The first thing you’ll want to know is: did people turn up? After all, last year’s VidBinge – my annual one-day DVD marathon made up of audience selections from the previous calendar year’s film releases – was notorious for only having two attendees other than myself. Happily, the event held on Saturday December 12th 2009 was a much more popular affair. The running order was based on selections from six of your favourites from Spank’s Pals – Seapea, Lesley, Old Lag, The Belated Birthday Girl, The Cineaste and Jon – with a special guest appearance from Caroline, who decided to join us even though she hadn’t voted. I’m normally quite strict about that sort of thing, but after last year’s debacle I was happy to bend the rules a bit.
The process remains unchanged from the first ever VidBinge, held ten years earlier. I assembled a list of twenty films that were released in the UK during 2009, all of which I had available on DVD (apart from Tokyo Sonata, which I'd taped off the telly a few weeks earlier). The people coming to VidBinge voted beforehand for their five favourites, and I amalgamated their choices to come up with a programme based on the most popular. As you can see from the official results (click graph above for readable version), there was a fair old logjam in fifth place: but let’s focus on the top four, which are the ones we actually watched on the day.
First of all, the curious case of The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. One of the reasons I like VidBinge as an end-of-year activity is the ability to reassess films I’ve seen up to twelve months ago. And it was more or less twelve months since The BBG and I first caught Button at a special BFI Southbank preview, including a post-screening Q&A with director David Fincher. We enjoyed it a fair bit at the time, I must admit: so it came as a surprise a few weeks later when the film got released and was universally panned. Sometimes you get the feeling that there’s a standard critical line that everyone feels has to be taken, and it’s always interesting when your own personal response differs wildly from it. Were we just wrong?
Well, on second viewing, it’s more obvious that it’s a very flawed film: but not so much as to dismiss it outright. It definitely seems to be one that you have to commit to completely, and be prepared to immerse yourself entirely in its world. Anything that stops you from doing that – say, the fact that you’re watching it on TV rather than in a cinema, or having to get up every so often to let latecomers into the house – will affect your enjoyment. If you’re not buying into it totally, you quickly come to notice the overlength, the unnecessary narrative digressions, the shameless sentimentality.
You also notice that there’s a fundamental problem with doing it as a film in the first place. I’ve not read F Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, but I’m willing to bet that his central device (a character born as an old man and ageing backwards) was intended as a means to allow him to reflect on how life is ultimately defined by the things we lose along the way, using the reversal of events to give us a unique perspective on how that happens. And the bits of Button that grabbed me on the first viewing are those that relate directly to that premise. But once you’re committed to showing an audience what Benjamin Button looks like as this happens to him, that part of the story gets shoved into the background, and it all becomes about the visual trickery used to depict the reverse ageing process.
The visuals are flawless – well, it’s Fincher, you wouldn’t expect anything else. But so much effort has been put into making them flawless, the emotional core that they’re meant to be based around gets lost completely. Having said that, on both viewings the final scene got to me quite heavily. Summarising several people’s lives in one image and one sentence apiece, it’s a beautifully compressed piece of storytelling. But compression is a concept that barely figures in the rest of Button: everything else is all bloat and sprawl. You might be better off with Fitzgerald’s original. Or even Alan Moore’s The Reversible Man, a short story of his along the same lines that’s infinitely more affecting, but only takes up a mere four pages of 2000 AD.
This year’s VidBinge selections are a curiously Hollywood-centric bunch: even the one Britflick on the list, In The Loop, has a lengthy section set in Washington. Armando Iannucci’s feature debut takes the political setting of his TV series The Thick Of It and expands it onto a global stage. During its making, he expressed concern that taking his cast out to a foreign location would turn his movie into a Holiday On The Buses for the noughties. Thankfully, Iannucci is too smart an operator to allow that to happen.
For those of us who love The Thick Of It, the comparisons with In The Loop are fascinating. The BBG and I had an unprecedented opportunity to do just that on VidBinge Day, because after we'd sent everyone home we sat down to watch the just-transmitted final episode of the show's second series. It strikes me that TTOI’s concerns have always been purely internal: even when the ministers are discussing policies, the key focus is always on saving their own skins rather than how things will impact the outside world. Loop, meanwhile, is all about that impact on the outside world. In one of those typical Iannucci climaxes - the sort where you don't realise it's a climax until after it's happened - a simple off-the-cuff remark turns out to have unimaginably appalling consequences.
Loop was made in between the first and second series of TTOI. Even though there's no real narrative overlap between the two, there's a definite feeling of progression, particularly in terms of dramatic depth. The second series was notable for sometimes emphasising plot and character at the expense of jokes: the single most jaw-dropping moment of Loop similarly turns out not to be a gag, but a piece of straight acting. A long close-up of Malcolm Tucker’s face as he realises in rapid succession that he’s completely screwed, and then that there’s a way out, it’s a moment of real drama that leads beautifully into the climactic mayhem.
That isn't to say there aren't jokes: because there are, and they come at an even higher rate than they do on TV. The script by Iannucci and his regular collaborators is as tight as hell, but obviously it’s helped by an ensemble primarily made up of regulars from the show. Peter Capaldi’s Tucker is the only major character to straddle both narrative universes, but it’s fun to see actors from TTOI playing variations on their TV personas. Chris Addison is particularly impressive on that score: Olly 'telly' Reeder and Toby 'movie' Wright are two very different people, even though they both have similarly bad hair. And the traffic turns out to go both ways: those of you who saw that final episode of TTOI can imagine the hysterical laughter that broke out at Spank Towers when the Opposition finally unveiled their Malcolm equivalent, the man known only as The Fucker.
