THE WIZARD OF LIES (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 13 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

Directed by: Barry Levinson

Written by: Sam Levinson, Sam Baum & John Burnham Schwartz

(based on the book THE WIZARD OF LIES by Diana B. Henriquez)

Starring: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Alessandro Nivola, Hank Azaria, Nathan Darrow, Sydney Gayle, Lily Rabe & Kristen Connolly

In the span of little over a year, there have been two made-for-TV movies about Bernie Madoff. The first was ABC’s good-but-not-great miniseries MADOFF, which had a great scenery-chewing performance from Richard Dreyfuss and also came with half-assed melodrama. HBO offers a more cinematic glimpse at Madoff’s downfall with bigger talent in Barry Levinson’s THE WIZARD OF LIES. Based on the non-fiction book of the same name, WIZARD offers significant improvements over the previous small-screen attempt to tell Madoff’s story.

In December 2008, a bombshell dropped on Wall Street as stockbroker Bernard Madoff (Robert De Niro) was revealed to be a total fraud. 50 billion dollars was lost and a media circus erupted around the largest Ponzi scheme in history. WIZARD OF LIES is told in a non-linear fashion as the narrative follows an incarcerated Madoff recounting his crimes to journalist Diana B. Henriquez (played by the actual Diana B. Henriquez). Throughout his interview, we see the months leading up to Bernie’s confession, his final days of freedom, and the devastating fallout that came after.

In an effort to resist constantly comparing THE WIZARD OF LIES to 2016’s MADOFF, I’m going to straight out recommend watching both of these made-for-TV movies if you’re fascinated with Bernie Madoff’s story. These are two very different takes on the same story that mostly stuck to the facts, but had drastically different executions. THE WIZARD OF LIES is a superior film in my eyes based strictly on performances, emotional depth, and better overall direction.

The shining star of the cast is undoubtedly Robert De Niro as Madoff. Bernie is De Niro’s juiciest role in years and he plays him as a sociopathic son of a bitch. This is a despicable guy who knows that he’s despicable and yet constantly attempts to make excuses for his scumbag behavior. He’s a master manipulator and seems collected on the surface, but also occasionally gets into explosive argumentative blow-outs. These are mainly directed at his put-upon emotional son Mark and an inquisitive 8-year-old granddaughter at a heated Thanksgiving dinner.

The supporting cast is exceptional as well. Though the titular “Wizard of Lies” may be De Niro’s Madoff, the film spends an almost equal amount of screen time focused on the family members who also got screwed over by his crimes. Michelle Pfeiffer garners sympathy as Madoff’s wife Ruth and gives a complicated mix of emotions. She loves her husband, in spite of his crimes, and still wants to hang on to her sons (who want nothing to do with her). Alessandro Nivola delivers one hell of a performance as Mark Madoff, an anxiety-ridden young man being driven to the brink of sanity by the media’s never-ending crucifixion of him. Hank Azaria is also appropriately scummy as Bernie’s main thug in charge of making shit up…er, I mean falsifying company records.

Barry Levinson’s direction of WIZARD OF LIES lends an air of craftsmanship to this retelling of a true crime story that’s nearly a decade old at this point. The film masterfully incorporates news footage from the time and replaces the actual Madoff’s face with De Niro’s mug. There are also refreshing breaks from the events at hand to fill the audience in on details that may not have been focused on in a traditional narrative, complete with voiceover by Henriquez. We learn about a handful of the many victims whose lives shattered because of Bernie. There’s also a nifty sequence that shows his possessions being sold with price tags attached (mostly with six zeros behind them).

While most of WIZARD is compelling and emotionally driven, there’s one moment that seems very out-of-place. This comes in a drawn-out dream sequence. We get CHRISTMAS CAROL references, family flashbacks, and subconscious innerworkings of Bernie’s mind. These are all lit by different colored Christmas lights in a long hallway (of course) and there’s even a “jump scare” that’s so forced it’s laughable. This is a distractingly ham-fisted piece of cheesiness in an otherwise effective drama and the film takes a while to fully recover from this needlessly silly dream sequence.

WIZARD OF LIES has a suffocating sense of hopelessness and bleakness that hovers over damn near every scene. Instead of merely focusing on Bernie’s downfall, we also see the fallout amongst his family members after his confession/sentencing. The scenes featuring his struggling sons and damaged wife are some of the most emotionally resonating bits of the entire film. Confrontations on the street, someone trying to sue a 4-year-old child for their stolen money back, and a hauntingly depressing moment punch the viewer squarely in the gut.

