Review: ‘Master’ (2022), starring Regina Hall, Zoe Renee, Talia Ryder, Talia Balsam and Amber Gray

February 2, 2022

by Carla Hay

Regina Hall and Amber Gray in “Master” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Content Services)

“Master” (2022)

Directed by Mariama Diallo

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Ancaster, Massachusetts, the horror film “Master” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and a few Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy who are connected in some way to a prestigious university.

Culture Clash: A college professor, who is the first African American leader of a co-ed dormitory, finds herself getting involved in the problems of another African American woman, who is a first-year undergraduate student and might be the target of a curse that has haunted the college campus.

Culture Audience: “Master” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in horror movies that have social commentary about race relations in America.

Zoe Renee in “Master” (Photo by Linda Kallerus/Amazon Content Services)

“Master” has similar racism themes that were explored in filmmaker Jordan Peele’s Oscar-winning 2017 horror movie “Get Out,” an impactful story about an African American man who goes with his white girlfriend to meet her parents for the first time and experiences terror that he did not expect. Instead of an upscale suburban house that’s the setting for the horror in “Get Out,” the horror in “Master” takes place on an upscale college campus and through the perspectives of African American women. In many ways, “Master” skillfully depicts the parallels between supernatural horror and realistic racism, but other parts of the movie needed improvement in resolving certain characters’ storylines.

Some viewers might find the ending of “Master” to be underwhelming or unsatisfying. However, the movie delivers enough suspense-filled scenes to be an entertaining thriller, especially for people who prefer horror movies that don’t have a lot a bloody gore. “Master” also has the benefit of a talented ensemble cast convincingly portraying the characters that are sometimes underdeveloped in the movie’s compelling but flawed screenplay. “Master” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Written and directed by Mariama Diallo, “Master” takes place almost entirely on the campus of the fictional Ancaster College in Ancaster, Massachusetts. Ancaster College is a prestigious institution that is one of the oldest colleges in the United States. The college campus was built on the land where a woman named Margaret Millett was hanged for witchcraft on December 3, 1694. And you know what that means for a horror movie.

“Master,” which is set in the present day, opens with the arrival of a freshman undergraduate student named Jasmine Moore (played by Zoe Renee), who immediately catches the attention of the other students. Why? For starters, she’s one of the few African American students on campus. Secondly, Jasmine has been assigned a dorm room (Room 302) that has a notorious and sinister reputation for being haunted. Jasmine is living in a co-ed dormitory called Belleville House. Not far from Belleville House is the site where suspected witch Margaret Millett was hanged.

Jasmine finds out later why the room is said to be cursed. But on her move-in day, she has no idea that there’s anything wrong with the room. She gets a hint though, when she tells some students that she’s in Room 302 at Belleville, and they react by telling her that she has “the room.” The tone in their voices indicates that “the room” means that Jasmine is either going to be the target of danger or the target of some cruel pranks.

Jasmine’s roommate is a spoiled and jaded student named Amelia (played by Talia Ryder), who is also in her first year at Ancaster College. The college has recently appointed a new “house master” for Belleville: Gail Bishop (played by Regina Hall), a tenured professor who is the first black person to become an Ancaster College house master. Gail is also an alum of Ancaster College, so she is accustomed to being in this predominantly white environment. However, based on the fact that it’s taken this long for Ancaster College to appoint a black person to a house master position, this elite institution isn’t as progressive as some of its politically liberal officials would like to think it is.

The use of the word “master” for the title of a house leader is also very outdated, since it conjures up images and attitudes of what it meant to be a “master” of a house when slavery was legal in the United States. According to the production notes for “Master,” when writer/director Diallo was an undergraduate at Yale University, the word “master” was still used at the university as the title for a dormitory house leader. Yale stopped using the word “master” for this house leader title in 2016, after students protested over the slavery connotations of the term.

In the “Master” production notes, Diallo describes an experience that she had years after she graduated from Yale, when she saw a former “master” of a Yale house where she used to live: “I was so excited to see him that I called out hello, addressing him as Master. He looked hugely uncomfortable because we were in earshot of a ton of people … Anyway, we went on to have a lovely conversation. But as soon as I walked away, I told myself I had to make a film about it because it really threw into relief how bizarre that term, that relationship is. And I knew I wanted to call it ‘Master’ because of the multiple layers of meaning.”

