REVIEW: The Holdovers

There was no better way to spend my afternoon like catching the Sunday matinee of a film I have had on my mind ever since I saw a trailer for it this past summer – an early screening of Alexander Payne’s latest film “The Holdovers.”  An apparently highly anticipated screening, as the Michigan Theater was practically swarmed with Ann Arbor-ites of all ages, passionately discussing the ins and outs of their virtuous presumptions. Afterwards, it was difficult to say if their expectations were met – but surely, smiles of perhaps off-duty professors and trend-outfitted undergrads had endured.  And for me, as I left the theater, I left the film inside.  There was no lingering impression that was tied to me, which is infrequently my experience after an Alexander Payne film, but there was an inexplicable warmth that carried through the theater. Ultimately, this overdrawn, meandering, melancholic comedy is made lovable, in part, by touching performances and tender moments, if frustratingly fleeting. 

In the film’s opening, Payne situates us in the snowy outskirts of 1970s Massachusetts, our plot following a whiskey-drinking, fish-smelling, scrooge of a classics teacher, Paul Hunham (Paul Giamatti, “Billions,” “Sideways”) at Barton prep school, who is forced to watch over the students who have nowhere to go for Christmas.  Soon, we see our main group of students disassemble – departing via parent-dispatched helicopter – except for an irreverent and awkward junior, Angus (Dominic Sessa.) Leaving Mr. Hunham, Angus, and the school cook, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph,“High Fidelity,” “Only Murders in the Building.”) The three form a makeshift family, bonding through mealtime small talk, clandestine excursions, and ritualistic midnight-viewings of the “Newly Weds” game show.  As their bond tightens, so begins the unraveling intricacies of their own stifled grief – and the solace they find in one another’s company. 

Visually, the film brings a warm, saturated flare to a muted, wintery landscape that envelops the rigid collegiate architecture – and could be easily mistaken for the Law Quad, come January.  And our eyes savor the composition of every long-held, establishing shot, each tempting the bound between effortless realism and dreamlike uniformity – a very Wes Anderson-esque framework. But this aesthetic isn’t contained in these few scenes, instead it remains a lingering presence in the air – just as tangible as the actors breathing it in.  Embedded with true 1970s visual stylings, the film is riddled with covert film flickering, wide zoom outs and ins, making the viewer feel like they are in the middle of a “Columbo” episode. This stylistic undertaking of recreating that “70s look” in modern films is often its own character – giving into gimmickry and performativity.  Yet Payne manages to distill the sweet oddities of the distinctive 1970s cinematography into an illusive, atmospheric mood. 

And while this film’s clear aesthetic certainly builds an intimacy with viewers, the script doesn’t necessarily.  “The Holdovers” at its core, is a film about the impermanence of youth and the grief that accompanies its passing – and this is where it shines – however briefly. 

For example, we have Mr. Hunham who is at a standstill in his life; working for the school that he attended in his youth, and under the command of one of his previous students.  And despite his hard exterior, he softens – sheepishly sharing and diminishing his dreams of writing a monograph.  In a later scene, he and Angus run into a former classmate of his at Harvard.  During their interaction, we see Mr. Hunham lie through his teeth about his employment and accomplishments, keying in the audience to what he dreamed his life could have been.  Arguably, Mr. Hunham is simultaneously the most wretched, but also the most developed and sympathetic character in the film. This is, in part, ascribable to Paul Giamatti’s wonderfully evocative performance.  Sincerely, the best role I have seen him in, thus far – and an undoubted Oscar-nominee.  And speaking of Oscar worthy performances, it would be remiss not to discuss the force that is Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s evocative portrayal of Mary – whose warmth is palpable and was often the perpetrator of the laughter in the audience. In Mary’s case, she is grieving the loss of her son who had previously attended Barton, but enlisted in the military to save for college, which led to his death. However disjointed in the script, she frequently muses over the prospect of what could have been his future – what would have been the rest of his youth.  This is, I think, a poignant commentary (and one that I am sure is relatable to many of us at Michigan) of you can go to the best schools in the world, but there will always be a barrier between opportunities if you are at a financial disadvantage. 

