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FilmWatch Weekly: ‘The Holdovers,’ ‘The Marvels,’ ‘Victims of Sin’ and more

Paul Giamatti stars in Alexander Payne's nostalgic nod to the films of Hal Ashby, and the fate of the universe is at stake again in the MCU's latest installment.

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Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully, Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s "The Holdovers"
(Left to right) Dominic Sessa stars as Angus Tully, Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Mary Lamb and Paul Giamatti as Paul Hunham in director Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers”, a Focus Features release. Credit: Seacia Pavao / © 2023 Focus Features LLC

If Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers were to be discovered, shorn of its identifying features, by a future generation of film historians, they’d probably think it was made in or shortly after 1970, the year in which it’s set. I guess they’d also have to have forgotten what Paul Giamatti looks like. But you get my point.

From the era-appropriate MPAA ratings card to the desaturated colors to the (mostly) understated performances, The Holdovers doesn’t just wear its influences on its sleeves—they are the sleeves. Which is not to say that’s a bad thing. Payne’s films have always reached back to a more restrained, character-driven era of Hollywood filmmaking, none previously more so than 2004’s Sideways, his previous collaboration with Giamatti.

Their reunion provides the actor with one of his best roles—it ought to be since it was written with him in mind. (The screenplay is solely credited to longtime TV scribe David Hemingson, though Payne certainly had input.) Paul Hunham is a professor of ancient history at a tony New England prep school, nicknamed “Walleye” for his misaligned pupils. Not only does he suffer from strabismus, he’s a depressive, bitter grouch and a strict disciplinarian whom no one can tolerate for long.

For his sins, which include daring to fail the son of a major school donor, and because he has nowhere else to be, he is saddled with babysitting the so-called “holdovers”—students remaining on campus over winter break. There are initially five, including a spoiled star quarterback, a sadistic bully, and a misfit named Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who’s been uninvited to visit his mother and her new husband. The other two are younger kids, one whose parents are in Korea and one whose parents are Mormon missionaries.

Before long, all but Angus manage to escape their enforced proximity to Hunham, leaving him part of a holiday triad that includes Hunham and the school cook, Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph).

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything that the film’s trailer doesn’t spoil by saying that Hunham turns out to be a curmudgeon with a heart of gold, Angus has a tragic family past, and the verbal sparring partners end up forming an unexpected bond. If the adjectives “ragtag” or “makeshift” in front of the noun “family” set off your twee detectors, be warned.

What’s especially rewarding, however, is the contribution of Mary, the long-suffering Black school employee who couldn’t pay her son’s college tuition, depriving him of a student deferment. He was drafted and killed in Vietnam. Her character, and Randolph’s superb performance, provide some welcome context to how little the problems of these relatively cloistered academics matter in the grand scheme.

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Giamatti is, of course, excellent, even if the role isn’t a huge stretch. After all, his father was President of Yale University before becoming the commissioner of Major League Baseball. (I still can’t figure out how they got his eyes to do what they do in this film, since I can find no evidence that the star actually suffers from strabismus.) And Sessa, a real prep school thespian making his screen debut, goes toe-to-toe with him.

If there’s one way in which The Holdovers diverts from many of the films that inspired it, it’s in a slight tendency toward sentimentality. Harold and Maude called, and not only does it want its visual palette back, it also wouldn’t mind retrieving a few squishy moments. One hallmark of 1970s Hollywood was a determined cynicism, but Payne’s cinema has almost always tried to offer some sense of humanistic uplift. In these times, that’s not a bug but a feature, and The Holdovers earns its emotional payoff. (Playing at multiple theaters.)

At the other end of the aesthetic spectrum from Payne’s efforts to clone Hal Ashby are the largely virtual environments, universe-spanning narratives, and heroic posturing of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the latest product of which is the solipsisticly titled The Marvels.

First, the bad: moreso than even most other MCU fare, director Nia DaCosta’s initial franchise foray has an inordinate amount of prerequisites. Despite the rushed attempts at exposition early on, if you haven’t seen the big-screen Captain Marvel and the small-screen Ms. Marvel and WandaVision, you’ll probably be more than a little lost, at least at first. Also, some of the several efforts to establish a surreal, lighthearted tone amidst all the planet-bashing and grim resolve are cringe-inducing. (Yes, Bollywood-style musical number by water planet aliens, I’m looking at you.) And, without giving too much away, the plot’s resolution hinges on one character’s decision to do something that they apparently could have done all along, but never thought to try.

On the other hand, there’s fun to be had. Early on, the superpowers of Captain Marvel aka Carol Danvers (Brie Larson), Ms. Marvel aka Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani), and Monica Rambeau (Teyonah Parris), who hates code names, become “entangled.” Whenever any two of them use their light-based powers at the same time, they switch places, even if they are light-years away. This all has to do with a plot by an evil ruler of the alien Kree, Dar-Benn (Zawe Ashton, giving off serious Danaerys Targaryen vibes), to use a quantum band and her Ultimate Weapon to open wormholes and steal natural resources like air and water from other planets. It all sounds kind of silly typed out like that, and it is.

