Saturday, 7 December 2013

Just for the Record

Director: Steve Lawson
Writers: Phillip Barron and Ben Shillito
Producer: Jonathon Sothcott
Cast: Danny Dyer, Craig Fairbrass, Steven Berkoff
Country: UK
Year of release: 2010
Reviewed from: UK DVD (Metrodome)
Website: There used to be one at www.justfortherecord-movie.com but it has completely disappeared and we shall discover why... 


In recent years I have watched and reviewed two recursive mockumentaries; that is, spoof documentary films about the making of fictitious narrative films. There was Mark Withers’
Hardcore: A Poke into the Adult Film Orifice (subsequently retitled Bare Naked Talent) and Keith Wright’s Take Me to Your Leader. Checking the site, I see that I gave each of them an MJS rating of A-. I haven’t decided on a rating for Just for the Record yet, but it’s unlikely to be A-, I know that.

This is another recursive mockumentary about the making of a micro-budget indie feature film but the big difference from Withers’ and Wright’s movies is that both of those actually were micro-budget indie feature films. They cost tuppence ha’penny to make, they were the debut feature from their respective directors, and between them the biggest star that either could rustle up was a small role in
Hardcore for Marysia Kay. To the best of my knowledge, neither film has yet received any sort of distribution.



Just for the Record, on the other hand, is on sale for six quid in my local supermarket. It was produced by Jonathan Sothcott’s movie factory Black and Blue Films, features a cast list packed with recognisable names and faces, clearly cost way more than Hardcore and Take Me to Your Leader put together and has been released in the UK by Metrodome who gave it a token theatrical release and have now very thoughtfully stuck several unskippable trailers for other releases on the DVD that have to be sat through first.

There is another fundamental difference between this recursive mockumentary and the other two. In my review of Hardcore I observed that it was rarely laugh-out-loud funny and when critiquing Take Me to Your Leader I made the same observation. Both films derive their comedy from gentle, well-observed character humour. Just for the Record is also rarely laugh-out-loud funny but that’s because it attempts to derive its humour mostly from weak, unfunny jokes.



It is also poorly conceived, badly written, bizarrely directed. alarmingly miscast, indifferently structured and full of thoroughly unsympathetic characters who you will quickly grow to hate.



And there, there, is the nub of all its faults. For example director Harlan Noble, as played by Roland Manookian (The Football Factory, Rise of the Footsoldier, Dead Cert), is a complete tit. A vain, pretentious, self-important, self-opinionated, thoroughly unlikeable arsehole. Many of the other characters are also far from sympathetic, so where is the audience investment? In both Hardcore and Take Me to Your Leader, we really wanted the film-makers to overcome their problems. They were underdogs, battling against a lack of money, lack of time, lack of resources and lack of talent, but they displayed an indomitable spirit, a determination to not let little things - like not knowing how to make a film and being surrounded by people who didn’t know how to make a film either - hold them back. We were rooting for them.


But when your central character is a complete tosser, why should we be bothered about his problems?

Noble is a whiny, weaselly little prat with pretentious spectacles, a prematurely receding hairline and a goatee so minimalist that you literally can’t see it when he turns sideways. One of the other characters describes it as “a Brazilian on his chin.” He has a Rocky Horror poster on his wall, a literal shrine to Chuck Norris and a fawning assistant, Danny Allgen, played by Scouser Ciaran Griffiths (ShamelessThe BillDead Cert), with possibly the worst Brummie accent I have ever heard. Has he ever even met anyone from Birmingham?

Noble is an arrogant prick who believes that he is making an ‘experience’. He hands out ashtrays instead of business cards (which could have been funny if handled right, but isn’t) and wears personalised underpants (which was never going to be funny). Allgen takes on the position of First AD, thereby making him another self-important little tosser, and when not on set he is completely gay for Noble (which again, could have been funny but isn’t). I’m going to need a shorthand for that, aren’t I? I’ll use ‘ashtray’, okay? From now on, anything which I describe as ‘ashtray’ or ‘an ashtray’ is something which, in a good script and with a bit of directorial care and a half-decent actor, could actually have been funny. But here, for whatever reason, it ain’t.

So that’s the director; what about the writer? Ian Virgo (Rise of the FootsoldierDead Cert) plays Flynn Beatty as the broadest stereotype of a nerdy, snobbish fool. He lives with his mother (Alice Barry: Shameless), has badly cut, greasy hair, wears a twee cardigan and sports a small moustache just this side of Adolf Hitler. Beatty is a talentless, jumped-up little twit and no more sympathetic than the director or the 1st AD.

And then there’s Danny Dyer (The Football FactorySeveranceDoghouseJack SaidDead Cert) as producer Derek La Farge, a character who is specifically singled out in the credits as being “inspired by Jonathan Sothcott” - who produced Just for the Record but is more at home with horrors such as Dead Cert or Wishbaby. You know a film’s in trouble when one of the most sympathetic characters is a slimeball played by Danny Dyer.

Now, I’ll say this for Dyer. I know a lot of people can’t stand him. And even he must be aware that he is associated in the public mind with a certain sort of character in a certain sort of film. Ask anyone to do an impression of Danny Dyer and they will respond “Fack off you slaaaag!” (unless you ask Mark Kermode who will say “Danny Dyah!” in a high pitched voice: no love lost between those two). There is certainly a perception that Dyer only plays gangster geezers and indeed can only play gangster geezers.

