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
As in all “The Conjuring” movies, this sinister tale is based on a true story, which raises the chills.

But unlike the first two that involved haunted houses, this focus is on how a mild-mannered 19-year-old could viciously stab his neighbor/landlord to death in a small New England town without direction from the dark side?

Real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga) investigate a murder that may be linked to demonic possession. The 1981 case is the first time in U.S. history that a murder suspect would claim demonic possession as a defense. It made national headlines as “The Devil Made Me Do It” trial, and the Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor) case was one of the most sensational to involve The Warrens.

Oh, there are still creepy houses, with eerie things lurking in shadows, spooky basements/cellars and more delving into the occult – always disturbing. Production Designer Jennifer Spence is effective in building an ominous atmosphere and capturing the early ‘80s look.

Shifting between the real and paranormal worlds, this third film – and eighth overall in “The Conjuring” spin-offs (Annabelle, The Nun), provides the unsettling unease we have come to expect. Demonic possession gives me the heebie-jeebies anyway, and then when you add other supernatural elements, well, the sense of dread is unrelenting.

Only James Wan, responsible for the first two smash hits in 2013 and 2016, is not directing this macabre well-documented film, it is a protégé instead – Michael Chaves, who helmed “The Curse of la Llorona” in 2019, another spin-off film.

Chaves doesn’t veer off the path of a successful formula. Like Wan, he is good at escalating terror, although he spent more time setting up the spine-chilling jolts where you gasp, jump or scream.

Wan, however, is credited with the story, along with screenwriter David Leslie Johnson – McGoldrick. The characters are based on those created by Chad Hayes and Carey W. Hayes. The story does get rather complicated as the Warrens explore what a former priest, Kastner (John Noble), has stored away.

The movie starts out with an exorcism of a demon possessing an 8-year-old boy, David Glatzel (an angelic-faced Julian Hilliard), which is truly frightening and cuts to the chase in swift fashion. His sister’s boyfriend, Arne Cheyenne Johnson (Ruairi O’Connor), pleads with the spirit to enter him and leave David alone.

Thus starts the horrific transformation of Arne into a wicked presence, igniting a fight for his soul by “The Occultist,” who summons demons to satisfy the Prince of Darkness. With her severe skeletal build features, Eugenie Bondurant is menacing with just a quick glance.

The story takes on the structure of a crime procedural as the police involve the Warrens in a missing girls’ case in Danvers, Mass., that may be related, and broaden the research about Satanic cults.

Sometimes, it is a little too on the nose, and why people in big rambling old houses insist of not having too many lights on, I’ll never understand. Editors Peter Gvozdas and Christian Wagner set up the scares with flair and composer Joseph Bishara, who scored the first two, is back enhancing the action.

While Wilson and Farmiga excel in portraying this ordinary married couple with extraordinary abilities, some of the acting by lesser supporting characters gets a tad hammy, like the old-timey horror icons in early Hollywood.

Lorraine Warren, who served as a consultant on these films before her death at age 92 in 2019, was a clairvoyant, and her visions are an integral part of cracking these cases.

As the murder suspect, O’Connor is believable as someone caught up in forces beyond his control. Sarah Catherine Hook gives sincere support as his girlfriend Debbie Glatzel and as her brother, Hilliard is a natural as the innocent boy thrust into the supernatural world.

The trial is wrapped up quickly, almost like an afterthought, and there is plenty of archival footage on the case, including this gem – a clip of Tom Snyder of “The Tomorrow Show” interviewing the Warrens. (Stay to see it during the credits).

This third film delivers what it sets out to do and is convincing in its depiction of ghosts and Satanic worshippers. It will just depend on how skeptical you are about demons fighting for our souls.

Ruairi O’Connor as Arne Cheyenne Johnson

“The Conjuring” trilogy is the kind of movie best-suited to watch when you’re not alone in the dark.

“The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It” is a 2021 horror thriller directed by Michael Chaves and starring Patrick Wilson, Vera Farmiga, Ruairi O’Connor and John Noble. Rated R for terror, violence and some disturbing images, the film runs 1 hour, 52 minutes. Lynn’s Grade: B. The movie is in theatres and steaming on HBOMax starting June 4.