Originally posted on The Unpleasant Lair Of Spank The Monkey 21/12/2005
Last year's VidBinge report came some six weeks after the event itself. This year, I've pulled my finger out and managed to get it up on the web just four days after it happened. Hey, maybe now I've lost my job, at least the updates on here will be more regular.
You know the deal by now. Every December, I get my hands on twenty DVDs of films that were released in the UK during the previous year. I ask some of Spank's Pals to vote on the top five they'd most be interested in seeing. I add up the votes, and show the most popular four or five movies one Saturday at my place over beer and nibbles, in the event we call VidBinge. This year's voters and attendees were regulars Lee, Lesley, Old Lag, Rose, The Belated Birthday Girl and The Cineaste: this year's films are documented in this graph, along with the total number of votes each received. If you're looking for patterns, I should let you know now that I certainly haven't found any yet: this may well be the most eclectic collection of movies screened back-to-back here to date.
It starts with Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, which you probably all know. Traditionally the first film at VidBinge is followed up with freshly microwaved popcorn (no expense spared here), and in seven years of the event this is probably the longest anyone's had to wait for that popcorn - about two and three-quarter hours. Scorsese follows the glory years of multi-millionaire Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio), starting with his epic filming of Hell's Angels, taking in his relationships with some of Hollywood's toppest totty like Katharine Hepburn (Cate Blanchett) and Ava Gardner (Kate Beckinsale), and climaxing with his battle with Pan Am boss Juan Trippe (Alec Baldwin) over the rights to commercial flights across the Atlantic.
There's no denying that Scorsese paces things beautifully - The Aviator is still recognisably a three hour movie, but none of it feels superfluous to requirements. The technical aspects are stunning, including the use of CGI for the flying sequences, notably the dogfights of Hell's Angels. The performances are almost uniformly excellent - Cate Blanchett, in particular, has tremendous fun with her portrayal of Hepburn, and it's a real disappointment when she's replaced in Hughes' affections by the rather rubbish Kate Beckinsale. But somehow it all feels a little hollow - a series of events that never quite comes together into a whole portrayal of a life.
At the centre, of course, is DiCaprio. Critics always give him a hard time, basically because they're enraged by his cuteness and secretly all want to shag him - but his acting ability's never been in question as far as I'm concerned. Hughes' obsessive-compulsive behaviour is obviously prime material for an Oscar hopeful to get their teeth into, but again the series of tics and repetitions never quite coalesces into a complete personality, just a personality disorder. Where DiCaprio really gets it right - and where the movie quite literally flies - is in depicting Hughes' sheer passion for engineering. It's the main focus of the story: after all, Scorsese has chosen to call his film The Aviator, rather than The Reclusive Basket Case Who Hoarded Bottles Of His Own Piss. It's perfectly symbolised by the seamless transition between two technical presentations: one where Hughes is discussing the design of a new war plane, the other where he's constructing a bra to make Jane Russell's tits look spectacular in The Outlaw. It's the sort of advert that the profession was crying out for - engineering is sexy, and will get you laid.
"What country is Mysterious Skin from?" asked someone just before I showed it. Well, how many countries can you think of that are obsessed with the idea that aliens are abducting them on a regular basis? This film's a perfect illustration of the classic VidBinge dilemma - do people vote for favourite films of the year they want to see again, or use the event to catch up with things they missed first time round? Two thirds of today's audience voted for this film sight unseen, only to find that the cumshots and references to fisting weren't quite what they were expecting from a coming of age story. Still, it could have been worse, given the nature of director Gregg Araki's previous work. (The only other film of his I've seen so far is The Doom Generation, and all I can remember from that was an array of exploding heads and a climax involving a close-up castration. I believe it's not unrepresentative of his early years.)
