Review: ‘The Birthday Cake’ is a slice of revenge.

The Birthday Cake

Gio brings a cake to a memorial celebration for the 10th anniversary of his father’s mysterious death, hosted by his uncle (Kilmer), a Brooklyn mafia boss. His life begins to change as he pieces together what really happened to his father.

Everyone in the city seems to know Gio’s name. He hears it from every street corner as he walks about Brooklyn, from virtually every kind of person imaginable – hipster bar owners and priests, mentors and murderers. If Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) always seems surprised to hear his name, it’s because the objective of his walk is pretty intense: bringing a birthday cake to a party thrown by his mob boss uncle (Val Kilmer) to commemorate the anniversary of the death of Gio’s father.

If Gio himself is unknown to us, the archetype of his story certainly is more familiar. First-time director Jimmy Giannopoulos is acutely aware of the weight mob movies hold, especially in New York City. Every aspect of the production seems to shine with reverence for mob movie history: a crooning Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons open the film; Lorraine Bracco and Paul Sorvino appear in supporting roles that nod vigorously to their past magic in Goodfellas. Moves like these make us feel at home in the story, nostalgic for its themes even though the setting is modern.

Shiloh’s Gio is friendly, but reserved – an earnest blank canvas. Robbed of his father at an early age, he relies on his cousin Leo (Emory Cohen) and the kindly priest Father Kelly (Ewan McGregor). On paper, it’s hard to find two more polarizing father figures than a priest and a mobster, but just wait – the film doesn’t take the easy way out.

Giannopoulos’s background in music videos is well served – music anchors complements and drives the narrative forward at all times. The early joyous do-wop tracks gradually give way to modern rock and rap as the night goes on and Gio gets himself in more and more trouble. It’s supposed to be  Christmastime, but the soundtrack makes clear there is barely any Christmas cheer to speak of. I was impressed by the way Giannopoulos’ camera mirrored this descent, gradually taking the audience from bright Bensonhurst streets into a perverse night of neon bakeries and bars.

If The Birthday Cake has one major weakness, it is its inability to fully leverage its broad, talented cast. Aldis Hodge flits on and off the screen so fast you wonder if he stumbled onto the set by accident. Though they seem to represent Gio’s moral compass, Leo and Father Kelly barely cobble together 15 minutes of combined screen time. Only Luis Guzman truly capitalizes on his short cameo, driving a spark of pure comedy into an otherwise dark narrative.

Adult men in the world of The Birthday Cake seemed to be defined by their absence, their silence, by time cut short. Gio’s cousin Leo spends the majority of the film off-screen, his presence only hinted at through phone calls or text messages. Even fearsome Angelo, hobbled by a past shooting, is unable to truly speak, with a raspy squeak the only trace of what must have once been a fearsome roar. Over it all hangs the specter of Gio’s absent father.

I wish the film had done some heavier lifting to build on that central theme for a story so preoccupied with memory. I left the film wishing I had been given the opportunity to see more of these men, these memories, through Gio’s eyes. Instead, I left feeling like I’d seen a film that still had more to say.

In Theaters and On-Demand on June 18, 2021

Directed by: Jimmy Giannopoulos
Written by: Jimmy Giannopoulos, Diomedes Raul Bermudez, and Shiloh Fernandez
Director of Photography: Sean Price Williams (Good TimeThe Color Wheel)

Starring:
Shiloh Fernandez (Evil Dead, Red Riding Hood)
Ewan McGregor (Moulin Rouge!, Trainspotting, August: Osage County)
Val Kilmer (The Doors, The Saint, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang)
Lorraine Bracco (Goodfellas, “The Sopranos,” Medicine Man)
Ashley Benson (Spring Breakers, “Pretty Little Liars,” Her Smell)
 Aldis Hodge (One Night in MiamiHidden Figures, Straight Outta Compton)
 Penn Badgley (“Gossip Girl,” “You”, Margin Call)
Emory Cohen (The Place Beyond the Pines, “The OA”)
Vincent Pastore (“The Sopranos,” Revolver, Shark Tale)
Jeremy Allen White (“Shameless,” Movie 43, The Rental)

Review: ‘CHRISTMAS, AGAIN’ is a true NYC character study.

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Presents
CHRISTMAS, AGAIN

Starring Kentucker Audley and Hannah Gross
Written, Produced & Directed by Charles Poekel

Christmas, Again poster

The holidays inevitably spark memories of both the good times and the bad. We often think of those we’ve lost, while trying desperately to cling to every last minute of holiday spirit. Some love the season. Some think it the worst time of the year. In Charles Poekel‘s CHRISTMAS, AGAIN, we are treated to both sides of the coin. Kentucker Audley Christmas againSynopsis:

For a fifth consecutive December, a heartbroken Noel returns to New York City to work the night shift at a sidewalk Christmas tree lot. Devoid of any holiday spirit, he struggles to stay awake during the long, chilly nights in his trailer, while the daytime traffic keeps him from getting any real rest. As he slowly spirals into despair, he comes to the aid of a mysterious young woman in the park. Her warming presence, matched with some colorful customers, help rescue him from self-destruction.

Hannah Gross Christmas againKentucker Audley owns every minute of screen time as Noel. This organically written character of Poekel‘s allows Audley to give a down-to-earth performance of a young man we all know to well. Tackling depression, loneliness, longing, and emotional survival, Christmas, Again is a such a success in it’s honest simplicity.There are no fancy car chases or explosions. The story is straight forward and beautifully quiet. Hannah Gross gives a lovely performance as Lydia. A little lost, a little sad, but very much a real person. The chemistry between the two characters is a slow and realistic build, again, thanks to Poekel. He never pushes too hard, there are no gimmicks or exploited moments we’re used to in a typical holiday blockbuster. This indie is fresh and easy. Combined with the calling card cinematography of Sean Price Williams (Listen Up Phillip, Queen of Earth), the film has a gorgeous added intimacy with it’s single handheld camera and use of close ups. All involved should  be extremely proud of their work. I applaud the departure in tone and style. While I certainly enjoy a good, old fashion Hollywood role call such as The Coopers, CHRISTMAS, AGAIN is a comforting film that has an incredible amount of heart and relatability.

FACTORY 25 will release CHRISTMAS, AGAIN at the MoMA in New York (and exclusive SVOD on Fandor) on Thursday, December 3rd, and  Los Angeles on Friday, December 11th.

Review: ‘QUEEN OF EARTH’ is stunning portrait of a maddening descent.

Queen of Earth PosterMelissa and I were privileged to be invited to a special screening and Q&A of Alex Ross Perry‘s fourth feature, QUEEN OF EARTH, a deeply unnerving psychological drama. The film traces the relationship between Catherine (Elisabeth Moss, MAD MEN) and Virginia (Katherine Waterston, INHERENT VICE), best friends who retreat to a lake house after Catherine’s father dies and her boyfriend leaves her. Desperately seeking rest and recovery, when Catherine arrives at the cabin, she’s overwhelmed with memories of time spent at that same house with her boyfriend the year before and finds herself unable to decompress. As Virginia begins spending increasing amounts of time with a local love interest, Rich (Patrick Fugit), what was once closeness between the two women pivots toward hostility and resentment, sending Catherine into a downward spiral of delusion and madness. Read More →