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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington Wilmington@moviecitynews.com

Wilmington on Movies: I’m Still Here, Soul Kitchen and Bran Nue Dae

I’m Still Here (Two Stars)
U. S.; Casey Affleck, 2010

This movie — director Casey Affleck‘s seemingly unsparing look at the weird and infamous career-change crisis (from Oscar-nominated actor to slovenly, talentless rapper) of  Affleck’s brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix — seems to have divided critics and media writers among between those who think it’s a real documentary (or at least part of one), a non-fiction show full of bone-chilling glimpses of the dark side of Hollywood and the creepy side of success; those who think it’s a flat out mockumentary (or at least part of one) artfully concocted by Phoenix and Affleck, whose con game gulled David Letterman (perhaps) and much of the country with him; and those who don’t know and don’t care but think, in either case, it’s a crockumentary (or at least part of one)  and were grossed out by producer-star Phoenix’s seemingly unsparing revelations, or skits, about what a complete asshole, deranged blowhard and ego-tripping nincompoop Joaquin or Joaquin can be, real or fake.

Okay. Here’s my opinion.  I think they  had us on.  Obviously.  Totally.  To me (and to lots of others) this looks like a Borat-style mix of a fake central character (Phoenix travestying himself) and a fake premise with some (maybe quite a few) real reactions from the real world around him. (How many, who can tell?)  Frankly, though I’ve been fooled, like almost everybody else, with the year-long tabloid media brouhaha whirling around Phoenix’s supposed retirement from acting and his rebirth as a rapper-who-can’t-rap, I don’t think there’s a chance in hell this guy really wants a hip hop life and that much of what we see here wasn’t dreamed up by the brothers-in-law and then perpetrated willfully before cinematographer Magdalena Gorka‘s supposedly omni-present camera — which sees everything, and goes everywhere, even, at one point (almost) up Joaquin’s assistant’s ass.

Affleck shows us some stuff we’ve seen. Phoenix self-destructing on the Letterman Show, decked out in  a scraggly, Hasidic-looking remnant of a ZZ Top beard, chewing gum (and then sticking it under Letterman‘s desk), announcing his movie star retirement and hip hop aspirations, and getting a tremendous ribbing from Letterman (Joaquin, I‘m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight.). Phoenix being ribbed even worse, in absentia, on the Oscar Show, by Ben Stiller, who showed up for his presentation dressed like Joaquin on Letterman and acting if he were  ready to sniff everything on stage.  And Joaquin debuting his mind-boggling rap act at Las Vegas, dealing with a heckler by calling him a bitch, bragging about his own million dollar bank account, and then jumping, swinging, into the crowd.

We see also see some new stuff, the supposed backstory: notably two long sequences in which genuine rapper-producer Sean (P. Diddy) Combs agrees to produce Jo-Po if the money is there, and then tries to let him down firmly but gently after listening appalled, to his songs (I’m still real./I won’t kneel.) telling him he liked the first two, but it was kind of downhill from there, and  that you’re not at that point to work with me. (Believe me, he was kind.)

More.  Joaquin rambling on about how he hates acting, hates his life and wants to let out the real me (Answered prayers…).  Joaquin snorting something that looks like cocaine, smoking something that looks like pot, and nuzzling himself between the huge breasts of what looks like a hooker.  Joaquin,  bleary-eyed, turning down Stiller, who is offering him a part in Greenberg and seems stunned that the ex-actor obviously hasn’t read the script.  Joaquin screaming in agony, in the park, after the Letterman fiasco, about how he‘s fucked his career and fucked his life.  Joaquin tearing a new asshole on one of his assistants, Antony (Langdon), whom he accuses of betrayal and who later gets his revenge by sneaking into Joaquin’s bedroom on camera where his ex-boss is  sleeping and taking a shit in his face.

 SPOILER ALERT

 Joaquin, trying to talk to his father, who doesn’t speak. Joaquin walking into the water and…

 END OF SPOILER

Did all this really happen, unfaked? Well, that question seems to be settled by the credits of I’m Still Here, which list Phoenix and Affleck as writers, give what looks like an actors credit to the Las Vegas hecklers, give a very large music credit to somebody else, and offer fulsome thanks to both Combs and Stiller (whom Joaquin, mysteriously isn’t mad at).

There are other clues all the way through. Summer Phoenix, who is Joaquin’s wife and Casey’s sister, never appears in this film, and yet hasn’t disowned either of them, despite those presumed coke-spattered hookers. Joaquin has an actor, Tim Affleck, playing his father.  Joaquin may have yelled at Antony (an actor from Velvet Goldmine) for betraying him, but he apparently didn’t dismiss either Casey or the cinematographer for shooting him unawares getting crapped on — or exercise his producer‘s option of excising this material. (Maybe it was a rogue shoot.)

The post-Letterman howl, as many have noticed, seems a bit too well and dramatically written (or improvised), and a bit too well caught. The Edward James Olmos water drop soliloquy seems too perfectly rhymed with the movie’s last shot. But some of  the other scenes have that slightly half-baked quality that a lot of on camera improvised acting has —  the sense that the actors are waiting to leap in and aren’t totally listening to each other.

A major point: Even given all the drugs seemingly ingested here, it’s hard to believe that Phoenix could be the same gifted actor who gave so many sensitive, intelligent, well-judged performances  –  including the voyeur in Two Lovers, which was done right before this film commences and his musically savvy impersonation of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line — and be here such a total, oblivious, off-the-wall  dickhead, off screen and on camera. Of course, there are plenty of Hollywood precedents. Witness the great John Barrymore taking impromptu dumps and whizzes at parties, introducing himself to the young Kate Hepburn by exposing himself, and playing his celebrated, universally-hailed  London premiere of Hamlet,  dead drunk, remembering all his lines, but lurching from arras to curtain to Ophelia to curtain, and vomiting behind them. That was the Great Profile. Somehow, the Joaquin we see here is a little too gross to be completely  convincing.

 Besides, if  Affleck and Gorka were really shooting Joaquin unplugged for a year, there has to be a some good stuff on him, some stuff where he behaves decently, at least some of the time (other than the shattered climax). Yet every scene in this movie, with the partial exception of the post-Letterman lament, seems designed (scripted?) to show him at his worst, which suggests a screenplay or outline with a theme.

Finally, the name of Joaquin’s and Casey’s production company is They’re Going to Kill Us. That’s something you might say when you’ve been caught playing an elaborate practical joke.

 I don’t know why I bothered with all that, except that there do seem to be some people who think this movie might be kosher, or aren’t sure. For those who do, I have the Brooklyn Bridge in my back pocket and I’ll sell it to you for a song. But not one of Joaquin’s.  

It’s another damned good acting job though.  (If it is.)  And an interesting acting challenge:  Try to fool the whole country for a movie project, for a year.  (The unlikelihood of getting away with that is one piece of evidence, sort of, in favor of the documentary theory).  And it’s even a rich, juicy theme: the longing of a successful movie star to be an up-from-the-streets outlaw artist, the destructive hedonism of the Hollywood rich elite, and the ways that big money and big celebrity can curdle your brains.

 I’m Still Here isn’t shot too well, but the acting is often super, especially by Phoenix and Combs (if he‘s acting). Is there an Oscar category for best leading male performance in a so-called documentary? Shine it up for Joaquin, who must be more than ready by now to rise from the asses. And get Ben Stiller to hand it to him.  Unbearded.    

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Soul Kitchen (Three Stars)
U.S.; Fatih Akin, 2009

 Fatih Akin’s new movie is as nervy, fast-moving and hard-edged as Head On or The Edge of Heaven, but it’s mood and motive are much sunnier and bubblier. It’s a comedy, a bawdy and delicious one, about a Greek-German restaurant owner-manager trying to make a go of a hip little eatery called Soul Kitchen — ensconced in a large space in an industrial area of Hamburg, full of comfort food and jumping with pop music. The Kitchen, which booms out the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing,” Curtis Mayfield, Quincy Jones, Ruth Brown and other soul classics over the speakers, and draws much of its patronage from a nearby art school, is a smoking little place.  Its menu (pizza, burgers, fries) is easy and toothsome, and its staff is congenial but it’s problems are also seemingly endless.

For much of the movie we simply watch the Kitchen’s owner-hero, Zinos Kazantzakis (played by real life restaurateur and longtime Akin buddy Adam Bousdoukos), run around  trying to solve them — to untangle his troubled love life, the keep his staff happy, and to keep out of the hands of predatory creditors, a relentless taxwoman and malicious, greedy business sharks. Zinos’ romantic turmoil mostly revolves around brainy journalist heiress-beauty Nadine (Pheline Roggan) who has a job (and maybe a new boyfriend) in China. His personnel quandaries stem from his new temperamental chef, Shayn Weiss (Birol Unel), who likes to throw knives, and from his ex-con brother Ilias (Moritz Blibtreu), who likes to gamble and has a crush on a waitress. His most troublesome tax collector, and most persistent predatory business shark (Wotan Wilke Mohring as Thomas Neumann) are often at his door, and , at least once, in each other’s arms. And we haven’t even mentioned the slipped disc.

Kazantzakis, who, of course, has the same name as one of Greece’s greatest novelists, Nikos Kazantzakis (The Last Temptation of Christ, Zorba the Greek), also has an energy and upbeat personality that seem equal to the task. But barely.  

The Turkish-German Akin‘s other movies — great, unsparing looks at urban youth and the immigrant experience in modern  Germany, have been lively and sexy and often grim. Soul Kitchen is lively and sexy and often funny. It definitely shows Akin has more strings to his bow, at least when his tummy is nicely full and his appetites slaked.

