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Ray Pride

By Ray Pride


Hal Hartley’s first feature hits its unbelievable twentieth anniversary, and he’s self-releasing a new DVD edition.  “The Unbelievable Truth was first released in North America by Miramax Films in 1990 following its highly successful screenings at the Toronto and Sundance film festivals,” reads the press release. “It was a popular release worldwide and came to represent the freshness and audacity of smaller-budgeted independently financed films from America.” Extras include a making-of doc, which is previewed on the website. Interviews include one with Hartley and Adrienne Shelly on-camera together in 2005. When Henry Fool was released 1998, I profiled Hartley for Filmmaker magazine with this introduction: “Relationships and romance: trouble and desire. Thematically and visually, Hal Hartley’s seven features and handful of shorter pieces, are remarkably consistent in tone and mood. In vaudeville, they called it shtick. Film critics see a signature style and are quick to dub the unwitting filmmaker an “auteur.” The Long Island native is aware of the process, prefacing the Faber paperback of the Flirt script with a few words from Jean Renoir: “Everyone really only makes one film in his life, and then he breaks it into fragments and makes it again with just a few little variations each time.” I haven’t seen the new DVD, but like Hartley’s earlier self-distributed releases, it should be a lovely artifact. Plus, I can’t resist that image. [Possible Films, $36]

A brilliant if despairing comedy with glimmers of hope and kindess, Nicole Holofcener’s fourth feature, Please Give, [Sony, $29] is easily her best. In modern-day Manhattan, a few moments ago, Kate (Catherine Kenner) and Alex (Oliver Platt) run a tasteful furniture store stocked through buys at estate sales. Kate worries that her teenage daughter Abby (Sarah Steele) is becoming materialistic while Abby is furious with acne. The couple have bought the apartment of their 92-year-old neighbor Andra (lost, lonely, downhearted Ann Guilbert). The oldest of Andra’s granddaughters who look after her, Mary (Amanda Peet), works in a salon, seems ready for her to croak, while younger granddaughter Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), an x-ray technician who performs mammograms, tall, lithe and lovely, has little drive in her life. For a 90-minute movie, Please Give packs in all kinds of conflict and comedy that would take, well, ninety minutes to describe. As Holofcener’s customary alter ego, Keener’s Kate is riddled with all manner of guilt and doubt and more guilt. So far, so female. But there’s none of the expected uplift in contemporary movies.

Holofcener mutinies: her characters are dastards, stuck in their dastardly daily routine, but also their conception of themselves. In general, the rigid presumes itself pliant: these characters don’t change, but as a writer and director, the writer-director allows them moments, privileged moments, sometimes only instants, really, such as when Peet’s Mary steals momentary refuge on her sister’s ready, unresisting shoulder. Holofcener’s calibration is exacting and momentarily elusive. But behavior recurs. She works as if she’s weaving a cat’s cradle rather than sturdy, expected structure.

Holofcener’s dramatic cadences are sneaky, snaky, seeming aimlessness composed with uncanny cumulative power. Any allusion to Chekhov is likely to blow up in your face by the end of a review, but Andra’s pugnacious refusal of epiphany, turning her back to the autumnal turn of leaves in upstate New York, is wistful in a way reminiscent of “Three Sisters,” when the dream of someday getting to Moscow (or Poughkeepsie) is finally put to rest. A blatant metaphor is turning red and yellow in our faces, yet Holofcener paces it. It’s not only a tidy refusal to face imminent mortality from a “menopausal-orange”-haired woman, but a mix of unspoken sentiment and sentience from the quartet of characters, the scent of the Adirondacks, the simple stutter of a startled intake of breath. Andra moves like a beat-down, dazed spaniel, but one that can still take a bite out of your ankle.

Although she’s not in the scene, it redounds to Peet’s Mary as well, as perma-tan as a venal Congressperson: crisp, crushable like a dry leaf. As the movie begins, Peet is blithe ice. There is a customary caution to screenwriters not to have dialogue “on the nose,” not to be direct, but Peet’s delivery of the line concluding an unsatisfactory affair, “I don’t want to fuck you anymore,” is malefic splendor. Later, the confrontation between Mary and an ex’s current girlfriend on a New York cross-street is exemplary performance: posture, eyes, set of face, and somehow, without directly expressing it, the crumpling of the character’s consistently defensive self-delusion. As a writer of dialogue, Holofcener has a gift for wreaking unlikely commonplaces, phrases with music like Alex’s remark after leaving a nice restaurant: “I don’t know if that place is as good as we think it is, you know what I mean?”

There are jokes like that to be discovered, not repeated in a review. Holofcener is unflinching. And for that, her characters become human. The ending is finite, yet bursting with mystery. Kate makes an offering to her daughter as her husband observes. Abby is radiant and lovely and loved. Keener’s empathetic gift has never seemed so quiet. The words “You’re welcome” are quiet, rote, likely unheard, and yet as grave as war, as daze-making as spring.

“Little by little, and also in great leaps,” Pablo Neruda wrote in the poem “October Fullness,” “life happened to me/and how insignificant this business is.” The second time I saw Please Give, the ending’s methodical choices of point-of-view, succinctly parceled, suddenly cracked like lightning, yet smelled of the perfume of dried tears and the moist reaches of a child’s fresh-cracked smile. A mother, a father, a daughter, are momentarily pleased and a well-fashioned world finds closure. The sudden sentiment is genuine; sublime.