Now, I don’t know Danny Dyer and have never met him, although we have mutual friends such as Jonathan Sothcott and Jake West. He is widely painted in the media as, let’s face it, a knob, which he may or may not be. I neither know nor care, I’m just bothered at the moment about whether he can act. (I did meet Mark Kermode once, many years ago and he did seem to be a knob.)

The fact is that Danny Dyer is actually a good actor, and one with range - when given the opportunity. He certainly has a flare for comedy as we saw in Doghouse (albeit he was effectively parodying his own gangster geezer stereotype). In Just for the Record, he plays La Farge as a louche, nouveau riche, moustachioed pastiche (couldn’t resist writing that) with slicked back hair, a smart suit and tie and a pencil moustache. He is an item with talentless, self-important, American starlet Sarah Friedrichs (Victoria Silvstedt) and the two are interviewed indulging in a series of outlandish pampering treatments.

Dyer’s characterisation of La Farge is comedic but believable - in stark contrast to the unsubtle, unfunny wannabe-wackiness of Manookian, Griffiths and Virgo. It’s like he’s in a sitcom and they’re all in a sketch show. And not a good sketch show either; one of those sketch shows on BBC3 that makes your brain hurt as you try to work out how and why it was ever commissioned.

Some of the actors in Just for the Record play their parts like planks of wood, reciting their lines so mechanically that you’re left wondering if these are actually non-English-speaking actors who have learned the script phonetically. But we all know that the secret of a good mockumentary is improvisation. It worked for This is Spinal Tap, it worked for Take Me to Your Leader, it worked for all points inbetween. The best way to get a completely naturalistic performance out of your actors in a film like this is to let them workshop their characters, give them the gist of what they should say and point the camera at them.

As a scriptwriter myself I shouldn’t really be in favour of improv on screen but I’m prepared to make an exception for the mockumentary genre because the evidence is there that, in this type of film, the technique generates great results. So, while it doesn’t look like Dyer is improvising, he does at least seem to be extemporising which is halfway there and makes his character much more fun to spend time with - certainly less tortuous to watch - than some of the others.

Silvstedt, who was Playboy’s Miss December 1996, has less to do; she’s really just there to suggest, in an ashtray way, that her entirely unreasonable demands are perfectly reasonable for a star of her calibre. Triana Terry (Stalker) plays Lucy Smithfield, a posh young actress interviewed during a workout in her gym. Although Terry has more screentime than Silvstedt (by my estimation) she has just as little to work with. The character may not be as shallow but the characterisation certainly is. There is also Rita Ramnani (Erin from the Jack Says trilogy, also in The Last Seven and The Hunt for Gollum), playing a Russian actress named Olga, who has even less to do apart from put on a dodgy accent (although not as dodgy as Ciaran Griffiths’.) And Calum McNab (The Football FactoryRise of the Footsoldier - do you see a pattern developing here?) plays Mark Nowlan, a young actor who gets drunk and whose token characterisation is that he used to be on Grange Hill, which doesn’t even qualify as an ashtray.

Billy Murray (The BillEastEndersRise of the FootsoldierDoghouseDead CertStalker) has more to work with as Wilson Barnes, a constantly imbibing veteran actor with a nice car for getting between watering holes and what should be a stack of anecdotes but eventually amounts to little more than an ashtray about Richard Burton. It’s a meatier part that gives the (real) actor a lot more to work with than, say McNab’s thankless role.

Interestingly, early posters list Dirk Benedict among the cast and I’ve seen one that includes David Soul in the credit block. Since Murray’s name is absent from that credit block, and since it would make sense for the part of an old-school actor with a wealth of experience to be played by an old school actor with a wealth of experience, we can reasonably deduce that Benedict, and then Soul, were lined up to play Wilson Barnes. (In fact the part was originally intended for Murray who was forced to drop out because of conflicting work. Benedict and Soul were both lined up but unavailable and in the end a schedule was arranged that allowed Murray to take the role after all.)

The David Soul poster puts his name above the title, along with Dyer, Silvstedt, Manookian, Rik Mayall and Geoff Bell, but has photos of Dyer, Silvstedt, Manookian, Mayall, Bell and Sean Pertwee, who I know was brought into the film at the last minute which might suggest perhaps Soul was going to play his part. Or maybe whoever pasted the poster together wasn’t paying attention. (This poster appeared in June 2009, around the time that the film wrapped principal photography, along with the first trailer which has since disappeared from YouTube and everywhere else.)

Pertwee (Talos the MummyDog SoldiersWhen Evil CallsDoomsdayMutant ChroniclesDevil’s Playground but, incredibly, neither The Football Factory nor Rise of the Footsoldier, although he was in Goal! and Goal! 2) plays Harlan Noble’s martial arts instructor, Sensei Kreese, which presumably is supposed to tie in somehow with Noble’s barely glimpsed and thus largely irrelevant Chuck Norris obsession. Geoff Bell (StardustSolomon KaneThe Reeds) is Nicholas Johnson, another producer who owns a chain of strip clubs, where his interviews take place. Greasily debonair, he’s an insincere creep and it is his idea to get young Nowlan drunk, although why he does this is never explained. There is a third producer called Jim (Frank Harper: Lock Stock and Two Smoking BarrelsThe Football Factory, Rise of the FootsoldierKung Fu Flid) but he barely features although there is a single scene near the end of the film which has all three producers in one shot - one of the very few times that characters appear on screen together.

