London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 6

After a solid few days of movie-watching my brain is starting to cloud over pretty quickly unless what I’m watching is keeping me suitably hooked.

Film festivals are always gambles. Sure, you pick the stuff you think you’ll like, but until you pop your toosh down and wait for the projector to kick in you’re never quite certain if it’s going to be worth two hours of your time.

The hit to miss ratio this time around has been pretty solid, with Miss Bala the stand out for me so far. However, Chinese/Hong Kong flick Let the Bullets Fly joined Return and The Loneliest Planet as a disappointment.

Let the Bullets Fly

On paper, Let the Bullets Fly should knock it out of the park. An action comedy starring Chow Yun Fat is, to me at least, pretty appealing and the fact that it’s China’s highest grossing film to date should make it a done deal. That it didn’t says more about the approach of the film than anything else.

Set in China during the 1920s, a time when warlords held sway over swathes of the land, the film begins with notorious bandit ‘Pocky’ Chang (played by director Jiang Wen) leading an ambush on a horse-drawn train. Its occupants include Ma (You Ge), a con man claiming to be the governor of Goose Town, a hotbed of high taxes and corruption.

After the cowardly Ma is exposed as the charlatan he is Chang decides to take his place and, with his trusty gang in tow, rides into Goose Town. As soon as he arrives he catches the attention of Master Huang (Fat), a merciless warlord who has no intention of relinquishing his iron grip on the town.

Huang is a formidable opponent, but Chang is up to the challenge and, as the bullets fly, so begins a non-stop barrage of bluff, double-bluff, deception and deceit as they butt heads and eventually go to war.

It’s an old fashioned story given a 21st Century dose of explosive action that, at times, is great fun. Some of the set-pieces are done extremely well, most notably the opening ambush on the train and a shoot-out in which Chang’s men communicate with each other in great detail via bird whistles. It’s a ridiculous moment that works just for that reason and shows just how much fun it must have been for the cast.

The problem is that these moments are relatively few and far between and what we get inbetween them are a series of exchanges between Chang, Huang and Ma that aim for the classic era of the screwball comedy but instead come across as confusing, arch and too over-the-top.

Added to this are moments of genuine, dark violence that don’t sit well with the rest of the movie. The scene with Chang gang member Two (Bing Shao) proving to one of Huang’s men he has only eaten one bowl of jelly as opposed to two by plunging a knife into his guts to draw out the non-digested food felt like it belonged in another film.

Despite it’s madcap visual style, I was left wishing the bullets had flown a lot sooner to spare me having to sit through any more.

One of the more exhilarating aspects of the LFF is when you stumble across a director’s debut feature and realise you’re watching the work of someone who could go places.

It was an experience I had back in 2005 when I caught Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart. Although hardly a household name, Bahrani has matured into one of America’s most acclaimed and accomplished independent film-makers. If there’s any justice, Robbie Pickering will follow suit if Natural Selection is anything to go by.

Natural Selection

Dutiful, God-fearing Linda (Rachel Harris) is devoted to her husband Abe (John Diehl) but frustrated that he refuses to have sex with her because he feels it is a sin to procreate when she cannot bear children.

But when Abe suffers a stroke, Linda accidentally finds out he has been harbouring a hypocritical secret – he’s been donating sperm to a local clinic for more than 20 years. Believing it’s his dying wish to meet his biological son Raymond, Linda, ever the faithful spouse leaves her sheltered life in Texas behind and hits the road to travel across country to Florida to track him down.

But when Linda finally meets Raymond (Matt O’Leary) she encounters not a fine, upstanding Christian like herself, rather a foul-mouthed, drug abusing escaped convict who at first doesn’t give her the time of day. Only when the local police track him down to the crummy house he’s staying in does he hop into Linda’s car, pretending to have had a change of heart.

His real intention is to make off with Linda’s car the first opportunity he gets, but a series of mishaps, including getting beaten up by two guys lead him to develop an affinity for her, after all she’s the only person to have really cared about him for a long time.

While Linda and Raymond get to know each other better, and reveal each other’s painful secrets Linda’s friend Peter (Jon Gries) – who secretly loves her – takes it upon himself to ‘save’ her from an evil menace to society. But while Peter comes to the rescue, Linda and Raymond’s relationship takes an unexpected turn, one that has major ramifications for everyone.

From the opening scene of Raymond emerging from a prison lawnmower’s grass bag (the nod to The Shawshank Redemption is obvious, but amusing), Natural Selection  marks itself out as something that’s not afraid to wink at the audience while at the same time pulling the rug from under them. Giving the tried and tested road movie genre a fresh spin, the film takes its characters in frequently unexpected directions.

That O’Leary and Harris play off each other so well (a sort of redneck version of Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn) is testament to Pickering’s zesty, frequently amusing script, which gives both actors the room to breathe three dimensions into their characters. Harris especially is tremendous, at once naive and trampled on, while at other times feisty and ready to roll with the punches.

It’s no surprise Pickering cleaned up at this year’s SXSW festival. One can only hope his is a talent that’s allowed to bear more fruit.

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