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Column Fri Mar 18 2011
The Lincoln Lawyer
For all his bad romantic-comedy attempts or just bad movies (hello, Tiptoes), I still find Matthew McConaughey an actor worth supporting. When he gets his teeth into a character in films like Dazed and Confused, Lone Star, A Time to Kill, The Newton Boys, Frailty, We Are Marshall, and Tropic Thunder, he's kind of unstoppable. And for a guy who is so well known for showing his shirtless torso in every damn movie, what has always fascinated me about his approach to acting is what he's capable of doing with his face. He can go from seduction mode, concern, fear, and intimidation all with a few tilts of the eyebrows or slight adjustments in how much teeth he shows--not that I've ever freeze-framed his face repeatedly watching The Wedding Planner or anything creepy like that. Heh. But as L.A. attorney Mick Haller in The Lincoln Lawyer, McConaughey gets to use all of his acting prowess, and the result is probably the best purely dramatic role he's every played.
The film's title does not refer to a lawyer who worked for Abraham Lincoln or one that is employed in Lincoln, Nebraska. No, the Lincoln in question is a Continental sedan, where defense attorney Haller keeps all of his files, has a fax machine, and is driven from courtrooms to police stations to law offices, defending his clients, most of whom we're pretty sure are guilty as sin. But Haller is really good at it, and as a result, he has a well-deserved bad reputation around town. When a bail bondsman (a wonderfully twitchy John Leguizamo) recommends Haller to a wealthy, arrested suspect who needs some local help getting out of jail while his family attorney makes his way to court, Haller manages to convince the family's attorney to let him defend the rich Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) in court. Initially, the evidence looks good for his client, but soon Haller's private detective (William H. Macy) begins finding out facts that seem to indicate not only Roulet's guilt but also a pattern of bad behavior.
Before long, The Lincoln Lawyer (based on the novel by Michael Connelly, adapted by John Romano) becomes a back-and-forth game between two men, both of whom think they are smarter than the other. As much as I enjoyed watching Phillippe play a nasty guy, McConaughy basically owns this movie. Marisa Tomei is very good as his ex-wife, who still likes getting drinks and occasionally sleeping with him; Frances Fisher is great as Roulet's stone-cold mother. And credit should be given to Josh Lucas, Bryan Cranston, and Michael Pena, playing three less flashy roles, but still doing solid work.
Director Brad Furman (showing a lot more promise than he did with his first feature The Take) takes us through a fairly complicated story and manages to make most of what happens exist in the mostly real world. There are very few outrageous or unbelievable moments in or out of the courtroom, and that was a welcome relief. A lot of times courtroom scenes in movies are about as convincing as filmed magic tricks. If we know everything is scripted or prepared ahead of time, it hardly seems that impressive. But The Lincoln Lawyer's courtroom scenes are really enjoyable, and it's a riot watching Haller manipulate everyone around him, even if it looks like his case is in danger at points.
As I said, this is the McConaughy that I've always liked, but I also appreciate that he isn't afraid to look a bit older in this film. The wrinkles on his face seem deliberately enhanced; his hair looks a bit thinner, maybe even graying; and he appear sweaty a lot, which makes sense for an L.A. lawyer, but it also emphasizes his undercurrent of sleaziness. It's a great character, and I never doubted McConaughy in this part for a second. It seems legal dramas of late have all been relegated to television, so it was great to see some worthy big-screen lawyering this time around. The Lincoln Lawyer is a success because it gives each character at least one memorable trait that helps raise them above the cliches you see on TV, and because its leading actor gives a stratospheric performance as a deeply flawed but infinitely confident man. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by how great this movie is.
If people feel the new film starring and written by Simon Pegg and Nick Frost falls short in any way, it's likely because the pair (along with their directing and writing cohort Edgar Wright, who has nothing to do with this film) have set the bar so high with Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and their British television series "Spaced" that anything that doesn't hit the near-perfection level of those films may come across as a disappointment. (It doesn't help that the trailer is horrible.) In the hands of director Greg Mottola (Superbad, Adventureland) Paul is, by no means, a disappointment, but it may not be exactly what people expect it to be either. The most important thing to understand going in is that Paul is not a parody of alien films. It's a tribute to some of those films, sure, but more than anything Paul is a love letter to the works of Steven Spielberg--and not just Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. It's also a road movie and a buddy movie meant to downplay the fact that one of the three buddies is an entirely computer-generated alien voiced by Seth Rogen.
For the first time together starring in a film set in the United States, Pegg and Frost play Graeme and Clive, a pair of British geeks who decide to attend Comic-Con in San Diego and then drive an RV through the American southwest and tour reputed alien hotspots like Area 51. While driving, they stumble upon a recent car wreck that has resulted in the escape of an alien named Paul, who has been living (quite comfortably) for 60 years on a secret military compound. Paul believes the military is essentially done finding him a useful source of information and that all they want from him now is a map of his internal organs. Reluctantly, the Brits allow him to stow away on their RV as they begin their journey to take Paul to a place where he can be picked up by his fellow aliens and taken home. Naturally, the military and government aren't quite willing to give Paul up that easily, and a surprisingly perilous pursuit ensues.
