Tag Archives: Ray Liotta

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.

Being Alive

Marriage Story

by George Wolf

If plot is what happens and story is how it happens, there’s no better title for Noah Baumbach’s latest than Marriage Story.

For years, Baumbach’s films have probed characters struggling to live up to an image of themselves. It’s what he does, and now Baumbach has written and directed his masterpiece, a bravely personal and beautifully heartbreaking deconstruction of a marriage falling apart.

Adam Driver is Charlie, a New York stage director. Scarlett Johansson is Nicole, an L.A. film actress who made the switch to NYC live theater when she married Charlie and they welcomed son Henry (Azhy Robertson).

We meet Charlie and Nicole in counseling, taking part in an exercise that reminds them why they married and reminds us how skilled Baumbach is at not only writing wonderfully organic dialog, but in bringing it to the screen with layer upon layer of authenticity.

Tremendous performances from Johansson and Driver cement our immersion into the lives of two people valiantly trying to retain some control over the process of splitting up.

Nicole hurts deeply but wears a brave face, unsure of how to approach a future without Charlie, but unable to deny that life with him has meant she “got smaller.” Johannson has never been better, successfully mining Nicole’s mix of pain and defiance with silent tears and impassioned outbursts alike.

Here’s something I’ve said a lot this year: Driver is one the most consistently impressive actors around. His skill at finding the human center of his characters is subtle but unmistakable, and here Driver never lets you abandon Charlie, most importantly when his refusals to face reality seem like cathartic soul-baring from Baumbach himself.

We see the details that make up the work of a marriage, and the subtle cracks that weaken the relationship and begin to pull two people apart. And with the break comes the battle for child custody and the business of divorce.

But even as their two opposing lawyers (Ray Liotta and Laura Dern, Oscar-worthy herself) bleed the couple’s finances and turn the fight dirty, Baumbach never gets petty. When you think the film is taking sides it makes a subtle change in direction, slowly building toward the brilliantly executed emotional tsunami you know is coming.

Will you need tissues? Oh yes. The story of Nicole and Charlie’s marriage will put you through the wringer. And every frame is absolutely worth it.

Late in the film, Charlie’s out with a group of theater friends and ends up joining a pianist to sing Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive.” So we have a theater guy going through a tumultuous divorce taking time to sing a Broadway classic about the risk of commitment. It’s a sequence that could have easily devolved into self-indulgent excess, but instead only confirms the depth of Baumbach’s reach.

He lets another writer’s words brilliantly refocus what Charlie and Nicole will always mean to other, and like everything else in Marriage Story, it feels real, true and necessary.

It feels alive.