Mysterious Skin may benefit from being based on someone else's story, in this case a novel by Scott Heim. It's the story of two teenage boys, Neil McCormick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian Lackey (Brady Corbet). Neil had an experience with his Little League coach at age eight that had a dramatic impact on his life: ten years later, he's a smalltown hustler working the streets and looking to move on to somewhere bigger. Brian has an unnerving gap in his memory from his childhood, and the evidence is pointing towards an alien abduction being the cause of it. The audience gets to sit back and wait for their two stories to inevitably intersect like a slow motion car crash.
This could easily have been taken completely over the top, although there's no denying that even a restrained Araki can be too much for some viewers - there are scenes here that are painfully hard to watch, regardless of your orientation. But at times, you feel that Araki is playing with his reputation as a bad boy to misdirect the viewer. For example, as Neil hops from one john to the next, we're on edge waiting for the moment when it all goes wrong - this is, after all, a period piece set at the height of the AIDS panic. When Billy Drago approaches Neil in a bar one evening, the seasoned filmgoer expects the worst: Drago has made an entire career out of playing ugly evil scumbags, from countless DTV heavies to Frank Nitti in The Untouchables. But the encounter between the two turns out to be one of the most breathtakingly touching moments in the whole film.
Given Araki's previous tendency to show rather than tell, it's surprising to see how much he relies on the viewer to join the dots - the unspeakable links between a number of events remain unspoken, from the implied backstory of fellow alien abductee Avalyn (Mary Lynn Rajskub) to the reason why the feel of a mutilated calf disturbs Brian so much. If there's a flaw to Mysterious Skin, it's that the material feels a little televisual - from the surprising number of TV stars in the cast, to the abrupt fades to black at scene endings. But there's a genuine emotional core to the film that Araki has never reached before. You may have a hard time getting to it, but it's definitely there.
And so to The Rising: Ballad Of Mangal Pandey, the first Bollywood film to make it into one of these events - I've been putting one on the list most years, but they've never really grabbed the popular vote till now. The Rising was the subject of a major promotional push when it was released in the summer, with TV spots and public transport advertising to a degree that most Bollywood cinema never gets - but it didn't seem to draw the crowds there were hoping for. Presumably it was assumed that the English/Indian clash at its core would be interesting to a wider British audience, and I chose to celebrate this with two plates of nibbles for consumption during the 150 minute running time: a plate of Tesco's Indian vegetarian snacks, and another plate of Melton Mowbray mini pork pies to represent England (which, as you'll see, is even more tasteless a choice than you might think). Looking at the plates at the end, the Indians won.
The Rising is set during the 1850s, when the East India Company runs the country with a benevolent iron hand, and British soldiers like William Gordon (Toby Stephens) fight happily alongside Indian Sepoys such as Mangal Pandey (Aamir Khan). This relationship changes when the army introduces a new rifle, one which uses a cartridge that has to have its end bitten off by the rifleman before it can be loaded. With typical cheapness, the British have chosen to grease this cartridge with pig and cow fat, thus making the prospect of putting it in your mouth equally repugnant to Muslims and Hindus alike. One man will rebel against the introduction of this cartridge, and eventually become the figurehead for a rebellion that threatens to bring the Company to its knees.
Here's a funny thing. Quite a few of us saw The Rising: Ballad Of Mangal Pandey at the cinema when it was released this year. As is typically the case with Bollywood these days, a DVD followed it pretty smartish to reduce the risk of piracy. But the DVD version is titled Mangal Pandey: The Rising, and it turns out to be different - it looks like an Indian version as opposed to an international one. The difference? There are a number of scenes involving a surprisingly strong British cast, played out in English. In the cinema version, they're played in the usual way: in the Indian DVD, the dialogues are summarised for a Hindi-speaking audience by an intrusive voiceover, which is of course then translated in the subtitles. Which means that the English scenes are frustrating in two different ways - sometimes the voiceover appears at the end of the scene to tell you what's already been said, other times it actually drowns out the dialogue.
