By Lynn Venhaus

Thoughtfully constructed with insightful character snapshots foreshadowing the people they become in the landmark television series, “The Sopranos,” the well-cast “The Many Saints of Newark” is one of the year’s best films.

Molti Santi translates to “Many Saints” in English, and the backstory connecting the people to Tony Soprano is a fascinating, yet tangled, web. The movie begins with a voice from the grave, and an Emmy-winning actor reprises his famous role through narration.

Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this prequel to “The Sopranos” follows Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) as he climbs the ladder in the DiMeo crime family. His nephew is Anthony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini), a teenager who idolizes his uncle.

Dickie’s influence over his nephew will help shape the impressionable teenager into the all-powerful mob boss we came to know in the HBO series, which ran from 1999 to 2007. Tony is growing up in one of the most tumultuous eras in Newark’s history as rival gangsters rise and challenge the DiMeo crime family’s hold over the increasingly race-torn city.

The year is 1967, and one mobster notes it’s the “Summer of Love,” which is ironic, given all the violence on the Newark streets. Race riots erupt, creating chaos and confusion. The times, they are a-changing, and rival gangsters try to muscle in on the Italian mob’s stronghold.

Racist attitudes prevail, although Dickie has Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), who collects money from the black side of town for him, as he runs the numbers game.

Leslie Odom Jr., 2016 Tony winner as Aaron Burr “Hamilton” and Oscar nominee as Sam Cooke in last year’s “One Night in Miami,” stretches his acting chops as the ambitious and fearless defender of his turf. He becomes a formidable foe.

A warning, although expected — there is a lot of bloodshed. In scenes of grisly torture and gruesome murders, the violence is explosive on the mean streets, and sometimes, directed at their own inner circle. Such is the way of the family business. Lines are frequently crossed, matter-of-factly, and sometimes without consequence.

Dickie, who has had a love-hate relationship with his menacing father, Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Montisanti, played with verve by Ray Liotta, is drawn to dear old dad’s new Sicilian bride, Giuseppina, played by the beautiful Michela del Rossi, who looks like an actress in a Fellini film. She soon becomes his goomah (mistress).

Connecting the dots gets even more complicated – see the movie to find out how everyone is six degrees of separation.

Vera Farmiga and Jon Bernthal as Tony’s parents

Familiarity with the series, which ran for six seasons, is helpful, although not a prerequisite. However, people with knowledge of the series will understand the references and anticipate the mix of dark humor, and secret revelations.

Universally regarded as one of the best shows ever on TV, “The Sopranos” won 21 Primetime Emmys and 2 Peabody Awards.  In 2013, the Writers Guild of America named it the best-written TV series of all time, and TV Guide ranked it the best television series of all time. In 2016, it ranked first in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest TV shows of all time.

Some of the indelible characters from the television series earned Emmy Awards and nominations, and are an integral part of the prequel, while others barely emerge from the background.

Writer (and show creator) David Chase teamed up with an alum, Lawrence Konner, who was Emmy-nominated for writing “Second Opinion” (Sopranos) and this is a fascinating look back as to how things developed and about the people who made things happen.

In the series, Tony Soprano juggled the problems with his two families – his wife Carmela and their two children, Meadow and Anthony Jr., and his mob family. Power struggles, betrayal, violence, panic attacks, affairs and keeping the business from being exposed as a criminal enterprise were all part of the intoxicating mix. And a lot of people were whacked.

The movie has many of the same issues compacted into nearly two hours – concentrating on the personal and professional struggles of Dickie Moltisanti. And a lot of people get whacked.

For fans, seeing Janice Soprano (Alexandra Intrator) as a rebellious teenager and a young Silvio Dante (John Magaro), wearing a different hairstyle, is just fun.

Corey Stoll is an intriguing Uncle Junior and Vera Farmiga conjures up memories of the mean elderly woman she became as Tony’s mom, so no wonder she is such a non-stop nag here.

Sharp and savvy, Alan Taylor is at the helm. He was previously nominated for primetime Emmy Awards for ‘Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men,” and won for directing “The Sopranos” episode, “Kennedy and Heidi.”

While the writing is top-notch, so are the vintage costume designs by Amy Westcott and the production design by Bob Shaw. It steeps us in the cultural shifting times and the by-gone post-war life in eastern American cities.

In addition, another highlight is a killer soundtrack, just like the series. The eclectic music selection perfectly captures each mood and time: The Rat Pack-vibe of the smoky clubs, the rock music pouring out of Tony’s new stereo speakers and a wide range of tunes punctuating the action.

But the very best element of the film is its cast. In an exceptional star turn, Alessandro Nivola emerges as someone to watch, who rises to the occasion as Dickie – and he’s mesmerizing.

The gamble of casting the late James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, as the younger version of his father’s character, turns out to be a smart decision. He soulfully embodies teenage Anthony with his father’s mannerisms, if not his speaking voice, slipping into the role with ease. He’s another one to watch. It’s guileless and seamless,

Michael Gandolfini as teenage Tony Soprano

Gritty and gripping, “The Many Saints of Newark” bristles with an excitement that describes a fitting backstory and a welcome return to these characters.

“The Many Saints of Newark” is a crime drama directed by Alan Taylor. It stars Alessandro Nivola, Michael Gandolfini, Corey Stoll, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Leslie Odom Jr., Billy Magnussen and Michela del Rossi. It is rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content and some nudity and has a runtime of 2 hours. It is in theaters and streaming on HBOMax on Oct. 1. Lynn’s Grade: A.

