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Sopranos Prequel, Venom Sequel & Other Wild Stuff

George Wolf George Wolf Sopranos Prequel, Venom Sequel & Other Wild StuffThe Many Saints of Newark - Photo via IMDb
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Whether you’re nostalgic for your favorite old TV show or you are in the mood for one of the wildest films to hit screens this year, or you just want to see two CGI beasties duke it out, it’s all in theaters this weekend. That and a lot more, actually, so let us run through your options.

The Many Saints of Newark

In theaters and on HBO Max

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Murmurs, complaints, and whispers come in and out of focus as a camera meanders through an empty cemetery at midday: we hear souls telling the stories of their lives. We stop over the resting place of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). He has a tale to tell.

It’s a beautiful opening, spooky but with a bitter, familiar humor about it. With it, director Alan Taylor sets the mood for a period piece that lays the groundwork for one of the best shows ever to grace the small screen. The Many Saints of Newark brings Christmas early for Sopranos fans, but this is not exactly the story of Tony Soprano. In uncovering the making of the future, Taylor and writer Lawrence Konner invite us into the life of Uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola).

Nivola makes for an ideal choice to play the beloved “uncle.” The always reliable actor depicts the film’s central figure as the struggling, complicated result of his circumstances – an excellent theme given the film’s long game to uncover the forces that forged a future boss. In many ways, Uncle Dickie’s weaknesses, indulgences, strengths and goals create a mirror image of the Tony Soprano we would come to know over six seasons.

Longtime fans will have a bada bing blast recognizing familiar characters in their youth. Vera Farmiga is characteristically excellent as Tony’s formidable mother. John Magaro is a spot-on and hilarious Silvio, matched quirk for quirk by Billy Magnussen as Paulie Walnuts. Corey Stoll brings a younger but no less awkward Uncle Junior to life beautifully.

Of course, the one you wait for is young Tony, played with lumbering, melancholic sweetness by James Gandolfini’s son Michael. The resemblance alone gives the character a heartbreaking quality that feeds the mythology, but young Gandolfini serves Tony well with a vulnerable, believable performance that only expands on our deep investment in this character.

But the film is really more interested in those we never got to know: Tony’s father Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), Dickie’s father Aldo and uncle Sal Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, in two exceptional and very different roles), and stepmother Guiseppina Moltisanti (Michela De Rossi).

De Rossi and Leslie Odom Jr. (who plays colleague-turned-competitor Harold McBrayer) offer some of the most intriguing complexity and context in the entire film. The first half pokes holes in the “woe is me” backstory of the entitled white male Mafioso figure by spending some time with two characters who actually did have a tough go making a life for themselves in this community.  

Taylor (Thor: the Dark World, Terminator Genisys, GoT) helmed nine Sopranos episodes, winning an Emmy for one, while Konner penned three solid episodes of his own, although his decades of work for the big screen has been mediocre at best.

But here the filmmakers combine for extended family drama that, despite one major plot turn landing as entirely illogical, weaves themes old and new in a ride that is often operatic and downright Shakespearean.

If the Sopranos family feels like family, turning back the clock on these indelible characters is just as giddy and delightful as it sounds. But The Many Saints of Newark impresses most by the balance it finds between fan service and fresh character arcs.

It’s an often cruel and bloody tale of wanton crime, treacherous deceit, family dysfunction and cold-blooded murder. And it just might be the most fun you’ll have at the movies all year.

Grade: B+

Venom: Let There Be Carnage

In theaters

by Hope Madden

An unusual note about comic book movies is that the sequel is often, perhaps usually, superior to the original. Why is that? Because the original can be so burdened by telling an origin story – usually one we already know.

Venom: Let There Be Carnage is one such film, superior to the original not because we already knew the symbiote antihero’s origin tale, though. Rather, director Ruben Fleischer’s much-maligned 2018 blockbuster suffered from a choppy first act and uninspired direction.

With director Andy Serkis (this guy knows how to motion capture) at the helm and a streamlined writing team (Kelly Marcel is the only writer from the original film to return, this time sharing the pen with star Tom Hardy), Let There Be Carnage determines its tone and pace from the opening scene and, for better or worse, rides that through to its concluding, post-credit moments.

