Friday, July 30, 2010

Justifiably overlooked DVD of the month Part Deux - ALL ABOUT STEVE

From writer Kim Barker (the risible LICENSE TO WED) and debutant director Phil Traill comes a romantic-comedy so unfunny, uncharming and just plain irritating it's hard to believe it stars Miss Apple Pie herself, Sandra Bullock. I could never have imagined that Sandra Bullock, typically the best thing about the movies she chooses to make, would pick such a completely sans-merit script, and be so utterly charmless within it. This is the woman who, after all, won a Razzie for her role in this film and ACTUALLY TURNED UP, charming the pants of the audience in the process. This woman can work with rom-com dreck. But I guess even the luckiest actress occasionally hits a pot-hole.

So here's the deal. Sandra Bullock plays a geeky cross-word competition creator called Mary. She lives at home with her parents, is a complete social misfit and may in fact have a behavioural disorder. Her parents set her up on a blind date with Steve (Bradley Cooper) and she thinks he's so hot she practically jumps him in the back of his car and then stalks him around America while he covers stories as a cameraman for CNN. Steve's vain front-man, Hartman Hughes (Thomas Haden Church) thinks it will be great fun to egg Mary on, and before we know it she's fallen into a deep well in pursuit of her "lover" and becomes the centre of the story herself. Steve feels guilty about how the press are depicting her as a dweeb and decides to give her a break, just as she realises she needs to get some frikkin perspective.

There is no chemistry between Steve and Mary. How can there be? Mary isn't so much a frog waiting to be kissed into a princess but just deeply deeply odd and unappealing. It's also basically hypocritical for the movie to spend an hour mocking Mary for being weird and then to ask us to be understanding. She doesn't need a boyfriend so much as therapy. This is an enormously mis-judged "comedy".

ALL ABOUT STEVE opened in Autumn/Winter 2009. It is available on DVD and on iTunes.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Justifiably overlooked DVD of the month - EVERYBODY'S FINE

EVERYBODY'S FINE is an embarrassingly bad movie - shamelessly manipulative, bland, banal, unoriginal, and just plain dull. It tells the story of Frank Goode (Robert de Niro) - a retired widower whose four children bail on a family visit at the last minute. So, armed with his medicine and against his doctor's advice, he boards trains and buses to visit them all in turn. First he turns up at artist David's flat only to find it deserted. His other three grown children will keep up the evasion of where David really is - trying to protect a father they really have no means of communicating with authentically. Each evasion is more painful than the next. On the second visit, Frank's daughter (Kate Beckinsale) is caught out using her son's illness to escape the family visit. She seems self-absorbed and her son finds the grandfather irrelevant. The third visit is with Frank's other son, (Sam Rockwell), a percussionist in a regional orchestra. His father seems disappointed that he didn't become a conductor - the son seems ashamed to have let down his father but incapable of persuading him that this is what he wants. The final visit is with the other daughter (Drew Barrymore) who seems to have more time for her father, but by this time, he's out of meds and increasingly disillusioned. There is, however, no real enlightenment here. No real questioning or exploration of the relationships. Just think - this is same material - these doubts and neuroses about parental expectations and evasions - that powered the cinema of Ingmar Bergman. And just see what schmaltz and banality it is reduced to in its final act.  I am hardly surprised that this movie went straight to DVD in the UK. 

Additional tags: Kirk Jones, Henry Braham, Melissa Leo, James Frain, Andrew Modshein, Dario Marianelli

EVERYBODY'S FINE was released in winter 2009/2010 in the US, Israel, Mexico, Spain, Poland, Hong Kong, Sweden, Lebanon, Singapore, Panama, Australia, Turkey, the Czech Republic, Kuwait, Estonia, Peru, Argentina, Germany, Greece, the Netherlands, Portugal, the Philippines and Italy.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

INCEPTION - It'll be just like in the movies. Pretending to be somebody else.

