Monday, September 20, 2010


Anybody who has seen the “I saw you coming” sketches from British comedy series ‘Ruddy Hell it’s Harry and Paul’ will be familiar with the character of the vintage furniture dealer cum vulture. Please Give deviates little from this conception that the second-hand goods industry is the abode of those who buy cheaply from the vulnerable and sell at cost to the obscenely rich.

Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt excel as two sarcastic Manhattanites whose business turns profit from death, acquiring ‘newly-trendy’ furniture from deceased estate. In this commercial arena, quality and price are polar extremes. Their lives unfold gradually in very intimate, sharp spates of dialogue, shot in the few places this family, and their neighbours inhabit. These snippets of exposition are of a very particular rhythm, so that the first act functions almost as an organism; the ensemble cast are the various diseased organs, through which cruel or derogatory banter pulses like a heartbeat.

It is very difficult to sympathise with this set of characters, all of whom compromise their goodwill by habitually directing it towards individuals they can never really be sure will benefit from it. The title, Please Give, hints at the poisonous effect that indulging your inner do-gooder can have if you are only ever moved by pity when acting charitably, not by hope. That is, the bleeding heart cannot offer solace to those in need, no matter how much they give, because they do not place hope or optimism in their donation. They do not expect the recipient to improve their lot, and are blind to the selfish fact that this consistency comforts them.

Perhaps one of the most curious truths that this film illuminates is the changing nature of charity in a commercial city. Whether it is a gifted gesture of love to a close friend, or a crumpled twenty-dollar note thrust into the hand of a homeless person, money is often necessarily combined with true sympathy and altruism. This is not to say that the aphorism ‘it’s the thought that counts’ no longer applies in a corporate world. The thought always will count, but it may take the form of cash, or gifts, just as often as it manifests through gestures of a more ephemeral nature, like compliments, spending time with somebody, or letting a person know they are valued.

The impact of this film resides a great deal in its camerawork. Cropped mid-shots are abundant, small rooms and brownstone-lined avenues give the impression of a life lived in ‘storeys’. Humans are stacked up on top of one another, resenting their proximity, but also relying on each other to fill their lives with, well, life. This is most beautifully illustrated in the title credits; a sweet, bashful montage of the compression of breasts between cold perspex during Mammogram procedures. It seems that the more this fragile, pink-tipped, feminine organ is compacted against the plastic, the less it is able to comfortably fit within the confines of the machine, and the more its natural shape is compromised.

As is often the case in this kind of New York ensemble film, redemption and reconciliation are at hand in the second act. I would suggest in this case, however, that they do not come merely to offer up satisfaction to an audience, but rather to better contour the trajectory of a life lived in what Satre would describe as ‘Bad Faith’. Where truth and action do not speak to one another. This film is riddled with expressions of optimism and hope, but not as a warning against misdirected charity. Rather, all gestures of goodwill should be motivated by a desire to encourage, support and foster improvement. 8.5

Sunday, September 12, 2010


The flier for Chris Morris’ latest film Four Lions is half-covered with a rhythmic grid of quotes, all saying the same word: “FUNNY”. This film is mercilessly so. In contemporary London, five Islamic extremists knock about their sub-railroad apartment, quibbling and exchanging affectionate banter over their bomb kits and machetes. These are characters whose penchant for quoting the popular terrorist vernacular detracts nothing from the sincerity with which they aspire to greatness through martydom.

This film pulls together a ‘greatest hits’ of some of the most horrific and farcical of all terrorist bungles, accentuating the meaningless nature of blowing up an equally meaningless Western corporate landmark. Rather, human life is presented as the most valuable asset, for both Islamic and Western cultures. The point at which this film cheekily diverges from black comedy into drama is certainly catalysed by a split in that rumination on life – that it can be utilised as a weapon, or preserved as a treasure, and there will always be somebody would can interpret a death into martyrdom. The hallmarks of a traditional martyrdom are pulled apart and the viewer cannot but equate the success of a terrorists’ whole life, by the magnitude of the damage he causes when he dies.

It is very easy to fall in love with Morris’ characters, but equally easy to forget, or perhaps ignore the consistency of their path towards destruction and death. This film is almost compulsorily hilarious – we cannot help but laugh at things we wouldn’t want to find humorous, showing us how it is possible to feel elated over something as abhorrent as terrorism. Pay careful attention to the effect the Acoustica closing song has on you.

After watching this film I briefly suspected that its most challenging aspect was that it made you sympathise with the ‘enemy’. I quickly realised that the conflict between my Western values and those of extremists was far less confusing to my moral compass than the way that the film scintillated between tragic drama and farce. I felt that I had been fooled in a manner almost complimentary to my own values, that my knowledge of film genre and convention was keeping me from becoming an extremist too. 8.5


A popular criticism of Australian filmmaking seems to be that many of the idioms Australians agree upon as inherent to their culture, actually fit squarely into what could be described as ‘kitsch’. These idioms often find form in nasal aphorisms like ‘fair shake of the sauce bottle’, and ‘never dob in a mate’, and are very clunkily layered into many Aussie films and TV. Think Packed to the Rafters or the Lurid Australia. Animal Kingdom is the antithesis to the souvenir-from-home feel of Australian drama.

