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I, Daniel Blake

Directed by Ken Loach




      Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old carpenter, had been receiving welfare benefits until recently when he received a letter from the government stating that his benefits are denied and he must find a job. However, under his doctor's orders, he can't work because of his heart condition after a recent heart attack. Repeated visits to the welfare office prove to be futile. He's even asked to create a CV and has to learn how to use a computer. Everything changes when he meets Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two young children, Daisy (Briana Shann) and Dylan (Dylan McKiernan), at the welfare office. He generously offers to help her move into her new apartment while she struggles to support her kids without money or a job. He provides her with something even more valuable than anything that money can buy: genuine friendship and compassion. Meanwhile, he refuses to give up on his battle against the unjust welfare system.

      With its warmth, tenderness and complex characters, I, Daniel Blake is a testament to the humanism of writer/director Ken Loach. The sensitive screenplay remains character-driven, unflinching and true-to-life from start to finish without going overboard in any particular direction. Loach has a lot to say about the bureaucratic nature of the welfare system, but he doesn't pound you over the head with messages nor does he paint those who work at the welfare office as a villains.

      Equally heartwarming and heartbreaking, I Daniel Blake is fundamentally about the importance compassion toward other human beings, a rare trait these days when most people are shallow, unreliable, inconsiderate and rude. Perhaps Daniel Blake knows how to treat others with respect because he's not obsessed with Twitter, Facebook and other impersonal ways of being personal. The film doesn't have the standard spectacles that tentpole films have. In other words, there are no explosions, high-speed car chases, gunfights or anything else that would require stunts or CGI, but so what? It has plenty of truth, and the spectacles can be found within its truths if you're a perceptive audience member. Its greatest feat, though, is that it actually earns its uplifting, crowd-pleasing third act every step of the way.

      The convincingly moving performances by Dave Johns and Hayley Squires also help to ground the film in realism while enriching it even further. Both actors become their characters, so Daniel and Katie both feel like complex, lived-in characters rather than caricatures. These are human beings who are worth caring about. Don't be surprised if you'll feel happy when they're happy and sad then they're sad. Most importantly, you'll think about them long after the end credits roll.

Number of times I checked my watch: 0
Released by Sundance Selects .
Now playing at IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Toni Erdmann

Directed by Maren Ade




      Winfried Conradi (Peter Simonischek), a divorced, retired piano teacher, feels lonely after his dog dies. His estranged daughter, Ines (Sandra Hüller), works long hours for a consulting firm as a business consultant. He decides to visit her out of the blue and follow her to work to try to rekindle their father-daughter relationship through a series of pranks where he dons a wig and false teeth as "Toni Erdmann."

      To merely describe the plot of Toni Erdmann wouldn't do it any justice. Like many great films, it can't be summarized adequately with words nor can it fit into a genre. On the one hand, it's also a comedy with screwball, witty and absurd humor, some of which is quite bold---please be warned, though: you will never look at a petit four the same way ever again. On the other hand, it's a tragedy with two wounded, lonely souls who come together in spite of their many differences while discovering and learning to love themselves as well as each other. Comedy, after all, is almost always rooted in tragedy. Fortunately, writer/director Maren Ade hits just the right notes as she blends comedy and drama with some depth lurking beneath the surface to allow you to ponder larger issues like the meaning of happiness, family, love and forgiveness. In other words, she grounds the film in humanism, a priceless, truly special effect.

      The character of Winfried isn't easy to like because he seems creepy, selfish, annoying and emotionally needy at first, but as the film progresses he becomes somewhat endearing in spite of his seemingly childish behavior. He fundamentally lover her although perhaps he doesn't quite know how to express his love in the usual ways. One wonders what the relationship was like with his own parents. There's much more to him than meets the eye which makes him all the more interesting as a character. Ines is also complex: she seems cold and overworked with a stiff upper lip, but, with the help of her father, she gradually loosens up and starts to confront her buried emotions. The fact that Ines and Winfried come to life is a testament to the raw and convincingly moving performances by Sandra Hüller and Peter Simonischek. Both of them help to make their characters actually feel like they're father and daughter even when they don't speak to one another. Their greatest triumph, though, is that they manage to find the emotional truths of their characters.

