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Your Sister's Sister - review

Part slacker, part slapstick, this comedy is richer than it seems.

Your Sister's Sister
dir: Lynn Shelton

Mumblecore was a movement so modest, even its originators didn’t realise it was happening. A loose assortment of semi-improvised comedy-dramas concerned with the love lives of unfocused twentysomethings, mumblecore occupied a budgetary substratum several notches below shoestring. But cheap is not necessarily shoddy, a shambolic surface no indicator of the engineering beneath. So it was with the films of Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha), Aaron Katz (Quiet City), Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs) and others: the movies gleamed with an emotional sophistication that put script-doctored Hollywood equivalents to shame.

The mainstream took note. It’s my belief that the baggy comedies of Judd Apatow (Knocked Up, Funny People) owe mumblecore a debt as yet unacknowledged. And Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, one of the richest US films of the past decade, tipped its hat by casting in major roles the movement’s figureheads, Greta Gerwig and Mark Duplass – the Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant of mumblecore (if you can picture Grant in tracksuit trousers and a faded tee). Duplass is also a film-maker: with his brother Jay he has pursued the mumblecore ethos, from The Puffy Chair (budget: $15,480; stars: Duplass and chums) to Jeff Who Lives at Home (budget: $10m; stars: Susan Sarandon, Jason Segel). But he’s still a generous, playful actor, as he proves in Your Sister’s Sister, a tight comedy from his mumblecore alumna Lynn Shelton. In her last film, Humpday, she cast Duplass as a straight man building up to having sex with his best (male) friend as a kind of macho dare. Fresh embarrassments await him this time.

Duplass plays Jack, first seen at an anniversary memorial in Seattle where he rails against the whitewashing of the dead man’s life. Uh-oh: troublemaker. Well, perhaps. But he is also the grieving brother – still not yet resigned, a year on, to the death of his sibling, Tom. His devoted friend, Iris (Emily Blunt), whose impulsive, rapturous laugh has healing properties, encourages him to decompress at her family’s cabin on the San Juan Islands (off the coast of Washington state). When Jack arrives late one night, he finds Iris’s sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), padding around in her underwear. “Complications ensue” would be an inadequate summary of what happens next.

As Humpday demonstrated, Shelton is a dab hand at detecting the pulse of conversational awkwardness, however faint, so it’s no surprise that she renders excruciating the chasm between Hannah (brittle, nibbling dried banana, newly separated from her girlfriend) and Jack (goofy, carnivorous, ready to chance his arm – sexually speaking). Knocking back a few shots creates a different strain of discomfort and soon the curiosity in Humpday towards people having sex for reasons other than desire is approached from a new angle. Our prediction that Iris is bound to turn up (she does) is made tantalising by our faith in Shelton to knock the situation out of the realm of farce (ditto).

In fact, Your Sister’s Sister incorporates variations on the country-house drama and a jokey nod toward the whodunnit, with Jack turning detective and stumbling upon his own delirious version of the smoking gun. The camera wobbles just enough to remind us that we’re watching a film in which the actors used phone boxes for trailers, if they had trailers at all, while the soundtrack dial is turned to the “generic indie strumming” setting with a side order of wind chimes for moments of mystery. But the film is too skillful to be affected adversely by these mannerisms. Shelton has developed a new and impressive aptitude for discreet slapstick, like the moment when Jack and Iris both try to gesture to Hannah without the other’s knowledge. Cutaways to the pastoral, mist-shrouded surroundings lend the comedy a serene tint.

The casting solicits approving noises from the audience before anything much has happened. Duplass is the epitome of slackerhood: he sports a permanent bedhead, not to mention a bedface, a bedbody, a bedsoul. How inspired of Shelton to pair him with Blunt and DeWitt, who are all sharp edges and crisply delicious line readings where he is a drawling blur. No wonder she lists her actors as “creative consultants”. The film depends for its emotional effects on our belief in Iris’s fondness for Hannah and in the vivid affection between Iris and Jack, even before the glorious monologue in which he itemises her typical boyfriend (“Swoopy hair, skinny jeans, Converses with no laces”), and analyses her pattern of killing off relationships before the second weekend. It’s the attention to detail available only to a man who hopes he might get a chance to buck the trend.

The movie loses a little confidence in its later scenes. I can’t be the only person to feel that a director has thrown in the towel when a pent-up character smashes an inanimate object. But the inconclusive ending is a magical fit for a film that belongs to the mumblecore tradition of al dente cinema: never knowingly overdone.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

Flickr/Alfred Grupstra
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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture