The Holdovers

BLU-RAY DISC REVIEW:

Street Date 1/2/24;
Universal;
Comedy;
Box Office $18.3 million;
$19.98 DVD, $24.98 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for language, some drug use and brief sexual material.
Stars Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dominic Sessa, Carrie Preston, Naheem Garcia, Andrew Garman, Gillian Vigman, Tate Donovan, Brady Hepner, Michael Provost, Ian Dolley, Jim Kaplan.

Director Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers blankets itself in the filmmaking sensibilities of the 1970s to present a bitterly comedic tale of three lonely souls who have slipped through society’s cracks and find themselves stranded together by circumstance.

Paul Giamatti, reuniting with Payne nearly two decades after the iconic success of 2004’s Sideways, stars as an overbearing teacher at a New England boarding school in 1970 who is tasked with supervising a handful of students who have nowhere else to go over the two-week winter break. With dreary snow limiting their options for recreation and forcing the group to bunk in the lone building that isn’t shut down for the winter, the stakes seem set for a classic clash of wills between Giamatti’s hard-nosed taskmaster Mr. Hunham and the students who are itching to break free of his confines.

But what starts off as The Paper Chase meets The Shining veers a bit back toward Sideways territory when four of the five students are whisked away on a ski trip by one of their wealthy fathers. Guilted into trying to provide the lone remaining student, the troubled Angus (newcomer Dominic Sessa), with a decent Christmas, they embark on a “field trip” to Boston, joined by the school’s head cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who is still grieving over the recent death of her son in Vietnam. In embracing each other as an ersatz family unit, the trio take their first steps in moving forward from their sorrowful fates.  

The Holdovers is the result of a bit of creative serendipity, as Payne had wanted to do a movie about a boarding school and came upon screenwriter David Hemingson, who was pitching a TV show about the same subject. Hemingson then reworked his script for the pilot episode into the screenplay for Payne’s film.

The result is an engaging, thoughtful and amusing character study punctuated by the terrific performances of the three leads.

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The home video edition of the film includes a smattering of interesting bonus materials.

The making of the film is ably covered in two featurettes — a 10-and-a-half-minute video about the cast, and the eight-and-a-half-minute “Working With Alexander.”

Also included are about seven minutes of excised content, consisting of four deleted scenes and an alternate ending. These include text introductions explaining why they were cut, and are accompanied by a written explanation from Payne, who mirthfully apologizes for the “meager offerings.”

 

‘The Holdovers’ Due Digitally Dec. 29, on Disc Jan. 2

Universal Pictures Home Entertainment will release director Alexander Payne’s The Holdovers through digital retailers Dec. 29, and on Blu-ray Disc and DVD Jan. 2.

As previously announced, the film also begins streaming on Peacock Dec. 29.

The Holdovers stars Paul Giamatti as a curmudgeonly instructor at a New England prep school who is forced to remain on campus during Christmas break to babysit a handful of students with nowhere to go. The cast also includes Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa.

The film earned $17.8 million at the domestic box office and is nominated for three Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy, Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy for Giamatti, and Best Supporting Actress for Randolph.

Home video extras include an alternate ending, four deleted scenes with an introduction by Payne, and two featurettes.

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Billions: Season Six

DVD REVIEW:

Paramount/CBS;
Drama;
$33.99 DVD;
Not Rated.
Stars Paul Giamatti, Corey Stoll, Maggie Sif, David Costabile, Condola Rashad, Asia Kate Dillon, Daniel Breaker, Jeffrey DeMunn.

Some major cast changes for its sixth season would otherwise offer the prospect of a refreshing new perspective to Showtime’s “Billions” if its writers weren’t so set in their proclivities.

For its first five seasons, “Billions” focused on the efforts of crusading government attorney Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti) to take down ultra-rich hedge fund guru Bobby Axelrod. With Axe having fled the country, Rhoades sets his sights on the billionaire who conquered Axe’s empire, Mike Prince (Corey Stoll).

Prince hopes to re-energize Axe’s troops with a new mission to pursue investments based on bringing positive social change. Unlike Axe, whose money-making schemes frequently bordered on the shady and abusive, the image-conscious Prince seems motivated by benevolence. Among his efforts are bringing an Olympics to New York City and funding a universal basic income program. His efforts would beautify the city, revitalize infrastructure and stimulate the local economy.