The tone runs far closer to horror-comedy than the original, a theme that suits the story of frenemies, one trying to keep the other from eating human brains.

Hardy returns as Eddie Brock, a one-time superstar San Francisco reporter who ran afoul of his fiancé (Michelle Williams), his news outlet and the law last go-round, but found a life partner in the flesh-hungry extra-terrestrial parasite, Venom (also voice by Hardy). They have inadvertently infected cannibal serial killer Cletus Kassidy (Woody Harrelson) with symbiote blood, and now he, too, has a little voice and big alien inside of him.

Harrelson and his slightly digitally modified eyeballs offer villainous fun — though, to be honest, Riz Ahmed’s evil genius in the previous film was not only underappreciated but superior to Harrelson’s lunatic menace.

Still, Hardy is the reason to see the film. His Eddie is put upon and weary while his Venom is boisterous and often very funny. Through the two performances, Hardy delivers the type of lived-in animosity needed to sell any odd-couple story.

Though the CGI was sharper last time, the overall aesthetic Serkis creates is far campier and Goth, which feeds the film’s spooky season vibe. Williams, in a smaller role, finds her stride, though Naomie Harris’s underwritten character is a shame.

The result is a mish-mash of messy, frenetic fun with a higher body count than you might expect. Plus a post-credits stinger worth sticking around to see.

Grade: B-

Titane

At Gateway Film Center

by George Wolf

I’m just going to go with the official synopsis:

“Following a string of unexplained murders in France, a father is reunited with the son who has been missing for ten years.”

Fine, done, because knowing anything more about Julia Ducournau’s Palme d’Or winning Titane could steal some of the mesmerizing, can’t-look-away, what-is-happening spell it inflicts on you.

Ducournau’s 2016 feature debut Raw shocked audiences with a brutally in- your-face metaphor mixing primal appetites and familiar bonds. She ups all the antes available with Titane, claiming her film is “its own wild animal” like a mad doctor unleashing her creation on an unsuspecting city of fools.

The film is alive with alternating color palettes, pulsating sounds and endless shocks of body horrific visuals. The sudden bursts of violence are downright pedestrian alongside the parade of boldly squirm-inducing clashes of flesh, bone and other.

But as she did with Raw, Ducournau finds humanity clawing out from the inhumane. Truly unforgettable performances from Vincent Lindon and Agathe Russell provide intimate examples of the extremes that even the most damaged souls are capable of in the search to care and be cared for.

It may not be shy about homages and influences, but Titane is indeed its own ferocious animal. Open the cage look the F out.

Grade: A-

The Addams Family 2

In theaters and on VOD

by George Wolf

Two years ago, The Addams Family returned to their cartoon roots with an animated feature that leaned heavily on little Wednesday Addams for its few sparks of macabre fun.

Despite turning to a more convoluted plot line, AF2 doesn’t do much to improve the family reputation.

Wednesday (Chloe Grace Moretz) is still the standout here, putting the creepy and kooky in the third grade science fair. She’s denied a prize thanks to a new “everybody wins” school policy, but her brilliance catches the eye of shady scientist Cyrus Strange (Bill Hader).

Worried she’s being dumbed down by the idiots around her, Wednesday rebuffs cheer up attempts from Dad Gomez (Oscar Isaac) and Mom Morticia (Charlize Theron) when a pushy lawyer (Wallace Shawn) comes knocking with a bombshell.

His clients believe Wednesday may actually be their daughter and are requesting a DNA test. What else can Mom and Dad do except pack Wednesday, Pugsley (Javon “Wanna” Walton, stepping in for the now deeper voiced Finn Wolfhard), Fester (Nick Kroll) and Lurch (Conrad Vernon, who again co-directs with Greg Tiernan and newcomer Laura Brousseau) into the haunted camper for that fallback device for hastily-connected hi jinx, the road trip!

It’s a three week trek to (where else?) Death Valley and back, stopping in Miami, San Antonio, and the Grand Canyon long enough to catch up with more family (Snoop Dogg’s Cousin It) and try out some mildly amusing gags.

