Category Archives: Online Movies

Secret Number

Secret Number

Format: Internet streaming

Website: Secret Number

Director: Colin Levy

USA 2012

15 mins

Secret Number may be driven by the idea of a scientific conspiracy theory but its presentation is completely transparent. Not only is Colin Levy’s award-winning student film viewable in its entirety online, there are also accompanying diary films, recording the production process. The film is an adaptation of a short story by Igor Teper, which challenges our everyday perceptions by proposing that there is a secret number between three and four. The suggestion comes in the form of a conversation between troubled mathematician, Prof Ersheim (played by Tom Nowicki in the film), and his psychiatrist, Dr Tomlin (played by Daniel Jones). The more Ersheim insists on the existence of the number, named ‘bleem’, the more Tomlin is forced to question basic assumptions about the world around him. Perhaps Ersheim and ‘bleem’ itself are being hushed up much in the same way as Galileo’s support of heliocentrism was condemned as heresy during his lifetime. Perhaps those in power have much to gain from keeping ‘bleem’ secret from the population at large. The idea throws open some interesting questions about our individual experiences of reality (and sanity), suggesting that there is subjectivity to what is accepted and propagated as the norm.

Levy does an accomplished job of handling the material, creating a sustained air of menace and un-reality, assisted by skilful post-production visual effects. Indeed, Secret Number is an extremely well shot and nicely edited work, especially for an emerging director. However, it is a shame the film does not rise above being a straightforward drama to become a more unusual work in its visual representation of how numbers shape our understanding of the world. There are a couple of scenes in which Tomlin and Ersheim try to imagine or communicate ‘bleem’ (usually through the medium of scattered jelly beans!) but these could have been pushed further visually to produce imaginative effects and allow the audience more space to consider the existence and meaning of numbers in our everyday lives.

Rather than exploring this element, Levy made the choice to supplement the basic conversation of Igor Teper’s short story and create a more involved narrative, uniting the two men in a flashback sequence focusing on an accident experienced in Tomlin’s childhood. The addition can be interpreted as direct proof of the existence of ‘bleem’ (the victim of the accident is not identified, hinting at some sort of cover-up) or alternatively as a product of Tomlin’s increasingly confused and paranoid state. By the end of the film, there is growing ambiguity about the roles of doctor and patient. While the ending succeeds in emphasising how thin our grasp of reality can be, the accident scene also feels like the necessary twist of a more conventional thriller and, as such, slightly disappoints. Still, these reservations aside, Secret Number demonstrates a great deal of technical promise and Levy’s ability to create a tight, well-paced narrative structure.

Eleanor McKeown

Things We’d Have Missed without Them

Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2011 Prize

2011, Royal Observatory Greenwich/Lonelyleap

Damian, Nicole, Ole. Three amateur photographers who pointed their lenses to the sky and captured things we’d have missed without them. They’re recent prize-winners of the Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition 2011 – run by Royal Observatory Greenwich – and each has such a different view of space that it makes you think again about what you see in the night sky.

Nicole: the blue hour

‘I like to take pictures, and then go home and show everyone what they’re missing.’ – Nicole

A teenage girl, with the grammar and trainers to match, Nicole is openly in awe when she stares at the sky. On a path through long grasses and scrubland to the foot of rock formations that seem to be from Mars, not Earth, Nicole’s film feels like a sequence from a teenage adventure.

The middle section of her story is filled with snapshot of trinkets and messages from friends, the kind of things you have buried in a shoebox under your bed or that your parents ‘keep safe’. All of this warmth and energy seems to transfer to Nicole’s prize-winning photograph of a sky filled with stars in motion, surrounding a single point in the middle of the night.

Her delight is less tempered and more exuberant than Ole and Damian’s, but all share this faraway look. This look seems to place their eyes somewhere in the stratosphere, darting about the stars for the shot that will transmit just a fraction of its beauty.

Ole: the quest for aurorae

‘This is an effect of our sun getting angry.’ – Ole

While the single shots of each photographer are impressive, only Ole’s gets extended treatment. He’s produced time-lapse footage of the aurorae above Norway’s snowy mountains, a sight that dominates the first 15 seconds of his short film and overhangs the narrative that follows.

