Ranking the Best Thanksgiving Movies



Well hello there. I bet you thought this post was going to be a list. So did I. But it turns out that, cinematically speaking, Thanksgiving is about as useful as arbor day. There is just no money in it. No one else celebrates Thanksgiving (or they celebrate their own version of it which has nothing to do with us), so there is no worldwide box office to be had.

I tend to have film traditions throughout the year. Start of summer is Jaws, 4th of July is 1776, Christmas is Fanny & Alexander (always the long version) — all topical films for the given holiday. But for Thanksgiving, my tradition is The Godfather I and II, neither of which have a Thanksgiving scene. It’s just not a compelling holiday.

It’s not that I didn’t try to make a list. I just couldn’t get past number four without moving into movies that I didn’t really like, like The Scent of a Woman or Son in Law. And I admit, too, that I have a small blindspot, having not seen Alice’s Restaurant or The House of Yes, and probably a few classic studio system films, but it still proved a difficult list.

It went like this:

1) Planes, Trains and Automobiles
2) Pieces of April
3) The Ice Storm
4) Home for the Holidays
5) And… yeah… um… uh… Hoo-ha!

After that, you have to start dissecting films to get the Thanksgiving-y goodness out of them.

Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, maybe the best film ever made to feature Thanksgiving, is bookended by two holiday dinner parties that show the progress (or lack thereof) of Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her extended family (Diane Weist, Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Barbra Hershey, etc). The film’s two Thanksgiving scenes give it a regression to the mean quality and shows what a poor yardstick that calendar events are to measure your life progress by (though it’s a mighty good film yardstick).

Judd Apatow’s Funny People actually features a kind of heartwarming Thanksgiving scene, where George (Adam Sandler) shows up for an orphans’ Thanksgiving with Ira (Seth Rogan) and his roommates (Jonah Hill, Jason Schwartzman). The film goes very seriously off of the rails in its second half, but this scene, where George talks about sitting around the table with his friends when he was younger and has his whole life in from of him, lights up what is a very good first half.

But my favorite Thanksgiving scene ever doesn’t come from a film, it comes from the Best Show Ever to be on the Idiot Box, The West Wing. President Bartlet (Martin Sheen), worried about killing his guests with undercooked oyster stuffing, decides to consult the Butterball hotline (FYI: 1-800-BUTTERBALL) and hilarity ensues.

Continue reading…

Here’s a Story About the Least Interesting Character

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This contains major spoilers for this week’s Sons of Anarchy. Avoid if you haven’t seen it yet. 

I have something of an irrational, yet unabashed love for Sons of Anarchy. I don’t question it; it just is. It’s a truly awful show that I can’t really defend, yet I love it. As a kid, I had a thing about bikers. I bought into the romantic open road thing. See, I thought bikers were lovable goofballs of the open road who solved their disputes with law enforcement with truckloads of fireworks because of movies like Masters of Menace. It was always so exciting seeing a bunch of bikers on Harleys, feeling that rumble as they pass by on road trips. Especially to a kid stuck in the back of his mom’s minivan, it looked like freedom.

It wasn’t until later that I found out about the virulent racism, sexism and drug running. The personality type of a biker is the type that leads to things like Orlando area shootouts and to a man being beaten nearly to death in front of his family on the Upper West Side while undercover cops looked on.

Like mobsters though, it’s interesting on film. It says something about our society.

As show creator Kurt Sutter likes to endlessly tell us in every interview he does, Sons of Anarchy is basically Hamlet with bikes, guns and porn stars. Jax is Hamlet, Clay is Claudius, John Teller’s writing is the Ghost. Gemma seems to have more of a Lady Macbeth thing going on, but it still fits.

But now there is this: they’ve killed off the character who I think was the most interesting on the show.

