Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers


With seven features under his belt over the last quarter-century, Alexander Payne inspires in me more consistent seesawing of opinion than any other filmmaker. I loved 1999's Election and hated 2002's About Schmidt. I loved 2004's Sideways and hated 2011's The Descendants. I loved 2013's Nebraska and … . Well, I didn't exactly hate 2017's Downsizing, but it was definitely a mess. And while experience tells me that I should already be leery of whatever Payne does for a followup act, I sure did enjoy his latest a lot.

Opening in the very late fall of 1970, and visually resembling a 1970 movie right down to its era-specific opening credits and trailer that touts the presentation as being “in COLOR,” The Holdovers (currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene; opening in Davenport on Friday) casts Sideways' Paul Giamatti as another acerbic, hard-drinking misanthrope – this one, God help them, in charge of the welfare of children. His Paul Hunham is a longtime classics professor at the New England boarding school Barton Academy, the sort of elite institution that preps its young men for entry in whichever Ivy League universities their parents have gifted with hefty donations. For myriad reasons, almost no one can stand Hunham. The students loathe him for his rigidity, excessive homework assignments, and lack of generosity in his grading. (That he has a wandering glass eye and routinely smells like fish doesn't make Hunham any more popular.) Other instructors share laughs about his pompousness. The academy's dean can't fathom how Hunham could flunk the son of a Barton alum who's now a senator. Only the school's cafeteria administrator Mary Lamb (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) and office administrator Lydia Crane (Carrie Preston) treat Hunham with courtesy – and you sense that's simply because, unlike many of those they work with and for, both women were raised to be polite.

The chief comedy and drama of Payne's film stem from Hunham's mandated Christmas-break duty: to spend two weeks supervising the five students – the “holdovers” – who have nowhere else to go over the holidays. For one of them, the 17-year-old rich kid Angus Tully (debuting Dominic Sessa), this is particularly galling, as he expected be lounging on the beaches of St. Kitts until his mother, at the last minute, chose to instead spend the two weeks honeymooning with her new husband. Things get even worse for Angus, though, when his four classmates zip off on a helicopter headed toward a ski resort, and the boy is stuck at Barton with only Hunham, Mary, and a rarely seen custodian (Naheem Garcia's Danney) as company. If you know your dramedies, you can pretty much guess where events will lead from there. The unyielding professor and the too-smart-for-his-own-good student will bicker and rage yet eventually find understanding and friendship. Kindhearted Mary will be instrumental in forging their bond. All three characters – as well as, theoretically, the audience – will reach the end credits as better, happier people than they were at the movie's start. Nothing about The Holdovers significantly diverges from this blueprint. And yet, refreshingly, nothing that happens here happens in quite the manner you expect.

Dominic Sessa, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, and Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers

This is certainly true of many of screenwriter David Hemingson's narrative conceits. A number of familiar-seeming scenarios, most of them familiar from sitcoms, make dutiful appearances: Hunham seems initially oblivious to Lydia's bashful flirting; Mary, who recently lost her son (himself a Barton grad) in the Vietnam War, initially ignores Danney's obvious affection for her; stoic Angus initially refuses to open up about his unhappy home life. That's an awful lot of “initially,” and if movie and TV dramedies have taught us anything over the decades, it's that “initially”s generally lead to inevitabilities. Consequently, in The Holdovers, we can safely presume that Hunham and Lydia will fall in love, that Mary and Danney will fall in love, that Angus will spill his guts and sob his eyes out. Yet to his enormous credit, inevitabilities of this sort don't seem to be of much use to Hemingson. You can practically picture the writer at his laptop, gazing at the words in his script-to-be, and saying, “I know what's supposed to happen now … but wouldn't it be more interesting if … ?”