Ole’s sky is, simply, unearthly. The shimmering wisps of green that flick across it are the stuff of fiction, or dreams. They’re the bits our ancestors have looked at, mad with ignorance, running scared to form religions and small gods in tribute. The aurorae are unreal.

But he got it. He trapped it in a camera lens and brought it back for the rest of us. Nicole has collected her stars in motion and Damian’s got the eye of Jupiter’s storm and all three of them appear in film to make these weird sights very very human just by being willing witnesses, documentarians for the rest of us.

That it takes just five and a half minutes to feel that sensation across three super-short films is testament to the filmmakers and to the selection of these three stargazers.

Damian: far from everyday life

‘Between the front of my telescope - where the light is collected - and the surface of Jupiter, it’s around four hundred million miles.’ – Damian

It’s clear instantly that Damian’s role in the proceedings is more relaxed. He sits in a back garden – his perhaps – with a comparatively huge telescope at his command, in relative comfort compared to Nicole’s joyous yomp in the dark and Ole’s landscape-defying trek into the Arctic Circle.

The camera is in awe of the set-up, lingering on the scope and twin screens that his beasty bit of kit is hooked up to. The film even pauses for a moment to dwell on the piping hot cuppa he puts to his lips, completing the cosy view of space that Damian enjoys.

But this technical complexity is implied by shots of his darting eyes and nimble fingertips, poised to capture space. This is precision engineering. Damian is awaiting an alignment in the sky that happens only once, for three brief minutes, in the entire history of everything.

‘It’s an amazing place… to observe.’ – Damian

Damian and Ole both spend time by the water, that other vast and unexplored landscape. There’s a line in a Los Campesinos! track that extols the virtues of sitting by the sea, as it’s ‘a good place to think about the future’. Space too is inextricably linked to The Future.

Beside the sea the men look up, and in America’s heartland Nicole looks up too. But none of them are escaping from where they’re shooting. Nicole’s photo is warmer for its interplay with the terrain below, Ole’s more unnatural. Only Damian’s photograph seems divorced from the Earth below, but his short film roots him so firmly to pots of tea and garden sheds that you want to put him on a poster for the UK tourist board.

Where each of them looks up is linked to who they are and how they see the sky.

‘It’s telling you how small you are in this endless universe.’ – Ole

Close shots, static cameras, angles that force faces into unusual parts of the frame; there’s a shared aesthetic to these films that helps to unite the journey into space these three very different people are undertaking.

And there’s so much sky. Lonelyleap’s filmmakers have made films about wonderful, interesting humans while offering as much space to the air above as the frames permit. They do an incredible job of matching that backdrop to the face of the person looking up at it.

And they are all looking up. Three photographers, separated by oceans, security checkpoints and passport control. All three of them are looking into the night sky and seeing such different perspectives on everything out there that your view of terra firma seems to shift with them. Space is vast, but Earth is pretty big too.

Matthew Sheret


Immaterials: Light Painting Wi-Fi (Timo Arnall)

I was in Berlin when I last thought of Tarkovsky. The crisp February cold gripped my bones and made mincemeat of the coat and scarf I’d brought from London. The buildings looked like photographs already filtered through nostalgia apps and lens flare. Berlin is a city built for thinking about cities.

Tarkovsky, in particular Stalker, had been mentioned by several speakers at the conference I was in town for. His vision of guides navigating physics-defying Zones had a romantic allure for young designers and developers in the audience, desperate to find a path through the strange landscape that new design principles and opportunities are offering them. But while most of them treated that metaphorically there was one film on show that fit the mood of exploration and alien physics just beautifully.

Immaterials: Light Painting Wi-Fi is a material exploration conducted by Timo Arnall, J&#248rn Knutsen and Einar Sneve Martinussen for the Institute of Design at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design in Norway. It’s a three-minute film featuring strange lights and maps of things that don’t exist, burning light into long-exposure photography through several long winter nights.

