I, Daniel Blake

I, Daniel Blake

I am a citizen; nothing more and nothing less.

As far as I know, the only Ken Loach film I’d seen before this one was Kes, so I didn’t have much of a handle on Loach as a director. Thus, in my usual bit of research into these films before I see them, I looked into Loach himself, who is apparently quite the political hotrod as a director in the U.K., which I hadn’t been aware of. Watching a film like I, Daniel Blake, however, this becomes readily apparent, as the film itself deals with the unemployment system in England and how all the red tape and bureaucracy dehumanize the regular working man instead of treating them like people and managing to help them. Seeing as I am not in the exact same situation as the Daniel Blake of the film, but understanding and empathizing with his circumstances, I was able to view this film from both angles; as someone who would be outraged at the treatment of Blake as the film puts across, while also being aware that this is a film that is deliberately trying to put this sort of thing across. That might not be Loach’s intention with his making this; he would likely rather that I be squarely in the former camp, but the specificity of the circumstances in the film unfortunately limits that possibility from happening, with me and with the general cinematic public as well. Even so, I, Daniel Blake manages to work as a pretty decent film, despite the limited range of the film’s genesis as a cinematic cattle-prod.

Daniel Blake is a hard-headed, decent-working man in northern England who’s just survived a heart attack, and wants nothing more than to get healthy again and go back to work. Being an average man in the system, however, he’s put through the bureaucratic runaround, seeing as one government agency says he’s fit to work and thus ineligible for employment assistance, and his doctor and physician are saying he’s not yet healthy enough to return to his job. It’s through his running around in the system that he happens to meet Katie, a young single mother just moved to the area who’s also stuck in the system trying to get a job, and the two end up befriending one another and trying to help each other get by, especially as Daniel’s case leads him toward appeal court through the same system that’s been treating him like a statistic or a number instead of as a human being. The first thing that becomes very apparent watching I, Daniel Blake is that this isn’t a film with the purpose of wowing you with how well-made a film it is; the technicals are enough to get by and get the story told, and little more than that. No, this is a film that has something to say, with well-constructed characters put into positions to get the narrative point across through their actions and what happens as a result of their actions. Chief among these assets is the main character himself, Daniel Blake, played by Dave Johns, who manages to keep Blake humane and relatable even and sometimes because of his short temper regarding his bureaucratic situation. Secondary in the constellation of characters Blake interacts with is Katie, who provides a sympathetic foil for Blake as well as a backup for his endeavors, which proves essential when the film gets into its endgame. Also, heads up on the accents in the film; it’s not nearly as indecipherable as Kes, but it’ll take a few minutes or so to get used to.

There’s really very little to be said about this film, which makes it of course a struggle for someone like me to try and write a review about it. If you can take to what this film says about its world and what the characters go through, it will be very affecting; if not, then it will only be mildly so, if that. That’s unfortunately all I’m able to scrounge up in regards to I, Daniel Blake, which is a bit of a shame since the film itself really wants to be a lot more than that, and the only reason it’s not is because of how specific its drive is towards what it wants to say. I’m actually a little surprised this managed to win the Palme d’Or, as stripped-down as it is, but I guess it just hit the right note with the jury that year. It hit a hard note with me as well, but again, as I am not essentially the same man as Daniel Blake, it didn’t hit that note as hard as it otherwise would’ve. And, to repeat a recurring statement with my reviews towards films like this, I’m not convinced this is really a must-see film, but (again) neither is it a poor watch should you decide to see it.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Victoria

Victoria

“Are you scared?” “I’m never scared.”

Victoria seemed to be one of this year’s incongruous additions to the list, just unknown enough to make me wonder why the editors decided to add it… Then I looked up the film, and found out the gimmick, and it suddenly made sense. Victoria is yet another single-take film, where the whole film was literally shot in one take, with no cuts or video editing at all; a feat that would be impressive and novel had it not been done by other films before, including one that already made the list. So, why is the single-take film that is Victoria special enough to warrant another spot in the Book? I watched it with this question in mind, and the more the film went on, the more I began to wonder if my question would actually get answered.

