The Top 15 Movies I Reviewed in 2017!

List by Derrick Carter

Throughout the course of 2017, I posted 206 movie reviews on this blog. Though about a quarter of those were rewatches (covering the SAW and CHILD’S PLAY franchises before their latest installments, and also paying tribute to the passing of genre legend George A. Romero), I managed to catch plenty of fresh new films, forgotten flicks, and classics that I simply hadn’t gotten around to watching. As with last year, 2017’s “Best of” list will cover movies that I watched for the first time in my life. This means that old and new films are on the table, regardless of what year they came out. If a film was new to me and I loved it, then I’m including it with my favorite films that I watched in 2017!

Before I get into my 15 favorite films that I reviewed this year, there are some honorable mentions. I had previously seen THE EXORCIST, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, THE THING, NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, and ALIENS before this year. Otherwise, they would be on this list. As far as first-time watches, I truly enjoyed the groundbreaking drama MOONLIGHT and adored the 80s throwback STRANGER THINGS. Concerning new horror films, THE EYES OF MY MOTHER seriously disturbed me, THE VOID was a phenomenal Lovecraftian nightmare, and THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS was one hell of a zombie film! WONDER WOMAN also wound up as my second-favorite superhero film of 2017. As for indie thrillers, WIND RIVER was a gripping ride and GOOD TIME was a neon-lit throwback to Martin Scorsese’s early work.

Now, without further ado, onto my top 15 favorite films that I reviewed during 2017…

15. MY FRIEND DAHMER: Most serial killer films focus on chilling murders of their subjects, but MY FRIEND DAHMER is not like most serial killer films. Based on the graphic novel of the same name, MY FRIEND DAHMER is a chilling drama that chronicles the pre-murderous life of Jeffrey Dahmer and examines him as a high school weirdo. By somewhat “humanizing” this psycho, the film doesn’t attempt to elicit sympathy towards its titular cannibal killer and instead shines a light on the fact that people we went to high school might very well turn into monsters seen in news headlines. Though there isn’t a single (human) murder to be found, MY FRIEND DAHMER joins the ranks among the best films about real-life serial killers (MONSTER, ZODIAC, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, and THE SNOWTOWN MURDERS).

14. FOUR LIONS: The idea of tackling Islamic terrorism through a darkly comic lens might sound completely misguided on paper, but FOUR LIONS is the best comedy that I sat through all year! The film follows four idiotic would-be terrorists as they attempt to execute a devastating attack, but constantly fumble over their own stupidity and reveal themselves to be bumbling morons. In my opinion, painting Islamic terrorists in this ridiculous light strips some of the power away from them in a similar way to what Charlie Chaplin did to Hitler in THE GREAT DICTATOR or what Rogen/Franco did to Kim Jong-Un with THE INTERVIEW. If you’re down for dark comedy and don’t mind totally offensive punchlines, you should give FOUR LIONS a watch in the near future!

13. HARD BOILED: Last year, LADY SNOWBLOOD wound up being one of my favorite movie-going experiences as I saw it in a packed cinema pub screening. This year, that cinema pub moviegoing experience belongs to HARD BOILED. This shoot ’em up actioner is over-the-top to the point of being ridiculous. Ridiculously awesome! Each gun fight plays out like a carefully choreographed dance and the film features one of the most jaw-dropping single take sequences that I’ve ever laid my eyes upon. Though it relies on a few cop movie clichés, it utilizes these in a loving way that makes the familiar material seem fresh. If you’re into action films and you haven’t seen HARD BOILED, then you need to remedy that immediately!

12. T2 TRAINSPOTTING: In all honesty, I didn’t know what exactly to expect from a sequel to TRAINSPOTTING. I love that film and I know that novelist Irvine Welsh wrote a follow-up novel, but I didn’t know how that might translate into a cinematic sequel. Over two decades after its predecessor’s release, T2 TRAINSPOTTING serves as an amazing companion piece to the original. Using the same cast and experimental visual style (albeit through a much more polished lens), TRAINSPOTTING 2 delivers stellar performances and naturally follows the lives of the four ne’er do wells from the previous film. If you loved the first film, then you’ll probably love this one too. For a full experience, it’s best to watch both of them back-to-back in the space of a single night!

