Thursday, 24 December 2009


1. SHAZAM! (Daniel Goldstein, 2006, Isr/US/UK)

'Houdini's greatest trick was to make an elephant disappear. It was also his greatest flop. The illusion was so grand that the audience did not believe it. Sometimes, revelations can be too profound' Jim Steinmeyer

'The world can be served up proof, and it can be strong and true, and we still do not believe. Our positions are already too set.' Oshi

A documentary,then, at number one. I know, I know. But Brown student Daniel Goldstein's shaky cameraphone epic railed and rattled with such journalistic urgency that to not acknowledge it would be to prove some kind of peverse point. The informations contained herein are too Earth-shattering to ignore.

To begin with: Goldstein reveals the Wizards of the West Supermairgh, a select collection of alchemists whose magical powers died on the day that their special word of invocation, 'Shazam!' was found drowned in an East London canal in 1954. Foul play was suspected. Various theories link many to the crime (the Hells Angels, PLO, CIA, Soviet Union and international crime syndicates are named in the film), but who on Earth stands to gain? For with the death of 'Shazam!', man can no longer harness the tumultuous natural powers of the planet. Since the word was murdered, no human being is able to pronounce the word correctly- it comes out as
'Shuh-zaim!' rather than the now throaty gargling-iron-filings effort of yore) which has had dire consequences- human kind now finds it impossible to harness the Earth's hormones, and subsequently, grave sicknesses, such as global warming and AIDS (both with germinations circa 1954) have grown exponentially. The film looks at the botched inquest and subsequent cover-up by the Western governments, their sham-shazam wizards (fogging the lens of scepticism on prime-time television), and how rock'n'roll was invented, a charade of rebellion, to turn our heads like Christmas bells of jaunty distraction. There were other glistening lies, making truths (warlocks mourn death of a word/ A word drowns/ NATO invented rock'n'roll etc) seem preposterous. The veracity of an audience's belief almost managed to put shazam through a hall of mirrors, conjuring an infected appearance of magic. 'The US government is a placebo now' says government stooge W.Axl Rose in the film. 'I'm not even sure of the people in charge know that they are in charge. Their belief is that if you seem like a saviour, then you probably are. The world believed I was the singer in a dangerous rock band, and so I probably was.... and so 'Use Your Illusion' becomes a guiding principle really... you know, if magic is dead.'

A symphony of conspiracies so great is revealed that the viewer cannot hear, so loud is the clamour of truth.We hear about how the lido, a children's runaway haven, is the only place in Mexico City free from wrath of a corporation named Zodiac; How those that have earlobes and those that can roll their R's are in league, whether they know it or not. The journey ends in Copenhagen, as gamblers cross their fingers. The only solution? Dreamfarms in Indonesia, in which pubescent children sleep in large factories ('sweetshops') and their dreams are taken and used as fuel to fog the lens of the Western world, their kneebones used to tighten the screws of our ignorance.

... and JFK was shot by Lee Harvey Oswald, but there was no conspiracy; Oswald acted alone, spurred on by the liquid Satanic undercurrents that swept the Earth in the wake of the death of Shazam!... and a real sadness is that Shazam! is not remembered, but that a tired parody of the word is served to the world as a comic book story, for children and deflated adults in capes.


'Makes Michael Moore look like a rabble-rouser reading from an old script' The Guardian

'Shazam! shows us... the insipid tendrils of hope only drain the kitchen of its mess for a second, until the oppressive mess returns. Pernicious mummies of the state seek to hide the fact that they are hiding the fact that they are hiding the fact that there is in fact a malady of the sages, and humankind's fate, until the mid 20th Century tethered to its own regenerative abilities, now swings on its last life, unknowingly. Various new man-made tragedies serve as smokescreens, now that audio-visual arts have themselves lost a pull: black presidents, failing economies.' Noam Chomsky

'I totally loved the bit about that kid in Gaza or wherever who totally unplugged the world's electricity by lifting that watch battery that was wedged between two paving stones. He was hella cute, for a kid.'

