Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 01/02/2005
Ha! And you thought the writeup of my Pick Of The Year 2004 CD was late? Well, yes, I suppose it was. Though it's nothing like as bad as the six weeks that elapsed between my traditional end-of-year movie roundup party, and the date when I finally got around to writing about it.
Over-use of colons: nauseating self-referentiality: the misguided belief that lists of three items are automatically funny - yes, all the old cliches you've come to expect from here. Hasn't this website contributed anything new and exciting to the world? Well, actually, it has. If you believe Google, then at the time of writing the only place you can find the word VidBinge on the internet is on this very site, or on dodgy search sites that quote it. As regular visitors will know, VidBinge is an event held every December at Spank Towers: Spank's Pals vote for their favourite films of the year gone by, and we spend an afternoon and evening watching DVDs of the most popular choices, with accompanying booze and nibbles. The attendees for 2004 were Grizelda, The Belated Birthday Girl, SeaPea, Lesley, Lee, Jon, Nigel and Rose, and their votes are recorded here in the traditional Excel graph. Unfortunately, there's little fodder for an opening paragraph summary here, as there aren't any particular trends to be spotted: no reliance on one country of origin, no specific theme the films have in common, no undue emphasis on films already reviewed on these pages. At least, there aren't any trends I can observe at this point: let's look at the five films everyone picked and see if that changes.
One common theme in previous years has been the way that films from the previous year's London Film Festival pop up twelve months later at VidBinge, allowing comparison against reviews I've already published. And that's the case with 21 Grams, our first film of the day and the fifth most popular choice of the posse. Alejandro González Iñárritu's film tells the interlocking stories of three characters - heart patient Paul (Sean Penn), ex-con Jack (Benicio del Toro) and mother-of-two Christina (Naomi Watts) - using a massively jumbled time scheme. When I reviewed it at the 2003 London Film Festival, I was cautiously ecstatic, but wary that films with such a fragmented structure rarely hold up to a second viewing: and it turns out that I was right to be wary. The first time you see it, you're convinced that the scene order is completely random, but of course that's not the case: that would be impossible to follow. On second viewing there's a very definite central thread of scenes in chronological order, which the film frequently veers out of to flash forwards or backwards in time, before returning back again. It becomes more obvious that scenes are being moved out of order to create a specific effect. Near the start, for example, we cut from Paul on a ventilator to Paul with a gunshot wound: we're left to work out which of these came first, and to wonder how he got from one to the other, not only on a plot level, but on an emotional level too. Sadly, it's an approach which pays diminishing returns, as the film eventually runs out of these contrasts about three-quarters of the way through, and the rest of the movie is reduced to filling in gaps.
There are things to love about 21 Grams no matter how often you've seen it. Iñárritu's trademark gritty look pays off well here, providing the visual analogue of a story that's so downbeat it's left to Sean Penn to provide its few moments of levity. And the acting is continually splendid - even Charlotte Gainsbourg's wooden performance didn't annoy me so much on second viewing. But the film's key point of interest is its structure, and once you've cracked that it isn't anything like as interesting. Compare this with the director's previous Amores Perros, as seen at VidBinge 2001: again, there was a tricky structure, but the stories and characters arranged within it were fascinating enough to sustain multiple viewings. Nevertheless, as a former physics student who remembers how a small section of a hologram can contain the entire image within it, I was amused to discover that 21 Grams is holographic too: Jon came in roughly halfway through it, and managed to pick up pretty much all the key points of the story without too much difficulty.
To some extent, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind might count as a fragmented narrative as well: although the structure turns out to be brilliantly ungimmicky when you think about it. Joel Barish (Jim Carrey) starts the film getting over the loss of his girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet). Their relationship has broken down to such a degree, she's visited an organisation called Lacuna Inc. and had all her memories of him erased from her brain. Tormented by this idea, Joel decides to undergo the same procedure himself, and thus experiences their entire relationship more or less in reverse: first the break-up, then the row leading up to it, and so on. And as he experiences it, he watches Clementine being literally edited out of the picture. Except partway through the procedure, he starts to realise that he doesn't really want to lose these memories after all...
