Pieces of April

Posted on November 23, 2010 at 8:00 am

One of my favorite Thanksgiving films is this touching story of a young woman, estranged from her family, who invites them to Thanksgiving dinner at her apartment.
I love movies that don’t feel like they have to tell you everything.

“Pieces of April” is a movie that does more than trust its audience; it invites the audience to participate by bringing their own ideas and experiences to fill in the story.

It takes place on that most terrifying of holidays, Thanksgiving. April (Katie Holmes) and Bobby (Derek Luke) wake up very early in their apartment on the Lower East Side of New York. He is looking forward to hosting the family and she is not. This is because it is her family that is coming.

April and Bobby start to get things ready, and then he leaves because he has “that thing” he has to do. As soon as he goes, April discovers that her oven does not work. She has to wander through her apartment building, her turkey dressed and stuffed but still raw, trying to find someone who will allow her to borrow an oven.

Meanwhile, her family is on its all-but-inexorable way from the Pennsylvania suburbs, no happier about it than she is. Joy (Patricia Clarkson), April’s mother, has cancer. This will probably be her last Thanksgiving. She and April have never been comfortable with each other and both are overwhelmed by the fear that they will not be able to find a way to make it work this time. One desperately needs a good memory to die with and one desperately needs a good memory to live with.

The family drives to New York: daughter Beth (Alison Pill) trying to be perfect, son Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.) trying to remove himself by taking pictures of everything, dad Jim (Oliver Platt) trying to keep everyone happy, and Joy’s mother (Alice Drummond), trying to hold on to her own memories, and Joy, angry and bitter and trying not to try anymore.

The film is shot on digital video, which gives it intimacy and a little messiness. It’s easy to believe that it is a home movie. The performances are fresh and unaffected. The look on Pill’s face as she tries to maintain her cheerful demeanor after her feelings are hurt; Jim’s eyes as he looks over at Joy, not sure whether she is sleeping or dead; Bobby’s description of being in love, the neighbors’ cooking advice, April’s explanation of Thanksgiving to a Chinese family, and especially the lovely last scene are moments that are real and touching and meaningful.

Parents should know that the movie has some strong language and some off-screen violence. A character uses medicinal marijuana. There are some brief graphic images. The themes of the film may be difficult for some viewers. One of the movie’s great strengths is its non-stereotyped portrayals of minorities, including one of the most often stereotyped minorities portrayed in movies, terminally ill people. African American and Asian characters are vivid and complete individuals. The movie cleverly (and sweetly) confounds the audiences’ expectations for one African American character.

Families who see this movie should talk about its theme of memories. What are some of your favorite memories and what memories do you most want to make? They should also talk about how each member of the family reacted to Joy’s illness (including Joy) and what it says about them and their relationship to the family.

Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other Thanksgiving movies about family stress like Hannah and Her Sisters, Avalon, Home for the Holidays, and especially What’s Cooking, by the writer/director of Bend it Like Beckham.

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Drama Family Issues Holidays

Trailer: ‘Love and Other Drugs’

Posted on October 22, 2010 at 8:16 am

Enjoy this peek at one of the best films of the year, a sexy, touching, whip-smart romance with Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, Hank Azaria, and Oliver Platt, written and directed by Edward Zwick (“Glory,” “thirtysomething,” “Legends of the Fall”), opening next month.

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Trailers, Previews, and Clips

A Cancer Comedy?

Posted on August 15, 2010 at 8:00 am

Cable series about desperate circumstances do well because they put our daily lives into the sharpest possible focus. Somehow, they make characters who deal in drugs (“Weed,” “Breaking Bad”) or mental illness (“United States of Tara”) or even the compulsion to murder (“Dexter”) seem if not normal at least accessible. The latest addition premieres this week and the first episode (slightly edited) is available on YouTube.
Laura Linney stars in “The Big C” as a wife, mother, and teacher who has always taken care of others and colored in the lines who discovers she has terminal cancer. This causes her to think carefully about who she is and what she wants and needs. She had organized her choices based on having a lot of time. When she discovers that her time is limited, she tells a waiter, “I’m just having desserts and liquor.” She does not tell the people around her about her illness, but she begins to tell them the truth about other things. The cast includes Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious” as an outspoken student and Oliver Platt as an affectionate but needy husband. I especially like her interaction with her young doctor. Even he is relying on her for support because it was the first time he ever had to tell a patient she was terminal.
This may be a comedy, but it is no sit-com. It is an adventure with a woman trying to maintain some sense of control and achieve some sense of meaning. It is the way her diagnosis liberates her that makes the show bracing, provocative and yes, even funny.
Linney is one of the finest actresses in Hollywood and it is a treat to see her show us how a woman finds that the prospect of death makes her begin to understand for the first time what life really means.