'And to think! Our musical heroes were nothing more than juvenile indulgers and serial pederasts! Supported, no less, by a State who recognises the need for acceptable rebellion. Sickened, I burned my records. Including the ones I made. Especially the ones I made' Little Steven

Shazam! Directed, Written and produced by Daniel Goldstein Starring Daniel Goldstein Yasser Arafat Axl Rose Petra Wingfysh Kofi Annan Homade Productions Release Date: Worldwide online, Oct 2006

Monday, 21 December 2009


=6. SEPTEMDECILLION (Hypperson, 2004, USA)

=6. BIERCE THE FIERCE (Guillermo del Toro, 2006, Esp/US/Mex)

'If James Cameron is the King of the World, Hypperson is the Booze in the Cooking' Keith Floyd

'[Bierce the Fierce]... is a festival, a torrid dance, a gorgeous musical death...' LA Weekly

I've written about these two at length, and couldn't split them. Both equally as good as one another in almost every way. Both haunt the back of my eyelids perennially.

5. NUEVA GERMANIA (Soren Elkjaer, 2004, Den/Ger/UK)

'No-one will ever place my words inside quotation marks.' Soren Elkjaer

Dane Soren Elkjaer has to date served up a buffet (writers: the word 'smorgasbord' is not necessitated every time a Scandanavian offers a selection of anything) of filmic wonder. Any selection might have warranted a place here. Mehr Nicht, Mehr Licht (2000) focussed on the argument about Goethe's last words. Shortly after his death, a man in Augsburg in Germany was committed to an asylum for pronouncing loudly that he really said 'Mehr Nicht' (No More') rather than the attributed 'Mehr Licht' ('More Light'), a nihilistic wail rather than the more palatable invocation, instruction, last wish, or affirmation of something. The Doctor who committed the claimant him was honoured by the city.

Or we could have picked Elkjaer's Either, OR (2006) (synopisis: Soren Kierkegaard arrives by train in the small Oregon town of Either in 1854. At 41, his health is failing. He will die within the year. He has left a doppelganger in Europe who he instructs to live a hedonistic existence. His own plan is to write alone in the distant and lonely West, in a bid to carry out the ethical half of his own Either/Or theses. But when he gets drawn into a love triangle with a widow and her daughter, this may prove more difficult than he suspected...). Or Noah's Archimedes (2001) (The Biblical boatmaker meets the Greek philosopher. Both teach each other about bouyancy, etc.), or even his spellbindingly abstract biopic Agassi (2009), starring Isabelle Huppert as the leonine racket-swinger.

But Nueva Germania may be the best: Missionary of all things German Bernhard Forster (Bruno Ganz), along with his wife Elizabeth Bernhard-Nietzche (sister of Fred, here played by Tilda Swinton) set out for Paraguay in 1887 to start a new colony and prove the supremacy of the Aryan peoples far away from the Jews. The group struggles. A failure, Forster poisons himself in 1889. Elizabeth returns home in 1893 to look after her sick brother.

During the last portion of the film, after Forster has committed suicide and the dwindling band of ex-pats are drifting in a sick sea of madness, every line of dialogue is one that has been attributed as the last words of someone famous. The jungle rejects them, her harshness forces them out. 'Friends applaud, the comedy is finished' they say, 'drink to me! Moose, Indian, moose indian...'


When Sean O'Flanahan's play about the celebrity afterlife won a TONY in 2005, and it was announced that a film version was to be made by Warner Brothers, no-one could have envisioned this. The original play imagined Aldous Huxley, CS Lewis and JFK (who died on the same day in 1963) awaiting judgment in a grey lounge in the afterlife. They talk about Jean Cocteau and Edith Piaf, who had died on the same day a month earlier. They talk about Gandhi and Orville Wright, who had died on the same day in 1948. The film was to be a sober reenactment of the play, with the same cast.

