London Film Festival 2011 Diary: Day 6

I’m afraid I missed Day 5 (Friday) of LFF screenings, but Monday boasted a promising slate, including one of my most anticipated films of the year.

LET THE BULLETS FLY (Jiang Wen)

Look at that title, seriously, how can a movie with a title that good fail to be awesome? Oh. Like that. I see.

Let the Bullets Fly is basically a Western set in early 20th century China, centring around a bandit (director Jiang) who, rather than rob Counsellor Tang (Fen Xiaogang) after holding up his train, decides to impersonate him and become Governor of a small town, much to the annoyance of a local baron (Chow Yun-Fat). Thereafter the two men copmpete to take charge of, and bleed money from, Goose Town.

There are a few problems here. The performances are fun, but the plot is only very sketchily communicated; I didn’t get much sense of anybody’s aims here, and rather than helping us understand the film seems to wilfully obscure motivation as it runs its 130 minute (at least 30 longer than need be) course. Despite the title, action is very limited, within even the promised showdown between Jiang and Chow coming to nothing, and after a very long wait, that’s annoying.

It’s obviously inspired by The Good, The Bad and The Weird, but this film lacks the incredible sense of fun and propulsive nature that that one, whatever its other faults, had in spades. Let the Bullets Fly looks good, and has a great opening actions sequence which writes cheques the film as a whole can’t cash, but overall it’s a big let down.
2 / 5

MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE (Sean Durkin)

In the Oscars Best Actress category there always seems to be a nomination slot reserved for an actress in a tiny independent film that made a big noise at Sundance (see, for instance, Frozen River and Winter’s Bone). I’m guessing Elizabeth Olsen has that spot sewn up this year, and not without reason. As the multi-named young woman who finds herself joining, then escaping from, a sort of cult led by Patrick (the always excellent John Hawkes), Olsen (the younger sister of twin TV moppets Mary-Kate and Ashley) gives a real career maker of a performance; convincingly delicate and malleable in the scenes at the compound and equally real portraying the damage that the situation has done after she escapes (this isn’t a spoiler by the way, the two narratives are intercut throughout).

Director Sean Durkin gives the film a disquieting tone right from the first frames, in which the terse score over a black screen immediately sets you on edge. Stylistically he often favours quite long takes, allowing him to focus in on his characters, indeed some of the film’s most striking moments come from stillness. One especially strong moment has Patrick playing a song he’s written for ‘Marcy’, which starts off sweet, but develops a sexual tone that is uncomfortable, particularly given that the sweet-faced Olsen could pass for fifteen. During this scene Durkin uses few cuts, instead looking long at both Patrick’s intensity as he plays and sings and Marcy’s reception of this ‘gift’. The use of time, and the way the two periods bleed into one another, with flashbacks and returns to the present triggered by tiny cues, also add to the sense of both tension and of Martha’s alienation in both settings.

It’s not perfect; there’s some dialogue that feels more like a placeholding lines than finished dialogue, and a few moments that are a little too on the nose (the conversation that finally really alienates ‘Marcy’ from Patrick), but overall there is much to be enjoyed in this well acted, atmospheric film, and I can promise the ending will have you talking.
4 / 5

THE AWAKENING (Nick Murphy)

I’ve previously been noted (at least by the three people who read my stuff, hi guys) for not being a fan of what I’ve referred to as the ‘noises off’ horror film, The Awakening fits broadly into the genre, and does at times lean on the familiar tropes of squeaky floorboards and suddenly appearing ghosts, of which I have grown very tired, but I liked it a whole lot more than most of the films I’ve seen in this sub-genre.

There are a few reasons for that, and the most visible is probably Rebecca Hall. She’s perhaps, at 29 and younger looking, a little young for the role of ghost debunking scientist Florence Cathcart, but in terms of her look; an old fashioned beauty that fits well in the 1921 setting, and her talent she’s very well cast here. It’s not the most challenging part for one of our most intriguing young actors, but Hall grounds the film nicely in reality and raises the stakes when weird things start to happen thanks to her believability as a smart and rational young woman. There are also solid supporting performances by Dominic West and Imelda Staunton.

The other thing I really love about The Awakening is Eduard Grau’s cinematography, the young DP behind A Single Man, Buried and Kicks is one of the real rising stars behind the camera, and he lends this film a chilly and slightly otherworldly air which doesn’t hammer the scares home but instead creates a creepy haunted atmosphere (in conjunction with the excellent sound design) that works well for the film.

The film is best when it deals in atmosphere and in scares that don’t come from sudden jumps (which occur more and more frequently as the film runs on). Florence slowly exploring what is alleged to be a haunted school on her first night there is a great extended scene of skin crawling tension, and there is a really strong recurring motif of a dolls house.

The third act doesn’t work, as the answers to the film’s many interesting questions are rather underwhelming (and so obvious in retrospect that I kicked myself for not guessing the big twist), and it runs much longer here than it needs to. Still, while The Awakening isn’t very original, it’s well crafted, well acted and has solid scares and performances.
3.5 / 5

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