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

What Happens When Big Names with Big Personalities Spend ‘One Night in Miami…’? Let’s Find Out!

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One Night in Miami (CREDIT: Amazon Studios)

Starring: Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli Goree, Aldis Hodge, Leslie Odom Jr., Lance Reddick, Nicolette Robinson, Michael Imperioli, Joaquina Kolukango, Beau Bridges

Director: Regina King

Running Time: 114 Minutes

Rating: R for Language (There’s a Lot of Dialogue)

Release Date: December 25, 2020 (Theaters)/January 15, 2021 (Amazon Prime Video)

On one particular day in February 1964, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown spent an evening together in Florida and the makers of One Night in Miami… thought we might like to see how that may have played out. First this idea took the form of a 2013 play written by Kemp Powers. Now he’s adapted it into a screenplay, with Regina King making her feature directorial debut. (Spoiler alert: you can tell that it started out as a play.) Are these African-Americans titans of the 20th century just as interesting together as we knew them to be individually? Although of course, the more relevant question is: do the actors playing them do them justice, and can they find the right chemistry for their little powwow? The answer probably won’t blow your mind, though it might satisfy you.

Reporting for duty on this night are Kingsley Ben-Adir as X, Eli Goree as Ali (actually still going by Cassius Clay at the time), Aldis Hodge as Brown, and Leslie Odom Jr. as Cooke. Odom’s casting makes the most sense to me, because he can sang. He can be musical anyway you want him to, so summoning the majestic voice behind “Chain Gang” is no problem for him. Meanwhile, Ben-Adir commands most of the attention, and he’d better, because Malcolm had plenty to cover that he thought was pretty damn urgent, and he wanted everyone to hear him. Goree and Hodge, alas, fade a bit into the background. That might mean that the promise of the premise isn’t fully fulfilled, but the others pick up on the slack as this ultimately becomes the “Malcolm & Sam Show” more than anything else. Everyone, especially Malcolm, picks on Sam for not carrying his weight in the civil rights fight, while Sam fires back that he’s actually figured out part of The Man’s formula for getting a piece of the pie and he’s in fact been sharing it with his associates. In conclusion, they’re all doing their part!

Whenever people with big personalities are having passionate debates about the issues of the day, you can pretty much guarantee that there will be at least something satisfying. But I did find myself wondering throughout much of One Night in Miami… why I wasn’t finding it as dynamic as I thought I would. It probably boils down to the fact that I would rather watch these famous guys do what they’re famous for, rather than watching them talk. To be fair, Malcolm and Muhammad were partly famous for their wordsmanship, but playing to a big crowd and having an intimate conversation are two very different situations. We do get to see some of Muhammad in the ring, but we don’t get to see any of Jim on the football field or roughing up Martians. At least we get a decent amount of Sam onstage. Letting Leslie Odom Jr. loose with the Sam Cooke songbook is hardly a groundbreaking revelation, but it gets the job done enough when we need it to.

One Night in Miami… is Recommended If You Like: Movies That Walk and Talk Like Plays

Grade: 3 out of 5 Close-Cropped Haircuts