British director Ken Loach is one of those rare filmmakers who infuses absorbing narratives with a sharp social critique. Never strident, periodically interjecting comic relief, he makes his points while watching characters' lives unfold casually, naturally. This is exactly what he does in I, Daniel Blake as Dan, pursuing governmental eligibility for a support allowance, gets caught in bureaucratic madness.  

Dan has survived a heart attack and, while waiting for his doctor's permission to return to work, which he's eager to do, he attempts to qualify for assistance. As opening credits appear on the screen, in voiceover Dan answers the ludicrous questions of Amanda, who is, as she describes herself twice, "a health care professional." It's both amusing and appalling as Dan tries to maintain his composure, assuring Amanda he can find the top of his head to put a hat on, set an alarm clock, and use a telephone keypad. He does struggle as he gamely tries to learn computer skills which, he says, "drive me mental." 

What gives I, Daniel Blake emotional, even visceral impact is that most of us have faced some measure of such bureaucratic, inhumane absurdity. In another interview scene, when a compassionate clerk steps up to help, her supervisor chastises her. As Dan observes, they "will make it as miserable as possible so you give up," further noting that "when you lose your self respect, you're done for." He buoys his and others' resolve by helping, a resourceful neighbor and later Katie whom he encounters during another office encounter. She and her two children have fewer resources than Dan, and he pitches in. Developments include heartbreaking and tragic moments, though Dan always fights on, with humor and compassion.

As Daniel Blake, Dave Johns gives a performance the equal of the best every man asserting his dignity in the face of disgraceful treatment. As Katie, Hayley Squires complements Daniel's moods and deeply appreciates his help as she despairs. Paul Laverty's screenplay depicts the frustrating confrontations with organizational inflexibility and those at its mercy. Some on-the-street location work adds authenticity with its urban backdrop. I, Daniel Blake dramatically and poignantly makes its case for a kinder, more intelligent approach to and for all. At Landmark's Tivoli Cinema. 

 

Road movies, a popular genre, offer opportunities to encounter varied environments while confronting oneself, a literal and metaphorical journey. Writer/producer/director Eleanor Coppola at 81 presents her fiction film debut, Paris Can Wait, as an entry to that group. It begins in Cannes with Anne Lockwood, suffering from an earache, opting to drive to Paris with Jacques, husband Michael's business partner.

Troubleshooting film productions, Michael flies to Budapest, planning to rendezvous soon with Anne in Paris. She expects a quick trip, Jacques entertains other ideas, stopping frequently for gourmet meals and to philosophize about the French approach to life; in essence, regarding food and love, the French follow natural human passions while Americans feel guilty or need a reason to indulge -- in chocolate, for example. Jacques becomes tiresome and repetitive. 

The strongest scenes are the earliest ones in which Anne and Michael's brief, casual interaction communicates the essence of their twenty-year relationship. While Michael clearly cares for Anne, he's narcissistically absorbed with his problems, treating Anne like a helpmate instead of a partner. He isn't cruel, just indifferent, giving her ear pain nonchalant acknowledgement and letting her drag his suitcases to the hotel lobby. There's a lot submerged here more promising than Jacques' (and the film's) preoccupation with food and wine. (Anyone sharing that passion can find recipes on Sony Classics' website.) But while I appreciate a great meal, watching Anne and Jacques eat and converse doesn't make for a compelling 92-minute film.   

As Anne, Diane Lane sustains an upbeat, appealing persona through the largely superficial conversations with a borderline sleazy Jacques, Arnaud Viard. Jacques lacks Michael's easy charisma, an always interesting Alec Baldwin who, unlike Jacques, suggests complexity. 

Cinematically, a field of lavender, a Roman aqueduct and other locations are beautiful. The food and wine always look appetizing, but Paris Can Wait still leaves me hungry for more -- more substantive conversation about something besides self-indulgence, more exploration of the serious subjects broached, and more than a frivolous consideration of this middle-aged woman reevaluating her choices. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac Cinema.

 

Watch Noa Koler. She plays the bride-to-be in Rama Burshtein's The Wedding Plan. You'll see why she won Israel's Ophir Award for Best Actress. She has comic chords within her, but she plays the role of the bride with seriousn intention -- really, the only way in this delightful film.

