Thursday, 24 March 2011
17th Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF): Opening night gala and Woody Allen's You Will Meet a Dark Stranger
Ah so it is the Bradford International Film Festival (BIFF) once again and the red carpet leads to the entrance of the National Media Museum. It really is a great place to have a film festival; in a museum dedicated to the learning about, and preservation of all forms of media. The event was appropriately grand - black tie and everything. I’m not all too bothered about the fancy black tie type of affair, but it really suited the occasion. More than anything, the grandeur of the event gave me a little breathing space with my wife. The opening night was on her birthday, and despite liking film, a film festival opening night wouldn’t have been her first choice of how to spend the evening, but the allure of being able to wear one of her “only for best” dresses really brought her round. She ended up having a great time, as did everyone we spoke to at the reception following the screening. There was an exciting feeling in the air - aided by the live jazz and free wine - and although I attend film festivals to see fresh new uncovered films and cinematic experiences - so the festival really gets underway for me tomorrow - it is nice to see these type of grand events that everyone can get into and that can create some publicity ahead of the real action.
Preceding the screening were a couple of pleasantly brief but poignant speeches. The museum's director Colin Philpott was up first to talk about the museum's future and ambitions. He acknowledged the upcoming challenges that the museum will be facing: cuts to their public funding, the axing of the UK Film Council and the uncertainty therefore of Screen Yorkshire and the general economic gloom making sponsorship and corporate partnerships difficult. In the face of these things, he conceded that there will have to be cutbacks, but the museum’s ambition would not be diluted. He stated that the museum intends “to be international, not just local or national in our outlook and our impact”. He followed this with the grand reveal of ‘Life Online’, the biggest gallery the museum has hosted for quite some time, due to open next March. It will be the "first museum gallery in the world telling the history and the impact of the internet and the worldwide web”. Philpott thanked all the sponsors but specifically singled out Screen Yorkshire, who he described as "not only a great supporter of this museum, they have done an enormous amount, over the past decade, bringing productions to Yorkshire and creating new talent". This statement was followed by a full round of applause.
After a brief word from the opening night's sponsor, BBC North, came the festival's artistic director Tony Earnshaw, who gave a very charismatic introduction to the festival, briefly mentioning a few upcoming highlights. In his appropriately broad Yorkshire accent, he named and thanked all the programming team; after all, it is films that make a film festival, and those that pick and curate the many films and strands are what make them what they are.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger
I should start by openly declaring that this isn’t exactly my kind of film. I revel in either end of the spectrum: pulp trash genre cinema or contemplative, thought provoking art house films. You will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger fits into neither; it is a very safe middle brow romantic drama – that happened to have comedic elements. I hesitate to use any kind of term like ‘rom-com’, as this would not give it the credit it deserves. Despite it not being my cup of tea, it is clearly a class above the average Jennifer Aniston vehicle and lacked the most patronising features of the majority of the formulaic Hollywood offerings. Having briefly declared my own underwhelmed impression on the film though, it must be said that it was very well received by the packed auditorium, who laughed on cue, applauded as the credits rolled and had some very generous words for it at the post-film drinks reception. The thing that seemed most appreciated were some of the tiny intricacies of the dialogue. This was where most of the comedy came from and was an example of the type of scripting needed to bring these mostly formulaic stock characters to life.
The film had a lot going on and moved at a snappy pace, where all the characters were introduced by a tedious voice over (where the story could have introduced them perfectly well without it). The first character to be introduced, Helena (Gemma Jones), seemed by far the most popular with the audience, prompting many laughs and best utilising the above mentioned intricacies of the dialogue. The narrative intertwined the fallout of her and Alfie’s (Anthony Hopkins) divorce - and their subsequent relationship attempts - with the deteriorating relationship of their daughter Sally (Naomi Watts) and her husband Roy (Josh Brolin), who were exploring their respective extramarital fascinations. Sally with Greg (Antonio Banderas) and Roy with Dia (Freida Pinto). Usually when a film has such a large cast of characters, it makes it easier to avoid those that are particularly self absorbed, but these were all a pretty indistinguishable level of self absorbed, so not the case here. I would have said that the performances were pretty solid, had it not been for most of the accents; they were either very American or very English. I forgive this on the grounds of the impression I took regarding Woody Allen’s apparent commentary on the changing face of contemporary national relations; therefore having the characters sound as obviously representative of a national identity as possible. The older and the younger couples both comprised of an English woman and an American man. These relationships fell apart for different reasons, but what is interesting is to take a look at their prospective new partners, crushes, infatuations, etc. The most miserably failed and pathetic of all was Alfie’s relationship with the overly vacuous, materialistic, gold digging, Essex bimbo cliché Charmaine (Lucy Punch), who is half his age and a high end prostitute. This relationship was an attempt to recreate his existing relationship (in national terms), but it failed miserably. Admittedly, this failed relationship was the greatest source of the audience's laughter outside of Helena and her blunt and direct criticism of Roy. This marks the steady breakdown of these two nations' 20th century bond. Meanwhile, the younger couples both fell for individuals of different national origins; one from Western Europe, the other - more significantly for contemporary global politics - was Indian. Whereas Helena, the most self satisfied of the lot (possibly deludedly so with the help of a fraudulent mystic and plenty of whiskey) represented the increasing prevalence of national protectionism, post economic crisis, as her ‘tall dark stranger’ was a fellow, similar aged English gentleman.
All in all, the night was a success. Everyone in their black ties or fancy dresses enjoyed the event and despite the negative reaction of me and a few others, most really enjoyed Woody Allen's most recent offering. For me though, the real excitement starts tomorrow and continues for a further 11 days, with features and shorts, both narrative and documentaries; from genre heavy cult-classic hopefuls to the most original and challenging experimental cinema from all around the world, and plenty in between.
You can follow me on Twitter @destroyapathy or the festival as it progresses on #biff2011