What to Watch: Turkey Murder Day Edition

Seven movies on demand and in theaters so your family can avoid talking about politics.

What to Watch: Turkey Murder Day Edition

As we gather with our clans this week around the Thanksgiving feast – cousins and siblings, the random aunt, one or two holiday orphans – let us remember the cardinal rule of family dinners: Leave politics out of it. No one’s mind ever gets changed, no matter how many visual aids you bring to the party (like the giant map of Israel mounted on foamboard that one grandpa I knew pulled out in the middle of a seder a few years back). This year more than ever, when generations at either end of the age range may be bringing radically different global narratives to the table, let us simply pray instead for peace. Let us pray for the cessation of death. Let us pray that that one relative who spends far too much time on Facebook keeps their conspiracy theories to themselves.

You know what’s really good for passive-aggressively sublimating inter-family tensions? That’s right, a movie. It is very difficult to futilely argue over the Middle East when everyone’s staring at a screen. I know that sounds cynical, but just think of it as a mitzvah to the host or hostess, a sign of respect for their hospitality and the repast they’ve been so kind to lay out for everyone. (Unless they’re the ones causing all the dissension, in which case maybe let the cranberry sauce hit the fan.)

To help you on your way, here’s a grab bag of on-demand suggestions, new and old, and a few fresh titles in theaters in case things really go south and you have to get out of the house. Yes, yes, everything will be fine, everyone in your family loves each other unconditionally, right? It’s still a good idea to have an exit strategy.

“Oppenheimer” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, for purchase at Amazon, Google Play, and YouTube) finally comes to streaming services this week, delayed by Christopher Nolan’s eminently sensible demand that as many people see it on the big screen as possible. I reviewed the movie back in July; it has (in my opinion) a first two-thirds that’s as good as anything Nolan has done and a final third that fritters and sprawls. Still, you can follow a Thanksgiving Day family watch of “Oppenheimer” with a spirited discussion about the morality of dropping a nuclear bomb on  a city in the stated services of ending a war. Let’s see how that goes.

“Napoleon” (⭐ ⭐ 1/2, in theaters) Just in time for the holidays, Ridley Scott delivers a sumptuous widescreen historical epic like they used to make ‘em, or so it is to be hoped. In reality, and despite a two hour and 40 minute runtime, “Napoleon” plays like the Cliffs Notes version of Napoleon Bonaparte’s life. Here he is breaking the Siege of Toulon! No, wait, he’s in Egypt, firing cannons at the Pyramids! Sorry, he’s back in Paris plotting a coup with Talleyrand! He's off to invade Russia with 400,000 troops; no, he’s back from Russia with 40,000 survivors. And so it goes, the audience skipping along the chapter headings of a legendary life like a stone across the surface of a lake. Even the Hundred Days feels like it’s over in two minutes. As Napoleon, Joaquin Phoenix (above) appears to be enjoying a pleasant private joke that he occasionally shares with us; he gives us the phlegmatic military genius and the awkwardly ardent lover, but the ambitions and stratagems of the greatest statesman of his day are left to our imagination. Where “Napoleon” excels is in its two extended battle sequences: The first, the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz, lets Scott mount his own version of Sergei Eisenstein’s attack on the ice in 1938’s “Alexander Nevsky,” and the film’s climactic Battle of Waterloo is the kind of old-school spectacle that this director and very few others remember how to pull off. The other major sign of life is Vanessa Kirby’s Josephine, more sophisticated than her coarse Corsican husband but needier, too, in ways that prove her undoing. “Napoleon” tries to split its energies between the epic and domestic, an approach that strands the dialogue between declamation and realism and lands it too often into the dramatic limbo of camp. There are lines here the audience is intended to laugh at – Napoleon petulantly complaining that the British win battles because they’ve got all those boats – and just as many moments where we laugh without being sure we’re meant to. In the end, you get your money’s worth in extravaganza and cannon fire but not nearly enough of the charismatic personalities and bravura filmmaking a project this gargantuan needs. “Lawrence of Arabia” it ain’t.

Carey Mulligan and Bradley Cooper in “Maestro”

“Maestro” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐, in theaters) The weekend’s other outsized bio-pic has even more at stake, namely the future of its director/co-writer/star Bradley Cooper. When early photos of Cooper made up as conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein were made public earlier this year, there was much jollity and performative outrage over The Nose, i.e., the prosthetic attachment that, depending on who was talking, was too Jewish, too fake, too much, or just right. Watching the film itself, you don’t notice the nose so much as Cooper’s intense blue eyes staring out at us from Leonard Bernstein’s face. “Maestro” starts where Bernstein started, replacing the ailing Bruno Walter at a 1943 concert that landed the young conductor on the front page of the New York Times, and it follows through to his final days, but while the film is packed with event and anecdote, it rarely feels rushed or thin, the way “Napoleon” does. The irony is that for all the exuberance with which Lenny Bernstein went through life and all the exuberance with which Cooper plays him, you come away from “Maestro” holding Carey Mulligan’s performance as Felicia Montealegre Bernstein in the palm of your mind, the way you might protect an elegant and fragile bird. The movie portrays Felicia as both clear-eyed and long-suffering in her marriage to a gay man who loved her while taking her and the cover she gave him for granted, and there’s a very good scene about two-thirds of the way in which years of resentment tumble out of Felicia in a spitting rage, and Lenny takes it because he knows she’s right and he knows he’ll never change. As a director, and an ambitious one, Cooper is still working out some kinks, and in the early black-and-white half of “Maestro” – the building of the Bernstein myth as opposed to the later color scenes in which the conductor lives that myth out – Cooper indulges conceits like dissolving the walls and distances between scenes. The hero will run out of his bedroom right into Carnegie Hall; that sort of thing. It’s sweet and pretentious and goofy, and it works the first few times. Still, “Maestro” is anything but a failure. It's just an achievement that works a little too hard to be an Achievement. See it for Mulligan, the music – especially a hair-raising 1973 performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 at England’s Ely Cathedral – the evocation of a lost era in American culture, and an incisive little character turn by comedian Sarah Silverman as Leonard’s sister Shirley.

