THE KING OF COMEDY (1983)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 49 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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).

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

LAST VEGAS (2013)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sexual Content and Language

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Directed by: Jon Turteltaub

Written by: Dan Fogelman

Starring: Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline & Mary Steenburgen

It’s not often that you see very many films celebrating getting older and wiser to the extent that LAST VEGAS does. These messages mainly pop up in coming-of-age stories with relatively young protagonists. There have been exceptions in recent years starring well-worn cinematic veterans in dramedy roles. THE BUCKET LIST is an obvious example of this, but 2013 had two of these films in nationwide release. One of which made a giant splash at the box office and another of which was sort of a flop. The bomb was GRUDGE MATCH and the splash was this film: LAST VEGAS. I was tempted to cover LAST VEGAS upon its original release, but never got around to it. So almost a year later, I’m watching and critiquing this story of four old folks trying to live it up in Last Vegas…only to find that it’s a so-so film.

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Billy, Paddy, Archie and Sam have been friends since their childhood together in Brooklyn. 58 years have passed since those happy times and these men are quickly reaching their final years of life. After Billy gets engaged to a young thirty-something woman, the trio of old fogies throw him a bachelor party in the best place for such occasions: Las Vegas! They’re old guys trying to live it up in a strange new world where many things have changed. As you might imagine, hijinks ensue and the old guys come to terms with their age in different ways.

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LAST VEGAS is fun in moments, but also tries to have a sentimental edge (especially in the all too predictable conclusion) that doesn’t work very well. If this movie didn’t star these four legendary actors, than it would probably be a downright terrible movie. It’s a film that does get tired and repetitive, developing a flimsy story on the one-note joke that these four old guys are trying to live it up in Las Vegas (which is crowded by plenty of young people, drinking, partying, and sex). The fun of the story hinges completely on the cast, all of whom are fun to watch. Plenty of comparisons have been drawn to this being an old folks’ version of THE HANGOVER and that’s a pretty accurate dead-on description. The humor (though definitely with some PG-13 content) keeps things very safe, which makes sense given that a majority of the target-audience for this movie would be disgusted by the heavy R-rated HANGOVER jokes.

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What little plot makes up LAST VEGAS is very predictable. Each character has their own story-arch and these are interesting to various degrees. Robert De Niro’s thread is actually the least enjoyable, but he’s the best actor here. Everyone can predict where things are eventually heading in regards to Morgan Freeman’s relationship with his worrisome son, the possibility that Michael Douglas is forcing his marriage to a far younger woman, and Kevin Kline’s quest to have superb sex with someone other than his wife. Notice I didn’t use any of the character’s names in that last paragraph. This is because nearly everyone will just see these actors as not so much playing characters but really hamming it up for the cameras. The plot is less of an actual interesting story and more of an excuse for these guys to hang out. It’s almost the Adam Sandler effect with his godawful GROWN UPS movies, but this one keeps more dignity intact.

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At the end of the day, LAST VEGAS is harmless and may delight the older crowd who can relate better to these characters than I can at the moment. I’m far from the point in my life of being as old as these folks, so I can’t honestly say that this movie was aimed towards me to begin with. There are a couple of funny moments and everything is kept light-hearted. It’s a fluffy experience that really has no lasting impact, but doesn’t necessarily do anything all-out bad either. The best part of this movie was seeing De Niro, Douglas, Freeman, and Kline together, even if it’s in a middle-of-the-road effort.

Grade: C

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