The temptation to just throw this review together, right off the bat, straight after seeing I, Daniel Blake, was admittedly huge. It’s such an emotionally-charged film; a call to arms if you will. The fact that I didn’t, and the fact that much mud-slinging seems to have ensued between director Ken Loach and some of the press ever since, potentially could have coloured my opinion.
But it hasn’t, and quite frankly it couldn’t.
The UK benefits system was put in place as a safety net for those who truly needed it, but successive cuts in its funding, together with a myriad of other contributory factors, have resulted in a fundamentally flawed system which is evidently no longer up to the job – a point that apparently so enraged director Ken Loach, it drove him out of retirement to make a film about it.
I, Daniel Blake is a harsh and damning depiction of welfare Britain in these times of such bitter hardship, repackaged as the rather more palatable ‘austerity.’
Arguably, nowhere is austerity felt so keenly than in the bubble that is London; a city in which vast swathes of admittedly unsightly social housing are now routinely bull-dozered to make way for pristine new private housing developments in which only the truly moneyed can afford to live, despite the nonsense concept of so called ‘affordable housing.’
The displaced tenants from said social housing are then re-homed (if they’re lucky), far and away from where they’d previously been; away from their work, away from their family, their circles of friends and so on.
One victim of such ‘progress’ is Londoner and single mother of two, Katie (the excellent Hayley Squires), who, incredibly, owing to the paucity of available social housing in or close to London, finds herself relocated to Newcastle.
Here, she meets Daniel Blake (a truly superb turn from Dave Johns).
Whilst attempting to sign-on, Katie rather harshly falls victim to the benefits system’s zero tolerance policy on appointment tardiness, leaving her and her young family, new council house-aside, effectively destitute. Daniel, a man no stranger himself to being on the receiving end of unjust decisions by the state, attempts to step in and reason with the staff, but it’s all to no avail.
Daniel’s heart condition has been preventing him from working, much to his frustration. Mercifully, until recently it has not been a financial burden to him thanks to sickness benefit payments, but following a reassessment of his circumstances, such an ailment is no longer deemed sufficient to keep him from working. Yes, thanks to the newly implemented sickness benefits points system, Daniel Blake, in the eyes of the state at least, is fit to work.
In spite of such adversity, Daniel and Katie strike up a strong bond of friendship. Daniel, a carpenter by trade, is only too happy to fix up Katie’s new council house for her and to help her and her young family to settle into the area, something she is most grateful for.
It’s very much an ‘us against the world’ scenario that develops, and with each other’s support and dependability, there seems to at least be a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel for them all.
This, however, is twenty-first century Britain…
On one level, I, Daniel Blake, when broken down into its constituent parts, is a bit of a tick-box exercise, addressing one by one the faults and inadequacies of a government whose austere policies have led to such devastating poverty and hardship amongst Britain’s working classes. But that very much fails to take into account the fact that Ken Loach’s film, serving as something of a totem to his own personal crusade against such injustices, is a work of immense power and impact.
I, Daniel Blake depicts lives that are driven through sheer desperation to make decisions and engage in activities which bring them to the point of utter personal shame and mental fragility. Indeed, it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by one particular set of events that unfold in a food bank.
Perhaps most soul-destroying of all though is Daniel’s own story. A man entering into the twilight years of his life, still very much wanting to work, yet beginning to resign himself to the fact that due to his deteriorating health, probably will not do so again.
He is one of a generation of skilled manual workers that have always relied upon their good health to make their living. Their’s is a life that requires little or no adaptation to technology, largely unaware of its substantial impact upon modern life. However, with the government’s insistence that he must now find work, but unable to work any longer within his trade of choice, Daniel suddenly discovers that he is one of Britain’s forgotten people.
Computer illiterate and out of touch with modern practices and techniques, despite the attempts of the younger generation to help him out, Daniel remains something of a fish out of water. Largely invisible and irrelevant within today’s job market, he is forced to jump through hoops by the state in order to be deemed worthy of receiving his paltry fortnightly hand-out.
Whereas the youth, with age on their side, will find ways to roll with the punches, adjusting and adapting to their predicament as they go, through both an inability and reluctance to do so, Daniel struggles to implement the necessary changes into his life, and his is therefore a resigned, steady decline into both poverty and depression.
I, Daniel Blake is bleak viewing yet profoundly moving, punctuated by genuinely heart-warming displays of humanity and gritty northern gallows humour; all in the face of such a hamstrung and at times appallingly inadequate system.
Of course, no-one is pretending that the current government didn’t find themselves with a considerable financial deficit to address. No-one is pretending that there aren’t some that cheat and ‘play’ the system. No-one is under any illusions that the country’s ever expanding population and an open door immigration policy hasn’t put a considerable strain on the welfare system, and no-one is expecting money to be magic’d out of thin air in order to plug the considerable holes in the welfare budget.