WIZARD OF LIES feels like a Shakespearean tragedy, but these events really happened and stole lots of people’s lives along with their money. The emotional reality of the situation causes the film’s final line (a question asked by Madoff to the reporter) to linger with the viewer long after the credits roll. If you are the least bit interested in the Bernie Madoff case and one of the largest Ponzi schemes ever constructed, then I highly recommend Barry Levinson’s WIZARD OF LIES!

Grade: B+

TAXI DRIVER (1976)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 53 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

taxidriver-poster

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Paul Schrader

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster, Harvey Keitel, Cybill Shepherd, Albert Brooks, Leonard Harris & Peter Boyle

Widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all-time by critics, TAXI DRIVER cemented Martin Scorsese as one hell of a filmmaker and earned a fair share of controversy at the time of its release. The film is a character study of the darkest kind and takes the viewer into an unforgettable urban hell that’s guaranteed to make you feel unclean. This gritty, grimy crime-thriller is not a pleasant experience, but it certainly is an amazing one. Shining a light on places that society prefers to look away from, TAXI DRIVER is a seminal piece of 70’s cinema.

taxidriver-1

Vietnam vet Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) can’t sleep. This insomniac has secured a job driving taxi cabs through all areas of New York City at night. While on the streets, he witnesses the dregs of society and wishes that a rain would wash the world clean. After failing to start a relationship with political activist Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), Travis soon decides that he wants his life to have a purpose. With his mental state quickly unraveling, the unhinged Bickle obsesses over two potential causes: rising Senator Charles Palantine (Leonard Harris) and teenage prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster).

taxidriver-2

TAXI DRIVER doesn’t run on plot, but instead on the experiences of its titular main character. The film takes us into the mind of an increasingly paranoid, hate-filled Vietnam war veteran turned cabbie. Schrader’s screenplay was originally written with the mindset of giving a voice to someone he feared becoming and as a result, Travis Bickle isn’t exactly a likable protagonist. He’s an antihero, but one that you can’t fully root for because of certain motivations. One scene before the brutal climax keeps him drastically far from the graces of being a good person. Thus, TAXI DRIVER is an unnerving trip down the rabbit hole of a deranged driver.

taxidriver-3

Robert De Niro (fresh off the success of THE GODFATHER: Part II and Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS) puts in some of his finest work as Travis Bickle. He becomes the character to the point where you don’t feel like you’re watching De Niro anymore and that effect is frightening. Though it’s been parodied and referenced to no end, the “You talkin’ to me?” scene is scary within the film’s context…especially given everything that follows the iconic moment. Travis Bickle is truly one of cinema’s most repugnant protagonists, which is an extremely positive quality when you look at this film’s plot and De Niro’s performance.

taxidriver-4

TAXI DRIVER doesn’t give its supporting characters a ton of screen time because this film is all about Travis and his interactions with the world. Of the people Travis does interact with, Peter Boyle steals a profound scene as the advice-spewing “Wizard.” Fun fact: Peter Boyle later repeated his monologue on EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND with a laugh track accompanying it. As Iris, a very young Jodie Foster shows remarkable maturity and talent in the demanding role. Though she has about five total scenes, Foster’s character certainly leaves an impression on the viewer that’s similar to her effect on Travis. Cybill Shepherd has cringeworthy awkward moments as Bickle attempts to woo her in horribly misguided ways (hot date to a seedy porno theater, anyone?). The only bad performance comes from an out-of-place Albert Brooks as would-be comic relief.

taxidriver-5

Harvey Keitel shines as villainous pimp Sport and makes a serious impression with less screen time than Foster’s teenage prostitute. The rest of the bad guys are briefly glimpsed, but seem perfectly cast in their scummy roles. There’s an eerie realness to TAXI DRIVER that still holds up to this day. The story never gets all-out violent (save for one small scene) before the shocking finale, but there’s a sense that Travis might unravel at any moment. People usually go to the movie theater to escape from reality for a little while, but TAXI DRIVER offers no such comfort by forcing us to stare at some horrible truths and never giving the viewer anything hopeful to latch onto. There’s no uplifting scene in this film as even the bloody conclusion has an ironic punchline.

taxidriver-6

Watching TAXI DRIVER is not a pleasant experience, but it’s an amazing one nonetheless. Robert De Niro’s performance is astounding as he transforms into a psycho cabbie violently looking for a life purpose. The grit and grime of 70’s New York feel like they come through the screen and stick to the viewer, prompting one to crave a shower afterwards. There isn’t much of a story as you’re spending time with an uncomfortably realistic character study. TAXI DRIVER is madness and hell captured in 70’s cinema. It’s a fantastic movie that’s worth a watch for any cinephile, but expect to feel dirty and depressed afterwards.