Lastly, we have Angus who has no shortage of privilege – except when it comes to his familial relationships.  In the film, he is ostensibly abandoned by his mother who decides to spend the holidays with her new husband, and pays him off as a desultory apology.  Meanwhile, Angus’s biological father is in a mental hospital, suffering from (herein lies a plot shortcoming) maybe schizophrenia and early onset dementia? This is explained at the end, quite haphazardly.  Nonetheless, this leaves Angus with a fractured household – one that he tries desperately to revive and derive affection from throughout the film.  With that being said, Angus has the propensity to be highly childish, but he is often stifled from doing so as he internally reckons with his neglect, and the imposed independence that is required with no parental guidance.  One of my favorite scenes from the film is when Angus becomes captivated by a snowglobe.  Perhaps insignificant at first glance, but I believe this scene shows his longing for the sanctity of childhood – a childhood which is quite literally trapped within an object that  is unable to be revisited – but only looked upon with admiration.  Though unspoken, Dominic Sessa’s subtleties are what makes his performance memorable.  Fascinatingly, he was reportedly scouted from a nearby school’s theater department.  That and his empty IMDB page give a naturalistic mystique to his performance.  Yet, it wasn’t clear if he has the acclaimed, “it.”  Great actor, yes, but he was lackluster in more emotionally demanding sections of the film.  Although I won’t speak too soon, given the cultural trajectory of the general public flocking to lanky brunette men – I can imagine his future acting prospects are looking positive – if he chooses to forgo that path. 

Come the ending of the film, I found myself reeling at why I felt completely disconnected and untouched by a story that I thoroughly enjoyed and characters that I deeply understood.  I will admit that it remains unanswered still in my mind.  Though my best effort at extracting this dissonance, ultimately boils down to the sheer unfocused execution of Payne’s excellent ideas.  We can see all of our characters suffer and persevere internally, but rarely do they share moments of true, unadulterated connection between their greatest commonality: stolen youth.  And when they do, it lasts no longer than a minute or two, being promptly interrupted by uncharacteristic dialogue, tangential storylines, or an abrupt shift in plot.  Just one example of this is seen after a charming turned overwrought Christmas party, the trio heads back to the car, Angus and Mr. Hunham consoling a drunken, tear-stained Mary.  Angus half-heartedly comforts Mary, in true teenage boy fashion, which elicits a maligning outburst from Mr. Hunham.  Mary then quickly snaps out of her grief to scold Mr. Hunham, and then she is suddenly fine – the scene is never mentioned again. This fragmented narrative hinders a deeper emotional connection to the trio as a whole, leaving the audience yearning for more enduring moments of resonance. 

And this element of the film is the catalyst for what would be an average runtime, to feel so extensive and interminable.  In spite of this, our actors manage to sustain our engagement and investment in these characters through an amalgamation of clever one-liners, vulnerable confessionals, and unquestionably moving depictions of the beauty in unexpected companionship – however sporadically placed and decidedly short-lived.  Altogether, Payne’s “The Holdovers” feels like a vivid, albeit voyeuristic glimpse into the heartfelt happenings of three strangers who form and rely on their newfound family.  With vintage flair, Payne creates a spritely, if a little tedious holiday film that is sure to earn a spot on people’s shelves – even just to collect dust. 

While this was an early screening, the wide release of “The Holdovers” is on November 10th, 2023.  

REVIEW: The Short and Suite Nutcracker

While watching this show I kept thinking of what words to use to describe how awesome this is.
The Short and Suite Nutcracker by the Randazzo Dance company was a dance show featuring different dance styles. It had ballet, jazz, tap dancing, and more. For the tap-dancing, and some jazz performances there was live music which added a cherry on top. The kaleidoscope of genres kept the show refreshing and fun. I am not exaggerating when I say there were no dull moments.

All the dancers performed extremely well. There were dancers as young as, I might say, 5 years old to the oldest being seniors in high school. It was such a joy and privilege to watch all these young performers. It was wonderful to see them flaunt their skills and months of hard work. Despite the sheer number of performers, dance genres, set changes, etc. the show went smoothly. Thereby showing how well organized it was and how much practice the performers had done.

No part of this show was left unpolished. The costumes were simply gorgeous. They had been designed to really shine on stage and make every child look like a professional. The choice of music was tasteful and never boring. The lighting was well done as well as all the fun props and backgrounds.

In the second half of the show, the dances became more festive. There was a plot following the dances and it was a lot of fun. The dancers performed acrobatics, played with giant soft toys, did costume changes, and much more. It was a lively time. Their holiday energy was infectious and the pacing of the dances made the ending really extravagant and over the top in the best way possible.

I am glad I got to see all these extremely talented performers. No praises are enough for them. I know I will be on the lookout for any showcases from the Randazzo dance company!

PREVIEW: Holiday Stories

Need a break from studying for finals? Want a reward for surviving finals?

Treat yourself to some laughter and drinks at Pointless Brewery & Theatre. A special improvised one-act play inspired by a holiday memory, The League of Pointless Improvisers will take your mind off that exam you wish didn’t happen or that paper you need to write for an hour and a half and bring you into the holiday mood.