Colin Salmon (Judi Dench’s 2IC in three Pierce Brosnan Bonds, also in Stalker and Devil’s Playground) appears briefly near the end as Maynard Stark, the UK’s “blackest, gayest film editor” which is presumably supposed to be outrageous or shocking or something but is just inane and unfunny. Craig Fairbrass (Beyond BedlamProteusDarklandsRise of the FootsoldierDead CertDevil’s Playground) is the ‘executive producer’ - in the sense that it’s his dodgy money funding the production - a hard-as-nails London gangster called Malcolm ‘Mental Fists’ Wickes. No cheeky cockney, post-Guy Richie jack-the-lad here; Fairbrass plays Wickes completely straight as a heavily tattooed thug with absolutely no qualms about extreme violence and a small gang of sycophantic minders.

Steven Berkoff - Steven freaking Berkoff! - plays Mike Rosferry, the cinematographer. Berkoff’s genre credentials extend as far back as Hammer’s Slave Girls and a 1965 episode of The Avengers. In fact, even before that, he allegedly had uncredited bit parts in The Flesh and the Fiends and Konga. He was also in A Clockwork Orange, four episodes of UFO, Outland, Octopussy, Underworld, episodes of Space Precinct and DS9, the Children of Dune mini-series, The Cottage and Dead Cert.

Now Rosferry is quite interesting. You know Berkoff: he’s a bald-headed, scary-looking guy (and one of our finest serious actor-directors - remember his one-man, effects-free production of Kafka’s Metamorphosis? - what the hell is he doing in something like this?). But Rosferry is played as a doddery old fart, sat in a chair in an old people’s home. An extra collapses behind him mid-interview and is wheeled away on a stretcher, which is quite possibly the closest thing to a funny joke in the whole film. Berkoff adopts the same voice (and possibly the same woolly hat) that Bernard Cribbins used as Wilf in Doctor Who, only with a bit more swearing. The idea is that Rosferry is a fossil, an old guy who doesn’t understand modern film-making techniques and equipment, although this really only involves him having a rant about how Hitchcock didn’t need to use digital.

The trouble is, during the few brief scenes of actual film-making, Berkoff looks like himself: no woolly hat, no doddery old-bloke mannerisms, no trouble standing up and moving around. Nor does he seem at all confused by the camera he’s standing next to. So that it takes a while to realise that these two are the same person.

What a bunch of deeply unsympathetic characters we’ve got here. Some are horrible, some are stupid, some are horrible and stupid, some are simply bland. Which raises the question: what makes a sympathetic film character? Well, in a thriller, horror film or action movie, a sympathetic character is one who you want to, if not win, at least survive until the end of the film. That’s one of the reasons why I hated Reservoir Dogs - I didn’t care if any of them lived or died because they were all awful human beings - but I enjoyed Pulp Fiction, a film which made me care about what might happen to Bruce Willis.

In a comedy, drama, romance or any other sort of movie where, to be honest, pretty much everyone will still be alive at the end of the film (unless they are very, very old or have an incurable disease or like to cross streets without looking both ways) I believe that a sympathetic character is one that you would like to go for a drink with. In this film, that’s basically Wilson Barnes, who seems like the sort of bloke who doesn’t give a toss about what people think, and Rosie Frond, a flirty, flighty Welsh hairdresser ably played by Pumpkinhead 3’s Lisa McAllister (also in - guess what? - Dead Cert and Devil’s Playground, plus the mooted Asphyx remake).

Only McAllister and Murray give what could be considered a ‘a really good comic turn’ in this film. Dyer and Bell also at least seem to be trying. But most of the rest of the cast are either going through the motions or might as well be going through the motions for all the comedic skills they so manifestly fail to display.

Finally there is Rik Mayall as Andy Wiseman, the documentary maker who is supposedly conducting all the interviews. He does actually appear with other actors in a few shots but in many of the interview segments poor sound mixing makes it very, very obvious that his voice has been recorded elsewhere.

And mention of the phrase ‘interview segments’ brings up the problem of the film’s structure because that’s almost all we have: a constant series of cuts between interviews. Some characters are given a single location, some have multiple locations. Flynn Beatty does one of his interviews bouncing on a trampoline for no reason at all that I can fathom. But we see hardly any actual scenes of the film being made and absolutely no footage at all from the fake film. So all these people are talking about creating something that we never ever see and we only get the briefest of glimpses at the actual creation.

Now, it is possible to make a film of nothing but talking heads. Simon Rumley managed that over ten years ago with his extraordinary Strong Language. But it’s a dangerous conceit and you really, really have to know what you’re doing. And the odd thing here is that there is a tiny little bit of behind-the-scenes footage. We see Frond coming on to the terrified Nowlan, we see Nowlan throwing up and collapsing after his trip to the strip club. And we see Malcolm ‘Mental Fists’ Wickes visit the set and nut Sean Pertwee’s sensei character.

So what don’t we see? We don’t see anyone at any point making a film. Or attempting to make a film. We don’t see any actors in costume. We don’t really see anything.

Nor, of course, do we see the driving force behind any script: character conflict. Because everyone is interviewed separately, there are no relationshps in this film, apart from La Farge/Friedrichs and Noble/Allgen, who are both ostensibly happy couples and therefore not in obvious conflict. Characters in a script are defined by their relationships with other characters, so without those relationships, pretty much everyone here comes across as a one-note cypher. It’s not the actors’ fault, it’s how this stuff has been written.

