I, Daniel Blake

Shame on those people who say this film is not realistic, is boringly moralistic or – most shockingly – is poverty porn.

I have known these people. If it weren’t for the opportunities afforded me by a free (at the time) education system together with a wodge of good luck, I would be these people. So you can talk to the hand if you have no empathy for Daniel, Katie or any of the other people caught in this ridiculous welfare system that pushes each of them to the brink.

I’m not saying that there aren’t people who are abusing said system – they are the ones actually making it even more difficult for the genuine people – but this film is not about the criminals. It’s about ordinary people who find themselves in a humiliating, soul-destroying situation through no fault of their own. A situation which takes its toll on their health (mental and physical), their self-respect and their whole lives, and lays the blame firmly at the feet of out-of-touch, privileged politicians who went to fee-paying boarding schools and who have never in their entire lives known or even imagined what it is like to be in such a situation.

The automatons carrying out the government orders (reporting to the unseen Decision Maker), merely repeat their lines without deviation. Rules are not to be broken, no accommodation can be made for any exceptional circumstances, the contradictions in the system are unacknowledged.

This is a film very much of its time – Brexit has taken over the headlines of late, but it wasn’t that long ago that food banks were in the news and Ken Loach does right to remind us that little has changed.

Food banks. In Britain. In 2016.

They exist, they are real, and shame on anyone who denies this.

A version of this post originally appeared on http://www.filmdispenser.com

 

 

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

In which Tom Cruise tries to prove to both himself and viewers that he is still capable of doing the same action movie stuff.

Well I’m here to issue a cease and desist notice, Tom. It’s time to move on to other things. We know you can do them (Magnolias, Tropic Thunder). You just have to let go of Running Tom and embrace Acting Tom.

The previous Reacher movie was at least mildly entertaining with the loner hero madly going about his curious business which involved Werner Herzog as I recall. This time he ends up babysitting and playing Mom and Dad with Cobie Smulders (whose character doesn’t actually get a first name on iMDB). It was excruciating.

That’ll do Tom. That’ll do.

American Honey

There is no doubting that Andrea Arnold has found a really good young cast and has elicited some great performances from her main actors, particularly Sasha Lane, Riley Keough and also Shia LaBeouf. Lane in particular is so good as the lost teenager who links up with a ‘mag-crew’ – a group of outcast teenagers who travel the country in almost a commune, making a few dollars by talking people into subscribing to magazines.

I’m guessing this is actually a thing – not only that paper magazines are still read, but that people still go door-to-door convincing others to buy them. And this is one of the interesting aspects  – getting a glimpse into parts of the US that are rarely seen by most British cinema-goers. It’s a feeling of a whole different world from the cityscapes which frame much of mainstream US cinema.

The cinematography is beautiful – honey-gold light, vistas of burning oil pipes, rain trickling down a window – all gorgeously handled by Robbie Ryan, who has collaborated with Arnold several times in the past.

But despite all of the above, I found it over-long, difficult to connect with the characters, and lacking in sufficient narrative to substantiate its 163 minute run-time. There are only so many minivan sing-alongs I could take, and although we get a tiny glimpse at the characters of some of the crew, it’s not enough to make me invest in any of them enough to care. Some of the visual images were a little on the nose, and there were a couple of intimate scenes that I just found unnecessary, although well-portrayed. It also irked me a little that, given the choices that our protagonist Star makes, she was so lucky not to get into serious difficulties on more than one occasion. It almost gave the impression that, despite her naïveté (or perhaps it’s her lack of anything to lose) there is nothing to fear from strangers, they’re just good old folk doing their best. She almost seemed more at risk from the people she was running away with, which was contradictory.

So for me, not the masterpiece that others believe it to be – although I’d be really interested to hear from people who have more knowledge of this part of the Midwest, as it may have struck different chords with you.

 

Neruda

Director Pablo Larraín gives Chilean poet Pablo Neruda a taste of his own magical reality by mixing elements of Neruda’s real life with a fictional police officer who is on his trail.

As can be expected, Gael García Bernal beautifully inhabits the self-aware, self-aggrandising fictional sleuth, hot on the trail of Neruda, a fugitive in his own country as a member of the Communist Party.