Grade: A

JOY (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 4 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for brief Strong Language

Joy poster

Directed by: David O. Russell

Written by: David O. Russell

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Bradley Cooper, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Dascha Polanco, Elisabeth Rohm, Virginia Madsen & Isabella Rossellini

A biopic about Joy Mangano, inventor of the Miracle Mop, may not exactly sound like an exciting film. However, one only needs to look at the cast to realize that this potential flop actually has a lot of talent behind it, including one of the best modern filmmakers working today. While JOY may not quite be up to the standards of David O. Russell’s recent hits (paling in comparison to AMERICAN HUSTLE and SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK), it’s an underdog story that’s bound to compel, entertain and reward. Taken strictly as an emotional and stylized drama, JOY is a worthwhile viewing experience.

Joy 1

New York, 1989. Joy Mangano (Jennifer Lawrence) is struggling through her day-to-day life as a divorced mother and working a stressful dead-end job. Joy’s family members only add to her frustrations as her mother (Virginia Madsen) is an agoraphobic mess, her father (Robert De Niro) is a constantly angry individual, and her half-sister (Elisabeth Rohm) is always finding new ways to downgrade Joy’s life. After taking years of crap, cleaning up after her relatives, and being the sole bread-winner, Joy is struck with inspiration and invents the miracle mop! However, putting a product out on the market is harder than it seems. Patents must be filed. Outlets must be acquired. Legal issues must be crushed. The cutthroat world of business provides new challenges for Joy, but she’s been overcoming obstacles her entire life.

Joy 2

The best thing about JOY is Jennifer Lawrence’s strong performance. In a cast where nearly everybody is playing an unlikable asshole, Lawrence’s Joy stands out as a rational, sane and determined individual. In every scene, Lawrence’s titular character is always determined to get on top of things and her line delivery can make the most mundane conversation seem intimidating. The only other slightly enjoyable characters come in Bradley Cooper as a tv exec friend in commerce and Edgar Ramirez as the best ex-husband you’ve ever seen. One character even comments on how Joy and her ex get along much better without their pesky marriage between them.

Joy 3

As I already mentioned though, damn near every remaining character comes off as annoying to one degree or another. Almost every member of Joy’s family is emotionally abusive and underhandedly passive-aggressive. The most frustrating character is easily Isabella Rossellini as Joy’s step-mother, who takes an interest in the miracle mop, but also seems to revel in lording her finances over the struggling Joy’s head. That’s not to say that Robert De Niro’s over-the-top neglectful father, Virginia Madsen’s comically reclusive mother, or Elisabeth Rohm’s vindictive half-sister are much better, because these characters almost seem cartoony in their abusive nature. They slightly take the viewer out of the semi-realistic vibe of this semi-biographical movie.

Joy 4

Director/writer David O. Russell has described JOY as being unlike the rest of his films. That’s very evident in its stylish execution. Russell employs dream sequences, various storytelling techniques, and over-the-top visual flourishes. These can be a bit pretentious, especially in a recurring nightmare about Joy being stuck in a TV soap opera and voice-over narration from her grandmother, but these touches add to the overall emotions of the main character’s journey. JOY truly shines in its portrayal of the cruel, unforgiving world of business. Opportunities, backstabbings, and legal difficulties arise as Joy’s miracle mop becomes successful. Each new challenge is frustrating, but it’s satisfying to watch Joy use her head and ingenuity to overcome each of them.

Joy 5

JOY is good entertainment, but not without noticeable flaws. Only the titular protagonist and two side characters are remotely likable, while everyone else grates on the nerves. Those problems might be chalked up to the script, because the actors seem to be giving it their all. The film’s stylistic touches are fun, but can be pretentious and silly. Those damn soap opera nightmares are just too much and the narration seems like it should be coming from Joy, instead of her grandmother. Even with these annoyances, I am glad that I watched this movie. As a drama about the woman who invented the miracle mop, JOY is surprisingly satisfying.

Grade: B

DIRTY GRANDPA (2016)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 42 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Crude Sexual Content throughout, Graphic Nudity, and for Language and Drug Use

DirtyGrandpa poster

Directed by: Dan Mazer

Written by: John M. Phillips

Starring: Robert De Niro, Zac Efron, Zoey Deutch, Aubrey Plaza, Dermot Mulroney, Julianne Hough & Jason Mantzoukas

Of all 2016’s films thus far, DIRTY GRANDPA has been amongst the most critically panned. However, it seems that most complaints derive around the movie relying on profanity, shock value, and extremely crude humor. You know, three things you’d pretty much expect from an R-rated comedy called DIRTY GRANDPA. While I’ll admit that I had relatively low expectations walking into this movie, I walked away somewhat satisfied as DIRTY GRANDPA is a one-and-done brainless trashy romp. I wouldn’t say that the film is particularly good, but I did laugh and was interested to see where things were heading (even though the plot is very predictable). DIRTY GRANDPA is the sort of gross-out comedy that you just have to be the mood for.