In “Master,” Gail thinks of herself as an approachable, qualified and inspirational leader. At her first meeting with the students living in Belleville House, she reminds them how privileged they are to be Ancaster College students: “Two U.S. presidents and an army of senators count this school as their alma mater,” she declares proudly. She adds, “I am more than a professor. I am a confidante, an ally, a friend.”

She also makes a statement where she might be psychologically projecting how she feels about Ancaster College: “My last fact: You will never go back home again. When you head to your hometowns over break, it will be as visitors … All I can say to you now is, ‘Welcome home.'” Gail’s comment assumes that everyone will feel at home on the Ancaster College campus—or at least at Belleville House, which she’s been tasked to lead. Gail will soon find out how wrong she was with this assumption.

The movie makes a point of showing that Gail’s life revolves around her work. There are clues that even though she’s been given this “master” position, things won’t go smoothly for her. She’s had to move into the “master” living quarters near Belleville. She lives alone and doesn’t have much of a personal life.

Gail is not particularly close to anyone at work, she doesn’t seem to have any friends outside of work, and she doesn’t mention having any love interests. Gail is an only child, and her only family appears to be her mother, who lives far away. This lack of a nearby support system adds to the isolation Gail feels when things start to go wrong.

In an early scene in the movie, Gail tries to open the door to the house where she’s recently moved, but the lock is jammed. As she walks away in frustration, the door mysteriously opens on its own. It can be interpreted as a sign of a ghostly presence. However, if viewers look at “Master” as a way of showing how institutions and people can be haunted by racism (which is Diallo’s overall message of this movie), the eerie incident with the locked door is a symbolic way of showing Gail might have been invited into the elite echelon of house masters, but she’s still going to face some barriers.

One of the best things about “Master” is the way it accurately shows racism in its many forms. People who are racist or have unconscious racist biases often don’t think they are racists. But their racism comes out in subtle ways, such as when they immediately ask a black person why they are in a place that happens to be populated with mostly white people—as if the black person has to justify a reason to exist in that place. Meanwhile, white people in the same place aren’t given the same type of scrutiny.

Another form of racism is automatically assuming that a black student at a prestigious university got there because of an athletic scholarship, Affirmative Action/tokenism, or because they’re related to a celebrity. People who have this type of racism find it hard to believe that a black person can get into a prestigious university based on intellectual merit, such as excellent academics and being a well-rounded student—the same reasons why many people automatically assume white students are at prestigious universities.

Jasmine experiences some of this subtle racism when she interacts with Amelia and Amelia’s campus friends, who are all white. Amelia and her friends don’t really exclude Jasmine, but they make it clear that they don’t want Jasmine to be their close friend without even getting to know her first. On the first night that Jasmine and Amelia hang out with some other first-year female students at Ancaster College, Jasmine finds out that Amelia already knows some of these students because they were in the same network of elite high schools. By contrast, Jasmine (who is quiet and reserved) doesn’t know anyone at Ancaster College when she arrives there.

The teens play the drinking game Never Have I Ever. And it soon becomes obvious to Jasmine that Amelia and her friends are more sexually experienced than Jasmine is, since one of the challenges in this drinking game is “Never have I ever been part of the Mile High Club.” As Amelia and her friends brag about their partying antics during high-priced vacations, Jasmine looks a little uncomfortable. She gives the impression that she’s the bookish type.

And so, when the drinking challenge is “Never have I ever pissed on myself,” Jasmine seems relieved that she has a “wild” story to share too. She’s the only one in the group who admits that she’s urinated on herself. Jasmine explains it happened once when she was sleepwalking. The other teens look horrified and a little disgusted with Jasmine’s story, even though it’s hard to believe (considering all their drunken partying) that no one else in the group ever urinated on themselves.

Jasmine experiences racism one evening when she goes back to her dorm room and finds Amelia hanging out with some of Amelia’s male and female friends. Jasmine is the only person of color in the room. The other people look at Jasmine as if she’s intruding (even though it’s her room too), and they invite her to join the conversation, with a hint of reluctance. A guy named Tyler (played by Will Hochman) immediately zeroes in on Jasmine to question what she’s doing at Ancaster College.

Tyler asks sarcastically, “Who are you? Beyoncé?” He then rattles off some names of other famous black female entertainers, such as Nicki Minaj and Lizzo. Even though he says it in a joking manner, his racist condescension is obvious. Jasmine tries to laugh off Tyler’s backhanded insult disguised as a joke, but viewers can see that it bothers Jasmine, and she’s hurt.