INCEPTION combines the elegant structure and intelligence of Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough indie hit, MEMENTO, with the stunning in-camera visual effects of BATMAN BEGINS and THE DARK KNIGHT. More than that, INCEPTION demonstrates for the first time that Nolan can do more than “just” create intelligent mainstream blockbusters. Finally, he moves beyond the assured technique and shining surfaces to deliver a convincing and emotionally engaging love story. All of this is a great achievement. But it does not compensate for the over-use of exposition, weak characterization of the supporting roles, and the fact the questions raised by the central conceit have been explored in many films before this one.

The plot is neither as complicated nor as impenetrable as the critics would have you believe, nor as liable to be ruined by too much information before you watch the film. That’s because, while this movie is a heist movie in the classic tradition of RAFIFI or LE CERCLE ROUGE, the real substance of the film has nothing to do with the heist at all. Still, for what it’s worth, let’s explore the set-up. In the near future, corporate espionage isn’t about stealing files from an executive’s laptop but about stealing ideas straight from his subconscious when he’s in a drug-induced dream. To steal the idea, the thieves also have to drug themselves and enter into the subconscious of the victim – thus becoming vulnerable to any nasties the victim might be hiding down there. In this film, the thieves are paid to not to steal an idea, but to plant an idea in the victim’s mind so subtly than when he wakes up he thinks it’s his own. And this is precisely the engine of the film. Leonardo diCaprio’s Cobb is hired by Saito (Ken Watanabe) to plant an idea in the mind of his business rival Fisher (Cillian Murply), prompting Murphy to break up the massive corporate entity that he inherited from his father (Pete Postlethwaite). To pull off this reverse-heist, Cobb has to assemble a crack-team, made up of all-round side-kick, Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt); dream architect, Ariadne (Ellen Page); impersonator, Eames (Tom Hardy) and chemist, Yousuf (Dileep Rao). Together they engineer a situation in which they can sedate themselves and Fisher, engineer a dream within a dream within a dream, and plant an idea so deeply that they can achieve genuine inception.

There are, of course, plenty of rules about how this all works and the early parts of the film, and the characters played by Page, Levitt and Rao, do have a touch of the Basil Exposition about them. Even Pete Postlethwaite and Cillian Murphy, as dying father and grieving son, are similarly wasted. Once again, they exist merely as a sort of superbly tailored MacGuffin - the victims of the heist plot that propels the narrative. Only the superb Tom Hardy, through sheer force of personality, manages to carve out a memorable role for himself, stealing every scene that he’s in.

Still, I suppose that one shouldn’t begrudge Nolan the time setting up the intricate mechanics of Inception. There is something satisfying about the fact that, from what I can tell, the mechanics all hang together without any obvious holes in the logic. But for all the veneer of a sci-fi heist, let’s be honest, what we really care about – what drives our interest in the movie – is the central question of how someone so far steeped in the dream-world - in a dream within a dream within a dream – can tell the difference between the dream and reality. And, further, even if you could tell the difference, would you choose to live in the dream? In short, as my cousin Danny, conscious of this movie’s indebtedness to films like THE MATRIX put it, can you tell you’re living in a Matrix, and even if you could, would you choose to take the blue pill?

So, if the issues that Christopher Nolan is exploring aren’t particularly original, what makes this film worth watching? DP Wall Pfister’s beautiful cinematography; the elegant in-camera visual effects, so much more convincing that CGI; the wise-cracking Tom Hardy; and the intellectual puzzle at the heart of the film. All these things make it worth the price of entry. But to my mind, there are two genuine achievements. First, this is the first Nolan film where I feel he moved beyond being clever and technically accomplished to actually creating a relationship I cared about – that between Cobb and his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard). I completely bought into their difficult relationship and felt that diCaprio had given one of his most convincing performances in a decade – Cotillard was typically brilliant. Her central dilemma and his reaction to it are heart-breaking. Second, and most importantly, Nolan manages to involve the audience in exactly the same paranoia that infects Cobb and Mal. He doesn’t so much show us how a mind can get lost in the narrow margins between dream and reality but take us there with his ambiguous and cleverly constructed final act.

