Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Dirties (Canada 2013: Dir Matt Johnson)

We truly live in meta times. Canadian movie The Dirties is the product of director/producer/co-writer Matt Johnson (who also plays the 'lead' in the film), whose inspiration seems not only to be the real life high school shooting incidents of recent times, but equally importantly cinema itself (or more precisely the process of making film, where scenes can be cued and reviewed at will for endless and isolated exploration, and key lines of dialogue can be played again and again until they assume some kind of truth). The Dirties is constructed, not seamlessly, but with the various parts knocking together, tethered by movie references, memories of Columbine style reportage, slacker comedy set scenes, and an almost random indie band soundtrack. It's a film that, like its lead character, is created and defined while we watch it being pieced together, and where the underlying truth of what we're seeing is only fully realised in the film's final few minutes.

The Dirties centres around two film obsessed high school students, Matt and Owen, who because of their 'otherness' are subjected to relentless bullying by a gang called The Dirties. Matt and Owen's physical response to the actions of the gang is for the most part completely passive, but they vent their frustration with their predicament by creating a film called 'The Dirties', which shows them seeking violent revenge on the gang, mediated almost entirely via scenes from Hollywood films like The Usual Suspects (1995) and Pulp Fiction (1994). In this there is also a direct comparison to Joshua Oppenheimer's devastating The Act of Killing (2012). That their film is pieced together within the film we're watching, showing an imagined response to bulllying contrasting with their real handling of the issue, is the heart of The Dirties, as Matt grows to realise via the film he's making, that the real way to escape his miserable situation is for life to imitate art.

The film pulls off the cinematic trick of showing the audience the human side of Matt and Owen, eliciting our sympathy with their plight and our anger at their treatment, feelings which remain with us even in the film's closing scenes. Matt in particular is a true oddball and the real bullying target. His obsession with revenge alienates him from Owen while at the same time making him an increasingly fascinating character for viewers. The film they produce and show to their disinterested class is an odd unfocused mess, if amusingly made (there's a nod to the Steve Martin vehicle Bowfinger (1999) in a moment where they surreptitiously film one of their female classmates voicing a line of dialogue that they need for a scene). The ambitions of their film show how far apart they are from the rest of the school in terms of artistic vision, but the inability of both class and teacher to understand what's on screen only seems to exacerbate the bullying.

The increasing darkness and seeming inevitability of the film's final section is brilliantly nuanced in a scene where Matt, viewed rendering the closing credit sequence of his movie (which of course become the end titles of the film we're watching), turns to the camera and explains that, because of what he's about to do, someone else will need to finish the edit - they do by the way, and the closing credits are brilliant. That Matt only finally seems strong with a gun in his hand, walking the corridors of his school with a motivation which only he and the viewing audience understand, is arguably The Dirties most meta and devastating moment.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

The Sacrament (US 2013: Dir Ti West)

Oh dear. After the slowburn delights of Ti West's earlier films, The Sacrament, with its bigger budget and more ambitious sweep, is, I must confess, a huge disappointment.

West deploys the done to death 'found footage' approach (although more accurately as a friend of mine calls it the 'first person' filmmaking style) to tell a story of a group of edgy TV documentary makers heading out to a remote jungle location to track down the missing sister of one of their party and (of course) document the whole thing. When they eventually find her she's living as part of a blissed out community called 'Eden Parish', presided over by 'The Father', an enigmatic figurehead who has gathered his flock to him to create a seemingly idlyllic life free of the constraints of capitalism and politics. Sound familiar?

People of a certain age may recognise this setup as sounding rather like the People's Temple which Jim Jones founded in Guyana back in the 1970s, before encouraging all 910 of the community's occupants to kill themselves by drinking cyanide laced Kool-Aid. And they'd be right. Without giving the plot away, The Sacrament pretty much re-tells this story - ok, I probably have. Sorry. 'The Father' even looks a lot like Jones and although the names have been changed, once the community's overweight leader hoves into view (complete with Jones-esque glasses) it's fairly obvious how this is going to turn out.

The presence of Eli Roth in the production of course ensures that any scenes of death are as protracted and exploitative as possible (you want to see a mother slit the throat of her own daughter before being shot at point blank range? Step this way). The performances, as in all of West's films, are very good, particularly Gene Jones as 'The Father' and Amy Seimetz as Caroline, the missing sister (and who was one of the few good things about Upstream Colour). But as the film is set in the present day, why is it retelling a story of events that took place in 1978? Did West think that the majority of his audience wouldn't know about Jim Jones, leaving him free to rip the story off? And why did the (presumably culturally clued up) filmmakers, when they stumble across the community and its leader in the first place, not immediately make a comparison to Jonestown, or indeed other cults they would have been familiar with like the Branch Davidians lead by David Koresh?

One of the film's key limitations, and annoyances, is the first person camera work. West gets around the traditional shaky cam issues by having the footage filmed by a proper documentary crew, hence the cinematic quality of what we're looking at. But in the second half of the movie the audience is left to wonder why the crew haven't abandoned their cameras when they're forced to make a run for it - a standard problem for a film shot in this way, and one that I thought West might solve.

So The Sacrament, while well made, convincingly acted, and never boring, is just a bit pointless, and a massive let down from a film maker who has previously been consistently exciting in his output. Let's hope this is just a blip on his CV.