Tuesday, November 18, 2014

the most perfect thing ever

Subtitle: observations on watching Pieces of April

First, do Bobby and April have those Catholic candles because they’re supposed to be religious or just because they tend to be cheap? They’ve got several of them lined up by the bed.

Casual display of (white) female flesh followed by (black) male picking her up and carrying her away to the shower to wake her. There are some potentially dangerous visuals here, with the race thing, but I think the director is deliberately playing on that.

Before we get to Alison Pill’s awkward cue award, there’s a brief moment of angst for Katie Holme’s April—keep in mind, this was Katie Holmes on the cusp of becoming a serious actress. She’d had a great, but small part in 1997’s The Ice Storm, had notable roles in Disturbing Behavior, Teaching Mrs. Tingle and Wonder Boys, plus four years of Dawson’s Creek, and Pieces of April was her demonstrating she had real indie cred.

Then, Alison Pill’s awkward cue. Oliver Platt, as her father, opens her door while looking for her mother, and finds Pill’s Beth in a state of undress. The awkward part is the door opens and then Pill starts to pull up her dress. It reminds me of that Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode in which they watched Gunslinger and they had that “cue the horses” moment as the camera obviously panned so the horses were within view but the guys on the horses were cued a moment too late, so they’re just standing there, ready to go.

As the family is introduced, I must mention something I only just noticed. Alison Pill and John Gallagher, Jr. play brother and sister here and currently star as a couple (off and on) on HBO’s The Newsroom. I know, acting, and all that, but still worth a mention.

I mentioned the handheld camera yesterday but there are also a lot of closeups, on hands tying a turkey shut, on April’s face, on anything and everything. Indie film 101 kinda of stuff.

The salt and pepper scene—April calls her mother by name, and mentions that her mother told her similar shakers were “worth more than you are.” Seems Joy was a bit of a bitch well before she got cancer.

April is either the greatest to do list maker or the worst. She writes “preheat oven” then turns on the oven and crosses off “preheat oven.” It’s either poetry or just plain stupid.

“They don’t deserve decorations.” April tells Bobby this when she catches him putting a paper turkey on her door. A) she then proceeds to make decorations but B) if they don’t deserve decorations, how do they deserve food? Echoing her sister’s sentiment from earlier, how does she expect them to drive up to New York to eat with her if she thinks they aren’t even worthy of decorations?

Bobby leaves on his “thing.” Toying with the audience about the black guy maybe being into drugs or something else illegal is certainly not the politically correct thing to do, and if the writer/director is trying to play on stereotypes for some deliberate reason, that reason is lost somewhere along the way. This is, at its best, a movie about family. Bobby’s little errand is entirely separate and inherently distracting from the main story.

Joy leads the family’s presumptions that April’s Thanksgiving dinner will go badly.

Evette’s comment about April’s youth and white privilege versus hearing about April’s “problems” is funny, until we cut past April explaining her problems, and Evette is now in tears. It’s a cheap laugh followed by a lazy edit. The tears are not earned and April’s story—which this movie should be, is neglected in the process.

There’s a lot of what YouTube’s Cinema Sins calls “the pronoun game” going on in this movie. For example, earlier, Jim was looking for “her” and Timmy actually asked, “who?” when his dying mother, I’m guessing, wanders off regularly—I mean, she’s going to do it later, just get onto a motorcycle and leave her family behind. Just now, Eugene asked April if she stuffed “it.” April has never done this before, does not immediately understand his question.

So, Evette reminds Eugene of his first two Thanskgiving turkeys, one undercooked, the next burnt. It’s a cute moment. April should enjoy it, should be amused like we are. But, she’s not. Earlier, we could have taken her lack of energy as her being tired, being nervous. Now, she just seems emotionless. Then, she gets a bit violent while trying to mash uncooked potatoes. There may be something wrong with this girl.

CUT TO (but only briefly) Bobby on his scooter. This kind of cut implies import to his subplot. Since his pursuit will ultimately amount to nothing since he changes out of his nice suit after April’s family leaves, there is really no point to this.

“Nobody likes it from the can.” If my sister Brooke is reading this entry, she can agree with me, cranberry sauce is supposed to come from the can. We’ve tried homemade cranberry sauce. It was as bitter and tart as cranberries are. While the canned stuff is sweeter. Maybe there’s good homemade cranberry sauce out there, but I have not had it.

The squirrel funeral is weird. This family would not stop for this sort of thing; it doesn’t fit their characters. But, it makes for a deliberate brush with death on their roadtrip. to go right along with Joy’s nausea and the later moment in which Jim thinks Joy is dead. It’s a bit too on-the-nose in concept, and far too slight in execution to really mean anything. As it is, it’s a waste of time, like Bobby’s storyline.

April should not be so judgmental. The guy with the messy apartment and the cats—his oven might be just fine.

April tries to move on to Tish for the turkey preparation and I miss Eugene and Evette already. Tish is too much of a vegetarian to let April cook in her oven—maybe she shouldn’t have agreed to it just a few minutes ago.

Wayne (Sean Hayes) should be the eccentric loner who turns out to be helpful, maybe gets brought out of his shell by helping April come out of hers. Instead, he turns out to be an ass.

