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.

By Lynn Venhaus

Tough blue-collar guys hardened by harsh winters, bleak childhoods, dead-end adult lives, and rigid views on masculinity are the central figures in “Small Engine Repair,” an intense and powerful drama with crackling flashes of comedy that is set in Manchester, N.H.

The three rough-hewn childhood friends Frankie Romanoski (John Pollono), Terrance Swaino (Jon Bernthal) and Patrick “Packie” Hanrahan (Shea Whigham) needle each other with insults but have a deep love for each other. That bond of brotherhood is tested numerous times – as they drink too much, get into fights because of their hair-trigger tempers and cope with unfulfilled lives. Frank is clearly the leader, and is a recovering alcoholic.

They have one thing they can agree on, besides the Boston Red Sox — their tender concern for Frank’s daughter, Crystal, now 17. Fiercely protective, their loyalty comes into question during an out-of-control evening based on Pollono’s 2011 award-winning play.

At first glance, one may find John Pollono’s characters drawn in broad strokes, but reserve judgment because layers will be revealed, subtly and perceptively, as the bigger picture on societal roles, class struggle and modern technology emerges.

Ten years after his explosive 70-minute one-act play hit Los Angeles audiences hard with a sledgehammer, Pollono has adapted his edgy pitch-black piece for film, expanding the landscape and adding two female performers instead of just alluding to them in dialogue. The movie, with flashbacks, runs 1 hour and 43 minutes.

Ciara Bravo, a young actress known for TV shows who starred opposite Tom Holland in “Cherry,” excels as the feisty teenage daughter Crystal. She’s a senior in high school who yearns for bigger things, like going to college and becoming somebody. Raised basically by her single dad, mechanic Frank, she considers Swaino and Packie her family.

Jordana Spiro is in the brief but pivotal role as her mostly absent mom Karen Delgado. She became pregnant as a high school junior, and eventually left the area. Her troubled relationship with Frank is complicated and she pushes his buttons. Spiro nails this woman whose life didn’t turn out as she planned.

Ultimately, this brilliantly constructed work will show how substantive it is, but as this unsettling tale unfolds, it’s not that black-and-white. Pollono, who also directed and reprises his role as Frankie, grew up in New Hampshire, and knows this grimy world. He understands about shared histories and love-hate relationships with your coarse working-class guy pals.

Actor Jon Bernthal originated the role of ladies’ man Swaino on the L.A. stage and serves as a producer. He was unable to appear in the 2013 off-Broadway production because of his burgeoning acting career in film and television. He fits Swaino to a T, inhabiting this crude, vain and unrefined guy who is too quick to react and stuck in a warehouse job. But he is sincere in his love for Crystal.

He and Pollono carry their chemistry, first exhibited in the Los Angeles production that won every award possible, over to the screen. They easily convey a longtime friendship, along with the biggest surprise – character actor Shea Wigham’s Patrick “Packie” Hanrahan.

Wigham is a revelation as stuck-in-a-rut Packie, a smart man whose technical prowess and knowledge of social networking will come into play. But he’s a serious case of arrested development, living in his grandmother’s basement, inept with women, and invasive with personal questions.

The trio don’t seem to be aware of what boundaries are, let alone have filters when they are together. Their jabs at each other cut too deep sometimes and their locker room talk gets repetitive. Yet the actors keep up a frantic pace of macho sex talk and putting each other down at every opportunity.

After a tiff, the men reunite at Frank’s urging to hang out one evening at his small engine repair garage. Only he has an ulterior motive bringing them back together for top-shelf Scotch whiskey and steaks.

Frank has asked arrogant frat boy Chad Walker (Spencer House), his drug dealer, to stop by with “Molly,” which is another name for the synthetic stimulant and hallucinogen Ecstasy (MDMA).

As they knock back shots with the technically savvy Millennial, who reeks of privilege, are they really all that different? Chad has a callous disregard for women as sex objects and is casually dismissive of others ‘not in his league.’ House displays the entitlement of a kid whose big-deal attorney father has handed him everything in life accept the lesson that actions have consequences.

One can’t divulge too much of the plot, but it’s driven by family ties and the intangible bonds of lifelong friendships. If comparing to other works, think David Mamet – and even the characters satirized by Saturday Night Live in the ‘wicked-funny’ Boston sketches. For those who watched “Mare of Easttown,” it has an uncanny resemblance to that clannish Pennsylvania enclave depicted in the HBO mini-series.

Pollono wrote the screenplay to the 2017 movie “Stronger,” which tells of Jeff Bauman’s struggle to walk after the Boston Marathon bombing, another lived-in cadre of characters steeped in their New England environment.

He demonstrates a flair for crafting real-world characters and is a strong Frankie, who tries to take care of everybody but can’t manage his anger issues.

This is a fierce suspenseful production that is unapologetic in its politically incorrectness. It features bursts of ugly violence, a torrent of expletives, and with its vulgarities, earned every bit of its R rating. It is not an easy watch.

Jon Bernthal and Shea Wigham in “Small Engine Repair”

However, Pollono’s sharp observations on the narrow lanes still in place today in society – 10 years after its stage debut – gives one pause. Dynamic ensemble work makes this a drama whose impact will linger.

“Small Engine Repair” is a 2021 comedy-drama that is directed by John Pollono, who also stars, along with Jon Bernthal, Shea Wigham, Ciara Bravo, Spencer House and Jordan Spiro. It is rated R for pervasive language, crude sexual content, strong violence, a sexual assault, and drug use and runs 1 hour, 43 minutes. It opens in theaters on Sept. 10. Lynn’s Grade: B+.