King Richard

Written by Patrick Hao

62/100

I forgot how good of a movie star Will Smith is. Maybe because Smith hasn’t really been able to shine as a movie star since Focus. Maybe it’s because he has crafted an overly upbeat, created by an algorithm online social media persona. But geez, King Richard only works because Will Smith is a goddamn bonafide movie star. 

While formally King Richard is entirely rote and average, its conception is weird. King Richard is a biopic, not of Venus or Serena Williams, the famous tennis stars, but of their father Richard Williams (Will Smith) as he gets the two the training that they need to become who they would become, all while instilling wholesome values of family and work ethic. It seems strange for a biopic and sports drama whose subject is the father of the famous athlete until it is revealed that the Williams sisters had a big part in the production of the film. The film portrays the idealized family, struggling in poverty in Compton, but trying to rise above classicism and racism to become icons. 

Early on, Richard Williams composes a document detailing how he would get his daughters to success. This includes getting them lessons from renowned coaches like Paul Cohen (Tony Goldwyn) and Rick Macci (Jon Bernthal) through sheer force of will. The film delves a bit into William’s short-tempered-ness and a brief hankering over how he is working his daughters to the bone, but overall the film takes a decidedly approving attitude towards Williams’s treatment of his daughters. The film only provides thin sketches of the Williams sisters as there are just mere conduits to celebrate the persistence of their father. 

This is all well and good because we know the results of Richard Williams’s persistence. But, the film’s choice to not interrogate Williams as a person or his methods belies how this film is a vanity project celebration of two of the producer’s father. This is especially apparent as the film casts a judgemental eye towards other parents overburdening their children with the pressure of becoming a great sports star. The story is too clean and simple. Slight changes to the tone could easily make this film about the toxicity of a father. Instead the film, rightly or wrongly, focuses on the Horatio Alger aspects of the film. There is some pushback from Brandy Williams (Aunjanue Wallis), the matriarch of the family who is just as instrumental as a coach and parent to the success of Venus and Serena as Richard. But, she ultimately supports her husband’s actions as their relationship is portrayed ideally with no sense of true marital strife, despite later divorcing after the events of the movie.

Yet, despite it all, the film works on Smith’s sheer movie stardom. He infuses Williams with an affable poeticism. His ticks do not seem to mirror the real-life Williams but work for the character he is portraying. He is hunched, burdened by life unspoken, and thinks faster than he can speak. This is a similar type of down-home performance by Smith that was previously able to carry the cloying sentimentality of a project like The Pursuit of Happiness to a rousing success.

Rousing success is the goal of this film too. It is hard not to root for Williams and the Williams sisters. They have been part of pop culture for almost three decades now. The sports scenes are also filmed with workmanlike quality that is hard to resist as well. Like Richard Williams’ persistence to make his daughters a success, Will Smith’s persistence makes King Richard a success.

King Richard Trailer

King Richard is in wide theatrical release and available to stream on HBO Max.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

The Many Saints of Newark

Written by Alexander Reams

85/100

14 years ago one of the most acclaimed TV shows of all time ended. A time when all TV audiences expected catharsis for the characters they’d grown to know before the end. David Chase instead decided to fade to black not giving that final closure to Tony Soprano. Something that has haunted audiences since its air date. Chase returns to the Soprano’s world 30 years prior to it’s first season. Focusing on who was in power before Tony Soprano ever took over.

Dickie Moltisanti. Moltisanti, translates to Many Saints in English, of Newark. While also attempting to tackle the 1967 Newark race riots, and provide a backstory for Tony Soprano. Sounds like a lot to cover in a 120-minute film? That’s because it is. 

Rarely will a film fall into the issue of being too short, more often than not it’s an issue of being too long. Many Saints is too short. The film has so much it wants to cover and gives itself far too little time to cover each of these events. This could have easily been a 150-165-minute film and it likely would’ve worked even better and been decidedly more effective. Unfortunately, David Chase’s hubris wouldn’t let him make a longer film. A tragedy for sure, because once the film began I never wanted it to end. 

