Message from the Supreme Commander of Earth Invasion Forces

Battle Los Angeles OnesheetOK, listen up! By now, you’ve heard that our assault on Earth was not as successful as it might have been. Guess we were a tad premature in hanging the “Mission Accomplished” banner across the bow of the mothership. In defense of your commanders, however, who could have known that the indigenous population would have devices that deliver metal pellets at high speed, pellets of various sizes that are capable of piercing our defenses. We got ourselves all the way across the universe and safely through Earth’s atmosphere, and no one gave any thought to these little pellets?

By the way, our plan was to take over the planet. But why one person at a time? If we only had some kind of device—let’s call it a “bomb”—that would wipe out whole populations, we could have skipped a lot of the house-to-house.

Or here’s a thought—since we only wanted their water, why didn’t we just do our water-landing in some forgotten corner of the ocean and suck up as much as we wanted?

As far as our brave soldiers go, fellows, seriously, you’re eight feet tall, and yet you walk right out into the open to get mowed down like dumb robots. Well, some of you are dumb robots. No offense. After all, we’re only as smart as our designers. But hey, I have a good idea! Maybe you could have taken cover now and then? You know, like our enemies?

And it took the Earthlings all of a Neptune minute to figure out the location of your vital organs and target them. A little armor over this area would have been nice, but I guess you can’t think of everything, right? To be fair, part of that’s on us. The supply asteroid took its sweet time getting to the target zone.

Oh, and by the way, whose idea was it to leave the tread exposed on the robot cannon? One shot from the earthlings and the cannon was brought to its knees, or would have been if it had knees.

And whose idea was the walking gun? Seventeen feet tall, thirteen feet long, umpty-ump tons, and all of it balanced on two skinny legs? Really? Doesn’t anyone remember when we laughed at the two-legged Earthlings, at that ridiculous design flaw? So why did we design all of our weapons based on that flaw???

Guys, we are seriously going to have to get our shpitnik together if we expect to have any success at all during next weekend’s invasion of the sun. Our intel says it can get pretty hot over there, so whatever you do, don’t forget your sunblock!

Limitless Ltd.

Limitless OnesheetThe late John Gardner, author of the novels Grendel and The Sunlight Dialogues, once said a writer can’t create a character who’s smarter than he or she is. Well, he made that assertion before the advent of Google, the world-brain. Still, Limitless brings Gardner to mind. First, Andrew Morra, the character played by Bradley Cooper, is a writer—in this case, a failed writer, a writer who hasn’t written, what used to be called a writer manqué. And he takes a pill that allows him to use all of his brain, not just the twenty percent or so that we use now. Sadly, despite Google, the filmmakers have proven the truth of Gardner’s assertion. Andrew Morra becomes a super-brain, but only within the limits of Hollywood’s cliché-ridden crapola.

Apparently, with access to 100% of your brain, you can write a book in four days, seduce a bunch of women, and make a ton of money in a couple of weeks. In fact, the whole movie is really about day-trading. Was there nothing more interesting the filmmakers could make him do? The most dramatic tension the film achieves occurs when our hero learns that prolonged use of the brain-enhancer often leads to death. But using his super-brain, he works out a way that might allow him to avoid that. If the pill makes him smart enough to come up with this solution, why is it that none of the other users of the pill could figure this out?

Side Note: I wish Hollywood would get its facts right. The Bradley Cooper character is a writer who has received a sizeable advance from a publisher for a novel he hasn’t even begun. In the real world, this does not happen unless you’re Stephen King.

The rest of the cast do a serviceable job, but it’s as if all of them, including DeNiro, are standing aside to give Bradley Cooper his moment under the bright lights. And Cooper does well enough, especially when he acts sweaty desperation. But is it just me, or in every movie in which he appears, does Cooper have a perpetual half-smirk that makes him look as though he’s just stepped out of a fraternity bedroom during Spring Fling? It’s a look that makes him perfect for movies like The Hangover but not so right for dramatic movies like this one, ones in which we’re meant to root for him. Sorry, Bradley.

The director, Neil Burger, does everything he can do to make the film look more interesting than it is, and the camera-work is sometimes breath-taking. When Morra types his novel, the alphabet falls through the air around him. When he gazes up at the ceiling, trying to figure out how the big merger should be managed, the coffers of his ceiling flip like tiles on a Wall Street tote board. In another memorable shot, the camera moves at high speed down streets, through cars, and over sidewalks in a way that’s meant to mirror Morra’s high-speed brain action. Note to the director: David Fincher called. He wants his camera back. (And wasn’t The Social Network the apotheosis of a director making a bland subject look more interesting than it is?)

