All posts by Toni Tileva

Rebel in the Rye Review

My review

Director Danny Strong offers a tepid biopic riff on the 2013 documentary Salinger in “Rebel in the Rye.” The film explores the 1950s, around Salinger’s writing of “The Catcher in the Rye,” whose place in the pantheon of great American novels is indelible. Holden Caulfield, the novel’s protagonist, gave a voice to the disaffection and confusion of modern living and his condemnation of all things fake rendered the book timeless and dearly loved.

The main issue with “Rebel in the Rye” is that it expects us to take its word for how rebellious and revolutionary J.D. Salinger was, and it certainly fails to make the audience get a sense of that. Nicholas Hoult portrays Salinger as a handsome, brash, sardonic and outspoken young man. Salinger’s strong-headedness, perhaps even arrogance as it is portrayed in the film, is incredibly difficult to reconcile with Salinger’s later turn to reclusion, when he eschewed publishing and public appearances to live in a house in the woods in Cornish, New Hampshire. “Rebel in the Rye” also falls short in its portrayal of the effect WWII had on Salinger. His stint “in the nuthouse” is only hinted at, with a repeated image of Salinger’s hand shaking as he tries to put words to paper. We don’t find out that Salinger voluntarily enlisted in the war. The film portrays D-Day only briefly, and we don’t quite get a sense of the atrocities he lived through in France during the war─a place called the “meat grinder,” where 200 men would routinely die in the span of a couple of hours. Witnessing the utter desecration of humanity in camps abandoned by the Nazis left lasting scars on Salinger’s mind, and the film eloquently portrays that with a flashback of outstretched, skeletal hands grasping for bread through barbed wires.

Some of the greatest moments in the film come from the interaction between a young Salinger and his Columbia University creative writing mentor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey). Spacey’s “Dead Poets Society”-esque performance certainly carries the film. The poignancy of Salinger’s turn away from Burnett, who publishes Salinger’s very first story, is made palpable. So is the magic of writing, of which Burnett comments, “There is nothing more sacred than a story.”

“Rebel in the Rye” is captivating in that Salinger himself is an enigmatic, enthralling figure, but the film seems to suffer from trying to cover too much ground and fails in its broad strokes approach. If Holden Caulfield really saved Salinger’s life, as the film suggests, we get only a tenuous sense of how this happened.

 

“It” Successfully Floats, And So Will You

My review of “It” for The Eagle

Stephen King’s seminal─and wildly popular─tome “It” is newly interpreted by “Mama” writer and director, Andy Muschietti. Unlike the 1990 TV mini-series, this silver screen adaptation focuses on the protagonists’ childhood encounter with the demonic killer-clown Pennywise, leaving the adulthood one for a future sequel.

The setting is 1989 in the small town of Derry, Maine. Beneath the bucolic exterior, something dark is stirring in the town’s underbelly─literally, in the sewers, and figuratively, too. Whatever “it” is, it kills children. And adults, too. But mostly children. The film opens with the classic scene of six-year-old, yellow-raincoat-clad Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) chasing a paper boat that falls into a drain. Enter Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård), who lures Georgie with the promise of a circus down in the sewer, inch by inch, into his demise. Muschietti allows the scene to unfurl deliberately unrushed, making it all the more unsettling. More unsettling, however, is that someone witnesses what happens and seemingly just ignores it. There is a lot of that in “It”─adults turning a blind eye to the kinds of sickening violence that “it” has made commonplace in Derry.

Speaking of violence, something is definitely in the water in Derry. Perhaps the greatest horror comes not from the sewer-dwelling Pennywise, but the adults of Derry. “It” eloquently portrays the much more pedestrian, if you will, horrors of childhood. The adults in the film loom more monstrously than the evil clown–from Beverly’s serpentine, abusive father to Eddie’s manipulative mother, who feeds his hypochondria so she can control him, to the town bully’s policeman father who shoots a gun at his son’s feet, to the bullies themselves who think nothing of carving their name into the belly of a new kid they call “Tits,” in reference to his body size. “It” also seems to suggest that the absentee adults have left the kids, in this case the self-monikered Losers’ Club, to slay the monster.