What the team are doing involves hooking up LED lights to a computer programme that senses where the fields generated by Wi-Fi networks are active. The LEDs glow when there is a signal to receive. These LEDs are attached to a four-metre high staff, which they carry through the streets to map the fields in the city.

To most people, Wi-Fi feels like magic. So as the team trace a landscape of signals through the streets of Oslo there is the sense that they’re mapping something close to ley lines. The streaks of light in the darkness are what provide homes with the means of Skyping far-flung grandparents, or offering students the bandwidth to download the complete works of Shakespeare. Where black spots appear in the signal you concoct strange explanations, reasoning that some terrible power has punched a hole in the field, preventing the people from connecting to one another.

And while the network is the primary component on display in the film other things become apparent. The lines traversed in the dark leave traces of human footprints in the snowdrifts, markers of human input that hammer home the industry necessary to realise the film. The staff themselves look heavy and awkward, and Martinussen hauls the camera through the streets with a stoicism that betrays how important the whole process seems. And when we cut away to the production of this strange spectacle every inherited assumption about research and design is brushed aside in a montage of wiring, testing, screwing and examination.

The fundamental idea we take away from this is that where we assume a computer must already be able to map this field we are shown, repeatedly, that it takes effort and sweat. We are shown that it takes commitment to show people things that aren’t there.

The light painting film is one of several projects that the Oslo-based team have conducted and documented under the umbrella term of Immaterial exploration. The Ghost in the Field, produced in 2009, captures the field generated by RFID readers – the things you tap your Oyster Card on – and the reciprocal field it triggers in the counterpart chip – the little component in your Oyster card that tells Transport for London who you are.

The infinite peace and patience etched into Arnall’s face during the interview segments allow this film to exist in two spaces; the infomercial and the aspirational. As he and Jack Schulze describe the process and the findings, they wear teacher-like expressions, their hand gestures similar to what one might have seen on Tomorrow’s World or Blue Peter. Their willingness to communicate and gentle eloquence simplify complexity and engender trust in the viewer, boiling the ‘magic’ down into something that can be articulated in crude and simple shapes. This helps to place the technology in the same all-pervasive context within which we already situate power cables and satellite dishes.

Instead of the romantic visual language of a city at night, they use a locked camera and a mid-shot from a documentary to demonstrate just how painstakingly slow and detailed the research process was; every pin-prick of light took a steady hand and a chunk of determination. Here we see fluctuating fields and careful attention to the finest of details, in the name of generating not just research data but also, crucially, a logo. That’s the biggest marker of the film’s second purpose; this isn’t just about the scientific exploration, but about showcasing products and offering space to imagine applications.

Both Immaterial films carry the professionalism and the deft focus changes of commercial filmmaking, and sell the ideas being discussed. They create exactly enough product that you can invent a use for this new map of Wi-Fi, or to work out how this human-scale visualisation of it can benefit us.

Like Tarkovsky’s Stalker, these films guide us through the immateriality of the Zone, but offer us the choice of what to do with the power at the heart of it.

Matthew Sheret

Plinkett’s Secret Army

Plinkett (Red Letter Media)

I want to describe a secret society I’ve stumbled upon. It started with Spaced.

In Spaced, a social documentary dressed as a sitcom, the mystery unravels quickly: Tim, an out-of-work comic book retailer goes to claim benefits and finds himself offered money far quicker than many other applicants. The reason for the swift processing? Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. He didn’t like it. And nor do others.

It was a scene in a comedy, but it’s not far from the truth. And that truth is a dark web of vice, full of sly winks and shared hyperlinks. You think you’re immune to its charms, but you’re not. First you’re disappointed with the film - Episode I, that first Lucas prequel - and you find sympathy in those around you. But as they start to forget about it little hints of what that film shattered stay with you. And in that you aren’t alone.

For this society The Phantom Menace is like the reformation; shattering a church of merchandise-supported art as if it was so much LEGO.

Imagine holding onto that feeling, clinging so tightly to it that you can no longer tell where you end and your loathing begins. Something twists in your soul, making you recognisable only to others who share your hatred of that film, that franchise, until someone sweet appears before you and drawls, ‘What’s wrong with your face?!’

