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

Animal Kingdom


 

Animal Kingdom

Grandma's forgotten to take her meds again.

(2010) Crime Drama (Sony Classics) Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, Jacki Weaver, James Frecheville, Luke Ford, Sullivan Stapleton, Mirrah Foulkes, Ben Mendelsohn, Laura Wheelwright, Clayton Jacobson, Anthony Hayes, Dan Wyllie, Jacqueline Brennan, Anna Lise Phillips. Directed by David Michod

 

You can choose your friends but not your family. Usually that’s not a bad thing but for certain families, it is a nightmare indeed. Growing up in a family of sociopaths is bound to affect you, even if you’ve been shielded from the worst of them.

Joshua “J” Cody’s (Frecheville) mom is a heroin addict. Make that was – she checks out of this world while watching TV. J calls the authorities and while paramedics work on her, watches “Deal or No Deal” impassively. The boy has issues.

He is sent to live with his grandmother which might seem to be a good idea but really is throwing J from the frying pan into the fire. Janine (but everyone calls her Smurf) Cody (Weaver) might seem motherly and affectionate on the outside (she is always asking her sons for a kiss, kisses which go on just long enough to be uncomfortable) but her boys – Darren (Ford), Craig (Stapleton) and Andrew (Mendelsohn) – the latter known to one and all as Pope – are, respectively, a dim-witted thug, a coke-addicted unpredictably violent thug and a remorseless psychopath. How’d you like to attend that family reunion?

J gets sucked into the family business of armed robberies, drug dealing and other petty crimes and he gets to know Pope’s right hand man Baz Brown (Edgerton) who yearns to leave the life. However when a transgression against the family leads to tragedy, Pope is forced into hiding and Craig and Smurf assume control of the family business. Meanwhile, Police Sgt. Nathan Leckie (Pearce) is hot on the trail of the family and is concerned for J’s well-being. He also sees J as a potential informant, the key to ending the Cody family’s reign of terror once and for all.

It’s hard to believe that this is Michod’s first feature as a director. It’s so self-assured and well-executed that you’d think someone like Coppola or Scorsese had something to do with it. It doesn’t hurt that he has a bangin’ script to work with, as well as a group of actors who are quite talented although other than Pearce and Edgerton not terribly well-known in the States.

Weaver was justly nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar at the 2011 Academy Awards and while she didn’t win, she gives a performance here that she will undoubtedly be remembered for the remainder of her career. She is at turns sweet and cuddly, cold and manipulative and creepy and psychotic. She’s the type of person who in one moment can be kissing her grandson and the next ordering his execution. It’s a bravura performance and worth renting/streaming the movie for all by itself.

Mendelsohn is nearly as impressive. He is absolutely without remorse or any real human feeling other than rage. He takes because he can; he wounds because he can and he kills because he can. He understands that he is the de facto godfather of Melbourne’s most notorious crime family and will do whatever it takes to keep it that way. He is not motivated so much by love of family as he is love of being feared.

Frecheville has perhaps the most difficult and most thankful role of all. If this were Goodfellas he’d be Henry Hill; he’s the audience surrogate but at the same time, he is a wounded puppy. He’s got definite issues but at the same time he’s a typical teenager, prone to acting rashly and not always logically. It is tough for a character like this to remain sympathetic but Frecheville manages to make J remain so throughout the film, even when he’s doing boneheaded things.

There are times when it gets a bit too realistic for my tastes; I was genuinely creeped out by some of the actions of the Cody family from grandma on down, and there were times I was taken out of the experience because of it. Still, for the most part this is one of those movies you can’t turn away from once you sit down to watch and it will stay with you for a long while after you get up to go.

WHY RENT THIS: Stark, brutal and authentic. Career-defining performances from Weaver, Mendelsohn and Frecheville. Taut and keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Goes overboard on the creepy at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, as well as some drug use (as well as drug culture depictions) and a buttload of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie owns the record for most Australian Film Institute nominations for a single film with 18.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a Q&A with director Michod and actress Weaver from the Los Angeles Film Festival.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $6.8M on an unreported production budget; it seems likely that the movie was profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Midnight Meat Train

Kick-Ass


Kick-Ass

Kick-Ass and Hit Girl do what they do best.

(Lionsgate) Aaron Johnson, Chloe Grace Moretz, Nicolas Cage, Mark Strong, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Lyndsy Fonseca, Omari Hardwick, Xander Berkeley, Craig Ferguson, Yancy Butler, Elizabeth McGovern, Garrett M. Brown, Clark Duke, Evan Peters, Kofi Natei. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

Everyone wants to become that which we most admire. We want to be heroic, rich, athletic, good-looking, shrewd or all of the above. We long to become the same type of person as our heroes. If our hero has superpowers, however, that becomes a bit dicey.

