Don’t Breathe(8/27/2016)

I’ve seen a lot of movies this year, but if there’s been one subset of the year’s cinematic output that I just could not be bothered with it’s the horror movies.  I feel like I’ve spent the last five years railing against the overuse of movies about haunted houses that rely on cheap jump scares in order to get a reaction from their audience and clearly no one in Hollywood is listening because the most successful horror movies this year has mostly given us the likes of The Conjuring 2, Lights Out, and in a month or so we’re going to be “treated” to Ouija: Origin of Evil.  Outside of that nonsense we’ve had, what?  The Purge: Election Year (the second sequel to a movie that shouldn’t have had one sequel) and I guess you could count Green Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane if you wanted to but really those are both thrillers rather than true horror films.  The lone exception and sign of hope has of course been The Witch but that was so long ago at this point that it barely feels like it came out this year.  One glimmer of hope seems to have come in the form of Don’t Breathe, a horror film that comes with a number or critical plaudits and which is being helmed by producer Sam Raimi and director Fede Alvarez who both brought a pretty respectable (and extremely gory) remake of Raimi’s own The Evil Dead to the screens not too long ago.

The film is set in Detroit and focuses in on three young malcontents named Rocky (Jane Levy), Alex (Dylan Minnette), and Money (Daniel Zovatto) who have taken it upon themselves to break into and rob various homes in the area.  Rocky and Money are a couple and are saving up to run away to California with Rocky’s daughter and Alex seems to be going along with them out of a sort of loyalty to childhood friends.  The three are close to their goal when they learn about a mark that could put them over the top: a blind army veteran (Stephen Lang) who lives in an almost entirely abandoned neighborhood but likely has a large sum of cash stashed there (presumably he doesn’t believe in banking) which he won in a settlement after his daughter was killed in a car accident.  Alex is a bit reluctant but is finally convinced to help his friends but once they get into the house it quickly becomes apparent that they’ve chosen the wrong person to mess with and things quickly start going badly for them.

The basic premise to this may sound somewhat familiar to film lovers as it basically the same premise as Wait Until Dark except that curiously the film is told from the perspective of the Alan Arkin character and his gang… and the Audrey Hepburn character has been replaced by the villain from Avatar and he is clearly a believer in “stand your ground” laws.  The film tries to give these characters their reasons for being involved in a life of crime, but robbing from a blind war veteran is pretty damn low.  Getting an audience to sympathize with people who would do something like that requires a level of moral complexity and character development that I don’t think this movie is equipped for and I think that’s ultimately the fatal flaw that kind of sinks the movie for me.  Empathy is pretty important part of horror and nothing deflates suspense like thinking that the person being stalked by the psychotic killer kind of has it coming.  Now, I’m not saying I necessarily wanted the characters in this movie to be killed for their breaking and entering careers, but I certainly wasn’t rooting for them to pull off their heist and given that their hunter is a disabled person who never asked to be dealing with these intruders in the first place it was just a little hard for me to really get that edge of my seat feeling during the suspense sequences.  Granted the movie does eventually reveal that this victim is actually quite unsavory, but at that point it’s a little too late.

It is a shame that this concept never really worked for me because there is clearly skill being displayed on screen.  Fede Alvarez does a really good job of turning this one house into a stage for a lot of activity and clearly knows how to stage a number of these set pieces.  There’s a part towards the end involving a car and a dog which borders on the masterful, but the film’s central concept still nags at me.  It should not be this hard for three able bodied teenagers to escape from an old blind man and it takes a lot of contrivance to explain why they’re never able to just make a run for it and these characters just aren’t interesting enough to overcome the incredible unlikablity of what they’re trying to do.  As a whole I ended up finding the movie to be a pretty empty exercise.  Then again, I felt more or less the same way about the movie Green Room earlier this year and I was clearly in the minority about that one as well, so maybe it’s just me.

