Thursday, November 01, 2007

Films for Turkey Day

When it comes to holiday viewing, Halloween is easy with a plethora of scary films to choose from. Christmas may be even easier with enough feel-good Christmas films to make your teeth hurt. This year’s first new offering is “Fred Claus” opening Nov. 9.

Thanksgiving Day may fall between Halloween and Christmas, but somehow it gets lost in the mix. Although they don't get the attention they deserve, there are Thanksgiving-based films — and I am not talking about “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving” or some special about the pilgrims. The selection of films is much smaller, but indeed there are films with Thanksgiving at least peripherally part of their plots.

Thanksgiving is sort of the black sheep of holidays — a day created to give thanks to the Native Americans who so graciously helped those early settlers. It is a holiday in conflict with itself — after all, our ancestors would eventually drive the people we are honoring to near extinction. It's no wonder that this holiday brings out the best and worst in people. Sure people travel great distances to gather with family to pay thanks for all the good in their lives, but the minute someone leaves for the bathroom the gossip starts.

Some may say I’m a cynic, but I’m not the only one. This is the same message that comes through in so many Thanksgiving-themed films. The strength and love of family may come through by the end, but the road there is often paved with conflict and strained relationships.

In “Home for the Holidays,” Holly Hunter returns home for Turkey Day and has to deal with the dysfunctions of her family, which includes Anne Bancroft, Charles Durning Steve Guttenberg, Robert Downey Jr. and Claire Danes. Directed by Jodie Foster, the film balances comedy with pathos as Hunter tiptoes through the minefield that can be family.

“What’s Cooking?” takes a multi-cultural approach, intercutting the stories of different ethnic groups — one Hispanic, one Vietnamese, one African American and one Jewish — trying to celebrate the holiday. Thanksgiving is a holiday unique to North America, but easy to embrace by other cultures because it holds no religious affiliation, and “What’s Cooking?” takes that idea and runs with it. No matter the cultural background, tensions stir as the turkey cooks.

Woody Allen’s “Hannah and Her Sisters” begins and ends with a Thanksgiving celebration. The secrets the cast, which includes Allen, Michael Caine, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Mia Farrow and Diane Wiest, reveal at the beginning of the film, will run their course over the year leading to heartbreak, betrayal and in some cases love. The family conflicts may go beyond the actual holiday, but it gets a nod here for using the day as the catalyst and conclusion of its drama.

From the indie world, there’s “The House of Yes,” in which Josh Hamilton brings his new fiancĂ© (Tori Spelling)home to his eccentric, high-strung family, much to the displeasure Parker Posey as his Jackie-O obsessed twin sister.

If off-beat indie is not your cup of tea, or leg of a turkey as the case may be, there’s always “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” with the slapstick antics of Steve Martin and John Candy as strangers turned reluctant travel partners trying to get home for Thanksgiving. Big laughs, but writer/director John Hughes does lay the sentimentality on a bit thick at the end.

Not that I am against sentimental, as indicated by my favorite Thanksgiving film: “Pieces of April.” In this small, but just about perfect film, Katie Holmes, the family misfit, tries to prepare Thanksgiving for her family members, who are driving to her small New York apartment.

The matriarch of the family, played with an acid tipped tongue by Patricia Clarkson, is dying of cancer, but the film earns both its laughs and tears and reminds that even with all the quarrels a family can still be filled with love. This is perhaps the most heartwarming film of the list, so I guess I lied. Maybe I’m not a cynic after all.

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