Not a Review of Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch OnesheetOne summer when I was about ten, I was called to the stage by a small-time magician known as Uncle Ted. He hosted a weekly horror movie on TV called “Uncle Ted’s Ghoul School.” Between scenes and commercials he’d do tricks, tell jokes, and invite the kids watching to come down to his magic store. The infamous Bill O’Reilly was the local news anchor back then, and he’d write jokes for Ted’s show. How the mighty have fallen.

Uncle Ted was a tall man with a big handlebar mustache who always wore a fez. He was my idol. And here he was, calling me up to the stage to help him with a trick. I was to hold a cloth bag with a handle (a little like a small butterfly net). He tucked a red scarf into the bag, helped me hold the handle tighter, and then pulled the scarf out again, only now it was bright blue. (By the way, you can see Ted do a variation on this trick in this video on Youtube.)

At the end of the trick, he turned to me. “You didn’t see any funny business. Right, kid?”

“Well, I—“

“Right? Of course not!” And all the kids in the audience broke into wild applause.

The thing is, I had seen some funny business. When he grabbed my hands to make sure I was holding the handle tightly, he twisted the handle. And I’m sure my eyes went wide when I saw a hidden cloth compartment inside the bag flip to the other side, revealing the hidden blue scarf.

Yes, I knew magic was trickery, but I thought it would be a little slicker that that.

Which brings me to the movies.

Don’t make me. Please. I’m begging you. Don’t. make. me. see. Sucker Punch. When I started this blog, I thought I’d have fun skewering bad movies and celebrating the few good ones. What better revenge on Hollywood’s theft of my ticket money than to eviscerate the offending movie? But even I have limits.

A bad movie is an act of misdirection, the kind of thing a magician does. With the right hand, he points at the left, where he’s apparently just place a quarter. In fact, the quarter is hidden in the right. But the pointing finger draws the attention away from the right. Misdirection. In movie terms, you distract the audience from the nonexistent plot by cranking up the volume of the soundtrack. Hide the low talent of the actors by never letting them speak more than a sentence or two at most. And throw in as many CGI effects as possible—a few explosions, a couple of cars flipping through the air, a robot killing machine here and there. And in the end, the hapless audience member doesn’t know where to look, eyes jittering from one corner of the screen to another. As the credits roll, he staggers out of the auditorium convinced he’s been entertained when really he’s been bamboozled. You didn’t see any funny business. Right, kid?

Sucker Punch is about a young woman who loses her mother and suffers terribly at the hands of a wicked father/stepfather/guardian. When she exacts her revenge, she’s thrown into an asylum, where more bad things happen. A woman with a fake Russian accent tells her that reality can be whatever she wills it to be. And with the help of a wise man, she sets off on a quest to free herself from the prison of reality. At least that’s the story as laid out by the trailer. Which world is real, which unreal? And who really cares?

Is it unfair to review a movie based on its trailer alone? Not when the trailer gives away the whole story, even alluding to the “surprise” ending. And besides, check the title of this piece again.

At one point in the movie—or at least in the trailer—our hero, Baby Doll, drops from a great height, only to land kneeling on one knee, on pavement . . . that cracks from the force of her landing. She looks up calmly, ready to do battle. What are this woman’s knees made of—Titanium? I’m so tired of this cliché. The first time I saw it, Wesley Snipes was doing the one-knee landing, in Blade. I was impressed. Since then, it’s been done to death. I’m putting Hollywood on notice now: find a new way for the hero to make an entrance. OK? Don’t make me come out there.

What else does Sucker Punch give you? Vast animated cityscapes of destruction, monsters, robots, a mish-mash of historical periods, winged creatures . . . in other words, the usual nonsense, though more of it. The real stars of such movies aren’t the actors or the story; they’re the animators. At this point in movie history, they must be recycling the same code. What else would explain the number of times we’re made to watch the one-knee landing in movies like this?

Shouldn’t movies tell you something about the world? About the challenges of living? And since when do those challenges include a seventy-foot-tall samurai warrior? Maybe I just don’t live in a tough enough neighborhood.

Years after I shared the stage for that one brief moment with Uncle Ted, I was in a play with him. He was cast as my father. We had a long rehearsal period. Whenever Ted wasn’t on stage, he was up the street at the bar. It became my job to run up and drag him back in time for his next entrance. After weeks of this, one night when I was about to vault up the street to the bar, the director held up her hand and said, “Don’t bother.” From then on, another actor played my father. He was great. The play went off without a hitch. But from time to time, I can’t help thinking of Uncle Ted hunched over his beer in the dark of the North End Tavern, wondering where the magic went.