**1/2 out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 9/13/2016

Louder Than Bombs (9/3/2016)

 

 

Louder Than Bombs is the third film and the English language debut for director Joachim Trier and… man it looks really great on paper but like Trier’s Norwegian films it’s a movie that’s ultimately easier to respect than it is to love.  This film is sort of set up to be something like Ordinary People but for the 21st century in that it’s about a family of sad wealthy people overcoming grief.  Perspective is shared pretty evenly between an adult older brother, a teenaged younger brother, and a father who are all dealing with the death of the family matriarch in different and sometimes destructive ways.  At times I wish the film had just chosen one or maybe two of these perspectives and stuck with it as the movie at times feels a bit unfocused.  Jesse Eisenberg’s character may be the odd one out.  I liked him when he was interacting with the father and the brother but his own storyline feels undercooked and never really resolves in an interesting way.  Otherwise the movie moves along with some interesting ideas here and there but rarely really breaks out into being something overly memorable in its totality.  It’s kind of a frustrating movie in that it constantly threatens to become something special while never really achieving it.  Also, the DVD that Sony put out for this thing is straight up defective.  Every DVD player I have kept thinking it was pirated (it wasn’t, I rented it from Netflix) and the audio kept cutting out after twenty minutes or so and I had to keep restarting it.

*** out of Five

The Mermaid (8/17/2016)

Stephen Chow seemed like he was going to become a big deal in the mid-2000s after Shaolin Soccer and Kung-Fu Hustle both became cult hits with the latter going so far as to almost break into the mainstream.  Then he seemed to just sort of disappear.  It turns out that outside of a break between 2008 and 2013 he actually has been making successful movies this whole time but there just hasn’t been as much of a drive to make them succeed in the west.  In China he’s actually becomes something of a major box office force and his latest film, The Mermaid, has gotten a lot of attention in the entertainment press because it’s made almost a half a billion dollars even though it’s only had the most minimal of releases outside of Asia.  Like Chow’s previous works this is a big budget comedy that employs a lot of special effects and physical comedy.  Our subject this time is a billionaire who becomes a target for assassination by a group of mermaids because his latest land development puts them in danger.  The woman they send to take him turns out to be a rather inept killer and also ends up falling for him, hijinx ensue.  The movie is… pretty nutty.  I can see why no American distributors really took a chance on it: it’s too idiosyncratic and foreign for the mainstream but also too broad and silly for the arthouse crowds that would normally be open to a foreign release and also a bit too lighthearted and technologically unaccomplished for the genre crowds that got behind Chow’s earlier works.  The CGI in the movie also isn’t great and the movie leans more into 3D effects than most Hollywood movies would.  Still, there is a sort of loopy charm to it and some of the physical comedy moments are well staged and it’s hard to get too mad at a movie where an octopus man finds himself cooking his own limbs at a hibachi restaurant.

**1/2 out of Five

Weiner (9/9/2016)

The central question about the new Anthony Weiner documentary Weiner is probably whether the life of its subject is a tragedy or a farce or both.  We’ve certainly seen promising politicians brought down by sex scandals before be never so hilariously.  This is a man who could have made a difference were it not for his compulsion to post pictures of his dick on the internet.  Honestly this guy probably wouldn’t have gotten so much attention had he had the decency to just fuck a couple of prostitutes like a normal cheater given that he wasn’t much of a national name before the scandal (I certainly hadn’t heard of him) when you indirectly give the media access to a photo of your junk there’s really no coming back from that and Anthony Weiner gets a lesson in this over the course of this documentary, which was filmed as he attempted to make a comeback by running for mayor of New York.  This is one of those documentaries that may or may not be made by skilled filmmakers but really doesn’t have to be because the cameras have made their way into a situation that’s so dramatic and interesting that all the director needs to do is sit back and let the cameras roll, which is more or less what they do here as the movie takes a pretty straightforward vérité approach.  Whether this was made through luck or skill, this is a compelling doc worth a look especially if you’re interested in the interplay of media and politics.

***1/2 out of Five

Mountains May Depart (9/5/2016)

One of the most important directors making movies in mainland China is a guy named Jia Zhangke, who I’ve been meaning to check out for a while and his latest work seemed like as good a place to start as any.  The main theme of Zhangke’s work seems to be a sort of conflicted unease about China’s emergence as a world power and its embrace of certain Western values.  Here this unease plays out as it follows a set of characters over three separate segments: one set in 1999, one set in the present, and one in the near future and each of them showing the costs and benefits of moving away from traditional values while also functioning as very human stories.  I don’t want to give away too much but I will say that each of these segments is interesting in different ways and that the various actors do a great job of aging subtly in each of these parts.  If the film has one weakness, and most critics seem to agree on this, it’s the third segment which moves away from the woman who seems to be the central character and goes in some directions it probably shouldn’t have.  Still, even that part has some interesting things going for it, namely a great performance by Sylvia Chang and a pretty perfect final shot.  It’s not a perfect movie but it’s still a very strong effort by an important filmmaker who I’m going to have to keep a much closer eye on.

