Thanksgiving is upon us, making it a time to give thanks for, among other things, movies.
Family, of course, has its place in this holiday, but after the meal is over and you’re tired of staring at old Uncle Charlie’s nostril hairs, it’s time to put the movie in. Here are my suggestions of films you might not otherwise think of that will help make your holiday a thankful one. Which is to say, if HOME FOR THE HOLIDAYS, WHAT’S COOKING? and FLY AWAY HOME are not available, then check out any of these other films, some tried-and-true, others off-beat but all on-target.
THE KIDS ARE ALL RIGHT — What? A contemporary adult family film where the family isn’t dysfunctional? What are movies coming to? Well, this family may not be dysfunctional, but it’s certainly unconventional: two teens and parents who happen to be lesbians. The son and daughter are appropriately rebellious kids, call their parents “mom and mom” instead of “mom and dad,” and the parents, hippy-ish Julianne Moore and breadwinner Annette Bening—like any other parents—have their squabbles, are typically concerned with paying the bills while keeping their psycho-drama buttoned up, and, above all, are concerned that the kids are all right. These are characters that any parents and children (and who does that leave out?) can identify with.
The lesbian hook is politically correct, but also refreshing and entertaining. And the story is simple. Out of their questing rebelliousness, and longstanding curiosity about their identity, the kids decide to look up their parent’s sperm donor, who turns out to be a freewheeling yet down-to-earth organic farmer and restauranteur (Mark Ruffalo). Through the kids, he gets to know the parents, and finally enough to know what he doesn’t have himself. When he starts adding his own child-rearing suggestions, Bening tells him: “When you’ve been a parent for eighteen years come and talk to me, okay?” But beneath his virtues he’s an entrepreneur who’s instinctively interested in short cuts, and when his intense interest attaches to one of the parents, that’s where familiarity crosses much too far into intimacy.
One of the virtues of this dramatic and humorous film, with its highs and lows of a family life that you’ll find yourself eager to follow, is that it gives you a very concrete sense of a what an unconventional family is like: it’s a little unusual, but it’s just like yours. Movies aren’t the only thing that’s universal.
RETURN TO ME — This film not only has heart, it’s about a heart—the one David Duchovny’s wife, after dying in an auto accident, posthumously “donates” to Minnie Driver, while leaving Duchovny to grieve. Until, that is, he coincidentally meets and falls in love with Driver, who wins Duchovny’s heart, but then has to tell him she’s also carrying his wife’s. This unusual film is infectiously and thankfully low-key. Its charm and believable writing, along with winning characters (including Driver’s grandfather and great-uncles who run the Italian restaurant where Driver is a waitress) enable it to sidestep plot cliches and easy sentimentality, although it is inevitably (no pun intended) upbeat. Don’t be reluctant to donate your attention.
FINDING FORRESTER — A popular black basketball-playing student, playing it safe with his peers by not displaying his brilliant writing gifts, befriends a legendary writer who’s long hidden his own talents away as a recluse in the Bronx tenement neighborhood. Sean Connery, as the curmudgeon writer and Rob Brown as the student are gifts enough in this well-directed story that deals, in the best Hollywood mainstream fashion, with issues of family, integrity and originality. Rob finds his writing voice, Sean finds a personal connection to a world he’s long shunned, and you’ll find a film that, in its own elevated writing, makes you feel cozily entertained and intelligent at the same time.
CAST AWAY — If watching Tom Hanks on a desert island for over two hours is not your cup of mango juice, think again. For one thing, it’s only the middle section that we spend on that bare and menacing but beautiful atoll, and while we’re there, mystery and suspense unfold, with Hanks’ point of view frighteningly and touchingly limned. This, we come to realize, is “Survivor” in a very good mainstream Hollywood film. But what this film most has going for it is its decidedly non-Hollywood touches, as it moves toward a climax and denouement that could have gone any number of Hollywood ways but winds up being neither contrived nor sentimental. The film takes pains to extend the notion of an island castaway to the question of what must be “cast away” (the actual two word title of the film) and what one should be thankful for keeping. The film ultimately has the feeling of being psycho-dramatically true, while being philosophically intriguing. And, having been forced to become used to Dolby overload in most movie soundtracks, no music in that middle section, with only the constant sound of the deceivingly benign South Pacific surf, is a definitely refreshing approach that effectively underscores Hanks’ isolation and perhaps provides compensation for an overload of dinnertime conversation.
