The Dirties (2013)

★★

The Dirties PosterDirector: Matt Johnson

Release Date: October 4th, 2013 (US limited)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Matt Johnson, Owen Williams

His intentions are clear. Director Matt Johnson wants to create a film that tackles one of society’s most abhorrent problems, school shootings, in a way that is both original and impactful. He presents his piece as a documentary within a documentary; he and co-star Owen Williams’ first names mirror those of their respective characters; Johnson even looks to include elements of comedy, perhaps hoping that these moments will divert our attention away from more pressing matters just long enough for the film to cushion itself with added shock. None of it works. The Dirties severely lacks coherence, but that’s not the primary nuisance. Johnson and company probably don’t set out to be insensitive. Unfortunately, their film teeters unceremoniously along that edge.

A couple of high school mates decide to make a documentary about The Dirties, a group of bullies who terrorise their school. Matt (Matt Johnson) and Owen (Owen Williams) bear the brunt of The Dirties’ abusive behaviour and, when their film is ridiculed in class, one of them resultantly gains a dangerous thirst for revenge. The other, though, becomes increasingly wary of and alienated by his friend’s behaviour.

There’s only one endgame here, and we know of it after five minutes. In truth, we’re fully aware before the film even starts. It doesn’t matter where Matt and Owen are — in class, at a secluded shooting range, around a bonfire — the only notion that consistently wears on our mind is gun violence. More specifically, gun violence in school. An at times imperiously weighty subject, school shootings have become one of humankind’s most despicable and perplexing habits. It’s a clichéd proclamation but, in an age when trolls linger all over the internet and online connectivity dominates our lives, school is supposed to be safest place for a child. There’s absolutely no getting away from the horrible concept, particularly when it’s regularly regurgitated on screen. The Dirties fails for that reason. The film takes something bluntly tragic and tries to be overly meta. Subsequently, plot holes appear quicker than a bee to honey, devouring any potential progress. There’s too much going on — are we supposed to take the film as just that, an overtly fictional piece based on true events, or is it attempting to be real life, paraded in a false documentary format?

Seemingly, Johnson endeavours to veil the piece as the latter. Shouldn’t it be a tad more serious then? Of course, its central topic is one riddled with sombre importance, but this is something The Dirties struggles to maintain. This absence of earnestness is down to how the film is presented, often flavoured by comedy and exotic normality. The cameraman — who we’re essentially meant to discard as a credible human being — follows Matt and Owen around persistently and becomes an agent of humour. At one point Matt passes over the popcorn in a scene that seeks to induce amusement but instead only serves to remind us of the film’s inconceivability and, therefore, crassness. When Johnson recalls the gravity of his material, he reverts to a gratuitous display of foreshadowing involving a Columbine book. We see this book more than once, its third appearance unsettling for all the wrong reasons.

Kevin Smith, whose production company was involved in the release, referred to this as “the most important movie you will see all year”. Smith owns and runs a comic book store in his spare time and his connection to The Dirties is apt given the film’s numerous movie buff references. I get a kick out of correctly identifying film trivia as much as the next nerd, but that sort of thing shouldn’t be on the menu here. By this point nobody really seems to care though: the filmmakers start adjusting rules to suit their own needs rather than those of the subject at hand. “Out of respect for the victims and their families, the footage has not been altered in any way,” reads a statement at the beginning. Numerous musical overlays suggest otherwise.

Having looked at it from a real life documentary perspective, let’s now consider The Dirties as a fictional account. Which it is, obviously. The screenplay is littered with inconsistencies, none more prevalent than our two main characters. Even though one of them eventually snaps, we never get into the nitty-gritty of his transformation. In reality, both boys relay fairly consistent characteristics throughout: quite cheery and upbeat despite the bullying. The biggest nonsense of all though, is the aforementioned cameraman’s role. (Or cameramen — it’s possible there are two males). Aside from getting away with always filming during classes, the operator(s) does absolutely nothing to prevent the inevitable atrocities. Devoid of explanation, this is completely unforgivable and lazy on the part of both Johnson and his co-writer Matthew Miller.