“It”–it is a horror film after all–does deliver on the scares, too, but it is refreshingly less CGI-gore-fest and more “Stranger Things” in its style. Pennywise is the amalgamation of everyone’s worst fears, even if clowns don’t phase you. The Losers’ Club and “It” both tread through some gray water and come out on the other side (you will get the reference once you see the film).

Grade: A

No Reservations–Wind River Review

My review for the Eagle

There is no comprehensive reporting system for the number of missing and murdered Native American women and girls in the United States–the only category of missing persons without one. Many reports, however, estimate that Native women are murdered at more than 10 times the national average.

“Wind River,” although fictional, portrays this bleak reality with a steely resolve. Screenwriter and director Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario” and “Hell and High Water”) paints a picture of life on a reservation in muted, grim tones. The film brings to vivid life how drugs have ravaged the community, how violence so often punctures the fabric of daily existence, how Native culture has been obliterated and how the reservation is a place both forgotten and stigmatized.

Jeremy Renner plays Cory Lambert, a federal wildlife officer who hunts predatory animals at the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming. While searching for a mountain lion that has been attacking livestock, he finds the raped and beaten body of a young Native woman in the snow. The tracks point to a seeming impossibility–that she had been running barefoot through the snow for miles. Natalie (Kelsey Asbille), the best friend of Cory’s daughter, had died three years earlier under similar circumstances.

Rookie FBI agent Jane Banner ( Elizabeth Olsen) flies in from Vegas, where she is stationed, to investigate the crime. The Tribal Police chief, who has come to accept law enforcement’s utter lack of concern for his people, jokingly remarks, “see what they send us,” when she arrives clad in summery attire in the midst of a blizzard. But Jane is different. The absolute brutality and violence women are subjected to at Wind River shakes her to her core. Olsen makes palpable the feeling of a woman contending with violence against women─as something that feels intensely and viscerally personal.

Jane asks Cory to help her in the investigation. That dynamic is also really interesting since Jane lacks the typical authority figure hubris. Witnessing the dynamics in a community that has received no help from “the government,” she recognizes that Cory can not only “help her hunt a predator” but that he can also earn the trust of the community, which has no reason to trust anyone outside of it.

“Wind River” is a so much more than a taut murder mystery. Free of polemics, Sheridan’s director hand turns the lens on how elusive “justice” can be for the Native American community, on multiple levels. Finding the perpetrator of this specific crime can’t offer the satisfaction traditional murder mystery films offer in catching the bad guy, because most other victims never get the dignity of having someone care to find the perpetrators.

“Wind River” will shake you to your core, but it is an important film to see.

Grade: A

No Justice; No Streets: Documentary Shines a Light on the Protests in Ferguson

My review for The Eagle

“Whose Streets” is a first-hand account of the protests following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The necessity of covering the events from a perspective other than that of the mainstream media is without question, and this film offers unprecedented access.

“Whose Streets” captures the siege-like atmosphere in Ferguson when the protests began─including how the midnight curfew, an intimidation tactic, was couched as a safety measure. A woman shouts, “This is not Iraq,” as officers begin to enforce the curfew that doesn’t start for another 90 minutes. Families in their own backyards are asked to go back inside. In another particularly chilling scene, the memorial for Michael Brown is dismantled, as though the teddy bears and candles, too, have no right to be there. Director Sabaah Folayan stays largely off-screen, instead just letting the intensity of the footage take over.

One way in which the documentary stumbles, however, is in the choice of featured activists. The way in which their personal lives are brought into the film seems haphazard and the choice of what to include also seems to have no rhyme or reason. For example, the relationship between Brittany and Alexis, a young lesbian couple, seems completely irrelevant to the activist life of Brittany. We also meet Copwatch videographer David who lives in the housing complex where Brown was killed. He offers more insight into what’s it like to watch the very organization that relentlessly watches his community.

“Whose Streets” doesn’t seem interested in shaping a particular storyline, but instead offers a collage of first-person footage, tweets and Instagram posts. It’s an image of a community pushed past its breaking point. But there are questions that remain unanswered. One scene hints at the tension between the African-American churches and the young activist community, who characterize themselves as not “your Grandaddy’s civil rights movement.” A lot is missing, though, because we never find out what makes them different. There is also no exploration about the ways in which the Black Lives Matter movement is not only about police violence. Ferguson is a city built by racial capitalism, but we don’t really get too much of a sense of how this happened.

