‘The Many Saints of Newark’ – ‘The Sopranos’ Prequel Drags When it Should Entertain

I guess it was inevitable that David Chase would eventually revisit the world he created with “The Sopranos,” one of the greatest television shows ever. Vince Gilligan did the same with “El Camino,” the sequel to his acclaimed series “Breaking Bad,” and now Chase gives us “The Many Saints of Newark,” a prequel to “The Sopranos.” But while “El Camino” proved to be excellent, this prequel ends up being nowhere as enthralling as even the average “Sopranos” episode. As much as I wanted to like it, I came out of it feeling rather disappointed.

“The Many Saints of Newark” comes with the tagline “Who Made Tony Soprano?” But while Tony is a major character, this movie focuses more on a violent gang war which takes place during the 1960’s and 1970’s in Newark, New Jersey. The main character of this piece is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), a soldier in the DiMeo crime family who is also Tony’s uncle. As the story begins, Dickie and Tony are welcoming Dickie’s father, “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) who has just arrived back in America with his new Italian wife, Giuseppina. On the surface, everything and anything seems possible to all the characters, but we know eventually that everything will come crashing down upon them before they know it.

A pivotal moment occurs for Dickie at one point (you’ll know it when it comes), and he ends up visiting his dad’s twin brother, Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti (also played by Liotta), in the hopes of doing some good deeds which will absolve his soul. It is during these conversations where Salvatore tells Dickie, “Pain comes from always wanting things.” This reminds me of what Mr. Spock once said on the original “Star Trek” series:

“After a time, you may find that having is not so pleasing a thing after all as wanting. It is not logical, but it is often true.”

Salvatore comes to discover this the hard way. While he is serious about doing good deeds, some of us may remember how the road to hell is paved with them, and this is certainly the case here.

The screenplay, which Chase wrote with Lawrence Konner, paints a rich canvas for everyone to work with as it confronts the racial strife in Newark back in the 60’s and 70’s. We watch as African Americans riot against the racist police who abused a black taxi driver just because he was black, and it serves as a depressing reminder of how many still will not learn from history as America remains engulfed all these years later.

At the same time, Chase, Konner and director Alan Taylor, who directed many of the best “Sopranos” episodes, have given themselves too much to work with. While they have vividly captured a turbulent past, the screenplay lacks a center for which to hang everything on, and the movie ends up dragging far too often. As a result, I found my attention wandering in a way I never would have during any “Sopranos” episode.

There is a subplot involving Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.) who has returned to Newark to start his own black-led crime operation. The actions of his gang lead to some moments of truly shocking violence which “The Sopranos” was known for, but this does little to alleviate the times where this prequel drags as no one seems to be able to balance out this subplot with all the other varying storylines.

I also got to say there are far too many obvious odes to “Goodfellas” throughout. Maybe I am a little biased because Martin Scorsese’s 1990 crime classic remains my all-time favorite movie, but seeing Ray Liotta getting his head smashed into a steering wheel several times over just takes me out of the story for no good reason.

For me, I was hoping “The Many Saints of Newark” would focus more on Tony Soprano as he is presented here as a young adult, and it was fascinating to see how intelligent he was even when he does not apply himself at school. A lot of this has to do with the performance of Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini who originated this iconic role. It is tempting to say Michael got cast because of resemblance to his father, but he did in fact had to audition which was smart. From start to finish, he does a tremendous job of showing Tony to be a confused kid who struggles to find meaning in his life as he is forced to deal with an absent father and an ineffectual mother. As a result, it is no wonder he looks up to his Uncle Dickie, the only one adult who seems to be looking out for him. Michael is terrific and, more importantly, he makes this role his own.

It feels like it has been far too long since I have seen Alessandro Nivola in anything. I still remember him best for being Nicolas Cage’s brother in “Face/Off” and for playing the guy dumb enough to steal some velociraptor eggs in “Jurassic Park III.” But he is excellent here as Dickie Moltisanti, a man who wants to do some good deeds after having performed a number of heinous ones. Still, Dickie is a man whose passions typically get the best of him, and Nivola is great at showing the constant struggles he endures while struggling with a lifestyle which could see him get killed at any moment.

Indeed, there are many great performances throughout. While some have no choice but to inhabit younger versions of “Sopranos” characters to where they offer mere impersonations of them, others are a bit luckier. Vera Farmiga is tremendous as Livia Soprano, the same role made famous by the late great Nancy Marchand, to where if she decided to utter “I wish the lord would take me,” I would have been perfectly fine with that. In addition, John Bernthal makes for a very tough Johnny Soprano, Corey Stoll is excellent as Junior Soprano, and it is fascinating to watch Michela De Rossi as she makes Giuseppina Moltisanti evolve effortlessly from one scene to the next.