When Ingmar Bergman and Michaelangelo Antonioni died on the same day in 2007, O'Flanahan updated the play at the last minute, the actors improvising a touching for-one-night-only acknowledgement of the directors by impersonating them in Heaven. 'I realised that this play could run forever on the fumes of such tributes,' O'Flanahan said later, and when his friend Anthony Minghella and hero Arthur C. Clarke died on the same day in 2008, his cast repeated the trick. The proposed director of the film, Mickey Gilbert, thought that the excitement caused by these spontaneous rewritings lent the project new drama: 'In Spring 2009, we had begun shooting the original Huxley/Lewis/Kennedy script. I loved it, but as a film, something wasn't there. Something topical.'

Something soon came along.

On June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson, Farrah Fawcett and Sky Saxon died. Gilbert quickly halted shooting, and reshot the film with his actors impersonating these three. No dialogue was changed: 'Instead of Kennedy worrying about his legacy, we had Fawcett. Instead of Lewis calming the others with warm Christian philosophies and fantasy stories, we had Jackson. We shot it in three weeks, and had it out by November.'

3. GESTERN IST NICHT DORT (Dieter Buchmann, 2001, Ger)

I've written about this previously too, and it only continues to rise in my estimation. Buchmann's other great achievement was his thirty-two hour Unity (2006), A real-time imagining of Unity Mitford's first meetings with Hitler in Berlin in 1934, when she learned his routine so she could 'accidentally' meet him in his favourite cafe. 'Before Sunrise meets Birth of A Nation' quipped Tarantino, Quentin, CA. ''Tasteless as turkey,' said Tarantino, Betsy, FL.

2. FIN (Michael Haneke, 2009, Aut/Fra)

'Haneke's moral diction is the glue of contemporary European cinema. His existence means I can be consoled by the failure of everybody else to show us burning bodies of war victims in every film since the invention of a medium for which 'medium' is an apposite word; Medium in the sense of divining ontological informations, and medium in the sense of being very average and unspectacular. How it should be, if you will, and how it is.' Tobias Hirsch

The last film to be released on the list, ducking snugly under the tape to be the one of the best as well. A couple middle-class couple finally have a great weekend together away from lots of family business. They feel guilty at first, but then loosen up, as they deserve some fun. They then turn on the news after a great forty-eight hours in blissful solitude to discover the world is about to end. Fin. No explosive apocalypse, just the certainty that everyone will die. The couple, most of all, feel guilty for their lovely last weekend. A suggestion floats that their internal relaxation somehow is linked to this chain of events; as if, by taking their eye off the ball, it has slipped under a passing car. This idea is very much a product of a modern egocentric and workaholic mindset, and is ruthlessly skewered by Haneke.

'We mock their bourgeois ways, we laugh at their pretensions, and we warm to their companionship. Ultimately, the horror and comfort comes from exactly the same place: Haneke is telling us how small we are, and how insignificant our worries are.' Sight & Sound

'The apocalypse, when it comes, will be inconsiderate. It will wait until just before your annual two-week holiday before descending blackly, leaving you rueing that fortnight you might have used more thoughtfully had you known. People of course, won't believe it. Won't want to. Will find it inconvenient, something to be spent away, ignored, etc. It will not be concerned with our society.' Michael Haneke

Monday, 14 December 2009


I should prelude my pick of my ten fictional films of the decade with a disclaimer, and it is not the usual one of the critic, the one in which he (for it is always a he in matters of listeria) leans away from his sums for a moment to lecture us on subjectivity, and how he has attempted to put personal taste aside and strive for some kind of fairness.

