Sunday, 31 August 2014

Net loss: "The Internet's Own Boy"

The Internet's Own Boy serves as an example of documentary-as-shrine: a series of warm, glowing tributes organised in haste around an altogether flattering picture of its subject that may only have real meaning to the inner circle responsible for putting it together. That subject is Aaron Swartz, creator of Reddit and foremost proponent of open access Net content who committed suicide last year, aged just 26, after attracting the attentions of the US Government over his plans to circumvent private paywalls and make hundreds of thousands of research documents freely available to the public. Like some of the content he championed, the kid came and went in the blink of an eye; Brian Knappenberger's film attempts to give this life some permanency and context.

The first half accordingly sets forth some biography. One of those prodigies the home computer age keeps throwing up (the "boy" of the title is not accidental), Swartz established the Info Network - a forerunner of Wikipedia - when he was 12, spent his teenage years coming up with the concept of RSS feeds (nope, me neither), and was bought out by Conde Nast, in a deal that made him a millionaire, before he reached the age of twenty. Knappenberger has unearthed some funny, telling footage of this cocky, self-assured upstart sharing an industry platform with bearded greyhairs, looking both out of place and way ahead of his time - for this is another of those narratives that describes just how the world has begun to skew young.

Anybody hoping for a multifaceted portrait of a new media pioneer such as Aaron Sorkin gave us of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network will, however, likely be disappointed. Swartz's family, friends, colleagues and lawyers offer a steady stream of testimony as to what a bright, curious, generous soul their boy was, each new gush extending both viewer monotony and suspicions. Maybe Swartz really was a latter-day Jesus - or, more likely, that he didn't live long enough to incur any real enemies - but the narrative as presented here doesn't lack for incidents that might have been interpreted either way: Swartz's getting himself fired from Conde Nast for not showing up in the office is taken as a laudable show of anti-authoritarian dissent, where my dad (and surely not just my dad) might disagree.

Alex Gibney, in his superior We Steal Secrets, found checks and balances for similar claims, and in doing so, compiled an exceptionally nuanced psychological profile of these latter-day cyberpunks; here, Knappenberger's failure to initiate any wider or deeper inquiry around Swartz's demise manifests itself most keenly in the final hour, which proves so insistently pro-nerd and anti-The Man as to risk sending casual viewers fleeing to Reddit in the hope of finding out what other people are having for their tea. The individualism that thrives online, that entrenched wilfulness born of logged-on solitude which got Julian Assange into such trouble, could surely have been read into Swartz's eventual self-sacrifice, leaving behind as it does a father, mother and brother still visibly struggling to process Aaron's departure.

Instead, we have to sit and wait to discover just where Knappenberger's film takes its title from - one supporter's final-reel summary that "[Swartz] was the internet's own boy, and the old world killed him", a simplification that speaks unintended multitudes about the denial of personal responsibility fostered in certain dark and lousy corners of the Net. I understand the compulsion to make martyrs from such tragic, needless losses, but this determinedly soft-focus and respectful film feels heavily redacted in the manner it goes about doing so; it would surely have been truer to Aaron Swartz's personal and professional ethos, and the legacy he leaves encoded in a string of ones and zeroes, to put it all very much out there.

The Internet's Own Boy is now playing in selected cinemas.

Friday, 29 August 2014

On DVD: "Blue Ruin"

The filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier's debut Murder Party was a larky horror-comedy that had its moments - I retain a fondness for one insert of an artist's diary, which read "NIHILISM" on one page and "don't forget to tape CSI: Miami" on the other - but was chiefly another of those glib post-Tarantino indulgences, hellbent on treating its violence as slaphappy, anything-goes sport. Saulnier has gone away for a few years, had a think about the kind of filmmaker he wants to be, doubtless grown up a little, and now returns with the Sundance SensationBlue Ruin: a pared-back thriller that revolves around a man who's had everything taken away from him, and chosen violence as a project with which to fill the emptiness.

