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I, Daniel Blake

February 17, 2018

I, Daniel Blake (2016)
Director: Ken Loach
Actors: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Briana Shann

Synopsis: Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old tradesman, is stuck in bureaucratic quagmire when he’s deemed ineligible for disability benefit after a heart attack, yet, because he’s appealing the decision, he has to give up his right to claim jobseeker’s allowance.

Review: The usual delights and foibles are here in Ken Loach’s latest socialist ode, I, Daniel Blake. Alas, much like other veteran directors with a recognisable formula (Woody Allen comes immediately to mind), Loach’s work is becoming increasingly recognisable for its slapdash quality and his evident lack of interest in the properties of his medium and the worth of complex and subtle storytelling.

As much as I sympathise wholeheartedly with Loach’s political sensibilities, I, Daniel Blake‘s shallowness, twee sensibility, and – at times – transparent polemicising make for an unchallenging viewing experience. Of course, naturally over a 100-minute feature length running time, there are going to be one or two moments where the director settles upon the more fertile areas of their subject matter (ironically, in the case of I, Daniel Blake, it’s usually when the actors aren’t voicing Paul Laverty’s dialogue). The slog and the quietude of the shot that tracks the immensity of the foodbank queue speaks volumes for the sheer sense of scandal that a scene like this could be taking place on the streets of a UK city. The stretch where the eponymous Daniel Blake is forced to go to a CV workshop is also one of Loach’s cannier imaginings. He avoids the easy option of caricaturing the scene and villainising the man giving the seminar, to hint at the stultifying truth that this is a box-ticking exercise nobody really wants to be at.

Sadly, the dramaturgical tapestry of the piece feels much less convincing. Although families can be shunted to different parts of the country through shortfalls in social housing, the whole conceit regarding Hayley Squires’ single mum, Katie, and her young family winding up all the way in Newcastle from their London base feels inorganically shoehorned in for political commentary purposes. Casting is also an issue here, as the young daughter appears jarringly middle-class and preternaturally mature with the wisened monologues Laverty has given her. The scene where Katie frantically downs a tin of Baked Beans in the foodhall is marginally too melodramatic and pathos-ridden, and Loach wraps the final act up far too abruptly with two transparent speechifying moments where Daniel graffitis his situation on the wall of the job centre and Katie reads a suspiciously articulate speech of Daniel’s to close the film out.

Cinema is allowed to be political and persuasive, but strength of ideology and sophistication of storytelling needn’t be mutually exclusive concepts: one can inform the other. (February 2018)


The Big Short

February 17, 2018

The Big Short (2016)
Director: Adam McKay
Actors: Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling

Image result for the big short film small images

Synopsis: The period leading up to the 2008 banking crisis from the perspective of the very few people who foresaw the time-bomb of subprime mortgages.

Review: The Big Short is an unquestionably important story to tell: a detailed account of how the 2008 banking crisis unfolded. Although deserving credit for delving into the minutiae of the fiasco (an ironic corrective to the lack of probity from the government and financial services of the time?) and in offering a clear moral tinge to its fact-heavy line of attack, the way director Adam McKay realises his tale adds nothing to the inherent gravity of the source material, and, at times, only succeeds in diminishing it.

Probably the biggest mistake McKay makes is in trying too hard to play into the material. A cutting-edge, fast-paced exposé of the banking community’s excesses led McKay to believe, evidently, that he needed to execute this like a medley of faux documentary à la The Office with a little dash of Scorsese-infused corruption swagger. In fact, the lineage of Scorsese’s recent and far superior Wall Street satire, The Wolf of Wall Street, is betrayed through the tenuous postmodern conceit of Margot Robbie (playing herself, but in the persona of her Wolf of Wall Street character) offering a to-camera dissection of the folly of subprime mortgages. Equally grating and unconvincing is the attempt to use Ryan Gosling’s character as both a Greek chorus and omniscient narrator, while being an actual player in the story too.

McKay’s visual understanding of the film is enervating in the extreme. He mistakes shaky camera moves and quick cuts for authenticity, when a steadier focus would have suited the sober and cerebral subject matter far more. Also irritating is his indulgence of hammy method acting by the likes of Christian Bale. Don’t get me wrong, Bale is a maverick actor who – in the right hands and with the right material (à la Nolan or Malick) – is a stunning actor, but his demonstrative immersion into the eccentricities of his genius trader is borderline unwatchable in the film’s opening stretch.

