Is it possible that there’s a new classic holiday film dropping down our chimneys?
This week we check out a contender for that title, Alexander Payne’s seasonally appropriate — for December — “The Holdovers.” We also take a look at Sofia Coppola’s “Priscilla” and the inspirational school drama “Radical.”
The biggest disappointment, though, arrives from Netflix with “All the Light We Cannot See,” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and bearing one atrocious accent.
Here’s our roundup.
“The Holdovers”: Take that perennial Christmas chestnut you watch time and time again. Sprinkle in elements of “Dead Poets Society.” Then let someone like the late filmmaker Hal Ashby, who graced us with “Harold and Maude,” baste it and bake it.
That somewhat conveys what you have with Alexander Payne’s holiday-themed treat, a droll but fragile character study about three loners stuck together in 1970 at a snowy New England prep school during what’s allegedly the “most wonderful time of the year.”
Payne has always specialized in giving us multi-dimensional, quirky individuals, characters who you sometimes like and sometimes simply can’t stand. In essence, they’re flawed and act an awful lot like you and me. That’s true of the threesome that screenwriter David Hemingson crafts with such genuine and delicate care. They include a crabby professor (Paul Giamatti, who had his breakthrough role in Payne’s “Sideways) whose pontifical retorts are often anchored to arcane historical references that no one can understand; a grieving Black chef (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, channeling every genuine emotion the script calls for) who is spending her first Christmas without her son, killed in Vietnam; and a brainy but volatile teen (Dominic Sessa, a welcome newcomer) who got pawned off by his mom and her new and wealthy husband.
They are very different people with a common ailment: each is nursing deep-seated pain.
It’s one of Payne’s best funny-sad films, and is seeped in a nostalgic fondness for early ‘70s filmmaking — evident in the throwback credits and in the film’s faded color palette and unrushed pacing. That does mean it takes its meandering time to get to the “meat” of the story — if you can call it that — but patience proves out as “Holdovers” fleshes out its leads and reveals their secrets and the intense feelings that are stuck inside each of them.
For that reason and others (including the soundtrack) “The Holdovers” is way tastier than your average holiday movie leftovers. Payne brings to the vast tableau of Christmas films a departure — a movie about three lonely people having a dickens of a time connecting and dealing with their feelings until they get thrown together to find comfort and joy from each other. And isn’t that exactly what the holidays are supposed to do? Details: 3½ stars out of 4; in theaters Nov. 3.
“Priscilla”: Sofia Coppola’s detail-precise interpretation of Priscilla Presley’s autobiography “Elvis and Me” reminds us of just what a treasure the “Lost in Translation” filmmaker continues to be. As she achieved with “The Virgin Suicides” — her first feature — and “Marie Antoinette” and beyond, Coppola slips audiences comfortably and uncomfortably into the tight shoes of a teen-aged girl. It makes for a perfect match, with the filmmaker being deeply attuned to what is at play and at stake for the wide-eyed but confident 14-year-old Priscilla. As we know, her Tiger Beat fantasies come true (or so she imagines) when she meets a dreamy rock idol whose career is starting to skyrocket. But there are no happy endings on the horizon. Coppola’s “Priscilla” is richly textured in every way — from the plastic-covered couches to the Aqua Net hair and on to its performances, with Cailee Spaeny embodying the wonderment of a smitten young girl and Jacob Elordi adding a physically imposing stamp to the troubled, at times volatile, Presley. The soundtrack, production design and costumes, certainly the hairstyles, are impeccable, all of which express the bravery of Priscilla during a time when women were told to stand by their man through thick and thin. Details: 3½ stars; in theaters Nov. 3.
“What Happens Later”: Welcome back, Meg Ryan. Your comedic timing and effervescence has been missed in romcoms. Ryan not only directs, stars and executive produces, the “When Harry Met Sally” and “Sleepless in Seattle” sensation also adapted, along with others, Steven Dietz’s two-hander play that’s built around former lovers meeting up 20 years after when they’re stranded due to bad weather in an airport. As with all romcoms, what makes them work comes down to the witty banter and the chemistry between its stars. It succeeds well on both fonts. Ryan plays hopeful Willa, a more upbeat and seemingly more carefree person than ex-lover Bill (“The X-Files” David Duchovny), a worrywart in need of some optimism to counterbalance his cynicism. They make a lovely pair. Ryan dedicates her romcom for the middle-aged set – a group often shrugged off by Hollywood – to the late Nora Ephron, who helped her score her biggest romcom hits. “What Happens Later” does give off the feel of an Ephron film, and that’s meant as a compliment since laughter, reflection, compassion and even understanding and misunderstandings. Details: 3 stars; in theaters Nov. 3.
“Radical”: Christopher Zalla’s truth-based drama is a rarity, a crowd-pleaser about an unorthodox 6th-grade school teacher and his students that actually earns its stand-up-and-cheer status. Zalla’s thoughtful screenplay steers clear of getting overly sentimental as it takes a realistic yet uplifting look at the unorthodox teaching methods employed by real-life educator Sergio Juarez Correa (“Coda’s” Eugenio Derbez) and how they inspired students to excel beyond anyone’s expectations, including the students’ parents, in a rough and tough Mexico border town. While there’s no doubt that this thoughtfully crafted drama follows in a long tradition of rah-rah teacher movies, this one works better than most by being a heart-warmer and a heartbreaker. Zalla’s feature is based on a 2013 Wired article by Joshua Davis and has been gobbling up audience awards on the film festival circuit. Details: 3 stars; opens Nov. 3 in area theaters.
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“The Persian Version”: After an almost too-energetic and showy beginning, Iranian American filmmaker Maryam Keshavarz’s comedy/drama calms down enough to convincingly tell a touching and funny story about how queer daughter Leila (Layla Mohammadi) and her tough-case mom Shireen (Niousha Noor) gradually acknowledged that they are more alike than either wants to admit. A series of unexpected developments — including Leila’s tryst with the lead actor (Tom Byrne) in a “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” production, and a pending heart transplant for Leila’s father Ali (Bijan Daneshmand) force the sparring duo to learn to better appreciate each other. Keshavarz hopscotches through numerous genres to relate this feisty feminist tale, and those tonal shifts can be jarring. But the payoff, including a couple of dance numbers, is worth enduring a few bumps in the road. Details: 3 stars; in theaters now.
“All the Light That We Cannot See”: Often overwrought and done in by an overstated screenplay, Shawn Levy’s four-part limited Netflix series still manages to entertain, only with old-school melodramatic flourishes. The handsome adaptation of Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel does retain some qualities, and certainly the themes, that made the WWII drama about 16-year-old blind girl and secret broadcast reader Marie-Laure LeBlanc (Aria Mia Loberti, as an older Marie-Laure, and Nell Sutton) tangling with a gem-seeking Nazi (Lars Eidinger) such a gripping read. And there’s no denying how engrossing the story is as she encounters a radio aficionado (Louis Hofmann) tied to the Gestapo while she holds out hope that her father (Mark Ruffalo) returns safely to St. Malo where she’s staying with her Uncle Etienne (Hugh Laurie). The setup provides more than enough tension, but what’s problematic — besides Ruffalo’s strange nasal French accent — is how the screenplay over-explains everything, making the dialogue chunky and unnatural. As a storyteller, Doerr is a master at weaving all these threads and elements together while giving us more nuanced characters, but in this well-intentioned production the stitching and seams that we can see all too often. Details: 2 stars; drops Nov. 2 on Netflix.
Contact Randy Myers at email@example.com.