Prince’s arrival also alters the power dynamics within Axe’s former company as they adjust to the new paradigm, particularly Axe’s old right-hand-man, Wags (David Costabile), who will do whatever it takes to prove he’s an ideal sycophant for whomever is in charge, and Wendy, Axe’s former motivational coach and Chuck’s ex-wife, who questions her purpose in the new company.

Rhoades, being the vindictive bureaucrat that he is, strives to quash all of Prince’s plans solely on the theory that simply being a billionaire must make Prince a criminal worthy of a takedown. Rhoades is also out for a bit of revenge given that he teamed with Prince to set up Axe’s fall, only for Prince to manipulate the situation to take over Axe’s companies and facilitate his escape.

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The show remains a riveting drama of Machiavellian proportions, filled with engaging character performances, sharp dialogue and a panache for pop culture. But the sixth season’s 12 episodes are a bit of an uneven roller coaster as story arcs veer from one scheme to the next with minimal transitions, and plot twists that demonstrate the writers aren’t willing to accept the obvious messaging of their own storylines.

Rhoades’ unchecked ego and abuse of power make him one of the biggest villains on television today. Yet the show still seems to want to view him as something of a hero, the embodiment of lingering anti-capitalist sentiments that hypocritically infuse the entertainment industry.

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As the cat-and-mouse game between Prince and Rhoades plays out, Rhoades makes it his business to interfere in everything Prince attempts, like a typical statist who can’t abide the concept of private money doing public good when it diminishes what he can control. On the verge of being outmaneuvered by Prince’s political alliances, Rhoades then appeals to broad populism and class warfare, hoping to convince his constituents that societal improvements are only worthwhile if they stem from the government.

What’s especially disappointing about season six is that until the final episodes of the season, Prince’s biggest flaws seem to be a misguided devotion to stakeholder capitalism, which is annoying, but it’s his money. Then the writers let Rhoades and his minions off the hook by gradually revealing facets of Prince’s character and business practices from seemingly out of nowhere for no other real narrative reason than to keep the show treading in the moral gray area it’s been swimming in since it began. There are no heroes and villains when it comes to power — there are just those who benefit and those who get screwed.

Jungle Cruise

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street Date 11/16/21;
Disney;
Adventure;
Box Office $116.97 million;
$29.99 DVD, $35.99 Blu-ray, $43.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of adventure violence.
Stars Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons, Paul Giamatti, Edgar Ramírez, Veronica Falcón.

In the spirit of a classic ride known for its jokes, here’s another one: Have you heard Disney’s remaking the Pirates of the Caribbean movie? It’s called Jungle Cruise.

Based on one of the original rides at Disneyland, Jungle Cruise owes a lot to its theme park companion, and not just the idea of turning a Disney parks boat ride into a big-budget adventure movie. As with 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, Jungle Cruise features a legendary treasure of sorts, and a cadre of immortal warriors cursed by it.

In this case, the primary plot device is a mythical tree in the middle of the Amazon jungle whose pedals can cure any disease. An expedition of conquistadors disappeared searching for the tree hundreds of years earlier, but were claimed by the jungle. The story picks up in 1916, with explorers Lily Houghton and her brother, MacGregor, setting off to Brazil in search of the tree. To travel down the Amazon river, they charter a boat from Frank (Dwayne Johnson), a cruise skipper desperate for money to pay off local kingpin Nilo (Paul Giamatti).

Also after the treasure is a German prince named Joachim (Jesse Plemons), who is based on the actual son of Kaiser Wilhelm II. To spice things up he brings a submarine to sail down the river.

The slapstick action sequences also bring to mind films such as The Mummy (the campy 1999 version, not the awful 2017 remake). According to the bonus materials, the filmmakers themselves drew inspiration from The African Queen, Romancing the Stone and Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it shows (1951’s African Queen being a primary inspiration for the original ride as well).

Though derivative, Jungle Cruise manages to deliver a fun adventure that takes advantage of its charismatic leads. It also pays a lot of homage to the original ride that fans should appreciate, particularly in regards to the famous puns that ride skippers are known for reciting.

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The primary bonus feature on the Blu-ray (also available with digital versions and on Disney+) is the film’s “Expedition Mode,” which is basically a pop-up trivia track that plays with the film. Aside from a few facts about the production, the original ride and some of the jungle animals encountered on the voyage, it’s a rather lackluster offering in terms of taking a deep dive into the material. Why not delve more into the biography into the character of Prince Joachim, a real person whose history the filmmakers have coopted in order to make him the mustache-twirling villain of the piece? Instead, the pop-up text just offers more bad Jungle Cruise-style puns.

