Tuesday, November 21, 2023

Film Reviews: Thanksgiving and Holiday Films for Family (“The Holdovers”) and Friends (“Saltburn”), With Some Streaming Options

The Holdovers (c) Focus Features

FAMILY-FRIENDLY FILMS You’re home with family. What should you watch that’s safe for Mom, Dad and nieces and nephews. 

Film: The Holdovers 
In Cinemas 

Auteur filmmaker Alexander Payne has always had a cynical look at the world in films such as Election and About Schmidt, with his last movie, Downsizing, maybe taking it a bit too far. Perhaps because he is directing a script he didn’t write (the screenplay is by David Hemingson), his latest, The Holdovers, is possibly his most relatable and sentimental work. The film takes place in a nostalgic New England Christmas setting of 1970 and deals with three people in holiday crisis. Set at an all-boys boarding school, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa) is one of the titular holdovers as he has been asked by his mother not to come home for Christmas because of his tenuous relationship with his stepfather. He and some other kids are being babysat by his reluctant Classics teacher Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti, reuniting with Payne for the first time after Sideways), who is both mean and vindictive in his approach to the spoiled kids he teaches. Also stuck at the school is the school cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who has recently lost someone close to her and doesn’t feel festive. How these three interact and deal with each other’s problems doesn’t divert too much from expectations. Sessa is fine as the always angry student, although a plot reveal toward the end could have been explored a bit more. As for Giamatti, will his Grinch heart grow three times as large by the end of the movie? Well, how Mr. Hunham’s story resolves itself takes a slightly unexpected turn that may feel a bit out of character, but Giamatti somehow makes it work. Randolph, however, as Mary is the standout here. She is the moral compass of the film and Randolph is both funny and heartbreaking. The nostalgia may touch a chord for many audiences, but will The Holdovers become a Christmas tradition film like It’s a Wonderful Life or Elf? Time will tell. 

Other family-film suggestions this holiday:

Priscilla (c) A24

Film: Priscilla 
In Cinemas 

After last year’s over-the-top and garish biopic of Elvis Presley by director Baz Luhrmann, it may be a shock how Sofia Coppola’s take on the same story, this time from the perspective of his young bride Priscilla, is so quiet and intimate. Cailee Spaeny does a good job playing her from teenager to wife to mother at age 28. Jacob Elordi is fine as the Army Elvis wooing Priscilla but is less convincing as the older, Vegas Elvis. Coppola’s take seems to be Priscilla as a doll imprisoned in a Graceland dollhouse, and since the film is adapted from Priscilla’s own autobiography, the truths may be in the quiet which is occasionally punctured by Elvis’ sound and fury. 

Leo (c) Netflix

Film: Leo 
Streaming on Netflix 

Adam Sandler’s animated characters feel more human than his live action ones, whether it’s his Count Dracula in the Hotel Transylvania series of films or in his latest, Leo, where he plays the titular septuagenarian lizard who’s been in a grade school terrarium for many decades. So, when each child in this year’s fifth grade class has to take him home, Leo decides to dole out sage advice to the kids going through kids’ problems. Sandler mostly plays it straight, and even when the plot spins get wacky towards its complicated finale (oh, the film is also a musical), he makes the Leo not only fun and watchable, but sweet as well. 

The Shepherd (c) Apple TV+

Film: The Shepherd 
Streaming on Disney+ on December 1 

Last year, auteur director Alfonso Cuarón (Roma, Gravity) produced a Christmas Eve short set at an Italian orphanage, Le Pupille (directed by Alice Rohrwacher) on Disney+, which subsequently was nominated for Best Live Action Short. This holiday, he is producing Iain Softley’s The Shepherd, another Christmas Eve short based on a popular British 1975 novella by Frederick Forsyth. This one is about a British pilot (Ben Radcliffe) in 1957 who gets to fly home from his base to London on Christmas Eve, but his small plane suddenly has mechanical problems midflight. The film, which includes John Travolta in a cameo, takes a gentle Twilight Zone approach to resolve the story, which may not be surprising, but is heartwarming with that Christmas magic. 

