AFI Fest 2016: Quick Thoughts

In All, Movies by David

AFI’s Film Fest is in full swing, and this year I am making a more concerted effort to see whatever films I can. I will be offering up some brief analysis of any of the films I am able to see, along with a rating from 1-5 (like AFI uses). So let’s get to it.

I, Daniel Blake

Vandalism is always an answer.

Vandalism is always an answer. Maybe not the right answer. Though in this case maybe it was the right answer.

Ken Loach’s latest film is coming to the US with a lot of clout and a highly resonate message. The somewhat surprising 2016 Palme d’Or winner had a lot to live up to, and for the most part it delivered. Make no mistake, this is not a movie brimming with originality, and like many European films it trends toward a slice-of-life nature of storytelling that can be utterly lifeless and dull in the wrong hands. So execution becomes highly important in the case of a film such as this, and if any of its parts lag, the film can misfire quite easily. This film has no such issue, as it is anchored by very strong performances, and Loach’s excellent direction creates a hybridized slice-of-life and normal narrative structure that manages to mostly get the best of both worlds. (The film still lags at some point, but these predictable pacing issues mostly don’t hamper the film too much.)

Even with all that said it’s the emotional appeal of the film that really lands. The trials and tribulations of Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) as the system slowly grinds away at his pride and spirit is hard to watch at times, but that makes the film feel more real. This realness is where this film shines, especially as it adds single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) to the mix. The sweet relationship between Daniel and Katie is the heart of the film, as these two look out for each other even as everything around them seems to to be unraveling. This film is messy, and doesn’t simply resolve everything happily, but instead strives to find a realistic mix of hope and sorrow. Ultimately, this is a film about people helping other people get by in a sometimes unfair world, which is a lesson we all may need now more than ever.

I, Daniel Blake is likely to be a somewhat divisive movie. It’s slow and full of vignettes. There is nothing about it that is especially cinematic or particularly unique, but it still just works. There is an organized messiness allow it to display a degree of realism that makes the film compelling and amazingly resonate. It is possible due to a variety of factors that I am slightly overrating this film, but for now it gets a 4.5 out 5 stars. Well worth watching.


Can a film both be and not be a biopic?

I have to say I was completely caught off guard by this film. I came in expecting a normal biopic about Pablo Neruda (played here by Luis Gnecco), but instead what I got was, umm, not that. Some have dubbed this the anti-biopic, and even that may be a bit misleading, because for much of the film Neruda is not even really the main character. Instead, that distinction goes to Inspector Óscar Peluchonneau (Gael Garcia Bernal), as this film is about the inspector’s pursuit of Neruda after Neruda became a fugitive in Chile in the late 1940s. Peluchonneau narrates the film, and engages in a strange cat and mouse game with Neruda that makes this film part police thriller, part caper, part farce, and I guess at some point part biopic as it does examines the difficulties Neruda went through to escape Chile.

This film is wonderfully directed by Pablo Larrain, who is having a pretty good year, considering his other film this year, Jackie, is receiving quite a bit of critical acclaim as well. Larrain is fearless in many of his decisions in this film. He uses voiceover excessively, but in such a creative way that it never feels out of place. More importantly, he commits to the movie’s weird tone with gusto. This film could have easily fallen apart in the hands of a less committed and/or talented director, but instead it holds together as an effective film. Gnecco and Bernal play effective foils to each other, especially as it becomes more and more clear that this chase is a joke that everyone except for Peluchonneau is in on.

The real trick of the film is how it handles its tone. The persecution and struggles of Communists in Chile post-WWII was, well, pretty terrible, and the film is able to touch on how bad things were for the common man. Neruda is a figure whose poetry inspires hope and anger amongst his fellow Communists, and thus is too valuable to ever be allowed to be captured no matter the cost. He has to be made into a hero, and there are moments in the film where Neruda clearly grapples with the fact that he gets special treatment in a party that shouts for equality. Others have to make sacrifices for Neruda while he mostly gets to do whatever the hell he wants. This makes him equal hero and villain in this film.

Unfortunately, the film gets a little too cute as it hits its conclusion, and the pacing of the last act is pretty abysmal. This drags down the film, which mostly operated efficiently. Still, this is a very well-done movie with a number of strong performances in addition to its two leads, especially Neruda’s wife Delia del Carril (Mercedes Morán), who thrives in a role as Neruda’s confidante and partner in-crime. Her relationship with Neruda is quite complicated, and her strong presence really shines in a role that could have been rather thankless. So ultimately I give the film 4 out of 5 stars.

Miss Sloane

Well Chastain certainly came to play in this film.

Chastain certainly came to play in this film.

Umm, in case anyone forgot, Jessica Chastain is amazing. I mean, that should be obvious, but in case anyone needs to be reminded because they didn’t bother seeing Crimson Peak, just watch this movie, and all will be clear. Honestly, this may be the best performance of her career , which is really saying something. This could finally be her year come Oscar season, though it is a bit too early to tell, especially considering how stacked this year’s Best Actress race is shaping out to be. Beyond award considerations, though, it also continues to be refreshing to see Chastain getting to play the type of nuanced role that would generally go to a man (you know, the type of roles that TV has actually been providing actresses for years). That doesn’t mean this is simply a role that gender swapped a woman for a man; it means that Chastain’s Elizabeth Sloane gets to play a very real, highly flawed person that is both a delightful and disturbing at times to watch on screen.

The film itself is a bit harder to decipher. At some level it is hard to separate Chastain’s greatness from the film, as she is so integral to so much of it, but this is not simply a movie constructed around a great Chastain performance. Director John Madden builds a strong foundation around Chastain with great performers like Guga Mbatha-Raw, Mark Strong, Sam Waterston, Michael Stuhlbarg and John Lithgow. The pacing of the film is crisp and works like gangbusters (considering how much I bitch about pacing in modern films, this plays much higher for me than it might for others). The film has mostly the good parts of a Sorkinesqe style that allows it to be very talky without growing stale. Also, the film tries to be realistic in its fantasy political world, which makes it feel more real than it might otherwise. It’s slick, but in a very messy way that leaves things more unsettled than you would normally expect in a film like this.

That said, Miss Sloane is shaky. There are a number of plotlines that never quite work, such as the one involving male escort Forde (Jake Lacey), and which feel a bit unfinished and underwritten. There are times when the plotting of the film forces Chastain to carry a scene far more than she should have to in order to sell things the script doesn’t support well enough. Also, being Sorkinesqe means you do suffer from some of the downsides as well, so the film can come off as a little too expository and preachy. It also wears its politics on its sleeves, but manages to make it less insufferable by undercutting idealism whenever it can. Even if the rest of the film was terrible, it would be worth it to see Chastain’s performance alone–but the rest of the film isn’t terrible, and instead offers the kind of support that could draw Oscar attention for more than just Chastain, which is a bit of a rarity for movies Best Actress nominees come from (a discussion for another time). Overall I would give this film 4 out of 5 stars.

That’s it for now. There are still three more days of AFI, and more movies to see, so check back later in the week when I have more thoughts.