Additional tags: Tom Berenger, Talulah Riley, Hans Zimmer, Wally Pfister, Lee Smith

INCEPTION is on release in the UK, Egypt, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Ukraine, Canada, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Taiwan and Japan. It opens next week in Belgium, France, Norway, South Korea, Switzerland, Austrlia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Hungary, Israel, the Netherlands, Portugal, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Lithuania, Mexico and Sweden. It opens on July 29th in Argentina, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Austria, Poland, Romania and South Africa. It opens on August 6th in Brazil and Spain; on August 13th in Venezuela; and on August 24th in Greece. It opens in Italy on September 24th.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

TWILIGHT: ECLIPSE - a world of bad hair colour and worse CGI

So, in an evening of girlie bonding my early twenties cousin and I went to see the third installment of the immensely popular Twilight series, ECLIPSE. Not that either of us could be called fan-girls. I’ve read the first book and seen the first two films: my cousin had only seen the first film. We proclaim no membership of either Team Jacob or Team Edward. But, along we went, open-minded, and if nothing else, happy to be in the lovely big Extreme screens in the Vue Westfield. Two hours later we emerged from a world of bad hair-dye, bad CGI effects and hammy dialogue. For this, my friends, is not a movie of high quality trying to appeal to the neutral movie-goer. Rather, ECLIPSE takes its audience’s buy-in for granted and delivers a workman-like condensed version of the novel, with the cheapest visual effects and wigs it can find. Seriously – the wolves bounce through the forests with little heft, much like Ang Lee’s HULK – and the crimes against hair colour perpetrated by Emmett Cullen and Rosalie Hale disgrace a big-budget film.

As the movie opens, we see our heroine Bella Swan torn between the two boys who love. The first is Edward Cullen – ancient vampire in the body of teen heart-throb – who won’t deflower her until they’re married, and for whom she would have to become a vampire. The second candidate is Jacob Black – ridiculously buff teen werewolf – who is happy to keep Bella warm (sadly, this saga being ludicrously chaste, we can read no double-entendre here) and offer her a romantic life that doesn’t involve dying. So follow two hours of hackneyed dialogue as each boy declares his love for Bella, and Bella looks sulky in response. At the end of which, she declares that the decision was never really about who she loved more but about who she wanted to be. This struck me as a rather unconvincing last minute attempt to give movie that is basically about a chick being dependent on two guys for her physical safety (evil mean red-headed vampire wants to kill her with her “new-born” vampire army) some kind of feminist cred. It would’ve bought into it more if during the course of the film, Bella had talked about this journey to self-realisation with her dad or her friends, or the two boys in her life. Overall then, I remain unconvinced by the whole Twilight phenomenon. The heroine is sulky: the vampires are unsexy: the werewolves on steroids: the CGI sucks: and basically very very little happens indeed. For the life of me I can’t figure out why David Slade, director of edgy indie hit HARD CANDY, would want to helm such a mainstream, banal movie, other than, of course, for the paycheque.

Additional tags: Taylor Lautner, Anna Kendrick, Ashley Greene, Elizabeth Reaser

TWILIGHT: ECLIPSE is on global release.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Preview - THE A-TEAM

If you grew up in the 80s watching The A-Team on TV, you can't approach this big-budget Hollywood "re-imagining" without prejudice. The basic presumption is that no actor can trump the iconic status of Mr T; no movie can re-create the gloriously lo-rent gonzo stunts; and no script-writer can re-create the camaraderie between the original gang.

The early signs from the studio gave no clarity or reassurance. Writer-director Joe Carnahan was, after all, the guy behind the brilliantly gritty cop thriller, NARC, but also the ridonkulous hi-energy guns'n'laughs flicks SMOKIN' ACES 1 and 2. Which direction would he take with THE A-TEAM? Would he go for a gritty Bourne-style grown-up re-make? Or would he make a camp spoof along the lines of the STARSKY AND HUTCH remake? I wasn't expecting a lot from his co-writers - one of whom was responsible for the deathly dull WOLVERINE flick and the other a complete unknown. Casting was likewise a mixed bag. Liam Neeson as cigar-chomping, plan-lovin' Hannibal Smith? Okay, so he cemented his hard-man act in TAKEN, but did he have the necessary charm and mischief? Quinton "The Rampage" Jackson as BA Baracus - okay Mr T was no Actors Studio guest, but seriously - a former UFC fighter? Pretty boy Bradley Cooper as the charming, ladies-man, "Face" - okay I could see that. And I was really pleased to see Sharlto Copley, fresh of out of success in District 9 tapped for the literally mad helicopter pilot Howling Mad Murdock.

