LFF Film Thoughts: Part I

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I went to this year’s London Film Festival for the third year in a row, this time seeing seven films in total. I won’t cover my opinion on every film I saw just for length purposes, so I’ll just cover five over two articles.

The Peanut Butter Falcon

What an enjoyable and likeable movie. A movie about a man with Downs Syndrome going on a road trip with a fisherman sounds like it could make for either a really depressing story or an unbelievably cheesy one. But first-time filmmakers Tyler Nilson and Michael Schwartz manage to find a decent balance between the light-hearted central adventure and the gritty realistic aesthetic of the cinematography and production design. Though the writing can sometimes be contrived, the story is compelling and heartfelt enough to distract you from this. Despite the various contrivances, there is thankfully no forced drama that gets in the way of the story.  

The two lead performances also endear you. Zak Gottsgan is an incredibly likeable leading man despite just playing himself and Shia Labouef once again shows what a good actor he can be. Dakota Johnson is a bit short-shrifted but she still does a good job regardless. I credit the casting of Zak, a person with Downs Syndrome because it is very refreshing to see, not just for a disabled character but in general. 

As for any issues, this is not a complex film by any means. The messages are standard as far as a movie about someone with a disability is concerned (let them follow their dreams, don’t patronise them, be nice to them), yet they are presented in an effective enough manner to forgivable. Some have criticised the ending but whilst it was a bit too abrupt and left one key plot point unresolved, I thought it still managed to be quite uplifting and nice. That’s how I’d describe this movie. It may be simplistic but it is well executed entertainment.

4/5

Knives Out

After angering hardcore Star Wars fans with The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson has decided to take on an original property, though it does owe its debts to the novels of Agatha Christie. It’s a whodunnit about a family whose patriarch dies in an apparent suicide that is investigated and thought to have possibly been a murder. The result is an incredibly entertaining crowd pleaser.

Despite being sold as an ensemble, Knives Out is really centred on a few specific characters. This is probably the biggest issue, as despite the Thombrey family getting a lot of setup in the first act, they basically move to the background in the second and third acts. The film does not make good use of its ensemble cast because despite the characterisation they receive at the start, they don’t go through any kind of change or growth and as a result they all feel two dimensional. Some characters fair better than others but even the ones that get subplots (Namely Don Johnson’s Richard and Toni Collete’s Joni) aren’t utilised as much as they could be.  

But it is also a benefit because the main characters manage to carry the story and the performances that bring them to life are great. Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc, the main detective, is having a lot of fun playing a far more energetic character than normal for him. Chris Evans as Ransom Thombrey, the only character that goes in interesting directions, relishes playing against type. Christopher Plummer as Harlan, the patriarch, also thankfully gets a substantial role despite only appearing in flashbacks. But Ana De Armas as Marta, Harlan’s personal assistant is the standout and basically the main character. She’s great in a lot of dramatic scenes and quite likeable. 

The screenplay itself is also solid, as the plotting is well done and the storyline at the centre is believable and ultimately unpredictable. Without spoiling the structure, a lot of information is given in the first act, enough to where it might seem like the story is clear, but by the end you realise that there were certain details that the film specifically hid from you. And whilst the ultimate resolution might be standard and simplistic for the who-dunnit genre, the final moments are very satisfying. 

The humour is hilarious, with several lines being over the top and maybe clunky on paper but funny as hell when delivered. This is not a subtle movie in any capacity, but it is self-aware and fun enough to not feel pretentious, though the political overtones and incorporated plotline of America’s immigration crisis feel genuine. Some might accuse Rian of being too preachy, but this aspect of the film is only really emphasised in one fantastic scene where the family openly discuss the infamous family caging situation of last year. The rest of it is done correctly, with a great message about privilege vs getting what you deserve.   

What brings the film overall to life is Rian Johnson’s punchy direction, Bob Duscay’s fast editing and Nathan Johnson’s over the top orchestra heavy score. All three create a very fun, fast paced and exciting atmosphere that keeps up the enjoyment. There’s the feeling that all three had a great time putting it together and that feeling translates to the audience. It makes Knives Out worth watching. 

4/5

Bad Education

I loved Cory Finley’s previous film, Thoroughbreds, so I was looking forward to whatever he would do next. I was intrigued by the central story of the true events of teachers committing an embezzlement scam in a high school setting told in a dark comedy format. Whilst a step backwards, it is still a decent sophomore feature.

Hugh Jackman makes this movie. His presence combined the subject matters of journalism and corruption reminds me of last year’s horribly disappointing The Front Runner, though thankfully not only is this movie more engaging than that phoned in bore of a film, but Jackman brings something to the role. The character on the page is charismatic yet also deeply selfish and manipulative, with Jackman being a blast to watch when he plays both sides. It’s one of his most unique and enjoyable performances and proof that he has more unique characters within him than one who only knows him as Wolverine would expect. Every other actor is great as well, with Allison Janney being perfectly suited to the part of  and Ray Romano continuing to show that he’s naturally good at Drama. The weak link is probably Geraldine Visma, who’s meek and awkward line delivery renders her not up to par with the rest of the cast.

Cory Finley’s direction and writing are a bit more of a mixed bag. The storytelling feels a bit sloppy to begin with because it must juggle so many storylines and certain scenes just feel aimless and awkward rather than charmingly awkward. Even though it improves and finds a sense of balance, there is still a feeling that too much is going on all throughout, not helped by the fact that a lot of the characters that are focused on in the first act move into the background during the second and third acts. It’s also not that effective as a comedy due to a lack of strong jokes, though there are some mildly amusing moments.

Despite these issues, the screenplay does work as a piece of social commentary on Systems and how people in positions of power often use that power for pure self-interest rather than the benefit of others. The relationships between various characters are also well-defined and . the final 20 minutes are some of the most well executed of the year. So Bad Education is worth watching, even if it is weaker than Finely’s prior film. 

3/5

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