SPANK GOLD: Edinburgh Festival 1989
SPANK GOLD: London Film Festival 1989

VidBinge 2008

A shameless bit of pandering to The Belated Birthday Girl: Josh Brolin in No Country For Old Men, shooting a dogI won't lie to you: the 2008 VidBinge was a bit of a disappointment compared with previous years. Usually, there are six or seven of Spank's Pals voting on their pick from twenty of the year's best movies, in preparation for an all-day screening of the four or five most popular ones at my place. But thanks to shopping commitments, illness and other reasons, only two people could attend the December 2008 event: fan favourites The Belated Birthday Girl and Old Lag.

But you know what? We went ahead and did it anyway. Sure, the vote ended up a little less granular than it has done in the past. We ended up with one runaway winner in first place, and four films tied in second place. Happily, the combined running time of all five allowed us to just about squeeze them into the traditional 1pm-11.30pm slot. So with the help of some booze and the takeaway pizza place over the road, we watched all of the following.

Traditionally, there's always been a bit of an overlap between VidBinge and the previous year's London Film Festival, and the first two films on the bill are ones you should remember from LFF 2007. First up, The Edge Of Heaven, my own personal favourite from the festival. This was the third time I'd seen it: a couple of months after the LFF screening, when it received a limited UK release, I dragged a handful of Spank's Pals along to show them what they'd missed. And to see if I'd missed anything, too: Fatih Akin's complex story structure is just the sort of thing that cries out for repeat viewing opportunities, including those offered at VidBinge.

To be honest, the review I wrote after the LFF screening is fairly lacking in content, and the reappraisal in The Wrap Party isn't much better. Is it fair to say I was blown away? Probably, yes: but I've been bitten enough times by fragmented narratives to know that sometimes these things don't withstand a repeat viewing. So second time around, I was scrutinising the plot for any gaping holes I'd missed. And, as far as I can see, there aren't any: it's a pretty tight construction. The frequent use of coincidence to show us plotlines that could have happened but ultimately don't is a neat one, and I think dramatically justified, although I should point out The Belated Birthday Girl disagrees with me. ("That's just having your cake and eating it," she says.) Anyway, third time round it's possible to just relax and enjoy the story and performances: the mirrored stories are still impressive, but by now it's more about the simple pleasures of human interaction. And each time I watch The Edge Of Heaven I'm more and more impressed by Hanna Schygulla's performance, and the way she slowly emerges from the background to become the beating heart at the centre of the tale.

I didn't know that No Country For Old Men was going to be in the LFF when I booked for it, because it was the Surprise Film. Still, it was one of the best surprises as these things go, though of course Suze disagreed with myself and The BBG at the time. Again, this is a film I caught again on its cinema release, making its appearance at VidBinge my third viewing: and of course, in the interim it's picked up Oscars and all manner of other awards.

Did it deserve them? Hell, yes. One of the key pleasures of the movie first time round (and the point where I disagree with Suze completely) is that it sets you up for a standard man-on-the-run-with-stolen-cash chase thriller, and then one by one denies you all of the plot devices you'd expect. Because it's not until that beautifully restrained coda that you realise that the core of the story isn't the running man or the psycho chasing him: it's the impact their actions have on Tommy Lee Jones' Sheriff Bell, as he struggles to understand how crime works today. Once you know that's what the film is "about", for want of a better description, then on second and subsequent viewings the structure and pacing work beautifully. Nevertheless, the Coen Brothers still manage to generate nail-biting tension in the various chases and confrontations, even when you already know how they turn out. Now that's proper having your cake and eating it.

Possibly too many guns on this page overall. Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell in In BrugesGenerally, the VidBinges are a good opportunity for me to revisit films I've seen before: only one in a while (for example, last year) do we end up with the situation where I'm watching something for the first time. That kind of applies to Mongol this year, even though a bunch of Spank's Pals went out with me to the pictures to see it back in June, primarily on The BBG's recommendation. We caught it at the Odeon Covent Garden: a cinema that needs to be named and shamed, because it showed the first ten minutes of the film with sound but no picture, without a word of apology. (When we tried to complain to someone in the foyer afterwards, the only people left in the building were cleaners.)

In the six months since then, the Mongol trailer has inspired two bits of YouTube silliness on this site: a jolly ode to the Japanese dish that shares its name with Genghis Khan, and a video that The BBG insists is my absolute moral low point of 2008. And now, finally, I get to see what's happening during those opening ten minutes that just sounded like a lot of throat singing and rain. It turns out that it does the standard biographical trick of portraying its leading character, Temudjin (Tadanobu Asano), at his lowest ebb, before flashing back to show us how he got there from childhood, and going forward to the point where he becomes leader of the Mongols, Genghis Khan.

Sergei Bodrov's old-fashioned epic is the first of a planned trilogy, with The Great Khan scheduled to focus on his glory days in 2010, and a third film documenting his downfall after that. It's beautifully shot in glorious Khazak locations, and needs to be seen on the biggest screen you can find, ideally with the projector turned on: but there's still a lot to enjoy when you watch it on a normal-size telly. Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano, who we love round these parts, finally gets a large international breakout role, choosing (at least in this film) to portray Temudjin in terms of his personal charisma rather than his asskickingosity. There's ace support, too, from Honglei Sun as his best mate cum nemesis Jamukha. If there's one complaint I have, it's that massively oversized CGI battle scenes have become such a cliche since Lord Of The Rings - it's like nobody can be bothered gathering lots of stuntmen in a field to hit each other any more. A battle with 200 real people is always going to look more impressive than one with 200,000 digital avatars.

