Strange family: A critical review of HBO’s “True Detective” season two (2015)

It is no secret that this blog likes “True Detective.” The first season still stands, in my opinion, as one of the finest uses of the medium of television. Despite the fact that I no longer subscribed to HBO, I was looking forward with great expectations for the second season in a way that I hadn’t been looking forward to television other than (the recently departed) “Hannibal.” So when the reports started coming in that the show was lackluster, and that behind the scene showrunner Nick Pizzolatto was kind of an ass, I was disappointed, but still looking forward to judging for myself. With expectations adjusted, I got around to watching the show and was pleasantly surprised. It still ranks as one of the best products of 2015–certainly the best of the recent spate of LA TV thrillers. Was the second season as good as the first? No. Was it bad? Far from it. The first season was pure gold; the second was merely mirror-polished silver.

I understand some of the criticism. The second season suffers in part because it lacks the unifying hand of a single director (remember, all the episodes of seasons one were directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga). Regardless, we get some fascinating sequences, like the Lynchian opening to episode three, “Maybe Tomorrow”–photographed in dream-like parallels and sporting perfect music selection by T Bone Burnett. Episode four, “Down Will Come,” contains a tense, sprawling shootout with standard action cinematography that is quite different–but still effective–from season one’s infamous single camera shot in episode four.

Much was also made of the cast, and much of it was mixed. Bigger and more diverse–three angry white men, and one angry white woman, instead of the previous two; one closeted gay instead of the previous zero–to grapple with Pizzolatto’s more labyrinthine story (Pizzolatto occasionally shares writing credit with Scott Lasser and script coordinator Amanda Overton) of grotesque murders and local corruption. Everybody picked a favorite. Mine was Farrell, as corrupt cop Ray Velcoro, whose grotesque facial hair, preference for bolo ties and quips straight out of classic detective television (“I ain’t exactly Columbo”) may make him seem like a bit of an anachronism, a scenery sweating slice of the 1970s. But Ferrell plays him with such a world weariness–the man looks physically exhausted, genuinely weighed down from a lifetime of conspiracy–that he transcends believability to become something more. There are shades of the out-of-place, unstuck-in-time Bates family in “Bates Motel” about him, which adds to the mystique of both the character and the show.

Vince Vaughn is, well, Vince Vaughn. As mobster-about-town Frank Semyon he handles the physical stuff pretty well, actually, perhaps given his years in broad comedy. But when it comes to the character’s frequent monologues, Vaughn resorts to a kind of “serious actor voice,” which ranges from suitable to silly depending on the length and content of the speech (it should go without saying that the shorter the better; Vaughn delivers grim one-liners with deadpan ease, but longer meditations on rats and water stains fall flat). The majority of the sympathy for his character is actually drawn from Kelly Reilly, as his long-suffering wife, who beautifully rounds out what could have been a minor part in the hands of a lesser actress. Reilly treats her like a human being, and we have no choice but to treat her likewise.

A special note must also be made of the supporting cast, particularly of the corrupt members of the city of Vinci’s government. Ritchie Coster is delightful as a thoroughly sleazy mayor, Afemo Milami an excellent foil as a surprisingly stony police chief, and James Frain as a police bureaucrat whose allegiances are constantly shifting is…well, he’s James Frain, isn’t he? The man excels as pretty much any villain he plays.

“Detective’s” second season is at its core about families. Velcoro wants to reconnect with his (supposed) son; the Semyons want a child; highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) is having a child, whether he wants one or not, and struggles to connect with his girlfriend and mother; and (the delightfully named) county sheriff Antigone Bezzeerides (Rachel McAdams) butchers her way through a relationship with her father and sister. Even the cryptic solution to the mystery is a family affair. Combined with the unquestionable sense of fatalism (“We get the world that we deserve”), the show seems to run opposite the popular modern doctrine that we create the family we end up with. Not so fast, “Detective” says. Family is not who you decide to put up with; it’s who you have to put up with. The city of Vinci itself seems like the unwanted child of both Los Angeles and Ventura counties, and, like a bad seed, it’s picked up the worst traits of both: remote and industrial, shadowy and corrupt. But Vinci’s parents cannot abandon it any more than the ocean can abandon the tide, and law enforcement from Los Angeles county and the state of California struggle to help their spawn. Does it work? Well, the southland has always been noir country. I’ll let you figure it out.