After all the anticipation, what did we get? As one might've expected: a bit of a mixed bag. Where this re-imagining works best is when it shows the gang hanging out together. The casting really, truly, honestly works. You believe that these guys are good friends, and an effective stealth army unit. You believe that they would put their lives on the line for each other and to regain their honour having been framed by a nefarious bunch of mercenaries and probably the CIA. Bradley Cooper and Sharlto Copley are very funny indeed; Liam Neeson has the necessary heft; and this more than offsets "Rampage's" inability to articulate or emote. I really love the way the script gave us the back-story to BA's fear of flying; I love that Murdock isn't just a harmless nut but has a genuine element of danger to him; I love the mischevious post-modern jokes - in particular, a scene where the crew crash through a cinema screen showing a TV episode of The A-Team; and I REALLY loved the absurdist stunts.

Problem is, this post-modern, laugh-out-loud spoof movie is spliced together with an earnest, wannabe politically serious, Bourne-like action flick. And the two halves just don't go together. So alongside a stunt where a tank is literally flown through the air, we have Joe Carnahan trying to make a serious point about the insidious use of unaccountable mercenaries in Iraq and the counter-veiling power of the CIA. And the gonzo stylings of the original are replaced with very glossy, very loud CGI set-pieces and a lot of Bourne-style "gritty" camera-work. Worst of all, crime-of-all-crimes, they give the Faceman emotional heft. I mean, nice try, and Bradley Cooper plays it for all it's worth, but if you want to go down that route, at least give him someone to play opposite with more acting chops than Jessica Biel.

Additional tags: Roger Barton, Jim May, Mauro Fiore, Alan Silvestri, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Skip Woods, Brian Bloom.

THE A-TEAM is on release in the US, Egypt, Canada, Sweden, Australia, Denmark, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Malaysia, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Brazil, Colombia, Estonia, Finland, Indonesia, Mexico, New Zealand, Panama, Poland, Romania, Belgium, France, Iceland, the Czech Republic, Greece, Italy, Norway, Argentina, India and Syria. It opens on July 29th in Portugal, Spain and the UK. It opens on August 5th in Hungary; August 12th in Germany; August 20th in Japan and South Africa.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

TETRO - They fuck you up, your mum and dad - Part Four

TETRO is a beautiful, fantastical, shamelessly self-indulgent movie about family dysfunction and the impossibility of living with a self-proclaimed genius. It is worth watching for the cinematography and Vincent Gallo's lead performance alone - but there are many other joys to be had - not least a blistering cameo from Klaus Maria Brandauer; a cheeky little Dolce Vita moment featuring Carmen Maura; and a wonderful little Red Shoes homage.

The most surprising thing about TETRO is that is was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola - indeed, it is his first writer-director credit since THE CONVERSATION. The result is a movie that feels nothing like Coppola's mafia epics - despite some similarity in the emotional material. TETRO also feels nothing like Coppola's last movie - another self-financed (and unjustifiably maligned) art-house flick - YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH. That movie was beautifully shot, but serious, mournful, byzantine in its structure and conceit. By contrast, while TETRO may deal with the most violent of emotions, but it always has a playful, self-mocking edge. At times, it almost feels like the lighter parts of Almodovar. Every character is sometimes aware that they are striking a pose - that is, except Miranda (Maribel Verdu - Y TU MAMA TAMBIEN) who is the emotional heart of the film.