On Tuesday night’s episode, in a convoluted prison break ruse, Jax informs Clay that the club has unanimously voted that he meet Mr. Mayhem and shoots him in the neck. It was one of those moments. “Wait, what? Did that just Happen?” The show has a lot of them. But as the episodes ends with medical examiners leaning over Clay’s corpse in a pool of its own blood, there can be no mix up. Clay is dead and there will be no Ray, Clay’s long lost evil twin. Ron Perlman is not in the cast any longer. Confirmed.

Jax, though, is intensely boring, just as any character whose defining trait is a control of his own rage is. He is a chess player in a checkers world, one who makes few mistakes and one who seemingly never miss a beat or an opening, which puts him so far ahead of everyone that it becomes incredibly dull. His smug face in the preview for next week’s episode teases that it doesn’t get any better.

Clay, for all of his many and extreme flaws, was the show’s most interesting character. He was a master checkers player, which put him just far enough ahead of the others to be a good leader, but not that far.  He made mistakes, and plenty of them. His mistakes got people wronged, hurt and even killed. In his most horrifying moment, like Tony Soprano and Michael Corleone before him, he almost kills Gemma during a fight. His removed ease with violence and bravado were often scary, but it was his inability to control his rage that made him compelling. It is, in fact, what eventually gets him killed.

As the Claudius character, it’s not a surprise he’s gone, just that he’s gone this soon before the end of the show, which still has at least another season to run. From here on out, we just have Jax, alone on his throne with no competitor, no underworld mirror to measure against.

Sons of Anarchy is a show about the least interesting character on it.

And it’s not alone.

Continue reading…

In Your Queue: Idiots All Around Us (“Frances Ha”, “Dealin’ With Idiots”)



Frances Ha – Noah Baumbach

At certain age benchmarks we tend to change, usually rapidly. Thirteen, eighteen, twenty one, thirty — they are times in our lives where we might change our clothes or the kind of music we listen to, the kind of people we want to be when we grow up. Sometimes we change friends, sometimes best friends at that. Frances Ha is about just that, slow dissolution of a best friendship between Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) as they come frighteningly close to reaching 30. They are the kind of friends who describe each other as “the same person with different hair”, roomates with no boundaries but with no boundary issues either. They are the new Oscar and Felix, until Sophie decides to leave Frances and move in with her boyfriend.

After a certain age making new friends is a difficult thing. You’re used to being you without a filter. That you can be too much for a new person, but the filter makes you boring. Frances’s new reality is full of people, but none of whom she really connects to, with or without a filter. The idea of two ships passing in the night comes to mind, but Frances Ha is more like two ships passing in the daytime. It’s a stark and funny, a well observed portrait of friendship and moving on, but a little bit painful to watch if you’re around 30, as one ship sails so smoothly from port while the other —  the graceful dancer — sputters in circles helplessly with no life jacket to rely on. 

Dealin’ With Idiots – Jeff Garlin

This is probably the strangest recommendation for a movie that I’ll ever write. It is, essentially a giant spoiler, but for an improv comedy feature, the trailer ruins more than what I’m about to say, which is: this movie is not that good. If they made an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm about psycho baseball parents, but did it without Larry David, this is what it might be like. It’s flat and only occasionally funny. Often, in fact, it is brutally unfunny, and even JB Smoove and Bob Odenkirk fall on their faces a little in this movie — that’s the big risk with improv — but it is 100% worth watching because the ending absolutely pays off on the promise that the film’s core idea is about. The ending is actually kind of genius, the way everything falls apart so perfectly and idiocy is so well confronted. So that’s my strange recommendation, to stick with this film through the ending. Fast forward through scenes if you need to, but stick with it because it’s so, so worth it.

In Your Queue: Why Must I Be a Teenager in Loo-ooove? (“Say Anything…”, “Mermaids”)


We’ve been skewing to mostly newer films available on VOD and other streaming sites lately, but we’re feeling a bit nostalgic and full of feelings this week.