“True Detective’s” statement on familial fatalism is certainly something to chew on. But in a modern world, where freedom of choice is the topic of choice, the show’s downbeat message seems to have failed to captivate viewers. But that’s the way it goes, I guess. In the end, we get the television that we deserve.

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Not quite the dawning of the age: A critical review of NBC’s “Aquarius” (2015)

Take one classic Los Angeles crime, throw in a bunch of multi-layered stories with flawed characters, add a touch of indictment of the era, and voila, you have James Ellroy’s “The Black Dahlia.” You also have NBC’s “Aquarius,” a show that attempts to follow in maestro Ellroy’s gritty footsteps. “Aquarius” attracted some attention last year in part because, along with airing regularly on television, the program was made entirely available for streaming through reputable NBC sources, a kind of network experiment in binge watching. Luckily, there was more to the show than that, although it took a while to find it. “Aquarius” is one of those shows that seems to get better the longer it goes on (although not as “better” as Amazon’s Phillip K. Dick adaptation of “Man in the High Castle” got).

“Aquarius” follows old fashioned LAPD Detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny, who you might have heard of) as he tracks down the soon-to-be-infamous murderer and quasi-cult leader Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony) in the radically changing social landscape of the late 1960s. There are actually about 20 different plots going on: Hodiak is not tracking down Manson so much as he’s trying to find the daughter of an old flame who’s gone missing on Manson’s ranch; his partner, undercover cop Brian Shafe (Grey Damon), is trying to infiltrate a local drug gang; Manson himself is trying to infiltrate the music industry, all while working out his own, numerous, personal demons. Historical spoiler alert: he doesn’t work them out well.

There’s a lot to “meh” about with “Aquarius.” The writing is ambitious, but it’s not great; the photography is fine, but it’s not imaginative (although I rather liked the POV shots in an episode where Hodiak is unknowingly given LSD). Casting is a bit of an issue because three of the main characters look almost the same. The casting director must have really had a thing for skinny brunette white guys with close cropped beards, as Damon (who plays a main character), Jason Ralph (who plays newly recruited stool pigeon Mike Vickery) and Anthony (whose Manson is kind of the villain of the piece) all look somewhat similar. Look, if you’re going to set something in 1969, all the guys can’t beard around like it’s 2009. No one had fair and even Millenial stubble in the 60s.

It raises the question: Why set a modern show in an earlier era to begin with? Presumably it’s to find a somewhat universal theme, something that applies to both the previous and contemporary era and can be used to shed light on current and future affairs. For “Aquarius,” the 1960s are seen as a safe space to examine civil rights issues–race and gender and the like. This examining is fairly light, which says less about the issues and more about the characters, who are simply not that engaging. Anthony tries to chew the scenery as Manson, but he’s got an underbite; Damon tries to look moody and thoughtful as undercover officer Shafe, but he just reminds me of Max Thieriot in “Bates Motel”–what is supposed to be introspective and serious and whatnot just looks uncomfortable.

Hodiak is the most interesting character–a hard drinking, slightly corrupt, bullying yet well meaning bully cop who feels the old world slipping out of his grasp. It’s clichéd perhaps, but clichés exist because, on some level, they work. Hodiak navigates the brave new waters of the 1960s with dogged unease, meeting with other strangers in this strange land as if they were equals: the head of the local chapter of the Black Panthers (Gaius Charles, who is quite fun to watch), his son, a dyed in the wool anarchist to Hodiak’s war vet, and, in one particular episode, a detective who’s passing as Irish but about to be outted as Hispanic. Hodiak certainly feels more authentic than Shafe, whose marriage to an African-American feels oddly apologist. (A quick check on IMDb indicates that Milauna Jackson, as Kristin Shafe, appears in more episodes than her undercover husband. You could have fooled me).

