Alexander Payne’s latest movie, The Holdovers, which opens throughout Israel on February 8, is getting major Oscar buzz and it’s the kind of character-driven, low-key drama of redemption and friendship that could provide a nice contrast to the overblown, overhyped movies like Barbie and Oppenheimer that got most of the attention this year.
If only it were better.
It’s one of those wintry movies about misfits bonding during the Christmas season, and while it has characters you care about more as it goes along, it takes its time and it’s so clear that the bonding is on the way that you may grow impatient with the slow pacing. It’s disappointing because Payne has often made enjoyable, memorable movies, especially his early features, Election and Citizen Ruth.
Why The Holdovers falls flat
Election brutally satirized a high-school student (Reese Witherspoon) determined to win a school election at all costs, while Citizen Ruth, featuring Laura Dern, subversively mined the politics of the political controversy around the abortion movement for comedy. Payne also made Sideways, the story of two middle-aged men who are disappointed with their lives and who take what they hope will be a cathartic journey through California wine country, which was a breakout role for Paul Giamatti, best known today for the TV series, Billions, who also stars in The Holdovers.
In The Holdovers, Giamatti – considered one of the frontrunners for the Best Actor Oscar – plays Paul Hunham, a very strict teacher at a New England boys’ prep school in 1970 who is universally disliked and disrespected by the students, the other teachers, and his boss. He revels in giving his students – most of whom he considers lazy, overprivileged idiots – failing grades, even if they are wealthy or politically connected. No one would ever consider Paul overprivileged. He was a scholarship student, went to Harvard, and came back to teach at his old prep school – and rarely leaves the campus. He has no family, no friends, and no relationships with women. Oh, and due to a medical condition, he smells bad. Before you can think what a lovable loser he is, he gets stuck looking after “the holdovers” – the kids who can’t go home for the holidays – over the Christmas break.
It goes without saying that he is an unrelenting jerk as he makes these sad students, who are missing their families (some live far away, some have parents who don’t want them around), spend their days studying and exercising, with no chance for any fun. It’s all about painting Paul – at the beginning – as what the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael would have called “a parody of an anti-life monster,” a quote from her review of Terms of Endearment, in which she was describing Shirley MacLaine’s character, but which also applies here.
Eventually, all the students get a reprieve and are able to leave, except for Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa, who should have gotten an Oscar nod but didn’t). He is Paul’s brightest student and though he originally seemed like one of the entitled egomaniacs Paul loathes, at the last minute, his mother tells him that she and his new stepfather are going to the Caribbean for a vacation without him. This punctures Angus’s brash façade and while he rebels against Paul’s rules, it’s clear that he is acting out due to his feelings of abandonment.
There is a third character who is stuck at the school with them, Mary (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who is virtually guaranteed an Oscar for this performance), the school cook who is mourning the recent loss of her only son in Vietnam. She is wise and noble throughout, with moments of heartbreaking vulnerability. Randolph, who has appeared in The Idol and Only Murders in the Building, plays this role so well you will only realize how cliched the character is after you leave the theater. Despite her pain, she manages to push Paul and Angus closer together, making them realize what is truly important in life.
Eventually, the long-foreshadowed bonding comes as the teacher and student reveal their secrets and admit who they really are, in a series of scenes that do become progressively more touching. Mary finds some comfort in her connection to the two of them and they all embrace the redemption that was hovering on the horizon from the movie’s opening moments.
The three leads work well together and you will root for them, although there is a predictability and heavy-handedness to the story that makes it less moving than it would otherwise be. There are some good actors in supporting roles who don’t have much to do, among them Carrie Preston of The Good Wife who plays a down-to-earth faculty member who moonlights as a waitress. The ’70s setting is used cleverly and the opening credits make it look like a film that was actually made 50-plus years ago, which is a fun way to start it off.
But for all its virtues, The Holdovers invites unfortunate comparisons to the ne plus ultra of teacher-student bonding movies, Wonder Boys with Michael Douglas and Tobey Maguire, based on and very faithful to the great novel by Michael Chabon of the same title. While I really wanted to like The Holdovers and I did enjoy quite a bit of it, it was hard to banish memories from the much funnier and more moving Wonder Boys as The Holdovers limped along.
Movie Review | ‘Dune: Part Two’ improves on first film’s grand formula
When your first movie is a hit, the studio tends to give you more cash to spend on the sequel.