The other extras are more-standard fare, highlighted by nearly 17 minutes of deleted scenes that fill in more aspects to the world of the film.

The general making of the film is covered in a 13-minute featurette, further supplemented by a five-minute video about the performances of Johnson and Blunt, and a 15-minute “Creating the Amazon” delves into the visual effects, production design and crafting the impressive set of the Brazilian port town.

Then there’s a 14-minute “Once a Skip, Always a Skip,” which profiles the ride and features actual ride skippers discussing their experiences with the attraction.

Rounding out the extras is a two-and-a-half-minute gag reel.

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Animated ‘The Little Prince’ Heading to Disc Feb. 9 From Paramount

The animated adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s classic story The Little Prince arrives on Blu-ray and DVD Feb. 9 from Paramount Home Entertainment.

Featuring a voice cast including Jeff Bridges, Rachel McAdams, Marion Cotillard, James Franco, Benicio Del Toro, Ricky Gervais, Albert Brooks, Paul Rudd, Mackenzie Foy and Paul Giamatti, the film debuted on Netflix in 2016.

From the director of Kung Fu Panda comes this re-imagined take on the story. At its heart is “The Little Girl” (Foy), prepared by her mother (McAdams) for the very grown-up real-world. After her eccentric, kind-hearted neighbor “The Aviator” (Bridges) introduces her to an extraordinary world where anything is possible, she learns of “The Little Prince” (Riley Osborne). And so begins a magical and emotional journey.

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Special features include a 25-minute featurette on the making of the film, as well as a music video for the song “Turnaround” by Camille. The Blu-ray additionally includes access to a digital copy of the film.

‘The Illusionist,’ ‘Winter Passing’ and ‘Resurrecting the Champ’ Among Star-Studded Films Joining MVD Marquee Collection

The MVD Marquee Collection is adding five films from Yari Film Group to its lineup on DVD and Blu-ray Disc.

Due June 25 are Resurrecting the Champ, Winter Passing and The Illusionist.

Resurrecting the Champ, directed by Rod Lurie (The Contender), stars Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Hartnett with Alan Alda, Kathryn Morris, Teri Hatcher, David Paymer and Peter Coyote. In the film, sportswriter Erik Kernan (Hartnett) wants nothing more than to discover a story great enough to make headlines. When he meets Champ (Jackson), a former boxing champion living on the streets, he knows he has a shot to save them both. Recording his newfound friend’s tale of triumph and defeat, Kernan gets his story and his fame. But as Champ’s tale falls under more scrutinizing eyes, Kernan learns what truly makes a story great is the quality of the man behind it. Bonus material includes a feature audio commentary from Lurie, a behind-the-scenes featurette, interviews with the cast and crew, and the original theatrical trailer.

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Winter Passing is an offbeat film about homecoming and reconciliation that features Zooey Deschanel, Will Ferrell, Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Dallas Roberts, Michael Chernus, Anthony Rapp, Sam Bottoms and Rachel Dratch. When a book editor (Madigan) offers to buy the love letters of Reese Holden’s (Deschanel) parents, she returns home to recover them, only to find her widowed dad (Harris) golfing upstairs, sleeping outside and living with roommates — a pretty grad student (Amelia Warner) and a quirky wannabe musician (Ferrell). Bonus material includes a behind-the-scenes featurette and the original theatrical trailer.

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The Illusionist stars Paul Giamatti and Edward Norton along with Jessica Biel, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Marsan and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. In the film, acclaimed illusionist Eisenheim (Norton) has not only captured the imaginations of all of Vienna, but also the interest of the ambitious Crown Prince Leopold (Sewell). But when Leopold’s new fiancée (Biel) rekindles a childhood fascination with Eisenheim, the Prince’s interest evolves into obsession and the city’s chief inspector (Giamatti) finds himself investigating a shocking crime. As the Inspector engages him in a dramatic challenge of wills, Eisenheim prepares for his most impressive illusion yet. Bonus material includes a feature audio commentary from writer/director Neil Burger, “The Making of the Illusionist” featurette, the “Jessica Biel on the Illusionist” featurette and the original theatrical trailer.

