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Extraordinary Stories, Ordinary People

Mike Leigh has been exploring the lives of people-next-door since the early 1970s, when he made an impressive filmmaking debut in "Bleak Moments," newly available on video and still one of his most compelling movies.

Its heroine is a young woman (Anne Raitt) who feels socially isolated despite her casual acquaintances with several people. Hoping to break through her shell of loneliness, she tries to strike up deeper relationships with a tongue-tied schoolteacher and a guitar-strumming hippie who lives nearby. Other characters include her mentally slow sister and a well-meaning co-worker with loneliness problems of her own.

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On the most obvious level, this meticulously filmed drama is a study of one woman's poignant hopes and frustrations, culminating in what may be the most painfully awkward dinner date in movie history, astonishingly well acted by Raitt and Eric Allan as the teacher.

Deeper down, it's a thoughtful commentary on the way today's neighborhoods, offices, and gathering places often tend to keep people apart rather than draw them together. This aspect of the movie shows Leigh's ongoing commitment to examining social and political issues - not in abstract or intellectualized ways, but by revealing how they affect our everyday experiences.

Leigh's fascination with commonplace people, places, and situations runs through nearly all his pictures. Equally consistent is his skill at coaxing finely emotional performances from his carefully chosen casts. To the delight of his many American admirers, New York's venturesome Waterbearer Films is in the process of releasing his early films on the home-video market. "Bleak Moments" is the latest to arrive. Already available are the sardonic "Hard Labour," the darkly humorous "Kiss of Death," and six others.

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