Remember the old days, when you'd go to foreign countries and see movies before they'd had a chance to be released in the UK? With the globalisation of release schedules, that doesn't really happen any more - in the case of the big films, they all tend to come out roughly the same time everywhere. So imagine my delight last March when during a week away on business in Belfast, I discovered that In Bruges had opened in Ireland a month before it was due to reach England. And thanks to an advanced preview at the ICA just before The BBG went off to Japan, I got to see it a second time before it had even come out here. As you can tell, I enjoyed it quite a bit.

I've been a fan of Martin McDonagh's stage work in the past, and his debut feature mixes comedy, male bonding and violence in similar proportions. It's the story of two hitmen, Ray (Colin Farrell) and Ken (Brendan Gleeson), hiding out in Bruges after a wetjob goes messily wrong. Ken is a natural tourist, while Ray hates every minute he spends there. As they battle with dull tourist attractions, racist dwarves, pretentious film crews and irritating Americans, little do they realise that their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes) has other plans for them.

In Bruges feels very much like the work of a playwright - particularly the way that every set up in the first half of the film has a payoff in the second, to the extent that the climax feels like a very forced attempt to tie up all the loose ends in one flourish. On stage, you'd accept that sort of narrative artifice: in a more realistic film, it feels false. Then again, you could argue that any film where Harry feels the need to say out loud "this is the shootout" at the climax isn't really trying to work on a realistic level: possibly not the "fackin' fairy tale" that Harry claims, but still not meant to be taken as a serious gangster film.

Consider it in terms of the work of David Mamet, another playwright who made the leap into cinema. As enjoyable as his debut House Of Games was,  even its trailer looks stagey and stilted as hell, and it took him several movies before he came up with something you could actually call cinematic. McDonagh has managed to pull off something that looks like a real film on his first go, with flourishes like a major scene filmed in a single take (preceded by a clip from Touch Of Evil's single-take opening shot just to rub it in). And, it goes without saying, it's packed full of the sick and profane laughs we've come to expect from him as a writer. Damn you, McDonagh, for making a Colin Farrell film one of my favourite ones of the year!

Stephen Morris, and the job advert that ultimately got him in$to Joy DivisionAnd so we come to the winner of the poll, the film that got the maximum votes from both Old Lag and The BBG. The former chose Joy Division because of a general interest in the music of Manchester: the latter chose it because I'd raved about the film when I saw it during her absence in Japan, and she wanted to know what the fuss was about. Neither of them were enormous fans of the band, but that's not a problem, because neither was I.

It's true: I picked up on Joy Division comparatively late. Around the time of Love Will Tear Us Apart, in fact, which I guess counts as too late - it took the suicide of lead singer Ian Curtis for me to notice that they were any good. That suicide, of course, was the thing that took Joy Division into the realm of rock untouchables, and started a myth so huge that it's spawned two feature films in the last couple of years. First we had Control, Anton Corbijn's fictionalised version of Curtis' life, made with the co-operation of his widow Deborah: and then we had this Grant Gee documentary, which concentrates on the testimony of the other three band members (Deborah being represented by intertitles quoting from her book Talking From A Distance).

Both films have their merits, but I prefer Joy Division because it's doing much more than just recounting a rock 'n' roll tragedy. Factory Records boss Tony Wilson hits the nail on the head in his opening statement: this isn't just the story of a band, it's the story of a city (the city I grew up in, no less). Gee's camera brings out the contrasts in Manchester that inspired the band and their writing: the weight of industrial history, and the grim reality of living there in the late seventies. There's a touching series of shots captioned Things That Aren't There - key sites in Mancunian music history, which are now wasteland or apartment blocks. Similarly, a surprising number of the key players in the story are no longer with us: Curtis, manager Rob Gretton, producer Martin Hannett, and of course Tony Wilson (who died shortly after being interviewed for this film).

This is the story of a band, as opposed to Control's story of its frontman: and one of the things it does beautifully is show you the alchemy that sets great bands apart from the merely good ones. The three surviving members contribute lengthy interviews that capture their individual personalities: the pragmatic Bernard Sumner, the rock god Peter Hook, the cheerful blokeyness of Stephen Morris. Combine that with Ian Curtis' literary bent and intense nervous energy, and you had four very different people who combined into something much bigger than the sum of their parts, each one contributing something the others couldn't. But at the same time, they were all young men in their early twenties, and it's fascinating to see the perspective they bring thirty years later to how they behaved back then - relishing their success while choosing to ignore that Curtis was in trouble. When the band members recall their irritation that he'd killed himself just before they were due to tour America, it's a horrifying reaction, but one that you can completely understand given their relative immaturity at the time.

As for the music: well, there's lots of it in the background, as well as several fuzzy live bootleg clips. The latter don't really work at all: when the remaining members became New Order, they were notorious for several years for the wildly variable quality of their gigs, and the concert footage here shows the same unfocussed thrashing that tended to blight those later shows. But I'll tell you where Joy Division really worked as a band: on television. Growing up in Manchester in the sixties and seventies, I just assumed that every regional TV news programme was as musically adventurous as Granada's, which had introduced me to the Beatles before I could talk and - thanks to Tony Wilson being a reporter on it - gave Joy Division their first appearance on telly. The clips from Granada Reports (as well as some footage from the Beeb's Something Else) show you what the band was capable of. The sound is tight and utterly controlled, Curtis' thrashy dancing plays off visually against the taut concentration of the other three, and the result is still electrifying to watch.

So, it's a shame that for once we could fit all the VidBinge attendees on a single sofa: but the selection of films turned out rather nicely indeed. Huge thanks to The BBG and the Lagster for agreeing to play along this time. But can I suggest to the rest of Spank's Pals that they might want to keep Saturdays in early December 2009 free for now? I'd appreciate it muchly. Being a monkey, and all.


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