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Even those of us who aren’t even remotely rich have no doubt heard of Bernie Madoff, perpetrator of one of the biggest Ponzi schemes in history, causing investors to lose almost $65 billion. Named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian swindler and con artist operating in the US in the 1920’s, Ponzi schemes always collapse, if only because there are no actual investments made with the monies deposited: earlier investors are paid “dividends” with the cash that newer investors deposit, although most of the monies usually go to the fraudster who sets up the plan. The Wizard of Lies, HBO’s film based on the book of the same name by Diana B. Henriques, who plays herself interviewing inmate-Madoff in the film, concentrates more on the fall of the Madoff Empire rather than on explaining exactly how Madoff managed to dupe so many wealthy investors. The Wizard of Lies is a complex examination of a sociopath who, considering the fact that he’s in prison himself for 150 years, doesn’t believe he’s done anything too terribly dreadful to anyone else, especially not to his family members. De Niro’s performance as Madoff is understated and dazzling, and that alone makes the film worth watching.
Robert De Niro, departing from his usual mob and gangster roles, plays sociopath Bernie Madoff in The Wizard of Lies. De Niro’s performance is understated and controlled to the point of disturbed-rattlesnake brilliant. De Niro only raises his voice a few times in the entire film — and even then, he’s not actually yelling — yet he manages to terrify. His gaze alone is a match for Medusa’s.
De Niro’s Madoff is so eerie, you wonder how anyone could have fallen for the investment scheme in the first place, but, of course, viewers see this version of the story already knowing about Madoff’s lies and treachery. The family dinner scene, which includes Madoff’s granddaughter, is De Niro at his menacing best: it reminded me of De Niro with a very young Leonardo DiCaprio in This Boy’s Life. Shivery-scary, my dears.
Michelle Pfeiffer plays Madoff’s wife Ruth, who, unfortunately, seems rather dim-witted in this version of the story. As a woman who’s supported herself since the age of 14, I realize that I may be judging Ruth Madoff by standards which did not apply to her, but still I wonder how anyone could live in a Manhattan penthouse apartment, get $400 highlights “on demand” from an elite hairdresser, and not know that the “bottomless” income which supports her über-wealthy lifestyle was illegitimate. The Wizard of Lies portrays Ruth as absent-mindedly “innocent.” Whining and perpetually confused, Ruth is rarely seen without a glass of wine in her hand.
Despite the almost cardboard-portrayal of Ruth Madoff herself, Pfeiffer’s acting is classy and powerful. As understated as De Niro, Pfeiffer plays Ruth with a skill that reminds you why Pfeiffer is one of the greatest actors alive, especially in the scene with Ruth, alone, complaining about the Bonnie and Clyde comparisons to her and Bernie, and in the scene where she calmly explains to Bernie that she’s going to commit suicide.
Madoff’s sons, Mark (Allesandro Nivola) and Andrew (Nathan Darrow), ostensibly work on “another floor” in their father’s business, and so “know nothing at all” about the actual investments, the faux trades, and the impossibility of investments’ never having any losses. Mark and Andrew live in multi-million-dollar Manhattan apartments, like Bernie, and have vacation houses, also like Bernie, but the siblings protest their innocence all the while complaining about and raging against the public’s perception of them as co-conspirators in their father’s fraud. Though it’s difficult to believe that Mark and Andrew could have been as innocent as the film depicts them, the actors do a credible job portraying the Madoff boys’ disillusion with their father and their subsequent anguish.
In one of his best roles, Hank Azaria plays Madoff employee and co-conspirator Frank Dipascali, the only person in the entire company who admits — in the film, at least — to having known about the faux trades and the investment scam. Dipascali manages the books in an office that resembles a corner behind the furnace in somebody’s basement. Azaria’s Dipascali is crude and vulgar, but he apparently knows how to use a computer efficiently enough to have Madoff’s complete and absolute trust. The Wizard of Lies portrays Dipascali as the only other person even remotely culpable in Madoff’s horrific scam, and Dipascali makes about as many apologies as does Bernie, which is to say, none at all.
The Wizard of Lies is fascinating and scary, intense and sad. Does that mean I feel sympathy for Bernie Madoff? No. Do I feel sorry for Ruth, Mark, and Andrew Madoff, all of whom claim to never have known anything was suspicious about Madoff’s vast financial empire? No. I don’t believe they were as innocent as they claim, and the film didn’t change my opinion of them.
