The Angels’ Share (Loach, 2012)

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Ken Loach has long oscillated between crafting leftist historiographies and kitchen-sink comedies, all defined by the working class’s struggle against government corruption and social inequality. Recently, the British filmmaker has shown a predilection for overt ideological preachiness, even more so than in his early, grittier works. Perhaps mercifully, his latest film, The Angels’ Share, a breezy scribble about lowlife redemption and drunken buffoonery, isn’t so much heavy-handed as it is charmingly weightless.

In the film’s opening montage, a series of scraggly defendants separately stand before a magistrate, awaiting sentencing for crimes like public drunkenness, brawling, and petty larceny. Speeches from the defense and prosecution paint different backstories, calling into question whether or not each is a scoundrel or merely misunderstood. Only time will tell, and Loach has a fun time playing with the moral ambiguity on display, especially in regard to the volatile hooligan Robbie (Paul Brannigan), who’s incarcerated for the latest in a long line of fistfights. As the camera lingers on each of the defendants’ faces, they squirm and fidget, genuinely concerned about the future while their crimes are recounted in droll verbal fashion by the snooty court. Not only does this prologue establish the sometimes hilarious, sometimes dark actions of the lead players, it proves that Loach can express his interest in social/class juxtapositions by way of a lively cinematic style.

Unfortunately, The Angels’ Share quickly devolves into ho-hum convention. It doesn’t take long for Robbie and the other miscreants to meet-cute during a court-mandated work program that has them picking up trash and painting over graffiti. They mindlessly band together over a mutual appreciation for whisky drinking and production after their group leader, Harry (John Henshaw), leads an impromptu field trip to a local distillery. Here, Loach focuses more on hapless friendships rather than the social ills that seem to be keeping the characters down. Early plot threads like Robbie’s conflict with his pregnant girlfriend’s father and a rolling feud with another Glasgow family are thrown by the wayside in favor of chill sessions between him and his newfound sipping buddies. Eventually, an absolutely asinine heist subplot leads Robbie and his posse into a daring plot to steal priceless whisky from an age-old casket.

Ideologically, the film has little on its mind. Robbie and his ilk are simple entrepreneurs looking to rise out of the economic cellar by way of an Ocean’s Eleven-grade scheme. Focusing on the capitalistic tendencies of cash-strapped characters is a strange fit for the left-leaning Loach, and as a result the final act feels forced when the film becomes a mainstream rags-to-riches fairy tale. Strangely, even more so than with his previous comedy, Looking for Eric, Loach seems to be moving toward a more Hawksian outlook regarding the overlap between professional and personal relationships. This would be a good thing if Loach’s characters actually felt strongly about the procedures of a given tradecraft. Instead, The Angels’ Share is like some hybrid born from the loins of Sideways and The Full Monty, reveling in a brand of cheeky camaraderie that feels ultimately cheap, one that simply cherishes a dimwitted euphoric passion for sipping booze and talking shit.

Micmacs, Looking For Eric, LAFF

Hello All. Here are direct links to my latest reviews for my new favorite writer’s haven, In Review Online – Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs and Ken Loach’s Looking For Eric. Also, in the upcoming weeks I’ll have reviews of The Killer Inside Me, Restored Metropolis, The City of Your Final Destination, and Solitary Man for EInsiders. And in other big news, I’ll be covering the Los Angeles Film Festival for the aforementioned site in June, hopefully all 11 days of it! My elaborate preparation has already begun!

September 11 (11’09”01) (Various, 2002)

11 films made by 11 directors from 11 different countries working with “complete artistic freedom” tackling contrasting experiences concerning the tragic event. A mouth full, but an admirable goal considering the circumstances. Amazingly, most of the films are a success, especially the three standouts – Samira Makhmalbaf’s opening breath of desert air about an Afghan school teacher attempting to relay the massive scope of the disaster to her students, Idrissa Ouedraogo’s charismatic comedy concerning a group of school boys who think they see Bin Laden in Burkino-Faso, and finally Mira Nair’s heartbreaking story of a Muslim mother whose son goes missing after the towers fall, only to watch the media and the F.B.I. call him a terrorist. Other directors like Claude Lelouch, Ken Loach, and Amos Gitai also make an impact with vastly different points of view, using genre as a springboard for emblematic tensions ripe with drama. But there’s a stunning theme of displacement connecting each film, a relentless similarity running parallel to the tragedy unfolding in New York City. It’s not surprising that the American entry, directed to the cinematic edge by Sean Penn, tells of an elderly man (the great Ernest Borgnine) entrenched in darkness, whose sad revelation of loneliness only comes as the towers fall. Have American’s always been this isolationist? Possibly, but September 11 goes to great lengths to jar the viewer (no matter the country) from misjudgment and fear and toward something resembling global compassion.