The fake film is also called Just for the Record and is described as a romcom set in a second-hand record shop. The fact that the second-hand record shop, as a retail endeavour, is almost extinct suggests that this script may have been sitting on someone’s hard-drive for quite a while. Although to be fair, they do seem to have found a real second-hand record shop to shoot in. Phil Davis (QuadropheniaUnderworldRobin of SherwoodHowling VAlien 3) plays the somewhat out-of-it proprietor and we can add him to the short list of good comic turns in the film. His explanation that he kept moving a poster around the shop because he thought it would look like stop-motion animation when the film was finished could have been one of the best gags, but it ends up as simply another ashtray.

As for the fake characters in the fake film, Lucy Smithfield plays an estate agent, apparently. And that is precisely as much as we are told. Nothing about any of the other characters. Nothing about the plot. Zilch. Zippo. Nada.

So this is a film about people we don’t like trying to create something which we’re not told about. Hmm, that’ll work...

Flynn Beatty’s script apparently involves ‘space monkeys’ in some way because when he is asked to write a script very quickly, it always has space monkeys. That’s not even ashtray. The idea of space monkeys in a romcom just isn’t funny. It’s a jokoid. It has the shape of a joke - admittedly just a surreal non sequitur that’s trying desperately to be wacky, but a joke nonetheless - and yet it is entirely unfunny. In a similar vein, we are told that Harlan Noble’s previous film was about ‘ninja sharks’. Oh, my aching sides. That’s so zany.

But that betrays a complete ignorance of micro-budget film-making, which is what this film is supposed to be about. Low budget film-makers don’t make films about sharks or monkeys because you can’t make a film about sharks or monkeys without prosthetics, animatronics or CGI, all of which cost money. That’s why low-budget film-makers make films about zombies or vampires or ninjas or gangsters. Things that don’t cost money.

Either this is a failed attempt at a romcom or it’s a cheesy B-movie. Make your mind up.

Similarly, it seems that Noble has scribbled over parts of the script to add nude scenes and sexy bits. So he’s a perv. No wait, he’s a martial artist. No wait, he’s a pretentious wannabe auteur. No wait, he’s all of those things, even though none of these broadly painted character traits match or mesh together. Noble’s character, just like the supposed subject matter of the film being made, is just a Frankenstein-ian lash-up of ideas without any sort of credible coherence.

The actual film, the real one, the one I paid six quid for, was directed by a real director, Steven Lawson, who I always have to think of as The Other Steve Lawson as he’s not the one who directed me in Insiders. Although, like The Original Steve Lawson, The Other Steve Lawson is also an occasional actor, with a bunch of assorted roles including one in Jack Said. He even appears briefly in this movie as a taxi driver. The Original Steve Lawson earns his living making corporate videos and has been directing shorts and features since he was a lad. The Other Steve Lawson is a businessman who owns a gold coin-trading business and this is his debut feature. And it shows, to be honest. This is a film about micro-budget film-making directed by a bloke who doesn't really have any experience of micro-budget film-making so, for those of us who do, it's completely unrealistic.

But here’s what I don’t understand. It really seems like nobody told Lawson that he was filming a mockumentary. Because what’s the defining feature of a mockumentary? It has to look like a documentary, right? That’s sort of the whole point.

And it’s a great get-out clause for the lower-budgeted production because documentaries, especially when shot on the fly, don’t have the technical polish of a narrative film. If the lighting’s a bit dodgy or the framing isn’t right or there’s background noise - that all adds to the verisimilitude. Documentaries, especially Making Of documentaries, are often shot handheld, single camera - hence mockumentaries are too. And this, despite the minuscule amount of fake behind-the-scenes footage, is a mockumentary.

So why did Steven Lawson decide to shoot it all - interviews and fake behind-the-scenes stuff - like a conventional narrative film? We expect talking-head interviews to be done in one take, with maybe some cutaways to the interviewer nodding to cover unavoidable edits. That’s how documentaries look. Everyone knows that. We’ve all seen enough. We don’t expect multiple takes of the same interview from different angles to be edited together like a real feature film because that completely destroys what little illusion there may have been that these are real people talking about a real film.

In a mockumentary (if I may get pretentious for a moment), the camera-work is diegetic. You see? Three years of Film Studies at Staffordshire University wasn’t wasted after all.

There is kind of a precedent for this in the 2006 comedy film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (which was moderately amusing but not as funny or well-made as the trailer for the 2006 comedy film Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan). Borat was supposed to be a spoof documentary but there were numerous scenes where the only two characters present were Borat himself and his fat producer - so who was holding the camera?

Is it just me? Am I the only one who notices these things? Or do other people notice them but remain unbothered by them? It always amazes me how people are so keen to pick up minute continuity errors or production flubs but really huge, fundamental problems in films - big hits and obscure DTV crap alike - so often get completely ignored. Maybe it’s just me.

So what have we dealt with so far? The unsympathetic characters, the ‘mixed’ acting, the absence of actual fake film clips, the almost complete absence of fake behind-the-scenes footage, the inability of the director to make it look like a real documentary - and of course, the aching void of humourlessness.

What about the plot?

A film like this, about people struggling against the odds, usually involves some sort of triumph, however small; some aspect of redemption, a learning experience, a coming of age, a realisation of pathos that leads to the replacement of a meaningless obsession with a joyful embrace of reality. It’s there in Take Me to Your Leader, it’s there in This is Spinal Tap, it’s even there in some genuine documentaries like the wonderful Anvil: The Story of Anvil. It’s there in narrative films about creative struggles, like Ed Wood or School of Rock.