No, being a hardline subjectivist, I have no concerns about whether my choices are popular or right (these two things sadly too often being seen as the same thing in most parts of Western culture, and perhaps everywhere else too). My concerns are more practical. For while it is difficult for a critic or amateur film enthusiast to pick ten films from a decade at the best of times, picking ten fictional films is clearly a much harder task. Viewing enough cinematically released pieces to make a broad overview of the last ten years worth of available art possible involves a huge investment of time for even the professional film writer; to pick ten well, one must surely see many hundreds. I commend them their efforts. But my task is almost impossible. The number of imaginary films out there is so numerous as to make any cohesive overview as similar as nailing jelly to the wall- both are awkward, messy, and leave apparently random patterns. Each place on my list could have been filled with millions upon millions of alternatives, and any imaginary film enthusiast could make a list entirely different to this one.

So what follows, is by no means conclusively the 'best' or 'most important'. Just ten good ones that came to mind.

10: TRAVEL 'TIME TRAVEL!' (Jacob Michaels, 2006, USA)

If Computer Generated Images in modern cinema are indeed the jewels, crowns and swimming pools, all the cacophonies with which beggar boys drown out the silence of imaginative poverty, (and let it be known I'm no fundamentalist on these matters- give me a bejewell'd dragon in three dimensions over tawdry Oscar buzz on any and all of the seven days), then perhaps Jacob Michaels of California is a King of Ideas who needs no such lusty shenanigans. Perhaps.
Without him, sci-fi would be in exactly the same place it is now. No-one has followed his curve, bending schemes beyond the paradoxical until a sublime nonsense jazz permeates. 'History is worth more than the future. Darwinism and Jesus Christ would not be so contentious otherwise,' declares Dr Schwimmer (Jim Broadbent) the man behind the titular Time Travel time-travel company. His technology allows two rivals (Ben Kingsley and Udo Kier) to go back in time to kill one another as babes. The effects of their past-meddling are legion, a swarm of loose ends, a mind-meld of subplots. Michaels explores the chaos of time travel by splattering his screen with ridiculous real-time ephemera: three-legged mothers, unborn siblings, memories that are ruptured and false.

The simplistic cause-and-effect logic of Back to the Future is amplified horribly: deaths happen apparently randomly, the consequences of tiny seeds of actions completely unrelated. The world is explosive, as mistakes are being erased and paradoxes created constantly. If time is confusing, time travel is Confucius. Or concussion. Don't do it.

9: THE DRIVE (Lucy Simmons, 2002, Can)

'When I first read what I had written, I threw it in the fire. It was like Pithecanthropus Erectus giving birth to a fully-clothed smoking philosopher and murdering the child in mute shock, the writing was so far advanced from what I had done before. I rewrote it immediately, leaving out the best parts. Naturally, it was even better. With each rewrite, I removed more plot, like a chef boiling some fresh vegetables down to nothing. I came to realise that the repetitive action is the most powerful; this couple, driving in a car, leaving some kind of family dispute behind, not wanting to go home, but driving onwards, onwards: they were almost wishing the road into never ending, and of course it didn't.' Lucy Simmons.

'A couple drive in the country. They stop at a gas station. Repeat to fade.' Roger Ebert.

'The fact that they are so distracted by... life, by death, by something... that they fail to notice that they keep stopping at the same station- is perhaps the most poignant contemporary commentary on the modern human condition. The final shot- of the wife looking at the attendant, looking at her distant husband, looking back at the attendant, furrowing her brow, as if on the verge of realisation, recognition, of some kind of comprehension (about what? the fact that the road is repeating itself? That they're in some kind of dull hell? That they're simply lost?) before shaking her head distractedly- takes this quiet film beyond the perimeter of Hitchcockian suspense, to something less satisfying and more truthful: there may be bombs under our respective tables, but we rarely notice them, even when they do go boom.' Slavoj Zizek.