The film starts out finding the titular Victoria, a Madrid-native uprooted and living in Germany, partying in a club in Berlin, in the early morning night-time hours. After leaving, she runs into a group of four guys, which includes Sonne, who takes a liking to Victoria and she to him. After they spend some time cavorting around Berlin, the group leaves Victoria to open the cafe where she works, implying that there is something the group has to do. Shortly after, however, they return, as one of their group is too drunk to help the others, and reluctantly, Sonne asks Victoria to step in and be the fourth in their group for whatever it is they have to do, and she agrees, sparking a wild and unforeseen series of events when the group finds out their mission. Obviously, the big selling point to this is the fact that the whole film is a single, unbroken take, and it is extremely impressive that the film manages to be so given everything that happens in the plot. But what’s probably most surprising is that the film still manages to tell a complete story even with its gimmick, though the point of the story might’ve been slightly lost the more the film decides to go on, as far as the ending is concerned in my opinion. Despite a large percentage of the dialogue being in English, there is still quite a bit of German spoken as well, and the version I watched did not have any subtitles for the German spoken in the film, which I was a little perturbed about in the beginning. The more the film went on, though, I actually started to appreciate the lack of translation; it got me more into the mindset of Victoria herself, as she spoke very little German herself and thus couldn’t understand the others when they spoke it, so we as the viewer can more readily put ourselves in her shoes as she goes through this wild experience for herself. One can always look up the full synopsis on Wikipedia afterwards to fill in the blanks as necessary, in case one decides to see this the same way I did.

Don’t get me wrong; Victoria is quite the experience, and that it is a one-take film certainly heightens the experience. But is this an experience one must have before they die? As I said in the opener, I viewed the film with this in mind, and even with the single-take nature of it, by the end I wasn’t convinced that it really needed to have been added to the list. I even reviewed the Book’s blurb about this one, which went on about how the eponymous character starts the film out one way and ends it entirely transformed, as if this big, massive character arc had taken place, and I was a little stymied as to how they arrived at such a conclusion, given how the film (to me) was largely about the actions performed and not really about why they were performed or what happens to the characters as a result of them. Mild spoilers aside, the drop-off nature of the ending in particular seemed to signal to me that the filmmakers, the more the film went on, were more and more amazed that the single take was actually working and less invested in what they actually wanted to say with the film in question instead of just getting the take on film and clapping their hands afterwards. This pretty much makes Victoria amount to a heck of a technical achievement, and little more than that. Still, it was watchable, if a little long in running time, so your mileage may vary with this one.

Arbitrary Rating: 7/10

Hell or High Water

Hell or High Water

I don’t know how you’re gonna survive without someone to outsmart.

I don’t really know what I was expecting with Hell or High Water; in all honesty, when I was making potshot guesses as to the other Best Picture nominees of this past year that stood a chance of making the 1001 list, I’d pegged Hacksaw Ridge over this one. I’d heard the good will towards this going into the Oscars last year, but didn’t really have any reason to want to see it, so to have it added to the list, essentially making me see it much earlier than I otherwise would’ve, I was nevertheless ambivalent when I actually sat down to start it. Now that it’s finished, I can understand my ambivalence a little better, as even though I’ve now seen the film, I still feel a slight bit of ‘nothing’ in regards to my desire towards watching the film. But, and here’s the key point for me, that is not to say that Hell or High Water isn’t a really solid film, all ambivalence aside.

