Thoughts on The Wolf of Wall Street

Some thoughts on The Wolf of Wall Street (spoilers ahead I think).

Wolf of Wall Street Poster

Finally got through Wolf of Wall Street. It took me three sittings of start and stop sessions. It was overall an entertaining film to watch and as a huge Scorcese fan, I think it is on par with his post-De Niro catalogue.

Before watching the film, I had tried to not read to much of what people were saying about the film. It was a bit difficult though to not catch the buzzing of backlash on the film when it initially came out. The thing that seemed to be coming across my feed most of all was critique like the LA Weekly article “An Open Letter To The Makers of Wolf of Wallstreet and the Wolf Himself.” The general tenor of these criticisms being that the film glorified the world of boiler room shyster traders and the male-dominated hedonistic misogyny. I can understand how some viewers might feel this way about the film. It’s hard to disagree that this world is not made to look sexy when you have Leo DiCaprio surrounded by cocaine, qualudes and a plethora of naked women. But I actually had the exact opposite criticism of the film.

Despite amazing performances and masterful direction, I felt like the movie was overly judgmental of its subject. Not that I think anyone wants to make a movie that defends these people, but there was nothing conflicted or nuanced about these characters. The film set out to expose these types of characters as the shitheads they are. But did anyone ever think these people were anything but shitheads to begin with? It’s only by the technique (the aforementioned artistry of the actors, director, etc) and not the actual story that I felt compelled to watch the film. It is also why I think it took me three sessions to get through. I never felt bored by the film and there are definitely some very memorable scenes (e.g. Lemmons) but as easy as it was to watch the film, it was equally as easy for me to take a pause when it was getting late.

Goodfellas PosterI had read the script before watching the film and to see how Scorcese transformed what was pretty much a mediocre script into a collection of very compelling scenes proved to me that my love of him as a master filmmaker is not unwarranted. As I read the script, I could see where the comparison to Goodfellas was being drawn. But the key element of Goodfellas, the alchemy of that story, the reason I will stand by my opinion that that film was his masterpiece (yes, even better than King of Comedy), that one piece of the puzzle that is so important to Goodfellas’ success was completely absent from Wolf of Wall Street. That element is a soul.

There was something in the way Scorcese told the story of Henry Hill in Goodfellas that showed that he deeply loved these characters. As damaged or depraved as they were, he held them deep in his heart. It was this love of the characters that made the audience lock into the film. In Wolf of Wall Street, you get a deep sense that Scocese hates these people, you sense that Leo hates Jordan Belfort. I even heard Jonah Hill on Howard Stern last week talking about how when meeting with Scorcese and trying to convince him to cast him, Jonah couched his take on the characters as the people that are what is wrong with America and he felt passionate to help expose this (or something to that effect). Everyone in the movie is wholly unlikeable and mostly because nobody who is making the film actually likes these characters. In fact I’d go so far as to say that everyone who made the movie looks down on these characters and what you end up with is a film that places the audience in that same morally lofty position of being able to easily say, “Oh those financial people are all just evil.” And as predictably as Rocky beating the crap out of Apollo Creed, Clubber Lang, Drago, etc., here too these evil-doers get their due.

Goodfellas StillIn Goodfellas, Henry Hill is a flawed man who is searching for a family, a place to belong in the world. It is his own greed and self-destructive tendencies that bring him down. And it is the deterioration of the family (both his mob family and his actual family in the film) that is so heartbreaking. We root for Henry even when we know he is incapable of making the correct decisions. We hope he will find that place in the world even though we know he does not belong in it. When Jimmy sends Henry’s wife to pick out some dresses next door or asks Henry to take a trip to Miami, it’s nerve-wracking, devastating and so damn riveting because we care, we empathize, we relate to the deep deep flaws of Henry Hill. We as an audience do not condescend to him; we know that we are just as flawed and just as easily swayed by temptation, greed, power. And it is a tragedy to see Henry Hill end up in exile at the end stuck in a suburban purgatory where the marinara is watery ketchup.

In Wolf of Wall Street, there is not a single scene that matches the nuance of emotional depth that Goodfellas has. The two films are only similar in the way Raging Bull and Rocky are similar. In the end, Jordan Belfort is a man motivated by greed and his downfall is that he is motivated by greed and what he loses is a soul he never had… and his money which wasn’t his to begin with.