There are three main reasons why Tyler’s “joking around” is racially offensive. First, Tyler doesn’t see Jasmine as being intellectually worthy of being at Ancaster College, so he questions why she’s there, and then compares her to entertainers as a reason for why she’s at this elite college. He doesn’t question why the white students are there. Second, Tyler lists only black female entertainers who use sexuality to sell their images, so he immediately tries to put Jasmine in a sexual context, which is a racial stereotype that many people have of black women. Third, even though Beyoncé, Nicki Minaj and Lizzo look nothing alike, racists often think people of another race all look alike.

It’s at this get-together that Jasmine first hears about why the Belleville House dorm room she’s living in is reportedly haunted: A female student died there in the 1960s. Somehow, the legend of Margaret Millett got entangled in the story of this death, because there’s a story that Room 302 is cursed by this suspected witch. According to the story, the witch will show herself to a freshman student at 3:33 a.m. and take that student to hell.

Jasmine then starts to have nightmares, and she senses that a shadowy figure is following her on campus. It should come as no surprise that Jasmine goes to a library to do research about the student who died in the room. Jasmine finds out that the student who died in the room was an 18-year-old named Louisa Weeks, who was found dead of suicide by hanging in the room on December 4, 1965. Louisa was also the first black student at Ancaster College.

Gail starts to experience some strange things too. As a tradition, house masters get their portrait painted, and the painting is hung with the portraits of the other past and present house masters at Ancaster College. After she gets her portrait painted, Gail finds maggots and flies coming out of the painting. The movie’s jump scares aren’t very original, but “Master” keeps people in suspense about what will happen next.

Gail also experiences how race and racism affect the power structure and barriers in her own career at Ancaster College. At a faculty party, two white colleagues—Diandra (played by Talia Balsam) and Brian (played by Bruce Altman)—congratulate Gail on being named Ancaster College’s first black person to become a house master. Diandra’s and Brian’s titles aren’t mentioned in the movie, but they have more seniority and more power than Gail at Ancaster College.

In a racially insensitive remark, Diandra and Brian compare Gail to Barack Obama and laugh because they think it’s a clever joke. The way that Diandra and Brian go on and on about Gail breaking this racial barrier at Ancaster College, it’s clear that Brian and Diandra think it’s more important to congratulate themselves for looking “progressive” in being among the decision makers for Gail to get the house master job, instead of giving validation to Gail that she earned this position on her own merits, not because she was a “token” black hire.

In another scene, Diandra dictates over the phone to Gail about how Gail should write a speech for an upcoming event attended by numerous Ancaster College donors. It will be the first big event where Gail is formally introduced to donors as the college’s latest house master. Diandra wants the speech to be worded in such a way where Gail will sound like a subservient black employee who’s grateful to the Ancaster College “powers that be” for appointing her as the first black person in this position. Gail has to tactfully steer Diandra away from that verbiage and let Gail write a speech where Gail’s accomplishments and goals are the focus, not her race.

“Get Out” brilliantly lampoons this type of racial condescension from white people who want to project a “progressive liberal” image, but who secretly think people who aren’t white are inferior. “Master” doesn’t blend these issues with horror as well as “Get Out” does, but “Master” does show a black female perspective that was lacking in “Get Out.” Because women of color have to deal with racism and sexism, “Master” adeptly depicts how this double-edged sword of bigotry can be used against accomplished black women whose capabilities and intelligence are constantly questioned or underestimated.

Gail and Jasmine both experience racist micro-aggressions throughout the movie. When Jasmine goes to an on-campus party by herself, a white guy at the front door won’t let her in, and he says that the party is “at capacity.” Meanwhile, white students are seen going into the party with no one stopping them. Jasmine is allowed entry into the party only after one of Amelia’s friends named Katie (played by Noa Fisher) sees Jasmine and tells the racist at the door that Jasmine is with her.

After getting racist comments from Tyler, Jasmine changes her hairstyle from natural curls to straightened hair. She also stops dressing in casual street wear and starts to dress more like a preppy student, as if she wants to assimilate more into the so-called white elitist culture at Ancaster College. Observant viewers will also notice how Jasmine goes back to her original way of dressing and wearing her hair as she grows more disillusioned with Ancaster College.