Any doubts we may have had that Iannucci's humour could transfer to the big screen are thoroughly crushed by In The Loop, the film responsible for the biggest and most consistent laughs of VidBinge 2009. It bodes well for the upcoming movie from his old mate Chris Morris: Four Lions for VidBinge 2010, perhaps?
Pixar’s release policy is a pain in the arse in one aspect: they’re pretty much the only studio that still has a delay of several months between the US and UK theatrical runs of their movies. Still, it makes them ideal for VidBinge. Up hit the UK's cinemas in October, just a few weeks before it was released on DVD in the US, making it the most contemporary film on my shortlist. I couldn’t show it in 3D, sadly. I could have offered another film from my list in 3D - Coraline - but I'm glad I didn't have to, because that one looks like crap on DVD. We’re still stuck with the old red/green technology for domestic 3D, which turns both the dimensional effects and the colour palette into a gruesome mulch.
Up – or as the Japanese have gloriously retitled it, Old Man Carl’s Flying-Through-The-Air House – genuinely doesn’t need 3D anyway. I’m actually writing the first draft of this article in a Soho pub, eavesdropping on a group of what appear to be British film industry effects guys on a liquid lunch. They've just been discussing Avatar, and here's their verdict: “For all the shit that flies around on that film, why doesn’t anything fly out of the screen?” Which mirrors my view on it: nobody goes to a 3D movie for subtlety, they want to be poked in the eye with stuff. You can admire Avatar’s ability at creating a world with depth all you want, but eventually you have to stop doing that and start concentrating on the feeble story that’s being told. Which is where it all falls down, for me anyway.
There's depth in the 3D version of Up too, but it’s not the film’s be-all and end-all. Story has always been at the forefront of Pixar’s development process. It has to be: we now take their technical expertise so much for granted, they can no longer just coast on how a film looks. It’s funny that the publicity for their movies always focuses on their latest technical innovation – in this case, whatever it takes to render several thousand balloons realistically – but once you’re actually in front of the screen, nobody really cares.
Everyone keeps going on about the first ten minutes of the film, and you can't really blame them, especially when you've just sat through two and a half hours of Benjamin Button. Up manages to say more about life and loss in its opening reel, while keeping it entirely in U certificate terms. But I think the emotional high point of the film comes later on. Amazingly, the person who's best explained for me why that is turns out to be Michael Legge, a comedian best known for being the main protagonist of a podcast almost entirely constructed from anger and swearing. His theory is this: it isn’t extreme sadness that makes him cry in movies, it’s extreme happiness. And when Carl eventually discovers that his wife Ellie has one more message for him, both Legge and I agree it’s the most perfect cinema moment of 2009.
But let's not just dwell on the bits that make you blub. Up also has brilliantly choreographed action: its final chase is a properly huge bit of cinema, which feels like it’s been built up to rather than just being another shoehorned-in setpiece. And, of course, it has scads of beautifully timed jokes. Its final scene marks the first time that the film teeters on the brink of sentimentality, and then one single line – “grey one” – turns it into a huge belly laugh. Up was the lowest certificated film at this year's VidBinge, but quite frankly this stuff's too good for kids.
And so we come to the runaway winner of the poll: Inglourious Basterds, which – along with Button – owes its high placing to Seapea’s current Brad Pitt fetish. Which makes it all the more confusing that she arrived after Button and left before Basterds. No matter: there’s a fine tradition of Quentin Tarantino movies being watched by the Pals at Spank Towers (notably a triple bill of Reservoir Dogs, True Romance and Pulp Fiction that played as an all-dayer a couple of years before the first VidBinge). The audience for Basterds turned out to be just the right mix of people who’d seen it before (me, The BBG and Caroline) and people catching it for the first time (Lesley and Old Lag). The Lagster spent a curiously large part of the first half of the movie loudly trying to anticipate when someone was going to get castrated on screen. To be honest, I’d forgotten there even was a castration in there, which might say something disturbing about me.
I’m the first to admit that Tarantino’s genre exercises – and let's face it, that’s all he does now – are sometimes a little lacking in depth beyond a series of interconnected B-movie references. And it’s always funny to watch people desperately assign motives to his storytelling that I suspect were never there. ("The motorcycle's called Grace, don't you see?") Nevertheless, some critics have leapt on the motif of language in this one, and for me it genuinely struck a chord, particularly on this second viewing. On two occasions – first time as tragedy-ish, second time as farce – characters have to look on dumbly while everyone else talks about them in a language they don’t understand. On the day of VidBinge ’09, I’d just come back from two days in Tel Aviv where that was my prime experience of the country: and I have to say, Tarantino has got the discomfort of that experience down cold. (The day after VidBinge, I went to Lisbon and it happened all over again. And just like in the film, it was more fun the second time.)
On second viewing, that 150 minute running time still just flies by. Although having already seen it once, you’re missing out on one of the major pleasures of Basterds: that spectacular moment of cognitive dissonance when Christoph Waltz, over a bottle of booze, steers the film into a direction (maybe even a genre?) that you weren’t expecting. He’s as magnificent as everyone says, and the rest of the cast are better than the critics suggest. And I include Brad Pitt in that: his performance has taken some stick, but he plays it like a man well aware that he’s one of the most broadly drawn characters in a film whose introduction to Hitler has him wrapped in a Nazi flag.
Of course it’s not Tarantino’s masterpiece (funny how many people have got so, so pissed off by that final line): but at least it’s entertaining enough tosh to show his career’s not as dead in the water as it seemed around the time of Death Proof. And that climax made for a hell of a bang to finish off VidBinge 2009. Did you notice, that makes it two years in a row now that VidBinge has climaxed with the death of a character with unpleasant right-wing tendencies? Although I do appreciate that might be a slightly dodgy comparison. Being a monkey, and all.