Brad Furman’s “The Lincoln Lawyer” (2011) (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

I hadn’t seen The Lincoln Lawyer before this week, but I did read the book by Michael Connelly. And many, many others. I had started watching the Prime Video original series Bosch a few years ago because I heard it was a “pretty good cop show” – and once I got used to the frequency and sincerity of the cop shop clichés and began to enjoy it, that opened the floodgates. When I ran out of TV episodes, I hit up the audiobooks via my local library, which felt like extra seasons of the show. And so on. Defense attorney Mickey Haller (played in this film by Matthew McConaughey), reporter Jack McEvoy, night shift Detective/Surfer Renee Ballard, and even a few oddball one-offs like master thief Cassie Black and tech entrepreneur Henry Pierce: They all traversed the real streets of real Los Angeles (and occasionally Las Vegas), referenced real-world events, ate at real restaurants, drank real booze, and – with alarming frequency for a textual medium – listened to real jazz music. Connelly came off as someone who very much wanted the fabric of Los Angeles to be woven throughout his writing, as well as his own experiences and politics (he had worked as a writer on the police beat at the LA Times himself before quitting to become a full-time novelist). My parents entered this phase early in my childhood with the likes of Robert B. Parker, Dick Francis, J.A. Jance, Sue Grafton, James Patterson, etc., and never really exited it. It may just be what happens to some people in their 30s. It’s not as if pulp lit and copaganda have wholly or even mostly consumed my literary life (I’m currently reading an epic of Afro-Caribbean high fantasy by Marlon James), but it has surely become my comfort food in a way that seems worth interrogating, because as entertaining as I find Connelly’s hero cops, I’ll be the first to admit that they bear little resemblance to reality. Because all of these protagonists are essentially superheroes, and this is just as true for the other side of the courtroom. Mickey Haller – the “Lincoln Lawyer”, so named because he doesn’t keep an office, prefers to spend his days being chauffeured between LA courtrooms and lockups in a Lincoln Town Car, wheeling and dealing and manipulating cops, judges, opposing counsel, and media alike to help his clients win against a justice system that will grab hold of them and not release until it has eaten its fill. Connelly turns the same cynically aloof eye onto the court system as he does for the police in the Bosch books. Because for either hero, every other person they meet who shares the same profession is either competent and honorable and completely irrelevant to the story, or incompetent, corrupt, and a direct impediment: a nemesis to be defeated so that the hero can get his man. Bosch and Haller – literally half-brothers in the books – are each fundamentally framed as one of the good ones. Mere mechanics who keep the jury-rigged mechanical flywheel of the justice system puttering down the tracks, without much thought or worry to what’s ahead.

In Haller’s case, he will defend guilty low-lives and innocent frame-jobs alike – and it’s worth noting that however Connelly’s perspective has visibly evolved over the course of his career, the books still very much look at the justice system in these terms, never pausing for more than a moment to question whether laws and law enforcement should be the way they are. What’s more, Haller may be the only criminal defense attorney in the world who routinely solves crimes by finding the real killer himself. If I’m being honest, the allure of this genre hasn’t really faded for me even as the unaccountable brutality, systemic racism, and spotty track record of real-world policing has been brought into stark relief over the last decade, because these characters in particular are always right – at least in the end. This is not to say they never make mistakes – I like Connelly’s writing because his heroes are capable and well-drawn, not because they’re infallible. But even as they may recklessly wield their power around town while stumbling toward the eventual solution, that solution is never in doubt. These are the heroes, working in their own small corner of a justice system, and as long as you happen to be the lucky person who draws their beneficent gaze this week, you will find that system to be competent, hyper-vigilant, and the first to call itself out for the systemic problems that surely exist but not from this character in this moment. And this needle definitely shifts over the course of the series – Connelly’s own blind spots will become evident to me in one book, then be addressed in a later one. I hardly would’ve guessed that I would hear his 60-something LAPD detective acknowledge through his inner narration that hey, perhaps the people undertaking a dangerous trek across the southern border of the United States without authorization (whom he definitely would’ve called “illegals” and reported to immigration in a previous book) might have understandable and sympathetic reasons for doing so, and should thus be treated with humanity and dignity. I was equally floored when his sixth Mickey Haller book (whose story unfolds amid the COVID pandemic) featured his hero lawyer rejecting a juror during voir dire because the “Trump 2020” bumper sticker on her car indicated that she possessed neither a logical mind nor any interest in the truth. This is another reason why I like Connelly’s writing – not because I find his politics to be a perfect match for my own (far from it, in fact), but because they amount to a credible and specific authorial voice which has shifted in reasonable ways in response to real-world events. As a result, his books take place in what is recognizably our world, even if they must obey the genre convention that we must have absolute and permanent closure by the last page, which often takes the form of the bad guy dead on the ground, the victim of a righteous kill that we know was the product of perfect intentions. And so, as with the Marvel superheroes that I love to see dick-punch the sky-laser and save the world, I cheerily consume an unrealistic solution to a problem that wouldn’t be nearly this well-defined or solvable in real life.

