The Many Saints of Newark


Dinner with the Family.

(2021) Crime Drama (New Line) Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Vera Farmiga, Ray Liotta, Michael Gandolfini, Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Michela De Rossi, Billy Magnussen, John Magaro, Michael Imperioli (voice), Samson Moeakiola, Joey Coco Diaz, Germar Terrell Gardner, Alexandra Intrator, Gabriella Piazza, Mason Bleu, Aaron Joshua, Lesli Margherita. Directed by Alan Taylor

 

There is absolutely no doubt that The Sopranos remains one of the most influential and important television series of all time. It helped establish HBO as a legitimate provider of quality original entertainment and ushered in a new golden age of television which moved away from broadcast and to alternate sources of content providers, from cable and now to streaming. For many of our favorite television shows of the past decade, we can thank show creator David Chase, who co-wrote and produced this prequel to his show, whose storytelling prowess paved the way for shows like Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones and Sons of Anarchy.

The movie opens with a startling and effective crane shot that turns into a dolly shot of a graveyard. We hear various voices of the dead until one takes focus; that of Christopher Moltisanti (Imperioli, the sole member of the series cast who appears here), who acts as a kind of narrator as well as Banquo’s ghost. He laments over his own untimely death (one of the most shocking moments in a series replete with them) and focuses in on his father, Dickie Moltisanti (Nivola).

Dickie is welcoming his father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, back from Italy. He brings with him a brand-new bride, Giussepina (De Rossi) from Italy. She speaks little English and is about a third his age. Dickie has been running the numbers operation for the DiMeo crime family, using enforcer Harold McBrayer (Odom) to collect in the predominantly African-American neighborhoods of central Newark. It is 1967, and after the violent arrest of an innocent black taxi driver, riots erupt.

In the meantime, Johnny Soprano (Bernthal) has been arrested for assault with a deadly weapon and sent to prison, leaving his son Tony (Ludwig) in the less-than-tender care of Livia (Farmiga), who is already showing signs of being the unstable, manipulative harridan that Nancy Marchand was acclaimed for in the series. Tony admires his uncle Dickie and begins to see him as a mentor and father figure. As Tony grows into his teenage years (Gandolfini, the son of the late James Gandolfini who played Tony in the series), he begins to show a willingness to gravitate towards the criminal life that his Uncle – and father – are part of. In the meantime, McBrayer – seeing the Black power movement and feeling the contempt in which he is held by the Italians – begins to build an empire of his own. Things are going to get mighty ugly in Newark.

I have to admit, I blew a little hot and cold about this one. Da Queen, who is not really a Sopranos fan and has seen little of the show, liked this movie a lot. On the other hand, I’ve watched the show and know how good it could be – and to be frank, the movie doesn’t really measure up in some ways to the original. Few things, to be fair, ever do.

Part of the problem is that the characters who were so indelible – not only Livia, but Paulie Walnuts (Magnusson), Uncle Junior (Stoll), Big Pussy (Moeakola) and Silvio Dante (Magaro) – all faithfully reproduce the look and mannerisms of those who played the characters on the show. It is a bit distracting in a way – it’s like watching a remake of a favorited movie with celebrity impersonators – but one has to give credit where credit is due. All of the things that made us love (or hate) those characters are present here. Farmiga, in particular, and Stoll, both get high marks for inhabiting the parts that Marchand and Dominic Chianese created. However, there isn’t a lot of additional insight to the characters that can’t be gleaned by watching the show – any of them. As a result, the emphasis is mainly on the “new” characters of Dickie, his father and McBrayer.

It should also be mentioned that Gandolfini acquits himself very nicely in the role that made his father famous. The movie really isn’t about Tony; he’s a bit player in his own prequel. For some, that is going to be annoying. I think, though, that it’s a smart move; Tony Soprano is a character that was perhaps one of the most well-developed in television history. While other characters in the show that are portrayed here don’t really get to add much insight to their characters, I don’t think there’s really a lot that can be added to Tony that we don’t already know

So there are a couple of questions to be answered here. First of all, if you’re not familiar with the show, you can still see The Many Saints of Newark without feeling lost. Familiarity with the show adds a certain amount of flavor, but for many of the characters who met untimely ends, we’re fully aware of their (sometimes) grisly demises that occurred in the series and that does color our perceptions somewhat. Does it add anything for fans of the show? Not really a lot. You get a little more background into the relationship between Tony and his mentor, but it doesn’t really make for any startling revelations. While there are plenty of Easter Eggs for super fans to glom onto, for the most part this doesn’t really sit atop the pantheon of mobster movies as much as the show does. If you’re anything like me, however, you will be inspired to re-watch the show once again and that really isn’t a bad thing at all.

REASONS TO SEE: Strong performances throughout. Plenty of Easter Eggs for fans of the show.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really add a lot of additional insight into the show and characters.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence (some of it gruesome), profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The amusement park scenes were filmed at Rye Playland in Westchester, NY. The amusement park scenes for Big were also filmed there.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: HBO Max (through November 1)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/10/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Pharma Bro

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.