What is wrong with it indeed.

This whole rotten underworld was revealed for what it was back in December 2009. Red Letter Media, a video production company starting to get a reputation for take-downs of the Star Trek franchise, released a seven-part deconstruction of Episode I to YouTube (now archived on their own site), airing every single fanboy’s petty grievances with The Phantom Menace and finding time to mix those up with exquisitely accurate assessments of its structural failures as a film. Every character, every weak plot point, every gimmick, every blessed moment of Lucas’s inserted ego was laid bare for all to see.

Which is nothing new. At all. It’s the bread and butter of what makes this dark little world of Lucasfilm-loathing critics tick. But Red Letter Media brought the lulz with Plinkett, the character voicing this 70-minute monologue.

Plinkett’s Phantom Menace review managed to be incredibly funny. Dark, but hilarious. Clips and loops of continuity errors and terrible characterisation were interspersed with shots of cats going into microwaves and Plinkett’s broken life. This is a critic who probably killed his ex-wife and leaves hookers to die in his basement, a grotesque villain, who manages to say the cleverest and wittiest things.

The review instantly went memeic, flooding Twitter and curated blogs like SyFy’s blog. It gave a community of haters pause for breath, the comments threads opening its arms to people tripping over themselves to come out and declare that they too felt this way.

The humour of the reviews comes from a space dominated by bedroom nerds, many of them boys. The jokes are intoned with the very same voice that whispers ‘lemon party’ in the dark, cheat codes to the basement hackers of the world, all of whom loved this moment in daylight. This was their triumph, their ‘Holidays in the Sun’, this was their Potemkin!

And then, as quickly as the storm arrived, the sun came out and all the darkness melted away.

Plinkett had shown these people a vision of the future that managed to blend film theory, rape/murder and pizza-rolls into one beautiful boxed-set. The nerds, this society, were never going to let him go.

Episode II: Attack of the Clones got the Plinkett treatment. Again the plot is destroyed, everything from the decoys one character has in case of assassins (‘Who would apply for such a position?’) to the characters’ responses to the threat level implied by the dialogue (‘The situation is so dangerous you’re walking around in the middle of broad daylight?’), let alone the epic battle sequence around which the whole prequel turns. He dwells on the awful-looking characters, calling them out for the cheap marketing fodder they are, and points out time and again just how little there is to fascinate about this whole exercise.

And for that strange little group of vilified, bitter viewers it was once again their time.

Much later, as the parties got started on New Year’s Eve and 2011 reared its head, Plinkett returned. The time between reviews had been taxing, and the snappy brevity of his approach seemed punctured. The review of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith had bloated to almost two hours, and while it was technically on track the cut-aways and humour seemed painfully thin.

It emerged that the interjections had taken on a life of their own. Hooker Nadine, a throwaway reference in the first review, had blossomed into a character, capable of taking Plinkett on and taking him down. As this hybrid offshoot hit the screen the basement societies convulsed; what to do with this B-movie dressed in the trappings of our - ahem, sorry - their saviour?

It was terrible, the special effects hamstrung by their attempt at humour, the manifestation of Plinkett in human form. That voice just wasn’t right. And what was wrong with his face?

The Revenge of Nadine spoiled everything, shattering the beauty of what came before. It sullied the position of this once great trilogy and made it something else, something lesser. Red Letter Media ceased to be the jewels in the crown of this little sub-sect of geekdom and became just another bunch of chancers with a camera. George Lucas, had he noticed, would have wept.

But it didn’t change the society.

In cold basement cellars these people meet. They know one another by name and intent. They find humour in things normal people simply can’t comprehend, and loathe things that others might just let go.

And when I come home from work, open up my laptop, and sit in its weird blue-white glow only the most diligent of observers could tell the difference between them and me. I can’t.

