Sunday, August 07, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: July 22-Aug. 4

The Lincoln Lawyer (2011) ***
Director: Brad Furman
Writers: John Romano, Michael Connelly (novel)
Starring: Matthew McConaughy, Ryan Phillippe, Marisa Tomei, William H. Macy, Josh Lucas, John Leguizamo, Michael Peña, Bob Gunton, Frances Fisher, Bryan Cranston, Trace Adkins, Laurence Mason, Margarita Levieva, Pell James, Shea Whigham, Katherine Moennig, Michael Paré, Michaela Conlin

I think it’s easy to forget how the justice system is supposed to work when all your exposure to it comes from movies and television. In most legal procedurals the audience knows who the guilty party is and the entertainment comes from discovering how and why. We see the guilty and eventually were see them punished (or rarely, they get away with it). In this set up, it’s all about the guilty, sometimes about the innocent, but not really about the relationship of the law to the two. That relationship is really the most important part of how our legal system works.

“The Lincoln Lawyer” is yet another courtroom procedural that places most of its entertainment within the elements that reveal why and how the known guilty party did the crime and (almost) got away with it, but by making its hero a lawyer who makes his living off defending who most decent people would consider people with questionable morality, it also shows us the importance of protecting everyone’s rights. It takes us through the service entrance rather than the front door to get there, and that is one of its most unique and interesting aspects.

Even the more traditional elements of “The Lincoln Lawyer” are very well done. The movie is a vehicle reminding us that Matthew McConaughy isn’t just a pretty hick face, but actually reserves some acting talent for the right role. An astounding supporting cast of talents that remain supporting surrounds him here, never threatening to steal the show. The story doesn’t bother with trying to hide whether his client, played by Ryan Phillippe, is guilty of the murder for which he’s accused. However, I did find it hard to believe that McConaughy’s defense attorney really believed at any point Phillippe wasn’t guilty. Since the movie doesn’t meander at revealing the truth of that question, it never really becomes too much of a plausibility issue.

As legal thrillers go, “The Lincoln Lawyer” shouldn’t disappoint many, and it may actually remind us that there’s a reason you have the legal right to representation no matter how low you might run to scrounge your life. If something is done, it ought to be done right, especially the proof of guilt.

Off and Running (2010) ***
Director: Nicole Opper
Writer: Avery Klein-Cloud
Featuring: Avery Klein-Cloud, Tova Klein, Travis Cloud, Rafi Klein-Cloud, Zay-Zay Klein-Cloud

Having just adopted a child from another culture, I may be more invested in the story of an adoptee’s struggle to define herself than some. I found the story of Avery Klein-Cloud, a black girl adopted by lesbian Jewish mothers, incredibly fascinating. Avery also has two adopted brothers. Rafi is Dominican and older, Zay-Zay, Korean and younger. Avery decides to contact her birth mother. This eventually sends her life into turmoil and threatens to break the once happy multi-cultured family apart.

Nicole Opper’s documentary will certainly interest anyone who has blessed their own family with multi-culturalism through adoption, but it’s a compelling enough story to work on anybody. The details of this family’s life style make it thought provoking. Just how do we define who we are? There are so many things we take for granted simply because they are staples of the environment in which we’re raised. But to find elements about yourself that seem to fit somewhere else, who wouldn’t get confused by how to incorporate this knowledge into what had once seemed second nature?

I did have some problems with the construction of Opper’s documentary. There are many elements of Avery’s life that aren’t explored as fully as they should be. We hear a great deal about family arguments, but we never see any. And, there are few occasions where Opper fills in the gaps with brief title cards when further explanation would illuminate important facets of how Avery gets from point A to point B. But, there’s an energy to the film fueled by the love experienced by this wonderful family that makes technical details carry little weight in the overall enjoyment of learning Avery’s story.

Iron Man 2 (2010) ***
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Justin Theroux
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Don Cheadle, Scartlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke, Samuel L. Jackson, John Slattery, Gary Shandling

I might never have watched “Iron Man 2” a second time were it not so easy to access on a whim via Netflix Instant. I originally liked the movie, but found it a disappointment compared to the first “Iron Man”. I liked it better the second time. It’s a flashy, good-looking action flick with a good flare for comedic quips, thanks to screenwriter Justin Theroux. I noticed those quips were missing in director Jon Favreau’s most recent and much more disappointing movie “Cowboys & Aliens”. With six screenwriters, that one certainly could’ve used some streamlining along with heavy dose of Theroux’s wit.