I do have some reservations, however, when it comes to Liotta, or half of Liotta anyway. As “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti, he overacts to a painful degree as he tries to look and sound older than he really is. Watching him as this character was a bit unnerving, and thankfully this character disappears from the proceedings early on.  

But as the incarcerated Salvatore Moltisanti, Liotta brings an understated menace, the same kind he utilized in “Unlawful Entry,” which makes his performance one of the most compelling here as he dispenses advice which everyone around him would do best to take seriously. Plus, I love how the actor does not have to do much to show how serious Salvatore is about jazz. Seeing him stare at a Miles Davis vinyl record shows the kind of heaven this character seeks in life, and that’s even if it doesn’t bring a smile to his face.

And in a series where the dead characters are still hovering the lives of the living, I liked how Michael Imperioli returns to narrate this movie as Christopher Moltisanti as the character attempts to illustrate how Tony Soprano became Tony Soprano. There’s even a scene when Tony first meets Christopher as a baby, and it proves to be ahaunting sign of things to come.

Look, if you are a fan of “The Sopranos,” you are bound to see “The Many Saints of Newark” at some point. What we got here is not a bad movie, and I am thankful that it is not the kind of prequel which hurriedly tries to tie everything together to match up with the events of the show. Still, despite some strong writing and performances, this movie is unbalanced and is nowhere as enthralling as a “Sopranos” episode should be. It sucks to call this a missed opportunity, but it is what it is. There is a lot to admire, but not enough to enjoy.

And if you are interested, yes, Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning” is featured here. It would be blasphemy for any “Sopranos” episode or movie to be absent of it.

* * ½ out of * * * *

WRITER’S NOTE: “The Many Saints of Newark” is the latest film to be released theatrically while simultaneously being given a month-long streaming release on HBO Max. I have long since found this form of release to be counter-productive as, while it may benefit HBO Max, it completely devalues the theatrical experience. While the COVID pandemic is still a big thing, I truly believe this type of release is one of the main reasons as to why “The Suicide Squad,” “Cry Macho,” “Malignant” and this prequel are dying quickly at the box office. I shudder to think what this will do to “Dune” and “The Matrix Resurrections” as they are being released in the same way, and these two movies demand to be seen on the silver screen. The sooner this simultaneous release pattern ends, the better.  

‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’ – A Quentin Tarantino Fairy Tale

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood movie poster

Quentin Tarantino once said he did not have an “Age of Innocence” in him like Martin Scorsese did, but after watching his 9th film “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood,” I think he may be mistaken. Yes, it does have an R-rating like and features some truly brutal moments of violence where faces are literally pounded in, but this is largely a loving tribute to the Hollywood of the 1960’s and of the actors and filmmakers which inhabited it. Considering Tarantino’s attention to detail and his fetish for any kind of artifact from this era, I have no doubt he would have loved to have been a filmmaker back then if he could.

Tarantino and his longtime cinematographer Robert Richardson transport us back to the Hollywood of 1969 where we meet Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor and former star of a “Wanted Dead or Alive”-like television series called “Bounty Law.” After having a conversation with his agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino, more restrained than usual), he comes to see how washed up his career has become as he is reduced to doing guest spots as the villain on various television shows. The only person he can talk to about his troubles is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who is always around to have a drink with and drive him around town as Rick has had one DUI too many.

“Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” is kind of like a Robert Altman film in that it doesn’t have a straightforward plot. Instead, it acts as a day in the life story as we watch Rick Dalton try to move on with his acting career as an important decision hangs over him, whether or not to move to Italy where he can star in low budget spaghetti westerns. When the story isn’t focused on him, it focuses on Cliff who seems content to live in a trailer out in Van Nuys with his dog who is a bit annoyed at him for serving him the kind of dog food which slides out of its steel can as if it were pure slime.

The only thing Rick seems fairly excited about these days is the fact Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate now live next door to him in the Hollywood Hills. But looming in the background is Charlie Manson and his cult of followers who look at first to be harmless hippies, but they later reveal themselves to be devoted to him in a most unhealthy way. Those of us who are familiar with history, and who have a deep respect for historical facts, know Sharon Tate and others were murdered by Manson’s followers, and that this shocking act all but ended the era of love and peace irreparably. But as I watched this film, I began to wonder if Tarantino would stay true to history, or if he would play around with it as he did in “Inglourious Basterds.” Whatever the case, the presence of Manson and his cult cast an ominous shadow over the proceedings, so we know the end of this story will not be the least bit pretty.