Michael Palmieri and Donal Mosher’s October Country [Carnivalesque, $25] is one of the most lustrous of downer documentaries. Its intimacy in portraying four generations of a troubled family living in upstate New York’s Mohawk Valley is to be both admired and feared. Mosher, a photographer, had chronicled the generations of his dysfunctional, working-class family, and collaborated on this film with Palmieri. “Family is everything,” one subject says, and boy, is it. Bookended by Halloween imagery, October Country more than earns the comparisons that have been made to Capturing the Friedmans and Grey Gardens, with the substantial asset of a lyrical visual style. Harrowing family secrets emerge in a world of beauty. Each unhappy family member is unhappy in their own way, and is articulate about the causes if not the means to escape their condition. There is a radiant, 11-year-old glimmer of hope in the film [pictured]; you fear for her, as well. Masterful filmmaking.

Anna Broinowski’s Forbidden Lie$ [Indiepix, $25] is an accomplished tapestry of fact about fiction about facts about lies and lies about lies. Its great marvel as a documentary is the inventive, lucid fashion in which Broinowski unravels the 2003 tale of Australian immigrant Norma Khouri and her bestseller about the “honor killing” of her best friend in her native Jordan, which led her to flee. Fame follows. As does the revelation that Khouri was actually a Chicago con-woman whose weave of overlapping stories, confessions, retractions and further confabulations are endlessly fertile and inventive. When Forbidden Lie$, a largely overlooked Australian production, was programmed at True/False 2008, it was a reminder of one of the reasons film festivals exist: to display the overlooked, to champion the devious and delightful possibilities of cinematic language. Documentaries can be as dreamlike as fiction films, and Orson Welles’ F for Fake is not the only magic carpet ride about truth and untruth, representation and deception, and the joy of staring into the face of the trickster who can trick you again, again, again, and you come back for more. In this way, Forbidden Lie$ is also a love story: between a filmmaker who has found a perfect subject and a con artist who has found their most credulous audience of one. After the showing in Missouri, Broinowski admitted, “Neither of us trust each other, but we’re going to be friends forever.”

Jesse Eisenberg may be the best of the young actors cast by American indie directors as willowy ditherers of one kind or another; there’s something epic about the layers of callowness that peel away from his performances in Roger Dodger and The Squid and the Whale. (And who knows what spiny man-urchin he’ll embody post-Social Network?) In Kevin Asch’s Holy Rollers (based on events from the late 1990s) [Vivendi, $20], Eisenberg plays Sam, a young Hasidic Jew, son of a fabric maker, who is tempted by neighbor Yosef (Justin Bartha) into a job as a mule ferrying Ecstasy from Amsterdam. It’s an intriguing premise, but the execution’s superficial; it’s no “The Hasids Are All Right.” Eisenberg and Bartha seethe capably, but Antonia Macia’s screenplay needed to say something larger, or even more compellingly intimate, about the young Hasid’s rebellion against his religious and social order, to become memorable. Otherwise, it’s one more “second-generation-immigrant seeks freedom through crime” saga (see under: Mean Streets, The Godfather, Scarface). The Brooklyn locations, in Crown Heights and Williamsburg, are a grimy, thrilling eyeful.

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  1. Nicole Holofcener says:

    Dear Ray Pride,
    I just read what you wrote about me and my movie, Please Give. I can’t thank you enough for saying such touching, beautiful things.
    All the best,

Movie City Indie

Leonard Klady's Friday Estimates
Friday Screens % Chg Cume
Title Gross Thtr % Chgn Cume
Venom 33 4250 NEW 33
A Star is Born 15.7 3686 NEW 15.7
Smallfoot 3.5 4131 -46% 31.3
Night School 3.5 3019 -63% 37.9
The House Wirh a Clock in its Walls 1.8 3463 -43% 49.5
A Simple Favor 1 2408 -50% 46.6
The Nun 0.75 2264 -52% 111.5
Hell Fest 0.6 2297 -70% 7.4
Crazy Rich Asians 0.6 1466 -51% 167.6
The Predator 0.25 1643 -77% 49.3
Also Debuting
The Hate U Give 0.17 36
Shine 85,600 609
Exes Baggage 75,900 62
NOTA 71,300 138
96 61,600 62
Andhadhun 55,000 54
Afsar 45,400 33
Project Gutenberg 36,000 17
Love Yatri 22,300 41
Hello, Mrs. Money 22,200 37
Studio 54 5,300 1
Loving Pablo 4,200 15
3-Day Estimates Weekend % Chg Cume
No Good Dead 24.4 (11,230) NEW 24.4
Dolphin Tale 2 16.6 (4,540) NEW 16.6
Guardians of the Galaxy 7.9 (2,550) -23% 305.8
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 4.8 (1,630) -26% 181.1
The Drop 4.4 (5,480) NEW 4.4
Let's Be Cops 4.3 (1,570) -22% 73
If I Stay 4.0 (1,320) -28% 44.9
The November Man 2.8 (1,030) -36% 22.5
The Giver 2.5 (1,120) -26% 41.2
The Hundred-Foot Journey 2.5 (1,270) -21% 49.4