While the movie has some very funny moments that combine stoner humor, movie references, casting choices, and visual gags that pay homage to classic science fiction, Paul works best when it settles in with its three leads and lets them talk to each other. Even in comedies, but certainly in horror and science fiction works, there is a great power to the lost art of conversation. Developing characters in genre films seems like some mythological creature that an entire generation of young moviegoers has essentially never gotten to experience. How would Close Encounters have been accepted today by audiences used to getting regularly paced money shots? Would they have tolerated waiting to see the mothership only at the very end of the film? I'm not comparing Paul to Close Encounters, but my point is that there are fun and fascinating conversations scattered throughout Paul. There are also car chases, explosions, and fun special effects, but simply listening to voices made me the happiest while watching this film.
There's a scene in a trailer park, where Graeme, Clive, and Paul are grilling sausages, and it's such a great late-'60s, early-'70s moment of men just sitting around a fire talking, being funny, and not dealing with plot in the slightest. I love the stories Paul tells about his influence on pop culture, movies, and all things alien. According to him, the reason images of an alien with big, tilted eyes and roundish head (much like Paul) have become the accepted look among humans is because the government deliberately put an image of Paul out there, so if he ever was spotted, people would either think he was fake or wouldn't be shocked by his appearance. Paul has also consulted on movies, apparently, and I won't ruin the joke about that, but it's the film's most inspired moment.
While in the trailer park, the boys kinda-sorta inadvertently kidnap Ruth (Kristen Wiig), a bible thumping woman who lives with her father and believes the earth is only a few thousand years old. The idea of meeting an alien is almost more than she can handle. And while the character is great and Wiig makes her greater, Ruth is also unnecessary. Other than as a potential love interest for Graeme, she doesn't really add anything to the story beyond a few very funny moments.
Paul is loaded with great comic actors in both sizable parts and extended cameos. Jason Bateman, Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio are agents from the base in hot pursuit of Paul and those in the RV who are harboring him. It becomes clear after a while that Hader and Lo Truglio are different brands of psychotic, and are intent on doing a lot of killing in order to get their alien back. Bateman's Agent Zoil is a bit more properly fleshed out. He's being pushed by his largely unseen boss (referred to as The Big Guy and voiced by a person long associated with aliens) to use every means, including deadly force, to complete his mission. The film also features the likes of Jane Lynch, David Koechner, John Carroll Lynch, and a nice, unexpected third-act appearance by Blythe Danner.
And speaking of that third act, I found it kind of wonderful that the chase-heavy scenes in this section of the film seemed to mirror a lot of what happens in Sugarland Express and Duel-- two pre-Jaws Speilberg films that many of his fans, including this one, hold very dear. Thanks largely to the great respect and knowledge that Pegg, Frost, and certainly Mottola have and hold for these works, the resulting film has a sweet innocence and charm that I was not expecting. Yes, Paul also has action, special effects, and alien probe jokes, but I was pulled in my its slightly more subtle elements, and I think you will be too. There are some extremely smart observations about science fiction and its devoted followers, as well as some surface jabs at easy, slow-moving targets. But overall, I had a great time watching Paul because there is a degree of character emphasis that I wasn't expecting. I think it saves the movie, actually, and separates it from other recent R-rated comedies.
Director Neil Burger made one of my favorite debut films in the last 10 years, Interview with the Assassin. Find it and watch it-- it will freak you out and impress you greatly. After close-but-no-cigar attempts at telling stories that certainly no one else was telling at the time (The Illusionist and The Lucky Ones), Burger has finally made a film that I found came the closest to capturing what he accomplished with Assassin. From the novel by Alan Glynn, adapted by Leslie Dixon, Limitless captures that great sense of paranoia and tension that populated Burger's first movie, this time in the form of a world where a drug allows people to maximize the power of their brain to such a degree that there is literally nothing they can't do in terms of learning and thinking.
Bradley Cooper (also listed as an executive producer on the film) plays struggling writer Eddie Morra, a divorced man, who has a looming deadline with his publisher and not a word written on his novel. When he bumps into his drug-dealer ex-brother-in-law, he is given a pill called NZT and before he knows it, he's banging out the first several chapters of his book and knows exactly how to read people enough to impress/seduce them without even trying. By unlocking your brain's potential, every stray memory of everything you have ever heard or seen is at your fingertips. But the effects only last about a day, and once the ability is gone, it's gone-- until you take another pill.
