Saturday, 18 December 2010

Please Give; Leaving

 Please Give

As a character study of New Yorkers in Brownstone apartment blocks Please Give has the potential to be too clever for its own good and lose much of the audience by indulging in over analysis. Thankfully the film turns out to be a warm and well observed drama with believable roles fleshed out by some decent indie talent.
Catherine Keener plays Kate, a painfully insecure about her well-off status when some fellow New Yorkers are forced to sleep on the streets, but her attempts at help are blinded by her own guilt, so much so that she suffers embarrassment by trying to push handouts on to people who aren’t homeless and her attempt at volunteer work does more harm than good when she breaks down at the sight of disabled people playing sports in a community centre. She works in a retro furniture shop, buying pieces from the relatives of the recently deceased to sell on at inflated prices. The murky morality of this bothers her but not her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) with whom she runs the business, and they have bought the neighbouring apartment from an elderly woman still living there; once she dies they gain ownership. The woman’s granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) visits her daily to do chores, whilst the perma-tanned and narcissistic Mary (Amanda Peet) vocally can’t wait to see her die and Kate and Alex’s teenage daughter Abby is going through the usual teen crises, exacerbated by her mother giving bums more money than her.
All the characters have their flaws but there is a definite feeling that the film is rooting for them; you can’t help but sympathise with these people and hope for things to work out. Seldom do films gain release that simply focus on everyday interactions without some sort of contrivance; Please Give is a genuinely mature film, happy to trust the audience without any spoon feeding and sadly a rarity in the release schedules.


If you only want to see one continental European drama in 2010 about a wife and mother played by an English actress having an affair with a man slightly more earthy and rugged than her own well-off husband, risking her place in an expensive household for the more rustic charms of a run down pile in an idyllic mountainous countryside then you should watch I Am Love. If you’ve already seen that then you’re left with Leaving.

Such a comparison is less a reflection on Leaving’s weaknesses than it is of I Am Love’s strengths, but Leaving does tell a more familiar tale. Kristin Scott-Thomas is magnetic as Suzanne, nailing the feel of a woman unexpectedly finding herself falling in love in middle age and left as giddy as a teenager, desperate to spend every moment with her new love despite having a husband and two children. It is hard to sympathise with her however, as her husband seems fine and in no way at fault, though once her infidelity comes to light his actions hint at important differences between the two men in her life - he does his best to make things impossible and block her attempts at building a new life, often in a colder, more matter-of-fact way, whilst her lover seems more impulsive - making the initial pass at her, rushing to stop her car rolling away at one point and getting injured in the attempt, an injury he subsequently ignores so that he can return to Spain for a weekend to see his daughter. We learn that he has recently been released from prison, further revealing a more passionate side, though there are never any explicit comparisons between the two men during the film.
Though far more formulaic and pedestrian than I Am Love, Leaving highlights the fact that while people have a definite choice over the act of infidelity itself, they may have considerably less influence over the love that may fuel it.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

PTU; Garden State


Johnny To’s PTU has a man streak.
After a run-in with a street gang at a restaurant, sergeant Lo is left unconscious in a back alley, minus his police issue side-arm. Back at the restaurant, gang head Ponytail is stabbed and dies just before reaching hospital.
After being found by a patrol unit he realises that his gun is missing and calls in a favour from patrolman Mike (To favourite Simon Yam) to give him until dawn to locate the weapon before calling it in. mike heads Police Tactical Unit B2 and agrees to help, leading to a long night of chance encounters and twists of fate that will change things on Hong Kong’s streets.

The set-up could have been any number of Hong Kong crime thrillers but To’s version of police procedure involves a lot of torture, Mike beating people for information as the PTU officers look on, stony faced; the CID, called in to investigate Ponytail’s murder, seem just as bad despite the sharp black suits they wear in contrast to the military uniforms of the PTU. Amidst all this Lo stumbles through his search with a bloody face and bandaged head, accosted by both sides of Hong Kong’s criminal underworld as Ponytail’s murder sends ripples through the city.
The misconduct of Mike’s PTU is clearly meant to be disturbing rather than crims “getting what they deserve” and in this sense PTU is similar in theme to To’s later Election films, highlighting the nastier side of Triad gangs without being overly gratuitous. His art style is similar to later work too, set exclusively at night To gets to explore the palette of neon and shadow in the deserted streets of Tsim Shat Tsui that he favours. The soundtrack, however, doesn’t reach the heights of Exiled’s guitar-based score, instead awash with the whiney guitar solos of some horrific 80s soft rock, consistently working against the muted tones of the film and pulling the audience out of it.
The cast are all good, Lam Suet and Simon Yam now To regulars, as well as Eddy Ko as mob boss Eyeball; Yam in particular is used well as his quiet, measured performance here is somewhat removed from the Category 3 films like Naked Killer (Hong Kong’s extreme certificate) he seemed destined to languish in, and you can see what inspired To to begin using him as a lead from then on.
PTU doesn’t match the brilliance of To’s later works Election, Exiled and Mad Detective, or even the lighter Sparrow, but it alludes to enough of To’s talents to show that this isn’t just your average Hong Kong genre director.

Garden State

Films on the unconventional end of the romcom spectrum tend to have kooky girls and dysfunctional boys as leads, and Garden State is no different. Natalie Portman plays a character more hyperactive and enthusiastic than a dozen toddlers, seemingly without social inhibition, and cute as a button to boot. Zach Braff’s lead Largeman by contrast is numb from a decade and a half of medication and therapy instigated by family tragedy. It’s the death of his mother which lead to his return from LA and his unsuccessful career as an actor/writer, back home to New Jersey where he catches up with old faces, has odd experiences and finds out just who he is.
For a plot this laden with genre conviction and with two leads pushed comically beyond either end of a realistic personality scale it’s hard not to watch without trepidation. I last saw the film on release in 2003, and though I remembered enjoying it I was sure that my memories had a rose tint to them. However, Braff’s directorial debut ends up being charming and infectious, Largeman’s wide-eyed numbness including the right levels of vulnerability and sarcastic commentary on the small-town mentality back home with a number of deadpan scenes (see the funeral song) demonstrating that the comedy isn’t trying to hit you over the head. Portman’s charm manages to overcome any tweeness that her character would suffer in the hands of others, and Peter Sarsgaard as Largeman’s hometown best friend is excellent support, grounding the film as a character believable in his acceptance of his lot as a grave digger who likes to party, his face perfect to convey the sorrow without regret tat seems to define him.
With its cool indie soundtrack Garden State threatens to be a movie packaged to hit a certain slightly off-mainstream teen/twenties demographic, but Braff’s direction and writing injects the movie with personality, along with some able performances resulting in a romcom that’s not hard to stomach.