their aim was to take the President (Nee) hostage but he had stayed home in order to watch his favorite telenovela instead. The rebels aren’t about to go home empty-handed so a standoff ensues with their demand for the release of all political prisoners falling on deaf ears. Despite the best efforts of a Swiss negotiator (Koch) the negotiations go nowhere.

As the hostages bond with each other, eventually they begin to bond with their captors as well, notably Gen (Kase), the translator Hosokawa brought with him, with Carmen (Coroy), an illiterate guerrilla. In the meantime the esteem of Hosokawa for Coss has turned into something more romantic.

The performances here range from dazzling (Coroy as the conflicted rebel) to strong (Watanabe who seems incapable of giving anything else). Also outstanding is Huerta, Lambert (giving some brief comic relief) and Koch. This might be the most international cast in a movie this year. Moore plays against type but does a fine job. My one beef is that when she is lip-sinking her opera singing, her breathing isn’t the same way as a trained opera star breathes. It took me out of the movie a little bit but not so much that it was more than a minor annoyance.

The problem with the film is that it drags a bit during the last half  and starts turning into a soap opera – like a telenovela that the rebels are fond of; they even comment on it themselves which I suppose can be interpreted as fourth wall irony. However, the movie’s final denouement makes up for it. There is some inevitability to it but there is also a good deal of grace to it as well. Weitz has a pretty strong filmography going  and while this probably won’t be seen by nearly as many people who have seen his hits, this should be one he should be proud of. It’s a slam dunk to recommend this one.

REASONS TO GO: The acting top to bottom is extremely strong. The ending while inevitable is nonetheless powerful.
REASONS TO STAY: Towards the end the film gets a little soap opera-y.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of sex, violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Watanabe and Kase previously worked together on Letters from Iwo Jima.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/22/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 58% positive reviews. Metacritic: 50/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The 39 Steps
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
The Dawn Wall

Advertisements

Whitney


The Queen of Pop in her salad days.

(2018) Musical Documentary (Miramax/Roadside Attractions) Whitney Houston, Cissy Houston, Bobby Brown, Kevin Costner, L.A. Reid, Michael Houston, Brad Johnson, Clive Davis, Keith Kelly, Rickey Minor, Lynne Volkman, Pat Houston, Steve Gittelman, DeForrest Soames, Donna Houston, Nicole David, Cinque Henderson, John Houston IV, Joey Arbagi, Babyface, Mary Jones. Directed by Kevin Macdonald

 

On February 11, 2012 the great pop star Whitney Houston was found floating face down in a bathtub in the Beverly Hilton Hotel. It was the end of an era and the end of a life, one that began with promise which was later fulfilled as she became one of the biggest stars of the 80s and early 90s. She remains the only performer to ever notch seven number one Billboard pop hits in a row – and they were her first seven singles at that. It is a feat not likely to be ever altered. She also is the biggest selling female artist of all time, and holds the biggest selling single (“I Will Always Love You”) of all time for a female artist.

In between her early days and her tragic end, Whitney Houston became a revered public figure although not without controversy. The daughter of singer Cissy Houston and the cousin of legendary pop icon Dionne Warwick, Houston had greatness in her DNA. She was impressive as a singer from an early age singing for her church choir and mentored by her mother who was, by all accounts, an often difficult taskmaster.

After being signed to a contract with Arista Records boss Clive Davis, she rocketed to fame with her debut album which in many ways defined her era. In the mid-80s you really couldn’t go very long without hearing her songs on the radio and while there was some grumbling about how she was being marketed to a white audience (as a light-skinned black girl, she had been bullied as a youngster in Newark where she grew up) she nevertheless grew up to be one of the most formidable talents of her time.

But there were pressures on her to maintain the success and the gravy train that had been created by that success. Most of her family was employed by Whitney (her estranged father who had divorced her mother when Whitney was a young girl was her manager and her brothers were road  managers) and the carefully marketed “good girl” image that had been created for her began to crumble. A marriage to R&B singer Bobby Brown put further cracks in the veneer and as the 90s progressed it became apparent that Whitney was using drugs.

