My Feelings About “TRUE DETECTIVE”

MY FEELINGS ABOUT “TRUE DETECTIVE”

I am among the many viewers who saw the Season Two finale for HBO’s “TRUE DETECTIVE”. And like many viewers and critics, I did not really care for it. But unlike many viewers and critics, I feel the same about Season One.

Season One managed to garner a great deal of accolades from critics and television viewers alike. Quite honestly, I never understood this attitude. I found Season One ridiculously slow, pretentious and a little too complex for its own good. I am still wondering why it took the main characters portrayed by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey practically two decades to find a killer that struck me as nothing more than a murderous lunkhead.

The problem with the Season Two finale is that it ended with the bad guys winning and most of the good guys dead. It ended with a realistic portrayal of how city corruption really works and many television viewers and critics could NOT take it. They needed an ending with the bad guy(s) dead and one or more of the protagonists – either Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch or Vince Vaughn – crying with manpain or woman pain, a’la McConaughey. I suspect that if “CHINATOWN” had been released today, many people would be tearing it apart for its downbeat ending.

I am not saying that “TRUE DETECTIVE” is better or just as good as “CHINATOWN”. It is not. Both Seasons One and Two cannot compare with the 1974 movie. But I will say this . . . I understood the finale of Season Two better than I did the Season Onefinale, which left me shaking my head in disbelief.

I do not like “TRUE DETECTIVE”. I did not like Season One, with its ridiculously complex story arc, pretentious writing and slow pacing. These are the same reasons why I dislike Season Two. But I did understand the finale of the second season . . . a lot more than many critics and viewers who would prefer if our movies and television series would reflect society’s illusions, instead of its truths.

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“THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” (2013) Review

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“THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” (2013) Review

I can think of only three previous times in which one of director Martin Scorsese’s films has courted controversy. The first time the director courted real controversy was the release of his 1976 film, “TAXI DRIVER”. He also encountered controversy from two other movies – “THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST” (1988) and 1997’s “KUNDUN”. Scorsese and controversy have met once again . . . this time in the form of his latest release, “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”.

As the world now knows, “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” is a film adaptation of the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, a New York stockbroker who ran a firm that engaged in securities fraud and corruption on Wall Street in the 1990s. The movie begins when Belfort lands a job as a stockbroker at a Wall Street firm. His boss, Mark Hanna, advises him to adopt a lifestyle of sex and cocaine in order to succeed. Unfortunately for Belfort, the firm fails after the stock market crash of Black Monday within a few months. Now unemployed, Belfort is pushed by his wife Teresa to take a job with a Long Island boiler room which deals in penny stocks. Belfort’s aggressive pitching style soon earns him a small fortune and he also befriends Donnie Azoff, a salesman who lives in the same apartment building. The pair decides to start their own firm together and name it Stratton Oakmont. They recruit some of Belfort’s friends – among them, experienced marijuana dealers, colleagues from the boiler room and his parents as accountants. Despite the respectable name, the firm is basically a pump and dump scam. The movie depicts the decadent lifestyle enjoyed by Belfort and his employees, the break-up of his marriage to Teresa and his second marriage to lover Naomi Lapaglia. However, due to an exposé inForbes magazine, Stratton Oakmont attracts more enthusiastic employees and the attention of F.B.I. Agent Patrick Denham.

What can I say about “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”? I thought it was one of the most outlandish and crazy movies I have seen in years. Out . . . landish! And I loved every moment of it. Well, most of it. Who would have thought that after forty years as a director and producer, Martin Scorsese could still astonish moviegoers? Or even piss them off? I had first heard about the negative reactions to “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”, when I read about veteran actress Hope Holiday’s angry post on her Facebook page about the Motion Picture Academy’s screening of the film. But her reaction was not the first. I have come across a good number of negative reactions to “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” since learning about Holiday’s reaction. Curious over the hullabaloo, I found myself becoming very eager to see the film. And it did not fail.

