Hidden Netflix Gems – I’m Still Here

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Joaquin Phoenix‘s much-publicized retirement from acting in order to pursue his burgeoning career as a rapper had cries of “Hoax!” surrounding it from the very beginning, and its subsequent critical and audience response was mostly negative. However, despite the apparent trend of people upset at being duped, Casey Affleck’s I’m Still Here is a fascinating and frequently hilarious send-up of celebrity culture anchored by an amazingly committed performance from Phoenix. In the film, as in reality, this is the kind of thing that could potentially end a career and forever ruin a reputation, and the courage he displays in sticking to it is very impressive.

In one of the best scenes, Phoenix rejects an offer to co-star with Ben Stiller (who you would never guess by watching is in on the joke the whole time) in Greenberg; in another, he hilariously attempts to obtain a record deal with Sean “Puffy” Combs, who isn’t quite the actor Stiller is, though his performance is just good enough that its weaker elements could be seen as arrogant posturing for the cameras that follow Phoenix everywhere. Then there is the famous David Letterman interview, in which he mumbles and stares blankly at the roaring audience, seemingly unable to fathom why they think he’s so funny (Letterman was not in on the joke, but of course he is unfazed after previous encounters with the likes of Crispin Glover and Harmony Korine).

So, what of the supposed rapping, you ask? Is it any good? The answer is a resounding “not really.” While the filmmakers wisely make it just decent enough to convince us that an arrogant movie star who has lost his mind to drugs and the excess of stardom would believe it was his new calling, his flows are about what you’d see in the mid-range of a good Hip-Hop open mic. The rhymes are clumsy and mostly monosyllabic, the beats generic; Phoenix’s delivery is full of the gruff showmanship of a spoiled rich dude with no real inkling of the dues a great emcee must pay. The funniest part about it is that at his few live appearances as a rapper, star-struck morons who are clearly just tickled to be near an Oscar-nominated actor mostly cheer him on. At one such performance he tells the lone heckler, “I’ve got a million dollars in my bank account – what do you got?” Cue the cheers.

This is why the film works, and why it is has not permanently damaged Phoenix’s acting career. By committing himself so fully to the performance and taking a great risk of being reviled and blacklisted by the Hollywood community, Phoenix has made a strong and convincing statement about our celebrity culture and the idea of reinventing oneself. Beyond any of that, though, it’s a very fun movie to watch, and all the more impressive for making you wonder what’s real even when you know it’s a hoax.

  

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Hidden Netflix Gems – Series 7: The Contenders

Hidden Netflix Gems is a new feature designed to help readers answer that burning question, “What should I watch tonight?” It will be updated every Saturday before the sun goes down.

Spoofs of reality television have become almost as ubiquitous as reality television itself these days, and fake documentary films are certainly not in short supply, but writer-director Daniel Minahan‘s 2001 dark comedic thriller Series 7: The Contenders is one of the best of both. Released before the rise of Arrested Development star Will Arnett, who provides the voice-over of the film’s fictional reality show, Series 7 benefits from its largely unknown cast in that, as unlikely as its central premise is, it often feels all too real. The film is wickedly funny, but simultaneously disturbing in its depiction of the ruthlessness of human nature, especially when a great deal of money or fame is involved.

Series 7 concerns the familiar idea of a game in which human beings hunt each other for sport. Beginning with Richard Connell’s 1924 story, The Most Dangerous Game, this concept has gone through a number of incarnations, most recently in the Japanese cult favorite Battle Royale and the immensely popular The Hunger Games. What sets Series 7 apart most of all is its relentless dark humor; for example, after blowing away a fellow competitor in a convenience store, the film’s protagonist, Dawn (Brooke Smith, best known as Buffalo Bill’s captive, Catherine Martin, in The Silence of the Lambs), calmly asks the clerk, “Hey, you got any bean dip?”

Dawn is the crowd favorite, having won the two previous seasons in a row (contestants are granted their freedom if they win three in a row) and being eight months pregnant. She is now presumably trying to win her freedom and her life in order to care for her baby once it is born, but the skills she has honed in the previous two seasons show in her apparent relish for the sport. As the film begins, she is seen stalking the other contestants and calling them on the phone in an attempt to psyche them out and make them easier prey. Other contestants include Dawn’s high school boyfriend, Jeff (Glenn Fitzgerald), which indicates that the supposedly random selection process is rigged; Lindsay (Merritt Wever), a perky high school student who has just turned 18, making her legal fair game for the show; and Connie (Marylouise Burke), a seemingly sweet, middle-aged nurse who proves to be the most fascinating and terrifying character in the film.

Though Series 7 frustratingly lacks a larger worldview to explain some of its more questionable conceptual leaps of faith – particularly the circumstances that led to the government’s sanctioning of the show’s selection process – its commitment to accurately recreating the look and feel of reality television pays off enormously. The undeniable entertainment value of the series makes for extremely effective satire, especially in the film’s ending, which is too viciously brilliant to spoil here.

  

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Exit Through the Gift Shop

The documentary genre is a tricky business, because it’s automatically assumed that any movie falling under that category is 100% truth, even if a lot of times you’re only getting one side of the story. So when you see a documentary that turns out to be a manufactured lie – like Casey Affleck’s “I’m Still Here” – it’s easy to feel betrayed. Since its premiere at Sundance, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether the events in “Exit Through the Gift Shop” are real or just an elaborate hoax devised by its director, renowned graffiti artist Banksy. The film certainly wants us to believe that eccentric French shop owner and amateur filmmaker, Thierry Guetta, is a real person, and it goes to extreme lengths to set up a back story in which Guetta is making a documentary about the street art movement, only to have the camera turned on him when Banksy realizes that he’s far more interesting.

So is it real or not? It’s hard to say, which is part of the brilliance of the movie. It feels genuine for the most part (although the final 20 minutes certainly have you questioning its validity), but the fact that Banksy is known for his art pranks is what led many to conclude that there was something fishy about Thierry’s story. He sure had me fooled, but it doesn’t really matter, because it’s enjoyable either way. Whereas the truth about “I’m Still Here” may have ruined the illusion, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” is only more captivating because of it. That is, if it’s even an illusion at all.

Click to buy “Exit Through the Gift Shop”

  

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