The fun stuff doesn’t really interact with the broader conflict. Vellani, as she did on her character’s Disney+ series, exudes charismatic energy and almost singlehandedly saves The Marvels from being hopelessly portentous. The power-entanglement gimmick leads to some inventive and expertly edited action scenes, as well as a highly entertaining training montage. Another great bit of comic relief involves Goose, Captain Marvel’s cat-who’s-not-really-a-cat, and I shall say no more.

It should also be hinted at, at least, that the requisite cameos and stinger scene (there’s one, mid-credits) are pretty high-stakes. If you’re an MCU junkie and you don’t want some stuff spoiled, you’ll want to try to find a portal through spacetime to a local theater ASAP. Maybe it’s just the lowered expectations surrounding Marvel movies recently, but despite its sloppiness and forgettable main storyline, The Marvels generally passes muster. (Playing at multiple theaters.)

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It’s possible that the 1951 Mexican film Victims of Sin was the first neorealist musical. Alternating between an unflinching depiction of a postwar demimonde of pimps, showgirls, and sex workers and an array of energetic, and diegetic, song-and-dance numbers, it’s a schizophrenic experience that somehow captures the spirit of survival on the mean streets of Mexico City. After prostitute Rosa gives birth to her dastardly pimp Rodolfo’s baby, he insists she get rid of it if she wants to stay with him. Besotted, she tosses the infant in the trash, where it’s retrieved by glamorous nightclub dancer Violetta. Her devotion to the child costs Violetta her job, and she ends up struggling as a streetwalker before meeting a kindlier club owner who offers her a shot at a new life. Melodrama with a capital M and D was the stock in trade of director Emilio Fernández, whose best-known work in the U.S. is his 1948 adaptation of John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. More than a mere curiosity, Victims of Sin is a window into a rich vein of Latin American cinema that’s rarely appreciated north of the Rio Grande. (Thursday, Hollywood Theatre)

ALSO THIS WEEK

FRIDAY

  • Buffalo ’66 [1998] takes us back to a time when Vincent Gallo was considered an up-and-coming auteur. (Hollywood, also Saturday)
  • Missing Link [2019], from Portland’s Laika Studios, accompanied by behind-the-scenes footage, an exhibit of puppets used in the film, and more. (Tomorrow)
  • The Shining [1980] gets the pre-screening drag show experience it has always, sadly, lacked (Clinton Street)

SATURDAY

  • Fear and Desire [1952], Stanley Kubrick’s first feature, in a newly restored 4k edition of Kubrick’s original 70-minute cut, unseen for over 70 years. (Hollywood, 3 p.m., also Sunday)
  • Scarface [1932] kicks off a month of pre-code classics programmed by Elliot Lavine. (Cinema 21, 11 a.m.)

SUNDAY

  • Mom and Dad’s Nipple Factory: Just your average heartwarming true story about a conservative Midwestern husband who sets out to design the perfect prosthetic nipple after his wife receives a mastectomy. (Granada Theatre in The Dalles, also Nov. 19)
  • The Oregon Short Film Festival: The Fall 2023 edition features nearly seven hours of bite-sized cinema, for those with a short attention span but a lot of free time. (Sunday, Clinton Street, doors at noon.)
  • Soldier: Portland documentarian Justin Zimmerman’s short film about a military veteran and firefighter and his struggles with PTSD has its Portland premiere. (Sunday, 2 p.m., Hollywood)

MONDAY

  • Carrie [1976] is a fitting tribute to the late Piper Laurie and still one of the best Stephen King adaptations. (Hollywood)
  • From Shock to Awe [2018] is a documentary that follows two Afghan War veterans who turn to ayahuasca in an effort to treat their PTSD. (Clinton Street)

TUESDAY

  • Fatal Flying Guillotine [1977] is the third entry in the Flying Guillotine extended cinematic universe, and perhaps the wackiest. Which is saying something, right? (Hollywood, on 35mm)
  • Tacheles: The Heart of the Matter [2020] looks at a Jewish German family dealing with the generational trauma of the Holocaust when a young member tries to design a video game set during the Nazi era. (Clinton Street)

WEDNESDAY

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  • Song That Burns (Canción que quema): The Portland Latin American Film Festival presents this new documentary that follows veteran Mexican rock band San Pascualito Rey into the studio for the tumultuous recording of their latest album. (Wednesday, Hollywood)
  • To Sleep So as to Dream [1986], Japanese director Kaizo Hayashi’s feature debut, is a dreamlike thriller and a love letter to cinema’s past. (Clinton Street)

THURSDAY

  • In the Grey Wild: The nonprofit Outside the Frame, which provides filmmaking tools and support for youth experiencing homelessness, hosts its annual screening of the work that results. (Thursday, Hollywood)

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Marc Mohan moved to Portland from Wisconsin in 1991, and has been exploring and contributing to the city’s film culture almost ever since, as the manager of the landmark independent video store Trilogy, the owner of Portland’s first DVD-only rental spot, Video Vérité; and as a freelance film critic for The Oregonian for nearly twenty years. Once it became apparent that “newspaper film critic” was no longer a sustainable career option, he pursued a new path, enrolling in the Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College in the fall of 2017 and graduating cum laude in 2020 with a specialization in Intellectual Property. He now splits his time between his practice with Vérité Law Company and his continuing efforts to spread the word about great (and not-so-great) movies, which include a weekly column at Oregon ArtsWatch.

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