Chase’s new leading man is an actor that I have long loved, and have waited for him to get his big break. Something Chase and I have a shared sentiment about. The brilliant Alessandro Nivola. He has not only been good for years, he is frequently the standout in films where he is relegated to supporting roles. In The Many Saints of Newark Nivola is leading the biggest film of his career and he takes advantage of it. He embodies this mythological god that is Gentlemen Dickie Moltisanti (the father of future Tony Soprano victim Christopher Moltisanti) with such class and brutality that even Tony Soprano would be frightened. 

Filling out the rest of this world is Corey Stoll as a hilarious Uncle Junior, Vera Farmiga as the wonderful asshole Livia Soprano, Jon Bernthal as a somewhat forgettable Johnny Boy Soprano, Leslie Odom Jr. as a gleefully angered Harold McBrayer, Ray Liotta pulling double duty as Hollywood Dick Moltisanti and Salvatore Moltisanti (I was just as surprised as you when I saw this for the first time.), Michaela de Rossi as Giuseppina Moltisanti, Hollywood Dick’s wife, and Gentlemen Dickie’s “goomar” (don’t ask, it just makes it even weirder.). Billy Magnussen as a pitch-perfect Paulie Walnuts, John Magaro doing his best Steven Van Zandt impression with Silvio Dante, and Samson Moeakiokla as Big Pussy. Finally, Michael Gandolfini, son of James Gandolfini, is a younger version of his father’s iconic turn as Tony Soprano.

From the get-go, we are introduced to this world with a level of respect to the audience. Chase expects you to have seen at least part of the show, if not all of it. While it is difficult to talk about the film without spoiling some fantastic reveals, I will say that watching Nivola chew up every scene he is in is a great pleasure to watch, and his, brief bits with Gandolfini are nothing short of electric, though rushed. An issue that hangs over this film like the FBI watching Tony’s house. Calling it “the formative years of Tony Soprano” is more than a bit misleading. The film treats it as an afterthought, instead of the main plot. For which the blame falls on Chase. 

The time jumps in the film are not surprising but continue this overarching issue of being rushed. However in those time jumps we still are gifted with wonderful dialogue between everyone, something Chase can do brilliantly along with strong cinematography by Kramer Morgenthau. Even with all of these strengths in the film, I can’t let go of the fact that it is just too short. It needed to be longer, I think somewhere in Chase’s head he knew that, and if we get another film in this time period, he will hopefully rectify it. The final note he leaves us with is a perfect way to set up another film, while also being a great ending if he doesn’t wish to return to this world, something Christopher Moltisanti wished he could do before it was too late, but Chase will have to do it for him.

The Many Saints of Newark Trailer

The Many Saints of Newark is currently streaming on HBO Max and in wide theatrical release.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

Those Who Wish Me Dead

Written by Alexander Reams

78/100

Taylor Sheridan has already had a good year with his screenplay for Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse already released and now his second directorial effort is here. While this film has drawn criticism for being predictable, I have found that is because this film is vastly different from his previous film Wind River. Those Who Wish Me Dead is based on the novel by Michael Koryta and stars Angelina Jolie, Aidan Gillen, Nicholas Hoult, and Jon Bernthal. It tracks Jolie as she protects a teenager from assassins attempting to kill him after he witnesses a murder. 

The story is very predictable. We’ve seen vast reiterations of these same tropes and character events throughout the years. What sets this film apart from these other iterations is the style that Sheridan brings with his direction. His sense of how to block scenes and where to place the camera is nothing short of brilliant, especially in a scene towards the end. 

Despite these negatives, the performances of Angelina Jolie, Nicholas Hoult, Aidan Gillen, Jon Bernthal, and relative newcomer Finn Little all make this well worth a watch. Along with a smart screenplay from Sheridan, Charles Leavitt, and Michael Koryta (based on his novel) and possibly Brian Tyler’s best score yet all make this film a highly enjoyable thriller that you just don’t see much of anymore.

Those Who Wish Me Dead Trailer

Those Who Wish Me Dead is currently streaming on HBO Max.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter.