Tag Archives: Alessandro Nivola

Born Under a Bad Sign

The Many Saints of Newark

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Murmurs, complaints, and whispers come in and out of focus as a camera meanders through an empty cemetery at midday: we hear souls telling the stories of their lives. We stop over the resting place of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). He has a tale to tell.

It’s a beautiful opening, spooky but with a bitter, familiar humor about it. With it, director Alan Taylor sets the mood for a period piece that lays the groundwork for one of the best shows ever to grace the small screen. The Many Saints of Newark brings Christmas early for Sopranos fans, but this is not exactly the story of Tony Soprano. In uncovering the making of the future, Taylor and writer Lawrence Konner invite us into the life of Uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola).

Nivola makes for an ideal choice to play the beloved “uncle.” The always reliable actor depicts the film’s central figure as the struggling, complicated result of his circumstances – an excellent theme given the film’s long game to uncover the forces that forged a future boss. In many ways, Uncle Dickie’s weaknesses, indulgences, strengths and goals create a mirror image of the Tony Soprano we would come to know over eight years and six seasons.

Longtime fans will have a bada bing blast recognizing familiar characters in their youth. Vera Farmiga is characteristically excellent as Tony’s formidable mother. John Magaro is a spot-on and hilarious Silvio, matched quirk for quirk by Billy Magnussen as Paulie Walnuts. Corey Stoll brings a younger but no less awkward Uncle Junior to life beautifully.

Of course, the one you wait for is young Tony, played with lumbering, melancholic sweetness by James Gandolfini’s son Michael. The resemblance alone gives the character a heartbreaking quality that feeds the mythology, but young Gandolfini serves Tony well with a vulnerable, believable performance that only expands on our deep investment in this character.

But the film is really more interested in those we never got to know: Tony’s father Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), Dickie’s father Aldo and uncle Sal Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, in two exceptional and very different roles), and stepmother Guiseppina Moltisanti (Michela De Rossi).

De Rossi and Leslie Odom Jr. (who plays colleague-turned-competitor Harold McBrayer) offer some of the most intriguing complexity and context in the entire film. The first half pokes holes in the “woe is me” backstory of the entitled white male Mafioso figure by spending some time with two characters who actually did have a tough go making a life for themselves in this community.  

Taylor (Thor: the Dark World, Terminator Genisys, GoT) helmed nine Sopranos episodes, winning an Emmy for one, while Konner penned three solid episodes of his own, although his decades of work for the big screen has been mediocre at best.

But here the filmmakers combine for extended family drama that, despite one major plot turn landing as entirely illogical, weaves themes old and new in a ride that is often operatic and downright Shakespearean.

If the Sopranos family feels like family, turning back the clock on these indelible characters is just as giddy and delightful as it sounds. But The Many Saints of Newark impresses most by the balance it finds between fan service and fresh character arcs.

It’s an often cruel and bloody tale of wanton crime, treacherous deceit, family dysfunction and cold-blooded murder. And it just might be the most fun you’ll have at the movies all year.

Be a Man

The Art of Self-Defense

by Brandon Thomas

“Name?”

“Casey Davies.”

“That’s a very feminine sounding name.”

This humiliating exchange happens between Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) as Casey excitedly signs up for karate lessons. Casey suffers from a severe lack of confidence. He leads a drab, boring life. His house? Boring. His job? Boring. Even his dog is boring. No one respects Casey. His coworkers barely register his existence. The final demeaning moment is the night he’s viciously attacked while walking home from the store. Karate seems like the perfect antidote for this life of mediocrity.

Eh – not really.

Watching The Art of Self-Defense made me think of Fight Club. A lot. Fight Club overflows with masculinity. Brawny men beating each other to a pulp while waxing philosophical is the film’s bread and butter. Fincher’s movie definitely comments on the toxicity of masculinity, but it also spends a heck of a lot of time glorifying it, too.

The Art of Self Defense is interested in what it means to be a “real man.” Outside of Casey, the men in this dojo operate through sheer brute force. Violence, intimidation and blackmail are how they make their world work. Casey’s gravitational pull to these figures is a tale as old as time. Writer/director Riley Stearns isn’t interested in reveling in this world Sensei has created, he’s more interested in pushing the audience to share in Casey’s horror as he experiences it.

It’s easy to look at many of Eisenberg’s roles and lump them into the same narrow category. Yes, he plays a lot of isolated losers that stammar and shuffle around, but he also plays those roles with varying degrees of nuance. There’s a level of fear and anxiety he brings to Casey that feels different from his other loveable nerds. Casey is a rubber band about to snap at any moment, and Eisenberg does a fantastic job of keeping the audience guessing as to when that will happen.

Nivola’s Sensei has an air of false machismo to him at all times. He speaks in a low, gruff voice, and his words feel precisely selected, but fake. Nivola gets that this movie is a stark black comedy, and he completely goes for broke. He is able to walk this fine line of playing a scene straight, yet has it come off as a comedic masterstroke.

Armed with biting satire, excellent performances, and more on its mind than cheap laughs, The Art of Self Defense delivers a bold, original dark comedy. Minimal flexing involved. 


Complicated Homecoming

Disobedience

by George Wolf

Upon creation, men and women were given the choice of free will, and with that comes the unique “power to disobey.”

An Orthodox Jewish flock in London hears that message from a beloved rabbi, and then lives it in Sebastian Lelio’s quietly compelling Disobedience.

Ronit (Rachel Weisz) was raised in that devoutly religious community, and then shunned for her attraction to childhood friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). After building a life in New York, Ronit is called home for the burial of her father. She’s greeted by a less than warm welcome and the news that Esti has married Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), another longtime friend who is now also a respected rabbi.

Gracefully adapting Naomi Alderman’s novel, Lelio (A Fantastic Woman, Gloria) continues his interest in stories of women struggling to be free and live as their true selves, exerting their power to disobey.

Weisz, McAdams are Nivola are all wonderful, crafting resonant characters as Lelio slowly builds the drama of a conflicting, scandalous triangle. Little backstory is provided early on, giving more weight to pieces that are picked up from characters carefully dancing around old wounds.

The message is love and mercy, and how these basic tenets of religion are often forgotten in the name of enforcing a preferred social order. Lelio and his committed actors make it intensely intimate but never salacious, a parable with a powerful grip.