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Licorice Pizsa

26 Dec

‘Licorice Pizza’: Head over heels for Alana Haim in the shaggiest of ’70s Southern California tales

By Tom Meek Thursday, December 23, 2021

Alana Haim and Cooper Hoffman in ‘Licorice Pizza’.

Fans of Paul Thomas Anderson’s early, quirky works – “Boogie Nights” (1997) and “Magnolia” (1999) – will delight in his latest. That’s not to say that “There Will Be Blood” (2007), “Phantom Thread” (2017) and “Inherent Vice” (2014) are not insignificant films, because they are; it’s just there’s a dark, cheeky breeziness to those earlier efforts and a style and a tone that propels “Licorice Pizza” from the first frame. The opening scene homes in on 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of frequent Anderson collaborator Phillip Seymour Hoffman’) loquaciously prattling away to a young woman named Alana (Alana Haim), who’s clearly older (in her 20s). It’s a long, well-choreographed tracking shot that takes us from the long paths of a verdant courtyard to the innards of a school’s gym, where Gary is to get his high school photo. Gary, we learn, is a child actor of some notoriety but on the cusp of aging out, an epiphany that doesn’t put a damper on so much as free up an abundance of other ambitious ideas, including dating Alana. “I met the girl I’m going to marry one day,” he tells a friend. Alana, surprisingly, agrees to a date at a local steakhouse (the infamous Tail o’ the Cock) and later chaperones Gary to a hit TV show reunion in New York City, where one of Gary’s fellow child stars swoops in on her.

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The Matrix Resurrections

23 Dec

This sequel levels up with a mix of nostalgia and action worth the ride

By Tom Meek Wednesday, December 22, 2021

In “The Matrix Resurrections” we catch up with Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) toiling as a head game designer being dogged to make a fourth release to his “Matrix” video game series. The series is wildly popular but Thomas, plagued by neuroses, seeing a shrink and said to have suicidal tendencies, is clearly a bit of an anxiety milkshake. It’s a pretty meta opener, as series creator Lana Wachowski had been peppered over the years by Warner Bros. to make a new “Matrix” installment. (The company Thomas works for, Deus Machina, is owned by Warner Bros. in the film – how’s that for tres meta?) She ultimately agreed, though sister and series co-creator Lilly Wachowski opted out due to stress from coming out, gender reassignment and the death of their parents.

The original “Matrix” (1999) broke ground in action filmmaking and intrigued with its plays on Eastern philosophies (though more simply we’re talking a war between humans and machines à la “The Terminator”). For fans who were only semi-warmed by “Reloaded” and let down by “Revolutions” in 2003, “Resurrections” may be just the remedy. It’s nostalgic – almost to the point of being schmaltzy in its overuse of clips from previous chapters – and has a heightened sense of romance with a few kick-ass action sequences well enough meted out to avoid overload. And yeah, there’s a shitload of philosophizing about red-pill-blue-pill and choice versus complacency, which to me has always tasted like a yada-yada MacGuffin for the highbrow lot.

The Thomas Anderson of “Resurrections” is an indentured servant just like the rest of humanity, “taking the blue pill” and relegated to a false contentment when they are really sleeping energy cells in a pod farm to power machines. But the great conceit in this rekindled Matrix future-verse is not so much the hero as a corporate wonk, but the affinity and thin tendrils of romance between Thomas and Tiffany/Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss, rocking the role again). When Thomas the coder meets Tiffany in a coffee shop in the bowels of his corporate office tower, she’s a soccer mom with kids and a straight-out-of L.L. Bean hubby with a type AA personality. There’s a flickering recognition on both sides, but none of that gets rekindled until Bugs (Jessica Henwick), a punked-out rebel hacker inspired by Anderson’s Matrix persona as Neo and “The One,” gets him to Morpheus. There he’s awoken with the infamous red pill (cue up Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” and what’s that tattooed on Bugs’ arm?) to learn he’s just another cog in the machine, and that things are a little more complicated these days, as machines are now warring among themselves. Rebel leader Morpheus is now played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II from the “Watchman” series. The digitized retooling of the Laurence Fishburne character works out seamlessly.

