By Lynn Venhaus

Ambitious and intriguing, “Landscape with Invisible Hand” takes an absurd concept and revels in its strangeness as a suburban horror story.

It’s 2036. Most of the remaining Earthlings are impoverished and unemployed after an alien species, the Vuvv, has occupied the planet for five years. Their advanced technology was promising but their labor-saving ways and bureaucratic rule have wreaked havoc on the American way of life.

For their struggling families’ survival, 17-year-old artist Adam Campbell (Asante Blackk) and his classmate Chloe Marsh (Kylie Rogers) take their budding romance to a livestream reality dating show format that earns them cash and restores their families’ livelihood. But their love story hits a bump in the road, throwing them back into chaos and mounting debt, forcing life-altering changes.

How much is art and truth worth in a topsy-turvy world? What sacrifices would you be willing to make if aliens took over, nearly rendering everything that shapes our society obsolete? What is it about adversity that brings out the worst in some people?

These are big philosophical questions raised, yet on a small canvas, and while the Americans go through the motions, depicting a dreary way of life and adapting to a drab environment, the curiosity level never rises to compelling.

This quirky sci-fi hybrid should be funnier and more heart-tugging. The economic and environmental implications are damning, and yes, the blame is on us. And while it’s never predictable and always unusual, there is just something that prevents the film from totally clicking. I am not familiar with the book, though.

Yet, there are sharp, witty barbs and some amusing visuals in writer-director Cory Finley’s adaptation of M.T. Anderson’s 2017 young adult novel. The aliens are peculiar-looking – flesh-colored squishy rectangle blobs who have weird features, bordering on the grotesque. Everything, from their voices, vocabulary, and views are out of sync with humans, and the interactions are odd. The awkwardness is always played for laughs.

Yet, as good as this ensemble is, the plot’s constraints regarding the depressing behaviors of humans during colonization make it hard to connect with the characters, rather something to admire for its sharp criticism instead of an emotional response.

Finley centers the story on a pair of smart entrepreneurial teens, who fall in and out of love, and their vastly dysfunctional families at a time of great duress.

Now a New York-based playwright and filmmaker, Finley grew up in the Clayton suburb of St. Louis and graduated from John Burroughs School in 2007. Burroughs hosted their heralded alumnus last spring to speak to students, staff, faculty, and the community. The theatre department also produced his play, “The Feast,” in the black box. St. Louis Actors’ Studio had presented the horror-comedy-drama in 2017.

Finley, who went on to Yale, has made three feature films, demonstrating a flair for dialogue, a keen eye for detail, and an affinity for satire and dark comedy. While different, his projects have a common theme, focusing on high school students, and this one is by far the most bizarre.

His first film, “Thoroughbreds,” starred Olivia Cooke, Anya Taylor-Joy and Anton Yelchin, and became an arthouse darling that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017, earning him an Independent Spirit Award nomination for best first screenplay.

His next was the 2019 HBO movie “Bad Education,” based on a true story, and starred Hugh Jackman as a Long Island superintendent whose epic $112 million embezzlement was uncovered by a student reporter. It won the Emmy Award for best television movie in 2020.

In his third, which premiered at Sundance in January, Finley is willing to take risks, but perhaps the frustrations of this heartless story are too much of a dead overcome.

Like last year’s “White Noise,” it has so many layers that it’s overly complicated. Although it’s worth investing the time to figure it out, mainly for its sheer audacity, but it does take a while to unpack.

A Vuvv

Production designer Sue Chan has given us an unsettling portrait of occupation and oppression, aided with meticulous work by art director Erik Louis Robert and set decorator Lynne Mitchell. Cinematographer Lyle Vincent matter-of-factly captures the situation’s bleakness, with editor Louise Ford focusing on the off-kilter aspects.

Promising young stars deliver solid performances – Blackk’s defiance and desire to push through all the hardship rings true. The young actor, first noticed on “This Is Us” as Randall’s daughter Deja’s boyfriend Malik, is one to watch.

So is Rogers, who plays the young Beth on “Yellowstone” and reminds me of a young Chloe Grace Moretz. Her financial motivations become apparent, and there is hell to pay for deceiving those aliens. The Vuvv may be incapable of love, but they can spot phonies easily.

Each has a surly sibling in this – Chloe’s sullen brother Hunter Marsh is portrayed by Michael Gandolfini, who doubles down on ‘doesn’t play well with others’, and Brooklynn MacKinzie is Natalie, a typically annoying sister, who finds fault with what Adam’s up to – usually drawing or painting.

