Review: ‘Dangerous Waters’ (2023), starring Odeya Rush, Eric Dane, Saffron Burrows and Ray Liotta

November 3, 2023

by Carla Hay

Odeya Rush in “Dangerous Waters” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

“Dangerous Waters” (2023)

Directed by John Barr

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Atlantic Ocean near the Dominican Republic, the action film “Dangerous Waters” features a predominantly white cast (with a few Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A 19-year-old woman goes on a boating trip with her widowed mother and the mother’s new boyfriend, but things go horribly wrong after a violent invasion on the boat, and the daughter finds out some terrible secrets.

Culture Audience: “Dangerous Waters” will appeal mainly to people who don’t mind watching tawdry “women in peril” movies that have a lot of unrealistic scenes.

Saffron Burrows, Eric Dane and Odeya Rush in “Dangerous Waters” (Photo courtesy of Brainstorm Media)

With horrendous film editing, “Dangerous Waters” (which is about a boat vacation that goes very wrong) has too many plot holes that are bigger than the ocean where much of this misguided story takes place. Characters are shown in deadly danger in one scene, and then in the next scene, they’re no longer in danger, with no explanation for how they got out of the predicament. The movie’s protagonist also has a showdown at the end of the film that looks like a rushed and badly conceived part of the story.

Directed by John Barr and written by Mark Jackson, “Dangerous Waters” has too many unbelievable scenarios to be taken seriously, but the movie desperately wants to be taken seriously. There’s no hint of irony, satire or comedy in the film. It’s just an erratically paced movie that alternates between dull “stranded in the ocean” scenes and fake-looking action scenes.

In “Dangerous Waters,” a woman has to fight off a lot of villains in order to escape from this hellish situation. The movie’s protagonist is 19-year-old Rose (played by Odeya Rush), who lives with her widowed mother Alma (played by Saffron Burrows), who works as a server at a local restaurant. Very little is told about Rose in this movie, except that she’s taking a gap year before going to college. Rose’s father, who was a decorated soldier in the U.S. military, passed away when she was very young. He died in combat when he was “blown up in Iraq,” according to what Rose says in the movie.

The movie doesn’t say where Rose and Alma live in the United States, but it’s close enough to the Caribbean, where Rose and Alma intend to sail on a fateful boating trip that is scheduled to be a 10-day vacation for them. (The movie was filmed on location, in and near the Dominican Republic.) Alma and Rose are going on this trip with Alma’s new boyfriend Derek Stipes (played by Eric Danes), a former police officer who is now a private security consultant. Alma and Derek have been dating each other for about a month. Derek owns the small sailboat that they will be taking for this trip.

Rose is wary about this trip because Alma doesn’t know Derek very well, but Alma convinces Rose to go on this vacation with her and Derek. There isn’t much to do on this boat but lounge around. Derek and Alma act as if they’re on a romantic couple’s trip, which makes Rose feel out of place. Expect to see Rose pouting a lot and having a hard time trusting Derek, who might as well be wearing a T-shirt that says, “I’ve Got Some Dirty Secrets.”

All of this sounds like the plot of a Lifetime movie. However, the main differences between “Dangerous Waters” and a Lifetime movie is that “Dangerous Waters” has graphic violence and explicit adult language, and the quality of filmmaking is much worse than a Lifetime movie. The atrocious film editing in “Dangerous Waters” jumps from scene to scene, often with no real continuity and with unexplained gaps in the story.

The first third of “Dangerous Waters” is a somewhat boring depiction of Rose, Alma and Derek having awkward conversations on the boat. At one point, Derek sharply swerves the boat, causing Alma (who is on deck) to fall into the water. Alma falls while holding Rose’s cell phone, which drops in the ocean. Derek rescues Alma, which makes Rose a little more trusting of Derek. But viewers are supposed to wonder: “Was Derek’s sharp swerve really an accident, or was it deliberate?”

While Derek was rescuing Alma, Rose went below deck to look for a blanket that Alma could use after emerging from the cold water. Rose sees in a trunk that Derek has an AR-15 rifle. As soon as she finds this gun, you just know this gun is going to be used.

And sure enough, Rose asks Derek if she can shoot the gun. He says yes, with Alma’s reluctant permission. It turns out that Rose is very skilled at shooting guns. Alma says that Rose has somehow inherited the gun-shooting skills that Rose’s father had. Rose is going to need those gun skills.

The middle of the movie is about a boat invasion and Rose being stranded in the ocean. The trip becomes a catastrophe when two men on a speedboat show up at night and suddenly invade Derek’s boat. It’s a violent robbery where Alma and Derek are attacked while Rose stays hidden out of sight from the attackers, who don’t know that she on the boat. The boat invaders are looking for something that Derek has, but Derek denies that he has it.