FRIENDS CINEPHILE FILMS: After Friends-giving, head off to the megaplex or start streaming these films: 

Saltburn (c) Searchlight Pictures

Film: Saltburn 
In Cinemas 

I was not a fan of Emerald Fennell's first movie, Promising Young Woman, which focused on a woman’s rage at men who take advantage of women sexually, but at least Fennell gave us this premise upfront, which prepared us when it went to delirious extremes for its finale. For Saltburn, she withholds the motive of the characters till so late in the film, it feels unearned and unbelievable. Disappointing since for the first hour, the movie is so engaging, strange and unique that I felt Fennell may have made a classic unrequited love drama. Oliver Quick (Barry Keoghan) is the new boy at (like The Holdovers) a boarding school (this time in England), and although he doesn’t fit in with most of the other students (he’s poor and socially awkward), he is immediately smitten with golden boy, Felix Catton (Priscilla’s Jacob Elordi, in his best role to date), who despite his friends’ protests starts a friendship with Oliver to the point of inviting him to his family’s estate of Saltburn for the summer. Keoghan is the reason why this movie works as well as it does as he's playing a slightly more sociable version of his Oscar-nominated role of Dominic in The Banshees of Inisherin. Keoghan has always played characters much left of center (like in The Killing of a Sacred Deer), and even though on the surface Oliver may seem like the most ordinary role he has played, his lopsided and lustful stares clue the audience that there may be more going on beneath the surface. It’s just that Fennell takes the story’s climax to such incredulous places, in a sort of “eat the rich” way (that seems so last year after Triangle of Sadness), it shows Fennell is still obsessed with the theme of psychotic comeuppance to social inequities. Until then, the film looks great, from Linus Sandgren’s claustrophobic cinematography to Charlotte Dirickx’s decadent set direction. There has been a lot of praise for Saltburn since its Telluride premiere; I just wished it stayed salty before burning out. 

Other friends' film suggestions this holiday: 

May December (c) Netflix

Film: May December 
In Cinemas and Streams on Netflix on December 1 

Todd Haynes’ fictional take on the Mary Kay Letourneau tabloid story (written by Samy Burch), which involved a teacher’s relationship with a 14-year-old student, would seem like a perfect fit for the director, as he has incorporated melodramatic and soapy tropes in his earlier films like Far from Heaven and Carol. And, indeed, he finds the humor in the story of Gracie (Julianne Moore), who 20 years ago at age 38 had an affair with her teenage co-worker at a pet store and is now married to him (Charles Melton, in a standout performance) with children who are graduating from high school. While we never flash back to that lurid affair, Gracie finds herself reliving that time with TV actress Elizabeth Berry (Natalie Portman), who will be playing her in a film. I wish Haynes delved further into the story, but he doesn’t really go into any surprising places. There’s still a lot to enjoy, though, including Moore’s lispy and manipulative Gracie and Portman’s pampered actress. After the masterpiece that is Carol, I was hoping for more. 

Shoulder Dance (c) Breaking Glass Films

Film: Shoulder Dance 
To Buy and Rent on Streaming 

The holidays are filled with reunions with exes and old crushes you haven’t seen in a while, and that’s what happens at the summer Hampton cottage of Ira (Matt Dallas, former teen star of 2006's Kyle XY), who, out of the blue, gets a message from ex-high school best friend Roger (Rick Cosnett from the TV show The Flash) to meet up. The problem is that Ira is in a long-time relationship with Josh (Taylor Frey) and Roger has a girlfriend Lilly (Maggie Geha), and the minute the two couples meet, director Jay Arnold sets it up almost like a home-invasion horror movie. Thankfully, as defenses come down and drugs come out, the gentle theme of “roads not taken” and “lost love” make this a cute, queer rom-com with a hint of nostalgic melancholy. 

Mutt (c) Strand Releasing

Film: Mutt 
To Buy and Rent on Streaming 

One of the best indie films of the year, Mutt is a breezy and enjoyable film that focuses on a chaotic day in the life of Feña (Lío Mehiel), a New York City trans man. On the day his father is coming to visit from Chile, Feña has unexpected run-ins with an ex-boyfriend (the always reliable and openhearted Cole Doman) as well as his teenage sister (Mimi Ryder), whom he hasn’t seen in years because of their intolerant mother. Writer-director Vuk Lungulov-Klotz can’t seem to incorporate each of these plot threads believably into Feña’s one-day adventure, but each relationship in itself is a wonderfully self-contained short story of how a trans person sacrifices a lot to live their truth. With sublime and unobtrusive cinematography by Matthew Pothier, this is an amazing film anchored by an outstanding performance by Mehiel as someone whose existence will always be seen by others as a phase.

If you want to comment on these reviews, please do so on my 
Instagram account.  All reviews have their own post.  And please follow to know when new reviews are released.