 The Critics Choice Association has announced the additional honorees and presenters that will join, virtually, the third annual Celebration of Black Cinema on Tuesday, February 2, 2021.  The ceremony will be hosted by author and media personality Bevy Smith

Following its invitation-only digital premiere, the event will be shared with the public on KTLA and offered to all Nexstar Media Group television stations.  KTLA will air the 90-minute Celebration of Black Cinema special in Los Angeles on Saturday night, February 6th.   

Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) will receive the Performance of the Year Award for his magnetic and heartbreaking portrayal of Levee, an ambitious musician struggling to earn the recognition he deserves in a world, and a recording studio, built against him.  

A special donation in Chadwick Boseman’s name will be designated to provide scholarships to students participating in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Gold Program.  The Academy Gold Program is an industry talent development, diversity and inclusion initiative to provide individuals, with a focus on underrepresented communities, access and resources to achieve their career pathways in filmmaking.   

Zendaya & John David Washington (Malcolm & Marie) will receive the NextGen Award for their work on the highly anticipated Malcolm & Marie, which was filmed safely amid the pandemic and became one of the most sought-after projects of the season.  Washington and Zendaya portray a filmmaker and his girlfriend returning home from his movie premiere and awaiting the critical response. 

Shaka King (Judas and the Black Messiah) will receive the Director Award for his visionary telling of the story of American civil rights leader Chairman Fred Hampton, iconic leader of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party who was ultimately killed in 1969. 

Tommie Smith (With Drawn Arms) will receive the Social Justice Award.  An iconic athlete and activist, in With Drawn Arms, Smith reflects on his iconic fist-thrust silent protest on the medal stand during the nation anthem at the 1968 Summer Olympics, a moment that helped define the civil rights movement. 

The Celebration of Black Cinema honorees will be fêted by a prestigious group of presenters who will celebrate their work and their ongoing commitment to telling Black stories on film, including Nnamdi Asomugha, Lee Daniels, Michael Ealy, Dominique Fishback, Taraji P. Henson, Daniel Kaluuya, Jonathan Majors, Kemp Powers, Aaron Sorkin, LaKeith Stanfield, Jesse Williams, and George C. Wolfe

As previously announced, the event will recognize Delroy Lindo (Career Achievement Award), John Legend & Mike Jackson (the Producers Award), Tessa Thompson (the Actor Award), Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (the Breakthrough Award), Kingsley Ben-Adir, Eli GoreeAldis Hodge, and Leslie Odom, Jr. (the Ensemble Award),and Andra Day (Special Honoree Award). 

About the Critics Choice Association (CCA) 

The Critics Choice Association is the largest critics organization in the United States and Canada, representing more than 400 television, radio and online critics and entertainment reporters. It was established in 2019 with the formal merger of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Broadcast Television Journalists Association, recognizing the blurring of the distinctions between film, television, and streaming content. For more information, visit: www.CriticsChoice.com

By Lynn Venhaus
A play-based drama imagines conversations between four black icons during a crucial time in the civil rights fight.

Playwright Kemp Powers adapted his 2013 stage play, “One Night in Miami,” which set their fictional meeting on Feb. 25, 1964, after Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) emerged as the new heavyweight boxing champion by defeating Sonny Liston at the Miami Beach Convention Center.

Joining him afterwards at the Hampton House Motel in the African American Overtown neighborhood is activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir), singer Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.) and legendary NFL running back Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge).

These influential black men discuss their responsibility and roles in the burgeoning civil rights movement.

On the cusp of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s, four famous black men feel pressured as symbols, trying to determine how to support equality and empower others through their celebrity.

The discussions are thought-provoking throughout, even though the film can’t quite shake its theatrical roots. But it’s the performances that galvanize “One Night in Miami.” One of the finest ensembles of the year features four young talents establishing their value, and each is riveting.

Kingsley Ben-Adir is fire and brimstone as Malcolm X, whose heated exchanges with Cooke do lead to a new direction for the singer, as shown later in “A Change Is Gonna Come” performed on “The Tonight Show.”

As the confident Malcolm X, Ben-Adir, however, expresses doubt and grapples with loyalty to the Nation of Islam.

Eli Goree, a veteran of TV’s “Ballers” and “Riverdale,” nails the glibness and distinct cadence of Clay, who is mulling over his decision to become Muhammad Ali.

Leslie Odom Jr., Tony winner as Aaron Burr in “Hamilton,” is electric as soul music pioneer Cooke, smoothly delivering several hits. A flashback to him salvaging a live show with an a capella “Chain Gang” is one of the film’s highlights.

Aldis Hodge, long a secret weapon in films, imbues his Brown with more anger and depth as he debates a future beyond football. In one of the film’s most significant scenes, he is humiliated by a wealthy bigot (Beau Bridges) during the Jim Crow era.

Oscar-winning actress Regina King, making her directorial debut, just gives her actors room to breathe. And the dialogue crackles, resonating beyond that night and emphasizing the impact these men had in their lives. 

By the end of the year, Malcolm X was assassinated and Cooke was killed in a sketchy incident – and the athletes became two of the greatest there ever was.

This evening may have taken place nearly 57 years ago but it feels timely. It’s definitely a conversation-starter for any age.

“One Night in Miami” is a drama based on Kemp Powers’ play, directed by Regina King and starring Kingsley Ben-Adir, Leslie Odom Jr., Aldis Hodge and Eli Goree. Rated R for language throughout, the movie’s run-time is 1 hr. 54 min. Lynn’s Grade: B+
Now playing in theatres and on Amazon Prime Jan. 15