The people involved have 'tricksiness' written all the way through them like sticks of rock. The writer is Charlie Kaufman, purveyor of high-class smartasserie such as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and (from last year's VidBinge) Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind. The director is Michel Gondry, responsible for some of the most visually and conceptually astonishing music videos of recent years. The two last collaborated on the poorly-received Human Nature, but by all accounts this is a much better proposition, though still a bit flawed. Everything about the film seems to indicate that it's aiming for a gut-level emotional response, and it doesn't quite pull it off. Gondry does an astonishing job of creating visual equivalents of fractured mental states (helped by the winning performances of his two leads), but puts so much effort into this that the key audience response is awe rather than empathy, making the whole thing nothing so much as cerebral sci-fi.
At least, that was my response on a first cinema viewing. Rewatching it here on DVD, it struck me that Gondry's effects are just a little too big sometimes for a TV screen - on a few occasions, I found myself irritated that the small scale images weren't having the same impact as they did at the flicks, and felt somewhat crammed. But the story carries you through regardless, to the part that has much more impact second time around: the ending. The bit where all the subjective camerawork and wacky sound design have been stripped away, and you're left with two people, in a hallway, saying lines to each other, finishing up with the word 'okay'. And then, finally, it breaks your damn heart, as you wonder how you'd react in equally fantastic circumstances.
Nothing fragmented about Coffee And Cigarettes, though, other than the fact that it's basically eleven short films. Sort of. Jim Jarmusch's set of all-star coffee shop sketches was an acknowledged highlight of Edinburgh 2004 for me, and the major pleasures of the movie haven't changed much since then. The titanic confrontation between Steve Coogan and Alfred Molina is still the comic highlight: the precise delivery of one dialogue exchange ("I'll get this." "Good.") may well be the single funniest film moment of the year for me. But the quieter scenes register more second time around. Particularly enjoyable is No Problem, in which two friends meet up for the first time after a long interval. The more Alex Descas insists that he was just curious to see an old friend again, the more Isaach De Bankolé is convinced that something is wrong, and their whole conversation spirals off into a delightful spiral of unspoken paranoia that could almost be Pinter.
But the other discovery on second viewing is the satisfying structure of these eleven sketches when sequenced into a single movie. The first time The Belated Birthday Girl saw Coffee And Cigarettes, she wasn't terribly sure if she was going to enjoy it - particularly during those first couple of minutes of Steven Wright and Roberto Benigni twitchily guzzling coffee. And then Benigni offered to go to the dentist in Wright's place, and The BBG was happier - she'd just worked out where the movie was going, and so could relax. For me, the same applies to the film as a whole. First time round, you're concentrating on it as a series of sketches: obviously, there are little verbal and visual riffs that repeat themselves, but it's still eleven discrete shorts, some good, some bad. But this time round, it made more sense as a piece: it's more obvious that the slower sections are there to take the mood down a little before the next comic onslaught. And whereas I initially thought the film was slightly disappointing after the Coogan/Molina segment, the last two sketches now seem perfectly pitched to follow it, like the final couple of tracks on a good mix tape - the serious delirium of Bill Murray meeting the Wu Tang Clan, and the quiet beauty of Bill Rice and Taylor Mead on their coffee break.
It was a tradition for the first couple of VidBinges that the programme always built to some climactic peak of unpleasantness - Happiness in 1999, Titus in 2000. With Oldboy being voted the second most popular choice of 2004, it would seem like we've peaked early, as no film could possibly surpass it in nastiness - even the one that was eventually voted most popular. (I can't blame SeaPea for taking the opportunity, during a scene involving teeth and hammers, to pop into the kitchen for a long cold glass of somewhere else.) Put simply, it's the story of Oh Dae-Su (Choi Min-Sik), just your average Korean businessman with nothing terribly special about him. That all changes in 1988, when he's suddenly kidnapped and locked up in solitary confinement with no explanation. After fifteen years with only a television for company, he's suddenly dumped back onto the street again. Obviously, this leaves him in an extremely fragile mental state, and determined to track down the people responsible for his abduction. Inevitably, there are complications. Violent, bloody, unspeakable complications.
Park Chan-Wook's previous film was Sympathy For Mr Vengeance, which I kind of admired at the time but didn't really enjoy very much. One main reason was that Park was so desperate to show the failings of all his characters, he didn't leave an audience with anybody they could latch onto. That's certainly a fault that's been remedied in Oldboy, thanks to the powerhouse performance of Choi Min-Sik at its centre. Even when Oh Dae-Su's thirst for vengeance takes him into wholly unacceptable areas, we're with him all the way, which makes the sudden lurch into tragedy three-quarters of the way through even more painful. Technically, it's a joy to watch: the camerawork is thoroughly inventive throughout, and the sound mix gave me the first real opportunity to show off my new DTS 5.1 sound system, getting its first public airing at VidBinge 2004.