“Master” also effectively shows that even among black people, allyship isn’t always guaranteed. A “blink and you’ll miss it” moment comes early on in the movie, when Jasmine is in a school cafeteria, and a black female cafeteria worker (played by Angela Grovey) gives Jasmine a very dirty look without saying a word to Jasmine. It’s indicative of the resentment that some working-class black people might have of other black people they assume are too “uppity” and “trying to be white” if they’re accepted into a predominantly white and elite institution.

And there’s an outspoken Ancaster College professor named Liv Beckman (played by Amber Gray), who wears her hair in African-styled braids. Liv constantly talks about race and considers herself to be a progressive social justice warrior. Liv has very different relationships with Gail (who is a colleague/peer) and Jasmine (who is a student) because of the power structure involved.

At the faculty party shown early on in the movie, Gail and and Liv have a private conversation outside, where Liv comments to Gail about how there are very few black women who are part of Ancaster College’s faculty: “Us sisters are an endangered species.” Liv invites Gail to go on a weekend getaway trip with her to Boston. Gail politely declines the offer. But eventually, Liv and Gail start to become friends and go on a short getaway trip together.

This friendship might cloud Gail’s judgment when she’s part of a committee evaluating whether or not Liv will get tenure at Ancaster College. Diandra, who is also on the committee, is skeptical that Liv is qualified for tenure, while Gail seems to vacillate over whether or not to support Liv in these committee discussions. This subplot of “will Liv get tenure or not” makes the movie a little clunky and distracting from the main plot.

Liv is extremely friendly to Gail, but the same can’t be said of how Liv treats Jasmine, who is one of Liv’s students in an English literature class. Liv gives the class an assignment to do a critical race analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel “The Scarlet Letter,” which is about a woman who is publicly shamed for committing adultery. The challenge of this assignment is that all the characters in “The Scarlet Letter” are white; therefore, the book isn’t really about relations between different races.

In a classroom discussion of this assignment, Liv dismisses Jasmine’s ideas. But then, when a white British student named Cressida (played by Ella Hunt) essentially says the same things that Jasmine said just a few minutes earlier, Liv profusely praises Cressida for her comments. In a private student-teacher meeting between Liv and Jasmine, Liv tells Jasmine that she thinks Jasmine has trouble adjusting to the demanding nature of the class because Jasmine might be overwhelmed at being in a predominantly white environment.

Liv then continues to be dismissive of Jasmine, by assuming that Jasmine grew up in a predominantly black and poor area. In other words, Liv thinks that Jasmine is a “charity case” student. But then, when Jasmine tells her that she actually grew up in the (predominantly white) city of Tacoma, Washington, and Jasmine was president of her school class, Liv seems shocked and a little embarrassed that she made racist assumptions about Jasmine.

It doesn’t improve the relationship between Jasmine and Liv though. In fact, it seems to make to things worse. Jasmine confides in Gail about it, but Gail tries to stay neutral, since Liv has become Gail’s friend. However, Jasmine really begins to suspect that Liv is unfairly targeting her when Liv gives Jasmine the failing grade of “F” on her “Scarlet Letter” assignment, while Cressida gets a “B+” grade. Jasmine is so upset about it, that she files a formal dispute with the school’s administration.

Around the same time, Jasmine and Amelia start having conflicts with each other. Their relationship started off as cordial, but things eventually go downhill. There’s somewhat of a love triangle introduced in the story when Amelia tells Jasmine that she’s attracted to Tyler, but Amelia and Tyler are just “hanging out” and not officially dating. But then, something happens to reveal that Jasmine is attracted to Tyler too. Even though Tyler racially insulted Jasmine when they first met, her attraction to him is an indication that a part of her wants to fit in with this clique, even if the guy she wants to date probably sees her as inferior to him because of her race.

“Master” puts these types of subplots into the story in ways that make the movie a little cluttered. But there are some mystery elements that will keep people intrigued, including a couple of scenes where someone named Esther Bickert (played by Mary Catherine Wright) calls Gail on the phone to try to talk to Gail about her daughter Liz, who is at Ancaster College. Gail doesn’t know anyone named Liz Bickert, so she tells this mystery caller to contact the school’s directory department.

Meanwhile, Jasmine continues to have nightmares and appears to be sleepwalking. On more than one occasion, Jasmine wakes up from these nightmares in her room, with an alarmed Amelia telling Jasmine how Jasmine was acting strangely before Jasmine woke up. The nightmares get worse, of course. And so does the tension between Jasmine and Amelia, who starts to think that Jasmine is crazy.