The documentary by veteran filmmaker Macdonald isn’t the first on Houston (Showtime aired one just last year) but it is perhaps the most personal; interviews with her family members give us a better picture of the real Whitney than her Showtime doc did. The documentary follows her life relatively chronologically although a revelation about two-thirds of the way through the movie of an incident that happened when she was much younger makes for some dramatic footage but it also throws the flow of the movie askew. There also seems to have been a reluctance on Macdonald’s part to follow up too deeply on that revelation – in fact, he seemed reluctant to follow up on any of the really unflattering aspects of her life at all.

Of course her drug use was the elephant in the room and while it is addressed, Macdonald almost regards it as a corollary to her fame and fortune, almost as predetermined as having paparazzi following her around. There is no footage from her train wreck of a reality show Inside Bobby Brown and when Brown is questioned about his ex-wife’s drug use, he says in no uncertain terms that he doesn’t want to talk about it. Well, what the hell did he think that any documentary about his wife’s time with him would want to talk about him with?

The last days of Whitney’s life are particularly hard to watch. While the performance footage of her during the prime of her career is a reminder of just how powerful and beautiful her voice was – and how absolutely she had control over it – footage of her singing during the last year of her life is almost painful. Her voice is raspy and off-key and when she tries to hit the high notes…well, it’s not pretty. It acts as a cautionary tale to any aspiring performer who thinks that they can “handle” drugs.

Still, if you want to look at this as a celebration of her life the film does that quite well. Fans of the late singer can renew their affection for her. Those who weren’t particular fans of hers probably won’t end up being converted to blind admiration but if you know anything about music you absolutely have to respect her voice and her work ethic early on.

I get the sense that we get a little deeper into who Whitney Houston was and that’s a positive. There are a lot of talking heads in this picture and occasionally they go over the same territory perhaps to distraction but this is simply put essential viewing for fans of the diva and of 80s pop music in general. Bring plenty of hankies though; it’s hard to watch the highs without the thought of the lows that were to come and would lead to her end alone in a hotel room drowning in a bathtub, a fate tragically shared by her daughter just three years later.

Still, I don’t know anyone who listens to “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” who isn’t instantly uplifted with the joy of being alive. Whitney Houston could do that with her voice and it is absolutely tragic that it was taken away from her – and us.

REASONS TO GO: The final days of Whitney are truly heartbreaking. Some of the performance video from when she was in her prime reiterates how powerful a singer she truly was.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit rote as documentaries go. Macdonald seemed to be unwilling to ask the tough questions.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as drug use and other drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There were a lot of interviews that were filmed but never used. Macdonald felt that they were banal and added nothing to the narrative.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Amy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Blood of Wolves

Grace Jones: Bloodlight + Bami


Nobody owns the stage like Grace Jones.

(2017) Music Documentary (Kino-Lorber) Grace Jones, Jean-Paul Goude, Sly Dunbar. Directed by Sophie Fiennes

At 70, Grace Jones remains what she always has been – a fashion innovator, an icon in the LGBTQ community, a fierce personality and an unparalleled performer. Although she did a 1985 documentary on herself, that was much more of a concert film.

Jones throughout her career has been deliberately enigmatic, meticulously maintaining her image which is intimidating and alluring at once, the very pinnacle of androgyny combining performance artist and disco diva. In her heyday she was one of the most successful artists specializing in club music and yet few but her most devoted fans (and most of her fans are, to be fair, devoted) knew much about her background.

You won’t learn much here either. Fiennes follows the legend as she records her most recent reggae-tinged album in her home country of Jamaica where she was born – her family are prominently featured. At home, she affects a Jamaican patois which is largely missing from her speech now although it must be said that she adopts the accent of wherever she is – an upper class British lilt when in London, a slightly French twang in Paris and upstate New York (she grew up from age 13 near Syracuse) when in the States.

All that aside, Jones has had the kind of career that has been influential far beyond her own immediate circle and further beyond the confines of any catwalk, concert hall or movie. She deserves a definitive documentary but let’s face it; we may never get to see one and this one certainly isn’t it. I will grant it’s far more revealing about her background than any other documentary I’ve seen on the lady but she is a difficult nut to crack. She doesn’t tolerate shit at all nor does she have to. She has never been particularly open about her background; while she sometimes complains here about the grind that comes with being a pop diva (she endures a particularly insulting music video because as she reminds us, the fees she gets for it will pay for the entire album she’s recording. While she is clearly adored by her fans (most but not all of whom are gay) and she is more or less accessible to them, she also keeps her distance as well.

