Nicole Holofcener's "Please Give" is like her two previous films - "Lovely & Amazing" and "Friends with Money" - a wryly observed social commentary. In this dramedy, Catherine Keener and Oliver Platt are a married New York City couple named Kate and Alex, who make their living selling antiques and older furniture middle-age people are willing to part with for a farthing when their elderly parents die.
The pair then in turn sell it to younger hipsters who think stuff from the '50s is cool.
Kate and Alex, in turn, are waiting to be rid of a living antique next door named Andra (Ann Guilbert). They have tentatively bought the curmudgeonly oldster's apartment with an eye on expanding their own domain in real-estate cramped NYC when she dies. This will not only give them more actual space, but some psychological breathing room from their own daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele), a sullen 15-year-old. So in the meantime, the couple uneasily waits, and as a way to assuage their guilt in hoping the process moves along more quickly, they neighborly help out the old woman, who has two 30-something granddaughters who live nearby.
One, Rebecca (Rebecca Hall) is mostly pleasant but reserved and borderline depressed. She makes her living administering mammograms and often enough sees bad news. The tanned Mary (Amanda Peet), who works in a spa, is the brassier of the two, but has more of an alcoholic's personality.
The two share an apartment, reflecting the cost of living and crowdedness of the Big Apple. As a way of being nice, Kate - who overly strives to be nice - invites the granddaughters to a birthday dinner for the 90-year-old Andra. With Abby and Alex also there, it becomes one of those evenings in which people say things they will regret.
From Abby to Andra, "Please Give" shows the generational faces of women. They are a bit inscrutable at times, with aspects of their sometimes thorny personalities revealed in bits and pieces. In a way, the film is about shadings - women grappling with similar problems at different stages.
Kate is the most fully drawn of the lot, and who better than Keener - one of our best actresses - to show her doubts, fears and attempts to grow. Living on top of each other - as they do in NYC - makes people do and say funny things, both odd and humorous, and Holofcener, while not much of a visual artist, is terrific at capturing those moments.
Peek into the past
You can look at "Agora" as a sword-and-toga flick stuffed with ideas or an intellectual drama masquerading as a Roman epic. The title refers to the Greek word for marketplace, familiar to all of us who do crossword puzzles. In this case, a crossroads where philosophy, religion and politics collide.
From Chile-born director Alejandro Amen bar ("The Others," "The Sea Inside"), "Agora" focuses on Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a noblewoman and scholar in the Egyptian city of Alexandria during the fourth century A.D. Founded in 331 B.C. by Alexander the Great and the Greeks, Alexandria for centuries was a center of learning, with three main ethnic groups, the Greeks, the Jews and the Egyptians, mostly co-existing peacefully even after the Romans took over rule in the first century A.D.
Hypatia, based on a real historical figure, uses her dialectical skills to explore the mysteries of the cosmos. She tries to impart her wisdom and prod her enthusiastic but not nearly as smart students. Since she's both brilliant and beautiful, it's easy to see why two of them - the shy Synesius (Rupert Evans) and Orestes (Oscar Isaac) fall for her. So does her slave Davus (Max Minghella).
That a kind, enlightened woman would own slaves is only one of the paradoxes presented in the film. (After all, many of our Founding Fathers did, too.)
During this time, though, the dynamics of Alexandria are changing, as a growing rebellious and increasingly militant Christian population begins to exert its influence. Violence spirals as martyrs and zealots attack the Romans and non-Christians and disrupt the harmony of the city. This is where "Agora" moves from the clash of ideas to bloody and at times gut-wrenching battles in the streets. All the while, Hypatia tries to be a voice of reason as religious tensions and power struggles flare. In a strong performance, Weisz gives Hypatia a dignity and gentleness that contrasts with the increasing brutality and fractured social structure around her.
"Agora" shoots for the stars; it's a film that doesn't easily fit into one category.
Everything about it doesn't mesh together easily, but that's really its strength - something so many movies today don't even attempt. There are many parallels in the film with circumstances in today's world. That should give many people pause, because the era that followed the disintegration of Alexandria society and the fall of the Roman Empire is popularly referred to as the Dark Ages.
Keep in mind
"Oceans" - the third Disneynature release following "Earth" and "The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos" - is a gorgeous celebration of what covers more than two-thirds of our planet. The documentary, with narration by Pierce Brosnan, focuses on the wonder of nature, including life and death struggles, rather than the science.
But in this case that's OK; it's inspiring enough that some people and, especially, kids may want to learn the facts. Also out is the Blu-ray of "Flamingos."
"Predators" - the latest spin-off from John McTiernan's 1987 sci-fi thriller "Predator," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger - throws out a few deep thoughts as it adheres to the basic premise of the series, a giant alien hunter dispatching humans for fun. In this version, directed by Nimr d Antal ("Kontroll"), the thinking-man's hero Adrien Brody leads a motley band of brothers and sisters on the equivalent of a game preserve where the aliens plan to pick them off one by one while having a bit of fun.
"Predators" tries to make some minor commentary about hunting game, but eventually heads off to be what it always intended to be - a reasonably entertaining, if predictable, action-adventure.
If dark Swedish mysteries pique your interest, a la Stieg Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, there are three more installments of Swedish author Henning Mankell's brooding detective Kurt Wallander. Recently airing on PBS, "Wallander" stars Kenneth Branagh as the man who tracks and catches killers across what often seems a bleak but beautiful landscape. The mysteries involve all sorts of elements that cut across society. The focus of "The Faceless Killers" is "foreigners" who are thought to be responsible for the murder of an elderly couple; "The Man Who Smiled" starts out as a local killing but spreads to have international implications; a suspect in "The Fifth Woman" is an abused woman.
There are a number of Blu-ray editions of older films to take note of, especially "Psycho 50th Anniversary Edition." The Hitchcock horror film is still creepy after all these years. Also out are the campy "The Rocky Horror Picture Show 35th Anniversary Edition," two-disc and three-disc versions of "Apocalypse Now" and Criterion's "Seven Samurai."
If you like British mysteries, there is "Jonathan Creek: The Specials" about the crime-solving magician. And Lindsay Wagner and "Bionic Woman" fans can rejoice. The first season of the 1976 series will be out this week.