Say Anything… – Cameron Crowe

If there is a more iconic image of the lovesick young man than Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) and his boombox in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything, I’ve never seen it. It’s one of those images that so becomes the film that it almost ruins the film in a weird way. It’s like the house falling around Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill, Jr. You keep waiting for it to happen, and that waiting causes you to think that whole film will be Lloyd standing there in his trench coat arms aloft as he courts the smart-beautiful-loving-rich-wonderful Diane Court and her father (the eminently watchable Ione Skye and John Mahoney, respectively), especially the first time you see it. Of course the scene is very short and not really the focal point — and not nearly the best scene in the film.  For me, that distinction goes to the “what do you want to do with your life?” scene:

Isn’t that the dream? Isn’t everything about this film the dream for teenage boys? In real life Diane Court is the kind of girl who would never date you. Not because she is a bitch, but because you are not as self-possessed and charming as Lloyd Dobler. It just takes a few more years to realize this fact and try and do something about it. It’s almost a fantasy role reversal. Diane Courts exist and are, probably, lovely; it’s Lloyd Dobler who is set in the fantasy mold, giving out false hope that maybe one big gesture of true love will whitewash all of that fumbling insecurity, all of that charmlessness and all of those zits. It works so well in its time, but hopefully it becomes nostalgia after.

Mermaids – Richard Benjamin (and like 8 other guys Cher had fired, including Frank Oz)

When the filmmakers were putting Mermaids together, they probably thought little about it beyond that fact that it would be a Cher vehicle to put dollars in their pockets. They probably did not think that they would be getting a rare gem of an early Winona Ryder performance or that they would discover Christina Ricci in the process. It didn’t put many dollars in their pockets, but ended up a rich and endearing document of the lovesick young woman during a New England school year when Kennedy was shot. Ryder plays the narrator, Charlotte Flax, a fifteen year old who is devoted to Catholicism (despite being Jewish) whose inner monologue is a game of angel-devil between God and sex with the hunky handyman, Joe (Michael Schoeffling). The film tends to get a bad wrap, but it charms with its Catholic deadpan and array of strange characters, playing out like a long episode of The Wonder Years if it were narrated by Winnie instead of Kevin.

The bad wrap comes mostly from Cher. At times, it’s unfortunate that she is in the film. She is clunky and a bit of a diva (on screen and off), but she is also a gateway to more Lou, the worst painter in the world, played by Bob Hoskins in his most affable performance ever. It was jarring to realize that these family-type roles (this, Roger Rabbit) were a new style of character that Bob Hoskins was trying on after years of being a hard man in British gangster films. It still is jarring when a new-old film of his shows up on Netflix. I tend to think of him as lovable Lou or as the wounded Eddie Valiant, connections I made to him at a very young age, not as the homicidal maniac he is actually famous for. Is it true range to be able to play a London killer and a small town New England gossip? I don’t know, but I like the outcome anyway.

Ender’s Aftermath: “Ender’s Game” Comes Out to Little Fanfare



So the Ender’s Game opening weekend came and went with little fanfare or trouble from the Orson Scott Card boycott. It also came and went with little money for the prospective franchise opener, bringing in less than $30m in North America.

The boycott had been proposed on social media earlier this summer as fans became aware of the Mormon author’s staunch and vocal opposition to gay marriage.

Boycotts never seem to work at anything but calling more attention to the thing you wish people would ignore. But with Ender’s Game, it was always going to be a hard sell even before Card’s words got them into trouble.

It’s a boycott I have plenty of sympathy for because Card’s anti-gay stance is repellent and harmful, but it’s not one I followed through on. I plunked my $14 down, but I did it for writer-director Gavin Hood and for Asa Butterfield and Harrison Ford and Hailee Steinfeld (and, by the way, for the bit-part actor who had the fortune to be named Han Soto in a Harrison Ford movie).

(After writing this post, I finally saw this piece on The Wrap that claims Card only earned the $1.5m option fee with no box office backend, meaning the boycott was pointless — but no one said anything until the day before it opened for some incredibly dumb reason.)