One of the more surprising elements to “Master” is a plot twist that’s intriguingly dropped in the movie and then left to dangle unresolved. This plot twist was clearly inspired by a real-life controversial former professor. It’s a sudden turn in the movie’s story that could have been handled better, in terms of how certain characters react to this plot twist. Considering what the consequences would be if this shocking revelation happened in real life (and it has happened in real life), this plot twist just opens up more questions that the movie never answers.

Despite some of the clumsily plotted aspects of “Master,” the movie never gets too boring. “Master” seems a little torn in how much to focus on Gail and how much to focus on Jasmine. In the end, Gail is really the main protagonist, because she’s the title character. Gail has stronger and more emotional ties to Ancaster College than Jasmine does. It’s why Gail’s journey in this story is more fascinating than Jasmine’s journey. Gail has to rethink her longtime loyalty to a college that isn’t exactly the “safe space” that she thought it was.

All of the cast members give admirable but not outstanding performances. Hall (who is an executive producer of “Master”), Renee and Gray bring emotional authenticity to their roles that give “Master” the credibility that it has in depicting how life can be for black women at predominantly white academic institutions. The movie might help viewers better understand how racism can still be condoned and perpetuated, even by well-meaning white people who politically identify as liberals.

Most of the movie’s best scenes aren’t with the jump scares but in moments that show the similarities between racism and a horror story. There’s a scene where Gail is comforting Jasmine, who has become convinced that she’s being tormented by a ghost. “You can’t get away from it, Jasmine,” Gail says, “Believe me, I know.” Jasmine might be talking about a ghost, but Gail is talking about racism. Viewers might like or dislike the story in “Master,” but the main takeaway from the film is that racism is like a hateful ghost that haunts everyone, whether people want to admit or not.

Amazon Studios will release “Master” in select U.S. cinemas and on Prime Video on March 18, 2022.

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.

Review: ‘The Climb’ (2020), starring Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin

November 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kyle Marvin and Michael Angelo Covino in “The Climb” (Photo by Zach Kuperstein/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Climb” (2020)

Directed by Michael Angelo Covino 

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and France, the comedy/drama film “The Climb” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two men, who are longtime best friends, have ups and downs in their relationship, which is often affected by jealousy and personal rivalries.

Culture Audience: “The Climb” will appeal primarily to people who like seeing low-budget films that take a bittersweet and comical look at a close male friendship.

Kyle Marvin, Michael Angelo Covino and Gayle Rankin in “The Climb” (Photo by Zach Kuperstein/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Climb” is the type of dramedy movie that doesn’t really get made much anymore: It’s about two regular guys and their longtime friendship, with the movie taking place over the course of about 10 years. That’s it. There’s no real gimmick or hook, although there’s the predictable love triangle that threatens to permanently ruin their relationship. “The Climb” isn’t a barrier-breaking movie, but it has moments that are mostly relatable, even if they might teeter at times on the brink of absurd.

The two American friends at the center of “The Climb” are portrayed by the real-life pals who wrote the movie: “The Climb” director/co-writer Michael Angelo Covino plays Mike, while “The Climb” co-writer Kyle Marvin plays Kyle. “The Climb” is based on Covino and Marvin’s short film of the same name. Their real-life friendship helps with their acting in the movie, which at times is a tad amateurish, but it still has that underlying authenticity that shines through the acting. The ages of the Mike and Kyle characters aren’t stated in the movie, but it appears that the story is about the lives of these two characters from their late 20s to late 30s.

“The Climb” is not biographical, although in the production notes for “The Climb,” Covino and Marvin say that elements of their personalities are reflected in the characters that they portray in the movie. As Covino states in the production notes: “In the movie, there are heightened, extreme versions of traits we both have that aren’t necessarily our best traits—I’m not that big of an asshole, and Kyle is not that big of a pushover.”

It’s apparent from the first scene in “The Climb” that the character of Mike is the dominant “alpha male” in the friendship, while Kyle is the passive “beta male.” Mike and Kyle are riding bicycles up a rigorous incline in the French Alps. They’re supposed to be bike riding for “fun,” but it’s clear from all the strenuous effort put into their bike riding that there’s a silent competition between them to see who’s the better and stronger cyclist during this ride.

