A Ghost Story(7/30/2017)

I went to see David Lowery’s new film A Ghost Story not at the local arthouse but at a multiplex at a mall, the kind with so many screens that it occasionally finds space for something a bit more unusual than the normal fare that usually plays at such places.  The general aggressiveness of the distributor A24 probably has something to do with why this decidedly uncommercial film managed to get into a theater like that, but I digress.  Funny thing happened when I went; as I entered the theater the usher who took my ticket asked me “what is that movie about.”  That was a tricky thing to answer, firstly because I hadn’t actually seen the movie yet (obviously) and secondly because what I had heard about the movie was not really something that could be easily described in the twenty seconds I had to have this conversation.  Were I less of an anti-social curmudgeon I might have tried to form a more coherent description, but instead all I could muster was “it’s a meditation on grief,” a description that’s annoyingly cryptic and in retrospect not entirely accurate.  Anyway, her response was to say “oh” and I proceeded to see this indescribably idiosyncratic movie in a theater with about five other people (which was more than I expected).

Truth be told even with a decent amount of time and space I’m not exactly sure how to describe this movie without making it sound weird and stupid.  It begins by looking in at a couple who are living together in a small house located in what seems to be some distant suburb which is practically a rural area.  These two are played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara and the characters are never really given names (I’ll be referring to them by actor names for simplicity), they appear to be fairly happy and are living fairly uneventful lives.  Then one day the Casey Affleck character dies in a car accident.  Rooney Mara’s character begins to mourn but we as the audience start things from a seemingly different perspective.  We see Affleck rise from the morgue and begin walking back to his house completely covered in a sheet with two holes in it, like the children’s ghost costume of yore.  From there we begin to watch Affleck’s invisible ghost watch Mara as she grieves him and it begins to feel like it will primarily be a movie about her grief as witnessed by the ghost, but in the film’s second half things go in yet another direction.

A Ghost Story is absolutely not going to be a movie for everyone.   In fact I was pretty strongly suspecting that it wasn’t going to be for me during its first third or so when we were treated to a couple of extended shots that went on for something like a minute and a half each including a largely unbroken shot where we watch Ghost Casey Affleck watch Rooney Mara eat half of a pie in one grief fueled binge.  After about a half hour of that I was thinking “yeah, I get it, is that it?” but then the movie does take something of a left turn and reveals that it has more up its sleeve.  Of course the very concept of a movie where a ghost is literally represented by a guy wearing a sheet over his head sounds ridiculous on its surface but within the language of the film that isn’t some kind of snarky joke, it actually looks kind of cool the way this costume drapes over him and he makes these slow and deliberate motions.  Director David Lowery shoots the film in the Academy Ratio, but with the corners of the screen curved so as to remind audiences of 8mm home movies rather than Golden Age Hollywood and goes long stretches without dialog and sometimes without cuts.

This is, at the end of the day very much an art film that just so happens to feature celebrity actors.  That makes sense but what’s really weird is that it’s director, David Lowery, is actually someone who’s had some mainstream success.  Last year he was at the helm of Disney’s $65 million dollar remake of Pete’s Dragon and the fact that he’s followed that up with this idiosyncratic little thing is a bit strange.  Usually you’d suspect something like this either from someone with no commercial aspirations whatsoever or from someone who wants to make a name for themselves by making something that really stands out rather than someone who’s been dipping their toe in the mainstream and would seemingly want to ride that wave.  However, I do think that this experience making a movie like that has helped rather than hindered his abilities hear as you can see a lot more formal talent in the film than you might expect from something this experimental.  The resulting film is an interesting little exploration of the tropes of the haunting story and of the concept of legacy… just make sure you go in with some patience.

