The Many Saints of Newark

Posted on September 30, 2021 at 5:45 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drug dealing
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and graphic violence including crime violence, murders, and riots
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: October 1, 2021
Copyright 2021 Warner Brothers

On January 10, 1999, HBO audiences first met a New Jersey mob boss named Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini. He was a brilliantly written, even more brilliantly acted character, in 86 episodes over six seasons, winning every possible award and accolade. The conflicts he faced, and, even more compellingly, the conflicts he embodied as a ruthless killer who loved his family made him one of the most vivid, complex, fascinating characters in the history of television or even the history of fiction. In the show’s first episode, Tony meets with Dr. Melfi, a therapist. The struggle between the honesty, empathy, and accountability central to therapeutic resolution and the secrecy and ruthlessness necessary for survival in criminal operations provided the basis for the series.

But the show was not named “Tony Soprano.” It was named for the entire family, the biological family (Tony’s mother, uncle, cousin-in-law, and sister played central roles, along with his wife, son, and daughter) and the crime family, as mobsters are termed internally and by law enforcement. Six years gave us a deep dive into the life and internal conflicts of Tony Soprano, and now the people behind the series show us something about how he got there with “The Many Saints of Newark,” with Michael Gandolfini, sone of the late James Gandolfini, as the teenage Tony.

Any film based on a much-beloved work has to be evaluated on two levels. Let’s start with the audience who has little or no connection to the series. The film represents the same complex, layered story-telling as the series and stands alone as a powerful exploration of themes of nature and nurture, destiny and choice, that have been the source of powerful story-telling as long as there have been stories. Fans of the series, especially those who payed very attention to detail, will appreciate both the references that might be characterized as fan service (teenage Tony comments that baby Christopher always cries when he sees him, we get to see how Uncle Junior hurt his back) and those that deepen and enrich the story we already hold dear.

In the series there were a number of references to Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti, father of Christopher and cousin of Tony’s wife Carmela, though he died in the 1970s, before the series began. “The Many Saints of Newark” makes him a central character, played by Alessandro Nivola. He is so good at disappearing into characters that he has not yet been recognized as one of the most talented actors in Hollywood. Here’s hoping this movie is the one that finally makes that clear to everyone.

Like Tony will be 20 years later, Dickie is conflicted. And some of his conflict centers on the young Tony (still a child in the early part of the movie, played by William Ludwig. Tony’s father, Johnny Boy Soprano, (Jon Bernthal) has little interest in his children and is out of the picture for much of young Tony’s life because he is in prison. Dickie is the closest to a father figure that Tony has, and there is genuine affection between them.

Dickie has his own issues. As Tony will later, he is conflicted about the choices he made and he compartmentalizes, holding on to the idea of himself as a good man, or at least a not entirely bad one. And yet he destroys the lives of people he cares about. Like the adult Tony, he brings his conflicts to a counselor of a kind, in his case an uncle who is serving a prison term for murder, played by Ray Liotta.

Dickie’s associate is Harold McBrayer, played by the magnetic Leslie Odom, Jr., the heart of the film. The racial politics of the era simmer and then explode into the real-life riots of 1967, the events of the time reflecting and affecting what is going on in the country and in the world of Dickie and his crime family. There are people who do not play by rules at great harm to others and there are people who break the rules to change the rules to make them better for others.

The movie opens in a cemetery, to the murmurs of the dead. A voice rises above the others, and he tells us that “the little fat kid,” Tony Soprano, killed him. And so, while Tony may think he has choices, we see him being pulled ineluctably to that moment when he will sit down with Dr. Melfi. At one point, Dickie tells Tony, “I understand you want to be a civilian and I respect that.” But in making a painful choice to try to help him go in a different direction, Dickie just makes it more difficult for Tony to do so. The drama is engrossing, the consequences are terrible, and these themes, of destiny and choice, provide emotional heft and a connection to the oldest and most enduring stories we know.

Parents should know that this is a movie about mob criminals and so it includes brutal violence, with many characters injured and killed. It also includes scenes of riots and looting, sexual references and situations and nudity, and constant very strong language.

Family discussion: Could Tony have become a “civilian?” Why didn’t he? What do we learn from the meeting with the school counselor?

