Greetings again from the darkness. Big Italian families in New York offer a smorgasbord of opportunities for interesting stories and characters. Ray Romano from “Everybody Loves Raymond” takes on his first feature film as writer-director, and he and co-writer Mark Stegemann (“Scrubs”) embrace the noise and combustibility of just such a family. During the story they make us laugh and cringe.
Romano also stars as Leo Russo, husband to Angela (Laurie Metcalf, “Roseanne”) and father to “Sticks” (relative newcomer Jacob Ward). What we soon figure out is that Leo is a helicopter parent to high school basketball star Sticks, while Mom is overprotective and scared of losing her son … while being constantly annoyed with everything due to another issue she’s trying to deal with on her own. We also see Leo works in the family construction business for his dad (Tony Lo Bianco) and douchey brother (Sebastian Maniscalo), both of whom show him no respect.
Sticks is an extremely quiet and shy high schooler who has battled anxiety issues his entire life. Both parents are shocked to discover he has a girlfriend. Dani (Sadie Stanley, “The Goldbergs”) is a free-spirit who is ready to shake the dust of Queens as soon as she graduates. She and Sticks couldn’t be any more different as she is confident and outgoing in contrast to his usual state of withdrawn.
During one of the big family Sunday dinners, we get one of the best meatball jokes ever, and the many family events (weddings, babies, etc) provide numerous opportunities for gags and punchlines. Beyond the comedy, there is true drama on display, and it kicks into uncomfortable gear when helicopter dad displays extremely poor judgment … made worse that he’s doing it for the wrong reason. His actions send shockwaves through the family. Parents often use “their kid’s best interest” as a reason for making decisions, but here it’s obvious to all (except Leo) that self-interest was the driving force.
There is a bit of a sitcom feel to the film at times, but the cast certainly elevates the project making the situations more believable. It’s awesome to see Tony Lo Bianco with a substantive role. He was everywhere in the 1970s and 1980s, including classic films THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) and THE SEVEN-UPS (1973). Ramono, Metcalf, and Maniscalo are all fine in their roles, and additional support work comes from John Manfrellotti, Jennifer Esposito (“Blue Bloods”), and Karen Lynn Gurney (for the SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER fans). But the real find here is Sadie Stanley and her electrifying smile. She is a true rising star. The film is full of characters who are all frightened or unsure, and despite the iffy family dynamics, it’s a reminder that each person must find their own way in life, even if the support from their family is a bit shaky.
Greetings again from the darkness. Joining the likes of Woody Allen, Mel Brooks and Ben Affleck, Greta Gerwig proves her significance and brilliance is most apparent behind the camera, rather than in front. Her first feature film flying solo as writer and director is without a doubt, one of the year’s best. Surely she has benefitted from having a very talented live-in muse and mentor and partner in Noah Baumbach, but this extraordinary film is clearly Ms. Gerwig’s passion project … and it’s a thing of beauty (character warts and all).
Ultra talented Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, aka “Lady Bird”. She claims it’s her given name – a name she gave herself. Entering her senior year of Catholic High School in Sacramento, she’s the typical blend of teenage insecurity, bravado and restlessness. Her never quite satisfied mom is played by Laurie Metcalf, in what is probably her career best performance, and definitely worthy of Supporting Oscar consideration. A brilliant opening scene finds mother and daughter sharing a cry, which quickly devolves into one of the endless stream of arguments that make up half of their relationship. Their scenes together are sometimes caustic, always realistic, and likely to hit home to many mothers and daughters watching.
Lady Bird is convinced she must escape 2002 Sacramento and live on the east coast, where she assumes culture thrives. This is the age where every teenager is convinced an amazing destiny awaits them … not stopping to contemplate what talent they possess that might actually contribute to society. Lady Bird is an average student who seems to dream not of greatness, but rather of some vision of life where she will be appreciated for simply being herself. So much of what happens is grounded in the reality of high school life, friendships, and family. She jumps at the chance to be friends with the “it girl” who controls the “in crowd”. Leaving her lifelong best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s real life sister) in the dust, Lady Bird finagles her way into Jenna’s (Odeya Rush) inner circle of rich kids, including the cooler-than-cool Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, CALL ME BY YOUR NAME). He’s the bohemian-wannabe type we’ve all come across. Her attraction to Kyle results in confusion over her relationship with nice guy Danny (Lucas Hedges, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA).