Besides, as simply a film, The Dirties is actually quite boring. For the most part the lives of our leading protagonists aren’t all that eventful. Interactions with girls turn out to be mellow rather than awkward, and they both get along amiably with the teachers at their school. Humorous injections reverberate out of rhythm too. There’s no air of disquieting callousness — the subject matter itself is intrinsically worrisome, but the way it’s communicated isn’t.

The Dirties tries too hard to be different when all its topic of debate warrants is precision. In the end, our feelings on school gun violence are exactly the same as they were when the runtime set off: shootings are horrifying and deeply unsettling. Our feelings on overly ambitious pseudo-documentaries shaped flimsily around said hard-hitting matter? In sharp decline.

Though there are better, more thought-provoking films out there, it is worth commending Matt Johnson for his willingness to engage in such a polarising and difficult issue, particularly given this is his first jab at directing.

The Dirties - Owen and Matt

Images credit: IMP Awards, JoBlo

Images copyright (©): Phase 4 Films

Bowling for Columbine (2002)

★★★★

Bowling for Columbine PosterDirector: Michael Moore

Release Date: October 11th, 2002 (US limited); November 15th, 2002 (UK)

Genre: Documentary; History

Michael Moore’s 2002 documentary, somewhat pithily christened Bowling for Columbine, is undoubtedly a seminal piece. For Moore personally, it gained the director an Academy Award and the chance to extend some sentiments splashed throughout his film to a plush Hollywood crowd in LA’s Kodak Theatre. (Some booed, some cheered, Tommy Lee Jones probably sat stone-faced.) It also smashed international box office records in places such as the United Kingdom upon release, becoming the financial brass ring to which other documentaries aspired — ironically, Moore would go on to eclipse himself with Fahrenheit 9/11.

Though, carrying more importance than these aforementioned amenities, Bowling for Columbine debates unavoidable issues that are still firmly rooted in the bricks and mortar of society. And Moore frequently wins. His film is a bit of ego-trip, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, the chief’s unwavering histrionics often inject a tragically informative piece with a comedic edge. That being said, his manifesto is never relinquished in favour of entertainment. Notwithstanding the occasional needless tactic, Bowling for Columbine successfully eradicates the clouds that surround its thought-provoking themes. What’s presented, in turn, rains with disquieting reality.

Moore targets gun crime and, in doing so, uses the 1999 Columbine High School massacre as the seed from which each of his arguments grow. The film is a generally political, sporadically cultural and universally societal look at trigger-happy violence in America and its central question is: Why? Why did thirteen innocent people die at school? And why is America’s gun crime resoundingly higher than the rest of the world’s?

Each argument is an extension of the last, and his agents of remonstration spread fairly far. We begin down a bowling alley and conclude in the company of Charlton Heston. Moore strives to maintain a potent arc along his two hour discussion and more or less accomplishes this. He links each chapter well — the revolver road-trip stops off at a variety of places, from a rifle-offering bank to the house of a man whose participation in the Oklahoma City bombing was once in question — and, in doing so, implements a solid narrative structure. There are a few rocky detours that see some less-effective moments; an interview with a Lockheed Martin spokesperson is a bit flimsy. Moore disguises any unsatisfactory points though. He shrewdly converses with the right people as a means to substantiate his own agenda. Which is fine, it doesn’t negatively affect the arguments presented because an authentic base is already in place.

That base is Columbine. Although the film isn’t about the actual shooting — Moore’s decision not to stray down what would have been an easily rewarding path, in terms of emotional gravitas, is admirable — the tragedy is always lingering in the background. In fact, the director actually references the location of Columbine High School at one point, indicating that its direct centrality amongst discussion involving guns, bombs and violence isn’t simply metaphorical. Given the very real presence of the atrocity, notions of disgust and negativity towards gun culture are already firmly embedded in our minds. Moore’s numerous assertions against said culture, therefore, are instantly credible.

