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Don’t We Know Enough About James Bond and Tony Soprano Already?

'No Time to Die' and 'The Many Saints of Newark' offer revelations you can live (and die) without.

Nicola Dove; Warner Bros.|

I expect them to die: Daniel Craig as James Bond, Michael Gandolfini as Tony Soprano, and Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti.

Look, 163 minutes is plenty of time to die. 

The final James Bond film to star Daniel Craig isn’t as long as it is because there’s so much left for 007 to accomplish—dude fucked in zero gravity 42 years ago, after all. A leisurely run time is just how a popular franchise congratulates itself nowadays. Since The Return of the King replaced a regular old ending with an interminable series of closing ceremonies almost 20 years ago, celebrating your past achievements with a drag of a conclusion has become routine. No Time to Die almost seems to resent how its enjoyable moments distract from the agony and gravity of A Very Special James Bond Series Finale.

HBO's The Sopranos, of course, pushed back at such back-patting pomp with its notoriously abrupt final cut to black. But the new prequel, The Many Saints of Newark, proves it’s never too late to sprawl. Like the latest Bond, the feature-length film banks on your pre-existing affection for its world to demand a sympathy for characters that it doesn’t earn dramatically. Saints asks you to care about wispily rehashed mob plotlines because they are Sopranos-affiliated; No Time to Die all but demands a moment of silence in memory of all that James Bond has given us.

In simpler times, before we were somehow culturally obligated to care about something called a “cinematic universe,” the Bond series helped pioneer the convention that whatever was on the screen was just part of a larger story. Like the Adam West Batman, the kitschy late Roger Moore years were a cultural sin to be forever expiated, and so for as long as I can remember, we were being promised the return of “the real Bond.” From Timothy Dalton’s 1987 debut onward, a certain claque would insist that Bond movies were no longer meant to be enjoyed as mere entertainments, or even measured against past outings, but judged on how well or badly they embodied some ineffable Bondness. 

While all this was happening, of course, so was actual real-world history. The mission, then, was not just to distill the quintessence of a dashing British Cold War era spy, but to do so in an increasingly ill-fitting contemporary setting. It was as though some production company spent decades determined to make the perfect Western, while insisting that it had to be set in the present day.

So for the Daniel Craig era of James Bond to “succeed,” it couldn’t just turn out watchable movies—it had to solve a peculiar dilemma fanboys had convinced the public was a pressing cultural problem. Making a virtue of its handicap, the new Bond movies squared this circle by centering on the question of the hero’s own obsolescence, and by extension the franchise’s. Craig was the ideal embodiment of the thug who looks good in a suit, with a face that’s clearly taken a punch and suggests in its crags the toll his actions have taken, a man out of step with the times but adept at finding those moments when a relic like him was still necessary.

Skyfall, the series entry that most cleverly upended expectations, essentially acknowledged that Aston Martin and Walther PPK, once markers of the postwar bachelor-connoisseur’s superior taste, were now just perverse fetish items. And so, for their devotees, are the Bond movies themselves—romantically outdated adventures that once represented hip modernity are now just ways to show your stubborn devotion to old-school craft. It’s not about being more thrilling than a Mission Impossible or more efficient than a Fast and Furious—it’s about getting the job done. And about defining “the job” you hope to complete on your own terms.

No Time to Die begins promisingly, which, since this is a Bond movie, means routinely. After a nail biter of an opening flashback, it ticks boxes with panache: trick-driving through crowds of miraculously unharmed civilians, gunfire from menacing henchmen of indiscriminate ethnicities, double crosses so numerous you stop keeping score and just concentrate on remembering what Bond is supposed to blow up. You have gone too far this time, 007. The world has changed, Mr. Bond. Oh, James. 

Eventually, Rami Malek’s supervillain Lyutsifer Safin (oh sure, why not) emerges from the shadows, purring like Blofeld’s cat, his attempt at subtly creepy menace registering more as tetchy somnambulance. The potential world-ender he possesses is a genetically coded chemical weapon that you can target at specific individuals but that an unaffected host can also unwittingly pass along through touch. (Someone—Richard Roeper maybe— has surely suggested that this is a timely commentary on “our COVID-era paranoia,” but really it’s just a neat way to make people’s faces blotch out grossly before they die.) We end up on an island fortress, as one does when one is with Bond. While I won’t give any important surprises away, let me reassure you that the world doesn’t end. And it takes forever not to.