**** out of Five

Keanu (9/13/2016)

Ever since “Cappelle’s Show” ended Comedy Central has been desperately searching for another 30 minute sketch comedy show that could replace it and the show “Key and Peele” was about the closest they came to finding one in at least a decade.  That said, I personally always found it a little hit and miss.  Aside from their famous “Anger Translator” bits they pretty much gave up on doing conventional comedy sketches in favor of some really weird stream of conscious stuff, which sometimes hits (I won’t be forgetting “Prepared for Terries” anytime soon) but often just didn’t hit my wavelength.  That inconsistent tone also sort of pervades Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s debut feature Keanu, which always comes this close to feeling like a real movie before descending into stonery weirdness.  Like the show this is about 20% social commentary, specifically it’s an exploration of what it means to “not be black enough,” and about 80% riffing on the strangeness of a lot of people putting themselves in harms way over a kitten… and some of it works.  I guess in final analysis this basically like one last “Key and Peele” sketch and your mileage with it will probably correspond with how much you like the show.

*** out of Five

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World(8/21/2016)

Werner Herzog is someone that I’m happy is making movies today but who I also tend to approach with a certain amount of skepticism.  It’s not that there’s anything about his films that have made me question them exactly but Herzog is such a larger than life figure that I sometimes worry that fans get a little too wrapped up in his cult of personality and maybe over-rate his actual films because of this… or maybe that’s an unfair way of looking at it.  For those who don’t know, Herzog is a German filmmaker who’s been making films all over the world for almost fifty years at this point and there have been all sorts of colorful stories about the crazy things he’s encountered while making them.  He’s not necessarily a master craftsman and his screenplays aren’t necessarily great literature unto themselves, he’s nonetheless able to inject all his projects whether they be scripted features or documentaries with his grandiose worldview.  Especially when he’s in documentary mode he makes a lot of grand pronouncements and to watch one of them is to almost feel like you’re in the presence of some kind of mad genius whether or not the film is itself brilliant.  Perhaps if a film is effective at conveying a director’s personality and that personality is fascinating and entertaining that alone should be good enough to make the film great and I should stop being so suspicious but at the same time I do think it’s worth being a little on guard just the same rather letting one’s opinion of the man completely cloud one’s opinion of the films.

Herzog’s latest documentary (which is basically a video essay of sorts) is, oddly enough, one that has less of Herzog’s (literal) voice than we’re used to hearing in his non-fiction works.  The subject this time around is the internet and other forms of 21st Century technology and their effects on society. We hear from early pioneers of the internet, Silicon Valley figures (including Elon Musk), cyber-security experts, and some people who feel like the internet has ruined their lives like alleged former internet addicts, people who were made public spectacles after a family tragedy, and people who are allergic to wi-fi signals.  Herzog doesn’t do the Michael Moore/Morgan Spurlock thing where he announces that he’s going on a personal odyssey and films himself as he travels to these various interviews.  Rather the various interviews come via numbered segments divided by subject and the audience is left to come up with their own through-line for the whole thing.

It is notable that Herzog himself takes a bit of a backseat in this one.  We certainly hear him asking the occasional outlandish question off screen (E.G. “does the internet dream”) and he does occasionally make an observation or two via narration but not as much as usual.  At times it almost feels less like a Herzog more and more like an Errol Morris movie of the Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control  variety.  Sometimes you get the feeling that he is perhaps injecting himself less because he’s a bit in over his head with this particular subject and doesn’t always seem able to verbally spar with the experts here.  He’s said in interviews that he is not personally much of an internet user beyond e-mail, but he doesn’t exactly seem like a total luddite here.  As the title would suggest he seems to be in awe of what we’ve created albeit sometimes a frightened awe.  In particular he worries that, given our dependence on the internet, the results could be disastrous if the whole system came crashing down and he cites the Carrington Event of 1859 (a solar flare that would have had an EMP like effect had it happened today) as an example of something that could do just that.

Ultimately I do kind of wish there was more Herzog in this Herzog movie.  I started out this review suggesting that I was a bit weary of Herzog making his personality the main attraction of his movies, but it’s pretty clear that that’s the schtick that’s worked for him and I kind of missed it a bit here.  Whenever his voice does come into this movie it almost immediately adds energy to the proceedings and I would have liked more.  As it stands Lo and Behold, Reveries of a Connected World is neither the best Herzog movie nor the best movie about modern technology but it is an interesting watch nonetheless.  Definitely worth watching if it ever shows up on Netflix or something, but I wouldn’t recommend rushing out to the theater for it necessarily.