If you like this, try: “The Sopranos” and “Goodfellas”

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Copshop

Posted on September 16, 2021 at 3:27 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong bloody violence and pervasive language
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Apparent drunkenness
Violence/ Scariness: Constant, extended, and very. bloody peril and violence with extremely graphic and disturbing images
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: September 17, 2021

Copyright 2021 Open Road
I’m going to take a controversial position here. I think writer/director Joe Carnahan is like Tarantino without the burdensome pretension. No fetishization of popular culture, no obsessive fixation on period detail, no pulpy re-imagining of historical facts, no pretense of deeper meaning. No, Carnahan says to us, “If you are a fan of dark humor, a twisty plot, and intense, bloody action, I am here to give it to you in a visually stylish, enjoyably nasty fashion.” That was the case with “Boss Level,” a very entertaining “Groundhog Day”-themed action picture starring Frank Grillo. And it is the case with the almost-as-good “Copshop,” also with Grillo, a contemporary action drama with a 70s vibe.

It has a great premise. Two men are separately arrested for being drunk and disorderly, put in opposite holding cells. It turns out that Teddy (Frank Grillo) wanted to be arrested because someone was trying to kill him and he thought the police station would be the safest place he could be. And it turns out that the man in the opposite cell is Bob (Gerard Butler) who is (a) not drunk and (b) the professional assassin who is trying to kill Teddy, and he got himself arrested with that end in mind. Bob is not the only one who wants to kill Teddy. It is an open contract, so another paid assassin will show up as well. That would be Tony (don’t call him Anthony), a star-making performance by Toby Huss.

Like the 1976 “Assault on Precinct 13” and its 2005 remake, the tension is heightened because almost everything happens in just one location, inside the police station and because there are shifting loyalties. Alexis Louder plays Valerie Young, the only woman police officer in the precinct and with endless competence and integrity. At times both Bob and Teddy do their best to persuade her to trust them — and not the other one. And there is one person on the police force who is less trustworthy than he seems.

Carnahan expertly balances tension, action, and thrills with understated humor and the character of Valerie is immensely appealing, thanks in part to Louder’s charismatic performance. Fortunately, some open questions at the end suggest the possibility of a sequel.

Parents should know that this movie has extended and very graphic and bloody violence including guns, knives, fire, and explosions with many characters injured and killed and disturbing images. Characters are paid assassins and there are references to the off-screen murders of innocent people, including a child. Characters use constant very strong language.

Family discussion: What did Valerie notice that none of the other police officers did? Do you agree with her that “it’s not the brush; it’s the artist?”

If you like this, try: “Boss Level” and “Assault on Precinct 13”

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Wrath of Man

Posted on May 6, 2021 at 5:34 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for some sexual references, pervasive language, and strong violence throughout
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extreme, visceral, bloody violence, many characters injured and killed, lots of blood
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: May 7, 2021
Date Released to DVD: July 5, 2021

Copyright 2021 MGM
So, some guy applying for a job has to score at least 70 percent on his weapons test gets exactly 70 percent. Now, that could be because he can only hit the bullseye two-thirds of the time. Or it can mean that he is so good he can make it look like he can only hit the bullseye two-thirds of the time. If Jason Statham is playing that guy, you’d be wise to bet on the latter.

Teaming up with Guy Ritchie, writer/director of the film that was a star-maker for both of them, “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels,” Statham stars as the job applicant who is more than he appears in “Wrath of Man,” based on the French crime drama “Le Convoyeur” (“Cash Truck”). The film features Ritchie favorites: brutally violent lowlife characters who like to steal and don’t mind killing in a time-twisting storyline. Statham is fine, as always, but this is second-tier Ritchie, a faint echo of what made his early films distinctive and surprising.

I’m going to minimize spoilers here, but if you don’t want any, stop reading now and come back after you’ve seen the movie.

We will call Statham’s character H. That is what he is dubbed by “Bullet” (Holt McCallany) when he applies for a job as a security guard for a delivery truck service that may carry as much as $15 million a day. We know how dangerous it is because in a pre-credit sequence we saw a robbery where the guards were all killed. So, this is the kind of environment where let’s just say there’s pervasive toxic masculinity (even the woman), a lot of tough talk, macho posturing, and cocky attitude. Part of the fun of Ritchie’s Britain-based crime films has been the delightfully audacious dialogue (remember Brad Pitt’s impenetrable accent in “Snatch”), and maybe it is the American accents or the heightened awareness that make the difference but in this film the insults and bragging are, well, a little dull.

