Rob Harmon’s recommendations 09/10/13

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksLIFE IS SWEET (dir. Mike Leigh, 1990)

About mid-way through Mike Leigh’s 1990 breakthrough feature Life is Sweet (recently re-released on DVD by the Criterion Collection) the viewer may stop and wonder what kind of movie they are watching: a bittersweet comedy of life, with elements of the burlesque, or a drab slice of kitchen sink realism, in the vein of John Cassavetes? This sense of confusion, caused by Leigh’s rare ability to balance between extremes, is usually an indicator that he is in top form.

Mike Leigh is something of a wonder. Viewed from this side of the pond his body of filmmaking is remarkably consistent, vibrating with vitality, with breathing, lived-in characters whose penchant for train-wreck existences are only matched by their Teflon-like determination to survive in the modern-day urban environment. Though this venerable veteran of the stage, BBC teleplays, and feature film-making has achieved knighthood in his native land his contributions to British film would be better approximated—if it existed—by a distinction similar to Japan’s “living treasure” (Ken Loach is right there with him in this regard).

As its title suggests Life Is Sweet belies the austerity typical to socially conscious-filmmaking, its storyline—about a working-class family living on the outskirts of London and their orbit of friends and acquaintances—at times as light as it can be dense, often meandering like a gently-bubbling stream.

Andy (Leigh regular Jim Broadbent) is a chef whose position in a large and anonymous industrial-sized kitchen causes him to dream of the freedom he would be afforded by purchasing a snack cart that he could run on the weekends. His wife Wendy (Leigh’s then-wife Alison Steadman) helps make ends meet by working various jobs, such as a dance instructor and a sales associate in a children’s clothing store, her demeanor sociable and sprightly even in the face of adversity. Their twin daughters in their early-20s are as different from one another as they can possibly be. Natalie (Claire Skinner) is bookish and reserved, a conscientious worker, while Nicola (Ab Fab’s Jane Horrocks) carries a heavy chip on her shoulder, her seething anger at the world so complete that she seemingly wears a permanent scowl upon her face. Patsy (Stephen Rea) is a wheeler-dealer of sorts, an old chum of Andy’s; the two of them seem to melt over their beers at the local pub, giving themselves over to boozy and wistful reminiscences of the glory days of Tottenham Hotspur. Aubrey (another Leigh regular, Timothy Spall) is an overgrown man-child and aspiring restaurateur. The disastrous opening night of his The Regret Rien—a gaudy and grotesque evocation of the cuisine and culture of Paris and the music of Edith Piaf—provides the film with its most memorable and hilarious set-piece. His sous-chef Paula’s (Moya Brady) angular face is as doleful is it is doe-eyed, as she struggles to suppress wonderment and affection for her seemingly-acculturated new boss, while Nicola’s secret lover is played by a young David Thewlis, who would find his career-defining role just a few years later in Leigh’s NAKED.

Holding together this group of dreamers, losers, upstarts, and also-rans is Leigh’s compassionate sensibility: his humane, forgiving nature allows ample room for even the most hopeless of characters to work their way toward some form of resolution. Rachel Portman’s lively and unflagging chanson-influenced score, featuring oboe, accordion, and Theremin, steadily chugs throughout the movie, lightening the heavy emotional load just enough that it becomes bearable: it is the kind of airy tune that, once lodged in your head, hums along at an agreeable pace. Director of photography Dick Pope’s work is exceptional here, lensing the bleak working-class environs with a warm palette which permits traces of humanity to seep in at the edges. Singling out superior performances among this uniformly excellent cast is a difficult task but both Steadman and Horrocks are particularly deserving of praise for their strong portrayals.

This movie was an early indicator of Leigh’s mature sensibility, balancing unvarnished hardships with characters who learn to survive the slings and arrows of life, often with a giggle and a laugh. The complex and beautifully-composed opening shot of this film is perfectly indicative in this regard: Through a darkly lit foreground and a set of doors we glimpse a brightly-lit dance studio where Wendy leads a group of hesitant young girls to an upbeat bit of pop music cheerily thumping in the background. The sounds of vitality are distant, but unmistakable, as Wendy delivers sing-song encouragement and the group shyly begins to sway from side-to-side: life is (bitter) sweet, indeed!