A while back in Vision Thing, Steve made this point:

…the commercial success or failure of Ender’s Game will still be a verdict on the viability of [Orson Scott Card’s] name as a brand. If the film tanks, Hollywood will learn the lesson that anti-gay rhetoric has passed into the realm of box-office poison. If the picture does OK-to-strong business, the moral will be that the general public really doesn’t mind a little beating up on the sissies – meaning that Card (and other content providers who share his noxious ideology) will continue to be considered for future paydays.

So now that we have part of the verdict — the film was not John Carter-level box-office poison but was not strong either — we may be even farther away from an answer than we were before we began. This is an unknowable middle: was this a repudiation of Orson Scott Card, or was it just lousy word of mouth for a big budget film with little-to-no direct action set pieces? How many casual movie goers even know Card’s name, let alone his stance? (And the more awful question: how many people still agree with him?) Continue reading…

In Your Queue: Smash Your Head on the Punk Rock (“A Band Called Death”, “The Other F Word”, “Sound City”)



A Band Called Death – Mark Christopher Covino, Jeff Howlett

Though the story is not quite as fantastic and strange as the other long-missing Detroit musician, Sixto Rodriquez (documented in Sugar Man), A Band Called death has its own sense of mystery and wonder. The band called Death were an all black proto-punk band formed in the early 70s in the mold of Iggy Pop, the MC5 and Alice Cooper. In that time, in their neighborhood, rock n’ roll was about the most rebellious thing a bunch of kids could do. And the Hackney brothers did it well. Their sound is a well manufactured mix of that pre-Ramones, pre-101 Club sound, but with a slightly harder edge to it, like the Stooges if they were led by Phil Lynott instead of Iggy. A Band Called Death’s religious overtones do stick out as being somewhat strange in a story about a punk band and it will likely rankle the non-religious audience, but it’s more of an incidental focus of the film. There were mystic coincidences that brought this story together. The Hackney brothers believe it was faith. I don’t think there is a God, but I do like to think that he would be a guardian of music if he existed, and that he would deliver bands that deserve to be heard to us.

The Other F Word – Andrea Blaugrund Nevins

When I was a kid, this is the side of punk rock I never thought I would see. Adulthood, fatherhood, sobriety, home ownership; it never even occurred to me. Punk rockers were supposed to be the true Earthly embodiment of Peter Pan and the Lost Boys, never growing up, staying drunk and pissed off and young until an untimely drug overdose or something. Punk rockers are punk rockers because of having horrible parents, right? But it’s that fact that actually makes it make sense that they would end up being loving, good guy moms and dads. Still, it’s strange to see Fat Mike (NOFX) spoil his daughter; to see Lars Frederiksen (Rancid) scare the other parents away from the playground because of his tattoos and his hair. The film’s most interesting story though is ex-Pennywise singer Jim Lindbergh, who family life – wife, 3 daughters, dog – is becoming incompatible with his life in a punk band. His bandmates, in their 40s, really are the lost boys, but Jim has grown up. It’s kind of heartbreaking to see from a band perspective, but from an F Word perspective it would be heartbreaking if he stayed a lost boy forever.

SoundCity – Dave Grohl

This deviates slightly from the punk rock theme, though certainly the famous recording studio SoundCity has seen its share of punk rockers over the years. Bands like Fear, Bad Religion and Rancid have recorded there, but it’s most famous for being the studio that albums like Nirvana’s Nevermind and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ Damn the Torpedoes were recorded in. During its heyday, it was one of the most popular recording studios in the world – and then the digital revolution happened and suddenly people didn’t need it so much. The film’s main focus, aside from the bands, is the studio’s one-of-a-kind that was achieved at the studio. The sound came from two sources: the drum room and the soundboard. Grohl does well for his first film, filling the documentary with every famous name he could find in his rolodex, and one more still: Paul McCartney, who, in a weird way, took the place of Kurt Cobain in an odd little Nirvana reunion that is documented towards the end of the film. It could be argued that the film loses steam once it stops being about the recording studio and becomes about the Sound City jam sessions, but only an idiot would argue that. This documentary is must see if you are even casually a music fan.