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On Movies: Acting alone makes 'Please Give' worth a look

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 10, 2010 - You don’t have to be a New Yorker to appreciate “Please Give,” but it might help. Much of the dialog has a testy, neurotic quality that seems site-specific to our most crowded city. Even the critic for the New York Times finds writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s Gotham-centric characters “annoying.” And the plot revolves around a macabre practice that is apparently so common in New York that the filmmaker doesn’t bother to explain it – a couple buys an apartment from an elderly neighbor with the proviso that the neighbor gets to continue living in the place until she dies.

That ghoulish premise seems made to order for a “Law & Order” episode, but this isn’t a murder mystery. It’s a character study, and actually a pretty good one, if you don’t object to a generous serving of New York attitude.

Kate (Catherine Keener) and her husband Alex (Oliver Platt) are willing – not eager, but willing – to wait until nonagenarian Andra keels over before they knock out the walls separating the neighboring apartments to create a dreamy master bedroom. Meanwhile, they try – or at least pretend to try – to be friendly with the crusty old woman next door.

Andra (Ann Guilbert), who fully exercises the right to speak her mind bestowed by age, doesn’t make it easy. She has a sharp eye for weaknesses in others, and she knows just how to tap into Kate’s free-floating guilt syndrome, having had many years of practice manipulating her own family – most recently her sweet and loyal granddaughter, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall.)

The felicitously titled “Please Give” has half a dozen major characters, and all of them come under close scrutiny, but the movie is really about Kate and Rebecca. They are, in a sense, the same person, separated only by about 20 years in age. They are both good and kind and loving and, above all, prone to guilt.

Catherine Keener, a fine actress, manages to make Kate an intriguing character, although at times, it is a little hard to believe that she is a real person and not just a internally conflicted character in a well-acted movie. This woman is so sensitive she cannot volunteer at a home for kids with mental disabilities because she keeps bursting into tears at how sad and cruel life is. And yet she has agreed to a real estate deal predicated on the speedy demise of her next-door neighbor, someone she inevitably will come in painful contact with on a regular basis.

Kate is so burdened with guilt over her own prosperity that she apologizes to a street beggar for giving him less than $20, and yet she is a partner in a vintage furniture store that deals in the possessions of dead people – she and her husband are called “ambulance chasers” by one customer. Kate feels guilty when she buys things for less than they are worth from people who don’t know their value, which would seem to be the essence of the business she is in. Is Kate supposed to be masochistic, too? That may be too much baggage for this frail character to carry.

Still, Catherine Keener is always worth watching. And Rebecca Hall’s portrayal of Rebecca, the faithful granddaughter, is sensitive and affecting. The solid cast also includes Oliver Platt as Kate’s wayward husband and Amanda Peet as Andra’s other granddaughter, the cynical one.

All the performances in this uneven movie are excellent, and make “Please Give” well worth seeing, if not always fully believable. And if, at times, as annoying as a Yankees fan.

Opens Friday, June 11

“Hubble”

I have my reservations about some of the films shown in the IMAX format on the large dome at the St. Louis Science Center. The fiery, ruggedly detailed landscapes of Van Gogh don’t really need or deserve to be shown 40 feet high on a curved screen, and a praying mantis the size of tyrannosaurus rex crouching above us fairly quickly becomes little more than a gimmick. But I have to say that I loved “Hubble,” the new show at the Science Center’s Omnimax Theater.

What could be more perfect for what is essentially a modern extension of the old-fashioned planetarium than stunning footage from space? “Hubble” places us a few yards from the Hubble space telescope, speeding in orbit around the earth at 17,500 miles an hour, as a crew of astronauts, literally working in a vacuum, make repairs and improvements to the giant foil-clad device. The footage is spectacular, and seeing it stretched out across a dome strengthens the notion that we are in space, where there is no up or down.

Producer/director Toni Myers and cinematographer James Neilhouse, using footage filmed by the astronauts themselves, tell a suspenseful story while dazzling us with the wonders of space flight. And there are some spectacular shots of Earth. But the best part of the show comes in two extended segments, one near the beginning of the film and the other at the end, that use the remarkable images from the telescope, images of stars and galaxies too far away to be glimpsed with the naked eye, to take us on a tour of hundreds of millions of miles of the universe.

We begin with a familiar constellation – Orion – and then the camera zooms ahead until we are speeding into the galaxy-creating atomic ferment of the Orion nebula. Computers are used to create the sense of actually entering the nebula – and later, in another galaxy, plunging into a black hole – but the basic images come from the extraordinary telescope. If you grew up, as I did, immersed in science fiction descriptions of wondrous interstellar journeys, the IMAX movie “Hubble” is like a childhood dream come true. It’s better than science fiction.

Opens Friday, June 11, at the St. Louis Science Center

Harper Barnes,  the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, has also been a long-time reviewer of movies.

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