Still from "The Lincoln Lawyer"

As for the film, The Lincoln Lawyer is a slick, contemporary Los Angeles legal thriller (whose title did it no favors in being regarded as such), featuring luxury real estate baron Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) accused of assault with a deadly weapon, attempted sexual assault, and attempted murder, hiring Haller (Matthew McConaughey) – whom he requested specifically for reasons he doesn’t trouble to explain – to clear his name. The victim in this case is Reggie Campo (Margarita Levieva), a woman whom Louis claims he visited for (paid) consensual sex that they never actually had, because someone clubbed him on the head as he walked through the door. He then woke up in a living nightmare, covered in blood, with a neighbor couple (whom he casually identifies with a homophobic slur) holding him down on the ground as Campo calls the police, claiming that Roulet had attacked her. Roulet sees this as a setup, which Campo designed to make him up to take the fall for a non-existent crime, as a roundabout extortion scheme to get access to his sizeable fortune. Obviously, no one is going to believe this preposterous story, but Phillippe does an excellent job of bringing sociopathic indignation to bear on the situation. Because while I’m several twists away from presenting a complete picture of the ending, it should come as no great surprise that very little of this version of events is true, and I’ll save the rest of the surprises for anyone inclined to watch. The film is a more-or-less perfectly faithful adaptation of the book, and features a dynamite cast, including Marisa Tomei as Haller’s prosecutor ex-wife, with whom he has an unreasonably cordial relationship and implausibly frequent shared drinking schedule for the latter’s single parenthood of their young daughter Hayley. The two do fine work here, but there’s not a lot of depth to their disagreement. She believes he’s defending scumbags, and is correct, and that is the reason why their marriage fell apart. But they still like each other and occasionally sleep together. The cast of this film is fully loaded, featuring brief, but solid work from Shea Whigwam, Katherine Moennig, Michael Paré, and Frances Fisher (each of whom is crucial to the plot in their own way, despite having barely 5 minutes of screen time each), as well as some meatier backstory for Michael Peña and William H. Macy. This doesn’t leave much at all for John Leguizamo, Bryan Cranston, or Bob Gunton to do. Did I mention this film is based on a book? Because it is absolutely stuffed with characters, and I daresay a little overstuffed with acting talent.

