Sunday, December 14, 2008

NOTHING LIKE THE HOLIDAYS

It may sound cheap to call Nothing Like the Holidays "a Puerto Rican The Family Stone", but it's really a compliment. Like that under appreciated 2006 Christmas film, Nothing Like the Holidays mixes bits of class awareness, politics, and religion into a conventional structure without letting any subject dominate for too long. Yes, audiences might scoff at the film's predictability, but in doing so they will be ignoring the fresh perspectives of Mexican director Alfredo De Villa and his mostly Latino cast. Like the work of Tyler Perry, De Villa's film drops you deeper into a setting that is usually only depicted in Hollywood from the surface out.

The Rodriguez children are grown and have left their Chicago home for three hubs of international relevance: Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito) lives in L.A., Mauricio (John Leguizamo) is in New York, and Jesse (Freddy Rodriguez) is serving in Iraq. All return to their parent's house for Christmas. Early reviews of Nothing Like The Holidays have patted it on the back for being a Christmas film with Puerto Rican characters. But again, that kind of passer-by approval is missing the larger significance. Reaching across social strata, the Rodriguez family represents various levels of the immigrant experience.

After Jesse's cousin Johnny (Luis Guzman) picks him up from the airport, discussion turns to Johnny's economic success with his electronics and TVs business. With a Puerto Rican flag seat belt strap and talk of being a legal U.S. citizen, Guzman exudes an American-immigrant pride that escapes most filmmakers mishandling this subject today. This level of sentiment is equally felt when Mauricio stops by his father's family owned bodega upon arriving back in Chicago. His entrance sparks off reunions and displays of community flashbacks and eccentricities.

Cinematographer Scott Kevan shoots the interior of the Rodriguez house with a heated, comforting light. Most of the inter-familial drama takes place at the dinner table, and, understanding that, Kevan and De Villa devote time and attention to special details for this most important set piece. Later, when Kevan shoots Alfed Molina over that same dinner table (now empty), through a door frame, and into the kitchen where he sits alone drinking whiskey, it's a more visually expressive moment than anything you'll see in Milk.

Across the board, the performances in Nothing Like The Holidays are appropriately dramatic and comic in all the necessary places (please, will somebody give Melonie Diaz the much needed love she deserves? She should have been nominated for Be Kind, Rewind.) But above them all is Alfred Molina. As Edy, Molina is a bear. His large stature and hairy face dominate the frame whenever he's in it. He huddles over his family as protector and listener and well-intentioned mistake maker. Molina's performance alone is reason enough to push through those Oscar-movie waiting lines and take in this little movie that should.

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