When I consider the endless reel of crap that comes out of Hollywood, I wonder, too.

P.S. Hats off for the late, lamented Sidney Lumet.

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La Femme Hanna

Hanna OnesheetI once had coffee in the home of a former Israeli soldier, watching as he held his infant son against the drapes, near the top. When the baby reached out and gripped the curtains, his father let go. The baby clung there, his eyes wide with panic. When I asked the man what he thought he was doing, he said, “He needs to learn to be tough.” He left the baby clinging to the curtains for another few seconds that felt more like an hour.

That’s the kind of parenting I can imagine Eric Bana’s character giving his daughter in Hanna, a smart action-thriller from Joe Wright, the director of—wait, there must be some mistake!–Pride and Prejudice and Atonement. Maybe this is what you get when you have a director of complex, richly-layered films address a genre like this, a film where even the most minor characters seem real.

Hanna is home-schooled with a vengeance, literally. She’s raised by a former spy to be a warrior with a very specific purpose. When the time is right, she proves that she’s ready, and each departs separately from their ice-bound cabin in the North, only to meet up when the mission is complete. Cate Blanchett is the mission, a woman who may or may not be Hanna’s mother and who has a relentless desire to see both the former spy and Hanna killed.

The plot uncoils with the requisite revelation of secrets and surprises and plenty of chase scenes, killings, and hand-to-hand combat. Saoirse Ronan, who plays Hanna, fights well-muscled thugs who are two feet taller. But somehow she makes the fights seem real, a testament to her acting chops and Joe Wright’s solid directing.

But Hanna is about more than its well-choreographed action scenes. It calls to mind La Femme Nikita, another story of a young woman kept in isolation, where she’s trained to be a killer. Visually, it’s a highly stylized updating of the kinds of tales you read in The Brothers Grimm, to which the film often alludes. In the mother-daughter clash that is the film’s essence, it’s a retelling of Electra.

Cate Blanchett plays the villain so coldly that you expect to see ice crystals in her eyebrows. The role’s a type. There isn’t much for her to sink her teeth into, but she has plenty of fun with it. Eric Bana brings his patented brand of intensity to bear on the role of the former spy who’s driven by a father’s love and a healthy appetite for vengeance. Among the other stand-out performances is Tom Hollander’s. He plays Isaacs, Blanchett’s cats-paw, who never met a person he didn’t want to kill. In what must be a deliberate homage to Fritz Lang’s M, he whistles when he’s at his most dangerous.

Even the minor characters have a richness you almost never see in action-thrillers. In a desert interlude, Hanna joins a British family on holiday. And though the audience is given little or no exposition about them, each member of the family—husband, wife, and two children—feels as if he or she has walked straight out of life and into the movie. Olivia Williams is especially good as an aging hippie who is all for independence, not realizing how independent their temporary travel companion really is. Jessica Barden has a nice turn as the precocious daughter who befriends Hanna. Later, when the travelers think Hanna has moved on, she’s actually hiding in a storage compartment in their van, watching them through a hand-hold. The scene makes you think of Frankenstein’s monster hiding in the woodcutter’s cottage, watching through a chink in the wall in order to learn how real human beings behave.

At one point, her new friend says, “I don’t really know who you are.”

“That’s just it,” Hanna replies. “Neither do I.”

With pale blond pre-Raphaelite curls, Hanna has the soft blank face of someone who’s been kept away from the world, a hothouse flower. Despite all her training, Hanna is still a child, still human. As soon as she’s away from her father, she begins to experience, not feelings themselves, but the tremor of feelings, like half-heard music from another room—love, affection, friendship, and the desire for something more than vengeance. She invites a boy to kiss her, only to throw him to the ground when he tries. When she leaves him lying there stunned, she says, “It was fun.” Music undoes her, especially the vacationing family laughing and singing together. But true to the genre, neither she nor the filmmaker will allow those feelings to get in the way of some good old-fashioned punching, kicking, flipping, shooting, and strangling.

Brief aside. Speaking of music, the score, by The Chemical Brothers, hits just the right blend of hard-driving, drum-driven techno for the action scenes, alternating with a warped music-box tinkle to underscore the twisted fairy-tale quality of the story.