Neither Cavill nor Hammer want their hair getting mussed.

Neither Cavill nor Hammer want their hair getting mussed.

(2015) Spy Action (Warner Brothers) Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, Christian Berkel, Misha Kuznetsov, Guy Williams, Marianna Di Martino, David Beckham, Julian Michael Deuster, Peter Stark, Pablo Scola, Andrea Cagliesi, Peter Stark, Simona Caparrini, Joanna Metrass. Directed by Guy Ritchie

The 60s were an interesting era. While most people associate the last half of the decade of the era with the counterculture, evolution of rock and roll, protests and rioting, the first part of the era was something completely different. It was a time of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the New York’s World Fair, of great stress and great optimism. It’s a time when the Beatles and Burt Bachrach co-existed on the charts, and style still held more than a trace of elegance and grace. It was the golden age of spies, with James Bond, Modesty Blaise and Matt Helm all fighting the menace of Evil Empires and Megalomaniacs bent on world domination – or destruction. It was the age of U.N.C.L.E.

Napoleon Solo (Cavill) is a former war profiteer caught and sentenced to prison. However, the C.I.A., recognizing that his skills are superior, intervenes, allowing the sentence to be commuted – so long as he works it off for the Agency. Solo has become one of the most respected and successful spies in the business. Ilya Kuryakin (Hammer) is a KGB agent with incredible athleticism, brute strength and a temper more explosive than Vesuvius.

They butt heads when Solo tries to smuggle a pretty East German auto mechanic named Gaby (Vikander) out of East Berlin and Kuryakin is  told in no uncertain terms to stop them and he turns out to be pretty much a one-man wrecking crew, but nonetheless Solo gets the girl out of the Soviet zone.

As it turns out, her Uncle Rudi (Groth) works for Vinciguerra (which means “Win the War” in Italian), a sketchy Italian multinational corporation that may have her father, a nuclear physicist who may have discovered a means of making nuclear bombs portable. For a third party to have such destructive power at their fingertips is intolerable both for the Americans and the Russians so they decide to send their best men into the fray and get the technology for their own countries.

They will first have to get past Victoria Vinciguerra (Debicki), the twisted de facto head of the company and her vicious brother Alexander (Calvani), more thugs than you can shake a stick at and their own mutual suspicion. The game of spying has become even more complicated and confusing than ever.

Like the Mission: Impossible series, this is based on a hit TV show from the 60s but unlike the former film franchise, the filmmakers have elected to keep the film in the same general time period as the TV show which to my mind is a brilliant idea. The era is perfect for the story; they just don’t do urbane the way they used to, and Napoleon Solo is nothing if not urbane.

I like the casting in the leads but oddly enough, I’d have liked the casting better if Cavill and Hammer had switched roles. Cavill, I think, has a darker side to him than Hammer does and Hammer, who grew up not unfamiliar with the country club lifestyle, would have made an extremely convincing Solo. But then again, Hammer is a big fellow and that might not have jibed well with the Saville Row ladies man that was the American spy. Then again, David McCallum was a much less physical specimen than Hammer and still made an extremely effective Kuryakin in the TV series.

Ritchie, having done Sherlock Holmes and its sequel, has created a new niche for himself after escaping the old one. He is able to re-create the early 60s – 50 years gone now – by making the setting timeless places, mostly in the Old World. He uses vintage clothing as well as recreations to clothe his actors, although his screenwriters don’t quite have the idioms down – phrases like “skill set” and “price point” are phrases from this decade and not that one, and one would have wished the writing had been a little more careful in that regard. Comes from having young whippersnappers doing the writing (actually co-writers Lionel Wigram and Ritchie are two and eight years younger than I, so shows you what I know).

Vikander has become a hot property and this movie isn’t going to do anything to cool her down. These are the types of roles perfectly suited to growing a career; even though the movie is coming out in August, it’s still a major studio release and thus she’s going to get plenty of attention. The movie is pretty lightweight, true and so is the part although it is the most complex role in the movie but this isn’t meant to be John Le Carre; it’s light and frothy and Vikander wisely plays it that way.

And that’s really the draw for this movie; yeah, it doesn’t really add anything to the genre and yeah, it’s a pretty overcrowded field this year with James Bond waiting in the wings still, but that’s all good. When I was a kid, I used to watch the reruns of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and eagerly read the paperback novelizations of the show. Hey, my parents loved it so who am I to disagree with an endorsement like that? In any case, this is a throwback to an earlier time well-executed in every way. Think of it as a cold Pepsi on a hot August day; perfectly refreshing and very welcome.

REASONS TO GO: Perfectly set in the period. Effervescent.
REASONS TO STAY: A few anachronisms here and there.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of action, some partial nudity and sexually suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When Solo removes a tablecloth from a table without disturbing the place settings on it, he actually does that trick, being trained by a British variety show performance who specializes in the stunt.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 55/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Our Man Flint
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: People Places Things

Get Smart


Get Smart

Anne Hathaway takes aim at better roles than this one.

