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

Live By Night


Ben  Affleck is all business.

Ben Affleck is all business.

(2016) Crime Drama (Warner Brothers) Ben Affleck, Zoe Saldana, Chris Cooper, Chris Messina, Brendan Gleeson, Elle Fanning, Robert Glenister, Matthew Maher, Remo Girone, Sienna Miller, Miguel J. Pimentel, Titus Welliver, Max Casella, JD Evermore, Clark Gregg, Anthony Michael Hall, Derek Mears, Christian Clemenson, Chris Sullivan, Veronica Alcino. Directed by Ben Affleck

 

What makes a good man do bad things? Sometimes it’s circumstance, sometimes desperation, sometimes it’s because they believe that they are doing it for a greater good. Once they a good man goes down that path however, how long before it changes him from a good man to a bad one?

Joe Coughlin (Affleck) went to the First World War as a good man. The son of a police captain (Gleeson), he returns home to Boston disillusioned and bitter, vowing not to follow orders ever again. He becomes a petty thief with a small gang but Coughlin is bold and smart and soon comes to the attention of Irish mob boss Albert White (Glenister). Coughlin wants no part of a gang but it’s one of those situations where he doesn’t have any attractive alternatives.

Unfortunately, soon White’s mistress Emma Gould (Miller) comes to Joe’s attention and the two start carrying on a rather dangerous clandestine relationship. Of course, it inevitably leads to tragedy and Joe goes to jail. When he gets out, Boston is essentially closed to him and he goes south to Tampa along with his right hand man Dion Bartolo (Messina) where they will oversee the rum running operation of Italian mob boss Maso Pescatore (Girone). There he meets two pivotal people – police chief Figgis (Cooper) and Graciela (Saldana); the former he forges a business relationship with and the latter a romantic one.

Joe’s interracial romance soon garners the attention of the Ku Klux Klan who makes life a mess for Joe. Joe appeals to Chief Figgis for help but the Klan’s most visible guy (Maher) happens to be the Chief’s brother-in-law. Although he admires and respects the Chief a great deal Joe uses blackmail photos of the Chief’s daughter Loretta (Fanning) to force the Chief to betray his brother-in-law.

Some time after that, Joe hits upon the idea of building casinos in Florida and begins construction on a magnificent one. Pescatore is happy because Joe is making him cartfuls of money and plenty of important people want to see the casino built. However, Joe is opposed by an evangelist – Loretta Figgis – who helps turn public and political opinion against him. Now Joe is in a great deal of hot water and finds himself once again between the two Boston mob bosses except that this time they are BOTH against him. Surviving this battle may not be possible.

Let’s cut to the chase; this is the weakest entry in Affleck’s otherwise stellar directing filmography. That doesn’t mean this is a terrible film, it’s just the most convoluted and least interesting of Affleck’s films to date. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a truly talented director and some of the scenes he has shot here are simply magic, but there aren’t enough of them to make a cohesive whole. Some of the blame lies at the feet of Dennis Lehane whose book this is based upon; the book itself was somewhat plot-heavy and it doesn’t translate to the silver screen as well as other books that the author wrote like Mystic River for example.

There are a ton of characters in here and a pretty high-end cast; that leads to a logjam of performances, some of which get short shrift and others seem to simply disappear in the bedlam. Standing out are Cooper as the bereaved and aggrieved chief of police, Saldana as the patient girlfriend and Messina as the loyal right hand man. All three get substantial screen time; not so much for fine actors like Miller, Gleeson and Greenwood among others.

And with all this, sometimes it feels like you’re riding a lazy Southern river that seems to be all bend and no destination. There are at least three false endings and when the final credits role there is a feeling of relief. The movie could have very easily ended at a much earlier point (I won’t say where but if Ben Affleck wants to e-mail me, I’d be glad to discuss it with him) and have been much more satisfying than the place it finally did end.

I’m hoping this was just a fluke and that on his next film Affleck returns to form. He has shown in his career that he’s a bit streaky, both to the positive and to the negative. He is capable of greatness and he is also capable of movies that are utterly forgettable. This falls in the latter category – it’s not horrible, not really cringe-worthy; just inconsequential. That’s not an adjective you want used in connection with your film and I’m sure Affleck doesn’t want to make films that even potentially could have that adjective used to describe them. I sure don’t like feeling that the adjective is apt.

This is a nice looking movie that captures the era convincingly to my mind. Affleck looks pretty chic in the tailored suits of the era and the ladies have that elegance that the 30s were known for. There is a fair amount of violence – some of it bloody – but you would expect that in a film about gangsters. There is also a moral ambiguity that might be troubling for some. When watching the Corleone family, you got a sense that they knew what they were doing was wrong but this was what they knew how to do. Coughlin seems to have more options and a moral compass but he still chooses to do things that are expedient rather than right. I suppose that’s true for a lot of us.

REASONS TO GO: Affleck remains a gifted director even on his less successful films.
REASONS TO STAY: A meandering plot sabotages the film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some fairly graphic violence, lots of profanity and a little sexuality
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second movie based on a Dennis Lehane novel that Affleck has directed (the first was Gone Baby Gone back in 2007).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 34% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Untouchables
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Marathon: The Patriot’s Day Bombing