THE BIRTHDAY CAKE (2021)

June 17, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. All it took was one look at the cast for me to agree to watch and review this mob film. It’s the first feature film from writer-director Jimmy Giannopoulos, and he co-wrote the screenplay with Diomedes Raul Bermudez and Shiloh Fernandez (who also stars). Most will agree the world never really needs another mob movie, but gosh, when they work, they are quite fun to watch. Filmmakers Guy Ritchie and Martin Scorsese have figured this out.

And then there are those that try hard, but for whatever reason, it doesn’t quite click. Sometimes too many characters are crammed in to execute (pun intended) as many familiar mob movie tropes as possible. Director Giannopoulos opens his film with a flashback scene from 10 years ago. The rest of the movie takes place in one evening – one that goes better for some than others. Gio (co-writer Shiloh Fernandez) is dressed in his suit as this is the night “the family” celebrates the death of his father 10 years prior. Gio’s mother (Lorraine Bracco) has baked the titular cake, as she has done each of the previous years. She tells Gio she does this “for your father.” Gio then sets out to walk the streets of Brooklyn in order to bring the cake to his Uncle Angelo’s house for the celebration.

Gio is good-natured and prefers talking and smiling his way through confrontations, rather than the violent tendencies of those around him. Most of the movie revolves around his interactions along the way – with some friendlies and some not-so-friendlies. It seems his chocolate allergy comes up in conversation enough times that we know it will come into play at some point. If it’s not his food allergy, then it’s the whereabouts of his Cousin Leo (Emery Cohen) that makes up most of the conversations we hear. Leo is recently out of prison, but hasn’t contacted his mother yet … a real no-no in the family. Leo had previously crossed a Puerto Rican gang and now he’s missing – hence all the questions.

If you come for the story, you’ll likely be disappointed. This is more a series of vignettes featuring familiar faces such as Luis Guzman as a concerned Uber driver, William Fichtner as a man with a violent nature, and John Magaro, Aldis Hodge, Ashley Benson, Vincent Pastore (of course), Penn Badgley, Jeremy Allen White, and even Marla Maples (yes, the former Mrs. Trump). Once at the party, Gio meets with an ailing Uncle Carmine played by Paul Sorvino, and best of all, Uncle Angelo played by Val Kilmer. If you have not heard, Mr. Kilmer had throat cancer and now speaks through a voice box. Subtitles are utilized to assist viewers. Watching him act with his eyes and body language is a pleasure, and it’s great to have him back on the big screen. The final big name to appear in the film is Ewan McGregor as Father Kelly, who has an early scene with David Mazouz (“Gotham”) as young Gio, and a later scene with modern day Gio and his mother.

We follow Gio in his strange, messy night … think AFTER HOURS (1985) … only mob-related, and lacking most of the dark comedic touches. Other than Fernandez, most of the actors are only in a scene or two, so there’s a novelty effect that doesn’t seem quite right for this genre. Paul Sorvino has only a solitary two-word line of dialogue that starts with an F and ends with you. Still a well-executed crescendo of death and getting to see so many familiar faces in one film makes it worth sticking till the end.

In theaters and On Demand June 18, 2021

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ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI (2020)

January 10, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Four grown men hanging out in a Miami motel room may not strike you as a promising premise for a must-see movie, but this wasn’t just a group of random buddies. Inspired by what actually happened on February 25, 1964, the film takes us behind the closed door that sheltered newly crowned heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Clay, pro football superstar Jim Brown, singer-songwriter-entrepreneur Sam Cooke, and activist Malcolm X, as they met to discuss their burgeoning roles as leaders in the Black community.

Each of the four main characters gets their own introductory prologue so that we have a feel for them prior to their motel rendezvous. We watch as Sam Cooke, smooth voice and all, bombs at the Copacabana Club simply because most of the rich white folks in the audience don’t want to be entertained by a black singer. In London, we are plopped into the ring of the first Cassius Clay – Henry Cooper fight, so we can witness Clay’s remarkable athleticism and showmanship … and also the rare instance of his being knocked down. We then head to St. Simons Island, Georgia, an historic spot for both the American Revolution and the Civil War. Local football hero Jim Brown is invited to iced tea on the front porch by a local rich man (Beau Bridges) and his daughter (real life daughter Emily Bridges). They fawn over his prowess as a sports figure, but after a friendly chat, state matter-of-factly why Brown is not allowed into the main house. Lastly, we pick up with Malcolm X as he disagrees with Elijah Muhammed, and the subsequent conversations with his wife about the ramifications of leaving the Nation of Islam.

