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Movie Review: Diary of a Bad Lad

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"Who are these people?" is what I repeatedly asked myself when perusing the press release pages of accolades bestowed on the British thriller, Diary of a Bad Lad.

Chris Bernard called it “Absolutely superb…and completely inspiring” across the top of the promotional materials. Who is Chris Bernard? Good question, since the press packet did not attribute his name to anything. According to “the Google,” he's either a model from Lexington, Kentucky, a married software designer from Chicago, the author of Drop Shipping Sucks, or the founder of the Las Vegas Institute of Noetic Sciences Chapter.

And as insightful as any of those Chris Bernards may be about film, I am not sure how much I trust their and value their opinions. Perhaps it's time to rethink my credentials as a paid film critic, but color me bored. I just could not enter the groove that Diary of a Bad Lad was trying to create.

It unfurls as yet another 'found footage' pic, supposedly spliced together from more than 30 hours of "investigative footage". What I watched looked more like outtakes cobbled together from Guy Ritchie test reels.

The faux documentary format is often the blessing for the first-time filmmaker and the curse for the audience. To Bad Lad's credit, it was apparently completed a number of years ago, placing it pre-Cloverfield and Qurantine. But that does not excuse it from the sheer lack of narrative focus and complete slight of character development.

From what I am able to ascertain, Barry Lick (played by Jonathan Williams), a swarthy film professor, hires a gaggle of his students to help him film a drug deal that ultimately goes sour. Instead of high-tailing it out of Dodge, he claims that he wants to capture the gritty realism of the proceedings and demands they keep shooting — even as they dispose of a dead body and consume copious illegal substances themselves.

It's one thing to film an event as it unfolds; it's quite another when you yourself are committing said crime, implicating yourself in the process. It is exactly this little narrative nugget that kept me from investing my interest in any of the characters or events of Lad.

Then, there are artistic flourishes which completely remove the viewer from the documentary aesthetic it tries so hard to create. During more than one scene, the characters are seen snorting drugs and the director alters the film's soundtrack, which is supposed to emulate the character's high, but moves it completely out of the realm of documentary.

Then there is the dilemma of whacking through the thicket of accents, and I watch a lot of British TV and film. I am never one to protest reading subtitles, and I'll even take the time to look up cultural-specific witticisms, but Lad's amateur recording devices made it near impossible for the outsider to even decipher what was being said at times, much less extract any meaning from it.

Some scenes tended to go on forever, such as the amateur 'porn footage' that begins as amusingly playful, but drags on into tedium after five minutes or so.

It's commendable on a sheerly artistic level, thanks to director Michael Booth, but perhaps a little too impressed with itself, soaking in some of the bells and whistles of Apple's home filmmaking programs — a grainy filter here, a color drain there.

It does all this at the expense of character development. Too often, the film feels like outtakes from a film, with various seedy sorts mingling without purpose or direction. And while the actors involved are all first-timers, they fail to pull off the naturalism that is required for a film that is supposed to appear more real than a staged theatrical picture.

Director Booth has obviously paid attention in film class when they covered the chapter on visual effects, but must have dozed off during the lecture on character. This is one Diary that perhaps should have remained under lock and key.

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About Rob Rector

  • Dear Rob

    In 1997 the freelance British journalist and filmmaker, Jon Ronson, made a documentary for Channel 4 Television about Sheik Omar Bakri Muhammed. Sheik Omar was the founder and leader of Al-Muhajiroun, an Al-Qaeda linked organisation which, in 2005, the British government banned for ‘glorifying terrorism’. He spent quite a few years in England living on welfare so as to be able to recruit young Muslims to ‘jihad’ on a full-time basis.

    Ronson’s thesis was that Sheik Omar was a joke, and that anyone who spoke out against him was just as much of a joke themselves. He approached Omar asking if he could follow him around. To his surprise Omar not only agreed, but also immediately started acting the part of the harmless buffoon. But he’d had the measure of Ronson from the start, and was soon using him for his own purposes.

    Before long Ronson and his film crew were chauffeuring Omar and his cadres around London. Not only that but he got Ronson to chauffeur him to a secret meeting with most of Al-Qaeda’s leaders near Birmingham. Did Ronson notify the authorities that this was taking place? No, he spent two days sitting outside in his car whilst Omar supposedly failed persuade his fellow Islamists to allow Ronson in to film them.

    Omar then used Ronson’s assistance to stage an elaborate publicity stunt which made him front page news for days. Omar then, having got exactly what he wanted, cast Ronson aside like a used sweet wrapper.

    If you think I’m making any of this up, or am being unfair to Ronson you can watch his film on the internet. Just Google “The Tottenham Ayatollah”.

