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HTF Blu-ray Review: NOTHING LIKE THE HOLIDAYS
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Posted November 13 2009 - 01:49 PM
Studio: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Film Length: 98 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English Dolby TrueHD 5.1; Spanish DD 2.0 (mono)*
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB + DVD (digital copy)
Theatrical Release Date: Nov. 18, 2008
Blu-ray Release Date: Oct. 27, 2009
*A notation on the Blu-ray case indicates a PCM 5.1 track, but this is a misprint. No such listing appears in the pre-release materials, and there is no such track on the disc.
There are two basic types of Christmas movie: the “feel good” (of which It’s a Wonderful Life remains the ultimate achievement), and the “enough already!” (of which Bad Santa is my personal favorite). Some films try to have it both ways, but they end up settling on one side of the line or the other (Scrooged is more convincing when it’s mean, and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is too silly to be anything but warm and fuzzy).
Nothing Like the Holidays is an unabashed “feel good” movie, so much so that when I first saw the trailer I wanted to run screaming from the theater. Fortunately the film is better than the trailer.
The Rodriguez family is gathering for the holidays at the home of parents Edy (Alfred Molina, the chameleon who’s been both Dr. Octopus and Diego Rivera) and Anna (Elizabeth Peña) in Humboldt Park, the Puerto Rican neighborhood of Chicago. The most eagerly anticipated arrival is their younger son, Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez, Six Feet Under’s Rico), who has just returned from a tour in Iraq with only minor physical injuries but a serious case of survivor’s guilt.
Arriving from New York is the oldest, Mauricio (John Leguizamo), a successful lawyer who has married an Anglo financial whiz, Sarah (Debra Messing). Sarah is a continuing disappointment to her mother-in-law, because her intense Wall Street life has prompted her to postpone providing any grandchildren. The middle child is Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito, “Butterfly” in Death Proof), an actress struggling for parts in L.A., whose chief claim to fame is the local commercial in which she once gave a sultry endorsement to a brand of tortilla chips.
Also in attendance are Edy and Anna’s nephew, Johnny (the dependable Luis Guzmán), who owns a local electronics store and loves plasma TVs; Ozzy (Jay Hernandez), who grew up with the Rodriguez kids, now works for Edy, but has some unfortunate gang affiliations, which, ten years ago, led to the death of his older brother; and Marissa (Melonie Diaz), who is Jesse’s old flame, has a three-year-old son (not by Jesse) and is now dating another man, Fernando (Ramses Jimenez).
As if there already weren’t enough emotional cross-currents in this assembly of friends and relations, Edy, a notorious flirt who chats up every woman passing through the neighborhood bodega he owns, has recently been acting suspiciously, getting mysterious phone calls that he insists on taking in private. Mauricio notices immediately. “Ma, since when did Dad get all Dick Cheney on you, huh?” he asks Anna, just before she stalks off in fury. At the dinner table, she announces to the children that she’s divorcing their father, and all hell breaks loose.
To summarize each of the plot threads that follows would be to do both the film and readers a disservice. No one of them is particularly weighty (or, it must be admitted, hard to see coming), but collectively they add up to an engaging film, and one must acknowledge the skill with which the editors keep the various storylines balanced and interwoven. (They are Amy E. Duddleston, a veteran of such fine art house fare as Elegy, High Art and LaurelCanyon, and John Coniglio, who has worked on everything from Star Trek to Saw.)
A lot of credit also belongs to the cast, which embodies a breadth and depth of talent that you don’t often find in a contemporary “feel good” holiday film. They’re skillful enough (and well enough directed by Alfredo De Villa) not to overplay moments that could have been milked for teary melodrama. Even when events go somewhat over the top, the performances remain convincing. (A late encounter between Ozzy and a gang rival played by Manny Perez goes right to the edge and may strain viewers’ credulity, but the actors can’t be faulted.)
Special mention goes to Debra Messing, who plays Sarah the outsider (she still hasn’t learned Spanish) with remarkable finesse and shows how, at certain moments, Sarah’s “odd man out” status allows her to connect with individual family members in a way that no one else could. (Sarah Jessica Parker attempted a similar role in 2005's The Family Stone, a film that tried to cover some of the same emotional territory as Nothing Like the Holidays, but with far less success.)
Substantial comic relief is supplied by an ancient dead tree in front of the Rodriguez home that resists any and all attempts to remove it. The tree also figures in the film’s resolution in ways that you will probably see coming. (And no, Griswold fans, it doesn’t involve a squirrel.)
One other element of the story deserves mention, and it’s that the film is a love letter to the City of Chicago. Producer Robert Teitel, who co-wrote the story, and star Freddy Rodriguez, who has an executive producer credit, are both Chicago natives, and their affection for their home town is evident in almost every frame of Nothing Like the Holidays. They shot in real locations wherever possible and in a real Chicago winter. The city returned the favor with a record-shattering, bone-chilling, snowdrift-piling season that literally froze cast members’ jaws during outdoor scenes. But it gave the film a heft and authenticity, not to mention a beautifully glacial sheen, that money can’t buy.
