Thursday, May 2, 2013

Ken Loach walks on the lighter side

Even when he's not at his best, director Ken Loach remains a treasure.

Loach's new movie -- The Angels' Share -- proves lighter and more amusing than much of Loach's work, but to say that a Loach movie is funny doesn't automatically mean that it's void of realism.

Loach, the 76-year-old director of movies such as The Wind Shakes the Barley and Riff Raff, possesses a great feel for life among the lower classes, and Angels' Share is no exception to the Loach rule: Make movies about real people experiencing real problems.

This time, Loach heads for Scotland for a story that mixes hard-scrabble authenticity with comedy and even a bit of caper-movie high jinks. Although the blend isn't seamless, Angels' Share hits enough of the right notes to serve as a much-needed antidote to the tyrannies of the summer mainstream which already have begun to sweep over us.

This time, Loach focuses on a hot-tempered Scot (Paul Brannigan) who can't seem to stay out of trouble. Charged with administering a severe beating to a sympathetic stranger, Brannigan's Robbie gets a break from a judge. Believing that Robbie has promise, the judge assigns community service rather than a prison term.

The judge may be prescient: Robbie finally has a reason to get right with the law and with himself. Robbie's pregnant girlfriend (Siobhan Reilly) insists that she'll dump him the moment he strays. She wants Robbie to be a father to their child, not an example of everything the kid should try to avoid.

Robbie insists that he'll try, and when he holds his infant son for the the first time, you believe him.

Loach begins to add comic elements when he introduces the group with whom Robbie performs his community service. This small collection of misfits falls under the tutelage of a compassionate but serious supervisor (John Henshaw). When Hensaw's Harry -- a man with a connoisseur's fondness for good whisky -- takes his charges on a field trip to a distillery, Robbie begins to discover that he has a nose for whisky. He's a natural-born connoisseur of taste and aroma, not a bad skill to possess in country that produces some of the world's premier spirits.

Robbie's newfound interest gives him a chance to develop a skill that promises a way out of a vicious circle that pits him against a foe who's determined to draw Robbie into a battle, mostly because of some long-simmering family feud.

I loved the fact that Loach included lots of information about malt whisky, even taking us on a guided tour of a distillery. Watching Loach turn his movie into Malt Whisky for Dummies may be a showstopper for some. For me, it was an intriguing introduction to the skill, obsessiveness and knowledge required to produce a fine whisky. I don't drink the stuff, but I'm always fascinated by displays of expertise.

Now, some of the comedy might be a little too broad, and, of course, the thick Scottish accents would defy comprehension if The Angels' Share didn't come equipped with subtitles.

Brannigan makes an entirely credible Robbie, a young man at war with his own violent propensities. In one of the movie's most affecting scenes, Robbie meets with the family of the man he has beaten. Robbie's coke-crazed outburst has left him speechless and shamed.

Robbie's cronies add comic color, but as much as I admire Loach, I'd have to say that the movie's caper antics don't exactly mesh with Loach's more serious intentions or with the movie's comic byplay.

Still, I'd recommend The Angels' Share. Named for the bit of whisky that inevitably evaporates during production. The Angels' Share may not go down as smoothly as you'd like, but it's no rot gut, either.

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