It doesn’t help that Fiennes has delivered a fairly disjointed documentary that jumps from place to place, inserts concert footage (which is the best part of the film by the way) and almost never gives any particular insight as to who Grace Jones is. She also fails to identify nearly anyone who appears onscreen, whether backing musicians, dancers, family or friends – hence the somewhat abbreviated cast list.

Yes, I get that she is the very definition of fierce and is not above confrontations when she thinks they are needed; I get that she is spiritually connected to her family and her homeland; I get that she enjoys the larger-than-life limelight and the persona that she’s carefully crafted over the years. But what lies behind the excessive masks and hats, the glitter and the make-up, the long model legs (that are still as long and as beautiful as ever)? We don’t get even a glimpse and that’s what I really wanted to see.

REASONS TO GO: The performance footage is compelling.
REASONS TO STAY: The direction is somewhat haphazard. One gets the sense that the director wasn’t sure what she wanted to say.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity and smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Fiennes is the sister of actors Ralph and Joseph Fiennes.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 84% positive reviews: Metacritic: 75/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Grace Jones: State of Grace
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Cold War

Marguerite


Not quite the voice of an angel.

Not quite the voice of an angel.

(2015) Biographical Drama (Cohen Media Group) Catherine Frot, André Marcon, Michel Fau, Christa Théret, Denis Mpunga, Sylvain Dieuaide, Aubert Fenoy, Sophia Leboutte, Théo Cholbi, Astrid Whettnall, Vincent Schmitt, Christian Pereira, Martine Pascal, Grégoire Stecker, Jean-Yves Tual, Boris Hybner, Pierre Peyrichout, Joel Bros, Lucie Strourackova. Directed by Xavier Giannoli

Dreams are all well and good, but one must have the basic equipment to pursue them, else they become instruments of self-torture. That’s where delusion can be a blessing.

Marguerite Dumont (Frot) is a wealthy matron of the arts in Paris in the 1920s. Her husband Georges (Marcon) is a baron who depends on her wealth to keep his estates running. Marguerite is kind and sweet-natured and everyone loves her, particularly her chauffeur Madelbos (Mpunga), who also acts as her unofficial photographer.
Marguerite also loves to sing, opera in particular. She often holds recitals at her home for her circle of family and friends, or for the musical society she helped found. The problem is – she can’t sing a note. She has trouble holding the high notes and often sounds like a cat being smacked against a brick wall. It’s so unbelievably bad that when she practices, Madelbos often hands out earplugs to the servants around the estate.

Nobody is willing to break her heart by telling her since everyone adores her. At a private recital for war orphans, which she has been giving annually since the Great War ended, an opening act is invited – a beautiful soprano named Hazel (Théret) who is actually talented. Sneaking in are music critic Lucien Beaumont (Dieuaide) and anarchist and Dadaist Kyrill (Fenoy) to find out what goes on at these soirees for themselves.

When Marguerite, the main event comes on, the assemblage has to work hard to restrain their titters. Both Lucien and Kyrill have differing reactions; Lucien writes a review which is deliberately vague as to her talent; when Marguerite reads it, she interprets it as a vindication of her abilities and she determines to put on a public concert. Kyrill, on the other hand, sees Marguerite as a living refutation of art and offers to have her perform at Dadaist events, which she does – and it gets her thrown out of her own musical society.

She decides to enlist some help and Madelbos blackmails down-on-his-luck opera singer Atos Pezzini (Fau) to tutor her. He puts her into a rigorous training schedule, some of which is a little bit – unusual, to say the least. As the date approaches, Georges is encouraged to tell his wife the truth and spare her the humiliation, but can’t bring himself to do it. Nobody is willing or able to tell Marguerite with most of the people around her having an agenda of their own. What happens to a dream when you discover that you can never possibly achieve it?

Giannoli loosely based his latest work on the life of a real person, American diva Florence Foster Jenkins; you can hear her singing on her Wikipedia page and the Mozart aria “Der Hölle Rache” from The Magic Flute which is the first song Marguerite sings in the film. It is nearly a note-perfect rendition and has to be heard to be believed.

The production design is absolutely flawless, bringing back the Jazz Age in Paris to a T. We get the sense of wealth and luxury that is destined to come crashing down in just a few short years Still, it is an epoch regarded with some affection today and we are given a good taste of it thanks to the filmmakers’ eye for detail.

Frot is also amazing; she exudes charm and sweetness and never lets the ridiculousness of her character’s delusions devolve into ludicrousness. In fact, Marguerite is a sympathetic character but her delusions don’t make her ridiculous; rather they make her identifiable for most of us. I mean, I’d love to be a rock star but a portly balding 50 plus year old with a lousy voice isn’t exactly going to fill up concert halls. I still dream of rock stardom however, and watching Marguerite I find a certain wistfulness that makes my dreams seem less ridiculous by comparison.

The movie is a bit on the long side with a few unnecessary plotlines that could have easily have been eliminated for the sake of brevity. There’s also a drawing room stage-like quality that sometimes gets a little claustrophobic; Giannoli could have expanded his canvas a little bit and made the movie more palatable. Still, I liked the layers of the film; there’s a lot to think about here and a lot worth looking into.

Don’t be off put by the singing; it’s truly awful but it isn’t the focus here. What is that sometimes it’s better to tell a woman who asks you “Do I look fat in this dress” the truth; in the long run, it might be best for everyone concerned if those delusions get punctured as early as possible. However, this film has no delusions; this is a strong and worthwhile effort that any decent film buff will want to go see without delay.

REASONS TO GO: Frot gives a dynamic performance. Sumptuous production values.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit on the stage-y side. A little too much going on.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and a scene of brief graphic nudity, as well as a scene of brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The lead character’s name is taken from the opera-singing foil for the Marx Brothers in their films.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/1/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 96% positive reviews. Metacritic: 76/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harvey
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Quartet (2012)


Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart's 50th Class Reunion.

Professor McGonagall at the Hogwart’s 50th Class Reunion.

(2013) Dramedy (Weinstein) Maggie Smith, Tom Courtenay, Billy Connolly, Pauline Collins, Michael Gambon, Sheridan Smith, Andrew Sachs, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Trevor Peacock, Michael Byrne, Ronnie Fox, Patricia Loveland, Eline Powell. Directed by Dustin Hoffman

Going from the spotlight to obscurity must be an incredibly hard situation to accept, particularly when it is age that has relegated you thus. Even the most beautiful and bucolic of environments may pale when compared to the limelight.

Beecham House in the English countryside is certainly a beautiful environment. Named for the noted British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, it is now a retirement home for professional musicians – opera singers, popular vocalists, chamber musicians and the like. Like many such institutions, it faces economic difficulties and relies on benefit concerts staged by its residents, many of whom still have names that resonate on the English music scene.

The upcoming concert marking the birthday of Giusseppe Verdi is the occasion for a kind of organized panic overseen by Cedric Livingston (Gambon) – who pronounces his first name See-dric, not Seh-dric as he reminds Wilf Bond (Connolly) regularly to his great exasperation.

Otherwise, things are pretty much as normal at Beecham House where friends and colleagues Wilf, Reggie Paget (Courtenay) and Cissy Robson (Collins) live a quiet life of looking back. Wilf though is just as concerned with chasing skirt as his libido remains in full flower even if the bloom has withered a bit on the rose. Cissy is growing increasingly forgetful but it is just a part of the indignities of old age. The somewhat courtly Reggie gives lectures to opera to schoolchildren who are more interested in rap. Everything is more or less peaceful.

But things are turned upside down on themselves and into an uproar when the pretty but harried Dr. Lucy Cogan (S. Smith) introduces the newest resident – the diva Jean Horton (M. Smith), one of the most famous and beloved opera singers of her day. However, she had a tumultuous marriage to Reginald that ended with her infidelity. They haven’t spoken in decades.

