“These are your ghosts. Not mine.” King Richard, Belfast, and House of Gucci


The world has been so upside down for so long that it’s hard to reconcile what “normal” even is anymore … if there ever was a “normal” in the first place. For my family, Thanksgiving wasn’t really much about turkey (vegetarianism tends to hamper the typical American holiday diet) or large gatherings (if you met my extended clan you’d understand). Rather, we typically were cloistered away in the dark comfort of the cineplex – sometimes taking in as many as three movies in a row, much to the chagrin of my father’s aching back and wallet. Tickets are expensive enough, but you’ve never seen us hit that concession stand!

2021 has been rough. It hasn’t been the sweet relief from 2020 all had hoped it to be. I lost my beloved mother, but her spirit is with me every day. I’ve lost track of what letter of the Greek alphabet this virus and its endless variants have adopted as nomenclature. I feel sadder and fatter and more exhausted than ever in my life. There have been bright spots, sure, but I feel myself aching for the mundane joys of life circa 2019 (and earlier) more and more.

King Richard

Hell, writing this blog entry is both comforting and daunting. I crave the click of the keys under my fingers, barely keeping pace with the popcorn thinking in my addled brain. Yet, I also feel like someone has asked me to enter an Olympic pole-vaulting competition as I stare at this blank screen.

My wonderful dad and I started some new traditions this year, with an eye toward our past. We met up with new pals for lunch (try the Lucky Moose/Turtle if you’re in Fort Wayne, Indiana – wonderful atmosphere and service and a menu that goes on for days, including many veg-friendly options), and we rekindled some longstanding friendships (Phyllis and Scott Gates are lovely, loving, lively hosts with a cocktail and appetizer array that deserves a Michelin star). And, yes, we finally got back into the movie theatre, safely masked and distanced with hand sanitizer at the ready. We skipped the concession line, though, for multiple and obvious reasons, and my father’s wallet breathed a sigh of relief.

Thanksgiving collage … with pics of new addition Hudson for good measure

We caught up with three marvelous films over the holiday. As I have the unfortunate habit of forcing patterns that may or may not actually exist on random collections, it was clear, at least to me, that King Richard, Belfast, and House of Gucci – taken together – explore, dissect, and celebrate the power of family – the good, the bad, the ugly, the essential, and everything in between.

King Richard covers the developmental years of tennis aces Venus and Serena Williams and the fierce commitment of their parents Richard and Brandi. This is Will Smith’s best work in years as he imbues Richard with a haggardly leonine focus that walks the fine line between Great Santini-esque obsession and Mister Rogers“you can do anything as long as you’re having fun” positivity. I guarantee you’ll never look at tennis shorts and knee-high athletic socks the same way again!

Aunjanue Ellis is an understated marvel as mom Brandi, a fine counterpoint to Richard’s relentless push, filling in the humanity where Richard’s parenting falls short. Jon Bernthal is a delight as endlessly exasperated yet mindfully hopeful coach Rick Macci. His Dorothy Hamill-ish bob deserves an Oscar. The film – never a bore and consistently entertaining – ends where it should, at the beginning of Venus’ pro career and offers unassailable proof of the foundation to success that involved parenting provides.

In Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical Belfast, the parents play a similar yin-yang role in their children’s lives. Jamie Dornan (shedding all the ooky kink of his Fifty Shades of Grey days) and Caitriona Balfe are on the razor’s edge of heartbreak, their idyllic neighborhood torn asunder by the Protestant/Catholic “troubles” in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. The push-pull of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs hangs over the picture, as Dornan’s character urges the family to leave for greener pastures, and Balfe struggles with her husband’s profligacy and not losing the creature comforts of family and friends sharing child-rearing duties.

Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds are akin to a warm, woolen, slightly scratchy blanket as Dornan’s ever-present parents, and Jude Hill is a luminous find as the young protagonist Buddy, golden child of the family. Filmed in lush black and white, the film is a throwback to coming of age fables set against the backdrop of cultural turmoil like To Kill a Mockingbird, at times a bit too artsy for its own good, but leaving the viewer with a poignant, optimistic gut punch as the family finds its legs again.

“These are your ghosts. Not mine,” Maurizio Gucci (a compelling Adam Driver deftly balancing giddy nebbishness and aloof austerity) declares to his father, Gucci fashion empire scion Rodolfo (a miscast Jeremy Irons, desperately in search of an Italian accent by way of Downton Abbey), a spectre who lives hopelessly in the past. Ridley Scott’s fizzy, haunting House of Gucci exposes the dark underbelly of family survival: love and admiration that curdles into resentment and maneuvering. Much has been written (unfairly) about the film and its script, claiming it’s a loose amalgamation of riffs last seen on Dynasty and Dallas. Hogwash. That isn’t to say there isn’t plenty of escapist disco-era glitzy materialistic fun to be had, though.