No two shows are alike. In an ideal world, you can see every show and laugh at all the brilliance that is improvised onstage. But, that’s not realistic (because you really should be studying), so just make it to one. Catch Holiday Stories on December 8 or December 15 at 10pm. Tickets are $10 online or $5 student rush tickets are available at the door with a valid student ID.


REVIEW: Sing-Along White Christmas

What does a tissue, a feather, a bottle of bubbles, a party popper, a plastic horse, a glow stick, and a hand clapper have in common? They could all be found in the goodie bag I received, as I entered the Michigan Theater last Friday night, ready to belt out the classic songs of Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”

Image Courtesy of Wikipedia
Image Courtesy of
Image Courtesy of

Donning the Santa Hat handed to me along with the goodie bag, I felt like an elf from the Polar Express. I followed the hordes into the theater, where the antique Barton organ was humming old classic favorites like ‘Frosty the Snowman’ and the ‘Chipmunk Song.’

The theater was packed with mostly families starting new traditions, and old friends remembering the past – a glorious mash-up of the new and classic, the young and old, coming together to celebrate the holidays. And if anyone could turn “White Christmas” into a “Rocky Horror” style experience, it is the Michigan Theater.

The red curtain lifted and the eponymous title song, “White Christmas” came on. In case you didn’t know the lyrics (????), the words were digitally projected onto the screen and looked just like the subtitles of those Disney Sing Along tapes we all watched so long ago. Throughout the movie, the subtitles prompted us to retrieve certain items from our goodie bag. Every time Emma the hotel clerk takes out her hankie, we shook our napkins (very lady-like, of course) at the screen and cried, ‘Boo-hoo.’

Image Courtesy of

Grab your bubbles! It’s starting to snow!

The movie is centered around performances, and so, to imitate our role as an audience member for both the fictional performances as well as the movie itself, we were encouraged to flap our hand clappers when Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye finish their big dance number, or when Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen take their final curtsy. But, basically, we could “hand clap” whenever we wanted (very much like in a poetry slam when you snap for anything that you find especially smooth). Among this particular audience, the hand-claps seemed to be synchronized with the kissing scenes. It was like we were all back in seventh grade when we had to say something at the sight of kissing. Except, instead of “eww,” we let out a collective, “ooh!!!”

At the final scene when the General (who owns the hotel which has been financially saved) blows out the candles on his cake, we were prompted to get out the poppers. We all waited, hands at the ready. Anticipation bubbled throughout the theater, as we waited for him to signal the celebration. It was as if we, the audience, were part of the movie! Suddenly, POP!!!! Streamers flew every which way throughout the theater and the smoky smell of gunpowder filled the air.

If you ever get the chance to take part in a communal sing along experience, do it! Even if you don’t like to sing. Because it isn’t all about the singing. The community of movie watchers and you become one. Together, you bond over the 5D experience of the movie. The smells, the sounds, the tangibility of the fictional movie become real with your help! You help bring it alive, which is an amazing thing to experience. The Michigan Theater is unique in that they put on events like this: events that you the audience member bring to life; events that will become an annual tradition time and time again. Someday, when I’m 89 years old, I hope to bring my friends, my kids, and grandkids back there to the ole’ Michigan Theater and sing along to “White Christmas” tunes, just like I did in 2014.



PREVIEW: Sing-a-Long White Christmas

Image Courtesy of

For those of you who have practiced such discipline and have restrained from listening to holiday music before Thanksgiving, congratulations! (I can’t say I’ve been as strong…darn that Vince Guaraldi). Once the feasting has subsided this Thursday, it is officially appropriate to rock out to festive music! And what could be more fun than ringing in the holiday spirit than with a sing-a-long of the beloved holiday movie, White Christmas?

The 1954 classic film, featuring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, tells the story of two war buddies turned entertainers who fall for a pair of sisters (Rosemary Clooney and Vera Ellen). The boys follow the girls to a resort, conveniently owned by their former commanding officer. But the resort is in jeopardy of getting shut down. What better excuse to stage a show than to help save the resort?

If you’ll be in town for the long weekend, come get into the holiday spirit at the Michigan Theater! It’s been scientifically proven that singing is good for your mental health! Trust me…Buzzfeed says so… 🙂

What: Sing-a-long White Christmas

When: Friday, November 28 at 7:30 pm.

Where: Michigan Theater

How Much?: Students (w/ ID) – $13.00

*Come early for caroling with the Barton organ from 7-7:30.