Pieces of April
Film Length: 80 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 16X9 Enhanced Widescreen (1.85:1); Full Frame (4:3)
Subtitles: English, Spanish, and French
Audio: English - Dolby Digital 5.1; French – Dolby Digital 5.1
NOTE: The feature is preceded by “skippable” trailers for Uptown Girls and Out of Time.
Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time for people to forget their differences, if only momentarily, and unite with those closest to them to give thanks for the good things in life. Unfortunately, that is often easier said than done, and some families have rifts so deep that it can be difficult to come together at any time of year, holiday or not. With that in mind, Peter Hedges’ intelligent, ambitious film Pieces of April takes viewers on young April Burns’ (Katie Holmes) near-disastrous attempt to make amends with her family for being a problem child by hosting the “perfect” Thanksgiving dinner for them.
Conversely, the film also follows her tightly-wound family members on their reluctant car ride to her tiny, impoverished Lower East Side apartment for what they are certain will be an inedible, hostile holiday dinner with the black sheep of the family. On the surface, this sounds like pretty straightforward stuff, but Hedges throws an interesting dynamic into the mix, as April’s mother, Joy (Patricia Clarkson) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Hedges is also aided by the fact that entire cast does a superb job of bringing forth the subtle comedic elements sprinkled amongst the tension-laden relationships between its characters.
The majority of the tension in this story stems from the tenuous relationship between Joy, who believes her daughter will not amount to anything, and April, who recognizes the pain her rebellious nature has caused, but still hopes to make peace by bringing the family together. Though her effort is noble, it does not help that April seems to have never even made toast before, which puts a tremendous amount of pressure on her to successfully create a large meal. Joy’s grave illness places April under even greater stress, as she is not only cooking her first Thanksgiving dinner, but it may very well be the last one that she is able to share with her mother.
As if things are not bad enough, there is also considerable animosity between April and her siblings, especially her sister, who seems to think she is perfect. Indeed, while April’s father, Jim Burns (Oliver Platt), drives the brood into New York City from the suburbs, these two rotten teens perpetually bicker and complain, not to mention struggle to conjure up even one pleasant memory of the time when April still lived at home with them.
I know all of this probably sounds a bit dark, but there is an underlying sense of humor that never lets this film’s seriousness dampen the audience’s spirits. Writer/first-time director Peter Hedges (About A Boy, What's Eating Gilbert Grape?) has an uncanny ability to create humorous situations out of dysfunctional familial relationships, and he accurately depicts April's desperation to create a unifying family experience, as well as her family’s feelings of obligation that force them to attend her dinner in the first place. As a result, Pieces of April’s central characters are realized in an extremely genuine, but also very heart-warming, fashion.
In fact, Hedges’ characters are written so realistically that some are a little hard to like, which is a refreshing change from the overcooked holiday movies where everyone is sweet and lovable, in one way or another, and they all recognize their faults and come together in the end. This is especially true of title-character April, who is on the verge of adulthood, yet still possesses the grating immaturity of a spoiled kid, even giving attitude to neighbors that are willing to help her out of a jam.
Picking up the story again, as April rushes to get dinner ready, her nice-guy boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke) is cruising through Manhattan, picking up last-minute goodies for her, and even a coat from an experienced clothing store, to help make a good impression on April’s family. Since Bobby is an African-American, I must admit that I initially expected Pieces of April to be yet another film about old, stubborn parents not accepting a boyfriend/girlfriend because of the color of that person’s skin, and that it may have been the bone of contention between April and her family. Thankfully, I was pleasantly disappointed, as this subtext is extremely understated.
Meanwhile, disaster strikes April, in the form of a non-functioning appliance. To salvage her dinner, the nervous, habitually irresponsible April is practically pounding down the doors and of her odd, reclusive, or non-English-speaking neighbors to beg for their help in cooking her turkey, once she discovers her own oven is on the fritz. Indeed, April’s oven was serving as a storage space until she began prepping her Thanksgiving feast, at which point she discovers its useless state!
Now as far as the acting is concerned, the performances are uniformly outstanding, although stars Patricia Clarkson and Katie Holmes shine the brightest as a mother/daughter with completely opposite personalities. In particular, Katie Holmes exhibits a charming yet tenacious performance that is far more mature and substantial than anything she has done before. Further, despite limited screen time, Oliver Platt and Derek Luke are also outstanding, and both performers add their special brand of charisma to the proceedings.
Another element that adds to this film’s likeability is the way these characters’ issues are resolved, which (thankfully) is not in typical Hollywood style. In addition, Pieces of April has a rather unique look, as it was shot (on digital video by cinematographer Tami Reiker) in only 16 days with a shoestring budget of only a few million dollars, which gives it a rough-around-the-edges look and feel. Its gritty style, however, gives this work a uniquely intimate quality that helps the audience bond with these diverse, complex characters. In fact, the only quibble I had with this film is that its later scenes feel a little rushed (the film runs for only 80 minutes), but they still manage to get the point of the film across.
