When I first binge-watched “The Sopranos,” I struggled to stop watching. I’d watch episode after episode, late into the night/early morning. I couldn’t get enough.
“The Many Saints of Newark” (R, 120 minutes, in theaters and on HBO Max), the prequel to the mob series, has the same effect. You watch it; you know there’s more to the story; you want it to keep going.
Like the series, “Many Saints” – written by “Sopranos” creator David Chase and Lawrence Konner and directed by Alan Taylor – tells a brutal story about brutal people. Life is cheap for these criminals, who aren’t above killing family to get what they want and to keep it. Taking this in, you’re kept on edge as the suspense amps up, leading to intense action and often gruesome results.
Meanwhile, the film boasts other virtues that made “The Sopranos” such a standout show: the colorful characters and first-rate acting, the intelligent writing, the often uproarious dark humor.
The prequel, which opens during the 1967 Newark riots and continues into the ’70s, deals with a power struggle that develops between the Italian American gangsters in control of criminal activities and their African American counterparts, who want their share of the action.
New Jersey crime kingpin Tony Soprano, played in the series by the great James Gandolfini, appears as a teenager here and is played by the late actor’s son, Michael Gandolfini, who’s outstanding. Younger versions of several other “Sopranos” characters also appear.
“Many Saints” is, in part, about how Tony – a bright, sensitive kid with the potential to transcend his criminal environment – is drawn into the “family business” by his favorite uncle, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola). Dickie, the father of Christopher Moltisanti (played on the show by Michael Imperioli and seen here as an infant), shares many of the characteristics taken on by the adult Tony. He’s charismatic, even likable in some situations. He struggles with guilt and says he wants to be a good person. But his hot temper, which leads to blind rage, can turn him into a monster.
Nivola (“Junebug”) is perfect as this conflicted character, and he and Gandolfini receive top-notch support from a large ensemble. The cast includes Leslie Odom Jr., as Harold McBrayer, a black associate who works for Dickie in the numbers racket but plans to break off on his own; John Bernthal, as Tony’s father, Johnny Boy; Vera Farmiga, as Tony’s mother, Livia; Corey Stoll, as Tony’s Uncle Junior; Ray Liotta, as Dickie’s father, Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Montisanti, and the father’s incarcerated twin, Sal; and Michela De Rossi, as Hollywood Dick’s sexy new Italian wife, Giuseppina. (Oh, and “Sopranos” fans, don’t worry: Paulie Walnuts and Silvio Dante also appear, played by Billy Magnussen and John Magaro, respectively.)
Farmiga, who captures the twisted negativity of Livia that will plague Tony in the future, and Liotta, exhibiting great range as two very different brothers, are especially impressive.
Some of the film’s best scenes involve Dickie visiting Liotta’s Sal, who’s been in prison since bumping off a “made guy” many years earlier when he was 25. Sal’s a fascinating character: a gruff man of few words who’s familiar with Buddhism, is a fan of jazz, and has wise thoughts on how desire – “wanting” – can be the root of evil. Sal is highly suspicious of Dickie’s motives but finally warms up enough to share some advice with his nephew, only to stop himself with the comically understated, “What do I know? I’m a murderer!”
Those little absurd moments that help make “Many Saints” a worthy addition to the “Sopranos” saga. Another example is an exchange about “Ivanhoe” between Dickie and young Tony that’s not only funny but provides a strong indication of who is more on the ball:
Dickie: I didn’t know they had Jews in the Middle Ages.
Tony: Well, the Bible. …
But he stops. He knows well enough to leave things alone.
He’s learning. ***½ (out of four)
Lumley steals ‘Falling for Figaro’
Director Ben Lewin’s “Falling for Figaro” (not rated, 104 minutes, at Cape Cinema in Dennis), offers a charming tale about passion for the arts and the pursuit of dreams.
Millie (Danielle Macdonald), an American living in London, is on the fast track to the top as a fund manager when she decides to leave her unfulfilling job and pursue her true love: singing opera. Her boyfriend and white-collar colleague, Charlie (Shazad Latif), is baffled by the decision, but Millie is determined. It’s now or never.
She heads to a quaint, remote village in Scotland to study with noted – and notably cranky – opera teacher and former diva Meghan Geoffrey-Bishop (Joanna Lumley). Millie settles into her room at The Filthy Pig and starts getting to know some of the villagers, including the likable inn owner (Gary Lewis) and Max (Hugh Skinner), who works at the inn and is Meghan’s only other student.
Socially awkward Max at first appears to view Millie as a threat and tries to sabotage her audition with Meghan, but, predictably, the two students soon come to like and support each other. Slowly, a friendship, with the possibility of romance, develops.
Macdonald and Skinner make an appealing pair, the kind you can’t help but root for, and the Scottish countryside and the simple life found there give the film the same type of appeal of “Local Hero” and similar films. And, of course, there’s the opera music.
Best of all, though, is Lumley’s hilarious performance as mean Meghan, who responds to Millie’s singing with “My God, you’re even worse than I thought” and whose lessons include pulling Millie’s tongue and choking her. Probably best known for her work in the British comedy series “Absolutely Fabulous,” Lumley not only delivers big laughs, she pulls off surprisingly moving moments, too. She deserves best-supporting-actress consideration come Oscar time. ***½
** Click here for Tim Miller’s previous movie columns for Cape Cod Wave **
Please like Cape Cod Wave on Facebook.
Cape Cod Wave Magazine covers the character & culture of Cape Cod. Please see our Longform stories.
Tim Miller is a Cape-based member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He and Tony Raine host “Tim ’n’ Tony’s Rock ’n’ Pop Show” from midnight to 2 a.m. Sunday nights/Monday mornings on WOMR (92.1-FM), WFMR (91.3-FM) and womr.org (archived shows at https://womr.org/schedule/broadcast-archive/). He also teaches film at Cape Cod Community College in West Barnstable. You can contact Tim at [email protected] or follow him onTwitter @TimMillerCritic. Or you can ignore him completely.