London Film Festival 2011 Diary: Days 9 and 10

Having taken Wednesday off (slacking you say… that was my last day off until the 27th) I returned to the festival screenings on Thursday and Friday for five more movies. Unfortunately I can only review four of them here, as one was a world premiere and thus I can’t say anything until it plays at the festival.

NATURAL SELECTION (Robbie Pickering)

You’ve probably seen films like Natural Selection before, as Robbie Pickering’s debut doesn’t depart radically from the template of a quirky American indie comedy, but it’s hard to see anyone minding very much.

The film sees 40 year old Linda White (Rachael Harris) discover, after he has a stroke, that her husband Abe (John Diehl) has been donating at a sperm bank for 25 years, and has a 23 year old son named Raymond. Believing that Abe has told her to find his son, Linda strikes out on her own for the very first time, and finds Raymond (Matt O’Leary) very different from what she expected.

Natural Selection is never unpredictable, indeed almost every scene ends up going down exactly the expected route, and so it is up to the characters, rather than the plot, to hold the attention, and this is where the film excels. Pickering’s screenplay is extremely specific with its characterisation, making sure that every character has an entirely individual voice. This is especially true of Linda; a deeply Christian woman with a very sweet and naive nature and Raymond; a foul mouthed, lank haired drug addict, who escapes prison in the film’s rather striking opening sequence. They are a very odd couple, travelling across the South together, and Pickering takes a commendable amount of time before making any concessions to warming up Raymond’s character even a little. There aren’t really jokes in Natural Selection, the comedy comes from seeing the way that Linda and Raymond interact, and from the contrast in their characters.

The script is strong, but it is in the the performances that the success of this film really lies. Supporting players are fine, with John Diehl particularly effective, but Rachael Harris and Matt O’Leary completely dominate the film, and each gives a smart, nuanced and very funny performance. For my money Harris (best known as the mother in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and for a small role as a shrewish wife in The Hangover) is the real standout, she makes Linda such an easy character to fall for with her simple, straightforward, trusting nature, but she never lets her become a caricature, hinting at some pretty deep hurt rooted in her inability to have children and a sense of excitement as she finally gets out into the real world. It’s a heightened character in a heightened film, but Harris plays her with scrupulous reality. O’Leary is similarly excellent, broader perhaps, but he too is able to bring his level down and find some real emotional moments, especially when Raymond and Linda share a stolen supper.

Natural Selection is definitely imperfect, but it’s well made, often laugh out loud funny, very well acted and, to its credit, doesn’t go for a clich√© mega happy ending.
4 / 5

AMERICANO (Mathieu Demy)

This film would probably be more interesting if I had seen some other movies. Director Mathieu Demy is the son of celebrated filmmakers Jacques Demy and Agnes Varda, and with this film he refers back to one of his Mother’s films, in which he appeared, shot in Los Angeles in the early 80’s. Indeed, Americano often feels like the sequel to a film I didn’t see (and probably needed to).

Demy plays Martin, a Frenchman in his mid 30’s who flies out to Los Angeles to attend to affairs after his mother passes away. While there he is reminded of Lola, who he played with when they were both kids, and sets out to find her, as he hears that she and his Mother remained friends. He finds Lola (Salma Hayek) working in the Americano strip club in Mexico, where he keeps returning to talk to her.

For me the most interesting aspect of Demy’s film (aside from it being as well photographed and acted as it undoubtedly is) is the idea of using snippets from his mother’s film as Martin’s memories. I’ve always experienced memory as something very filmic, and I think many of us do… we edit our lives in our heads, and we replay moments over and over… I wished that this idea, which is so promising and leads to the film’s most amusing and most moving moments, had been more in the foreground. Unfortunately the foreground is Martin’s search for and relationship with Lola, which is given no past context, and so is hard to identify with and which proceeds along rather familiar and latterly extremely credulity straining lines. However, both Demy and Hayek (who it took me a while to recognise, so long has it been since we’ve seen her) are strong, given the limits of the writing.

The major problem though was that I found Martin something of a blank slate, and I never really connected emotionally with character or film. There’s a lot of interesting stuff (like Martin’s relationship with his Dad), but it all remains on the periphary of this rather frustratingly unfulfilled film.
2.5 / 5

MISS BALA (Gerado Naranjo)

I didn’t dislike Miss Bala, and I can see why many people liked it a great deal more than me. Gerado Naranjo’s film is about a beauty contest competitor (Stephanie Sigman) who, after escaping a nightclub shooting, accidentally gets wrapped up with the notorious Tijuana gang who did the shooting, and who now want to use her for their own ends. In some ways this is quite an unusual crime film, with not that much attention paid (aside from in one scene in which we see in great detail how the gang uses Laura to transport money) paid to the actual crime itself, more focus is put on Laura and her relationship to gang leader Lino (Noe Hernandez).

This is where things get a bit messy, because there’s not much definition to this relationship (as shown by the range of responses it got after our screening) does Laura develop some degree of Stockholm syndrome, is she always watching for a way out, or does she genuinely start feeling safe with these guys-? All these things are valid at certain points, and the film feels a little confused from that point of view.

The performances are hard to fault, with both Sigman and Hernandez turning in good work and the supporting cast – especially the actress in the relatively small role of Laura’s friend, for whom I can’t find a credit – adding colour. Narajo’s direction is also good, and he finds two or three real standout sequences, notably one that has a raging gun battle, but treats it only as a backdrop.

So, why aren’t I jumping up and down here? Why don’t I love it? It’s hard to say really. It does feel a bit familiar, and I never felt any real tension, never felt, even in the midst of a gun battle, that Laura was in any danger, which really does neuter a crime thriller, and a late twist shoots the movie full of plot holes. Overall, as with Headhunters earlier in the week, I can see why this worked for others, can appreciate its many qualities, but I was never grabbed by it, and so I can only really give an average grade, with the caveat that I suspect many people will like it a great deal more.
2.5 / 5

CORPO CELESTE (Alice Rohrwacher)

Because of an accident of timing, Alice Rohrwacher’s first feature is somewhat underwhelming. Last year, Katell Quillevere’s excellent Love Like Poison was one of the highlights of LFF for me, and Corpo Celeste strikes very close to that film, and suffers by the comparison. The films share a central story about a young girl (here Yle Vianello as 13 year old Marta) coming of age in a deeply Catholic family and approaching her confirmation, which she seems less than enthusiastic about. Rohrwacher also lets the story of a rather unsympathetic village priest (Salvatore Cantalupo) intrude from time to time.

Corpo Celeste is best in its first two acts, in which the film takes a close up look at Marta’s life both at home and at her Catechism classes, which she seems uninterested in. These scenes are very down to earth and realistically played, with Vianello’s strong, quiet, performance making Marta an interesting if sometimes unknowable character, and Rohrwacher deftly combining drama with the incidental humour of real life. It’s also well shot, with a grainy, handheld aesthetic that feels rather unstudied, without seeming amateurish.

Sadly Corpo Celeste starts to drift off the rails in its last half hour, when Rohrwacher starts to be more forthright (and frankly a little more cartoony) in the way she undercuts the religious characters – it’s not as angry as Love Like Poison, but it it’s also not so substantial, and the film really struggles to find an ending. The balance of the film also shifts a little too much on to the priest and the church in the latter part of the film, and the more personal story begins to get swallowed, which is a shame.

Still, there is much to like here, and for an hour it is low key and high quality filmmaking, the similarities to an ultimately more satisfying film don’t help, but Corpo Celeste shouldn’t be dismissed.
3 / 5

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