Some Cold Takes: A Goddamn Month Ago

I, Daniel Blake

What is there to be said about I, Daniel Blake that hasn’t been already. It’s a film that defies being judged on conventional merits, so naked is its ambition as a political document. Thank God Ken Loach is such a good filmmaker, it makes it so much easier to write about the material when the movie itself is brilliantly put together. Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a widower, unable to work, recovering from a heart attack. Katie (Hayley Squires) is a single mother of two moved by the government to Newcastle to avoid life in a shelter. Daniel is deemed fit to work after an assessment from someone most definitely not a doctor, he loses his benefits. Katie, lost in an unfamiliar city, misses her appointment at the JobCenter Plus. She loses her benefits too. Together they try to survive within a system that tries its best not to care about their suffering.

It’s hardly a jolly piece, well neither was Carrie Come Home, and anyway that’s not entirely true. Dave Johns performs primarily as a stand-up and he brings quite a bit of humour to his role. The first scene of the film, in which he tries to articulate his condition to the unseen assessor, is actually a nice contained comic moment. I’m unsure of the other actor involved in the scene but the timing of their back and forth is just perfect. There’s ghosts of humour to be glimpsed, the most common invocation will probably be Kafka’s The Trial, the playful nature of how the film reveals its hand to the characters is used to comic effect throughout.

Hayley Squires has perhaps the harder role of the two if only that her character don’t really get to share in the moments of levity that Daniel sometimes does. In the hands of a lesser actor the material could come across as flat, she finds nuance in it though and her performance is tender and emotional and raw and true and all those other fucking words that we have to use when a woman dares inhabit an unflattering character. While this is by no means her fault, the character is written as a ticking countdown to prostitution. It’s just inevitable, and it’s probably real, the film doesn’t quite justify the ickyness of… We’ve seen this enough and from another team of old, white, male creatives it just feels lazy. She good though, if Brie Larson can get Captain Marvel then I hope a successful future for Ms Squires.

Film wise, Loach has retreated a little from his characters in this one. It’s understandable; his last, Jimmy’s Hall, was trying to thrust the fire into us. This one leaves us to make our own opinions, it’s the modern day after all, divorced from the romance of the past overt cinematic flourishes would feel like manipulation. My main critique of the form on show here is an over-reliance on the fade-to-black, it feels like a crutch to get us out of situations that in some cases really deserve an aftermath. Fergus Clegg and Linda Wilson’s production design is awesome. It’s just right, everything feels so shitty. Nothing’s gross or grimy or bad, there’s just this emptiness everywhere and Robbie Ryan’s cinematography just leans into it. It looks so right.

There we go, taken on its merits, it’s a pretty great film.

Politically it’s a flawed beast. Now the UK’s benefits (welfare) system is broken and should be criticised. And as someone who suffered through it for a while in my past I can verify. It’s dehumanising and absurd and belittling and the incredibly unhappy months I spent dealing with it have thankfully come to a close. This film does a great job at presenting it and, judging from the audience in my screening it’s wildly successful and painting a portrait of this world that those privileged enough to enjoy an evening watching an arthouse film have likely never found themselves in.

The film just dances around the right conclusion though. Because these people are fucking saints. Of course every indignity is unjustified, you can’t make your passion play without a Jesus but come on. These character’s don’t drink or get high or really do anything but bear their cross with the quiet dignity of the British. The entire morality of the films is based upon the assumption that these characters Did Nothing Wrong.

In the real world people do. In the real world when people are desperate and shoplift they take booze as well as tampons. In the real world people scream as much as they cry. I, Daniel Blake doesn’t deal in reality, it’s comforting in a way. When the suited tory audience leave the screening they’ll be outraged. The next time The Mail runs a story on the latest immigrant welfare queens they’ll be outraged. Daniel is innocent, but the charges against him are all fictions.

If you can’t present reality it’s best to stick with the fire.


