Pieces of April – Peter Hedges (2003)


Thanksgiving has to be the most forgotten holiday in film history. Rightly so, in my opinion. Still, while plenty of movies have Thanksgiving scenes in them, very few are actually about Thanksgiving. Television might actually have the best track record for Turkey Day. Roseanne used to do good thanksgiving episodes, especially the episode “Angstgiving”, but on every show, every year, it was essentially the same thing: kooky family fights, eventually finds its heart, but not in a sappy way, eats pie.

This is all of our families, and there is very little variation on the theme, so its mostly worthless to revisit it.

But Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April is as admirable an attempt to try to rend something good out of this terribly mediocre day that you are likely to find. Except for Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which is just a great movie period, Pieces of April stands as Thanksgiving’s lone pure digestible drama.

In it, Katie Holmes plays April, the black sheep of the excessively straight-laced Burns family. Her parents, Jim and Joy (Oliver Platt and Patricia Clarkson), have created something of a model of suburban life, with two goody-goody children in the sticks of New Jersey, except for the fact they’ve spawned this thing called April, who lies and cheats and takes drugs and sets fires (etc).

It’s put a great strain on the Burns family, who have mostly scrubbed April out of their daily lives. She remains in spirit and imprint, as the bad one, or as April puts it, the “first pancake”, the one which you are supposed to throw away, but how badly Joy and her other daughter, Beth (Alison Pill), would love it if she didn’t exist.

Because Joy is sick with cancer, they have decided to drive to New York to have Thanksgiving with April, because this may be the last opportunity to be together. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving without some strife though, and the ride into the City, and April’s adventures in cooking reveal much of the dysfunction in the family: the mistrust, the fear, the angst. Joy must confront the fact that as much as April was a bad daughter, she was perhaps an equally bad mother. Much of it is deflected with humor, but the humor can’t gloss over the fact that Joy’s favorite memory of April turns out to actually be a memory of Beth.

April lies in deep contrast to her younger sister, who is perky and blonde, and has no tattoos or strange piercings. She’s never set anything on fire or shoplifted, and could have easily cooked a much better meal than April. She keeps herself in line, smiling through the offhanded insults from her mother so she can be the good daughter, if only because April has ruined being bad for her.

Allison Pill is the real underrated part of the film. She is note perfect in this role, hiding the bruises and awkwardness behind a cheery smile. It’s not hard to see the hurt in her smile, or the discomfort swirling around in her brain, but its done with a deft subtlety. Beth craves attention in the shadow of April so much, but only positive attention. Sure, that’s what pretty much everyone desires, but Beth takes it a step further, freaking out at anyone who sees her even doing something even slightly imperfect, like adjusting her retainer. It’s great that Alison Pill is getting recognition now, landing roles in MilkScott Pilgrim and even as Zelda Fitzgerald inMidnight in Paris.

But the blow of April’s shady, misfit, possibly criminal past is softened a bit too much by the adorable, un-aggressive Katie Holmes, who wanders through the film with her big eyes and her adult pigtails being impossible to hate. She is a little too vulnerable for someone who has supposedly ruined a family. (Maybe that’s a little bit of the point?) Isolated from that fact, Katie Holmes is wonderful in the role, though. It actually gave me hope at the time that she would break out of her Dawson’s Creek-Kevin Williamson shit phase and blossom into a great young actress.

That never happened, of course. She went on to marry Tom Cruise in lieu of having a real career, though they did produce the most unbearably adorable little person ever in the world together. And Batman, I guess. Mad Money? Not so much.

I do actually find myself revisiting this film every year. I played Planes, Trains and Automobilesout way too early in life, so this has to suffice, even though it’s not perfect. Like I said, it’s digestible, and Alison Pill and Oliver Platt, whom I would gladly watch painting his garage, are always worth revisits.

When you boils this down to its elements, though, what’s it about? It’s about a kooky family who fights, eventually finds its heart and even finds a redefinition of family. But not in a sappy way.