11. NORTH BY NORTHWEST: This may be blasphemy for a cinephile, but I actually haven’t seen many Alfred Hitchcock films. I love PSYCHO, THE BIRDS, and DIAL M FOR MURDER, but the rest of his filmography is basically a mystery to my movie-craving eyes. My first viewing of NORTH BY NORTHWEST took place in the best possible environment (a packed movie theater) and I was blown away by how thrilling this film is. This is basically a James Bond film before Bond ever hit the screen. Cary Grant serves as a charismatic leading man who’s on the run for a murder he didn’t commit. Over the space of his death-defying adventure, we gets lots of suspense, action, and unexpected plot twists. I was on the edge of my seat for this entire film and walked away extremely satisfied. If the rest of Hitchcock’s filmography is anywhere near this great, then I’m in for a real treat as I continue to watch his work.

10. I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE: Blending a Coen brothers style of humor with indie thriller sensibilities, I DON’T FEEL AT HOME IN THIS WORLD ANYMORE might just be the most underseen and underrated film of 2017! This movie won an audience award at Sundance and then went directly to Netflix, where some people talked about for a couple of weeks and then it just kind of seemed to vanish out of the public eye. This is a vigilante thriller that’s believable in how inept real-life wannabe vigilantes might be and frequently dishes out shocking spurts of graphic violence. This might be the best Coen brothers film that the Coen brothers never made and I can’t wait to see what first-time director/writer Macon Blair cooks up next!

9. BABY DRIVER: What can I say? Edgar Wright consistently makes great films. BABY DRIVER is a passion project that Wright had in the works for years. In a similar fashion to how George Miller carefully planned out every scene, shot, and effect in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Wright constantly lets the viewer know that they’re in the hands of a visionary storyteller. This stylish crime tale about a getaway driver who (ironically enough) wants to get away from his criminal lifestyle is loaded with colorful characters, hilarious humor, and adrenaline-pumping action that’s synced up to one of the best damn soundtracks you’ll hear all year. I gushed over this movie back in June and I am still gushing about it now. If you want a joy ride of pure fun, BABY DRIVER will satisfy your cinematic craving!

8. THE DISASTER ARTIST: Never in a million years did I think that anything to do with Tommy Wiseau’s so-bad-it’s-good THE ROOM would ever wind up on any “Best of” list. Yet, here we are. James Franco lovingly adapts the nonfiction book about the creation of THE ROOM to the big screen in a way that’s not only hilarious, but also genuinely touching. THE DISASTER ARTIST doesn’t take the easy route of being a goofy comedy about a loser who fails so spectacularly that he kind of succeeds. Instead, this film takes a more complicated drama-comedy approach and shows us the more serious side of oddball Tommy Wiseau…and his strange friendship with would-be aspiring actor Greg Sestero. THE DISASTER ARTIST is a moving must-see for ROOM fans and cinephiles who just love great movies in general.

7. BLADE RUNNER 2049: I’m saying it right now, BLADE RUNNER 2049 is one of the best sequels to ever hit the silver screen. Over three decades after its predecessor’s debut, BLADE RUNNER 2049 recaptures the bleak sci-fi/noir spark that made the original into the cult classic that it is today. 2049’s cast all deliver amazing performances across the board, with supporting actors making the biggest impressions in their small minutes of screen time and Ryan Gosling serving as a fascinating new antihero. Besides delivering a complex mystery that unpredictably shifts directions as it goes along, 2049 also has one of the most beautiful romantic subplots in years and it features a literal “one-dimensional” character. For those who were bummed out by this film’s disappointing box office returns, remember that the first BLADE RUNNER was a box office flop and is now considered to be one of the greatest science-fiction films of all time. A similar classic status will undoubtedly follow BLADE RUNNER 2049 in future years!

6. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES: Seven years ago, if you had told me that a PLANET OF THE APES prequel trilogy would be one of the best cinematic trilogies ever, I would have laughed in your face. It turns out that’s exactly the case though. 2014’s DAWN drastically improved upon the minor flaws of 2011’s RISE, but 2017’s WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES is stellar storytelling from beginning to end. Themes of revenge, survival, and forgiveness are examined throughout the film’s ever-changing plot. Performance wise, WAR fully shapes out intelligent ape Caesar (played wonderfully by Andy Serkis) as animal protagonist who’s more compelling than most human protagonists in films and also introduces Woody Harrelson as a monstrous villain who we want to see die in the most painful way possible. WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES was the best possible way to conclude the APES prequel trilogy and is one of the best summer blockbusters I’ve ever sat through!

5. IRREVERSIBLE: I originally heard about Gaspar Noe’s rape-revenge drama from a podcast in 2008, but hadn’t bothered to give it a look until earlier this year. Though not strictly a horror film by any means, IRREVERSIBLE is a terrifying cinematic experience as events are told backwards. Unlike other linear rape-revenge stories, we see the revenge come first and travel backwards through the moments that eventually lead up to the violent act of justice. As the film plays out in reverse (ironic considering its title), we put pieces of this depressing puzzle together for ourselves and this already tragic event becomes even more tragic with each new revelation. This isn’t a film for the faint-hearted and it’s about as bleak as they come, but IRREVERSIBLE is an uncompromising masterpiece that deserves to be seen by anybody who loves the serious artistic side of cinema!

4. LOGAN: There will never be a better Wolverine than Hugh Jackman. I’m saying that right now. Over a decade has been spent watching Jackman in the role of this weaponized mutant, so LOGAN serves as a suitable final chapter for Jackman’s reluctant do-gooder. The future X-MEN films have a tough act to follow, because LOGAN is a special kind of superhero story. Relationships between the small cast of characters drives the emotional core of this film forward, whilst the R rating finally delivers something that X-MEN fans have wanted to see since 2000: a bad-ass Wolverine slicing and dicing his way through bad guys. This film also has shades of Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD crossed with a comic book story that’s about as unconventional as they come. Now that Disney is in talks to own the X-MEN franchise, we likely won’t see another film like LOGAN coming from this mutant-based series. LOGAN is a one-of-a-kind superhero film and one of the best comic book movies ever made!

3. EYES WIDE SHUT: Stanley Kubrick’s final film is an underrated masterpiece about the way in which people delude themselves into believing that they’re happy…and also there’s a creepy sex cult involved too. The entire film has a dream-like atmosphere as we watch the main character (Tom Cruise) venture through a single night odyssey that explores the sexual possibilities of cheating on his wife. Kubrick masterfully shows the dire consequences that might result from following our instinctual desires, whilst also putting us into the place of Cruise’s character. This is especially true of the ending which offers two distinct possibilities: one of them is easy and comforting…and the other one is ambiguous and dangerous. Whatever you might think of it or how you might interpret it, EYES WIDE SHUT is sure to keep you talking about it long after it’s over.

2. YOUR NAME: Eat your heart out Studio Ghibli! YOUR NAME just might be one of the most beautiful stories I’ve ever sat through. This film has gorgeous animation from beginning to end, while also delivering an entrancing tale of emotions and body-swapping. It’s initial set-up sounds like the anime equivalent of FREAKY FRIDAY, but drastically becomes something far more charming and moving as its complex plot moves along. This might be one of the strangest love stories ever put to the screen, but its emotional resonance is undeniable! The characters are all built up to the point where the viewer feels for their struggles and deeply cares about them. This makes the film’s final third into a very suspenseful and gripping ride. Also, the climax is utterly perfect. YOUR NAME is a masterpiece and deserves every bit of praise it has received so far (and will continue to receive)!

