One of my favorite Thanksgiving films is this touching story of a young woman, estranged from her family, who invites them to Thanksgiving dinner at her apartment.
I love movies that don’t feel like they have to tell you everything.
“Pieces of April” is a movie that does more than trust its audience; it invites the audience to participate by bringing their own ideas and experiences to fill in the story.
It takes place on that most terrifying of holidays, Thanksgiving. April (Katie Holmes) and Bobby (Derek Luke) wake up very early in their apartment on the Lower East Side of New York. He is looking forward to hosting the family and she is not. This is because it is her family that is coming.
April and Bobby start to get things ready, and then he leaves because he has “that thing” he has to do. As soon as he goes, April discovers that her oven does not work. She has to wander through her apartment building, her turkey dressed and stuffed but still raw, trying to find someone who will allow her to borrow an oven.
Meanwhile, her family is on its all-but-inexorable way from the Pennsylvania suburbs, no happier about it than she is. Joy (Patricia Clarkson), April’s mother, has cancer. This will probably be her last Thanksgiving. She and April have never been comfortable with each other and both are overwhelmed by the fear that they will not be able to find a way to make it work this time. One desperately needs a good memory to die with and one desperately needs a good memory to live with.
The family drives to New York: daughter Beth (Alison Pill) trying to be perfect, son Timmy (John Gallagher, Jr.) trying to remove himself by taking pictures of everything, dad Jim (Oliver Platt) trying to keep everyone happy, and Joy’s mother (Alice Drummond), trying to hold on to her own memories, and Joy, angry and bitter and trying not to try anymore.
The film is shot on digital video, which gives it intimacy and a little messiness. It’s easy to believe that it is a home movie. The performances are fresh and unaffected. The look on Pill’s face as she tries to maintain her cheerful demeanor after her feelings are hurt; Jim’s eyes as he looks over at Joy, not sure whether she is sleeping or dead; Bobby’s description of being in love, the neighbors’ cooking advice, April’s explanation of Thanksgiving to a Chinese family, and especially the lovely last scene are moments that are real and touching and meaningful.
Parents should know that the movie has some strong language and some off-screen violence. A character uses medicinal marijuana. There are some brief graphic images. The themes of the film may be difficult for some viewers. One of the movie’s great strengths is its non-stereotyped portrayals of minorities, including one of the most often stereotyped minorities portrayed in movies, terminally ill people. African American and Asian characters are vivid and complete individuals. The movie cleverly (and sweetly) confounds the audiences’ expectations for one African American character.
Families who see this movie should talk about its theme of memories. What are some of your favorite memories and what memories do you most want to make? They should also talk about how each member of the family reacted to Joy’s illness (including Joy) and what it says about them and their relationship to the family.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy other Thanksgiving movies about family stress like Hannah and Her Sisters, Avalon, Home for the Holidays, and especially What’s Cooking, by the writer/director of Bend it Like Beckham.
The talented and beautiful Jo Newman makes her feature film debut in one of the year’s best movies, “Love and Other Drugs.” She was kind enough to take time to answer my questions.
Tell me about the audition process for this film. What were you asked to do and how did you prepare?
The initial audition was awkward to say the least! It was a scene that I did not end up doing for the film and it was, um, intimate. There is a tendency to go overboard when you are doing work that requires you to be uncomfortable. If you feel like you are “acting” it separates you from the moment, limiting how affected you can be by the work.
Although this distancing can comfort your ego, it is bad acting and a casting director can feel that a mile away. For the first audition, I really felt like I parked my inhibitions at the door and went for it.
When they called me back and I had to do the scene in front of Ed Zwick, the director, I clammed up and hammed it up. He told me to relax, to respond, to exist solely in the moment. To allow yourself that kind of vulnerability, especially when you are asked to switch it on immediately, can be terrifying but in this business, there is no room for fear. It is in those moments, where you completely forget yourself, where you are wholly absorbed in character, that define us as actors; those moments that push us to wake up every day and put our hearts and egos out there because the ability to see the world through someone else’s eyes is the most profoundly freeing experience I have ever had.
What was was the most unexpected aspect of working on your first major studio film?
I was genuinely surprised by how friendly everyone was. I was only on set for a week and felt like I made some real friends by the time it was over. You are spending a hugely concentrated amount of time with the cast and crew and everyone showed me that to have a positive and creative environment, you have to do your part. No one likes getting up at 5am in the rain, but if you bring the makeup artist some coffee, that crack of dawn call-time becomes a lot nicer for everyone involved. There are so many people involved in a major film and if people don’t work together, it negatively affects everyone involved.
