Despite the title, I assure you this is not a slasher flick. Nor is it a porno movie.
One of 2003's very best films was not an overblown big-budget historical epic, but rather this small, low budget comedy set during a national holiday. Pieces of April is a treasure of a movie that is only found while excavating in the wasteland of Hollywood films. A moderate success, MGM has now released the film on DVD. Now you no longer have an excuse to ignore it.
Facts of the Case
Every family has a black sheep. For the Burns family, it is eldest daughter April (Katie Holmes, Dawson's Creek, Wonder Boys). She is a bit of a rebel, with magenta tinted hair, fingernails painted with black nail polish, and a rundown New York apartment she shares with Bobby (Derek Luke). She has not spoken to her dying mother Joy (Patricia Clarkson, The Station Agent, The Dead Pool) in quite a while.
It is Thanksgiving and April's estranged family is traveling to New York for the traditional meal. Things begin to go wrong when her oven will simply not heat itself. Going door to door for help, April finds that even the best plans are never concrete. Will this be a Thanksgiving to remember or one to forget?
At 80 minutes, Pieces of April is light on plot. However, Peter Hedges, who directed this film from his original screenplay, is particularly gifted at creating three-dimensional characters in believable, heartfelt stories. He adapted one of his novels into the excellent 1993 film What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and he co-wrote the screenplay for 2002's brilliant About A Boy. His screenplay for Pieces of April outranks his previous efforts. The shorter running time allows him more breathing room; instead of having to stick to a plot, he can concentrate on his greatest strengths. The film is technically a comedy. It is true that there are some big laughs, but there is a lot of heart here as well. Hedges has a genuine affection for his characters and it is to his credit that he resists plugging them into a sitcom plot.
Watching it, I was reminded of the work of John Cassavetes. Often credited as "the godfather of independent cinema," Cassavetes despised plotting. He instead filled his scripts with quirks and emotions that flowed naturally from his characters. His visual style was not slick, fancy images but rather raw and gritty visuals that showcased the acting of his cast. There are a lot of Cassavetes' qualities in Pieces of April, right down to the raw look of the digital video photography. But more importantly, like Cassavetes, Hedges assembled a top notch cast and then cast against type, revealing abilities that were unknown previously in said cast.
The acting is pitch perfect. Katie Holmes is unique among young actresses in that she forsakes a big payday and instead chooses interesting, often daring projects that may or may not be successful, but are a great deal more memorable than the standard pap Hollywood is content to churn out yearly. She has rarely been this good, investing a lot of unique quirks into April, but also a humanity and dignity that few would even dare to. Oliver Platt has long been one of our more interesting character actors. He is cast against type here, playing the calming force stuck between two potential hurricanes. It is a subtle, well crafted performance. Derek Luke is very good as Bobby, a relatively normal character devoid of the crude stereotypes Hollywood likes to slap onto any character of African-American nature not played by Denzel Washington or Sidney Poitier.
But the film's standout performance belongs to Patricia Clarkson, an Oscar nominee for this role. She has the often-daunting task of making an unlikable character sympathetic, and she succeeds wonderfully. Everything about her performance clicks. We know that Joy is a cancer patient from early in the film. Some will no doubt complain about her very warped sense of humor. I have read that some cancer patients use morbid humor as an attempt to come to terms with their disease, so Clarkson's acting choices here are absolutely correct. Importantly, beneath the bitterness, we see a woman who is deeply hurt, who longs to make up but doesn't know how to approach it. Clarkson's performance is so subtle yet effective that the result is an experience like no other.
Some critics have complained about the use of still photographs, which are integrated into the film's ending. I do not understand their complaint. First, it ties in the theme of "creating a memory" that Platt's character remarks during the film. Second, it gives the climatic moment much more impact that just showing the footage would have. Third, it gives the film that unique touch that marked some of John Cassavetes' best work.
Pieces of April was shot on digital video for $300,000. According to his commentary, Hedges had set up this project three times but all previous attempts fell apart due to one issue or another (a situation I am more than familiar with). Desperately wanting to make this film, he met with Indigent, a production company specializing in DV-oriented projects (they were responsible for Personal Velocity as well as Tadpole, directed by co-founder Gary Winick). This is the type of project that could not have been done on film. That is not a knock on traditional filmmaking, but rather all of the unnecessary politics that are dragged into it by the modern studio system. Hollywood would have simply demanded too many changes in Hedges' script ("Couldn't you make the mom nicer?," "Why does April's boyfriend have to be black?" and all sorts of other idiotic requests that I'm sure the majors would have dragged in). The intimate quality that DV offers does fit this small, ambitious film like a glove.
MGM offers both a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer as well as a full frame transfer on a single-sided disc. If you're even debating which version to watch (shame on you), the widescreen version is the one to see. First, it's a hard-matte transfer, which means that the film is "legitimate" widescreen. The full frame transfer is a complete muddle, butchering Hedges' well-composed shots.
Second, the full frame version accentuates the drawbacks of digital video transfers. Grain becomes overwhelming and those jittery hand-held shots become unbearable in full frame. The widescreen version is crisper, cleaner, and more satisfying. Colors are exceptionally strong for a film shot on video. They all look rich and natural.
Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround. I'm not sure if stereo was really necessary since the film isn't particularly heavy on aural effects. The dialogue (of which there is a lot in this film) comes across quite nicely, although there are a few moments you will need to raise the volume. Overall, MGM has done a good job.
MGM has added a few extras, much to my surprise. A commentary track by writer/director Peter Hedges is quite good, if not great. His delivery is a bit dry, with a few too many gaps than I would have liked, but he provides lots of good information about working with the actors and the overall production. If you're planning on mounting a film shot on digital video, you'd be wise to listen to Hedges' commentary.
All the Pieces Together is a 15-minute featurette featuring interviews with Hedges and various cast members. Hedges' comments are found in much greater detail on the commentary track and unfortunately, too little time is spent on Holmes and Clarkson, both of whom do career best work in this film. A second commentary track, featuring the two actresses, would have been ideal.
The film's original theatrical trailer, in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen, is notable for not spoiling the entire film, for a change. Bravo to United Artists!
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I have two minor problems. The only flaw in Pieces of April regards Wayne, the loose cannon neighbor played by Sean Hayes (Will and Grace). Hayes does a fine job in the role but this character is just too weird and unessential to the film. The character has no payoff in the story and he exits just as we're beginning to get a handle on him. Still, that's a small flaw in an otherwise first rate film.
As for the disc, besides the full frame issue, I have a bone to pick with the extras. Surely some interesting outtakes and deleted scenes must exist. Why not share some of them with us? If they can force unfunny bloopers on us, why not some flawed takes that were unable to be used?
I recommend Pieces of April wholeheartedly as a rental. The brief running time makes it ideal for home viewing on one of those dull, uneventful nights. And if you're inclined to do so, a purchase is a very good idea. The retail price ($26.95) is a bit high, but this film is well worth spending your money on.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Writer/Director Peter Hedges
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