It’s a clever mix which worked really well for so many LFF audiences and which I appreciated a lot. I generally find it difficult to go along with this kind of magical realism though, and I struggled to actively enjoy the film, despite good central performances. There were some glaringly obvious and ropey false backgrounds in the vehicle scenes too – perhaps this was to enhance the strange reality of the film, but I’m not so sure I can give them the benefit of the doubt.

Saved from total disappointment by Bernal’s performance.

El hombre de las mil caras – Smoke and Mirrors

I detest when people in the cinema talk during the film. But when it happend this time, it had an interesting effect on my perception of the film, another ‘based on a true story’ tale of a man who fooled the entire Spanish government over a period of years with fraud, lies and stories.

Inevitably a story like this, with so many twists, turns and lies, presents challenges. There’s a voice-over throughout, calmly explaining what happened. But how far can this be believed? And with so many lies and deceptions, even what’s on the screen can’t be taken for granted.

And so I’ll admit, I got a little confused on a couple of occasions. There was enough to keep me wanting to understand, but I’m not totally sure I got everything I needed to.

But to return to the chattering audience – the unveiling of the deception was clearly hitting home with the older Spanish people around me. There was a lot of ‘si’ type commentary, from which I assume that the criticisms of corruption were well-received, and so although I was lost, it did hit home with a certain part of the audience.

Réparer les vivants – Heal the Living

A  fabulous, almost dialogue-free, opening section with some stunning visuals sets up one side of the story, and we only meet the protagonists of the other side much later, when their story is told separately. Obviously, the two threads are intertwined by the end, but I don’t wish to give too much away so I’ll say no more.

There is much to admire in the handling of the story which could have been melodramatic and hand-wringing but which I felt dealt delicately and realistically with the situation in the first part. The second part was slightly less successful in avoiding the syrup, but it was manageable, largely due to the tiny glimpses of ordinariness in such an extraordinary situation.

Stand-out performance for me was definitely Tahar Rahim, whose character we see in a most difficult situation, and which Rahim executes to perfection.

It has a feel of a short story extended by an excess of medical exposition and practise (I did have to look away at one point; it all got a bit Holby City) but it worked for me on both an artistic and philosophical level.

[Don’t watch the trailer if you don’t want to know more about the set up than I’ve mentioned!]

El Clan – The Clan

A film based on real-life events in the Argentina of the 1980s, which intersperses odd moments of original news footage with the drama.

What I recall from news at the time is that Argentina had its fair share of mafia-style and government corruption, and this is the setting for this story. The clan of the title kidnaps people in return for money, and we see the various levels of involvement of the parents and mostly grown children of the family. But while focussing so much on the tight environment of the family, the wider situation in the country is left drifting.

There’s a lot of mirrors and glass reflections shining a light on the characters, asking them to look at themselves – but the invitation to Argentina to reflect on its less than perfect past is vague.

It’s not often I think a film isn’t heavy-handed enough, but perhaps this is one of those times.

 

El Sur – The South

Fascinating in many ways.

Released in 1983, this is half of what director Víctor Erice  (The Spirit of the Beehive) originally envisaged. It would appear that financial issues prevented filming the full script, and the director was left to make what he could from what had been filmed.

And while, at the end, there is a definite feeling that there is more to come, the film which exists is exquisite in its simplicity and lacks nothing.

The focus of the story is Estrella, a young girl observing the unhappiness in her parents’ marriage without truly understanding the depths of the situation. Things happen elsewhere, or in the past, and both we and Estrella only understand them through what is told to us, never seen by us. It captures beautifully the innocence and semi-understanding of youth, against the backdrop of domesticity and the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War.

The colour palette is drab, reflecting a very different Spain from the one we perhaps expect – the Spain of the South (El Sur). Estrella also has dreams of what the South (her father’s birthplace) is like, and we have glimpses of this through visits from relatives with their strange accent, and picture postcards of flamenco dancing and flowers. We have none of that in the cold, wet, constantly autumnal north, which sits so perfectly with Estrella’s attempts to understand her father’s unhappiness.

Estrella is played in her teenage years by Icíar Bollaín, whose work as director of También la Lluvia I’ve admired since first seeing it; I hadn’t realised she was also an actress!

Juste la fin du monde – It’s Only the End of the World

This was the film I had built my entire (if short) London Film Festival experience around. As soon as I knew I was going to be in town on the evening of the UK premiere, I booked my ticket.