These invaders obviously know Derek and don’t believe him. When the invaders find what they’re looking for, they punish Derek by throwing him overboard. Alma is shot by the invaders, and she doesn’t survive. After the attackers leave, Rose finds Derek still alive in the ocean, when a barely conscious Derek floats near the boat. This isn’t spoiler information, since the trailer for “Dangerous Waters” gives away about 85% of the plot.

Before the invaders leave, they set fire to the boat, not knowing that someone (Rose) on the boat is alive and hiding inside. Rose uses a fire extinguisher to try to put out the flames, which are everywhere. (This part of the movie is also in the “Dangerous Waters” trailer.) You don’t have to be a firefighter to know that one fire extinguisher isn’t going to be enough to put out this raging blaze.

However, the movie abruptly cuts to the next day to show that the fire has vanished. One of the most idiotic things about “Dangerous Waters” is how the movie never bothers to explain how the fire got extinguished. Rose is stuck on a boat that doesn’t look as burned as it should be, considering how large this fire was. Rose can’t call for help because the boat’s communication equipment is burned and inoperable.

Rose also doesn’t show any signs that her health was negatively affected by smoke inhalation. Other moronic scenarios in the movie: There’s more than one occasion where Derek is presumed dead but then he shows up alive. “Dangerous Waters” gets more ridiculous, as it tries to make Rose some type of combat warrior heroine.

“Dangerous Waters” is the final movie that actor Ray Liotta filmed. At the age of 67, he died in his sleep from several health issues in 2022, while he was making this embarrassing flop movie. Liotta doesn’t appear until the last third of “Dangerous Waters,” where he has the role of the movie’s chief villain: a sex trafficker named The Captain. The acting performances in “Dangerous Waters” are mediocre but made worse by the awful screenplay. There are no real surprises in “Dangerous Waters,” which just turns into a mindless mishmash of fight scenes which look as phony as the movie’s failed attempt to look like a feminist movie.

Brainstorm Media released “Dangerous Waters” in U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 13, 2023.

Review: ‘Fool’s Paradise’ (2023), starring Charlie Day, Ken Jeong, Kate Beckinsale, Adrien Brody, Jason Sudeikis, Jason Bateman, Common and Ray Liotta

August 11, 2023

by Carla Hay

Kate Beckinsale, Charlie Day and Ken Jeong in “Fool’s Paradise” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)

“Fool’s Paradise” (2023)

Directed by Charlie Day

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, the comedy film “Fool’s Paradise” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A mostly mute man goes from being patient at a psychiatric facility to impersonating a famous actor while also hanging out with a con-man publicist.

Culture Audience: “Fool’s Paradise” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, because their name recognition is the only thing that this embarrassing dud has going for it.

Charlie Day and Adrien Brody in “Fool’s Paradise” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions)

“Fool’s Paradise” is more like viewer’s hell, for anyone expecting this comedy to be funny. It looks like the type of flop whose all-star cast members are there because the director begged them to be in his movie, instead of the screenplay being good. Not only is “Fool’s Paradise” painfully unfunny, but it’s also relentlessly boring.

Written and directed by Charlie Day, “Fool’s Paradise” is Day’s feature-film directorial debut. Day has made a name for himself by mostly doing comedies on TV and in movies. (He’s one of the stars of the long-running comedy TV series “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”) You’d think that someone with all of these years of experience in comedy would’ve learned how to make an entertaining comedy film. “Fool’s Paradise” looks like a movie directed by a complete amateur who convinced several famous people to be in the movie.

There isn’t much to the rambling and garbage plot of “Fool’s Paradise,” which takes place in the Los Angeles area. Day portrays two characters in the movie: the constantly confused main character Latte Pronto and look-alike difficult actor Sir Thomas Kit Bingsley. Someone who buzzes around like an annoying insect in the movie is a con man named Lenny (played by Ken Jeong), who has decided he’s going to convince people that he’s a publicist in the entertainment business. Much of “Fool’s Paradise” is about the silly antics that happen after Lenny meets Latte.

“Fool’s Paradise” begins by showing Lenny in a tense meeting at a diner with an unnamed comedian (played by Andrew Santino), who is furious because he hired Lenny to introduce him to agents and managers, but Lenny hasn’t delivered on that promise. Lenny makes weak excuses, but this angry client has had enough of Lenny and fires him on the spot. With no more clients to deceive, Lenny goes on the hunt for his next scam victim.