It’s not here. This is a film where the three-act structure is: pre-production, production, post-production (each introduced with a little semi-animated caption) as the interviewees discuss each stage of the film-making process in turn. But that’s not a three-act structure. That’s not thesis, antithesis, synthesis. That’s not boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back. That’s not man climbs tree, man falls out of tree, if he’s alive it’s comedy and if he’s dead it’s drama. Pre-production, production, post-production is just a sequence of three things happening in order.

A hero’s journey? Who the hell is the hero here? Harlan Noble? Derek La Farge? Flynn Beatty? Malcolm ‘Mental Fists’ Wickes? There is no hero, there is no journey. There’s a quest of sorts, but it’s not a quest we care one iota about. We have to care about what happens in a film, even in a supposed comedy. We need at least one character to identify with and we have to want him or her to succeed in some way. It really is that simple.

Towards the end, there is the closest that the film gets to a plot when Wickes appears, wanting to know where his money is. The production wraps with about three quarters of the script filmed, a rough cut is cobbled together by Colin Salmon’s blackest, gayest editor, but it’s unusable so the whole thing stops. We’re not shown anything from this unusable rough cut, we’re not told anything about it, and with the information that the fictitious film was never completed, the real film just ends, about an hour and a quarter in. The last line is a weak, crude gag about sex which is meant to be some sort of shock revelation but is in the trailer anyway.

That’s it, that’s the plot.

Which doesn’t chime at all with the advertising strapline that says: “They made the worst film of all time ... let the trial begin!” Because, clearly, the characters in this film didn’t make the worst film of all time. Because they didn’t finish the film. You can’t judge a film, even a fictitious one, on the basis of an incomplete rough cut. That nobody has seen. In the tiny, tiny amount of information that we are given about the fake film, there is no suggestion about its quality, no clue that it’s ‘the worst film of all time’ (apart from the incongruous-yet-unfunny presence of space monkeys in a romcom). Even in a fictional world, ‘the worst film of all time’ is an epithet that can only be bestowed on, well, a film. And there’s no film here. We’re not shown any of it, we’re not shown anyone making it, we’re given only a handful of vague references to its content - and in the end it doesn’t exist.

This is a film about people we don’t like trying to do something we don’t care about and don’t know about who then stop before they’ve finished anyway. Just for the Record (the fake romcom) is meant to be a textbook example of how not to make a film but in fact Just for the Record (the real mockumentary) is a textbook example of how not to make a film. How’s that for recursive?

And therein lies the supreme irony here and the terrible danger which other films about film-making have generally avoided. This movie is peppered with comments about how useless everything going into this film is: how the script is shite, the director hasn’t got a clue what he’s doing, the actors are wooden, the whole production is shoddy beyond belief, an embarrassment to those who worked on it etcetera etcetera etcetera. If you don’t want to sit through the whole 79 minutes (understandable), most of these comments are collected in the trailer. And pretty much all of them accurately describe the real Just for the Record. The characters are talking about the fake film but what they’re actually describing is the real film.

“I’ve been watching the film they’ve been making - and it’s absolute fucking shit,” observes Fairbrass/Wickes. “It’s got no story, it makes no sense, and it’s the same thing all the time.”

Never has a truer word been spoken. (Actually, in the film it is revealed that what Wickes has watched are the dailies, multiple takes of the same scene, but he is so ignorant of the film-making process that he thinks he’s seeing part of the finished movie. That gets perilously close to being a funny joke but sadly ends up as just another ashtray.) It is always a bad idea to give your characters lines about something awful which can be applied by critics to the movie in question. To stick them into your trailer is suicidal, but perhaps by then the people involved realised that they had a turd on their hands and thought: what the hell?

So who is responsible for this mess, this dog’s dinner of a film? And let’s be fair, it’s not the worst film of all time - although bizarrely Rik Mayall was in that picture too...

Although some of the acting is poor (some of which may be the actors, some of which may actually be good actors struggling with one-dimensional characters) and although the director’s decision to shoot a documentary in a non-documentary style is bizarre, the root cause of all the problems is, of course, the script. All the fundamental flaws - the lack of likeable characters, the lack of interaction and character relationships, the lack of any stuff about the actual film, the lack of a narrative structure, the lack of an ending - they can all be blamed wholly or in part on the script.

Three people take credit on-screen for this: screenplay by Phillip Barron and Ben Shillito, with additional material by Steve Lawson (although only Barron and Shillito are named in the credit block on the DVD sleeve). One might think that the film’s failure is a result of three writers trying to pull it in different directions, maybe. But all the posters and trailers give a solo writing credit to Phillip Barron so I believe that he is the principal author. And this belief is backed up by Barron’s blog on which he said:

“Obviously, I can’t take any credit for anything you liked in the film - that privilege is reserved for either director, Steve Lawson, or the specific performers; but on the off-chance the bit you liked was in some way connected to the script I wrote - I’ll bask in that little glow.

“That’s not to say the happenings on screen bear little or no resemblance to the script - far from it. In fact, I’d say 90 odd percent of what’s there comes from my script - but obviously anything you write is made or killed by the performances, the editing, the direction … a whole myriad of stuff.”

An acknowledgement of Lawson there but, interestingly, nowhere on his numerous blog posts does he mention Shillito’s involvement. Still: “90 odd percent of what’s there comes from my script.”