Through a turn I don't want to ruin, Eddie gets his hands on several hundred pills, enough to finish his book, learn a language a day, and analyze stock market trends to see the patterns and make himself a nice chunk of change. His Wall Street dealings attract the attention of Carl Van Loom (Robert De Niro), one of the most powerful businessmen in the world, who asks Eddie to help him research and bargain what could be the biggest deal ever. Eddie is also trying to win back his ex-girlfriend (Abbie Cornish), who left him back during his bout with writer's block.
I especially enjoyed the scenes with Cooper in gross-dude mode, with shaggy hair and ratty clothes. I feel like recently I've seen a bit too much of him in variations of his cool-guy look that he had in The Hangover. But the transformation is fairly convincing in Limitless. The paranoia aspect comes in as both a side effect of the drug and from very real sources, like a loan shark that wants to kill Eddie for not paying him back or Van Loon checking up on Eddie's background. It's also very possible that during Eddie's increasing blackouts, he murdered someone, so there are police looking for him. The swirling mess of Eddie's life is great stuff.
I've never been quite sure what to think of Cooper as an actor. But I'm also not sure he's been challenged quite like he is in Limitless, and this film perhaps tests his abilities more so than he's been tested before. I'm not sure Cornish--looking more than ever like a young Nicole Kidman--gets a fair shot at really being more than a pretty face in this movie, but she does get one juicy sequence where she gets to pop a smart pill and outwit some baddies out to get her. With only three or four scenes in the movie, De Niro plays Van Loon as an intimidating force without being overtly threatening. It's a great, restrained part that is still downright scary at times. Cooper and De Niro have a confrontation scene at the end of the movie that is so perfect, it's by far the best scene in the film.
Where Limitless falls down somewhat has nothing to do with performance or story; it has to do with Burger's standard flaw: over-explaining everything. There's nothing left to chance. Even the dumbest audience member is going to understand every twist and turn in the movie, if Burger has his way. No viewer left behind. There are a couple of scenes where it gets downright annoying. And this isn't a little, dismissible thing in my mind; it's a near-fatal flaw at times that really keeps me from being fully behind this film. Still, the good outweighs the bad in Limitless, and I am recommending it for the solid performances and a story that kept me guessing just where the hell it was going. There are some great revelation moments in the movie concerning just how wide spread the NZT epidemic is, and for those moments in particular, I give the movie points. All in all, I had a great deal of fun with this one, even if I felt like Burger was pushing a little too hard at times.
I'm a massive fan of the 1943 film version of Charlotte Bronte's fine piece of melodrama, Jane Eyre, starring Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles. There's kind of nothing like it, except there have been more than 20 versions of the story, shot for either television or the big screen, over the years, including this latest adaptation from the unlikely director, Cary Joji Fukunaga (who helmed the phenomenal Sin Nombre a couple years back). Wonderfully, Fukunaga has chosen to transform (without actually making that many changes to the story other than the chronology) this tale into a dark, haunting work that emphasizes the more tense and outright scary moments. There were more than a few moments where I felt I was watching a period horror film that actually made me jump. How can a story in which one of the major characters is an insane woman locked in the attic not be a horror film or sorts?
Mia Wasikowska (Alice In Wonderland, The Kids Are All Right) plays Jane, who opens the film running for her life across perilous cliffs until she stumbles upon a young clergyman, St. John Rivers (Jaime Bell), and his two sisters. After Jane recuperates, she tells them the story of what led to her meeting them, beginning with her terrible raising by a cruel aunt, Mrs. Reed (Sally Hawkins), and eventual banishment to a strict boarding school to becoming a nanny for a young girl under the care of one Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbinder of Inglourious Basterds, Centurion, Hunger fame). Rochester is an off-putting man, who still manages to make Jane feel week at the knees, despite the fact that she refuses to cow tow to or be intimidated by him. This stubborn pair are, in fact, the perfect match...except for that slight problem in the attic.
Also flittering about the films is Judi Dench as the housekeeper, Mrs. Fairfax, who has been portrayed as more of a nemesis to Jane in other adaptations, but here, she is more of a mentor, and the change is welcome. But it's Wasikowska and Fassbender who rip this movie to shreds with their great acting and weird chemistry. Jane's tightly braided hair and confining clothes are perfectly designed to present us with a template of the repressed woman, and the attitude that emanates from Wasikowska is that of a survivor who is done being held down.
Fassbender's Rochester is flat-out, wide-eyed nuts at times, but he makes him highly engaging, occasionally charming and always handsome. He can also be a complete bastard. He's all of these things and more, and I'm guessing each audience member is going to focus on one or two different personality traits that they like and/or dislike and let that determine whether they like the character or not. And that seems pretty fair.
I was so greatly impressed with this version of Jane Eyre that I couldn't wait for characters who leave the screen for a time to return. The screenplay by Moira Buffini is sharp, clear, and emphasizes the strong qualities in each of its characters. The direction is strong and confident, the acting is superb, and the reworked story remains perfection. There are a lot of strong movies out this week, but this might be the best out there. Jane Eyre opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.