(2008) Spy Spoof (Warner Brothers) Steve Carrell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp, Terry Crews, David Koechner, James Caan, Masi Oka, Patrick Warburton, Nate Torrence, Kenneth Davitian, David S. Lee. Directed by Peter Segal

Some TV shows translate better to the big screen than others; why that is I’m not sure, but it seems to be the case. Some of those that fail both commercially and critically belong to adaptations that on the surface would seem to be sure-fire winners.

I admit to being an ardent fan of the TV show “Get Smart” as a boy. I loved James Bond and as boys do, I loved to see things made fun of that I was fond of. I thought Don Adams was the funniest guy around, and that Barbara Feldon was a hot tamale. The show was on all the time in repeats, but as time went by its anachronistic humor that creators Mel Brooks and Buck Henry were known for had fallen out of favor.

The new version is set in the modern day post-Cold War environment. CONTROL is a spy agency maintaining the status quo essentially and keeping the world safe. Maxwell Smart (Carrell) is an analyst for the agency, writing incredibly long and detailed reports that nobody ever reads.

Agent 23 (Johnson) is the superstar of CONTROL. He is always given the tough missions, the impossible missions that make James Bond look like Borat. But that’s all over now – CONTROL’s sworn enemies, KAOS, have infiltrated CONTROL and all of the agents identities have been revealed. It will be up to Smart, a novice in the field, and Agent 99 (Hathaway) who has recently had extensive plastic surgery to change her appearance, to discover what KAOS is up to.

That won’t be easy. Siegfried (Stamp), the head of KAOS has a nasty plan that will end up with the assassination of the President (Caan) of the U.S., and the Chief of CONTROL (Arkin) has absolutely no confidence in Max. The trail takes Max from Washington to Moscow and at last to Los Angeles, but time is running out and Max, as confident as he is in his abilities, is no Agent 23. Who is the mole in CONTROL? And can Max and 99 save the President?

The movie gets points for the effects, gadgets and stunts, some of which wouldn’t bring shame to the Bond series. It also gets points for casting the film impeccably. Carrell is the only actor who can really pull off the bumbling Smart (although Jim Carrey was once considered for the role several years ago when the movie version of the show was first proposed). He’s nothing like Adams, mind you, but he has the good looks and charming nature to pull it off. Max is a bit of a dense know-it-all but deep down he has the heart of a superspy and Carrell makes that work.

Hathaway is a very different 99 than Feldon. Whereas Feldon was cool, sophisticated and confident, Hathaway is a bit more mercurial. She’s got more of an air of mystery to her, a little more seductive and a little less sophisticated. She makes a great foil for the modern-day Max. Johnson shows that all those horrible kid flicks he’s made lately have given him a deft touch for comedy, plus he has the action star cred to begin with. He is riveting when he’s on-screen and that natural charisma he has blows nearly everyone out of the water. One almost wishes that the Rock would get a spy movie like this – oh there’s that long-in-development Spymaster thing but that appears to be dead in the water anyway.

The problem here is that the movie is schizophrenic. There’s a part of it that wants to be a laugh-a-minute comedy. There’s another part of it that wants to be a straight-up spy thriller (particularly the second half). The comedy doesn’t always work really well (and admittedly a lot of it relies on viewers being familiar with the original show). I really wish they had stuck more with the spoof part rather than the action even though they were less successful with the comedy – it would have been more in the spirit of the original that way.

“Get Smart” has made it to the big screen before with The Nude Bomb which is best left unsaid. This is at least better than that but still doesn’t quite capture the spirit and wit of the original. It is at least decent entertainment which makes it a lukewarm recommendation. The public seems to have agreed; Get Smart did lukewarm box office and while this was envisioned to be the beginning of a franchise, Carrell and Hathaway would likely command astronomical salaries by now so continuing the series wouldn’t be cost-effective. Perhaps that’s just as well.

WHY RENT THIS: Johnson is magnificent and Carrell and Hathaway not too shabby either.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the gags fall flat and you get the sense that the producers weren’t sure whether they wanted a straight-out spoof or a more serious spy flick.

FAMILY VALUES: The humor is a bit on the rude side (for those who are sensitive about such things) and there’s plenty of action and violence, not to mention a few bad words.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are a number of nods to the original series, from some of Max’s catchphrases (“Sorry about that, Chief”) to the original portable cone of silence showing up in the CONTROL trophy case, Max and 99 flying to Russia aboard Yarmy International Airlines (Original Maxwell Smart Don Adams was born Donald Yarmy), and a picture of actress Jane Dulo, who played 99’s mother in the original series, behind the Chief’s desk.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a fairly lengthy gag reel and an on-location report from Moscow where some of the movie was filmed, as well as a Carrell riff on languages which you can take or leave. Both the special two-disc DVD edition and Blu-Ray give viewers the ability to add deleted and extended scenes into the mix; the Blu-Ray also has an interactive game and a somewhat too-detailed look at a vomit gag used in the jet sequence in the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $230.7M on an $80M production budget; the movie was just short of a hit.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Chicken Run