Melancholia – Lars Von Trier (2011)

As published at 629 words: http://orlandoweekly.com/film/melancholia-1.1236618

The original, unedited draft at 1,243 words:
Von Trier’s Melancholia is new and the same, but brilliant either way
By: Rob Boylan
Stars: 5

T. S. Eliot wrote that the world ends not with a bang but a whimper. In Melancholia, Danish director Lars Von Trier’s latest ode to the triumph of the human spirit, it ends with both. In it, Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg are sisters facing the end of the world, as an onrushing rogue planet threatens to pass through Earth’s orbit and the Earth itself.

Dunst, in a breakthrough performance, plays the pretty younger sister, Justine, a newlywed with a building tide of emotional problems threatening to capsize her life, and, in the immediate, her wedding reception. She’s been like this before, but is warned “not tonight”, and throughout the reception people try to buy her off, buy her happiness: her new husband, Michael (Alexander Skarsgard), gives her an apple orchard where she can go sit to feel happy when she is sad; her brother in law, John (Keifer Sutherland), with the stupidly lavish party that would cost a normal person an arm and a leg (something that he constantly reminds us of). John goes so far to ask her for a deal: he will consider it money well spent if she agrees to be happy. Happiness doesn’t work like that, though. When an attempt is made to buy happiness and it fails, it makes the sadness grow even deeper and distort itself. In Melancholia this sadness happens to manifest itself in the specter of a planet on a collision course with the Earth. It seems to be no coincidence in timing that the planet Melancholia blots out Antares on this night, and surges towards the Earth, growing bigger as Justine falls deeper into her widening depression.

In the second half of the film, the focus turns to Claire (Gainsbourg), the sensible older sister who tries to keep all of their lives together. She is fighting a losing battle. Eventually, even Claire has a moment of weakness when she tries and fails to buy Justine’s happiness with a sentimental favorite dinner, meatloaf, which only makes Justine cry when it tastes like ash.

If you could say that the first half is about Justine’s building dam of depression, you would have to say that the second half is about Claire coming undone by fear. By now, Melancholia is just days away Earth, and even though John insists it will miss, Claire has fallen victim to the doomsayers. It’s just as vicious an uncontrolled spiral as Justine’s depression, though it’s based in a logical reasoning, not a chemical one. To quickly break the difference down, you could say that fear is something that is easily manipulated, while depression is a reinforced brick wall. The logic of seeing a planet come so close to Earth that it steals part of our atmosphere and makes it snow during the summer can naturally cause one to become very illogical.

Melancholia is both a touchdown on new ground and a revisit to old familiar ground for Von Trier. He has never done anything quite so beautiful and visionary, which is something he had doubts about along the way, but some of the more down to earth elements are familiar from his past. Breaking the Waves, too, begins at the wedding of an unstable girl and follows her through her emotional descent. Bess (Emily Watson), a member of an ascetic protestant church in the Scottish highlands, manifests her problems with attachments: to Jan (Stellan Skarsgard), her new husband, to Dodo (Katrin Cartlidge), he sister in law, but most especially to God, who she talks to and gets damning replies from. This God is in her head, speaks through her mouth, but to her is as real as the air she breathes.

But where Justine is on her own, circling the drain in her own head, Bess is egged on in her downward spiral by Jan and by her own immense guilt. There is no hint in Melancholia that Justine has ever felt any kind of guilt. She is not crazy or delusional, she’s systemically imbalanced. Still, she says she knows things about life, things she shouldn’t know. Trivial things, like the answer to the bean count contest at her wedding, but also that life on Earth is all there is in the universe, and it won’t be missed. Life, she knows, is evil, and deserving of its fate. Does she know, or is she just insisting? Dunst brilliantly straddles the edge of crazy and childlike in this scene to the point where it’s difficult to get a read of her character. Her demeanor is calm to the point of unnerving, but when she is challenged by Claire over what she knows, she recedes into the guise of a hurt two year old whose mommy won’t believe her wild story. Claire is right to not believe her story, if only for her own sanity, so she doesn’t go to pieces in front of her child.