In construct, “Resurrections” is more a reawakening than reboot that will likely (or so must be Warner’s hope) guide a new generation back to a sweeping franchise that’s been dormant almost 20 years. The real sell here is the chemistry between Reeves and Moss, who had romantic spark and sexual tension in past chapters – both looking fashionable and sleek in long, black dusters – but here, with a touch of weariness and eyes edged with crows’ feet, there’s something much more deep and attainably genuine; they’re soulmates, always meant to be but unable to connect. The longing and closeness of realization is an intoxicating elixir. Those hoping for “bullet time,” as Anderson’s boss calls it when talking about what should go in the latest Deus Machina release, might be disappointed. There’s not a lot of signature slo-mo bullet dodging. Also missing is the relentless malevolence of Hugo Weaving, who’s not back stalking Neo as Agent Smith. What we do get is one protracted and thrilling chase sequence through a gantlet of city blocks as Neo and Trinity ride again on a Ducati. (Did I mention Moss’ Tiffany persona has a motorcycle shop?) The Matrix’s response? Use sleeping humans in the chambers above as zombie-style missiles, crashing through windows and plummeting at dodging pair. The eye-popping result eerily evokes “World War Z” (2013) and, even more disturbingly, 9/11.

Like the entries before, “Resurrections” isn’t so much about where you land – though there is a revelation that many likely had a bead on 18 years ago – but the journey. One great benefit is the potpourri of personalities that provide bumpers for Neo to carom off of in his quest for truth, namely Neil Patrick Harris as his analyst; Priyanka Chopra Jonas as the oracle Sati; and most humorously, Andrew Caldwell as Thomas’ boss at Deus Machina.

The Lost Daughter

18 Dec

‘The Lost Daughter’: One gets away at a getaway in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s powerful directorial debut

Maggie Gyllenhaal, the actress best known for her turns in “Secretary” (2002) and “Adaptation,” (2002) gets behind the camera for her directorial debut with “The Lost Daughter,” an adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novel about a woman struggling with loss and trying to find solace in the present. It’s a tight, intimate portrait of a person trying to move on who gets caught up in the dramas of others. Gyllenhaal gathers a fantastic cast and educes some award-worthy performances. Her lead could not be any better: Olivia Coleman, so good in “The Father” (2020) and an Oscar winner for her royal turn in “The Favourite” (2018), plays Leda Caruso, a comparative literary professor from Cambridge, Mass. (it’s not explicit but we can assume Harvard) on vacation at a Greek resort. Ensconced in a book, a quiet day of beach reading is interrupted by a raucous crowd of partiers from Queens. She won’t cede her spot on the beach to the group, which has choice Jersey Shore reaction to her stiff-upper-lip rigidity. Then the young child of one of the festive lot (Dakota Johnson, “Fifty Shades of Grey”) goes missing. There’s mass panic along the beach, which Leda – experiencing some anxiety – has left. Natch, she finds the young girl in the woods on the way to her cabana and returns her to her mother, Nina (Johnson). The group from Queens rethinks their opinion of their obstinate beach neighbor, and an uneasy bond between the women takes root. Nina looks to Leda for maternal advice, while the writer in Leda probes into Nina, her familial and romantic relationships, as well as her furtive ditherings. Leda has her own dubious doings, absconding with the child’s favorite doll and reacting with zero affect when the child breaks down crying for their security blanket.

“The Lost Daughter” is less about that present story between Nina and Leda than about Leda’s internal emotional journey. In flashbacks we see the young Leda (played by Jessie Buckley, so good in “I’m Thinking of Ending Things”) living an ideal life with a husband and two daughters, but is drawn by the allure of power and intellectual commonality by an established literary professor (Peter Sarsgaard, Gyllenhaal’s husband). The performances by Coleman and Buckley (who won the Boston Society of Film Critics for best supporting actress last week) are sublime and deeply felt. What’s more is that the transition between the two feels genuine and universal. The rest of the ensemble includes Ed Harris as a caretaker trying to break Leda’s icy facade, Paul Mescal as a resort attendant and Oliver Jackson-Cohen as one of the boisterous crew from Queens. It’s also one hell of a debut by Gyllenhaal, who’s going to have the cinema world hanging on her next directorial project. 