Only a precious few – like the guy who keeps trying to propose to his girlfriend and “Thing” trying to stay awake while driving – actually land, and it’s again up to Moretz and her perfect deadpan (“I’ve been social distancing since birth”) to remind us of what makes this family dynamic.

The script from Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit veers off into wild Dr. Moreau territory, adding even more baggage to a film that would have been wise to pack lighter. Inspired soundtrack choices (from Gordon Lightfoot to Motorhead) give way to forced pop and hip-hop, and the film’s attempt at an “own who you are” message seems half-hearted at best.

But what’s really lost is the inherent fun The Addams Family brings to wherever they are. When the world goes light, they go dark. That’s a fun and funny idea ready to be exploited.

Once again, Wednesday’s just waiting for the rest of the gang to get back to the family business.

Grade: C

Wife of a Spy

At Gateway Film Center

by Christie Robb

Wife of a Spy really tested the limits of my historical knowledge, which is lamentably focused on Western Civ. I probably studied the American Revolution five separate times and know quite a bit about the British Empire and what we erroneously call the “Age of Exploration,” but as for what was going on in Asia in the 20th century? Shoot.

My knowledge is pretty limited to some communist revolutions and America dropping bombs.

In order to get Wife of a Spy, it’s useful to understand:

  1. Japan invaded northeast China and Inner Mongolia in the ’30s and set up a puppet state (the State/Empire of Manchuria), which they more or less controlled until the end of WWII.
  2. The Japanese army in Manchuria conscripted millions of people as slave laborers and subjected them to medicalized torture, including vivisection without anesthesia.
  3. They also spread fleas carrying the bubonic plague from low-flying airplanes over villages and cities and dropped typhoid germs into wells to test out biological weapons.

Wife of a Spy starts in 1940 as Japan becomes increasingly nationalistic. The wealthy and cosmopolitan businessman Yusaku Fukuhara faces scrutiny as to his loyalty from childhood friends who are now in the military. Yusaku and his wife Satoko (Yu Aoi) wear Western dress and conduct business with American and British citizens. They draw criticism for drinking foreign whiskey and forgoing kimonos.

On a trip to Manchuria to search for trade goods and cheap medicine, Yusaku discovers evidence of the atrocities being conducted there. He is determined to blow the whistle internationally. He says his allegiance is to “universal justice” rather than to his country.

Satoko senses her husband’s distress and growing alienation and uncovers the evidence that Yusaku has been hiding in his office safe. But is she willing to risk her blissful domestic life and creature comforts to become the wife of a spy/traitor? Or will she turn Yusaku over to the authorities?

Wife of a Spy doesn’t waste a lot of time explaining the historical context of the film (thus the exposition dump above), but it does a beautiful job of visually immersing is in the historical period. Director/co-writer Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s film focuses on the ripple effect that these atrocities have on the lives of the everyman/woman.

For the most part, the reactions of the characters seem realistic. They are haunted or traumatized or incredulous. Satoko’s reaction is a little harder for me to accept. I’m with her until she makes her biggest decision. What follows seems entirely too sunny and chipper.

Regardless, the quiet menace present in the air at the beginning of the movie grows throughout and, as in any good spy film, we’re left wondering if we put our trust in the right people and if we truly understood what just happened.

Grade: A-

Adventures of a Mathematician

On VOD

by Rachel Willis

Adventures of a Mathematician, based on the memoir of the same name by Stanislav Ulam (Philippe Tłokiński), offers a fascinating look at one of the main players behind the Manhattan Project and the building of the hydrogen bomb.

Writer/director Thor Klein lacks interest in Ulam’s entire life, instead narrowing his film’s focus to the years the scientist spent in Los Alamos, Nevada, working for the U.S. Department of War. The moral and ethical dilemma of building the atomic bomb – the use of science to wield total destruction – is the heart of Klein’s film.

Aspects of Ulam’s world outside of his work are woven into the film – primarily his relationships with wife Françoise (Esther Garrel), brother Adam (Mateusz Więcławek), and best friend/fellow scientist John van Neumann (Fabian Kociecki).

