Nov 29

“The Holdovers”: New Holiday Film Is Special

If there’s a theater movie I’ve enjoyed more than The Holdovers this past year, I don’t remember it.  And I’m not the only one praising this story that on varying levels—but not heavy-handedly or without humor—involves issues of grief, loneliness, secrets, anxiety, depression, and alcoholism.  A sampling of critical reviews:

  • Johnny OleksinskiNew York Post :  “…the warmest cinematic experience you’ll have all year.”
  • Leonard Maltin: “…the year’s best movie to date.”
  • Jackson Weaver, CBC: “…best movie of the year.”
  • Peter Travers, ABC News: “…has all the makings of a new holiday classic.”
  • Maureen Lee Lenker, EW.com: “…the closest thing we’ve had to a new holiday classic in quite some time.”
  • Brian Truit, USA Today: eighth of 20 “best Christmas movies ever.”

Currently at 96% approval from Rotten Tomatoes critics, the following is the site’s description:

From acclaimed director Alexander Payne, THE HOLDOVERS follows a curmudgeonly instructor (Paul Giamatti) at a New England prep school who is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit the handful of students with nowhere to go. Eventually he forms an unlikely bond with one of them — a damaged, brainy troublemaker (newcomer Dominic Sessa) — and with the school’s head cook, who has just lost a son in Vietnam (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

Here’s a preview:

THE THREE MAIN CHARACTERS

Maureen Lee Lenker, EW.com: “There is something so relatable, so deeply human about their pain and their circumstances — there’s a startling honesty in the kaleidoscope of emotions they all are experiencing at any given time.”

Oliver Jones, Observer: “None of these characters ask for sympathy, but command it nonetheless.”

Tomris Laffly, The Wrap: “…three broken misfits lifting each other up.”

THE STORY

Brian Tallerico, rogerebert.com:

Hollywood has a long history of stories of ‘makeshift families that learn something,’ but then why does ‘The Holdovers’ feel so fresh? It’s probably because it’s been so long since one of these stories felt this true. Payne and his team recognize the clichés of this life lesson, but they embed them with truths that will always be timeless. Everyone has that unexpected friendship or even mentorship with someone who forever altered their direction in life. And everyone has that young person who has shocked them out of their stasis, either through revealing what they have become or failed to be. ‘The Holdovers’ is a consistently smart, funny movie about people who are easy to root for and like the ones we know. Its greatest accomplishment is not how easy it is to see yourself in Paul, Angus, or Mary. It’s that you will in all three.

Nick Schager, The Daily Beast: “…a story about the lies we tell ourselves (for good and ill) and the reality of our not-so-dissimilar human conditions. Moreover, both looking forward and behind, it’s a film that grasps that everything has been done before and that absolutely nothing is set in stone, and that what bolsters and binds us most of all is compassion for ourselves, each other, and the histories we can never truly escape and are always free to leave behind.”

Stephen Farber, Hollywood Reporter: “Both teacher and student discover secrets about the other that prove traumatic and therapeutic at the same time.”

CONCLUSIONS

Oliver Jones, Observer: “When it’s over, the chill it leaves in your spine is destined to last nearly as long as the smile on your face.”

Max Weiss, Baltimore Magazine: “Wry, funny (with some zingers that will stay with you long after the film is over), and closely observed, The Holdovers is my kind of Christmas film.”

Moira Macdonald, Seattle Times: “…gets us there with honesty rather than sweetness.”

Dec 06

“The Descendants”: Husband/Father Faces Sudden Loss

I recently saw the new and highly praised/hyped movie The Descendants, a comedy/drama by director Alexander Payne. In a nutshell, Matt King (George Clooney), who’s been an emotionally distant husband and father, is suddenly forced to deal with grief and betrayal issues when his wife suffers a horrible accident.

The following are excerpts from the critics about the handling of the grief process in The Descendants:

  • Bill GoodykoontzArizona Republic: “…captures the complexity of emotional reactions that grief stirs.”
  • Josh BellLas Vegas Weekly: “Grief feels overly pleasant…”
  • Ann HornadayWashington Post: “A tough, tender, observant, exquisitely nuanced portrait of mixed emotions at their most confounding and profound…”
  • Rex ReedNew York Observer: “…I found the film’s moments of pathos every bit as unconvincing as the bigger picture of a man who learns late-life redemption through guilt, and I found Mr. Clooney’s tears and sentimentality especially clumsy.”
  • Dana Stevens, Slate: “This is a movie that wants to confront painful truths about love, loss, and grief, yet there’s a curious emotional brittleness about it. The script seems to operate in only two affective modes—deadpan absurdism and heart-tugging melodrama—and every time it switches gears, the grinding is audible.”

As for me, one of the two main things I liked about this film was the feeling that the family’s grief responses were complicated and often realistically so. And the other was the acting of Clooney and the two young women portraying his daughters, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller.

However, I think the biggest failing was a certain lack of depth. Why, for example, has Matt been so emotionally unavailable?

As for the comedy/drama aspect, for me the film seemed much more “drama” than “comedy,” as most attempts at humor fell flat. Peter Howell, Toronto Star: “This is stealth comedy, richly delivered…” Then I would argue perhaps it’s too stealth. But anyway…

In sum, it’s a tragic story—and although I appreciated its theme and apparent intents, I just wish I’d been more moved by it. As does Richard Corliss, who states in his review for Time:

Watching this adaptation of Kaui Hart Hemmings’s 2007 novel about a man facing family crises in the modern Eden of Hawaii, I wanted The Descendants‘ elevated sentiments to wash over me, inundate me in its lapping warmth, like the restorative waters on a Kauai beach. I’m a notorious softie, and I found things to like about the film…but I remained untouched. I must have been wearing my wet suit.

See it and see what you feel—or think.