BIFF 2012 - Day 4

Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains (US) (wiki)

Ray Winstone joins Babs Windsor in this years BIFF in having a retrospective of films playing, and this film is the least well-known of Winstone's output. The Stains was basically buried by Paramount as it's punk-era plot was becoming too old-hat for the early 80's. It had a week run in Denver and that was about it, and this is apparently the only copy of the film remaining.

Winstone is not centre stage in a theatrical sense; that goes to a young Diane Lane who plays Corinne 'Third Degree' Burns, lead singer of The Fabulous Stains, a nearly-nothing band made with a sister and a friend and with barely a song and a tune to work for. With both parents dead and a brattish attitude, she pins her hopes on gigging, and by good fortune, a touring group happens to be headlining on the same day. Thanks to some unusual stage dress and some provocative shouting, she raises some eyebrows; not least of the band organiser, a group of local girls looking for the next big thing, and the local news.

The Fabulous Stains is an exercise in fleeting popularity and the fickleness of the public, who will flock to the latest non-conformism: It's also a snide comment how the industry and the artists interact at the entry level, and the backstabbing and moneymaking that naturally fuels it. Winstone's band The Looters (made up of Sex Pistols and Clash members no less) enjoys the limelight and reacts with hate to the old glam rock Metal Corpses at everything they represent without a sense that he will so easily be in their place, and when a promising relationship between Billy and Corinne goes bad, angry teens and thirst for stardom mean all sides will get burned.

Though Paramount argued that the punk era was on it's way out, its clear that the suits that be back then didn't get these universal themes still playing out today and will forever for the next big thing, and pigeon-holed it as a flop past it's time. It says more about the studio than the film. 7/10

A double-bill of short-ish films followed with a connecting theme, the recorded travels of the essayist and philosopher Walter Benjamin.

The Angels of Portbou (Fra) (site)

Serafin, a well-meaning but wet behind the ears young man has taken it upon himself to trace the journey of Benjamin through the French countryside over the border to Portbou in Spain, where after a gruelling journey with failing health, he committed suicide lest he fall into the hands of the Nazis. When his friend Paul doesn't turn up as expected, his flame-haired sister Gabrielle, knowledgeable of the trail fills his place and shows him a thing or two about growing a pair, despite Serafin's initial reluctance to be escorted by a girl.

During the journey, Serafin finds himself in the company of the mysterious girl, whose own ancestors had stories to tell about the period, and she seems to have a knowing otherworldly confidence and charm that puts him (and the viewer) slightly at unease. A travelling dialogue with a little mysticism, spoiled slightly by Serafin's constant attempts to take control of the situation. 7/10

Moscow Diary (UK) (site)

A decade or so earlier, Benjamin was deeply in love with Asja Lacis, a beguiling but unpermitting source of desire for him. Director Adam Kossof (who was present for a Q and A) meticulously retraces the steps chronicled in Benjamin's diaries from late 1926-27, visiting buildings and landmarks still standing from the period, narrating diary extracts to his contemporary mobile phone footage of the places, cleverly weaving in modern versions of the subject matter that also gets a mention between the chapters of the slowly evolving and tragic love story.

Though Kossof's narration of the story warms the cold words with subtle emotion, and the combination of old words and modern footage is interesting, it isn't as fascinating as it should be. The use of camera phone makes for blurry picturing and the 'effect' constantly used to zoom the camera in to scenes, repeating them to an uncomfortable length does nothing to help and just annoys. Getting rid of them alone would make for a more enjoyable film. I would recommend the book over the film. 6/10

Me or the Dog (UK) - A young man's dog seems to know a little too much about his girlfriend's hijinks when he's not around, or is it just a projection of his phyche? An amusing though slightly underwhelming use of Martin Clunes' voice. 7/10

The Lord's Ride (Fra) (site)

A French Roma** community, made up of the bad, the good and the indifferent litter the countryside near an unfortunate village with their daily detritus. Inner skirmishes between bickering families keep things interesting, and gives the increasingly rotund men something to do in their lives when not being thieving pikeys. The only other thing they manage is to visit the local church congregation occasionally and soothe their conscience by nodding along to the stories of being saved. After all, if god hasn't punished them for their crimes, the only explanation is that he is ok with it, yes?