Tiffany Haddish is credible as out-of-work attorney Beth Campbell, who is an exasperated but tough mother trying to hang on to her homestead as her world crumbles all around her/ Josh Hamilton has the most fun as a desperate dad willing to do whatever it takes to fit in with the Vuvvs and has some key scenes sucking up to the superiors.

Nevertheless, the laughs become intermittent and the points on race, class and gender seem less effective as the film winds down its 1 hour, 45-minute runtime. With all its flaws, it is still thought-provoking, but interest wanes. What started strongly as something with a different point of view doesn’t draw us in enough to satisfy.

“Landscape with Invisible Hand” is a 2023 sci-fi comedy-drama directed by Cory Finley and starring Asante Blackk, Tiffany Haddish, Kylie Rogers, Josh Hamilton, Michael Gandolfini, and Brooklynn MacKinzie. It is rated R for language and brief violent content and 1 hour, 45 minutes. It opens in theatres Aug. 18. Lynn’s Grade: C+

Note: this review was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn’t exist.

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

All grown up now, Tom Holland, the current movie action hero Spider-Man, tackles the troubled title character in “Cherry.”

It is a fierce performance and challenging role for the likable actor, who is the main reason to watch this undisciplined misfire from the Russo Brothers, gods of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for their work on “The Avengers” series.

But even Holland’s monumental efforts cannot save this generic story from itself. He does the heavy lifting, but the dark material is as airless as his blacked-out home during drug binges. The romance is run-of-the-mill – eventually two co-dependent junkies – and heroin addict stories are a dime a dozen in movies.

Based on Nico Walker’s 2018 semi-autographical book, which he wrote in federal prison while serving time for bank robberies to feed his drug addiction, the adaptation takes a literary approach by dividing his life story (35 years!) into chapters.

They are marked by title cards and Holland serves as the straight-shooting narrator who breaks the fourth wall and is candid about the sordid details.

The 336-page book was adapted by screenwriters Jessica Goldberg and Angela Russo-Otstot into a 2-hour, 20-minute movie that could have benefitted from better editing. The book was praised for coming out during the opioid epidemic.

The film wants to be an epic journey, but doesn’t set itself apart in any way, except for some stylized shots, and the characters lack appeal to sustain any momentum.

The dope life – high, strung out, needing drugs, scoring drugs, drifting through life in a haze – drags out the inevitable narrative. Not sure how many times we need to see addicts vomiting — but have at it.

The story begins in suburban Cleveland. His younger man phase is as generic as possible – partying, trying to find purpose, falling in love. He is an aimless college dropout who joins the Army after his girlfriend breaks up with him. However, he reunites with Emily (Ciara Bravo), and they marry before he goes to boot camp. At 19, he is sent to Iraq and the story turns very dark. He is forever traumatized by his medic duties and personal tragedies.

Cherry is not an interesting character until his combat experience in the fiery hell of Iraq makes him grow up fast.

Joe and Anthony Russo set up the “War is Hell” message well – after all, they are good at the male camaraderie and action sequences.

Upon his return to Ohio, Cherry becomes a mess – sleepless, self-medicating and angry, he starts popping oxycontin, and things go from bad to worse. His wife, still looking very young, starts shooting heroin with him.

Walker was released early from prison in 2019, and the Ohio-born Russo Brothers began their movie journey in 2020.

For an unlikable character, Holland impressively shows a genuine range of emotions, displaying how much he can stretch from saving the world devotion.

Since 2016, he has played Peter Parker/Spider-Man in Marvel’s Avenger series and his own spin-offs, starting with “Captain America: Civil War.”

The movie’s hefty supporting cast includes an impressive turn by Jack Wahlberg as Army buddy Jimenez, but there are a lot of characters who scream here – drill sergeants, scumbag low-life friends and upset girlfriends.

The point is? War is hell and drugs are bad? Don’t we already know this? Tell us a new version by illuminating rehabilitation after frittering most of your life away.

Will people walk away with fresh insight or just walk away? 

“Cherry” is a crime drama directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, based on Nico Walker’s 2018 novel. Starring Tom Holland, Ciara Bravo, Jack Reynor, Michael Gandolfini and Jack Wahlberg, it is rated R for graphic drug abuse, disturbing and violent images, pervasive language and sexual content. In theatres Feb. 26 and on Apple + TV on March 12.