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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My Little Pony: A New Generation

Posted on September 23, 2021 at 5:50 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Preschool
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some thematic elements
Profanity: None
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Very mild peril and tension
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: September 24, 2021

Copyright 2021 Hasbro
“My Little Pony: A New Generation” follows in the tradition of previous media from the world of MLP: candy colors, poppy music, gentle humor, warm-hearted lessons about friendship, and basically a way to sell merchandise. We know where we are when it begins by reminding us that it is produced by Hasbro, a toy company.

The MLP toys could have been designed by algorithm to appeal to children. Like Pokemon, Paw Patrol, and boy bands, they are all about reassuring messages of friendship and teamwork. They have an assortment of cheery colors, and personalities — well, attributes — allowing a child to pick a favorite and collect them all. They have lots of hair to play with and style plus magical powers and problem-solving skill to spark fantasy play. I remember the bride MLP that lived with a child in our house for a while, white, with glittery hair, a hair brush, a veil, a big diamond ring that fit on her hoof, and no sign of (or need of) a groom, either stable groom or bridegroom. The MLP handlers know what kids like. Improbably, the “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” series was popular with college students for a while and somehow there were groups of adult male fans who called themselves “Bronies” and attend BronyCons. There is a documentary about them called “A Brony Tale.”

I prefer the flat, 2D-style animation to this movie’s 3D CGI modeling and some young fans may feel the same, but other than that it fits the algorithm nicely, with top talent providing the voices, catchy songs, and a sweet message of, no surprise, friendship.

In this iteration, the MLP have lost their magic and their friendship. The world has divided and the three groups — ponies, unicorns, and Pegasi have been taught to fear and consider themselves superior to each other, except for Sunny (Vanessa Hudgens) a brave little pony whose father taught her that all the different little horse creatures should be friends. When a unicorn named Izzy (Kimiko Glenn) comes to the area where the ponies live, everypony runs away. “Are we playing hide and seek?” she asks joyfully. But they are just scared, except for Sunny. Soon the pony and the unicorn team up to bring friendship and magic back to their world. It is cheerful and colorful and sweet as candy, with just a little bit of excitement and just enough problems to be solved with courage and teamwork.

Okay? We good? Anything else you’d like to know? Let me unpack some of the semiotics of this story for you. It is as much a sign of the unprecedented high sensitivities of our times as it is the content of the film, but the characters and messages of the film are likely to raise some parental eyebrows and perhaps some hackles as well. The pony children are all told lies in school about the unicorns and the Pegasi. The unicorns are told that the earth ponies are lazy, smell bad, and not very bight. Ponies are taught in school that the unicorns can read minds and fry ponies with laser beams from their horns. One of the parents is a war profiteer whose motto is “To be scared is to be prepared.” She dismisses calls for friendship and cooperation as “hugs and cupcakes.” Terrifying the ponies is good for her business. Another parent is a tyrannical ruler who lies to her people, telling them that she and her daughters have retained the magical powers the rest have lost. When she is found out she is derided as “phony pony full of baloney.” A law enforcement officer abuses his power. The only kind and loving adult is dead (subtly and off-screen, but absent and missed). Also, because this is 2021, one of the characters is a social media influencer, another is a hipster, and there is some hip-hop.

So, there’s a lot going on here for an animated movie about magical horse creatures. I am not sure whether this film is a reflection of the divisiveness of our times or a response to it. I do know that either way, despite the touchy times, no adults should feel criticized or diminished. Instead, they should recognize that the only message here is the real magic of trust, understanding, cooperation, and generosity.

Parents should know that this film includes some mild peril and references to bigotry, and subtle references to the loss of a parent. The adult characters are ineffectual, tyrannical or scaremongering.

Family discussion: When have you been a good friend? When have you learned that what you thought or feared turned out not to be true? How should the characters respond to the queen’s lie? How sneaky are you?

If you like this, try: the other “My Little Pony” movies and the television series — and the episode of “Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me” where special guest Bill Clinton aces an MLP quiz.

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The Suicide Squad

Posted on August 5, 2021 at 5:40 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity
Profanity: Extremely strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extremely intense and gory violence with many disturbing and bloody, graphic images, characters injured and killed, comic book violence, guns, explosions
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: August 6, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 25, 2021

Copyright 2021 Warner Brothers
Just to clarify: the 2016 film with Will Smith and Margot Robbie about the imprisoned DC Comics villains who are assembled into a “Dirty Dozen”-style team by a tyrannical official from a secret government agency is called “Suicide Squad.” This 2021 reboot is called “The Suicide Squad.” Got it?