Those of us sitting in the dark watching will be aware this may not be the most considered path, yet from the very off, it's clear the man in question is in a state of extreme physical and emotional dishevelment. Dwight (Macon Blair) is a bearded bum who, after some initially undisclosed trauma, has taken to living out of his rustbucket Pontiac, permanently parked in the dunes of a beach somewhere in the Midwest. Upon learning that the individual responsible for his plight is being released from prison in Virginia, Dwight exacts an extreme form of revenge - and if this action proves or reveals anything in particular, it's that our protagonist has been holding in his rage like air: as soon as he lets it out, his trajectory becomes as unpredictable, as erratic, as a suddenly untethered balloon.

This is Saulnier's most daring and effective gambit second time around: to track the passage of a character who is defined almost entirely by his actions (as Dwight himself mumbles, "I don't talk much these days"), yet thinks nothing of the consequences. After taking his vengeance, Dwight ricochets onto the well-tended front lawn of his well-to-do sister (Amy Hargreaves), and a tentative process of reassimilation begins. Yet no sooner has he shown up than she leaves, and somehow putting a roof over Dwight's head makes him even twitchier and more compelling to watch - not least as he's sane enough to realise he's left a thick trail of blood and vapour behind him.

Such a determinedly lean venture needs a substantial leading man to bulk it out, and this Blue Ruin has in the schlubby, sad-faced Blair, a midpoint between Kevin Corrigan and Peter Lorre. No-one working out of Hollywood would allow such an unprepossessing type to topline a film even half this tense, but Saulnier takes the risk, and is rewarded for so doing: Blair's responses are still sufficiently raw to convince as both a guy trying to clean up his mess, and one might well have got into such a mess in the first place. There are plot points that don't quite play: within the gated community the Hargreaves character calls home, I think the sudden appearance of marauding men toting crossbows and shotguns would attract rather more attention than it does here, and given the extent of Dwight's carnage, it feels something of a (possibly budget-related) cheat to keep the cops out of the picture altogether.

Yet it could well be argued that Saulnier is doing much of the investigative legwork himself. Blue Ruin is newly assured around this violence: it's a film on violence as a legacy, a panicky first response, a desperate last resort, and a signifier of something innately American (key line of dialogue: "He who holds the gun gets to tell the truth"), even as it leaves some vomiting at the roadside and others with half their faces blown to smithereens. After the one-sided Murder Party, action is here wedded to consequence, misguided cause to bloody effect. As one of Dwight's brothers-in-arms puts it, in a line as blunt and as truthful as anything else here, "That's what bullets do."

Blue Ruin is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Channel 4 from September 8th.

For what it's worth...

Top Ten Films at the UK Box Office   
for the weekend of August 22-24, 2014: 
1 (new) Lucy (15) **
2 (1) The Inbetweeners 2 (15) ***
3 (2) Guardians of the Galaxy (12A) **
4 (new) Into the Storm (12A) **
5 (new) Deliver Us from Evil (15) ** 
6 (new) What If (15)
7 (4) Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (12A) ***
8 (new) Doctor Who: Deep Breath (PG)
9 (6) Secret Cinema: Back to the Future (PG)
10 (3) The Expendables 3 (12A)


My top five:   
1. Lilting
2. Night Moves [above]
3. Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari/The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
4. Two Days, One Night
5. The Rover

Top Ten DVD rentals:  
1 (1) Captain America: The Winter Soldier (12) ***
2 (2) Divergent (12)
3 (3) Noah (12) ****
4 (5) The Wolf of Wall Street (18) *
5 (6) Calvary (15) ***
6 (4) The Raid 2 (18) *****
7 (7) The Love Punch (12) **
8 (new) Transcendence (12) **
9 (10) The Monuments Men (12) **
10 (8) Muppets Most Wanted (U)

My top five:  
1. The Raid 2
2. Next Goal Wins
3. Ilo Ilo
4. Starred Up
5. Locke

Top five films on terrestrial TV this week:   
1. American Beauty (Friday, BBC2, 11.05pm)
2. The Ladykillers (Wednesday, C4, 2.30am)
3. Parenthood (Saturday, ITV1, 10.45pm)
4. Paradise: Love/Faith/Hope (Sunday/Monday/Wednesday, C4, 12.50/1/12.55am)
5. Monster House (Sunday, five, 4.05pm)

