The finish line is almost in sight. When I next come to you all, the 2019 London Film Festival shall be over and I will be allowed the privilege of reasonable sleeping hours once more. It’s been an all-round strong Festival other than that fact this year, tho, even if it took until my ninth day here to find an “A-grade” film. (As usual, long write-ups on every film seen at the Fest can be found at my personal website or our very own Kelechi Ehenulo’s, who is also down here with me.)
But find an “A-grade” film I did in the shape of Rian Johnson’s raucous whodunnit masterwork Knives Out. A fantastic, impeccably made, deliriously fun magic trick of a movie, Johnson’s love letter to the genre is perhaps the most fun period I have had at the cinema all year, let alone this Festival. Superbly balancing a loving devotion, comical subversion, and modern updating of the tropes, conventions and politics which stretch all the way back to the genre’s origins as trashy dime novel paperbacks, Johnson crafts a genuinely and thrillingly unpredictable mystery whose various twists and turns I would never in a million years dream of alluding to for those who haven’t seen it before.
Screw classes, you could teach entire courses on this thing. Bob Ducsay’s sensational and playful editing work. Steve Yedlin’s dead-on replication of the cinematography found in old Agatha Christie adaptations which, when combined with David Crank’s intoxicating garish production design, makes it all the more jarring once a smartphone enters the shot to remind us that this is a contemporary story. Johnson’s genuinely Hitchcockian command of tension, the constant tightening and loosening of the noose actually being enhanced by the way he turns some of his funniest recurring comic bits into dramatic setpieces. The perfectly campy performances of everybody involved, especially Daniel Craig’s “Foghorn Leghorn CSI: KFC” PI and Ana de Armas’ potentially career-best work as the film’s heart. Knives Out is just exceptional and one of the year’s best films period.
One of its worst ended up being screened two days earlier in the shape of Tom Harper’s worthless The Aeronauts, a sort-of biopic that takes so many liberties with the truth it’s more accurate to call it full-on fiction. That’s also the only even remotely interesting thing about this completely inept Gravity for dullards. It looks horribly cheap, with ugly CGI and the most boringly flat ways to shoot a giant balloon precipitously rising through the sky imaginable; no danger, zero wonder. The screenplay, credited to Jack Thorne, is deathly afraid of spending any time in the balloon, so the emotional core of our protagonists bonding mostly just doesn’t happen, and the characters are a pair of Mad Libs sheets somebody forgot to fill in. And both Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones are just awful as real scientist James Glaisher and fake aeronaut Amelia Renees; Jones especially who is trying to Revenant DiCaprio her way to an Oscar but is doing so on what is clearly a green-screened soundstage so looks even more ridiculous than DiCaprio’s arthouse Jackass audition tape. Not a single aspect of the film is even remotely redeemable and it’s too goddamn boring to fully hate. Again, utterly worthless.
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Portrait of a Lady on Fire
Meanwhile, sleep and the lack thereof has been starting to get the better of me, most majorly affecting Cèline Sciamma’s likely-masterpiece Portrait of a Lady on Fire. A queer period romance in which a portrait artist (Noéme Merlant) falls in love with her subject (Adèle Haenel) but doing so ensures heartbreak since the portrait she’s been hired to paint is to be used for selling her love off to an arranged marriage, the movie is impeccably designed, shot, acted – Haenel especially eeirly channels the spirit of a young Kate Winslet – and written with a truly knockout ending. Unfortunately, it is a slow-burn period romance which screened at 8:40am on the eighth day of a gruelling festival schedule, so I found it hard to stay concentrated and not feel accidentally sleepy. When I get to see it again outside of festival conditions, I will probably be absolutely destroyed by the movie, which is objectively excellent. But festival scheduling can be a highly cruel mistress.
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Which is why a varied movie diet is vital for making it through a film festival intact, even when the screening options available to oneself may try their absolute best to curb such efforts. Straight after Portrait, for example, I was extremely lucky to score myself a ticket to the last public screening of Cory Finley’s Bad Education (thankfully no relation to the Jack Whitehall sitcom), a film whose press screening was otherwise pre-Festival despite his debut Thoroughbreds (which I adored) playing in Official Competition two years ago. Strange all round, but the point is that I got to see the dark comedy-drama biopic and can happily say that Finley is now 2 for 2.
Written by Mike Makowski (who was actually a student at Roslyn High School in Long Island, NY when this went down), Finley’s newest dramatises the 2002 expenses scandal which engulfed senior faculty members – right up to District Superintendent Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman capping off his unofficial trilogy of playing charlatan conmen sociopaths who think they’re the hero with his best performance in that yet) and his right-hand woman Pam Glucklin (Allison Janney) – when the school newspaper exposed millions in embezzlement of public funds over multiple decades. Naturally, one may find some timely current-event and sociopolitical parallels in the set-up, but Finley doesn’t overplay his hand too much and instead takes on an off-beat pacey approach to the journalism drama. He and Makowski balance the character specifics, Makowski especially writes Tassone as far more complex (though not entirely sympathetically) than one might expect and that allows Jackman to really sink his teeth into the material, with the procedural beats of the growing exposure case in a manner that mines some genuinely funny comedy out of the more absurd aspects of the case. Finley also nails the period piece nature of the film, this has not just the look but also the feel of a movie from 2002. Thanks to HBO securing distribution, Finley revealed the film shall be airing in the UK on Sky soon enough, so there’ll be at least one “Sky Cinema Original” worthy of your time.
You can follow our coverage of the BFI London Film Festival 2019 here.