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Column Fri Sep 10 2010

I'm Still Here, Legendary & The Sicilian Girl

Hello, everyone. Because two of the weekend's bigger releases — Resident Evil: Afterlife and The Virginity Hit — did not screen in time to be reviewed, this week's column is relatively dialed back. Still, if you'd like to read my Comic-Con interviews with the creative team behind Resident Evil, please feel free to hit Ain't It Cool News to see my chats with star Milla Jovovich, director Paul W.S. Anderson, and co-stars Ali Larter and Wentworth Miller.

I'm Still Here

People are asking all the wrong questions about this Joaquin Phoenix's video diary of this period of transition in his life. It doesn't matter if the film is all real or if it's an elaborate hoax. The only two things that matter are if the film is any good and if this is a human being worth following and documenting. These are the questions you ask of any documentary that profiles a human being — dead or alive. And I can say that without hesitation that the Casey Affleck-directed I'm Still Here is one of the worst films I've seen all year, and I say that being someone who went into the film really hoping to like it on same level, either as a piece of performance art or as a fascinating trajectory of a celebrity's life gone horribly wrong. At the very least, I thought this would be some sort of low-rent, Borat-style comedy. But what we're left with, instead, is an unfocused, rambling, embarrassing garbage heap of a film.

All of that being said, the one word I refuse to use to describe I'm Still Here is "unwatchable," because this masturbatory flagellation is impossible to take your eyes off of. I guess a part of me wanted to catch Phoenix "blink" and give me a sign that this whole exercise was bullshit. But that never happens. If this is Phoenix playing a part, this might be the most dedicated an actor has even been in committing to a role. I certainly don't need to like a character or a person to like, understand, and appreciate their work. But this bearded, stoned-out, humorless, wretched version of JP (as his friends call him, and he calls himself sometimes) is not a man worth pointing a camera at. I refuse to believe that as a friend and brother-in-law to Phoenix, Casey Affleck (he's married to Phoenix's sister Summer) would simply let these self-destructive events occur without interfering.

But I'm not really talking about the movie, am I? One of more interesting aspects of the watching I'm Still Here are the moments when certain events that made the tabloids and entertainment TV gossip shows are put into perspective. Phoenix's initial announcement of retiring from acting to pursue a hip-hop career, his performance in which he fell off the stage, his incredibly awkward David Letterman appearance while promoting his last film Two Lovers, the rumors that Diddy was going to produce tracks on Phoenix's album (the meetings or missed meetings with Diddy are, by far, the best scenes in the movie). Any time Joaquin's life intersects with a real person are infinitely more engaging than simply watching him scream at his assistant or rant about what a loser he is or watching him do lines of coke or smoke weed.

An unexpected visit from very zen friend Edward James Olmos, a visit from Ben Stiller to pitch Phoenix a part in Greenberg (which the film implies led to Stiller acting and looking like Phoenix at the Oscars) that turns hostile, a benefit play in honor of the recently departed Paul Newman that puts Phoenix in contact with Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn and many other famous actors — these are all far more interesting moments than watching Phoenix with two ugly call girls in what feels like a truly lame attempt at staged hedonism.

I'm a big believer that if you're still thinking and/or talking about a movie days after you see it — whether you liked it or not — it's a good movie. In most cases, a movie that can spark debate, even on such a vapid subject as Celebrity, I would typically argue is one worth viewing. So either Joaquin Phoenix's life since 2008 is a cliche by design, or he's not an original enough thinker to come up with new and interesting ways of fucking up his life. His brother River certainly died an obvious death. Overdose outside a club in West Hollywood? Come on, JP, you can do better than that. So, I'm Still Here is a movie in which we get to watch Phoenix get fat and stupid and delusional about his music career. If that sounds fun to you, knock yourself out. I'll stay home and sort my sock drawer this weekend.


The most surprising thing about this film from WWE Films (as in, World Wrestling Entertainment) is that the wrestling superstar appearing in this movie is not the star of the film. Instead, John Cena (who has appeared as the lead in the movies such as The Marine and 12 Rounds) plays a strong supporting role as a broken down drunk, living in a trailer getting odd construction jobs here and there, inspiring absolutely no one to greatness. His Mike Chetley is the brother to Legendary's true star, Mike's slightly geeky younger brother Cal (Devon Graye), who decides that he wants to learn to wrestle just like his brother and late father before him did. Mike was a champion athlete in school, and when that didn't translate to a professional career, his life went to pieces and he abandoned his little brother and mother (played with a nice touch by Patricia Clarkson).

