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Good direction and acting give “The Holdovers” good vibes

Updated: Jan 18


Right, Paul Giamatti plays Paul Dunham, a teacher at Barton, a posh New England all-boys boarding school, and first-time screen actor Dominic Sessa plays student Angus Tully. Both are forced to stay on campus during the Christmas break.

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Screenshots courtesy of Universal Home Entertainment - Click for Amazon purchase



4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, & digital copy; 2023: rated R for profanity, drug use, and some sexual material; Digital Amazon Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)


Best extra: “The cast” featurette 


IT WOULDN’T be surprising if Alexander Payne’s (“Election,” “Sideways”) “The Holdovers” eventually becomes a holiday classic, joining the ranks of “Miracle on 34th Street” and “Scrooged.” As predictable as the plot is – and it’s extremely predictable – the acting and writing are so good, and the sentiment is so sincere, the film has what it takes to resonate with a wide audience and, ultimately, to deliver that warm cozy feeling that’s especially appealing during that time of year.


“The Holdovers” is set during the early 1970s, shortly before Christmas, at the Barton School, a posh all-boys boarding school in New England. Paul Dunham (Paul Giamatti, who’s already won a Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award for the part) is a homely, despised curmudgeon who teaches ancient civilizations. He gets roped into staying at the school with the small group of boys who can’t be with their families during the two-week break. When the father of one of the boys unexpectedly shows up in his private helicopter and offers to take them all skiing with his son, there’s one who is left out. He’s Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), and Dunham can’t allow him to go, because his mother and stepfather can’t be reached for their permission. The angry, resentful teenager and the cranky teacher share the lonely two weeks with Mary Lamb (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, also a Golden Globe and Critic Choice winner for her role), the school’s head cook, who is grieving for her son, a Barton graduate who was recently killed in Vietnam.


David Hemingson’s fine screenplay provides plenty of laughs as well as pathos, as the three main characters navigate their way through the break, becoming closer and going through dramatic life changes in the process. The supporting cast, which includes Carrie Preston, Naheem Garcia, Brady Hepner and Ian Dolley, is uniformly excellent.

(1&2) Before the opening credits, the 1970s MPAA-rating logo is shown to set the mood of the era. Post-production film grain, dirt marks, and analog sound pops were added to the presentation. (3) Dunham grades papers for his ancient civilizations class in his on-campus living quarters. (4) The students prepare to go home for the holidays, including Angus Tully, center, as a student complains about the bag of weed he got from troublemaker Teddy Kountze (Brady Hepner). (5&6) Schoolmaster Dr. Hardy Woodrup (Andrew Garman) ropes Dunham into babysitting a small group of boys who can’t be with their families during the two-week break. (7) Students and faculty walk to the final assembly before the holidays.



To set the mood Payne and Danish cinematographer Eigil Bryld (“In Bruges”) open the film with an old school MPAA blue-on-white R-rated logo, and then straight to the opening title sequence with winter scenes as dirt marks pop up on the screen. The sound uses old analog noises and hiss to give that complete ‘70s movie experience. Nearly the entire production was filmed in rural Massachusetts at a variety of different schools and captured on ARRI Alexa Mini 3.4K digital cameras (1.66:1 aspect ratio) and strangely only mastered in 2K with a post-production film grain added. Dirt marks continue throughout the two-plus hour film, while the audio pops and hiss fade away, while Bryld keeps the camera simple and straightforward, predominantly using a 55mm lens to frame the shots. 


Overall clarity is very good. Colors are neutral with a cold and earthy palette for exterior winter scenes, with warmer tones inside. HDR10 and HDR10+ grading is available on the 4K digital versions, but MIA on the physical disc.


A six-channel DTS-HD soundtrack is provided with a mostly front and center track for dialogue and nice mix of 1960 & ‘70s tunes: “Venus” from Shocking Blue, “The Time Has Come Today” from The Chamber Brothers, “The Wind” from Cat Stevens, “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” from the Allman Brothers Band, “Knock Three Time” from Tony Orlando & Dawn, “Crying, Laughing, Loving, Lying” from LabiSiffre. Holiday favorites include “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year” from Andy Williams and “Jingle Bells” from Herb Albert & The Tijuana Brass, plus an ensemble piano and guitar-driven score from composer Mark Orton (“Nebraska”).

(1&2) During the assembly the Priest honors the Barton grads whove died in battle including Mary Lambs (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) son, a recent grad, killed in Vietnam. (3&4) Student Teddy Kountze hopes to get into Cornell, but his failing grade on the mid-term sets off an argument with Dunham. (5&6) Kountze and Tully get into a fight, as student Alex Ollerman (Ian Dolley) says Kountze started it, and Korean Ye-Joon Park (Jim Kaplan) looks on.



The Blu-ray disc and digital include several deleted scenes, paired with Payne’s written explanations for their exclusion; and a featurette about working with Payne. Most interesting is the look at how the director cast “The Holdovers,” beginning with his lavish praise of his star: “There’s nothing Giamatti can’t do!”; “He makes bad dialogue sound good!”; “He’s the most widely read person I know!” etc. Payne says he wrote the part of Dunham especially for Giamatti, and reminisces about the two working together in “Sideways.” Payne says he would shoot extra takes of a scene with Giamatti, not because he needed to, but just because it was “so fun” to see what else the actor would come up with.


To find the students for the film, after having received over 800 audition tapes, Payne and casting director Susan Shopmaker decided instead to check with the boarding school drama departments at the schools where the film was going to be shot. The young men who play the students comment on their experience, including Korean-American Jim Kaplan, who plays Ye-Joon Park. He notes that he had to learn about Korean culture and work with a dialogue coach so he’d have a Korean accent. Sessa was a senior at his boarding school when he was cast. He talks about changing his focus to acting from sports after suffering an injury during a hockey game. He was totally relaxed during his audition, because he says he never dreamed he’d get the job.


Payne says he often likes to cast comedic actors for serious parts, and chose Randolph after seeing her in the comedy “Dolemite is My Name.” When he cast Carrie Preston, who plays a school employee who waitresses during breaks, Payne hadn’t realized she was well-known for her role in “The Good Wife” TV series. Producer Mark Johnson calls Payne a “humanist … he wants to tell a human story.” And a human story it is, sure to please audiences with its sensitive, warm vibes.


— Peggy Earle

(1) A handful of students are forced to study during the two weeks at Barton. (2&3) One of the rich students father comes to the rescue in his corporate helicopter and takes his son and the other students skiing. (4&5) Angus Tully is the only student left behind, since Dunham couldn’t get his mother on the phone. Angus dislocates his shoulder during an accident while running away from Dunham. (6) Dunham and Angus went to an in-town restaurant after the visit to the hospital.


(1&2) At a town Christmas party given by a Barton employee, Tully admires a snow globe. (3) The hostess (Carrie Preston) welcomes Dunham to the party. (4) The trio of misfits, having been asked to leave a fancy restaurant, makes a fiery outdoor version of Cherries Jubilee. (5) Dunham bids farewell to Tully, among other things.


Feb 01

Great news, a 4k disc being released in the UK.


Jan 19

The screenshots look fantastic, this is a must own. But I am hesitant since it is streaming in 4k. I want all that 70’s glory (scratches and all) in HDR. I would like to hold out for the 4k disc but I note even Sideways is still not released that way. Thanks for the great review!

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