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

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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+

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