DirtyGrandpa 1

Jason Kelly (Zac Efron) is a young straight-laced lawyer who’s about to get married. His grandma has recently passed away and the tragic loss has left his grandpa Dick (Robert De Niro) with a burning desire to visit their vacation home. With two days to spare and thoughts of quick golf games with his elderly relative, Jason arrives at Dick’s home…only to discover that his grandfather is actually starved for sex, alcohol, and drugs. Reluctantly stuck in Daytona Beach during Spring Break, Jason begins to learn strange life lessons from his dirty old grandfather and loosens up. Lots of booze, boobs, and illegal acts ensue…all while Jason’s fiancé (Julianne Hough) keeps harassing him over the phone and college party girl Lenore (Aubrey Plaza) has her eye on Dick.

UDEP_D08_01401.CR2

From that plot description, you pretty much know what you’re getting into with DIRTY GRANDPA. It’s sort of like a non-gimmicky and somewhat less funny version of BAD GRANDPA with less of an age gap. The big scene-stealer is Academy Award winner Robert De Niro as profanity-spewing Dick. I’ve never seen De Niro blurt out this much filthy, disgusting, and cringe-worthy dialogue…and keep in mind how many times the actor has played hardened gangsters in the past. That’s not to say that this is entirely a bad thing, even though many critics took it that way, because it was so absurd to behold that it might make DIRTY GRANDPA worth a slight recommendation by itself. Every time De Niro’s Dick was on the screen, I was having fun (yes, I realize what that sounds like, but immaturity seems appropriate for this review).

UDEP_D10_01854.CR2

On the less interesting side of things is Zac Efron as Jason. His story arc is pretty much laid out in front of our eyes from the opening ten minutes. Exposition dialogue is sloppily spouted out from various characters about his background, his relationships, and the ensuing wedding plans. You pretty much know what will happen on his journey of self-discovery and cutting loose through booze, sex, and drugs. It’s not as if Efron is particularly terrible, because he’s actually a serviceable straight man to De Niro’s crazy Dick, but the sheer predictability of the character’s story arc makes the 102-minute running time occasionally crawl by.

UDEP_D16_3342.CR2

Most of the side characters are nothing special, with two big exceptions. Shadia (Zoey Deutch) is a bland love-interest for Jason, while Bradley (Jeffrey Bower-Chapman) is a one-dimensional gay stereotype. Efforts are made to flesh both of these characters out, but only reach slight levels of success. Jake Picking and Michael Hudson play bland jock antagonists, while controlling fiancé Meredith (Julianne Hough) never really gets much time to shine. Aubrey Plaza is clearly having a blast as Lenore and chews nearly as much scenery as De Niro, with plenty of innuendos and sexual puns. A big highlight comes in Jason Mantzoukas’ Florida drug dealer character, who becomes a recurring face and got big laughs out of me.

UDEP_D28_07565.CR2

At the end of the day, DIRTY GRANDPA is exactly what you’d expect a dirty R-rated comedy called DIRTY GRANDPA to be. It’s full of creatively profane dialogue, sex jokes, drug-fuelled running gags, and a rather predictable story. That’s not to say it’s horrible, because I was amused throughout most of the running time. This is a guilty pleasure that belongs alongside something like SAVING SILVERMAN or BUBBLE BOY. You know it’s technically not a “good” movie, but it still entertains you regardless. At the end of the day, trashy comedies like DIRTY GRANDPA have their place in the cinematic world and are definitely mood movies. If you go in expecting to completely hate this movie, then you’ll likely despise its very existence. If the trailer got a few good laughs out of you and you decide to ignore the scathing reviews, you’ll probably be entertained.

Grade: C+

THE GODFATHER: Part II (1974)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 3 hours 20 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

Godfather2 poster

Directed by: Francis Ford Coppola

Written by: Francis Ford Coppola & Mario Puzo

(based on the novel THE GODFATHER by Mario Puzo)

Starring: Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, John Cazale, Talia Shire, Lee Strasberg, Michael V. Gazzo & Morgana King

Though I’ve seen THE GODFATHER on numerous occasions, I’m ashamed to admit that I never got around to watching either of the sequels. Though I hear that the third film has a somewhat notorious reputation, I have heard nothing but praise for the second installment over the years from various sources. Some people even go as far as proclaiming that this sequel is superior to that acclaimed original crime epic. Having finally sat through THE GODFATHER: Part II, I can say that the film is even longer than its predecessor and far more accomplished in every possible way. GODFATHER II manages to simultaneously hold up as a prequel and a sequel to the first film, which makes it a departure from your average follow-up. GODFATHER II is one of the best gangster movies that I’ve ever laid eyes on and among the rare breed of sequels that surpass their predecessors.

