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.

The Room Where It Happened

One Night in Miami

by George Wolf

The room where it really happened was in Miami’s Hampton House. After a young Cassius Clay won the Heavyweight title from Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964, he joined his long time mentor Malcolm X, NFL legend Jim Brown and soul sensation Sam Cooke at the South Florida hotel.

Writer Kemp Powers first imagined how that meeting of legendary minds might have played out, and now Regina King – who already has an acting Oscar – jumps into the race for Best Director with a wise and wonderful adaptation of Powers’s stage play. Propelled by a bold, vital script from Powers himself, King invites us into a frank discussion about the steps in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and about each man’s role in the struggle.

Though existing mainly inside that single hotel room, One Night in Miami is in a constant state of motion, as four talented actors serve and volley through a ballet of insight and intellect.

Portraying a bigger-than life-personality such as Clay without a hint of caricature is no easy feat, but Eli Goree handles it with smooth charisma.

Clay’s braggadocio is as playful and charming as you remember, but Goree also finds authentic shades of apprehension about the societal role Clay (who would publicly join the Nation of Islam and announce his name change to Muhammed Ali just weeks after the meeting) was about to accept.

Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcom X is a measured voice of wisdom, but the film finds its gravitational pull in the forces of Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom, Jr.

As Brown, Hodge is beautifully restrained power, a man of incredible strength still able to be staggered by sudden blows of racism. Brown’s path as a leader of the civil rights movement contrasts sharply with Cooke’s, and Odom, Jr. gives the singer surprising and resonant layers that include anger at the thought that he’s not all in for the cause.

The characters continually challenge each other, as King and Powers challenge us with a profundity that comes from their refusal to settle for easy answers. Each question the film raises connects past to present with committed grace, and One Night in Miami finds a beautiful dignity that shines in the face of bigotry. 

Greatest American Hero

Harriet

by Hope Madden

In just her third feature film, Cynthia Erivo has quickly proven herself to be a chameleonic performer of remarkable breadth and depth.  

How is she as Bad Times at the El Royale’s just-naieve-enough would-be Sixties pop singer? She owns the movie.

As Widows’ overworked and underestimated single parent? Another eye-catching performance among another stunning ensemble.

American history’s second most important figure in the abolition of slavery, runner up only to Lincoln himself?

Harriet Tubman is a big role to shoulder. The routine problem with breathing cinematic life into a figure we know only from history class is in overcoming an audience’s preconceived notions about the person. As is the case with most African American – let alone female African American -figures, this is not really a problem. Tubman is so underrepresented in our historical epics that, unlike Lincoln, she doesn’t trigger an automatic image in the audience’s mind.

So while Erivo needn’t be concerned with imitation, the more daunting challenge is to find a recognizable human inside the truly superhuman accomplishments Tubman managed during her 91 years on this earth.

Here’s where Erivo gets the most support from director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), whose historical biopic is heavy-handed enough in its hero worship to celebrate Tubman’s genuine, unparalleled heroism.

Harriet is also quiet enough in spots, Lemmons never making the common, gruesome slavery-saga misstep of ogling a whip-scarred back or a rape. Her restrained approach to the unimaginable horror of slavery manages never to wallow or to disregard the suffering, but focuses more clearly on the urgency and agency to end it.

Erivo repays Lemmons’s efforts, bringing to bear an otherworldly presence as the film’s enigmatic central figure. Her Harriet is not here to wallow, not here to reflect. She’s come for action.

Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard (Ali) don’t quite fare as well elsewhere. Though they wisely narrow the story, beginning immediately before Harriet’s escape from a Maryland plantation and ending just after her astonishing Civil War battle, the film still feels a bit shallow in its telling.

Of the large ensemble around Erivo, Leslie Odom, Jr. makes the most of his limited time onscreen, animating Philadelphia abolitionist William Still with a kind of awestruck tenderness that matches the audience’s response to Tubman’s obstinance and fearlessness.

Does the film suffer from hero worship? Suffer feels like a very wrong word. What Harriet does is honor a woman whose acts of heroism are so superhuman they are truly difficult to believe.

Erivo will make you a believer.