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Arts & Entertainment Preview - December 1999

B Y   E L L A   T A Y L O R

Model of a Modern Major Movie

  Opera-ting instructions:
  Topsy-Turvy's Mikado

In his wonderful new film about Gilbert and Sullivan, the English director Mike Leigh has at last freed himself to write dialogue for the upper classes that doesn't make them sound like buffoons. Topsy-Turvy opens at a moment of crisis in the volatile relationship between the two gifted men who reigned supreme over fin de siècle British light opera. In the wake of poor notices for Princess Ida, Gilbert (Jim Broadbent), an impossibly demanding stuffed shirt, is in full denial of the rut into which his lyrics have fallen, while the more liberal Sullivan (played with open-hearted radiance by Allan Corduner) wants out in order to live hard and compose a grand opera. Leigh has said that he likes to plant a visual treat for his audiences in every film he makes. From its first pomp to its last circumstance, Topsy-Turvy is one long treat, as the story unfolds of how this unpromising impasse led to the mounting of the pair's best-loved operetta, The Mikado. Leigh's alternately sardonic and tender direction generates a lived-in density that makes you feel you're dropping in on a world that existed before you arrived and will continue once you've gone. Topsy-Turvy humanizes both men and all those whose lives intersect with theirs as the creative process -- a crazed blend of egotism, self-sacrifice, lunacy, and overwork -- lumbers toward opening night. Broadbent and Corduner's stellar synchronicity is supported by an outstanding ensemble, including Lesley Manville as Gilbert's timid, endlessly loyal wife; Martin Savage as the drug-addicted comic lead George Grossmith; and Timothy Spall as the hypersensitive chief baritone Richard Temple.

Blood from a Stone

On the fence: Dequenne   

Docudramas about poverty, whether inspirational or laden with doom, frequently subscribe to the principle that suffering somehow ennobles the victim. The truculent young heroine of Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne's prize-winning Rosetta, an impoverished transient trying to support herself and her intractably alcoholic mother in a Belgian trailer park, brooks no pity from anyone, least of all herself. Played with almost frightening directness by the sweet-faced Emilie Dequenne (who won Best Actress at Cannes this year), Rosetta is a furious loner with a monomaniacal drive to earn her own living and approximate a normal existence. Her life is an endless swim against the tide of her circumstances -- so much so that even when she lands a job in a waffle-making establishment, she has to make terrible choices in order to keep it. Perhaps because they've built their careers making documentaries (the extraordinary 1996 La Promesse, about the plight of African immigrants in Belgium, was their first fiction feature), the Dardenne brothers understand that for people like Rosetta there's no end of story. Shot with a hand-held camera, mostly in tight closeup, the movie tracks Rosetta as doggedly as she fights her ceaseless lonely battles. Her decisions are shocking, and the film ends with no tidy victory or defeat, only a tentative hope for a meager future.

Sweet Talk

  Sweeties: Samantha Morton
  and Sean Penn

Has Woody Allen cottoned on to himself at last? After a fashion. It's no stretch to imagine why the director would create a movie around a man who invokes his own artistic genius to rationalize his caddish behavior toward the people in his life, especially women. In Sweet and Lowdown a gratifyingly lightened-up Sean Penn plays Emmet Ray, a born loser with an unappetizing sideline (he pimps to pay the rent) and hobby (he likes nothing better than shooting rats at the dump). He also happens to be an inspired jazz guitarist, second only to the great Django Reinhardt, the very mention of whose name causes Emmet to faint. The lone port in the storm of his drunken life is Hattie (played by the appealing young British actress Samantha Morton), a mute waif with huge eyes and a bottomless capacity for sandwiches. Eyeing the main chance with infallibly poor judgment, Emmet dumps the loyal Hattie for Blanche (Uma Thurman), a glamorous journalist to whom, as everyone else knows, he is wildly unsuited. Emmet's crazy life unfolds entertainingly as a series of conflicting apocryphal stories, told in pseudo-documentary form by Allen and other real-life jazz aficionados. Bathed in the golden light of nostalgia for the 1920s by the Chinese cinematographer Zhao Fei, the movie is affectionate toward its subject, with a bracing overlay of wry self-recognition on Allen's part -- up to a point. As in so many of Allen's recent movies, the weak-willed hero's one true love looks and acts just this side of underage, while the mature woman he hooks up with is a pretentious fraud slumming for kicks.

Ella Taylor is a film critic for LA Weekly.

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Photo Credits -- Topsy Turvy: Simon Mein. Sweet and Lowdown: John Clifford. Rosetta: Christine Plenus.
Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.

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