A mid-century New Jersey mobster influences the life of his impressionable teenage nephew.
Directed by Alan Taylor
Starring Alessandro Nivola, Michael Gandolfini, and Vera Farmiga
Review by Jon Kissel
The trend of monumental TV shows following up their runs with a long-gestating movie continues with The Sopranos, the show least likely to indulge its fanbase. Friends and Parks and Rec, sure. Breaking Bad turned itself over to fan service with its series finale so why not a feature length epilogue to answer lingering questions about Jesse Pinkman’s fate. Deadwood had a famously abrupt ending and a creator withering away from Alzheimer’s, so a last hurrah provided a sentimental reunion for him more than for the show’s adherents. With the exception of Friends, which I can’t and never will speak to, all of these reunion specials and follow-up films have been acceptable, at best. None improve on or significantly add to the body of work from television. David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, is perhaps the most misanthropic brain behind any of the Golden Age of TV shows, and should therefore be the most likely to turn this trend around. His immunity to giving the audience anything that they might want should distill any follow-up movies into the essence of whatever idea he wants to pursue. The problem with The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to the events of The Sopranos, is that Chase gets too caught up with future events and loses the thread on the present. Such and such anecdote was mentioned in the series, and therefore it must show up in the prequel. The Many Saints of Newark has its fan-flattering moments, and I’m a Sopranos fan so I was flattered, but I don’t love Chase’s masterpiece TV show because it patted me on the head. I loved it for its prickliness and its adherence to its vision and theme. Chase has done so little since the Sopranos ended, and the rust is apparent.
Sian Heder’s CODA, an acronym for Child of Deaf Adults, throws as much melodramatic ammunition at the viewer as they can handle, and then flings a little bit more. This Sundance crowd-pleaser, bought by Apple for a festival-record amount of money, features half-a-dozen liberal feel-good’s and satisfies them with present-day demands of casting and representation. If the working class struggle doesn’t work on the viewer, then the non-threatening teenage boy romance or the first-to-go-college subplot will. At the center of all these subplots is the plight of a hearing young woman who too frequently finds herself subverting her own hopes and dreams to support her deaf parents and brother, all of whom are cast with deaf actors. CODA is an ADA-certified Billy Elliot for the New England set. Its earnestness can be blunt and broad, but it comes in such overpowering waves that its charms cannot be fully resisted.
Films released in 2015 had their share of eye-catching and cinematic moments, from the fiery sandstorm of Mad Max: Fury Road to the natural beauty of Clouds of Sils Maria. For all its numerous gifts and assets, Tom McCarthy's Spotlight wouldn't join that list. It's a thorough expose of a great crime, but it's not a cinematographer's film, as exemplified by what I found to be the key recurring image in the film; a stack of files. A bunch of papers contained in manila folders and held together by a rubber band doesn't exactly leap off screen, but the repeated shots of stacks and libraries of these folders indicate the vastness of the horrific crimes and cover-ups exposed by the heroic journalists that make up the cast, as well as makes the viewer wonder what other injustices are languishing in dark basements and lament the dwindling workforce necessary to shine a light on them. To watch Spotlight is to be morally exhausted, to be absolutely wrung out by not only the things that humans do, but the lengths humans will go to do nothing.
Below the fold, I’ve reposted my 2016 review of Captain Fantastic, and aside from some dated references to Angry Birds: The Movie, my thoughts on Matt Ross’ film are essentially the same. If anything, after President Trump and buying a home and a global pandemic, my disgust with the narcotizing comforts and regurgitated idiocies of American life have been accentuated, so I find myself more on the Cash family’s side despite the fact that if I ever met them, they would think I was another fat capitalist slob. Though I’m seduced by this brand of intellectual rigor, negative reviews of this film take issue with the audience-reinforcing slant that puts the Cash family on the left. The opposite film about doomsday preppers or white separatists or secluded revanchist Mormons would be incapable of generating any warm feelings, to the point that I wonder how a more conservative viewer would take Captain Fantastic as it is. Stripped of any choir-preaching/conservative-alienating, this is a film about humility, that thing which education is supposed to provide. More knowledge begets more questions, and these are knowledgeable children who are butting up against the edges of what their father can teach them. Ben Cash’s arc is about realizing that this experiment has run its course, and that continuance will lead to ruin. Retain the ability to question why it is that society does what it does, but have the humility to ask yourself the same question. The non-Cash characters aren’t asking ‘why’ about anything they do, and Ben’s gift to his children is that will be able to do exactly that. It’s inspiring and something of a brain worm. A film that sticks with the viewer is a successful one.
As will sound familiar to the readers who’ve been taking in my reviews for a long time (and I thank the many thousands of you), I can’t help but put any movie I watch from Scandanavia into one of two boxes. Either it confirms the stereotype of cold and humorless or it rejects it by showing them as the hearty, back-slapping descendants of Vikings. I have to assume this is Simpsons residue, because I’ve seen far more of the latter kind of Dane or Swede on film than the other kind, and therefore the hard-drinking Baltic beauties might be closer to something like the truth. Thomas Vinterberg’s Another Round would certainly subscribe to this, as the true nature of his four middle-aged protagonists needs some high-proof rocket fuel to break free from their deadened carapaces. This story of men who are by turns boring and reckless transcends any narrow preconceptions this viewer might have and locates both halves of an ill-considered dichotomy within individuals, and then attributes both to some kind of chemical imbalance. It does this while also being compelling and affecting, both in its emotional weight and catharsis and in how badly it made me want a drink after watching.
JUST SOME IDIOTS GIVING SURPRISINGLY AVERAGE MOVIE REVIEWS.
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