And, no, Lady Gaga – who is incredibly nuanced and infinitely watchable as Maurizio’s ambitious, brilliant, tortured wife Patrizia – does not sound like Natasha of Bullwinkle fame. I was fine with the accents and mannerisms throughout the cast, Lyons notwithstanding. Italia! (I’ve never seen so many cigarettes smoked or espressos drunk in my life.) Pacino is in fine form as swaggering yet bedraggled Aldo Gucci, and a thrillingly unrecognizable Jared Leto is heartbreaking comic relief as Aldo’s dingbat-yet-deeply-misunderstood child Paolo.

But the star of the show is Gaga – she continues the stunning movie star path she began in A Star is Born, commanding the screen like Liza Minnelli or Susan Hayward, vibrating with the fiery frustration of a woman who knows the way ahead but can’t quite reach past the male egos around her. Like Liza, her eyes can flare from limpid to enraged in a nanosecond. I’d watch her read the phone book at this point.

Family defines us, shapes us, inspires us, frustrates us, comforts us. These three films unpack in beautiful form how one reconciles individuality in the face of such influence. Highly recommend them as a triple feature. Popcorn, candy, and soda pop optional.

Holiday postscript … in the spirit of new traditions

LINK TO FULL PHOTO ALBUM: https://lnkd.in/e_A5CyUM … It’s the hap-happiest season of all. In part because I sort of dust for once in anticipation of putting up our mammoth tree, at which time I spend HOURS nestling what seems like 1,000 ornaments amidst its branches. I know some might go for aesthetics or theme in their holiday decor. But we’re not much on restraint. No, we go for nostalgia.

Every well-loved, slightly tired knickknack or ornament we unearth reminds us of happy times – and a few not-so-happy – but all essential. Yes, John and I have ordered a personalized stocking for Hudson (on its way). And, no, we don’t want to think about packing all this holly jolly away in a little over a month. We shall just enjoy the season as the world spins nuttier and wilder every day.

And thanks, Don and Corinne, for this nifty shirt from Sechler’s Pickles, Inc., reputedly the purveyors of Frank Sinatra’s fave gherkin. Alas, Frank didn’t accompany today’s festive shenanigans – but Jennifer Nettles, Kylie Minogue, and Taylor Swift kept us humming (and singing) along. Happy holidays!

And thank you, Lori, Andrew, and Gabby – between you all and my mom Susie, you account for about 90% of those thousand ornaments on our tree! ❤️

And shameless self-promotion post-postscript …


Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/155057871244919/posts/4648251118592216/?d=n  

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YB7GvGtRrX0

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/video/event/urn:li:ugcPost:6871173503022964736/

Legal Marketing Coffee Talk is back this Thursday to kick off December with host Roy Sexton and his guest, Scott Lawrence, the man responsible for Roy’s professional headshots. Did you know that Roy moonlights as a superhero? He has the headshot to prove it, thanks to Scott!

Roy and Scott will talk about the fine art of personal and professional branding and how having a range of headshots is essential in this glittering age of digital marketing. Different audiences require different looks and styles to create lasting engagement.

Scott observes, “I believe people hire people, so you must use a professional image that reflects who you really are. … I’m a headshot photographer with a business background. Get noticed with an authentic professional headshot. Leave your selfies behind. I work with individuals in customized sessions. We discuss your personal brand and craft an image that sends just the right message to your followers – both professional and personal. I also help large organizations to properly highlight their people – the most valuable asset.”

Join us Thursday, December 2nd at 3 PM ET right here on Facebook

Legal Marketing Coffee Talk is brought to you by: By Aries and Kates Media.

Gaga for Lady Gaga in House of Gucci

Step into the Way-Back Machine: The Book Thief and Mr. Peabody & Sherman

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

In my estimation, there are chiefly two types of films for young people:

There are the ones where a kid’s innocent yet wary POV on a grown-up world helps both adults and children better understand how tender and tenuous our collective grasp on daily reality truly is (e.g. To Kill a Mockingbird, Babe, The Black Stallion, E.T.).

And then there are those where sheer nonsensical anarchy takes over and society is seen through a colorfully madcap lens to rationalize how unfair and frustrating life can be (e.g. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Toy Story, The Princess Bride, The Incredibles).


Today, I saw fine examples of each form: The Book Thief (on DVD) and Mr. Peabody & Sherman (still in theatres).

The Book Thief somehow escaped my attention last fall when it was released. I think it was unjustifiably lost in a shuffle of Oscar hopefuls and critical muckraking (the latter of which appeared perilously close to sour grapes pettiness regarding the runaway success of the young adult novel by Markus Zusak on which the film is based).

