Category: Film Reviews

I, Daniel Blake (UK-France-Belgium 2016)

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Winner of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or, this film is now attracting good audiences at both the Hyde Park Picture House and at Picturehouse at the National Media Museum. All the people I have spoken to have been impressed and moved by the film. Now, on Friday October 28th, The Guardian had a slew of letters motivated by seeing the film The punitive treatment of our Daniel Blakes. We had four decrying the inequities of contemporary Britain and its treatment of the low paid,  the unemployed and people outside the labour market. The fifth letter was refreshingly different:

“Am I the only person not to like I, Daniel Blake?”

The writer objected to the lack of a story: the characterisation of Daniel Blake as a ‘deserving benefits claimant’, and the portrayal of the ‘dole’ as one-dimensional’.

I did not agree with much of this criticism. The film is extremely well written by Paul Laverty and extremely well made by Ken Loach and his team. The two lead actors, David Johns as Daniel, and Hayley Squires as Katie, the single mother he befriends, are excellent. Both are ‘deserving’ but also convincing and rounded characters. There is a story, but it is low key and treated in the observational style that is Loach’s metier. And I do not think the representation of the Benefit System and staff is simplistic, though it does lack depth.

Other responses included people telling me they cried in emotional scenes and two people who described the treatment of Daniel and Katie, and her two children, as ‘cruel’. This is where the writer in The Guardian seems to be picking up on an important point. I, like many film fans, often cry during films, and I was intensely moved in I, Daniel Blake. But this is an emotional response and does not necessarily involve a reflexive engagement with the characters and situation depicted. And reflexivity is an aspect that is rare in Loach films.

As for ‘cruelty’, this is valid comment but less than adequate. What the film depicts is serious exploitation and oppression. The situations in the film are part of a systematic attack on the working class, including its organisations. In the film Daniel, a victim of a heart attack, is denied income for which he has contributed throughout his working life. Katie and her children are forced to relocate from London to the unknown Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Alongside this we learn that Daniel’s neighbour, ‘China’ (Kema Sikazwe), appears to work on what is known as a ‘zero hours contract’ at below the minimum wage. One of the powerful sequences takes place in a local food bank where Daniel, Katie and the children join a long queue that involves hours of waiting.

So congratulations are on order to Loach and Laverty for addressing an issue that the mainstream media and film industry mainly ignore or caricature. But the representation they offer has severe limits. Community has always been an important strand in the films of Ken Loach, but there is no coherent community in this film. Katie has left family and friends behind in London, as have her children Daisy (Brianna Shann) and Dylan (Dylan Philip McKiernan). The only neighbours of Daniel that we see are China and his flatmate. Daniel’s only surviving community is his workplace and his workmates, from whom he is now separated by illness. The Benefit Office is certainly no community: the claimants are deliberately isolated and the staff are divided, apparently by whether or not they have any sympathy for the people they serve.

The nearest to a community that we see is the food bank, where the volunteer are both sympathetic and caring in their assistance. There is also a suggestion of community when Daniel finally makes a public protest, as passers-by cheer him and barrack the managers and police when they stop him. But these latter people are separated by the road, and do no more than express verbal solidarity. This would seem to express the fractured situation of the working class in modern Britain.

Passers-by watch Daniel Blake's protest

Passers-by watch Daniel Blake’s protest

In other films Loach and Laverty have often included a sequence where the working class protagonists provide some an analysis of their situation. Such sequences could be seen in the recent Jimmy’s Hall (2014) and in the earlier Looking for Eric (2009). But whilst this films refers to matters like re-housing, sanctioning benefits, low wages, the lack of jobs, malnutrition . . . we do not meet a character who offers some sort of critical discussion.

Our Guardian writer offered a parallel example, the 1978 Television drama, The Spongers, scripted by Loach’s earlier colleague Jim Allen (now sadly passed on), produced by another Loach colleague Tony Garnett, and directed by Roland Joffé for the BBC. The parallel is instructive. There are crossovers between the television and film dramas, including a single mother and children and an uncaring bureaucracy. But the earlier play also delved into the world of the local council and the council departments who administer the system that impacts so negatively on the characters. Some sort of rationale on their part is voiced. We do not get a similar ‘behind the scenes’ presentation in I, Daniel Blake. And there is only a brief reference to an ‘American company’ clearly offsetting the declining rate of profit through state assistance. I think such a sequence would have improved the politics.

