Nothing Like the Holidays


Nothing Like the Holidays
John Leguizamo gets the uncomfortable feeling that he is the object of their laughter.

(2008) Holiday Dramedy (Overture) Alfred Molina, John Leguizamo, Vanessa Ferlito, Freddie Rodriguez, Debra Messing, Jay Hernandez, Melonie Diaz, Mercedes Ruehl, Luis Guzman, Elizabeth Pena. Directed by Alfredo De Villa

Families at Christmastime can be very complicated indeed. We all bring our joy to the table, but also our problems. The holidays can be a time of great stress, but also of great catharsis – regardless of what the background might be.

Eduardo Rodriguez (Molina) is overjoyed that his children are coming home for the holidays. Eduardo owns a bodega in the Humboldt Park section of Chicago and is proudly Puerto Rican, as is his wife Anna (Pena). Of course, each of his children has issues of their own – would it be a holiday movie if they didn’t?

Jesse (Rodriguez) is recently home from Iraq and is wounded in ways that aren’t necessarily visible on the surface. His girlfriend (Diaz) has moved on, although he seems stuck in some odd half-life. His father is very eager to hand over the bodega to his son, which Jesse is not so eager to do. He feels a little trapped and lost and doesn’t know quite where to march from here. Mauricio (Leguizamo) has married Sarah (Messing), a Jewish girl who is constantly butting heads with Anna, who wants nothing more than to have a grandchild and Sarah is pretty much the only shot at the moment. Mauricio is concerned that his wife may be more in love with her high-powered career than with him.

Finally there’s Roxanna (Ferlito) who has been pursuing an acting career in Hollywood with considerably less success than she has been letting on to her family. She has a thing for neighborhood friend Ozzy (Hernandez) and he has one for her but circumstances seem to conspire to keep them apart. All these issues become so much less important when Anna announces during Christmas Eve dinner that she is leaving Eddy because he has been cheating on her. Despite his protestations to the contrary, she knows he is talking regularly with a woman on his cell phone. That must mean he’s cheating, right?

There’s also the most stubborn old tree in the history of cinema in their front yard that defies every attempt to pull it from the yard where it blocks Anna’s view as well as a vendetta that Ozzy has for the guy who murdered his brother that he intends to bring to a climax that very night. Not exactly the Christmas spirit, right?

If you like movies like The Family Stone in which an extended family gathers for the holidays to hash out their problems and draw closer together in the process, you’ll love this. Having it be in a Puerto Rican family is like icing on the cake. The Puerto Rican culture has been long neglected by Hollywood, so it’s refreshing to see it addressed here. While I wasn’t familiar with all the specific traditions that are mentioned or displayed here, this isn’t so much a learning experience as it is an opportunity to spend some time with a specific family. In many ways, their ethnicity is immaterial; it’s about how they pull together when they need to. From that standpoint, they could be any family, anywhere.

There are some fine actors in this ensemble, notably Molina, Leguizamo, Messing and Pena, but Hernandez, Ferlito and Rodriguez are also impressive. Like many ensemble movies of this type, each of these actors gets only a limited amount of screen time so none really stand out (with the exception of Molina) but each of them make the best of the time they have.

There won’t be any revelations you don’t see coming or any resolutions that are unexpected. That’s all right. When it comes to holiday movies, success is measured by the warmth in the heart that is generated rather than the insights that are revealed. By that yardstick, Nothing Like the Holidays is a solid success. Holiday movies fulfill a specific function which is to put people in the holiday spirit and this does that quite nicely. If it’s an analysis of the Puerto Rican experience, this isn’t really it but if you’re looking for a cup of eggnog, there’s plenty to go around here.

WHY RENT THIS: Heartwarming in the tradition of family ensemble holiday movies like Home for the Holidays, This Christmas and The Family Stone.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The script relies too much on holiday clichés and forced family dynamics.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the dialogue references drug usage and sexual issues; however, most of the movie is pretty benign for families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena play the parents of John Leguizamo, in reality they are only nine and three years older than he is, respectively.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: This was apparently quite a fun movie to make, as the Blooper reel and cast reunion featurette show.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.5M on an unreported production budget; the movie might just have made a little money.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Holly and The Quill continues!

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Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps


Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Shia LaBeouf tells Michael Douglas that Indiana Jones was a better adventure hero than Jack Colton.

(20th Century Fox) Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Susan Sarandon, Eli Wallach, Frank Langella, Austin Pendleton, John Bedford Lloyd, Vanessa Ferlito, John Buffalo Mailer, Sylvia Miles, Charlie Sheen, Ron Insana.  Directed by Oliver Stone

Filmmaker Oliver Stone has long had the reputation as a cinematic gadfly. Throughout the 1980s his movies took run after run against the establishment; movies like JFK, Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July all of which were Oscar bait in their time. However, many consider his 1987 film Wall Street to be his magnum opus. Michael Douglas would win an Oscar as the Machiavellian Gordon Gekko, a Wall Street financier whose mantra “Greed is Good” would become a catchphrase and, ironically enough, a spur for many of today’s brokers to enter the business. Still, that was 23 years ago; has Stone mellowed with age?

Some say yes. The movie opens with Gekko (Douglas, reprising the role from the original) being released from prison after doing eight years for insider trading. He leaves the facility with a mobile phone the size of a loaf of bread and a gold watch. There is, however, nobody to meet him; even the rapper/thug has a limo awaiting him.