It is possible that some might assume that I enjoyed the film simply for the characters’ excess – the sex and drug use that could have easily turn this film into one with a NC-17 rating. Actually, I did not feel one way or the other about the characters’ exercises in degeneracy. I simply accepted it, due to the fact that his excesses had been a part of his life during those years as head of Stratton Oakmont. And from what I have learned about the financial world of the super rich, such excesses were and still are very common. Some have claimed Scorsese had not only glorified Belfort’s lifestyle and crimes, but also allowed the character to get away with the latter with very little punishment – less than two years in a “Club Fed” prison, before becoming a motivational speaker. The U.S. government is responsible for Belfort’s scant punishment, not Martin Scorsese. And I cannot accept that the director glorified Belfort’s lifestyle. All I saw on the movie screen were a bunch of silly men behaving like a bunch of overindulged adolescents with too much money and too many “toys” (namely women, drugs and other expenses) on their hands. Thanks to Scorsese’s direction and Terence Winter’s screenplay, Belfort and his cronies merely struck me as pathetic and infantile.

More importantly, Scorsese’s movie frightened me. Belfort’s willingness to exploit the desires of ordinary men and women to satisfy his own greed struck me as off-putting. Scorsese emphasized this negative aspect of Belfort’s profession by conveying the latter’s lack of remorse toward his victims. I am not lacking in compassionate when I say that I did not need to see the effects of Belfort’s machinations toward his clients. The amoral attitudes of the stock broker and his employees seemed more than enough for me to get an idea on how much those clients suffered. I still have memories of that bizarre scene in which Belfort and the Stratton Oakmont staff treated shoe designer Steve Madden with great contempt, as Belfort expressed his intent to invest in Madden’s company . . . a scene that almost left me shaking my head in disbelief. But if there is one scene that scared me senseless was the one that featured the business luncheon between Belfort and his boss at L.F. Rothschild, Mark Hanna. In this scene, Hanna gave the newly hired Belfort tips on how to become a successful stockbroker. A good deal of those tips involved the use of drugs and sex. But the one tip that really comes to mind was Hanna’s instructions that Belfort prevent clients from cashing out their investments for the profit of the firm and the stockbroker. Hanna’s advice reminded me of how Las Vegas casinos try to keep even winners playing so the latter would eventually lose what they had gained – something I learned from Scorsese’s 1995 film, “CASINO”. That was some scary shit. One other scene proved to be just as scary . . . the last one that found post-prison Belfort hosting a sales technique seminar in Auckland, New Zealand. That last shot of the audience drinking in Belfort’s words they believe will make them rich struck me as a sure symbol of the greed in human nature that really never dies – even if humanity would rather pretend otherwise.

I certainly cannot complain about the movie’s production values. “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” proved to be a sharp and colorful looking film, thanks to the crew that contributed to the movie’s visual style. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto is the man mainly responsible for that sharp and colorful look that I had commented upon. But I also have to commend both Bob Shaw’s production designs and Chris Shriver’s art direction for taking movie audiences back to the excessive greed era of New York during the 1980s and 1990s. Legendary costume designer Sandy Powell contributed to this look by basing many of the men’s costumes on Giorgio Armani’s archives from the 1990s. I also enjoyed her costumes for the female cast members, especially those for actress Margot Robbie. Long-time Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker took a movie with a four-hour running time and managed to trim it into a movie one-minute short of three hours. She did an excellent job, although I believe the movie could have benefited with another twenty minutes or so trimmed from its running time. In fact, the extended running time is my one major complaint about the film – especially the sequence that featured Belfort’s downfall.

Other than the frank portrayal of Jordan Belfort’s career as a stockbroker and the financial world of the 1990s and Martin Scorsese’s excellent direction, the one other major asset of “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” was its talented cast. Once again, the man of the hour is Leonardo Di Caprio, who gives one of the best performances of his career as the charismatic and corrupt Jordan Belfort. When I say it is one of his performances, I damn well mean it. Not only did he give an excellent performance throughout the movie, he gave one of the funniest and probably the best acting moment during the entire year of 2013 – namely a sequence in which Belfort, high on Quaaludes, struggle to get into his car and drive home in order to prevent his partner Donnie Azoff from revealing too much during a telephone conversation bugged by the F.B.I. My God! It was hilarious.

