Soupy Norman
Down With This Sort Of Thing!

VidBinge 2007

Leaving 1999 to one side (as the writeup was published seven years after the event), here are the stats:

2000: VidBinge held 16th Dec, writeup published 22nd Dec = 6 days

2001: VidBinge held 15th Dec, writeup published 1st Jan = 17 days

2002: VidBinge held 21st Dec, writeup published 12th Jan = 22 days

2003: VidBinge held 20th Dec, writeup published 20th Jan = 31 days

2004: VidBinge held 18th Dec, writeup published 1st Feb = 44 days

2005: VidBinge held 17th Dec, writeup published 21st Dec = 4 days

2006: VidBinge held 16th Dec, writeup published 17th Jan = 32 days

2007: VidBinge held 8th Dec, writeup published 16th Jan = 39 days

So no, this isn't the latest it's ever been, honestly.

Iwo Jima, yesterdayStill, if you've read through all that lot before getting to this paragraph, at least you know what the rules are by now. I set up a shortlist of 20 films released in UK cinemas during 2007, and got Spank's Pals to vote on their favourites. Your jury for 2007 consisted of The Belated Birthday Girl, The Cineaste, Old Lag, Lesley and Seapea (who had to duck out on the day): they cast their votes, I collated the results, and we watched the four most popular films on a Saturday in December at my place. (Trailers for them can be seen in that annoyingly oversized YouTube widget above.)

As you can see from the graph, we had a tie in fourth place, so I had to make an executive decision on what would be the first movie of the day, eventually choosing Letters From Iwo Jima over Sicko. Primarily on a pure bang-for-the-buck level as it's a longer film, but also because when you get down to brass tacks it's a much better one. Having covered the attack on Iwo Jima from the American perspective in the earlier Flags Of Our Fathers, this is director Clint Eastwood tackling how the same battle looked to the Japanese on the other side. When the diptych was first announced, people assumed that the films would physically dovetail into each other: Flags would show an American soldier being captured by the Japanese, and Iwo Jima would show you what happened to him, that sort of thing. If anything like that actually happens in the two films, I didn't notice: what Eastwood has done instead is a lot more subtle.

The splitting of the story aside, there's nothing particularly radical being done here - the format is much the same as any other war film you've seen. There are good soldiers and bad soldiers, and they're fighting on the same side as each other. Leading the goodies we have General Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who sympathises with the grunts out in the field and tries to do the best he can for them. And on the other side we have virtually all the other officers on Iwo Jima, who can't understand why soldiers fail to be motivated by near-fatal beatings, and whose knee-jerk reaction to any sign of adversity is 'let's have a suicide mission'.

This is Eastwood in his low-key register, using an incredibly restrained colour palette (it's virtually monochrome apart from the flashback sequences) and frequently shooting in near-darkness. Which is a bugger for those of us trying to watch it on a telly at home: though I'd imagine this could be a very impressive demo disc for people with HD-DVD systems. (Or more accurately, seeing as this is a Warner production, Blu-Ray systems.) Meanwhile, the audio covers the full spectrum, from the delicacy of Lennie Neihaus and Kyle Eastwood's repetitive score to the roar of the battle scenes. With restrained but impressive use of CGI in those battles, it's a technical marvel, and it's astonishing to discover that Eastwood pulled all this off on a budget of under twenty million bucks. (Though it's possible that figure was only achieved with some creative accounting involving the budget for Flags.)

Old Lag complained after the film that it made the Japanese look stupid, which I don't think is the case - it certainly made them look underprepared, and our sympathies are carefully steered towards the characters that aren't in denial about that. There's possibly more of a case to be made for the way that all the 'good' officers have spent time in America before the war: but Eastwood isn't trying to suggest that the American way of life is better, rather that empathy for your enemy makes you a better person overall. And it's here that the differences between Flags and Iwo Jima really pay off, as they show how the initial gung-ho jingoism of both sides dies down with time - turning into cynicism and disillusion for the American soldiers, or morbid fatalism on the Japanese front. If the two movies don't dovetail physically, they certainly do emotionally, showing both parties as people trying to do what they believe is right. Eastwood wisely realises that if there's any 'truth' to be told about this battle, it exists precisely in the space between his two films.

This Is England, Watch And Smile. How's *that* for an eighties reference?Next on our list: This Is England, surprisingly the only film this year that I get to compare against an earlier London Film Festival screening. When I saw it at LFF 2006 I was blown away, and considered it the best film of the festival. On a second viewing when it had its UK release, I was still very impressed. Third time round? Well, to be fair, some of the cracks are starting to show.

It's still the case that Shane Meadows has an unerring ear for characterisation, particularly when it comes to his villains. Thomas Turgoose's performance as the young Shaun Fields (did you see what he did there?) is still a marvellous thing, and Stephen Graham's Combo is still a queasily fascinating portrayal of a damaged man. But on repeat viewings, the sterling work of the rest of the ensemble comes through in a variety of subtle ways. For example, The Belated Birthday Girl pointed out an interesting unspoken detail: when Combo comes into the gang and starts alienating people one by one, the last ones to stay with him are the least mature - young Shaun, and "I've got problems" Gadget. Both of them are obviously in need of a father figure, and it's easy to see why Combo's direct approach appeals.

But on a third viewing, it becomes apparent that all too often Meadows needs to visibly yank narrative strings to make the story go the way he wants. On early viewings, the sweep of the melodrama - and let's be frank, no matter how autobiographical he claims this is, it is melodrama - carries you along with it. Once you're familiar with the story, the iffier bits of plotting come to the fore.

