After watching Phony, the subject of the below review, I couldn't help but recall a very awkward conversation that I had a few months back with a local filmmaker.
I had reviewed a movie of theirs a few years ago and gave it a rather poor rating. This was brought up consistently throughout our call, almost to the point of shame, but mostly in good humor, I hope. Perhaps I was in a bad mood when I wrote my criticism, or perhaps that edit was actually pretentious, I don't know. Maybe both are true.
We talked as if we could see our pained smiles, feigning some kindly discussion at first, before settling into a friendly talk. I'm not sure why Phony reminded me of this. It's not a bad film (as I'll explain below), nor was the phone call a bad memory.
Have I been more difficult with the works of local filmmakers than those of mainstream attention?
“When you really look at it, it’s just one world.” Powerful words made more powerful by the person saying them: Superman. And Christopher Reeve.
Let’s talk about the tiny movies in America.
Phony Ain’t Bologna
Being self-referential, being meta, can only bring about so much cleverness, if any at all. The iPhone shot Phony folds entirely on itself, commenting on its commentary on modern dating and the nature of gender-based lies and trickery, altogether existing as a confused and confusing piece of streaming fodder. Are these qualities built-in specifically? If so, why? Beneath the head-scratching is indeed something clever. Clever and bold even. But again... why all the fury of fakery?
While smartphone cinema is now pretty prevalent (shoutout to Steven Soderbergh and Sean Baker), it lives in the present as a new form on the medium - and a comment on the art of filmmaking too. If film is an illusion of movement, and digital video is an illusion of physical film, and digital video is now in the back pocket of just about everyone, does this make everyone potential illusionists? I say we already were. Phony at its best exposes this truth without directly stating or saying anything about it. It's just what it is. It's just an example of it. An excellent example of it. An extraordinary example of it.
Phony, on the surface, covers the ground of male chauvinism and exploitation through the excuse of filmmaking. Two friends, one a womanizer and the other a creepy cinephile with the constant gaze of a snooping masturbator, plot out a "documentary" experiment on dating and sexual relations, all to be filmed, with some twisted form of conscious and subconscious consent being a central thesis. How far can they go? Phony, at least the first half, is a near-horror picture, where the friend behind the cameras seems to have a need to have relations vicariously through his more active friend, who himself appears put off but obligated to take part. It's disgusting but fascinating to watch all the same.
Things take a hard turn at a point, and the whole world crashes. This is where an F For Fake moment occurs, where Orson Welles reveals he's been lying during the previous few scenes, revealing the magic but not the mechanics. In Phony, the mechanics and the magic are clearly visible, if convoluted and oblong. The film tricks everyone, from the audience to itself, losing control of its own conceit to either craft a new one by accident or by hopeful chance. Take your pick, but however it happened, Phony entertains and challenges with what is and isn't questionable or answerable in relationships, in deception, and in cinema.
The better angels are in its favor, despite some difficulty in comprehension and communication. The efforts are true, as are the talents. Phony surprises in cinematography, in acting, and in honesty. It's not afraid to depict people as being their worst or their dumber selves, especially when trying for charm and charisma. It’s practically a masterwork in personality and identity deception, whether it set out to be those things or not. Irrelevant somewhat, but important to consider.
Why go so far to fool only to be foolish in fake faking? One wonders and wanders. 3/5
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