Cal wants to reunite with his brother and get some wrestling pointers from him — none of those famous WWE moves, but back-to-basics wrestling for points. And you know what? As a straightforward family drama, Legendary (terrible title, by the way) is pretty good stuff, with strong performances all around, including Cera, who is clearly interested in moving beyond his initial action-hero stabs at movie acting and trying something with more meat on the bones. But the real find here is Devon Graye (who I recall playing the teenage Dexter in the first season flashbacks on Showtime's "Dexter"). Not only did I enjoy watching his character's personality shift from uncertain and shy to more motivated and self confident, but he actually seems to make a physical transformation during the course of the movie. He's called upon to carry the film, and he does so with a great deal of dignity. And his scenes with Cera are among the best in the story.

Clarkson might have Legendary's toughest part since she is called upon to play a mother who essentially gave up on her child. When Mike first re-enters her life, she rejects him because in her mind he's basically dead. And watching her open her mind to the idea of Mike back in their lives is a painful process. This isn't a great movie at all. There are a couple of scenes with Danny Glover playing an old man that Cal meets fishing that are so awkward that Glover might as well be wearing a sign around his neck that says "Wise Old Black Man — Please Ask for Life Lessons". Glover's character could have been lifted right out of the film, and it would have made it a better work. But most of what's here is pretty solid stuff, and I enjoyed watching Cena bend his persona to fit the material rather than force the material to meet the needs of his many fans.

The film is opening in select, mostly secondary markets today, and if it's near you, you may want to check it out. Around Chicago, Legendary opens at the Wilmette Theatres, Wilmette; ICE Chatham 14, Chicago; WOW 7 Cinema, Sandwich; and Morton Cinema 5, Morton.

To read my interview with Legendary star and WWE superstar John Cena, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Sicilian Girl

If I'm not mistaken, I first saw director and co-writer Marco Amenta's The Sicilian Girl during the Gene Siskel Film Center's European Union Film Festival, and I had the same reaction to it then that I did when I rewatched it more recently. This is an absolutely fascinating true story of a young woman named Rita Mancusa (her real last name was Atria), who began keeping tabs on the local mob-related folks in her small town of Balata when she was just a little girl, after she learned that these same men had her father killed. Now, her father was no angel either, but he seemed to have a softer touch as a purveyor of justice in the community than some of his rivals. But after the death of her sainted brother (whom the rivals assumed would attempt to get revenge when he was older), Rita vowed to bring these men down and break the code of silence that the Mafia holds so dear.

As incredible as this story is, the way Amenta and co-writer Sergio Donati bring Rita's journey to life is almost too conventional and gets too easily sidetracked in less interesting aspects of her life. The whole work feels like melodrama, thanks in large part to lead actress Veronica D'Agostino performing to make certain that the folks in the back row can hear every word and catch every gesture. Her reactions become predictable. If somebody says something she doesn't like, she storms out of the room or attempts to hit them. When someone tells her to stay hidden away in Rome, after she's brought all of her evidence to lead the anti-mafia prosecutor (Gerard Jugnot), she goes for a defiant stroll. She pretty much acts like an 8-year-old who doesn't like being told what to do, and that's not very interesting for two hours.

Still, some moments in The Sicilian Girl will haunt me for some time. The moment when the prosecutor gets Rita to finally dismiss her sainted memories of her father and remember his true nature is a particularly strong scene. A moment late in the film when Rita's spiteful mother comes to see her for the last time to convince her to recant her statements is painful to watch. Most of the moments with the investigative team comparing Rita's diary entries to actual crimes are quite compelling, but when you weave those scenes with ones of Rita exploring Rome and meeting a nice young man she'd like to date, the film grinds to a halt and becomes a whole lot less interesting.

The film's best moments are the trial itself, since transcripts from the actual trial were used to compile the dialogue from these scenes. The circus-like atmosphere is downright comical, and the number of obscene gestures being flung about the courtroom toward young Rita from those on trial are downright scandalous. Still, the downright predictable nature of the rest of the film almost makes it seem too American in its artistic direction and means of telling its story. Dare I say, the greatest crime in The Sicilian Girl may be that it's conventional, which is a shame because as I said at the beginning of this review, the story is riveting — and you may find the film riveting as well, if you can wade through the soap opera of Rita's life to get to the bloody meat of her journey. A close call, but I can't quite recommend it. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


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