Portraying Donnie Azoff (who is based on Danny Porush) was comedy actor Jonah Hill, who proved he could mix both comedy and drama with great ease and hold his own with the talented Di Caprio. His portrayal of Azoff’s forays into excess and egotistical behavior was a marvel to behold. Margot Robbie, who I remembered from the ABC series, “PAN AM”, portrayed Belfort’s second wife, Naomi Lapaglia (based on Nadine Caridi). She really did an excellent job in portraying the sexy, yet very tough Naomi – especially in one difficult scene in which her character had to deal with marital rape before she put an end to their marriage. The always impressive Kyle Chandler portrayed F.B.I. Special Agent Patrick Denham (based on Special Agent Gregory Coleman), the man responsible for Belfort’s arrest. Superficially, Chandler’s Denham seemed like a quiet, straight-laced type whose dogged investigation brings Belfort to his knees. But Winter’s screenplay and Chandler’s subtle performance allows a peek into the possibility that Denham, who had harbored ambitions to become a stock broker, envies the lifestyle that Belfort managed to achieve, despite the corruption that surrounds the latter.

The movie also featured outstanding performances from Jon Bernthal, who portrayed Belfort’s muscle-flexing Quaaludes dealer. I was amazed at how much Bernthal resembled a younger and better-looking Danny Trejo. Joanna Lumley gave a charming performance as Belfort’s British in-law, Aunt Emma. I especially enjoyed one scene in which Belfort asked her to engage in money laundering on his behalf and both ended up wondering about the other’s attraction. Jean Dujardin gave a sly and funny performance as Swiss banker, Jean-Jacques Saurel, whom Belfort used to hide his money from the Federal authorities. The movie also featured solid performances from Cristin Milioti (“The Mother” from “HOW I MET YOUR MOTHER”), Kenneth Choi (from “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER”), P.J. Byrne, Jon Farveau, Rob Reiner (who was especially funny as Belfort’s accountant father), Shea Whigham and Christine Ebersole. But the one supporting performance that really had me rolling with laughter came from Matthew McConaughey, who portrayed Belfort’s L.F. Rothschild boss, Mark Hanna. Despite the scary content of Hanna’s advice, I must admit that McConaughey really did a great job in making the most in what almost proved to be a cameo role.

“THE WOLF OF WALL STREET” proved to be appreciative enough for the Academy of Motion Arts and Pictures to give it several nominations, including Best Picture. And there seemed to be a good number of people who seemed to understand what this movie is really about. But I get the feeling that too many are determined to write off this film as nothing more than a glorification of Jordan Belfort’s excessive lifestyle and corruption. I cannot share this feeling. I believe that Martin Scorsese, Terence Winter and the first-rate cast led by Leonardo Di Caprio gave us a movie that many should view as a cautionary tale. I mean, honestly . . . if I ever consider investing my money in stocks, I will whip out a copy of this film to remind me there are plenty of people like Jordan Belfort in this world – even in reputable investment firms – who would not blink an eye to separate me from my money for their benefit. I once read an article that compared stock investments to casino gambling, to the detriment of the latter. After viewing “THE WOLF OF WALL STREET”, I cannot help but wonder if both means of “gambling” are a lot more similar than we would like to believe.

“THE LINCOLN LAWYER” (2011) Review

“THE LINCOLN LAWYER” (2011) Review

For years I began to wonder if Matthew McConaughey would be stuck in an endless series of mediocre romance comedies and light action thrillers. The last noteworthy movie I had seen him in was the 2008 comedy, “TROPIC THUNDER”. Only, he was not the lead in that film. And the last noteworthy movie in which he was the lead actor was the 2006 drama, “WE ARE MARSHALL” and before that – the 2000 World War II thriller, “U-571”. Then I saw “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” and whatever doubts I had about the future of his career were erased. For now. 