Chris Pine and Ben Foster are two Texan brothers who, at the beginning of the film, rob two branches of a Texas-based bank; Foster proving himself the wilder of the two, while Pine seems to be the cooler head, the brains behind what’s going on. It soon becomes apparent that there actually is something going on, a greater plan behind the brothers’ actions, especially as Pine’s character has no criminal record at all up to this point. To figure out what’s happening and to bring in the two brothers is Jeff Bridges as an old-hat, salt-of-the-earth Texas Ranger, who’s spending his last couple weeks or so on the job doing little but playfully belittling his Native American partner until the brothers’ case comes his way, and he and the brothers work their way in and around and toward each other as the boys try and get their plan wrapped down before Bridges’ ranger can work out where they’re headed next. If that plot summary sounds like I’m sorta fumbling around what actually happens in the film, I am; a lot of the film is poised such as to get us to wonder what’s going on, or what’s coming next, and there is a distinct air of mystery to the proceedings as we try and figure out along with the Rangers what the two brothers are really up to. I also tried to stress the Texas upbringing that the film is absolutely saturated in; this film is Texan in every which way, down to its very core. The whole experience comes across very much as a slightly watered version of No Country for Old Men; No Country’s eager if elementary little brother, so to speak, which, as a comparison, isn’t one a film like this wouldn’t necessarily want to strive towards, so to see Hell or High Water embrace this aspect of itself so fully is highly encouraging. The performances from the cast were also really solid, especially Ben Foster, who steals nearly every scene he’s in, but Pine and Bridges are up to the task of carrying the film themselves when they need to.

This film, for me, ended up being a good lesson in how to approach the worth or value of a film (provided the film itself has worth or value). A lot of films, especially on the list, are there because they are important in some way, or unique in some other way, or special in some third way, etc. That’s all well and good for something like the list, but it’s not really a good way of determining if a film, any film, is worth the time put into it. Hell or High Water is a great example of a film that is none of the above things, but still gets by on the fact that it’s just a really good film all around. Sometimes, a film doesn’t need to be important, or unique, or one-of-a-kind; all that really matters is that it be good – well-written, well-made, and well-performed, and Hell or High Water is absolutely all of those things. Now, I can’t say that a film like Hell or High Water is worth a spot on this list, or that it will survive future revisions, but I can be glad that it was added just for the fact that it got me to see the film; a film that may not seem like it at first, but ends up being worth your time in the end.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea

I can’t beat it. I’m sorry.

I’d never heard of writer/director Kenneth Lonergan before Manchester by the Sea, and considering he’d only made two feature films before this one, that’s not as surprising as it might sound at first glance. Well, rest assured, whatever he might have on his docket next, it and he are squarely on my radar now. Manchester by the Sea was basically this year’s little-film-that-could at the Oscars, getting a Best Picture nom as well as accolades for the major players in front of and behind the camera, including a win for lead actor Casey Affleck. I’d seen the trailer and heard the hype coming from Sundance about the film, and actually decided to see it in theaters, so this ended up being my second viewing of the film, and it was no less inspiring and definitely no less heart-rending. Given the restraint that oozes out of every pore of this film, both from the actors and the filmmakers themselves, it’s amazing how affecting this film manages to be.

Lee Chandler lives outside of Boston, Massachusetts, largely going through his day-to-day routine being a janitor and handyman at an apartment complex, until he gets a phone call that his brother Joe has passed away from a recurring heart defect. Driving back to his previous hometown, Manchester-by-the-Sea, he learns through Joe’s will that he has been named guardian of Joe’s now-fatherless 16-year-old, Patrick, and through several circumstances involving the funeral arrangements, Lee is forced to stay in Manchester until the upcoming spring; something that Lee is very wont not to do, due to the circumstances in his past that caused him to leave Manchester behind entirely. The film largely follows the narrative of Lee as he goes through this process pretty much in straight chronology, punctuated by skips backward in time as Lee remembers his brother and his previous life in Manchester, or rather as his memories intrude into his present, almost unwillingly so, from the way the editing of the film is put together. That right there is the beauty of Manchester by the Sea; this is the type of film where the narrative, while being there and solid, is there to hold up the characters, and specifically what they are going through due to the narrative, and it’s through Lonergan’s script and subtle direction, Affleck’s performance, and the way the film is constructed that what the characters are going through is so apparent and effective, even and especially because of all the restraint exhibited by all involved. I’ve been a fan of Casey Affleck’s since his nominated supporting role in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and part of the allure of this film to me was the one quote on the poster up there, proclaiming Affleck’s work in this to be the stuff of giants. Needless to say, he does not disappoint; here, Affleck is a simmering pot of emotions, barely perceptible on the surface, but absolutely visible and discernible to us the audience due to Affleck’s skill and talent at making the internals of his character fully observable, despite his character’s tangibly holding himself back from feeling everything his body wants him to feel. Lucas Hedges also surprised and impressed me, especially because I’d previously seen him only in a much more quirky role in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem, and here he shows that he’s got a real future ahead of him, if he keeps at it with roles like this one. Rounding out the major players is Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife Randy, and Williams is good as well (though that’s to be expected of her by now), particularly in the film’s most gutting scene where Randy and Lee meet face-to-face after all they’ve been through, and Randy tries to apologize to Lee for all of it. Many Oscar noms have happened due to one particular scene for the actor, and I’d wager Williams’ nomination for this film is a result of that scene alone.