The 2:35:1 image is bright and colorful, and everything has a glow to it. Detail is excellent, as one would expect in a film where even night scenes are well lit. Like nearly every contemporary film, Nothing Like the Holidays was processed through a digital intermediate, which means that grain has been tightly controlled and the image has a smooth appearance. Still, it remains reasonably film-like.
(As an aside, well-known cinematographers, e.g., John Bailey, have expressed reservations about digital intermediates, for reasons having to do with final control over the image. After recently reviewing It’s a Wonderful Life, I’ve begun to wonder about other risks. Especially among us Blu-ray fans, could it be that digital intermediates are subtly altering our perception of what film should look like? Every frame of every new film we see has been digitally processed before it ever reaches us, whether on Blu-ray or in the cinema. At what point does our entire visual frame of reference begin to shift?)
Given the many possibilities for ambiant effects, I was surprised at how front-centered the TrueHD mix was. Just how front-centered became clear during a sequence involving chainsaws and the recalcitrant tree, which one would expect to be something of an aural assault. Instead, my system shut down, because my Sunfire amp is set to turn off automatically if there’s no activity in the left front channel for five minutes. (For the rest of the film, I set it to “always on”.)
The one sequence where the sound truly expands to fill the room is a wonderful scene featuring the “parranda” or Christmas caroling ritual, in which the family goes from door to door gathering other families until the entire neighborhood is outdoors and singing. It’s a glorious sequence that used neighborhood residents as extras, and the soundtrack really does it justice. Generally, though, this is a dialogue-driven track seasoned by the occasional pop hit and Paul Oakenfold’s score, which is used sparingly.
With the exception of the picture-in-picture feature, the video for all special features is in hi-def.
Commentary by Actor/Producer Freddy Rodriguez, Director Alfredo de Villa and Producer Robert Teitel. This is a fine example of an informative group commentary that doesn’t degenerate into chit-chat or in-jokes. Rodriguez and Teitel talk about the history of the project, and all three contribute anecdotes about casting, shooting and editing. For a few minutes near the beginning, they are joined via what sounds like cell phone by a surprised Luis Guzmán, but he’s not on long enough to contribute anything substantive.
Among interesting trivia: Elizabeth Peña was a last-minute replacement, and because she is only a few years older than John Leguizamo, considerable makeup was required to age her enough to be credible as his mother. Vanessa Ferlito had given birth shortly before filming and was nursing her baby throughout the shoot (although she certainly doesn’t appear to be carrying any baby weight). As written, Guzmán’s character was neither Puerto Rican nor a family member, but the script was rewritten so that Guzmán could play him.
There are numerous references to the extreme cold and its impact on the filming experience and the performances. And, to my great frustration, there are numerous references to deleted scenes that were apparently planned for inclusion on the DVD and Blu-ray but are nowhere to be found.
Nothing like a Family: Cast Reunion (11:44). This get-together was organized by Rodriguez, who has a stack of index card with questions, James Lipton-style. What Rodriguez lacks as an interviewer, the cast members make up for in rapport. It’s a warm group, and one can easily see how they built the atmosphere needed to make the script come to life.
Bloopers (15:04). Most of these are probably funnier to the cast and crew than they are to the rest of us.
Picture-in-Picture Insider Exclusive with the Cast. The more I see of this Blu-ray feature, the less I like it. It perfectly illustrates my definition of “multitasking”, which is “doing several things at the same time, all of them badly”. A small window appears at the lower right corner of the screen with short interview clips with different cast members. You can’t really watch the film this way, because the soundtrack is effectively muted when the PIP window appears. And you can’t just watch the interview clips either, because they only appear every few minutes. So what you end up with is about 30 minutes of interviews – and don’t get me wrong, they’re good interviews – padded out to 98 minutes with a film you’ve already seen and can’t really enjoy a second time, because the interviews keep interrupting it.
IMO, no one should ever again implement this feature without also supplying an option to watch just the interview clips separately. Of course, if they did that, no one would activate the PIP function, because there’d be no point in doing so. The whole thing would be revealed for the pointless exercise that it really is, and the BDA wouldn’t want that now, would they?
Trailers. The film’s trailer is included as a separate extra. At startup the disc plays trailers for Paper Heart and Pandorum; these can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are separately available from the features menu. Also available from the features menu are trailers for Henry Poole Is Here and Sunshine Cleaning.
Digital copy. Unlike some digital copies, this one does not appear to have an expiration date.
Better than it has any right to be, thanks to an exceptional cast and solid film-making craftsmanship. And this is from a guy whose ideal Christmas film is the first Die Hard.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (TrueHD decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center