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.
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.
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 …
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