Friday, December 23, 2016

Prepare to feel, and deeply, as Ken Loach and Paul Laverty's I, DANIEL BLAKE hits theaters

So real you can practically taste, smell and breathe in the anger that will rise from your stomach through your chest and into your throat as you experience I, DANIEL BLAKE, the new and (as usual) quiet provocation from director Ken Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty, this is a movie that will break your heart without leaving your brain in any way undernourished.

In dealing with the story of one man trying his best to navigate the British health and unemployment systems, Loach (pictured at right) and Laverty (below, left) have contributed their own gift to this year's trilogy of citizens-against-the-system movies -- beginning with Mexico's alarming Monster With a Thousand Heads, continuing with the Chinese-Canadian Old Stone, and now this: the best of the lot so far. In his fine screenplay, Laverty places life and truth above melodrama and contrivance, while
Loach directs with his usual flair for the kind of in-the-moment/ dead-on-believable behavior that thrusts us headlong into things.
(There is one exception: Daniel's discovery of his lady friend Katie's new employment, which smacks of the sort of coincidence found regularly on Downton Abbey. Yet, so hooked are you likely to be at this point in the film's unfurling that the moment ought not be a deal-breaker.) Mr. Loach has long given us character-driven movies that are also filled with event. This is the case here, as well, and Daniel Blake is certainly among the great character "everymen" to grace the modern film canon.

Daniel (a so-real-it-hurts performance by Dave Johns, shown below, right and on poster top) is a kind, decent, even talented man just entering his senior years, who has been felled by a heart attack and cannot go back to work until his is deemed "better." But thanks to a stupid glitch in the bureaucracy, he is meanwhile being denied the benefits he needs to live on while he heals.

In a society where the individual counted for anything, this kind of glitch would be quickly taken care of. But not in Britain. Not today. So our hero is put back and forth through the proverbial mill until he and we are ready to crack. To their credit, Loach and Laverty make villains of the bureaucracy and the way it works rather than the bureaucrats themselves - a few of whom even rise to the occasion and actually do something helpful. But the way the system has been set up is designed to crush both the body and the spirit -- and goddamned if it doesn't do that job just splendidly.

At the unemployment office (or whatever the Brits call this sort of thing), Daniel meets Katie (a sad, spunky and commanding performance from Hayley Squires, above, right), the mother of two young kids, both of whom are adorable and one of whom clearly has a touch of maybe Aspergers. As Katie, too, is given the run-around, Daniel rises to her defense, and though they are both asked to leave, a bond has formed.

The movie explores this bond, while we watch Daniel try to do everything the system asks of him, to little avail. We meet his charming neighbors (who are themselves helpful), watch him as he takes a class in Preparing Your CV, pad along as he does the stupid and unnecessary job search (for which, even if hired, he is not allowed to accept),

And on it all goes. It would be ceaseless woe, not only for Daniel but for us viewers, were not the movie so full of life and humor and absolute importance. At any point along the way, all it would take would be one single person who wields even a modicum of power to have said, "Oh, something is wrong here." And then to simply right that wrong. But nobody does. And the one woman who actually tries to do something is then disciplined for her effort.

I, Daniel Blake is simultaneously and consistently heartbreaking and wonderful -- an unusual combination, to say the least. The film is certainly one of this year's best, and this holiday-time opening will be, for progressive-minded film-goers out there, the most wonderful kind of Christmas/Chanukah present imaginable.

From Sundance Selects/IFC Films and running 100 minutes, the movie opens today, Friday, December 23, in New York City at the IFC Center and the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, and in Los Angeles at Laemmle's Royal. Elsewhere. To be sure, in the weeks to come. I don't have cities and dates just yet, but you can periodically click here and then click on the bright green link WATCH NOW to lean if the film is playing anywhere near you.

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