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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+

M. Carter’s Oscar nominations (and then some)

As a fledgling movie lover, a burgeoning blogger, I grew up trusting that The Academy as the ultimate and final word on what was good and award-worthy in cinema. Then, somewhere around the time I realized that my parents didn’t know everything, either, I turned a corner and headed down the “Hey, Academy People, You Might Have Petrified White Dog Turds for Brains” Hallway toward the “Wearing a Leopard-Print Wonderbra and Screaming Obscenities at Albert Finney Does Not Translate to Acting Talent” Conference Room. 

(Yes, I am still a little bitter about how the 2001 Best Actress Oscar race played out and please, let’s change the subject before I have to go back to therapy.)

Old grudges aside, the point is that sometimes The Academy gets it right. But more often than not these sorry, sad little people get it wrong. Very wrong. This is why Frank, the Pompous Film Snob himself, asked a number of us movie bloggers to come up with our own nominations for the best of the best in 2010. Find the compiled list here, and peruse my own nominations below.

Best Picture: “Winter’s Bone”; “The King’s Speech”; “Black Swan”; “Restrepo”; “Cairo Time”

Best Director: Debra Granik, “Winter’s Bone”; Darren Aronofsky, “Black Swan”; Tom Hooper, “The King’s Speech”; Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, “Restrepo”; Christopher Nolan, “Inception”

Best Actor: Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech”; Michael Douglas, “Solitary Man”; Jeff Bridges, “True Grit”; James Franco, “127 Hours”; Leonardo DiCaprio, “Shutter Island”

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, “Winter’s Bone”; Hailee Steinfeld, “True Grit”; Natalie Portman, “Black Swan”; Annette Bening, “The Kids Are All Right”; Patricia Clarkson, “Cairo Time”

Best Supporting Actor: John Hawkes, “Winter’s Bone”; Geoffrey Rush, “The King’s Speech”; Jeremy Renner, “The Town”; Christian Bale, “The Fighter”; Ken Watanabe, “Inception”

Best Supporting Actress: Rebecca Hall, “Please Give”; Melissa Leo, “The Fighter”; Amy Adams, “The Fighter”; Dale Dickey, “Winter’s Bone”; Barbara Hershey, “Black Swan”

Best Original Screenplay: “Cairo Time”; “Black Swan”; “Inception”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Kids Are All Right”

Best Adapted Screenplay: “Winter’s Bone”; “True Grit”; “Shutter Island”; “The Social Network”; “The Town”

Best Ensemble: “Inception”; “The Social Network”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Kids Are All Right”; “The Fighter”

Best Cinematography: “Winter’s Bone”; “Black Swan”; “Inception”; “The Social Network”; “The King’s Speech”

Best Score: “Shutter Island”; “Inception”; “True Grit”; “Cairo Time”; “Black Swan”

Best Editing: “Restrepo”; “Predators”; “The King’s Speech”; “The Social Network”; “Winter’s Bone”

Lifetime Achievement Award winners: Richard Jenkins and Ron Leibman (let’s hear it for the underappreciated character actors!)

“The Town” captures spirit of Boston but overdoes action

Affleck (left) and Renner make for a formidable team of thieves in "The Town."

There’s a strange air of historical reverence and foreboding about Boston that’s singular. Don’t expect anyone to mistake it for New York, Chicago, Los Angeles; Boston exists in a class all its own. And it takes a mighty talent to tease out that energy and make it seem genial enough to draw us in, make us comfortable and ominous and tense enough to keep us breathless. Ben Affleck — the star of “Reindeer Games” and, Lord help us, “Gigli” — is precisely the man for the job. Who knew?

Looking back, the signs were there. In his acting career, Affleck has excelled at playing conflicted souls: Gavin in “Changing Lanes,” George Reeves in “Hollywoodland.” The parts that required him to show up and look dashing were largely forgettable. Turning a director’s camera on the streets of Boston, his hometown, then, seems like a logical step. He proved in “Gone Baby Gone” that it was a brilliant one, too. While “The Town,” with its amazingly filmed car chases, doesn’t soar quite as high as “Gone Baby Gone,” it comes damn close, this time with Affleck tackling the confused protagonist, Doug MacRay.

MacRay is a product of Charlestown, a Boston neighborhood pegged as a breeding ground for bank robbers. In Charlestown, bank robbery isn’t so much a crime as a learned trade. Doug’s father (Chris Cooper), now doing hard time for a job that went sour, served as walking, talking how-to guide. Doug hammered out the finer points with best friend James “Jem” Coughlin (Jeremy Renner) at his side. Now Doug’s the cool head behind a successful bank robbery ring. Success starts to come at a price as Jem, a wild card with a volcanic temper and no scruples, becomes increasingly unpredictable. He’s the reason MacRay’s team takes its first hostage, bank manager Claire Keesey (Rebecca Hall) — a mistake that proves doubly dangerous when they find out she lives just a few blocks from her office. Jem’s eerily content to “take care of her,” but MacRay takes a kinder approach: He chats her up at a laundromat, strikes up a friendship with her and ends up liking her. Affleck displays a blessedly careful touch on the romance angle, letting Claire and Doug’s relationship develop at a slow, unforced pace. Their bond feels delicate but real, and it gives Doug the push he needs to consider leaving Charlestown.

Skipping out, however, won’t be easy. There’s FBI agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm sporting a half-hearted Boston brogue), whose team encircles the bank robbers like hungry foxes closing in on a rabbit’s den. Renner’s splendidly unnerving Jem abides his own bizarre moral code and expects Doug to fall in line as well. Charlestown crime boss Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite, the only actor capable of making a florist seem menacing) isn’t keen on Doug skipping out the job, either. The walls are closing in on all sides for Doug, trapped by both his past and his present, and yet Affleck smartly holds back when he could have gone for weepy drama. One thing he doesn’t dial down is the violence. As much as there was in “Gone Baby Gone,” “The Town” has more — so much and so showy that it detracts from the more human storyline of Doug struggling with his loyalty to Charlestown and his desire to leave it in his rearview. The final act of “The Town” involves too many bloody showdowns to count, but there is a marvelous car chase filmed in such a ground-level way that it’s terrifying and captures the claustrophobic feel of Boston’s narrow streets.

Another strong point of “The Town” is Affleck’s ability to write characters that can’t be pigeonholed. Everyone exists in the gray areas. Renner, in an electrifying performance, plays Jem as unpredictable, scary and volatile, but he feels a brotherly protectiveness for Doug. Hamm’s hard-nosed cop has a moral flexibility that lets him to steamroll people to get what he wants. Claire’s anger toward Doug and her affection for him have her in an agonizing stalemate. The moral grayness gets drowned out by the gunfire and it’s underused, but it’s there and it’s powerful. How do you draw the line between “right” and “wrong” when loyalty is involved? Does that line even exist? “The Town” doesn’t answer, but what matters is that Affleck cares enough to pose the question.

Grade: B+