      The post profound, surprising scene in the film is when Ines sings Whitney Houston's "The Greatest Love of All" as her father plays the piano. Pay close attention to the song's lyrics because they speak volumes about Ines' emotional breakthrough. That scene will probably be remembered the most, but there are other smaller, subtler, quieter scenes that also have leave a powerful emotional impact. Kudos to Maren Ade for trusting the audience's intelligence as well as something that's underrated this days and ultimately rewarding: patience. The understated ending works beautifully and leaves enough room for interpretation. Anyone who dares to call Toni Erdmann shallow either wasn't paying close enough attention to the film and/or is shallow themselves. Whether you see it as a comedy grounded in tragedy or a tragedy grounded in comedy, Toni Erdmann is a profound, heartfelt and outrageously funny emotional journey. It's one of the best films of the year.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Opens on December 25th, 2016 at Film Forum and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Moana

Directed by Ron Clements, John Musker, Chris Williams and Don Hall




      Moana (Auli'i Cravalho) lives on the Pacific island of Motunai where a shortage of fish and coconuts has become a serious problem threatening everyone. Her grandmother, Gramma Tala (voice of Rachel House), tells her the tale of a demi-god, Maui (voice of Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson), who had stolen the heart of Te Fiti, the mother island, which has the capabilities to create life. Moana defies her father, Chief Tui (Voice of Temuera Morrison) and finds the courage to sail into the ocean on a mission to find the coveted heart of Te Fiti. She eventually joins up with Maui on her quest, and the two of go through a number of obstactles, including a battle with pirates and Tamatoa the crab (Jemaine Clement), along their way to Te Fiti.

      Moana boasts a winning combination of action, comedy, musical, adventure and drama that allows for it to soar high among the best animated films of the year. At it's core, a warm and big-hearted story which makes it all the more engrossing and relatable because it's grounded in humanism, a truly special effect. Most importantly, though, it has a very strong, positive female role that young girls of can look up to just like in other Disney films like Brave which is on the same level of quality as Moana. On a technical level, the animation looks breathtakingly and captures the majestic beauty of the Pacific. You might even forget that you're watching an animated film at times because everything looks so real, especially the photorealistic water.

      Screenwriter Jared Bush expertly balances the captivating story with just the right amount of memorable characters each of whom has an interesting backstory. The scene with Moana and Maui bantering with one another when they first meet is particularly well-written with plenty of witty and clever humor. Heihei the rooster (voice of Alan Tudyk) provides a lot of the comic relief as Moana's sidekick, i.e. how when it tries to eat everything it sets its eyes upon including rocks. The screenplay does tend to resort to slightly excessive exposition at times, but that's a minor, forgivable issue that's not systemic. Both kids and adults will be able to thoroughly enjoy Moana thereby making it the best family film of the holiday season. Please be sure to stay until after the end credits for an amusing stinger with Tamatoa the crab.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Walt Disney Pictures.
Now playing nationwide.

Elle

Directed by Paul Verhoeven




      Isabelle Huppert stars as Michèle Leblanc, a divorced woman who runs a video game company with her best friend, Anna (Anne Consigny). After she gets brutally raped at home, she decides to take matters into her own hands and try to catch her rapist instead of seeking help from the police. Her familial relationships are quite dysfunctional. She's jealous of ex-husband, Richard Leblanc (Charles Berling), when she learns that he has found a much younger lover, Hélène (Vimala Pons), and she dislikes Josie (Alice Isaaz), the fiancee of her son, Vincent's (Jonas Bloquet). She has no shame when it comes to having an affair with her best friend's husband, Robert (Christian Berkel).

      Based on the novel by Philippe Djian, Elle is a character-driven psychological thriller that goes into unexpectedly twisted directions more often than not. Michèle may not be particularly likable as a character because of some of the choices that she makes and her personality, but it's precisely those flaws that make her all the more interesting as a character. She's given a backstory involving something traumatic from her childhood which won't be spoiled here. That trauma has shaped her current mental state and makes her a complex human being---she's not exactly an easy nut to crack. The darker that Elle becomes, the more captivating and even somewhat gripping it becomes.

      Director Paul Verhoeven ought to feel very lucky to have Isabbelle Huppert as his lead because she's just the right actress for the role. This is her best role since The Piano Teacher. She tackles Michèle's strength as well as her innate fragility concurrently. Perceptive audience members will be able to grasp the battles with her mental scars which are far more traumatic than physical scars. in other words, Huppert's impeccable acting skills help to provide a window, albeit a small one, into Michèle's head. Although you probably would not want to spend time around Michèle in person, she's nonetheless a truly fascinating character that's complex enough to be open to interpretation. Bravo to Verhoeven and screenwriter David for trusting the audience's intelligence and thereby turning Elle into a smart, sophisticated and riveting psychological thriller for adults.

Number of times I checked my watch: 1
Released by Sony Pictures Classics.
Now playing at Angelika Film Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.
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