Spider-Man: Homecoming(7/8/2017)

It’s easy to forget just how important Sam Raimi’s 2002 film Spider-Man was to the development of the superhero genre.  When talking about the first superhero boom in the 2000s a lot of people point to Blade and X-Men as the beginning of the trend, and technically that’s true insomuch as they were the first two Marvel movies of the era but their impact wasn’t nearly as momentous.  Adjusted for inflation that is to this date the second highest grossing movie based on a Marvel property behind only the first Avengers movie and in 2002 it managed to beat a Star Wars movie, a Lord of the Rings movie, and a Harry Potter movie to be the highest grossing movie of that year and it did it by a lot.  It wasn’t just the fact that it made all that money either, it had to do with how it made all that money.  Earlier superhero movies like the 1989 Batman had almost played out more like action movies than entrants in a genre unto themselves and movies like X-Men changed their look and tone in order to reach a wider audience that may be put off by something that looks too much like a comic book.  Spider-Man looked and felt more like the 1978 Superman but it had modern special effects which would make its success a lot more replicable.  I don’t love that movie, I think there are things about it that don’t hold up, but it was an event and it set the stage for an entire generation of blockbusters.  That’s why it felt so incredibly wrong for Sony to have just rebooted that whole series exactly ten years later and just do the whole thing over again but worse.  Had the Amazing Spider-Man series gone in some radical new direction it might have justified itself but it was just a blatant cash grab and by the second movie audiences rightly rejected the series.  Now there’s a new Spider-Man and you’d think I’d be similarly annoyed by this third iteration of the franchise in fifteen years, but unlike that goofy first reboot this one adds something to the equation: Sony has managed to cut a deal with Marvel studios to bring their web-slinger into the red hot Marvel Cinematic Universe and they more than proved that they had a unique take on the character when he appeared in Captain America: Civil War.

Spider-Man: Homecoming picks up almost immediately after the end of Captain America: Civil War with Peter Parker (Tom Holland) arriving home from Germany where he had just fought Captain America on Iron Man’s behalf.  Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) lets Parker keep the high tech spandex suit he’d made for him and tells him to use Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) as his main contact.  From there we begin with the classic Spider-Man set of challenges: Parker must find a balance between living a high schooler’s life with his crime fighting side job all while keeping his secret identity intact.  We’re introduced to his peers like his friends Ned (Jacob Batalon) and Michelle (Zendaya), the school bully Flash Thompson (Tony Revolori), and the girl Parker has a crush on named Liz (Laura Harrier).  Parker is going through the usual teenage stuff with all these people but constantly finds himself abandoning social situations and flaking on obligations because he’s tracking down a gang that’s been selling high tech weapons to criminals.  Parker doesn’t know yet that this will put him on a collision course with a man named Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) who got his hands on a bunch of alien technology after the invasion depicted in the finale of The Avengers and has been combining them with human technology to make these weapons and to steal more alien technology he’s created a wing suit to take on the persona called “The Vulture.”

It is perhaps fitting that Spider-Man: Homecoming is a Sony production made in affiliation with Marvel rather than a more conventional entrant in the Marvel cannon because Spider-Man has always been a different kind of hero than the Avenger types that we’ve mostly seen populate the MCU.  He’s more of a street level costumed vigilante than a flashy world savior.  He has a secret identity (something that, curiously, almost none of the previous MCU characters have had), he has to make ends meet, and of course he’s young.  The first thing you notice about the new Spider-Man is that he actually looks like a real teenager.  Tom Holland would have been about 19 or 20 when he made this movie but compared to Toby Maguire and Andre Garfield, who were 27 and 29 when their first Spider-Man movies came out, he seems practically cherubic.  Ignoring all the superhero material this is actually a very solid high school, one that occasionally references John Hughs but isn’t married to some of the dated elements and nostalgia that often drags down movies from this genre.  The film has a very post-21 Jump Street view of modern high schools and doesn’t feel bounded to ancient teenage stereotypes like “jocks” and “goths.”  Parker is still a “nerd” of sorts but he’s not ostracized for enjoying science and isn’t routinely stuffed in lockers or whatever, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that he’s simply not very popular and isn’t a savant in social situations.

These coming of age elements are extended to the film’s superhero elements and particularly to his relationship to Tony Stark, which I was pleasantly surprised to learn was actually an important part of the film rather than a marketing gimmick.  Stark acts as a father figure within the superhero portion of Peter Parker’s life and it quickly becomes apparent that their interactions are an allegory for the struggles between young people who think they’re prepared for greater independence than their parents believe they’re ready for.  This time around Spider-Man’s suit has been provided to him by Stark and it comes with an Iron-Man style talking A.I. and various other neat perks and features to assist him in crime fighting, but many of these features have been locked out by Stark’s “training wheels” initiative and he’s also being tracked and coached during many of his superhero outings.  Cautious Sokovia Accords advocate Tony Stark clearly wants to make sure that Parker sticks to fighting within his weight class and wants him to stick to being a “friendly neighborhood Spider-Man” during his youth rather than get himself in battles with super villains and the like, but when Parker believes he’s needed he subverts this surveillance and defies his metaphorical father with mixed results.