I Hate All Absolutists (in response to Brian Koppelman’s “Con Men, Gurus, and the Screenwriting Instruction Industrial Complex”)

These are my thoughts after having read Brian Koppelman’s blog post “Con Men, Gurus, and the Screenwriting Instruction Industrial Complex“:
 
Having been on both sides of this argument at different points in my artistic career, I have to say that while Koppelman says some truths, he also seems to be holding too steadfastly to this purist idea of filmmaking as an artistic expression. Unfortunately, film is a business and there is value to understanding the common language of the industry. You would not go into a job in finance and not know what currency you are trading in. It is important to understand how and why you are breaking, bending or ignoring “the rules”.

Having now taught screenwriting, I also have a deeper appreciation for systems like “Save The Cat,” “The Screenwriter’s Bible” and “Story”. Do I believe any of these books will give the secret method to writing the next Citizen Kane? No. But what they do give is a point of reference, a way to relate what one does in their writing to what others have done before them. Without a point of reference from which to base discussions, there is no way to actually constructively engage in critique.

I often told my students that I can not teach the aspect of writing that is alchemy; that is up to the individual artists. But what I can teach is a way for one to approach the material.

For myself, I think much of what Koppelman suggests is stuff I did on instinct in the past. I genuinely liked to tinker with dramatic situations. I voraciously studied movies that were similar to whatever I was working on. I once poo-poo’d all screenwriting theories and books accusing them of creating uninspired homogenized mass art.

But now that I have gotten older, I find that I really appreciate what these screenwriting “gurus” have done. The hardest part about writing is not the actual writing, it is the rewriting. Going back to the thing and saying, “there’s something wrong here” or “something is not as strong as it could be”. What I like about being armed with resources like McKee, Snyder, August, Field, etc. is that it gives me something to poke the first draft with like a stick. Without the stick, I either have to use my finger and risk it being bitten off or just go in blind and mess with things willy-nilly until the piece is fixed but not in any way that I could recreate come the next project or problem.

In short, my response to this piece is that I subscribe to the Bruce Lee Jeet Kune Do school of screenwriting: draw upon whatever is the most useful technique for any given situation. To deny the merits of any one way limits your ability to be successful.

Bad Thoughts ~ Thoughts on the BrBa Finale and the Future of TV

I was inspired to write some thoughts I had on Breaking Bad when I commented on a friend’s post on FB (BTW SPOILERS AHEAD). I realized that I had this blog over here that wasn’t being used and was in need of a jump-start, so I am going to re-post my thoughts here. I am a little rusty with the blogging stuff so I know this is not the most witty or eloquent post I’ve ever written, but I have to re-start somewhere. I promise to try and be more snarky in the future.

Breaking-BadIn a nutshell, this is going to explain why Breaking Bad is a game-changer and why the finale was the best one I can think of in my own television viewing history. It comes down to the dramatic architecture of the show which is unlike any that has been attempted on television before.

Let’s start with the difference between TV and film. The main difference between the dramatic structural design of tv vs film is that film is about a character coming to self-actualization and tv is about characters avoiding self-actualization.

TatooineThat is why in film Neo in Matrix and Luke in Star Wars are completely different from the way they are presented at the beginning of the story, you can’t begin another story with these characters the following week and have them make the same journey again. If The Empire Strikes Back were about Luke having to re-learn trusting the Force, we would be like “wha-?” It is also why The Matrix trilogy failed miserably; the Wachowskis were unable to figure out how to move the story of Neo to the next level properly.

In TV though, in order for a show to continue for indefinite multiple seasons (as networks are wont to do in order to maintain the steady consistent revenue of advertisers), the main character has to remain virtually unchanged. Sam on Cheers is pretty much the same guy at the end of the run as the beginning. The reason why people were disappointed with The Sopranos ending is because Tony didn’t come to any kind of self-actualization but rather became resigned with the fact that he is the same guy that we initially met. That is why one of the worst finales in TV history was Seinfeld, because that show was based on four people who would never come to terms with their own nature and the finale only cemented that by locking them into a cage without any sense of self-actualization.