Meanwhile, at a psychiatric facility, two unnamed doctors (played by Peter Mackenzie and Christine Horn) decide that they have to discharge one of the patients at the facility. The first doctor says about this hapless patient (played by Day): “The patient is a nobody. He has no family or friends. He has the mind of a 5-year-old or a Labrador retriever.” The doctor adds that the state won’t pay for any of Latte’s therapy, “so we’re going to put his ass on the first bus downtown.”

While this displaced man is now homeless walking on a street, he’s spotted by an unnamed producer (played by Ray Liotta), who is driving by and immediately notices that this person on the street looks identical to hard-drinking actor Thomas. The producer is frustrated because Thomas has been acting like a spoiled, alcoholic diva on the set of the producer’s latest movie, which is a Western.

The producer decides to meet this stranger and hire him as Thomas’ double whenever Thomas is too drunk to work. Even though this stranger seems incapable of telling anyone who he is, the producer decides to go through with the plan. The producer invites the stranger to be on the movie studio lot. During a lunch with the stranger, the producer orders someone to get him a “latte, pronto.” And that’s how the stranger begins to call himself Latte Pronto.

The problem? Latte has lost his ability to speak. That’s supposed to be the movie’s main gimmick, but “Fool’s Paradise” is so stupid, it does away with that gimmick by showing that Latte is mute, except when he has to deliver his actor lines when he’s impersonating Thomas. His co-star in the movie is Chad Luxt (played by Adrien Brody), who plays the villain character Black Bart in the producer’s Western movie.

Before the movie can be completed, Thomas is found dead from self-asphyxiation. At the producer’s urging, Latte takes over Thomas’ identity completely, in order to finish the movie. The producer doesn’t want to lose his investment in the film. Latte then begins to live the life of a movie star, including having Lenny as his publicist. Also in Latte’s entourage are an agent (played by Edie Falco), an attorney, a stylist and an intern (played by Shane Paul McGhie).

An actress named Christiana Dior (played by Kate Beckinsale) starts off in the story as Chad’s girlfriend, but she dumps Chad to marry Latte. Christiana is a shallow trophy wife and one of the worst-written characters in “Fool’s Paradise.” Jason Sudeikis has a brief supporting role as a movie director. Jason Bateman makes a cameo as a special effects technician.

John Malkovich and Tom O’Rion portray wealthy businessman brothers Ed Cote and Dartanon Cote, who are heavly involved in political campaigns. It’s an obvious spoof of the real-life Charles Koch and David Koch. Hip-hop star/actor Common has a small supporting role as a homeless guy named The Dagger. Most of the characters in “Fool’s Paradise” do not have names.

There are some really awful movies where you can tell that at least the cast members were having fun. That’s not the case with “Fool’s Paradise,” which is the type of dreadful misfire where the principal cast members look like they know they’re stuck in a horrible movie, and they all (including Day) give lackluster performances. The sluggish pacing makes this cinematic cesspool of bad comedy even worse. The only good thing that might come out of “Fool’s Paradise” is that if Day directs another movie, hopefully he’ll learn from this colossal failure of creativity, and he won’t make the same mistakes again.

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions released “Fool’s Paradise” in U.S. cinemas on May 12, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on June 2, 2023.

Review: ‘Cocaine Bear,’ starring Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Margo Martindale, Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Ray Liotta

February 23, 2023

by Carla Hay

Keri Russell in “Cocaine Bear” (Photo by Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures)

“Cocaine Bear”

Directed by Elizabeth Banks

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1985, in Georgia (and briefly in Tennessee and in Missouri), the comedic action film “Cocaine Bear” (based loosely on a true story) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: After a drug smuggler dies while parachuting from a plane with large quantities of cocaine, a black bear in a forest area goes on a rampage after ingesting a lot of the cocaine.

Culture Audience: “Cocaine Bear” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching dark and violent action comedies that are intentionally absurdist.

O’Shea Jackson Jr., Ayoola Smart, Alden Ehrenreich and Ray Liotta in “Cocaine Bear” (Photo by Pat Redmond/Universal Pictures)

Just like the bear that’s on a cocaine-fueled rampage, the erratic and unpredictable “Cocaine Bear” aims to shake up people’s sensibilities. It’s a wild and uneven ride, where the movie’s surreal comedy works well, more often than not. If you’re easily offended by the thought of children and animals ingesting cocaine, then it’s best to avoid watching “Cocaine Bear.” If you’re open to watching an adult-oriented comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously, then “Cocaine Bear” might be enjoyable, in a way that’s similar to how people enjoy going on amusement park rides that bring some terror to the entertainment.