To sum it all up, Pieces of April is a joyous experience that puts a different spin on the neurosis that surrounds the holidays than past Thanksgiving films, but it is all the better for it. It is truly remarkable how much Mr. Hedges was able to accomplish with so little money! Although the film is not without a minor idiosyncrasy or two, I really enjoyed celebrating [a late] Thanksgiving with the spunky April Burns and her guests.
SO, HOW DOES IT LOOK?
In its home video incarnation, Pieces of April features an anamorphic widescreen (1.85) transfer that presents the digital video images quite nicely. First of all, color rendering is handled adeptly, without banding or dot crawl, and flesh tones are spot-on. The image is also fairly clean, which stands to reason, given the media used and the fact it is a recent production. Further, contrast is well balanced, and black level is consistently deep, leading to acceptable shadow detail, even in April and Bobby’s cramped NY apartment.
Unfortunately, there are a few minor issues that pop up here and there. In particular, there are a couple scenes, like the “road kill funeral” that look quite a bit softer and more “gritty” than the rest of the film does. There is also a moderate amount of edge enhancement apparent applied in a couple of scenes early on, although this issue did not persist throughout the film. Finally, a minute amount of video noise is visible in the background of a few scenes, however it never proves to be anything more than a minor distraction
Fortunately, the good well outweighs the bad, and Pieces of April looks almost as good as I remember it looking in the theater. In fact, the transfer is realized well enough that Pieces of April retains the organic look it is supposed to have (thanks in part to the media that it was shot on)! As such, this is a very respectable effort by MGM!
WHAT IS THAT NOISE?
Pieces of April is a very quiet film, and almost entirely dialogue driven, so I must say that the Dolby Digital 5.1 track is not all that busy, but then again, it is not supposed to be. Indeed, for some scenes, there is no score at all, just “the sounds of life”, as Peter Hedges puts it. Happily, all of these little audio details are presented faithfully, and with care. Similarly, dialogue is reproduced in a clear and intelligible manner, although that is to be expected, since there is not much other audio information to get in its way.
Finally, frequency response is pretty good, and music reproduction is handled well, as there is a nice spread from the front left to front right of the soundstage. Yes, friends, that means there is not much in the way of rear channel usage, save for some ambient noise. Undoubtedly, this is not the disc you would reach for to demonstrate how sonically impressive your system is, but the Dolby Digital audio carefully recreates the source material, so it should not be much of a disappointment.
Feature Length Audio Commentary
The audio commentary, by Writer/Director Peter Hedges is controlled, insightful, and even rather amusing at times. Fans of the film will find a lot to like about this commentary, and will probably take away as much as they ever wanted to know about Pieces of April. Some highlights included:
--- Commentary about the origin of the script, and the differences between digital video and film.
--- Hedges describing how the film fell apart 3 times before being green-lit, and how frantic the shooting schedule was.
--- A discussion about how the title came to be, April’s look, and what the opening of the film was originally supposed to include.
--- Mr. Hedges discussing the reason for the minimal use of music in the film, and how the film was initially cut together without any music.
There is plenty more to listen for, including discussions about the various performers in the film and the changes made to the script once shooting began. All in all, I have to say that Peter Hedges makes good use of the 80 minutes the film runs for. A fun listen!
”All the Pieces Together” Featurette
This somewhat brief featurette, which runs for about 15 minutes, offers an engaging and insightful look at the making of Pieces of April via interviews and behind the scenes footage. Among those interviewed are: director Peter Hedges; actresses Katie Holmes, Patricia Clarkson, and Alsion Pill; and actors Derek Luke, Oliver Platt and John Gallagher Jr. Each of these individuals discusses the story, the characters involved, and their experiences making the film in a fairly informative and open way, and it was also kind of interesting to see why some of these rather well known actors decided to work on this picture.
In terms of information, this featurette is not quite as in-depth as the commentary by Peter Hedges, but it is well done and entertaining all the same. By the way, the way it is edited together is kind of cool, but that is just my .02! Anyway, if you like Pieces of April, check it out…
Theatrical Trailer and Promotional Material
The theatrical trailer for Pieces of April is included, as are:
--- An “MGM Means Great Movies” Trailer
--- A “Contemporary Romance” Trailer
--- Trailers for Casa de los Babys, Girls Will Be Girls, On Edge, and Dead Like Me
--- Cover Art for Carrie, Safety Objects, Heart Breakers, Yours, Mine, and Ours, and Disturbing Behavior
(on a five-point scale)
THE LAST WORD
Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April is a poignant look at the neurosis that most of us suffer from during the holidays. The writing is strong, the performances are stronger, and the whole thing just feels fresh and organic. As I said earlier, I am amazed at what Hedges and company were able to accomplish with such a brief shooting schedule and so little cash. This quirky holiday film is definitely no turkey!
As far as MGM’s treatment of the film is concerned, I can only say that I am quite pleased. Visually, Pieces of April looks about as good as I remember it looking at the cinema, and the audio quality is just fine as well. Better still, Peter Hedges provides an interesting, and somewhat fun commentary on the film, and the “All the Pieces Together” featurette was pretty nice too. All in all, this is a very nice package of a quirky little film that many people may have missed out on, since it was never in wide release. And since it is never too early for a little holiday cheer, I suggest picking this title up!!! Recommended!!!
February 24th, 2004