As actual flesh-and-blood humans routinely do, The Holdovers' three central figures keep surprising us, and each other, with formerly unrevealed aspects of their personalities and histories the longer we get to know them. And because Hemingson, from the movie's first minutes, presents us with such sturdy, recognizable archetypes – cranky middle-aged snob, salt-of-the-earth service worker, rebellious smart-aleck teen – there's a special pleasure in witnessing the slow collapse of our assumptions regarding their trajectories. Bitter experience has taught Hunham, Mary, and Angus that theirs isn't a world of easy happy endings and prescribed uplift; more often than not, seemingly ideal couples don't get together, and problems aren't solved with flowing tears and a hug. While life hasn't necessarily beaten down these people, it has definitely made them wary, and scene by scene, Hemingson, Payne, and his first-rate acting trio explore melancholy and buried pain with the dignity their characters deserve. That they're able to do this while frequently making events laugh-out-loud funny constitutes something of a miracle.

No one pulls off dyspeptic bluster quite like Paul Giamatti, and although I haven't watched him in his many seasons of Billions, I'd wager that he hasn't had a role this strong since Sideways. In truth, Giamatti may be a bit too well-cast; for all of his incensed outbursts, sardonic insults, and delicate emotional shading when Hunham lets his guard down, the performance feels less like an extension of Sideways' Miles Raymond than a rehash of the same notes previously played. This doesn't, however, diminish the pleasure of Giamatti's Holdovers work, not to mention the kick of seeing him in a big-screen lead for the first time in ages, and he's beautifully partnered by Randolph, whose consistently subtle readings can fool you into thinking she's not doing much at all. Boy is she, though. Having gotten used to, and silently detesting, the pity she generates among Barton staff and students, Randolph's Mary – a heavy drinker, like Hunham – is a woman ever-conscious of the image she projects, and that those around her apparently want her to project: the very picture of quiet, dignified, selfless grief. So when her practiced reserve slips in ways small (the catch of her voice when discussing her son's death) and large (her drunken meltdown at a Christmas Eve party), the specificity of Mary's anguish is staggering. Without ever fishing for sympathy, Randolph squeezes your heart in a vice.

Paul Giamatti in The Holdovers

All that being said, Giamatti and Randolph also emerge as one hell of an odd-couple comedy team – and it's still Sessa who scores the biggest laughs. The Holdovers is his first movie (during location scouting, Sessa was discovered as a student at Deerfield Academy, where parts of the film were shot), and it's consequently unexpected that his comic deliveries are so assured. Almost unnaturally assured, to be honest, as little of what Angus says sounds like it's coming out of his mouth for the very first time. But Sessa's timing is superb and his confidence impressive, and he's obviously been smartly guided by Payne, who never resorts to melodrama even when the kid is at his lowest. You keep waiting – again, incorrectly – for the moment in which Angus' eternally cool-with-it facade crumbles, as Matt Damon's did in Good Will Hunting. Yet even when Payne keeps his camera glued on Sessa for the minutes-long duration of a heartrending monologue, not a single tear is shed.

While Payne's latest may be mostly set in the wintry confines of a New England boarding school, it's the polar opposite of a Dead Poets Society; there's sentiment but no overt sentimentality, and even when an inspirational ending seems preordained, the director manages to wrap things up with a defiantly, hilariously crass gesture of disgust. A work that continually invites you to re-evaluate people, situations, and even items – a snow globe, a bottle of cognac – whose purposes you instinctively thought you understood, The Holdovers is a sensational return to form for Alexander Payne. I can't wait for his next movie after his next one.

Michael Fassbender in The Killer


True story: When I first heard that David Fincher was directing a movie titled The Killer for Netflix, I was immediately overjoyed, thinking about the long, nine-year lull since his previous film Gone Girl was released. My delight must have lasted a full 30 seconds before I remembered that he also directed (and scored an Oscar nomination for) Netflix's Herman J. Mankiewicz bio-pic Mank, which debuted a mere three years ago next month. But does anyone aside from Fincher and those who actually received Academy Awards for it even remember that Mank exists? And after the new-car smell wears off, is anyone going to remember that The Killer exists, given that nearly everything about this turgid thriller – from its titular character to his one-track mission – seems lab-designed to be as forgettable as possible?