H does not stay low-profile long. Very soon after he is on the job there is a robbery. Among the many un-surprising surprises in the film, one of the toughest-talking, most aggressively competitive security guards turns out to be not very cool under pressure. But we know H because he is played by Jason Statham and he is always cool. He surprises his new colleagues by being very very good with defending their cargo — and defending them. The big boss (Rob Delaney, last seen with Statham in “Hobbs & Shaw“) is very impressed. And the next robbery is even more impressive. Literally all he has to do is show his face, and the would-be robbers run in the other direction. This is what I call the “Who is that chef?” moment, as discussed in my “Under Siege” chapter in my 101 Must-See Movie Moments book. Those are always fun.

And this being Ritchie, now we get some backstory, seeing what happened five months earlier that led to this moment. Given the title, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that revenge is involved. Or that you do not want Jason Statham coming after you.

Chapter titles for the flashbacks add nothing and it is a shame to see Eddie Marsan, another Ritchie regular, and Andy Garcia barely have a chance to make an impression, along with actors who can do much better given the right circumstances, Scott Eastwood, Jeffrey Donovan, and Josh Hartnett. The bang-bang is all well-staged, but it is barely enough to make up for a storyline that thinks it is more innovative than it is.

Parents should know that this film is extremely violent with shoot-outs and explosions, automatic weapons, knives, torture, a lot of spurting blood and other graphic images, and a very sad death. Characters use strong and crude language and misogynistic insults. There is a suggestive situation.

Family discussion: What made H’s team different from Jackson’s? Would you take a job working for Fortico? Why do Terry and the boss have different ideas about how to treat H following the first incident?

If you like this, try: “Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels” and “The Transporter”

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Silk Road

Posted on February 22, 2021 at 11:40 am

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated R for pervasive language and drug content
Profanity: Constant very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: A theme of the movie is drug dealing, offscreen death due to drug use
Violence/ Scariness: Law enforcement-related peril and violence
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: February 13, 2021
Copyright 2021 Lionsgate

Ross Ulbricht was a libertarian, a follower of Austrian school economist Ludwig von Mises who believed that “every action we take outside of government control strengthens the market and weakens the state.” He wanted to change the world. And so he created a website that was like Amazon or eBay except that it operated in the dark web and instead of being a place to buy consumer goods with credit cards it was a place to buy illegal goods, primarily drugs, with untraceable crypto-currency. The website was named for the ancient trading route linking China, India, and Rome. Ulbricht’s screen name was taken from a more modern source, William Goldman’s The Princess Bride. He called himself the Dread Pirate Roberts after the character (spoiler alert) who passed his name on to a series of successors to keep the legend alive. And he learned, as so many theoretical libertarians have in the past, that the problem with giving people freedom is that they do things with it you might not approve of, including things that limit the freedom of others.

“Silk Road” is the story of Ulbricht (Nick Robinson) and of Rick Bowden (Jason Clarke), the FBI agent who tracked him down. Think “The Social Network” crossed with “American Gangster. A sharp, clever, script by Tiller Russell (“Bernie”) and David Kusher and Russell’s dynamic direction make this a gripping rise-and-fall, cat-and-mouse story with vivid and believably flawed characters.

“This story is true,” we are told at the beginning. “Except for what we made up or changed.” So if you want to know what really happened, read Nick Bilton’s book. As far as the Ulbricht side of the story goes, though, it sticks pretty close to what really happened. He was a bright drop-out — we see his father deride him for not following through on anything. But he has big ambitions for changing the world to make it work the way he thought it should, meaning as free from government control as possible. And then he comes up with an idea, combining two ideas — the Tor gateway to the dark web and cryptocurrency, a kind of dark money. He thinks of what he is doing as practically humanitarian, saving consumers from the risks and inconvenience of in-person drug buys. He thinks he is being clever when he leaks information about the Silk Road to a journalist.

You can buy illegal drugs on the internet. But you cannot deliver illegal drugs on the internet. Law enforcement picks up on an unusual uptick in the drugs being shipped. And Ulbricht will learn that one problem of working with crooks is that they are often…untrustworthy.