“Whose Streets” does an amazing job of making palpable the anger and pain the community feels after being victimized by a police state for decades. It allows the viewer a perspective never quite seen on mainstream media, which perpetuated the image of the movement as “looters” and “rioters.” It absolutely dismantles this view, in fact. The film could have been a bit more broad in its selection of figures from the movement and in interviewing them more in-depth, but nevertheless, it is an important activist and art work.

Grade: B

Atomic Blonde is Pure Hell on Heels

My review for the Eagle

“Atomic Blonde” drives a stiletto straight into the jugular of every “girl power” spy movie out there, literally and figuratively (watch the trailer and you will see what I mean). Based on the graphic novel series “The Coldest City” by Antony Johnston, Sam Hart and Steven Perkins, “Atomic Blonde” is set in 1989, just as the Berlin Wall is collapsing.

Charlize Theron stars as Lorraine Broughton, a British MI6 operative sent to Berlin to find a watch that contains the names of wanted agents, including a double-dealing mole known as Satchel. All this while supposedly collaborating with the MI6 contact in Berlin, David Percival (James McAvoy).

The ethos of “Atomic Blonde” is pure 80s with a “Drive”-esque neon palette and a new wave soundtrack to match, but this doesn’t lead to saccharine bliss (take a scene where a guy stomps someone to death to Nena’s “99 Luftballoons”). The soundtrack is also a reminder that the line between new wave and goth is a thin one. Even in the most ebullient of songs, there is a tension, a conflict, a turbulence. Director David Leitch deftly captures the disquieting energy in the air as walls tremble; rebellion is stirring the city awake while Siouxsie Sioux sings about cities in dust. In fact, this is one of the many subtle charms of the film— without being polemical, it is political in the subtlest of ways. A scene where Russian spies are shooting at German and British enemies in a crowd of protesters is a wry commentary on the shadowy workings of the state— in plain view, yet so inscrutable.

“Atomic Blonde” resoundingly disrupts the vapid “girl power” spy genre (yes, there is such a genre— think “Alias” and “La Femme Nikita”). The film is not overtly feminist, but Charlize Theron is every woman who has been called “bitch” by some old-boy type. As she soundly thrashes the archetype, she asks, “Am I still a bitch!?” The patriarchy ends up smashed in more ways than one. Lorraine also has to contend with questions of how well she is performing at her job— sound familiar? Her character, without relying on ham-handed political messages, is nevertheless that of a woman who doesn’t have time to take the numbers of those she has kicked to the curb. The dark humor of beating up men to the tune of George Michael’s “Father Figure” will not escape you. Similarly tongue-in-cheek is the way Lorraine makes fun of her male superior by saying had she known about an ambush, she would have “worn a different outfit.”

The fighting scenes in “Atomic Blonde” are edge-of-your-seat spectacular. The action avoids unrealistic hyperbole— in fact, it is mostly hand-to-hand combat. Theron, doing most of her own stunts, punches and kicks her way through the film with steely abandon. This is the picture of cool. There’s your girl power.

Grade: A

AFI Documentaries 2017

My review of AFI Docs 2017 for the Washington City Paper

Recruiting for Jihad

Directed by Adel Kahn Farooq and Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen

Recruiting for Jihad follows Norwegian Islamist Ubaydullah Hussain, who is the spokesperson for The Prophet’s Ummah, a Salafi-jihadist group. Hussain is of Pakistani descent, born in Norway and all too aware of the social benefits he enjoys in his position. Speaking to a recruit, he intones, “You will never be at home in Norway.” The native Norwegian recruits seem no more “at home” either—they all lament a life of “meaninglessness” before Islam. That is one of the greatest tensions exposed in the film: the way radical groups like Hussain’s manage to bridge the gap from conversion (or reversion, as it is called here) to jihadism. Two of the native Norwegians have never even been to Syria, yet are eager to fight there. Hussain emerges as magnetic and affable, at first—seemingly only interested in offering people a community. Yet, the uneasy way he responds when probed about his support of terrorist acts and ISIS exposes the fissure behind the façade of radicalism. The film is an enthralling look at the maddening disorientation of modern life—a Norwegian longing to be a part of a war in a place in the world he has never been, a Pakistani whose relationship with Islam is molded by an English imam… culture, identity, religion—all terms shown to be hard to unpack in a global world.