Hell or High Water(8/14/2016)

I sometimes wonder if I watch too many movies for my own good.  I don’t mean that I wonder if movies take up an unhealthy amount of my time as that’s probably undebatable true but rather I wonder if I’ve ruined movie going itself by watching so many movies that nothing feels original to me anymore.  Plots that maybe seem somewhat familiar to other people feel like outright clichés to me and more often than not I’ll leave a movie naming two or three other movies that it was clearly influenced by and have a pretty good idea what was going on in the back of the director’s head.  Take the new crime thriller Hell or High Water a film that would probably greatly impress a lot of people, and it impressed me too, but about twenty minutes into it I’d already pinned down the films’ major themes and also worked out what direction the story was going in and which characters were likely to die in the finale.  Is that the movie’s fault?  Or is it my fault for having spent my life watching thousands of similar movies?

The film is set in modern day Texas and follows a pair of “white trash” brothers who have found themselves resorting to bank robbery.  The elder brother Tanner (Ben Foster) is an ex-con with an impulsive streak but it’s actually the younger and more sensible of the brothers, Toby (Chris Pine), who seems to be the mastermind behind this robbery scheme.  The brothers appear to mostly know what they’re doing in this scheme, they have a sophisticated plan for ditching their getaway vehicles and they seem to be meticulously choosing their targets, but they aren’t above making certain rookie mistakes like leaving a patron’s gun sitting on the counter as they run away.  What they don’t exactly know is that a determined Texas ranger who’s on the verge of retirement named Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) are on their trail and have a better idea of their plans than they realize.

So, first things first: this is a good movie.  Pine, Foster, and Bridges are all good in their respective roles, the bank robbery scenes are well shot, and the moments of economic insight that the filmmakers pepper the movie with elevate it.  It’s plainly better than most of the other movies that will be playing at your average multiplex and I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from seeing it.  Thumbs up.  However, the question then becomes “is this something special, something worth considering for awards and top ten lists, something that will be remembered and stand the test of time. To me the answer to that is probably “no.”

The movie is clearly very interested in establishing its sense of place.  It’s filled with Texans in cowboy hats, Texas guns, Texas economics, and Texas flavor.  Did I mention it was set in the state of Texas?  That kind of comes up a lot.  At times the movie reminded me of Winter’s Bone, which was a movie I thought was a little over-rated in part because it seemed a little more interested in conducting a subtly condescending anthropological study the place it was set in than it was in actually telling a unique story and developing its characters at time.  What’s more that movie was at least set in a place that hadn’t been extensively documented by the cinema before which is not necessarily something I can say about Texas.  Still there is some undeniable interest to be gained from the film’s look at what became of West Texas, which is to say “not a lot.”  It’s clear that the economy in this place is not booming and that the old west way of life has died a long time ago and the people still trying to live like cowboys are not doing too well.  There’s a moment in the movie where Jeff Bridges approaches a group of witnesses who are dressed in full cowboy attire and hears them say that the robbery they just saw was a strange sight given that “the days of getting away with robbing banks are long gone” with seemingly now knowledge of the irony of what he’s saying given the way he’s dressed, where he lives, and how he’s probably employed.

Those little touches are nice but at the end of the day this is really just kind of the same crime movie I’ve seen a million times before.  It’s quickly revealed that these brothers are robbing these banks to… wait for it… help their family.  Again with the crime films and family.  Family family family.  Oh how these criminals love to go on and on about family.  I’m beginning to think that one of the main reasons that the 80s Scarface has become such a touchstone with a certain audience because it’s the one crime epic that (weird sister issues aside) has its protagonist engaging in a life of crime because he wants money and power rather than out of some bullshit about helping his family.  Now I get why screenwriters go to this trope, they want to give their audience a reason to sympathize with these protagonists while they do wrong, but man am I sick of this.  But this goes back to what I was wondering earlier: am I just getting impossible to really impress at this point?  Well, not exactly. There are still plenty of movies released each year that I do love, but I am getting to the point where I I’m not going to give much more than a passing grade to a movie in a very familiar genre that just doesn’t have all that much to offer aside from its stellar craftsmanship and I don’t really think that this does, but again I want to re-iterate: I don’t think this is a bad movie by any means and it’s only when assessing it’s potential greatness that I balk.

