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

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Beyond the Law (2019)


Once a badass, always a badass.

(2019) Action (CinedigmJohnny Messner, Steven Seagal, DMX, Bill Cobbs, Zack Ward, Randy Charach, Patrick Kilpatrick, Chester Rushing, Saxon Sharbino, Kim DeLonghi, Jeff M. Hill, Sean Kanan, Yulia Klass, Ken Garito, Scotch Hopkins, Mitchell J. Johnson, Mike Ferguson, Madeleine Wade, Victoria De Mare, Cody Renee Cameron, Kansas Bowling, Brialynn Massie. Directed by James Cullen Bressack

 

Some of you may be old enough to remember the era of direct-to-VHS action films; others who are longer in the tooth may remember the action movies of such purveyors as Cannon Films, New World and AVCO Embassy. They were often characterized as schlock, but they were entertaining to say the least.

=This new flick harkens back to those eras and those types of films. Here, ex-cop Frank Wilson (Messner) finds out from Detective Munce (DMX) that his estranged son Chance (Rushing) has been brutally murdered. Chance has made a series of really terrible decisions, not the least of which was getting involved with Desmond Packard (Ward), the particularly bloodthirsty son of mobster Finn Adair (Seagal) who has a history with Frank.

=Realizing that his son won’t get any justice from the hopelessly corrupt cops on the city Frank leaves his mountain cabin to return to the place he once worked as a cop in. It hasn’t changed much, but it has changed – and not for the better. He will have to fight off Desmond’s goons, corrupt cops and at the end of the day, the father of his son’s killer if he is to get justice for Chance.

The plot sounds like something you’ve seen before and it is; revenge films are one of the core types of action movies. Some might be attracted to seeing this by the presence of Seagal but they are likely to leave disappointed; Seagal has only a supporting role in the movie and mostly sits behind a desk, puffing on a cigar and lecturing his son on all the ways he’s gone wrong in his life. Seagal appears only in one fight scene and that so briefly that if you blink you just might miss it.

This is really Messner’s movie and when last I saw him in Silencer, I thought he had a future. I still do, but this is definitely a step backwards. Perhaps it’s the proximity to Seagal (who only has one scene with him) but Messner mumbles his lines in a low gravelly voice that you kind of hope for subtitles. Seagal has always been a mumbler and with his thick Louisiana accent it can be hard sometimes to make out what the two men are saying.

This is a low budget affair and while the action sequences are competent, they are pretty sparse, so we have to rely on the ability of the actors to hold our attention. Sadly, despite having a fairly decent cast, that doesn’t happen. Most of the performances here are stiff and lack believability. Then again, given that they have a script with dialogue that doesn’t sound like it could ever possibly be uttered by an actual human being for whom English is a first language, and plot points that feel like they’ve been borrowed from dozens of B-movies from the 70s, 80s and 90s and you’ve got yourself a hot mess here.

Still, as terrible an actor as Seagal is, he has always had that indefinable something that made him a star. Strangely, he still has it but the filmmakers don’t utilize him as well. Years ago, Seagal would have been playing Frank Wilson and maybe the movie would have worked better in that instance but one gets the sense that Seagal isn’t terribly interested in re-exploring old trails. Incidentally, those hoping that this is a sequel to Seagal’s action classic Above the Law will also be disappointed; the two films have nothing in common other than the last two words of their titles.

REASONS TO SEE: Seagal still has plenty of presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is pretty stiff. The film is riddled with clichés from the script to the score.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence and profanity as well as some drug and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seagal and DMX previously appeared together in the 2001 film Exit Wounds.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Basically, any Steven Seagal movie
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
The Report

A Different Set of Cards


Sometimes the game can get nasty.

(2016) Crime (108 Media) Adrian Linke, Jutta Dolle, Tim-Olrik Stoneberg, Guido Grollmann. Directed by Falko Jakobs

 

In the scheme of things the outcome of our lives often depends on circumstance. People who are born into poverty, for example, may not have the opportunities of those born into wealth and privilege. Turn over an unfriendly card and you’re a drug dealer; turn over a different card and you’re a police officer. So much of life falls on random chance.

In this low-budget German crime thriller, four people gather to play a game of poker. The narrator, Ben (Linke), watches the other three players like a hawk, trying to get a sense of their technique. One, a bearded badass (Stoneberg), is a trash talker who may slap you as soon as look at you. Another, a nervous bald man (Grollmann), is fearful and nervous; his game shows he can be easily rattled. Finally, a femme fatale (Dolle) is the wild card; Ben can’t really read her style at all.

These four players are actually playing a metaphorical card game; they are players in a drug dealer gone wrong. The badass is the buyer, who is strangely called The Salesman; the femme fatale is the seller, enigmatically called The Unknown. Ben himself is the buyer’s partner, only getting involved if things go south; he is The Accomplice. Finally, the nervous baldy is The Cop who is messing up the deal.

But Ben muses that this scenario could be a whole lot different if the players shifted roles. Ben becomes The Cop, the badass becomes The Unknown, the nervous bald guy becomes The Salesman and the femme fatale is The Accomplice. The outcome changes accordingly. And so it goes, as it turns out.

The concept is an interesting one and the same four actors keep the characters relatively intact even as their circumstances change. Jakobs, who co-wrote, edited, lensed and scored the film – I told you this was a low-budget affair – shows a remarkable confidence both as a writer and a director and manages to pull off what could have been a complete mess in less capable hands.

There is a distinctly film noir tone here – in fact the film was selected for a Los Angeles film noir festival earlier this year but with also a European flair. The use of light and shadow marks this very much as German as for whatever reason German filmmakers seem to be the most savvy filmmakers in the world generally in this aspect of filmmaking. The poker game segments are in black and white, adding to the noir feel.