Tetro is the pen-name of playwright Angelo Tetracini (Vincent Gallo). He cut loose from his domineering, Mephisto-like conductor father (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and ran off to Buenos Aires. This movie opens as his little brother Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich - a dead-ringer for the young Leo diCaprio) shows up on his doorstep - still hero-worshipping his elder brother but also angry that Tetro left him behind with the monster-father. Tetro's girlfriend Miranda adores having Bennie around, but for Tetro to come to terms with a relationship with Bennie, he will have to confront many family ghosts. That - and a performance at a arts festival in Patagonia - provide the narrative and emotional drive of the movie.

Gallo perfectly embodies the hard-faced charisma of Tetro. Ehrenreich has just the right mix of vulnerability and chutzpah to be able to pull off the central con of Bennie finishing Tetro's long abandoned play. Verdu's Miranda is charming and credible - anchoring a movie featuring all sorts of crazy characters. I particularly loved Carmen Maura as "Alone" - the theatre critic that allows Coppola to spoof the art-house world he is at once seeking to re-engage with. But the real masterstroke is casting Klaus Maria Brandauer (MEPHISTO) as Papa Tetracini - world-famous composer, charmer and shit. The genius is that even an old and flabby Brandauer can be charming enough to convince as the seducer of his young son's girlfriend - or as the firebrand Furtwaenglerian composer. He commands attention in every scene he's in and we can well understand why his sons struggle to escape from his physical and emotional presence.

I loved TETRO - moreso on the second viewing. And I am thrilled that Coppola is moving back to these self-financed, self-penned utterly artistically liberated movies.

Additional tags: alden ehrenreich, maribel verdu, rodrigo de la serna, klaus maria brandauer, osvaldo golijov, mihai malaimare jr

TETRO played Cannes and Toronto 2009 and was released in Spain, Greece, Portugal, Italy and France last year. It was released in Hungary and Brazil earlier this year and is currently on release in the UK.

Monday, July 05, 2010

GET HIM TO THE GREEK - They fuck you up, your mum and dad - Part Three

In fairness, the people doing the psychological damage in the alleged buddy-comedy, GET HIM TO THE GREEK, aren't just the parents. The record label, entourage, management and fans all take the blame in enabling viciously damaging pop star behaviour. That Aldous Snow, self-proclaimed white musical Jesus, manages to retain any humanity at all, in the haze of adulation and exploitation, is a miracle. This movie is about how Aldous Snow, washed up, alone, makes it from London to LA to play a comeback gig in spite of various attempts at self-sabotage. He does so in the company of a fan-boy turned record label chaperone, Aaron. It's meant to be a laugh-out-loud comedy, giving the character who stole every scene in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL more screen time. The problem is that while Russell Brand IS funny as Aldous Snow, he's also too good to leave his performance at the level of superficial pratfalls and lascivious word-play. Brand's Snow is actually a very sad man, and there's something faintly exploitative in the screen-writer, director and audience trying to find laughter in his pain. It's almost as though we're milking Aldous Snow in exactly the same way that his record company is milking him. "We know you're physically and psychologically harmed, mate, but go on, do that funny song-and-dance act!"

Maybe I'm taking it all too seriously. After all, this is a film in which Sean Combs is genuinely very funny spoofing himself as a hard-balled record exec. (I loved the line "you're three zippers away from Thriller"), It's a movie in which Rose Byrne is really very funny indeed as Aldous Snow's ex-wife and fame-junkie Jackie Q. Maybe I should just be happy with the laughs? But even as simple comedy this movie doesn't quite work. I know Jonah Hill is essentially playing the straight man to Russell Brand's comedy protagonist, but even then, Aaron could've been a lot more interesting as a character. Where's that slightly geeky creepiness that Hill brought to his cameo in FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL? And as for the scene where Snow tries to instigate a threesome with Aaron and his girlfriend (Elizabeth Moss) - excruciating just doesn't cover it.

