The Newsroom: Pros and Cons, Season 1

Since it began to air ten weeks ago, I’ve been trying hard to avoid all of the Twitter chatter about The NewsroomThe West Wing aside, Sorkin is a notoriously slow starter, and one of the (many) problems with Studio 60 was that both the viewers and the network had largely written it off before the show began to hit its stride around the Christmas episode. Granted, there were other problems with the show, and some of the sluggishness from the slow start carried its way throughout the show’s lone season. I was hoping for it to be different this time though.

But the problem with The Newsroom might have been that it actually started too quickly, delving into the complex world of office relationships and politics before the story was established. Before I had committed anyone’s name to memory, there were love triangles and cheating and a lot of he said, she said. Jim (John Gallagher Jr.) and Maggie (Alison Pill) were destined to be together, eventually, despite her being with Don (Thomas Sadoski), claimed McaKenzie (Emily Mortimer), who herself seemed destined to be with Will (Jeff Daniels), and Sloane (Olivia Munn), socially inept as she is, deserved to be with someone too — all stuffed into the first episode.

To contrast, The West Wing built its inter-office drama up over its entire seven season run in some cases, like Josh (Bradley Whitford) and Donna (Janel Moloney). Love stories tend to be more satisfying as a slow burn subplot than a blunt object beating us over the head. If we don’t know the characters, why are we supposed to care who they hook up with, or who they don’t hook up with? There is no identification, no agony. Time makes us care about the characters, makes us root for them, or yell at them for being too stupid to see what was in front of them.The Newsroom opted for the blunt object approach, and that may have been a fatal flaw for some viewers who judge things quickly.

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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.

Quick Hits on Midnight in Paris – Woody Allen (2011)


-I was admittedly extremely nervous about the casting when the list was first released. It was all over the place, and I’ve always struggled with Own Wilson in roles outside of Wes Anderson films, where he, more often than not, has co-written the script with Wes. Even when he hasn’t, Anderson seems to have Wilson’s unique voice emblazoned in his head and always writes fitting roles for his old college buddy. But nerves aside*, I had been excited for this film since I heard the basic time-travelling premise. Not only did Allen deliver on my excitement, he far exceeded it, giving us his best film since 1999’s  Sweet and Lowdown, which is certainly in my top five Woody Allen films.

-The more I think about the film’s thesis (that everyone is actually born in the right decade, whether they want to admit it or not), the more I agree with it. Much like Gil, I’ve always wished I was born in a different time, though what for him was Paris in the 20s, is for me Hollywood in the late 30s/early 40s. But there are problems inherent in that, just like there are problems inherent with the Parisian 20s for Gil. What about the depression? What about the war? What about having to wait 20, 30, 40 years to see my favorite films again? What if I ran into John Ford or Charlie Chaplin? I’ve met some people I idolize in modern times, and Don Mattingly and Jimmy Smits were really the only ones that weren’t in some way a let down. John Ford would certainly be a let down — he was a notorious asshole. I wouldn’t want that to ruin The Informant or How Green Was My Valley for me, which it likely would. But that’s just rambling. What about the lack of air conditioning? What about no Woody Allen?

-All that said, Corey Stoll’s portrayal of Ernest Hemingway absolutely steals the movie. If you’re familiar with Hemingway that is. He talks in long, rambling, Hemingwayesque passages and constantly looks for someone to box with. It’s delicious, but I was the only one in the theater laughing at some of it.

*Woody Allen films tend to make me nervous because I hold him in such high reverence that I don’t want him to fail — I never want to see him make anything as bad as Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Anything Else again — which is probably too slanted a view to go into a film with, but that’s just how my brain has processed it. It doesn’t affect my view of his films really, except that many I’m a little more disappointed when expectations are not met, as they weren’t really met with You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger or Whatever Works.