With Fincher's latest based on Alexis “Matz” Nolent's French graphic-novel series that simply has to be more involving than its Americanized adaptation, our unnamed assassin attributes his considerable professional and financial success, in large part, to knowing how to stay invisible by blending into a crowd. He's played here by Michael Fassbender, who, even at age 46, could only reasonably blend into a crowd if Earth were populated solely by GQ cover models. If you were at all put off by the chronological jumps of The Social Network and (if you remember it) Mank, or bothered by the dueling-narrative presentation of Gone Girl, you may be relieved to hear that The Killer follows a simple three-point structure in which (a) Fassbender's gun-for-hire accidentally executes the wrong mark; (b) his contractors beat the hell out of the guy's girlfriend in retribution; and (c) he consequently travels the United States in the hopes of finding, and murdering, her assailants. In Fincher's hands, and the hands of his Seven screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, this should make for two hours of nasty-ass fun, right? Wrong.

The movie isn't without scattered pleasures. Working again alongside established collaborators in editor Kirk Baxter and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the speedy, edgy opening credits promise precisely the kind of adrenaline-rush entertainment we're hoping for and never get. Mank's Oscar-winning cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt lends the images a sheen of perfect Fincher-ian coolness. A mid-film blast of mano a mano combat – the only viscerally exciting sequence to be found – delivers a few minutes' worth of spine-cracking vigor. And as she's wont to do, Tilda Swinton tucks the entire picture into her chic designer outfit toward the end and promptly strolls off with it, but not before downing a full flight of whiskey shots and telling a deliciously crude metaphoric joke involving a hunter and a chatty grizzly bear.

Michael Fassbender in The Killer

But these perks aside, good God is this thing dull. Because our Killer isn't one for small talk or friends, most of Fassbender's dialogue consists of mottoes and self-help directives delivered in voice-over, and the dude's inner voice never shuts the eff up.”Stick to the plan.” “Trust no one.” “Forbid empathy.” “Anticipate, don't improvise.” I've read critical analyses of The Killer claiming that these may as well be Fincher Post-its scribbled in preparation for a new shoot, and that his film is consequently an intensely personal expression of self-examination and -critique. If true, however, it only suggests that Fincher is as narrow-minded and boring as his leading figure here, who would seemingly rather die than crack a joke or indulge in a second of spontaneity, and I've listened to enough DVD commentary tracks to know that's not the case.

As the assassin travels from Paris to the Dominican Republic to New Orleans to Florida to Chicago, his droning narration tags along, and Swinton's contribution aside, none of his encounters have any particular flavor or lead to anything beyond another eventual encounter. You can be momentarily taken by the procedure behind his slow gleaning of his marks' whereabouts and still find yourself tired by the journeys required to get there. Meanwhile, this parody-played-straight's only cop to self-aware humor comes in the form of the killer's aliases, which are all names of popular sitcom characters: Archibald Bucker, Oscar Madison, Sam Malone, et cetera. This is modestly amusing the first few times, but downright offensive by the ninth, and senseless, to boot – are we supposed to believe that not one airport ticket agent looked at his passport, laughed, and asked, “Reuben Kinkaid? Like from The Partridge Family?!” Well-produced though it is, and with Fassbender remaining eminently watchable (and an intimidating yoga practitioner) despite his empty role, The Killer is an utter slog. But I guess we should have known what we were in for from its star's very first line of in-his-head nattering: “It's amazing how physically exhausting it can be to do nothing.”

Milo Manheim and Fiona Palomo in Journey to Bethlehem


As I see it, there are two reasonable responses to the new biblical musical Journey to Bethlehem, which imagines the birth-of-Jesus saga as a super-sized, themed episode of Glee, and was directed, co-written, co-produced, co-scored, and possibly co-catered by Glee veteran Adam Anders in his feature-length debut. You could find the experience intensely charming, moving, and inspirational, having adored the inarguable prettiness of its Mary and Joseph, the original show tunes that feature everyone from Nazarene merchants to Roman soldiers dancing in sync, and Antonio Bandereas, under heavy eye liner, suggesting what Puss in Boots might have done in the role of King Herod. Or, you could see this experiment as absolute bat-shit crazy, suggesting both a cinematic folly for the ages and the most well-funded church pageant you've ever subjected you to – and without some niece or nephew in the cast to make your attendance mandatory. Being inherently unreasonable in terms of my cinematic tastes, I'd like to offer a third possible response: considering Journey to Bethlehem silly beyond words, yet admitting that the film is easy to sit through, and could eventually make for fine parochial-school viewing right before Christmas break, when teachers might be looking for any excuse to not teach.