The movie’s weakest component is the flatness of some of these characters, but because Klein seeks not to simply tell Ulam’s life story, the shallow characters don’t sink the effort. They still serve a purpose as they give voice to the ethical arguments inside Ulam.

In that role, Tłokińksi is flawless, bringing depth to every scene. He infuses every word, every movement with the emotion necessary to tackle such large moral quandaries.

The desolate, dusty landscape of Los Alamos plays its own role in the film – a stark reminder of what’s at stake. The film’s minimal score highlights the scientist’s inner conflict and heightens tensions as the movie draws closer to the devastating moment when the bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Adventures of a Mathematician offers no easy answers, nor is it likely to change anyone’s mind. However, it offers insight into why some of the world’s most brilliant scientists lent their skills to the creation of the deadliest weapons in world history.

Grade: A-

Coming Home in the Dark

On VOD

by Hope Madden

I have always counted myself among the major fans of Kiwi horror filmmaking. Peter Jackson may mean Middle Earth to others, but to us he is king of splatter-gore comedy, and a generation of New Zealand horror filmmakers has embraced that same sense of viscous fun.

Not James Ashcroft. Nope, making his feature debut with the road trip horror Coming Home in the Dark, the filmmaker is carving out a very different style.

Not long into Hoaggie (Erik Thomson) and Jill’s (Miriama McDowell) weekend outing with their teenage sons, two armed drifters approach. The family is miles from anywhere, and it isn’t until they all stand by and let a car pass without incident that Ashcroft lets us in on two things.

“Looking back on today’s events, I think this will be the moment you realized you should have done something.”

The moment Mandrake (Daniel Gillies, chilling) utters this sentence, Ashcroft lets you know that this story will not go well for the family. He also introduces the general theme of this film: do something while you have the chance.

Mandrake is the more talkative of the two villains, though friend Tubs (Matthias Luafutu) cuts an impressive figure. And in a style closer to that characteristic of Australian horror, Coming Home in the Dark offers a spare but unblinking span of gritty, punishing thrills.

Ashcroft, who adapted Owen Marshall’s short story for the screen along with writer Eli Kent, crafts a deceptively layered drama. The trickiest bit comes near the end, but it would be unfair to give that away.

Unfortunately, the audience has to be patient enough to wade through what feels like preachiness to get to the sucker punch. Performances are exceptional, loose ends are welcome, but with little in the way of visual panache and lots in the way of discomfort, not everyone will stick it out.

I should confess that I firmly believe terror awaits anybody who wanders out into the wilderness. I am the audience for this movie.

Maybe you are, too?

Grade: B+

Black As Night

On Prime

by George Wolf

“So, it was the summer I got breasts and fought vampires.”

Yes, a lot is happening in Shawna’s life, but Black As Night never loses that matter-of-fact teenage perspective even as it broaches some plenty familiar horror terrain.

Shawna (Ashja Cooper) and her BFF Pedro (Fabrizio Guido) uncover a ring of vampires in their New Orleans precinct, and it’s going to take some help from the hunky Chris (Mason Beauchamp) and a privileged Twilight fan (Abbie Gayle) to track down the lead bloodsucker and take him out.

Black As Night is part of 2021’s “Welcome to the Blumhouse” collaboration with Amazon, and it continues last season’s focus on films by and about women and/or people of color.

Director Maritte Lee Go and writer Sherman Payne mix Candyman‘s themes of gentrification and disposable populations with the surface level adventures of Buffy and The Lost Boys for a vampire tale that is most noteworthy for its fresh cultural lens.

The message isn’t unique or particularly subtle, production values can be shaky and there’s a hearty helping of exposition shortcuts, but these kids have spunk. Cooper makes Shawna’s journey from insecure wallflower to confident vampire killer an endearing one, and Keith David is here to lend his always welcome gravitas.

And though it often feels like Black As Night is content to just jump on a crowded ride, it consistently finds small moments to call its own. Plus, large numbers of vampires to kill!

So, how was your summer?

Grade: B-

Bingo Hell

On Prime

by Hope Madden

Sometimes a title really hits you, like Bingo Hell. Maybe because the idea of playing this game makes me lose the will to live.