Basically, if you like the era and you like Duchovny, feel free to give “Aquarius” a spin. You might have to give it some time as well, which is not something that last year’s audience felt compelled to do. “Aquairus” at least has a better understanding of its era than some other recent LA period cop shows; it just needed a more compelling entry point. Luckily, it seems to have found one in Hodiak’s character. Whether or not it can hold onto that entry point only time, and the summer 2016 lineup, will tell.

The way of all flesh: A critical review of “Self/less” (2015)

What I like about Ben Kingsley is what all right thinking people like about Ben Kingsley: that he’ll be in your movie no matter what it is. He is the only actor to date who won an Oscar for portraying Gandhi and has been the supernatural super villain in two lackluster video game adaptations, a distinction he will probably hold for a long time. Why does he do it? Are more artistically satisfying roles harder to come by? Is he chasing the almighty dollar? Or could it be that he just loves to work and honestly will act in anything? So imagine my delight when I saw the cover art for “Self/less,” a big budget thriller with sci fi undertones, featuring Mr. Kingsley’s Academy-worthy face.

Ladies and gentlemen, I was lied to.

“Self/less” is an overlong and disappointingly mundane film that features Ben Kingsley for about 12 minutes before shifting over to Ryan Reynolds. Kingsley plays Damian Hale, a wealthy old man who is dying of cancer and agrees to undergo a shady procedure to place his personality into a younger body–that of Reynolds (oddly enough, not dissimilar from the setup for Reynold’s recent superhero vehicle “Deadpool”). Naturally enough, the procedure isn’t quite what he expected, as memories from the body’s original inhabitant begin to leak through, giving him headaches, hallucinations and guilt trips. He goes on a journey to find said original inhabitant’s wife and child, karate chopping agents of the cryptic doctor who performed the operation along the way and flipping over a few cars for good measure.

“Self/less” sports a classic sci fi premise (if it were about 90 minutes shorter, it could have been an interesting episode of “The Twilight Zone”), and it’s handsomely photographed by cinematographer Brendan Galvin, although director Tarsem Singh (“Immortals”) seldom holds a shot for more than a few seconds; it’s most annoyingly noticeable in a vid-clip montage of Hale having fun in Reynolds’s body during the first act of the film (the editing was by Robert Duffy, who is, like Galvin, a frequent collaborator with Singh). However, the acting is never above average–Matthew Goode, who was so delightful in “Stoker,” is locked into an unimaginative role as the mad scientist–and the script, by the brothers Alex and David Pastor, is almost always below average.

What is fascinating about “Self/less” is what actually could have been fascinating about “Self/less.” The film takes an unflinchingly materialist–with nary a shred of dualism–understanding of human identity. Bodies are biological machines that house personality, which can hang around like snot on a tissue. It’s not a bad comparison, because the solution to an old personality clinging to its biology is to take pills–identity is a disease, and its symptoms can be fixed with medication. A script that makes such a bold statement must surely touch on some big issues, right? Nope, says “Self/less,” that’s not what I’m about.

See, “Self/less” could have been a more thoughtful film, raising questions and allowing us the room to ponder the answers. But “Self/less” wants to do something else. Throughout the entire film, there’s the unnerving sense that it wants to teach us something about being selfless (get it? Haw). Hale is, apparently, a mean old man, and he needs to learn to…I’m not sure, actually. Make way for the young? Connect with his family? Because none of the characters are all that fleshed out, I really don’t care who ends up with Reynolds’s inoffensive body and attempting-to-be-serious face. Maybe that’s the danger of not only having too many characters in one plot but of having too many characters in one character.

If you’re not going to ask big questions or give straight answers, there’s always the possibility that you can have some straightforward, but still intelligent, genre fun. Don’t hold your breath. Given the intensity of Hale’s hallucinations when the old memories start to get to him, there was an interesting opportunity for some Philip K. Dickery about reality and perception, but that never materializes either. Oh well. The highlight of the film is watching someone get torched, by accident, with a flamethrower. It’s possible to find something to love in even the most disappointing of experiences, I suppose.