McConaughey himself is peak protagonist. His take on Haller is slick, commanding, and I daresay a bit more subdued than the script would otherwise allow him to be – in a detail straight from the novel, he’s drinking bourbon on a near-constant basis as the legal plot gradually encircles him. And honestly, he’s fine. If I had seen it in theaters, I probably would’ve considered it a lesser entry in the McConnaissance – this was around the same time as Killer Joe, Mud, and even Bernie, after all, and this performance feels minimalistic by comparison. But as I reflect on the film, and in how Connelly has grown as an author in the now 16 years since the book came out, I’m forced to conclude that any shortcomings of the Haller character in this film are rooted in blindspots that were shared by both character and author at this point. This is apparent in a crucial flashback scene in which Haller is trying to persuade his old client Jesus Martinez (Peña) to take a plea agreement which will put him in prison for 15 years to life – for a crime we would later find out that he definitely did not commit. Even knowing where it was leading, this scene nearly made me physically ill to watch. Haller gets right up in Martinez’s face (in the same manner as the camera throughout the film, with prolific use of handhelds and close-ups), his strained dialogue absolutely littered with “bro” and “man” stuff as he tries to persuade this innocent man to confess to a capital crime that he did not commit. Martinez is weeping and begging for Haller’s help, and he – and we – know that there’s nothing he can do for this man. The book helped Haller out a bit more than the film here – while film-Martinez is a native English speaker, like Peña himself, book-Martinez (whose surname was originally Menendez) spoke very little English, was questioned by the police without counsel present, and would eventually reveal with the help of a translator that he didn’t fully understand the questions. The police initially withheld the nature of their investigation from him, and Martinez initially concealed that he was patronizing Martha Renteria, the sex worker who would end up being murdered. In the book, the police and Martinez look worse, and we have Haller’s inner voice to assure us that he really did try his very best to help this guy. He just…couldn’t, and didn’t particularly care whether the man was innocent or not, because it wouldn’t have affected his strategy one way or the other. And he regrets that. In the film, all we have to assure us of Haller’s good work and intentions is McConaughey’s slick charm and booze-soaked regret as the character is an unwitting accomplice to a miscarriage of justice, and in the end, it’s just not good enough. In both versions, the police and Haller alike had a few reasons to believe that Martinez might be guilty, but their actions are not defensible in retrospect. They should have tried harder. Jesus Martinez deserved better than exoneration after a painful and unjust prison sentence. Martha Renteria, who exists as nothing but a victim’s name in book and film alike, deserved better too. And marginalized people deserve better than to be objects of redemption for cop and lawyer protagonists. This is clearly a lesson that both Hollywood and the justice system are not done learning.

FilmWonk rating: 6 out of 10

Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” – The fault is human, but the stars deliver

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The first thirty minutes of Christopher Nolan‘s Interstellar are downright oppressive. They depict an earth saturated in dust storms and failing corn crops, struggling against agricultural blight to feed a starving and dwindling population. And the film conveys all of the details of this new reality with some unsubtle, but effective touches, including a school curriculum that now teaches that the Apollo program was merely a brilliant hoax perpetrated by 20th century propagandists in order to bankrupt the Soviet Union with futile dreams of progress beyond the stars. My only depressing note of incredulity at this detail was that even in our real-life, present-day world, with all of its vast resources and promise, we can already conjure plenty of excuses not to extend mankind’s reach into space – it’s hard to imagine that such propaganda would be necessary in a world in such dire straits. As a stark contrast to most other end-of-the-world disaster films, mankind soldiers on, but purely to maintain the status quo for just a bit longer. There is no Bruce Willis wrangling to save the world by nuking something – at least as far as the public is concerned. The remaining population is an agrarian “caretaker generation” – a designation that this film unambiguously condemns. Proverbial deck-chair wranglers on the Titanic.

This necessary, claustrophobic environment is broken up when astronauts Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), Doyle (Wes Bentley) and Romilly (David Gyasi) leave Earth aboard the starship Endurance in a last-ditch attempt to save the human race. Their trip is designated “Plan B” in two ways – first, a series of previous missions have already been sent to find habitable planets, and the Endurance has been sent to find any survivors. And second, because Professor Brand (Michael Caine), a NASA scientist (and Amelia’s father), believes he can crack an equation that will allow the human race to conquer gravity – a necessary hurdle in order to evacuate the remaining population and enough materiel to support them. Structurally, this film closely resembles Danny Boyle‘s Sunshine, and in many ways, the characterization and interpersonal dynamics are inferior in comparison. Once the mission begins, Brand, Doyle, and Romilly are pretty ill-defined presences, and at one point, the crew engages in an important – but surprisingly puerile – debate over which potentially habitable world the ship should head for, made so by the out-of-nowhere revelation that Brand is in love with one of the previous astronauts, Dr. Edmund, who may still be alive on his planet. Edmund never feels like much more than an off-screen instrument for generating conflict, and it leads to Hathaway delivering a preposterous speech about love potentially being a force that transcends space-time. Transcending space-time is a rather crucial concept as the film goes on, and to introduce it in such a clunky manner nearly derailed it. And despite any dramatic irony eventually provoked by Brand’s speech, the concept never feels earned or justifiable, and did some serious damage to the character’s credibility in the process.