A particular sequence intended to give an overview of Columbine is inherently powerful, but not exploitative. There’s no argument-shilling at this point, only a picture of humankind at its most despicable. It’s so disgruntling that the subsequent scene might implore the viewer to detest one of cinema’s most iconic figures in a swift rifle-raising action and four contextually chilling words (“Over my dead body”) — just one example of Kurt Engfehr’s wholly astute editing that motions proceedings along at an engaging pace.

Music is also effectively enforced. The now infamous “What a Wonderful World” montage would be quite amusing if it weren’t steeped in such fraught subject matter. Indeed, Bowling for Columbine thrives on destitute comedy. One of the earliest examples sets the darkly humorous prerogative; Moore enters a bank and opens an account in order to obtain a free gun. After a few minutes where the staff aren’t paraded in a particularly flattering light, Moore exits, rifle aloft. The scene is too outrageous to fully comprehend — its authenticity has been disputed in one of many controversies since release — but the filmmaker doesn’t pass up an opportunity for funny. (“D’you think it’s a little dangerous handing out guns in a bank?”)

The climate of fear is a prominent thread throughout. Does Moore blame guns? Not entirely. It’s the gun culture. The media scaremongering. Even the US government’s foreign policy hailing a bomb as a solution, according to Moore. These collectively add up to the main source of gun-related disaster in America. Today, over a decade later, Moore still flaunts this strongly asserted claim: “Guns don’t kill people — Americans kill people.” One of the film’s most compelling parts is an interview with Marilyn Manson, whose well-formed explanation in regards to media exploitation is practical and persuasive. (We hear that crime is down by 20%, but television coverage is up by 600%.)

It’s all going swimmingly until a K-Mart segment towards the film’s conclusion. Shadowed by two victims of Columbine, Moore leads his verbal assault against the store. It almost comes around in the end, but by then Moore’s ego is edging towards the spotlight. Only, rather than positively affecting proceedings, this time his overly aggressive personality is distracting. However it should be noted that the stunt’s positive outcome absolutely justifies the slightly crass piece of filmmaking from which it spawns.

Overall, Moore completes a stellar job of informing and convincing. Despite sporadically venturing down peripheral avenues, the film holds together tightly and is even genuinely funny at times. Ultimately though, this is a damning indictment on not just America but society as a whole, exposing us at our very worst. If Bowling for Columbine was evidence in humanity’s trial, we’d be guilty as charged.

Bowling for Columbine - Moore

Images credit: IMP Awards, WhatCulture

Images (©): United Artists

Dear Zachary: A Letter to a Son About His Father (2008)

★★★★

Dear Zachary PosterDirector: Kurt Kuenne

Release Date: January, 2008 (Slamdance Film Festival); February 22nd, 2010 (UK)

Genre: Documentary; Crime; Drama

How does one review a terribly sad personal visual tribute? It’s somewhat ironic that Kurt Kuenne’s diary of tragedy is such a labour of love, the filmmaker having traversed across the United States, Canada and even the United Kingdom to create his piece. But perhaps the irony is misplaced. Undoubtedly, Dear Zachary is profusely powerful and heart-wrenching, but it’s also a story about living. About loving.

Kuenne’s efforts are splashed across every frame (and every videotape stashed inside a box in the back of his vehicle) and it’s apt that by injecting so much passion Kuenne receives even more in return. The man at the centre of events is Andrew Bagby, the director’s dear friend and a victim of inhumanity, but someone who seemingly revelled in quite the opposite.

In early November 2001, Andrew Bagby was murdered. A medical student from California, the reach of his inherent popularity is made evident through the filmmaker’s interviews with a whole host of friends, family and colleagues. We’re informed that the collection of life recollections are for Zachary, Andrew’s unborn son at the time of his death.

There’s no real urgency to critique this film. Nor, truthfully, is there a need. But in a pithily vain attempt, here goes anyway. Technically, it serves a purpose: to clearly and concisely recount a story. We’re plunged into a moment in time, information about the person and subsequent criminal investigation gallivanting left and right. It’s difficult to chew on all of the data first time around which is why Kuenne navigates a narrative roundabout once or twice. The thing is, what we’re learning about is not simply narrative. It’s real life, and that’s why critically assessing events feels a tad unwarranted.