Most movies of this kind are filled with meaningless action (think Sucker Punch). This one is filled with meaningful action—action that’s a direct outgrowth of character, plot, and theme. A good action-thriller should be about something outside itself, not just the central action but the world outside that action. It’s one reason Hitchcock was so good. The Birds is not only about the attack of the birds but about the community that’s under attack. Hanna is about family ties—the ties that bind and the ties that cut off the circulation.

What’s next for Hanna? I have a feeling her long-lost sister, Lisbeth Salander, may be looking for a roommate.

Jake Gyllenhaal — Time’s Yo-Yo

Source Code OnesheetHave you noticed that Jake Gyllenhaal always has the tiniest of smirks in the corner of his mouth, no matter how serious, tragic, or life-threatening the scene he’s playing? It’s as if he can’t forget that the camera’s on him, as if he’s saying to himself, “I’m in a movie! This is so cool!” If you’re not convinced, see Source Code, a capable thriller where the only time he loses that tiny smirk is when they use an animatronic version of his head and body. At least I think it’s animatronic. If it’s not, I have a message for you, Jake: “Stop dieting! You’re thinning out way too much!” Watch the movie—you’ll see what I mean.

One of the great problems with many science fiction movies is the amount of time and attention given to explanations about how the future—or the alternate reality—works. I’m a big fan of the first Matrix, but remember that drawing room scene early on, in which Laurence Fishburne’s character explains the nature of the Matrix to Keanu Reeves? It’s endless and terrifically boring. The only active thing in that scene is the camera, as the Wachowskis sail it around the room Fincher-style in order to give the impression that more is going on than actually is. And in the sequels, that tendency to explain, to pontificate—that effort at what Anton Chekhov called “philo-wisdomizing”—just grew and grew, which is why the sequels never did as well as the original.

But one of the things that makes Source Code a better-than-average sci-fi thriller is the absence of all that explanation. The movie starts in the middle of things. (Didn’t some ancient smarty-pants once recommend that?) Our man Jake is sucked out of a terrible train crash only to appear in a dingy capsule that looks like the inside of a giant’s crumpled-up TV dinner tray. From a monitor, Vera Farmiga takes the dazed Jake through a sequence of mental tests meant to bring him back to full (but not too full) awareness.

It turns out that scientists have found a way to send a person back in time, but for just eight minutes a pop. A terrorist has bombed a Chicago commuter train, just the first of many planned bombings. The scientists hope that injecting Jake into the past just before the bombing, will allow him to discover the bomber’s identity, making it easier to catch him. And by the time we join the story, they’ve been sending poor Jake to the past for two long, unsuccessful months already. It’s Groundhog Day with terrorists.

Yes, it’s a time-travel movie, the most shop-worn tool in the sci-fi writer’s toolkit. But with a difference. This time out, the plan is not to alter the past, only to get information in order to avoid the future (the planned bombings).

On second thought, maybe that Jake-smirk is important to the plot, which depends on our hero learning a devastating truth about his condition and doing the right thing anyway. That little fishhook smile is a good indicator of a character who hears the worst news, adjusts, and carries on. There are secrets within secrets in this movie, and the success of the high-tech project at its center depends on Jake not-knowing how things work. That’s an original touch. Yes, secrets slip out in well-timed moments of revelation, but even then, the point is not the revelation itself but how the character responds to it. Even so, scary-good actors of his generation like Ryan Gosling and Ben Foster have nothing to fear from our man Jake in the talent department.

Another nice turn in the genre is the casting of the mad scientist behind it all: Jeffrey Wright is more natty than nutty, spending more time on his hair than on threatening our hero. And Michael Arden plays the terrorist as a smug, self-satisfied nerd, not the wild-eyed fanatic we expect. The effect is chilling. And the talented Vera Farmiga turns a role that could have been nothing but a face on a monitor into something much more. With little more than her eyes and facial muscles, she conveys the changing awareness and sympathy of her character. Michelle Monaghan plays the love-interest whose eager for Jake’s character to ask her out. She’s never too bothered that he’s constantly distracted as he tries to find the bomber and his bomb in eight-minute snatches. Hint to the lovelorn: if the guy on the train spends all his time beating up fellow passengers, yanking their bags out of their hands, and digging around in air ducts and behind security panels, he’s probably not the right guy for you.

Source Code is a far cry from The Matrix, Blade Runner, and even Groundhog Day, but you won’t leave the theater wishing you could go back in time to retrieve your ten dollars.