The villain that Stark doesn’t want Parker to be messing with is The Vulture, who in his own modest way is probably the best villain to ever grace an MCU film.  This is likely a function of the film’s more down to earth nature.  To tangle with The Avengers a villain basically needs to be out to destroy the entire world and the kind of people who want to destroy the world tend not to have a lot of nuance; they lack personality and are basically just pure evil.  The Vulture AKA Adrian Toomes on the other hand is a guy whose decent into criminality actually makes sense and is rooted in some understandable grievances.  It’s explained in the prolog that Toomes’ was financially hit when a contract to salvage the alien wreckage from the battle in The Avengers was snatched from him by Tony Stark and the federal government after he’d already purchased a bunch of equipment for the job.  Essentially he’s a representative of the resentful white working class that have been such a fixture of concern in the media since the rise of Trump, a parallel that likely wasn’t intentional when the movie was being produced but which is nonetheless interesting.  On top of that The Vulture is just a cool looking and well-conceived villain.  The film comes up with a believable-ish costume for him and finds interesting ways to conduct his various heists.  There is of course a bit of irony in the idea that Michael Keaton, star of the Hollywood satire Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, is now playing an avian themed masked character in a superhero movie but that dissipates when you realize that Keaton really is kind of perfect for this role and does a good job of making his character relatable and believable.

If there’s anything that holds back Spider-Man: Homecoming from greatness it’s probably the filmmaking.  Jon Watts is a newcomer to the world of big budget filmmaking and while he certainly proves himself to be a serviceable filmmaker here he doesn’t really seem to be bringing a unique vision to the table, or perhaps the Marvel machine isn’t letting him.  The action scenes here are almost universally good, but few of them really stand out as being truly memorable cinematic moments that rise above what you’d get out of a typical superhero movie.  If this movie had come in with the kind auteur prowess that someone like Christopher Nolan was able to bring to The Dark Knight or that Sam Raimi brought to Spider-Man 2 it may well have become a true classic of the genre but as it is it has to settle for merely being one of the best MCU movies, which is kind of like being the best burger at McDonalds.  But let’s not overlook how much of an accomplishment it is to bring a noteworthy superhero movie to an oversaturated market like this.  Watts has managed to make a movie that should feel overstuffed and bloated, yet movies along at a crisp pace and which fits all the usual expectations of the superhero genre point for point while somehow not feeling formulaic at all.  It’s great summer fun and it extends a pretty clear win streak that Marvel has been having the last two years.

Baby Driver(7/1/2017)

I remember when I got my first mp3 player.  I was in high school, probably either a junior or a senior and I was late to the Ipod party but I had already been collecting song files for a while at that point through various less than legal sources like Limewire and Kazaa.  Rather than actually get an actual mp3 player when I was on the go I’d burn albums onto CD-Rs and carry a binder of these burned CDs around in my backpack and listen to them on a red Sony discman that would periodically skip if I bumped it around too much.  It was an astonishingly annoying way to listen to music but that didn’t occur to me until I finally got a 5th Generation iPod (the first model that also played video) and quickly began to wonder how I ever lived without it.  A few years later I gave that iPod to my father who traded me for the 80gb model that he bought without actually needing the extra space and I still have and regularly use that 80gb 5th generation iPod to this day.  I’ve never upgraded to the iPod touch because until recently they didn’t have the space capacity for my 12,000+ song music collection and even now they are making higher capacity touches I’m reluctant to switch to them as I enjoy the simplicity of a device with actual buttons and since my decade old iPod still hasn’t broken I don’t need to worry about replacing it.  Anyway, I bring this up because the new Edgar Wright film Baby Driver is, among other things, a celebration of music and the way we listen to it when on the move and it’s medium of choice is the same Apple product that revolutionized 2005 me’s various bus rides.