We’re taken completely aback because the story is shocking. We’re overcome by emotion because the account is upsetting. We’re rendered unequivocally resentful because the tragedy is unjust. Kuenne’s direction (in fact his everything: he’s also editor, cinematographer, writer and more) is deft; though we’ve a lot to consume, the presentation is done in such a way that we’re willing to engage and become attached to those on screen. We enter familial homes either side of the Atlantic and feel totally welcome, as if individually invited into them for a brief period of time. While the content is personal, the way in which it’s displayed is personable and therefore, at just over an hour and a half, proceedings seem to fly by.

Rumbling like a pitch black storm cloud alongside both the hearty family memoirs and some joyous and often amusing archive footage that shows Andrew’s attempts at acting for his best friend’s home-made short films, is the harrowing topic of Andrew’s untimely death. Though it feels rather flippant to discuss such a tragedy using obsolete language, this part of the documentary plays out like a fictitious crime-drama. It’s unbelievable. As the minutes tick away each discomforting revelation trumps the one preceding until the film reaches breaking point. If you watch the outing armed with prior knowledge of events, hearing them being discussed by Andrew’s loved ones will undoubtedly be disconcerting. Viewing Dear Zachary without any previous awareness of the subject though, is truly distressing. There’s no hiding that. This is a tough ninety minutes.

Criticising Kurt Kuenne’s intimate gift is not something on the agenda, nor should it be. Having said that, it’d be disingenuous not to point out a specific section that might sit uneasily with some. (As it does with me.) There is one moment that doesn’t altogether mesh well with what surrounds it, given how lovingly the remainder of the film is relayed. A particularly brash montage showing certain images and bolstered by grunge-like music is quite confrontational. Though, perhaps it should be. And there’s no arguing against the fact that its inclusion is absolutely with the filmmaker’s best intentions. Indeed, on the contrary, it represents the contextual horrors aptly.

As the film proceeds, it becomes drastically obvious just how wide Andrew’s web of affection had — and still does — stretch. From his parents, to a former fiancée, to English cousins, to criminal lawyers, a great number of people offer their own universally earnest and affectionate experiences shared with the medical student. The interviews, naturally, have a two-fold effect. In one of the film’s most chilling moments, Andrew’s justifiably distraught father explodes in a fit of sheer loathing and it is in this action, more than any, that we get a stark sense of just how much the tragedy and all resultant enquiries have affected those close to him.

You can’t put a price on a family heirloom and, in essence, Dear Zachary is a preemptive visual legacy. Thus assigning stars almost seems unnecessary. The film is rate-less. It’s Andrew Bagby’s story told by one of his closest friends, and it’s a troublesome watch. Hopefully, rightfully, the positive aspects prevail.

Dear Zachary - Kurt and Andrew

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Oscilloscope Laboratories

The Conspiracy (2012)

★★

The Conspiracy PosterDirector: Christopher MacBride

Release Date: August 23rd, 2013 (US limited); October 11th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Aaron Poole, James Gilbert

The Conspiracy struts its way on screen like a middleweight boxer ready to unleash a one-two combination. The first jab is swift and fairly unrelenting. As the film begins we peer skywards, eyes fixated on a pair of tall building not dissimilar in style and size to the World Trade Center. The brooding tone is set; a faux-documentary tale ushering in the notion of elitist secrecy and hidden agenda. We reside in a globe ripe with conspiracy theorists and theories, undoubtedly. For a short while, the impact of jab number one lingers. Unfortunately, the second swing can be seen coming a mile off. From feeling slightly spooked due to the prior injection of pseudo-realism, we now enter a particularly tiresome realm known as found footage horror. Intrigue gone, not even a vaguely haunting final act can save The Conspiracy. In the end, blurred lines only serve to expose.

