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

Don Jon


Can't take my eyes off of you.

Can’t take my eyes off of you.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Relativity) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke, Paul Ben-Victor, Italia Ricci, Lindsey Broad, Amanda Perez, Sarah Dumont, Sloane Avery, Loanne Bishop, Arin Babaian, Antoinette Kalaj, Arayna Eison, Becky O’Donohue. Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The nature of romance and sexuality largely remains a mystery for most of us. Men don’t understand the draw of the romantic fantasy to women and women have trouble understanding why men are so obsessed with pornography. Now, while it is true that there are some women who have a porn addiction and some men who are romantics at heart, largely the stereotypes hold.

Jon Martello Jr. (Gordon-Levitt) has a pretty good life. He’s a Jersey boy who knows what he likes and pretty much has things lined up; his apartment, his boys Bobby (Brown) and Danny (Luke), his family – Mom (Headly), Dad (Danza) and his sister Monica (Larson) who is too busy texting and rolling her eyes to get a word in – and his church, his car (a sweet Chevy from the golden age of metal) and girls. His buddies call him “The Don” because he scores a hot looking chick every time he goes out clubbing. Every time, an 8 or above.

But that isn’t enough for Jon. You see, sex is all well and good but what really satisfies him is masturbating to porn. He even has his own method – starting off slow, with still pictures and working his way up to video clips until he finds the right one he can lose himself in. When he gets off to porn, everything else goes away, not to mention that the actresses in the clips will do things for their partners that no real woman will do for Jon.

Then one night in the clubs he meets Barbara Sugarman (Johansson), a blonde Jersey queen who takes most of her cues from Snooki (except for the horrid orange spray tan look). She’s so hot that Jon’s got to have her except she doesn’t put out so easily. So, as Bobby tells him, he needs to get out his long game. Wine and dine her, romance her. Do the kind of things that boyfriends do for their girlfriends.

The problem is that Jon doesn’t just want to get into her pants; he thinks she might just be The One. To show her his commitment, he agrees to take night classes so that he can move up the service industry ladder. Unfortunately, Barbara catches Jon at his obsession one night and makes him agree to not watch porn which she finds disgusting.

At first Jon does his best but he needs the release so he starts doing his porn on the side, even on his smart phone during lectures in class which attracts the notice of Esther (Moore), an older lady that Jon sees crying in the parking lot one night. Soon she seems to be making a move on him which Jon isn’t really interested in – he’s got Barbara after all and she’s at last giving it up for him – but there are cracks in the foundation of paradise and soon Jon will either have to give up his porn or Barbara.

The crux of the movie has to do with expectations and need. Sure there’s a lot of nudity, brief glimpses of porn stars humping and a whole lot of sexuality but that’s not really the point of the film, although quite frankly there are those who won’t be able to get past all that, either in a positive or negative way. All some will see is the sex and they will react to it according to their own morality either as a prurient interest or with prudish disgust. It’s simply an occupational hazard for a film like this.

That said if you look beyond the boobs and the moans you’ll actually find a thoughtful movie that looks at the nature of men and women and the differences between them, as typified by Jon. I think there are a lot of women out there who genuinely cannot understand the fascination that porn has for men and this movie might go a long way towards explaining it. Porn is a fantasy the same way a romantic movie is a fantasy for Barbara. The happy ending for her is a prince of a man who will sacrifice everything for her, be completely devoted to her and adore her 24/7. Jon’s happy ending is, well, a happy ending.

Actually that’s not quite fair. As Jon explains it, he fantasizes about the sexual acts that most women won’t even consider granting him (i.e. oral sex, doggie style) because for the most part they want the missionary position. To him, a woman who is willing to do those things for him is the equivalent of Barbara’s prince. In both cases, the egos of each of them are being catered to by their partner. In some ways both of them are children of our time – completely self-absorbed without a thought of what they are giving to their partner, only receiving from them.

Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote and directed this, looks like he watched a lot of Jersey Shore to get his character down – The Situation, anyone? – and shows as much promise behind the camera as he does confidence in front of it. He wrote the part of Barbara with Johansson specifically in mind and she loses herself into it, becoming a Jersey Shore princess in all her gum-snapping bleached blonde glory. Barbara and Jon are both full to overflowing with that Jersey attitude – Jon screaming in road rage while he drives to church, Barbara telling Jon that he won’t do housework when they’re living together because that kind of thing is beneath her and thus, as an extension of her, beneath him as well.

In many ways Moore steals the picture. She is the conscience of the film and her character Esther is the one that introduces the sense of giving into the film. Certainly she’s one messed-up broad and we only get a glimmer into her personal tragedy. She’s not glammed up for this role; there’s wear and tear on her face but more importantly in her eyes. She ends up teaching Jon – and by extension the audience – the difference between having sex and making love.

It’s nice to see Danza and Headly, both industry veterans, on the big screen again and personally I wouldn’t mind seeing the two of them more often. The rest of the supporting cast is pretty solid with Larson making the most of her single scene of dialogue.

I wouldn’t have minded about ten more minutes of exposition fleshing out some of the main characters a bit and when you leave a film wishing it had been longer you know the filmmakers are doing something right. While those who are offended by depictions and discussion of sex are urged to give this one a wide berth, the rest of you get an enthusiastic recommendation. This is a movie that honestly and with some humor examines sex and love and how easy it is to forget that the sum of those two things is far greater than the total of their parts.

REASONS TO GO: Funny, charming and thought-provoking. Gordon-Levitt, Johansson, Moore, Danza and Headly all have strong performances.

REASONS TO STAY: The porn and sexuality might be off-putting to those sensitive to such things.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of sexual content including graphic nudity and simulated sex (as well as simulated porn), plenty of foul language and a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gordon-Levitt and Danza previously worked together in Angels in the Outfield when Gordon-Levitt was just 12 years old.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moonstruck

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Enough Said