M8DGOPA EC003

It’s 1958 and Michael Corleone has cemented a place as a powerful kingpin in the crime community. His family business remains far from legitimate, but he now has started a family with his lovely wife Kay. When Michael partners up with elderly Jewish mob boss Hyman Roth, it quickly becomes apparent that his new partner is playing multiple sides and has it in for Michael. However, Michael plays the game of “keeping your enemies closer than your friends” which may or may not work to his favor as his empire threatens to fall apart. In a parallel narrative, we see Vito (Michael’s dearly departed father and a central figure in the first film) rise to power in 1917’s New York City.

MSDGOTW EC020

The idea of combining dual narratives, one taking place before the events of the first film and the other holding as a traditional sequel, was a ballsy move on the part of Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo (who wrote the novels that these films are based on and helped pen the screenplay). The risk pays off in spades as the parallel plotlines weave in and out of each other with ease. Though the storylines don’t exactly mirror each other in the events playing out, they certainly blend well in tone. The switches back and forth between both narratives are lengthy and come out of nowhere. They can be seen as jarring at first, but make tonal sense in where they interrupt each other. I imagine that the film could have played out far differently if we were shown Vito’s story in full first and then Michael’s or vice versa. The decision to bounce them off each other was a stroke of genius.

MSDGODF EC045

As far as performances go, Al Pacino shines again as Michael. Though the character seems to have retained far more humanity than one might expect from that bleaker-than-beak conclusion to the first film, he somehow manages to become even more corrupted and downright evil in this sequel. You’re forced to side with him as his opponents wind up being somehow worse, but there are definitely scenes that make you pause and question whether or not you should be siding with this two-faced mob boss. Diane Keaton is given much more room to emote here as Michael’s wife. She was far from my favorite part of the first film (I felt that her character was a bit one-dimensional), but she easily delivers one of the most powerful moments in this follow-up (you will know it when you see it). Robert De Niro gives one of his best performances as the young Vito. His ascent to power from shy citizen to powerful criminal is believable and haunting. Meanwhile, we are given a very unconventional villain in Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth. This guy reminded me of Robert Durst (recently chronicled on HBO’s THE JINX) in that he seems like a feeble old man, but there’s a sinister dark side to him.

MCDGOTW EC001

Running at over three hours (complete with an Intermission on the DVD), GODFATHER II manages to be far more interesting and compelling than its already stellar predecessor. There’s also less violence this time around that I could identify off-hand. A lot of the more violent actions happen off-screen, though we are still given our fair share of mob executions. One sequence in particular in which Vito commits his first (and only on-screen) kill is bone-chilling. The entire scene stretches for about five minutes and consists of cold, calculated stalking and hiding. Even when the deed is committed that we all knew was coming, it’s still shocking. The most brilliant thing about GODFATHER II is how it manages to further develop characters who were already extremely well-developed to begin with. In seeing these dual story-arcs, more layers have been added to Michael and Vito.

MSDGODF EC055

GODFATHER: Part II didn’t disappoint. It’s easily one of the best gangster movies that I’ve seen and manages to one-up its preceding crime epic in every possible way. The performances are still brilliant, the screenplay is rock solid and complex, and there’s an air of sophistication and tension throughout this whole sequel. GODFATHER: Part II is a must-see for fans of the first movie and crime film aficionados! Easily one of the finest sequels to ever grace the silver screen.

Grade: A+

THE KING OF COMEDY (1983)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

KingComedy poster

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Paul D. Zimmerman

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jerry Lewis, Diahnne Abbott, Sandra Bernhard, Shelley Hack & Tony Randall

KING OF COMEDY is arguably the most unusual film in Martin Scorsese’s career. Though it’s mainly considered a dark comedy, the film borders on the razor’s edge of becoming an out-and-out stalker thriller. The script for this film had been floating around since the mid-70’s, with Robert De Niro trying to push Scorsese into taking on this project. When production problems plagued early efforts to get this film made, Scorsese decided to direct (probably spurred on by his friendship with De Niro). What resulted is a film that has been celebrated in certain circles, has utterly confused others, and has been off the radar for most. Having finally watched KING OF COMEDY, I appreciate the overall satirical message of the film…but find that pacing problems weigh this one down quite a bit.