The film touches on many familiar topics, and the script elegantly handles each piece of the puzzle and gives each character their due. Lady Bird’s middle class family is going through some financial difficulties after her dad is laid off. Tracy Letts is superb as the dad who is beaten down by a life that’s nearly passed him by, but he staves off his own depression just enough to provide the basic strength needed by his wife and spirited teenage daughter. Mr. Letts and Ms. Metcalf aren’t TV sitcom parents carefully positioned as punchlines for clever kids, like what we typically see. The emotional bond between parents and offspring is perfectly awkward and deep. Mother and daughter have their shared escapes, while father and daughter share some secrets. There is also a complex sister-brother dynamic, as well as the common issues of school days – teenage girl self-respect, class warfare, teacher crushes, and the pressures of extracurricular activities. Lois Smith has a couple of outstanding scenes as a wise and observant nun who sees Lady Bird for who she is, and provides the necessary guidance. Welcome comedy relief is combined with an editorial statement on the ongoing reductions in funding for the arts, as the football coach (Bob Stephenson) is put in charge of the drama department.
Ms. Gerwig’s excellent (quasi-autobiographical) film defies traditional categorization. It’s part teenage comedy, coming of age, family drama, and character study – yet it’s also so much more. Have you seen much of this before? Absolutely, and it’s likely at least some of this has occurred in your own life, though you may not always enjoy being reminded. What is enjoyable is watching the work of a skilled filmmaker and exciting new cinematic story teller.
Greetings again from the darkness. Fifty years to the day after the tragic assassination of President Kennedy seems like the best time for me to finally write something about Oliver Stone’s controversial 1991 film. As a Dallas resident, the hallmark event has never been far removed, either mentally or geographically. I periodically see movies at the Texas Theatre where Oswald was captured. It’s impossible to drive downtown and not regularly pass the Texas School Book Depository and Dealey Plaza. The reminders are always present and maybe that’s a good thing.
When this movie was released, it shook the dust off the story and brought much attention back to the crime that had once seemed so quickly solved. The conspiracy theorists embraced Mr. Stone’s work and even those who knew little of the Warren Report were swept up in the details and accusations. It was so easily accepted as an investigative presentation, and it was a way for the people to finally get what they wanted … the answer to what happened and why.
Viewing the film this week again for the first time since 1991, it’s understandable why so many were swept up in the frenzy. This is an expert presentation of a staggering number of theories and details and characters. With a run time well over three hours, the only opportunities for an exhale come during the somewhat lame interactions between New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) and his wife (Sissy Spacek). Othewise, it’s a very well written parade of movie stars that is exceptionally photographed and expertly edited. Newsreel footage, reenactments, and dramatizations of events successfully create a mind puzzle. The film grabs you and does not let go … and this is 22 years after release and 50 years after the assassination.
Now don’t mistake that praise for believability. While Stone’s approach has been attacked from all sides, he did publish an annotated script “proving” his details. Still, his blending of theories is staggering: the military, the CIA, the FBI, LBJ, the Mafia, the pro- and anti-Castro types, the Russians, and even a likely corrupt businessman. The latter is Clay Shaw, played with evil enjoyment by Tommy Lee Jones in a role worthy of a movie unto itself.
In Stone’s version, Garrison is the voice of truth. He’s the guy that doesn’t buy off on the Warren Report. In fact, this movie version of Garrison represents us as the viewer … the citizens who want to believe our government, but are too rational to accept things spoon fed to us. This isn’t so much a courtroom drama or investigative report, it’s more like a data dump. Stone is delivering all of the little doubts in one fell swoop. In other words, with all of these possibilities and unexplained events, how could it not be a conspiracy? Was it a coup d’etat with LBJ waiting in the wings? That makes sense if you believe defense contractors were unwilling to sit quietly as JFK pulled out of Vietnam. Was Oswald a patsy as he claimed? That argument can certainly be supported. More than one gunman? 5.6 seconds, a tree in the eye line, and smoke from the grassy knoll can lead to that conclusion. The movie serves as our emotional outburst at not knowing why this happened and who was responsible. We like our mysteries solved and this one apparently never will be.
Roger Ebert once said that facts are for print and emotions are for film. Oliver Stone seems to excel at the latter. He gives us permission to be paranoid. He takes extreme dramatic license with two extended soliloquies: Donald Sutherland as “X” (Fletcher Prouty) and Kevin Costner as Garrison in the courtroom. Neither of these events are probable, in fact the courtroom scene is borne from numerous Garrison speeches, quotes and book passages over the years.
This 50th anniversary has brought at least three new JFK inspired films: Parkland, Killing Kennedy, and Letters To Jackie. Three very different approaches to the man and the event that changed the world … it changed our perceptions and our expectations. Oliver Stone’s film gave us permission to do so out loud.
**NOTE: on the anniversary of this event, it’s important to remember that Officer JD Tippett was also brutally gunned down that day by Oswald
**NOTE: the real Jim Garrison appears in the movie as Earl Warren (yes, of the Warren Commission)
**NOTE: Unitended humor occurs with a sweaty John Candy saying “Daddy-O” and when Kevin Bacon says “People GOT to know”