1. MOTHER!: Much like my favorite film of 2016 (HIGH-RISE), I know that there will be people who loathe and downright detest MOTHER! Some will hate it for its sheer artsy nightmare-logic style and others will despise its controversial message, but I adored every single frame of this fucked-up little ditty. The film follows a woman and her husband in an isolated countryside house. After a strange couple pop in and just decide to stay, their lives are shifted in horrifying ways. I can’t get too into details, because it would spoil some of the film’s nasty surprises and metaphorical madness. I will say that MOTHER! is my favorite horror film of the 2010s so far and one of the ballsiest films to ever receive a nationwide theatrical release. People either really love this film or totally hate it. There isn’t much middle ground to be found and you will likely walk away with a very strong opinion about it. One of the film’s trailers promised that “you’ll never forget where you were the first time you saw MOTHER!” and that statement is completely accurate. I’ve been thinking about this unforgettable horror film since its release and I can’t wait to dive into it again and again in future years to come!

Well, 2017 was a wild year for me…both on this site and in my personal life. I’m currently in the process of moving, so reviews will resume sometime in January! I plan to keep this little movie blog rolling, with plenty of reviews (both old and new) being pumped out on a mostly regular basis! A huge “thank you” to anyone who’s read this blog at all during the past year or any new readers who are discovering it for the first time. There was plenty to love in the world of film during 2017 and here’s to a just as great (if not better) 2018!

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 54 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Violence and Thematic Elements

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Written by: Michael Green

(based on the novel MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS by Agatha Christie)

Starring: Kenneth Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Tom Bateman, Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton & Marwan Kenzari

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is arguably Agatha Christie’s most popular mystery novel (with AND THEN THERE WERE NONE being the only possible exception). Christie’s book has been adapted onto the big screen, the radio, and the small screen (three different times). ORIENT EXPRESS’s most recent adaptation has come loaded with big talent and recognizable faces. Though this film isn’t perfect and I wouldn’t rank it as the best Agatha Christie adaptation that I’ve sat through (that honor actually belongs to the miniseries adaptation of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE), MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS should provide classy entertainment for mature audiences.

In the 1930s, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is famous for solving seemingly unsolvable cases. Poirot seems determined to put a stop to all crime, but he also needs occasional vacation time. In an effort to get away from his stressful line of work, this mustachioed crime-solver has booked passage on the Orient Express in the dead of winter. Poirot’s holiday is cut short by the sudden murder of shady businessman Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp). To make matters even worse, an avalanche has derailed the train. With a train full of suspects and an increasingly tense atmosphere, Poirot must uncover the killer’s identity before another life is lost.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS benefits from high production values and a cast/crew who clearly cared about putting their all into this project. Kenneth Branagh shot this film on 65mm cameras and the resulting visuals are gorgeous to behold. Most of MURDER’s plot doesn’t necessarily rely on effects (other than shots of the train and its snowy location), instead playing out as a tense thriller between its contained cast of characters. There are a couple of confrontations and suspenseful chases, but this film mostly builds its tension from conversations and flashbacks within those conversations (that reveal further clues about a possible motive and the killer’s identity).

Having not read the source material, I had the pleasure of not knowing a thing about MURDER’s conclusion. Though thrilling, unexpected and oddly moving, I have to imagine that ORIENT EXPRESS will likely lose some of its impact on repeated viewings. Still, the film benefits from the sheer entertainment of Kenneth Branagh in the leading role as Hercule Poirot. This over-the-top Belgian detective is quirky to the extreme and noticeably obsessive-compulsive, as opposed to being a borderline sociopathic detective (ala Sherlock Holmes). Besides driving the plot forward and cleverly piecing together clues for the viewer, Branagh’s Poirot also provides enjoyable comic relief. The tonal mix of almost cartoonish humor and straight-faced seriousness never once dissuaded my love for this strange protagonist.

As far as the supporting cast goes, ORIENT EXPRESS contains quite the impressive gathering of A-listers and emerging talent among its passengers/suspects. Johnny Depp gets some mileage out of his scumbag victim because he actually gets to flex his acting muscles in this role. Penelope Cruz is a standout as a suspicious missionary, while Willem Dafoe plays an oddball professor. Judi Dench fits well into the role of a creepy princess. The usually comedic Josh Gad plays a far darker character than his usual light-hearted fare. Michelle Pfeiffer is a hysterical (though possibly deceptive) passenger, while Daisy Ridley is a charming (though possibly homicidal) woman hiding secrets. Meanwhile, Leslie Odom Jr. is good enough as the charismatic (but possibly murderous) doctor.