MCDKIOF FE091

Rupert Pupkin, an aspiring stand-up comedian, has ambitions for fame and fortune. However, this is unfortunate because Pupkin has neither the talent, nor the material to support his would-be career. This doesn’t stop the unfunny hack from practicing imagined television appearances with successful talk show host Jerry Langford. After a chance meeting, Pupkin asks Langford about how to make it big. The successful star gives the desperate amateur comedian advice and even a brief chance for success. Unfortunately, Pupkin’s encounter with Langford becomes an obsession leading to radical behavior in order to follow delusional dreams. Pupkin’s course of action is drastic and not exactly legal.

MSDKIOF EC037

Though it’s billed as a comedy and contains a number of funny scenes throughout, KING OF COMEDY becomes downright creepy in areas. The laughs are definitely of the darker variety. However, many moments take ugly turns. What might have made for wacky hijinks in a 1950’s Jerry Lewis comedy becomes cringe-worthy and awkward. To say that this movie is uncomfortable would be an understatement. Early scenes of De Niro’s Pupkin performing in shabbily constructed stage in his home, all while yelling at his interrupting mother, are especially unnerving. Hallucinations and day dreams only reveal ever more about the psychosis and sociopathic nature of our main character. While the first half of this film seems very much grounded in disturbing dark comedy territory, the second half becomes far too much of a stalker thriller by the climax. The film also seems to run a bit too long in getting to its final punchline. The pacing problems don’t appear until the second half when things begin to wander off into pointless moments (such as an argument over a sweater that lasts for about five minutes).

MCDKIOF FE092

Pupkin isn’t what you’d call a likable character, but De Niro makes him into someone worth watching. This nutso comic with delusions of grandeur reminded me a bit of Lou Bloom in NIGHTCRAWLER. Both characters are sociopathic individuals with huge ambition and viciously claw their way to their goals. What’s highly ironic is Jerry Lewis, a ridiculous comedy star of the 1950’s and 60’s, starring as Jerry Langford. Though I don’t necessarily care for his films, Lewis seems to be a relatively down-to-earth guy in behind-the-scenes interviews that you can find online. Jerry Langford seems very much like a personal role for Lewis and the dramatic chops are certainly there to make him into a convincing character. I sympathized for Langford and felt he did far more than was required for Pupkin…which makes the psychopath’s behavior that much more frustrating. While the film glides with solid momentum whenever De Niro or Lewis are on the screen, it moves at a glacially tedious pace during any scene with Sandra Bernhard as her totally useless character. Her character’s jokes are unfunny, her personality is annoying and she just detracts from the film as a whole.

MCDKIOF FE094

KING OF COMEDY delivers great performances from Robert De Niro (one of my favorite actors) and Jerry Lewis in an apparently close-to-home role, while including great social commentary in the ending. The entire movie is basically a sociopathic drama with laughs. The film suffers from pacing problems when it enters all-out creepy thriller territory in the last third and focuses far too much on Sandra Bernhard’s annoying character. KING OF COMEDY is definitely one of Martin Scorsese’s lesser efforts, but has enough good qualities to warrant a single viewing.

Grade: B-

COP LAND (1997)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Violence, Strong Language and brief Nudity

CopLand poster

Directed by: James Mangold

Written by: James Mangold

Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Harvey Keitel, Ray Liotta, Robert De Niro, Peter Berg, Janeane Garofalo, Robert Patrick & Michael Rapaport

COP LAND is a film that I discovered by accident. I was surfing the web through various movie pages and stumbled across this forgotten crime-drama. Seeing this stars the likes of Sylvester Stallone in the lead role, you might initially guess that this movie would be filled to the brim with gunfights, car chases and explosions. You would actually be very wrong, because this tense little film takes it’s time with a thriller approach to what easily could have turned into a bombastic over-the-top B-flick. COP LAND is one of the better surprises that I’ve had in quite some time.

MSDCOLA EC010

The time is the late 80’s and the place is New Jersey. Freddy Hefflin is a wannabe cop who’s been regulated to the position of small town Sheriff due to him being deaf in one ear. Freddy really doesn’t have much to do seeing as most of the residents of his small town are NYPD cops who he idolizes day in and day out. When a mishap on a highway lands one of these officers in hot water, Freddy is enlisted by an Internal Affairs investigator to dig deeper into the façade of “Cop Land” that is actually hiding a whole lot more than one small cover-up. Freddy finds himself pitted against the very heroes that he idolized as he realizes just how deep police corruption cuts through his own territory.

MSDCOLA EC011

COP TOWN moves at a slow, deliberate pace in order to build up its characters. I cared about every single one of these people in one way or another. The heroes are complicated and the villains are fleshed out into the two-faced criminals that they really are. I really can’t throw enough praise at just how good this whole screenplay is. There are plot twists throughout that did surprise me and the movie never once treats its audience like idiots. A natural progression of good vs. evil fuels the story in a way that feels entirely fresh. It’s all fantastically entertaining and intense. Some of the plot points do seem a tad rushed, but that’s not exactly a huge complaint seeing how well the rest of the story plays out around it (including a phenomenal final act that felt like an old-school Western was taking place on the streets of New Jersey).

