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


CYMBELINE (2015)

March 9, 2015

cymbeline Greetings again from the darkness. The writings of Shakespeare are certainly timeless and it’s often quite fun to watch filmmakers or stage directors bring The Bard’s stories into a contemporary setting. A fine example is director Joss Whedon’s modern and quite enjoyable twist on Much Ado About Nothing a couple of years ago. Director Michael Almereyda had success with his modern day Hamlet in 2000, and here he re-teams with his Danish Prince from that one (Ethan Hawke) to bring one of Shakespeare’s lesser known “problem plays” to screen.

This modernization turns King Cymbeline into a Biker gang leader (Ed Harris) as he battles not the Romans, but rather a corrupt police force led by Vondre Curtis-Hall. As one would expect there is no shortage of deceit, violence and love of the “wrong” person. There are numerous sub-plots intertwined with the desire of the King and his Queen (Milla Jovovich) to marry her daughter (Dakota Johnson, 50 Shades of Gray) to his son (Anton Yelchin). Before your stomach turns, it should be pointed out that both kids are from previous marriages. It’s not surprising to discover that the daughter is really in love with someone of whom the Royal parents don’t approve – a brooding skateboarder (Penn Badgley).

The assembled cast is quite impressive. In addition to those previously mentioned, we also have Peter Gerety, Bill Pullman, Delroy Lindo (always great), John Leguizamo, Spencer Treat Clark (the kid from Gladiator) and Kevin Corrigan. The issue here is not the acting talent, but rather that some seem more comfortable with Shakespeare speak than others. Hawke, Yelchin and even Ms. Johnson seem to embrace the dialogue, while Leguizamo, Harris (in his shiny new leather jacket) and especially Badgley are fish out of water. And for some reason, Ms. Jovovich is mostly wasted despite adding much appreciated spirit to a couple of scenes.

Describing this as Shakespeare’s “lost masterpiece” is quite a stretch, but there is always some pleasure in hearing his words spoken. It’s just a shame when the project lacks energy and is lethargic in pacing … two elements that prevent us from ever connecting with any character. Still, any film that features a sky blue AMC Pacer can’t be all bad.

watch the trailer:

 

 


MARGIN CALL

October 22, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. It is absolutely understandable if you have reached your limit for dissecting and analyzing the 2008 financial crisis. However, if you can’t get enough, or are still trying to find someone to blame for looting half your retirement plan, this film offers a different perspective and one that proves more identifiable and personal. Wall Street is the new favorite bad guy in Hollywood these days and here we get faces for the targets.

Hopefully you saw Inside Job, a fine documentary that provided an overview of the collapse. HBO’s Too Big To Fail gave us a glimpse inside the Fed’s decision making process during the crisis. This movie narrows the focus down to a singular investment bank. Writer/Director JC Chandor serves up a dramatized story that begins with massive layoffs. We see the hatchet crew arriving replete with security escorts, as high paid executives are led out to the sidewalk. Stanley Tucci plays a middle manager in the Risk-Analysis department. As he is headed to the curb, he hands a flash drive to one of his young analysts (Zachary Quinto) and tells him to finish it and “be careful”.

 Flash forward a few hours and the surviving staff heads out for celebratory drinks while Quinto’s character starts churning away on Tucci’s formula. Once he realizes that the risk formulas on MBS (mortgage backed securities) show threatened stability of the firm, he places an emergency call. It is quite interesting to see how this emergency escalates as we are introduced, one rung at a time, to the hierarchy within the firm … Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey, Demi Moore, Simon Baker. This culminates in a late night conference room meeting when the CEO (Jeremy Irons) arrives by helicopter.

