I, DANIEL BLAKE
When I, Daniel Blake was announced as the winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the critical press was stunned that anything could have topped Maren Ade’s German comedy, Toni Erdmann. Par for the course, really: Comedy gets no love from juries, and I, Daniel Blake’s social consciousness, makes it very much a movie of the moment. But neither should detract from Ken Loach’s moving portrait of human kindness and compassion. I, Daniel Blake isn’t just a middle finger to the establishment and the absurdities of bureaucratic rigmarole; it is a plea for human decency and a celebration of the small moments that make us human.
Blake (Dave Johns) is a middle-aged Newcastle carpenter who has been suspended from work due to a heart attack suffered on the job. Without clearance from his doctor, Blake cannot return to work. But the state has denied his claim for medical support during his time of unemployment, and Blake must look for work—work that he cannot accept if offered to him—to receive another form of unemployment support. Further complicating things, the state wants all of Blake’s activities documented and cataloged online, and Blake has never gone near a computer.
Watching Blake navigate online forms submission, meetings with the unemployment office, and comprehending what is happening to his life and future is downright infuriating. For the first time in his life, Blake is out of his element and playing a game where the rules were never explained. There is something Kafkaesque about Blake’s attempt to navigate the labyrinth, one that forces the audience to consider that there must be a better way.
To balance Blake’s struggle, Loach offers Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two children. They have been relocated from London after an eviction, and with no money to work with, Katie starves so her children can eat and wear respectable sneakers to school—her daughter is mocked when they fall apart in class.
Amidst all of this misery and frustration, Loach offers hope through the power of human kindness. Small moments of humanity—the way a food bank worker takes pity on Katie, how a couple of teenagers help Blake work the library computer, a state worker that goes above and beyond the call of duty—are what matter here, and by not underlining them, Loach highlights them all the more.
Side note: I, Daniel Blake is in contention for the Krzysztof Kieślowski Award for Best Feature Film. Though Kieślowski and Loach never worked together, Kieślowski said of the English director: “I always said that I never wanted to be anybody’s assistant but if, for example, Ken Loach were to ask me, then I’d willingly make him coffee. I saw Kes at film school and I knew then that I’d willingly make coffee for him. I didn’t want to be an assistant or anything like that—I’d just make coffee so I could see how he does it all.”
THE LOVE WITCH
How a person responds to a movie can tell you loads about what to expect, which is why when a rather exuberant fan of The Love Witch repeatedly and enthusiastically called it “awesome” in the pre-screening introduction, my expectations sank. People can often articulate why good movies are good, but they stumble when they defend personal preference and cult classics. And The Love Witch is definitely a cult classic lying in wait.
Set and shot in Humboldt, California, The Love Witch is the product of a singular vision, that of writer, director, producer, costume designer, editor, production designer, composer, set designer and decorator, and art director Anna Biller. Biller’s approach to The Love Witch is a sendup of ’60s pulp novels and Technicolor melodramas, and that in itself places the movie firmly in the grasp of cult fans and midnight moviegoers. The story is schlocky, the performances are intentionally bland or forced, and the jokes are, unfortunately, few and far between; but that is what The Love Witch is meant to be. Enjoying The Love Witch means getting the joke, appreciating the joke, and being in on the joke all at the same time.
Samantha Robinson plays the titular witch, a woman desperate for the love of a man, but love on her own terms as Charlie Kane would say, “Those are the terms anybody ever knows.” The same could be said of Biller, who has made a movie on her own terms and will be appreciated by those with a similar stance.
Kostis (Efthymis Papadimitriou) has come to this small Greek island to be the town doctor. The population of the town is roughly 800 during the winter months, and they need someone to tend to their needs and get them physically ready for August, the month where they make all of their money for the rest of the year.
Kostis is middle-aged, over-weight, and well on his way to a serious drinking problem. His lonely lifestyle doesn’t help, but this is a forgiving sort of town. They easily look the other way as long as Kostis doesn’t slip up. But then a girl comes to his office one day, and a slip up seems inevitable.
She is Anna (Elli Triggou), a student on vacation, and she entices Kostis to come out and enjoy the hedonistic side of the island. Kostis does, and soon his nights are fueled by booze and dancing while his days revolve around the beaches where Anna and her friends wander around in varying states of undress. It’s all in good fun for a while, but Kostis develops a fixation on Anna, one that she explores slightly but backs off the second she realizes the severity of it.
Suntan, from director Argyris Papadimitropoulos, is a droll stroll through an island vacation. The story meanders through sun-dappled landscapes and Greek architecture before arriving at its final and somewhat terrifying conclusion. Occasionally the party goes on too long. Occasionally the partiers forget to stop partying for a spell. When those people finally wake up, there is an ugly person waiting for them in the bathroom mirror. Kostis is in for a rude awakening.
Following the loss of his only student and the death of his dog, Winfried (Peter Simonischek) decides to visit his daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), currently stationed in Bucharest for work. But the last thing Ines wants to do is babysit her father. She is a mid-level executive in a consulting firm, and her work has robbed her of any sense of life, happiness, and perspective.
Though Winfried tries, he cannot bridge the chasm between himself and Ines. Enter Toni Erdmann, Winfried in a terrible wig and fake teeth. He claims to be the life coach for Ines’s CEO and manages to charm his way into Ines’s various social situations, forcing Ines well outside her comfort zone and into a series of hilarious set-pieces.
Written and directed by Maren Ade, Toni Erdmann is a tender story of a father and daughter that also happens to be a laugh riot—the birthday party scene is one of the best comedic constructs in recent memory—and a sly commentary on generational divides. The movie is at times light and whimsical, but with Toni and his hilariously bad teeth not far behind, there are no moments where the machinations of the plot become too obvious and slow. Not bad for a movie that runs 2 hours and 42 minutes.