Baby Driver is set in contemporary Atlanta and follows a baby-faced young man who goes by the name Baby (Ansel Elgort).  Baby seems to be about eighteen and looks like he’s barely old enough to have a driver’s license and yet seems capable of driving with the speed and precision of Dominic Toretto, The Transporter, and The Driver from Drive all wrapped into one.  This skill seems to have been the result of an almost autistic drive to become a master after experiencing a traumatic car crash as a child and this has also led him to some other strange mannerisms.  He’s a very quiet person with a compulsion to record conversations he has and more importantly seems to be wearing earbuds and listening to music at almost all times.  This mix of skills have led him to be a rather unlikely getaway drivers for robbery crews and he’s currently doing this to pay off a debt to a mysterious heist planner named Doc (Kevin Spacey) who claims that Baby is only a few more jobs away from being square with him, but it quickly begins to look likely that he’s not going to let Baby get away so easily and given that Baby has recently met a young waitress named Debora (Lily James) that he’s thinking about running away with whether Doc wants him to or not.

The first thing you’ll notice about Baby Driver is that the thing has wall to wall music in the background.  There’s a very wide mix of popular music on the soundtrack from various decades and genres.  It will happily transition from The Damned to The Commodores to Beck to Young MC and more often than not it goes for the deep cuts from these artists rather than the super recognizable songs you might expect (though there are a few of those too).  At times it feels a little bit like Edgar Wright is just trying to show off how deep his knowledge of semi-obscure music runs, but he is at times able to capture what the experience of listening to pop music is like and how it can tap into your feelings and how you can use it to relate to others.  If Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was about what being a little too obsessed with videogames does to your mind Baby Driver is about what being a little too into music does to you.  What’s more Wright is able to use this music to choreograph both the action scenes and some of the quieter moments where Baby is just getting coffee or dancing around in his apartment because he’s pining for Debora.

The character of Baby is and remains a bit of a blank slate through much of the movie.  You get some sense of his past in the movie and a basic gauge of his morality but he is ultimately closer to being a collection of ticks and quirks than he is to being a fully human character and his past with the accident at times feels more like a contrivance than a believable backstory, but it is nonetheless a pretty interesting move to make an action movie starring someone like this.  I also don’t know that I really bought too much into the relationship between Baby and Debora, or at least I didn’t necessarily see what Debora saw in Baby.  There is definitely something of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl quality to Debora; she’s this amazing and almost angelic chick who just falls into Baby’s life and instantly falls madly in love with him for seemingly no reason other than that he’s nice and has cool taste in music.  That’s not a believable relationship, that’s a nerdy crate digger’s fantasy.  Granted, Edgar Wright already did try doing a dive deep into the push and pull of human relationships in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and I certainly didn’t need more of that, so maybe it’s for the best that he just stuck to a simple “boy meets girl, girl falls for boy” relationship this time around.

If the protagonist and love interest here don’t quite work perfectly Wright makes up for it by bringing a pretty entertaining assortment of colorful characters to fill in the heist crews that Baby works with.  Notably, Kevin Spacey is pretty interesting in the movie even if he isn’t really venturing too far from his usual on screen persona of being this sort of intense guy in a suit.  I guess what makes him interesting here is that he’s sort of a fish out of water; he’s ordering around these tattooed thugs and he doesn’t take himself as seriously as his exterior would have you think.  Jon Hamm also shows up playing a bank robber with a sort of Bonnie and Clyde thing going on with his girlfriend/partner in crime played by Eiza González.  It’s a pretty good vehicle for Hamm, who has been pretty desperate to show off his comedic chops after spending seven seasons playing the intense and tortured Don Draper on “Mad Men.”  This is a good vehicle for him because he can be this quirky presence while still playing things straight and using that intensity that he’s capable of.  Finally, there’s Jamie Foxx who plays this just completely unstable thug who adds a real streak of dark humor to the whole movie through his causal relationship to violence and general lack of control.

