Monday 13 February 2017

Blood Father, I, Daniel Blake, and Thumbsucker: Your week in film (February 13-19)

Father, dear father: Mad Mel's back and in the thick of the action

Movie picks for the next seven days on DVD, Blu-ray and VOD...

Say what you like about Mel Gibson (and I certainly have) but, on his day, he is a fine director and charismatic screen presence. The man who was Mad Max needs all of that latter quality in Blood Father (DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD) WW, an underwhelming action thriller in which he plays John Link, a recovering alcoholic and former jail bird who only wants two things in life: to find his missing teenage daughter and to stay out of trouble. Unfortunately, he can't have one without stepping into a whole heap of the other.

Director Jean-Fran├žois Richet (Mesrine) offers only the most perfunctory of set-ups before we're plunged headlong into a succession of shoot-outs, punch-ups and vehicular chases. It turns out Link's offspring Lydia (Erin Moriarty) has fallen in with a very bad crowd, headed up by her drug-cartel-connected boyfriend, Jonah (Diego Luna). Addicted to cocaine and on the run from Jonah's gun-toting goons after a shooting incident, long-lost Lydia has but one place left to turn - her old man.

Having spent all those years as a no-nonsense badass in the Mad Max and Lethal Weapon franchises, I suppose it's only natural Gibson, at 61, might want a slice of Liam Neeson's 'Dadsploitation' action. Link is so grizzled he makes Grizzly Adams look like Prince George, but Gibson imbues him with depth. A world-weary pall of regret hangs over the ex-con and the movie's best moment comes early on with Link attending a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. "I did a lot of damage, lost a lot of people along the way," he tells his fellow addicts. "I can't fix everything I broke...  all I can do is not drink, so I won't do that today." The parallels with Gibson's real-life battles with alcohol are all too clear and deliberate.

When father and daughter are reunited, it looks we're going to be in for a fun ride. Link is a reluctant hero at first, desperate not to violate his parole conditions even as he takes up arms to defend Lydia. Unfortunately, Richet goes for brevity over heft (Blood Father is under 90 minutes in length) and so opportunities to develop the pair's relationship are squandered. We see glimpses of Link and Lydia's contrasting world views but these are never fully explored, while Link's former wife/Lydia's mum is never more than a disembodied voice on a mobile phone.

Bad dad: Mel Gibson is John Wick, er, Link

Dealing with violence of a rather more subtle kind is I, Daniel Blake (digital download) WWW½. Veteran socialist director Ken Loach's film isn't out on DVD and Blu-ray until 27 February but, after it won the Best British Film award at last night's BAFTAs ceremony, you may be keen to check it out a bit earlier. 

Last year's Palme d'Or winner at Cannes dissects the UK government's war on the vulnerable in an impassioned and unapologetic polemic. After suffering a heart attack, Dave Johns (as Blake) feels the full force of state bureaucracy and 'benefit sanctions', as he attempts to claim enough money to live on, while being bullied and frustrated by a parade of jobsworths. The scene set in a food bank, in which a penniless and starving young mum (the excellent Hayley Squires) eats cold baked beans straight from the tin, is as powerful as it is upsetting.

Rise people, rise: Ken Loach's I, Daniel Blake

Mike Mills' 20th Century Women, starring Annette Bening and Greta Gerwig, is in cinemas now but online subscription service MUBI have recently added the Californian writer/director's 2005 debut feature to their catalogue. Quirky coming-of-age dramas are 10-a-penny, but Thumbsucker WWW captures the confusion and terror of being a teenager better than most.

Justin Cobb (Lou Pucci) is a typical 17-year-old boy; a bit unfocussed, drifting through school, struggling to fit in or find a girlfriend. Much to the horror of his parents (Vincent D'Onofrio and Tilda Swinton) and dentist (Keanu Reeves), he also sucks his thumb. Eventually diagnosed with ADD and prescribed medication, Justin is transformed into a model student and captain of the school debating team. He is no longer truly himself.

Mills' film boasts a fine cast (which also includes Benjamin Bratt and Vince Vaughn) and some smart, subtle writing with a hopeful message: if you just leave your kids alone and trust them to find their own path, they'll mostly be all right.

Under the thumb: Growing pains for teenager Justin

Kirsten Johnson has been working as a documentary cinematographer for 25 years and Cameraperson (DVD) WWW½ offers a glimpse into both her craft and life. Presented as a lengthy roll of clips and outtakes from the films she has worked on (everything from Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 911 to documentaries about boxing, Nigerian midwifery, and life in post-war Bosnia), they initially lack context, let alone subtext. But as the film continues you start to see links between the material - the humanity, the horror and the hope we all share. Johnson even turns the camera on her own family to document her beloved mum's deterioration and death from Alzheimer's. A compelling and inventive memoir.

What I shall be watching this week: I've been a fan of Alice Lowe since Garth Merenghi's Dark Place so can't wait to see her directorial debut, Prevenge.

WWWW - Wonderful
WWW - Worthwhile
WW - Watchable
W - Woeful

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