It’s actually been gnawing at me that the prologue — which features key scenes from the film in a 10 minutes slow motion ballet set to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde — is not really a prologue, but a representation of an idea coming into an increasingly despairing Justine’s head. I don’t mean that to sound as simple as a The Cabinet of Caligari, and it’s not a mindfuck movie, but there is a fair case to be made for it. Depression ultimately leads to self-absorption, self-loathing and the loathing of all those around you. Destroying the planet is as natural a thought as any in that state. Justine seems to allude to it most clearly when she says, somewhat matter-of-factly, that “this has nothing to do with the village” as Claire, in her most illogical moment, tries to flee to the nearby village, to run away from Melancholia as it is about to strike.

Claire cannot make out of the family’s grounds, just like her character seemed to be stuck in the idyllic Edenin Antichrist. Being stuck in time and space is fairly common to Von Trier films, in fact. In Europa, Kessler (Jean Marc Barr), cannot escape the odd post-war Germany that he finds himself in. In Dogville, Grace (Nicole Kidman), manages to briefly escape, only to be raped and promptly brought back to the town she is a captive of. Even in Breaking the Waves, Bess is rooted so deeply to her town that, despite excommunicated by her church, she can’t manage get very far away either.

In contrast to Antichrist or Europa, though, the power that controls the world of Melancholia seems to always belong to Justine. She seems to be willing all of this to happen, even though she does seem afraid of it at points too. As the film opens, she literally wields the power, spraying stray electricity from her fingers as the world collapses around her, like the God of her dollhouse world. If a planetary collision doesn’t concern the nearby village, just who does it concern anyway?

The bottom line is that Melancholia isn’t a one and done film. It’s a film that can easily be dismissed on face value, waived off with the intellectually lazy “first world problems” wand, but actually contains complex, rich core deep down. It’s an overwhelming film as a first viewing, though, and Von Trier doesn’t make anything about it easy. Nor should he.

Drei – Tom Tykwer (2011)

Before this, I had kind of given up on Tom Tykwer as a director. A former favorite of mine, the guy who directed Run, Lola, Run, The Princess and the Warrior and the sublime Heaven, had, it seemed gone Hollywood, making the thoroughly mediocre efforts Perfume and The International. Then he’d signed up to do the adaptation of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas with the dreaded Wachowskis. What happened to the psycho-brilliant craftsman and artist I’d grown to love?

Nothing, really. It’s on me for forcing the man into a box and expecting him not to change. After all, who would say no to Dustin Hoffman or Naomi Watts?

But it was still with some trepidation that I went into Drei, Tykwer’s first German film in over a decade. It’s the kind of subtle, naughty black comedy that seems sincere at first, before you suddenly go, “oh!” and slap yourself on the forehead.

The film is about Hanna (Sophie Rois) and Simon (Sebastian Schipper), a modern Berlin couple in their mid-30s. They are well off, but never married, have no kids, and have no real plans to do either. They are the kind of couple, Simon argues, where both parties would fight against having custody of the child should they find themselves getting divorced. As a couple, they seem to be at a crossroads brought on by age and complacency, and both throw themselves into their work to skirt around the subject.

Simon’s life changes within the space of an afternoon when he is told he hast testicular cancer and must go under the knife right away. Simon tries, but is unable to get hold of Hanna on her cell to tell her because she has met another man, Adam (Devid Striesow), and gone off with him.

During his rehabilitation, Simon will meet the same man and do the same.

It’s a somewhat preposterous conceit, that two people could fall in love with the same man without any of them realizing, but Tykwer forces the suspension of disbelief down on the audience through force, filling the screen with every flex of modern fairytale muscle he can summon. In another director’s hands this would probably be a straight screwball comedy, but with Tykwer at the helm the humor is very wry and only glanced upon in passing. You have to find the humor on your own because the film isn’t going to help you find it.

