Then Playing — The Many Saints of Newark; George Carlin’s American Dream; Old

The Many Saints of Newark (Alan Taylor, 2021). Nearly fifteen years after an exceptional series finale that stirred controversy among people who evidently misinterpreted everything that had come before, The Sopranos gets an utterly needless revival with a prequel feature that sketched in the life story of the title capo before he was moved to tears by the sudden absence of a family of ducks. The Many Saints of Newark is co-written and co-produced by David Chase, creator of the original series, so it’s no mere corporate scavenging. It has the participation and blessing of the main artist who deserves a say on whether this set of characters should be revisited. What the film doesn’t have is a coherent, compelling story. Tracking through the childhood and adolescence of Tony Soprano (played first by William Ludwig and then by Michael Gandolfini, the latter of course the son of the role’s originator) and the dynamics of the mob family he was born into, The Many Saints of Newark has the herky-jerky rhythm of the previously-on clip package that precedes an episode. The narrative is assemblage of gruff incidents and Easter-egg details that neither stand on the own or provide any insight that wasn’t already present, more subtly and intelligently, in the original run of The Sopranos. The performances are mostly undistinguished, with the slight exception of Leslie Odom Jr., playing a numbers runner who decides to strike out on his own. Alan Taylor, who presided over several episodes of The Sopranos and has general been a stalwart TV director, continues his professional tendency to flop when doing the same job for the big screen.

George Carlin’s American Dream (Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio, 2022). I regularly grouse about Judd Apatow’s maddeningly unwillingness to prune his feature films of all the extraneous bits of business that presumably tickled him at some point in the editing. Given that, it’s only fair that I note his tendency towards running time largesse is to the benefit of this documentary about the great George Carlin, aired in two parts on HBO. The stand-up comic had a lengthy career marked by, among other things, continual reinvention, and Apatow, co-directing with Michael Bonfiglio, does that twisty course justice while also carving out ample time to address his personal travails with powerful candor. A longtime stand-up superfan, Apatow has an unerring instinct for which of Carlin’s routines deserve the most time in the film, and the pacing of the biographical storytelling is similarly on point. Because the filmmakers were working with HBO, they have a wealth of stray footage to play with, including ample B-roll footage from Carlin’s specials and associated promotional efforts. It’s all used shrewdly, making the documentary feel full and thorough without ever getting bogged down in minutiae.

Old (M. Night Shyamalan, 2021). It’s an M. Night Shyamalan movie all right. Old is rife with all of the writer-director’s trademark failings: leaden dialogue, a premise so gimmicky it becomes tedious almost immediately, only the barest understanding of how human beings interact with the world, and the capper of casting himself in a distracting cameo, here literally depositing the characters into the main plot. There are movies that are blandly bad, movies that are bad in an ironically entertaining way, and movies that ooze a particular sort of badness that leads to a sort of spiritual exhaustion. Shyamalan is an unrivaled master of the last.

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