Directed by Brad Furman and based upon Michael Connelly’s 2005 novel, “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” told the story about a successful Los Angeles defense attorney named Mickey Haller, who operates around Los Angeles County out of a Lincoln Town Car, driven by a former client working off his legal fees (hence the title). Haller has spent most of his career defending garden-variety criminals, until he lands the case of his career – a Beverly Hills playboy named Louis Roulet, who also happens to be the son of a real estate mogul named Mary Windsor. Roulet is accused of the brutal beating of a prostitute. At first, Roulet seems to be an innocent who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. But when Haller and his investigator, Frank Levin, discover that the prostitute’s injuries are similar to a past case of his that landed a previous client, Jesus Martinez in prison for murdering a woman, the seemingly straightforward case suddenly develops into a deadly game of survival for Haller.

After watching this movie, it occurred to me that the movie’s title bore very little significance to the actual plot. If anything, the idea that the Mickey Haller operated his law firm from the back seat of his Lincoln Town Car struck me as some kind of plot contrivance that almost seemed like a publicity ploy. Honestly. Both Connelly’s novel and the movie would have been better off with a title that related more closely with the plot. Perhaps I am being a bit of a nitpicker. Yet, before I actually saw “THE LINCOLN LAWYER”, I honestly thought the car would feature as a major plot point for the story. Another problem I had with the movie was that at times, cinematographer Lukas Ettlin utilized in that quick-cut photography that tends to leave me feeling slightly dizzy. And I thought that the story’s conclusion may have been rushed a bit. But despite these mild annoyances, I enjoyed the movie very much.

One, it has become increasingly rare to find a major Hollywood movie set in the Los Angeles. There have been movies set in my hometown. But there are not as many as they used to be. And as an Angeleno, this has been a bone of contention for me. Thankfully, director Brad Furman and cinematographer Lukas Ettlin did a great job in revealing the City of Angels to movie goers without resorting to extremes in its portrayal. Two, Furman made great use of a first-rate cast filled with many whose careers I thought were either over or sliding into oblivion. Most importantly, both Furman and screenwriter John Romano did an excellent job of translating Connelly’s novel to the screen. Okay, I confess that I have never read the novel. Which means that I do not know how faithful Romano’s screenplay was to the novel. But whether the movie was a close adaptation or not, I must admit that it had a damn good story. The best thing I liked about “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” was that Haller’s defense of Roulet transformed into a nightmarish situation in which he found himself in an unwitting game of cat and mouse.

When I said that the cast was first-rate, I was not joking. The supporting cast included excellent performances from the likes of Frances Fisher, who portrayed Roulet’s controlling and over-protective mother; Michael Peña, who portrayed Haller’s former client claiming innocence of murder, while serving time in prison; Laurence Mason as Haller’s observant chauffeur/former client; Michael Paré and Bryan Cranston, who portrayed two hostile but very different L.A.P.D. detectives, John Leguizamo, who portrayed the slightly sleezy bail bondsman responsible for directing Haller to Roulet’s case; and Bob Gunton, who portrayed the Roulet-Windsor family’s obsequious attorney. I believe that the last decent movie that Josh Lucas made was 2006’s “GLORY ROAD”. So, it was great to see him in a first-rate movie in which, once again, he proved how much of a chameleon he could be in his portrayal of the righteous prosecuting attorney, whose self-assurance is slowly whittled away. William H. Macy created a strong screen chemisty as Haller’s intelligent and witty investigator, who helps solve the case. And Marisa Tomei gave a strong performance as Haller’s ex-wife and a prosecutor who is torn between relief that she is no longer married to such a difficult man and lingering feelings for him.

