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Dave Johns

“I, DANIEL BLAKE”  My rating: B+ (Now showing at the Tivoli and Glenwood Arts)

100 minutes | MPAA rating: R

Is Ken Loach our greatest living filmmaker?

Granted, he’s hardly the flashiest. His films, while technically superb, never scream “Look what I can do with a camera!”

But over a career that spans five decades, the 80-year-old Loach has unwaveringly dedicated his movies to examining small lives…or at least the lives usually overlooked by Hollywood.

His vision is invariably humanistic and left leaning, and even when he tackles an historic subject (the Spanish Civil War in 1995’s “Land and Freedom,” the Irish rebellion in 2006’s “The Wind That Shakes the Barley,” the conflict between Church and individual freedoms in the fledgling Irish Republic in 2014’s “Jimmy’s Hall”) he never lets conventional movie storytelling or ideology trump the human beings who are his constant focus.

His latest, “I, Daniel Blake” is vintage Loach: wise, sad, angry, and deeply moving.

The title character (Dave Johns) is a 59-year-old Newcastle widower and carpenter who has suffered an on-the-job heart attack. Dave wants more than anything to go back to work, but his doctors tell him he needs months of recuperation.

To survive this period of unemployment Dave must go on the dole, but qualifying and keeping his benefits proves a Kafka-esque nightmare of “Catch 22” conundrums and contradictions.

Anyone who’s ever spent an hour listening to Muzak while waiting to talk to a “representative” will identify with Daniel’s plight. Actually, that’s a relatively easy day compared to what our protagonist is about to go through.

American viewers who object to “socialized” medicine may be tempted to use “I, Daniel Blake” as a exhibit in their arguments. But not so fast.  Daniel is getting excellent medical care — the problem is the conservative government’s view that anyone receiving unemployment benefits is, by definition, a slacker who deserves to suffer in a bureaucratic limbo.

From the beginning the deck is stacked against Daniel. Government agencies expect him to communicate with them over the Internet, but Daniel’s an analog kind of guy who’s never been within 10 feet of a computer (his music is all on LPs and cassettes). He’s expected to write  up a job resume, then berated when he produces a hand-written CV.

His caseworker orders him to attend a job-hunting workshop — it’s as excruciating to experience in the context of a film as it is in real world.

(more…)

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