First, know that I’m a big Robert DeNiro fan, but he’s never been more miscast than in this movie. Yes, he does a great job as the mysterious tycoon, and he’s given at least one good speech. But the miscasting is especially evident in the big confrontation scene at the end. The Cooper character demonstrates that he’s so smart he can predict a fender-bender that’s about to occur across the street. DeNiro’s character, stunned, climbs into his car and drives away. The DeNiro I know would have bounced Cooper’s head off the fender a few times: “What about this? Did you predict this, you smug !@%X!!?” Even as an older man, DeNiro conveys a sense of danger that Cooper just can’t touch. Sorry again, Bradley.

And at the end, after our hero has gone through all his ups and downs, he decides to go into politics. Really? I mean, would a super-brain really decide that the next logical step after generating super-wealth should be to go into politics? Isn’t Donald Trump’s interest in running for president evidence enough that smart people do not go into politics? Sorry, Donald.

Lincoln Stinkin’

The Lincoln Lawyer OnesheetOne of my tried-and-true indicators of the quality of a film is whether or not my wife falls asleep while watching it. We often go to movies after her grueling dressage lessons, so she deserves a nap. But she was wide awake throughout The Lincoln Lawyer, later telling me how good it was. I growled, “Oh, you just like Matthew ‘Man Candy’ McConaughey.” Needless to say, I learned a hard lesson that day: don’t come between a woman and her man candy. That’s a lot, Matthew.

The first challenge to the makers of legal thrillers is, well, The Verdict. Where do you go from there? The quiet passion of David Mamet’s screenplay, Sidney Lumet’s taut direction, Paul Newman’s soul-baring, loser-turned-savior performance, the painfully ambiguous performance of Charlotte Rampling, the deliciously evil James Mason, and the spot-on performance by every actor in the cast. It doesn’t get any better than The Verdict. Every other legal thriller since then stands in its shadow.

And here we have The Lincoln Lawyer, based on Michael Connelly’s best-selling novel. There’s a clever conceit at the center of this gripping novel: he’s the “Lincoln Lawyer” because his Lincoln Town Car is his rolling office, the place where he does all his business. And while the moviemakers retain key scenes in the car, their Mick Haller also has an office and a receptionist. In other words, they water down one of the key elements that distinguish the novel from every other legal thriller.

The second challenge is that shows about lawyers are the mainstay of broadcast (or as I call it, boredcast) television. Movies about lawyers can’t settle comfortably into the old formulae and clichés of the genre. That field’s been picked-over. And yet this one goes at it as if neither of these challenges existed, the only distinction being the director’s use of extreme close-ups, so extreme that I felt as though I were falling into the actors’ sweaty pores.

Side note: there are two moments in the movie’s trailer that never made it to the film. In one, Haller is riding in the car with his daughter, who asks why he doesn’t have an office like her mother. When he asks her which “office” is more fun, she says his. “Boom,” he says, slapping the car’s headliner. It’s a sweet moment that defines his character, the state of his marriage, and his bond with his daughter, but it’s not in the movie. And then there’s a brief moment where Haller slides a handgun across a table to Ryan Phillippe, inviting him to use it. Never appears in the film. And it’s a shame because it suggests a more suspenseful showdown than the one they used. Let’s just say that McConaughey spends much of the final conflict sitting on a porch.

What about plot? I don’t want to give too much away. If you haven’t seen it, I don’t want to ruin it for you, and if you have, you already know the plot. Haller’s big case has him defending a club kid who may or may not have murdered a young woman. As a result, Haller finds that he, his family, and his friends have become the targets of someone’s rage. The bare bones of Connelly’s novel are here, but not the narrative voice and the nuances of character and plot. The story’s been stripped down to the point where it feels like a standard TV lawyer show but with better actors and those freakish close-ups.

OK, I admit it—much better actors. McConaughey’s fine as the over-confident lawyer who finds himself in too deep. And William H. Macy is excellent as his investigator. One of the director’s crimes is that he doesn’t use Macy enough. As small as his part is, Macy gives you the sense of the complete life of his character, a life that goes beyond the edges of the screen. Marisa Tomei is fine, too. The problem is that she isn’t given much to work with. The character’s a type—the ex-wife who still has affection for her former husband. For several years now, cable television has been giving us rich female characters like Katey Sagal in Sons of Anarchy, Edie Falco in The Sopranos and Nurse Jackie, Callie Thorne in Rescue Me, Toni Collette in The United States of Tara, and more–but not enough). And yet Hollywood, for the most part, continues to treat female characters as adornments that prove the hero’s heterosexuality instead of as fully three-dimensional, living, breathing characters. Hey, Hollywood! Looking for your lunch? Cable already ate it!