MASHgoodbyeThis is not to say that shows aren’t able to create finality and sometimes very satisfyingly (M*A*S*H comes to mind) but for the most part the endings don’t feel as complete and resolved as BrBa because BrBa had the end game in mind from the very beginning i.e. Vince Gilligan was moving Walter White towards the moment of complete self-actualization the entire time.

This is why people on the internet are quoting his line to Skylar “I did it for me.” This is that moment of complete self-actualization. It is the kind of moment like Neo finally seeing the Matrix. Or Luke finally trusting the Force.

dexterAnd what makes BrBa a game changer is that it is setting a new mold for storytelling on TV – it made it possible to have a long form arc for a character. In the past, the idea was to create never-ending serial loops about characters that basically re-lived the same story/lessons week-to-week, season-to-season. This is why Dexter was mocked in its last season and derided for its finale. I did not keep up with the show but I know that it is the same story as the first season – a serial killer who kills serial killers. And with each subsequent season from reading online reactions, it seemed to have peaked at the Lithgow season and then steadily began to fade like carbon copies of itself as each season went on.

If you came in to BrBa at season two, could you really say it was about a chemistry teacher who turned to making meth to leave his family a nest egg? In season three was it the same story as season two? No, each season, each episode pushed the character closer and closer to that moment of clarity. By the fifth season, the fact that he was a high school chemistry teacher was hardly relevant to the story at all.

This is why TV is the most exciting medium for filmmakers now. We are now in an age where we no longer have to try to cram the emotional weight of a story into a two-hour feature film; because of BrBa, we can now tell epic stories that span years in order to really explore the depths of a character’s psyche and push the limits of an audiences emotional investment.

deathBy the end of BrBa, I think many of the fans weren’t sure how they felt about Walter White and at multiple times throughout the series probably wavered back and forth on their allegiance to him. And regardless of how the audience felt about the choices Walter White made along the way, they were always compelled by the story and the evolution of the character. That doesn’t happen with Sookie Stackhouse where they need to artificially populate her world with more and more magic to distract you from the lack of emotional growth int he character (same thing happened with Buffy and on Heroes).

What BrBa said to the industry is that if you build a proper story, the audience will be there for the entire journey. LOST came close in achieving this but they were caught between the two philosophies of storytelling and ultimately suffered from trying to serve both (which is impossible because the concept of the perpetual looping episodic narrative is antithetical to the self-contained hero’s journey).

I will miss Breaking Bad but I am hopeful that it has created an opportunity for a very new approach to storytelling on TV. And we will be seeing a lot more like it soon.

4 Wedding Planners (aka Knots) now available on VOD/web.

In case anyone actually is still visiting this blog, I thought I’d add the latest news about my new film “4 Wedding Planners” (aka “Knots“). The film is now available nationwide (and in Canada) on VOD and the web. Taking a virtual vacation to Hawai‘i with our little film is as easy as a mouse click.

CHECK IT OUT AT:

YOUTUBE: http://www.youtube.com/movie/4-wedding-planners?feature=mv_e_shr
AMAZON: http://www.amazon.com/4-Wedding-Planners/dp/B008XFB3LY/ref=sr_1_5?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1344949721&sr=1-5&keywords=4+wedding+planners
XBOX: http://marketplace.xbox.com/en-US/Movie/4-Wedding-Planners/413f3dd0-4c7d-4c94-b66c-d0506e5ea63b

OR CHECK WITH YOUR LOCAL CABLE PROVIDER.

4 WEDDING PLANNERS
a film by Michael Kang
written by Kimberly-Rose Wolter
featuring Kimberly-Rose Wolter, Illeana Douglas, Sung Kang, Janel Parrish and Mia Riverton

Synopsis:

Lily Kim returns to Hawaii in order to escape an engagement trigger-happy boyfriend in LA. Once home, she reluctantly joins her dysfunctional family’s wedding planning business. Her mother and sisters have very different ideas about what marriage means and for Lily it means only one thing – divorce. As the family’s newest wedding planner Lily learns about love, life and floral arrangements.

About The Film:

In the UN-romantic comedy “4 Wedding Planners,” matriarch Miriam (Illeana Douglas) is three times divorced, with one daughter born from each husband. What ensues is a recipe for comical family strife as the daughters finally reach the breaking point of addressing feelings repressed thanks to mom’s poor choices in men.

When eldest daughter Lily (Kimberly-Rose Wolter) rejects her boyfriend’s marriage proposal, she decides to return home to Hawaii for family support. It turns out the family is having troubles of their own — their wedding planning business is being run into the ground by Lily’s two half-sisters Twinny (Mia Riverton) and Hoku (Janel Parrish). It’s left to Lily to get things on the right track. If things couldn’t get worse, Lily’s ex-boyfriend Kai (Sung Kang) enters the picture, as does a surprise reveal that makes reconciliation no easy matter.

With “4 Wedding Planners,” director Michael Kang (The Motel, SDAFF ’05; West 32nd, SDAFF ’07) vibrantly interweaves multiple storylines together in this brisk, delightful film.

Eric Lallana, San Diego Asian Film Foundation

Below is a little essay I wrote about the film. Enjoy:

Why 4 Wedding Planners Is The Edgiest Film I’ve Ever Made
by Michael Kang  
 
If you are familiar with my other films (“The Motel,” “West 32nd”), you probably can surmise that I like to take on stories that have some bite to them. Whether I’m talking about a kid in the throes of puberty stuck in a world surrounded by the clandestine affairs at an hourly rate motel or two men from different worlds both driven by blind raw ambition in the gritty crime underworld of New York’s Koreatown, I never shy away from challenging subjects (both for me and the audience). I’m sure that for most that my moving on to a comedy about a dysfunctional family business of wedding planners in Hawaii may not have seemed like the natural next step. But I want to explain why I think this new film may actually be the edgiest of the trio.
 
I have always been attracted to the stories that I don’t get to see on the big and little screen. When I first got a hold of Kimberly-Rose Wolter’s script, I was immediately struck by how unique the story was. This was a Hawaii I’d never encountered before on screen. It was not centered around a tourist experience where Hawaii was simply used as an exotic backdrop and nice place for the production to spend a couple months a la “50 First Dates.” Nor was the story filled with over-exoticized local flavor like a pupu-platter of heavy-handed pseudo-spirituality and too essoteric to have a decent pop culture reference.   
 
“4 Wedding Planners” is a story about people — real people with real problems. The people in the film are folks that deal with things that we all do – family, relationships, home-life, professional life, and did I mention FAMILY? They struggle the ways we all do, just trying their best to find happiness. But what makes this story unique is they are struggling with these problems in the middle of paradise.
   
And here is why “4 Wedding Planners” is probably the edgiest film I’ve ever made. Spike Lee said that the most controversial thing we can do is be ourselves. That is what lies at the heart of this movie – it dares to show people just being people. The film embraces both its Hawaiian-ness and its universality. By being very culturally specific it in fact becomes more universal.   
 
The film centers the story around the kinds of people who are usually relegated to the sidelines of mainstream stories (if given a place at all). They are also the kinds of characters who put off most indie filmmakers because they are so, well… normal — these are the people those filmmakers are probably desperately trying to hide from in their own lives. I recognized immediately that these were characters I never get to see on screen.
 
I could easily latch on to certain aspects of the race identity politics of the film like: having a story about the Hapa (half-Asian) experience (a minority within a minority). Or having an unconventional Asian American male romantic lead (Sung Kang) who is a fully charged sexual being.  Or having a story that gives a wide swath of representations of women in three dimensions. But if you know my style, I don’t like to get didactic in my storytelling and it would be misleading to tell you I made the movie to lead the charge on any of those fronts. To me, all of the aforementioned were the fruits of putting together a very sweet simple story about unique characters in a unique place.
 
The film is not dark and gritty enough to be a film festival darling. But on the converse, we still shot this film on a shoestring indie-sized budget (in fact the lowest budget I’ve had to work with to date which is only a testament to the great aloha spirit of the cast and crew for pulling off such an ambitious and beautiful film). We don’t have the resources to give the film the Hollywood studio- sized pomp and circumstance it deserves. Regardless, I think there is an audience for this film. I think it is an audience of people that want to be entertained and introduced to new experiences. An audience that is daring and edgy enough to handle a story about wedding planners.  And I hope you are part of that audience.
 
Mahalo.