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

WATCH THE TRAILER


TWO MEN IN TOWN (2015)

March 18, 2015

two men in town Greetings again from the darkness. Director Rachid Bouchareb, a long time festival favorite, has taken the general story of writer/director Jose Giovanni’s 1973 film of the same title and relocated it from France to a New Mexico border town. It touches on many elements such as rehabilitation of criminals, small town justice, human personality traits, freedom and justice, and conversion to Islam.

Opening with the silhouette of a brutal murder against the sunset in a New Mexico desert, the film has a western feel replete with the sense of doom and impending showdown. Forest Whitaker stars as Garnett, a paroled man who has just been released after serving 18 years for killing a deputy. Despite a life of crime that began when he was 11 years old, Garnett was a model prisoner who obtained his GED and mentored others while becoming a converted Muslim. His words make it clear he wants to put his old life behind and start fresh – however, his actions show he still struggles with explosive anger issues.

In a move that seems counterintuitive, Garnett is confined while on parole to the county in which he killed the deputy. The local sheriff (Harvey Keitel … who else would it be?) sets about making things difficult for Garnett, and expresses anger at his release while the “deputy is still dead”. The idealistic parole officer is played by Brenda Blethyn, so the stage is set for the clash of philosophies: trust and rehabilitation vs historical behavior and justice. Adding one more challenge to Garnett’s new world is the presence of his old crime boss played by Luis Guzman, who of course, wants him back in the business.

While many folks all over the globe struggle endlessly to find love; Garnett is 2 days out of prison when he falls for the local banker played by Delores Heredia. Herein lies the problems with the movie. The love connection just happens too quickly. Guzman is never the ominous presence of a truly bad guy. Keitel only gets to offer glimpses of his disgust at Garnett’s freedom. These three characters are all severely underwritten despite the efforts of three fine actors.

If not for the terrific performance of Forest Whitaker, the film would fall totally flat. It’s his screen presence that keeps us watching, hoping against all odds that he will find the peace he so desperately seeks. There is a wonderful scene with Whitaker and Ellen Burstyn, and a couple of the scenes with Whitaker and Blethyn are powerful, but the other pieces just never pack the punch necessary for this one to fully click.

watch the trailer:

 


THE LOOKALIKE (2014)

November 2, 2014

lookalike Greetings again from the darkness. Familiar faces are everywhere in this crime thriller from husband and wife filmmakers Richard Gray (director) and Michele Davis-Gray (writer). The familiar faces make the most of a story with no shortage of characters or sub-plots, though sometimes the movie tries a bit too hard to be gritty and hard-edged.

Jerry O’Connell plays Joe Mulligan, a former basketball star turned club owner and drug dealer. Joe is dealing drugs to pay off his dead dad’s debt to loan shark Luis Guzman, all while keeping his dream of hosting his own cooking show on the Food Network. See, Joe is mostly a nice guy caught up in an ugly world. This world includes his brother Holt (Justin Long) who may not be the straight-laced guy he first appears as, his drug boss Bobby (John Corbett), Bobby’s henchman Frank (Steven Bauer), and William Spinks (John Savage) as the powerful guy who demands a set-up in exchange for a big pay day.

The set-up is on track until one of the freakiest fatal accidents strikes Sadie Hill, the object of Spinks’ attraction. Desperate for the money, the bumbling drug dummies, decide to find a substitute. Enter Joe’s customer and Holt’s squeeze as the titular lookalike. Gillian Jacobs (TV’s “Community”) as Lacey does a nice job making us believe she is just desperate enough to agree to the job. Yes, desperation is a trait shared by most every character in the movie … even the detective played by the always reliable Gena Gershon. The final character of note is Mila (Scottie Thompson), who plays the “girl walks into a bar” role and proceeds to muddy the water in this big plan.  Both Ms. Jacobs and Ms. Thompson flash the ability necessary for more ambitious projects.

Slow-motion and cheesy music negatively impact some of the dramatic moments and the sex scenes … especially an otherwise effective cross-cut between O’Connell and Long as they seduce Thompson and Jacobs, respectively. Still, for a rainy day mindless crime thriller that won’t require much investment, this one is satisfactory and offers a chance to catch up with some of our most familiar character actors.

**NOTE: If you don’t recognize Jerry O’Connell’s name, you might remember him as a child actor … he played Vern in Stand By Me (1986)

watch the trailer:

 


THE LAST STAND (2013)

January 19, 2013

last stand2 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s been almost 10 years since Arnold Schwarzenegger was last top billed in a movie. He’s remained in the headlines most of that time … some good, some not so much. If you are an Arnold fan, it’s nice to see him back on screen. And what do you expect from a Schwarzenegger movie? Big guns, big muscles and big laughs from the one-liners. The first U.S. film from noted Korean director Jee-woon Kim delivers all three … and, unfortunately, little else.

Arnold plays Sheriff Ray who has semi-retired to a quiet life in an Arizona border town after a career on an ill-fated Los Angeles police drug team. His deputies are played by screen vet and comic relief Luis Guzman, Zach Gilford, and Jaimie Alexander. An FBI Agent played by Forest Whitaker contacts the Sheriff and lets him know an last stand3escaped drug lord played by Eduardo Noriega is headed through the town on his way to cross the border. Peter Stormare‘s group is in town to clear the path. Things get messy from there.

The tongue-in-cheek parts work best, but the plot and overall script are pretty lacking in substance. This could almost be viewed as a Schwarzenegger tribute film. The self-deprecating humor keeps the film rolling, but some of it just tries too hard … especially the segments with Johnny Knoxville. Some of the action is so over-the-top it draws the desired laughs from the audience, but be prepared for lots of gun play and plenty of Chevy commercial time.

last stand5 We also get a quick scene from Harry Dean Stanton and Rodrigo Santoro has a small role as a former war hero – turned town drunk who gets his shot at redemption. But make no mistake, this is Arnold’s movie and his chance to show that he still has it. The screen presence is still there, but his skills might play better in a more limited support role. That said, I triple dog dare you to not crack a smile when he is firing guns, in a frantic car chase through the corn fields, and engaged in hand to hand combat on the border bridge. After all … he did say he would be back!

*** NOTE to Directors: when you cast Forest Whitaker, don’t film him running … it’s not a pretty sight

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of Arnold the movie star and look forward to seeing him back on screen

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting a serious movie about a small town sheriff – this one is closer to trashy B cinema than Oscar.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0yMc9h3h9bs