The friendly rivalry mood is broken when Mike tells Kyle that he has slept with Kyle’s fiancée, who is a French woman named Ava (played by Judith Godrèche). Mike downplays this affair by saying that it happened three years before Kyle and Ava began dating, but Kyle is still understandably shocked and upset that this secret is just now being revealed. And then Mike eventually admits that he slept with Ava after she and Kyle became a couple.

Mike has a tendency to be bossy and arrogant, because he always likes to be in control of a situation. He tells Kyle to keep pedaling, even after Kyle has heard this upsetting news about Mike and Ava’s affair. Mike also has a quick temper, because during this bike ride, he gets into a road-rage incident that lands him in the hospital. Shortly after Mike confesses to Kyle about the affair, a car drives up behind them on the road, and the car’s driver beeps the horn impatiently because Kyle and Mike are blocking the car’s way.

Mike’s response is to yell at the driver to drive around him and Kyle. The driver complies by driving past the two friends, but Mike won’t let things go, and he chases after the car on his bike. To Mike and Kyle’s surprise, the driver reacts by getting out of the car and beating up Mike, who is no match for the fighting skills of the driver. You’d think that Mike would be humbled by this experience. But no.

At the hospital, Ava shows up to visit. Although she seems to feel guilty that Kyle knows that she cheated on him with his best friend, Mike tries to shrug off everything and acts like Kyle will eventually get over it. Viewers will get the impression that a big part of Mike’s attraction to Ava is because she’s with Kyle, and Mike gets some kind of selfish and competitive pleasure out of being able to sleep with his best friend’s lover.

At any rate, Mike and Ava admit that don’t want to stay away from each other and they start to passionately kiss in Mike’s hospital room. And guess who walks by and sees them right at that moment? Kyle, of course.

The movie then fast-forwards to a funeral in the United States. The funeral has taken place an untold number of years later, perhaps three or four years after that scene in the hospital. It’s revealed that the funeral is for Ava, whose cause of death is not mentioned in the movie. In the years since Kyle found out that Ava and Mike had an affair behind his back, Mike and Kyle’s friendship soured. Ava and Mike got married, and then she died.

At the funeral, Mike and Kyle have obviously not seen each other for quite some time. Their “reunion” is awkward, to say the least. And then at the funeral, a hot-tempered Mike gets into a physical fight with a local gravedigger over the burial of Ava. Kyle, who has a “peacemaker” type of personality, intervenes in the fight and is able to stop it before things get really ugly. Mike then tells Kyle that he’s sorry about the affair with Ava. And it looks like Kyle and Mike sort of reconcile.

Since breaking up with Ava, Kyle moved on to another love: a no-nonsense, opinionated woman named Marissa (played by Gayle Rankin), who is the dominant one in the relationship. It’s never stated exactly how long Marissa and Kyle have been dating each other after his relationship with Ava ended, but Kyle and Marissa have known each other since high school and one thing is clear: Kyle’s mother Suzi (played by Talia Balsam), who is also strong-willed and domineering, doesn’t like Marissa. Kyle’s father Jim (played by George Wendt) is as easygoing as Suzi is uptight.

Kyle seems afraid to stand up to his mother, because when viewers first see Marissa and Kyle together, they are in the basement at Jim and Suzi’s house, and Marissa is giving Kyle a pep talk where they both practice saying “no” to Suzi. The family has gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. And it’s where Kyle and Marissa make a big announcement: They’re engaged to be married.

Suzi isn’t thrilled, but there’s nothing she can do about it. And then she tells Kyle something that makes him uncomfortable: She’s invited Mike over for the family’s upcoming Christmas dinner because Mike “has no family.” It’s never explained in the movie why Mike has no family members.

Mike is now a bitter and lonely widower who drinks heavily. He once had an athletic body, but his toned physique is gone, and now he has a flabby “beer gut” and an unkempt beard. And when he shows up at the Christmas dinner, he gets drunk and embarrasses himself. You know what that means in movies like this: A Christmas tree, a Christmas gift or fill-in-the-blank will be unlucky enough to be in the path of destruction of the drunk person.

The rest of the movie follows Mike and Kyle as they mend their friendship and adjust to new dynamics in their relationship after Kyle and Marissa become parents to a son named Otis, and then Kyle and Marissa get married. Mike is the type of guy who isn’t used to being a lonely bachelor, so he has some jealousy over Kyle falling in love and making Marissa a top priority in his personal life. Will Mike try to sabotage Kyle and Marissa’s relationship?