And when your film adapts what essentially is the second half of a book, it tends to be more exciting than the installment that came before it.
Not surprisingly, then, filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s excellent “Dune: Part Two” — in theaters March 1, after being pushed into 2024 as a result of last year’s Hollywood strikes — is greater in scale and more frequently riveting than its strong predecessor, 2021’s six-time Academy Award-winning “Dune.”
This second “Dune,” costing a reported $190 million, isn’t a giant leap forward, the science-fiction epic matching the first ($165 million) precisely in terms of look and tone. And it picks up where “Dune” left off, with possible future messiah Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet) and his mother, mystical Bene Gesserit Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson, “Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning”), living among the Fremen, the native people of the remote desert planet Arrakis.
In case you need a refresher, “Dune” and “Dune: Part Two” are based on Frank Herbert’s influential 1965 novel “Dune,” a work interested in ecological themes, among others.
In Herbert’s world — set thousands of years in the future and following humanity winning a war against artificial intelligence — computers are outlawed in the universe. Instead, to traverse space, folks depend on spice, the mind-altering substance that grows in the sands of Arrakis. As a result, control of the otherwise desolate planet is important — so important that it cost Paul his father and saw the great House Atreides fall to the merciless types of House Harkonnen.
Now, the prescient Paul desires to express his distinct displeasure with what has happened to that house’s leader, the grotesque Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Stellan Skarsgård, “Andor”), and the man pulling the strings from above him, the Emperor (Christopher Walken, “The Deer Hunter”), seen in “Part Two” for the first time.
“Your father didn’t believe in revenge,” Jessica reminds her son.
“Well I do,” Paul responds.
Paul wishes to learn the ways of the Fremen, who exist in the harsh lands of Arrakis despite the ever-present threat of the giant sandworms and do not appreciate outsiders coming to take the planet’s valuable resource. Fortunately for Paul, a key Fremen, Stilgar (Javier Bardem, “No Country for Old Men”), believes him to be the prophesied off-worlder who will lead the Fremen to a better existence. Paul isn’t so sure about that, and neither are others, among them Chani (Zendaya “Spider-Man: No Way Home”) — literally the woman of his spice-fueled dreams and to whom, of course, he grows closer in this film.
As the story progresses, Paul works to pass tests administered by Stilgar to prove his worth; encounters an old friend and mentor in Gurney Halleck (Josh Brolin, “Avengers: End Game”); and faces a new and possibly more dangerous enemy in Feyd-Rautha (Austin Butler), the psychopathic nephew of the baron, who rises to power as his brother, Beast Rabbanas (Dave Bautista, “Guardians of the Galaxy”), struggles to defeat the constantly attacking Fremen.
Most importantly, Paul wants to avoid the potentially catastrophic results of choosing the path he takes in his visions. However, other forces, including his mother — traveling her own rise to power in this chapter — may pull him there nonetheless.
Visually, at least, “Dune: Part Two” is a masterpiece. With contributions from returning contributors including director of photography Greig Fraser, production designer Patrice Vermette, editor Joe Walker, visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert and costume designer Jacqueline, the film is regularly wondrous while also presenting a very gritty and lived-in world. It is a sight to behold, for example, every time Fremen warriors rise from the sand and charge at the Harkonnen spice-harvesting operation. Ultimately, we seldom get world-building as stunning as what Villeneuve has offered with these two films.
Like the 2021 release, “Part Two” is a little slow at times, not a shock given its two-and-a-half-hour-plus runtime. Even still, this is yet more topnotch filmmaking from Villeneuve, whose previous directorial efforts include the outstanding films “Sicario” and “Blade Runner 2049.” He knows how to pull you into a story and keep you invested, even a narrative as strange and sprawling as that of “Dune.”
Villeneuve co-wrote the screenplay with another returning collaborator Jon Spaihts (“Doctor Strange”), the tandem continuing to show tremendous work in the realm of adaptation, bringing to the screen only what we need for a compelling tale.
Within the frame, Chalamet (“Wonka,” “Call Me by Your Name”), as he was in the first film, is merely a semi-engaging hero — that is until a rousing late-affair scene where the actor goes big and truly impresses. It’s a performance that’s needed to sell what’s to follow, and sell it he does.
