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 She and Sticks couldn’t be any more different as she is confident and outgoing in contrast to his usual state of withdrawn.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. Trust in our national institutions may be at an all-time low, but it’s not like there haven’t been plenty of events over the years to make us wary enough to demand attention and oversight. This story of the 2002 Nassau County Schools scandal is a prime example. This is director Corey Finley’s follow up to his clever and twisted THOROUGHBREDS (2018), and the script is from writer Mike Makowski, who was a student in the district when the scandal hit.
Hugh Jackman plays Dr. Frank Tassone, the District Superintendent of Schools, while Oscar winner Allison Janney (I, TONYA) is Pam Gluckin, the Assistant Superintendent. Both are excellent, but Mr. Jackman delivers what might be his best ever performance. His Tassone is uber-charming, and clearly wants the best for the schools and students. We do notice some oddities about him. He seems to be overly concerned about his physical attractiveness – perfect business suits, facelifts, not a hair out of place, and big smiles to show the world he has it all under control. In contrast, if Ms. Janney’s Pam had a mustache, she would certainly twirl it as the story’s most obvious villain.
The film opens by informing us that the district has been evaluated as doing excellent in terms of student test scores, student admissions to prestigious schools, raising property values in the area, and with financial success that leads to a new construction project – one that appears to be more of an ego project than substantive for education. Ray Romano plays the President of the School Board, and we get glimpses of life at the school, and the challenges faced by the administrators. As with many things, if all is well, few questions are asked.
However, stuff hits the fan when a reporter for the school paper starts doing some basic research. Rachel (Geraldine Viswanathan, BLOCKERS) is writing a “fluff” piece on a new high dollar capital improvement project at the school, when she stumbles on irregularities in billing. It turns out Ms. Gluckin has been embezzling for years. When the discrepancies first come to light, the conversations with the school board and administrators is downright fascinating. The crime is obvious, but by going public, who does it help and who does it hurt? These people don’t want the kids to lose opportunities. They don’t want their property values to drop. And they don’t want the bad publicity that comes with being unaware fraud had been ongoing under their watch.
Once Ms. Gluckin’s scheme has been exposed, Jackman really kicks it into gear for Tassone. Any additional details would spoil the fun, but it becomes clear that he’s a master manipulator. Corrupt people have a way of convincing themselves their actions are justified, given the good work they do. You know the drill – underappreciated and underpaid. Solid support work comes from David Bhargava as Rachel’s father, who is also going through his own professional crisis. Alex Wolff is the editor of the school paper, and he faces his own moral dilemma in a scene where he knows the right thing to do will actually cause harm to his college opportunity. Finally, Rafael Casal stars as Kyle, a bartender/dancer and former student of Tassone, as they are reunited in Las Vegas.
Director Finley and cinematographer Lyle Vincent (THROUGHBREDS, A GIRL WHO WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT) shoot in harsh light, never allowing the truth to hide behind soft filters. These are complex people with real lives and real families and real friends, all doing good things for the students. Watching a compromise of morals or a twisting of ethics is always a bit uncomfortable, but the film shows just how easy we can overlook the obvious. The film features brisk pacing with some dark humor in moments that least deserve humor. The trailer is a bit misleading, as the comedy is quite dark in nature. A low-key approach to filmmaking provides none of the over-the-top dramatic flair we expect. Instead it’s social commentary and a psychological study of pathological liars and manipulators … in positions that bring public trust.
Greetings again from the darkness. The Copacabana tracking shot in GOODFELLAS is etched not only in my brain, but in cinema lore. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese teases us with a similar shot as the opening sequence in his latest. The camera snakes through the dank halls and rooms of an assisted-living center before settling on the well-worn face of wheelchair-bound octogenarian Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro). Mr. Sheeran is the titular Irishman, and he narrates the story of his life, at least as he recalls it. His is a life story that connects the mob to history and politics in a no frills manner surely to provoke thought, skepticism, and a knot in the tummy.
Oscar winning writer Steve Zaillian (SCHINDLER’S LIST, also GANGS OF NEW YORK, THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN) adapted Charles Brandt’s book “I Heard You Paint Houses” for the film. Mr. Brandt was Sheeran’s attorney and worked with Sheeran on his memoir. The book title is highlighted by Scorsese at both the beginning and end of the film, as well as through a line of dialogue in the first phone conversation between Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa. Mr. Sheeran was a WWII veteran turned truck driver turned mob hit man (and good soldier). He tells his story with little fanfare and in a way that we understand no glamour is associated with this lifestyle.