And it was when I found Phillip Barron’s blog, while googling for background information on Just for the Record, that I realised who he was and where I have encountered him online before. Do you recall, several thousand words ago near the beginning of this epic review, when I alluded to “one of those sketch shows on BBC3 that makes your brain hurt as you try to work out how and why it was ever commissioned”? Well, Phillip Barron writes for those BBC3 sketch shows.

Barron was one of the writers on a gut-wrenchingly shoddy and unfunny series called The Wrong Door and popped up on a TV discussion board to defend himself and the show after I started a thread on it. He also wrote for a thing called Shoot the Writers which wasn’t even as good as a bad BBC3 show; it was tucked away on ITV late night in 2005 and was probably the worst comedy show I’ve ever seen in my life. It was not only a non-stop barrage of unfunny, unoriginal sketches written by amateur wannabe writers, it was also shot for about five pounds, apparently using drama students as the cast and media production students as the crew. It just beggared belief. A blank screen would have been more entertaining.

Now, let me pause here to be fair to Phillip Barron (who will no doubt be reading this at some point and probably e-mail me or post in my guestbook). He is making a living as (to use the title of his blog) a jobbing scriptwriter. That’s a goal that many people strive for and he has achieved it. Obviously, like any pro scriptwriter, much of his work is on projects which never see the light of day. No shame in that, it’s how the film and TV industries work. Film production is a zero sum equation: anything that gets made prevents something else getting made. So it is all the unmade stuff that keep writers off the dole queue. Although frankly Barron spends so much time writing his blog that you do wonder when he has time to write any scripts.

Although most of his work is ‘comedy’ he has a few other genre credits: script editor on British vampire feature Night Junkies, co-writer of obscure Troma pick-up The Evolved and a ‘story’ credit for the Sothcott-produced Stalker (yes, it’s a remake of Exposé but a very loose one). He's not credited n the website or the trailer but he did do an early draft of the script.

Here’s the thing. On the evidence of his sketches for The Wrong Door and Shoot the Writers (the former I saw at the time, the latter are on his website) and this film, I see no evidence that Phillip Barron has the slightest idea how to write comedy. And yet, his blog is full of advice for wannabe writers about how to write comedy. The man drones on and on about his projects and his achievements without a hint of irony. If he acknowledged, as many full-time writers do, that the way to make a career in this field is to be able to produce the crap that producers ask for, on time and to specification, and leave your artistic pretentions on the coat-stand, then I’d say fair dos to the bloke.

But it is clear from his blog (and from his posts on the Wrong Door discussion thread which I started) that he really, honestly believes that what he writes is funny. That it’s good. That’s he’s a good writer.

The man is deluded. He actually is Flynn Beatty.

And that - much more than anything in Just for the Record - actually is pretty funny.

It looks likely, from the last-minute addition of Ben Shillito to the writing credit (and Barron’s non-acknowledgement of same) that Shillito was brought in to sort out the problems evident in Barron’s script. Although why those weren’t apparent before anyone filmed this thing isn’t clear. Shillito also gets a co-producer credit which indicates a level of involvement more than just script-polishing.

Perhaps I’m being unfair to Barron, maybe he wrote a great script that Shillito and Lawson then buggered up, but that seems unlikely. He’s happy to claim ownership of ‘90 odd per cent’ of the film and it’s 90 odd per cent unfunny crap. It’s not original in any way; everything in this film has been done already and done a lot better. It thinks it’s funny but it’s not, it thinks it’s clever but it’s not and, reading Phillip Barron’s blog, he obviously thinks it’s clever and funny - but it’s not.

If he thought his precious script had been ruined, I’m sure he’d have something to say about it. And he hasn’t. Which is telling in itself. Pretty much every scriptwriter I know has some horror story of how his or her work has been bastardised and ruined by directors or producers sticking their oar in, but Barron seems to be entirely happy with this film and with his TV sketch work. He’s living in a fantasy, Flynnbeatty world. Possibly with his mum, I don’t know.

What I believe happened, from my researches, is that Barron wrote a crap, unfunny script but Lawson thought it had potential and brought in Shillito to do a rewrite. Which merely turned it into a different crap, unfunny script with more credited authors. Frankly, Shillito was on a hiding to nothing there. Nothing short of major root canal surgery was ever going to rescue this toothache of a screenplay.

Lawson and Shillito went on to work with Sothcott and other interested parties on Dead Cert. Barron didn't.

While we’re here, how does Barron’s ‘90 odd per cent’ claim square with the possibility of improvisation? Pertwee reckons (in a Youtube interview) that the film was about half-and-half scripted/improvised (which sounds like an exaggeration). Berkoff seems to have improvised his old folks’ home scenes though and I’ve seen a clip (somewhere in the various Youtube videos I’ve watched) of Berkoff improvising desperately in the record shop and Manookian responding blankly, clearly struggling to find anything interesting to say. So who knows? Who knows?

Good luck to Phillip Barron, I say. I hope one day he learns how to write stuff which not only sells but is actually entertaining. Maybe he should spend less time writing about how to write comedy and more time learning some of the basics of scriptwriting, like having characters we care about doing something we know about with some sort of resolution at the end.

