Ray Liotta is in for a world of hurt, it seems.
Nicole Holofcener, whose filmography consists of Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, and Friends with Money, is the sort of director whom reasonable film critics would like to force into indentured Hollywood studio servitude, if only the Hollywood studio system would accommodate her talents. (It’s no coincidence, sadly, that all of her movies have been financed independently.) Her work is character-centric and engaging, low-key without sacrificing its steady hum of liveliness and quiet wit. Her movies sometimes pivot on what could in lesser hands be characterized as melodramatic turns, but she counterbalances this with a smart attention to detail. In short, she has a finely honed sensibility that injects her work with recognizable humanity — something that a lot of even adult-pitched mainstream Hollywood product lacks, especially in its self-defeating quest to more readily identify with only either drama or carefree laughs.
Holofcener’s latest film centers in part around a pair married Manhattanites, Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt), who are parents to a teenage daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele). Together, they operate a successful secondhand furniture store shrewdly stocked with trendy estate sale items. Planning for the future, Kate and Alex purchase an option on the apartment next door in order to expand their two bedroom apartment. Their only problem is the cranky old lady, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), living in it by herself, and the indelicate fact that they’ve got to wait for her to die.
Andra is mostly cared for by one granddaughter, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall, above left), a sweet-natured radiology technician, and scorned by her other granddaughter, Mary (Amanda Peet, above right), a callous and self-centered spa clinician thrown for a loop by the fact that her last boyfriend for some reason dumped her. (She’s the dumper, never the dumpee, you see.) Things become more complicated when these two families’ lives intersect, resulting in a dramedy that’s billed as being about love, death and liberal guilt.
The simple, brilliantly calculated shock of Please Give‘s opening, a matter-of-fact montage of mammograms, gives way to interactions that are of a piece with writer-director Holofcener’s three other films — talky, urbane ensemble flicks that pry quiet but deeply sincere smiles and laughs from an audience, and just as often showcase hushed moments of pinprick vulnerability. Holofcener’s touch with actors is so superb, and her ear for smartly calibrated revelatory dialogue generally so acute, that one feels like they could trip along forever with these characters. Kate’s emotional frailty (she gives charitably to homeless people and wants to volunteer, but is overwhelmed with sadness on the occasions she does reach out) is deftly contrasted with Andra’s deteriorating physical condition. It’s heartening, too, that Abby is a very much a real teenager, with splotchy skin, shifting motivations and interests, and fitful swings of mood. Holofcener crafts believable characters, and then lets them rub up against one another in interesting ways.
If there’s an easy knock on Holofcener’s work overall, it’s that her chosen focus is hopelessly bourgeoisie (though Lovely & Amazing undercut this argument rather convincingly), and out of step with a large swath of what modern American audiences would find dramatically compelling or humorous. (A running deadpan joke about day-tripping out of the city to “watch the leaves turn” reinforces this view, in its very whitebread, New England specificity.) The only other false notes — small qualms, really — come when Holofcener tries to nakedly advance the plot, or color in tragic backstory. These bits feel forced, like some sizzle added to sell the steak. Otherwise, though, Please Give is a wry, absorbing and beautifully observed snapshot of free-floating malaise and burgeoning hope. In gazing both outward and inward in equal measure, it encourages more human engagement and connection, which is always a good thing.
Housed in a regular plastic Amaray case, Please Give comes to DVD presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, preserving the aspect ratio of its theatrical exhibition. Audio options consist of Dolby digital 5.1 audio tracks in English, French and Thai (!), with optional subtitles in English, Spanish SDH, French, “regular” Spanish, Korean, Mandarin Chinese and Thai. Supplemental bonus features consist of roughly four minutes of outtakes, a 12-minute behind-the-scenes featurette that includes on-set and EPK-style chats with cast and crew, and a separate eight minutes worth of material with Holofcener that is OK, but also leaves something to be desired. A bit more of a comprehensive overview of Holofcener’s canon would be nice; she’s not a “name” filmmaker to many, sadly, but she really should be. To purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. B+ (Movie) B- (Disc)
The trailer for director Josh Sternfeld’s Meskada (Red Flag, December 3), starring Nick Stahl and Rachel Nichols as detectives whose investigation into a small town murder leads them into an adjoining burgh with dark secrets, is online and available for viewing, and I’ll say this: it looks to be a delight for young female meth addicts, and/or those with daddy issues. Stahl, Norman Reedus and Kellan Lutz all belong to that subset of recessed- and bleary-eyed knuckle-draggers that so delight girls looking to fill the void in their heart born of an absentee father. These three guys could be freshly showered and dressed in designer suits, but still look a bit beat-up, boozy, damaged, dangerous and, let’s be honest, reeking of cigarette smoke.
If there were ever a movie designed to make Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin simultaneously crap their pants — pairing all the extreme edginess of an online Mountain Dew commercial with the ethnic “otherness” of a weekend’s cab rides in Manhattan — it would probably have to be The Taqwacores, about a group of young, punkish, fornicating Muslims trying to reconcile their religious beliefs and personal freedoms in a country that isn’t always as welcoming of diversity as its electorate claims.