Nightmare Alley

18 Dec

‘Nightmare Alley’: Escaping from the carnival into noir with a savage Cooper and Blanchett

By Tom Meek Thursday, December 16, 2021

Guillermo del Toro dusts off Edmund Goulding’s 1947 B-tier noir starring Tyrone Power and gives it a lush polish with rich reds and a house-of-horrors ambiance. There’s a sense of wonderment in there too, but that’s mostly reined in by the constraints of the noir form and the seediness of carny life. Set in the mid-1930s, “Nightmare Alley” is a scrumptious, set piece-driven experience to drink in, which should be no surprise given de Toro’s penchant for opulent dial backs such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006) or “The Shape of Water” (2017). The film’s blessed with one heck of a cast to boot. The twisted yarn, based on William Lindsay Gresham’s novel, focuses on Stan (Bradley Cooper), a mysterious drifter who becomes a carnival hand with a traveling operation. After capturing the show’s escaped geek – a wild man whom we do get to witness biting the heads off chickens – Stan gets an elevation of sorts from the show’s owner (Willem Dafoe) and cozies up to Zeena (Toni Collette), a clairvoyant, and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn), bedding the former and lifting the tricks of the trade from the latter before endearing himself to the show’s demure ingenue, Molly (Rooney Mara).

It turns out Stan’s not quite that quiet, earnest guy we first meet, but a man hot with ambition and devilish drive to get what he wants. It also turns out that “Nightmare Alley” is something of a double-shift narrative. The first half is something of a Horatio Alger story fused with Tod Browning’s creepy 1932 tale, “Freaks.” (Here, along with a geek roaming the tents and cages there’s a pickled baby and cyclops boy, and Ron Perlman as the strong man). After Stan takes leave of the carnival and becomes a mentalist performing in swank nightclubs, the film moves into full-on noir mode when he meets his match in the femme fatale form of Dr. Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a socialite and psychiatrist. She’s onto him, and he’s intoxicated by her social stature and overpowering sense of confidence. There’s an air of feral sexuality whenever the two jockey for an edge. Soon the target becomes Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins), a wealthy power broker in Ritter’s sphere, and “Nightmare Alley” turns into a succession of confidence games with a few dark and deadly secrets tumbling out along the way. As good as Blanchett and Bradley are and are together (Flick alert: Cooper is a raucous treat as Jon Peters in the upcoming “Licorice Pizza,” and Blanchett gives another great micro turn in the end-of-the-world satire, “Don’t Look Up” streaming as of Dec. 24 on Netflix), their chemistry gets diluted by plot machinations and the restrictions of the genre. There’s just not enough emotionally at stake; it’s great pomp, sans the punch. It still works, mind you, but as a viewer you sail through the film enamored with the filmmaking and performances without being pulled in by flaws, desires and dreams.

Belfast

13 Nov

‘Belfast’: In Ireland for the violence of the 1960s with time for schoolboy crushes and matinees

By Tom Meek Thursday, November 11, 2021

Kenneth Branagh’s nostalgic, semi-autobiographical twist on growing up during the Protestant-Catholic conflict of the late ’60s and ’70s – yes, one of England’s best living actors is Irish – is an arty yet intimate affair that gets lost some in the wistfulness of youth and bigger thematic constructs that never fully come together. Shot primarily in black and white by Haris Zambarloukos (“Thor,” “Locke”), “Belfast’ is a gorgeous film to drink in, no question. We begin with a color travelogue of Belfast today, then cut to 1969 in black and white as 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), coming home from school, rounds a corner and ends up in the path of an anti-nationalist Protestant mob looking to torch the homes of Catholics who want to cut ties with England.

It’s a bold opener, with the threat of sudden violence smoldering in the corner of every frame, be it the increased presence of barbed-wire barriers lining the streets or a local ruffian who viciously cold-cocks a fellow Protestant for refusing to fall in with his thuggish operations. That said, “Belfast” is more about bridging divides than holding the line, and how a family holds itself together under such outside duress. Told through Buddy’s eyes, “Belfast” is a coming-of-age tale that leverages the lens of innocence much the same way – but not as effectively – as John Boorman’s heartfelt 1987 classic “Hope and Glory” (1987) chronicled a British lad growing up in World War II England. Many of the setups in “Belfast” ride the edge of the conflict, such as the shy, demurring Buddy, whose family is Protestant, getting a crush on Catherine, a pretty Catholic classmate (Olive Tennant), or the local organizer instigating those incursive acts of terror (Colin Morgan) putting pressure on Pa (Jamie Dornan) to sign up or else. It doesn’t help that Pa works in England and is hardly around, and when he is, Morgan’s brute is always lurking nearby. Not all is bleak and despair; some of the more touching moments come as Buddy seeks advice from his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds, “Munich”), who lives under the same cramped row-house roof and is forever applying saddle soap to equestrian gear he never puts to use. (Granny is played by Dame Judy Dench.)