Sausage Party(8/13/2016)

I think it’s pretty close to undeniable at this point that Seth Rogen is the most consistently impressive comedy star working in Hollywood.  It hasn’t even been a full ten years since his first major starring role in Knocked Up and he’s already amassed a strong filmography with films like

Pineapple Express, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Observe and Report, and 50/50 under his belt and he’s also very deftly avoided putting out stinkers the way that many of his peers in comedy have.  Even more impressive, he’s managed to carve out a comic identity distinct from his original mentor Judd Apatow with his time in the spotlight, especially with the films that he’s not only starred in but also written or directed alongside his frequent collaborator Evan Goldberg.  These directorial efforts have all had the distinction of being noticeably more outlandish and ambitious than the average comedy and have almost always had more going on in them than their initial trailers suggest.  Their 2013 hit This is the End initially looked like a weird gimmicky thing but it turned out to be this really crazy apocalyptic movie with some real insights into friendship and morality and then their 2014 film The Interview actually managed to cause an international incident as he attempted to skewer a real world dictator.  But Rogen and Goldberg seem to have topped themselves in the audacious lunacy department with their latest effort (which they technically didn’t direct but are clearly the driving creative forces behind): a CGI raunchy R-rated animated film about talking food products.

The film is set in a grocery store where all the food items are alive and capable of walking and talking (unbeknownst to the customers and staff) and believe that all the humans are gods who will, by purchasing them, take them to “the great beyond” which they think to be some kind of paradise.  Specifically the film follows a hot dog named Frank (Seth Rogen) who considers a hot dog bun in an adjacent package named Brenda Bunson (Kristen Wiig) to be his girlfriend.  He and the other hot dogs in his package including Carl (Jonah Hill) and Barry (Michael Cera) are excited to be going to the great beyond soon as there’s an upcoming 4th of July sale coming up and think they’re sure to be selected by “the gods.”  Soon though there’s a mishap that leaves him and Brenda removed from their packages and stranded in the store along with a bagel named Sammy Bagel Jr. (Edward Norton) and a Lavesh named (Kareem Abdul Lavash) who are constantly bickering about who should have the most space in their aisle.  Brenda just wants to find her way back to their aisle so that they can hopefully find their way into another package and be selected again for the great beyond, but Frank has an overwhelming feeling that something strange is going on and he’s heard rumors of a wise old food item named Firewater (Bill Hader) who seems to know that there’s more to life in this store than meets the eye.

Clearly this movie was meant to be something of a parody of the Pixar animation studio, specifically their obsession with making movies about talking inanimate objects.  What I maybe didn’t expect was that they would also try to imitate Pixar’s interest in using said talking objects to say deeper things than you might expect.  Specifically this movie is interested in using talking food to examine the various ways that people divide each other while also looking at the function of religion in society.  Let’s specifically focus on the movie’s take on religion because it’s in many ways a lot bolder than any of the swearing or the sex jokes.  This is one of the most proudly atheistic movies to ever come out of Hollywood.  The allegory isn’t subtle, the “gods” that the food products worship are established as being “bullshit” that was made up to make people feel better about their fates and that these beliefs are constantly being distorted to give people excuses to hurt each other.  The one place the movie stumbles on this is towards the end where Frank gets pushback for not respecting other people’s beliefs once he learns the truth, then tries again by essentially saying “I respect your beliefs but…” and then more or less says the exact same thing as before and this somehow changes everyone’s mind right away.  Granted, greater thinkers than Seth Rogen have tried and failed to find “respectful” ways to explain to people that their belief systems are predicated on lies, but he still falls a bit short here.’

So the movie is smarter than it looks, but is it as funny as it looks?  Not exactly.  It’s weird, the movie’s jokes seem awfully similar to the kind of material that normally makes me laugh in movies from Rogen and co but they never really seem to land as well here and the best I can guess is that it’s because of the animation.  I’m reminded a bit of a Christmas special on the show “Community” that was done in the style of a 60s Rankin Bass special.  It was a really clever episode and I admired the vision involved in making it but the comedy never really worked for me in part because the chemistry between the cast that was so central to the show’s success just didn’t seem to connect the same because they were voicing puppets instead of interacting face to face.  It’s weird, this certainly isn’t a problem I have when watching something like South Park or BoJack Horseman but something about seeing comedians I’m used to seeing in the flesh hidden behind animation that never quite connects the same way for me.  It’s almost like an uncanny valley of comedy.