No Time to Die is an exasperating Minnesota goodbye of a movie, with every recurring character from the Craig years reappearing to take a bow. Throughout, we are meant to be impressed that we are witnessing James Bond grappling with real human dilemmas. We’re supposed to be caught short when another agent (an underutilized Lashana Lynch) is assigned 007—and a Black woman at that! We’re supposed to be impressed that love interest Léa Seydoux is named (oh for the love of Proust) Madeleine Swann. But when Bond drops into Havana for a mid-film sequence that involves Ana de Armas firing an Uzi in a split evening gown, I wish I could ditch the old guy and follow her into her own movie. It’d be less weighty, probably more retrograde, but definitely more fun.

The Sopranos is such an important touchstone for American middlebrow culture that the L.A. Times convened four critics to ask “What went wrong with the ‘Sopranos’ prequel?” this week as breathlessly as if they were addressing Russian interference with the 2016 election. As though the world had never suffered through a disappointing prequel or a half-assed mob flick before. What went wrong is that someone made a bad movie. Happens a lot!

It’d be bad enough if The Many Saints of Newark just didn’t have a story worth telling—problem is it has three stories not worth telling. The first centers on Christopher Moltisanti’s father Dickie (Alessandro Nivola), a numbers-runner so convinced of his good heart he’s flummoxed every time he impulsively murders one of the people he’s closest to. The second half-told story is the rise of organized Black crime in Newark, supposedly conveyed through the experience of Leslie Odom Jr.’s Harold McBrayer. And finally there’s the youth of Tony Soprano. You know who he is, or else you wouldn’t be watching this. 

Nivola lacks the charisma to carry a movie this flimsy, and Dicky’s story is just another iteration of the show’s fatalism, where even the best intentions lead to persistent backsliding and tragedy. McBrayer is less as a protagonist than a representation of a sociological issue that only becomes dramatically significant when it affects the Italians. Which leaves us with, well, the Sopranos. 

Yes, we learn some details about Tony’s early life, about his relationship with Dicky and with his parents, but to no end. Michael Gandolfini has a goofy charm, speaking as though he’s communicating with difficulty from the other side of an adolescent haze, but he doesn’t foreshadow Tony’s menace. And while he’s effective enough, the manipulative stunt-casting still bugs me. If you don’t care about Tony Soprano’s past, the filmmakers say, surely you care about the future of James Gandolfini’s son, you absolute monster.

If the ending of The Sopranos foreclosed the possibility of sequels, the show itself made the idea of a prequel meaningless because it was already about the past. As a show centered around psychoanalysis, The Sopranos grappled with the lingering presentness of the past, how it shapes and distorts our sense of ourselves and others. We’re fortunate the movie is such a zero, because the best a successful prequel could have done is to flatten the original series into a point on a timeline.  

Saints is for fans-not-audiences who prefer “worlds”-not-art. Even the crappiest, most lower-cased-”a” art fumbles toward some purpose of its own. But fictional worlds have inexhaustible histories, and their creators insist that there are always more stories to be told, that no matter how minor and incomplete these are, they help us complete the picture. This is film as wiki-fodder, and this is how the Newark riots become just Jersey’s version of the Clone Wars, a distant historical event recreated before our eyes and supposedly rendered more real. James Bond helped get us here, and, though Daniel Craig will not, James Bond will return. Because IP is forever. But a world is not enough.

No Time to Die opens in theaters tomorrow. The Many Saints of Newark is already in theaters.

Special Screenings This Week

Thursday, Oct. 7

Summer of Soul (...or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021)
Capri Theater
Questlove’s celebrated reclamation of the footage from the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival. Free, as part of the Capri’s Grand Opening. 7 p.m. More info here.

Gaslight (1944)
Heights Theater
Let Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer show you why they call it “gaslighting.” In 35 mm. $12. 7:30 p.m. More info here.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
Parkway Theater
Ah-woo! $9/$12. 8 p.m. More info here.

Friday, Oct. 8

Cine Latino: Executive Order (2020)
St. Anthony Main
In the Brazil of the future, where the government has begun forcibly deporting Black citizens, a young lawyer joins the resistance. $10. 3:15 p.m. Also 5 p.m. Wednesday. More info here.

Cine Latino: Prayers of the Stolen (2021) + Rosa Rosae. A Spanish Civil War Elegy (2021)
St. Anthony Main
The opening night film of this year’s festival is the story of three girls hiding out to escape the Mexican drug wars. Preceded by the short film Rosa Rosae. A Spanish Civil War Elegy. Ticket price includes admission to the opening night party. $20. 7 p.m. More info here.