An Insignificant Man

Directed by Khushboo Ranka and Vinay Shukla

An Insignificant Man is the story of the rise of Arvind Kejriwal, “India’s Bernie Sanders,” and his 2013 campaign for Chief Minister of Delhi. That politics are as dirty in India as much as in the West is all too apparent—clientelism, voter bribing, corporate control over government, thuggery. The film is a political thriller in every sense of the word—the stakes are high, with goons assassinating one of the candidates from Kejriwal’s populist Aam Aadmi Party. Missing from the narrative, however, is Kejriwal’s involvement with the Anti-Corruption Law and social activist Anna Hazare; the film picks up when he decides to go from lobbying for the law to turning the movement into a political party. An unassuming (and often far too serious) figure, Kejriwal is hardly the charismatic leader of lore. But his dogged determination shines through, as does his ability to deliver on campaign promises few believe he can—cutting the electricity bills in half and providing free water. Far from a wide-eyed tale about the triumph of populist democracy, An Insignificant Man showcases that even in the muck of politics, incremental changes can truly be momentous.

La Libertad de Diablo

Directed by Everardo González

La Libertad de Diablo riffs a little bit on Tempestad, a film that played in last year’s AFI DOCs, in that it captures the banality of violence in Mexico. The narrative technique is trenchant and unsettling. Director Everardo Gonzales interviews victims and perpetrators of violence. They all wear flesh-colored masks, which make them look ghoulish and eerie, effectively blurring the line between victim and perpetrator, illustrating how truly tenuous that distinction is. The masks preserve the anonymity, yet are stretched thinly enough over the faces to show them wracked by emotion and to see the dampness of tears at the eye holes. Some of the killers earn as little as $10 per kill. A mother talks about finding the sneaker of her dead child. All speak of fear and the pervasiveness of violence at all levels, including the police and government. The masks render the speakers skull-like, as though the living are not too far from the dead.

The Suitcase–An Immigrant’s Story

As presented at an On The Move panel for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, 2017, in collaboration with the American Anthropological Association.

“Everything I owned was in a suitcase,” is too vast to comprehend. A suitcase can be heavy, like your heart, or too light, at least to carry a life. You try to find that one pair of shoes you can wear year-round, and you put that pair on so it doesn’t weigh down the suitcase too much. That pair ends up being the British-made “Clarks”—shoes you can’t really buy in the US in the early 1990s. Of course, that one pair–utilitarian though it might be–dubs you “the girl with the weird shoes” for the rest of the school year.

If that was the only “weird” thing about you, you would consider yourself lucky. It’s not. Your parents, too, could only bring a suitcase.

A suitcase can’t hold furniture. Your “home” becomes a collage of clashes, a very weird modern art piece. You end up collecting whatever you find abandoned in trash heaps: on the side of the road, a hand-me-down. The kindness of strangers is spoken about reverently through the various objects in your apartment. A gutted, giant sound speaker becomes the bench you sit on. A couch cushion becomes your floor bed. The table is foldable; the chairs are foldable; everything is compact and compactable…probably even compostable.

At first, you eat sandwiches consisting of hot dogs and mayo; once you discover that hot dogs are only supposed to be eaten in buns, you attempt a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so you know…you can eat your lunch in peace just once.

Everything is transient; ready to be picked up and moved wherever it needs to go. And every object that you are required to own becomes fraught and imbued with meaning-—in school, the teacher states you are required to purchase a “binder.” You are not even sure what that is, but you are sure your parents can’t afford to get it for you…because everything they own came from a suitcase, remember? When they buy you a McDonald’s $1 burger, you keep the paper it came wrapped in for a little bit, not because you want to recall the not-terribly-tasty experience but because you know that your parents thought really hard on how to spend that money they probably needed for much more important things.

All the dishes in your house are mismatched; not a single cup or plate has a mate.

School becomes the place you go to be made fun of; at a certain point, it doesn’t even bother you anymore. At first, you eat sandwiches consisting of hot dogs and mayo; once you discover that hot dogs are only supposed to be eaten in buns, you attempt a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, so you know…you can eat your lunch in peace just once.

This is what it looks like to be an immigrant—or at least this is what it looked like for an impossibly awkward 13-year-old me. Mismatched, belonging, fitting, proper, part of a set—words that don’t seem to mean much…or maybe they mean too much. Like the objects in your apartment (not your home, really), you are impossibly out of place and mismatched. Sometimes you are “quirky,” but mostly you are “weird.”

You will never again be part of much of a set. The only order and sense will reside in your memories, precariously sewn together from the patchwork of experiences past and present.

JUST IN CASE: Know your black market weed etiquette

My article for Noise Journal

Editor’s note: While a majority of states have legalized cannabis in one form or another–for medical and/or recreational use–the election of President Donald Trump, and his appointment of drug warmonger Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III as the nation’s top law enforcement officer, has driven fear into the hearts of both marijuana users and hundreds of thousands of cannabis industry workers across the United States. What will come next for our nation’s great experiment? Who knows. Trump and his motley crew of right wing know-nothings are sending mixed messages, having probably not even developed a plan yet. In the meantime, get involved. Call your members of congress. Attend an Indivisible meeting

And freshen up on your black market etiquette. Because, if the worst predictions come true, you could be buying your weed from that dude down the street again pretty soon.

Marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug (22.2 million current adult users) according to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. That year–the most recent available–marijuana was used by 81.0 percent of current illicit drug users and was the only drug used by a majority of them. In other words, read this chapter. It’s useful.

To begin, instead of using the proper he/she term to refer to your “drug dealer,” I will use the male pronoun but only for simplicity’s sake. I will also not use the word “drug dealer” as I find it to be moderately dehumanizing and pejorative. I will refer to him as the “purveyor.” All of the following anecdotes are based on interviews and as such are “true stories,” or at least true to someone, somewhere (before you ask, I know nothing about any of this…I am but a lowly writer). I have purposely withheld the names and any details, as to allow the interviewees to share stories in an uninhibited way.

Any ideas you might have about the type of person who is a purveyor of marijuana should comfortably be tossed into the ashtray where they belong because they are patently, or should I say, potently false. People from all walks of life purvey, and they do so for an equally broad range of reasons. Ph.D.s in the sciences—yep; college kids—yep; intelligent girls with daytime jobs—yep. Literally all ethnicities, age groups, genders, and orientations are represented. Any stodgy ideas you might have about your purveyor being in any sense of a lower social stratification than you are completely and thoroughly baseless. If you think your purveyor is a “pothead,” that is also plain wrong. Your purveyor is a business man and you better believe he is on top of his business.

More to the point, however, every “drug dealer” you have seen in the movies is probably not even remotely akin to your purveyor. Scarface this is not. Nor is it Spring Breakers. The biggest way in which he is not like those tropes—dollar dollar bill, y’all. He is not stacking the ducats, son. Let me break it down for you—the profit margin on an eighth of an ounce of weed is $10, at best. Most buyers purchase eights or quarters. They do not buy pounds. So, your little transaction, as momentous to you as it may be is *hardly* momentous to your purveyor. How many of those little bags a day do you think he has to sell to be able to even make rent in a major metropolitan area? And the risk? Good. Now that I have put things in perspective for you, maybe you can better start to understand what is up.

The customer is always wrong. Well, not quite, but my point is that the customer service ethos you have so accustomed yourself to does not hold any water in the weed game. Statements to your purveyor like “I am helping you,” “You need my business,” “Look what favor I am doing you,” are…well, thoroughly asinine. Why? Because this is a market economy, yo. Wake your little bourgeoisie self up! The market sets the price; you get what you pay for…all of those trite adages are freaking true! Medical marijuana dispensaries will always be more expensive than the underground purveyors. The product is in high demand, and it’s risky to procure. Fast, good, and cheap: you can have any two of those, but you can’t have all three.

In addition, as I said earlier, most purveyors of marijuana do just that. They do not sell a smorgasbord of drugs! Just because he has really nice Sour Diesel doesn’t mean he has a kilo of cocaine. You probably won’t ever hear, “You’re right! I totally forgot I have a pound of crystal meth!” It doesn’t hurt to ask, *in person*, but do not press for answers.

OK, let’s get on with the pointers on how not to be a big dummy when buying weed.