Still from

Nonetheless, the various “alternate Earths” are a real sci-fi treat. While they don’t stray too far from the Star Wars/Avatar convention of a single, vast ecosystem per planet, they incorporate several details that are both visually and conceptually stunning. One planet is so close to an adjacent black hole that time dilation becomes a factor, and each hour spent on its surface will translate to seven years passing back on Earth. Given the stakes involved for these characters, both at the personal level and for the entire human race, the film makes superlative use of this concept. Where the Nolans’ temporal manipulations in Inception served only to heighten the physical action, they serve in a similar way to heighten the emotional action in Interstellar, forcing its characters to feel the weight of years in an instant, and McConaughey’s performance particularly shines in this moment.

Back on Earth, Cooper’s daughter Murph (played as a child by Mackenzie Foy, and as an adult by Jessica Chastain) weighs the impact of years upon herself, as she is forced to deal with the unresolved conflict she and her father began when she was just 10 years old. Is Cooper coming back? Did he ever intend to? And regardless of his intent, is there any hope of him coming back? Much of the film’s plot hinges on her collaboration with Professor Brand on “Plan A”, to crack the theory of gravity so the remaining people can evacuate the earth – and the continuing influence of Cooper’s childhood betrayal hangs over the film throughout. More on this below.

Interstellar is, in many ways, one of the most ambitious sci-fi films ever made, containing all the style and visual splendor of sillier films like Prometheus, but with a substantially smarter script and some convincing exploration of the big ideas of sci-fi to back it up. A better comparison is 2001: A Space Odyssey, from which it takes a few obvious visual and thematic cues. Its use of practical effects and models provides a great sense of realism to the scenes set in space, from the rotating ring ship to a magnificent column-based robot named TARS (voice of Bill Irwin), whose “humor setting” allows him to land one of the film’s best zingers during take-off. The film never quite transcends its reliance on characters that aren’t nearly as well-drawn as the actors playing them, but it is still a must-see space opera for the 21st century.

Still from


***

 

Spoiler warning from this point on.

***


So what, then, do we make of the third-act appearance of Matt Damon as haggard, solitary astronaut Dr. Mann – the architect (and apparently sole survivor) of the previous missions? Like a similar third-act revelation in Sunshine, Dr. Mann is more concept than character, although Damon successfully imbues him with some complex psychology in a short space of time. If each of the astronauts is a sacrificial lamb for mankind, Dr. Mann is surely Judas, derailing and misdirecting the mission in order to save his own skin. He opted into a life of selflessness, but then found himself unable to follow through on it. Shame on him, for he is us – his name is even “Mann” (*sigh*). As much I enjoyed Damon’s brief performance, this is some pretty weak material, and ends far too quickly to have as much of an impact as the film’s five-dimensional mind-fuck of an ending.