Ironically, Margin Call – a film with seemingly less factual kudos and which took infinitely more liberties with its material – made for a much better example of how the ethos of the 2008 banking crisis can be tackled. By adopting a more plaintive tone and through greater focus on fictional constructs (it happens in an unnamed bank over an excruciating 24 hour period), that film’s director, J.C. Chandor, was rewarded with a piece of work far richer and more dramatic than Adam McKay’s meek attempt here. (February 2018)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

February 4, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Director: Martin McDonagh
Actors: Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Woody Harrelson

Synopsis: Months after the unsolved rape and murder of her daughter Angela, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) bluntly advertises that lack of progress through posters on massive billboards on the outskirts of town, much to the chagrin of most of the townsfolk…

Review: Really? This? A possible Oscar winner? Hollywood’s meek groupthink mindset and hermetic conception of cinema – as symbolised by the image it presents of itself to the world, the Academy Awards – shouldn’t really come as any surprise, but the way people have been hoodwinked by the early word-of-mouth for this film to overlook its sheer ugliness and dramatic poverty does make the mind boggle.

It is perhaps one of the unsubtlest satires and lamest of American social allegories I’ve ever seen. All the characters are unintentionally flat and exist as mere mouthpieces for Martin McDonagh’s broad attempt at zeitgeisty social commentary. The pièce de résistance of godawful speechifying was Mildred Hayes’ attack on the local Father who comes to speak to her in the wake of her controversial advertising campaign. What was presumably supposed to be a crowd-pleasing critique of the hypocrisy of the Catholic church (and there’s clearly a place for such satire) is completely undercut by the unsubtlety, laziness and lack of nuance in the monologue. It betrays McDonagh’s weakness as a storyteller; he drapes unconvincing character and narrative arcs around his greater intent to simply shoehorn in sensationalist jokes and actions. While he got away with it – just – with In Bruges, his execrable Seven Psychopaths and now this, betray his weakness as a storyteller over a feature length format.

Equally lame was the completely flat, episodic tread of the narrative. I lost count of the amount of times McDonagh uses voiceover or a character reading out a letter to try to progress his story, and there were at least four times where he had a character switch on the TV just at the moment a crucial piece of local news is playing. Of course, these are all only a minor faux pas in their own right, but it reveals McDonagh’s inability to fashion coherency out of the messy dramatic cocktail he’s created. None of the character arcs felt believable (especially Sam Rockwell’s entirely telegraphed about-turn), and, as McDormand and Rockwell close the film out on some pretentiously Faustian journey for the ‘Macguffin’ of solving the identity of Mildred’s daughter’s killer, it was more emblem for the fact that McDonagh had left us in the hands of two such unlikeable, opaque characters. Three Billboards is, quite simply, a horrible film, with a horrible worldview, about horrible people. (February 2018)

Good Time

February 3, 2018

Good Time (2017)
Director: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie
Actors: Robert Pattinson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Benny Safdie

Synopsis: An attempted bank robbery by brothers, Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie), descends into a torturous day and night for both men as Nick is caught by the police and hospitalised, while Connie takes to increasingly desperate measures to break Nick out of hospital.

Review: Good Time seems destined to fall into the category of a cult classic. It’s carried off with such a dazzling and striking intent, and it’s got real dramatic ingenuity to go with its more obvious focus on ambience, but, to me, its self-consciously ‘cool’ aesthetic and the overload on all things sensory bring it a level down from top notch.

In particular, an area where the pudding is overcooked is the synth music score which over-literalises the already bizarrist scenario. The music needed to play much more against the on-screen drama, rather than articulating it too plainly. Also, the visual conceit of the scene in the fairground is too rhetorically obvious, and there is something a little smarmy about the obtuse opening and closing coda of the mentally diminished, Nick, leaving then returning to his institution (I think the Safdie brothers intended the character to function as some form of Shakespearean clown against the squalor and mania of the other characters and incidents).

Much, much better is the Safdie brothers absolutely brilliant feel for cinematography and the way it informs the unfurling frenzy of the narrative. The opening sweep across the East River and into Nick’s meeting in the clinician’s office almost emblematises the whoosh of the story that is to come, and Connie’s increasingly fraught travails in a Faustian, nocturnal New York are brilliantly realised through numerous dolly shots following a frantic Connie along a hospital ward or the previously mentioned fairground.

The gallows humour and the de facto real time feel of the piece is also one of its strengths. As I said earlier, the film deserves as much acclaim for its clever dramaturgy as it does its glitzy iconographies. It almost has a Pulp Fiction-style electricity in being a thrilling ode to contingency as crazy people get involved in an ever-decreasing circle of dumb things (the bank robbery and hospital break-out, in particular, are hilariously gripping sequences with unintended climaxes). (February 2018)

The Prescient Politics of GW Pabst’s Anti-War Films

January 30, 2018

To coincide with the Criterion release of Westfront 1918 and Kameradschaft, I’ve written for Little White Lies (see link to full article below) on how GW Pabst’s anti-nationalist slant has a clear prescience in today’s European political landscape:

Mister John

January 26, 2018

Mister John (2013)
Director: Joe Lawlor, Christine Molloy
Actors: Aidan Gillen, Zoe Tay, Michael Thomas

Synopsis: Gerry (Aidan Gillen) is summoned to Singapore after his brother dies suddenly. He begins to immerse himself in his brother’s lifestyle while also recollecting the troubled marriage he left behind.

