I Woke Up This Morning, Reviewed ‘The Many Saints of Newark’

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The Many Saints of Newark (CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/Screenshot)

Starring: Alessandro Nivola, Ray Liotta, Michael Gandolfini, Leslie Odom Jr., Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Michela De Rossi, Corey Stoll, Billy Magnussen, John Magaro, William Ludwig, Michael Imperioli

Director: Alan Taylor

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: R for The Typical Vices of Mobsters

Release Date: October 1, 2021 (Theaters and HBO Max)

Watching The Many Saints of Newark mostly just made me want to finally get around to watching The Sopranos. I’m a noted TV buff, so it’s been on my to-watch list for quite a while, but in this case the experience was a little more Pavlovian. As the end credits started rolling, they were accompanied by the familiar bass-and-drum intro of Alabama 3’s “Woke Up This Morning,” aka one of the best TV theme songs of all time. It was as if this movie were just one long cold opening for the TV series it serves as a prequel for, and the only appropriate next step would be pressing play on the first episode. If the point of The Many Saints of Newark is indeed to get everyone who doesn’t already consider The Sopranos one of the greatest shows of all time to finally get around to checking it out, well, then, it kind of did its job.

But that’s a rather small-scale ambition for a two-hour movie. And I think it’s safe to assume that Sopranos creator David Chase had a lot more on his mind than that when co-penning this screenplay with Lawrence Konner. Essentially, this works as a sort of “Expanded Universe” addition to the Sopranos lore. Fans of the show get to discover the backstories of what their favorite characters were up to decades earlier in the midst of the 1967 Newark race riots. People will be pointing at their screens declaring things like, “Hey look, it’s Corey Stoll as a handsome young Uncle Junior!” And they’ll be wondering just how Vera Farmiga rounds out our understanding of Tony’s mom Livia. (Spoiler alert: she gets upset a lot at the men in her family.) And speaking of Tony, who can resist seeing if James Gandolfini’s son Michael can pull off the polo shirts just as iconically as his dad did? I know I can’t, and I only know about all this via pop culture osmosis.

As for how Many Saints stands by itself as its own particular story, it’s perfectly fine. It explores plenty of similar themes covered in countless other Italian-American mafia sagas, delivered with adequately convincing panache. The focus is not primarily on Tony, but rather Alessandro Nivola’s Dickie Moltisanti (father of Christopher, played in The Sopranos by Michael Imperioli, who narrates the film). Dickie is basically a model for manhood to a teenage Tony, which is a running concern in the midst of a whole lot of plot involving turf wars, mistresses, and stolen Mr. Softee trucks.

The most compelling moments are between Nivola and Ray Liotta as Dickie’s Uncle Sal (he also pulls double duty as Dickie’s hotheaded dad). Sal is the designated reformed mobster, dispensing Buddhist-informed advice to Dickie about “the Wanting” of life that leads to pain and suffering. Liotta’s casting of course calls back to his lead role in Goodfellas (in much the same way that Lorraine Bracco’s portrayal of Dr. Melfi did the same in The Sopranos). It’s during these conversations that Many Saints‘ reckoning with a long and inescapable tradition is most resonant. That tradition is basically impossible to escape, both for the characters living them and the pop culture creators and consumers drowning in them. We’re still stuck in this paradigm.

The Many Saints of Newark is Recommended If You Like: Sixtysomething actors inverting their most iconic roles, Accents as thick as gabagool, Violence punctuated by hairpiece-based comedy

Grade: 3 out of 5 Whackings

‘First Cow’ is a Quirky Western About Pop-Up Food Peddling

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CREDIT: Allyson Riggs/A24

Starring: John Magaro, Orion Lee, Toby Jones, Ewen Bremner, Scott Shepherd, Lily Gladstone, René Auberjonois

Director: Kelly Reichardt

Running Time: 121 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for “Brief Strong Language,” according to the MPAA

Release Date: March 6, 2020 (Limited)

I’m sure there were other cows before the cow in First Cow, but she brings so much sweet satisfaction that she’s sure just as lovely as any actual first cow.

Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) and King Lu (Orion Lee) meet up and become fast friends on the 19th century Oregon frontier. Their backgrounds are vastly different (Cookie’s originally from Maryland, King’s a Chinese immigrant), but they are nevertheless kindred spirits, bonded by shared drives to make something fulfilling out of their rough terrain. The first third or so of First Cow is rather sleepy, as it mostly consists of Cookie and King wandering through the dark woods. But then they chance upon a bit of a piping-hot business, and suddenly their story is working like gangbusters.

If you’re like me, you might spend a good portion of First Cow wondering, “Where is this cow? I was promised a cow. Let’s get a move on, Mr. Plot!” But patience is a virtue, and if you can indeed be patient, you will be rewarded handsomely, just as Cookie and King are, by writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s steady approach. C and K find the milk-producer just hanging out in a field, and they gather up her cream for all it’s worth. They then slot it in as the key ingredient for a batch of biscuits that they hawk in the middle of town. It tastes unlike anything their customers have ever tasted before, yet it also takes them right back to their childhood kitchen memories. The biscuits sell out immediately day after day the same way that a cupcake pop-up burns through its supply in the hippest part of the neighborhood in 2020.

Cookie and King are always hustling, so I guess we now know what it looked like when you were hustling while stuck out in the woods one hundred-some-odd years ago, or at least we have a satisfying cinematic approximation of what it was like. They certainly have to summon all their wits when they realize that their cow belongs to a wealthy landowner played by Toby Jones who’s been one of their loyal customers. When the jig is up, they find themselves once again out there floating through the coarse landscape. I’m not too experientially familiar with this harsh environment, but I recognize this strain of human existence. Reichardt takes on an interesting, untraditional journey of frustration, satisfaction, and worry bumping against each other. It’s a weird rhythm that I daresay is worth getting in tune with.

First Cow is Recommended If You Like: Toby Jones licking his lips

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Biscuits

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Overlord’ is Evidence That the Nazi Mad Scientist Genre is Still Relevant

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures

This review was originally published on News Cult in November 2018.

Starring: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, Mathilde Ollivier, John Magaro, Pilou Asbæk, Gianny Tauffer, Iain De Caestecker, Jacob Anderson, Bokeem Woodbine

Director: Julius Avery

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for Soldier Profanity, War Violence, and Bloody Disturbing Mad Science

Release Date: November 9, 2018

It turns out that Nazism was never fully obliterated from the planet. Indeed, it’s 2018, and there are still people who are willing to self-identify as Nazis out in the open. So why shouldn’t there still be movies about evil Nazi doctors experimenting on people? They could even be set in the present day without straying too far from reality. Overlord, for one, is set during World War II, and the combat setting certainly cranks up the terror, but I cannot help but wonder if it would be even scarier if its characters stumbled upon a still-functioning Nazi mad science bunker in the 21st century.

What is striking about Overlord is its hybrid nature. This isn’t a war movie that turns into a monster movie once the experiments are stumbled upon. Instead, it remains very much a war movie even after the monsters start stalking around. The mission that sets off the action is an American paratrooper squad flying in to destroy a German radio tower in a church on the eve of D-Day. When they discover the experiments taking place within the church’s attic, they are steely enough to not be overwhelmed. They are freaked out, sure, but they still have to complete the mission. If they can manage to blow up the lab and save a little French boy while they’re at it, then all the better!

The experimentation consists of little more than inserting a serum into recently deceased soldiers, but things get really weird when the wounded-but-not-quite-dead start using it as well. The results of these injections manage to be so disturbing because they do not exactly heal any wounds but instead just bypass them. Supersoldiers are created, but they have gaping holes in their bodies and faces, not to mention the side effects of thoroughly oily skin and violently protruding bones. It is a credit to the main characters’ courageousness that they are able to behold affronts to nature and still plow forward with their mission. The message is therefore: the Nazis may be formidable, but we can still defeat them! Monsters exist, and we all need to be prepared

Overlord is Recommended If You Like: Classic mad scientist creature features, with maximum blood and guts and bones

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Serums