The best Judd Apatow movies are both funny and touching. FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL isn't just great comedy - at some level we really feel for Jason Segel's Peter as he tries to get over his girlfriend, and we're really routing for him to get together with Mila Kunis' Rachel. Okay, we've probably never been dumped for a rock star, but I think everyone can empathise with Peter's pain - and even Sarah's despair at trying to make the relationship work. At the heart of all comedy, there has to be an emotional core we can relate to. The relationship arcs in GET HIM TO THE GREEK - between Aldous and his dad; Aldous and his ex-wife; and most of all between Aaron and his girlfriend - just don't feel real, and as a result I didn't care about them. The only part of the movie that felt real was Snow's addiction and loneliness. And I simply wasn't heartless enough to laugh at that.

Additional tags: William Kerr, Michael L Sale, Sean Combs, Elizabeth Moss

GET HIM TO THE GREEK is on release in the US, UK, Kazakhstan, Canada, Iceland, Australia, Georgia and the Netherlands. It opens in July in Greece, Portugal and Estonia. It opens in August in Sweden, Turkey, France, Finland, Norway, Germany and Spain. It opens in September in Denmark and Argentina and in October in Hungary.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

THE KILLER INSIDE ME - They fuck you up, your mum and dad Part Two

Lou Ford is a courteous, softly spoken cop in 1950s Texas. He has a sweetheart called Amy who dotes on him: the townsfolk think he's a stand-up guy. But when he was a kid, Lou's housekeeper got off on his spanking her. And this poor little fucked up kid grew up into the kind of guy who can only express love through violence. Lou is something of an enigma - he is alienated from himself - from real emotional engagement with others - and thus from the viewer. Far more intriguing, from a psychological standpoint, are the two women - his girlfriend and his hooker-mistress - who love him. It's mysterious that they love such an emotionally avoidant man - let alone that they continue to do so despite suffering at his hands. Maybe they too were fucked up by their parents? Maybe it's just another case of people being attracted to people whose pathologies enable their own.

Whatever the answer, this is not the kind of film that deals in straightforward answers. Rather, Michael Winterbottom gives us a more or less faithful adaptation of the celebrated pulp novel from Jim Thompson - its triumphs and failures in tact. The film works best as a sinister mood piece, anchored by the superb central performance of Casey Affleck and embedded in superlative production design. I was genuinely surprised that actresses known best for fluffy rom-coms - Jessica Alba and Kate Hudson - would want to appear in such a film, and yet more surprised to see how well they acted in the demanding supporting roles as Lou's mistress and girlfriend respectively. They really hold their own against a supporting cast of the calibre of Ned Beatty and Elias Koteas. This movie is worth watching for the quality of the performances and the cinematography alone.

Nonetheless, this is a flawed film. Yes, there's a crime caper that propels the plot, and some faint dramatic tension between the unions, big business, and a cover up, but this movie is basically a psycho-drama. The fault of the piece lies in the fact that, as psycho-drama, it always holds the viewer at a distance from the motivations of the three key characters. This makes for a frustrating film - a teasing provocation.

One final word about the violence in the movie. THE KILLER INSIDE ME got a lot of press coverage in the UK on account of its graphic depiction of violence against women. Moreover, the movie was accused of misogyny on the grounds that the women in the movie apparently get off on being victimised. To my mind, THE KILLER INSIDE ME is not at the extremes of graphic violence in cinema. Viewers used to the cinema of Haneke or Noe will have seen far worse. Moreover, there is no sense in which this film is "torture porn". Winterbottom's intentions are manifestly earnest. I also find accusations of misogyny misplaced. Yes, the fact that these women go back for more is disturbing. But surely the movie/book are saying something about a particular psychopathology - and in this case it happens to involve the man as sadist and women as masochists. But there is no general point to be made about the role of men and women in such relationships. After all, just look at the dependent relationship between Johnny Papas and Lou.