But to use such excuses as a reason not to address this nation’s alarmingly high levels of poverty and an under-funded welfare system, is both immoral, and completely misses the point.
We live in a deeply unjust class system, to state the bleedin’ obvious. A system which seems hell-bent on eliminating the middle classes, leaving instead two very disparate ways of life. A land of haves and have-nots. It’s arguably always been this way – to an extent at least – but the exaggerated nature of the present chasm between the two, and the rapidly diminishing options available to us to do something about it, is truly disturbing.
More than anything though, we live in a system which, from top to bottom, simply does not have the interests and wellbeing of its people – ALL of its people – as its primary focus.
And that is a truly damning indictment of a morally bankrupt, deeply troubled society that has been created, and in which we live.
Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) has a certain sadness in her eyes, much like her mother. At least that’s what she is told.
Like mother, like daughter?
A successful modern artist, she lives a largely unfulfilled life, rattling around in the huge, minimalist mansion that she shares with her mainly absent husband, Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer). Theirs is a cold, rather loveless relationship, born out of material desires and misplaced priorities.
It’s also a relationship that came about in the most callous fashion, very much at the expense of Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal), an author and Susan’s ex-husband.
Susan had married Edward much to the chagrin of her materialistic, Republican parents. Her mother, Anne, in particular, (a small cameo part by the excellent Laura Linney), had implored her not to go through with it. Against her mother’s advice, however, Susan gets married, but as the old saying suggests: “the apple never falls far from the tree,” and Susan’s inherited latent desire for material possessions, greater financial support and security leads her, in a calculated move, away from Edward, and into the arms of Hutton, a wealthy business man and second husband-to-be.
With the unfaithful Hutton away on yet another of his ‘business’ trips, and home alone as ever, Susan is surprised to receive a draft copy of Edward’s new novel in the post, entitled ‘Nocturnal Animals.’ This is a term that has significant personal meaning for her from her time together with Edward, many years earlier.
It’s the first contact the two of them have had for some nineteen years. Not only this, Edward has even dedicated his new book to her, citing Susan as his influence to finally be able to write something of worth and of which he is proud.
Excited by their renewed acquaintance, yet fully aware that she had never been supportive of Edward’s writing when they were together – in fact going as far as to suggest that he should return to school rather than continue with his creative passion – Susan is shocked at just how enthralling she finds his book. The novel’s content, however, gradually proves to be just a little too close to home for comfort.
Does this book merely strike a chord with a lonely, abandoned woman, or does Edward’s writing hint at something altogether more sinister? Some kind of stark reminder to Susan of tough times past, or worse still, a thinly-veiled threat of revenge?
Nocturnal Animals is director Tom Ford’s highly stylised thriller, based upon Austin Wright’s novel Tony and Susan. Essentially it’s three stories intertwined strategically. Susan’s current life, Susan’s lamentable past with Edward, and the narrative of Edward’s new novel.
Edward’s book is actually a fairly straight forward story of wrong-doing, regret and revenge, with Gyllenhaal, superb, cast for a second time as the story’s lead, Tony Hastings. He is a family man, driving through the night along a deserted West Texas highway with his wife and teenage daughter (Laura and India Hastings, played by Isla Fisher and Ellie Bamber).
Tony and his family become unavoidably involved with a gang of rednecks en route who physically force their car off the road, and set about abusing them both physically and psychologically. It’s a set of events with life-changing consequences, and it’s only the efforts and single-mindedness of local Policeman, Bobby Andes, (the ever-excellent Michael Shannon), that ultimately convinces mild-mannered Tony that justice, no matter how, can and must be done.
Susan’s realisation that Edward’s book is perhaps less fictional yarn and more a poignant metaphor for their ill-fated years together, develops slowly but tellingly. Right down to the small details, the parallels that Edward draws between past life and fiction are striking and through his books characters, he systematically sets about attempting to right the wrongs and redress the issues of yesteryear; issues that he seems never to have been able to come to terms with.
Such is the temptation and ease with which Tony’s story can be misinterpreted as an extension of Edward’s subsequent life, post-Susan, and so engaging is his tale, that it’s actually very easy to blur the lines here between reality and fiction, rendering us unable or even unwilling sometimes to separate the two, leading this viewer at least, to begin to doubt his own interpretation of the film’s events.
Far from this being a negative point though, such confusion merely makes us probe ever deeper, immersing ourselves in, and reading between the lines of, Edward’s metaphorical tale.
Nocturnal Animals is visually sumptuous (shades of The Neon Demon and Only God Forgives), as one would expect from director, and fashioner designer, Tom Ford.
