REVIEW: I, Daniel Blake

18 12 2016

i-daniel-blake“This doesn’t have to be your problem.”

The above is essentially a throwaway line in Ken Loach’s “I, Daniel Blake,” but it’s the one piece of dialogue that stuck with me throughout. The global rise of far-right politicians and policy remedies has threatened longstanding social welfare structure, and this is likely a much scarier development in Europe, where these programs are much more deeply ingrained. In this time, what constitutes a problem, and for who?

Loach has long been an empathetic chronicler of people relegated to the periphery of central institutions in their lives – family, city, nation. By involving us in their marginalized or overlooked stories, his cinema makes the case that a problem caused by our societal arrangements is not just a problem for one person. They are a problem for all of us, and by taking society at face value, we sign off in support of these issues.

“I, Daniel Blake” takes an unsparing, unadorned look at austerity in England through the eyes of a man most likely to slip through a hole in the safety net. Dave Johns’ eponymous Daniel Blake is among the most vulnerable left behind by technological changes in the economy: a senior citizen losing his capacity to contribute physically and remains well behind the pace digitally. When a heart problem sidelines him from a construction job, Daniel must navigate the bureaucratic mess to collect disability leave … or is it unemployment? The system can never quite figure out what to do with him or what kind of checks he should collect.

Loach’s feelings about the red tape ought to be crystalline from the opening credits, which roll over a black screen during a dialogue exchange between Daniel and a welfare officer. She’s obviously reading from some kind of script meant to level the playing field by creating easily replicable standard talking points for each person she sees. To Daniel, however, this talk is demoralizing and as depersonalized as hearing words spoken by people we cannot see in the frame.

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REVIEW: The Angels’ Share

20 06 2016

The Angels' ShareDirector Ken Loach is often a polemicist more than a storyteller, and the tendency seems to get only more aggrieved with age (or the general state of the world). Lucky for us, “The Angels’ Share” marks a rare occasion where Loach takes his foot off the progressive political throttle and shifts into a more humanistic gear.

The film follows the uphill battle faced by Paul Brannigan’s Robbie, an ill-behaved chap from Glasgow who manages to narrowly avoid prison time for his misdeeds. Instead, he gets assigned community service, and the act winds up giving him the perspective to start getting his house in order. With his girlfriend recently bringing their child into the world, Robbie finds reason to walk the straight and narrow.

“The Angels’ Share” can be quite moving in these scenes centered around truth, consequences and redemption. But towards the end, the film starts to veer off course as it devolves into a chipper heist film. Robbie takes an ill-advised step in the wrong direction for the right reason, and the film follows him down the rabbit hole. The lighter tone might have worked were it not so inconsistent with the raw emotional honesty of earlier portions of the film. As such, Loach’s film comes across as messy but sincere – just like Robbie and his gang. C+2stars

REVIEW: Jimmy’s Hall

1 07 2015

Over a year ago, I rolled my eyes when I read that acclaimed British director Ken Loach called “to sack the critics and get ordinary punters in. People experienced, who know life.”  Now, after finally seeing “Jimmy’s Hall,” I can somewhat see his rationale.

His final film is an anthem to the hard-working, salt of the earth Ireland people who put in a hard day’s work and only request a fair wage as well as the ability to celebrate in joyous dance.  The titular hall, constructed by good old boy James “Jimmy” Gralton (Barry Ward), once served as a lynchpin of the small town of Leitrim.  After ten years exiled away in America, he returns to reopen the cultural center and restore a sense of community to the town torn apart by years of civil strife.

But, of course, it cannot be that simple.  The immensely powerful Irish Catholic Church stands steadfast in opposition to the hall, which wants to keep the impressionable youth away from any place apart from the church’s supervision and where they might receive a contradictory education.  (“Footloose,” is that you?)  Jimmy gets his name drug through the mud by one particularly malicious priest, who accuses him of the era’s catch-all phrase to drum up fear of suspect outsiders: communist.  This only leads to the small conflict simply growing in size and the sides further entrenching their interests.

Jimmy, practically a mouthpiece for Loach’s social democratic ideology, gets several opportunities to ascend a soapbox and deliver rousing sermons of his own.  His philosophy, highly formed by seeing the greed of the American Roaring Twenties usher in the Great Depression, simply calls for institutions to pay greater attention to the common people and lesser to themselves.  In these moments, “Jimmy’s Hall” proves decently rousing in spite of its preachy, conventional storytelling.  Loach’s calls for toleration, liberty, and justice feel pressing and relevant, even though it might serve more as a personal statement than an illumination on present-day issues.

Loach says that “by and large [reviewers] reflect their own perception through their hostility.”  While I do not necessarily attempt to say I am an exemplary human being or film reviewer, I can say that “Jimmy’s Hall” awakened the empathy within me.  Though I am not a member of the working class, the movie definitely made me think and feel a little more deeply about their concerns, both then and now.  B / 2halfstars