Edgar Wright is, above all, a filmmaker who is very interested in exploring genre tropes and seems particularly interested in the action movie.  With Hot Fuzz he tackled traditional action conventions through outright parody and he also examined action filmmaking in Scott Pilgrim vs. The World he also tried to examine action filmmaking by (in my opinion rather awkwardly) adding metaphoric action scenes to what is essentially a non-genre story.  With Baby Driver Wright comes closer to taking on the action movie in a more direct and somewhat sincere way.  The film is not really a comedy exactly.  It’s not aiming for a laugh at every turn and there are real deadly stakes involved in its various action scenes, but it’s not a movie that takes itself wildly seriously either.  Action movie tropes like bank heists, standoffs, and car chases are played straight but there is a subversion in that Wright seems to be removing a lot of the bravado from the proceedings.  Baby is not a typical action hero either in look or in attitude, he’s up against people who aren’t exactly the kind of evil we’re used to seeing our action heroes fight against, and by mixing almost all of them with pop music rather than Hans Zimmer scores or something Wright gives the movie an altogether different tone than someone like Michael Mann would.

As these things go I think it’s pretty to safe to say that Baby Driver is a very fun spectacle but also an ephemeral one.  It’s definitely style over substance and the character beats don’t really land as well as the themes of friendship did in Shaun of the Dead and The World’s End.  It’s been something like two days since I watched it and I can already sort of feel it escaping my memory despite how much I enjoyed watching it.  Edgar Wright has never been a filmmaker I’ve been terribly inclined to revisit the work of despite some pretty obvious talent on display and despite it in many ways his most shallow effort I can still probably see myself revisiting Baby Driver more than some of his other movies for reasons I can’t quite place my finger on.  It might simply be because it’s his least referential effort which is least reliant on overt references to other specific movies and pop culture (outside of the music).  That or maybe I just really like car chases.  Whatever it is that makes this stand out it’s probably the Edgar Wright movie I’ve most unequivocally liked since Shaun of the Dead, which was another movie that had to deal with the burden of a sort of terrible title that it will hopefully be able to overcome at the box office.

It Comes at Night(6/18/2017)

The main media story surrounding the new movie It Comes At Night has not been related to its themes or technique so much as the divide it’s caused between critics and audiences, who are divided as to its worth. This divide has been quantified in two separate metrics: its 86% score on the review aggregator site RottenTomatoes and the score of “D” that it reportedly got from the audience poll called CinemaScore. For those who don’t know, CenemaScore is a poll conducted by a professional firm which asks audiences at certain demographically selected public screenings during the opening weekend for films in order to report audience reaction back to studios. Now, if you’re a moneyman I can see why such a poll would be useful, but anyone else should take these scores with a strong grain of salt as they by their nature accept the input of the uninformed amateur rather than the input of people with any actual expertise about what they’re talking about. RottenTomatoes has its own problems but it’s certainly a more valuable resource in much the way the opinion of an actual scientist would be more useful in forming climate change policy than the opinion of a Gallup poll of the general public. Another problem with CinemaScore is that it is heavily influenced by audience expectations and tends to especially punish movies that offer audiences movies that are perhaps a bit more challenging and unique than what their advertising initially leads them to expect. Personally, I’ve always been an advocate of seeing movies with as few expectations as possible and with It Comes At Night I lived up to that more than on most movies. I don’t remember ever seeing a trailer for it and outside of hearing some of the “critics vs. audiences” story in the ether didn’t really know much about it at all before giving it a look.

As it turns out, the film is set in some not too distant future after some apocalyptic virus has killed a large portion of the population. At the film’s center is a nuclear family that’s been living in a boarded up and fortified house consisting of a father named Paul (Joel Edgerton), a wife named Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and a son named Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and until recently they’d also been living with Sarah’s father Bud (David Pendleton) but as the film begins he has somehow contracted the virus and is put out of his misery before he can spread the virus and take on whatever awful side effects it brings with it. Throughout its run time the film is always vague about exactly what the nature of the virus is and there’s also some suggestion that there’s some separate element to it, some supernatural force that exists outside of the house which has some relation to the virus that’s never really explained. The main action of the film begins when someone attempts to enter the family’s house one night and is quickly subdued and captured by the family. Upon interrogation its learned that this man is named Will (Christopher Abbott) and that he was only going through the house because he thought it was abandoned and he’s looking for clean water to bring to his wife Kim (Riley Keough) and meant no harm. Paul and Sarah are not sure whether to trust him but they see some opportunity in working with these other people so Paul embarks on a trip to investigate these other people.

