Women’s breasts appear in a lot of movies.Â A lot. Usually, they’re gratuitous. Gratuitous, pneumatically enhanced andÂ phony, fetishized dangling orbs meant to entice, designed for ogling. There.Â I’ve got your attention and I didn’t even have to unbutton my blouse. TheÂ breasts featured prominently in these two Smackdown contenders are all real andÂ as far from exploitation as one could imagine. In the startling opening framesÂ of “Please Give,” a series of disembodied, wordless and vulnerable milkÂ glands get gently slapped, manipulated, and arranged under the harshestÂ fluorescents. Readied for their respective mammograms, these random fleshyÂ bundles of ducts and veins and possible disease are hardly ready for theirÂ decisively, definitively, defiantly unglamorous close-ups, and the tone is set.Â The bar is raised. In the remarkable French documentary “Babies,”Â mothers’ breasts appear frequently and utterly without the usual fanfare andÂ sexual context. We’re on sacred ground, people. These movies weren’t made forÂ teenage boys and the arrested men they’re destined to become. These filmsÂ celebrate the human condition with honesty, integrity and very rare courageÂ indeed.
[singlepic id=322 w=320 h=240 float=right]
In This Corner
Nicole Holofcener weaves an unpredictableÂ tapestry of overlapping urban lives starring her usual Doppelganger CatherineÂ Keener in an unusual role – the sympathetic center, the heart and head ofÂ “Please Give.” Surrounded by a truly impeccable cast of equallyÂ terrific actors playing perfectly written roles, all the stories dovetail andÂ carom, defying easy resolution and avoiding the trite trap of hackneyed lifeÂ lessons. Imminent death and profound loss hover around the proceedings,Â balanced delicately with laugh-out-loud comedy, fumbling romance, and carelessÂ betrayal; the tones shift masterfully and always surprisingly, capturing lifeÂ in all its weird wonderfulness.
[singlepic id=317 w=320 h=240 float=right]
In That Corner
French documentarian Thomas Balmes filmedÂ a year in the life of four babies – Mongolia’s Bayar, Namibia’s Mari, Tokyo’sÂ Ponijao, and San Francisco’s Hattie. Without narration, the audience watchesÂ these transplendant little wonders from birth to their first steps; we are leftÂ to marvel at the ways in which we are all the same and to ponder all ourÂ societal differences as well. A real crowd- leaser enjoying a mystifyingly wideÂ release, “Babies” is a documentary for people who might never go toÂ the movies to see one.
Mark my words. Ann (Morgan) GuilbertÂ deserves an Academy Award for her supporting performance. It’s brave and utterlyÂ bereft of vanity, touching and funny and true. I’ve loved Ms. Guilbert sinceÂ she played television’s Millie Helper, the perfect next-door neighbor to theÂ Petries, and now she’s capping her career with her role as Andra, theÂ all-negative all-the-time next-door neighbor from hell. Almost everyone in theÂ film can’t wait for her to die, and everyone in the audience can’t get enoughÂ of her. Rebecca Hall plays Andra’s luminously pale and devoted granddaughterÂ beautifully, hauntingly, winningly; in a wickedly Narcissistic turn, AmandaÂ PeetÂ is Andra’s emphatically lessÂ devoted and dissolute descendant. Oliver Platt and Catherine Keener are Andra’sÂ long-married neighbors; it’s New York City, and they’ve purchased her apartmentÂ with intentions to expand their own. Sarah Steele plays their painfully realÂ fifteen-year-old daughter. The always-lovely Lois Smith plays matchmaker, mammography patient, and even apotential friend for Andra. I mention all the actors’ names because theyÂ deserve mentioning. They’re uniformly wonderful, and with an infinitesimalÂ budget of just three million dollars, I suspect none were paid a fraction ofÂ what they’re truly worth.
Holofcener’s writing and directing have never beenÂ better, never funnier, never more touching. I laughed, I cried. What more isÂ there to say? Plenty actually. She’s a treasure, and it’s heartbreaking (andÂ probably career-and-soul-saving) that studios don’t give her carte blancheÂ after delivering such beautiful films as “Lovely & Amazing” andÂ “Walking and Talking.” No one captures the world of (neurotic) womenÂ (Is there another kind?) with more tender accuracy; I defy anyone who’s seenÂ any of her films not to recall them vividly and personally, as if the smallÂ moments occurred in their own lives or to people they know. She’s an absoluteÂ master of remarkably well-observed, almost imperceptible shifts and currents ofÂ complicated familial relationships examined and exhibited with unmatchedÂ honesty and wit.
The film looks terrific; the interiors feel lived in andÂ beautifully specific. The exteriors are just as convincing. The eloquent andÂ seamless editing moves us (and the assembled characters) through tonal shiftsÂ that might otherwise have easily jarred.
“Babies” is a remarkably simple idea thatÂ mostly works. The segments set in Mongolia are particularly dazzling. Bayar’sÂ world is so austere and remote, so filled with danger, apparent solitude andÂ adventure that even a little bath turns into a thrill ride. “You couldÂ poke your eye out with that thing!” my inner mom was screaming. The vistasÂ were remarkable, every bit as cinematic and memorable as anything from DavidÂ Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Namibia’s Mari was a bundle of energy lit from withinÂ with an unquenchable life force from the moment of her birth, nurturedÂ effortlessly and without much ado by her mother. For every mother who’s everÂ boiled a dropped pacifier, Mari’s first year and her mother’s non-interferenceÂ will prove a gut- clenching revelation.
Unfortunately for the film, the urban environments ofÂ Tokyo and San Francisco were so similar as to seem almost redundant. But theseÂ are quibbles. There are delights to be had, watching these most vulnerable ofÂ our species becoming aware and alert and upright and mobile while challengingÂ every conceivable ethnocentric assumption. As a hugely devoted fan of GreatÂ Britain’s “7 Up” series of documentaries, I dare to hope Balmes willÂ check back again after some time has elapsed, but that’s probably not hisÂ mission. Over the end credits, we see the four babies in present day; there areÂ some stunning surprises in store for the alert filmgoer.
“Babies” works its quiet andÂ raucous wonders and it’s an enterprise well worth your time and money.Â “Please Give”will prove much harder to find; its release is slow andÂ not at all wide. That said, it also happens to be absolutely brilliant. PleaseÂ go.