 There are so many facets to this story. We see how some are in the game for money. Penn Badgley says it’s all he ever wanted to do, but his obsessive behavior over the income of each manager shows us why. Paul Bettany is a middle manager who realizes the “killers” such as Simon Baker have passed him by. Demi Moore plays the type who doesn’t mind finding a fall guy, as long as it’s not her. Kevin Spacey is 30+ year career man who has survived many crisis by being loyal to the firm, while also doing right by the client. Jeremy Irons is the charming, powerful CEO who laughs about being as smart as a Golden Retriever, but laser-focused on keeping the firm viable.

 What you can’t help but notice is the number of managers who point out that they don’t understand the charts and graphs and numbers, and just need someone to explain it to them in “plain English”. We also see self-preservation at its finest/worst and the struggle that some of the characters have in deciding what is the “right thing to do”. It is not surprising, yet frightening still, to see that the red flags were flying before anyone acknowledged their presence. No one wants to be the one to shut down a party.

When the CEO says the three ways to win are to: “be first, be smartest or cheat”, we realize huge decisions are made only in the best interest of the firm … not the economy, and certainly not an individual investor. Although this investment firm remains nameless through the film, I did find it interesting that Irons’ character name is John Tuld.  John Tuld … Dick Fuld … Just sayin’!

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want as many perspectives as possible on what caused this latest financial meltdown OR you have any remaining doubts that corporations make decisions based on their own best not interest.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: 2008 is in your rearview mirror and you have no interest in looking back OR your blood pressure shoots up any time someone mentions Wall Street, investment bankers, etc.

watch the trailer:


EASY A (2010)

September 18, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is an obvious (and proud of it) homage to the great teen films of John Hughes. It is updated for this generation of teens – replete with FaceBook, texting and webcam. While this one may not have the fully realized characters of the best Hughes films, it actually takes things a step further in its commentary on many topics: family life, parenting, religious zealotry, rumor-mongering and the public education system.

Writer Bert V. Royal‘s script delivers an intellectual and comedic look into high school life … told through the eyes of the smart, “invisible” girl. Director Will Gluck shows promise with this one … here’s a brief overview so as not to take away from the multiple layers.

PET PEEVE ALERT!!  High School students played by actors in their early-to-mid 20’s.

Emma Stone (Zombieland, The House Bunny) delivers a star-making performance as Olive. Forced into a faux-confession by her best friend, Olive experiences the efficiencies of digital gossip spreading as word leaks regarding the apparent loss of her “V card”. Even though this one is based in Ojai, California, it’s nice to know that high school promiscuity is still met with a certain stigma. Here that stigma is compared to Hawthorne’s expert novel, The Scarlet Letter.

This sets into action a series of unforeseen events. The school’s religious nuts, led by Amanda Bynes, take Olive’s situation as a personal affront and spend a great deal of effort trying to punish her for her sins. At the same time, the geeks and dweebs view Olive as their savior and proceed to take advantage of the opportunity.

While she is presented as a very sharp-witted, well-grounded teenager, Olive experiences the enormous power of a reputation. All of this is balanced out by her extraordinary relationship with her free-spirited, yet wise parents played by Patricia Clarkson and Stanley Tucci.

I can’t possibly do justice to the script or the numerous topics broached, but I will say that it’s a welcome new approach to teen movies. The usual schlock sex is replaced by sharp quips and real pressures. Do note that the dialogue is filled with much harsh language that wouldn’t be welcome in an environment other than a high school campus. Further support work is offered by Penn Badgley as the good guy, Thomas Haden Church as a new world cool teacher, Malcolm McDowell as an old school principal and Lisa Kudrow as a guidance counselor (in a role that gives me permission to feel the disgust I usually feel when she is on screen).

Don’t be scared off thinking this is another lousy teen flick. It is instead an insightful comedy that plays well for adults and teens. While you may not agree with all of the social observations, I believe you will agree the film is presented in a most entertaining and insightful manner.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: You have a severe disdain for gossipers, religious zealots and judgmental types OR you want to see the type of movies John Hughes would make were he still alive.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF:  high school over-swearing gives you a headache OR if you have seizures whenever Lisa Kudrow is onscreen.