 This movie reminded me very pleasantly of college days in Madison, Wisconsin in the ‘60s and ‘70s , where a place called Soul Kitchen, with that menu (or at least the original menu), that staff and that play list, would have been the hit of the town. (They would have had to put The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” on the jukebox though. And it would have been played a lot.)  Akin’s show reminded me joyously of my old friend, the late Jim Cusimano, alias The State Street Gourmet, an eloquent writer and happy trencherman who was restaurant critic for our college paper, The Daily Cardinal, when I was the movie critic and Gerry Peary was the arts editor. These are happy, lip-smacking memories.

Bousdoukos may be a film acting amateur. But his years of pulling customers in for his food have given him a natural energy and a shaggy presence and charisma, that helps keep all these whirligig plots in motion. Blibtreu, as brother Moritz — a well-meaning but reckless guy who has trouble stamped on his neck — gives a marvelous supporting performance. And so does Unel as Weiss, a chef willing to pull a knife on a customer, rather than blasphemously heat up his bowl of gazpacho. The rest of the cast, all good, pungently illustrate the whole melting-pot pizzazz of life in the city when you’re (relatively) young, active, and alive to lots of options. And ready for snacks of all kinds.

Now mind you, Soul Kitchen is no profound, life changing cinematic experience. Who cares? I liked it a lot. And maybe I speak too soon of profundity or its absence. After all, this has to be a life changing experience for both Zinos and Ilias. It’s just that these are also troubles, however grave and vexing they appear, that we can laugh at, muddle through, and that can temporarily be solved by a tasty gyro or a heart-warming doumani. And some sweet soul music. (In German, with English subtitles.)   

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Bran Nue Dae (Three Stars)
Australia, Rachel Perkins, 2009

 Movie musicals have been on the rise again recently, and here‘s a very curious and delightful, and often wonderful, mix of road movie and romantic musical comedy, based on the smash hit pop musical by Jimmy Chi and his band Knuckles.  

 The movie, brightly and engagingly directed by award-winner Rachel Perkins (Radiance) and beautifully shot by Lord of the Rings’ Andrew Lesnie, is a feast for eye, ear, funny bone and soul. Chi gives us something simultaneously old-fashioned and radical: an aboriginal musical. The hero, Willie (played by Rocky McKenzie), flees from a seemingly busted romance with his dream girl Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), to the dubious solace of  hard-case priest Father Benedictus (the excellent Geoffrey Rush), a man who never lets a soul get away.  Then Willie escapes from the holy trap to travel back home with two would-be hippies and a cheerful bum named Uncle Tadpole. Tadpole is played, in the film’s top performance (I’m sure Rush would agree)  by a terrific actor named Ernie Dingo, whose style, looks and talent are very reminiscent of Morgan Freeman‘s. (You can’t top that.)  

Bran Nue Dae is not a great musical and in many ways, its style and structure are a little over-familiar. But it’s also, often enough, tremendous, rousing fun. How can you not have a soft spot for a show whose showstopper song boasts the lyrics There’s nothing that I’d rather be, than to be an aborigine! song by a cheeky classful of Aussie kids right in the faces of their stern teachers?  G’day, indeed.

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Mademoiselle Chambon (Three Stars)
France; Stephane Brize, 2009

“Of all the words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.“ So says the poet and  perhaps, for much of  Mademoiselle Chambon, so says Stephane Brize, the director/co-writer of this “Brief Encounterish“ tale of a somewhat happily married house builder, Jean (Vincent Lindon) who falls I love with his little boy‘s schoolteacher, Mademoiselle Chambon (Sandrine Kiberlain). Thanks to Lindon, Jean goes very believably heartstruck when Mlle. Chambon plays the classical violin (especially Edward Elgar), and then also must deal with her approaching departure, his own strongly moral nature and the fact that his wife, Anne-Marie (Aurore Atika) is both blameless (even if she is ignorant about direct objects in French grammar) and pregnant.

Lindon and Kiberlain, both exemplary actors, are an interesting couple — she’s brainy, wispy and interested, he‘s brawny, good with his hands and shy  — and this adaptation by Brize and co-writer Florence Vignon of Eric Holder‘s novel, wrings as many drops  of erotic tension, as many moony stares and averted eyes, pregnant silences and yearning almost-touches, as it possibly can. Most of the passion is sub-surface, as it was in David Lean and Noel Coward’s postwar classic of Rachmaninoff-drenched repression. (See above).  The visual style is chaste too. When young, smart-ass media neo-conservatives bitch about French movies, this may be part of what bothers them. Sex mixed with principles isn‘t their cuppa and neither are movies that take romance seriously.

But in many great love stories, it’s the difficulties that make the drama, the frustrations that feed the pasion. And that‘s the case here, too. Thanks to Lindon and Kiberlain, we feel again what it means to suffer, silently. “Chambon” is not great, but its certainly good. Wispy, but good. (French, with English subtitles.)

5 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: I’m Still Here, Soul Kitchen and Bran Nue Dae”

  1. Sid says:

    FYI: Summer Phoenix is Casey’s wife and Joaquin’s sister instead of the other way around.

  2. Clubber Lang says:

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