On the non-suspect side of things, Tom Bateman is also a lot of fun as Poirot’s best friend (and the Orient Express’s director) Bouc. ORIENT EXPRESS’s only noticeably bad performances come from Lucy Boynton as a reclusive countess and Sergei Polunin as her ill-tempered count husband. Boynton is bland in her role and doesn’t get enough screen time to leave much of a positive impression at all. Meanwhile, Polunin is laughably over-the-top in the scenes where he switches from a calm 0 to a furiously enraged 100 in a matter of seconds. His violent temper just feels unbelievably forced. One confrontation involving this character comes out of nowhere and is almost laughably bad due to Polunin’s unconvincing line delivery. Still, both of these performers don’t receive too much screen time.

The beauty of MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is that its seemingly simple murder-mystery that gets drastically more complex as the list of possible suspects and motives continues to grow. Clues and red herrings run rampant. The viewer’s emotions are thrown into a borderline distressed state as you try to figure out who the killer is…much like protagonist Poirot. As I mentioned before, I don’t think this film will hold up nearly as well upon a second viewing. Once the cat has been let out of the bag, the film’s surprise and novelty is pretty much gone. However, Branagh’s Poirot, the visuals, and performances from a talented cast make a viewing worthwhile. If you’re into murder mysteries and enjoy classy slow-burn storytelling, then you’ll likely dig MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS.

Grade: B

MOTHER! (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 1 minute

MPAA Rating: R for Strong Disturbing Violent Content, some Sexuality, Nudity and Language

Directed by: Darren Aronofsky

Written by: Darren Aronofsky

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, Jovan Adepo & Stephen McHattie

Darren Aronofsky is known for artsy psychological headtrips and experimenting with narrative structure. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM put him on the map for moviegoers, whilst THE FOUNTAIN served as an ambitious anthology that split folks down the middle, and BLACK SWAN was a beautiful descent into madness. Also, NOAH saw Aronofsky putting his own fantastical spin on a Bible epic with polarizing reactions as a result. I’ve pretty much loved every Aronofsky film that I’ve seen thus far, so know that’s where I stand when I say that MOTHER! is a brilliant, ballsy piece of cinema that completely blew me away. This is easily one of the most original horror films that I’ve seen in years and is guaranteed to make a lot of people hate it. Those who dig MOTHER! though, will likely love it and not be able to stop thinking about it.

Without giving any spoilers away in my plot synopsis, I’ll say that MOTHER! is about the relationship between a poet (Javier Bardem) and his much-younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence). Lawrence’s character has renovated her husband’s formerly burned down house from scratch and the end result is beautiful to behold, but Javier’s character still can’t get over a troubling bit of writer’s block. When a mysterious couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) show up uninvited and make their way into Lawrence’s and Bardem’s home, tensions begin to flare as Lawrence strongly dislikes their imposing presence and Bardem revels in their company. More guests soon arrive and things quickly spiral into morbid metaphorical madness!

MOTHER! is a film that’s bound to polarize viewers. First of all, this is very much an arthouse horror flick. The narrative constantly uses nightmare logic and plot points/characters are clearly meant to represent things outside of this story. Symbolism is strong in this film. Those who don’t enjoy slow burns and artsy flicks will most likely despise this movie from its strange beginning until the deeply disturbing conclusion. Then there’s the actual message (or messages, depending on your interpretation of events) which may turn certain viewers off. Aronofsky isn’t exactly subtle in certain areas, and there’s enough head-fuckery to guarantee multiple viewings are necessary to catch everything in this detailed piece of art.

Jennifer Lawrence deviates from her mainstream dramedies and teeny-bopper roles to play her ballsiest role yet as this film’s titular protagonist. As Lawrence’s character is put through the emotional gauntlet, the viewer is also pushed through the wringer. I felt that her growing frustration, bafflement and devastation were all completely believable as I felt the same emotions whilst experiencing this film (in the best way possible). Javier Bardem has already proven himself to be a phenomenal performer time and time again. I don’t want to say too much about his character here, but he leaves an unforgettable impression and tackles his difficult-to-understand character with bravado.