But worse still Cedric wants a reunion between Jean, Reggie, Wilf and Cissy whose quartet of Rigoletto‘s “Bella figlia dell’amore” was one of opera’s greatest moments ever and has recently been re-released on compact disc – which in itself is a bit anachronistic. Jean however wants no part of it and Reggie while understanding that the revenue such a reunion would generate might well save their home is understandably unenthusiastic for such a grouping. However, he’s game and sets out to change the mind of the diva.

Cissy for some reason seems particularly motivated to see it happen and she befriends Jean who seems somewhat lost and soon the reason for Jean’s reluctance becomes clear – she’s terrified that her voice is gone, that in doing this performance her fans will always remember her for a last debacle instead of the great career she enjoyed. And as the time draws nigh for the performance, it appears certain that there may not be a home for her to live in for much longer.

This is Hoffman’s directorial debut (technically he directed Straight Time for a few days back in 1978 but withdrew after he found it too difficult to direct and act simultaneously – he doesn’t appear hear as an actor for that reason) and he chose his material wisely. As a director he’s smart enough to keep things fairly simple; there aren’t a lot of camera tricks here, the storytelling is simple and elegant. While he doesn’t show anything extraordinary neither does he make any mistakes.

This is based on a play by screenwriter Ronald Harwood, a Hollywood veteran whose résumé includes The Dresser, The Pianist and Being Julia. Like many of his works, Quartet shows Harwood’s fascination for performers and their venues. This shows performers in the twilight of their careers which you’d almost expect from Harwood who is himself a septuagenarian.

The material here holds some interest but it is the actors who really elevate the work. Connolly, one of Scotland’s great treasures, is at his very best here – a charming Lothario who has no problem expressing his sexuality, seemingly fascinated that he still has any. Wilf claims that a stroke left him without any sort of filter so he says what’s on his mind which the others seemingly forgive him for, although the wily Scot may well be just saying that so he doesn’t have to waste time and energy prevaricating.

But Courtenay will be the one I remember here. His quiet gentility has a timeless quality to it. When I think of English gentlemen, it is Reginald Paget that will come to mind. He’s polite and gentle, but also shows fits of outrage and wounded pride from time to time. More than the others he’s accepted who he is and his place in the universe. His mind is still active and seeks to learn more about the world around him but he isn’t especially eager to seek out the world in general. He wants a “dignified senility,” he tells Wilf and you can imagine nothing but for him. Courtenay is one of those actors who has appeared onscreen only periodically over the years but every time he does you find yourself wishing he would appear more often.

Maggie Smith, who received a Golden Globe nomination for her work here, delivers a haunting performance as a diva who is terrified of a future of anonymity and decay. “I used to be someone, you know” she says and it is perfectly clear how important that status was to her, to be someone. Her harsh exterior hides that insecurity that she’ll be forgotten in the end, a fate worse than death for someone like Jean. Smith, who last year performed in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which some have (quite erroneously I think) compared this to, shows once again her extraordinary range as an actress. There are a lot of layers to the character and she nails them all, never hitting a single false note.

Veterans Gambon and Collins also deliver in their roles. Hoffman in a showing of finesse, fills much of the cast with actual retired British musicians and in a bit of a grace note during the end credits shows the mostly elderly cast with their stage credits along with pictures of them from their glory days. Hoffman shows some promise as a director if this acting thing doesn’t work out for him.

I found myself really liking this movie early on from the absolutely magnificent gardens and spaces in Beecham House and environs to the charm of the actors. While there were a few spots which seemed to be a bit on the too-sweet side, for the most part this is a really good movie that has to do with aging gracefully which I suppose anyone could do if they had a place like Beecham House to do it in – a place filled with music in all hours and in all corners. I could certainly retire happily to a place like that.

REASONS TO GO: Connolly is a gem. Courtenay, Smith and Collins are very much underrated who make the most out of every opportunity. Gambon is marvelous. Beautifully shot.

REASONS TO STAY: Can get treacly in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are a few bad words here and there and some mildly sexual suggestive dialogue.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie of the same title that Maggie Smith has been in; the first Quartet came out in 1981 and is completely unrelated to this one.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100; solid reviews here.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: How About You?

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Intermedio

I’m Still Here


I'm Still Here

Joaquin Phoenix prepares for his next role in the remake of Grizzly Adams.

