I’m Still Here (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
When Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was to retire from acting and pursue a career as a hip-hop artist, the media was abuzz, wondering if he had lost his mind. Some were angry with his decision because they thought it served as a mockery of something they deeply respected. Personally, I did not care so much of the announcement. While I was a bit saddened because he was a very good actor, I thought he was well within his right to change career paths. After all, hundreds of thousands of people decide to change jobs every day. I saw his decision to move from being an actor to a music artist as no different. If I had seen this film prior to the announcement that it was all a hoax, I would have been seriously disturbed. I would not have laughed at the most intense scenes such as when the actor in question had an argument with one of his friends concerning a leak of information (which led to a disturbing payback), the meetings with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and when Ben Stiller offered Phoenix a role in Noah Baumbach’s “Greenberg.” I find it difficult to find humor in something that I believe to be non-fiction because I take no pleasure in seeing the suffering of others, especially through ridicule. In a way, I took comfort in the fact that it was all a joke so I was able to pay attention in what Phoenix and Casey Affleck, the director, wanted to convey about celebrity life. Naturally, one of the main messages was being a celebrity did not necessarily equate to happiness or financial stability, but I relished small details I wasn’t aware of before like the paparazzi actually booing actors who chose not to pose in front of the camera. The harrassment Phoenix had to endure (some, admittedly, he incited) were sometimes difficult to watch. I could not help but feel sorry for him. However, the paparazzi were not the only ones that showed cruelty. Even people I’ve never even heard of (like YouTube “celebrities”) can have opinions that not only sting but leave a mark in the psyche. At the same time, Affleck’s film was effective in showing the ridiculous nature, as well as dangers, of method acting if taken to an extreme. Mostly everyone was convinced that Phoenix had lost control of his mental capacity and that made me question the amount of truth, if any, in the images I saw. I’m not convinced all of the scenes were designed to simply poke fun. After all, the most convincing lies stem from a truth. “I’m Still Here” is not for everyone because most people don’t understand satire. But I think Phoenix’ fans just might enjoy the film because it really was quite a performance.
★★★ / ★★★★
An isolated town in the middle of the desert with a population of 14 had to deal with giant worms attracted to anything that caused a vibration above ground. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward star as two friends with a couple of odd jobs. They liked to joke around, talk about women, and make silly decisions based upon rock, paper, scissors. But after finding a dead body and stumbling upon man-eating worms, they had to toughen up and warn the town that they soon would be up for the picking. What I liked most about this movie was its self-awareness. It knew that the concept was silly so did not take itself too seriously. Instead, it took advantage of our lack of knowledge about the organism. Initially, we had no idea how the worms looked like and their capabilities. As the picture went on, as the characters began to struggle for survival, surprisingly, the worms started to smarten up and plan in order to capture their prey. The characters were then forced to get creative in two fronts: How to get away from the worms and how to destroy them. My favorite scenes were the ones where the characters were given the chance to have a closer look at the creatures. I constantly had a sneaky feeling that those worms weren’t really dead, that perhaps they were smart enough to pretend. It gave me the creeps because I just have a disgust for anything that resemble worms or snakes. I also highly enjoyed the scenes with Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as a couple who had a penchant for collecting firearms. Unlike horror movies, especially zombie and slasher flicks, I noticed that the writers did not allow their characters to argue with each other like there was no tomorrow. Time was of the essence and the importance of teamwork was consistently highlighted for survival. I also noticed a low number of false alarms which is atypical for horror pictures, even horror-comedies. Since it wasn’t the norm, it made me feel uneasy in a good way. I felt like I was always on my toes, which was a great sign because it meant that I was engaged. I enjoyed the material because it surprised me in many ways and I felt like the filmmakers and actors had fun while making the picture. Kudos to the special effects and make-up team for creating the disgusting worm guts. “Tremors,” directed by Ron Underwood, achieved cult status and understandably so. With its B-movie premise and tone of silliness, it was easy dismiss. However, it was undeniably fast-paced, energetic, adventurous and farcical. It’s one of those movies that can brighten up one’s night during an uneventful weekend.