Directed by Elizabeth Banks and written by Jimmy Warden, “Cocaine Bear” (which takes place in 1985) is very loosely based on true events. The majority of the movie is fiction. The basic facts that the movie keeps true are that a drug smuggler in his early 40s named Andrew Thornton II (played by Matthew Rhys), who used to be a narcotics police officer in Kentucky, died in Knoxville, Tennessee, after he jumped out of a small private plane with 70 to 75 pounds (or 31 to 34 kilograms) of cocaine, and his parachute malfunctioned. (It’s the opening scene of “Cocaine Bear.”)

Before jumping out of the plane, he had dumped duffel bags filled with several bricks of cocaine in the Chattahoochee–Oconee National Forest in Georgia. The most common theory is that Thornton had brought too much cocaine on the plane and unloaded some of his stash in the forest, with a plan to go back later and get the cocaine. However, in real life, a black bear got to the cocaine first and was found dead of an overdose. In the movie, the bear doesn’t die of an overdose but instead goes on a killing spree where humans are the main targets. All of the characters in “Cocaine Bear” except Thornton are fabricated for the movie. The “cocaine” seen in the movie is actually sugar or artificial sweetener.

An introduction statement in the movie explains that black bears usually don’t attack people unless it’s for reasons related to food, self-defense or invasion of a bear’s territory. “Cocaine Bear” doesn’t waste much time before the mayhem starts. At Chattahoochee–Oconee National Forest, two German-speaking tourists named Elsa (played by Hannah Hoekstra) and Olaf (played by Kristofer Hivju), who also goes by the name Kristoffer, are hiking and taking photos. They see a bear acting strangely, such as dry-humping a tree.

Elsa and Olaf/Kristoffer are intrigued and want to take photos of this bear, although he is more hesitant because he heard that black bears can be deadly. According to the “Cocaine Bear” production notes, the movie’s coke-fueled bear (which the cast and crew nicknamed Cokey) is actually a combination of visual effects and motion caption imagery with stunt performer Allan Henry. In the movie, tourists Elsa and Olaf/Kristoffer are the first people who have a very unlucky encounter with the bear. Only one of these tourists makes it out alive.

The first 20 minutes of “Cocaine Bear” jump around a lot from scene to scene, by quickly showing the other characters in the movie who will encounter the bear. In St. Louis, Missouri, an international drug smuggler named Syd (played by Ray Liotta) was responsible for getting the cocaine shipment that Thornton was supposed to deliver. In real life, the deceased Thornton was found with cocaine that was worth $15 million at the time. In the movie, it’s mentioned that the missing cocaine in the forest is worth about $7 million.

Syd comically has his headquartes at Four Pines Mall, where he likes to hang out with his small crew at O’Shaughnessy’s Burger Time restaurant. Syd’s two main henchmen are his son Eddie (played by Alden Ehrenreich) and Eddie’s best friend Daveed (played by O’Shea Jackson Jr.), who is the more risk-taking and tougher of the two pals. Thornton’s death has made the national news. Syd knows that he’ll be held responsible for any of the cocaine that’s still missing—and he’ll do whatever it takes to find this stash. Somehow, Syd knows that Thornton had dumped the rest of the stash in the Chattahoochee–Oconee National Forest.

Eddie is first seen literally crying over his drinks in a dive bar in St. Louis, because he’s grieving over the death of a friend/colleague named John. Eddie is babbling about how the person conducting the funeral service mistakenly called John the name Joan. It’s a rambling scene that didn’t really need to be in the movie, especially since Ehrenreich over-acts in this scene. Daveed comforts Eddie, but they won’t have much time to drown any more of their sorrows in a St. Louis bar, because Syd has ordered Eddie and Daveed to go to Georgia to find the missing cocaine in the Chattahoochee–Oconee National Forest.

Meanwhile, the Chattahoochee–Oconee National Forest is under the jurisdiction of a local police detective named Bob Springs (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), who knows that the forest is being used as a drug-smuggling hiding place for Syd and Syd’s “crime family.” Bob is determined to find a way to bust Syd and Syd’s cronies. Bob correctly assumes that there might be some of some of Thornton’s missing cocaine in the forest, and people in Syd’s crew will come looking for this drug stash.

“Cocaine Bear” gets a little sidetracked with some comedic details that don’t become very clear until later in the movie. For example, there are several minutes of screen time showing that Bob, who wants to adopt a dog, had a Maltese delivered to him instead of the Labrador Retriever that Bob originally wanted. Bob asks his police officer colleague Reba (played by Ayoola Smart) to temporarily look after the Maltese, which is a dog with long white fur that he thinks looks too high-maintenance and “fancy” for Bob. Viewers have to watch an epilogue scene in “Cocaine Bear” to see the reason why the movie keeps showing this Maltese.