Matthew Sheret

In an Alien Fashion

The Curve of Forgotten Things

Fashion blogs terrify me. For every super-detailed analysis of why it’s important to kiss buttons in thrift stores I scroll through page after page of ‘shoe enthusiasm‘. Compare and contrast: old vs new, in vs out; these blogs work in casually distinguished binaries. And they throw up the strangest gems.

Aanteni by fashion brand Rodarte and director Tod Cole is a twisted film. Showcasing ancient (it’s a year old now) fashion, the film strives to look like the final traces of humankind in soft focus.

Star Guinevere van Seenus carries the film with a heavy, ungainly motion. In running she seems to tumble, all clipped thrusts and contorted features, her clothes appearing to disintegrate, as if her skin were reacting violently with our too-human atmosphere. She sprints through blasted pockets of LA, frightened and exhausted, behind her a pursuer we’ll never understand. And between her skips and stumbles we cut to factories and test-sites.

Through all, van Seenus never quite seems human. Human frailties are captured, but they seem too raw, too keenly experienced to be genuine.

This film sounds like doom. Fuzzes and spits of sound make sense of the scanners tracking van Seenus’s body; of her neck lolling sideways in agony; of a rocket taking flight. The soundtrack is made up of the compressed, clipped sounds of mission control, sputtering to get a message to the moon. It fits the debris floating around Los Angeles just as well as the debris floating miles above the earth.

Rodarte is the brand name of fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy, sisters, so it’s fitting that Aanteni has a sister too. The Mulleavys and Cole released a new film in February, The Curve of Forgotten Things, showcasing a new collection. Again making use of the schizophrenic landscape of LA, this film follows actress Elle Fanning as she explores an empty house on a hill.

Fanning too seems unnatural, but the alien fear in van Seenus’s eyes isn’t here at all; Fanning is shot with the face of a nymph. She seems to get younger and younger as each frame passes, while her soundtrack twinkles and glitters.

The yellow light of the film and the aged wood surrounding Fanning serve to emphasise how little of her has frayed. Where the fashion of Aateni is ragged and torn The Curve of Forgotten Things presents something whole and wholesome, full of blocks and sleeves, more of the prairie than of the future.

In each, these lonely women explore enough emotional range that it becomes impossible to see what they wear as anything but costumes. Watching both films alongside another slew of fashion weeks makes the thought of such clothes being worn by people - human people - about as impossible to grasp as the concept of interstellar travel.

More so in fact; the grainy footage of STS-133 (Space Shuttle Discovery’s final mission) streaking above the cloud line, shot by a cameraphone from a plane window no less, suddenly placed the concept of space within my grasp; I never feel that scrolling through fashion blogs.

Matthew Sheret

Paper Theatre

Thomas Beale Cipher

Do you remember when film was democratised? Heady days. It was 1999, The Blair Witch Project had conquered the cineplexes and a hundred thousand auteurs blossomed overnight.

Or something like that; for all the talk of the barriers to entering the film industry shattering it’s still a huge lurch beyond most people’s reach. Compare it to, say, pens and paper - the two artistic tools that are native to almost anyone over the age of two - and you start to see how ridiculous a claim it is.

Recently though paper-craft blogs have gone wild for two films that seem to challenge even the assumption that pens and paper are easier than cinema.

Train of Thought is a gem from The Arts Institute at Bournemouth, shot in 2008. It resurfaced a few months back, when filmmakers Leo Bridle and Ben Thomas uploaded it to Vimeo. It’s had almost 100,000 views since and it’s an absolute treat.

The film follows one man’s journey by train to meet his lover. It’s that simple.

But the film is a product of painstaking stop-motion animation, made up almost entirely of cardboard cut-outs. Every frame of the characters moving involves a photo of the actor printed to card and shot on a paper set. Writing that does it a disservice, sells it short somehow, so you’ll just have to take a few minutes out of your life to watch it; the footage is mesmerising.

Yes, it’s paper craft, with the cut’n’stick aesthetics of an eccentric drawing table, but it’s sophisticated and touching in its transitions between cut-out set-piece and hand-drawn fantasia. At four minutes it only manages to sketch an emotional narrative, but as a model for creative and engaging visuals it’s magnificent.