Starring Geoffrey Rush (who turns in a refreshingly nuanced and subtle performance) and Emily Watson (always magnificent, walking that fine line between heartwarming, poignant and world-weary) and introducing Sophie Nelisse, The Book Thief offers a look into the atrocities of Nazi Germany from the perspective of a child growing up in a small town where survival is the primary concern.

Akin to essential classic The Mortal Storm, starring Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan (if you’ve never seen it, you must), The Book Thief relates the sweaty, creeping terror of totalitarian Nazi rule as it insinuates itself into the daily lives of everyday citizens. I remember thinking as child, “How could German citizens let this happen?” Both The Book Thief and The Mortal Storm do a wonderful and chilling job of showing that progression.

(And as an adult in post-millennial America, both films give me pause about where some of our political and business leaders might try to take us.)

Rush and Watson’s characters, not altogether altruistically, take lost soul Liesel (played by Nelisse) into their home. Liesel’s birth mother is a socialist who gives her daughter and son up, ostensibly for the children’s safety; the brother is lost to some unidentified ailment en route to their new home. As the film proceeds, we realize that flinty Watson and flaky Rush are actually deep-feeling souls whose private disgust over the direction Nazi Germany takes is balanced with an equally heart-wrenching desire to protect their adopted daughter, their unconventional life, and those human beings who enrich their existence, including a young Jewish man (ably played by Ben Schnetzer) who camps out in their basement to avoid persecution.

The film’s title is a nickname for Liesel, whose character is illiterate at the film’s outset but who learns the liberating power of language and free thought from the books she is able to swipe, despite Nazi attempts to limit citizens’ access to certain literature, art, and music.

John Williams’ score as always is lush and evocative and practically a character unto itself.

There is great supporting acting work throughout, including Barbara Auer as the mayor’s kindly wife who has her own literary secrets, Nico Liersch as Liesel’s charmingly unconventional best friend, and Roger Allam as, yes, the omniscient narrator Death. It is this latter aspect that gives the film its emotional resonance and sharp edge. Death is not spooky or malevolent but practical and even kindly, giving young and old alike a reminder of our inevitable mortality and that every moment should be lived as authentically and kindly as life will allow.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Now, on the other end of the family movie spectrum, we have Mr. Peabody & Sherman, based on my personally favorite segment of Jay Ward’s 1960s TV classic series Rocky & Bullwinkle.

For those unfamiliar with the concept (or how unlikely it is that I am pairing this movie with The Book Thief – just the luck of the draw in today’s viewings!), Mr. Peabody & Sherman relates the tale of a genius bespectacled pooch who adopts a not-so-genius bespectacled boy, invents a time machine (among many other scientific breakthroughs), and takes his son on many educational excursions throughout history.

The premise from the TV show essentially remains the same in this big screen adaptation, including Mr. Peabody’s endless series of painfully-so-unfunny-that-they’re-actually-funny puns and the crackpot Looney Tunes-meets-Your Show of Shows-era-Mel Brooks/Sid Caesar takes on historical figures as varied as King Tut, Marie Antoinette, Agamemnon, and George Washington.

The drawback for me would be DreamWorks Animation’s needless obsession with fart/poop/butt jokes. There were at least a dozen too many; they were jarring and dumb and an ugly distraction from what was otherwise clever and charming.

As in any good kids’ flick, despite the cartoon mania, there is a very real and haunting tension: that the adopted (and clearly adored) Sherman will be taken away from his doting canine father Mr. Peabody because the conventional world cannot accept such an arrangement.

Allison Janney does fine voice work as a beefy busybody social worker who will stop at nothing to upend their happy life, and Stephen Colbert and Leslie Mann (someone needs to cast them as a live action movie couple stat!) are starched-shirt-hysterical as a rival set of parents (think God of Carnage-lite) whose bullying daughter is bitten by Sherman at school. (Hence the overreaction of all the “sensible” humans that a dog is raising a boy as his own son.)

Mr. Peabody throws a dinner party to try to settle the matter in a civilized fashion, the kids monkey with the Way-Back Machine, something wonky happens to the space-time continuum, and all sorts of silliness ensues.

Directed by Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little), Mr. Peabody & Sherman is weighed down by its own episodic structure as we careen among historical eras, and, sadly, the ending is the typical lazy “let’s blow some stuff up and regurgitate some nonsensical pseudo science to wrap everything up” conclusion that Hollywood always tacks on these kinds of films.

But for a few brief and shining moments, Mr. Peabody & Sherman breaks through the absurdity and offers sweet-natured messages of tolerance and joy and, yes, like The Book Thief, the necessity of free thought and the critical importance of family, no matter how left-of-center.


Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Please check out this coverage from BroadwayWorld of upcoming book launch events. In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan; by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan; and by Memory Lane Gift Shop in Columbia City, Indiana. Bookbound and Memory Lane both also have copies of Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series.