BIFF 2012 - Day 1

Another year, another film festival, I'm sitting in the National Media Museum cafe, having sauntered slowly and quietly from my workplace in Leeds. I have been treated to a live piano recital on entry, pushed past several director-types who are networking each other silly, been offered a free donut and cup of tea by four ladies dressed up to look like the protagonists of the opening night film (complete with referential sign) and I am now writing this opener whilst chuckling at the assorted classic Chuck Jones cartoons being shown on the preview reel. (There's a Chuck Jones Tribute throughout the festival, showing cartoons at the start of most films). There's no sound but Duck Amuck is funny just with the pictures.

My initial impression with the lineup of the Bradford films this year is of slight disappointment, but then that's the impression I got last year before I actually went in and watched them, it turned out that BIFF 2011 had a roster of fantastic films, particularly in the documentaries strand, which seems a little lacking this time around. Maybe if someone from the festival is reading this, you might want to look to places like Kickstarter (and other internet-based promotional platforms) as there are some potentially great new films coming out soon.

But this year is now, and the opening night film was due to start. The foyer became busy with film fans so I took my place in the theatre. There I was surprised to find a complementary bucket of popcorn, and a perhaps less obvious gift to find on your cinema seat, a packet of seeds made to look like a book of matches. I'll see what comes up.

The room became gradually packed out with no spare seats and as is typical for a major film this meant overrun. Colin Philpott, the Media Museum director, said a few welcoming pieces and revealed that a new film production studio will soon be up and running in Bradford, creating new films with a northern flavour. Bronte and Discovery Road will be the first films under this project.

The festival was sponsored by Virgin, so one of their suits was wheeled out to give spiel to a captive audience - but in return we got to see 2:20 - the grand prize winner of last year's selection as a sample of the Virgin Media Shorts programme that begins today.

2:20 (UK) - A brief film that recovers a familiar idea - a tramp points at a man as he sits outside a bar, then leaves him the glasses she was wearing. Putting them on, he can see how long people have left to live. The natural urge to look in a mirror becomes too great. Done well and with a disturbing edge, but the whole 'device to see how long people have left to live' concept has been taken from somewhere else (but I can't place where just at the moment) and nothing new has been added. 7/10

Once the Virgin guy was wheeled back off again we got our first film proper, introduced by BIFF director Tom Vincent:

One Froggy Evening (US) - Before the main film, we were treated to a showing of one of Chuck Jones's best on the big screen where it would have first appeared. A construction worker finds a box in a sealed concrete block, and inside (inexplicably) is a frog, who sings and dances the old show tunes. Seeing dollar signs before his eyes, he tries to show off his find to anyone who will listen, but froggy is particular about his audience. Mysterious, funny and tragic. 8/10

And finally, some 45 minutes after the start time, we managed to see the main event, introduced by BIFF co-director Neil Young.

Damsels In Distress (US) (wiki)

Somewhere in a maybe-alternate part of north America lies a well-to-do university, made up of old, dignified buildings and beautiful gardens. There, three girls experiencing the first thrills of life without adults share a dorm. Violet is the most outspoken and leads them in their naive quests, to find happiness in less attractive men, stop their classmates committing suicide, and do something about the body odour problem of the childish males.

Enter Lilly, a transfer student, whom Violet thinks could make a good fourth leg. Seduced by her need to control and offer advice, Lilly moves in and together they negotiate the tricky subjects of love and boys, stumbling through friendships and maybe-relationships as we do. Sort of.

With talk of tapdance numbers, you might think this would be nauseatingly Glee-like but mercifully it isn't - although it is certainly aimed more at a female audience than male. The girls talk to and about boys, get all confused when they don't get their feelings, and take up the rest of their time as suicide prevention officers and dance craze inventors.

It was a nice touch for director Whit Stillman to record a short intro to his film just for Bradford, but alarm bells always ring whenever a director attempts to explain his own work. Damsels tried hard to be carefree and easygoing, but this resulted in an awkward-feeling dialogue (with some iffy sound) between the main characters in the beginning. This eased somewhat in the middle, and then went completely out of the window at the end when the story broke down completely and the movie relied almost completely on a song and dance finish to tie up some rather weak loose ends that hadn't had time enough applied to them for the audience to care that much.

I wanted to like the film much more than I could as it had a genuine, innocent charm about it, and though it took a while for my face to turn up at the sides I did feel some warmth and humour come through eventually with some nice back and fourth between the characters which wasn't merely the expected bitchiness-as-false-complement behaviour from teens in a college situation, but something a little more ideal, more pleasant, if a little rose tinted view of the first freedoms felt in higher ed.

It could have been much worse, but it could also have been a lot better. It could have been tidied up somewhat - some scenes looked as if they had been quickly shot and dropped in to segue between two other distinct parts of the film giving it a bumpy, disjointed flow. And if the director had given some resolution to various story points instead of leaving it in the air while everyone started dancing it would have felt much more satisfying. As it was, I had to salvage enjoyment from the mixture of goofy frat boys and a handful of clever quips from the girls to see me through the other bits. 6/10

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