VIFF capsule reviews part two: Mr. Turner, The Vancouver Asahi, Clouds of Sils Maria and Maps to the Stars

MrTurnerMr. Turner (UK/France/Germany) — Oct 8 @ 1pm @ Vancouver Playhouse

Mike Leigh is known for his kitchen-sink realism and his improvisational approach to screenwriting: he hires the actors, gets them to know their characters in detail, and then he collaborates with them on the story, or at least on the development of individual scenes. But once in a rare while he decides to tackle an actual historical subject — and the two films he has made in that vein so far both concern artists who lived and worked in the 19th century. [Read more...]

Mike Leigh turns 70

British filmmaker Mike Leigh turns 70 today. To mark the occasion, I have re-posted all of my articles on him and his films, starting with a phone interview that I did with him for the UBC student newspaper back in 1996.

The occasion for that interview was the release of Secrets & Lies, which I quickly came to regard as my favorite film of the 1990s. Alas, the interview itself did not go as well as I might have hoped, since I was rather under the weather when the appointed time came, and the only free phone was right in the middle of the student-newspaper office — and this was on a production night, no less. So it was very noisy at my end, and I wasn’t quite as on-the-ball as I should have been, and, well, let’s just leave it at that. But it was still an honour to speak to him, and I can only hope that some day I might get the chance to do so again, under better circumstances.

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Review: Happy-Go-Lucky (dir. Mike Leigh, 2008)

Happiness is an elusive quality in a Mike Leigh film. Sometimes, in his films, you will meet characters who try to cheer other people up, but there is usually a darker side to their perkiness. The photographer who tries to get people to smile in Secrets and Lies is stressed out by conflicts within his family; the woman who provides illegal abortions in Vera Drake naively tells her clients they will all be “right as rain” after she has left, and is caught off-guard when one of them almost dies thanks to her efforts; and when Gilbert & Sullivan premiere their latest musical comedy in Topsy-Turvy, a depressed Gilbert responds to the applause by privately grumbling to his neglected wife, “There’s something inherently disappointing about success.”

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Review: Kinsey (dir. Bill Condon, 2004); Vera Drake (dir. Mike Leigh, 2004)

THERE are two ways to handle a highly controversial issue, especially when you are looking at the form that that issue took several decades ago, before our culture had settled into its current attitudes and assumptions. Two recent films, both of which take place in the post-war era, offer a stark study in contrasts between these two approaches.

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Review: Topsy-Turvy (dir. Mike Leigh, 1999)

Well, here’s a how-de-do. British director Mike Leigh is well-known for his working-class dramas, such as Naked and Secrets and Lies, and for his uniquely improvisational approach to making them, whereby he and his actors take a premise and follow their characters’ impulses wherever they may lead. But in Topsy-Turvy, Leigh applies his technique to a true story, and of all things, it’s a richly-detailed costume drama about Gilbert and Sullivan.

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Interview: Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, 1996)

Mike Leigh’s films are a paradoxical mix of tight directorial control and letting the chips fall where they may. He begins each film by gathering a cast around a basic premise, then getting the actors to improvise a storyline. But once a character’s next move has been determined, everything is scripted, rehearsed and executed with exacting precision. The result is an extremely professional work in which neither you nor the filmmakers ever quite know what’s going to happen next.

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