TWO FAMILY HOUSE — On Staten Island in the ’50’s, newly-married Buddy Visalo buys a down-at-the-heels two family house in hopes that the second floor rental will underwrite his dream of opening a bar and becoming the venue’s crooner. But his wife, who has already made him skip a post-War singing audition with Arthur Godfrey (Julius La Rosa got the gig instead) as a condition of their marriage, conveys to Buddy where she’s coming from: namely, the terra firma of domestic and financial practicality. And the second floor “family” turns out to be no help either: a volatile penniless Irish drunk married to a pregnant woman from Russia who speaks little English. Through years of setbacks and disappointments, of sometimes literally bruising battles to open his bar and sing his own song, Buddy dreams on. Yes, this golden-hued movie with authentic, heart-felt writing and gold-plated characters starts off on nostalgic pathways we’ve trod before; but if you think you know where it’s going, you’re wrong. The characters deepen, the plot takes interesting turns, the nostalgia sweeps us through darker, uncharted regions until, without losing its gentle incisiveness, the film racks up the realistic cost of pursuing your dreams. Highly recommended for the post-modern MOONSTRUCK and MARTY crowd.
STATE AND MAIN — Director/writer David Mamet leaves the suspenseful gamesmanship of his HOUSE OF GAMES and THE SPANISH PRISONER for the amusing, sometimes hilarious hi-jinks of a subject he knows well: the making (and unmaking) of a Hollywood movie, in this case in bucolic Vermont. Of course, the subject of all Mamet’s films is mendacity, scam-artistry, and gambling, and here the production crew, trying desperately to compensate for being over budget and under pressure, confronts townspeople who are also scheming and enterprising. Bill Macy is the beleaguered director, Sarah Jessica Parker the slut star ironically concerned about exposing her breasts on celluloid, Alec Baldwin the aging Lothario constantly forswearing his addiction to seducing underage girls, Julia Stiles the faux innocent hotel clerk only too willing to be seduced, and Charles Durning the mayor with a portly generosity trying to put off his wife’s nagging, social climbing excesses. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Rebecca Pidgeon are the novice screenwriter and town’s book shop owner who present a romantic interest and the movie’s only spotlight of integrity, as they try to remain aloof from the shenanigans and, parenthetically, prevent the town’s historic town hall stain glass window from being clandestinely demolished for the sake of a tracking shot. This joyous, cynical fairy tale takes us to the small town crossroads of big time filmmaking, leaving us with a wide grin at the hardscrabble process of making movies.
HOLIDAY — One of the most enduring classics is the PHILADELPHIA STORY. Not a bad choice for this occasion, but a better choice (adapted from the same playwright and starring much of the same cast) is Holiday. Like the former film, it takes place at an upper crust party where dough doesn’t necessarily make for good taste in marriage. Here Katharine Hepburn is the unmarried independent woman whose witty, earthy patter hides a yearning to be free of her high class, wealthy family. When her beautiful, chic sister brings new fiancé Cary Grant in tow from a ski holiday to introduce him to her family, Kate recognizes in the likewise witty, free-spirited Grant a kindred soul, and conflict with her beloved sister and domineering family. How this all works out at the ensuing engagement party, amid acrobatic lines of dialogue (and, literally, somersaults!) makes for superbly engaging viewing. Hepburn’s early astonishing beauty and swift timing is a match for Grant’s. As good as The Philadelphia Story is, Holiday, one of the richest and most satisfying films ever made, is a greater cause to rejoice.
THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING — If adventure is what’s needed to breach the gap of generations, there’s Sean Connery in the historical desert saga THE WIND AND THE LION, and Frank Capra’s LOST HORIZONS, the romantic tale of a hi-jacked aircraft that crash-lands in a hidden utopian community in the Himalayas—a film that established the term “Shangri-la” in our lexicon of hope and yearning. But my top choice for adventure is John Huston’s adaptation of the Rudyard Kipling story, The Man Who Would Be King. Here Sean Connery and Michael Caine play two savvy, recently retired ex-soldiers in British India who, rejecting both England and India as being too crowded and bureaucratic, desire to employ their soldiering skills in conquering the primitive kingdom of Kafiristan. On the way to fulfilling their brazen ambition they experience bandits in the Khyber Pass, searing desert heat, freezing blizzards in the Himalayas, the resistance of their designated kingdom and, not least, a spectacular and romantic triumph that ironically strains their well-seasoned friendship. No one could ask for a more devilishly delightful duo than Connery and Caine, nor a more lavishly filmed production. If Kipling were alive today (and he is in the film, wonderfully played by Christopher Plummer), he’d give two thumbs up and a British “Huzzah!” Any of these adventure films would work for Uncle Charlie, if, despite these good movies, he’s not already dozing by the fireplace.