Nothing Like the Holidays

December 2, 2008 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Freddy Rodriguez, John Leguizamo, Alfred Molina
Directed by: Alfred De Villa (“ Washington Heights ”)
Written by: Alison Swan (debut) and Rick Najera (debut)

While the number of slapstick Christmas comedies usually go off the charts this time of year as much as Santa’s cholesterol, the Christmas family dramedy is the other holiday sub-genre that usually demands screen time in December.

Last year, “This Christmas” featured an African American family reuniting for the holidays after four years. In 2005, Sarah Jessica Parker met “The Family Stone” and experienced all their dysfunctional love. This year, Christmas gets a little Latin flare Puerto Rican-style with “Nothing Like the Holidays.” The film follows the Rodriguez family from the Humboldt Park area in Chicago as they come together in what might be the final Christmas they spend together as a family.

The reason: Anna Rodriguez (Elizabeth Pena) has announced over dinner that she has decided to divorce her children’s father Edy (Alfred Molina) after 36 years of marriage. She has reason to believe he has been having an affair. No one takes the news lightly including Mauricio (John Leguizamo), one of the Rodriguez boys, who has become a successful lawyer in New York, and his sister Roxanna (Vanessa Ferlito), a struggling actress living in Los Angeles.

Freddy Rodriguez (“Grindhouse”) plays Jesse, another Rodriguez brother, back home from Iraq. He thinks his parents are adult enough to make their own decisions. His mind isn’t really focused on his mom and dad’s problems, especially since he has a handful of his own. He has returned home to find his ex-girlfriend Marissa (Melonie Diaz), whom he still loves, has moved on with her life. He is also still haunted by the death of one of his friends in the military.

It’s not only Jesse, however, who has issues. Everyone has something going on in his or her trying life and debut screenwriters Alison Swan and Rick Najera tangle it all together in a cinematic version of stale fruitcake. While storylines that focus on Jesse and his hardships give the film a more serious tone than your average family head-butting session, there’s not much time to build on his character since the script seems sculpted from the blueprint of a tiresome telenovela. Instead, secondary stories like Maruicio and his wife Sarah (Debra Messing) arguing about the best time to have a baby, and issues that revolve around Ozzy (Jay Hernandez), a family friend and ex-gang member who is bothered that the guy who killed his brother years ago has been released from prison and is now hanging out in the old neighborhood.

The scene-stealer of the film is Luis Guzman (“Waiting”), who plays the family’s kooky electronics-loving uncle, but he and Freddy Rodriguez (one of the most talented young Latino actors working today) can’t raise the film above the usual stereotypical family dramedy we get every year. It might be in different packaging this time around, but a pair of socks is a pair of socks no matter how colorful the gift-wrapping.

Elizabeth Peña – The Incredibles

November 4, 2004 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

When actress Elizabeth Peña told her 5-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter that she was going to voice a character in the new animated film “The Incredibles,” they were elated.

“I could have won 18 Oscars and it would have meant absolutely zero to them,” she told me via phone from her home in Los Angeles, “But when I told them I was going to work for Pixar, the company that did “Monster’s Inc.” and “Toy Story,” they looked at me and started jumping around and screaming.”

Peña, 43, jokes that she feels like she finally “made it” in show business because she pleased her children, but she actually made her mark in 1986 when she played Carmen, a fiery maid who lusts after Nick Nolte’s character in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.”

The following year, Peña portrayed Rosie Morales, singer Ritchie Valens’ stepsister-in-law in the musical biopic “La Bamba” – a film that she says she watched for the first time only five years ago.

“I never see any movie more than once, and I never see a movie I star in,” Peña said. “It’s kind of like most people when they hear themselves on a tape recorder. It’s like, ‘Oh my God! Do I sound like that?’ It’s the same thing in a visual way. For me, when I watch myself, all I see is a nose and a hand. It makes me nuts.”

But Peña didn’t find it difficult to watch “The Incredibles” animated superhero movie more than one time – maybe because she was transformed into a computer-generated cartoon character named Mirage.

“I’ve seen the movie three times,” Peña, whose comic book memories consist of reading The Archies, said. “It’s a testament of how enjoyable it is.”

Following a call from her agent, Peña walked onto the set with very little information about the voice work she would be doing. She didn’t even know who was directing the film but was ecstatic to find out it was Brad Bird, with whom she had worked with in the past.

“I met Brad Bird when I was doing a movie called “*batteries not included” a million years ago (actually it was 17 years),” Peña said. “I hadn’t seen him in about five years. He requested me for the part of Mirage.” Mirage, who works for a secret government organization, gives Mr. Incredible (voiced by Craig T. Nelson), a retired superhero, a chance to “relive the glory days.”

“Mirage has got a two-inch waist,” Peña laughed. “I was like, ‘Ah. I really want to be a cartoon.'”

Working on her own in a closet-sized room, reciting her lines with only a camera and microphone, Peña found her new work “challenging and fun,” especially since she had never interacted with the other actors who were also doing voice work for the film, such as Samuel L. Jackson, Holly Hunter, and Jason Lee. “You’re reading your lines and have no idea who you are talking to,” Peña said. “It was weird but at the same time a great experience.”

Peña said that voicing Mirage, a character with long white hair, big green eyes, and a tan complexion, was original for her, not only because she had never worked on an animated film before, but because the character wasn’t typecast to be voiced by a Latina actress. Ethnic stereotypes are something that Peña sees as “a curse for Latino actors.”

“I believe an actor is an actor,” Peña said. “Nobody calls Dustin Hoffman a Jewish actor. I am an actor and am supposed to be able to portray humanity.”

She feels roles like Andy Garcia in “The Godfather III” and more recently Jennifer Lopez in “Shall We Dance?” are positive evidence that Latino actors are getting more universal film parts. She also feels, however, that at the end of the day the most important thing to the film companies is not who they cast to play the lead, but whether they are breaking the bank.

“No matter what race you are, Hollywood is about making money for the movie studios,” Peña said. “For the studios, you could be a Martian with little antennae on top of your head. If they make a movie that brings in income, suddenly you’re going to see 18 movies with Martians starring them.”

Still, it is the drive for achievement that motivates Peña, a success story herself who just happens to be a Latina: “We’ve got very successful Latino actors here today. We’ve become a citizen of the world.”