Even with the bit of hard work it asks of the audience, the film does work in stretches. Sophie Rois is great as the manic Hanna and Sebastian Schipper actually does appear to morph right there on screen. But the film too often teeters over the edge with Tykwer just playing with his characters instead of storytelling, like a cat that’s got a mouse by its tail. Hanna, Simon and Adam are tortured for our delight and from time to time it’s a devilishly enjoyable sight, but there isn’t enough behind it to enjoy without reservation. There is enough here to like for Tywker loyalists, but it amounts to little more than a dose of filmic methadone to keep us going. It’s all right, but it’s not exactly the hit that we wanted.

Not one to let a in-joke get away, the number three continually pops up throughout the film. Yes, there are three of them in the relationship, but also there are three children fathered by Adam. Hanna and Adam start their affair during their third meeting. Officially, it’s also the third visit to the pool boat where Adam and Simon become a thing. And, to be blunt, after Simon’s surgery, there are three testicles left in the three-way relationship.

Margin Call – JC Chandor (2011)

I know almost nothing about wall street, and I openly admit it. I have a bit of a mathematical block in my head. Numbers don’t make sense to me. Words do. In fact, it’s a bit like Kelly Bundy disease. Every one thing I learn about English, it pushes one piece of mathematical knowledge out of my head. By the time I’m 50, I may have read the entire Dostoevsky, but I’ll be unable to do 2+2.

I’m kept company by the writer of this article for Exiled Online, who not only knows as little about Wall Street as I do, but cannot, it seems, read fairly basic dramatic structure.

This is the part that drove me the most crazy:

“Its main premise: Sure these Wall Street guys can be a bunch of greedy gamblers, but they didn’t blow up the economy on purpose.”

Uh, yeah, that’s pretty much the opposite of what the films is about. The film is about what happens to the conscience when such huge sums or money are at stake. The conscience simply goes away. The conscience is promoted into feeling good about the evil it is letting go. Zachary Quinto’s character doesn’t stop anything from happening. Stanley Tucci’s character doesn’t stop anything from happening. Neither does Kevin Spacey’s, or Demi Moore’s. They are given bonuses, or simply turn a blind eye, no matter how disturbed a blind eye.

The longest scenes in the film are about how to hoodwink the rest of the firms on Wall Street by flooding the market with the assets that they know to be worthless, selling them to hapless firms, convincing them that they are buying up at a “bargain” to pull the wool over their eyes. Why? Why would they ruin the world like this? $2.7m in bonuses. Don’t feel bad for the hoodwinked firms, though. It’s something any of them would have done themselves if they caught on to the problem first — which is, of course, a pure distillation of evil.

Really, the best scene in the film was the one with Simon Baker and Demi Moore in the elevator talking about what’s about to happen with the cleaning lady standing between them and she has no idea what is about to happen.

Here’s a hint: we’re the cleaning lady.

But is it propaganda? To a certain type of person it it. To the rest of us, not. But to the same kind of person who idolized Gordon Gekko — remember the disgusting scene in Boiler Room where they know his speech by heart? — it might get them drooling a little about the potential bonuses as long as they, too, had an ethical bypass at birth.

Dogma – Kevin Smith (1999)


God is all knowing and infallible. Whether in Catholic school, CCD, or just from your parents, you are taught that at an early age. As a kid, I imagined God as an invisible man looking over my shoulder at everything I did. Everything. God was ever present, all knowing, and, hopefully, approving. He didn’t take sabbaticals to go to the Jersey Shore and play pinball.

Did he?

Did she?

In Kevin Smith’s Dogma, God does, and apparently is not all knowing, allowing himself (Bud Cort) to be jumped by demonic triplets wielding hockey sticks, thus falling into a coma.