Which is a shame, as this isn't a bad little flick at all, even though its worth as a historical document is highly dubious - the opening titles make it abundantly clear that director Ketan Mehta and writer Farrukh Dhondy are going for the 'print the legend' approach. It's incredibly slick in the current Bollywood style, but it manages to temper its increasing melodramatic buildup with an unexpected side order of moral complexity. There aren't the usual black hats and white hats - both sides are shown to have their good and bad points. Aamir Khan, reunited with composer A.R. Rahman some four years after Lagaan, brings his typical blazing intensity to the lead role, and doesn't blub like a girl the way that Shahrukh Khan would have. Toby Stephens is a fine foil to him, though their respective love interest plots both fizzle out abruptly in the last half hour, leading you to suspect this is secretly the second gay romance film of the day. The musical numbers are frequently little more than act break markers in the story - for example, the market scene accompanied by a song whose lyrics say little more than "hey, look, we're in a market". But Rahman's tunes are as strong as ever, and when a woman sold into sex slavery in that market scene turns up later singing I'm A Slave To Your Charms, there's some rare verbal wit in the lyrics too.
Accompanied by a cake shaped like King Kong climbing the Empire State Building (for reasons which may become apparent in the near future), we hit our final movie of the day, the documentary Czech Dream. Difficult to say why this ran away with the popular vote, unless it was my enthusiasm for the film when it played at the 2004 London Film Festival. To recap the setup - Vít Klusák and Filip Remunda, the pesky men behind Ceský Sen, noticed the frenzy of consumerism that typically accompanies the opening of a new hypermarket in the Czech Republic. (Shortly after that LFF screening, we saw it happen in North London too) As an experiment, they decided to try and recreate that frenzy for themselves, but without the business of actually having a hypermarket to promote. They took advice from market research people on what pushes consumers' buttons, constructed a fake ad campaign with the aid of a top agency, and ended up with a couple of thousand people fighting to get into a supermarket that was nothing more than a cloth facade in the middle of a field.
It was interesting to see this again the day after the finale of Space Cadets, a Channel 4 prank-based reality show in which three people were fooled into thinking they were on a space mission, when they were in fact in a Suffolk studio the whole time. The audience reaction to the show was interesting: after some initial confusion, a very strong rumour started doing the rounds that the contestants were actually in on the act. Thus the prank was on the audience, who were expecting the usual humiliation of the stupid that reality TV requires. In the end, it was a lose-lose situation for Channel 4. If the joke was on the audience, that audience was too small and not emotionally involved enough for the reveal to have impact: if the joke was on the contestants, then it was a simple act of meanness on a par with loosening the handrail screws on a disabled toilet. (For what it's worth, it turned out to be the latter.)
The thing that sets Czech Dream above this sort of mere pranksterism is in the filmmakers' opening, in which they pose the question - why are they doing this? The resulting exchange of dialogue - "We'll see. You'll see." - doesn't really register first time round, but on repeat viewing you realise this isn't just a ruse to lure the viewer in: they don't know either. They have a plan, they want to execute it, and then they want to see what happens. In the final third of the film devoted to post-scam analysis, the key question asked of interviewees is "why do you think they did this?" - the interesting thing is seeing how different people interpret the stunt in different ways. It's also amusing to see the advertising people, once they realise what's happening, accusing the filmmakers of dishonesty while completely failing to acknowledge their own. The message, ultimately, is that people will do anything if you give them what they want to hear. (Which means the Czech trailer for the film adds an additional level of complexity to the prank - using the tagline "find out why they did it", it's made up of fake footage of an angry mob chasing Klusák and Remunda and beating the crap out of them.)
So that's VidBinge over for another year, and I still remain convinced that it's impossible to find any link between these four films. The Belated Birthday Girl says otherwise, though. When I was putting together the pictures for this page, she noted that my first choices went like this - a nude shot of Leonardo DiCaprio: an image of a young boy just prior to an act of child abuse: one of the two partners in an unspoken interracial homoerotic relationship: and (until I found the 'small dog' photo above) the two directors of Czech Dream standing in just their pants, waiting to be measured for Hugo Boss suits. I have no idea what she's implying by this, and I haven't got time to think about it because I've got to get to this concert this evening. Being a monkey, and all.