“Guardians of the Galaxy’s” writer/director James Gunn takes over the franchise, and this is even more insouciantly nasty than the first one, relishing the carnage and ebulliently transgressive. Even the Warner Brothers logo is written in blood.

Viola Davis returns as Amanda Waller, who demonstrates her ruthlessness up front by delivering on her threat to detonate a chip that explodes the head of one of her supervillains who disobeys an order. “I wouldn’t take such extreme measures if this mission wasn’t more important than you could possibly imagine,” she says. It is “potentially cataclysmic for America and the world.” In other words, the ends justify the ultra-destructive means, including giving her license to murder her charges, not to mention giving them license to murder as well.

There are some new characters this time, including some younger villains to make it possible to include some jokes about millennials, or stereotypes, depending on your perspective. This crowd is defined by their inability to play well with others, but that is intensified here by the animosity between two alpha males, the walking weapon Bloodsport (Idris Elba) and the walking heavy bag and ironically named Peacemaker (John Cena). Also on board for some or all of the mission are a shark with legs, a second-generation rat-master, a guy with some serious mother issues who emits lethal polka dots, and of course, in what she says is her last appearance in the role, Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn.

We can understand why. For all its many failings, the first “Suicide Squad” and “Birds of Prey” gave Harley Quinn what she has too seldom been given, an interesting character. She was damaged. And she was a villain. But a vestigial trace of her past life as a psychologist and a woman wronged gave her some complexity and even sympathy. She’s not as interesting here, more naughty than truly provocative. This movie is more interested in how many ways a human body can be exploded, beheaded, sliced down the middle, and otherwise dismembered than it is in anything else with the possible exception of a lot of macho posturing. It also fails to make the stakes meaningful with a worthy villain. Understandable, I suppose; it’s hard to out-villain the temporarily good bad guys. So, it’s is colorful and entertaining but lightweight and unmemorable.

NOTE: Stay for a mid-credit scene with an un-surprising surprise.

Parents should know that this movie ie extremely vulgar and gory with constant, extremely bloody peril and violence and many characters injured and killed. Characters use constant very strong language and the movie includes nudity and sexual references, and a sexual situation.

Family discussion:

If you like this, try: “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the Suicide Squad comic books

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Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins

Posted on July 22, 2021 at 5:23 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 (Sequences of Strong Violence|Brief Strong Language)
Profanity: Some strong language, one f-word
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended , intense, sometimes graphic violence, martial arts, guns, swords, hand-to-hand combat, fire, many characters injured and killed including a child seeing his father murdered
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: July 23, 2021
Date Released to DVD: October 18, 2021

Copyright Paramount 2021
Paramount is trying to Avenger-ize the G.I. Joe story, starting with origin films for the characters, and that is how we get the awkwardly titled “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe” origins. Of course the real origin of G.I. Joe is a 1960s Hasbro doll, I mean action figure, and now, following the animated television series, comic books, and two movies, it is described as a media franchise. That franchise has a number of characters. Snake Eyes is the mysterious human weapon, a black belt in 12 martial arts disciplines and a master of all kinds of small arms including guns and swords. Following injuries in a previous mission he could no longer speak and he had facial scars which led him to wear a helmet that covered his face most of the time. Little was known about his background because it was “classified.” Until now.

“20 years ago, Washington State” we are told as the movie begins with a young boy and his dad walking through the woods. “Is there a safe in the house?” the boy asks. He overheard his father saying something about a safe house, referring to a cabin where they were staying. But it was not a safe house. Bad guys arrive and kill the boy’s father after forcing him to roll the dice for his life. They came up with two ones: snake eyes. The boy is left alone.

We then move to present day, when the fighter only known as Snake Eyes is in the middle of a no-holds-barred underground bout. Henry Golding (“Crazy Rich Asians”) takes over for Ray Park, who played Snake Eyes in the previous “G.I. Joe” movies. After the fight, a man offers Snake Eyes a job with an offer he cannot refuse, the only thing he wants — the man who killed his father.

His new boss is a weapons smuggler. Things go very wrong, and he ends up saving the life of Tommy (Andrew Koji), the wealthy heir to the Arashikage family, a Japanese klan of ninjas. They escape together and in gratitude Tommy brings Snake Eyes to the Arashikage compound and says they will train him as a ninja — if he can pass three tests, administered by the Hard Master (Iko Uwais) and the Blind Master (Peter Mensah). If Snake Eyes does not pass, he will die.

The tests are among the films highlights, along with some wow-worthy chases and action sequences. The martial arts scenes are dynamic and a lot of fun, with split-second timing and astonishing skill. I also enjoyed the shifting loyalties, depending on the demands of the moment, and the other iconic G.I. Joe characters, Scarlett (a performance of verve and wit from Samara Weaving) and the Baroness (Úrsula Corberó having a lot of fun).