Pa works in England and is hardly around; when he is, there’s a local organizer instigating those incursive acts of terror (Colin Morgan) who puts pressure on Pa (Jamie Dornan) to sign up or else. Given the chaos in the street and Pa’s work constraints, much of the pressure, domestic and otherwise, falls on Ma (Caitríona Balfe) who, like Pa, holds onto her morals and ethics regardless of what comes; in the wake of one riot,  a store gets looted and Buddy, encouraged by other kids, takes a few bars of candy – which has Ma dragging him through the throng and back to the store to return what he did not pay for.

If you’re wondering where Branagh’s passion for film originated, there are several scenes with the family at the local theater taking in such era classics as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “One Million Years B.C.” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “High Noon.” That Gary Cooper classic foreshadows the mounting tensions between Pa and Morgan’s stalker, which culminate in a “Noon”-like showdown in the street. Dornan’s portrait of square-jawed resolve, however charismatic and admirable, becomes too much of a cape of righteousness without nuance or flaw. Similarly, Balfe casts a winning screen presence but her Ma feels too put-together and fashionable for the rough-and-tumble streets. Hill, who bears a heavy yoke for such a young thespian, is the film’s discovery. It’s amazing just how much vulnerability, confusion and desire Hill conveys in his saucer eyes and furrowed brow. I bet too Branagh’s a big Van Morrison fan; no fewer than seven of the Irish rocker’s ballads get cued up over the course of the film. “Belfast” is an adoring love letter that churns chaotic brutality into a fairytale. 

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Eternals

5 Nov

Marvel squeezes into a mythology suit

By Tom Meek Wednesday, November 3, 2021

And so the Marvel Cinematic Universe expands in a way it hasn’t since 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” when joyous, self-deprecating humor propelled a merry band of misfits across the stars on their mission to save a star system. That goal has been a thing in any MCU chapter. It’s how it gets dressed up that’s key to the film’s success. In “Eternals,” directed by recent Academy Award-winner Chloé Zhao (“Nomadland”) we get a whole new slate of superheroes, notably diverse (it’s a multiracial lot, with one gay hero, one who is deaf and another battling metal illness) but suited up in unis that have to be some of the most generic, least-inspired Lycra designs in decades. The depth of character too is slight, and the CGI effects don’t really break any ground – and occasionally look “Sharknado” cheesy.

The Eternals of the title are a race of immortal superhumans created eons ago by the Celestials to protect planets such as Earth against ravenous entities known as Deviants. What the what? Yeah, there’s a lot in those big bland tags, barely a notch above Decepticons and Autobots, but Celestials are universe-forming gargantuans akin to the Titans in Greek mythology (Thanos and Ego from earlier MCU chapters are similar in powers and scope), while Deviants are hellish beasties that look a lot like the Taotie from the 2016 Zhang Yimou miscue “The Great Wall,” a hybrid of wolf and dinosaur stripped down to sinew and bone and equipped with flowing tentacles that allow them to sap the energy of their target. Eternals wiped out all the Deviants in the early days of civilization and now hang among us, awaiting their next call to duty. 

Keeping with that lazy borrowing of classic mythos, we catch up with the Eternal Sersi (Gemma Chan) posing as a London museum curator and involved with a mortal named Dane (Kit Harington). She used to be married to Eternal alpha stud Ikaris (Richard Madden), but they drifted apart and haven’t seen each other in centuries – until one day, or one date night with Dane, a deviant crawls out of the Thames and Ikaris drops in out of the blue to help Sersi thwart the malevolent with his laser-beam eyes and square-jawed bravado. One might imagine there’d be some kind of intimate pause here, a “Dane, meet my ex” and perhaps some edgy love triangle dynamics (“Is he super good in bed too?”), but no, bigger MCU matters abound: Why are these things back, and what is Sersi to do? 

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Dune

23 Oct

Do Villeneuve and Chalamet finally get it right?