Taking on faith that you already know its story (as an opening title card helpfully reminds us, “The Greatest One Ever Told”), there's really not much to say about the movie, which will absolutely be your cup of communion wine if you've always wanted to see the Gospels of Matthew and Luke re-imagined as a hugely populated Newsboys Christmas concert. But even though I spent much of my time at this painfully well-meaning holiday offering either wincing or doing my best not to giggle, I can offer a few words of lowercase praise. Mary portrayer Fiona Palomo has a lovely voice and blessedly never resorts to mere winsomeness; her Virgin Mother is respectably forthright, if a little too obviously designed as a live-action Disney princess. As her Joseph, Milo Manheim is cute as a half-bearded button, and honestly impressive when performing a duet with himself, the pro-marriage Joseph participating in a pop-y sing-off against the anti-. (I can't wait to see how this routine is pulled off in the inevitable stage version.)

While I quietly wanted to die during the forced, unfunny monkeyshines of the film's three wise men – Anders' buffonish trio of Geno Segers' Balthazar, Omid Fdjalili's Melchior, and Schitt's Creek co-star Rizwan Manji's Caspar, whose big number, no kidding, is titled “Three Wise Guys” – I found more amusement than I expected from rapper Lecrae's angel Gabriel, here presented as a slapstick klutz who can't remember his lines. Joel Smallbone, from the Christian-pop duo For King & Country, gives perhaps the film's most most successful performance as Herod's first-born son Antipater; beyond singing beautifully, he's the only member of the cast whose inner turmoil feels persuasive. And while his involvement might simply be proof that the actor will accept a role in absolutely anything, Banderas doesn't treat Journey to Bethlehem like hack work. It might have been better for the star's reputation if he did, but I couldn't deny the goofy treat of watching Banderas devour the scenery while tearing through Judea in flowing robes singing – again, I kid you not – the comically aggressive ditty “Good to Be the King.” Jesus might weep, but Mel Brooks would be beside himself with joy.

Teyonah Parris, Brie Larson, and Iman Vellani in The Marvels


By now, you've likely heard that Marvel Studios' Captain Marvel followup The Marvels scored the lowest opening-weekend box office in the 33-film history of the MCU ($47 million domestic), and have perhaps heard that director Nia DaCosta's superhero adventure earned a “B” from the audience trackers at CinemaScore – a pretty decent grade, you'd think, until you learn that it ties the movie alongside Eternals and the most recent Ant-Man for the lowest ranking Marvel has yet recorded. (A "B" for Marvel apparently being a "D-minus" for the rest of us.) Because I adored DaCosta's 2021 reboot of Candyman and am just so-o-o-o tired of Marvel at this point, I feel no compulsion to pile on – let's just let this resoundingly meh entry vanish on its own. I will, however, say that I've seen five worse MCU offerings over the last 25 months alone, and the filmmakers should be applauded for keeping this one to a gratifyingly painless 105 minutes, and the quick-witted comedian Iman Vellani (the star of Disney+'s Ms. Marvel) is someone I hope to see more of in the future, preferably without extraordinary powers and not while unintentionally wiping Brie Larson and Teyonah Parris off the screen. There's also a great bit involving human-devouring/regurgitating cats, scored to an inevitable yet wholly satisfying needle drop, that's nuttier and funnier than anything Taika Waititi came up with in his two Thor sequels. But Marvel entertainments used to be events. These days, and for quite a while now, they've merely been obligations.

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