A stiff dose of social realism from Loach
I, Daniel Blake (15A, 100mins), 4 Stars
* Queen of Katwe (PG, 124mins), 3 Stars
* Trolls (G, 92mins), 3 Stars
The French love Ken Loach: his drably realistic scenarios seem to speak to some deep Gallic vision of Britain as a grim, grey-skied land of small but permanent crises. It was they who did much to resurrect his film career in the early 1990s, and he's treated like a returning king at Cannes, where he's won two Jury Prizes and two Palme d'Or, the latest of them this year, with I, Daniel Blake. In this, his 27th feature drama by my count, Loach explores familiar but depressingly relevant themes with the help of his writing collaborator Paul Laverty.
Comedian and actor Dave Johns is Daniel Blake, a 59-year-old Tyneside carpenter who's forced to quit his job on a building site after a serious heart attack. Told by his doctors that he's too sick to work, and by social services that he can't get benefit until he starts looking for work, Daniel Blake finds himself caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare of soulless bureaucracy. He finds a welcome distraction when he meets Katie (Hayley Squires), a single mother from London who's been transplanted to the north-east by the vagaries of an indifferent welfare system.
She knows no one, struggles to find her feet and is on the point of making a big mistake when Daniel attempts to rescue her. Hayley Squires and Johns are both superb in emotionally demanding roles, and the film presents us with a compelling and impassioned insight into life at the bottom of the pile. I, Daniel Blake's politics are insufficiently bedded into its narrative for my liking, and there are moments of raw speechifying, but all the same it's a profoundly moving film.
I can count on two fingers the number of chess films I've ever seen, and neither of them were set in Africa. Disney's Queen of Katwe is a refreshing and uplifting movie based on a true story: you could call it a sports film, if chess can be described as such. David Oyelowo, excellent as always, is Robert Katende, a volunteer at a missionary programme in the slums of Kampala who coaches football and teaches street kids the virtues of chess.
The other kids are not impressed when 10-year-old Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) turns up: she can't read, is dressed in rags and hasn't washed in weeks. But Robert takes a shine to her fighting spirit, and when he teaches her chess she quickly displays an exceptional flair for it. With little knowledge of strategy, she can see eight clear moves ahead, and soon Phiona is competing for her country in pan-African tournaments, even the chess Olympics.
It's a charming drama, and while novices will learn little about the rules of chess and the plot-lines are sometimes formulaic, Lupita Nyong'o is superb as Phiona's fiercely loving mother.
Those of you old enough to recall in detail the 1970s may remember the Trolls, annoyingly cute, small plastic figures with colourful, up-combed hair. They went the way of the Dodo, and an attempt to relaunch them a decade or so ago failed, but perhaps this amiable and relentlessly tuneful animation will do the trick.
The trolls are tiny, forest-dwelling creatures who sing and dance their way through the day and exist in a perpetual state of bliss until the Bergen decide they're a tasty delicacy. The Bergen are uncouth ogres who believe happiness is only possible just after one has ingested a troll, so the little fur-balls are forced to flee their ancestral tree and seek alternative lodgings.
Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake voice Princess Poppy and Branch respectively, two trolls with wildly differing world views who must join forces to save their kind when the Bergen attack again. It's all very busy, but not in a bad way, and the golden-voiced Kendrick leads the ensemble cast in some wonderfully frothy extended musical numbers.