But the two star performances came from Matthew McConaughey in the title role of Mickey Haller; and Ryan Phillippe as his latest client, Louis Roulet. McConaughey, who has spent too many years without a first rate leading role, owned this movie. Let me take that back. He did not completely own the movie, but he definitely made the Mickey Haller character his own. Hell, he practically conquered it. Sure, McConaughey utilized his usual brand of Southern charm in the movie’s first ten or fifteen minutes. But as the movie’s plot made a sharp turn, the actor dropped the charming façade and revealed his character’s range of emotions in dealing with his complicated new client. And speaking of the Louis Roulet character, I believe that it might turn out to be one of Ryan Phillippe’s best roles ever. Due to his superb performance, he transformed Roulet from a charming, yet bewildered client that projected an air of innocence to a dark and malignant man with a talent for manipulation.

Would I recommend that you see “THE LINCOLN LAWYER” before it disappears from the movie theaters? Absolutely. Thanks to director Brad Furman and screenwriter John Romano, the movie turned out to be a superb adaptation of Michael Connelly’s novel. And the movie was also blessed with a first-rate cast, led by outstanding performances from Matthew McConaughey and Ryan Phillippe. It is one of the better movies I have seen this year so far.

“TROPIC THUNDER” (2008) Review

”TROPIC THUNDER” (2008) Review

While playing a small part in Steven Spielberg’s World War II drama, ”EMPIRE OF THE SUN” (which ironically starred a young Christian Bale), actor/comedian Ben Stiller had come up with the idea of a group of prima donna actors filming a Vietnam War film. Over twenty years later, Stiller’s idea came to fruition in the action comedy movie, ”TROPIC THUNDER”.

Stiller and fellow co-writers, Justin Theroux and Etan Cohen, created a hilarious and very original story that began with a series of fake commercials and movie trailers. The commercials featured rap singer Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) promoting his “Booty Sweat” energy drink and “Bust-A-Nut” candy bar. Then the movie continued with a series of movie trailers that included action star Tugg Speedman’s (Stiller) latest film, “Scorcher VI: Global Meltdown”; and another for low-brow comedian Jeff Portnoy’s (Jack Black) film, “The Fatties: Fart 2” that spoofed Eddie Murphy’s portrayal of multiple characters such as in “NUTTY PROFESSOR II: THE KLUMPS”. But the final trailer – and the funniest in the bunch – featured award winning Australian actor Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downy, Jr.) and Tobey Maguire as two gay medieval monks in a parody of films like “BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN” called ”Satan’s Alley”.

But the meat of the story featured the three actors, the rap singer and character actor Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel) as co-stars in ”Tropic Thunder”, a movie adaptation of the memoirs of a disabled Vietnam War veteran named “Four Leaf” Tayback (Nick Nolte). The movie’s production is spiraling out of control and rookie director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan) seemed unable to handle the prima donnas or keep the movie on schedule. Cockburn is ordered by studio executive Les Grossman (Tom Cruise) to get the production back on track or risk having it shut down. With inspiration from Tayback, Cockburn drops the spoiled actors into the middle of the jungle, where he installs hidden cameras and special effect explosions rigged by pyrotechnics man Cody (Danny R. McBride) so he can film the movie “guerrilla-style”. The actors have only a map and a scene listing to guide them to the helicopter waiting at the end of the jungle. Shortly afterward, the director is blown up by a land mine left by the French, but thanks to his preceding diatribe, only Lazarus realizes his death was real. Even worse, the actors ended up in the middle of the Golden Triangle, the home of the heroin-producing Flaming Dragon gang, led by a young boy named Tran (Brandon Soo Hoo). And Cody and Tayback end up as prisoners of the Dragons. As for Tran and the Dragons, they believe the actors to be DEA agents.