The cast is too large to do much more singling out, but know that Butler, following impressive performances in projects including “Elvis” and “Masters of the Air,” is rather terrifying as the especially horrendous Harkonnen. Feyd-Rautha is one-dimensional and a disappointingly underdeveloped character, but Butler is terrifying as the villain all the same.
The huge ensemble of “Dune: Part Two” also includes notable newcomers in Florence Pugh (“Black Widow”), as Princess Irulan, daughter of the Emperor, and Léa Seydoux (“No Time to Die”), as Lady Fenring, an enigmatic Bene Gesserit who pays a visit to Feyd-Rautha. Both actors get relatively little screen time, but one imagines they could get significantly more in a third “Dune.”
As you’d expect given that Herbert penned sequels to “Dune,” there is room for this story to continue. And as likely as a “Dune: Part Three” is to be green-lit, there are reasons to suspect it won’t arrive as quickly as this film has.
Regardless of when it arrives, with the gift Villeneuve so far has illustrated for spice-navigating us through space, we’ll follow him back to Arrakis as beyond.
“Dune: Part Two” is rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some suggestive material and brief strong language. Runtime: Two hours, 46 minutes.
Film Review: The Moon Thieves (2024) by Steve Yuen
“Lies are best based on truth”
The caper or heist film is one of the sub-genres of action that has a lot to offer thematically and stylistically if done correctly. If we think back to “To Catch a Thief” or even the “Oceans”-series, the world these stories show are a reflection of a society based on materialism and property, with the thieves sharing the same obsession as the owners of the object they want to steal. On the other hand, given its potential to be an ensemble piece, the caper/heist feature also offers actors the chance to shine. Steve Yuen’s “The Moon Thieves”, the director’s third feature, tries to combine the two aspects of the genre, but fails to offer some depth to its otherwise intriguing premise.
The Moon Thieves is released exclusively in UK cinemas by Central City Media
Uncle (Keung To) is a major player in the Hong Kong underworld and he is also a successful dealer in fake and real watches. Upon hearing three prestigious watches owned by painter Pablo Picasso will be auctioned in Tokyo, he recruits a crew to steal them and exchange them with counterfeits. Chief (Louis Cheng), a loyal follower to Uncle’s father, is the leader of the crew which also consists of Mario (Michael Ning), an explosive expert, Vincent (Edan Lui), a master counterfeiter, and finally Yoh (Anson Lo), a safe-cracker. Chief and Mario are somewhat skeptical of the two younger members of the team, especially Vincent who has issues with the whole undertaking and prefers to not be part of the heist itself.
However, he changes his mind upon seeing the contents of the safe where the watches are kept. Among the Picasso watches, there is also the infamous Moonwatch, which was supposedly worn by Buzz Aldrin upon walking on the moon for the first time in 1969. During a fireworks festival, the heist takes place and despite a few hiccups, everything goes largely as planned. But when one of the thieves also takes the precious Moonwatch, this sets in motion a series of events, as a Japanese businessman and crime lord is unwilling to give up on his property this easily.
While the premise of having a crew of thieves stealing three watches does not sound thrilling at first glance, Yuen’s film manages to make this idea attractive from the very first minute on. As we are introduced to the character of Vincent, we also delve deep into the world of watches, the art of making a “frankenwatch” using vintage parts from other watches and ultimately selling it to some rather shady looking individuals. The fast-paced editing and overall glossy aesthetics emphasize the image of a world of prestige and property, but also one easy to fool by a shiny surface, which is essentially the core of “The Moon Thieves”. Consequently, the characters go through various episodes in which they con their targets, deceive them and come up with such elaborate schemes that more than once seem a little pointless. Thanks to the performances of the cast, this is done in a way which is quite entertaining and even has some humorous interactions.
At the same time, this elaborate magic-show, which is another way to describe “The Moon Thieves”, becomes stale after a while. In the second part of the feature, the action elements take up much more space, making it look and feel more like every other blockbuster. It is still solid, especially the shooting and the stunts, but then again you cannot help but wonder whether there could have been more depth to some elements of “The Moon Thieves”. The characters, while some of them seem to have an interesting backstory, are more or less the conventional band of lowlifes and con-artists we have come to expect from the genre. Additionally, you cannot help but wonder about some of the casting decisions, especially Keung To as Uncle, who tries to give his best shot at being an intimidating mobster, but lacks credibility due to his young age and delivery.