MSDCOLA EC014

I don’t think it’s overhyping this film to say that Sylvester Stallone easily gives his best performance as Freddy. When most people think of Stallone, they immediately picture Rocky or Rambo. Though he’s carved out a place in the cinematic world for his rough and tough action heroes, the role of Freddy is far from any of those characters. This is a shy, soft-spoken guy who feels like he’s constantly in the presence of Gods when he’s among his NYPD residents. Stallone is fantastic in the part and plays every emotion in a very subtle fashion. I’d be remiss not to mention just how fantastically the corrupt cops are portrayed by the likes of Harvey Keitel, Robert Patrick and Arthur Nascarella. Ray Liotta shines as Freddy’s best friend who may or may not also have a dog in the corruption race around town. Though Robert De Niro is underutilized as the Internal Affairs investigator, he makes the most of what little screen time he’s given (about a total of four scenes).

MSDCOLA EC005

COP LAND uses gritty atmosphere and a dark tone to its advantage. The small town setting really lends to the suspense of this film. It feels like the fictional Garrison, New Jersey might as well be in the middle of nowhere, even though New York City is one bridge away. The finale is absolutely perfect and satisfying beyond words. Some have criticized the film for taking an easy way out. I disagree as the entire story feels like a long suspenseful fuse that’s intensely burning towards a giant powder keg. The final 20 minutes of this story are the explosive results of that keg going off.

MSDCOLA EC016

COP LAND is an underrated crime-drama that really sees Stallone take on a role unlike any other in his career. What’s even more impressive is the unlikely production of this film altogether. It was made on a small budget and all of the actors worked for scale. It’s clear that they read the script and knew there was a good story to be told here. Though there are a couple of slight flaws (a few rushed plot points and Robert De Niro being wasted in a very small role), COP LAND is well worth recommending. Check this one out!

Grade: B+

RONIN (1998)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 2 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Violence and some Language

Ronin poster

Directed by: John Frankenheimer

Written by: J.D. Zeik & David Mamet

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jean Reno, Natascha McElhone, Stellan Skarsgard, Sean Bean & Jonathan Pryce

RONIN is the best FAST & FURIOUS movie never made. This thriller doesn’t venture too far over-the-top in its many action sequences, features a likable band of rag-tag heroes, and rip-roaring car chases. Though the plot is pretty simple stuff, the execution of the material offers a lot of fun for viewers who just want a cool action thriller that doesn’t require over-complicated twists or a ridiculous number of explosions. Plus, you have Robert De Niro and Jean Reno as a pair of badass mercenaries. There’s something to be said for that alone.

On the streets of Paris, five strangers have been recruited by an Irishwoman to retrieve a mysterious briefcase. The contents of the case are not revealed to the group. They are only informed that they need to retrieve it from some heavily armed men and that they will be handsomely rewarded. Whatever is inside of this small case seems to be causing a lot of tension between various nations (including Russia and Ireland) and the group soon find themselves put through shifting loyalties, lots of car chases, and double-crossings galore. This also leaves two of the mercenaries, Sam (De Niro) and Vincent (Reno) to fend for themselves in the chaotic violence.

RONIN gets off to a solid start by introducing our band of diverse characters. The witty banter between them is entertaining to watch, especially Robert De Niro throwing smartass dialogue at a mile a minute. Other cast members include Jean Reno (a few years past his iconic LEON role), Jonathan Pryce (always a welcome face), Sean Bean (in a small part), and Stellan Skarsgard (who has a significant role to play in the proceedings). Though a few characters are drastically underused (especially Bean) and a so-so romantic angle muddles the proceedings, RONIN could be recommended purely on the merits of watching its R-rated OCEAN’S ELEVEN style characters talk amongst themselves.

The characters are just icing on an adrenaline-filled cake as this film packs in some of the most exciting cinematic car chases I’ve ever seen in my life! RONIN isn’t wall-to-wall action, especially because the first third spends so much time developing these characters and setting up the stakes. When the film takes off in a high-speed pursuit (one of many), it rarely lets up. Bullets fly, betrayals occur, suspense is milked, and people die. It’s all tremendously exciting stuff, especially since the characters are actually worth caring about.

The downside to RONIN comes in the form of several clichés that rear their ugly heads in an overly familiar story that also becomes too predictable during moments. This is especially true of the climax which is set in a location that really felt like it was from an entirely separate movie and used one twist too many. These clichés don’t hurt the proceedings much, but are dusty nonetheless. Even more annoying is that Jean Reno isn’t given much to say when Robert De Niro keeps throwing out an endless stream of clever one-liners during his scenes.