Indeed, there is a multi-layered, Terminator-style “future creates the past” temporal paradox at work here. Future-humans save their predecessors from extinction by creating the singularity and a reality for Cooper to interact with, and future-Cooper ensures that past-Cooper will end up exactly where he is – in an indescribably beautiful nether-space – a five-dimensional reality rendered in three dimensions, conceptually explained earlier in the film, when astronaut Brand speculates that fifth-dimensional beings might be able to descend a canyon to visit the past, or climb a mountain to visit the future. There are a few curious details here. There’s the obvious question of why the future-humans can’t simply explain their plan to Cooper (perhaps transcendent fifth-dimensional beings no longer speak 21st century American English), but I actually found it more fascinating that Cooper’s first inclination is to try to change the past and prevent his younger self from leaving his daughter back on Earth in the first place. It’s unclear if he is doing this because the mission has gone so thoroughly awry, or if, like Dr. Mann, he has simply lost all will to continue, and will do anything to undo his mistakes, even at the cost of all mankind. McConaughey plays with this ambiguity nicely, even as Cooper quickly realizes this is futile, and instead switches tactics to making sure that the past proceeds exactly as it did. He gives young Murph the location of the the NASA remnant, setting the film’s events in motion in the first place. Yeah, I didn’t mention the “gravity ghost” earlier – sue me. Pretty hard to discuss it without spoilery context. This becomes a predestination paradox – the fifth-dimensional reality allows Cooper to view and influence the past, but he doesn’t seem to be able to change events substantially except to nudge them into proceeding exactly as they did the first time. As the sequence goes on, it’s fascinating to ponder what would have happened if Cooper had simply done nothing upon entering the nether-space. Did he even have that choice? Would he have simply floated there forever?

The film also ends with a grand sense of possibility – and a big question – what became of Brand? When Cooper is rescued aboard “Cooper Station”, a vast cylindrical habitat that was constructed, launched, and sent to the edge of the singularity in the ensuing 60 years since Cooper’s disappearance (thanks, time dilation!), his daughter (now played by Ellen Burstyn) sends him away from her deathbed (and many children and grandchildren) to head through the wormhole and find Brand, who is surely waiting for him. The cheeriest possible read on this ending – which I daresay is supported by dialogue from the film – is that Cooper and Brand were in the time dilation field around the black hole for exactly the same amount of relative time, causing another 60 years to pass on Earth while the same (smaller) amount of time passed for each of them. Cooper took his timeline-altering dive into the singularity – and Brand landed on Edmund’s planet – at exactly the same point in history relative to Earth. And inside the singularity, Cooper existed outside of space and time, so he emerged without any additional time passing.

I’m laying all of this out for two reasons. First, because I suspect that many will regard Interstellar‘s final ambiguity with the same kind of Nolan-induced side-eye as Inception‘s spinning top, prompting endless debate and nerd-rage, and I’m eager to get my own interpretation on the record now. But the second reason is because it is only such a smart and well-drawn piece of sci-fi that can invite this kind of reflection. Interstellar may make a few missteps on the human side, but it is a smart, timely, and internally consistent space opera. And it’s absolutely gorgeous on film.


 

Spoilers over.


FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #37 – “The World’s End” (dir. Edgar Wright), “Mud” (dir. Jeff Nichols)

Poster for "The World's End"

This week on the podcast, Glenn and Daniel tackle the exciting conclusion to Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright‘s recently-minted Cornetto trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz), as well as a surprising new coming-of-age adventure from writer/director Jeff Nichols. Will the nostalgic and paranormal wanderings of a posse of drunken middle aged-men win our favor? Or will we prefer the naively romantic notions of an adventurous child with his very own motorboat and island? Either way, the soundtrack will be fantastic. Don’t miss either one of these films (53:41).

May contain some NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (The World’s End): 8/10
FilmWonk rating (Mud): 7/10 (Daniel), 8.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • (00:00) Review: The World’s End
  • (11:11) Spoilers: The World’s End
  • (23:37) Review: Mud
  • (32:48) Spoilers: Mud
  • Music for tonight’s episode is the track “Loaded” from the soundtrack to The World’s End, followed by The Beach Boys’ “Help Me Rhonda” from the end credits of Mud.
  • Seriously, if you’re on the eastside of Seattle, hit up La Fuente for some quality Mexican food. I’m as surprised as you are that this was relevant to a film podcast.
  • Check out my Elysium review here.
  • The “women are more likely to initiate divorce” statistic comes from a 2004 study by the AARP, which found that 66% of divorces were initiated by women, and gets into further detail on some of the reasons cited, which do include infidelity and abuse.
  • Stay tuned at the end of the recording to hear a bit of Daniel’s beautiful siren song.

Listen above, or download: The World’s End, Mud (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)