Now none of that is to say I found the movie to be actively unfunny, I didn’t, I just didn’t feel like it made me laugh as much as it should have given all the outrageousness and the people behind it.  So, this is a comedy that I didn’t think was funny enough, which would seem to be a pretty damning indictment, but it really isn’t and I actually rather like the movie overall.  Whatever the movie lacks in belly laughs it makes up in chutzpah.  It isn’t exactly subtle, it trades a bit uncomfortably in racial stereotypes, and isn’t above making some rather lowbrow jokes, but often it’s just crazy enough to work.  It’s not every day you see a CGI animated movie about food that walks, talks, and fucks and the fact that Rogen was able to turn that weird stoned daydream of a concept into a workable movie with a bit of social insight is… well there’s just something admirable about that any way you cut it.  It’s definitely not a movie for everyone but if the film’s trailer and advertising leave you intrigued rather than disgusted you will likely find that the actual movie exceeds you expectations.

Crash Course: A Ken Loach Survey

One of the most prolific and long lasting forces in British cinema has been Ken Loach and yet there’s something about his work that seems oddly… avoidable.  The dude manages to show up at the Cannes Film Festival with every single one of his films and manages to get reviews that are respectful yet also kind of board, as if he’s been coasting largely on reputation for a while, but it doesn’t really seem like a case of diminishing returns either because his older films also kind of seem to blend together in the popular consciousness.  If I were to compare his reputation to a musician it would probably be to someone like Nick Cave or Spoon who consistently put out strong work and have their fans while never really having that classic album or hit single that stands out and makes people gravitate towards it.  Personally, the only Ken Loach films I’d seen were 1970’s Kes, which is probably his one film that stands out as his most famous, and 2007’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley for which he won his first Palme d’Or.  The former movie didn’t really live up to its reputation for me, but I quite liked The Wind That Shakes the Barley.  Given that Loach has just won his second Palme for the upcoming I, Daniel Blake and that there’s a new documentary about his work coming out I think the time is right to finally brush up on the guy’s work.  It should be noted that because his movies tent to not really come in peaks and valleys it’s kind of hard to pick out which of his films are the most essential viewing and I’m also kind of hampered by the selection of films that’s available through Netflix and similar sources but I’ve tried to come up with films that are representative of various eras in his career.

Cathy Come Home (1966)

Ken Loach began his career in television where he worked on a celebrated TV series in the 60s called “The Wednesday Play,” which was a sort of anthology series of self-contained teleplays which usually focused on various social issues.  His true breakthrough was with an episode of the series, essentially a short TV-movie, called Cathy Come Home which was a huge phenomenon when it broadcast in 1966.  This broadcast was so widely seen that it was estimated that a quarter of the UK population watched it and it would eventually led to debate on the floor of Parliament.  Now normally in these kinds of articles and writings I disqualify TV-films on principal but this one seems to really be punching above its weight class.  The film is about 75 minutes long, which is on the lower end of what could be called a feature film and is a lot more ambitious and better produced than “60s English teleplay” would leave you to believe.  Ignore the “Wednesday Play” moniker of the series because this is clearly shot on location and doesn’t feel stagey at all and even uses some fairly innovative documentary style handheld photography and gritty 16mm photography.  The topic of the film was homelessness, but not really the kind of homelessness you usually think of.  No one in this movie is living under a bridge or anything like that and there’s no drug addiction or mental illness involved.  Rather this is about how a middle class family find themselves in a bad financial situation after the man of the house is injured in a work accident and they fall behind on the rent and end up evicted.  From there the family, specifically the mother Cathy, finds themselves drifting from one temporary housing situation to the next.  This was all exasperated by a general housing crisis that was occurring at the time in Britain and the film focused in on the variety of ways that the system and the public failed this couple.

Ken Loach was of course a committed socialist who mostly made social realist movies with openly activist intentions.  With this one he is very clearly trying to both point out flaws in the system while also creating characters that the average audience member can both relate to and sympathize with.  On both of these fronts the film is definitely a success.  It’s style is also really above and beyond what you’d expect given the film’s origins.  Clearly this has its origins in the British “Kitchen Sink/Angry Young Men” movement but the addition of the handheld semi-documentary style made it distinct from something like Look Back in Anger or The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.  The one place where the film’s TV origins probably did hurt it was in the limited running time.  In many ways the film feels a bit rushed with the characters making pretty big life adjustments over the course of some rather short scenes.  At times the film goes so far as to add voiceover to the scene transitions just to save that extra little bit of time.  An extra half hour of film time really would have given the movie time to breath but there probably are advantages to its brevity and fast pace as well.  The only other thing I might object to, and I’ve heard this can generally be a problem with Loach’s cinema, is that he kind of makes certain bureaucrats into the face of everything wrong with the system as if they’re the ones making the rules and underfunding these programs.  Granted this is probably true to how his characters are seeing things but if you’re going to shoot, aim for the politicians in charge not the middle management people just trying to do their job.  Aside from that though this is a pretty big win and I can totally see why this would have felt downright revolutionary if it were broadcast on television in the 60s.