The thing I love most about this film is that, when you take into account the bits and pieces that make up the narrative and the characters, it really shouldn’t work, at least not as a Hollywood picture. The fact that it does, though, and that it does so beautifully, is in my opinion a testament to how versatile and effective cinema can be as a medium. You don’t need to follow the Hollywood formula to be a good or even great film, and Manchester by the Sea is only the latest example of such a picture that still manages to succeed in the popular and critical circles. I’m really enamored of this film, for many reasons, and that it works almost despite itself is probably one of the major ones. That said, if one doesn’t take to the particular type of entertainment value that this film has to offer, I can see why they would largely want to write this off, though they’d be making a very short-sighted mistake in doing so. This is definitely a film greater than the sum of its parts, and I got just as much out of it this second time around (perhaps more so) than I did the first time I saw it. That’s a great film by my definition.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10

13th

13th

We have to understand that, in order to escape from it.

13th, a documentary by filmmaker Ava DuVernay, takes its title from the 13th Amendment, which ended slavery and freed all those ensnared in it… but, argues the documentary, was slavery really ended? Or did it merely take a different form? It’s a little obvious to say that there’s a multitude of political issues at work with a subject like this; a multitude of political stances one can take in regards to this subject matter. I wasn’t concerned with that, at least not in my watching the documentary itself. For me, with 13th being a documentary, it really had one goal; not just to cover its subject thoroughly and invite discussion about it, but to get me to care about watching a documentary about the subject in the first place, which is something too few documentaries over the years have really tried to do. Well, coming out of my viewing of it now, I can say: I care. I absolutely do.

The film purports to be about how the criminal justice system has been and is abusing the black population of America, mostly by having the prison population be so disproportionately African-American, but where DuVernay really succeeds is making what this film is about a lot more than that. The film is actually about a number of topics, all covered with a heaping helping of style coupled with plenty of hip-hop and rap music to underline the film’s main points. And when I say style, I mean it; when I first started the film, I was actually a little bit in danger of writing it off almost entirely just based on DuVernay’s sense of presentation, which seemed to overshadow whatever point she was only on the cusp of making. The rap music, for instance, is used as an inter-topic transition, with the key words of the music appearing in giant letters on the screen a la Jean-Luc Godard; not to mention each time the word ‘criminal’ is spoken by an interviewee, DuVernay interposes a giant title card bearing the word in all-caps, bludgeoning you with what it seemed she wants you to feel about what she’s talking about. The more the film went on, though, the more it became apparent what she was really doing; DuVernay explores a bunch of seemingly barely-related topics, but, while doing so, still manages a tangentially-perceptible insidiousness underlying everything she covers that serves to make her actual point: that everything she is covering is, in reality, all about holding down and keeping down the post-13th-Amendment black population, which then evolved into the concept of finding a way to exploit them both for financial gain and for gain of additional power – hence how blacks are so commonly arrested, or even killed, all by the for-profit prison system.