Things aren’t completely rosy in Kyle and Marissa’s relationship. After Mike comes back into Kyle’s life, Marissa often feels like a “third wheel” when Mike and Kyle hang out together. And there are hints that Marissa might not be in love with Kyle as much as he’s in love with her.

Although “The Climb” has some slightly amusing moments, one of the biggest issues that people might have with this movie is that it doesn’t give much background information on Kyle and Mike. Backstories for these two friends would go a long way in explaining why Kyle puts up with so much of Mike’s obnoxiousness. The movie never really answers this question: Why does Kyle show so much loyalty to Mike, who doesn’t show much loyalty in return?

Some people stay friends with someone longer than they should because they’ve known each other since childhood or because family or money matters would make it awkward or inconvenient to end the friendship. But there’s really no reason for Kyle to keep Mike in his life. They don’t work together, they don’t seem to have much in common except for a shared interest in sporting activities, and they both have very different outlooks and priorities in life.

Someone as selfish and toxic as Mike is an example of that old cliché: “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” But Mike isn’t a complete villain. He has a charming side to him and is the type of person who knows how to exploit people’s weaknesses, which is why Kyle is easily manipulated by Mike.

Still, the movie skimps on a lot of details. During the course of the several years of the friendship that’s shown on screen, it’s not really made clear what Kyle and Mike do for a living. (They’re obviously middle-class.) Mike’s home life as a widower is also a big mystery. Whenever Mike and Kyle are hanging out together, they’re usually at Kyle’s place or they’re out doing some activity together, such as bike riding or skiing.

Covino’s direction of the movie can best be described as “good but not great,” because the tone sometime veers into sitcom-ish territory. A more naturalistic comedic tone works better for the movie and should have been the overall consistent approach to the film. For example, there are a few things that happen during Kyle and Marissa’s wedding ceremony that are just a little too over-the-top, like a TV comedy that’s desperate for a “laugh track” moment.

The movie is divided into seven chapters with titles such as “I’m Sorry,” “Let Go,” “Thanks,” “It’s Broken,” “Fight On,” “Grow Up” and “Fine.” It’s an interesting creative choice, but because there are huge blocks of time missing from the story, structuring the movie like a book with chapters just calls more attention to these omissions and how many questions are left unanswered. (For example, viewers never get to see what kind of marriage that Ava and Mike had.)

The cinematography by Zach Kuperstein makes much of the story engaging. During the Christmas dinner scene, there’s a memorably long tracking shot that works really well, with the camera placed outside but viewers still being able to hear what’s inside. And the scenes with outdoor activities give viewers an immersive sense of being right there with the actors. (It helps to see this movie on the biggest screen possible.)

Above all, the banter between Kyle and Mike is the main reason to watch “The Climb,” because they have the type of friendship that will make people wonder how long it’s going to last and if there’s anything that Mike will do that Kyle wouldn’t be able to forgive. There are issues of masculinity and maturity that are just underneath the surface in almost everything they say or do. Kyle might be the “wimp” and the more easily manipulated one of this duo, but Mike has a lot of growing up to do. Viewers might have different answers on whether Mike or Kyle is the more co-dependent one in the relationship.

As for the women in the movie (namely, Marissa and Suzi, since Ava is barely in the film), they mainly exist to show that Kyle has outspoken women in his life whom he loves but they can also hurt him deeply. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t give Mike any context for how and why he acts the way that he does. It’s not necessarily about making him more likable, but it would give viewers more insight into his personality flaws.

There are vague inferences that Mike’s romantic relationships are often based in chaos. But because the movie shows almost nothing of Mike’s life except when it relates to Kyle, there’s a missed opportunity to show Mike as a more well-rounded human being instead of someone who exists to hang out with Kyle and to sometimes push Kyle’s emotional buttons. It would’ve been interesting for the movie to further explore how Mike’s mother or other women might have influenced his outlook on male/female relationships.

Despite some of the problems in story’s structure and character development, “The Climb” has an unpretentious, almost goofy tone that will endear it to people who want to see a good movie about male friendship without making it about over-aggerated machismo or slapstick buffoonery. There’s a familiarity to a lot of the movie’s material, but Covino and Marvin make a notable impression as “everyday guys” without being generic. “The Climb” is a movie about a friendship that’s more like “chosen family,” even when that choice sometimes get in the way of happiness.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Climb” in select U.S. cinemas on November 13, 2020.

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