The 55th London Film Festival opens on Wednesday but I've already spent a week watching films from the programme. Some of these films are embargoed (Dreams of a Life, Hut in the Woods) and some will be reviewed in full closer to their screening dates (We Need to Talk About Kevin, Miss Bala, Wuthering Heights, The Deep Blue Sea), but for now, here's my short take on a few movies that will be showing in London over the coming weeks.
Mathieu Demy – the son of Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy – takes the lead role in Americano, his directorial debut. The film opens with Martin (Demy) receiving the news of his mother's death, prompting a journey from Paris to LA, where she stayed following her separation from Martin's father. He returns to the house he lived in as a child, sifting through her belongings and recalling old memories (signified through shots of Demy in Varda's Documenteur), and trying to connect with the mother he doesn't really know. This is obviously a very personal project for Demy but I found it very hard to connect with Americano. There's something off about the pacing and Demy's rather flat central performance fails to transmit a great deal of emotion. After a maudlin opening hour it comes as something of a relief when Martin discovers a letter suggesting his mother had a very close friendship with his childhood pal Lola and sets off to Tijuana to find her. The movie is enlivened by the Mexican atmosphere and by the arrival of Lola (Salma Hayek), a stripper who performs for Martin and will only talk for cash, but Demy still struggles to find any dramatic spark in this overlong story. For a film purportedly dealing with the messy emotional territory of family memories, the ending – when it finally comes – is too neat by half.
As happy as I am to see the talented Rebecca Hall in a leading role, I wish it was in a better picture, although I did have high hopes for The Awakening, which opens with a scene that's both creepy and clever. Hall plays Florence Cathcart, a writer in 1920's London with a firm belief in scientific logic whose books expose supernatural myths. She is contact by Robert Mallory (Dominic West), the head of a boarding school that has apparently been troubled by ghostly occurrences ever since a young boy died there, and Florence – suspecting that it is nothing more than a schoolboy prank – agrees to investigate. Nick Murphy's film embraces every ghost movie cliché it can think of, but the film is extremely well played by the leads (including Imelda Staunton as a school nurse in awe of Florence) and well paced for much of its first half at least. The problems arise as the movie wears on with Murphy relying on familiar and repetitive tricks to make us jump, and too much of The Awakening consists of Hall stalking about the school's barely-lit corridors as we wait for something to leap out of a dark corner. As the plot ties Florence's own past into events at the school, the overwhelming sense is one of silliness rather than fear, despite Hall's valiant attempts to bring a real sense of emotion and anxiety to her character. There are some neat touches (one particularly clever bit involves a doll's house) but the film too often reminds us of earlier better movies, including The Others, The Orphanage and – above all – The Innocents, against which it pales in comparison.
Alice Rohrwacher's accomplished debut feature takes place in a small Italian town in which the local children are preparing for their Confirmation. One of these children is Marta (the outstanding Yle Vianello), a girl with a curious and rebellious streak, and as Marta undergoes this rite of passage, Corpo Celeste reveals itself to be a sly critique of religious hypocrisy, with priest Don Mario more concerned with the impression he'll make on the visiting bishop, and his potential transfer to a larger parish, than he is with the children's catechism. Until things become a little broader towards the end, Rohrwacher's directorial approach is subtle and natural, her handheld camera following Marta in a manner reminiscent of the Dardennes, and the film features some great location work, with Marta – coming from Switzerland and depicted as an outsider – often observing the distant action below from a windswept rooftop. The interactions between Marta's family, especially her loving, laid-back mother and bossy older sister, are skilfully developed, and the film strikes an impressive balance between its poignant and humorous moments. I was a little disappointed in the way Rohrwacher brought Corpo Celeste to a close, but that's a minor caveat against a film that possesses real heart and intelligence.
On the road that leads to the tiny town of Darwin, a sign reads "No Services Ahead." It was placed there to discourage visitors, which suggests that Nick Brandestini might have received a frosty reception when he ventured out into Death Valley to film Darwin's 35 inhabitants. Instead, he finds a community that's free of prejudice and judgement, and full of people who judge you "not for who you were, or who you might become, but for who you are today." Darwin is a remarkable portrait of town that has become home for people who couldn't fit into mainstream society, or who have pasts that they would rather leave behind, and Brandestini's interviewees openly share their beliefs, their anecdotes and their often painful life stories. He is fortunate to have stumbled across some great characters: Monty, the one-man fire service who has cut his ties with his drug-using children; cantankerous postmistress Susan (who holds the only official job title in the town); and married couple Hank and Connie, who appreciate the fact that their transgendered son can live in peace here. The director shoots them with respect and empathy, allowing them all to have a voice, and he frames these interview segments with wider snapshots of the area; spectacular images of the barren landscape that surrounds them, or the government missile testing facility that sits in perilously close proximity. Darwin is both touching and amusing, but there's a sense of lingering sadness present in much of it too, as the town's youngest inhabitants leave to try and build a future elsewhere and we wonder what kind of future this tiny community has.
Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is a short man. We know this because it's one of the first thing he tells us about himself, and his insecurity about his height – particularly when he stands next to statuesque girlfriend Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) – is the catalyst for the crazy events that turn his life upside down. So fearful is Roger of losing Diana that he has resorted to meticulously planned art thefts, supplementing the income from his day job as a headhunter, but even that isn't enough to cover his expensive lifestyle. Fate brings him into contact with businessman Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who seems perfect for the position Roger is trying to fill and who just happens to have a priceless painting hanging in his apartment. It's around this point that all of Roger's best-laid plans collapse and his life begins falling apart, and Headhunters begins to show us that it's a lot smarter and wittier than it in initially appears to be. This film is an adaptation from the novel by Jo Nesbø, often hailed as the successor to the late Stieg Larsson, but Morten Tyldum's movie has more personality and more surprises than any of the recent screen versions of Larsson's Lisbeth Salander trilogy. The film hurtles along at a terrific pace, finding ever more excruciating tortures to put its protagonist through, and it has an appealing tongue-in-cheek tone that offsets some of its more implausible elements. Hennie is a tremendous lead, playing Brown as an arrogant bastard who deserves a nasty comeuppance, and then unexpectedly earning our sympathy as this increasingly beleaguered character loses everything – his car, his clothes, his friends, even his hair. Headhunters may be daft but it's a grand piece of entertainment.
Let the Bullets Fly (Rang zidan fei)
This interminable comedy adventure was an enormous box-office success in China but I can only assume that much of its wit, charm and sense has been lost in translation. The tone is set early on, with a train robbery that is played in a madcap register; all rapid editing, overblown action and even more overblown performances. Director Jiang Wen gives the most subdued turn in the film as bandit Pocky Zhang who disguises himself as the new mayor of Goose Town, which puts him in direct opposition with the town's current ruler Huang (Chow Yun Fat). The subsequent plot – such as it is – involves a great deal of double-crossing and identity-swapping as Pocky and Huang attempt to get the upper hand on each other, but I found it very difficult to muster enough enthusiasm to sustain my interest in the convoluted narrative. I found the Let the Bullets Fly tiresome from its opening moments and the self-consciously wacky tone didn't get any easier to endure as this overlong film trundled on. It's surprisingly light on action – frequently getting bogged down in repetitive conversation – and the comedic aspect of the film is a complete misfire; Jiang Wen seems to believe humour is measured by volume, so there's an awful lot of shouting, face-pulling and characters inexplicably bursting into maniacal laughter at regular intervals. Their high spirits were not mirrored by the audience.
I get the sense that Like Crazy wants to be this year's Blue Valentine, but it's far too flimsy and underdeveloped for that. This transatlantic romance charts a couple of years in the life of young couple Anna (Felicity Jones) and Jacob (Anton Yelchin), who meet at college in LA. Theirs is a whirlwind romance, only halted by Anna's need to return to England for the summer, but when a foolish immigration hiccup delays her return, the pair have to make some tough decisions about their future; is their relationship based simply on youthful impetuousness, or is there something deeper to it? Cutting back and forth between the UK and the US, director Drake Doremus shoots his film with a great sense of intimacy and an eye for small but telling moments (credit to cinematographer John Guleserian, who finds some beautiful shots), but Like Crazy's style doesn't come packaged with a real sense of emotional weight. The characters are too thinly drawn and too much time is spent observing their relationship rather than being allowed to understand it. Doremus seems to take it as read that we'll believe in this relationship, and if we do then it's primarily down to the efforts of the two leads. Yelchin and Jones have a tangible chemistry and they expertly detail their characters' ups and downs, their moments of rapt infatuation and their guilt-tinged dalliances with other lovers, with Jones in a particular doing some subtle, affecting work. Like Crazy is ambitious effort but one that feels oddly fragile and it's unlikely to linger long in the memory, despite offering numerous moments of pleasure.
If you've ever seen a quirky independent American road movie (and let's face it, who hasn't?) then Natural selection will hold few surprises. It adheres to a familiar template both in its narrative and its characterisation, but writer-director Robbie Pickering throws in a few twists and idiosyncratic touches that freshen up the formula. Rachael Harris gives a fantastic and hugely likable lead turn as Linda, a devoutly religious 40 year-old who is shocked to discover that her husband has been secretly donating to a sperm bank for over two decades ("I've only been working here since 1988," a nurse replies when Linda asks how often he has been attending the clinic). With Abe (John Diehl) now bedridden, Linda sets out to find the man that he has fathered but never met, which leads her to drug addict and criminal Raymond (Matt O'Leary). The odd-couple adventure that follows sees Linda and Raymond grow in predictable ways – she shakes off her wide-eyed naïveté, he becomes more mature and considerate – but their awkward interactions and the manner in which they deal with the obstacles thrown in their path are often very funny. Pickering's handling of the story is assured, blending moments of Coen-esque craziness with effective character-building interludes. Ultimately, the film doesn't really add up to very much, and too many of its plot developments are signposted in advance, but it is a very charming debut and the two central performances carry it a long way.