Additional tags: Mags Arnold, Melissa Parmenter, Tom Bower, Simon Baker, Liam Aiken, Jay R Ferguson, Jim Thompson

THE KILLER INSIDE ME played Sundance and Berlin 2010 and is currently on release in the UK, USA and Denmark. It opens next weekend in South Korea. It opens in August in Belgium and France; in September in Switzerland, Greece and Taiwan; in Finland and the Netherlands in October.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

PLEASE GIVE - They fuck you up your mum and dad - Part One

So, I've watched about five movies in the past three months - compared to the old standard of five a week. It's been strange. Mostly I've been watching movies on a date rather in a screening room - and typically I've rescinded control of what we're watching, and watched more lazily - less with an eye to detail and a future review. At any rate, the whole experience has been different, and I think speaks to how film critics become jaded by seeing too many films in too sterile an environment. The upshot is that while I had decided to go completely cold turkey from blogging about cinema, I am going to jump back in with a few quick reviews of a couple of films that really made me think deeply about cinema and about relationships.

First up is the latest film from American indie writer-director, Nicole Holofcener. With LOVELY AND AMAZING and FRIENDS WITH MONEY, Holofcener established herself as a director who was able to communicate an authentic idea of how real women interact with each other, as friends and across generations. She writes movies that contain dialogue and situations that are uncomfortably real, and isn't afraid of presenting protagonists who may not be all that likeable. Their conflicts are self-involved and can seem petty to the viewer. But then, in all honesty, how many of us behave differently?

PLEASE GIVE sits somewhere between the lighter, more forgiving LOVELY AND AMAZING and the more bleak, alienating FRIENDS WITH MONEY. It poses difficult questions about body image, how we treat the elderly, and how we can choose not to speak of family trauma as a sort of defensive amnesia. Most importantly, PLEASE GIVE deals with middle-class guilt. How far should privileged people feel bad about how much they have? And is there such a thing as an authentic gesture of giving back, as opposed to mere self-interested guilt-mitigation?

Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt are superb as Kate and Alex - a wealthy married couple living in Manhattan, making a living from buying furniture from the children of the recently deceased, and selling it on at a huge mark-up in their store. Alex feels fine about what they do for a living, but Kate feels guilty about shaking down people who don't know the market price of their possessions. So she reacts by giving beggars money and by volunteering her time. Problem is, Kate is so self-involved in her misery that she brings the people she's meant to be helping down, and comes across as just plain patronising. Kate's self-involvement has more dire consequences. She alienates her teenage daughter, struggling with teenage skin; and bores her husband. One of the best scenes in the film sees the husband and daughter have a conversation that is ostensibly about facials but really speaks to her knowledge that he is having an affair. It's one of the great emotionally devastating scenes in the film. You know that the daughter will remember it for the rest of her life - it's one of those moments of complete emotional damage - all too typical in real life.

Set against this tale of upper middle-class angst we have the story of Audra and her two grand-daughters. Kate and Alex live next door to the 91 year old Audra, and have bought her apartment. Essentially they are waiting for her to die so that they can knock through and create a dream apartment. Audra is an old battle-axe, and her grand-daughter Mary (Amanda Peet - where has she been hiding?!) calls a spade a spade. She has no problem treating Audra like shit, and openly talks about the remodelling plans. But what I love about the writing and Amanda Peet's performance is that you can tell that underneath all that tough-girl no-nonsense jazz there's a deeply vulnerable woman so lacking in self-esteem that she'll throw herself onto a completely unsuitable guy. By contrast, Mary's sister Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is one of life's quietly suffering good girls - caring, overlooked, but ultimately grounded enough to have a proper relationship.

PLEASE GIVE is one of those films that isn't necessarily fun to watch - I didn't enjoy my time with these characters. But when I watch Nicole Holofcener films I see characters that I actually know in situations I find familiar and it's just so refreshing to see real life on screen. And more than that, to see a writer portray a relationship between a mother and daughter - or between two sisters, that has the ring of authenticity. Thank Christ movies like this can still get made and get some kind of a release.

Additional tags: Yaron Orbach, Marcelo Zarvos, Robert Frazen, Elizabeth Keener, Elise Ivy, Josh Pais, Ann Guilbert, Sarah Steele, Nicole Holofcener

PLEASE GIVE played Sundance and Berlin 2010 and was released in the USA and Canada earlier this year. It is currently on release in the UK and opens in Germany next week.