8: KAL-EL (Ang Lee, 2002, USA)

Another film, then, trading science-fiction cliches for hard currency. Ang Lee removes the rumbuncious idolatory from Superman by leaving him on Krypton; an alterna-hell of green normality. His semi-beurocratic life has echoes of Clark Kent, but shorn of the sudden gear-change at the drop of a baby into heroically sentimental icon, that refracted ideal of America's self-image. So, we have a man in a robe doing a job, with no smellovision sonatas, no Christmas tones. Kal-El is a regular alien with regular parents. But he has dreams, dreams in which he is strong enough to lift vehicles, repair dams, fly. 'To say I made Superman without Superman is absurd. He exists in Kal-El's dreams, just as he lives in ours,' Ang Lee said, in a defence of his apparent sabotage. The real heresy (if that is a strong enough word for pop culture fanatics in a post-Christianity world) was perhaps having a Kal-El whose escalating resentment about the disparity between his life and dreams ends with him making a bomb big enough to destroy his homeworld, before fleeing and crashlanding on a green and blue planet where he has ultrasonic ears. And where, naturally, he can fulfill his own invented destiny.

'That this Superman is like any reality show contestant- tall, handsome, convinced of his own uniqueness- makes him simultaneously loathsome and sympathetic. Lee's genius is in holding these two weights in complete harmony' LA Times.

7: LIPSTICK FIBROSIS (Bert Smith, 2007, UK)

'The blogging generation's Spiceworld' The Guardian.

'Hey Hey We're the Junkies' The Sun

'War of the Worlds meets Kiss Meets The Phantom of the Park meets Mars Attacks meets Head meets The Day The Earth Stood Still meets Abba: The Movie meets Mamma Mia meets Signs meets Purple Rain meets The Faculty meets Help meets The Thing meets Eddie and the Cruisers meets ET meets That Thing You Do meets Mack and Me meets This Island Earth meets Oliver Stone's The Doors meets Plan 9 meets Dreamgirls meets The Faculty meets Paris Blues. In fact, I'll tell you exactly what this film is like- the scene in Masters of the Universe where Courtney Cox's boyfriend discovers that he can decipher the key to the cosmic flux capacitor portal device by plugging it into his Yamaha keyboard and playing strident yuppie rock chords, thus evading Frank Langella's Skeletor- that scene, over the course of ninety minutes, refracted through myspace. Fun.' Mark Kermode.

Real-life legends-in-their-own-bathtimes Lipstick Fibrosis play themselves as Earth's last hope against marauding martians. Druggy singer Oskar Minimal is the hero whose asexual pipes flood the air with so much tuneless drivel that the aliens cannot decipher it among the rubble of hipster carnage in 21st century London. The previously unheralded spazzcore refuseniks turn out to be lovable heroes, world is saved, triumphant sell-out concert ensues. The rushed sequel Lipstick Fibrosis At The Beach (2008) was a step too far, and the forthcoming Lipstick Fibrosis In Space (2011) seems doomed. After the dismal failure of Razorlight At The Edge of Time (2007), and Jet: The Movie(2008), the brief band movie resurrection seems over. He Hit Me And It Felt Like A Kasabian (2008), it should be noted, received a verdict of 'surprisingly watchable' in my house.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

LE PAROLE (THE WORDS, aka TALEBAIT) (Mario Monicelli, 1973)

Mario Monicelli and Italo Calvino appear on-screen. Calvino stands over a typewriter. Monicelli reads what he types: 'When you get your tenses wrong, tectonic plates swallow houses somewhere warm. When your sentence srtucture is unsound, skyscrapers topple in another city. Words are everything.' What follows is a succession of short films, all written by Calvino, and directed by Monicelli.