What was the most important thing you learned?
I learned how to be more present on set, to ask more questions and talk to people about their lives and experiences. I used to get nervous to engage a well-known actor on set but truthfully, there is no one who will better understand your struggle as an artist than someone who has been in your shoes. And this movie has some great comedic moments– these actors are truly funny people! I learned to laugh and engage while standing around in underwear that would make my mother blush (correction, that will make my mother blush!)
What advice did Ed Zwick give you about playing the role?
He told me to breathe, to be in the moment, and to have the confidence that I was the one that he picked to play the part for a reason. He is a man who chooses his words carefully and that meant a lot to me.
How did you work with the costume designer to develop the look of the character?
The character doesn’t wear very much! I worked with wardrobe to find a costume that I was comfortable in but also served the story. I practice yoga everyday and did some pretty funny poses for the wardrobe women to make sure that everything stayed in place!
What did you learn about the era and industry depicted in the film?
“Love and Other Drugs” is based on the memoir by Jamie Reidy who worked for Pfizer in the 1990’s when Viagra was introduced to the market. The film address some tough and very relevant issues concerning healthcare and the pharmaceutical industry. Hank Azaria plays a doctor in a seriously conflicted situation and has a scene that will make any audience stop and seriously think about the direction that our health care system is going. It is such a complex issue with so many involved and affected and I believe that this film offers an interesting vision on the whole situations.
What do you think is the most important contribution your character makes to the story?
My character illustrates how Jake Gyllenhaal’s character is a person who embodies both power and a lack of control.
What do you hope to do next?
I am working on a pilot that I wrote and am presently producing entitled “(Greetings From) Sunny Beaches.” It is the behind-the-scenes look at a Reality Show and its hilarious, if I may say so! We are dying to get Joan Rivers to play the mother, an iconic actress who she sends her two outrageous daughters to Los Angeles to star in their own show.
When did you know you wanted to act?
As cliched as it sounds, I have always known that this is what I wanted to do with my life. I certainly didn’t have any grasp of the business or industry but I have always known that I am on this earth to perform. And maybe to cook, I’ve been cooking a lot lately….
Photo Credit: John Hildebrand Photography
Hair By: Erica Birdoes
Styling By: Cece Abel
The director of “When Harry Met Sally….” has given us a middle-school variation, an on and off love story that begins in second grade when Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe) and his family move in across the street from Juli Baker (an exquisite performance by Madeline Carroll). In Rob Reiner‘s film, based on a popular book for middle schoolers, Juli immediately falls for Bryce, which of course immediately makes him feel creeped out. Five years later, in middle school, he is still doing everything he can to avoid her. And she is still doing everything she can to be near him. And then, things change. She does not like him any more. And he realizes that she is a very special girl, and that he will do anything to re-earn her affection.
It isn’t just the emotions of the characters that are flipping here; it is also the point of view. We get to see the same situations from both sides, and we get to hear how the two characters’ perspectives do and do not overlap.
Reiner sets the story in the early 1960’s, and the movie has a flawless attention to period detail — the long hair parted in the middle, “Bonanza” on the television. But the essence of the story is eternal, with its impeccable evocation of that moment when we first begin to look at our families’ limits and imperfections and first begin to create the people we will grow up to be.
And not just our families. Juli does not question her love for Bryce for years. And then she becomes older and wiser and realizes that beautiful eyes do not always mean a beautiful spirit and that she really does not know him very well. Bryce may have lovely eyes, but it is not until he sees her through someone else’s eyes that he begins to appreciate her. Bryce’s grandfather (John Mahoney of “Frasier”) realizes Juli’s value first. “Some of us get dipped in flat, some in satin, some in gloss,” he tells Bryce. “But every once in a while you find someone who’s iridescent, and when you do, nothing will ever compare.”
Co-screenwriter/director Reiner lets us share the growing understanding of Juli and Bryce as they begin to see themselves, each other, and their families differently. And with great sensitivity and insight, he evokes the agonizing sweetness of first love and the way that it stays alive in us forever, making possible all of the loves that are to come.
Those of you who are interested in my other job might enjoy checking out our YouTube channel to see my interview with Warren Buffett. In nine short chapters, he and I talk about everything from his current project with Bill Gates to get billionaires to donate half their money to his Secret Millionaire’s Club website for kids, what he looks for in an investment (and what he ignores), what’s wrong with CEO pay, and what he thinks should happen to the Wall Street guys who created the subprime mess.