The hotly anticipated second cinematic take on Frank Herbert’s 1965 sci-fi classic rolls into theaters this week. Billed as an adaptation and “not a remake” of the now infamous 1984 misfire by David Lynch, the new “Dune” arrives in two, two-hour plus chapters. “Part I” is a marked upgrade from that butchered Lynch release (he lost creative control and the film was edited down to just over two hours). It’s sharper, more conformable in its saga duds, and as you can imagine, the use of modern computer effects go a long way to offset those cheesy sets and clunky models.

Set some 8,000 years in the future in a galaxy far, far away, “Dune” much like “Star Wars” (or is it “Star Wars,” much like “Dune”?) is driven by lore, the assent of a man-boy to the mantle of hero and some nasty interstellar parlor games. We hone in on House Atreides, a noble lot tasked by the intergalactic emperor to housesit a barren desert planet called Arrakis. The why is maguffin of sorts, the planet’s main resource is its spice-melange, a radiant cinnamon-like powder that makes spaceships travel at warp speed and also gives those that can consume it and not die, super human awareness. Arrakis also has monstrous sand worms who like to munch on mining equipment and hovercraft for fun and then there’s the indigenous Fremen, who live in caves below the Saharan seas of sand and have a long his history of oppression by foreigners, most notably the violent regime of the Harkonnens, the previous imperial group to occupy the planet.

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The French Dispatch

23 Oct

‘The French Dispatch’: Bienvenue to the latest precious pages from the desk of Wes Anderson

By Tom Meek Friday, October 22, 2021

Fans of Wes Anderson, cinema’s official maestro of all things quirky and twee, may be in for a bit of a letdown with this loving smooch to “The New Yorker” and other intellectually curious magazines of the latter half of the 20th century – i.e., “The Paris Review.” Sure, it has a tremendous cast: Anderson regulars Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Jason Schwartzman, Edward Norton, Tilda Swinton, Saoirse Ronan, Adrien Brody, Frances McDormand and Léa Seydoux, as well as new players Timothée Chalamet, Benicio del Toro, Elisabeth Moss and Jeffrey Wright are invited to the party. But in the league of “Moonrise Kingdom” (2012), “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001) and “The Grand Budapest Hotel” (2014) it is not.

True to the object of its affection, “The French Dispatch” has the assemblage of a glossy flip-through, laid out in sections with a different story told by a different writer. Holding it all together is Murray’s George Plimpton-esque publisher Arthur Howitzer Jr. as he talks with various staffers in the book-lined confines of the Dispatch, the European desk of the Liberty, Kansas, Evening Sun located in the fictional French village of Ennui-sur-Blasé (yes, there’s that twee). Of the four chapters, the least interesting is the opener with Wilson as a bike-riding journalist who pretty much gives us a guided tour of of Ennui, which proves to be true to its name – ouioui, yawn. The best segment has Swinton’s art critic presenting a long lecture about a criminally insane prison artist (Del Toro) who becomes a modern abstract expressionist sensation inspired by his guard, lover and model (Seydoux). The two actors have outstanding chemistry. Then there’s the political bit in which McDormand’s on-the-scene reporter jumps into the 1968 French student revolt (de Gaulle be gone) and embeds with (and beds) the movement’s young leader (Chalamet, whom you can also catch on screen in the next theater over in “Dune”). Lastly, we get the food critic (Wright, Billy Dee smooth) on a Dick Cavett-like talk show recalling a massive kidnapping plot (lots of bodies) for which culinary skills prove essential and lethal. 

The snazzy scenes that take place between the segments, either amid the halls of the Dispatch or in Howitzer’s office with most of the ensemble huddled to together, are gift bonbons that cleanse the palate between the plats principaux. Overall, “The French Dispatch” never rises to Anderson’s high bar. It’s a savory, indulgent mess, something of a fallen soufflé. 

No Time to Die

1 Oct

‘No Time to Die’: Daniel Craig’s final film as Bond is big but not great, mopey but not meaningful

By Tom Meek Thursday, September 30, 2021

There’s so much you want to love in “No Time to Die,” the fifth and final Bond for Daniel Craig, but at 2 hours, 43 minutes, it’s a slog. Scenes go on too long, and the Craig films have over time gotten more and more into the melodrama of being Bond and his emotional attachments and far-reaching backstories. It’s counterintuitive to the Bonds that defined the franchise (see Connery and Moore) through caricatured male machismo and kitschy, cruel tropes – square-jawed derring-do, lethal techie gadgets hidden in a shoe and a litany of cheesy one-liners that sound brilliant when served up as straight as a martini garnish.