“Cassandro” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, streaming on Amazon Prime) When I saw it at Sundance in January, I wrote: “Everything Gael Garcia Bernal does is unexpected and worth seeing – he’s the playful demon imp of the arthouse – and his new movie qualifies as both. It’s the story of Saúl Armendaríz, who may not have been the first gay Mexican wrestler but was the first “exótico” to become a popular star, one expected to (and allowed to) win his bouts. He was a consciousness-raising groundbreaker but also a prankster of the luchador circuit, and Bernal has great fun playing both sides of the character: Cassandro, the outrageous camp figure of the ring, and Saúl, a mocked outsider who refuses to be marginalized.” Finally on VOD, this ebullient bio-pic is a charmer. Recommended.

“Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, streaming on Amazon Prime; for rent on Amazon, Apple TV, and YouTube) When Peter Weir’s beautifully crafted 2003 adaptation of two books in Patrick O’Brien’s deathless series of seafaring novels was a flop in theaters – thus scotching any chance of a sequel or sequels – the wind went out of the sails of a lot of book readers and film lovers. But “M&C” has since been recognized as one of the best fighting warships movies ever made, with a perfect cinematic partnership in stalwart British Navy captain Jack Aubrey (Russell Crowe) and ship’s surgeon/naturalist/spy Stephen Maturin (Paul Bettany) – Kirk and Spock transported back to the Napoleonic Wars. Funny, thrilling, dramatic, epic, it’s everything a good adventure film should be and much more than the Dad Movie some family members might scorn it as.

“Safety Last!” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐, streaming on Criterion Channel, Kanopy, and Max; for rent on Amazon and Apple TV) Yeah, the one with the guy hanging from the clock. If you have bored young children lying around the house, dozy from turkey but clamoring for something to watch, skip the umpteenth screening of “Frozen” and throw on this silent Harold Lloyd classic, celebrating its centenary this year. Here’s the thing: Young kids don’t know black-and-white is good for them, and they don’t know that a silent movie is old. They just know this one’s both funny and insanely exciting. Trust me, I have seen a room full of five-year-olds enraptured by this film. They enjoy “Safety Last!” just fine for the first two-thirds: the prototypical Lloyd character, a glasses-wearing go-getter, is both amusing and surprisingly mean, and the department store gags are as inspired as anything in Chaplin or Keaton -- less poetic, perhaps, but just as effective in earning straight-up belly laughs. It's when the star has to climb the twelve-floor "skyscraper" that the movie lifts off into a masterpiece of theme-and-variation comedy. Pigeons, mice, cops, dogs, painters, flagpole, ropes -- every floor has a maddening new obstacle, as if in a weird way “Safety Last!” prefigures the world of videogames. Except that it's real, and Lloyd is genuinely hanging from the hand of a clock a hundred feet off the ground. By the end, your kids will be prostrate on the living room floor, completely and happily wrung out.

“24 Hour Party People” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐, streaming on Amazon Prime, Hoopla, and Kanopy; for rent on Amazon, Apple TV, and YouTube) begins exactly where a rock fable should: At a Sex Pistols concert in Manchester, England, in 1975, with precisely 42 people in attendance. Over in the corner are Pete Shelley and Howard DeVoto; they'll form the Buzzcocks. That skinny, intense fellow in the rear is Ian Curtis: He'll become the lead singer and dark star of Joy Division before hanging himself on the eve of his group's first American tour.  And the floppy-haired dandy in the third row is Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan), a TV reporter who will go on to start a record label and open a nightclub that will spring the Manchester scene upon the world in the 1980s. He'll tell you so himself -- in fact, he turns to the camera and does just that. Michael Winterbottom’s memory play about the glory days of “Madchester” is fast-paced, stylish fun and a good history lesson for any disaffected music teens in the house. Just don’t take it for the gospel truth.

“Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐, streaming on Netflix) This gets a little convoluted, but stick with me: Scott Pilgrim was the name of a six-volume graphic novel created by Bryan Lee O’Malley from 2004 to 2010, about a lovelorn Toronto slacker (above) who has to do manga-style battle with his girlfriend’s League of Evil Ex-Boyfriends. Loopy, deadpan, and very funny, the comics were turned into a pretty good 2010 Edgar Wright movie starring Michael Cera as Scott and a supporting cast that includes Kieran Culkin, Anna Kendrick, Brie Larson, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, and Jason Schwartzman. Now that same cast has reunited to provide the voices for a cartoon version of “Scott Pilgrim” on Netflix that, like the comic, straddles the line between Western animation and Eastern anime with the hyperactive brio of an 8-bit videogame. The original comics are still the best bet, but the series adds a bouncy punk-pop soundtrack that papers over the dead spots, and the droll humor of the original has made it through intact. Produced by the bleeding-edge Japanese animation studio Science SARU, “Scott Pilgrim Takes Off” won’t be everyone’s cup of Red Bull, but even if it is, you still might want to bring a defibrillator.

Comments? Other recommendations? Please don’t hesitate to weigh in.

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