But again, for me VidBinges are primarily an exercise in seeing how films stand up to a second viewing. And it's more obvious second time around that Oldboy has plot holes you could drive a truck through. You don't spot them first time, as you're caught up in the increasing spiral of horror along with Oh Dae-Su: but once you know the direction in which the plot is heading, you can spot the numerous fudges and cheats that are used to force it into that direction without the benefit of logic. Maybe it makes more sense to treat the whole thing as extremely black farce - the early part of the film certainly fits that bill, and it may just be that Choi Min-Sik's performance is so good that we're emotionally connecting with him when we're supposed to be relishing the twists of the plot. Which, curiously enough, is the exact opposite of the problem I had with Sympathy For Mr Vengeance. Still, it's safe to assume that when the American remake comes in 2006 - yes, it's already in pre-production - it won't hit you in the gut with anything like the force of the Korean version.
While it's a surprise to discover how the script of Oldboy falls apart if you just look at it hard, it's even more of a surprise to discover how astonishingly tight the script for Shaun Of The Dead is by comparison. Shaun led the VidBinge vote from an early stage in the proceedings, and stayed top throughout: throughout the week and a half of voting, the main excitement for me was whether crazed Bollywood epic Main Hoon Na would get enough votes to make the programme. (It just missed out in the end, which was a shame.) But Shaun turned out to be a popular choice to finish off the night, even though at one point it looked like the screening would be drowned out by SeaPea and Lesley shouting out all the North London locations they recognised.
But yes, it's true: what we have here is basically the sort of movie that the British Film Industry was more or less entirely composed of in the seventies - a comedy populated mainly by people from telly sitcoms - but with script and direction polished to a ludicrously high degree. Director Edgar Wright and star Simon Pegg, both best known for their work on Channel 4's slackercom Spaced, have spent a huge amount of time constructing the script, as almost every joke, line and situation pays off twice: usually in two contrasting scenes separated by at least half an hour. Thus the fart gag that has you rolling your eyes five minutes from the start becomes a deeply emotional moment when it's repeated five minutes from the end, which is pretty fine alchemy if you can do it.
And the end works precisely because of that cascade of setups and payoffs. There have been complaints in many quarters about the way that Shaun starts out as a comedy movie with a few gory bits, and ends as a proper zombie movie with not many laughs. Hayseed Dixie, the country and western band who do covers of AC/DC and other metal bands, sum it up perfectly on their Let There Be Rockgrass album, as the lead singer reflects on the nature of their core audience - "people who have more than one kind of music in their record collection" - as if it's a rare and unheard-of thing. People who don't like more than one kind of genre in their films will be freaked out by Shaun: partly because it pulls off both of its chosen genres with equal aplomb, partly because the transition between the two is so teasingly gradual you don't even notice it. Until that climax at the Winchester pub, possibly the only time that guns have ever featured in a British movie and not looked incredibly stupid.
Aside from that, what more is there to say? Wright is as visually inventive as Spaced led you to believe he would be, with the added bonus of working with a 'scope frame and proper film rather than smudged-up video. Pegg makes a great hero, with terrific support from Nick Frost as his mate Ed, plus almost every other person working in British comedy today (including a glorious cameo from six all in one go). The cultural references that sometimes buried the plot and characters in Spaced are kept to just the right level, allowing the scares to genuinely scare and the laughs to be genuinely huge. Ken Russell thinks that Shaun Of The Dead is the most loathsome film he's ever seen, which brings to mind Vincent Price's disdain of his director on Witchfinder General. "I've made eighty-seven movies, what have you done?" he asked Michael Reeves, to which he got the answer: "I've made three good ones." Ken Russell has made eighty-one movies: Edgar Wright has made a good one.
So it was another enjoyable VidBinge for both the Pals and myself, and hopefully we'll all be back to do it again next year. After all, that Google search would seem to indicate that nobody else is doing it. But then again, maybe I should try to get some variety into this site's content, and not rely so much on repeated ideas and easy catchphrases. Being a monkey, and all.