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.

John Leguizamo – Nothing Like the Holidays

June 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

If you want to stay warm during Chicago’s chilly winter months, snuggle up with a bunch of Latinos. At least that’s sort of what actor John Leguizamo did in his new movie “Nothing Like the Holidays.” In the film Leguizamo, 44, plays Mauricio Rodriguez, one of the members of a Puerto Rican family from the Humboldt Park area, who returns home for a lively Christmas reunion. The film also stars Freddy Rodriguez, Elizabeth Peña, Jay Hernandez, Debra Messing and Alfredo Molina.

During an interview with me, Leguizamo, who was born in Bogotá, Colombia, talked about what it was like to make his first film in Chicago, his own family’s Christmas traditions, and how the cozy cast of “Nothing Like the Holidays” spent their time when the workday was complete.

“Nothing Like the Holidays” is the first film you’ve ever made in Chicago. What was the experience like shooting in the Windy City?

It was great. Chicago is my second favorite city in America only after New York. It was a lot of fun to be there with the cast. I’ve known the cast my whole life. Chicago is always one of the first places where I would go to try out all my new [stand-up] shows because the crowds are amazing. I did the shows “Freak” and “Sexaholics” there. It’s such a great theater town. There’s a great mix of Latino people. There’s lots of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, Colombians.

Since Freddy [Rodriguez] is from Chicago I’m sure he showed you around the city, right?

Well, the whole cast is like family. We spent almost every hour together. We never went back to our trailers. In a lot of movies, you just go back to your trailer when you’re done. But we went to lunch together, to dinner. (Laughs).

Is that how it usually is when you shoot a film where the majority of the cast is Latino? Was it the same when you shot “Love in the Time of Cholera” and “Paraiso Travel?”

You know, Latin people are much cozier. We like to hang out. We like to talk. We like life. “Love in the Time of Cholera” with Benjamin Bratt and Catalina [Sandino Moreno] was the same thing. We would work out together. We would go to breakfast together. (Laughs).

So, on the set of “Holidays,” there was always someone to cuddle up with in the 25 below zero degree weather?

Yeah, there was always someone to go get a coquito (eggnog-like alcoholic beverage traditionally served in Puerto Rico) with and someone to go get White Castle burgers with at 3 a.m. (Laughs).

In “Holidays,” Humboldt Park is such an important part of this Puerto Rican family’s story. As an actor, does it feel more genuine for you when you actually shoot on location and not at some Hollywood studio?

Yes, because it forms the movie completely. You get to talk to so many people that are actually like the characters in your movie. You get the flavor and the life. It might be more comfortable to shoot on a set, but it’s not conducive to naturalistic work.

We learn a lot about Puerto Rican Christmas traditions in the film like the paranda (a 3-day house-to-house celebration filled with music, dancing and food). Are there any Colombian holiday traditions you’ve kept over the years?

My mom makes her famous arroz con pollo (rice with chicken) like nobody else’s business. My aunt makes arroz con gandules. (rice with pigeon peas). When we’re done eating, we’ll roll up the carpet and have our own “Soul Train” line.

Speaking of food, I saw Debra Messing on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” talking about how everyone gained weight because of all the Puerto Rican food you all had to eat during production.

Especially Jay Hernandez. (Laughs). He gained a ton of weight, man. We went to [the Borinquen Restaurant] that makes the jibarito sandwich, which was invented in Chicago. It’s a sandwich made with plantains instead of bread. It was amazing!

Did you have to loosen up a few notches on your belt, too?

I was eating like a pig, but I was also working out so I didn’t gain weight. (Laughs).

I read the scene where the entire family is eating dinner took 18 hours to film. How do you keep the same energy from the first hour to the last?

It was a tough shoot. Luckily, I do a lot of theater so I knowhow to motivate myself. You have to be caffeinated. You have to jump around every now and then. I did some push-ups to wake up my body again because it’s grueling. In filmmaking you have to [shoot scenes] over and over again until they’re perfect. It’s the most incredible medium for someone who has OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

Are there any Christmas classics you like watching as the holiday season rolls around?

I love that “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” claymation. That’s always a classic. I liked Burl Ives as Frosty the Snowman. I like [“How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”] with Boris Karloff. I can sit with my kids and watch those over and over again.

How has Christmas changed for you over the years – from when you were a kid to having children of your own?

Christmas used to be much more materialistic for me. When you have kids, it’s all about creating an event with a sense of family. It’s about uniting your family to the world. It’s more about spirituality than anything else. I try to reintroduce myself to my Indian ancestry. I try to give my kids a little bit of all the things that have been whitewashed over the centuries.