Where Train of Thought is defined by its light touch and airy sensibilities, Thomas Beale Cipher appears murky, mired in obfuscation, smoke and mirrors. It too is brilliant.

The 10-minute film, directed by Andrew Allen, explores a snapshot in the life of code-breaker Professor White. His story too unfolds on a train, the mechanical motion of the engine playing off against the perpetual motion of the code-breaking machine he carries with him, a machine that almost gives away his presence to Mister Black, the FBI agent on his trail.

The noir-lite story, great as it is, would be nothing without the visuals, animation that sits somewhere between rotoscoping and fluid graphic design. It seems as if perfectly cut sheets of paper are moving before a camera. Elements blend and fracture, bisecting characters but allowing key objects to float above the surface of the film. It’s incredibly dynamic, and thoroughly moody.

By wrapping such energy up in paper it feels like these films leave something in their wake; something with a footprint, something with a weight. Somehow that seems especially true when I can shoot a scene on my smart-phone and upload it to YouTube in less than the time it took to write this column.

Matthew Sheret

Horse Glue

Horse Glue

Format: Internet streaming

Website: Animate Projects

Director: Stephen Irwin

UK 2010

‘You can’t hide anymore,’ says a haggard-looking guy, poking around in the sand with a whip. ‘They’ll find you even underground.’

What’s he talking about? It’s not clear but it doesn’t bode well.

This is the opening of Come and See, a 1985 film looking at the bloody Nazi invasion of Belarus from a child’s perspective. I’ve just been watching the opening scene on YouTube. It’s gripping and portentous.

I was sent back to this classic by a new animated film, Horse Glue, from a British director, Stephen Irwin. The film began life as two separate films, Horse and Glue, although watching the narratives together it’s easy to see how they complement and reflect each other. Put simply, one half is a fairy story concerning a little boy lost in the woods, and the other is something less personal, hinting at international rather than individual conflict. The unifying element is violence.

This might sound like an unrelentingly grim experience but I can’t overemphasise the visual and aural flair deployed to create the film’s haunting, disconcerting atmosphere. It really is a beautiful film to watch and the twin narratives are nicely poised to capture the ambiguous and disconcerting (rather than literal or reductive) cruelty of a fairy tale. Irwin pulled similar narrative tricks and achieved similarly affecting results in his 2007 animation, The Black Dog’s Progress, which, like Horse Glue, featured an excellent soundtrack by Sorenious Bonk.

Going back to the guy and the sand and his statement, ‘You can’t hide anymore’. Maybe he is talking about the end of childhood, of innocence. Maybe he means there is a time when the dirtiest truths of the adult world must pop out from behind the glorious balloons and parades. Have a look at Horse Glue, maybe you’ll see what I mean.

CJ Magnet

The Alder Woodwasp and Its Insect Enemies

The Alder Woodwasp and Its Insect Enemies

Format: Internet streaming

Website: Wild Film History

Directors: Gerald Thompson and Eric R Skinner

UK 1960

Saturday night, back in 1980, I was informed of the remarkable story of a US pilot, who had been propelled, by accident, 500 years into the future. His name was Buck Rogers, and after waking up slightly bewildered by his experience, he soon overcame his misgivings and went on to have weekly adventures in his TV show.

There are still many things that are alien about the future Buck Rogers found himself in. We do not do much travelling around space; we do not find it necessary to adopt a blanket policy on white jumpsuits regardless of shape, size and gender; we have so far resisted the allure of intergalactic warfare and, most disappointingly, the vision of the well-trained, domestic robot remains as distant now as it did in 1980. (Side note: Twiki, Rogers’s electric sidekick occupies a unique position in the unthreatening android Venn diagram, being precisely 50% Camp, í  la C3PO, and 50% Childlike, like C3PO’s cute little pal.)

In one respect though, Buck Rogers’s future is here right now. His Snozzopod (future speak for bedroom) was notably uncluttered compared with the rooms of his viewers. There were no shelves of dusty vinyl, no artfully strewn magazines, no piles of VHS cassettes. When he wanted to listen to music, he pushed a button, when he wanted to check out an old episode of The Clangers he pushed another button (or maybe the same button twice, you have YouTube, you can check) and when he wanted the latest weather, headlines or traffic reports he did the same. He was, in short, just like us.