Nevertheless, this is still largely impressive work from Meadows. There are so many details which show how he's grown from a bloke messing around with a camcorder to a proper full-on filmmaker. The Cineaste particularly liked the way the sound fades down while Combo tells a racist story - we don't need to hear it, we can see the impact it has on everyone listening. And even on the third viewing, the final scene leaves a lump in my throat. This Is England may not be as flawless as I said it was a year ago, but it still has a lot to say about the way we identify ourselves - both individually and as a nation - and what happens when we get it wrong.

O2 + H2O Sadly, fellow Shane Meadows fan Suzanne Vega Fanclub couldn't be at VidBinge this year, and sent his apologies. In his email he expressed his surprise at seeing Flood on the shortlist - "I didn't think that had been released yet, did I blink and miss it?" It's a common reaction: lots of people I've talked to were aware of the existence of Flood prior to its release. After all, when large chunks of the UK went under water last summer, you can see why the writer of an upcoming movie about the submersion of London would be all over the news. And yet, when the film finally got its UK release, it was limited to a single UK cinema, as if the distributors couldn't quite bring themselves to exploit a national tragedy.

Then again, maybe they just realised it wasn't very good. To be fair, a TV set is probably a better home for Flood than a cinema screen, as its televisual production values are more obvious at this scale. The hokey dialogue and soapy characterisations (the clunky line that sets up the relationship between marine engineer Robert Carlyle and Thames Barrier boss Jessalyn Gilsig is a corker): the whooshy helicopter establishing shots of London: the fast-moving HD camerawork that leaves ugly motion blurs all over the screen: the score by Debbie Wiseman that repeats all the heavy-riffing tricks and Hayley Westenra vocal lines she used in Jekyll: the CGI flood effects themselves, moderately impressive when they depict standing water, less so when we have moving waves. And Neil from The Young Ones trying to convince us that he runs the Met Office.

For a hokey old disaster movie, there's a lot of heavyweight British talent involved. Carlyle is his usual reliable self, although Lesley couldn't cope with the (appropriately) Estuary accent coming out of his gob. Joanne Whalley makes a welcome return to the screen as the police chief running the rescue operation, all calm efficiency and ludicrously high-waisted skirts. Tom Courtenay, David Suchet and many other familiar faces also turn up in supporting roles, although I'm most fascinated by the subplot involving Ralph Brown, which has been so truncated in the edit that it appears to consist of just five reaction shots.

Still, let's put this into context - an all-day film watching event, at the three-quarter mark when exhaustion starts to set in, not to mention that we've been drinking for five or six hours. Plus, who doesn't enjoy seeing their home town being fictionally destroyed? Taken at that level, as a Saturday evening rental, Flood is actually good dumb fun - in any other circumstances (especially ones that don't allow you to yell at the screen when someone says something stupid) your response may differ dramatically. All the other films at today's VidBinge could conceivably make it onto a best-of-the-year list (and just one week later, they did): there's no danger of that happening with Flood, but here it turned out to be just the right movie at the right time. Besides, with a predominantly North London crowd in the house, the bit where Joanne Whalley declares South London to be expendable was always going to go down well.

Secret competition for anyone who reads these things: can you spot what the four stills in this article have in common? Answers in the comments box, please.The Lives Of Others topped the chart in this year's vote, and resulted in a first for this event - a VidBinge film that I hadn't actually seen before. Blame the astuteness of The Belated Birthday Girl, who saw it back in October 2006 as a second choice selection at the LFF. Knowing virtually nothing about the film before she saw it, she was delighted to see it grow in popularity from festival favourite to Oscar-winning smash. But as we tend to watch most films together, I've never quite got around to seeing The Lives Of Others myself: and by now, it's become so popular that the backlash against it has started. (Though I should point out that Xan Brooks is writing on the Guardian's Comment Is Free blog, a place where the concepts 'having an opinion' and 'being a twat' are considered mutually interchangeable.)

So having bought the DVD, I finally get to see the film in the company of a room full of people, most of whom have seen it before. Which is a strange experience for me, as at most VidBinges it tends to work the other way round. I know the story going in, of course: Weisler (Ulrich Mühe) is a surveillance agent in 1980s East Germany, tasked to bug the apartment of a subversive writer and his actress girlfriend. He assumes he's being asked to monitor their movements for the usual reasons, but gradually finds out that this isn't the case. As a result, he begins to question whether he can continue in this job.

After the surround sound bangs and splashes of Flood, this is a much more restrained affair - and its carefully composed images and legato score make it feel like classy television, where Letters From Iwo Jima and (surprisingly) This Is England come across as more aggressively cinematic. But it mainly comes down to the obvious control of tone that writer/director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck has over his material - he has a story to tell, and he knows exactly what he wants to do with it.

And for a first-time director, there's no denying he does it very well. All the performances are excellent (with the late Ulrich Mühe an obvious standout), and the script carefully goes for the emotions without smothering you with sentimentality - which is exactly what it needs to do to take you on the same journey that Weisler goes on. The ending, in particular, manages to wring a surprising amount from the tiniest of connections being made between two people. Maybe, if you like, it makes more sense as a fable about human communication than as an accurate depiction of the closing stages of the Cold War. Which could only really be a problem to people who don't believe in fables, and who needs those losers?

Thus ends VidBinge for another year - thanks to all those who took part, commiserations to those who couldn't make it for one reason or another. Just don't ask me why I didn't put Babel on the shortlist like I promised 14 months ago. Being a monkey, and all.



British viewers who are curious about Flood can catch it on ITV1 this Bank Holiday weekend (May 4th and 5th), recut as a *four hour* miniseries.

Maybe Ralph Brown gets to do something in this version.

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