Looks and Smiles (1981)

Given his age and his prolific output I always assumed that Ken Loach would have put out a ton of movies during the 70s and 80s, especially given the economic troubles for the UK during the former decade and the Thatcherism that was taking over in the later decade, but that isn’t the case at all.   I don’t know all the details but apparently he had a lot of trouble getting funding during this era in spite of the success of Kes and ended up focusing a lot of his attention to TV documentaries.  As such the guy was only able to make four feature length scripted movies between 1970 and 1989 and few of them are seen as among his best.  Looks and Smiles is one of those movies and had it not been one of the only options from this era that was available I probably wouldn’t have picked it for this retrospective but them’s the breaks.  This a small film that was shot in black and white, probably for financial rather than artistic reasons, and basically just follows a young man from a working class family as he deals with trying to find a job in a bad economy while also dealing with the usual problems that 20-somethings have to deal with.  The film isn’t trying to trace out the roots of all this guy’s problems the way that Cathy Come Home did and it isn’t pleading for change in the same way either.  This is trying for a bit of a softer sell.  It wants to simply give the “posh” audience more of an idea what the working class lives like and create a little bit of empathy along the way.  There’s a reason why this movie isn’t particularly remembered today or widely cited within Loach’s career, there’s nothing wildly wrong about it but nothing about it that really stands out and makes it memorable.

Hidden Agenda (1990)

Hidden Agenda was essentially Ken Loach’s comeback film and while it wasn’t exactly a blockbuster it did seem to successfully relaunch his career and start him on the track of making a new film seemingly every other year at least.  Interestingly this is not necessarily a particularly representative example of Loach’s filmmaking as it is in some ways the closest that he’s ever gotten to selling out.  Obviously Loach was never going to sacrifice his principals and this movie is indeed just as fearlessly political as anything else he’s done but in some ways this was Loach’s one attempt (that I know of) to make his work a bit more appealing to Hollywood.  Whereas many Loach films either feature non-actors or extremely obscure ones, this one is populated by known names like Brian Cox, Frances McDormand, and Brad Dourif.  More notable however is that the film incorporates thriller elements into its narrative.  Now to be clear, it isn’t like this is a movie with car chases or explosions and largely consists of conversations, but compared to the working class slice of life narratives we’re used to seeing from him it practically feels like a Bourne movie.

The film follows a British investigator who has been tasked with investigating the murder of an American human rights lawyer who was murdered while investigating human rights violations by British officials during “the troubles.”  The investigator soon determines that both were killed by British cops but must also uncover how far up the ladder this goes and what the conspiracy entails.  With The Wind That Shakes the Barley Ken Loach would eventually examine the historical roots of the IRA and did it by focusing on the people it affected.  I suspect that’s the way he would have preferred to examine the struggle here but instead he takes more of a top down approach by making a sort of thriller about outsiders investigating the conflict.  As a movie that does that, this is pretty good just the same.  The movie seems to be modeled after other “righteously searching for the truth” movies like Z and Missing and Brian Cox is certainly effective as a determined investigator and some of the scenes where he’s arguing with people involved with the conspiracy.  However, the case at the film’s center is not wildy interesting and the conspiracy it uncovers seems to level some oddly specific accusations at the Thatcher government for a film that doesn’t claim to be “based on a true story.”  Also the ending is awkwardly abrupt.  Loach is clearly out of his comfort zone here but he does a pretty admirable job of delivering a decent move all the same and if this is what he had to do to get back in the good graces of the financers there are certainly less dignified ways he could have done it.