More of Bobby’s storyline... it might have worked a little better (but still been as potentially offensive) if we had been misled a little longer in thinking he was looking for drugs, and then suddenly he’s finding a new suit. Instead, we get Latrell taking him to a thrift shop and it becomes clear he’s just looking for clothes well before he finds them.

The “no good time” speech from Patricia Clarkson—I’m guessing this was something that got her award nominations and wins, but as my daughter said watching this with me last night, there’s not much to Clarkson’s role that deserves an award. Before the movie ended last night—since I’d only seen it once before and didn’t remember, I told Saer, maybe she’s going to take her hair off and show a bald head from chemo, and that would explain so many wins; actors tend to be impressed by other actors willing to play ugly.

Timmy just took a closeup photo of his mother’s hair. I’m wondering if the prop camera just didn’t work so the actor just didn’t realize where the camera was pointed.

Wayne comes to April’s apartment and she’s immediately impolite. Then, when he offers actual helpful advice about dealing with turkey, she is short with him. She’s just like her mother. Perhaps that’s the point, but offering us a bunch of characters that are almost all unlikeable is a bad way to go. Wayne quite rightfully leaves, angry.

“Timmy is very talented.” “All of our children are talented.” “Yes, Beth’s talented, too.” No mention of April. Yep, Joy is a bitch.

Beth singing—why? I mean, other than to give Joy another opportunity to be rude... which her dementia-inflicted mother gets to respond to in such a way that for a moment we can’t be sure she’s not literally unsure of who her daughter is. The thing is, if we can’t trust April’s earlier story about her mother and the salt and pepper shakers, then what is the point of this movie? I mean, seriously, if Joy used to be a kind woman and April is wrong, then we can’t trust April or this film. Joy’s memory of April turns out to be really about Beth, which means Joy can’t be trusted. Joy’s mother can’t be trusted, because dementia.

Joy gets angry and hits the window, kicks the dashboard, and Jim for some reason stops the car so she can get out. In reality, he would have kept driving, she would not have gotten out of the car... of course then we wouldn’t get that horrible—and I don’t mean horrible filmmaking in this instance but sheer horribleness in character—moment in which Joy connects April biting her nipples when she nursed as a baby to the cancer that came later. These are bad people driving to have their Thanksgiving meal with a girl who may be worse—all her mother remembers of her is petulance, shoplifting and a fire in the kitchen. April used to light matches and throw them at her sister, and she once used a lighter to trim her brother’s bangs. Joy is horrible for bringing all this up, but April also is pretty bad for having done these things. The only positive characters in this film are Eugene and Evette and they’re already gone, to be seen briefly in the “happy” ending...

And, April calls the police to report a kidnapping over Wayne having her turkey. The craziness just found a whole new level.

What I can’t quite figure out is, what is the point to all of this? As April breaks into Wayne’s apartment, this film becomes something quite strange. Wayne stole a leg from the turkey for his dog so April physically attacks him (though we don’t get to see much of the attack the way the scene is edited). Chinese family to the rescue, when really they should be avoiding this girl.

My thing is this: why is the one (potentially) redeeming scene in the film—April telling her tear-inducing story to Evette and Eugene—not actually in the film? I mean, sure Bobby’s little quest to get a suit is sweet, but the storyline plays so inappropriately that it barely matters. So, what we have is a series of scenes about bad people being mean to one another, except apparently April’s got good reasons for all she does—we just don’t get to know what those reasons are.

She tells the story of the first Thanksgiving to the Chinese family, and it seems like it should be a metaphor for her first Thanksgiving dinner going on today, but she just can’t manage to tell the whole story. The girl who’s translating for her happens to know which version of the story she really wants to tell though, since she doesn’t translate at all until the third or fourth start. And, then April gets into a story about how one day everyone knew they needed each other, which seems like it should tie nicely into the plot of this film and wrap everything up poetically, but then we CUT TO that dead Joy scene in which Jim sees his wife asleep in the passenger seat and thinks she’s dead. It’s an abruptly tragic moment, something the film has not really led us to, something it leaves behind almost immediately.

Personalized license plate: JOY. Didn’t notice that before.

So, family arrives outside April’s building, it’s a bad neighborhood so they feel sorry for her... except, no, they don’t. Instead, Jim says, “God damn you, April.” As if she chose to live in a bad neighborhood just to hurt them.

Bobby arrives, running toward their car, banging on the front of the car, then saying hi, despite the fact he’s beaten and bloody. 1) you know, kinda racist, make the black man even scarier for the poor white people so they leave and 2) what kind of a moron who is beaten and bloody decides that is the moment to introduce himself to his girlfriend’s family?

Possibly the worst thing is that Allison’s Pill’s Beth might be an even worse person than anyone else in the family, but her actions are driven by caring about her mother. It’s a disturbing message having caring about someone else be exemplified in such bad behavior. Essentially, no one wins in this film... until that happy ending, that awkward happy ending. I’ll write more about that tomorrow and especially about Roger Ebert’s guess that the director simply ran out of money, hence going with the photos and not filming the actual dinner sequence. But, for now, I must go. Gotta get some sleep. It has been a long day, awake for 18 hours now, spent 15 of those at school.

I do remember liking this movie when it came out. But, it will take some effort to like it again this week. It has its moments. But, it also has its awful moments.

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