Stories, of course, are not invented. They have to be caught. Some move slowly, like trees, and can be cut and stripped easily. Others, by which we mean the better, rarer ones, have a quicksilver movement that means they must be tricked. The Story Hunters of Italo Calvino's fable are not wilderness wanderers with spears, but lateral-thinking architects. Distant diggers obey subsequent clauses, and despite trundling through the tenses, from future perfect back to shrunken present, and manage to lay solid enough foundations. The machines pivot, laying scaffold to support word brick lines. These sentences can act as mazes, forcing stories down dead end alleys and into convenient corners. This results, hopefully, in capture. The words are abstract traps. For the Story Hunter, they can be everything, the poison that drugs the tale, the wall that prevents convenient getaway, but also (and this is crucial), they can serve to delay the hunter, for it is possible that he too may be rendered woozy and confused by the structures, and drunk on their horny potentials, be rendered babbling into ever diminishing tunnels of chatter, where letters, symbols, and punctuation haunt his direction (parentheses, often a clarifying pair of friends, only adding to the disruption by building roadblocks where doors should be (and building doorways inside smaller doorways, ever onwards) and offering little defence when truly required (when the tale shakes its fur and sidesteps at top speed, once, twice, a pirouette, a hop, all punctuation trips; in panic, over itself, over each other), and so the tale, so ripe for grasping and pinning while still alive into the display case (for sombre repeats, ad infinitum) one moment, is gone from view the next, tracks disappearing in the high winds/ heavy snowfall/ persistent drizzle.

'I shall be attaching myself to you like starfish for the rest of the night'. A writer (Vittorio Gassman) attempts to write down every detail of a woman (Gigi Proietti). She moves, and his notes are blurred.

New York, 1899. When The Professor (Donald Sutherland) designs a machine that writes plots for stories, he is inundated with visits from budding novelists high in descriptive talent but lacking the requisite organizational story-telling abilities to wow. At first the existence of the machine suggests the unimaginative rut that Man has run into by offering wondrous and complex storylines that are used by the writers to garnish the theatre and novels of the time. The Professor tours America with the machine, accompanied by his money-seeking agent (Warren Oates) and his daughter (Lily Dragoon), sprinkling inventive narratives on writers everywhere at $10 a pop. But soon there are problems: A protest group, known as the Pro-Imaginatives, follow the tour and as attention for the Professor's invention grows, so does their opposition. They believe that 'man should stand or fall by his own ideas, and that using a machine to create thoughts is blasphemous and false'.

The Professor counters this by drugging his audience, but finds himself confused about the next course of action. Conveniently (plotwise), the machine explodes, sprinkling its magic all over the world. Inspiration now floats in pockets, invisible clouds, waiting to be walked through by unaware individuals. Our only awareness of our contact with these fields is when thoughts attach themselves in sudden fashion in unlinked contexts: When shopping in a supermarket or walking to work, for example, and we suddenly think of a long-dead grandparent, or a childhood song, or a jarring, phrase, name or joke which we find we must repeat over and over, prayerlike, investigating the mystery of words. The movie suggests that the machine is behind early cinema releases like the Melieres' Trip To The Moon; that without it, Edison would have lacked the imagination to conceive of cinema.

The quatrain is a poetry train. Tight rhymes and iambic pentameter keep the wheels on the tracks, on the tracks, on the tracks, on the tracks. When somebody aboard writes free-form, the train comes off the rails. But is this a problem? Perhaps with lines fizzing in new, broken directions, the train may spin into unchartered territories? Klaus Nomi stars as a flamboyantly hopeless poet whose dizzy lines might lead the train to other planets, and they might not.

A poor farmer (Ugo Tognazzi) is confounded by a sudden frost which kills his crop of letters. Without letters, his village cannot talk. Twenty mute minutes ensue.

Back in the woods, the trap is set. The Story Hunters wait. But in the night, hope gives way to despair, as they remember how many beautiful sentences they need. As they wait, we hear a distant noise on the wind. As it grows louder, the Story Hunters look confused. But we recognise the voice: It is The Professor from 'The Plot Machine', repeating over and over, 'Even with my machine, I don't know how to end this story... even with my machine, I don't know how to end this story... even with my machine...'

Le Parole Directed by Mario Monicelli Produced by Mario Cecchi Gori Written by Italo Calvino Starring Vittorio Gassman Gigi Proietti Donald Sutherland Warren Oates Klaus Nomi Italo Calvino Mario Monicelli Adolfo Celi Ugo Tognazzi Claude Dauphin Titanus Film 99 mins Release Date Ita: June 1973, UK/US: Nov 1973 Tagline:'Grandpa, Where Do Stories Come From?'