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DVD Review: LIFE IS SWEET (BLU-RAY)



Studio: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1990
Cast: Jim Broadbent, Alison Steadman, Claire Skinner, Jane Horrocks, Stephen Rea, Timothy Spall, David Thewlis, Moya Brady
Director: Mike Leigh
Release Date: May 28, 2013
Rating: Not Rated for (nudity, language)
Run Time: 01h:43m:38s
Genre(s): drama

"Thinking about it - that's the easy bit. Anyone can do that. It's doing it that's difficult!" - Andy (Jim Broadbent)

LIFE IS SWEET (BLU-RAY)

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Few directors capture the nuances of working class life (good, bad and otherwise) quite like Mike Leigh, and this early work of his remains one of my favorites. Criterion's new 2K transfer is impressive, and the addition of a new Leigh commentary easily push this release onto the "you need this" list.

Highly recommended.

Movie Grade: A-

DVD Grade: A-

The dysfunctionally functional family at the heart of Mike Leigh's 1990 film Life is Sweet does what so few movie families ever do realistically. Here they embrace their own internal flaws - as well as each other's - and are still able to retain and nurture that spark that ultimately binds them all together, even during conflict and hardship. This is really the film that put Leigh on the "big" map as a filmmaker, as a purveyor of English working-class life in the 1990s, presented in equal doses of beauty and ugliness. That's a tough mixture to effectively maintain, yet as a writer/director Leigh clearly has a knack to neatly blend these elements together, utilizing humor, drama and simple human interaction in ways that create characters we care about, even if they are not always likeable.

Hard-working mum and dad Wendy (Alison Steadman) and Andy (Jim Broadbent) live with their diametrically opposed teenaged twin daughters Nicola (a scene stealing Jane Horrocks) and Natalie (Claire Skinner) in a tiny rowhouse. Andy has a penchant for putting off home repair projects, Wendy drives a dilapidated car and works two jobs, level-headed Natalie wants to travel and is gainfully employed while angry Nicola does nothing but sit around the house yelling at everyone while hiding a dark personal secret. The ebb and flow of family life is what Life is Sweet is all about - all delicately connected to food somehow - with dreams of not giving up (largely in the form of a rust-bucket food caravan that comes into their lives) and what could have been as an underlying theme throughout. Andy and Wendy take on day-to-day realities - some mundane, some comical - while serving as the foundation of a conventionally unconventional family that seem truly genuine.

Leigh introduces a few Maguffins into the narrative, because the core of Life is Sweet - like most his films - are the characters and what they do and how/why they do it. There's not an off performance in the whole bunch here, including the secondary comedic roles of Timothy Spall and Stephen Rea or the brief presence of a riveting David Thewlis. The acting is all effortless and natural, with dialogue that is peppered with raw, honest emotion and sense of flowing the way it should in real life. It's always been said the best special effects are the ones you don't notice, and for a film like this those effects are characters and what they say. There's never a thought that these aren't flesh-and-blood folk (ok, maybe Timothy Spall's Aubrey straddles that line a bit) and that is what fills this with such a lifelike texture.

This is the sort of film that when it's over and you look back over the various plot points that were introduced and you realize that it ultimately wasn't about any of that. It's about something deeper and much more important that food caravans, self-image and money. It's about family.

Sweet.

IMAGE/AUDIO
Criterion's new 2K AVC-encoded 1.85:1 transfer - supervised by director of photography Dick Pope - was culled from original camera negatives. The laboriously restored print is clean, devoid of nicks or blemishes, and the absence of any noticeable overscrubbing is a big plus, lending this presentation its striking appearance. There really is not much to say that would be remotely negative about the quality of this transfer. Colors are warm and well-saturated, while the consistently strong image quality shows off fabric details and facial features quite well.

The sole audio track is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 surround. Voice clarity is never a concern, though the optional English subs are handy for a some of the thicker individual accents. Though not an especially remarkable track, the presentation is solid and the film's recurring musical theme has some measurable heft during its frequent uses.

EXTRAS
A thirteen-page insert booklet carries an essay by National Society of Film Critics chair David Sterritt entitled Life is Bitter-Sweet, and it's a well-written piece about Leigh, the film and his place amongst contemporaries like Ken Loach or Derek Jarman. Supplements on the disc include a new Leigh commentary - recorded in 2013 - where the filmmaker eloquently covers the usual production topics, including his work with cinematographer Dick Pope. What makes the track especially interesting is the opening where Leigh uses a string of random words to accurately describe what Life is Sweet is all about - it's a hoot. A lengthy audio interview from March 1991 entitled Mike Leigh at the National Film Theatre (01h:00m:55s) is here, as well as a collection of Five Minute Films, part of an eventually abandoned BBC project from 1975. The six five-minute films from Leigh (along with an optional audio introduction from the director) were meant to be part of a sprawling, inventive series and their inclusion here is a rare glimpse at something that seemed to be well ahead of its time.

Posted by: Rich Rosell - January 12, 2014, 8:07 am - DVD Review
Keywords: mike leigh, working-class drama




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