Tag: ruth sheen

All or Nothing


All or Nothing (2002)
★★★ / ★★★★

During the climax of Mike Leigh’s emotionally charged picture, a character is able to voice out what defines their lives: getting up early and going to work every day just to get by. It is a simple truth but one that makes a real impact once delivered because just about every scene that leads up to that point is carefully tuned as to blind us from the blowback.

“All or Nothing” focuses on three families living in London and yet it is about every working class family from all corners of the globe. The first family is led by a matriarch, Penny (Lesley Manville), who works as a cashier at Safeway. Her son (James Corden) does not respect her. Her husband (Timothy Spall), a taxi driver, makes very little money. Only her daughter (Alison Garland) is just as hardworking as she is. And as unhappy as she is.

The second and third families provide structural support for the first. Penny is friends with the two mothers, Maureen (Ruth Sheen) and Carol (Marion Bailey), the former dealing with an out of control daughter and the former being an alcoholic. We watch the two women dealing—or not dealing—with the problems presented to them. Neither situation offers comfortable solutions but there is hope when one squints hard enough and is optimistic enough to see through the dark times. Although Bailey’s character is predictable, Sheen plays her character with complexity and positivity. When Maureen sings a beautiful song on stage, it feels like she is revealing her soul.

The subjects that are tackled in the picture are depressing but it is not a depressing film. It is invigorating because the writer-director is very efficient in showing us how it is like to live in an area or neighborhood where residents do not have a lot of money or means. It is not about how love is enough to conquer all—as more mainstream, feel-good movies tend to show. It is about how love may not be a strong enough trigger to propel a unit beyond survival level.

Exhaustion is one of the themes. Whether it be the physical, emotional, or psychological variety—often a combination of two or all—the movie has a way of making us feel for the characters even if we may not agree with the way they choose to live their lives. We can identify with them. For me, some of the scenes between Penny and her husband reminded me of when my mom and dad used to fight when I was kid—back when we did not have a lot of money. I admired that the film is so honest about the importance of money not so that it can be spent but as a source of security.

Notice that the conversations during the first twenty minutes take place as if to simply pass the time. They feel pointless, shallow, and meandering. The point is to show the disconnect among neighbors and family members. There is no laughter in the community and in the homes. There are disagreements, fights, and silent disdain. Notice how the children talk to their parents, how easily they tell their own mothers to “Fuck off!” While it is difficult not to get a reaction, it is equally maddening that the mothers let their children—who live under their roof—get away with such disrespect.

“All or Nothing” is not meant to make anyone feel good, but watching it is a good experience because it reminds its audience that family is hard to come by. Family is an invaluable support system and when we have so many problems, so many uncertainties, and so many stresses, it is too easy to take our families for granted.

The Young Poisoner’s Handbook


The Young Poisoner’s Handbook (1995)
★★★ / ★★★★

Graham (Hugh O’Conor) has a fascination for chemistry because understanding the subject reveals every day mysteries that most people take for granted. But his passion is of no value in his family. He lives with his father (Roger Lloyd-Pack), stepmother (Ruth Sheen), and sister (Charlotte Coleman), all of whom consider Graham a pest who messes around with their belongings. In order to become a great scientist, Graham figures he needs an experiment that will set him apart from the rest. This plan involves introducing poison to the greatest number of people in a public place–a mass murder. But first, he needs a guinea pig: his stepmother.

“The Young Poisoner’s Handbook,” written by Jeff Rawle and Benjamin Ross, deals with its grim subject with confident joviality. What I loved about it is its consistency in challenging us to laugh, albeit uncomfortably, at the many afflictions that Graham causes to everyone around him yet keeping in mind that there is a sadness and tragedy in his genius.

His first poison of choice is antimony sulfide. It is a good poison because its symptoms are typical. Doctors often mistake its effects for treatable intestinal disorders so they assure the sick persons’ families that their loved ones’ condition is nothing to worry about. Graham’s stepmother is far from pleasant with her stepson so when she is made to suffer through vomiting and having irritable bowel syndrome, the scenes are very amusing. It does not come off cruel because the material focuses on what makes the young scientist tick through his actions, its repercussions, and his responses; his delusions of grandeur and intellectual superiority; and what he is willing to do or sacrifice in order to achieve his goals.

Graham may be lacking in conscience but no can deny that he is exemplary in observing, taking notes, and noticing trends. As he observes others, we observe him. Those beady eyes command an electric alacrity when he notices that his experiment is working. Meanwhile, our eyes widen from the increasingly horrific implications of his experiments.

Then Graham moves on to using thallium, commonly used to kill insects and rats. It is an even better poison than antimony sulfide because its effects vary depending on the person. But one thing people infected with thallium have in common is eventual alopecia. In charge of delivering medicine to his unsuspecting stepmother, he sprinkles just enough to push her into a catatonic state. Despite the dark comedy, we are aware of his nature.