Co-written and directed by Eyad Zahra, the movie, opening tomorrow in New York and November 12 in Los Angeles and Orange counties, centers on Yusef (Bobby Naderi, above left), a first-generation Pakistani college sophomore who moves into an off-campus house in Buffalo. There, he meets a motley crew of fellow Muslims, and their home becomes a community magnet for Friday prayers as well as music-fueled weekend partying.
Like Holy Rollers, The Taqwacores makes at least some sincere attempt to reconcile an honest faith born from a more orthodox religious sect with the bristling, more hormonally oriented energies of youth. Jettisoning any sense of structure from Michael Muhammad Knight’s novel, though, Zahra pumps up the jittery jump-cuts and opts for surface laughs and tension, not trusting the ability of the material to nervously build to a more natural climax.
The result often feels less “real” or believable, and more like a stumbling collection of characters tilting at windmills, peppered with moments either designed for raw provocation (one character needling another about masturbation and tampon use, another bellowing, “I’m so Muslim I can say, ‘Fuck Islam!'”), or that read as overly telegraphed issue statements on gender equality, sexual identity and the like. And yet there’s undeniably a natural pull to the movie, in large part because of a charismatic supporting performance from Dominic Rains (above right) as Jehangir, the mohawked, reconciliatory chieftain of this colorful clan. Amidst all the willful din and clatter, he smashes stereotypes quietly. (Strand, R, 83 minutes)
Billed as a “participatory documentary,” a work-in-progress, nonfiction snapshot assembled and edited by Jeff Deutchman, 11/4/08 chronicles a day around the world, leading up to the presidential election of Barack Obama. The film, which premiered earlier this year at the South by Southwest
Festival, screens tonight in Los Angeles at the Laemmle
Claremont 5, Monica 4-Plex, Playhouse 7, Town Center 5 and Sunset 5 theaters, and
is available this week across various digital download platforms, including iTunes, AmazonVOD,
CinemaNow and more.
Two weeks before the election of Obama, filmmaker Deutchman
asked friends and acquaintances all over the globe to record their experiences of the 2008 Election Day, a day that in many ways had an impending sense of being “historic” before any history at all had even really taken
place. After collecting footage from a combination of passionate amateurs
and acclaimed independent filmmakers — the latter group including Margaret
Brown, Joe Swanberg, Benh Zeitlin and Henry Joost, one of the co-directors of Catfish — Deutchman then went about working up a vérité narrative that skips to and fro, offering an impressionistic, bird’s eye view of the groundswell feeling of momentous change against a sometimes humdrum backdrop of workaday domesticity and regular hustle-and-bustle.
Ostensibly, the film’s chief selling point is that it trades in emotionality rather than some sort of strict, imposed-from-on-high narrative. It depicts idealistic volunteers in St. Louis and Austin working to turn their states
blue; voting lines in Chicago snaking around the block; and young kids, in Alaska and elsewhere, who seem invested in
the election results. One Los Angeles participant even films his cell phone as he talks to his gobsmacked mother, who ran into Bill Clinton while going to cast her vote.
There’s a sort of plebian engagement and value in these collected snapshots, but they don’t really fit together in any compelling fashion. The chief problem, of course, is that, removed from the rarefied air of a historical Democratic primary and general election campaign, the United States is still (and probably even more so) in a place of retrenched partisan grenade lobbing, so any and all attempts 11/4/08 makes at grabbing or inducing joy feel hopelessly leaden, stacked up against the real world outside. Apart from the Republican Party’s unwillingness to engage in any reasonable partnership of governance, and Fox News’ typical idiocy and still ongoing smear campaign of hysterical pitch and volume, Obama is saddled with the crushing reality of very real problems — a tattered economy, small business enmity, and a war in Afghanistan that is dragging on and possibly widening, to name but a few.
While some Stateside anecdotal bits are fascinating (an Indiana canvasser relating the shared story of a voter who believes Black Panthers will actually be killing people at the polls), and others still emotionally tangible and relevant (an African-American volunteer talking about friendships formed during the campaign), the film is most successful when it moves away from mere moment-in-time noodling, and tries to connect both rhetoric and action to the actual deeper feelings and motivations driving them. By and large, this means when the film casts a glance across the Atlantic Ocean, where expatriates and foreign citizens alike express their opinions on the election. Women in Switzerland note that it is “young people who build the future,” and a gentleman in New Delhi talks about the enduring power of America’s ideals.
It’s this material that most provides important context. Political partisans on the far right may regard the aura of hope and optimism attached to Obama’s election as false, misplaced or foolish, but it was certainly real, and no less ridiculous than clubby, rallying blue-hairs feeling safe and sentimental about their country (and their place in it, specifically) when Republicans were ringing up presidential wins in five out of the previous seven contests. In clinging to the notion that Obama was or still is an avatar, and only an empty vessel for the mantle of “change,” there is a fundamental failure to acknowledge and respect his considerable intellect and political gifts, certainly, but also recognize and embrace the dream of American possibility — the dream children need to carry forward in the world, which is in turn actually a worldwide dream. It’s a snapshot of why we matter, essentially — a robust, living example of American exceptionalism. For more information, click here. (Film Buff/Consensual Cinema, unrated, 70 minutes)