Also in the Chattahoochee–Oconee National Forest area is a hospital nurse named Sari (played by Keri Russell), who is financially struggling and has to work extra shifts to help make ends meet. Sari is the mother of 13-year-old Dee Dee (played by Brooklynn Prince), who has dreams of becoming a painter artist. Dee Dee’s best friend is a slightly younger child named Henry (played by Christian Convery), who has a crush on Dee Dee and spends a lot of time trying to impress her.

Dee Dee and Henry are both playful and a little rebellious. They skip school one day so that Dee Dee can go to a place in the forest’s Blood Mountain, where there is a nearby waterfall that Dee Dee wants to paint so that she can use this painting to get accepted into a prestigious art camp. A big part of the movie is about Sari trying to find “missing” Dee Dee and Henry in the forest. Because Dee Dee and Henry have gone missing on the same day that the cocaine bear goes on a rampage, you can easily predict what might happen with these two kids.

The Chattahoochee–Oconee National Forest has a visitor center, where a no-nonsense park ranger named Liz Winters (played by Margo Martindale) works as a manager of sorts. (She’s the only employee of the visitor center who’s seen in the movie.) Liz tries to come across as being tough as nails, but she’s got a soft spot for an animal-rights activist named Peter (played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson, in a very fake-looking wig), who calls himself a “life inspection representative.” Peter is a regular visitor to make sure that no animals are being harmed in the forest.

Peter might be aware that Liz has a crush on him. The movie drops in some adult-oriented double entendre jokes. For example, Peter comments to bachelorette Liz about one of the taxidermy animals on display in the visitor center: “You’ve got a dusty beaver here, rancher.” Liz smirks and replies, “I’m working on it.” Later in the movie, two paramedics named Beth (played by Kahyun Kim) and Tom (played by Scott Seiss) arrive by ambulance to the visitor center in one of the movie’s most memorable scenes.

A group of troublemakers in their late teens and early 20s, who call themselves the Duchamps, have been robbing and assaulting people in the forest area. Only three of these gang members are shown in “Cocaine Bear,” and they only have nicknames in the movie. Kid (played by Aaron Holliday), also known as Stache, is the youngest and most likely to talk himself out of tough situations with an opponent. Ponytail (played by Leo Hanna) is the biggest bully in the group. Vest (played by J.B. Moore) is the most likely to get scared when things go wrong.

All of these characters encounter each other in one way or another during “Cocaine Bear.” There’s a lot of gruesome violence that looks straight out of a horror movie. However, “Cocaine Bear” is never really a horror movie because it stays consistently true to its intention of being an action comedy. The bear does some unrealistic stunts and has some human-like facial expressions that seem to be the filmmakers’ way of winking at the audience to show that “Cocaine Bear” is an absurdist fictional film.

In one of his last movie roles, Liotta (who died in his sleep in 2022, at the age of 67) seems to be having fun as the “Cocaine Bear” Syd character, which is a spoof of all the callous criminals that Liotta portrayed in his long acting career. Martindale, Ferguson and Jackson also have great comedic timing and understood that “Cocaine Bear” is meant to have a dark-but-wacky satirical tone in this story about humans versus a wild animal. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles. The bear, without question, is the star of the show.

For a movie about a cocaine-fueled killer bear on the loose, “Cocaine Bear” occasionally disappoints when the movie becomes less suspenseful about when the bear is going to attack next. The adrenaline-packed momentum drags when the movie gets sidetracked with the some of the shenanigan-like conflicts between people who know about the bear.

“Cocaine Bear” also requires a huge suspension of disbelief that the local fire department (which is usually in charge of handling wild animals) wasn’t called as soon as it was known that a wild bear was killing people. Police detective Bob is the main government official on the scene for most of the movie. And there is no mention of the area being evacuated for safety after it’s known that a killer bear is on the loose, and more people get killed by the bear.

However, no one should be going to see “Cocaine Bear” for realism. Banks’ direction is solid but sometimes a little too busy and unfocused. The movie is hit-and-miss when it comes to the storytelling part of the narrative. And some of the main characters (such as Eddie and Sari) are not very interesting. But “Cocaine Bear” delivers the goods when it comes to viewer anticipation to see what this unhinged bear will do next. The movie is destined to become a cult classic for viewers who like this type of entertainment.