”TROPIC THUNDER” not only struck me as a parody of the Hollywood movie industry, but also a parody of the lengths human beings go to create illusions about themselves. Tugg Speedman is a failing action star who had earlier attempted a serious role in order to save his career. I can only assume that ”Tropic Thunder” is his second attempt. Yet, he seemed incapable of facing the possibility of being a has-been and has to depend upon his agent, Rick “Pecker” Peck (Matthew McConaghey) to maintain his ever deflating ego. Jeff Portnoy resorts to drug addiction to deal with the realization that his past success mainly came from his talent from flatulence humor. Lazarus is an Oscar-winning Australian method actor who has a bad habit staying in his role even when the cameras are not rolling. For ”Tropic Thunder”, Lazurus deliberately undertook an operation to change his skin pigmentation in order to portray an African-American sergeant. Naturally, Lazurus’ role produced resentment and anger from Alpa Chino, the rapper trying to break into films. But even Chino is projecting a façade about himself, which his fellow co-stars manage to break through near the end of the film. The only one in the bunch who seemed real is young Sandusky, the drama student who seemed to be the only sane head in the bunch. Yet, despite the fact the film is bursting with Hollywood phonies, the biggest phony turned out to Tayback, who had never seen combat during the Vietnam War or was disabled. Even worse, he had spent the war aboard a Coast Guard garbage scow that never left U.S. waters. He had originally written the book as a tribute to U.S. servicemen.

I have to say that this movie’s cast more than impressed me. Ben Stiller portrayed one of his best roles as Tugg Speedman, a Hollywood veteran struggling to save his career. Yet, his sanity nearly went down the toilet when Tran and the Dragons force him to replay the scenes of his failed drama, ”Simple Jack”. By the time his fellow cast members found him, Speedman had gone by the way of Colonel Kurtz. I must admit that I usually have difficulty finding Jack Black funny. However, I do believe that Jeff Portnoy was probably one of his better roles – hilarious without being over-the-top. I realize that drug addiction is nothing to laugh about, but his and Sandusky’s attempts to help him deal with withdrawal and reject the temptation of the Dragons’ own heroin were rather funny. Nick Nolte and Danny McBride made an amusing comedy team and I especially enjoyed their interaction when Cody discovered that Tayback is not a Vietnam veteran, but a phony. Matthew McConaghey did one of his best roles as Speedman’s always eager agent, Rick Peck. And Tom Cruise must have had a blast portraying the arrogant and overbearing film producer, Les Grossman. He was hilarious. A member of my family was surprised to discover that the balding, foul-mouthed man was actually Cruise.

Most critics have lauded Robert Downey Jr.’s performance as the method actor Lazurus, who spends most of the movie trying to act like an African American. RDJ was hilarious. In fact, I can honestly say that he was the funniest member of the cast. His most hilarious moment came on the heels of an argument between Lazurus and Chino, when he breaks into a litany about the black man’s 400 years of oppression (damn, has it been that long?) and Chino’s use of the “n” word that ended with him singing the theme to television series, ”THE JEFFERSONS”. It took me nearly five minutes to recover from my laughter. But Downey’s take on Kirk Lazurus could have ended in disaster without the presence of Brandon T. Jackson. His Chino not only expressed anger at Lazurus’ portrayal of a black man, but provided some pretty sharp zingers at the actor’s ego and sanity. Another funny scene featured Chino’s insults about Lazurus’ Australian background. What made the scene so humorous were Lazurus’ protests against Chino’s insults, while maintaining his charade as a black man. Weird.

I believe that Ben Stiller should be proud of ”TROPIC THUNDER”. Not only did he give an excellent performance, he also co-wrote and directed what I believe should become a comedy classic. That’s right. A comedy classic. ”TROPIC THUNDER” is one of the best comedies I have seen in years – along with the British action comedy, ”HOT FUZZ”. I also feel that it is Stiller’s best movie since the police parody, ”STARSKY AND HUTCH”. Hell, it is better than the 2003 movie he had co-starred with Owen Wilson. The cast was superb. So was Jon Toll’s photography of the island of Kauai, which stood as both Vietnam and Cambodia. Stiller, Theroux and Cohen had created one hell of a comedy.