Seven years later, his daughter Winnie (Mulligan) still hasn’t spoken to him in more than a decade. She blames him for the overdose death of her brother. She has a different life now anyway; she runs what is self-described as a “lefty website” and she’s living with Jake Moore (LaBeouf), who works as an investment banker for the established firm of Keller Zabel (said to be a fictional version of Bear Stearns) as an alternative energy specialist. Even though he’s essentially part of the system she despises, he’s still idealistic enough to give her reason to overlook it.

Their life is far from ideal, however. Keller Zabel is in trouble, the victim of rumors of insolvency based on bad debt (rumors which turn out to be partially true). Senior partner Louis Zabel (Langella), who is also Jake’s mentor, goes to the Federal Reserve, hat in hand, but is turned down, mainly due to the poisonous words of Bretton James (Brolin), the CEO of Churchill Schwartz (the fictional counterpart of Goldman Sachs) who had an axe to grind with Zabel.

When Keller Zabel fails, Jake decides to take in a lecture by Gekko who is promoting his book “Is Greed Good?” that, among other things, predicts the economic meltdown that would take place later that year (the movie is set in 2008). He manages to get Gekko’s ear by telling him that he’s getting ready to marry his daughter, which he is. Gekko agrees to talk to him.

Gekko agrees to get some information about who initiated the rumors about Keller Zabel in exchange for Jake helping to reunite him with his daughter. Jake arranges dinner with the three of them but Winnie walks out, unable to be in the same room with the man whom she blames for destroying her family. Jake stays in contact with her dad behind her back, however; Gekko responds by telling Jake that it was Bretton James behind the rumors that sunk Keller Zabel. Jake decides to initiate some rumors of his own. James is in turn impressed by the passion and smarts of young Jake and hires him. This lasts only as long as it takes for Jake to find out he’s being used.

Things really begin to fall apart then. Just as Winnie is beginning to move towards reconciliation with her father, Gekko reverts to his true colors and the revelation that Jake has been in contact with him behind her back threatens to submarine the relationship. Can someone like Gordon Gekko find redemption in this world, and more to the point, does he deserve it?

I asked earlier if Oliver Stone had mellowed with age, and I tend to agree with some of those who think that he has. Stone’s best works, including the original Wall Street, all carry a degree of anger to them. They are strident, opinionated and abrasive in some ways. He carries the courage of his convictions whether you agree with them or not, and in all honesty there is little ambiguity about his cinematic work.

That’s not as true here. Gekko at one point says, “I was small time compared to these crooks” referring to the Lords of Wall Street circa 2008, but he is in many ways as corrupting an influence as ever, although he isn’t even the villain of this piece – Bretton James is. While Brolin is a great actor in his own right and he does a magnificent job as the unrepentantly corrupt and greedy James, the movie could have used less of him and more of Michael Douglas.

Douglas, as I mentioned earlier, won an Oscar for the first Wall Street and it isn’t beyond the realm of possibility that he could win another for the same role 23 years on, although I would probably characterize it as more of a supporting role. Gekko is sleek, seductive and completely amoral; he is super-competitive and will pay any price in order to win on his own terms. It’s a fascinating role as much of the movie the lion has no teeth or claws, only to reveal that he had them all along about two thirds of the way through. Douglas is the reason to see this movie, first and foremost.

He has some company, however. Langella, who has been delivering terrific performances every time out of late, does so again here. His role is small but crucial, and he imbues it with dignity and honesty. Louis Zabel is a man who finds that his business has changed into something unrecognizable and something he doesn’t much like. He’s lost in this world that he helped shape, and the irony isn’t lost on him. Sarandon also has a brief role as Jake’s real estate selling mom, who is constantly in need of funds to keep her house of cards from collapsing.

This might have gotten a better rating, but unfortunately the movie is torpedoed by its ending, which I found literally preposterous. The characters turn completely on their own internal logic and act completely out of character. It’s about as jarring as ordering a pizza delivery and receiving liver and onions instead, especially if you hate liver and onions.

Having been employed by a financial institution my own self, I can tell you that the world created here is pretty much accurate; the hypocrisy and arrogance truly exists particularly the closer to the executive suite that you get. Of course, that’s pretty much true for any industry these days; it’s just that the financial industry has been in the spotlight more because of the sub-prime shenanigans.

There are a number of documentaries out there that examine the financial meltdown and its causes that are more likely to give you insight into just what happened. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps isn’t really a good substitute for them, since it really relegates much of the reasons behind the collapse to the periphery of the film, preferring to concentrate on the characters of Jake, Winnie and Bretton and to a lesser extent, Gordon Gekko. It does make for fine entertainment, but I suspect it will seem a bit dated 23 years after the fact and doesn’t have the advantage of prescience that the original Wall Street had. It’s more a rehash of current events, and it may be fair to say that you could have gotten the same insights by watching MSNBC.

REASONS TO GO: Langella, Douglas and Brolin do some pretty impressive work. The character of Gordon Gekko is as relevant today as he was back in 1987.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is absolutely preposterous. Some of the direction is a bit self-indulgent.  

FAMILY VALUES: The language can be a little rough and some of the concepts are on the confusing side, but the average teenager should be able to follow it and maybe even appreciate it.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A scene in which Donald Trump made a cameo appearance as himself was left on the cutting room floor.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the New York City vistas look far more majestic on the big screen, the movie is nonetheless perfectly adequate when seen at home.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Leaves of Grass