Review: Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s Mister Joe is a beguiling curio. It’s an intriguing hybrid of genre piece and interior psychodrama pinned together by ingenious direction, a great central performance by Aidan Gillen, and the way that the ambience of Singapore and its surrounding mangrove is allowed to seep into the sentiment of the story.

Some of the most appealing facets to the film are the sly deviations from its nominal genre framework. The film opens on the image of a floating body, then presents us with that deceased man’s brother (Gerry) being jettisoned into a Southeast Asian hotbed to manage the aftermath of the passing, while also providing us with a romantic subplot and the merest of suggestions that the death might not be accidental. Around that somewhat familiar tapestry though, Lawlor and Molloy go really spare on the exposition and reconfigure some of those conventions. The whodunnit lure is continually frustrated through the directors’ greater interest in the central character’s processing of, and potential epiphany through, his increasingly sensorial experience.

Another of the film’s emerging threads is that the mysterious opening shot of Gerry’s brother lying dead in the lake will not be the prelude to a murder mystery (as the motif might be in a typical hokum number), but is something of a macguffin or red herring around which the true ethos of the story can emerge. Lawler and Molloy even play with this concept by cleverly setting up Michael Thomas’ louche Lester as the story’s seemingly nefarious figure before a surprisingly bathetic punch-up with Aidan Gillen’s hapless Gerry undercuts our proclivity, as an audience, to ascribe a simple hero-villain paradigm to what we see.

Lawler and Molloy’s method should clue us in to the film’s greater interest in character over genre. As mentioned earlier, exposition is spare and there isn’t any meaningful dialogue until close to the film’s 10-minute mark: all evidence to support the reading that how Gerry is immersing himself in his new domain (juxtaposed to elliptical, fragmentary sensations of an unhappy homelife) is the true locus of the story. The film frequently privileges the sensory over the dramaturgical. There’s a lovely moment where Gerry’s growing bond with his deceased brother’s wife, Kim, which has a clear sexual undertow, is played out through a sequence in the eponymous Mister John’s bar. The camera caresses Kim’s figure while she’s playing pool (affecting Gerry’s perspective) while dialogue overlaps from a future, intimate conversation between them, sensualising their connection. Lawler and Molloy also employ a great feel for space in their cinematography – letting environment and perspective tell the story as much as the people politics of those who fill the frame.

Mister John‘s short 85-minute running time may frustrate those looking for their clean-cut narrative structures and tidy moral lessons, but as a sensitive, borderline hallucinatory impression of a heightened chapter in a man’s life – emotionally and geographically – this is unimpeachable, and goes to prove that genre and generic needn’t be one and the same thing. (January 2018)

The 40 Year Old Virgin

January 25, 2018

The 40 Year Old Virgin (2004)
Director: Judd Apatow
Actors: Steve Carell, Catherine Keener, Paul Rudd

Synopsis: At the behest of his work colleagues, 40 year old tech geek, Andy (Steve Carell), vows to lose his virginity.

Review: The Judd Apatow Stunted Male Maturity genre was kicked off in the mid-noughties with this – his directorial debut – and, in many respects, the most apt of subject matters: a man-child who has slept-walk into middle age without losing that most symbolic vestige of the rites of adulthood – his virginity.

Within its very mainstream, crowd-pleasing confines The 40 Year Old Virgin is actually a pretty enjoyable confection with a high gag quotient. My only two marginal contentions are the exaggerated extent to which Apatow goes to signpost Steve Carell’s titular virgin, Andy, as the archetypal boy trapped in a man’s body. His home kitted out in the most ridiculous level of OCD toy fetish is so far removed from any form of discernible reality that it risks making untenable some of the more resonant areas of its discourse. Also, the one sequence where Leslie Mann’s drunk floozy attempts to drive a gauche Andy home for a night of passion is queasy in that it seems to play entirely for laughs, and offers no attempt to even subtly reproach, what is actually highly dangerous and deeply irresponsible drink driving (or, as the film seems to exalt in showing the hi-jinks of – it’s almost ‘paralytic driving’).

Better is the film’s overall sweet and humane feel. What becomes clear early on is that Andy’s virginity is not going to be played for out and out derision, but more through the lens of a man’s life that suddenly became very hermetic and insular in his early twenties, and – before he knew it – he’s reached the age of 40 and his ability and desire to engage with women just seems to have passed him by. Jane Lynch’s cameo role as Andy’s electronic store manager is also one of the finer pleasures of this film. She almost steals the film in an inspired, and presumably partly improvised, monologue, when she cottons on to Andy’s newfound zest to sleep with women by none-too-subtly suggesting they become “friends with benefits”! (January 2018)