What’s the best gift you got when you were a kid?

It was this bike that I wanted when I was seven, but my parents made me read all these books in Spanish to get it. My parents would always get me books when I was a kid, they never gave me toys. So, this bike meant everything to me.

Freddy Rodriguez – Nothing Like the Holidays

June 6, 2008 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

It’s Christmas 1982 in Chicago, Ill. and seven-year-old Freddy Rodriguez is singing Puerto Rican folk songs and dancing salsa and meringue with his cousins. It might not be the traditional holiday celebration most people in the U.S. are accustomed to, but for Rodriguez, a first generation Puerto Rican living in America, it’s everything he knew.

“One big thing to do during the holiday season was a thing called paranda, which is the equivalent to Christmas caroling,” said Rodriguez, who stars in the new family dramedy Nothing Like the Holidays. “I remember as a young kid we would go from house to house singing, but we would do it a little different. They’d invite us in and feed us and the men would drink and the women would play instruments and clap. It was really a good time when I was a kid.”

In Nothing Like the Holidays, Rodriguez hopes to capture some of the unique aspects of a Puerto Rican Christmas while telling the story of the, ironically, Rodriguez family, who live near Humboldt Park in west Chicago. Rodriguez plays Jesse, a soldier coming home for the holidays from overseas. As with any family, the Rodriguez’s find themselves having to work through some rough patches during their Christmas reunion. Along with the same surname, Rodriguez says his real family and his movie family have a few other similarities.

“I think every family is slightly dysfunctional if I were to make any comparisons,” Rodriguez said. “The other similarity would be that this family truly loves each other and really enjoys the time they have together during the holidays. I come from a very big extended family and Christmas is a big deal for us.”

Rodriguez’s yearly celebration, he said, would start on Christmas Eve when everyone would “party all day and all night up until midnight” and then open presents. Coming from a family of “modest means,” Rodriguez never expected to get everything he wanted for Christmas, but was satisfied with the love that his family gave him “that made up” for the lack of pricey gifts.

As he grew older, Rodriguez said he watched the family dynamic go through different phases around the holiday season as cousins grew up, became too cool to hang out with the rest of the family on Christmas, and then got married and had their own kids.

“I think when you become a teenage you go though a cynical period and don’t want to do all the traditional stuff,” Rodriguez said. “Then you become an adult and want to be more involved. Now, I have kids and all of my brothers have kids and Christmas has taken a whole new meaning for us. I think we all become kids again and want to vicariously relive that part of our lives.”

Aside from possibly donning a Santa hat this Christmas, Rodriguez, who has been in the film industry for 20 years, will try on another one he has never worn before. Along with starring in Nothing Like the Holidays, Rodriguez is credited as an executive producer, something he has thought about doing for a while.

“In some of my other films, I found myself doing what producers do without knowing that’s what produces do,” said Rodriguez, who has starred in such films as Poseidon and Bobby. “I think I’ve always had a knack for trying to put things together. When this opportunity came up it… gave me a chance to help. It was something that was natural for me. I just took it to the next level.”

Part of Rodriguez’s job as an executive producer was to attract talent and assist in creating a well-rounded and mostly Latino cast. To do this, he began to make calls to actors he had worked with in the past and those he admired. The first actor who made his list was John Leguizamo, who Rodriguez had acting alongside in 1997’s The Pest. For comic relief, he turned to Luis Guzman, who he shared the screen with in 2005’s Dreamer. Rodriguez also helped cast British actor Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) as his Puerto Rican father.

“I think Alfred was a thought I had just because I was such a gigantic fan of his,” Rodriguez said. “The guy was wonderful and I knew he could pull it off. It wasn’t about who the flavor of the month was or who’s on the cover of the Enquirer. I just wanted good people involved in the film.”

That’s really all Rodriguez has been looking for since his film career started rolling in the mid-90s. With early roles in films like A Walk in the Clouds and Dead Presidents opening new opportunities for him, Rodriguez soon became a household name when he earned a regular spot in 2001 on the popular HBO series Six Feet Under where he played Federico Diaz, an embalmer at a family-run mortuary. It was during this time on the small screen when he realized what he wanted to accomplish in the industry.

“I wanted to be a leading man and I wanted to be able to hold my own against actors like Christian Bale (Harsh Times) or play an action hero in a Robert Rodriguez movie (Planet Terror),” Rodriguez said. “I think I learned whatever you put your mind to you can do it. Here I am now, in a major American film that revolves around a Latin family. A lot of things I feel I’ve set out to do, I’ve achieved. I’ve learned that anything is possible.”