It’s slick without sacrificing any of its edge. It’s beautifully paced, and above all, incredibly involving from start to finish, with a top class cast that extracts the very maximum from Ford’s impressive screenplay.
Like some sort of perfect storm of style, substance, and impact, Tom Ford has struck just the right balance to produce a film that burns itself deep in the ol’ grey matter.
Expect this to feature come awards season.
I don’t imagine there could be anything more grief-inducing or soul-destroying for a parent than having the child that they’ve painstakingly brought into, and brought up in the world, completely wash their hands of them, potentially never to make contact again.
This is the distressing scenario that Pedro Almodovar tackles in his latest, thought-provoking piece, Julieta.
Julieta (played by both Adriana Ugarte (younger Julieta) and Emma Suarez (older Julieta)), is a beautiful, middle-aged woman on the verge of relocating to Portugal with her boyfriend. It’s all been agreed, yet, without explanation, at the eleventh hour, Julieta develops cold feet, turning her back on both boyfriend and relocation plans.
Instead, without a word, she heads to a part of town that she’s familiar with and rents an apartment for herself in a block in which she once lived, many years before.
It’s unclear at this stage exactly what her motives were to have done such a thing, but she’s clearly running from something.
Director Almodovar, uses the narrative device of a long letter that Julieta then pens to her estranged daughter, Antía (played by both Priscilla Delgado (child Antía) and Blanca Parés (18 year old Antía)), to gradually reveal a tale of great sorrow and regret; how a chance encounter with a rugged fisherman on a train, named Xoan (Daniel Grao), led to an impulsive and passionate affair, and how the daughter that they would subsequently bring into the world, would come to shape and influence their respective lives, to such a life-shattering extent.
There’s an awful lot of detailed storyline covered in Julieta, chronicling the life of the film’s lead from an intelligent, courageous and impetuous young lady, to the world-weary ‘broken’ woman that resignedly composes her mournful plea to her daughter. Almodovar’s courageous direction, unafraid as he is to skip quickly and purposely over copious amounts of weighty subject matter, is thus particularly impressive; never over-indulging, yet successfully retaining both tremendous impact and integrity throughout.
And there’s a lovely sense of fate and symmetry about Julieta, exploring elements of chance and opportunity, hope and forgiveness, and the coming to terms – that we all must do – with our own faults and frailties.
Enveloped by Alberto Iglesias’s luscious score that embraces both jazz and classical sensibilities in a manner not unreminiscent of Film-Noir, Julieta is a very beautiful, poignant bit of film-making.
No less than we’d expect from such a master of his craft.
Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) is having a baby, and there are two potential fathers. Bridget is getting older, and the world, to Bridget, appears to be getting younger.
What a ‘to-do!’
If I’m perfectly honest with myself, Bridget Jones’s Baby, the third film in the franchise, would rank somewhere near the bottom of a ‘must see films of the year’ list. There will doubtless be very few shocked by that particular revelation. It is after all a film that’s unapologetically geared towards a predominantly female audience of a certain age.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Such films serve as a good counterbalance to the plethora of God-awful, tiresome action films that relentlessly clog up cineplexes, nationwide. If the truth be told, I normally make a point of avoiding both.
There is however no escaping it, Bridget Jones’s Baby is a film that’s based upon the original book and concept of a female author. It’s directed by a woman and it’s packed solid with women’s ‘humour’ which, going by the cacophony of shrieks, howls and giggles emanating from all around about me in the particular screening that I attended, was blisteringly funny, to say the least.
Only… it wasn’t. Not to me anyway.
I’m being a little harsh, although I will say that the opening fifteen or twenty minutes, in which we are re-introduced to Bridget and her by now forty-something existence, and the struggles she faces to remain relevant within the hip TV and media circles in which she still operates, did make me want to bleach my eyes, ears and senses in general. A reaction no doubt to the onslaught of sickeningly slick, sassy one-liners, a largely toe-curling script, and some rather blatantly obvious visual gags.
However – and it’s a big however – once Bridget Jones’s Baby settles down, stops waving its arms around in that excruciating ‘Me, Me, Me!’ fashion, in an attempt to make its mark and get itself noticed – essentially, once it’s stopped being quite so nauseatingly Sex and The City, and become a little more Four Weddings meets Love Actually – a rather memorable little feel-good film threatens to emerge. And not a moment too soon.
It helps that a who’s who of British film, drama and television comedy accounts for the lion’s share of the film’s cast.
Gemma Jones and Jim Broadbent add weight (not literally), to proceedings, as Bridget’s parents, and a very special mention to the always superb, Emma Thompson, who once again defies the brevity of her bit-part role, to just about steal the show.
Colin Firth, rehashes his role as Mark, the tall, silent and slightly repressed English gent, whilst Patrick Dempsey plays Jack – Mark’s polar opposite – an emotionally open, slick American charmer, who has achieved considerable fame in championing the use of algorithms as a way to aid in the match-making process.