This is effective, almost evilly so; it worms its way into your trust, so that at the end of it, you don’t even realize that you’ve been made to think about the whole situation the way DuVernay wants you to think about it. It’s to DuVernay’s, and the producers’, credit that this inception, this sense of manipulation is being used as a force for good, for positive cultural change; quite the opposite of what’s been happening and being used against the African-American population since the aftermath of the Civil War by all the powers that be, on both sides of the aisle. It’s pretty ingenious, if indeed it is intentional, and I’d like to think that it is. I’m really glad to have seen this, even if I felt mildly ill after my viewing of it; this is the sort of thing that really does need to be seen, as basically a cultural responsibility in today’s day and age. You may not want to, and you may even feel disgruntled if made to, but it is a point that needs to be hammered in, or bludgeoned with, if we are to better ourselves as a community, as a culture, and as a species. Not just a race, but as a people.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

Toni Erdmann

Toni Erdmann

I just don’t know if you’re always doing as well as you say you are.

I dunno; maybe I’m just a touch too cynical a person. I looked at the poster up there, with all the quotes all over it proclaiming that this would be a laugh riot, hilarious and moving as well, and so I went into the film expecting it to be… a laugh riot, hilarious and moving as well. Again, this is the cynic in me talking, but: I guess I should be shamed for going into a film expecting it to be what it says on the tin. I believe I only laughed once during the nearly three hour running time of Toni Erdmann, and thanks to my ability to infer everything this film was going to try and do with its story and characters once I’d gotten used to them, which took about fifteen minutes, the film became a nearly-three-hour exercise in seeing a film perfectly play out exactly as I’d inferred it would. Add to it that the film was trying to derive basically all of its humor from awkwardness and uncomfortable situations, a la Bridesmaids, and I was none too pleased to be forced to sit through this one.

Winfried Conradi is a retired music teacher with little to do, as well as a humor streak within him the length of his arm, which he exercises by pulling pranks and jokes on basically everyone who comes into contact with him. This includes his businesswoman daughter, Ines, who takes her life as seriously as you’d expect a business contractor to a major oil company would do, and thus her father’s constant joking when he’s around her is an incessant source of discomfort. When he surprises her by showing up at one of her assignments in Bucharest, their natural butting-heads comes to a small breaking point, and he leaves her apartment to head home. A few nights later, with Ines at a bar with her friends, in enters Toni Erdmann, with scraggy black hair and the weirdest set of teeth the women have ever seen; they and the hair are fake, of course, because the man is clearly Winfried, who seems intent on interrupting his daughter’s life to inject a little spontaneity and humor in whatever way Ines would least prefer him to do so. It’s after a few meetings that Ines realizes her father isn’t going to stop, and so she begins to play along and challenge his authenticity to the pseudo-role. I kinda wish there was more to talk about with Toni Erdmann than just the story and characters, but there really isn’t, since most of what I would otherwise talk about was minimal and basic in every regard. So, with that said, the two main characters of the film are well fleshed out in their own right, and the film does reach a humane moment in the end that feels earned, if only because the film spends so much time getting there. But, with the film being marketed as quite possibly the funniest films of the year, I couldn’t help but feel let down at how little amusement I got from the film. I even use the word amusement instead of laughs to try and broaden the category a tad, since the film’s actual content consists largely of the uncomfortable tete-a-tete between Ines and Winfried (often in his Erdmann persona), but even then, there was little amusement for me, mostly because I was able to infer what the film wanted me to get before it even began trying to get me there, as I said in the opener. Maybe I was a little too struck down by films like Bridesmaids that I can’t even enjoy a modestly-awkward film like this one, I don’t know.

I pretty much feel like I have to apologize to basically the rest of the cinematic community for how I ended up on this one, which makes me feel more than a little indignant. Everyone who’s anyone in the critical community loved this to high heaven, and I’m sitting here after sitting through the film, going: yeah, it’s got a nice moment at the end, with a nice lesson to impart, but was it really worth it? Was it really worth everything the film puts on the screen and goes through? Really? The fact that I ended up with that opinion of the film at all suggests to me that; no, it really isn’t, and that I feel like it’s being required of me to love this more than I do makes me really, really frustrated. Again, maybe I’m just more cynical than the average person. I actually felt pretty solid about tackling the running time of this one when I went into it today, and that I’ve come out of it on the other end feeling the way I feel… I just really don’t want to feel this way. I tried with Toni Erdmann, and maybe it’s that I’m not ending up with everyone else about it that’s making me the most frustrated of all.