Hidden Agenda (Loach, 1990)

Fascinating in it’s crisp precision and relentless pacing as a police procedural, Hidden Agenda is really the first Loach film I’ve seen where the social and political issues discussed are defined by the story and not the other way around. Frances McDormand, Brian Cox, and the great Brad Dourif headline a stellar cast in this story about conspiracy, assassination, and political malpractice set amongst a volatile Ireland circa the 1980’s. Loach lays on the intrigue with shady meetings in dark Republican pubs, threats issued with lone bullet casings, and government baddies built from the Karl Rove mold using calm words of terror to pronounce judgement. While not entirely coherent in parts, Hidden Agenda functions as a frightening introductory analysis of the current American War on Terror, and all the torture, killing, and lying that goes with such a situation. As Brian Cox’s honest top cop learns, complex truths turn into simple falsities when pushed to the brink of moral failure, and the results live on to ruin again, and again, and again.

Kes (Loach, 1969)

Kudos to TCM and guest programmer Tracy Ullman. They recently provided a pristine screening of Ken Loach’s heart-wrenching breakout film Kes, a real treat for cinema lovers. The film is only available on the dreaded PAL DVD format (at least for us in the States), so I’ve been longing to view this for years, and boy does Kes live up to it’s reputation as a groundbreaking work. Set deep in the urban grays and greens of working class England, Kes tells the story of a troubled youth named Billy and his time spent training a wild falcon. Despite a volatile home life (his brother personifies arrogant vanity), Billy becomes a student of falconry, showing the fortitude to practice his craft successfully in a positive and life affirming way. The scenes with Billy and his bird Kes are marvelous, moments of silent awe complimenting a boy’s experimentation with an art form all his own. Loach beautifully contrasts Billy’s explorations with Kes into the dense English countryside and his trying times as a student, where the ideologies of the outdoors are no match for the unjust, bullying, and claustrophobic experiences with fellow children and teachers. Loach uses misjudgment as a recurring motif throughout the film, showing innocent students getting reprimanded as teachers haplessly attempt to dish out venom to stem the tide of unruliness. The film stacks the odds against Billy in ways both subtle and cruel, only to find the boy persevere nonetheless all because of Kes. Billy finds a joy to be excited about and no one pays attention (one teacher does take small interest), resulting in a slow, beautiful slice of happiness drifting under the everyday trials and tribulations of blue collar life. While the ending displays an emotional rampage similar to other English Angry Young Man pictures, Loach uses his last shot to join Billy in one final ritualistic rite of passage, a perfectly mature act for a boy fighting off irrelevance with all his strength.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (Loach, 2006)

Loach’s film beautifully resonates universal themes dealing with oppression, foreign occupation, and familial loyalty, but always from a reserved, and slightly disturbing distance. Set in 1920’s Ireland, Loach fills his opening act with British soldiers soiling the lush Irish countryside with brutality, instigating a simmering level of homegrown rebellion. It’s supposed to be a small example of many which are rising up against the Crown, and Loach directs these initial moments brilliantly, showing Cillian Murphy’s young doctor Damien grow into radicalism and his brother Teddy begin to take charge of the politics involved. Reactionary violence creates more bloodshed, leveling lives on both sides of the conflict, yet the humanity gets lost in the shuffle. Whether or not this was Loach’s intent, The Wind That Shakes the Barley doesn’t convincingly evolve as a story, and when the inevitable compromise between British and Irish politicians forces the brothers into conflict, Loach wears his message far to close to the sleeve. The ending is supposed to be devastating, yet it feels entirely anti-climactic since the characters have postured for far too much of the story over tired ideologies. In that sense, even though made with the best intentions and often with expert craftsmanship, Loach misses a chance to analyze the personal demons hiding behind the overarching suffering of the Irish, and in turn an example of the human condition as a whole.