Director Xavier Dolan is currently one of my favourite directors. His films aren’t always easy to watch, but they are often daring, always intense, and highly emotional.

I’m also fascinated by him when he’s interviewed – he speaks so eloquently, passionately and confidently about his own film-making, rarely referencing other directors or films. It genuinely doesn’t appear to matter to him what others are doing. He’s also quick to speak out if he feels he or his work is being attacked, which has provoked some backlash and personal criticism as a result. I have always forgiven him thus far, yet his latest, Juste la fin du monde, was extremely divisive at Cannes this year – winning the Grand Prix (second jury choice), yes, but the announcement of this was booed by journalists – and Dolan had much to say about this. Several reviews effectively trashed it, yet others were full of praise. I wasn’t sure what to expect.

dolan-cropped
Léa Seydoux and Xavier Dolan at the BFI London Film Festival screening

Turns out, it was superb!

Dolan has assembled a stellar cast who are all on top form, even if not in roles you would imagine for them. Returning home after a 12 year absence, Louis (Gaspard Ulliel) is waiting for the right time to share his news with his mother, brother and sister. Also there is his brother’s wife, whom he has never met but who seems to instantly understand him. They are both quiet outsiders among the quarrelsome family members.

Nathalie Baye’s mother, in her exaggerated make-up, cheerily tries to maintain a façade of familial togetherness, while Antoine (a magnificent Vincent Cassel) belligerently provokes both his wife and his brother across the dining table. He’s so obnoxious, and it’s only later that we get an inkling as to what’s been eating him for the last 12 years. Only an inkling though; it’s never totally spelled out. Léa Seydoux as the baby sister is eagerly awaiting the chance to have a mature relationship with the brother she’s missed for so long. And Marion Cotillard is the dowdiest you will ever see her – bullied and humiliated by her husband Antoine, her nervous speech patterns are excruciating, yet she shares a couple of extended moments with Louis where so much is conveyed between them without a word being spoken. For a film which is verbose, to say the least, these moments are the most powerful.

And this for me is the centre of the film. Louis is a playwright, he makes his living in words for thousands to hear, but for the duration of his visit he says very little. When the moments come to express himself, he backs down, chooses to say nothing, apologises. The rest of the family is also unable to express their true feelings, and so hide behind aggressive, defensive language which is the exact opposite of what they want to say. They are flawed human beings, difficult to spend time with, yet very real.

When it is fully released in the UK next year, I’ll be first in the queue for a re-watch, no doubt about it.

After the screening, Dolan was interviewed on stage by BFI’s Clare Stewart and it was such a treat to hear him speak about his film in person. He talked about transforming the script from stage to screen play, how this affected his decision to make use of the close up, and the lighting choices he made for the final scene. I wanted to sit for another hour and listen to him. Dolan is human, and he is not perfect. Neither are his films. But they are remarkable nevertheless, and I am an unapologetic admirer of both the man and his work.

 

London Film Festival – First Visit!

Occasionally I find myself in London for work, and I was quite excited to realise that one of these visits for the first time coincides with the London Film Festival. So I’ve been able to squeeze enough time to see a tiny handful of films – I’d love to see more, but adding in accommodation costs to extend the stay just makes it silly.

Obviously my dates restrict my choices, and the fact that some of the films I would have chosen had already sold out (Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After The Storm for one) but all things considered, I’m happy with the mini-programme I’ve been able to put together.

I’ve chosen to see Réparer les vivants (Heal the Living) – a film by a female director, Katell Quillévéré, and with an impressive cast (Tahar Rahim, Emmanuelle Seigner, Anne Dorval) because I really wanted to leave the festival having seen a film by a female filmmaker.

I’ve also booked for Neruda, directed by Pablo Larraín and featuring Gael García Bernal – a previously winning combination, and with no reason to doubt that this will be any different.

Finally, and top of the fan-girl squee list, I’m seeing Xavier Dolan’s Juste la fin du monde (It’s Only the End of the World). No more words necessary.

I suppose there is an argument for saying I should have chosen to see films which may be harder to find when (or if) they receive a full UK release. But I am relatively fortunate living in Manchester in that most films released in the UK generally get a showing in my city, so I’m going for the ones I like the look of that I can see early. So there. 🙂