This is where Bowden comes in, and one of the least accurate but most interesting part of the movie is the contrast between the computer-savvy kid who sets up the Silk Road and the old-school FBI agent who tracks him down. The film cleverly cuts back and forth between them, as in one early moment when they both resort to instructional videos on YouTube for a little help.

Crisply edited and sharply written, “Silk Road” does not ask us to think of Ulbricht as a hero or, as some who have argued for clemency, a dupe. One pre-credit exculpatory claim and another character’s sympathy-provoking motive to break the law may go father than needed in softening the story, but we also get a look at some of the consequences of making illegal drugs freely available. And this is a smart movie about smart people doing some not-smart things and facing the consequences that keeps us absorbed and, probably, making a mental note to stay well on the right side of the law.

Parents should know that this film has some peril and violence including murder for hire that does not happen and a drug-related death. Characters use strong language and there is a non-explicit sexual situation. Themes include criminal behavior and law enforcement.

Family discussion: Do you agree with what happened to Ulbricht and Bowden? How were they alike and how were they different? How do we balance privacy and accountability?

If you like this, try: “The Social Network” and “Brick”

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The Little Things

Posted on January 27, 2021 at 7:00 am

C
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for violent/disturbing images, language and full nudity.
Profanity: Very strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Serial killer crime drama
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: January 29, 2021
Date Released to DVD: May 4, 2021

Copyright Warner Brothers 2021
Three Oscar winners cannot save “The Little Things,” a crime thriller that starts out promisingly and about halfway through completely loses its way. It’s almost like the screenplay was created by two different people, or undermined by the director. But John Lee Hancock (“The Blind Side,” “Saving Mr. Banks,” “The Highwaymen”), both wrote and directed, so he is responsible when the story veers into Gothika Rule territory.

It takes place in 1990, and we begin with a pretty young woman driving on the highway and singing along to the Go-Gos as a sinister motorist behind her makes her uncomfortable and then terrified. The first half sets up two mysteries. The first is the realization that the young woman who has been murdered is the victim of a serial killer, expanding and making more urgent the search to find the one responsible. The detective in charge is Jim Baxter (Rami Malek), who takes the job very seriously, even personally. “We work for her,” he says about the dead woman.

A lower-level officer named Deke Deacon (Denzel Washington) has been sent to Baxter’s police station to pick up some evidence. The second mystery is why the people there are (mostly) so hostile to him and why a clearly experienced, capable, and dedicated has not risen in rank. “And they say Black guys never return to the scene of the crime,” another detective says with acid in his voice. But the forensic pathologist seems more sympathetic, agreeing to spend some time with him when a delay in making the evidence available keeps him there overnight.

There’s “something like it up north,” Deke says, and soon he and Baxter are beginning to work together to find the killer. “Things probably changed a lot since you left,” says Baxter. “Still gotta catch ’em? Then nothing has really changed that much,” Deke says.

So far, so good. As long as Deke and Baxter are behaving like intelligent, dedicated professionals, the movie holds our interest as a police procedural with intriguing characters. But then Jared Leto enters the picture as suspect Albert Sparma and it all begins to fall apart. Baxter seems to have an inexplicable change of personality with a decision so monumentally stupid and contrary to day one of any kind of law enforcement training not to mention basic common sense that it takes us out of the story.

Meanwhile, what we learn about Deke’s past is not as meaningful as the movie clearly thinks it is, making the story’s primary mystery secondary to the point of almost inconsequential. Washington’s is the only performance that continues to hold our attention as Leto hits one creepy note and stays there and Malek is unable to overcome his character’s inconsistency. More important, the swerve in tone undermines the film’s aspirations for moral complexity. The title of the film refers to the little things that are important to get right, whether you are a killer trying to evade justice or law enforcement trying to achieve it. In the case of this movie, the little things are all right but the big thing, the screenplay, is a mess.

Parents should know that this movie is about a serial killer and it has some grisly and graphic images and strong language.

Family discussion: Why did Deke send the package to Baxter? How was that decision tied to his own experience? Why did Flo keep the memento on her keychain?

If you like this, try: “Inside Man” and “Silence of the Lambs”

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