The next third of the film introduces the question of whether Graham, after several tests indicates that he is a psychotic, can be rehabilitated. During his time in the mental hospital, he manipulates people to gain freedom. Interestingly, for him, freedom does not necessarily mean a chance to start over like most people who genuinely feel bad about the things they have done. Graham has an obsession and he needs to scratch an itch. His purpose is not to reconnect, make amends, or attempt to lead a normal life. In his words, he has to make thallium “tasteless, orderless, and untraceable.”

Directed by Benjamin Ross, “The Young Poisoner’s Handbook” is macabre, clever, twisted, some would label it “sick,” and based on a true story. And I watched spellbound.

Another Year


Another Year (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★

Tom (Jim Broadbent) and Gerri (Ruth Sheen) were a happy couple surrounded by unhappy friends, family, acquaintances, and strangers. Tom was a geologist and Gerri was a counselor at a hospital. Both enjoyed tending their garden on their spare time. Mary (Lesley Manville) always felt welcome in Gerri and Tom’s home. She was free to talk about herself as much as she wanted: How her life would be so much better if she had a car, her regret over failed relationships, and her dependence on alcohol when things didn’t go her way. To say the least, she had a lot of issues. But, in a course of a year, things changed. Mary began to show a romantic interest in Tom and Gerri’s thirty-year-old son named Joe (Oliver Maltman). When, to everyone’s surprise, he brought home a girlfriend (Karina Fernandez), Mary was less than welcoming. In fact, she was downright cold and dismissive. Suddenly there was a gaping chasm between Gerri and Mary. Written and directed by Mike Leigh, “Another Year” was full of people you and I know. I have friends who are just like Mary: somewhat self-centered but fun because of her firecracker of a personality. But then there were times when I felt like I was Mary. I could identify in the way she hid her sadness by pretending to be excited about everything. But what I loved was the director and the actress were careful in painting Mary’s character. They didn’t necessarily want us to feel sorry for her because she actively didn’t take responsibility for her actions. A crutch always seemed to be at her disposal. However, Leigh and Manville did want us to understand where she was coming from and perhaps even imagine ourselves in her shoes. Sheen also gave an excellent performance. What I loved most about her were her eye bags. I don’t mean to sound glib. To me, her eye bags symbolized wisdom and experience. I was fascinated in the way she was always supportive but at the same time she wasn’t afraid to let someone know when he or she had overstepped certain boundaries. Certain looks she gave were memorable because they were the same looks my mom gave me to express her disappointment when I had done something unpleasant back when I was younger. I relished the relationship between the two women, who happened to be good friends for about twenty years, and the awkwardness during and after the unpleasant dinner. Everyone knows the feeling of being caught in between two good friends having a row. We got to experience that in here and the answers were rarely easy. While watching “Another Year,” its story told in four seasons each embodying a different mood and tone, I caught myself inching toward the screen. I literally felt close to them. I wanted to read their smallest facial expressions and most subtle body movements. I found it compelling that Leigh posed big, elegant questions by focusing on a small regular family.

Heartless


Heartless (2009)
★★ / ★★★★

Jamie (Jim Sturgess) was born with a heart-shaped birthmark on the left side of his face. It turned him into a self-conscious person because people did not want anything to do with him and his teratoid appearance. After his mom (Ruth Sheen) was killed by hooligans who wore monster masks, Jamie was intent on taking revenge. But when Papa B (Joseph Mawle), possibly the devil himself, offered Jamie to live a life without his birthmark, Jamie reluctantly accepted. If he was beautiful, he figured he could finally ask an aspiring model (Clémence Poésy) out on a date. But his newfound beauty didn’t come without a price. Written and directed by Philip Ridley, “Heartless” started with a heavy-handed premise about true beauty being found within but it got stronger over time because it wasn’t afraid to take us to many surprising directions. I must admit that I had a difficult time believing that Sturgess was ugly just because he had a birthmark on his face. It was almost laughable because his character’s shyness was reflected by his habit of wearing hoodies and always looking down on his feet. And, just to top it all off, he spoke ever so softly. It didn’t require much effort to see that he was still handsome. However, once Jamie made a deal with the devil, the movie became much more interesting. We had a chance to observe what he was willing to go through in order to keep his face unblemished. When asked to kill, a part of his payment, there was something darkly comic about the whole ordeal. I particularly relished the Weapons Man’s (Eddie Marsan) visitation of Jamie’s flat as he explained what kind of weapon our protagonist had to use to murder, the type of target he must get his hands on, and the ridiculous rules he had to abide by. Even more amusing was the potential victim Jamie had actually chosen. I liked that there were vast shifts in tone because the Faustian fable was something we’ve already seen many times. However, I wished the filmmakers held back on using shrieks when something scary would appear on screen. It felt too Horror Movie 101, more distracting than horrific, and it took away some of the originality it worked hard to reach. Lastly, the picture would have benefited if Timothy Spall, who played Jamie’s deceased father, was in it more. Jamie obviously missed his dad not just because he was family but because Jamie saw his father as a role model, someone he’d always aspired to be. “Heartless” may not have reached its ambition by tackling the deeper angles of broad issues like religion, physical beauty and social decay, but I appreciated its well-meaning attempt and solid performances by Marsan, Spall, and Sturgess.