(2010) Mockumentary (Magnolia) Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Casey Affleck, Jack Nicholson, Billy Crystal, Danny Glover, Bruce Willis, Robin Wright, Ben Stiller, Mos Def, Sean Combs, Jamie Foxx, Edward James Olmos, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, Natalie Portman. Directed by Casey Affleck

 

We have an image of stars in our heads as self-absorbed divas who throw tantrums if they don’t get things EXACTLY the way they want it (“I told you, no BROWN M&M’s…why is that so hard?”) they throw legendary tantrums. We are fascinated by their behavior.

Which is what the makers of I’m Still Here are banking on. This is a chronicle of actor Joaquin Phoenix, who famously retired from acting after the 2008 indie romance Two Lovers to embark upon a rap career. He had a meltdown on the David Letterman show, one in which the host quipped “I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight Joaquin” which is shown here.

He also has an assistant named Anton (Langdon) that he humiliates  and abuses mercilessly, so much so that Anton takes a dump into the actor’s face while he’s sleeping. Such is the abuse that you will not think the act unjustified, although be assured that he’s not really doing what he appears to be doing. In fact, Phoenix is abusive to nearly everybody here to the point where it’s amazing that anyone would be willingly employed by him. Which is ironic because in reality, there were sexual harrassment charges brought against the filmmakers which were settled out of court.

There was some debate as to whether this whole thing was an elaborate hoax. At the time people were unsure and many of the reviews of the film from its 2010 release reflect that the critics were unsure and confused.

Let me set the record straight – it’s a hoax. Of course it was. Would Joaquin Phoenix allow a movie that portrayed him as an tyrannical egomaniac that is borderline psychotic ever see the light of day? Think about the logic; if someone is as egotistical as Phoenix is made out to be here, he would never allow his image to be tarnished.

I mean, Phoenix’ rap music is borderline unlistenable – and everybody but Phoenix knows it. Affleck’s camera captures the reactions to the music; from polite disbelief to outright hostility. Nobody but Affleck and Phoenix are in on the joke (and maybe some of the actors, such as Langdon) so you get their genuine reactions to situations that are awkward.

Which is fine, but the audience ends up being caught in the awkwardness, much like watching a friend who’s had too much to drink soil themselves. You want to get up, make your excuses and get as far away from the train wreck as possible which is not how you want your audience to feel. The truth is, this is really an exercise in ego – you’re not let in on the joke (which is a cardinal sin) and expected not to feel the fool when you figure it out – because if you don’t you wind up completely repulsed. Part of my distaste is the portrayal of Phoenix as a borderline drug addict – which considering the way his brother River passed away really stretches the line as far as I’m concerned.

There are a lot of celebrity cameos (as you can see from the credits above) and I believe none of them are in on the joke either. So you get the sense that the hoaxers did their jobs too well – they’ve really put one over on all of us to the point that there are plenty of people who think that it wasn’t a hoax. For me, seeing is believing.

WHY RENT THIS: Occasionally amusing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A crude exercise in ego. Not nearly as funny or engrossing as they think it is.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some graphic nudity and drug use, a plethora of swear words, plenty of anti-social behavior and crude content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The person in the film that is playing Joaquin Phoenix’ father is actually Casey Affleck’s dad.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There are some conversations in which Affleck, Phoenix and various critics and academics discuss the film, the hoax and the aftermath.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $568,963 on an unreported production budget; this might have just made some money

COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Is Spinal Tap

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Matrix

Tropic Thunder


Tropic Thunder

Stiller and Downey share a tender moment in Tropic Thunder.

(2008) Comedy (DreamWorks) Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Nick Nolte, Steve Coogan, Tom Cruise, Jay Baruchel, Bill Hader, Matthew McConaughey, Danny McBride, Brandon Jackson, Matt Levin, Reggie Lee.  Directed by Ben Stiller

Hollywood is indeed a dream factory, a place in which fantasies are packaged and sold. In making these fantasies however, sometimes real life becomes blurred and the line between the two disappears completely.