In the latest and 25th Bond, that’s all long gone. Everything is about an agent’s inner turmoil, with some deft action sequences stirred in. Craig, who’s physicality helped define the Bond of the 21st century, also notched an emotional awareness that has largely been absent since the one-and-done George Lazenby’s 00 took up the mantle of monogamy and got hitched in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” (1969). Here Bond is retired and living off the grid on a West Indian island until the arrival of old CIA pal Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) and a yuppie attache (Billy Magnussen), who’s got a bit of a Jared Kushner thing going on. Leiter wants James to help locate a package in Cuba kidnapped by Spectre with the intent of mass producing nanobot assassins – basically a DNA-targeted virus that gets passed from person to person until it finds its mark. The bigger fear is that someone could leverage the technology to wipe out whole ethnicities or geographic areas.

Yes, as with any Bond, the world hangs in the balance. Some of the installments are joys, some are wobbly curios or campy time capsules and others are just misfires, but it’s really about the world-hopping journey and execution of spectacle. “No Time to Die” is a humorless Bond in which the past gurgles up continually. In the opener, Bond is about to go off-grid with “Spectre” (2015) love interest Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), but that’s all changed in an intercept by a piranha pool of baddies while on a holiday – and quest to exorcise some of those past ghosts – in the high mountains of Italy. The sequence of turns makes Bond question his trust in Swann. Trust becomes something of a theme that runs throughout the film; later Bond finds out that the newish M (Ralph Fiennes) may be in on the nanobot mess too. Old friend Blofeld (Christoph Waltz) pushes his way into the party as well, seeming more like Hannibal Lecter than Donald Pleasance (the most memorable of all Blofelds, the arch villain who’s made an appearance in a total of nine Bond films) in his restraints. But the madman du jour is a gent with the devilish name of Lyutsifer Safin (Rami Malek) and a disfigured face. It seems these days the only way to cast a viable Bond villain is to gun for an Academy Award-winner (Malek and Waltz have won, and Javier Bardem from “Skyfall”) and shoehorn them into an effete persona with a twisted soul. The best Craig baddie to date came in the form of a man’s man, a guy who did his dirty work with his own two hands. That film was not only the best Craig entry but one of the best Bonds ever. The 00 chapter I speak so highly of, “Casino Royale” (2006) was also Craig’s first, and the demented demon of demise behind the maniacal doings was played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, a capable performer who has even played Hannibal Lecter (TV’s “Hannibal”) with enough nuance and panache to earn Anthony Hopkins’ thumbs-up.

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The Many Saints of Newark

30 Sep

‘The Many Saints of Newark’: ‘Sopranos’ prequel pulls off a killer job, a setup you’ll love falling into

By Tom Meek Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Tony Soprano may or may not have been offed in the last episode of the storied mob series “The Sopranos,” but actor James Gandolfini has, sadly, left us. As the crime boss he is and was the show; it would be hard, if not impossible, to have a sequel or a revival without him. With that in mind, what series creator and writer David Chase and director Alan Taylor have done here is craft a prequel with Gandolfini’s son, Michael, in the role of the young Tony Soprano.

If “The Many Saints of Newark” were a Marvel Universe chapter, it would be tagged as an origin story. Thankfully that’s not the case, and Chase’s deep sense of place and roots and attention to historical detail, as well as a battery of brilliant performances, make “Saints” a winning flashback. We begin in the 1960s in the Italian North Ward of Newark, where racial tensions with the neighboring Black working class of the Central Ward are at an all-time high. The big boss of the moment is a colorful yet fading caricature by the name of “Hollywood” Dick Moltisanti (Ray Liotta), just back from the old country with a beautiful young bride (Michela De Rossi, casting shades of Penelope Cruz). As with the HBO show, small happenings have wide and traumatic repercussions. Dick’s take-charge son, Dickie (a dangerously charismatic Alessandro Nivola), covets his old man’s wife, who becomes his mistress and the spur of many bloody actions – she’s Helen of Newark.

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