Sometimes together, and at other times independently, the pair do their best to vie for Bridget’s attentions through all manner of scrapes and tricky scenarios; each of them hopeful that Bridget’s baby-to-come, will ultimately prove to be theirs.
Bridget Jones’s Baby is a Londoner’s ‘spot the location’ dream, with various famous locations and landmarks springing up, doctored as they are – at times almost out of all recognition – for the benefit of the imaginations of the ‘Hollywood market’, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all good fun.
Perhaps more surprising than anything though is the fact that Bridget Jones’s Baby somehow manages to turn a decidedly shaky start – in my humble opinion, if no-one else’s – into a fully fledged, thoroughly convincing feel-good film that ultimately leaves an overwhelming impression of being, on balance at least, both emotionally engaging and rather amusing, in equal measures.
And who’d have thought that?
Just what do you do when your nephew’s been ‘carrying on’ with the girl of your dreams, without your knowing?
Come on. We’ve all been there!
Welcome to Cafe Society, Woody Allen’s latest wrestle with life’s little peculiarities.
Woody Allen – narrating here in a voice that I genuinely had absolutely no idea belonged to him until I was informed quite a few days later – tells the story of a young Jewish kid, Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg), from New York (where else!), who heads south to L.A aware that his uncle Phil (Steve Carell), is a big shot Hollywood agent to the stars. Here, he hopes that Phil can find some role for him too in this glamorous world of film and show-biz.
Not able to think of anything in particular, Phil eventually assigns ad hoc tasks to young Bobby, and this in turn provides much needed leverage to Phil’s busy day-to-day life.
Not knowing anyone in town, Vonnie (Phil’s secretary, played by Kristen Stewart), offers to show Bobby around and helps him to settle into town. Quickly Bobby falls for her girl-next-door charms, but she is quick to inform him that she is in a relationship with a journalist, named Doug.
Doug, is in fact Phil, but in order to ease any potential tensions, and convinced that Phil will stay true to his word, leave his wife and marry her, Vonnie elects not to let on to Bobby, instead fabricating a tale of how Doug is always away on work, hence his constant absence.
When Phil proves incapable of staying true to his promise, feeling duty bound as he does to honour his long-term marriage, Vonnie decides that enough is enough and finally succumbs to Bobby’s advances. Romance duly blossoms between the two of them, and Bobby, tired of the insincerities of California, is set to hatch a plan to whisk Vonnie away with him back to New York City, where he has been promised an ideal opportunity to put his considerable charms to good effect; running his criminal brother’s swanky nightclub.
Meanwhile, Phil descends into a spiral of remorse and self-pity, and, none-the-wiser, confides in Bobby of all people, his deepest, most sincere feelings for the as yet unidentified, Vonnie.
Such a gilt-edged, burgeoning secret cannot be contained forever, and sure enough, through a twist of fate, the truth is finally revealed, leaving Uncle and Nephew to adopt their new positions as love rivals, and leaving Vonnie with one huge decision to make.
There really is nothing like keeping it within the family.
With Phil finally shaken from his reticence, Vonnie breaks Bobby’s heart. Let enough water flow under the bridge, however, and life always has that funny way of surprising us all…
Woody Allen’s Cafe Society – flitting as it does between the fairytale glamour of Los Angeles and the altogether harder-edge of New York City, is an unapologetically large-scale, sumptuous romantic yarn.
Jessie Eisenberg and Steve Carrell are both superb as the family love rivals and it’s refreshing to see Kristen Stewart removed, albeit it temporarily, from her safety zone to play a character with real layers and substance. There really is only so much pouty agonising over wolves and vampires that one can sit through, I find.
Perhaps most pleasing of all is the fact that Cafe Society successfully blends the joy, pain and anguish of tangled love, with some genuinely funny, old-school Woody Allen gags and wise cracks – supplied chiefly through the interaction between Bobby’s parents, Rose and Marty Dorfman (played wonderfully by Jeannie Berlin and Ken Stott). It’s very much classic Woody Allen in that sense. Something of a genuine throw-back.
I am reliably informed that Cafe Society is shot digitally in a 2:00:1 aspect ratio, originally a high resolution, widescreen format initially pioneered back in the 1950s.
Whether this has anything to do with the pleasing golden hue that seems to envelop the film’s image, I have no idea – possibly not – but it’s an ‘effect’ that lends Cafe Society an epic, old, classic, almost technicolour quality. It’s a flattering look which serves to elevate what is already an excellent piece onto a whole different level altogether.
There’s an enchanting heart and soul to Cafe Society, and that’s arguably something that’s been missing from Woody’s work for quite some time now.