Tugg Speedman (Stiller) is an action star who yearned to branch out and do serious drama, but his one attempt (“Simple Jack”) ended up in disaster, with Tugg playing a mentally challenged farmer who thought he could communicate with animals. It was a naked Oscar play and everyone knew it and now Tugg’s career is in the dumpster. He’s making a big-budget star-studded war film to do a little career resuscitation.

The movie he’s doing is based on the memoirs of a Vietnam vet named Four Leaf Tayback (Nolte), a tough as nails soldier who lost limbs in the war. Joining Tugg in the cast is Kirk Lazarus (Downey), a five-time Oscar winner and method actor who gets so into the role he has his skin surgically dyed so he is able to convincingly play a black Sergeant. Comedian Jeff Portnoy (Black) has made a career out of fart jokes and self-indulgence. A heroin addict, he is on the raggedy edge of falling apart.

This is enough to give any director cardiac arrest, and director Damien Cockburn (Coogan) is close to it himself. The massive budget is spiraling out of control, with the prima donna actors causing numerous delays while technical issues drive the production further into the red and behind schedule. The studio head, Les Grossman (Cruise) is placing enough pressure on Cockburn to make the Dali Lama pick up an AK-47 and start firing randomly.

So, taking a cue from the crusty Tayback, Cockburn decides to send the cast into the real jungle, with cameras set up in various places. No trailers, no personal assistants, no Blackberries – just acting in the jungle. Speedman is gung ho for the idea, even after things begin to go south. As in, they fall afoul of an actual crew of drug runners who are shooting at them with real bullets. The actors, not knowing any better, are merely waiting for someone to yell “cut”!

This is a nice little satire on Hollywood and its denizens, from the unctuous agent (McConaughey) to the harried studio assistant (Hader). Stiller turns this into a cross between Airplane and Rambo with a number of homages in between. In fact there are so many you have to keep a sharp eye open to catch them all.

With a cast like this you’d expect there to be some hilarity but very often in these kind of all-star romps it descends into a series of bits that ultimately don’t make much of a cohesive whole. That’s not the problem here. This isn’t a bunch of stars doing their thing – it’s a movie in which everyone contributes their bit, from Jackson as rapper Alpa Chino who as the only actor who is genuinely of African descent is annoyed at the antics of Lazarus who in his method haze genuinely believes he’s black to McBride as an explosives expert who is in above his head.

Downey in fact proves to be a terrific comic actor who isn’t above poking fun at himself. Downey is himself a method actor and stays in character onscreen and off until, as Lazarus puts it, the DVD commentary is done. Stiller bulked up to play the somewhat clueless Speedman. It’s a bit like shooting fish in a barrel but still his character has a bit of Hollywood diva in it to make it more interesting than the average action star send-up.

Black is actually a little bit toned down here, although he has moments in which he indulges his usual manic persona a little bit. I think it works even in the context of Portnoy the heroin addict, although towards the end of the movie the character is wearing a bit thin on me.

For my money it is Cruise who makes the biggest impact here, completely going out on a limb as the foul-mouthed bastard of a studio head. His performance was so indelible that plans are afoot to make a movie based on his character when Cruise finishes his next film. There are those who think that Cruise restored a lot of bad karma to the good side with his performance here. I’m not such a big believer in that kind of thing, but I do believe you’ll remember Cruise long after the movie’s over.

There are times that the movie tries a bit too hard to be funny and becomes rather silly instead (which is usually what happens when you try too hard to be funny) but fortunately that doesn’t happen often enough to be of consequence. As comedies go, this one should be near the top of your list when searching the DVD racks for something funny to watch.

WHY RENT THIS: A terrific cast that works well together to make a great ensemble film, rather than a bunch of bits strung together. Cruise is classic as the foul-mouthed studio mogul.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Descends into silliness upon occasion.  

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a lot of bad words, a lot of sexual innuendo, a bit of drug usage and a whole mess o’ violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: According to Stiller, Jack Black filmed most of the movie with bruised ribs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an excellent Mockumentary on the making of the film that is supposedly being made with a nod to Heart of Darkness and Werner Herzog. There’s a bit of raw footage showing how the actor’s improvised on set plus a piece from the MTV Movie Awards showing how a trio of the leads tried to promote the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $188.1M on a $92M production budget; the movie broke even.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Everything Must Go