film reel image

film reel image

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Nothing Like the Holidays 2008 * * * Stars

Nothing Like the HolidaysDirector: Alfredo De Villa
Year: 2008
Rated PG-13
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: John Leguizamo, Freddy Rodriguez, Debra Messing, Alfred Molina

With Christmas day steadily approaching, I thought I'd review one of my favorite holiday gems in the last decade or so. Nothing Like the Holidays is said gem and it somewhat gets by on the notion that my affection for it comes from the fact that I live in Chicago. The events depicted in this film take place in the Windy City's Humboldt Park neighborhood. And yes, it's a sentimental choice for me to recommend this thing because I've always been fascinated by the aspect of viewing something that took place and/or was shot so close to where I make my home. But even if it wasn't a product of a gloriously weathered Chi-town setting, I still would enjoy the lighthearted not to mention heartwarming feeling "Holidays" permeates over its short, underutilized running time. Now I can't say that this flick is perfect cause it's not (it comes off more as one of my favorite films, not one of the all time best films). However, it succeeds as an accurate, insightful look into family traditions that don't normally inhabit the setting of your everyday holiday themed vehicle. I say bravo to director Alfredo De Villa for taking special care of the source material in "Holidays" all the while creating some colorful, deep characterizations among the enthusiastically large cast. I'm hoping that this review is seen by enough people so that a teeny tiny cult following might arise. I'm also hoping that this happens even if it's my circle of friends or 10-20 random film buffs. Honestly, that would be okay by me.

Anyway, produced by the people that brought you the Barbershop movies and making extremely strong use of Chicago based locales, Nothing Like the Holidays categorizes the happenings of a Peurto Rican clan over a short weekend during Christmas time via a west side Chicago village.  The Rodriguez family (a husband and wife along with three young adults as kids) is rooted in tradition and proudness in their heritage. They consist of John Leguizamo (Mauricio Rodriguez), Freddy Rodriguez (playing Jesse Rodriguez), Vanessa Ferlito (Roxanna Rodriguez), Alfred Molina (he plays the father who is Edy Rodriguez), and Elizabeth Pena (she plays the mother, Anna Rodriguez). Throughout the proceedings, these people invite other friends and relatives to their house for holiday fun and cheer. While there however, not everything is so peachy. Secrets are revealed, old relationships are rekindled, payback and thuggery almost rear their ugly head, and traditions are exposed (all the citizens in the Humboldt Park area go door to door and pick up everyone to do some Christmas caroling). You also have to be on the lookout for scenes involving a large tree that blocks the Rodriguez family view. This tree in my mind, seems to be a metaphor for the dynamics of the immediate family that has been talked about throughout this review. There are a couple of times in the movie where everyone helps to take the tree down. But to no avail, it stays up and can not be removed. Again, I feel that this front yard obstacle is a metaphoric expedition for everyone visiting the Rodriguez house. I'm not sure what that is exactly. And to tell you might not be the most valid answer. Anyway, the sequences involving it are pretty funny. If anything, they are flat out entertaining.

Despite its authentic, familiar setting, characters that mesh well, and direction by De Villa that feels genuine and personable, "Holidays" still seems to have been edited to the point where small plot holes arise. You watch certain scenes where there is feuding by friends of the Rodriguez family and the Rodriguez family themselves. Cut to the next sequence and everyone seems to be getting along just fine. With dialogue that constantly exudes a strong conflict between husbands/wives, brothers/sisters, and friends/cousins, it's kinda weird when a feeling of resolution is missing and everyone goes back to jovial, happy times. Then there is the look of the film that suggests that its say, a small scale version of something like 1983's The Big Chill. Basically, Nothing Like the Holidays lacks that independent film making vibe which would constitute award consideration. And based on its short running time and slight TV feel, it doesn't come off as epic in scope as it should. All shortcomings aside, this is a warm, tiny little movie with a big heart. Added to that, you'll watch this thing realizing that the actors/actresses might have had a blast making it. In fact, I've seen the DVD cast reunion segment and it seems like everyone became friendly and close after filming concluded. To be honest, I can't say I'm surprised.

Overall, Nothing Like the Holidays is a flick that everyone should see come November and December. Its strongest attribute is having many character back stories that don't seem to feel crammed into one movie. Everyone's plight is told in a smart, held back sort of way. My favorite subplot doesn't even involve the main players in the cast. It involves a supporting role in Jay Hernandez (Ozzie). He plays a family friend to the Rodriguez family and tries desperately to romance the daughter in that family (Vanessa Ferlito as Roxanna). He also wants to avenge the death of his brother and decides to do this by going after the guy in the neighborhood who committed the crime and is unfortunately out on parole. The scenes involving these two people and the addition of one of the characters revealing that he has cancer (spoiler alert), make this flick a full on "dramedy" (this is defined as a blend of equal parts drama and comedy). And with this mixture so prevalent in many a movie, it's a good thing that the filmmakers don't run the script into the ground by overdoing the descriptions of every plot point involved from beginning to end.

To put it mildly, this traditional and original exercise despite taking place in a frigid Chicago winter, is the warm equivalent of a steaming cup of hot cocoa. It's got a certain amount of wit and charm, characters that you cling to throughout, and an effortless style of improvisation by the actors/actresses who play those characters. If you haven't seen "Holidays," I'm hoping that after reading this review, you'll check it out. It ain't "nothing" but good.

Written by Jesse Burleson

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