Raining Stones (1993)

Ken Loach’s follow-up to Hidden Agenda is a very well regarded 1991 film called Riff Raff (not available through Netflix) and his next film was this lower key work called Raining Stones which I wanted to see in order to get a more representative example of his work in the 90s.  Like Looks and Smiles this is more of a slice of life “soft sell” that’s trying to create empathy for the working class rather than throw bombs at the causes of oppression but there’s more of a story arc this time around.  This one is about a catholic man who feels a great deal of pressure to buy an expensive First Communion dress for his daughter.  Unable to find the funds through conventional means he makes a series of unfortunate decisions which end up with him in debt to a brutal loan shark who ends up being a much bigger strain on the family than their initial predicament.  A bit like Cathy Come Home this is a movie about how quickly things can go wrong for families that aren’t terribly well off and how much of a burden a single “splurge” can be for them.  It took a while for me to warm up to this one in part because the characters don’t immediately strike fascination and also the productions values have clearly gone down a bit (which is exasperated by a rather poor DVD presentation) but once the loan shark enters into the picture and the stakes become more tangible the movie does begin to pick up.  It’s not exactly a standalone classic but it does seem to be a logical entry into Loach’s larger body of work.

Sweet Sixteen (2002)

One thing I’ve noticed while looking at this sample of Ken Loach’s filmography is that he doesn’t confine himself to any one section of the British Isles.  Just in this one sample we’ve seen London, Sheffield, North Ireland, Greater Manchester, and this film brings us to Scotland.  Our subject is a troubled 15 year old boy who, were he living in the United States, would likely be labeled as “white trash.”  His mother is in jail, her boyfriend appears to be a petty criminal, he doesn’t seem to be in school, and he and his friends have taken to selling untaxed cigarettes in order to make money.  The film depicts this young man going deeper into crime as he attempts to save up money to buy a home the he and his mother can move into when she’s released from prison.  It probably doesn’t take a lot of close analysis to realize that Ken Loach and Brian De Palma are not very similar in style and sensibility but comparing the rise of this kid with the rise of Scarface would still be amusing.  Any romance one could potentially see in using crime as a means of rising above one’s means is gone here in place of a more realistic and kind of pathetic portrait of what it’s like to be forced into crime.  Loach’s style is once again minimalistic and it’s interesting how little his visual eye seems to change over the years.  This was made almost a decade after Raining Stone and yet you wouldn’t really know that if not for a few soundtrack choices, which (taken with the rest of Loach’s filmography) maybe says something about how slowly things change.

Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

Ken Loach’s 2014 effort Jimmy’s Hall was rumored to be his final film when it came out (a rumor that proved to be rather false) and given that it was often interpreted to be the work of someone who wanted to go out on a slightly more optimistic note than what we frequently see from him.  The film is set in Ireland in 1932 and could be seen a s spiritual sequel of sorts to his Palme d’Or winning 2007 film The Wind That Shakes the Barley in that it deals with the aftermath of the civil war that was seen in that previous film.  The film focuses in on this small Irish town where a local hero of sorts named Jimmy Gralton has returned after spending some time in New York and is welcomed back by much of the community.  Soon he begins erecting a building that becomes a dancehall and gathering place for the locals, much to the disgust of the local priest who views Gralton as a socialist and a troublemaker and sees this dancehall as a threat to his authority.  As this is a period piece you’ll notice a clear improvement in production values over some of the other Ken Loach movies and this also has less of a “slice of life” feel.  The story is largely about just how hard it is for leftist speakers to even get the slightest foothold and how hard it is to go up against the powers that be even when you’re not even trying to threaten them.  The film is based on a true story and doesn’t necessarily look at its central figure with a whole lot of nuance.  Throughout the film Jimmy is seen as a total mensch and his dancehall as a grandly beneficial project for the people of this town and the priest is a total uptight asshole (very different from the priest in Raining Stone) and that simplicity does kind of keep the movie from greatness, but there is a definite charm to the proceedings just the same.  If this had indeed been Loach’s final movie it wouldn’t have necessarily been an unworthy one, but it also certainly wouldn’t have been his best.

 

So, I’ve now seen 400% more Ken Loach movies than I had when I started this little project and yet I still don’t feel like I’ve gone all that deep into the guy’s body of work; this one truly felt like an introductory survey.  Still, I think I do have a slightly better grasp of his career trajectory and his usual style.  It is weird that the best of the movies I watched here is probably the TV film that first made him famous and it is notable that, while I gave none of the movies failing grades, none of them really excelled either.  But the actual grades might be a bit misleading.  As I suspected when I first went into this, Ken Loach is indeed someone who is perhaps more notable as a filmmaker when you look at the complete body of work than he necessarily is when looking at individual films.  This isn’t ideal but it isn’t a deal breaker either.   I definitely look forward to seeing I, Daniel Blake, which sounds like it might be one of his best yet if the Cannes awards are any indication and I might just do a second crash course in his work someday, especially if some of his other notable films become more readily available.