Doctor Strange

There are times when I am thankful that the Marvel is a name that can be attached to things. The name sure does get a lot done. Anyone, but anyone who had walked into a producer’s office and slapped this level of bizarre psychoesoterica down on the table would have been laughed out ten years ago. But, whoa, the dude’s a minor player in a comics franchise… Go ahead! Here’s one point five million dollars! Throw whatever bonkers shit up there you like, people’ll go see it anyway.

That’s how I like to think about it, chances are it was a series of calculated decisions by people far more savvy than I. The result’s the same though, I can’t believe this ended up in cinemas. It’s like a high concept, magical realist, sorcery joint. It ain’t perfect, it flounders here and there while it’s struggling to find the right tone but it’s amazing that the whole thing coheres as much as it does. Director/co-writer Scott Derrickson deserves all the credit in the world for that. The tightrope to walk is so twisted it could have easily turned into the film’s noose.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Doctor Stephen Strange, a brain surgeon, who, after losing much of his fine motor control in a car accident, begins searching for a cure. His search leads him to the monastery of Kamar-Taj in… Actually I’m not sure where it is, it was filmed in Kathmandu I think but it hardly matters, it’s just trying to summon up images of the mystical East. I’m not too sure exactly how you translate such a text when the foundations were laid in the sixties and seventies but it just feels a bit weird, more on that later. There he meets grand sorcerer The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who inducts him into a cosmic interdimensional battle between Earth and the evil magicks that threaten it.

So yeah, it’s goofy, but a lot of money allows it all to be constructed with a straight face. Tilda Swinton is a hero, not just in this film but like in general. She can does everything and it’s always amazing, she’s one of the great actresses and her willingness to do anything and go into it as strong as ever is awe inspiring. Chiwetel Ejiofor shows up here too, and although unfortunately he has to play the straight guy most of his time onscreen he’s the right guy to be your warrior monk. I just selfishly wanna see him do more comedy, make us laugh Chiwetel, you know you can.

Props to the CGI team here too. They put in the goddamn work. I’m not sure how many of the sequences here were constructed using plates and how many were purely digital but duude it must’ve taken a long time. A chase through a deconstructed mirror dimension version of New York is so ambitiously conceived, yet it works. This whole fractured world somehow being forced into coherence through the talents of the artists constructing it. That’s just one setpiece, there’s like three or four others which all revolve around these intricate magical concepts that are somehow fleshed into satisfying cinema without feeling gimmicky. Triumphant.

The problem is that Doctor Strange himself is such a shitheel. And I mean such a shitheel. He’s a genius, he has to be. The smartest and the best man in the world, because of course he is. He is the uninteresting white ubermensch. Maybe in some non-Cumberbatch performance he would be any sort of tolerable. It’s not just a Cumberbatch thing though cause the man is capable of playing varying shades of humility. Here he’s just an asshole, maybe he learns something along the way, but he never changes. He’s an asshole at the beginning and an asshole at the end and I never cared for it. Ten minutes into the film he is involved in this car accident. I was hoping the character would die so we’d share the film with someone bearable.

The writer (among other things) Heben Nigatu has a good inspirational quote, ‘Carry yourself with the self-confidence of a mediocre white man.’ watching this film I realised once again the importance of that. It’s a paean to the exceptionalism of white men. Let’s examine. The white man is the best at everything. The white man discovers a hitherto unknown world of magic and, in short time, is the best at that too. He does this all despite a supposed handicap that theoretically is putting him at a disadvantage. I would commend the film for its treatment of his disability if it mattered at all beyond the first act.

This was probably always going to happen when trying to adapt problematic material written almost fifty years ago into a film. People tried to make this good, it wasn’t an accident, I just wish they’d cared enough to make it right.
Down here, in the post credits scene Marvel prove once again they hate having characters meet in an interesting way. Thor and the good doctor exchange a few lines sat opposite each other in armchairs. Nothing interesting happens.

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