Jakobs the writer wisely keeps the action to mainly two locations; a darkened room where the poker game takes place and a deserted warehouse where the drug deal segments happen. He also has only four actors in his cast; a lot of young filmmakers could learn a thing or two about putting together a great story in an affordable environment from Jakobs. What budget the film had seems to have been used wisely; the action sequences are well-staged and the gore is also done professionally without being too over-the-top.

Where the filmmaker falls a bit short is in the poker metaphor; it becomes a bit intrusive and feels forced the longer the movie goes on. I would have preferred more of the drug deal segments and less of the players sitting around the card table. However, there is a nice twist at the end which while not super original was at least unexpected and gave the movie what a lot of movies these days lack; a fitting ending.

I was only able to find one other review online for this so it hasn’t gotten a ton of press although it played the American film festival circuit somewhat extensively since its debut last year in Europe. It is widely available on VOD and while the jump cuts that Jakobs uses to distraction may mark this as a green filmmaker trying to establish a style, the things that work here work really well. Jakobs and his cast all have promising futures and I hope to see them all again sometime.

REASONS TO GO: The shifting roles is an interesting conceit. The film has a distinctly Germanic noir feel.
REASONS TO STAY: The poker metaphor gets old after awhile. There is a surfeit of jump cuts.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The English language version of the film was dubbed by the German actors, accents and all.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Memento
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
D-Love

The Girl on the Train (La fille du RER)


The Girl On The Train

Emilie Duquenne & Catherine Deneuve react to the news that Herman Cain is making set visit.

(2009) Drama (Strand) Emilie Dequenne, Michel Blanc, Catherine Deneuve, Mathieu Demy, Ronit Elkabetz, Nicolas Duvauchelle, Jeremy Quaegebeur, Djibril Pavade, Alain Cauchi, Amer Alwan, Melaine Leconte, Raphaeline Goupilleau. Directed by Andre Techine

 

What motivates people to lie? To deliberately mislead people, to say that something is so that isn’t? Often, we don’t know ourselves why we do it – generally it is to attract some kind of attention, the kind that makes us feel better about ourselves. But what happens when it gets out of hand?

Jeanne (Duquenne) is the sort of girl who floats through life like a leaf in a stream. She rollerblades through Paris with her headphones on, her music shutting out everything and everyone. She lives at home with her mother Louise (Deneuve). Louise runs a day care center, and gently urges her daughter to get a job, which Jeanne is less enthusiastic about. Louise contacts an old lover, Samuel Bleistein (Blanc) who is now a high-powered lawyer in Paris to set up an interview for Jeanne but that goes disastrously. Jeanne’s resume is rather thin and her diffident responses reveal that she doesn’t have a whole lot of enthusiasm either.

What she is enthusiastic about is Franck (Duvauchelle) who is training for the French Olympic Wrestling team. Franck is a bit of a bad boy which appeals to Jeanne, and when a shopkeeper-friend of Franck’s ask him to move into his apartment above the shop so that he can watch over his stuff while he is away on an extended trip, Jeanne moves in there with him.

However, things go horribly wrong there, causing Jeanne to move back home and her frustration and anger boils over. When she shows up at home with a swastika carved in her stomach, some of her hair cut off and her clothes in tatters, she tells her shocked mum that a group of North Africans had accosted her on the train and believing her a Jew because she was carrying the lawyer’s card, beaten her up.

The incident becomes a cause célèbre in France with the media making Jeanne the center of attention of a nation. The attention makes Jeanne uncomfortable and Louise thinks she knows why – she believes that the attack never happened and that her daughter made it up out of whole cloth. Why, she does not know but she does know that the truth will come out eventually, as it usually does.

Director Techine is a veteran of French cinema who has some marvelous films to his credit, My Favorite Season among them. This, his most recent film to date, is based on an actual incident that occurred in France. However, it isn’t the anti-Semitism that really is the focus of this story but of the girl, the one who was the center of the controversy. Why she did what she did (and there are no real answers given, at least none that make any  sense) and how it affected two families – her own and the Bleisteins, whose grandson Nathan (Quaegebeur) is about to have his bar mitzvah and is dealing with problems between his estranged parents Alex (Demy) and Judith (Elkabetz). Throughout the movie the emphasis is on the family dynamics, which is to Techine’s mind (and mine to be honest) the more interesting subject.

Duquenne is an able actress and despite being 30ish manages to play much younger very effectively. She gives Jeanne a waif-like quality as well as that diffidence I mentioned earlier. Jeanne is crowned by charming curly hair, but it is an empty crown – she seems happiest when she is tuned out from everything and tuned in to herself.

Deneuve is the grand dame of French actresses. Her compassionate heart is Louise’s most striking feature; Louise is a loving parent but somehow seems to love her daycare charges a little more than her own daughter who baffles her in many ways. That is often the way when it comes to mothers and daughters. Louise doesn’t know how to reach Jeanne which is also something parents wrestle with. It’s not Deneuve’s most striking performance but it is a realistic one.

The Girl on the Train is one of those movies that seems a bit unremarkable when first you see it but the more you think about it, the better it gets. Like good French wine, it ages not only in the barrel but in memory as well and we all know how much age benefits good wine, no matter the vintage.

WHY RENT THIS: A capably executed jewelry heist film that brings to mind The Bank Job albeit in a stuffier vein. Michael Caine is, as always, impeccable. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: No new ground is broken here. Moore never really gives me a sense of who her character is.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality and a bit of bad language, as well as some adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Michael Caine’s grandfather had a similar job to Hobbs.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $305,140 on a $9M production budget; the movie was a box office failure.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Underworld Awakening