Or, just like you, I should say, because I cling to DVD, to CD, to paper and even to VHS. I even get Time Out delivered once a week. Despite these fusty ties to the tradional consumption of culture, I am now to begin my own odyssey into the future, I am going to start watching films on the internet.

Unlike Buck Rogers, I have control over the launch of my epic adventure. I opt for something small. Trust me, nobody will be putting my exploits up against Doctor Who on a Saturday night. I begin by searching for The Alder Woodwasp and Its Insect Enemies, a nature film from 1960, known principally for its ground-breaking camera techniques, including a novel way to avoid the combustion of delicate cast members under lights. Unfortunately, only part of the film is available to view online so I’m afraid that just one of the trumpeted insect enemies appears. This leaves a lot of billing for one parasitic wasp, however gruesome its habits, to bear. Audacious Striatus is remarkable, but not exactly Godzilla; even in comparison with other parasites it is a bit dull. What a shame that the internet has no room for footage of the famously ‘gregarious’ Xiphydriophaga.

So my first steps end in slight disappointment. Oh well, I will not let this setback dishearten me. Buck Rogers is my model, and I don’t recall him getting disheartened. If only I had a small, camp, childllike robot to give me a few tips.

CJ Magnet

The Vice Guide to Film: Mexican Narco Cinema

The Vice Guide to Narco Cinema

Format: Internet streaming

Website: VBS TV

Episode:The Vice Guide to Film: Mexican Narco Cinema

Reading Vice magazine, you get the impression of intelligent writers having to use their skills for an audience to which they do not necessarily belong, sort of like a Daily Mail or Sun for pretentious hipsters (at least, this reviewer does). With shabby-but-articulate Vice co-founder Shane Smith’s casual profession of a love of drugs just a few seconds into The Vice Guide to Film: Mexican Narco Cinema, it seems like Vice‘s new web series is going to be more of the same, which is why it’s such a pleasant surprise when it quickly turns into a well-made, entertaining and easily consumed piece of film journalism.

Smith travels from Texas to Tijuana, on the way doing a great job of putting Mexico’s ultra-violent Narco Cinema of drug runners, fetishised cars and bad cops in context. He outlines the importance of Mexico’s drug industry to its economy and then interviews a film commissioner, who reveals that only 18% of the population can afford to go to the cinema. It’s no wonder then that these straight-to-DVD (the genre is also known as ‘Videohome’), low-budget action movies about poor Mexicans who use drug-running as a way to lift themselves out of poverty and give back to the community have become so popular, both in Mexico and with immigrants in the US. Think Scarface, but without the tragic fall. Or at least, if the characters do get shot at the end, there’s always a family member to take revenge in the sequel.

Each film is based on a ballad (corrido) about a famous criminal, which makes the whole genre reminiscent of the way the Robin Hood legend got started with the troubadours of Europe. However, in this instance both song and movie are almost always commissioned by the narco in question, with serious consequences for not sticking to the agreed script. So of course everyone Smith interviews speaks of the narcos in heroic terms and the genre singularly fails to hold a mirror up to Mexican society. To his credit, Smith has a go at highlighting this irony, interspersing clips of Narco Cinema with shots of real-world victims caught in the crossfire between the narcos and the government forces trying to crack down on them.

The overall message though is that these innovative, $40,000-50,000 films, which are shot on location, with the script written on the fly, where more often than not each character type is played by their real-world counterpart (the prostitute is a an actual prostitute, etc.), are a lot of fun and it doesn’t really matter which of them you watch, so long as there’s a car in the title. On this point The Vice Guide to Film: Mexican Narco Cinema is pretty convincing, although one criticism would be that as there are thousands of these films in existence surely there must be some canonical highlights for newcomers interested in exploring the genre?