The usual slobbing, thieving, fighting and larking comes to an end for Frederick, who after a night of drinks appears to have an experience with a messenger from god, in an upturned caravan. He comes out of it with a dog, that has become his responsibility, and is convinced of the divinity of the experience.

Colleagues are not convinced, and even less impressed when he claims he is going straight - not so good when he is chief car nicker, and have to try and shake him out of his nauseating sense of higher purpose before their latest client becomes loses patience on his promised BMW.

Jean-Charles Hue spent some time living with a real-life community, and everyone you see in the film is playing a version of their real-life selves. And they do a remarkably good job, with acting talents on a par with the professionals. What you get then is an authentic, well researched slice of Roma, whose residents aren't all gittish slobs (though anyone else in this film get a background part at best) delivering an entertaining and fittingly scrappy story. 7/10

Conference (Austria) - Since Adolf Hitler is the most played part in film, I guess it makes sense to enumerate them into a single short film. You'll spot everyone from Mel Brooks to Charlie Chaplin to Robert Carlisle to John Cleese (but unfortunately they missed Dermot Morgan), although the film is deliberately scratched, black and white, and whatever each Hitler is saying, is distorted (granulated) beyond comprehension. I guess that was meant to say something about Hitler's views and how they should be treated, but they could have done it less annoyingly. 5/10

How I Filmed the War (Can) (site)

Starting immediately afterwards, and regressing the theme back to World War I, How I Filmed the War is a study of the achievements of 'Geoffrey H. Malins', aka the flawed but undeniably brave Arthur Herbert, who was one of the few 'war movie' men of WWI, going to the front of the front line and risking death filming the goings on for the people back home, whose only comprehension so far had come from rousing newspaper stories and the odd grainy photograph. Malins didn't have the technology to hide in the trench after pressing a handy button, he had to wind the film manually, putting himself directly and conspicuously in the line of fire.

Let me get this out of the way for anyone thinking this is a film to catch: You will end up reading a book on screen, much like last years' Sailor only more so. The story is told through Malins' memoirs from 1920, including notes from a subsequent biographer. Pages of the stuff. If you don't go into the theatre realising that and accepting you'll be doing a lot of reading, the first half of this film (where Malins' actual footage is scarce) will bore and/or annoy.

But get that out of the way and this documentary begins to show it's colours. The director takes the easy route by literally cutting and pasting the text onto the screen rather than telling it through his own eyes, but Malins is an effective writer and storyteller. Concentrating on the leadup and filming of The Battle of the Somme, a propaganda film seen in 1916 by an estimated 2 million people, and the first time the public at large could see for themselves the horrors of the war, albeit as Marlins himself concedes, a heavily censored version to spare the worst and make sure people left their cinemas on a high.

If you can face just over an hour reading a giant book on the screen, scratched and bruised by time, and not hear a single word in that entire time, there is an informative and even entertaining documentary here. But it will take a degree of patience to show itself. 6/10

Albert Nobbs (UK/Irl) (wiki/site)

Small, unassuming Albert works at the Morrisons hotel as a waiter. He is kind and humble and trusted completely by his bosses and colleagues. He labours hard at his work and slowly, painfully saves every last penny to someday work for himself. A local shop up for rent has Nobbs thinking of setting himself up as a tobacconist.

His mechanical existence is threatened by the arrival of painter and handyman Hubert. A large, burly man who needs a place for the night while he does some work on the hotel. It's during an uncomfortable night in the same bed that Nobbs' cover is blown - she is a woman, working as a man to get by, in a time where women have a tough time taking home the pay.

Hubert has a few secrets of his own, so for the moment they can both keep mutually quiet, but when he beguiles Nobbs with talk of his own family life, desire for companionship are awakened, just as the young and cocky Joe lands himself a role at the hotel.

Glenn Close has spent many years in front of the camera, but little behind. A personal project, Albert Nobbs comes from a short story and Close felt close enough to the character to bring it fully to the big screen. The mileage available to the story of women pretending to be men in order to get on, and what happens within a society barely aware of, let alone tolerant towards homosexuality, when love blossoms means there is plenty of branches for the story threads to follow. One particularly joyous scene which begins as light relief, where Nobbs steps out in a dress after years acting manly in a suit is worth the ticket price alone, but there is a great film beyond that here too, not overworked or sentimental, and able to get under your skin without being preachy. The best film of the festival so far. 8.5/10

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