Two banished angels, Bartleby (Ben Affleck) and Loki (Matt Damon), mean to exploit this absence. Years before, they had been sent by an angry God to suffer for the rest of time in Wisconsin. Needless to say, they’ve grown tired of the Cheesehead state, but more than that, they’ve grown tired of seeing these lesser being — humans — treated with favor by God. Together, with the guidance of Azrael (Jason Lee), they set out for a New Jersey church to exploit a loophole in dogmatic law and make their way back into Heaven.

Religion has always been a wonderful foil for comedy, and none better to poke fun at than Catholicism, who, even with the late rash of evangelical gay sex scandals, still deserves it the most. The film’s main conceit is that man is essentially the flaw in God’s plan. It riffs on the biggest pain in the ass in the history of religious pains in the ass: indulgences. They were one of Martin Luther’s main sticking points in the 1500s, so this isn’t exactly new, but a clever spin on an old problem, though it is more stupidity that causes the ill will here than greed.

The powers that be in Heaven have, of course, caught wind of this plan and have sent the Metatron (Alan Rickman) to rally troops to stop them. Enter Bethany (Linda Fiorentino), a lapsed Catholic; Rufus (Chris Rock), the black 13th apostle who is pissed about being written out of the Bible; Serendipity (Salma Hayek), a muse-slash-stripper; and Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes, Kevin Smith), the lost New Jersey prophets.

As the motley crew crosses the country they are chased by the hockey stick wielding triplets, and the ever-popular rubber poop monster (voiced by Ethan Suplee), but mostly they just get in their own way. Bethany’s crisis of faith, especially, is something that holds them back. It’s something she just can’t get past, despite having been visited by, you know, an angel — the angel, even. I suppose it’s natural to be suspicious when the help you are given come in the form of Jay and Silent Bob, though, who themselves are wondering why they haven’t yet prophesized anything.

It turns to be not so cut and dry for Bartleby and Loki though. Having been banished to Earth for eternity by God, should they pass through the gates of the Holy Mother Church, a loophole in biblical dogma would have proved God wrong by readmitting the two rogue angels, thus obliterating all existence. It’s exactly what Azrael, another muse who was banished to hell for draft dodging, is banking on. Hell is apparently worse than Wisconsin. I always thought it was a tie.

But despite the 500 year old, well essayed problem, the film exudes and undeniable freshness, and that is entirely down to the equal measures of playfulness and authority in Kevin Smith’s writing. There has never quite been a film like this, and I don’t think there ever will be again (thanks to its box office numbers). Regardless, his jokes are spot on, topical and unflinchingly in the know.

That was, I think, the main problem with Red State. Smith didn’t live in that culture, so it doesn’t ring as authentic. But he grew up in the same kind of Irish-Catholic household that I did, right down to the clueless priests trying to make Catholicism cool for kids and teenagers. He has Cardinal Glick and the Buddy Christ; I had cool Father F**** (I don’t want to out the guy since Google has plenty of articles on him — no, not those kinds of articles) and the Catholic magician whose name I’ve since stamped out of my memory. Still, it amounts to the same thing in the end. Catholicism has more problems than solutions, has made more mistakes than goodness, and is often too aloof to bear, but it makes a lifelong mark on anyone its comes into contact with, whether they like it or not. Like I said, though, it’s a biased view. To me, every joke in the film works both as a joke and as a skewer. Red State didn’t get the joke or the skewer right.

More than a religious document, though, Dogma is a road movie with a stoner comedy flair. Religion is just its topic, not its genre. And it’s such a smart and candid film. It was a growth spurt in filmmaking balls by Smith, one that bears its puny-muscled action set piece muscle with its tongue planted as firmly in its cheek as during it’s comedy set pieces. I’m not sure what happened to Kevin Smith from then until now. His life changed during Dogma, I guess, when he met his wife and started a family. He mellowed, or just stopped being the kid he was. He’s thrown a lot of darts at the board since, and most have ended up somewhere in the wall outside of the board.