“The Moon Thieves” is a solid caper/heist movie with some interesting ideas, which fail to fully materialize resulting in an ultimately conventional finale. Undoubtedly, there is a lot of fun to be had with Steve Yuen’s film, but it will also likely be forgotten soon after watching.
Movie review: Dune: Part Two – Baltimore Magazine
I want to start this review by speaking directly to the people who were eagerly looking forward to Denis Villeneuve’s Dune: Part Two. Congratulations. This film is going to exceed your expectations, light up your pleasure sensors, and pretty much blow your minds. As the kids say, you will be fed.
But what about the rest of us? For all its stellar special effects, rousing action, awe-inspiring beauty—undulating sand dunes, billowing capes, fire-red crescent moons—and cast of young Hollywood hotties acting their butts off, Dune Part Two didn’t pass the ultimate test for me. That test being: Would I recommend the film to my mother? No. No I would not.
Look, not all films are for all people—I get that. But the very best genre films transcend their tropes and offer something for everyone. An apropos example: I would recommend Villeneuve’s Arrival to all film lovers, not just sci-fi fans.
My biggest objection to the Dune series continues to be that it takes itself far too seriously. Again, I get it—we’re dealing with serious stuff here: dying civilizations, ancient prophecies, struggles for power, the dark temptation of revenge. But just because something is set in a desert doesn’t mean it has to be this dry.
I was a fan of first Dune in this series, although I logged similar complaints about its self-seriousness. This one is a little better; the action is just as thrilling but the characters are given more depth and the central moral dilemma of Paul Atreides (Timothée Chalamet)—at what point does one become blinded by power?—begins to snap into focus. There is also a love story with the wonderful Zendaya, playing Chani, a member of the blue-eyed desert people, the Fremen of Arrakis. Paul is utterly devoted to her (“I will love you for as long as I breathe”) but she is a bit more circumspect. “You will never lose me as long as you stay who you are,” she says pointedly. She knows that Paul is being pulled by some powerful temptations, namely the Fremen people, who see him as a possible savior. They grow to worship him, especially after he manages to tame one of those giant worm creatures, riding it like Ben Hur through the swirling sand. But will Paul lose himself in his quest for revenge? It’s hard not to root for the brave and resolute Paul—he is played by Chalamet, after all—but Chani serves as the film’s voice of moral clarity and skepticism. She knows he’s teetering toward a point of no return.
But we’re not there yet. Paul is still quite heroic in this film, even as he’s haunted by visions of leading the Fremen people to their own destruction. He has voices in his ear: His power-hungry, sorceress mother (Rebecca Ferguson), now pregnant with Paul’s sister, and recruited by the Fremen to be their Reverend Mother; the big-hearted Fremen patriarch, Stilgar (Javier Bardem), who is a true believer in Paul as the messiah; and Chani, who tells him to be wary of these prophecies.
Meanwhile, Arrakis is under siege by the Harkonnen kingdom, a land with, apparently, no Rogaine. Last film we met the Jabba the Hut-like Baron (Stellan Skarsgard), who was after the Arrakis’ precious resource of “spice.” This time we also meet his creepy nephew Feyd (Austin Butler), a lethal swordsman, not above cheating to win a dual, with a beautiful, alien-like face and positively crazed eyes.
Florence Pugh, who does some of the film’s narration, only appears briefly as the daughter of the Emperor Shaddam IV (Christopher Walken), who feels his grip on power slipping away. Her arc will be compelling—she’s loyal to her father, just as Paul was loyal to his, but she comes to realize that he is not a righteous man. By the film’s end, her fate and Paul’s fate will be inextricably entwined. (Alas, we’re going to have to wait for Part Three to see it play out.)
Villeneuve recently gave an interview where he said that he is mostly interested in cinema for spectacle, that dialogue holds little appeal to him. Having seen Dune: Part Two that tracks. The film is a spectacle, a marvel of craftsmanship, the sort of film you need to see on the largest screen possible. But the dialogue is mostly expository, and at times painfully earnest. That said, I wouldn’t want some script doctor jazzing this thing up with zingers (“Stop trying to worm your way out of this, Paul!”). That’s definitely not the vibe. Dune Part Two is the best Dune Part Two it can possibly be. I just have to accept that it’s not the best film for me.
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