This one of the bleakest of Ken Loach’s films and dramas. In some ways it harks back to the seminal Cathy Come Home (BBC, 1966). There is the same downward spiral for the protagonists. I, Daniel Blake does end on a more positive note for Katie and her children, as Daniel’s caring assistance has help them start on a new life ‘up north’.

A friend who recommended the film to me referred to it as a ‘socialist’ film. To be honest I think a socialist film needs to offer articulation of the politics of the world it depicts. This seem to me a definite failing in what is still a very fine film. And thanks to our Liverpool-based letter writer who stimulated me to think on this.

Trumbo and a critic!

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If there is one thing that depresses me as much as some of the programming by exhibitors it is some of the published criticisms of the films themselves. Trumbo (USA 2015) is essentially a biopic of one of the Hollywood Ten, the victims of the House Un-American Activities Committee of the US Congress, the heads of the major Hollywood Studios, cranky right-wingers who presumably would now be members of the Tea Party, and quite a few members of the film industry who owed their careers and their profits to this group, predominately writers of scripts.

The Guardian review (05-02-16), by Peter Bradshaw, opens on this

“heartfelt, stolid picture about an important period in American history”

and adds this peculiar comment,

“the petty Maoism of 1950s Hollywood…”

In fact, the target of this hysteria was the Communist Party USA who, by the late 1940s, were not even Leninist, let alone Maoist. Presumably Bradshaw or his editor thought the epithet would make a change from their regular target, Uncle Joe.

At least there is a greater sense of history and politics in the interview of the star Bryan Cranston by John Patterson. They do add the point made in the end titles of the film, that the victims of this witch-hunt came from all professions and all walks of life. I was a little surprised to find out recently that our own Richard Attenborough was honoured by inclusion in what was known as ‘the blacklist’. The latter term is slightly unfortunate given this is the period of a rising Civil Rights movement.

To be honest the production team, and certainly quite a few of the critics, should read the excellent

The Inquisition in Hollywood Politics in the Film Community, 1930 – 1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, University of California Press 1979.

I also recommend it to our readers interested in the topic or indeed who just see the film.

Whatever its limitations Trumbo is a worthy addition to the films dealing with what became popularly known as ‘McCarthyism’. Intriguingly it offers a rather different slant on Woody Allen’s The Front (1976). And for a parallel story watch, [if you can], BBC Screen 2’s Fellow Traveller (1991).

2015 in the cinema

GIRLHOOD – my most viewed film of the year.

GIRLHOOD – my most viewed film of the year.

Here are the ten films, released in UK cinemas in 2015, that I enjoyed most or which made the most impression on me this year. I’ve placed them in alphabetical order:

Carol (UK-US-France 2015)

Girlhood (France 2014)

Mia Madre (Italy-France 2015)

OK Kanmani (India, Tamil 2015)

Phoenix (Germany 2014)

Piku (India, Hindi 2015)

Taxi Tehran (Iran 2015)

Theeb (Jordan 2015)

Timbuktu (Mauritania-France 2014)

West (Lagerfeuer, Germany 2013)

Because this is a list of ‘most enjoyed’, it’s obviously a list reflecting my taste. Although only one title was directed by a woman (Girlhood), four films could be described as female-centred melodramas, two as romance/family dramas, two as political ‘statements’ and just one as an ‘action narrative’ – and Theeb is an action adventure from a young boy’s perspective.

Half of the ten films above are  films that I have introduced, discussed or formally taught this year. Girlhood stands out as I saw it four times on four different cinema screens in the space of a year, as well as studying several scenes in detail. Each time I watched it I got something new from it. I also presented and discussed Ex Machina for students and it proved a good choice for a student event, provoking an interesting set of questions.

I don’t rank or ‘grade’ films since this seems a pointless exercise, based on a wide range of criteria that aren’t applicable to every film. There are several films that I missed which may well have appeared on my list. In my part of West Yorkshire we get most film releases but not all and I can only get to Manchester or Sheffield occasionally rather than all the time. I’m most sorry to have missed Alexei German’s Hard to be a God and several of the Polish classics in the touring season.

Even though more and more documentaries are released in cinemas each year, I tend to see only a handful. Amy has appeared in many end of year lists and I can understand why. For my own part, I need a documentary to offer three very different pleasures – an interesting subject, an aesthetic approach that works and a filmmaker whose viewpoint I can appreciate, even if I don’t agree with it. That’s a tall order and the nearest to meeting it this year was probably The Salt of the Earth.

