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Review: “Please Give” (2010)

“The guilty think all talk is of themselves.” ~~Geoffrey Chaucer

Kate (Catherine Keener) may not believe that everyone is talking about her, but she feels the eye of every homeless New Yorker trained on her. Those eyes — and her guilt over the financial security her vintage furniture business brings — are a part of Kate’s daily existence; in fact, guilt is her fuel. Guilt makes Kate hand out $20 bills to the homeless, refuse to buy her teen daughter (Sarah Steele) expensive jeans and offer her leftovers to a disheveled man outside a restaurant who turns out to be waiting for a table. She never says as much aloud, but she’s more than willing to shoulder the burden of New York’s downtrodden.

There’s something unsavory about the thought of a well-to-do woman assuming a man is homeless solely because his clothes are wrinkled. A certain amounce of nuance is required to pull off a character like Kate. She has the potential to be self-righteous, a person who delights in martyrdom. Keener sees to it that Kate is not this sort because Keener is one of the few women in Hollywood (Laura Linney is another) who looks like a human being instead of a beauty playing a human being. She has lines around her eyes and a laugh that is not polished. Oliver Platt, who plays Kate’s husband Alex, isn’t often accused of being polished himself. So pairing him with Keener as a couple who make a living buying furniture on the cheap from the relatives of dead people is virtuoso casting. When Kate discovers she’s offered her leftovers to a restaurant customer, not a homeless person, for example, her apology is fumbling but sincere. Their situation may seem ethically questionable, and their habits a bit vulture-esque, but Alex and Kate are so pleasant and well-meaning as to be beyond reproach.

The same is not true of their neighbor, Andra (Ann Morgan Guilbert), a cantankerous, carping beast of a woman who cannot use the excuse that old age has made her hateful. The exasperated expressions of her granddaughters — Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), Andra’s reserved caretaker, and Mary (Amanda Peet) — tell the truth: There never was a time when Andra was barrel of anything other than spite. Andra notes that she’s choosy about her friends, which sounds more like an excuse for not having any except Rebecca, who’s more like an indentured servant. Andra’s still sharp enough to know that Kate and Alex want to buy her apartment after she dies because this is New York City and living space is a precious commodity. Rebecca and Mary know this too, though Mary, who’s light years less careworn than Rebecca, is the only one with the gumption to ask what the couple point-blank would do with the space — with Andra sitting at the table. And so much of “Please Give” revolves around everyone waiting for Andra to die and Andra trying very hard not to because she’s hornery as hell.

The line between taking advantage of people and seizing on unfortunate opportunities is a fine one in Holofcener’s movies (recall “Friends with Money”), but in “Please Give” it’s treated as a necessary evil of life. Kate feels more guilt about wanting Andra’s space than Andra, or even her granddaughters. She also forms a fragile relationship with Rebecca, in whom she sees a bit of her own tendencies toward martyrdom. But everyone in “Please Give” operates with their eyes open, which makes the film more a study of human interaction in vignettes — the film admittedly lacks cohesion — than drama.  Holofcener allows the resentments and slights — Kate’s daughter (Sarah Steele) is furious when her mom refuses to buy her those jeans — to show. Hall in particular is excellent in her role as the put-upon grandchild who gradually realizes she can’t change Andra by acting as her slave. Kate’s guilt could have been overwrought, but Keener plays it quieter than that. Guilbert gets to have all the fun, but there’s sadness in her too, hints that Andra is well aware she will die alone and barely mourned. It’s hard not to respect a director who’s willing to write a character who owns up to truths like that.

Grade: B+

“Frost/Nixon” a nail-biting battle of wits

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen face off in the tense "Frost/Nixon."

Frank Langella and Michael Sheen face off in the tense "Frost/Nixon."

There’s power in punctuation that words sometimes can’t match. Don’t buy that? Take a gander at the title of screenwriter/playwright Peter Morgan’s retelling of 1977 interviews between TV personality David Frost (Michael Sheen) and former U.S. president Richard Nixon (Frank Langella): “Frost/Nixon.” That’s a slash — not a hyphen, not a dash — and the subtext is pointed. It suggests a commonality; it means Frost and Nixon. Look closer and that slash becomes a little more hostile:  It means Frost or Nixon. Frost versus Nixon.

So which is it? Is “Frost/Nixon” a movie about a meeting of the minds, 0r is it an intellectual jousting match? Answer: It’s both, thanks to the nimble yet complex script adapted from a play by Morgan (“The Queen”). Both Frost and Nixon are men in search of something. For Frost, a superstar in Australia, it’s the chance to achieve American fame; for Nixon, it’s a shot at cleaning up his image while collecting a cool $600,000. But shared interests matter little in a duel, since only one man can walk away the victor.

Oh, what a fight this is. Sheen is Frost, a charismatic playboy who’s equal parts Wayne Gayle (minus the Aussie twang) and Oscar Wilde. His show’s a cheeky hit in Australia, but he lusts for U.S. fame. “There’s nothing like it,” he tells his producer John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen). And coaxing Nixon into an on-camera apology for Watergate, Frost figures, will win him plenty of Yank fans. He hires two investigators — Bob Zelnick (a delightfully droll Oliver Platt) and professor/author James Reston Jr. (Sam Rockwell) — to dig up dirt on Watergate and figures his work is practically done.

But Frost understimates Nixon, who comes armed with a formidable PR team led by his doggedly loyal post-presidential chief of staff Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon). Nixon’s quicker than Frost, more practiced in twisting words, and there’s an impish gleam in the former president’s eye that suggests he delights in the challenge.

You see, it’s expactly this serve/return, advance/retreat strategy that makes “Frost/Nixon” so captivating. Morgan taps into something visceral and elemental, a kind of survival-of-the-fittest instinct that, at times, makes “Frost/Nixon” feel like a National Geographic documentary about a lioness stalking a wounded gazelle. Part of the excitement comes from watching Sheen and Langella trade roles; you’re never quite sure who’s the lion and who’s the gazelle, and every time the answer seems clear it’s not. Even those who’ve seen the interviews will be left wondering. Morgan’s that good. Perhaps he’s scored a breakthrough with this one.

Credit, too, must go to Sheen and Langella, who redefine the “less is more” approach to acting. Here are two actors who have a formidable command of facial expressions. This is a movie where the beauty is in the expressions and body language. Nobody but nobody does fear and awkwardness like Sheen (he bests his performance in “The Queen” by leaps and bounds). Watch him sweep uncomfortable grimaces into big, toothy, fake smiles that don’t quite reach his eyes. That’s where the magic happens — his eyes. They give everything away. There’s a sadness, and later, a steely resolve there that suggest Frost is far more than some shallow dandy.

And yes, there’s a reason Langella earned an Oscar nod for his work as Nixon. His Nixon is a tricky one, alright, a man with an uncanny ability to worm his way out of nearly any trap. Still, Langella conveys more emotions with one frown, one sideways glance, one arched eyebrow than most actors can in pages of dialogue. But he can be explosive. There’s a phone call (fictionalized apparently) between interviewer and interviewee where Langella lets loose a near-volcanic explosion of anger. It’s frightening to behold, but try to turn away. This is the kind of multi-layered performance Oscars were made for.

Layers. Yes, “Frost/Nixon” is all about layers — of emotions, of meaning, of subtleties, of complexities. And those layers are what make this simply done but immensely powerful docudrama one of the year’s best films.

Grade: A