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Posted on April 21, 2009 at 8:00 am

Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some language
Profanity: Some very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, smoking
Violence/ Scariness: References to wartime violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: December 5, 2008

More than 30 years after he resigned from office, Richard M. Nixon has transcended politics and history and become epic. He has been portrayed on film by Anthony Hopkins, the man who won an Oscar playing Hannibal the Cannibal. And his trip to China has been the subject of an opera, the art form most suited for larger-than-life stories of melodrama and scope. Nixon is like a Shakespearean character, the ability and ambition and the tragic flaws of Richard III, Lear, or Othello.

No one work of art or history will ever contain this man of extraordinary contradictions, but in one of this year’s best films, based on the Tony award-winning play, writer Peter Morgan, director Ron Howard, and actors Frank Langella and Michael Sheen take a pivotal moment in Nixon’s life and make it into a gripping story of the craving of two very different men for power and acceptance and how it plays into a contest of wit and will that becomes a larger story of accountability and meaning.

Richard Nixon was all but exiled to his house on the ocean in San Clemente following his resignation from the Presidency in 1974, relegated to working on his memoirs and finding excuses not to play golf. British broadcaster David Frost was also in a kind of an exile following cancellation of his New York-based talk show, relegated to lightweight celebrity interviews and presiding over televised stunts. Both were desperate for a way to get back into a position of influence. Frost proposed a series of interviews, even though he had no background as a journalist or historian. And Nixon accepted, in part because Frost had not background as a journalist or historian and in part because he would get paid $600,000 and a percentage of the profits. Negotiated by uber-agent Swifty Lazar (a shrewd Toby Jones) and widely criticized as “checkbook journalism,” the payment may have been unorthodox but it was most likely one of the most important factors in eliciting the unprecedented level of candor from the former President, not because of the incentives but because it shifted the balance of power from the subject to the interviewer.

It was also a stunning example of the precise conflict at the heart of so many of Nixon’s failures — his desperate need for approval. He accepted the interview as a way to try to regain his reputation as an elder statesman and remind America of his accomplishments and value. But once again, as it did in 1960 in the first televised Presidential debate, he was defeated by television, but what a character refers to as the power of the close-up. In yet another of this film’s infinite regression of paradoxes, the close-up that most exposes Nixon comes closest to creating sympathy for him. It is one thing to read about the evasions and cover-ups and corruption. It is another to see his face, the desperation, the soul-destroying awareness of how far he was from what he wanted to be.

Staged like a boxing match between the aging champ and the upstart, Howard and Morgan show us the combatants in training, sparring, retreating to their corners for some splashes of water, and then back into it, each going for the knock-out punch. They manage to create sympathy for both men without any shyness about their flaws. Both have some monstrous qualities but neither is a monster.

Sheen and Langella, after months performing together on stage, fully inhabit the roles and are exquisitely attuned to each other. Langella has the more showy character, but Sheen is every bit as precise. Watch the way he orders his lunch. In a millisecond he conveys all of his skills and all of his vulnerabilities. Even in the middle of an important conversation with his producer he stops and gives his full attention to the person behind the counter at the cafeteria and he orders in a way that perfectly demonstrates his charm, his showy self-deprecation, and his need to be noticed and approved of by every person on the planet.

And then there is Nixon, that infinitely interesting jumble of contradictions. Langella shows us his glimmers of self-awareness that cannot add up to meaningful insight. Morgan has taken the privilege of a writer to make it truthful without being accurate in every detail. For one thing, it has better dialogue. Morgan’s “The Queen” was another story of politics, celebrity, history, and conflict between two strong public characters (the younger one played by Michael Sheen) . As he did there, his selection of the elements of the story he wants to highlight and explore allows him to make this men not just historical figures but symbols of duality and contradiction and ultimately to deliver some over-arching messages about what it means to be human.

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