Many of the other works by this distinguished filmmaker—Naked, the Gilbert and Sullivan biopic TOPSY-TURVY, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, CAREER GIRLS, ALL OR NOTHING, VERA DRAKE, ANOTHER YEAR and SECRETS & LIES—are available for rental in our Mike Leigh section.

New Releases 05/28/13

Top Hits
Dark Skies (supernatural thriller, Keri Russell. Rotten Tomatoes: 36%. Metacritic: 51. From Andy Webster’s New York Times review: “Dark Skies certainly parades textbook genre trappings: children with unseen ‘friends’; vertiginous, paranoia-inducing tracking shots; feathered fauna hitting windows; walls covered in newspaper clippings of unexplained phenomena; limp bodies bent backward with eyes rolled, heads pointed skyward in a stance of demonic possession. There’s even surveillance footage in the by-now-shopworn Paranormal Activity tradition. But those elements are employed with consummate dexterity.” Read more…)

New Foreign
Lore (Germany, drama, Saskia Rosendahl. Rotten Tomatoes: 93%. Metacritic: 76.A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Stephen Holden’s Times review: “Cate Shortland’s Lore is not a fairy tale, but it feels like one: a dark, mysterious fable of hungry, frightened children making their way through a perilous enchanted forest inhabited by demons. The film sustains an air of overarching mystery in which the viewer, like the title character, is in the position of a sheltered child plunked into an alien environment and required to fend for herself without a map or compass. A remarkable young actress, Saskia Rosendahl, plays this chilly, largely unsympathetic protagonist, a blond 14-year-old German girl nicknamed Lore who herds her siblings through the Bavarian woods in the spring of 1945.” Read more…)

New American Back Catalog (post-1960)
Swimming to Cambodia (1987, Jonathan Demme-directed monologue, Spalding Gray. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. Metacritic: 68. From Janet Maslin’s 1987 New York Times review [requires log-in]: “It would be wrong to think of Swimming to Cambodia as a one-man show, even though it captures the performance of a single artist, Spalding Gray, as he sits alone on an almost empty stage. For one thing, Mr. Gray’s feature-length monologue brings people, places and things so vibrantly to life that they’re very nearly visible on the screen. For another, this is a two-man undertaking, one that shows off both Mr. Gray’s storytelling talents and Jonathan Demme’s ability to frame them. This film’s arrival in the wake of Mr. Demme’s pioneering concert film Stop Making Sense and his jubilant, anarchic comedy Something Wild completes quite an amazing triple play.” Read more…)

New British
Life Is Sweet (1990, Mike Leigh-directed drama/comedy, Jim Broadbent. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. From Vincent Canby’s 1991 New York Times review [requires log-in]: “Life Is Sweet, opening today at the Angelika Film Center, is a very special new English comedy by Mike Leigh, the English director whose High Hopes, one of the hits of the 1988 New York Film Festival, revealed him to be a film maker not quite like any other. Among other things, Mr. Leigh makes movies in which the actors participate in the creative process, discovering and refining their characters in the course of long rehearsal periods. Such collaboration would have sent Hitchcock into permanent retirement. It obviously works for Mr. Leigh, whose gently cockeyed movies are so rich with character that they seem beyond ordinary invention. His films prompt the kind of excitement that comes only when experiencing something new or, at least, something new in the context of other movies.” Read more…)

New TV
Veep: Season 1 (Julia Louis-Dreyfus)

New Docs
The Loving Story (civil rights, interracial marriage. Rotten Tomatoes: 100%. Metacritic: 81. From Alessandra Stanley’s New York Times television review: “The Loving Story may be one of the slyest sleights of programming in HBO history: this documentary running on Tuesday is a love story and a landmark civil rights case, which takes care of Valentine’s Day and Black History Month. There’s more: because the film focuses on the battle to overturn laws against mixed-race marriages, HBO is also marketing it as a parable for the gay marriage movement. The tone of the film is solemn and pious, which seems almost inevitable when the topic is segregation and racial intolerance. But there are other reasons to watch this film besides feel-good expediency.” Read more…)