It Comes at Night is ostensibly a horror movie and does play with the tropes of that genre at time, but it is perhaps more accurate to view it as a sort of procedural about post-apocalyptic survival. There’s been a lot of pop culture recently about fathers going on road trips with their kids across the American landscape after similar cataclysms, which tends to allow the audience to both experience the drama of a survival scenario and also get a glimpse at what the ravaged landscape looks like with civilization collapsed. It Comes at Night shows a similar scenario except that the parents here have opted for more of a “hunker down” rather than “stay mobile” approach to survival. In those road trip movies the challenges usually come in the form of chance encounters at every given bend, and there’s a little bit of that here, but the bigger threats are more internal and rooted in the family’s own paranoia. In this sense the film is perhaps analogous to another recent indie-horror classic The Witch, which also focused on a family removed from society and seemingly being torn apart by an outside force sowing seeds of suspicion and doubt among everyone involved.

The film was directed by a guy named Trey Edward Shults, a young director who made his feature debut last year with a micro-budget independent film called Krisha about a family reunion that goes very poorly. I wasn’t that movie’s biggest fan but I could see that there was a pretty thoughtful and interesting director behind it and was interested to see what he’d be able to do with a slightly larger budget. With It Comes at Night Shults has realized a lot of that potential. The film does a great job of establishing some of the minutia of what life in this house compound and how the family has managed to make something of a workable life for themselves in all the chaos while also underscoring the dangers their constantly facing. The movie also makes a very good use of mystery and is very wise to never really come out and explain whether there’s an outside force at work here aside from the virus and the human scavengers who may be outside and its refusal to define this force helps to add a lot of tension to the film. As the movie goes on and becomes more and more a film about paranoia and the psychological tension between the characters Shults does a good job of utilizing the layout of this house and makes it feel less and less like a cozy bunker and more like a prison where violence is about to break out.

The film is not completely without its faults of course. I probably could have done without the games that Shults occasionally plays with the film’s aspect ratio and while I liked the film’s somewhat abrupt ending in principle I can see why some people wouldn’t like it and feel like there could have been ways to punch it up just a little. And that I suppose brings be back to those audience members whose input led the film to receive that “D” CinemaScore. In many ways I feel like that score has less to do with the actual movie and more to do with the audience members’ expectations and how they were set partly by the film’s marketing (which is maybe a little misleading but not egregiously so) but in a bigger way were set by the wider modern horror landscape and their inability to see beyond it. I went into the movie with expectations of my own, which were mostly formed by hearing these stories of a critical/audience divide and was in many ways expecting something even more avant-garde than what I got. The movie is in fact, a fairly straightforward exercise from my perspective and it’s only “weird” or “slow” insomuch as it does not play out exactly like a sequel to The Conjuring or Insidious. I can see why people who went to the movie expecting something that played out like a more formulaic Hollywood film might have been a little surprised by it, but I would argue that this is less the fault of the movie and more the fault of their own closedmindedness and we as a film culture should not allow such narrow definitions of what constitutes a horror movie or any other kind of movie to be the only thing audiences are willing to accept.

I, Daniel Blake(6/11/2017)

If you’re a regular observer of the Cannes Film Festival you’ll usually notice that there are certain pet filmmakers that seem to be able to get their films into the main competition pretty much every time they make one and regardless of whether it’s actually a particularly strong effort on their part.  I’m thinking specifically of filmmakers like Nanni Moretti who Cannes seems to stand by even after they’re relevance has pretty clearly waned.  The king of this phenomenon has of course been none other than Britain’s most revered social realist Ken Loach, who seemed to get into the main competition for every movie he’s made since the turn of the century even when they are quickly dismissed trifles like Looking for Eric and Route Irish.  None of these were necessarily viewed as bad movies, but without the “Ken Loach” name attached to them I doubt that Cannes would have given them the time of day (though admittedly I’m going off of reputation).  There was of course his great 2006 film The Wind that Shakes the Barley, which actually did win the Palme d’Or but that movie (a period piece focused on the early days of the IRA) was different from his usual output and felt like a bit of an exception and while that was a deserving film its prize did feel like something of a lifetime achievement.  When his new film I, Daniel Blake showed up in the latest Cannes competition lineup it very much did not look like an exception, it looked like another The Angels Share which would get indifferent notices and come and go, but that didn’t happen.  Instead this new film beat out some stiff competition to win the Palme d’Or in an upset.  Things like that tend to make you sit up and take notice.

The Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) of the title is a carpenter in his late 50s living in contemporary Newcastle who has recently had a heart attack and has been ordered by his doctors not to return to work until he’s had a chance to recover.  Unfortunately when Blake goes to the government office to apply for disability benefits they do not simply accept this doctor recommendation and instead have him take a standardized test with questions like “can you lift your hand above your head” which determines (in the government’s eyes) that he is in fact fit to work.  He’s told he can appeal this decision but that could take a while.  Meanwhile with no ability to work and no disability benefits he’s left to simply apply for unemployment benefits despite no actual intention of accepting a new job if one were offered to him, and even this process is accompanied by its own bureaucratic nightmares.  While waiting in one of many lines he overhears a fellow benefits seeker, a single mother of two named Katie (Hayley Squires), going through a similar hassle and can’t help but speak up on her behalf.  This results in a strange sort of friendship between the two of them as Blake attempts to help Katie and her kids with some of his handyman skills but as his own situation becomes more and more desperate he becomes almost ashamed to let them see his own destitution.

I, Daniel Blake is clearly an indictment on the apparently Kafkaesque bureaucracy that is the process of getting disability benefits in the United Kingdom, and I doubt that this kind of experience is anywhere close to limited to that country.  Shortly after seeing the film I opted to check in with some relatives I know who’ve had experiences trying to work with comparable agencies in the United States and they seemed to suggest that it’s not much different here.  It was suggested that Daniel might have had a slightly easier time here as the local politicians tend to view the disabled as more “worthy” than other people in need of help (his friend Katie, the single mother, would have likely been even worse off here) but he also likely would have had to deal with major medical bills on top of his other problems given our awful healthcare system.  Really though the film is in many ways less concerned with the services that are and aren’t being offered by the government and more concerned with the barriers and the red tape that make it hard for people to get whatever services they actually are entitled to.

At one point a character advances the suggestion that these bits of government inefficiency aren’t an accident but rather an intentional tactic used by the powers that be in order to discourage people from seeking the resources their entitled to, a viewpoint that .  That is perhaps a bit simplistic and conspiratorial, some of these rules actually do have legitimate purposes, but the darker answer is that a lot of them simply exist because the voters demand them.  People harp and harp on the prospect of the “undeserving” getting government benefits and governments respond by building bureaucratic hurdle after bureaucratic hurdle.  It’s easy to complain about “government handouts” when you’re an outside observer, but the second you actually need one they suddenly don’t seem so easy to get.  I feel like Loach would have done well to drive this point home a bit more.  Because the film is so ground level it can be easy to feel like all the problems that Blake runs into are just the result of uncaring cruelty rather than shortsighted public policy.

Daniel Blake himself is played by a guy named Dave Johns who isn’t a complete non-actor as he apparently has a background in stand-up comedy, but he’s never been in a feature length film before and has that raw non-professional edge that Loach often looks for while still having the charisma to anchor a movie like this.  Blake is depicted as a stubborn and occasionally prickly guy but one who is ultimately big hearted and kind.  He also seems to get along well with all sorts of common people whether they’re down on their luck single mothers or his black neighbors who are running a hustle involving imported sneakers.  In some ways I found Loach’s decision to make Blake into such a likable protagonist to be somewhat simplistic as one of the great tensions in the world today is that these white working-class figures are all too often intolerant trump voters and immigrant bashing brexiters of the kind people just don’t care too much to help.  I certainly understand the impulse to make Blake a paragon of the proletariat in order to build empathy but I feel like a more challenging film could have been made by trying to build empathy for someone who was a bit more flawed.

When Ken Loach made the film Jimmy’s Hall in 2015 a lot of people interpreted it as a swan song from the octogenarian filmmaker and as an attempt to go out on a slightly more upbeat note after having made so many movies about people who were rather miserable.  Rumors of his retirement proved to be unfounded though and he’s followed that movie with another film that could be a worthy final movie and one that is perhaps a bit more in keeping with the tone and style that Loach built his career on.  The basic filmmaking style here is serviceable and Loach is not necessarily presenting the kind of bold vision that one would usually associate with a Palm d’Or winner, but its look at society and at the life of its protagonist does prove to be affecting and will definitely leave you with some food for thought.

4

Graduation(4/29/2017)

5-6-2017Graduation

Every great cinema movement usually has one filmmaker in it who acts as a standard bearer and for the Romanian New Wave that figurehead is almost certainly Cristian Mungiu, who was the first Romanian filmmaker to win the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival.  That winning film was 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days, an intense but realistic film about back alley abortions in Ceaușescu’s Romania, and it was one of the landmark arthouse movies of the last ten years.  After that film’s success Mungiu used his newfound clout to make his next film Beyond the Hills on a slightly bigger scale.  That film examined the role of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Romanian society and the way women are treated with in it as well as the divide between urban and rural society.  His new film, Graduation, is a little more modest but has clear depths to it in its examination of contemporary Romanian society and family dynamics.  When it debuted in Cannes it was greeted as another success for the director and won an award for Best Director, but it maybe didn’t quite make the splash that his earlier films made.

Graduation is set in contemporary Romania and follows a skilled surgeon named Romeo Aldea (Adrian Titieni) whose daughter Eliza (Maria Drăguș) is about to graduate from high school.  Eliza is a strong student who has already earned a scholarship to study at Cambridge but this scholarship is dependent on getting high marks on a series of heavily proctored SAT-like exams.  Going into the movie Romeo isn’t too worried about her chances of passing these exams, but that changes when she’s assaulted on the street by a man who appears to have been an escaped convict.  This throws her and Romeo worries that the trauma will put her at a big disadvantage during the exams and could throw her hopes of getting that scholarship out the window.  As such he does what any good helicopter parent would do and uses a contact he has in the ministry of education in order to try to give her scores a boost in the off chance she underperforms.  This is very much out of character for Romeo, who has long been disgusted by the kind of corruption that occurs in Romania, which is a big part of why he’s so excited for his daughter to study abroad.  It also goes against much of what he’s taught his daughter about integrity and given that she would need to mark the exam in order for it to be pulled and given special treatment it puts her in an oddly compromised position and makes her reconsider her father.

Depending on your perspective Graduation could be viewed as a critique on a culture of corruption that exists in modern Romania, or it could be viewed as a look at the hypocrisy of one man and the consequences of his sanctimonious views, or it could be viewed as some combination of the two.  The protagonist is notably not a patriot, or at the very least he’s a very frustrated one; it’s established early on that he and his wife once lived abroad and returned to Romania after the fall of the Ceaușescu regime hoping to make a difference.  He was disappointed in what he came home to and now believes that the only hope for his daughter is for her to move abroad.   However, it becomes clear that in many ways this is a classic “this isn’t my dream, it’s your dream” when looked at from his daughter’s perspective.  From a certain perspective the father’s pessimism perhaps seems overblown, snobbish almost, and that may especially be true when looked at from the perspective of someone who has grown up in this environment.

At the same time, Romeo is the film’s protagonist and you do see his point of view in all of this.  Everything had seemed to be plotted out perfectly for him and seemed to be going so well until his daughter was attacked on the worst possible week and suddenly started rebelling and having second thoughts about her future on the worst possible week.  He’s certainly right to want her to keep her options open, and you can also see why he’d justify the lengths that he’d go to in order to ensure she had a leg up.  After all, if everyone else in the country is getting theirs why shouldn’t he get his?  However, it’s that one moment of failure that’s ultimately his downfall.  I’m reminded a bit of Michael Stuhlbarg’s character from A Serious Man, whose life turns into a Jobian trial as he considers selling out his principals once.

Stylistically Graduation is less bold than 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days and Beyond the Hills and perhaps more closely resembles the look of some of Cristian Mungiu’s Romanian contemporaries, especially Corneliu Porumboiu, but that choice does fit this particular movie well enough.  The movie actually kind of reminds me of one of the movies that it was competing against at last year’s Cannes Film Festival: Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman.  The two films actually do have the shared theme of men reacting in less than appropriate ways to women in their lives being attacked, but really what the two films have in common is that they’re in the slightly awkward position of being very good movies unto themselves while also kind of being the weakest efforts from their respective filmmakers.  Of the three films Cristian Mungiu has made since his breakout this is clearly the third best to me but that maybe says more about those other films than it does about this one.

4