In a supporting role, Ed Harris is half likable and half creepy as the first unexpected guest. Michelle Pfeiffer is positively hateable as his wife and will make you want to slap her in the face. She’s so good at being bad in this film. Domhnall Gleeson, Kristen Wiig, and Stephen McHattie also pop in for supporting roles and make the most of the screen time they receive. The other supporting actors, a bunch of random faces, also will gradually piss you off as much as they do Jennifer Lawrence’s character. This film does a fantastic job of making you irritated and uncomfortable towards people simply being assholes. I don’t want to dive deeper into these characters’ actions…because there would definitely be spoilers in those details.

As far as cinematography goes, this movie is incredibly atmospheric and there’s a growing dread that digs inside you as the running time moves forward. Even though this is a slow burn, these two hours rushed by for me and I know that I’ll be rewatching this film many times in the future. It also seems fair to describe MOTHER! as the most unusual home invasion horror flick that you’ll ever see. The film also contains truly disturbing scenes and becomes all-out insanity during its final third. There are genuinely horrific images that you won’t be able to forget after you’ve seen this film and Aronofsky’s demented script puts brilliant spin on centuries-old themes.

If you don’t want to read minor spoilers, skip to the last paragraph. Aronofsky really ticked people off by treating NOAH as a fantasy and though that film wasn’t perfect, I thoroughly enjoyed it. This taken into consideration, MOTHER! seems to be the exact swtich-up of that formula. Here, Aronofsky is retelling Bible stories in the most fucked up, disturbing way possible and it winds up being one of the ballsiest films that I’ve seen in the 2010s. Though there’s an argument to made about the interpretations of artistry and failing relationships, I totally bought this on the not-so-subtle Biblical ideas and characters’ names seem to really hammer that home for me. I adored this film, but can totally understand why someone wouldn’t be into this sort of thing and not care for it at all.

MOTHER! feels like something that Lynch, Cronenberg, or Kubrick would have directed in their heyday. It’s one of the strangest home invasion horror films you’ll ever see, while also serving as a brilliant slice of metaphorical madness for those who really love this film’s sheer darkness and overall message. This is a strange, rough, and fucked up film…and I loved every single second of it. A movie hasn’t left me pondering over it this much in a long time and I can’t wait to revisit MOTHER! many times in the future. This is not only the best horror film that I’ve seen in years and one of the best films of 2017 (so far), I’d argue that this will go down as one of the best films of the 2010s for me!

Grade: A+

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+

SCARFACE (1983)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 50 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

scarface-poster

Directed by: Brian De Palma

Written by: Oliver Stone

Starring: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Paul Shenar, Robert Loggia, Miriam Colon, F. Murray Abraham & Harris Yulin

1983’s SCARFACE is one of the most famous gangster films of all-time. Stemming from Al Pacino’s inspiration to remake the 1932 gangster classic of the same name (which was loosely based on Al Capone), this brutal gangster flick delivers a whole lot of well-worn clichés in a shiny cinematic package. However, this three-hour predictable rise and fall of a Cuban “political refugee” turned drug kingpin sticks out for three big reasons: style, violence and an unforgettable character brought to the screen by Al Pacino (who had already left his mark on the crime genre as Michael Corleone in the first two GODFATHER films). SCARFACE is far from the greatest mob epic around, but still holds up as an entertaining gangster flick in spite of its many faults.

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The year is 1980 and the place is Miami, Florida. Antonio Montana (Al Pacino) is a Cuban refugee who’s been sent to a refugee camp with his best friend Manny (Steven Bauer). Desperate to secure their green cards, Tony and Manny agree to take on a job as hired guns. However, this murderous act is nothing new to Tony. It becomes very clear that he had a checkered past in Cuba and has come to America to get what he believes is coming to him: the world. As Tony becomes involved with shady individuals and sticks his nose (literally) into the cocaine business, he works his way up the ladder for small-time mob boss Frank Lopez (Robert Loggia). Soon, Tony’s ambitions force him to go his own way. Along this vicious path of blood and powder, he falls in love with coke-addict Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer), partners up with feared kingpin Alejandro Sosa (Paul Shenar) and tries to maintain a skeleton of a moral compass. However, Tony forgets that what goes up must come down.