Alexander Pashby

The lastest episode of the Vice Guide to Film is Inside Iranian Cinema. In this episode, Shane Smith travels to Iran for the 3rd Annual Urban Film Festival in Tehran where he meets Iran’s top directors, actors, and clerics.

Online Movies: Girl Number 9

Girl Number 9

Format: Internet streaming / DVD

Release date:30 October - 3 November 2009


Directors: James Moran and Dan Turner

Writer: James Moran

Cast: Gareth David-Lloyd, Joe Absolom, Tracy-Ann Oberman, Matt Butcher, Simon Guerrier

UK 2009

6 x 5 min episodes / 30 min compilation

Before watching Girl Number 9, the only online serialised moving images I’d watched were TV spin-offs such as Battlestar Galactica, where additional short episodes of the series were made available over the internet while the parent show was on hiatus between seasons. This is both a strange and familiar experience; it feels like you’re watching an episode of your favourite show, albeit in five-minute chunks a day or a week apart, with actors playing their usual characters. However, these ‘webisodes’ rarely have much of an impact on the ‘canon’ of the show itself, which is particularly frustrating when they often, ironically, give some characters greater depth than when they appear in the series ‘proper’.

The writer of Girl Number 9, James Moran, is obviously aware of this new format. Moran has written film scripts - Severance and the forthcoming Curfew - as well as TV shows - Torchwood and Doctor Who - and the latter has also had webisodes made available over the internet. Rather than penning a spin-off for a franchise though, Moran is tapping into his existing fanbase - I discovered the serial by following him on Twitter, which, appropriately, is a vaguely voyeuristic internet site - and he’s cast actors from Torchwood and Doctor Who while returning to the horror/slasher genre with which he first made his name.

Girl Number 9 doesn’t tread particularly unfamiliar ground: it concerns a killer who leaves victims in death traps viewable on monitors with clues designed to help free them in a way that also endangers the person trying to help - so far so Saw - and it also features this footage being broadcast over the internet, something tackled in such moribund fare as Halloween: Resurrection and FeardotCom. However, Moran turns our familiarity with the subject matter to his advantage - a small cast and tiny instalments mean the audience can fill in the gaps, while the taut script gives the actors a chance to tackle meaty exchanges that bring to mind films such as Swimming with Sharks and Tape, where a claustrophobic room and verbal duelling overcome the budgetary limitations. In addition, while a few risible horror films have dealt with death traps and ‘snuff’ movie footage broadcast over the internet, this is a project that involves the viewer in a similar way to the characters in the plot: you have to visit a website - - to watch the voyeuristic footage and you only get a small amount to take in before your access is removed.

Although America also has a great tradition of short genre TV entertainment in such series as The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits, many of these one-off dramas were very reliant on alien encounters and an SF twist. In the UK we have the well-remembered legacy of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected and the occasional Ghost Story at Christmas by MR James and others. These shows relied more on psychological terrors than special effects and even though Girl Number 9 may toy with the iconography of Saw, Moran is very much continuing the tradition of Dahl and James, particularly when the serial is watched as a whole 30-minute episode rather than the six daily instalments. The two actors, Gareth David-Lloyd and Tracy-Ann Oberman, familiar from BBC Wales’ space-faring series - are pretty good as the two cops dealing with the serial killer who has murdered, you guessed it, eight girls before the final instalment. But while less wooden than when confronted with Cyberman on TV, they don’t quite have the necessary gravitas or range when dealing with a more human killer on an even smaller screen. Joe Absolom, on the other hand, is a revelation and the creepiest British serial killer I’ve seen on any screen since the first two Hannibal Lecter films. Having recently caught him in an episode of Ashes to Ashes also playing a disturbed nutter, I fully intend to track down more of his back catalogue.

Girl Number 9 is a brave experiment and one I hope has reaped rewards for everyone involved. While I’m sure writer/co-director Moran will continue to do well on TV and in cinema, I hope this is a format he returns to. Other filmmakers, such as Sally Potter with Rage, and TV creators - Joss Whedon with Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog - have produced innovative entertainment designed for internet dissemination and mobile consumption, and there need to be more practitioners with a good track record in the format.

Alex Fitch