Watching “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” reminded me of how much I love it when a filmmaker sucks us right into another time and place to where we don’t doubt the accuracy and attention to detail. Cameron Crowe did this with “Almost Famous,” Paul Thomas Anderson did wonders with the 70’s and 80’s in “Boogie Nights,” and Tarantino does the same as he brings us right back to 1969 with wonderful abandon. All the famous landmarks of Hollywood are here including the Cinerama Dome, Musso & Frank Grill, El Coyote Restaurant and the classic movie theaters located in Westwood. New Beverly Cinema can be seen from a distance as it is shown having a premiere for an adult film, and this was back when it was a porno theater.

This attention to detail also includes the kind of beer these characters drank, the type of books they read, television antennas and cars. This was back in a time when people smoked an endless number of cigarettes, drove and sat in cars without having to wear seatbelts, and when love and peace was in the air even as wars were being waged overseas.

It is great fun to see DiCaprio in this kind of role after seeing him be so serious in “The Revenant,” a movie which earned him the Oscar he should have received for “The Wolf of Wall Street.” He’s a gas here as he makes Rick Dalton into a study of desperation as he struggles to maintain what’s left of his image and berate himself while alone in his trailer. The scene he has with a child actress played by the wonderful Julia Butters is a special highlight as she shows him the kind of innocence and love of acting he once had before life, alcohol and a corrupted world view clouded his perception.

As I have said in the past, I love it when Pitt gets down and dirty in a role, and he does just this as Cliff Booth. In addition to being Rick’s stunt double, he is also a Vietnam veteran, and the violence he inflicts on others who wrong him can be described at the very least as punishing. Pitt also proves to be as funny as DiCaprio from scene to scene, and he has a classic scene opposite Mike Moh who is pitch perfect as Bruce Lee in which I saw something I never thought I would see or believe, someone getting the best of Bruce Lee.

But one performance I really need to single out here is Margot Robbie’s as Sharon Tate. While at the Cannes Film Festival, someone asked Tarantino why he didn’t give Robbie the same amount of dialogue he gave DiCaprio and Pitt. I don’t remember who asked this question, but whoever it was, they completely missed the point. It’s not always dialogue which aids a performance. Sometimes it’s just a look or an attitude, and Robbie gives off a look or two which is more than enough to capture the essence of Sharon Tate as well as her beguiling innocence.

Tate has long been relegated to history as one of the Manson family’s murder victims, but she deserves to be known for much more. As Robbie sits in a Westwood movie theater watching a movie Tate co-starred in, we are reminded of a talent which was taken away from this world far too soon, and it makes me want to check out everything Tate ever appeared in. Robie does a fantastic job of reminding us how fun it is to see ourselves, let alone our name, on the silver screen as others look on, unaware of who is sitting next to them in the audience, and she is as radiant as Tate was in her far too brief lifetime.

There are so many familiar actors worth singling out here, but some of them you may not see coming and I am not about to spoil any surprises this film has to offer. I will say it’s always a delight to see Kurt Russell in anything and everything, and he is great as a stunt coordinator who is not quick to warm up to Cliff. Margaret Qualley is a memorable presence as Pussycat, a member of the Manson family who does warm up to Cliff. Bruce Dern, in a role originally meant for the late Burt Reynolds, is fun to watch as George Spahn, a man whose ranch was used for many westerns and which later got used by Charlie Manson and his demented followers. And it is quite bittersweet to see the late Luke Perry as it is the last feature film he will ever appear in.

Seriously, as rough and tumble as “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” gets, it really is a love letter to a Hollywood which time will never forget. As Tarantino nears the end of his long filmmaking career (or so he says), he continues to give us one enthralling motion picture experience after another. Even if his works threaten to be undone by self-indulgence, I am glad people are thoughtful enough to give him the freedom to make what he wants to make. If Tarantino ever had it in him to give us a fairy tale, this would be it. Even as its main characters threaten to be forever swallowed up by bitterness and cynicism, there is a light of innocence which helps lead them to the next stage in their lives. And if this film is any indication, this is time in Hollywood which Tarantino wishes lasted longer than it did.

Now, as with any Tarantino film, I have to go out and buy the soundtrack and then watch it again. And one other thing, I almost didn’t recognize Timothy Olyphant. Did you? Oh yeah, and sauerkraut will never be the same.

* * * * out of * * * *

John Lennon Lives Again in ‘And Now It’s All This!’

And Now Its All This

In March of 1966, John Lennon was quoted by Evening Standard reporter Maureen Cleave as saying The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Looking back at this piece of history, I find it hard to disagree as, by then, the whole world seemed to have embraced those four lads from Liverpool as girls were screaming endlessly when they performed in concert and passed out in large numbers. At the same time, religious leaders, not to mention the Ku Klux Klan, came down hard on the band, particularly on John, once this comment was published, and it became one of the main reasons why the band stopped touring altogether.

