The Birthday Cake


A different kind of birthday candle.

(2021) Drama (Screen Media) Shiloh Fernandez, Val Kilmer, Ewan McGregor, William Fichtner, Lorraine Bracco, Jeremy Allen White, Emory Cohen, Vincent Pastore, David Mazouz, Ashley Benson, John Magaro, Nick Vallelonga, Penn Badgley, Franky G, Ruben Rivera, Luis Guzmán, Aldis Hodge, Jake Weary, Clara McGregor. Paul Sorvino, Joseph D’Onofrio, Tyler Dean Flores, Emily Tremaine. Directed by Jimmy Giannopoulos

 

“The neighborhood is changing” is a lament that we hear just about everywhere. It shouldn’t come as a surprise though; neighborhoods are always changing. People move out, more people move in, as they say, change is inevitable but growth is optional.

For Gio (Mazouz), he is the son of a family that is, as it is euphemistically put, “connected.” On his mother’s side, though; his father is not and it is his father he takes after; gentle, desiring to walk the straight and narrow. When some Russian kids give him a black eye, is cousin Leo (Cohen) urges him to scare the bejesus out of them by pointing a gun at them. Some of the kids run off but one, seeing that there is no way in Hell Gio is ever going to pull the trigger, beats the heck out of him even more.

Ten years later, a now grown Gio (Fernandez) remains hopelessly naïve. His cousin Leo has just returned from prison, but it is not a happy homecoming; everyone is looking for him, and not to congratulate him on his release. Leo is in hiding, and Gio, as Leo always has protected him, now protects his cousin.

It is the occasion of his Uncle Angelo’s (Kilmer) birthday and also the tenth anniversary of his father’s death – he was found strangled in the trunk of is own car. As she traditionally does to mark both occasions, his mother (Bracco) has baked a cake and insists that Gio deliver it, but first reminds him to stop by the church and light a candle for his father. Gio is reluctant to do that; while Father Kelly (E. McGregor) means well, Gio has a lot going on, including getting together with his cousin.

As Gio walks through the Brooklyn neighborhood to get to his Uncle’s house, he meets up with a number of neighborhood friends and family, all inquiring about Leo. He also meets a couple of federal agents and some Puerto Rican and African-American gangsters who also want to see Leo – preferably bleeding profusely. One thing is clear; Uncle Angelo, the crime boss who has run the neighborhood for years, is losing his control.

Once at his house, there is concern that Leo is talking to the Feds and Uncle Ricardo (Fichtner), a crooked cop, is particularly insistent on Leo’s whereabouts, although Vito (Pastore), Angelo’s right hand man, is a bit more diplomatic about it. Clearly Leo has transgressed and there are a number of people out for his blood. Can Gio stay clear of all this and be the good young man his mother wants him to be?

The film has been characterized as a story in which Gio learns to become a man, although it is unclear if he has done so by the film’s end – I suppose it would depend on what your definition of a man is. Giannopoulos, making his feature film debut as a director, has assembled an impressive cast although that is a bit misleading; many of them have little or no screen time. Sorvino, for example, has exactly one line and is confined to a chair for his two scenes. Ewan McGregor, who is near the top of the cast list, is onscreen for probably about five minutes total, split between the movie’s beginning and end, although he does provide voiceover narration for most of the film. Bracco also has just two scenes, although she is memorable in her few moments. Guzmán is in just one scene as a dope-smoking cabbie.

On the other hand, Fernandez is in nearly every scene, other than the prologue in which Mazouz plays the younger version of Gio. He tends to be a laid-back actor and doesn’t give over to histrionics, although he is plenty adept at projecting emotion through facial expression and body language. Gio has tended to be a bit of a wimp throughout his life, but is showing signs that he is ready to stand up for himself – and in the film’s climax, he is forced to do so to a certain extent. I’m not sure if it represents a life change for Gio, but it does show the character in a different light.

It is also true that the movie is for the most part really well-written. Although I think the conceit that Gio is the only one in the neighborhood who isn’t aware of how his father really died is a bit unrealistic, there are some pretty slick curves in the film and there is a reason that Gio’s mom made a chocolate cake when she knows her son is allergic to chocolate. There’s a certain elegance to what happens in an almost Scorsese-like turn.

Setting the film at Christmas time is inspired; New York really sparkles at that time of year, and clearly Giannopoulos loves the city and Brooklyn in particular. Some might squirm at Italian stereotypes that are carried on here, but fuhgeddaboutit. There are also allusions to the importance of family and loyalty, but we also see the flip side of that.

All in all, this is a much better movie than I expected. I was a little surprised at the low RT score it got, but you never know with critics. We can be an ornery bunch. Don’t let that fool you; this is a movie well-worth checking out, particularly if you love mob movies set in Brooklyn.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly well-written for a crime melodrama. A great cast with a few folks who don’t get enough big screen roles of late. Nice touch to set it at Christmastime.
REASONS TO AVOID: A great cast but many of the bigger names are only onscreen for a few minutes, some with almost no dialogue.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity, drug use and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was co-written by Giannopoulos and Fernandez (as well as Paul Bermudez).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
A Man Called Bulger

Cop Car


The beginning of a bad idea.