Notice I did not mention the acting or the dialogue, neither of which are worth mentioning. There are some fortune cookie-isms like “If your heart is pure, our secrets will reveal themselves to you.” And I am not persuaded that the G.I. Joe-iverse can match the range of the MCU. But when it comes to summer action blockbusters, this one does the trick.

Parents should know that this is a very violent film with many characters injured and killed, featuring martial arts, guns, swords, fire, chases and explosions. It is what is called “action violence,” meaning not much gore or graphic images. A child witnesses the murder of his parent. There is brief strong language (one f-word).

Family discussion: How did the characters decide what their loyalties were? What did Snake Eyes learn from the first two tests? Do you agree with Sen’s decision about Tommy?

If you like this, try: the G.I. Joe movies and comics

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Black Widow

Posted on July 5, 2021 at 4:44 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 Some Language|Intense Violence/Action|Thematic Material
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Extended comic book/action-style peril and violence, references to torture and abuse of children, characters are assassins, chases, explosions, guns
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie
Date Released to Theaters: July 7, 2021

Copyright 2021 Marvel Studios
We’ve waited a long time to find out how Natasha became the Black Widow. While we got to know the male Avengers through individual origin stories about Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, and Spider-Man, Natasha was different. We first saw the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) tied to a chair looking very much the victim as she was confronted by some vetough and powerful-looking men. But we learn, as they do, that she is very much in control of the situation. We also learn that unlike the other Avengers, she has no special powers from a radioactive spider-bite or government potion, some fancy equipment, or being born a god. She has her wits and courage and some of what Liam Neeson might call a very special set of skills. Through the Avengers films we saw that she was the heart of the group, kind, empathetic, willing to sacrifice herself out of a sense of integrity and, perhaps, redemption.

We wanted to know more. But it took time to persuade Marvel Studios, and then, just as we were all ready to get Natasha a film of her own, its release was delayed in the summer of 2020 due to the pandemic, so it was not until now, a year later, that it is finally here. Even with all that has gone on, “Black Widow” quickly puts us back in the world of the Avengers. And, it continues Marvel’s cleverest strategy, allowing each character to inhabit a world that is distinctive in tone and atmosphere as it maintains a clear, strong central sense of its world.

Who could have guessed that we would find Natasha in 1995 Ohio? But that is where we start, a young girl with blue hair (Ever Anderson, a believable young Johansson) riding her bicycle home at dinner time. She greets her younger sister affectionately, and then, when the littler girl hurts her knee, their mother, like mothers since mothers began, kisses it to make it better. But this mother does something a little different. She tells her daughters that pain makes you stronger. And then what seems like a typical suburban family dinner turns out more than a little different. The father comes home and tells the family something they have clearly prepared for has happened and they have to leave right away. And they do leave, the house and the country, in an exciting, if improbably escape. We will soon learn that this may not meet any traditional definition of “family” at all. Indeed, questions about what is family and what we need from families is as central to this film as the chases, fights, exotic locations, and fight scenes.

We skip ahead 21 years from that wild escape. Natasha is living off the grid following the “divorce” of the Avengers. She is considered an enemy following the assassination of King T’Chaka of Wakanda in “Captain America: Civil War.” But a package from Yelena (Florence Pugh) brings her back into the fight. Starting with a fight with Yelena herself, one of the film’s highlights. The scenes with the two of them crackle and bolster hope that the rumors of a Yelena affiliation with the Avengers.

Director Cate Shortland balances the action scenes — a prison break is a highlight — with family moments that are sometimes very funny (wait for Yelena on The Pose, and David Harbour as Natasha’s closest equivalent to a “good father”) and sometimes touching (Rachel Weisz as the mother equivalent, a pig-experimenting scientist who takes time to add a dramatic smokey eye when she dons a jumpsuit for action).

And of course there is a powerful adversary with a high-tech lair and a private army that holds the key to Natasha’s persona. It tells you all you need to know that those scenes are fine, but will likely leave you waiting a little impatiently for the next moments with the family, reminding us again that family may be frustrating, may even be dysfunctional, but those we are born into and those we choose are still where home is.

Parents should know that as with all superhero movies, this included extended peril and action, which characters injured and killed. There is some strong language and references to forced sterilization.

Family discussion: Why did Natasha take a different path than other people around her? Is there a key to unlocking fear?

If you like this, try: the Avengers movies and some of Johansson’s other films like “Jojo Rabbit,” “Her,” and “Hail, Ceasar”

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