Universal Pictures will release “Cocaine Bear” in U.S. cinemas on February 24, 2023.

Review: ‘The Many Saints of Newark,’ starring Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Michael Gandolfini, Ray Liotta and Vera Farmiga

January 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: Corey Stoll, Joey Diaz, Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Michael Gandolfini, Gabriella Piazza, Alessandro Nivola and an unidentified actress in “The Many Saints of Newark” (Photo by Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Many Saints of Newark”

Directed by Alan Taylor

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1967 to 1972, in New Jersey and New York, the mobster drama film “The Many Saints of Newark” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class involved in mafia activities.

Culture Clash: Members of the Moltisanti and Soprano families of “The Sopranos” TV series rise through the ranks of the Italian American mafia in New Jersey while having conflicts with each other, as an underage Tony Soprano is groomed to learn the family’s crime business. 

Culture Audience: “The Many Saints of Newark” will appeal primarily to fans of “The Sopranos” and predictable mobster movies with good acting.

Leslie Odom Jr. and Alessandro Nivolo in “The Many Saints of Newark” (Photo by Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures)

As a movie prequel to “The Sopranos” series, “The Many Saints of Newark” disappoints by not making Tony Soprano the main character. However, the cast members are so talented, they elevate this typical mobster drama. You don’t have to be familiar with “The Sopranos” to understand “The Many Saints of Newark,” although the movie is more enjoyable to watch for anyone who has a basic level of knowledge about “The Sopranos,” which won 21 Primetime Emmy Awards during its 1999 to 2007 run on HBO. At times, “The Many Saints of Newark” looks more like it’s trying to be a Martin Scorsese mafia film than a “Sopranos” prequel.

Directed by Alan Taylor and written by “The Sopranos” showrunner David Chase and Lawrence Konner, “The Many Saints of Newark” opens with a scene of a graveyard that shows the gravestone of Christopher Moltisanti, Tony Soprano’s troubled protégé, whom Tony killed in Season 6 of the series. Christopher (voiced by Michael Imperioli) is briefly a “voice from the dead” narrator to explain to viewers that this story will go back in time (from 1967 to 1972), to show how Christopher’s father Dickie Moltisanti (played by Alessandro Nivola) became a mafia mentor to Tony.

It’s not the ghost of Christopher who really haunts “The Saints of Newark.” It’s the ghost of James Gandolfini, the actor who made Tony Soprano an iconic character in “The Sopranos.” Gandolfini died in 2013, at the age of 51. Any TV show or movie that’s about “The Sopranos” saga has a huge void to fill without Gandolfini playing the role of the adult Tony Soprano. It’s a void that really can’t be filled, but “The Many Saints of Newark” makes an attempt to create another “larger than life” mafia character for “The Sopranos” saga, but it’s extremely difficult for any “Sopranos” character to overshadow Tony and his legacy.

“The Many Saints of Newark” is about Dickie (Tony’s first mentor) more than anyone else. The movie reveals the family tree in bits and pieces for any viewer who doesn’t know the family background. Dickie’s father is Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (played by Ray Liotta), who has an identical twin brother named Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti (also played by Liotta), who is in prison for murder. Dickie is a cousin of Carmela De Angelis (played by Lauren DiMario), Tony’s high-school sweetheart who would later become his wife. Even though Dickie is not related to the Sopranos by blood, he becomes so close to Tony, Dickie is eventually referred to as Tony’s “uncle.”

Tony’s parents are Giovanni Francis “Johnny Boy” Soprano (played by Jon Bernthal) and Livia Soprano (played by Vera Farmiga), who have very different personalities. Johnny is gregarious and fun-loving, while Livia is uptight and judgmental. During the five years that this movie takes place, Tony is seen when he’s 11 years old (played by William Ludwig) and when he’s 16 years old (played by Michael Gandofini, the real-life son of James Gandolfini).

Tony, his parents and his two younger sisters live in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. Tony’s sisters Janice and Barbara are doted on by their parents, while Tony feels negelcted in comparison. (Mattea Conforti portrays Janice as a child, Alexandra Intrator portrays Janice as teenager, and Lexie Foley portrays Barbara as a child.)

A family party celebrating Janice’s confirmation in the Catholic religion shows how much Tony feels like an ignored outsider in his own family. Dickie is one of the people who’s a regular at the Soprano family gatherings because members of the Soprano family and the Moltiscanti family work for the DiMeo crime family that rules this part of New Jersey. It’s at Janice’s confirmation party that Tony sees his father Johnny and Dickie talking about some mafia business. Tony is intrigued.

Tony is intelligent, but his academic grades don’t reflect that intelligence because Tony doesn’t really like school. It’s the first sign that he’s not comfortable with authority figures or following rules. Livia is overly critical of Tony and thinks he’s not as smart as Tony actually is. At one point, Tony’s teacher Mrs. Jarecki (played by Talia Balsam) tells Livia that Tony is intelligent and has leadership potential. Livia’s reaction is to say that there’s a difference between being smart and being a smart aleck.

Johnny’s older brother Corrado John “Junior” Soprano Jr. (played by Corey Stoll) is more stoic and serious-minded than Johnny. (Dominic Chianese played Junior in “The Sopranos” TV series.) Johnny and Junior eventually have a rivalry over who will rise the highest in the DiMeo crime family. But when this story takes place, Dickie’s father Hollywood Dick has more seniority than Junior and Johnny.

Much of the family drama in “The Saints of Newark” is about the tensions between Dickie and his father. Hollywood Dick abused his first wife (Dickie’s mother), who is now deceased. It’s implied that she was killed by her husband, who got away with the crime. Dickie’s father was abusive to him too when Dickie was a child. Dickie’s childhood is not shown in flashbacks, but it’s described in conversations. As an adult, Dickie has a love/hate relationship with his father.

In 1967, Hollywood Dick arrives back in Newark from a trip to Italy and has someone with him: a much-younger Italian woman named Giuseppina (played by Michela De Rossi), whom Hollywood Dick impulsively married in Italy. Giuseppina, who is described as a beauty queen, barely knows English and is young enough to be her new husband’s daughter. She’s really a trophy wife who doesn’t hide the fact that she married Hollywood Dick so that she could live in America as the wife of a man who can take care of her financial needs.

Hollywood Dick introduces Giuseppina to Dickie for the first time after she has already become Hollywood Dick’s wife. Dickie and his wife Joanna (played by Gabriella Piazza) eventually become parents to Christopher, their first child. Even though Dickie and Giuseppina are married to other people, it doesn’t take long for Giuseppina and Dickie to start looking at each other lustfully. Their feelings are also accelerated when Dickie finds out that his father is abusing Giuseppina. Dickie feels very protective of her, and he wants to help Giuseppina in her dream to own her own hair salon.

Meanwhile, Dickie is in regular contact with some of the African Americans who are part of the criminal underground in Newark. Harold McBrayer (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) collects bets for the mafia. In an early scene in the movie, Harold is shown beating up Leon Overall (played by Mason Bleu), the leader of an African American gang called the Saints, because Leon is suspected of stealing from Harold.

“The Many Saints of Newark” makes some attempt to be more racially diverse than “The Sopranos” by having a subplot about how Harold’s relationship with Dickie changes over time. The movie also has scenes depicting racial tensions, such as the Newark race riots and what happens when Harold’s relationship with Dickie is tested for another reason. But because the African American people in this movie are supporting characters, issues of racism are not at the forefront of this story.

And where is Tony Soprano during all of Dickie’s family drama? The movie trailers for “The Many Saints of Newark” make it look like the teenage Tony Soprano will be in nearly all of the film. He’s not. The teenage Tony Soprano doesn’t appear until 51 minutes into this two-hour movie.

Tony is a rebellious teen who needs a father figure more than ever when his father Johnny is arrested and sent to prison for assault with a deadly weapon. The arrest takes place in front of Tony and Janice. During Johnny’s incarceration, Dickie becomes even more of an influence on Tony.

Viewers who are looking for more insignt into Tony and Carmela’s teenage relationship won’t really get it in “The Many Saints of Newark.” There’s a scene where Tony and a few friends show off to Carmela by stealing an ice cream truck and giving away free ice cream to people in the neighborhood during this theft. At this point, Tony and Carmela aren’t officially a couple. He’s showing a romantic interest in her, but she’s not really all that impressed with him.

“The Many Saints of Newark” gives more background information about Tony’s rocky relationship with his mother Livia. There’s a minor subplot about Livia being in therapy (it’s implied that she might have bipolar disorder), she’s prescribed Elavil, and Tony wants some of the Elavil too. The only point to this subplot is that it’s a foreshadowing nod to a well-known “Sopranos” story arc about an adult Tony being in psychiatric therapy. Tony’s sessions with his therapist Dr. Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco) were among the most-praised aspects of the TV series.

In addition to Tony and his sisters, “The Many Saints of Newark” has the younger versions of some other “Sopranos” characters, but they aren’t given much to do in this movie. John Magaro portrays a younger Silvio Dante, who was played by Steven Van Zandt in the TV series. Billy Magnussen depicts Paulie Walnuts, a role played by Tony Serico in the TV series. Samson Moeakiola is in the role of Pussy Bonpensiero, who was played by Vincent Pastore in the TV series.

