Watching “The Angels’ Share” and “Upstream Color”
I don’t expect comedy or goofy hijinks from the films of Ken Loach, the British director whose often grim filmography focuses on the struggles of the working class.
But his latest, “The Angels’ Share,” is a gentle human comedy about hope, redemption and whisky. It opens with a very funny montage of troubled young Glasgow residents being sentenced to community service for crimes such as shoplifting birds from a pet store and drunkenly defacing public monuments. The final offender to go before the judge is Robbie (Paul Brannigan), whose crime is more serious: He beat up a couple guys with whom he has a bit of a history, inflicting serious harm. But the judge is lenient, as Robbie did not initiate the incident and has an otherwise decent record.
Robbie and the other offenders find themselves under the tutelage of Harry (John Henshaw), who puts them to work painting a building. Harry eventually becomes something of a mentor for Robbie, accompanying the young man to the hospital after his girlfriend has given birth to his son, and introducing him to the pleasure of drinking high-quality whisky. One Saturday, Harry takes the offenders to a distillery, and Robbie discovers that he has an exceptional nose and is capable of identifying a whisky’s more subtle flavors.
Robbie’s road to redemption is paved with the sort of obstacles typical of a Ken Loach film: He is poor, and trapped in an uncaring system where his record and unsightly facial scar make it difficult for him to get a decent job. He also has to contend with his girlfriend’s nasty relatives, who want him out of the picture (her uncles beat him up at the hospital, and her father offers him $5,000 to move to London and never return). As played by Brannigan, a cute young actor with an innocent face, Robbie is easy to sympathize with, though Loach flashes back to his most violent crime to give us a sense of what he’s capable of.
The second half of “The Angels’ Share” focuses on Robbie and his pals’ plot to steal valuable whisky from a distillery, and the film transitions from being a fairly standard kitchen-sink comedy-drama to a quirky heist movie. What I enjoyed most about the film was Loach’s SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS! seeming approval of their crime; he understands that his protagonists have few legitimate business and employment opportunities and sees nothing wrong with them stealing a little bit of whisky from a very rich man, selling it and using the money to improve their lot. (Robbie secures the promise of a job at a distillery from the whisky dealer he and his crew sell the rare whisky to.) In this film, crime really does pay.
“The Angels’ Share” is more good-hearted and optimistic than most of the Loach films I’ve seen, and though an undercurrent of humor runs through most of his films, this is the only one I can think of that contains scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in “The Hangover” or a Judd Apatow film. I prefer Loach when he’s a little more cynical and a little edgier, but “The Angels’ Share” is a genuine feel-good experience, and I left the theater with a smile on my face.
I also caught up with “Upstream Color,” Shane Carruth’s long-awaited follow-up to his cult 2004 film “Primer,” recently.
I didn’t really care for “Primer,” a low-budget sci-fi film that mostly involved, at least to my eyes, nerdy engineers crawling in and out of cardboard boxes and talking about science. (Technically, it’s about time-travel.) But I was blown away by “Upstream Color,” which showcases Carruth’s cerebral approach to film, his magnificent eye for images that are mysterious as well as beautiful, and his masterful ability to create an unusually tactile experience.
“Upstream Color” is an extremely strange film, and probably not for everyone. The plot is almost impossible to describe, and I suspect that I could watch the film 100 times and still not completely understand what it’s all about. But that’s OK. This is the sort of film that’s not meant to be unraveled, that generates multiple interpretations and digs into ideas and philosophical ideas in a way most other movies never will.
The first half of “Upstream Color” focuses on a man, known only as the Thief, who feeds his victims some kind of grub and is able to control them and steal all their money. We watch Kris (Amy Seimeitz) fall under the Thief’s spell, to be eventually saved by a pig farmer who surgically removes the grub from her body and implants it in one of his pigs. The film jumps forward in time, and we see that Kris is now a broken spirit, having lost her job and her money. But her life begins to change, perhaps for the better, when she and a young man named Jeff (Carruth) fall in love. Jeff, a recovering drug addict with a shady past, appears to have undergone a similarly weird experience.
“Upstream Color” is the rare film I’m eager to see a second time, not because I think I can solve its mysteries, but because it’s thought-provoking, original and unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. The characters often recite passages from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden,” and if the film has a message, it might be something along the lines of “We should go outside more.” One reviewer suggested that the film is about interconnectedness and DNA, and I’ve found myself considering this possibility quite a bit in the past week. Because “Upstream Color” is the type of film that’s impossible to stop thinking about. In a way, it’s like one of those weird little grubs — impossible to get out of your system.
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