The beginning of a bad idea.

(2015) Thriller (Focus World) Kevin Bacon, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Camryn Manheim, Shea Whigham, Sean Hartley, Kyra Sedgwick (voice), Loi Nguyen, Sit Lenh, Chuck Kull, Thomas Coates, Justin Barr, Adam Barr, Kathleen Bentley. Directed by Jon Watts

Actions have consequences. We learn this at an early age, usually because we’ve done something foolish or wrong. The consequences are almost always some form of punishment; having a favorite toy or device taken away, being grounded, made to stand in a corner (if we are very young) or maybe being sent to bed early without desert (horrors!). Of course, the more egregious the offense, the worse the punishment.

Travis (Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Wellford) are a couple of nine or ten year old kids who have decided to run away from their Colorado Springs subdivision. They are traipsing along a vast prairie (being kids, they haven’t particularly thought this through, having only a Slim Jim to sustain them and no water), Travis saying an expletive and Harrison repeating them. It’s all fun and games until they get to a specific word which Harrison is loathe to repeat. Even kids have their limits.

Then they come across something cooler than an F-bomb – an abandoned cop car. At first, the boys timidly run up to the car and having touched it, scurry back fearfully. like some bizarre ritual of counting coup. Eventually they work up the courage to get inside and of course at first it’s all play acting and fun…but then they find the keys.

Sheriff Kretzer (Bacon) is not so amused when he returns to find his car gone. You see, he was in the midst of burying a body and had come to fetch a second from the trunk of his car. Having his homicidal activities discovered just would not do. So he goes out to find the pilferers of his official vehicle, while the kids, blissfully ignorant of what’s going on, go on the joy ride of a lifetime.

Watts, who on the strength of his efforts here won himself the director’s seat for the upcoming Spider-Man reboot, takes a story that’s been essentially told before, strips it down to its essence, and gives us one taut, well-made thriller. The boys’ ignorance of how things work – they have no clue how to operate a car and make some pretty significant mistakes because of their inexperience – helps keep the tension level high. There’s a sequence when they’re trying to figure out how to fire the guns, peering down the barrels of the firearms and you are absolutely certain that one of the kids is going to get their heads blown off. Da Queen was literally viewing that sequence through her clenched fingers. She wasn’t the only one, either.

It helps that the two juvenile actors he cast are completely natural. They are full of bravado, crazy naive, and bonded together like only little boys can be. They are out on an adventure and are very much, as little boys are, shoot first ask questions later sorts. As I mentioned earlier, thinking things through is not their strong suit. While Travis is clearly the ringleader, the true strength belongs to Harrison – again, as is often the case with little boys. They’re like any little boy you might meet in your neighborhood; a little less supervised, a little wilder, but nonetheless recognizable. That helps the movie a great deal the longer it goes on and is one of the strengths of the film overall.

Bacon is a reliable presence. This is the kind of role he’s done before. The actions of the sheriff are never fully explained; we see him at one point flushing an impressive amount of cocaine down the toilet so we assume that it’s a drug thing, but why he has the two men set for a dirtnap is anybody’s guess. We do know that he’s a vicious and clever sort, not above putting a civilian in the line of fire if it is to his advantage; we are used to our policemen being concerned with our own safety so it never occurs to us that the orders we are getting are not given with that in mind. In some ways, this movie mirrors the public’s changing perception of the police. It’s not that there haven’t been bad cops in the movies – there have been bad cops in the movies as long as there have been movies – but it’s the way we look at this bad cop that’s different.

A couple of times during the movie it did feel like some of the sequences felt a little bit forced in order to advance the story; that happens a lot in these sorts of films although in fairness less often here than in other examples of the genre. There’s an encounter with a motorcycle cop that is very well-written from a tension point of view, but it seems to exist in the story only to show us how clever the Sheriff is. A good rule of thumb for filmmakers is that if a scene isn’t germane to the overall story other than to illustrate a character’s personality trait, it probably doesn’t belong in the movie.

Sure, some of the plot points are a bit contrived but for the most part this is a movie that feels like it could happen and maybe it already has. As thrillers go this one is well done, not quite to the level of last year’s Blue Ruin but certainly in the same ballpark. This is a well-constructed, well-executed edge of your seat entertainment that deserves a spot on your radar.

REASONS TO GO: Nice tension. Good performances by the kids who behave like kids.
REASONS TO STAY: A bit contrived in places. Bacon has played this role before.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a fair amount of violence, a scene of drug usage and kid peril throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The voice of the dispatcher is done by Kyra Sedgwick. In addition, the Quinlan County on the side of the cop car doesn’t exist in Colorado or any other state.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.
BEYOND THEATERS: VOD (Check your cable or satellite provider), Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Evidence
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Grandma