Michal has been dis-engaged by her fiancé very soon after she insisted he tell her why he was blue. The break-off occurs within weeks of their up-coming nuptials, but being an Orthodox Jew and believing strongly that God has a plan for her, Michal, does not cancel the wedding, planned for the last night of  Hanukkah. By God, Michal is going to be married.

She re-enters the process of finding a husband with the help of two yentas. She gropes through a series of dates. One won't even look at her on the theory that if he sees no other woman, he'll think his bride is beautiful. Another is deaf, and his interpreter does not translate for Michal the words from sign language to the English we read in the subtitles. Michal even visits the tomb of a famous man in the Ukraine, hoping his spirit can guide her. 

As the date nears, and the wrinkles fall out of the dress, and the food is tasted and tested, Michal continues to trust in God. Watch Koler as she frets or calms. When she sits on tenterhooks, she shows Michal as observant and alert to every sound.

The Wedding Plan obverses the plot of Burshtein's 2012 film, Fill the Void. Both respect tradition while offering a view into a culture. "The Wedding Plan," informative and romantic, amusing and mysterious, is also economical, especially Yael Hersonski's editing. The Wedding Plan won Israel's award for Best Film, for very good reasons.

 

What does an old soldier who remembers his infamous failure in an earlier war do when his country and its allies' generals are ready to mount a major attack? That's the question that the excellent film Churchill ponders regarding the Prime Minister of England in the run-up to D-Day.

If you're Winston Churchill, you cannot forget the World War I disaster at Gallipoli in which you were involved and forever castigated. If you're film director Jonathan Teplitzky, who also directed the excellent The Railway Man, you make art from life. You place Churchill within his memory as he stands on a beach, the water turning blood red from dead bodies. You use his hat as a symbol, and you exploit windows in cars and magnificent halls and mirrors to contrast with the windowless bunkers for war planning.

There, Churchill listens in 1944, listening to General Eisenhower and Field Marshal Montgomery describe a plan to invade France in World War II overwhelm the enemy. But all Churchill can think of is the sacrifice the boy soldiers will be making. He rails against generals in London sending boys to die on the beaches of Normandy. He does not listen to the men around him or to his wife Clementine. He listens to his heart as he drafts and delivers speeches.

Remarkable British actor Brian Cox blusters and blasts Churchill's words, his perambulations and depression. John Slattery is less successful as Ike, but Richard Durden is highly effective as the Boer Jan Smuts. Most amazing is Miranda Richardson, every bit as beautiful and forceful as Clementine.

Alex van Tunzelmann's script quotes and imagines the principles's conversations and speeches. But it's Treplitzky's camera work that grabs, making Churchill not just history but also a work of art.

Eight joke ops. Count 'em: eight. Some produce outright laughter; others just acknowledge that a joke landed. But that's it for laughlines in Amy Schumer's latest film, Snatched. Add to that some pretty smarmy stereotyping, and even the feminist device of a mother/daughter plot barely balances the grossness.

Emily Middleton is a selfie-taking selfish woman. She and her boyfriend had planned an exotic vacation to South America, but then he drops her, and she's stuck with a non-refundable ticket. She's reduced to inviting her mother, Linda, along. Linda is a bit helicopter-y in the Mother Dept.: just ask her son Jeffrey, who has agoraphobia and stays close to the woman he calls "maMA."

So Emily and Linda land in Ecuador and travel to Colombia. The latter was not on the itinerary, but swarthy thugs think they can kidnap the women for ransom. However, they have not met Jeffrey. Nor had these bad boys met Linda and Emily, who find moxie in exotic jungles.

The scenes in the South America are lovely, but that's not what you're in the theater for. You're there to laugh at a tapeworm as it's extruded from Emily's gullet. You're there to enjoy watching Emily think of someone besides herself. You're there, admit it, to be grossed out. Snatched delivers, from the title on down, way down. Down to about Hangover level.

Schumer weaves her comedy bits into her role, but ragtags hang out from the uneven writing by Katie Dippold, who also scripted Ghostbusters. Goldie Hawn plays Linda with more constipation than the "life-ruiner" role requires. Comic Ike Barinholtz manages as dopey Jeffrey. Wanda Sykes provides some crisp punchiness, and Joan Cusack puts on an admirable dumbshow. Christopher Meloni juggles the Bob Hope-y lines. Even with all eight jokes, Snatched remains blessedly short and mostly unfunny.

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