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The best quality in SCARFACE is Al Pacino as the titular drug kingpin. Pacino’s performance as Tony Montana manages to be over-the-top, comically entertaining, and intensely frightening all at the same time. Many lines of dialogue would not be particularly memorable if not for the thickly-accented, furious way that Pacino delivers them in the film. Regardless of how familiar these gangster tropes may seem (they were already well-worn at the time of this film’s release), Pacino’s captivating portrayal of a fiery-tempered scumbag kept me watching out of sheer fascination with this character. Montana is a hot-headed, loud-mouthed, power-hungry asshole and the audience isn’t necessarily supposed to root for him, but rather watch his rise to and inevitable fall from power.

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In this regard, Oliver Stone’s screenplay feels unbalanced. We are shown far more of Tony’s rise to power as opposed to his bullet-ridden fall from grace. The screenplay goes to the trouble of including two family-oriented scenes purely for a tragic pay-off during the story’s final act. A good scene would have been great if more attention had been paid to this subplot. The film also sets up a defining moral compass for Tony late into the story which feels a tad half-assed in regard to every violent act we have been shown up to that point. In a way, a seemingly out-of-nowhere good deed feels contradictory and cheap, serving only to further his downfall. Finally, two key rules are set up in advance for Tony…which he will obviously break later on. Still, these rule-breaking bits are rushed. At least Stone’s screenplay goes to the trouble of setting up these details up in advance, whereas other lesser gangster films wouldn’t even bother to put that effort in.

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However, SCARFACE really drops the ball when it comes to the side characters. Michelle Pfeiffer was relatively unknown at the time of this movie’s release. Both Pacino and De Palma fought against her starring in the role of Elvira…and this may have contributed to her muted role as a paper-thin love interest. Elvira’s obligatory romantic subplot functions on a surface level of Tony falling head over heels for her and then abusing their relationship. As a result, Pfeiffer doesn’t make much as an impression thanks to her weak character and the romance being mainly reduced to a handful of brief scenes. Steven Bauer’s Manny isn’t much of a character either and comes off like a walking plot device. The same can be said for Tony’s mother and sister. Finally, the other gangsters seem like cardboard cut-outs. The only exception to this is Paul Shenar’s Sosa, an antagonist who seems off like a James Bond villain that specializes in smuggling cocaine and elaborately executing those who screw him over.

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In spite of its many problems, SCARFACE’s sheer style and brutality make it stick out in an overcrowded genre of gangster flicks. You’ve seen money laundering in mob movies before, but have you seen it executed with a cheesy 80’s montage set to the song “Push It to the Limit”? That happens in this film and it’s hilarious. The soundtrack and score add entertainment to the clichéd proceedings, especially when paired with lots of glamour and glitz. Tony’s lavish lifestyle seems great…until you remember how he’s acquired it. The film’s bloody carnage isn’t on display from start to finish, but is executed in brutal spurts of violence. Chainsaws, hangings from helicopters, and an iconic final stand-off stick out as some of this movie’s most memorable moments. Also, the chainsaw scene had a few folks running for the exit upon this film’s premiere.

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SCARFACE has left a legacy for three reasons: style, violence, and Pacino. Style keeps the clichéd proceedings entertaining, in spite of their one-note nature. This film’s violence was shocking at the time of its release and still comes off as pretty damn brutal from a modern stand-point, even lending itself to a very fun video game sequel SCARFACE: THE WORLD IS YOURS (which is basically GRAND THEFT AUTO with Tony Montana). Finally, Pacino is captivating as a loose cannon who rises in the ranks and ultimately keeps you guessing as to when his short fuse will burn out. If you like the crime genre, then you kind of have to see this movie just to say that you’ve seen it. SCARFACE is heavily flawed and has its far share of cardboard-thin clichés, but still holds up as an entertaining iconic gangster film.

Grade: B