My favorite Thanksgiving movie is What’s Cooking?
The Star-Spangled Banner plays over the credits and we see a classic Thanksgiving poster, only to find that it is on the side of a bus that carries very few passengers resembling its smiling Caucasian family. A very diverse group attends a school Thanksgiving pageant and then we follow four of the families, Jewish, Latino, African-American, and Vietnamese, as they celebrate this most American of holidays.
Co-writer and director Gurinder Chadha is an Indian woman raised in England, and she brings a sympathetic outsider’s eye to the stories of the four families, emphasizing their similarities more than their differences. All four of the families love each other, keep secrets from each other, want acceptance from each other. And all of them drive each other crazy, just like everyone else.
They watch football and the Macy’s parade. They cook. They have kitchen triumphs and catastrophes. They say things like, “You’re so thin!” “Give Grandma some sugar!” “I haven’t called because I’ve been swamped with work.” “That’s a very…unusual recipe.” “Dad, you remember that I’m a vegetarian, don’t you?” and “You never listen to me!” They love to see each other but they can’t stop fighting with each other. As one character says, “I guess you can’t call it a family if someone isn’t speaking to someone else.”
The Jewish parents (Lainie Kazan and Maury Chaykin) struggle to accept their daughter’s lesbian relationship (with Julianna Margulies of “The Good Wife”). The Latino mother (Mercedes Ruehl in a beautifully warm-hearted performance) wants to introduce her new boyfriend to the family, and her estranged husband has been invited to dinner by their son. The Vietnamese family is coping with a son who has been suspended from school, a daughter who has a condom in her coat pocket, and an older son who is too busy to come home from college. And the African-American mother (the always wonderful-Alfre Woodard) struggles with a demanding mother-in-law and a painful rift between her husband and son.
Chadha handles the multiple story lines and large cast with an expert hand, cutting back and forth to underscore the similarities and the differences. We see potatoes prepared by hand, mixer, spoon, and food processor and the assortment of turkey presentations is one of the movie’s best treats. Chadha has a good feel for American diversity — the video store owned by the Vietnamese family has shelves for videos in Talalog, Farsi, and Korean. We get to see a replica of the the all-white Thanksgiving poster with a Latino family.
The stories can get a bit melodramatic, especially a close encounter with a gun near the end of the movie, and the stories veer from archetype to stereotype at times. But there is much to enjoy in its situations, characters, and performances, especially by Woodard and Ruehl, two of the finest actresses in movies, and it holds a lot of promise for future projects by Chadha.
Parents should know that the movie has some strong language and sexual references and encounters, including adultery and homosexuality. Characters smoke and drink. A child is in peril, and it gets very tense. The movie also includes family confrontations that may be upsetting to some people.
Families who see this movie will have a lot to talk about concerning family communication. They should discuss why so many people felt that they could not tell the truth to their families, and how they would respond to some of the crises faced by the family members in the movie. They may also want to talk about some of their favorite Thanksgiving memories.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “You Can’t Take it With You,” an Oscar-winning comedy about a very eccentric but loving, family.
Here’s a word I never thought I would use about Ryan Murphy: safe. The guy behind the twisted pleasures of the television series “Nip/Tuck” and “Glee” has made sensationally entertaining comedy-dramas about ambition, competition, beauty, and self-expression. He has specialized in creating larger-than-life but still very relatable characters and making us care about them. He has taken big risks and made them work. And now, as co-writer and director of a big-budget movie based on an international best-seller and Oprah-certified sensation, he has decided to play it safe. Instead of a story of anguish and struggle and triumph through pain and work, he has made “Eat Pray Love” into an upbeat tale of self-actualization. This is a movie about a self-obsessed woman who seems to learn that the wisdom of the ancients is that she should be even more self-obsessed. Murphy has taken what was messy and heartfelt and made it neat and cute. And dull. And long.
A movie called “Eat Pray Love” about a woman’s spiritual journey of healing through Italy, India, and Bali should get us started on that journey by the time the opening credits have ended. Instead, we get a half hour of unnecessary and distracting backstory that makes our heroine so self-absorbed and annoying that only the unstoppable appeal of Julia Roberts keeps us from reaching for the remote and then remembering this isn’t the Lifetime Movie Channel.
Roberts plays Elizabeth Gilbert, a writer (in the movie, a playwright, in real life, a journalist), and a woman who has so little sense of who she is and what she wants that she loses herself in relationships and then panics and leaps into another passionate romance. She thinks that makes her feel more alive but in reality it makes her feel — less of everything. She leaves her husband (Billy Crudup) even though he wants to stay married. And then she leaves the boyfriend she found as her marriage was ending (James Franco). And then, finally, she leaves the country.
She begins in Italy, where she studies the language and has raptures over the food. Then she goes to India, for a spiritual retreat at an ashram. And then she goes to Bali, where a shaman once told her that she would have two marriages, one long and one short, that she would lose all of her money, and that she should come back to help him learn English and learn from him about his secrets.
