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Humanities at GBC

While the HC@gbc is new, the committment of GBC's students, faculty, and staff is long-standing. Below are some of the many humanities activities being undertaken at GBC.


Feature Film Friday

Feature Film Friday graphic.HC@gbc presents Feature Film Friday. Film reviews by GBC Faculty and members of the GBC Film Festival Committee.

Film Title: The Many Saints of Newark
Film Rating: R
Genre: Crime Drama/Gangster
Run Time: 2 hours
Director: Alan Taylor
Leading cast members: Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Michael Gandolfini, Michela de Rossi, Vera Farmiga, and Ray Liotta
Screenplay: David Chase & Lawrence Konner
Reviewer: Sam Lackey

Legions of Sopranos fans have been anticipating this film with bated breath for over a year, as its release date was pushed back several times due to COVID-19. It finally hit theaters and HBO Max on Friday, Oct. 1, and yours truly was there for a matinee show. Could the film, styled as a prequel to The Sopranos and origin story of series protagonist Tony, possibly live up to the hype? The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding no.

Before I elaborate, let's clear a few things up. The film features a young Tony at two critical stages of his childhood: as a chubby elementary student during the Newark race riots of 1967, and then as a high schooler and aspiring football star in the mid-1970s, a time in which the heyday of organized crime in the U.S. is coming to a close. However, he's not the leading man here --that honor goes to his uncle, Dickie Moltisanti, the future father of series regular Chris Moltisanti.

Dickie is a handsome, charismatic footsoldier in the fictional DiMeo crime family, based on a real-life New Jersey outfit, and he's played with winning, graceful charm by Alessandro Nivola. Everyone likes Dickie, but he's a predictably tortured soul whodisplays a knack for getting himself into explosively violent situations, and not just with rival gangsters. After an incident with his father, Hollywood Dick (played by crime film veteran Ray Liotta), Dickie looks to atone and do some good in the world, but his efforts don't always meet with success. He becomes a bit of a mentor to young Tony, and that's where one of the film's key themes kicks in: sons inherit the sins of their fathers, or in some cases, their entire extended families. Tony, portrayed as smart, sensitive, and a natural leader, seems capable of great things, but there's no escaping this blood-soaked world made by men like Dickie and Tony's dad, Johnny Boy Soprano.

Given more time and perhaps a series of his own, Dickie could take his place among the other beloved characters crafted by Sopranos showrunner David Chase, and Nivola is a compulsively-watchable presence. Alas, the rest of the film often lets him down. Chase and his co-writer Lawrence Konnor use a broad canvas here, with a large cast, numerous subplots, and divided aims. On one hand, they want to fill in some backstory on popular characters from the show; on the other, they want to tell a new, sweeping tale about racial tensions in 60s Jersey, toxic family dynamics, and the bond between Dickie and Tony. A two hour runtime seems inadequate to a task of that magnitude. There are excellent individual scenes & set pieces, but they don't add up to much. Many threads of the story are left unresolved or just sorely underdeveloped, chief among them the character of Harold McBrayer, the African-American gangster who first works for Dickie and later challenges him. Leslie Odom Jr. makes the character interesting when he's on screen, but Chase and Konnor seem unsure of what to do with him at times, and then they settle on employing him primarily as a plot device. The Newark riots, similarly, flash momentarily and kindle interest before the story moves away from them.

At its core, Many Saints is a family drama, and it's at its best in quieter moments when characters are sitting around and talking. Many critics have claimed that Chase is performing "fan service" in the way he presents younger versions of series favorites like Uncle Junior, Silvio, and Paulie Walnuts -- I'm not sure if that's true or not, but most of the performances by the younger versions of these characters either fell flat for me or felt inauthentic. The good news is that Michael Gandolfini easily, and perhaps not surprisingly, inhabits the role his late father made famous, and the role of Tony's cantankerous mom, Livia, is played by Vera Farmiga on the right side of the narrow line dividing fidelity to the original character and outright imitation.

The film has many flaws and an unsatisfying conclusion, but there are enough good performances at its center to keep it mostly engaging. The writing was sharp, sometimes funny, and reminiscent of the series, but there was an air of distraction, of trying to do too much. I, and as one can tell already from the internet, many others, yearned for the tighter focus & greater nuance of a typical episode. Frankly, the amount of material here would be better suited to a series, and Chase seems to be more of a showrunner than a natural maker of movies. If you simply miss the characters & fictive universe of The Sopranos, this movie might evoke some nostalgia and provide a few fun bits, but it won't bring many new memories to the table.

See our online archive collection for past Feature Film Friday reviews!

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