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A Puerto Rican family living in the area of Humboldt Park in west Chicago face what may be their last Christmas together.
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There are always 3 or 4 types of movies every year like Home For the Holidays. Most of those films come and go never to be heard from again. All of these Christmas films strive for a 'It's a Wonderful Life' kind of popularity because the residual checks will keep coming in for years to come as anytime Christmas comes, so does the airing and rental of the film.
But It's a Wonderful Life is a rare film. What's ironic about it was that when it first hit the theaters, it was critically panned and many people didn't see it. But through the years, the film started to gain immense popularity. So even though Nothing Like the Holidays won't earn much box office numbers this year, you never know what will happen in future years to come.
What separates this Christmas film from the pack is that it centers around an American Puerto Rican family and community in Chicago, Illinois. The first of its kind.
Nothing Like the Holidays does have the typical melodrama of a Christmas family movie though. The stakes aren't really that high in this film either. And it seems strange that Alfred Molina and Elizabeth Pena are parents of John Leguizamo who can't be more than 8-10 years younger than them in real life.
But despite all of that, I really enjoyed this film a great deal. It's a better version of the film 'The Family Stone (2005)', a film that's very similar to Nothing Like the Holidays. But what separates 'Holiday's from 'Stone' is that you really feel the love between all of these characters.
All of the actors in Nothing Like the Holidays perform exceptionally. It's tricky to pull off an assemble piece like this where you pull a bunch of actors together and try to get them to perform love and history with all of them.
Showing a long history of love is a very difficult task to pull off when making a film. After all, most of these actors probably barely knew each other before the making of this film. So during the rehearsals, each of them needed to bond together and each form their own back stories about their character. If not, them you get a film that subconsciously the viewer doesn't buy.
There's a scene about 40 minutes in where the three grown up kids share cigarettes and tequila in the attic of the home they all grew up in. You can sense that all of them have had many conversations like this in their youth so you feel for them emotionally right away. And that is what you call exceptional acting.
I like to talk with director Alfredo De Villa and ask him how he set up the rehearsals in order for them to make believe they are a family. It could be an easy answer. The late Robert Altman once said that 90% of working with actors is casting them. You find the right actor to play a certain role and then you leave them alone. And I can't imagine De Villa helping a guy like Alfred Molina out in rehearsal. Molina is such a gifted actor who can evoke so much emotion and feelings in a 5 second closeup, there's really not much to say to him.
The themes of Nothing Like the Holidays are also universal. Most of us understand this world of family and how difficult and great it can be when you come home. So all this film needs is great execution.
I am a big fan of American Football. It's a game I played growing up and coaching football was a field I almost choose for my career. So I always like to use football for an analogy in explaining storytelling:
Nothing Like the Holidays is the Vince Lombardi of films. Lombardi was a guy who never tried to trick his opponent and his team's playbooks were always the smallest in the league. What he believed in was mastering a few core plays. He practiced these plays over and over again and never tried to invent new ones. If his team perfected what was already a play that worked, then his team would win. And win they did. 'Holidays' follows a very similar formula. We've seen a film like this 100s of times before. But what makes it so good is its execution. The director let his players play in a system that works. No sense in having any camera or storytelling trickery when you already have great performers who can pull off a victory for the film.
So go see Nothing Like the Holidays if you're a fan of film or a filmmaker yourself in any field. There's a lot to learn from it. Hire your team and then get out of the way. Sometimes that's all you need to do.