But all of this relies on our being on her side and we have lost some of our enthusiasm for her journey during that first half hour. It would have made much more sense to start with the trip and then give us brief illuminating flashbacks as necessary, as the book did. Instead, incidents that are intended to make us sympathetic backfire, making her come across as selfish, superficial, and disloyal. The flashbacks we do get only muddle things more. We’re asked to believe that her new relationships are healthier than the old ones, but none of them are especially credible or appealing.
Even Roberts’ dazzling smile can’t prevent Gilbert from coming across as an insensitive American dilettante, expecting everything to happen when and where she wants it. When the shaman tells her she must hand copy his books, the woman who is supposed to thoroughly understand meditation practice does not realize that the experience of putting in that work is what he wants her to do; she thinks it is fine to run off to the local photocopier. She also thinks it is fine to abandon her commitment to meet with him every day for a two-week frolic. The entire notion of discipline and mindfulness and responsibility never seems to come through to her. Events from the book occur but without any sense of the meaning or context. One of the incidents is unforgivably distorted to make what was in real life a learning experience for Gilbert about the limits of understanding and control into yet another American-saves-the-day story.
And it lurches from safe to soporific with over-used and predictable music choices. How did the man who created a mash-up for “Glee” of “Smile” songs from Charlie Chaplin and Lily Allen think that the moment our heroine starts to feel comfortable on her own should be underscored with the all-but-inevitable “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)” from Sly and the Family Stone? And “Heart of Gold,” really? Really? Kool and the Gang and “Celebration?” This is greeting card commercial stuff. And then something that makes no sense at all. You’re in Italy, you want to play some opera, I get it. But why a German opera? You’re in Italy!
Elizabeth (the character) accuses one of the characters of speaking in bumper stickers but that is pretty much what this whole movie is, completely undermining the notion of the real work involved in what she is attempting. The emphasis on forgiving oneself instead of repairing the damage is cringe-inducing. The book allowed Gilbert (the author) to come to grips with failure and ambiguity, but the movie resorts to easy answers and convenient resolutions. At the risk of sounding like a bumper sticker myself, convenient resolutions on screen are inconvenient and unsatisfying for the audience because they don’t ring true.
Five minutes into this movie, which means five minutes into its first action sequence, one of its stars explains to his colleagues he is about to fire off a warning shot. He then blows a guy’s torso into what another character will later refer to as “red sauce and jello.” And then we have a lot of shooting and a lot of stuff blowing up and hand-to-hand combat, and thousand yard stares and boy, do we have a lot of red sauce and jello.
“The Expendables,” is a mash-up of action stars and action movies. It would take less time to explain who is not in this movie (Stephen Seagal and Jean Claude Van Damme, who both declined) than who is: Sylvester Stallone (who co-wrote and directed), his “Rocky IV” nemesis, Dolph Lundgren, WWE superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin, Ultimate Fighting Champion Randy Couture, martial arts master Jet Li, former NFL player Terry Crews, “Iron Man 2’s” Mickey Rourke, and “Transporter’s” Jason Statham — plus brief appearances by Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Here is the plot: there are some bad guys. The good guys go after them. It doesn’t go so well at first. Bros before hos. Chases and explosions. Very big guns (the muscle kind and the weapon kind) and very big knives. Airplanes, trucks, motorcycles, and various other symbols of manliness. And a lot of red sauce and jello. It’s Tarantino without the irony.
The chases and explosions and shoot-outs are well-filmed, as are the big fight scenes, especially a brutal battle in a tunnel and the opening sequence where Somali pirates suddenly find the thin red beams of automatic weapons touching many parts of their bodies. But the most satisfying moments come from seeing these guys do what they do best, one on one. Couture takes on Austin. The very compact Li takes on the giant Lundgren. “Bring it, Happy Feet,” the big man tells Li. Statham takes on a bully. And then his pals.
Stallone as co-writer, director, and star manages to keep the tone light and affectionate for the genre and its fans without getting meta or condescending. These action heroes take their fun seriously without taking themselves seriously. They have time for some commiseration about the faithlessness of females and some manly banter as they load their weapons. One explains how he got his cauliflower ear and another tells the story of when he lost his capacity to care about anything or anyone. But mostly it’s just red sauce and jello, macho bonding, and silly character names: Hale Ceasar, Toll Road, Lee Christmas.
Following the Somali pirate hostage rescue, our heroes are up for three jobs. “Two are a walk in the park and one is to Hell and Back.” Guess which one they take? Option 3 is a country called Vilena, with an evil Gringo and a puppet general who has a mercenary army. There’s also a brave and beautiful young woman. Various characters are chased, captured, and rescued and a lot of stuff gets blown up. Which, after all, is what we came for.
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.