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

Velvet Buzzsaw


Things that make you go “hmmm”.

(2019) Horror Satire (Netflix) Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, John Malkovich, Billy Magnussen, Toni Collette, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Alan Mandell, Mig Macario, Nitya Vidyasagar, Sedale Threatt Jr., Keith Bogart, Sofia Toufa, Kassandra Voyagis, Mark Leslie Ford, Amy Tsang, Mark Steger, Andrea Marcovicci, Pisay Pao, Ian Alda, Valentina Gordon. Directed by Dan Gilroy

 

I have said many a time that there is a difference between art and Art and it largely depends on how seriously the artist takes him/herself. Art is pretentious and arrogant whereas art is inspiring and insightful. Director Dan Gilroy, acclaimed for his work on Nightcrawlers, knows the difference.

In this horror-laced satire about the contemporary commercial art world, he reunites with two of the stars of Nightcrawlers. Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) is the self-important art critic whose words can triple the price that a painting will get, or destroy a budding artist’s career entirely. Art dealer Rhodora Haze (Russo) shares a symbiotic relationship with him. Morf, who is bisexual, has a thing for Rhodora’s assistant Josephina (Ashton).

Josephina wants more than to be someone’s coffee-fetcher and when an elderly man in her apartment building dies literally in front of her door, she discovers her chance – his apartment is filled with haunting, vaguely unsettling art work. She knows instantly that it’s the Real Deal and enters into a partnership with Rhodora to sell it, even though the man expressly wanted his art destroyed and not sold. Nevertheless, sold it is and as a number of characters in the art world – up and coming agent Jon Dondon (Sturridge), gallery curator Gretchen (Collette) who looks to make her own mark (and fortune), to name a couple – jockey for position to get a piece of the pie. Then, they start to turn up dead in horrible, gruesome ways.

The film relies heavily on smart, snappy dialogue and Gyllenhaal gives one of his best performances to date as Morf, whose evolution during the film is presaged by the homonym of his first name. In fact, the entire cast, which incidentally is a pretty nifty one, does a bang-up job with particular kudos to Dyer as one of the few sympathetic characters in the film.

The movie doesn’t go easy on the gore which is likely to delight horror fans, although they might not know what to make of the satire that makes up the first third of the movie. Regardless, this is wildly entertaining and one of the better movies under the Netflix banner.

REASONS TO SEE: Gyllenhaal is delightful. Entertaining in a smarmy way. Lampoons the artificiality and pretentiousness of the commercial art world.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit too ponderous.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and gore, as well as a surfeit of profanity, some sexuality, brief nudity and a scene of drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gilroy, who also wrote the film, stated in an interview that the unusual character names were inspired by Charles Dickens
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/14/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews, Metacritic: 61/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bucket Full of Blood
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
Sometimes Always Never

The Oath


The most awkward Thanksgiving dinner EVER!

(2018) Dramedy (Roadside Attractions) Ike Barinholtz, Tiffany Haddish, Billy Magnussen, John Cho, Nora Dunn, Max Greenfield, Jon Barinholtz, Meredith Hagner, Jay Duplass, Carrie Brownstein, Chris Ellis, John Ducey, Jon Lovett, Priah Ferguson, Henry Kaufman, Brian Guest, Matt Conboy, Ithamar Enriquez, Brett Lapeyrouse, Molly Erdman. Directed by Ike Barinholtz

 

We live in an extraordinary time, and not in a good way. Our country is divided as it hasn’t been since the War Between the States. Politics have become a blood feud with two intractable sides refusing to listen to each other or admit that the tactics of their side could be anything but above reproach. Politics are dividing friends and family like never before.

Chris (I. Barinholtz) is one of those progressive sorts who watches cable news like a hawk and this, predictably, keeps him in a constant state of anger. He doesn’t have discussions so much as he has apocalyptic rants, quite sure that the latest thing the left is doing signals the end of life as we know it. However, this time he has good reason: the President (never identified in the film but c’mon – it’s meant to be Trump) has ordered that all Americans sign an oath of loyalty. Not to the country, but to the President.

Of course, Chris loses his mind and swears he’d sooner gouge out his eye with a spoon than sign this thing. His savvy and level-headed wife Kai (Haddish) agrees with him but in a less strident tone and at a less ear-splitting volume. The deadline for signing is Black Friday – the day after Thanksgiving. It so happens that Chris and Kai are having Thanksgiving dinner this year at their home with Chris’ somewhat clueless parents (Ellis, Dunn), his conservative-leaning brother Pat (J. Barinholtz), Pat’s similarly right wing girlfriend Abby (Hagner) whose name Chris defiantly refuses to say correctly, and his sister Alice (Brownstein) who tends to side with Chris.

The dinner predictably escalates into armed warfare between Chris and his brother’s girlfriend as the news shows images of protesters getting shot and left-leaning websites report that a government agency called the  Citizen’s Protection Unit (CPU) has been taking protesters away, never to be seen again. Chris’ paranoia reaches redline fever when two CPU agents, Mason (Magnussen) and Peter (Cho) show up at his door. Then things go from bad to worse.

I don’t think I’ve seen a movie yet that captures the ongoing political division of this country as this one does. Barinholtz, a first-time filmmaker, wrote and directed this and while you can see some of the rookie mistakes – the tonal shift between the first half which is more comedic and the second half, which is more of a thriller along the lines of The Purge. The dichotomy between the two is a little bit jarring to say the least. In many ways the second half is a bit surreal, going in a completely unexpected direction and detracting from the power of the first half..

Barinholtz though coaxes a magnificent performance from Haddish, in my opinion her best to date. She’s caught in the middle between her hair-trigger husband and her equally passionate brother-in-law’s girlfriend. Chris doesn’t act civilly all that often; you either agree with him or you’re a fascist and Chris is one of those liberals who thinks they know what’s right better than anyone. Kai is the mitigating factor that keeps Chris from getting too toxic, although it’s obvious that the job of being his buffer is wearing on her.

While it is clear that the filmmakers’ sympathies lie with the left, they at least have a clear enough head to recognize that the progressive side has its own share of hostility. Much of what we see onscreen are things I’ve witnessed first-hand among liberal as well as conservative friends. While the ending is a bit far-fetched, at least it leaves us with the hope that we’ll be able to learn to talk to each other again someday. Hope is a precious commodity these days and this movie at least has that, although it is cynical in places to the point of head-exploding madness. Hope is something to be cultivated and yes, discovered in movies as well. As for me, I hope Barinholtz continues to make movies; he shows he has a real talent and talent like his should be encouraged.

REASONS TO GO: This is possibly the finest performance ever by Tiffany Haddish.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie goes off the rails in the second half.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some of it graphic. There is also brief violence, nudity and sexual situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Barinholtz was once a member of the MadTV troupe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 66% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Idiocracy
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Stella’s Last Weekend