Who else is involved with this waste of good plastic? Glamour model Kitty Lea plays a nurse in the old people’s home. Barry Austin, reputedly Britain’s fattest man, plays a fighter in Pertwee’s dojo (yet another ashtray). We can also spot Joe Egan (Jack SaidDead Cert), Jamie Foreman (Sleepy HollowThe Football FactoryInkheart), Stuart Furlong (Jack SaidDead Cert), Amii Grove (Dead Cert), Jenna Harrison (Dinotopia), Page 3 stunna Tracy Kirby, Gil Kolirin (Return to the House on Haunted HillWrong Turn 3), Jade Goody’s ex Jack Tweed(!), Allen Lawson (Jack SaidDead Cert), Danny Midwinter (From HellDinotopiaRise of the Footsoldier, Anacondas 4Dead Cert), dancer Corinne Mitchell (Dead Cert), Pete Morgan (A Day of ViolenceKung Fu FlidDead Cert), Patrick Naughton (Jack Said), Nick Onsloe (Jack SaidCutDead Cert), Lucinda Rhodes-Flattery (CavegirlDream TeamDead Cert), Ellie Stewart (Dead Cert) and Isabelle Defaut who, astoundingly, has managed to appear in several films without any of them being Jack Said, Dead Cert, Doghouse, Devil’s Playground, Stalker, The Football Factory or Rise of the bloody Footsoldier.

James Friend was the cinematographer, adding to a long CV that includes Man Who Sold the WorldStalkerDead Cert and Jack Falls plus camera operator gigs on WishbabyReverbCold Earth and Jack Said. Production designer Sophie Wyatt also worked on Jack SaidCut and Devil’s Playground.

First AD Dan Mumford has pulled similar duties on Doghouse, Dead Cert, Doctor Who and The Sarah Jane Adventures. It’s difficult to see what visual effects there are in the film but apparently they were supervised by Jason de Vyea (Stalker, Dead Cert). Pippa Woods (The Hunt for Gollum, Doghouse, The Reeds, Stalker, Harry Potter 8, John Carter of Mars) handled the make-up and Alice Woodward (Doghouse, Jack Said, Dead Cert) oversaw the costume department.

Editor Will Gilbey not only cut Rise of the Footsoldier (and Doghouse) he also appeared in it and co-wrote it, but then it was directed by his brother. And apparently he’s the great-grandson of Nigel Bruce! There is - allegedly - an early cut of the film which runs an agonising two and a half hours...

Most of these people undoubtedly did their best, but the film was so fundamentally flawed from the start that good costumes or cinematography or supporting actors were never going to make any difference.

And there, my friends, the review would normally end. It’s been another very long one, but we’ve said everything there is to say about this rubbish movie.

What we haven’t discussed is the marketing - and that’s a fascinating thing in itself.

The sleeve is double-sided. One side has black and white headshots of Mayall, Fairbrass, Dyer, Murray and Silvstedt in character and the ‘They made the worst film...’ copyline. The back of this sleeve has a colour photo of Dyer and little photos of Pertwee, Terry and Mayall-with-Salmon. Plus a review quote:

“Hip and hilarious with an impressive star cast ... comedy gold!” - Allan Bryce, DVD and Blu-Ray World

Ah yes, Allan Bryce, a man of sound and reliable judgement who has certainly never ever filled his magazines with reviews cut and pasted off the internet. If he says it’s comedy gold, it must be. Unless somebody else said it on a review website first...

But let’s consider the blurb on the back of the sleeve, before we turn it over, for both sleeve designs have the same text:

"Danny Dyer (The Football Factory, The Business), Craig Fairbrass (Rise of the Footsoldier, The Bank Job), Sean Pertwee (Dog Soldiers, Doomsday), Phil Davis (Dead Man Running), Steven Berkoff (The Krays) and Billy Murray (Rise of the Footsoldier) come together as one of the greatest British casts in recent memory.
   Two years ago, persuaded by suave producer Derek LeFarge (Dyer) to fund a low budget feature film with a location to die for, psychotic local gangster Malcolm Mental Fists' Wickes (Fairbrass) stepped into a world of chaos and anarchy.
   Now as the oddball group are rounded up to discover exactly what went wrong, it's a barrage of threats, accusations, recriminations, back-stabbing, head-butting and insult throwing - all in a days work for a crew that will be lucky to escape with their reputations intact!"

We’ll gloss over the missing apostrophes. We’ll note in passing that Dyer’s character’s surname is very clearly shown on-screen as ‘La Farge’ not ‘LeFarge’. But what do we really notice most of all about this summary of the film?

That’s right, there’s no indication that it’s a mockumentary, or even a comedy. We might also note that Fairbrass’ psycho gangster is implied to be a major character when in fact he doesn’t even appear until one hour into the film. It’s almost like they want people to think this is some sort of gangster picture.

Now turn over the sleeve - very, very carefully - to see the one that was actually put in the case facing outwards, the one that was looking out from the shelves of Morrisons. No quote from Allan Bryce, no mention of ‘worst film...’. The copyline here is: ‘Get in on the ACTION... try not to get CUT!’ And on the back: ‘For this mob, the business is tough!!!’

Can you see how the print-out label style used for the title on the other side, and in all advance posters, and indeed on screen, has been replaced with a riveted-metal-sheets font and that the F has actually been turned into a pistol! (There are precisely no pistols in Just for the Record although there is one headbutt.) And while that’s a photo of Craig Fairbrass as Malcolm ‘Mental Fists’ Wickes, that photo of Danny Dyer certainly isn’t from this film.