Read my original review of “Iron Man 2” here.

Read my feature-length review of “Cowboys & Aliens” here.

Conviction (2010) **
Director: Tony Goldwyn
Writer: Pamela Gray
Starring: Hilary Swank, Sam Rockwell, Minnie Driver, Melissa Leo, Peter Gallagher, Juliette Lewis, Clea DuVall, Ari Graynor

For all of the conviction in “Conviction”, it seems to be missing something. It’s based on the true story of a Massachusetts woman who went to law school after her brother was wrongfully convicted of murder so she could get him out. Hillary Swank and Sam Rockwell turn in excellent performances as the siblings. Although their story is told with some depth, it drags.

The events are presented in a very episodic manner. This happened. Then this. Then this. There is very little emotional through line. Perhaps this is because the brother and sister are the only two characters we really get to know. All we get throughout the whole movie is their relationship. Both were married before the conviction. Both had children with their spouses. Both marriages failed. Little is given about those relationships. We know how much they love each other. Typically, we are told her devotion to his case made her inaccessible to her family, but we aren’t shown any of this beyond a missed fishing trip.

I’d like to learn more about these two people, but I already know enough about how devoted they are to each other.

Source Code (2011) ***½
Director: Duncan Jones
Writer: Ben Ripley
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Fermiga, Jeffrey Wright

“Source Code” is a classic sci-fi tale. A soldier wakes up on a train. He doesn’t know the woman opposite him, but she seems to know him. The last thing he remembers is being in combat. He tries to figure out where he is, a train bound for Chicago. He shouldn’t even be stateside. He tries to explain to the woman that he’s not who she thinks he is. The train blows up.

Short movie, huh? Oh, that’s not all. Upon the explosion, the soldier finds himself in a new environment. It seems military, but he still has no recollection of it. A female officer tries to get information from him about the train. She explains that he’s in a program that allows him to relive 8 minutes of the life of one of the passengers on a train that exploded earlier that morning. They want him to gather information from the train that might reveal who the bomber was and where he might strike again.

But, like all great sci-fi, this movie isn’t about the plot. The plot is just a mechanism to explore notions of morality and basic necessities of the human existence. What the plot allows for in this particular science fiction set up is non-stop adrenaline as the soldier must return repeatedly to a scenario where he knows he has a very limited amount of time and the bomb under the table will go off no matter what he does. Or will it? Oh, that final question is a sly one that informs more than just the action of the story, but a good deal of its morality as well.

“Source Code” is not a perfect sci-fi. It’s one that will begin to crumble if you pick at it too much. It’s so thrilling and so easy to get caught up in that those blemishes won’t really become apparent until it’s over.

Western of the Week

Terror in a Texas Town (1958) **
Director: Joseph H. Lewis
Writer: Ben Perry
Starring: Sterling Hayden, Ned Young, Sebastian Cabot, Carol Kelly, Eugene Martin, Victor Millan

There’s not much that the B-western “Terror in a Texas Town” has that hasn’t been seen in other better westerns, but it does have one of the most unique heroes I’ve seen in one. Much of the hero’s uniqueness is due to the man who plays him, the great character actor Sterling Hayden.

Hayden is most well known as the Army colonel in “Dr. Strangelove” with a great fear of the Russian’s desire for his “precious bodily fluids.” Here, Hayden portrays that stranger in the western town who has the gumption to stand up against the villains for what’s right. In this case, a man named Klein is buying or bullying people off their land because he knows what they don’t, that there’s oil in them there hills.

The first victim of violence is the father of Hayden’s Swede. Hayden comes to claim his father’s land as his own. He plays the role with a thick Swedish accent, which is a bit off putting in a western, but probably represents a more accurate view of how new citizens tried to find their American dreams in the Western Territories. The accent gives a false sense that Hayden is some foreign fool, when in fact he’s quite intelligent. He’s aware of the false impression he gives to others and uses it to assess his situation upon his arrival.

Unfortunately, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to Hayden’s wonderful character, depending far too often upon established clichés of the genre and falling into its own low budget failings. The score is clunky and, due to its minimalist approach, fails to find the right emotional queues for the action depicted.

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