I suppose it’s just that some directors have a shelf life. The long distance filmmakers, like Scorsese or Spielberg or Ford, are the anomalies, not the rule. How many of those indie wave filmmakers are still around? Even Tarantino has waned somewhat. Sundance isn’t so kind when it comes to longevity. You can only tell the same jokes for so long before you need new material, and going from stoner comedies to the more adult themes Smith was experiencing in his life just didn’t find the spark it needed when it came to filmmaking.

The World of Henry Orient – George Roy Hill (1964)


I’m an absolute sucker for a good stalker comedy. Whether it be AmeliePunch Drunk Love or Hana and Alice, there is just something so wonderfully off about them that it makes me happy. Just knowing that the stalkers are harmless and generally good-natured takes entirely all of the creepiness out of what, in reality, is a pretty despicable act. And The World of Henry Orient may actually be the best of the genre.

It stars Tippy Walker and Merrie Spaeth as Val and Gil, a pair of mischievous high school loners who meet, hit it off and along the way accidentally ruin Henry Orient’s (Peter Sellers) liaison with a married woman while playacting in Central Park. And then again. But when they ruin a second liaison between Henry and the woman, something happens to Val: she falls madly in love with him, buys all of his records and, with Gil, creates the Henry Orient Bible, a handmade diary full of press clippings and photographs and a fake love letter that Val keeps meaning to reply to.

The object of Val’s love, Henry Orient, is a middling-to-bad pianist and ladies man, the top billing who has to escape the concert hall through a posse of refund seekers, so bad are his avant garde stylings. He doesn’t practice enough, says Val, who, before meeting Gil, was all alone and practiced too much.

We never see films like this anymore, films that prize sweetness and mischievousness over cynicism and edginess. Cynicism and edginess absolutely have their great points, but have been so done over and over again that a film like Henry Orient is a breath of fresh air, a cup of cold water in the face and a joy to watch. If you don’t have a grin stuck on your face for almost the entire film, then I don’t know what is wrong with you.

So what is it about The World of Henry Orient? Is it sunshine and roses, a tale of rich girl Eloise-types running around Manhattan in a bulletproof bubble or privilege?

Hmm, yes and no. There is an air of privilege, and neither girl is about to starve to death. But their stories told in bullet point wouldn’t be terribly different from a youth film that would be made today. Both girls come from broken or breaking homes, chase an older man, screw with authority, and eventually, dabble in the early stages of sex. Yet it remains light and fun.

Val’s father (Tom Bosley) spends all his time traveling for work, and her mother (Angela Lansbury) spends all her time going behind his back with piano players. She is left alone in an apartment with a maid/babysitter and essentially left to own devices. Her shrink sees more of her than her parents.

Gil, too, has family issues. Her parents divorced when she was a baby, and she now lives on the Upper West Side with her mother (Phyllis Thaxter) and her mother’s “friend”, Boothy (Bibi Osterwald). Even though she is happy living with her mother and Boothy, and loves them both, she longs for a normal family life, where father comes home at 6:30 and greets her and her mother.

Things get somewhat serious, though, when Val’s mother snoops through her room and finds the Henry Orient Bible. She demands to know what it is all about, but her mind is already decided what it is about and she has no interest in listening to the answer Val and Gil try to give her.

Towards the end of the film, there is a line by Val that really perfectly sums the film up. It is “awfully happy in a sad sorta way”. The act of coming of age is a sorta sad one, after all. Gone are the days of braces and pig tails and hair ribbons (or pet frogs and racing bikes, if you will), replaced with makeup and boys and the desperate race to grow up too fast. You only miss the younger days later though, and then you feel terribly nostalgic for them, because they didn’t last nearly as long as they should have, and the prize for winning the race to grow up isn’t as nice and shiny as it looked from the starting line. And so The World of Henry Orient stands as a great document of fun, of mischievousness, and a time when film was allowed to reflect the underlying spirit of the world instead of the ugly, bloody image of the world.