Anear-perfect movie about an imperfect family, “Pieces of April” (2003) could serve as a template for how to make a low-budget film. Writer-director Peter Hedges, who also penned 2002’s “About a Boy” but is too talented to have such a sparse resume, follows Thanksgiving-meal-cooking April (Katie Holmes), her boyfriend Bobby (Derek Luke), and April’s traveling family in a deceptively loose style, using a hand-held-camera. Yet the screenplay is a masterpiece of economy — a series of small moments that provide big insights.
John Hughes’ other Thanksgiving movie, “Dutch” (1991), has that “other” status for a reason: It’s not as funny as “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” (1987). However, as I got to the end of this road-tripper, I realized I owe it a future rewatch, because it’s not trying to be as humorous. Its interest is in the relationship between entitled kid Doyle (Ethan Embry) and potential stepfather Dutch (Ed O’Neill). I’ve been told this stuff will ring true to people thrown into such a relationship, but it’s frustrating how long it takes Doyle to turn into a nice kid. (It seems so wrong that Embry, later of “Vegas Vacation” and “Can’t Hardly Wait,” isn’t playing his usual sweetest-guy-ever.)
Lawrence Sutin follows up his excellent biography of Philip K. Dick, 1989’s “Divine Invasions,” with a peek at his research materials as he curates “The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings” (1995). This collection of Dick’s essays, speeches, journaling and other odds and ends is tantalizing for burgeoning PKD addicts and also a good one-stop shop for those who want a basic grounding in the author’s ideas and life outlook.
Still Life with Crows” (2003) is “merely” a standalone Agent Pendergast novel, but it features the introduction of Corrie Swanson, the evocative cornfields and caves (!) of western Kansas, a looming storm and a monster even creepier than the “Relic” beast. It became my favorite Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child novel on my first read, and it still holds that status. In their eighth novel (and fourth starring the FBI agent), the masters click on all cylinders like Pendergast’s Rolls-Royce.
I’ve probably seen the original “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” more than any other movie (granted, most of those viewings were from 1990-92). That film is a perfect blend of respect for the source material with mass appeal, and the three sequels – although they have their moments — don’t match its quality or heart. In a perfect world, Nickelodeon’s return to the saga – 2014’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (referred to here as “TMNT ’14”) – would tap into what worked in 1990, while adding untapped villains in cinematic debuts.
Ilove adventures set in geographic extremes, and that’s the biggest appeal of “30 Days of Night” (2007), set in Barrow, Alaska. Odd places like this have me going to the internet, where I learned that Barrow has since been renamed Utqiagvik, and it actually experiences two straight months of night from mid-November to mid-January. Inaccessible from other cities by road, the oil-industry-driven outpost has a population of over 4,000. But the film imagines a town of mere hundreds, only a few blocks wide.
Drive” (2007, Fox) feels like a “see what sticks” entry from Tim Minear, who co-creates the series with Ben Queen. It boasts good TV actors and movie character actors and one future superstar, and it has the high-concept premise of a secret multi-million-dollar illegal cross-country road race. That phrase could’ve been the centerpiece of a “Drive” drinking game, like “Dark Angel” had with “genetically engineered killing machine.”
Class Action Park” (HBO Max) is a schizophrenic documentary, but unavoidably so. It chronicles New Jersey’s Action Park, a theme park of dangerous water rides, motor cars and mini motorboats that existed from 1978-96 and clearly could never exist again. Documentarians Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III bounce back and forth between gleeful descriptions of the rides and much more sobering facts, ranging from park owner Eugene Mulvihill’s corruption to a teen’s death from a head injury.
Iliked “Cabin in the Woods” (2011), but I’m uncomfortable with how it has risen to classic status in the horror genre. Wild genre shifting and brazen disregard for the illusion of fear you’ve created for the audience is eye-opening the first time but it would be an unappealing trend. Luckily, films like that aren’t the norm, and if “Cabin” shows how they can go right, “The Hunt” shows how they can go wrong.
If we started a debate over the greatest Christmas movie, it could go on until New Year’s, but “greatest Thanksgiving movie” is easier: It’s “Plains, Trains and Automobiles” (1987), an all-timer not only among Turkey Day films but also among the catalogs of John Hughes, John Candy and Steve Martin. Cleverly, it’s not about the family gathering itself, but rather about getting home to family – and it ultimately has a heartfelt message about the holiday’s original meaning.