The subject of whether or not The Beatles were more popular than God is the key point of “And Now It’s All This,” a play written by Trevor Boelter which is now being presented as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival through June 28, 2019. It should be noted that this play is actually the second act of a three-act play Boelter wrote called “Kenwood,” and this act follows Lennon during the years of 1965 to 1966 when The Beatles were at the height of their fame. It focuses on when Lennon made his infamous remark and of the reaction elicited, and we watch as this period in his life comes to inform the peace-loving musician and anti-war activist he eventually became.

When John Lennon (played by David Foy Bauer) first appears, he is reveling in the amazing success The Beatles are having as he gets up close and personal, and we are talking very personal, with Maureen Cleave (Stephanie Greer) during an interview. When he tells her how the band is more popular than Jesus, it really sounds like an offhand remark which he never intended for anyone to take seriously. In a sense, you cannot blame John for saying this as even he points out how we never see screaming teenage girls ripping the clothes off of the Pope. Nevertheless, once Maureen publishes her article, the damage is done and religious figures do nothing to hide their fury.

From there, the play moves ahead to July 1966 when The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein (Spencer Cantrell), is under tremendous stress to calm down the furor over John’s remarks which have resulted in many death threats even as the band is about to go on tour. As beloved as The Beatles were, and still are, there was a time when some despised them quite strongly as their allegiance to Jesus trumped everything else in their lives. Indeed, this makes the play seem timely as those same people continue to defend Jesus based on an all too literal meaning and even in the face of facts.

Anyone who knows Mr. Boelter knows he is as big a fan of The Beatles as I am of Eeyore. Even though “And Now It’s All This” is technically a work of fiction, there is no doubt of how thorough he was in his research of the band and, even more so, of John Lennon’s life. He has been studying the history of this band ever since he was 12, he hosted “Jasper’s Beatle Hour” while a student at Cal Poly, and he even interned on Chris Carter’s “Breakfast with the Beatles” radio show on 95.5 KLOS FM. At some point in the future, I expect him to have his own show on The Beatles Channel on Sirius XM.

What is especially interesting about this play is how it examines the effect his offhand remark had on his life and career as we watch him transition from being a spoiled brat to becoming the peace-loving individual he was destined to become. This transition is made all the more convincing thanks to Bauer’s terrific performance as he inhabits the iconic singer to where he can never be accused of doing just a mere impersonation of him. More importantly, the actor makes us see John as a man instead of as an icon who remains infinitely popular decades after his tragic death.

Directing this play is Matt Duggan, the same man who made the terrific science fiction film “Inverse” and who recently released his first novel called “Ostraca.” With it being part of The Hollywood Fringe Festival, Duggan has to make do with a small theatre with an even smaller stage and a handful of props as do the other shows being performed in this particular venue, so he keeps his focus on the actors and the connection they have together on stage. Not once does he let the energy drop as the action moves from one period of time to another as we listen to news reports of what was going in the world back then such as the Vietnam War. It is perfectly paced and never drags for a second.

Speaking of the actors, they are all outstanding. In addition to Bauer, Stephanie Greer is a standout as Maureen Cleave, a role she originated when this play made its world premiere in England. Greer is an infectious delight as she delivers her lines with precision timing and makes Maureen into an ever so clever character who refuses to be easily intimidated.

Spencer Cantrell is excellent as Brian Epstein as he could have easily played this role for laughs but never does. The actor captures Brian’s exasperated state quite vividly as he struggles to gain a foothold over the controversy which threatens to damage The Beatles’ reputation forever, and its hilarious at times to see him struggle with the most mundane of things. At the same time, he makes us see how tough his job is, and being a manager can at times be a thankless job even though it is an important one.

Even Boelter himself shows up here as Reverend Deluxe, a fire-breathing preacher bent on making John Lennon see that Jesus died for his sins. Heck, he almost steals the show with his inspired performance as he captures the zealous nature of someone so dedicated to God to where they are blissfully ignorant of their own hypocrisy. Just watch as he orders his parishioners to burn all the Beatles memorabilia they have on him even as he invites them to buy any of it left over.

“And Now It’s All This” has been selected as a “Pick of the Fringe” selection and rightfully so. It runs only 50 minutes but still manages to say a lot about John Lennon during its brief running time. It is full of laughs and heartbreaking moments, and I am eager to see where Boelter and Duggan will take the material from here. I caught up with Boelter following this performance, and he did say he is planning to stage the full three-act play in the near future, and I look forward to checking it out when he does. But while this play may act as a teaser for a bigger one, it is a must see even if you are not a fan of The Beatles.

By the way, if you are not a fan of The Beatles, why?

“And Now It’s All This” has its next and final performance on Friday, June 28, 2019 at The Complex Hollywood in The Dorie Theater off of Santa Monica Boulevard. Click here to find out how you can get tickets.