These vignettes set the stage for the four men to meet in Malcolm X’s motel room after Clay’s historic defeat of Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight Championship of the World. Clay is portrayed by Eli Goree (RACE, 2016), who does a nice job of capturing the champ’s moves in the ring, as well as his charm, braggadocio, and intellect outside it. Cooke is played perfectly by Tony Award winner Leslie Odom Jr (Aaron Burr in both the stage and film version of HAMILTON), while Aldis Hodge (CLEMENCY, 2019) is Jim Brown and Kingley Ben-Adir (“The OA”) is a standout as Malcolm X.

Cooke and Brown are under the impression that this is going to be a wild Miami party, while Clay is in a celebratory mood, even though he knows the real reason the four men have gathered. Rather than a bash, Malcolm X has arranged an evening of “reflection” for the four men he envisions as leading the revolution of blacks against the devil known as the white man. What follows are multiple discussions – some deep, some angry, some both – about how the men view their position in society and culture. What Malcolm terms “The Struggle”, they each relate to, but have found their own personal ways of dealing. Brown wants to transition into acting as something less physically demanding, and Cooke is building his record label and buying cars to flaunt his success. Clay is young. He just turned 22 the month prior, and he is somewhat reluctantly buying into the Muslim Faith … quite the coup for Malcolm X’s plan.

The fun here is derived from the terrific interactions between four very different personalities, each with varying degrees of comprehension on their budding power. How best to utilize that power is the dilemma, and each man has their own opinions and perspectives. Cooke is on one extreme wanting to succeed in a capitalistic society, while Malcolm X is on the other extreme pushing activism and a full revolution (“blow it up”). The exchanges and conflict between these two are the highlights of the film, as Odom and Ben-Adir shine.

This is the feature film directorial debut of Oscar and Emmy winning actress Regina King, and while a screen adaptation of a stage play may be a risky first in the director’s chair, Ms. King handles the material expertly … as does the cast. Kemp Powers adapted his own stage production for the big screen, and he’s also a co-writer on the latest Pixar gem, SOUL. Supporting roles are covered by Lance Reddick (as Kareem X), Michael Imperioli (as Angelo Dundee), and Joaquina Kalukango (as Betty X). Sam Cooke was murdered later that same year. Malcolm X was assassinated by a Nation of Islam member one year later, and Cassius Clay of course changed his name to Muhammad Ali and passed away in 2016 at age 74. Jim Brown is still alive at age 84. These men each made their mark as leaders in the Black community, and even though we will never know what they talked about that night in Miami, the film digs in to personalities and leaves out the hero worship. Ms. King’s debut film will likely appeal more to history buffs and cinephiles, but it’s one that deserves attention.

Amazon Studios will release ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI… in Miami theaters December 25th, 2020, in select US theaters on January 8th, 2021 and on Prime Video January 15th, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020)

February 27, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. I got hooked on “Monster” movies as a kid, and even all these years later, I still get a kick out of them. Of course, with today’s special effects, the look of these films is much different than in the early days. The big challenge for the genre now isn’t how to frighten us or create an awe-inspiring effect, but rather can it capture the charm and appeal of those ground-breaking B-movies? Universal Studio’s Dark Universe got off to a less-than-stellar start with Tom Cruise’s 2017 THE MUMMY. Now, after re-grouping, the fabled Monster studio re-boots THE INVISIBLE MAN … with roots in H.G. Wells’1897 sci-fi novel and the Claude Rains – James Whale film from 1933.

Perhaps their best decision was choosing Leigh Whannell to write and direct. I’m hesitant to mention that Mr. Whannell was a creative writing force behind both the SAW and INSIDIOUS franchises, as some may jump to conclusions on what to expect with this latest. All I can say is that you’d be incorrect to assume THE INVISIBLE MAN falls in line with those previous films. Instead, this film is a psychological thriller in the form of #MeToo vengeance. Whereas the 1933 film featured a brilliant scientist whose invention turned him sour, this contemporary version is told from the viewpoint of a woman who has been abused and controlled by her boyfriend.