    One year later, in 1998 the exclusive private school educated Royal family connected British aristocrat, Guy Ritchie, made “Lock, Stock etc…” a crime film which portrayed ‘gangsters’ as lovable cockney rogues who, despite their antics, never attracted the attention of the police.

    This was the start of a whole slew of poor quality unrealistic British gangster films which reflected what, at best, could be called ‘dubious’ attitudes on behalf of their producers. It was a bubble which needed pricking, but the question was, how?

    A decade earlier there had been a flood of serial killer films which displayed a similar unhealthy fascination with their subject matter. Serial killers were everywhere, but not only that, they were falsely represented as mysterious and clever, instead of maladjusted and rather sad.

    But then a group of recent Belgian film school graduates decided to satirise this media fetish by imagining a world in which every community had it’s own serial killer, except that they weren’t ‘interesting’, they were dorks who impoverished would be documentary makers would follow around in the hope of ending up with something sensational that’d make them a buck or two. The result was ‘Man Bites Dog’, a black comedy which is deliberately referenced, and more than just in passing, early on in ‘Diary of a Bad Lad’.

    Man Bites Dog was shot on 16mm in a D A Pennebaker 1960’s fly-on-the-wall style. This was obviously no longer appropriate in an age of ‘reality television’, and of ‘video diaries’ in which the ‘diarist’ puts him or herself centre stage instead of the subject. And so we created ‘Barry Lick’, a self-regarding arrogant and insensitive media lecturer of dubious judgement who believes that he can cash in on the ‘gangster craze’ and make a potentially profitable piece of sensationalist journalism by getting some of his ex-students to work for him for no money; and that he’ll be able to persuade people to be in the film if he appeals to their vanity, little realising (just as with Jon Ronson) he is only getting cooperation because he is being used.

    Now people are always saying that ‘British humour doesn’t travel to America’, and Rob, in your case this is obviously true. You describe Bad Lad as a ‘thriller’, which had me and Michael (Booth – director) laughing in the aisles.

    You start your review by taking a pop at ‘Chris Bernard’. “Who’s he?” you say and then proceed to demonstrate that you have Google set to only search the USA. Rather than ‘googling’ it would have been better if you’d actually read the publicity material which quite clearly states: ‘Chris Bernard – Director, Letter to Brezhnev’. Now you might be forgiven for not have heard of this well known UK film, nor have bothered to key Chris in on imdb – which doesn’t list all his theatre and opera credits, but to falsely report on what you haven’t bothered to read in an attempt at getting a cheap laugh is, and I’m sure you’d agree, indefensible. Still I am sure that as an extremely generous and flamboyant gay man Chris would be tickled pink to be mistaken for a model from Lexington, Kentucky.

    But it’s the same with the way that you misread what you were watching as a ‘thriller’, despite the fact that the very brief (and rather tongue-in-cheek) press pack almost constantly refers to the film as a black comedy which is, at the same time unsettling in terms of not only the crimes committed, but also the increasingly inhumane and opportunistic behaviour of the media; and then through your hands up in despair because it isn’t.

    We wouldn’t have minded so much if you had paid some attention and consequently reviewed the film in terms of whether it worked as a post-modern satire/black comedy/farce with a point to make about media complicity, but I’m still not sure whether you would have got any of it.

    But, I’ll tell you what, I’ll make a bet with you. Apparently you teach students. Why not screen it to your class? Don’t bother with any more of an introduction other than to say it’s a no-budget film from the North of England that you’d like their opinion about. Take photo-copies of your review with you but don’t hand them out.

    Here’s what I bet. Some of your students will start to pick up on the joke and the laughter will spread and spread. But, towards the end the laughter will stop as the events depicted move beyond a joke. A few of your students will hate it. But I bet most of them clap at the end. Listen to what they have to say. Ask them to write their own reviews. But I bet you don’t hand out copies of your review – and I wouldn’t want you to, you obviously a tireless supporter of filmmaking and I’d hate to see you make a laughingstock of yourself.

    Best wishes

    Jon Williams, writer/producer

  • I am one of the “other” Chris Bernards. lol

    Yes, I did write Drop Shipping Sucks. No, I did not write a review. 🙂

  • Mark Jones

    It’s a shame you missed the point of this film. It’s not a thriller it’s a satire and a pretty good one. The fact that you said it’s like outtakes of a Guy Ritchie movie says it all. Doh! It is NOTHING like a Guy Ritchie movie, that’s the point. It’s the antithesis of a Guy Ritchie movie. I think you taking this movie at face value and there’s a lot more going on under the surface to do with the media and exploitation, ethics, etc.

    That said I suspect this is a movie that will divide peoples opinions. Or maybe it’s because I’ve lived in the UK and understand the lingo that I enjoyed it so much. I’d recommend it personally.

    Also funniest sex scene in a movie ever imo!