Aaron (Aaron Poole) and Jim (James Gilbert) are two documentary filmmakers looking to delve into the world of dishonest suits. They meet up with Terrance (Alan C. Peterson) — a conspiracy nut whose maniacal preachings have been doing the rounds on the internet — with intentions firmly set on relaying his story to the world. However when Terrance inconspicuously vanishes, the only remnants left behind are his DIY newspaper wall-charts. The duo’s subsequent search for answers leads them closer to an alarming truth, and further from the security of normality.

Director Christopher MacBride attains a solid opening half hour through well-dug foundations. In a transparent age where every decision is questioned and every answer analysed, his film manages to strike with a fistful of relevancy, at least for a while. Messing around on chat-rooms, Aaron and Jim embody the modern web-surfer whose bible takes the form of a Wi-Fi connection and a computer screen. As they mingle online, a curious sentiment arises: if a conspiracy theory is born out of somebody’s buzzing and immaterial imagination, how can it be disproved? This dichotomy captures our attention and even throws a temporary blanket over the poor acting on display. The occasional shimmy of odd wit breaks through a not-so-subtly humorous poise at times: “So what are you guys using this for?” asks a shopkeeper as he sells the nosy pair a couple of hidden cameras. In a perversely amusing twist, the two no longer seem to care much for missing pal Terrance, the whole point of their documentary originally. It’s when Aaron and Jim start getting followed that proceedings take a turn for the generic.

As the largely dour and unsurprising reveal comes to fruition, the wheels come off. Rather than an inquisitive socio-political engagement, The Conspiracy morphs into a standard horror flick. Up until now, the documentary presentation has justified its found footage approach, but upon emittance of clarity motioning that things are not quite as straightforward as they seem — they really are, in truth — said approach loses value. As soon as the narrative starts to resemble The Blair Witch Project, bouts of infectious groaning can be heard resounding from the throats of viewers the world over. Or maybe that was just residual noise from the handheld camera.

The horror aspect struggles to horrify. Sure, we’re subject to an unsettling few minutes, but it’s not enough. That aforementioned blanket of security covering some terrible acting goes up in flames, exposing amateur hour. Effectively, all of the good work done in establishing a documentary platform unravels in lieu with the film’s wavering focus, so much so that you begin to question the success of the opening 30 minutes. On reflection, scenes that previously passed without too much sincerity interrogation (we were along for the ride at that time) now reek of coincidence; a guy on bike just so happens to show up in the same place more than once, and the partner of one of the chaps just so happens to invade goings-on as the duo are testing concealed camera equipment.

Frustratingly, the narrative concept may well have had some legs if the switch in prerogative from conspiracy documentary to ritualistic horror wasn’t presented so jarringly. Are we meant to believe that every conspiracy has a secret organisation behind it? Associating mysterious societies with business leaders and the like is a corny ploy too; as if all of these oligarchic bank managers and stockbrokers choose to spend their evenings dressed up as The Undertaker while scampering around forests playing games of Cowboys & Indians. Whereas the use of archived 9/11 and Kennedy assassination footage within the documentary-esque context is warranted, the employment of these particular images begins to feel a tad exploitative as the film shifts viewpoint.

Though it begins with a sense of intrigue and purpose, The Conspiracy soon face-plants in a subpar horror hole. With greater focus and better component parts, perhaps Christopher MacBride could have unearthed a gem. However, as the credits began to roll I was left simply wishing for the return of Terrance who, over the course of an hour, had become the new archetype of sanity.

A mean feat indeed.

The Conspiracy - Terrance

Man on Wire (2008)

★★★★★

Director: James Marsh

Release Date: August 1st, 2008 (UK)

Genre: Documentary; Biography

Everybody hates the dentist. Everybody except Philippe Petit.

The Twin Towers were a symbol of innovation. A duo of iron giants, they stood over New York reminding the world that anything was, is, possible. Writing about the pair of incredible architectural feats in the past tense is probably something, even 12 years on, nobody will ever get used to.