  1. Don’t talk about drugs over the phone or any medium, for that matter. Never, ever, ever, never! Don’t even use code! The NSA is the greatest code breaker in the world; you are not going to come up with a code in the next five minutes that they won’t crack. Don’t talk about it on Facebook. Don’t talk about it on email. Don’t talk about it on Skype, Snap Chat. Whatever. Don’t talk too loudly about it in person! In most states, marijuana is still illegal. We recommend, “Wanna hang out?” or “Hey. I’d love to see you.” He knows what you mean. You’re not romantic with him. And if you are, you shouldn’t be paying.
  1. Show up. On time. Never ever, should there be a circumstance where the purveyor is waiting for you. Or even worse—you are sending a multiplicity of texts about how you are lost, or whatever nonsense/terrible fate has befallen you. You don’t keep your doctor waiting. You don’t keep your boss waiting. Right? Common sense.
  1. Get your money straight! Your purveyor does not accept barter or your Grandma’s cookies. Nor does he care to see you rummaging through your purse in broad daylight like the big dummy you are. Nor does he carry change. Or take credit card. Never ever should there be “I’ll pay you later.” These words are not in the lexicon of your purveyor.
  1. There is no free delivery! Delivery is a major and added risk; it is also incredibly time- consuming and cuts into an already low profit margin. Would you expect your pizza delivery guy to deliver without a tip? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
  1. To that point, this is not social hour. If he sets the tone with wanting to socialize, OK, but he is there to do business.
  1. If you’re meeting in a public place, don’t get into any cars you feel uncomfortable getting into. Make the transaction, and move along. A deal should take as long as it needs to take, and no longer.
  1. Do not ask or even suggest coming to the house of your purveyor unless you’ve been invited by him. Would you want your boss showing up at your house uninvited? Right; didn’t think so.
  1. Do not assume that your purveyor wants to be talked about with your friends. Treat your relationship like a relationship, and don’t spread it around. Most purveyors prefer to be monogamous, so don’t kiss and tell. If you want to hook your friends up, hook your friends up, but don’t ask your dealer to. You wouldn’t ask your girlfriend to.
  1. If you see your purveyor in a social setting, you don’t know him. Even if you are friends with your purveyor, the actual transaction is a business moment, entirely separate from your friendship. Treat it with respect.
  1. Be an informed consumer: buying good marijuana is like going to the farmers market. You don’t ask to try all of the strawberries! You try one variety of strawberry, then decide if you want those, or blueberries. Know what your tastes are. That’s what Leafly is for. Know what strains are the ones you would like, but never expect anything.
  1. Contents may settle during shipping.” The season and where the variety is grown (indoors vs. outdoors) will impact the bud, even with the same strain. Colors, crystals, and contents may vary. This is an organic product, after all.
  1. “This is not Target!” If the product is not up to your standards for whatever reason (weight, quality, packaging), point these discrepancies out immediately. Do not, under any circumstances, expect a refund at any point. After you’ve handed over the money, the deal is done. Your purveyor has almost zero interest in “cheating” you. Remember that $10 profit margin. Yeah…He has no time to listen to a litany of complaints or entitled whining. Seriously.
  1. If your purveyor has treated you to free drugs in the past, don’t assume this is going to happen again. Consider yourself lucky. Don’t ask. Free drugs are free, but should never be.
  1. If you do something that makes your purveyor decide to cut you off, don’t come back begging or threatening or even texting. Beg texting? Bexting? Threatxting? Just picture how grabby and pathetic you look from the side and by pathetic I don’t mean worthy of scorn. I mean sad. It’s sad to see someone acting like a petulant brat. Not a good look. If you are cut off, it means you were a big dummy. Accept that.

 

I, Daniel Blake Review

I, Daniel Blake Movie Review

“I, Daniel Blake” is a moving look at the quagmire that is the welfare system, breaking through the callousness of glib terms like “welfare queen.” There is no crown or glory in battling an amorphic bureaucracy for something as basic as one’s right to exist and live.