For those looking for the next GOODFELLAS or CASINO, you’ll likely be disappointed. This one is not as flashy or stylish as those two classics, and instead is a 3 and a half hour introspective look at the men who are efficiency experts in power. Violence is merely one of the tools in their box. The presentation is contemplative, not action-centric. The hits are abrupt and jerky and realistic, not the stylistic choreography of shootouts in films like JOHN WICK. There is a skewed theme of friendship and male bonding … even mentorship. It’s unlike what we’ve seen before from mob movies.
After a chance meeting over a timing belt on a delivery truck, Sheeran is taken under the wing of Philadelphia mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). This is Pesci’s first onscreen appearance since 2010, and he is absolutely brilliant in his portrayal of “the quiet Don.” His performance is 180 degrees from his comedy in LETHAL WEAPON (2.3.4) or HOME ALONE, and 180 degrees the opposite direction from his roles in GOODFELLAS and CASINO, where he was a bombastic man (not a clown) on the edge of violence at all times. Mr. Pesci has spent the last decade playing jazz under the name Joe Doggs. It’s such a joy to have him back on screen, especially as the father figure-friend-ruthless businessman. His Russell is always calm and calculating, whether plotting the next kill or putting up with his wife’s frequent smoke breaks on a road trip.
It’s Russell who directs Sheeran to connect with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Pacino flashes his blustery best as Hoffa in a couple of scenes, but is also terrific while spewing one of his countless “c***suckers”, or savoring one of his beloved ice cream sundaes – a simple pleasure in a complicated life. Sheeran and Hoffa develop an unusual friendship in their many years together, and Hoffa’s real life unsolved disappearance in 1975 is the basis for Sheeran’s recollections.
We learn that Sheeran’s time in WWII taught him to kill … there is a scene involving POW’s digging their own grave while his rifle is pointed at them. In fact, most of the story is told in flashbacks that bounce between different eras. Scorsese, as has been reported ad nauseam, has utilized the de-aging process from Industrial Light & Magic to show DeNiro, Pesci, Pacino and others over the years. The effect is a bit distracting at first, but the story and these characters are so intriguing that we simply roll with after the initial jolt. It’s also obvious how Scorsese worked to make DeNiro look like the hulking presence Sheeran was in real life (think Tom Cruise in the Jack Reacher movies). Camera angles, should pads, and shoe lifts are used to make us think DeNiro towers over the others the way Sheeran really did. DeNiro is excellent in portraying Sheeran as a good soldier, reserved in mannerisms – even flashing a slight stutter at times. He’s a proud man who simply looks at the mob work as his job.
In addition to the three stars who each excel in their roles, Scorsese has assembled a huge and talented cast. Harvey Keitel is chilling in a couple of scenes as Angelo Bruno, Ray Romano plays mob lawyer Bill Bufalino, Bobby Cannavale is steak-loving Skinny Razor, Jesse Plemons is Hoffa’s adopted son Chuckie O’Brien, Domenick Lombardozzi is Fat Tony Salerno, comedian Sebastian Maniscalco is “Crazy Joe” Gallo, Louis Cancelmi is bespectacled Sally Bugs, Jack Huston plays Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, and even Steven Van Zandt plays crooner Jerry Vale.
You are probably wondering, ‘Where are the women?’. While there is no Lorraine Bracco (GOODFELLAS) or Sharon Stone (CASINO), Scorsese makes the point that with Sheeran, and these other mobsters, it’s all business and real family relationships are nearly non-existent. Stephanie Kurtzuba plays Irene Sheeran (Frank’s second wife) and Katherine Narducci is Carrie Bufalino (Russell’s cig-loving wife). They have some brief but entertaining moments on the road trip, and Marin Ireland has an effective scene late in the movie as Carrie, one of Frank’s daughters, while Welker White plays Jo Hoffa. But it’s Sheeran’s daughter Peggy who is the quiet moral center of the story and his life. Played as a youngster by Lucy Gallina and later by Anna Paquin, Peggy is a mostly silent observer of her father, and whatever conscience he has, is impacted by her glances. Ms. Paquin is especially good with one question … “Why?”
Worthy of special mention is Stephen Graham who plays Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano, a friend-turned-rival of Hoffa. Graham and Pacino share two standout scenes – one in prison, while Hoffa scoops his sundae, and a later meeting where Hoffa takes offense to Tony Pro’s late arrival and casual attire. Both scenes are remarkable in that there is underlying humor balancing the surface anger. In fact, the film is filled with memorable scenes. Hoffa’s guidance on self-defense in guns vs. knives, and most every scene between DeNiro’s Sheeran and Pesci’s Russell. DeNiro and Pesci have a chemistry few actors share. It dates back to RAGING BULL (1980), and I believe this is their 7th film together.