Your Intergalactic Dudeness

Paul OnesheetHas anyone seen my sense of humor? It was here a minute ago. I must have lost it. What else would explain how I sat stone-faced through Paul. Not a laugh, not a chuckle, not a titter. I smiled once, when Blythe Danner delivers a line to Sigourney Weaver that Weaver first delivered in Aliens, one of several homages to science fiction movies. But that was it.

I don’t really think my sense of humor has gone missing. I think, once again, that Hollywood has failed to bring the funny. Paul just never gives you anything much to laugh at. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost specialize in movies that have great central ideas (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) but then fall apart in the execution. Here two vacationing sci-fi fanatics from England visit the locations of UFO sightings, when they run into an actual alien, a dope-smoking, obscenity-spouting pop culture addict. In other words, Seth Rogen. It’s a joke that lasts for about as long as the trailer, but at 104 minutes, the joke wears awfully thin awfully fast.

According to the story, Paul is the alien who crash-landed at Area 51 way back when. Since then, he’s been advising everyone from Washington, D.C. to Hollywood. Now his captors are finished with him and want to turn his brain into a tray full of heavy apps. Enter our heroes, who try to help him escape. Not funny, right? In fact, it sounds more like a standard science-fiction action thriller. Question: does the concept have to be funny in order for the movie to be funny? Maybe not. Mars Needs Moms is one of the funniest concepts/titles I’ve heard in a long time, but it isn’t enough, I guess, if the box office is any measure.

So funny must come from the execution, right? We’ve had threatening aliens (War of the Worlds, Alien). We’ve had lovable aliens (ET and, well, ET). We’ve even had straight-faced, no-nonsense aliens (The Day the Earth Stood Still, John Kerry). We’ve even had funny aliens (Men in Black), so why isn’t Paul funny? After all, he looks like a hydrocephalic lizard with the pallor of that leftover chicken leg in the back of the refrigerator. That’s funny, right? And he sounds like a cross between that roommate you never should have let in the door and Jeff Bridges in full Dude-mode. Isn’t that funny? Paul spends a lot of time trying to maintain his buzz, swearing, scratching his privates. He consumes coffee and bagels, cigarettes, pot, live birds, and Reese’s Pieces. But these details never rise above the mildly amusing. He does have at least one good rant. He hates it when Earthlings assume he’s going to anal probe them, and I’m with him on this. I’ve always wondered how it is that an alien life-form can supposedly travel clear across the universe and remain virtually undetected, but their most sophisticated method for examining human life is the anal probe. Really? I mean, really?

And doesn’t context count when it comes to funny? At one point, the house owned by Blythe Danner’s character is blown to bits, killing one of the inept and unknowing government agents chasing Paul. A person has died. but as our heroes drive away, Blythe Danner’s character looks back at the destruction and moans, “My weed!” Maybe the discovery that an older woman is a pothead could be mildly amusing . . . to a twelve-year-old. (Hint to the young: her generation invented weed!)

Maybe the funniest moment, given away in the trailer, happens when Paul revives a dead bird, only to eat it. When his new friends cringe and groan, he says, “What? I wasn’t going to eat a dead bird!” But we’ve seen it too many times to laugh. And anyway, very quickly the theme-machine gets trundled in. “Have you ever fixed a dead person?” Simon Pegg’s character asks. And the big-headed, thin-lipped green guy replies, “Oh no, it could bounce back on me. Very dangerous.” And of course, you know, by movie’s end, our friendly alien will be called on to face that challenge.

Why is Paul so unfunny? Maybe because aliens who are comfortable among us Earthlings, steeped in our culture and caught up in our vices, are only funny for a minute, whereas aliens for whom all of this is new are funny minute-by-minute Think Jeff Bridges in Starman. Think Jerry Lewis in Visit to a Small Planet.

Jason Bateman does a good Tommy Lee Jones impression, but is forced by the script to hide his comic talent and timing. Kristen Wiig has a few moments as a Bible-thumper who swears in imaginative ways, calling a couple of threatening good-old-boys “You vaginas!” But that joke wears thin, too. Stephen Spielberg has a nice cameo. And Jeffrey Tambor has a good turn as a self-important science-fiction novelist who can’t stand his fans. And Jane Lynch has a couple of brief shining moments with her patented brand of sardonic, slightly mean-spirited, slightly suggestive off-the-wallery. Does she bring her own writer to these gigs, or does she make this stuff up? Sadly, even the talents of Wiig, Tambor, and Lynch aren’t enough to revive this dead bird.

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!