I did watch some American films this year including Mad Max: Fury Road and Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. I did enjoy both screenings, partly because of the public debates about the films and at the time I felt engaged by the debates – but the films themselves didn’t make a lasting impression. Spy proved to be good entertainment for a night out. But the best American films I saw tended to be archive films or restorations. Missouri Breaks surprised me and my love of Westerns is still there. Can I bring myself to spend three hours with Quentin Tarantino next month?

I only managed four festivals this year, all in the UK. Glasgow Film Festival was very enjoyable and most of the films I saw eventually got a UK release (except the Chinese films). I only made two films at Leeds and Crow’s Egg did get a very limited UK release (six screens) and perhaps should have been in my list of ten. ¡Viva! was in three parts this year and proved as fascinating as usual – but sadly Spanish and Latin American films rarely get a UK release. Travelling to Manchester to see these films, and often to listen to the directors, remains a surreal experience and the failure of UK film culture to properly embrace the films is a continual disappointment. Much the same can be said for the excellent films that turn up each year at the London Film Festival and rarely screen anywhere else in the UK. Thirst and Arianna were the two films that really stood out for me. What I’ve missed, most of all, is my local festival in Bradford. Will we ever get it back? It makes a mockery of Bradford’s title as the first ‘UNESCO City of Film’.

2015 has ended very badly for me. The triple whammy of Spectre, Hunger Games and Star Wars has driven out virtually every foreign language film (apart from Indian films) from UK cinema screens. It’s Christmas and I can’t find anything locally to go and see. Radio 4’s Film Programme on Christmas Eve was depressing with three guests giving each other DVDs of their pick of the year’s films as Christmas gifts. Predictably all were American. Only Francine Stock’s championing of Girlhood prevented me from switching off the programme. With the ‘awards season’ coming up and the prestige US pictures replacing the blockbusters, January also promises to be grim – but Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Assassin is due for a UK release. Even so, I think I’m going to be watching more DVDs in 2016.

Reviews in Sight and Sound

S&S

This prestigious magazine from the British Film Institute has suffered ravages in recent years. At one time there was the Monthly Film Bulletin which dealt with theatrical releases and S&S which addressed issues, theories and discussions. In the early 1990s they were amalgamated. Then, a few years back, the practice of providing complete production details was lost. More recently it seems that not every film that has a theatrical exhibition in the UK is covered. The magazine has added the video formats in a Home Cinema section [another oxymoron], but often at the expense of theatrical releases. I wrote expressing some concerns to the Letter Page:

I want express my concern at the increasing imbalance between reviews of films released into cinema and films made available in some video format. In the August edition we had a review of a new UK feature, The Legend of Barney Thompson. The review was only slightly longer than the plot synopsis and appeared to be shorter than every one of the Home Cinema reviews. A number of these referred to the techniques and style in their features: an aspect missing from the cinema release review. And quite a few of the Home Cinema reviews were of films already reviewed at an earlier date in S&S or the Monthly Film Bulletin.

Moreover the video reviews allow far more space for critical comment than they do for description on the technical aspects, such as the quality of the transfer. They also offered a minefield in terms of aspect ratios: 2.4:1, 1.85:1, 1.78:1, 16:9, 1.66:1, 1.33:1, and 4:3. But rarely did a review actually explain if this ratio matched the original release.

A similar fate to Legend befell the UK release North v South in the September issue. However, the treatment of aspect ratio has improved: a sound film is correctly given as 1.37:1. The disc information was fuller, but not uniformly so.

Given that S&S now relies heavily on the digital version and the library of previous editions, space could be saved by referencing original reviews in earlier issues. Then we could have proper reviews of features and adequate space for commenting on the actual disc quality of video releases.

The letter did not make it to the published October edition. Fair enough. However, the practices highlighted were still apparent. There were at least three films; from Australia, India and the USA; where the review was shorter than most of those in the Home Cinema section. There was a fourth theatrical release with no apparent country of origin. And the confusion over ratios continued . We had sound films listed as being in 1.33:1, though another was correctly given as 1.37:1. And then there were films released since the advent of widescreen film given as 16:9 – the European Television ratio.

Among the drawbacks of this approach is that it is just fuel to the mistaken view that watching films on video equates to seeing them at the cinema.