Cine Latino: Y Tu Mamá También (2001)
St. Anthony Main
Been a while since I saw Alfonso Cuarón’s breakthrough film but I sure remember the sexy parts (which, if I remember right, are most of the parts). $10. 9:30 p.m. More info here.

Harvey (1950)
Jimmy Stewart and a giant invisible rabbit—what more do you want? $8. 7 & 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 3 & 5 p.m. Sunday. More info here.

Saturday, Oct. 9

Sean of the Dead (2004)
Alamo Drafthouse
This is the one with the zombies, right? $10. 6:30 p.m. More info here.

Cine Latino: Nahuel and the Magic Book (2020)
St. Anthony Main
A cartoon about a fisherman’s son who discovers a book (yes, a magic one) that gives him courage. $10. 1 p.m. More info here.

Cine Latino: Finlandia (2021)
St. Anthony Main
A Spanish designer dispatches his assistant to the hills of Oaxaca to appropriate indigenous clothing ideas for a new fashion line. But things don’t go as planned! A discussion follows. $10. 3:30 p.m. More info here.

Cine Latino: The Best Families (2020)
St. Anthony Main
Family secrets are revealed at a wealthy Peruvian’s birthday party as protests rage outside the estate walls. $10. 7:15 p.m. Also 5 p.m. Tuesday. More info here.

Cine Latino: The Cover (2021)
St. Anthony Main
An Adele impersonator teaches a singer/guitarist who hates performing other people’s material that there’s more than one way to express yourself. $10. 9:30 p.m. More info here.

The Witches (1990)
Parkway Theater
Happy Roald Dahl-oween to all who celebrate. $5-$10. 1 p.m. More info here.

Sunday, Oct. 10

The Addams Family (1991)
Alamo Drafthouse
The original! Well, the original movie adaptation of the TV show, that is. Which was itself based on cartoonist Charles Addams’s creations. What is “originality,” anyway? $10. 3:40 p.m. More info here.

Cine Latino: Viva Kid Flicks
St. Anthony Main
Seven short films about kids for kids. $10. 1 p.m. More info here.

Cine Latino: Elena (2021) + Songs That Flood the River (2021)
St. Anthony Main
A Colombian woman sings funeral chants for a region torn apart by war. With the short film Elena. $10. 2:45 p.m. More info here.

Cine Latino: Son of Monarchs (2021)
St. Anthony Main
A New York entomologist returns home to this village and deals with his family’s problems. $10. 5 p.m. More info here.

Cine Latino: El Planeto (2020)
St. Anthony Main
A Spanish mother and daughter become scammers to preserve their privileged lifestyles. $10. 7:30 p.m. More info here.

Kingdom of the Spiders (1977)
William Shatner vs. a giant nest of violent tarantulas. Whoever wins, we lose. $8. 7 p.m. Sunday. 7 & 9 p.m. Monday and Tuesday. More info here.

Monday, Oct, 11

Cine Latino: A Bruddah’s Mind (2020)
St. Anthony Main
A Brazilian student fights for justice after he’s subjected to a racial slur. $10. 5 p.m. More info here.

Cine Latino: Liborio (2021)
St. Anthony Main
A peasant-turned-prophet is forced to reckon with the U.S. Marines. $10. 7:30 p.m. More info here.

Tuesday, Oct. 12

The Thing (1982)
Alamo Drafthouse
First The Shining, now this. Alamo really is trying to prepare us for winter. $10. 6:30 p.m. More info here.

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)
Heights Theater
Not the terrible 2008 remake. All the Klaatu, barada, and nikto you need, with none of the Keanu. $12. 7:30 p.m. More info here.

Cine Latino: 7 Prisoners (2021)
St. Anthony Main
Young São Paolo men are offered jobs in a scrapyard, then stripped of their ID cards and kept as prison labor. 7:30 p.m. $10. More info here.

Wednesday Oct. 13
Cine Latino: Clara Sola (2021)
St. Anthony Main
A repressed Costa Rican woman finds solace in her contact with animals. $10. 7:30 p.m. More info here.

Bleeding Audio 
A documentary about the Bay Area band the Matches and how their career unexpectedly surged. $12. 7 p.m. More info here.

Opening This Week

A half-lamb, half-human child? This may be 007’s most dangerous mission yet.

Ongoing in Local Theaters

The Addams Family 2
Dear Evan Hansen

The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Free Guy
I’m Your Man
Jungle Cruise
Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings
Titane (read our review here)
Venom: Let There Be Carnage

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