Taking 18 years from the start of production to theatrical release, Shortcut to Happiness finally makes its debut on Blu-ray and DVD July 16. Originally titled The Devil and Daniel Webster, the film was to be the directorial debut of Alec Baldwin. With the film plagued by investor problems and rumored creative differences, Baldwin had his director credit removed from the film and replaced with the pseudonym Harry Kirkpatrick. Producer Bob Yari rescued the film from bankruptcy court and finished it without Baldwin’s participation. It received limited theatrical screenings in 2007. Years later, it aired on Showtime and Starz channels. Set in New York’s literary world, Shortcut to Happiness is a contemporary re-telling of the classic short story ”The Devil and Daniel Webster,” starring Baldwin, Dan Aykroyd, Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Kim Cattrall, Bobby Cannavale, Amy Poehler and Darrell Hammond. It follows Jabez Stone (Baldwin), a down on his luck writer who sells his soul to the devil (Love-Hewitt) in exchange for fame and fortune. When things don’t turn out as planned, Stone ultimately decides that he wants his old life again and enlists the help of Daniel Webster (Hopkins) in order to win his soul.

Finally, Sept. 17 comes Find Me Guilty from director Sidney Lumet (Serpico, Network, Dog Day Afternoon). Vin Diesel stars with Peter Dinklage, Annabella Sciorra, Alex Rocco, Ron Silver and Linus Roache in this true story. When police arrest 20 members of the Lucchese crime family, the authorities offer Jackie Dee DiNorscio (Diesel) a bargain: a shortened prison term if he’ll testify against his own. But the wisecracking DiNorscio has other ideas. Refusing to cooperate, he decides to defend himself at his own trial and proceeds to turn the courtroom upside-down, culminating in one of the most shocking verdicts in judicial history. Bonus material includes the “A Conversation with Director Sidney Lumet” featurette, the original theatrical trailer and three TV spots.

The Catcher Was a Spy

DVD REVIEW:

Street Date 10/2/18;
Paramount;
Drama;
Box Office $0.7 million;
$22.99 DVD;
Rated ‘R’ for some sexuality, violence and language.
Stars Paul Rudd, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson, Connie Nielsen, Shea Whigham.

The Catcher Was a Spy is one of those strange-but-true tales that really drives up the curiosity factor based on its somewhat bizarre premise alone.

The film is based on a book of the same name that relates the true story of a former Major League Baseball catcher who was tasked with assassinating the head of Germany’s atomic bomb program during World War II.

The actual circumstances make a lot more sense when played out in context of course, even if the man at the center of it, the Jewish baseball player-turned-spy Moe Berg, would seem to defy most attempts to classify his character.

Berg, played here by the always affable Paul Rudd, was an avid reader who spoke several languages, demonstrated his smarts on radio quiz shows and was labeled an oddball for his eccentricities by coaches and teammates during an otherwise underwhelming 15-year baseball career.

After being invited to join an all-star team of Major Leaguers touring Japan in 1934, Berg learned from a Japanese friend that a war between the U.S. and Japan was likely inevitable, so he snuck onto the roof of a Tokyo hospital to film footage of the city’s harbor. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Berg gave the footage to U.S. intelligence services and ended up joining the OSS (precursor to the CIA).

Incidentally, while the film doesn’t dwell on the particulars, this was the same 1934 tour touted in Ken Burns’ Baseball in which a 17-year-old Japanese kid named Eiji Sawamura struck out Hall of Famers Charlie Gehringer, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx in succession. (Sawamura was killed a decade later serving the Japanese navy in WWII.)

Anyway, the OSS eventually assigns Berg to a team looking into the activities of famed German physicist Werner Heisenberg (namesake for Walter White’s alias on “Breaking Bad”), trying to gauge his involvement in helping Germany develop an atomic bomb and assess what progress, if any, he has made on the project. The key moment comes when Berg is sent to stalk Heisenberg (played by Mark Strong) during a lecture in neutral Switzerland and shoot him on the spot if the scientist offers any hint that he is working on an atomic weapon.

Part baseball movie, part spy thriller, The Cather Was a Spy is an intriguing wartime procedural carried primarily by its old-fashioned sensibilities and the likability of its main cast. The screenplay is by Robert Rodat, who is no stranger to WWII movies having penned Saving Private Ryan.

The DVD includes seven deleted scenes that run a total of about nine minutes. Many shed a bit more light on Berg’s character and motivations, and had some of them been kept they might have helped the character study bona fides of a film that runs a svelte hour-and-a-half as it is.