RONIN is far from a classic, but does contain some of the greatest car chases in cinematic history. The simple plotline only serves as an excuse to get all of these big actors in one film that happens to have a fair share of gun fights, explosions, and criminals. It’s basic and to-the-point fun that should entertain those looking for a quick fix of car chases and bullets.

Grade: B

A BRONX TALE (1993)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Language and Several Scenes of Violence

BronxT poster

Directed by: Robert De Niro

Written by: Chazz Palminteri

(based on the play A BRONX TALE by Chazz Palminteri)

Starring: Robert De Niro, Chazz Palminteri, Francis Capra, Lillo Brancato Jr., Kathrine Narducci, Taral Hicks & Joe Pesci

A BRONX TALE is not your typical gangster tale. Instead of the usual rise through mob hierarchy story, Robert De Niro’s directorial debut (based on Chazz Palminteri’s play) focuses more on a coming-of-age plot that happens to include the allure of organized crime. The film/play is also autobiographical of Chazz (starring in the role of local mob boss Sonny), which adds another interesting layer to a solid crime-drama. BRONX TALE is far from perfect mainly due to a somewhat unfocused final act, but it’s worth the time of any self-respecting gangster aficionado.

MSDBRTA EC014

In 1960’s New York, Calogero is the young son of Lorenzo, a working man in a bad neighborhood. Calogero admires his father, but also looks up to the strong and silent Sonny. Sonny is a gangster who’s steadily rising to the top of their neighborhood. After a little incident (in which Calogero does a good thing for a bad man), Sonny befriends Calogero (now under the nickname of C) and mentors him much to the dismay of Lorenzo. As C grows into a budding teenager, he becomes torn between following his fathers old-fashioned life or succumbing to the glamor of the mafia.

M8DBRTA EC010

A BRONX TALE is driven by confident directing on De Niro’s part and solid writing from Palminteri. The blending of a coming-of-age tale and organized crime doesn’t seem like a much tapped formula. This unique combination is handled very well, but overly familiar/predictable plot elements still remain. These latter scenes almost feel like they’re from an entirely different movie and bring BRONX TALE down from total greatness. A romance between C and a taboo-breaking type of girl (for his neighborhood) is forced and I predicted one plot development surrounding it about 10 minutes before it actually happened. This subplot ultimately pushes important developments forward in the final third, but feels unconvincing nonetheless. The dialogue in the would-be romantic scenes is far too simple and clichéd. There could have been better ways of playing this out.

M8DBRTA EC007

Though Lillo Brancato Jr. (as teenage C) and Francis Capra (as prepubescent C) are blank slates, that’s sort of required for the story. This is primarily about a young Italian-American man trying to find his way through the harsh environment of the Bronx. The main appeal to crime-movie buffs will be seeing Palminteri and De Niro facing off in a gangster movie. Chazz Palminteri goes out of his way not to be a stereotypical mob boss and there’s a certain charm in watching him take young C under his wing, despite us fully well knowing what this well-dressed thug is capable of. Robert De Niro takes the interesting approach of being an honest working man who wants nothing to do with the world of violence that dwells a couple of houses down from his family’s apartment. The most interesting part about both characters is watching how they have good and bad qualities as individuals, even Sonny. In this way, the impressionable C is getting two educations as he puts it when struggling with balancing both father figures in his life.

M8DBRTA EC005

Though the last third becomes a bit of a hastily rushed climax in terms of execution, it has a powerful stand-out moment involving a quick cameo appearance of a regular De Niro associate. In directing the film, it also seems like De Niro took a lot of his influence from long-time director/friend Martin Scorsese. There’s a fantastic use of songs in the soundtrack that helps engross the viewer into the 60’s setting without feeling cheesy or overly forced. Great scenes litter the film, my favorite being a moment involving a showdown of Sonny’s power against a group of bar-wrecking bikers in his neighborhood.

M8DBRTA EC006

I’ve seen A BRONX TALE ranked among the best crime movies of all-time and the best mob movies of the 90’s (a great decade for this genre). While I wouldn’t go that far, it’s an interesting gangster film that’s unlike any other I’ve seen. The main focus is a coming-of-age tale that’s deeply personal to writer Chazz Palminteri in a lot of ways and it shows. Perhaps, his reach extends his actual grasp (mainly in the addition of C’s romance and a climax that rushes through some extraordinary plot points), but the film remains good as a whole. BRONX TALE is well worth watching if only to see Chazz Palminteri and Robert De Niro have an unconventional face-off in a gangster movie that’s primarily about family values vs. the allure of crime.

Grade: B

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