The film reminds me of the 1970’s movies that fueled my movie obsession: THE GODFATHER I and II, THE CONVERSATION, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, CHINATOWN, and even THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Sheeran may or may not be a reliable narrator, but these are real people – even if we don’t know the specifics on every hit. Captions are periodically included to inform of us how a particular mobster met his maker – again providing some dark humor. What is a bit surprising is the male bonding, even friendship, between guys in such a brutal profession. And watching how the story weaves in and out of history with the Bay of Pigs, Cuba casinos, and the Kennedy assassination -“If they can whack a President …” is a bit unsettling.
Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (SILENCE, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) is a good fit for Scorsese’s vision, and you can catch the varying camera styles for each character – and don’t miss the stunning shot of the illicit guns in the river. Composer Robbie Robertson (The Band) delivers Scorsese trademark musical riffs, and 3-time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmacker is in peak form editing this epic. This is the 8th film collaboration for Scorsese and DeNiro, but the first in 25 years (CASINO).
I’m a little concerned. In fact, I’m a little more than concerned. This feels like the end of an era. It’s not the end of Scorsese films, but it’s the final chapter of his mob films. No other filmmaker comes close in this genre. With the bookends of Sheeran reminiscing in the assisted-living home, this is quite the holiday gift for cinephiles … and a lasting one (providing Netflix survives).
Greetings again from the darkness. Those of us who tend to avoid Hollywood Romantic Comedies honestly have nothing against them in theory (no really, it’s true). The problems with the genre stem from (years of) cringe-inducing clichés, story structure re-treads, and inane dialogue – all of which is usually accompanied by acting that comes across as significantly short of believable. So when a rom-com (like this one) hits the silver screen and it provides emotionally dramatic moments, organically generated laughter, and multiple characters that we genuinely care about … expect the accolades to start flowing.
Real life husband and wife Kumail Nanjiani (“Silicon Valley”) and Emily Gordon have collaborated on the script; an autobiographical re-telling of the saga known as the beginning of their relationship. It’s a story that starts simply enough with a meet-cute in a Chicago comedy club where Pakistani-American Kumail is performing his stand-up routine (in between Uber-driving shifts), and Emily is in the audience firing off some mild heckling which progresses to flirting and then … well, activity that leads to both saying “this can’t happen again”.
Director Michael Showalter continues to prove that he doesn’t mind breaking the mold for relationship movies. Hello, My Name is Doriswas one of last year’s more creative films in this genre, and now Showalter has taken another step forward with this true life script. Kumail plays himself, and rather than a larger-than-life presence, he comes across as exactly life size. Zoe Kazan (granddaughter of legendary director Elia Kazan) plays Emily. The two actors are believable together (and apart) and allow us to buy in to them as a couple – and as not a couple. Their relationship shines a spotlight on religious and cultural challenges, and family pressures that those from a traditional Muslim family carry. For some, moving to the U.S. doesn’t override religious and cultural traditions such as arranged marriages and preferred professions. The script addresses this beautifully and without pulling punches – although some humor does help.
The supporting cast is excellent and plays a substantial role in the story, especially as Emily (Kazan) lay quite ill in the hospital. Holly Hunter and Ray Romano play her parents, and deliver an emotional wallop, even while dealing with their own marital issues – one of which allows Romano and Kumail to bond a bit. Kumail’s parents are played by Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, while his brother is played by Adeel Akhtar. They each capture the shock and disappointment that follows when Kumail seems to choose Emily over the family. Since this is a rare multi-dimensional script where characters can’t just be labeled “boyfriend” or “best friend”, Kumail’s cohorts at the comedy club are played by Bo Burnham, Aidy Bryant, Kurt Braunohler, and David Alan Grier – each bringing more depth to the story.
Expect the best giraffe and 9/11 jokes you’ve likely ever heard, but mostly rejoice in the graceful balance between life and death, comedy found in daily life, and the real relationship struggles. It’s not even the first coma-centric romantic-comedy (While You Were Sleeping, 1995), but here, the human feelings on screen remind us that most decisions in life are complex, and we all make mistakes of the heart. Kumail is caught in “no man’s land” between family obligations and his own identity. Hopefully life hasn’t stuck you in Kumail’s spot – hanging out in the hospital waiting room with the parents of your ex as she lay comatose down the hall as you slowly come to realize that she’s the girl of your dreams (and your parents’ nightmare). It may not sound like the makings of a traditional rom-com, but that’s what makes it so exceptional.