It is this melting pot of romanticism and tragedy that surrounds the Twin Towers which gives Man on Wire an extra layer of emotional weight. But even without that, even minus the tinge of sadness you get upon remembering the towers are no longer around, Man on Wire is an absolute triumph.

The documentary recounts a story that you probably wouldn’t believe if it were a narrative film. Philippe Petit is an ordinary man, a French high-wire walker whose aspirations exceed the ordinary and go up. A long way up. Supported by his congregation of close friends, he strives to reach impossible heights and to walk on top of the world. It’s 1968, and Petit finds himself flicking through a magazine in a dentist’s waiting room when he comes across an article promoting the impending construction of the world’s tallest buildings: the World Trade Center. Petit rushes out of the dentist. He doesn’t need to get his teeth checked. He’s going to walk between the Twin Towers.

Director James Marsh lets the story of Petit and his cohorts (because it is their story too) play out both through real-time interviews with the participants and by way of caper-like reconstructions of the day. The heist-esque portrayal of Petit’s attempts to the reach the top of one of the towers generates mischief and even comedy at times, particularly when Petit himself is describing his game of hide-and-seek with the guards in the building. Petit and co are, by all accounts, going against the law as the sneak their way into the buildings as maintenance men, and the group refrain from shying away from this as they retell their tale.

The lightheartedness achieved by Marsh is admirable (though the thought of walking across a wire suspended at 1,368ft does generate a nervous chuckle), however the film truly hits its stride through the group’s emotional, passionate narration of their incredible journey. Philippe and his friends, girlfriend, and colleagues all seem invested in their story — how can they not be? As the preparations develop, Petit’s metaphorical dream builds. Ironically, the main barrier in his way is the lack of physical existence of his goal: the towers do not reach completion until 1973, five years after the Frenchman darted out a dentist’s waiting room with dazzled eyes. Throughout the film, the purpose of the towers (which obviously lies in commerce, work, and the proverbial “American Dream”) becomes somewhat twisted towards Philippe’s ambition. Just for a moment the construction of the towers seems solely to be for one man to ascend and walk across them: “Of course, that’s why the towers are there… for Philippe.”

The group’s preparations take them to Sydney, Australia and the Notre-Dame Cathedral, where a suspended Philippe walks across the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the Cathedral respectively. The second traverse sees Philippe stride above an ongoing mass, almost in a God-like manner. The underlying connotations of dreams and reaching the clouds play out as the documentary progresses, further reinforcing just how overly-ambitious Petit is. His counterparts react differently as they recount their roles in the preparations and the event itself; we see genuine outbursts of emotion ranging from tears to laughter. At times there is a frustrated sense of animosity between the members of Petit’s troupe, adding to the intense drama — is this one man’s dream for himself, or a group’s dream for one man?

As the film nears its nail-biting conclusion — and nail-biting might just be an understatement — it hits the audience with an unexpected burst of poignancy. We want Philippe to succeed, to fulfil his dream, to fulfil the dream those close to him share vicariously. Marsh intersperses the drama with astonishing ‘home-video’ footage taken of Philippe as his air-walking escapades reach spine-tingling heights (the Frenchman even draws images of his previous wire-walks on a wall of one of the towers, as if to remind himself that they are part of a natural progression). The Twin Towers are displayed often and with purpose, reminding us about the sheer scale of Philippe’s dream.

And then Philippe Petit dances at the top of the world. From below he is as small as his name proposes and even smaller still as the remarkable man obtains a pair of gigantic steel legs. The moment is extraordinary; it is profound. But it is also effortless. The tension relieves and the documentary captures a truly emotionally evocative moment. This is the real Philippe, in complete isolation, suspended above a busy world. He elates, “I must be a castaway on a desert island of my dreams”.

Man on Wire delivers bundles of heart and soul, provided by way of James Marsh’s wonderfully diced concoction of Philippe and company telling their story, backed up by grainy, very real home-video footage and jaunty re-enactments. The title of film suggests simplicity, and in a sense the visual of Philippe Petit lying in mid-air between the Twin Towers is just that, but his journey to the sky is something quite extraordinary.