Review by Dan Skip Allen
Gangster pictures or mob movies are considered some of the best movies ever by a lot of people and critics alike. The Godfather and its sequel and Goodfellas are revered amongst movie aficionados as three of the greatest films of all time also by me personally. So any new gangster/mob movie that comes out is held to a high standard. The Birthday Cake is that rare surprise I didn't see coming from a mile away. It's that good! Jimmy Giannopoulos has a hit on his hands with this film.
Shiloh Fernandez and David Mazouz (Gotham) play older and younger Gio. He learns things the hard way as a youth, but he takes these lessons to heart as a young adult. On the 10th anniversary of his father's death, he goes to his mother Sofia's (Lorraine Bracco, The Sopranos) house. She gives him a birthday cake to bring to a party. All the guys in the family are celebrating his father. Along the way, he has some interesting encounters with friends and authority figures.
The party is a who's who of actors we may know from movies and TV shows: Val Kilmer, Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas), Vincent Pastore (The Sopranos), William Fichtner (The Dark Knight), and John Magaro (First Cow). These guys are just the tip of the iceberg of actors in this film. It's littered throughout with cameos from people like Luis Guzmán and Aldis Hodge, among others. The filmmaker really went all out with this cast.
The standout is Shiloh Fernandez, though. He has to carry the weight of the film on his back. Most of the film is him traveling from place to place with the MacGuffin, the titular birthday cake. All of his interactions and conversations are like pieces to a very large puzzle. As the film goes along he as the lead character and we as the viewer put the pieces together very slowly. Both of us start to figure out what is going on in the film. That being said there is a twist that I never saw coming and I am grateful for it. It's one of the best twists since Keyser Söze in movies and that's saying a lot.
Giannopoulos knows his way around a gangster picture. He uses all the established tropes and adds his touches to the plot. All the supporting characters play their parts perfectly as well. The modern turns in the story are fascinating as well. Russians are trying to muscle into the neighborhood, an FBI surveillance truck driving around and an added bachelorette party that throws a monkey wrench into the mix. The film has so many little touches, but it never scratches the surface of the real story until the end. It's a masterclass of independent filmmaking.
Ewan MacGregor plays a priest in the film. He is used as the narrator as well. His framing sequences are a very pivotal part of the film because we see where Geo starts out and where he ends from the priest's point of view. The narration is a key part of the film as well because good narration can give clues to the story without giving everything away. This film had great narration from MacGregor. He played his part as the priest to perfection. It wasn't a big part, but it was one of the biggest in the overall context of the film. And I loved it!
Giannopoulos is a filmmaker to watch in the future. He takes a tried and true genre and puts his own twist on it. It has one of the best twists in movie history. There is no way anybody could see this twist coming. The cast of familiar character actors is fantastic, but the standout is Fernandez in the leading role. McGregor shines as the narrator as well. This is the best gangster/mob movie since Donnie Brasco. It deals with topics we've seen before in these films, but has one of the most original ways of telling its story. It's an amazing movie that is a pleasant surprise.
The Birthday Cake hits theaters and VOD on June 18.