Arbitrary Rating: 6/10

Moonlight

Moonlight

You gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.

Ed. Note: I’ve decided the best way to juggle the new 1001 films along with the current Best Picture odyssey, remembering that I’d need to keep each Best Picture year relatively fresh in my head for the Judging Oscar segments, is to not juggle; I’m gonna put Best Picture on hold until I’ve finished with the new additions. I technically haven’t started 1939 yet, so I’m gonna hold off on doing so until I’m done with 1001 again, and hopefully the influx of newer, (hopefully) worthwhile films will reinvigorate my odyssey once I get back to it.

I’m sure anybody reading this is aware of the hilarity that occurred at the Academy Awards this past year, when the wrong envelope was given out for the final award, resulting in the wrong film being announced as the winner of Best Picture; the producers of that film, La La Land, even fully gave their speeches before the mistake was finally made known, and the real winner was able to be recognized: Moonlight. Now, most of the shock that occurred when Moonlight’s win was uncovered was justified; La La Land went into the ceremony the overwhelming favorite to win, especially having tied the record for the most Oscar nominations for a single film, and the two other films it tied with eventually went on to win Best Picture themselves, so really it was the upset win of the night, especially with how it went down. So, did Moonlight actually deserve the win? Is it really a better overall film than La La Land? Now, having seen both films, I feel I can say: Yes, it is. It’s by a smaller margin than I was expecting going into the film, but I feel the Academy made the right decision, at least between the two films.

The film is a three-part tale of one young man, who goes by a different name or nickname in each section, growing up as a black adolescent in a drug-dealing neighborhood of Miami (the location isn’t as important as the rest, though). His mother, a drug addict herself, is hardly a positive influence on his life, and indeed he is basically without such people until a chance encounter with Juan, a drug dealer himself, who becomes the young man’s de facto role model in a much more beneficial way than you would think a drug dealer would be. Each of the three stages of the young man’s life, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, is a different story, but each shares thematic elements among the entire film. What separates Moonlight from most of the other coming-of-age dramas in recent memory is two things: the protagonist, Chiron, is both a black youth in America, as well as a gay youth in America, and it’s these two things combined that provide most of the dramatic characterization in Chiron’s story; him trying to figure out what kind of person he is, with all the conflicting influences and obstacles in his life. Despite the film’s setting and narrative, which would seem to make the story rife with conflict, there is surprisingly little of it in Moonlight, though it is there at the film’s key junctions. What there is instead in Moonlight is mood; the film treats its material with a soft touch, a quiet reverence, that amplifies the effect of the film’s importance in regards to Chiron and his growing up, but not enough so as to be inflating the story to heights it otherwise has no business being in. The cinematography is slight, but effective; the acting is muted, but with enough knowhow to flare up when it needs to to make things happen; everything about the film was perfectly paced and controlled, but not in an ostentatious way like other films (like The Revenant, which has everything amped to eleven).

I was impressed as hell that this was director Barry Jenkins’s second ever feature; it had a finesse and a control to it that most features, even of today, seemed to lack. Most of all, though, what I liked about it was how pure a film it was; how simple it was, which only seemed to enhance its effect. I can absolutely see how many people are regarding it as the best overall film of 2016; I don’t know if my opinion of it got to that level, but I certainly appreciated the heck out of this. More than anything, it was exactly what it needed to be, and it was thanks that what it needed to be was at such a high standard that it’s ending up as critically lauded as it is, I think. Kudos to Jenkins, and kudos to the Academy for recognizing this one; it was definitely worth seeing.

Arbitrary Rating: 9/10