It’s a tribute to the HBO film, however, that I watched it fully expecting to be bored and confused by multitudinous, labyrinthine financial explanations. Instead, I was totally engaged by the film, which is compelling if only due to the principals’ extraordinary and powerful performances.
AMC’s newest series The Son is a “creation myth of America” set in the American West in two different time periods, 1849 and 1915, telling the story of Texas family patriarch Eli McCullough. Based on the Pulitzer Prize finalist and bestselling novel of the same name by Philipp Meyer, who is also an executive producer of the show, The Son explores America’s violent heritage by examining Texas’ deadly involvement with indigenous peoples and its Mexican neighbors. Though Variety claims The Son is “yet another show centered around a morally grey white man with a dark past,” and though the premiere was a bit slow, AMC solved this initial pacing problem by showing the first two episodes in the same night. By the third episode, the series picks up steam and becomes quite an intriguing story.
Eli McCullough, kidnapped by the Comanche as a young man, is the patriarch of the family in the series. Played by Pierce Brosnan in one of his best roles, he is a cattleman who, for some unknown reason, is determined to discover oil on his land. Is he losing money at the ranching business? Is he bored with cattle? Is he not rich enough? Is he in so much debt that he must lose the entire ranch if he doesn’t diversify? We don’t find that out, but for the first several episodes, the search for oil is a minor part of the story.
Despite some complaints about Brosnan’s native Irish accent poking through the show’s Texas drawl, and despite Hollywood Reporter’s description of his character as “Pathetic White Boy [Eli’s Comanche name]… grown into a powerful and notoriously vicious landowner whose new Comanche nickname would probably be Growls With a Beard,” Brosnan’s Eli McCullough is the most interesting character in The Son.
As a young man in 1849, Eli (Jacob Lofland, one of the shining stars of the series) was kidnapped by the Comanche, led by Toshaway (Zahn McClarnon, a serious competitor with Brosnan, in both talent and physical attractiveness).
Tormented by the males of the tribe as well as by the lovely Prairie Flower (Elizabeth Frances),
Eli often doubts his ability to survive captivity. The longer he is with the tribe, however, the more he begins to behave like the other young men, and the more he is accepted as part of their group. Eventually, Toshaway may even come to regard Eli as his son.
The scenes of Eli in the past are interwoven are interwoven with those of Eli as a grown man, in 1915. Living on his ranch with his sons Phineas (David Wilson Barnes)
and Pete (Henry Garrett),
his daughter-in-law (Pete’s wife) Sally (Jess Weixler),
and his grandchildren — Charles, Jonas, and Jeannie (Sydney Lucas, who shines in her scenes with Brosnan, with whom she has obvious chemistry) —
Eli is at odds with his sons. They want to sell part of the ranch to get the family out of debt, but Eli fears that dividing the ranch will ultimately lead to its complete loss. How the family got into such serious debt in the first place has never been made clear, but perhaps that isn’t as important as it seems it should be.
The McCulloughs’ nearest neighbors are the Garcías, led by patriarch Pedro (Carlos Bardem) and his feisty daughter Maria (Paola Nuñez), who seems inordinately attracted to the already married Pete McCullough.
The Garcías have a large family, but the most important members seem to be these two. The García patriarch has some nefarious associations with Mexican bandits who are causing havoc with the white Texas settlers. War seems to be on the horizon.
Though the Native Americans and the Mexicans often seem stereotyped, the storyline is still mostly strong. Admittedly, there are some flaws in the story itself: Eli has two sons, for example, but the eldest, Phineas, largely disappears after the initial episodes; the Garcías have a large family, but no one gets near the attention (or screen time) that Pedro and his eldest daughter Maria have.
The worst problem with the series so far is its major production flaw: the music is often so loud that the dialogue is literally inaudible.
Still, The Son is worth watching, and, as the LA Times review notes, it’s engrossing, if only for the strong performances of Brosnan (Eli as a man), Lofland (Eli as a youth), and McClarnon (Toshaway). The strongest and most interesting female characters are Frances (Prairie Flower) and Lucas (granddaughter Jeannie). Also, the chemistry between Brosnan and Sydney Lucas (Jeannie) is delightful.
The Son is rated MA for its violence, which is frequent though not excessively graphic, and it airs Saturdays at 9:00 pm ET. The first two episodes, Son of Texas and The Plum Tree are available for viewing without login on AMC, and all episodes are free for AMC subscribers.