Co-writer/director Gigi Saul Guerrero has a slightly different use for the image of folks hunched over their boards hoping to win something from the community chest. A veteran of the horror short film, Guerrero pulls together conflicted thoughts about gentrification and neighborhood loyalty, poverty and affluence, and the sketchy influence of organized gambling for her first feature.

Speaking of veterans, Adriana Barraza — reliable as ever — leads the film as Lupita, the aging but spunky heart of her community, Oak Springs. She doesn’t dig gentrification. Watching members of her community take the cash and bail because they don’t have the cash to pay newly exorbitant rents doesn’t break her heart, it fuels her rage.

Lupita is a spitfire and Barraza’s relish with her outbursts drives the film’s energetic, campy outrage. Bingo Hell has social commentary to spare, but it’s not preaching. It’s attacking.

Guerrero’s film, part of Amazon Prime’s 2021 Welcome to the Blumhouse program, doesn’t oversimplify causes and solutions. Still, it delivers its recommendations as more of a blunt instrument than a surgical tool.

It is much fun to watch Barraza and other mature actors (L. Scott Caldwell, Grover Coulson, Clayton Landey) inhabit characters with agency and some degree of complexity, but it’s Richard Brake who offers Barraza the best sparring partner. Effortlessly sinister, the under-appreciated character actor delivers another memorable baddie.

With characters to root for, violence to spare, and a healthy acceptance of chaos, Bingo Hell is pretty fun.

Grade: B-

Mayday

by Cat McAlpine

Life’s hard for Ana, who is sleeping in her car and doing her best serving under her abusive boss. Although the time and place aren’t specified and don’t matter, the dark and dated dance hall she caters in suggests that Ana’s gloomy life is somewhere in Eastern Europe. But she won’t stay there for long.

An act of violence shakes Ana (Grace Van Patten) from her stupor and in a dreamy mashup of Alice in Wonderland, Sucker Punch, and a hint of Sylvia Plath, Ana escapes her life by crawling through a glowing oven. On the other side, she discovers a ragtag group of girls – brutal and intoxicating Marsha (Mia Goth), hearty Gert (Soko), and sweet Bea (Havana Rose Liu). The girls play at war, picking off men from any side of an unknown eternal conflict to torture and kill. Instead of a magic tree house, they live inside the hull of an old U-Boat. Like coastal sirens, they hop on the airwaves and cry “Mayday,” leading men into storms and uncertain territory.

Nervous at the thought of killing, Ana warns, “I’ve never been in a war.”

“You’ve been in a war your whole life, you just don’t know it,” replies Marsha.

Writer/Director Karen Cinorre creates a beautiful and increasingly dark dreamscape for Ana to explore her trauma, but the dialogue is heavy-handed while the plot stays meandering and loose. The result is a contemplative romp through female rage, painted like a grim fairytale that isn’t quite sure where it’s going.

Aesthetically, the film is fantastic, and it is anchored by strong performances. Van Patten is enjoyable to watch as Ana comes into her own. Goth is terrifying and power-hungry, a believable cult leader. But Cinorre’s fever dream burns on too long and gets too caught up in its own rules of make-believe, casting off metaphor and leaving it for dead. War is a childlike fantasy playscape for the girls who feel powerless otherwise. But are they all dead? Is this a shared hallucination? Some of the players are characters from Ana’s own life while others are strangers.

One scene implies that Ana has gunned down a whole camp of men, but it shows her doing a choreographed dance with them instead. Is this an illusion inside of an illusion? Mayday doesn’t stand up to questioning, which suits the fantastical film just fine most of the time.

Ana must discover what measure of hope and rage suits her. Marsha is all rage. Bea all hope. And Gert doesn’t want to talk about it. As soon as Ana takes to killing men, she starts seeing all the ones who were kind to her before. And though their fairytale island is littered with ill-suited husbands and would-be rapists, Ana still struggles to condemn the whole kingdom of men.

Ultimately, Mayday is a fine telling of how to find our rage and how to tend to our sadness without letting go of the good the world still has to offer.

Grade: B

Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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