If you’re in a New York State of mind and looking for something other than a classic Woody Allen or Scorsese flick, let me recommend these two new, wonderful independent films recently released on DVD.
(Untitled) is an offbeat romantic comedy starring Adam Goldberg, the man with the best scowl this side of Paul Giamatti. The film, written by Jonathan Parker and Catherine Di Napoli and directed by Parker, delves into the world of avant-garde art and music, daring to ask the question “what is art?” At the same time, the film explores the human heart and allows Goldberg, a character actor whose best films always seem to have him be the angry mope, to show his softer side as the romantic lead.
Goldberg is Adrian, an avant-garde composer/ sound artist whose concerts usually draw two people, not including his parents. Of course, his folks feel obligated to be there, but even they have a hard time sitting through an entire performance. Adrian’s compositions are so far out there that to the average music fan, it sounds mostly like noise. The composer pounds on the piano, while a cute saxophonist wails away, squeaking her horn, and a percussionist randomly hit drums, trash can lids and kicks buckets.
One evening, Adrian’s brother, Josh (Eion Bailey), brings a date to one of these performances. Josh is a painter, a successful artist. However, the type of paintings he creates are the kind you see hanging in hotels and hospitals. They are pretty and profitable, but most critics don’t consider it art. Josh is content with this, as long as the money is coming in. He brings with him to the concert a smart, beautiful gallery owner named, Madeleine, played by the lovely Marley Shelton. Madeleine displays the weirdest shit you’ve ever seen, which makes Goldberg’s music the perfect soundtrack to one of her exhibits.
After Madeleine hires Adrian, they begin seeing each other. Josh, who has never realized that his relationship with Madeleine is actually plutonic (she actually sells his art to those hotels), starts to get jealous of his brother. But it’s not just the fact that Adrian has captured Madeleine’s heart; Josh also becomes jealous that the noise his brother is creating is considered art while what he does isn’t. But what is art? That’s a core question of (Untitled), a question that even Adrian begins to ask when he looks at some of the bizarre pieces Madeleine displays in her gallery.
The casting is exceptional in (Untitled), with Goldberg and Shelton making an oddball, charming couple. In Goldberg you know what you’re going to get. He can be funny, exasperating and also heartbreaking. The surprise of the film is Shelton, who has been relegated to pretty girl supporting parts most of her career. She seizes the chance to play the strong, sexy Madeleine and creates a character that is quite memorable. Hopefully we’ll see more of her in lead roles like this one.
Overall production is exceptional on (Untitled). Besides impeccable casting, the look of the film captures NYC, the script is smart and funny, and the direction is invisible, allowing the actors room to create.
Please Give is the fourth film from Nicole Holofcener, the remarkable writer/director whose previous films include Lovely and Amazing and Friends with Money. We have Holofcener to thank for introducing the world to Catherine Keener, who starred in Holfcener’s first, Walking and Talking, and has appeared in all of her movies. In their latest collaboration, Keener plays Kate, a married woman who runs a furniture store specializing in modern furniture, which she buys at estate sales. Kate owns the store with her husband, Alex (the always funny Oliver Platt). They live in a New York apartment with their teenage daughter, Abby (a wonderful Sarah Steele). Kate and Alex also own the apartment next to theirs, but it is occupied by a cranky old woman, Andra (Ann Guilbert), who is close to dying. Andra has two granddaughters; the caring Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), and the self centered Mary (Amanda Peet).
Kate is going through a crisis. She is starting to feel guilty for buying furniture at a cheap price from grieving families and then marking it up to make a profit. To counter her feelings of guilt, she is always handing out money to homeless people, much to the chagrin of Alex and Abby. In an effort to make nice with Andra, who always scowls in Kate’s direction, she invites the old woman and her granddaughters to dinner. The six lives of the characters suddenly become entangled, leading to deceptions and epiphanies.
I have never seen a Holofcener film where the acting wasn’t flawless. The director has a true gift for bringing out the best in all of her performers. Perhaps the finest performance in Please Give is Steele, whose Abby struggles with an acne problem and teeters on the edge of bitterness. The young actress really displays the pain under her characters eyes as she goes through her days with red pimples covering her face. Hall and Peet have some great scenes together as sisters on opposite sides of the personality spectrum. Although they’re different, the bond of family and shared personal tragedy (the death of their parents) keeps them close.
Of course, Keener is exceptional. In some of her other film roles, this fine actress can sometimes come off as cold and distant. However, whenever she’s working Holofcener she’s so at ease that her acting appears effortless. In this movie, Keener is vibrant and emotional and holds the movie together with her strength and emotion. Paired with Platt, the two create a realistic married couple.
As with all of Holofcener’s films, the emphasis is on character rather than huge plot points. Each character in this film has their own little crisis that they must deal with, but whether or not things get resolved in the end isn’t important. What’s important is getting a glimpse of human interaction and how people behave. Through Holofcener’s writing and camera eye, we see a reflection of our own humanity and faults. People lie to each other, they’re self conscious about their appearance and how their peers accept them, they suffer guilt for their success and seeing the needy on the street, and they worry about their own mortality. That may not sound like a barrel of laughs, but under Holofcener’s direction and her fine writing, Please Give is one of those rare movies that does make you laugh, cringe, cry and think. It makes you feel.