Category Archives: Reviews

Citizen K Movie Review

My review for On Tap magazine

Alex Gibney’s Citizen K documentary is the story of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former Russian oligarch now exiled in London after serving 10 years in a Siberian prison. Khodorkovsky’s own words drive this enthralling narrative about post-communist Russia. Gibney, whose previous work includes Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side and The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, is no stranger to tackling complexity and contradiction. The talking heads in this film are few – mostly people in the immediate Khodorkovsky business and legal circle, and longtime BBC correspondent Martin Sixsmith and The Moscow Times founder Derk Sauer. That, perhaps, is one reason why the film’s efforts to explain Moscow politics at times come up against the (Berlin) Wall of Western analysis.

Citizen K begins in 1991, during Boris Yeltsin’s first term as president of the Russian Federation. The Union has come undone, and the economic order of the day is capitalism. Khodorkovsky, whose parents were both engineers, grew up poor – under communism, engineering was not one of the well-remunerated professions. Earning his first paycheck at 14, building a chemistry lab in his house, and with a self-professed love of “things that explode,” the young Khodorkovsky is ready to bank on the rise of capitalism. He starts Russia’s first commercial bank, his sole entrepreneurial “guide” in the form of a book called Commercial Banks of Capitalist Countries. So, how did he get the seed money for it? Enter vouchers. Fashioned after Western economic boost programs, these vouchers were “sold as golden tickets to escape the dead end of communism.” Add in some pop-propelled propaganda flair, including a song whose refrain goes, “Vou vou voucher: friend of privatization measures,” and these vouchers, worth $40, could be traded, exchanged for cash or used to buy shares in newly-privatized state enterprise. Khodorkovsky bought a lot of those vouchers from everyday folks, ones Derk Sauer rather derisively calls “naive,” who sold them for less than their worth. Sauer remarks little on the fact that the economic crisis at the time was fertile ground for this exploitation and speculation.

Khodorkovsky acquired dinosaur-age-equipped, mammoth-sized oil company YUKOS next, modernized it and became Russia’s richest man, in a pantheon of seven other oligarchs who combined owned more than 50 percent of Russia’s wealth. Citizen K makes the argument that these oligarchs were instrumental in putting Putin in charge, but they were unable to predict his ambitions would lead away from privatization and toward re-entrenchment of state ownership instead. And while the other oligarchs left Russia when it became apparent that they would be arrested on whatever charges were expedient, Khodorkovsky, defying the counsel of everyone around him, insisted on staying: “I don’t value life that much to exchange it for losing respect.”

Charged with tax evasion on hundreds of millions of dollars in Russian oil in his first trial, and with stealing the very same oil he didn’t pay taxes on (the absurdity will not escape you), Khodorkovsky is sent to prison. In 2013, coinciding with the Sochi Olympics, Putin pardoned and released him, after a 10 year sentence.

The strength of Citizen K lies in its portrait of a complicated man who lived (and ruled) through the Wild Wild West stage of Russia’s post-communist years. Whether “gangster capitalism,” as Gibney describes it, is still du jour is questionable, but there is little doubt about Khodorkovsky’s unique worldview as a “reformed” oligarch interested in ideals and willing to put his life (in prison, he went on two hunger strikes to advocate for others) behind his principles. Gibney tackles showing what “transition” looked like for all of the former communist countries with great aplomb and delivers a thoroughly engrossing history lesson.

Pay It Forward, DC: 15 Ways To Give Back Locally

My article for On Tap magazine

Pay It Forward, DC: 15 Ways To Give Back Locally

‘Tis the season for paying it forward, so we decided to put together a list of 15 ways to give back to the DC community year-round. Our handpicked list is chock-full of unique organizations eager to put new volunteers’ hands and minds to novel uses. Read on for a list of creative ways you can give more of yourself to those in need around the District.

Restore the Anacostia Watershed

Eco-minded folks can help restore wetlands, plant native plants, collect seeds and much more, all while learning about the watershed and its ecosystem.
www.anacostiaws.org/how-to-help/volunteer.html

Put Down Roots with Casey Trees

Channel your inner tree-hugger through a variety of opportunities, from tree planting and tree care to advocacy.
www.caseytrees.org

Get Your Hands Dirty with Columbia Heights Green

Put your green thumb to good use at Columbia Heights Green, one of many participating parks and gardens in the Community Harvest Program at Washington Parks & People.
www.columbiaheightsgreen.org

Show Compassion & Offer Advocacy through HIPS

Donate to and/or volunteer with HIPS (Harm Reduction Experts Improving Lives Since 1993), offering compassionate harm reduction services and advocacy to people who engage in sex work or drug use in the DC area.
www.hips.org

Expand Your Practice with Yoga Activist

Are you a yoga teacher who wants to take the practice outside of the confines of traditional studio spaces? Yoga Activist is the place to do it.
www.yogaactivist.org

Knit It Forward in the District

Do you stay calm and knit on? Join one of many knitting meetups held at DC Public Library locations and/or donate your handknitted items to a variety of charities.
www.dclibrary.org // www.lionbrand.com/blog/10-charities-for-knitters-and-crocheters

Feed the Hungry with So Others Might Eat

Help provide nourishing breakfasts for those in need. They use real eggs, too – none of that powder stuff.
www.some.org

Provide a Fitness Framework for Girls on the Run

Volunteer with the DC chapter of this national nonprofit dedicated to making a world where every girl is free to boldly pursue her dreams through running. Support students during a 10-week program to help them establish an appreciation for health and fitness.
www.gotrdc.org