★★★ / ★★★★
I think people’s claims that this movie was “provocative,” “unnecessary,” and “crude” should pass as compliments because it was what Sacha Baron Cohen (as the lead character) wanted to achieve. Directed by Larry Charles, the picture tells the story of the recently fired Austrian television reporter named Brüno and his aspiration to become the most popular Austrian since Hitler (his own words). In his quest to achieve his dream, he visits celebrities and politicians for interviews ranging from Paula Abdul, Harrison Ford, to Ron Paul. He also had the bravado to visit the Middle East and interview two men from extreme political parties currently at war with each other; not to mention visiting the home of a terrorist and throwing insults like he was asking to get hurt. If those weren’t enough, he also ended up going to a swingers party, to Alabama in the middle of nowhere, and to a group of people who “converted” homosexuals into heterosexuals. And believe it or not, there were still a handful of things that I haven’t mentioned. Not everyone gets satire. This film satirizes the fashion industry, celebrities from behind the cameras as well as those in the focus of the tabloids, to the very same people who choose to become mindless drones of the television, trying to shape their lives into what’s currently “in” or “hip.” I also liked the fact that it made fun of people who claim to know what they’re talking about when they really don’t (that scene with the two blondes was a riot) and it critiques overbearing parents who desperately push their children to superstardom no matter what the cost. If one really looks into it, there’s a certain thought that was put under the farcical (and downright hilarious) façade that it tries to market. In a way, this movie holds up a mirror to the American society and the very same people who react negatively toward the movie without strong, well thought out reasons are the ones who are being made fun of. And the funnier (or more tragic) thing is, they know it’s all true. The second half was more about Brüno’s homosexuality and how people in less liberal (to say the least) people in America reacts to it. Yes, the character is extreme but I doubt the reactions of such people would have varied that much differently if he wasn’t as “flaming.” At the end of the day, ignorance is ignorance and hatred is hatred. I had a really good time watching this film despite its flaws because it has a certain sharpness to it that I couldn’t help but admire. People say “Boycott this!” or “This should be rated NC-17!” All I can say is that they need to watch more movies and smarten up a bit.
★★★★ / ★★★★
The people who claim that this is another “Borat”-style kind of documentary are the exact same people who believe in god to such an extent that they’re willing to delude themselves that Bill Maher is not asking questions worth answering. I do think that Maher asks valid questions to the religious individuals featured (whose religions range from Christianity, Islam, Mormonism and Scientology) but he is smart enough to not let go of that trademark sense of humor that made him so famous. Even though I was born a Catholic, I do not affiliate myself with any religious group because, to be blunt, I think the whole thing is a crock. Even though my parents are Catholics, they provided me the freedom to choose and think for myself so I’m going to exercise it until the day I die. When I watch documentaries that challenge any religion, excitement comes over me because I love taking apart people’s arguments from both sides and decide which side is weaker. Although Maher did bring up a plethora of excellent points, I can admit that there were times when I wished he went straight for the jugular instead of dancing around the issue and eventually reaching it. However, Maher had enough insight to keep me on my feet and such insights made my arguments that much stronger the next time I get into a debate about religion. Another thing I liked about this film was its fast cuts to random images like Jonah Hill, cartoons aimed for children, older films that tell a story from the Bible, nuclear weapons going off, and even Maher’s childhood videos–all of which serve to provide a sense of humor and to support certain arguments on how ludicrous biblethumpers really are. One downside about this documentary, however, was that it lost a little bit of that great momentum in the final twenty minutes. There were less laughs because the jokes weren’t as sharp even though it’s still making fun of religion and people who build their lives around it. I highly recommend this film especially to agnostics and atheists. I doubt anyone with a strong set of religious beliefs will change their minds. There were a couple of quotes that stood out to me but this quote pretty much embodied the film’s argument: “Religion is dangerous because it allows human beings who don’t have all the answers to think that they do. Most people would think it’s wonderful when someone says, “I’m willing, Lord! I’ll do whatever you want me to do!” Except that since there are no gods actually talking to us, that void is filled in by people with their own corruptions and limitations and agendas.”
The Birdcage (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
All of the actors in this movie contributed something hilarious and that’s what makes it so special. A gay couple, Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, who owns a drag club must meet their son’s (Dan Futterman) politically conservative family (Gene Hackman and Dianne West) and fiancée (Calista Flockhart) for the first time over dinner. One can guess that pretty much everything goes awry. Even though I’m not particularly into films that only feature homosexuality in a feminine light, there’s something about this movie that made me smile and laugh out loud. It’s easy to tell that all of the actors are having fun with their characters because sometimes it would seem that certain actions or pop culture references are a wink to the audiences. I also consider it a good thing that the talented Mike Nichols, the director, features a subculture that is so often viewed in a negative light. In here, no one gets infected or dies of AIDS, no one gets jumped, and no one commits suicide. Everyone’s pretty much happy with themselves; it’s just that the circumstances require three characters to change the way they act even for just a couple of hours. I also loved Christine Baranski as Futterman’s biological morther. She’s spunky and smart even though she seems a bit cold and tough at first glance. The one thing that didn’t work for me was the pair of journalists hoping to get the latest exposée from the conservative family. I think if various reporters were featured, the film would’ve had more chances of making fun of different types of reporters with different methods of acquiring controversial information. Still, “The Birdcage” deserves a high recommendation because it works as a farce and a classic comedy of errors. You rarely go wrong with Nichols’ films because most of them have smart characters and witty dialogues. This one is no exception.