When we first see Cecilia (Elisabeth Moss), she is sneaking out of her stunning cliffside home while her boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) sleeps. Within just a few minutes, Ceclia’s escape has taken us on a tour of the home (including a high-tech laboratory), disclosed that she has drugged Adrian, introduced us to her sister Alice (Harriet Dyer), and above all, given us a glimpse at just how terrorized Cecilia feels. The sequence is complemented by a nerve-jarring score from composer Benjamin Wallfisch (BLADE RUNNER 2049).

We flash forward two weeks and find Cecilia taking refuge at a friend’s home, and she remains so paranoid, she is barely able to step outside. As the old saying goes, ‘is it paranoia if they are really after you?’ Her friend is James (Aldis Hodge, CLEMENCY), a stout no-nonsense cop and single dad raising teenage daughter Sydney (Storm Reid, A WRINKLE IN TIME). When it’s discovered that Adrian has committed suicide and, according to Adrian’s creepy attorney brother Tom (Michael Dorman), left millions to Cecilia, she allows herself to celebrate the moment. However, what fun would it be watching her spend and give away money? Instead, the tone shifts and Cecilia’s life becomes unbearable as she is convinced dead/invisible Adrian is torturing her. As you can imagine, this leads to questions about Cecilia’s mental stability, which then leads to more misery and tragedy.

Director Whannell’s brilliant approach and Ms. Moss’ superb performance combine to make this a thrill ride worth taking … it’s the kind where some folks in the audience shout warnings to the characters on screen! It’s difficult to tell which is more frightening, having everyone you know think you have lost your mind, or actually being stalked by an invisible, presumed-dead former abuser who wants you to suffer. Floating knives and physical fights are unsettling, but can’t compare to the tension created by cinematographer Stefan Duscio turning his camera to a blank wall or empty space. Our mind (and Ms. Moss’s face) fill in the gaps with Adrian’s evil presence. This is not a scientist-gone-bad, but rather a madman utilizing his most powerful tool. Having Adrian be an Optics innovator was a contemporary twist that takes us from the science fiction of the 1930’s to the technological world of modern day.

The film was originally going to star Johnny Depp, but it works so much better, and is so much more terrifying, having it told through the eyes of Ms. Moss’ Cecilia. Strangely enough, the movie I kept flashing back to was not the 1933 Claude Rains and Gloria Stuart (64 years later, she played reminiscing Rose in TITANIC) movie directed by the great James Whale, but rather the schlocky 1991 Julia Roberts film SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY. This is the most fun kind of movie suspense, and what’s scarier than the things we can’t see? It’s nice to have Universal Studios’ monsters back on track, and we have talented filmmaker Leigh Whannell to thank for this “Surprise!

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CLEMENCY (2019)

December 28, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. You surely complain about your job. Most everyone does. But what if your career path had led you to oversee a dozen court-mandated executions, and the next one was already scheduled? In her first feature film, writer-director Chinonye Chukwu takes us inside the world of Warden Bernadine Williams, who manages a maximum-security prison, including inmates on death row. It’s the rare film in this sub-genre that doesn’t preach anti-death penalty politics, and instead focuses on the emotional toll it takes on those who must carry out the sentence.

Warden Williams (Alfre Woodard) is a seasoned prison professional who keeps her emotions in check, while sticking to policies and procedures. She is a restrained, often stoic person – both at work and at home. Early in the film, a lethal injection goes awry, and the warden finds this inexcusable. She wants answers and she prepares to make sure the next one scheduled … for inmate Anthony Woods … goes smoothly. Aldis Hodge plays Mr. Woods, a death row inmate for 15 years. His execution date is fast approaching despite his claims of innocence and the evidence showing he was not the one who killed the police officer. Woods’ attorney (Richard Schiff) has informed him that his last strand of hope is a decree of clemency by the governor.