Dress to Impress with Suited for Change

Help local women entering the job market dress to impress through a variety of volunteering and donating options, including leading a styling workshop.
www.suitedforchange.org

Support Senior Citizens at We Are Family

Help isolated senior citizens with groceries, cleaning, transportation or just a friendly visit. Make a new friend this season by joining We Are Family.
www.wearefamilydc.org

Save the Felines with Alley Cat Rescue

The trap-neuter-return program at Alley Cat can make life on the streets a little more bearable for our furry friends. Donate to the rescue or adopt one of their many cuddle bugs.
www.saveacat.org

Be a Classroom Volunteer at Carlos Rosario International

Volunteer in adult ESL, culinary, IT and health classes and programs at Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School, and/or join as a mentor through the Impact Mentorship Program.
www.carlosrosario.org/get-involved/volunteers-2

Mentor Families with Northstar Tutoring

Tutor, mentor and help support members of low-income families in DC through Northstar Tutoring.
www.northstartutoring.org

Help the Homeless at Friendship Place

Help people in need transition out of homelessness at Friendship Place through a variety of volunteer roles, from mentoring to cleaning.
www.friendshipplace.org

Go Pro Bono with the D.C. Bar

If you’re a DC lawyer, you can give back by providing a variety of pro bono legal services.
www.dcbar.org/pro-bono/volunteer

Coach Soccer with DC Scores

Score a winning goal by helping coach and referee soccer games.
www.dcscores.org/volunteer

Homewreckers Book Review

My review of Aaron Glantz’ book Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream

Washington Independent Review of Books

December 5, 2019
This exploration of the housing crisis evokes anger but comes off as a sloppy polemic in places.

The cover of Aaron Glantz’s Homewreckers depicts Donald Trump holding wads of cash, Steve Mnuchin riding a wrecking ball, and Wilbur Ross pulling money out of a house. It is a rather apt summary of the book’s main argument, along with the somewhat-hyperbolic characterization of the destruction of the “American dream” the title hints at.

While many books have been written about the 2008 Great Recession, including The Big Short and The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown, few have explored who benefited from the bank bailouts and what happened to all of those foreclosed homes. Homewreckers tells that story — the story of what the author cleverly dubs “vulture capitalists” profiting off the very disaster they orchestrated.

But Glantz spends an unwarranted part of the book drawing detailed biographical sketches of people in Trump’s inner circle, including Mnuchin, Thomas Barrack Jr., Stephen Schwarzman, Sean Hannity, and Trump’s father, Fred Trump. While the investigative zeal with which he goes after these figureheads is keen and captivating, ultimately, it detracts — or, better put, distracts — from the strength of his argument.

Glantz points to the fact that U.S. homeownership rates began declining in 2012 to the present, reaching some of their lowest levels in history. He argues that this is at least partly due to buyers not being able to snatch up the foreclosed homes because banks were not interested in issuing post-meltdown mortgages, and the government preferred to sell to Wall Street:

“In March 2010, the U.S. Treasury estimated that 6 million home loans were at least 60 days delinquent but the federal government reported that only 230,801 Americans had renegotiated their loans with the help of the Making Homes Affordable program, the part of the bank bailout that was supposed to help homeowners stave off foreclosure.”

The most incisive condemnation of “business as usual” is the story of shadowy (and shady) banks hiding behind shell companies with sci-fi-esque names like ColFin AI-CA5 LLC that purchased foreclosed homes in bulk, only to flip them into rental properties with exorbitant rents and minimal maintenance costs. Between 2012 and 2014, for example, Schwarzman’s Blackstone Group spent $7.8 billion to buy 41,000 foreclosures and turn them into rentals.

The most bitter of ironies is that some of the owners who had lost their homes to foreclosure stayed on as tenants who now paid rent to these faceless, absentee landlords. But Homewreckers fails to convince the reader that rent-seeking alone is lucrative enough for these investors; Glantz hints at the creation of mutant mortgage-backed securities but offers no evidence to support it.

In other words, renting out 80,000 homes seems like small potatoes for these billionaire robber barons. Glantz doesn’t make a strong case for why we, the readers, should be outraged and not simply see this as sound capitalism (buying low and selling high is Investing 101).

He veers off track in exploring reverse mortgages, as well. These mortgages have been in place since before the meltdown. Are they predatory? Yes. But what they have to do with the 2008 debacle is not made explicit. Still, the story of Sandy Jolley, who lost her family home to a reverse mortgage and then sued the bank for constructive fraud and financial elder abuse is eloquently and poignantly narrated.

This is where Glantz’s journalistic prose shines, compelling and trenchant. Yet, he struggles to connect the story to his general argument. He details how Mnuchin’s OneWest Bank (which purchased failed IndyMac) foreclosed on thousands of reverse mortgages across Southern California, but again, there was nothing illegal about doing that even though no one will dispute the pernicious nature of reverse mortgages.

Glantz makes a stronger argument for the way in which a small cadre of billionaires took advantage of the government’s fire sale on lending banks that had crafted their own demise. He cogently traces the way in which American taxpayers ultimately footed the bill for the bank bailouts without reaping any of the benefits.

In that sense, Homewreckers is a captivating read, almost thriller-like in its way. But Glantz could have benefited from avoiding some of the rather petty and irrelevant asides, such as what fur coat Melania Trump wore and how “flipping wives went hand in hand with flipping houses.”mp wore and how “flipping wives went hand in hand with flipping houses.”

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.

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.