British comedian Dave Johns stars as Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old carpenter from Newcastle, UK, who is seeking public assistance while recovering from a major heart attack. He must navigate a byzantine system of two hour customer disservice calls, forms, inane questions and resume workshops. Though his many encounters with the public servants (the irony of this term will not escape you after this movie) are nothing short of tragic, Daniel still manages to inject comedy─for example, when asked if he is able to relay simple information in a conversation, he wryly responds to the clerk, “Clearly not, based on the questions you are asking me.” When his benefits are denied, he is told he has to return back to work even though his physician does not allow it. So, he is forced to keep applying to jobs he can’t actually take, while simply awaiting his right to appeal. The administration keeps promising him a call from an omnipotent “decision-maker”─again, the nomenclature is quite apt.

Subjected to humiliation, including having to sell all of his furniture, so he would have something to eat, and walking around in his house with a blanket wrapped around him because it is so cold, Daniel somehow still manages to hold on to his decency. He starts helping Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two kids who are in similar dire straits. Katie is in a state of ceaseless worry, crying in hiding when her kids go to sleep at night. In one of the most poignant scenes in the film, she tears open a can of beans and scoops them into her mouth with her hands at the government food pantry because she has been starving herself to give to her kids. She then keeps apologizing, as though the degradation she has been subjected to is somehow her fault.

Director Ken Loach keeps “I, Daniel Blake” light on the polemics, instead allowing the powerful performances of Johns and Squires to shine. The subject matter is heavy, but a droll sense of humor prevents the film from being onerous and bleak. When Dan draws graffiti on the welfare administration building, writing, “I, Daniel Blake, would like an appeal date before I starve and change the shite music on the phones,” he is commenting on the very absurdity of a system that refuses to recognize his humanity. The graffiti is his selfhood writ large. His empty flat, with just a phone sitting on the floor, awaiting a decision-maker Godot who never comes, is a poignant take on the precarity that is the daily life of so many.

Peter and the Farm Movie Review

My review for the Eagle newspaper

Title notwithstanding, Peter and the Farm is a documentary about Peter and, as an afterthought, his farm. If you are looking for pastoral poesy, this is not the film for you. If you are looking for a bird’s eye-view of a farmer’s life, well, this is not it either. A film about a curmudgeonly, self-obsessed man who is not particularly likeable? Most definitely.

Director Tony Scott follows 68-year-old Peter Dunning’s life on his farm in Vermont. Considering the setting, there is surprisingly little insight about farming per se. The viewers do get some exposure to the back-breaking grind that it is, for example, to make bales of hay with machinery that breaks down daily. This scene will disabuse you of any ideas about the neatness of those bales.

There is a great deal of visceral footage, quite literally. There is a blood-and-gore-and-viscera scene of Peter slaughtering a sheep—selling organic meats at the local farmer’s market is how Peter earns a living as a farmer. The shot, however, is incredibly gratuitous. One has to wonder why Scott even included it. Speaking of which, this is a question viewers might have many times throughout this film; yes, this is supposed to be a stream of consciousness opus, but about half of the film is Peter’s mumbling through tenuously connected stories and non-sequiturs. A more stern editing hand would have been a boon to this film.

Peter and the Farm suffers from too contrived of an attempt to be arthouse and instead simply ends up…arty. A scene in which Scott zooms in on the dead face of a coyote Peter has killed is unabashedly “oh, look how deep and metaphorical this is.” Except that it is not. In attempting to take us down the rabbit hole that is Peter’s life as an alcoholic, the film’s atmosphere captures the same heavy quagmire and nightmare that Peter is suffering through. In other words, the drudgery of Peter’s life is unloaded on the viewers, who must also begrudgingly get through the film.

Peter, an artist and poet of sorts, has lost all four children and his three wives to his alcoholism. While his despair and depression is palpable, it is hard to muster up pathos when he spends the entire film railing, howling and lashing out. It is hard to feel sympathy when we are presented with exactly how he has pushed everyone away from him. “There’s not a part of this farm that has not been scattered with my sweat, my piss, my blood, my spit, my seed, my sh*t, my tears, fingernails, skin, and hair. I’ve spread and lost hope over every acre. This farm becomes me. I’ve become the farm,” he bemoans. This statement is one of the most poignant revelations of the film—that the farm is all that is left for this man.

Peter and the Farm succeeds in giving the viewer access inside the harrowing,  quotidian existence of one particular farmer. While broader social commentary is lacking, it is, nevertheless, compelling in that it dispels romanticized ideas of bucolic paradises and other idylls of this ilk.

Grade: C