However much “The Many Saints of Newark” might have been marketed as a Tony Soprano origin story, this movie is really a Dickie Moltisanti story, with Tony as a supporting character. The movie’s tagline is “Who Made Tony Soprano?,” but it still seems like a “bait and switch” marketing ploy. Throughout much of the movie, viewers might be asking instead, “Where is Tony Soprano?”

Fortunately, the performances by all of the movie’s cast members (especially Nivolo, Liotta, Odom and Farmiga) maintain a level of interest, along with the suspenseful aspects of the story. However, people who’ve seen enough American mafia movies will find a lot of familiar tropes in “The Many Saints of Newark.” Taylor doesn’t do anything spectacular with the movie’s direction. Chase and Konner approached the screenplay as if delving into Tony Soprano’s underage youth ultimately wouldn’t work as the central focus of a movie that showcases very adult crimes.

“The Saints of Newark” is not a bad movie, but it’s not a great one either, considering the high bar set by “The Sopranos.” The movie’s technical aspects, including the cinematography and production design, are perfectly adequate, but everything about “The Many Saints of Newark” looks like a made-for-TV movie, not a big event movie that was made for a theatrical release. As long as viewers know in advance that Tony Soprano is not the central character of “The Many Saints of Newark,” they have a better chance of enjoying this watchable but not essential entry in “The Sopranos” saga.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “The Many Saints of Newark” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on October 1, 2021.

2019 New York Film Festival: ‘Marriage Story’ is the centerpiece film

July 30, 2019

Scarlett Johansson, Azhy Robertson and Adam Driver in “Marriage Story” (Photo by Wilson Webb)

The following is a press release from Film at Lincoln Center:

Film at Lincoln Center announces Noah Baumbach’s “Marriage Story” as Centerpiece of the 57th New York Film Festival (September 27 – October 13), making its New York premiere at Alice Tully Hall on Friday, October 4, 2019. “Marriage Story” will be released in select theaters and on Netflix later this year.

Noah Baumbach’s new film is about the rapid tangling and gradual untangling of impetuosity, resentment, and abiding love between a married couple negotiating their divorce and the custody of their son. Adam Driver is Charlie, a 100-percent New York experimental theater director; Scarlett Johansson is Nicole, his principal actress and soon-to-be L.A.-based ex-wife. Their “amicable” breakup devolves, one painful rash response and hostile counter-response at a time, into a legal battlefield, led on Nicole’s side by Laura Dern and on Charlie’s side by “nice” Alan Alda and “not-so-nice” Ray Liotta. What is so remarkable about “Marriage Story” is its frank understanding of the emotional fluctuations between Charlie and Nicole: they are both short-sighted, both occasionally petty, both vindictive, and both loving. The film is as harrowing as it is hilarious as it is deeply moving. With Merritt Wever and Julie Hagerty as Nicole’s sister and mom, and Azhy Robertson as their beloved son, Henry.

“What amazed me about ‘Marriage Story’ is the way that Noah keeps the many conflicting emotions between his characters flowing into and around and under and over each other, so beautifully that the film achieves the condition of music,” said New York Film Festival Director and Selection Committee Chair Kent Jones. “In fact, it actually flowers into song in two of the film’s loveliest and most surprising moments. ‘Marriage Story’ is a heartbreaker, it’s very funny, and it has an emotional complexity that’s worthy of Bergman.”

“I grew up coming to the New York Film Festival with my parents. And it’s where my first film ‘Kicking and Screaming’ premiered 24 years ago,” said Baumbach. “I couldn’t be more thrilled and proud that ‘Marriage Story’ has been selected as Centerpiece of the NYFF. The 14-year-old me’s mind is blown; the 49-year-old me’s mind is also blown.”

Presented by Film at Lincoln Center, the 17-day New York Film Festival highlights the best in world cinema, featuring works from celebrated filmmakers as well as fresh new talent. The selection committee, chaired by Jones, also includes Dennis Lim, FLC Director of Programming, and Florence Almozini, FLC Associate Director of Programming.

Tickets for the 57th New York Film Festival will go on sale to the general public on September 8. Festival and VIP passes are on sale now and offer one of the earliest opportunities to purchase tickets and secure seats at some of the festival’s biggest events, including Centerpiece. Support for the Centerpiece of the New York Film Festival benefits Film at Lincoln Center in its non-profit mission to support the art and craft of cinema.

 

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