The Holdovers, the long-awaited reunion of director Alexander Payne and actor Paul Giamatti is a long time a’coming (it’s been nearly twenty years since Sideways), but it was worth the wait. The film is set around Christmas of 1970, and it almost seems, with the setting and cinematography, like a holdover from that era. In a role that seems tailor-made, Giamatti is Paul Hunham, a classics teacher at Barton Academy, New England boarding school. He’s not particularly well-liked, either by students or faculty (or administration, for that matter). Hunham has strict standards and can be quite cutting and uncompromising with both his charges and fellow teachers. Because of this, he has been chosen to stay on with the four students who have to remain at the school during the holiday. Luckily, he has one friend though in Mary, the cafeteria administrator who is still in a bad place because her son, a Barton alum, was killed in the Vietnam War, and the two cope together (in the company of bourbon) with both the season and the unwanted guests.
These early scenes, with the five students rebelling against Hunmam’s authoritarian manner (he’s been treating the sojourn as akin to school) while barely able to get along with each other, have a spontaneous feel and Giamatti and the students work very well together at being…apart. And then, as if by a miracle (it’s one of the movie’s big stretches), four of the kids get to leave (courtesy of an offer by the father of a wealthy classmate) while Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa), the most troubled and vulnerable among them, has to stay. The two men, recalcitrant teacher and incorrigible student, with some help from Mary (a lovely performance from Da”vine Joy Randolph), try to find what it takes to endure both the season and each other.
The Holdovers, with a script by David Hemingson, is not your typical holiday film. It has an air of melancholy that is maintained throughout. Hunham is a thwarted, defeated individual who copes with his situation by being continually caustic, but Giamatti finds the humanity and quiet desperation (and the humor) so that Hunham remains sympathetic and believable. Though a newcomer, Dominic Sessa holds his own opposite Giammati, and their growing, shall we say tolerance, for each other is handled with precise beats. There is also a nice turn from Carrie Preston as Hunham’s sole faculty friend, who briefly holds promise of being something more. A few plot twists toward the end result in a climax that is believable while maintaining the integrity of the work. If you can, get to the theater and give The Holdovers a try, especially for Giamatti, who may be in the running for an Oscar.
I’ve seen several films on hit men, and boy, do they contemplate…a lot. Maybe they have to do, because of the nature of the business: stalking your prey, embracing anonymity, eschewing intimate human connection. As I was watching David Fincher’s The Killer, I was thinking of the 1960 Murder by Contract, with Vince Edwards as a tight-lipped assassin who spent sixty-nine minutes (of an eighty-minute film) contemplating a hit, hen the last few minutes carrying out the job. Here, we’re treated to a lot of voiceover from Michael Fassbender’s assassin, especially in the first twenty minutes, so that we know how he’ll respond to every future situation. The thing is, he muffs the hit in the first twenty minutes, and has to spend the remaining time either running (not much of that) or getting revenge (on those unfortunate individuals who targeted his wife). There is some dark humor in the film, a few well-staged action scenes, and a taut restaurant scene with Toni Collette. But the film is a little too long for the tale it’s telling, and the mantra repetitions outstay their welcome. But I did like all of the killer’s aliases…
I’ve always been a big fan of filmmaker/comic icon Albert Brooks, and the new documentary, Albert Brooks: Defending My Life, is extremely enjoyable and made with love. Which shouldn’t be surprising since it was directed by Brooks’ good friend, director Rob Reiner. The two chat in a restaurant, we learn about Brooks’ early life (much here about his father, comedian Harry Parke), and there are clips from Brooks’ early, innovative stand-up (some priceless appearances with Johnny Carson), his movies (including his directorial efforts like Real Life, Modern Romance, and Lost in America and his acting in films like Drive and Out of Sight). There is also some good-natured talk about his standing in Hollywood, his adherence to his own road, “the only road,” and comedy, in general. Every minute of the film is a treasure—I only wish there could have been more. (it’s 90 minutes, but I easily could have taken 90 more.) It’s on HBO and Max and you should see it.