Dave Lizewski (Johnson) is a gawky, rail-thin high school student whose only power, as he himself admits, is to be invisible to girls, in particular Katie Deauxma (Fonseca) whom he is sweet on. His mom (McGovern) had a massive aneurysm at the breakfast table and died a couple of years earlier, leaving Dave and his somewhat oblivious dad (Brown) trying to make things work alone together. He hangs out with his fellow geeky friends Marty (Duke) and Todd (Peters) at the local comic book store slash cafe. The three of them are constantly being set upon by bullies and having their money and things taken from them.

Dave is fed up with this. He wonders why, with all the comic books in the world, nobody has actually attempted to be a costumed superhero (his friends respond “because he’d get his ass kicked in five minutes,” which seems accurate to me). Being fed up, he orders a wet suit that looks a bit like a superhero costume and decides to try out the lifestyle for himself.

His first attempt ends up horribly, with Dave ending up hospitalized. The silver lining on that cloud is that his nerve endings wind up “messed up,” allowing Dave to not feel pain as much as the rest of us do. That turns out to be very handy in his line of work. When Dave intercedes in a gang beating, the incident is captured on a phone cam and becomes an Internet sensation. When Dave is asked who he is, he responds “I’m Kick-Ass” and a legend is born.

What Dave doesn’t know is that there are a couple of costumed vigilantes who are actually out there. Damon Macready a.k.a. Big Daddy (Cage) is teaching his daughter Mindy a.k.a. Hit Girl (Moretz) to be a lethal combat machine. Damon has an issue with crime boss Frank D’Amico (Strong) who was indirectly responsible for the death of his wife and he intends to take him down, despite the objections of his ex-partner Marcus Williams (Hardwick) who worries about the effects of this on Mindy, whom he helped raise.

Through a set of coincidental circumstances, D’Amico gets his sights set on Kick-Ass who was present at a massacre of thugs by Hit Girl. The most unprepared superhero of all time is about to face unimaginable brutality; can he become the superhero he longs to be?

This isn’t your big daddy’s superhero film. This is a movie that is literally awash in cultural reference, so much so that you might wind up wondering if Quentin Tarantino has a hand in it (he doesn’t, but I suspect he finds this movie delightful). Director Matthew Vaughn, who made the criminally underrated Stardust as well as the ultracool crime drama Layer Cake, hits all the right notes here, from the many references to superhero movies from Spider-Man to Batman with stops at Men in Black and Mystery Men.

There are also some nice little subtexts, with Katie striking up a friendship with Dave because she thinks he’s gay, and much of the ass-kicking being done by 11-year-old Mindy, who has the mouth of a sailor and the moves of Jet Li; one of her first sequences is done to the timeless strains of the Dickies’ version of “The Banana Splits Theme Song.”

Now some, like Roger Ebert, have found the latter aspect reprehensible. Certainly Hit Girl is not meant to be a role model; it seemed to me that the filmmakers took special care to make sure she didn’t wind up that way. Was she put in mortal jeopardy? Yes she was, but I’m one of those folks who don’t think that should be taboo. After all, nobody said boo when two kids were menaced by a T-Rex in the original Jurassic Park and it is no less fantasy for a kid to be menaced by a hallway-full of machine gun-toting goombahs. However, it is true the violence is excessive and brutal in places and sensitive souls may find it to be too much.

That said, I found this to be a good deal of fun. While Moretz was a bit too cute in places, Cage and Johnson held up their end well and Strong is rapidly becoming one of the best villains in the business, his brutish D’Amico a far cry from the urbane Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes but just as vicious and effective.

A special mention of Christopher Mintz-Plasse should be made. Although I don’t want to give away too much about his role as it is crucial to the plot, let me say I think he’s perfectly cast for the role and adds a good deal to the movie. He also nicely sets up a prospective sequel should the box office warrant it.

This is meant to be over-the-top and satirical, and those who find videogames to be too tame will probably have some fun with this. For the rest of us, check your inhibitions at the door, and try to keep in mind this is just a movie that’s not meant to be taken as a serious examination of societal woes. It’s a live action Looney Tune, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with the occasional anvil to the head.

REASONS TO GO: Stylized violence, a wicked sense of humor and an accurate portrayal of geekly sorts. Never afraid to go too over the top.

REASONS TO STAY: Chloe Moretz is a little too precious at times. One gets numbed to the brutality after awhile.

FAMILY VALUES: Let’s see, there’s lots of violence, some of it gory and gruesome; there’s some nudity and sexuality; there’s also some drug use. Hmmmmm….I’m thinking you might want to think twice before taking the kiddies to see this one.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Stan Lee makes a cameo in the movie as one of the people watching the news footage of Kick-Ass on television. Also, Nicolas Cage modeled his speech mannerisms as Big Daddy on Adam West of the television version of Batman.

HOME OR THEATER: Big, dumb, fun movies like this one need to be seen on a big screen with a raucous audience.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: Amusement