There’s another, full-length shot of Dyer on the back, again looking like a gangster geezer (or maybe just like Danny Dyer) rather than the pencil-moustached, Clark Gable lookalike which he plays in this film. The role he took specifically to show people that Danny Dyer can play characters other than Cockney geezer gangsters. And what do Metrodome stick on the sleeve? A photo of Dyer looking like a Cockney geezer gangster, a geezer gangster-style font, some geezer gangster-type copylines, some badly punctuated text that implies geezerness and gangstericity. And a completely irrelevant London skyline just to emphasise that this particular gangster picture is set in Laandaan, innit. (It’s actually set in Croydon, a town which once boasted the UK’s largest second-hand record shop.)

We’ve all seen films misrepresented by distributors before but Just for the Record sets a new British and Commonwealth record for outright deceit in video marketing. In fact, I feel that I should quote the estimable Mr Fairbrass himself from his own website:.

"Just for the Record
   Craig would like to offer his sincere apologies to anyone who bought this film and thouht it was a London gangster thriller..its a comedy about low budget film making and I joint the project as an actor to be involved with other respected actors in a trendy comedy.
   The sleeve is totally misleading..its a shame because its damaging and I always want to treat my fans with total respect. please dont judge DEVILS PLAYGROUND or DEAD CERT..the same way.
   Thanks Craig"

Let’s look at what has happened here. Metrodome has acquired the UK rights to this film on the basis of a trailer and a frankly amazing cast list. They have agreed to give it a small theatrical release and then a push on DVD but they have asked for complete freedom in marketing. The film-makers, undoubtedly aware of what a stinker they have on their hands, have been happy to take the money and run.

Then Metrodome have taken a look at the finished movie and realised that they have bought a pig in a poke. It’s awful. It’s a self-indulgent, unfunny piece of crap with no story and a bunch of cardboard characters varying from despicable to dull. In the words of that noted gentleman of culture Mr Malcolm MF Wickes: “It’s absolute fucking shit. It’s got no story, it makes no sense, and it’s the same thing all the time.”

So: damage control. How can Metrodome minimise their losses on this thing? Well, the first thing to do is to reduce the ‘domestic theatrical release’ to an absolute minimum. There were 21 unadvertised, midday, midweek screenings in five cinemas in five small towns: Altrincham, Burnley, Leamington Spa, Stroud and Torbay. It’s quite possible that no-one saw it at all except for Phillip Barron and his three mates.

But what about the DVD? No-one will buy it on the recommendation of reviewers because any reviewers will simply echo the words of young Mr Wickes there. No-one will buy it on word-of-mouth recommendation from their mates. And the number of people who pick it up and buy it out of curiosity will be tiny if it is advertised as a spoof documentary about low-budget film-making.

It’s not a sequel or a remake or based on an old cartoon. It doesn’t have fabulous special effects or a name director. The one and only exploitable angle is the amazing cast, especially Danny Dyer who is, let’s face it, Mr Goldenballs right now as far as low-budget British DTV films go. But what genre is Danny Dyer associated with? Not comedy that’s for sure (despite Doghouse). No, he plays hard-as-nails geezer gangsters in films about East End, wide boy, didn’t-you-kill-my-brother geezer gangsters and gangster geezers. Innit.

And so someone at Metrodome said ah fuck it, let’s try and con people into thinking it’s a gangster film. We know they’ll hate it whatever they’re expecting so if they’re going to be disappointed that it’s shit, they might as well also be disappointed that it’s not even the film that the sleeve promises.

One final note, still on the sleeve. You will note that it is black, white and red. Both versions. And that is because there seems to be some sort of EU directive that all Danny Dyer films must be released with DVD sleeves that are black, white and red. Or at the most have a little dark sepia. Dead Man Running, The Other Half, City Rats, Goodbye Charlie Bright, Jack Said, Borstal Boy, Malice in Wonderland, The Last Seven, All in the Game, The Football Factory. Only Outlaw, Pimp and Doghouse display any colour other than red. Maybe it doesn’t apply to films with one-word titles? No, that’s no good - look at Severance and Straightheads.

It’s extraordinary, it really is. Have all these sleeves been designed by the same person?

As for the disc, there are no extras, not even a trailer, although it’s easy to find it on Youtube. There was an earlier trailer which was removed from Youtube that had most of the same clips but completely different music, which might be why it disappeared (alng with the film’s website of which there remains not a trace, not in Google cache, not at archive.org, nowhere). Also on Youtube, if you can be bothered to search around, are dull three-minute on-set interviews with most of the cast, two ‘deleted scenes’ totalling 48 seconds, a ten-minute AFM promo and a 30-second clip of Mayall in character which might be from a teaser trailer.

Anyway, that’s Just for the Record. It’s the ultimate recursive mockumentary. It’s a film that is ostensibly about an utterly shit film called Just for the Record, cack-handedly made from a dreadful script, which actually is an utterly shit film called Just for the Record, cack-handedly made from a dreadful script. And it’s taken me more than 8,000 words to tell you that. If this review has been a chore to get through, consider that I have at least saved you from watching the damn movie.

Once again I never set out to write such an epic review but it all seemed to run away from me. There is so much to be said about this film, almost none of it positive. I think we must consider it a blip on the careers of Dyer, Fairbrass, McAllister, Murray, Sothcott, Salmon, Berkoff and most of the others. Let’s instead look forward to Dead Cert and Devil’s Playground and all the other juicy stuff coming up from this gang.

MJS rating: D
review originally posted 24th August 2010

No comments:

Post a Comment