'Please Give' acting is a treat to watch

How much of life, as we know it to be, should be infused into movies represents a conundrum for writers and filmmakers. Hollywood has always been the land of dream makers and fantasy, where characters are burnished to an unnatural luster and endings given an aura of optimism and rightness.

Some go to movies to escape, to be entertained, not to be reminded of the exigencies of living outside the theater doors. For others, films that mirror life are found to be far more compelling.

It's interesting to compare the work of Nicole Holofcener, who wrote and directed "Please Give," a film about five women, set in Manhattan, with the recently released "Sex and the City 2," which is about four women and also set in Manhattan.

Each of the women in "Please Give" are not only a study in contrasts — young and old, pretty and plain — but are recognizable in their honesty, absent any patina of glitter. Each is wonderfully rendered. Kate (Catherine Keener), for example, lives in a Manhattan apartment with her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) and Abby (Sarah Steele), her daughter, 15 years old and in the throes of a painful self-consciousness and a studied rebellion. While Kate is generous to a fault (some might judge she suffers from too much empathy) and tormented by guilt for those who have less than she, Abby, needing more than life itself a pair of $200 jeans, resents any cash Kate insists on giving to the homeless. Their interactions are filled with truth and love and quick anger soon forgotten.

Living next door to Kate is Andra (Ann Guilbert), 91, oblivious to the hurt she inflicts on others because of her unedited insensitivity, ever ready to snarl and withhold while blithely escaping into her television programs. Her two granddaughters, Mary (Amanda Peet) and Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), whom she raised, are dissimilar in every way: Mary is beautiful and narcissistic while Rebecca is shy and reclusive, both are flawed and interesting for their quiet and, in Mary's case, blatant imperfections.

These are all people moving forward, while seeming to be adrift, all with an interesting simultaneity. Such is life.

In contrast is "Sex and the City," which draws its appeal from its unreality. Four women whose lives are Disneyesque, a fantasy of affluence and privilege and the antithesis of "Please Give." In the opening shot of "Sex and the City 2," Sarah Jessica Parker, as Carrie Bradshaw, walks out of an upscale, canopied Manhattan apartment, a doorman ever-present. She glows. She's beautifully dressed, wonderfully coiffed, a designer's dream. And so is the film.

Movies exist to create worlds that are spare and honest and even bleak while others transport audiences to a world of hyper-fiction.

Holofcener has clearly chosen the former and this is reflected in her choice of actors, led by Keener, who is stunning in her ability to capture a woman's many facets as well as a certain nudging ennui. She's lovely, even beautiful in her naturalness. And she is an actor of subtlety and nuance, deeply talented. As are Peet and Hall. Steele steals, so to speak, every scene she is in, capturing perfectly the perpetual crisis of adolescence. Guilbert, hair dyed a metallic strawberry, face deeply lined, her mouth always turned downward, is perfect as the cranky grandmother. All are a treat to watch. As is this drama, edged with comedy and filled with humanity.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse

"Eclipse," the third installment of the "The Twilight Saga," has finally opened, much to the delight of the "Twi-hards," meaning those enthusiastic fans of the books and movies.

This does beg the question: Where's the magic? This is a vampire movie, after all. Yet, "Eclipse" made $30 million at its midnight showing, $68.5 million the first day, and $24.2 million the second day. It also opened in 21 foreign markets.

Part of the magic resides in the fact that Stephenie Meyer has written four quintessential romance novels, each aimed at the receptive hearts of tween/teen girls.

At its core, "Twilight Saga" is, simply, a protracted love story between a bright, vulnerable high school girl, Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), who feels she has never quite meshed with her peers, and a detached, strange classmate, Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who possesses a life far beyond Bella's understanding.

As the story unfolds, Bella learns that Edward is a vampire, as in vampire that feeds on blood and, truth be told, is the walking dead. Who would have thought the pale, geeky-looking guy with dragon-yellow eyes would get the girl.

These facts alone should have required a monumental suspension of disbelief by the audience. However, the plot is actually interesting and appealing, no matter Edward's porcelain skin and creepy demeanor. There's heat. Bella is at first intrigued by his remoteness and then completely smitten with this, well, hot, meaning cold, lifeless guy. But then she feels safe with him. While Edward doesn't pull up in front of Bella's home on a major chopper, cigarette behind his ear, hair greased back, tattoos crawling up his neck like small vines, he is, nevertheless, in his own way, one very bad dude. The ultimate bad boy. So intoxicatingly appealing and scary.

What makes Meyer's adolescent love story even more alluring is that Edward fears consummating his love for Bella lest he lose control, giving new meaning to the phrase, "Bite me." He can smell her life force, the blood surging through her veins and the temptation is all but overwhelming.

The only caveat is that for Bella to fully join Edward in his life as a vampire, she must surrender her humanity. Once made, this is a choice that can never be undone and represents the ultimate sacrifice of family and friends. How far will Bella go for love?

And just to make things more interesting, Meyer introduces, in the second film, "New Moon" (and intensified in 'Eclipse"), a triangle with Bella and Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who is a werewolf, and Edward. She loves both of them, as it turns out. Of course, Jacob is flesh and bones and has a washboard set of abs that causes 14-year-olds in the audience to literally whoop and cheer and sigh when he appears without his shirt (which he does a lot). "Eclipse" has been called the best of the three. Perhaps. It does move Bella ever closer to that day when she will relinquish her human self and join Edward, frozen in time, finally together forever. Or not.

The Last Airbender

"The Last Airbender" was written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, writer and director of the stunningly successful film, "The Sixth Sense," followed by the equally compelling "Unbreakable" and "Signs." Unexpectedly, to the surprise of his many fans, Shyamalan did not fare as well with "The Village," "Lady in the Water" and "The Happening."

It's been a remarkable slide from the zenith of "The Sixth Sense," still his best movie to date.

"The Last Airbender" demonstrates that Shyamalan, who initially seemed to have a keen talent for storytelling, is struggling of late, especially when creating stories for younger audiences who appreciate a surging, taut narrative with crisp, minimalist dialogue. He seems not to understand that he is telling a story, based on the Nickelodeon cartoon named "Avatar: The Last Airbender," aimed at 10-year-olds. Some scenes are painfully slow, the equivalent of dragging a sack of cement down a driveway; the dialogue is too often wooden; and the acting is uninspired. Youngsters are forgiving when it comes to only passable acting. For them, however, it's all about momentum and ramped-up excitement that is nicely imagined. Absent that and you're in trouble with this demographic. "The Last Airbender" is in trouble.

Kids today must be beside themselves as they go to movie after movie and watch not only state-of-the-art animation, but computer generated special effects that are extraordinary — case in point is "The Last Airbender," technically astonishing and costing some $150 million to make and offered in 2-D and the now the ubiquitous 3-D. Young audiences are treated to visual delights that were unthinkable only a few years ago. Today there is almost nothing that can't be created by CGI. It's remarkable. But again, no matter the gripping special effects, it still comes down to story and script.

There has been talk that this movie is the first installment of a trilogy, and that the second movie already is in pre-production. It will be interesting to see if indeed the sequels are made and if Shyamalan, who has sadly lost his mojo, is the director.

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