Bernadine’s job involves dealing with family members, protestors, lawyers, media, guards, medical staff, procedures, final statements … and even the search for veins. The stress is obviously taking a toll, and even her home life is a wreck. Husband Jonathan (Wendell Pierce) is frustrated at her aloofness. He’s a high school teacher and reads a passage of “Invisible Man” to his class – words that hit home for him. Bernadine must also deal with the prison priest (Michael O’Neill) and the two share a powerful moment that relays the strain on both. Bernadine speaks matter-of-factly to Mr. Woods as she outlines the procedure of his execution. In another powerful moment, Mr. Woods attempts to exercise his last bit of control over his life and death. It’s brutal to watch.

Even though the death sentence is for convict Anthony Woods, most every other person involved expresses some desire to retire or walk away. This speaks clearly to the burden associated with taking the life of another human being. In a meeting with his former partner Evette (Danielle Brooks), Woods is given hope of a legacy outside of crime, while Evette expresses what she needs to him. This life is no fairy tale, and hard edges and difficult moments are around every corner.

Ms. Woodard has long been an underrated actress. Her only Oscar nomination came in 1983, and she has been outstanding in most roles since TV’s “St Elsewhere” in the 1980’s. She manages to convey humanity and realism in most every character she plays. Mr. Hodge starred in the title role of BRIAN BANKS earlier this year, and in both roles, he possesses a strength of character that allows the audience in. In Ms. Chukwu’s film, both are isolated in some way and struggling with how to deal.

Although the film spends very little time on the question of guilt or innocence, or whether the death penalty is a law of morality that fits within society, the approach of examining the psychological impact of those involved proves worthy of discussion. We do wish the script had not delivered such stand-off characters … ones so difficult to connect with. But perhaps that’s the inevitability of the environment – one that cuts much deeper than following the ritual of preparing for the next execution.

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BRIAN BANKS (2019)

August 8, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. With the momentum of the #MeToo movement, and the attention being paid to harassment and discrimination in all walks of life, there really is no better time for a film that tells the story of Brian Banks. We are counseled to believe women as they recount their heart-breaking and life-altering stories, and it’s Mr. Banks’ story that reminds us what should matter in all situations … truth and justice.

Brian was a 16 year old football star at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, California when Wanetta Gibson (renamed Kennisha Rice in the movie) accused him of rape on school grounds. Banks was expelled from school, lost his athletic scholarship to USC, and poor legal advice led him to a plea bargain that resulted in his serving a 5 year prison sentence and another 5 years on restrictive probation. From day one, Brian Banks never wavered in the proclamation of his innocence.

In his situation, the only way for Brian to get some semblance of his life back was exoneration by the judge; and the only way that could happen would be new evidence or a recant of testimony by the accuser. Justin Brooks (played here by Greg Kinnear), the founder of the California Innocence Project, was touched by Brian’s story, but just couldn’t find a way to help. Surely the film offers some dramatization of actual events, but Brian Banks and his story are fascinating on many levels … and it makes for a though-provoking and inspirational 99 minutes.

Banks was a convicted man whose own conviction of his innocence is proof of just how strong the human spirit can be. Director Tom Shadyac (PATCH ADAMS 1998, ACE VENTURA: PET DETECTIVE 1994) had his own life-altering event, and it’s partly why this is his first narrative feature in more than a decade. It’s likely the “second chance at life” hit home, and the script from Doug Atchison (AKEELA AND THE BEE, 2006) manages to hit the high and low points experienced by Banks and his single mom (played by Sherri Shepherd), who never lost faith.

Aldis Hodge (“City on a Hill”) is outstanding as Brian Banks. He perfectly conveys the multitude of feelings of a man so confounded by a life gone wrong – yet so dedicated to staying on the right path despite all obstacles. In addition to the aforementioned Greg Kinnear and Sherri Shepherd, Melanie Liburd shines as Karina – Brian’s new romantic interest (who shares her own story of past sexual abuse), and Xosha Roquemore performs admirably and memorably in the thankless role of Kennisha Rice. It should also be noted that Morgan Freeman has a cameo as a prison counselor who makes an impact on Brian.

The film begins with Brian explaining that he never really knew what “freedom” meant until it was taken from him, and then he re-gained it. That’s a powerful statement, and it nicely corresponds to another lesson the film provides: “All you can control in life is how you respond to life.” The film may be a bit glossy at times, but its message and its central character are inspirational … and a source for further important discussions.

watch the trailer: