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.
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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?”
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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.
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