"Obvious Child" (The Guardian 29/08/14)

Obvious Child ***
Dir: Gillian Robespierre. With: Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann. 84 mins. Cert: 15

Of all the messy-women comedies engendered by the success of Bridesmaids, Gillian Robespierre’s low-key charmer might be the slyest. It’s a thoughtful treatise on female choice couched as a raucous character study, landing no-holds-barred Brooklyn stand-up Donna (Jenny Slate) with an accidental pregnancy, and thereby forcing her to get serious with the very body she’s been stripmining for laughs. That Donna keeps bumping into her inseminator is a contrivance that only makes her decision trickier: Jake Lacy’s Max is no deadbeat dad, but a chivalrous prospect who just happens to have fumbled the condom. Some of this material still sounds like a straightened-out routine, but its stronger stretches approach the personal, defiantly unemphatic territory of TV’s Louie: Robespierre and Slate deserve credit for nudging the abortion narrative away from scaremongering horror and back towards, if not an entirely happy ending, then at least something a girl might get a joke or two out of. 

Obvious Child opens in selected cinemas from today.

"The Guvnors" (The Guardian 29/08/14)

The Guvnors **
Dir: Gabe Turner. With: Doug Allen, Harley Sylvester, David Essex. 95 mins. Cert: 15

Gabe Turner’s mixed urban drama pursues a workable dramatic idea with a laughable bias, pitting the feral scrotes of a South London estate – led by Rizzle Kick Harley Sylvester – against erstwhile football hooligans who’ve moved out into suburbia. The latter group are as romanticised as King Arthur’s knights, nobly pulling their shivs out of retirement; it’s no shock to see ex-hoolie Cass Pennant listed among the producers. Pleasant surprises include a twinkly-eyed David Essex cameo, but nuance it knows not: every other scene veers towards the usual rucking, and Sylvester does so much aggressive sniffing you just want to hand him a hankie. 

The Guvnors opens in selected cinemas from today.

"Million Dollar Arm" (The Guardian 29/08/14)

Million Dollar Arm **
Dir: Craig Gillespie. With: Jon Hamm, Aasif Mandvi, Alan Arkin. 124 mins. Cert: PG

A cold hard business story, reshaped by Disney into a warm, fuzzy hug. Jon Hamm plays J.B. Bernstein, a true-life sports management nabob facing an eroding client base; his solution lay East, in staging a talent contest designed to recruit young Indian cricketers as Major League pitchers. Hamm and Alan Arkin’s grouchy scout conclude these deals with unarguable professionalism, but two hours allows us to spot the manoeuvres required to magic neo-colonialist playbook into heartwarming fairytale: the SuBo clips, the subplot elevating vapid Bernstein from model-boffing (boo!) to tenant-boffing (erm, yay?), the fondly indulgent regard for white guys plundering developing nations’ resources. Viewed this way: not so feelgood.

Million Dollar Arm opens in cinemas nationwide today.

"If I Stay" (The Guardian 29/08/14)

If I Stay **
Dir: R.J. Cutler. With: Chloe Grace Moretz, Mireille Enos, Jamie Blackley. 106 mins. Cert: 12A

The great Young Adult Allowance Grab continues. This entry comes on like a shrugging Ghost: sensitive cellist Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) is facing make-or-break with rocker squeeze Adam (Jamie Blackley) when her dad totals the family car, leaving her in spiritual limbo. Weirdly, nothing much develops from there: spectral Mia has no agency over her corporeal self, so she merely sits around the ICU eavesdropping on pre-emptive eulogies, and awaiting Prince Charming’s return. The smart cast occupy themselves with the dog-eared emotions scattered around these waiting rooms, but their Mumfordised singalong to the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Today” sorely necessitates a plug somewhere being pulled. 

If I Stay opens in cinemas nationwide today.