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 Mostly I've been watching movies on a date rather in a screening room - and typically I've rescinded control of what we're watching, and watched more lazily - less with an eye to detail and a future review.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.