For once, it is not the landscape that is imbued with immense age, and the white newcomer with youth, but the opposite. We have an underworld scenario; characters ruptured from their connection with place or community, instead relying on a nigh-incestuous family unit to facilitate their careers in heroin dealing, dodging the police and keeping mum. This is an extraordinarily tense film, a circulatory system of poisonous characters, most notably Jacki Weaver’s matriarch ‘Janine’ and the unstable ‘Pope’ played to singularity by Ben Mendelsohn. The stressfulness of the family’s every day lives, steering and oversteering away from incarceration and violence never quite lets up, unless it is in such a way that audiences are forced to suspect a false calm.

Perhaps the most memorable moments in this piece are in its opening scenes, in which the vulnerable ‘J’ (James Frecheville) and his ill-fated mother doze on a couch in a brick-rise flat, Deal or No Deal garishly beaming into their deathly quiet living room. At the centre of this film is a masterful use of something like an Australian Realism; a grave, relatable and cosy set of familiar places, objects and family banter.

For example, the memorable final scenes unfold over a lacklustre barbeque in which two brothers eat supermarket sausages wrapped in white slices of Tip Top. Not every Australian could say they’ve swum in a desert hot spring or gulped down an Emu Bitter in a dusty corrugated iron shack, but I’m sure a far greater number have eaten a snag in white bread, or switched on the telly at five thirty to hear elated contestants gesticulate ‘No Deal!’ 9


Perhaps it is best to approach this mildly endearing documentary with the knowledge that it is made by Chris Rock firmly in the back of your head. As a comedian, Rock lacks skill as an interviewer, and is largely unable to get his guests and subjects to state their opinions clearly, allowing them to waffle in order to get on friendly terms with him. He always opts for the charming quip over insightful questioning.

Despite this inherent flaw, Rock has pulled together more than enough material for a wide survey of the nature of black, or nap hair culture in America, and much of the coherence lost in the interview process is revived through clever editing. This is not a scornful documentary, even though there are numerous ethical grievances to be attributed to many salon practises (buying human hair from temples and running sodium hydroxide over the scalps of salon-goers to smooth out the tresses). This seems, rather, to be a portrait of a female love affair with personal improvement.

It falls in neatly with a number of other concerned commentaries on the increase of image-obsession, low self-esteem, and their impacts on our increasingly self-conscious young girls. Rock’s own daughter seems to be overwhelmed by the pressures to be pretty and have straight ‘white’ hair. It is this heart at the centre of the documentary that elevates an oft-ridiculous industry to the status of a genuine threat to girls, and Rock’s daughter. Much of the credibility and urgency of this film is lent through Rock’s very genuine concern, his sensitive parental trepidation a very welcome antidote to many of the hilarious, bombastic characters who are leading in the world of hair. 6.5


I know what you’re thinking. This film is a glittering, irreverent Odyssey of fashion pornography. And you’re not far off. What you may not have anticipated is the insistence with which this sparkly saga states its case. Everything about this movie is bathed in its own conviction that gratuitous opulence is the new modesty. For a start, it’s two and a half hours long. Coincidentally, the psychological effects of repetition see the breakdown of alertness and resistance in an audience after the seventy-minute mark.

I saw this film with my best female friend and on our way out of the cinema we passed through a shopping mall to get to the car park, at which point I found myself clinging to two crisp store bags, shoes inside (In my defence, there is a brilliant late-career cameo from Lisa Minelli, gyrating and belting out Beyonce’s ‘All The Single Ladies’, and my shoes were inspired by hers). This persuasiveness when it comes to fashion and expense is, however, familiar to the TV series, and frankly, is the easiest part of the film for the production team to be insistent about. Buying things is not a specialized career path. Continuing the relatively youthful dialogue on the identity of the 21st Century western female, however, definitely requires a special touch.

This latest instalment of the S&TC franchise continues to wax lyrical on women’s issues ranging from banal to touchy to explicit. The difficulties of marriage and child-rearing are both raised early on, but the film seems to suggest that nannies and copious resort-grade ‘me time’ (i.e. money) are the answers. There has however been an attempt in this film to carry the message a little further. The vast second act of this film takes place in Abu Dhabi, in which the approach is blanket superficiality to the depiction of local culture.

To say that this film is attempting to make some kind of comment on the plight of women in Islamic countries isn’t quite correct. Rather, the point seems to be the universality and penetration of American culture and fashion. Perhaps this is the true dream of the thirty-something designer-disciple female New Yorker – that even when they leave the city, or the US, they never, ever really leave. The opulent daze blinds them from all that lies beyond their infinitely complex loves lives and generous shoe and martini budgets.

Perhaps the most prudent question to ask is ‘did anybody go to this film who didn’t already know the score?’ I think very few. What amazes me about the ongoing story of Carrie, Big and The Girls, is that no amount of luxury, 5 star sets, clothes, props and cameos, could never, ever, possibly, make an intelligent female tell you that they saw this film without the disclaimer that ‘it’s a guilty pleasure’ or ‘I just saw it for the clothes’. When it comes to money, it seems that which what is premium, is inherently mediocre. 4.5