“My lack of success is self-imposed.” Roman J. Israel, Esq.

When you are driving home after a movie (albeit loaded up on carbs and sodium from this insane food we Americans insist on eating at Thanksgiving) and you as a family are discussing how you would rewrite the script, chances are the film fails to fulfill its own potential. Such is the case with Denzel Washington’s latest Roman J. Israel, Esq. (If that title alone doesn’t warn you that you are in for an overreaching quirkfest, nothing will.)

Directed by Dan Gilroy, who helmed the far superior Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal, the movie tries to be too many things.

Is it a film – taking a cue from Melville’s classic short story Bartleby the Scrivener (kudos to my mom for reminding me of that piece) – wherein one person’s singular and single-minded belief system magically transforms all who come in contact with said person? This could be a genre unto itself – think: Erin Brockovich, The Pursuit of Happyness, Forrest Gump, Being There, Rain Main, To Wong Foo. Sometimes the tale ends tragically, often not, but just about every time, someone in the film walks away with an Oscar.

Or is Roman J. Israel, Esq. an allegorical cautionary tale of the dire consequences of material temptation – a Hitchcockian cat-and-mouse, sweaty-palmed, walls-closing-in thriller depicting a poor schlub caught with his hand in the cookie jar, thinking he’d finally “made it big”?

Or is the flick just another soap opera set in the paradoxical world of the American legal system, where nobility and opportunism make strange bedfellows?

Any ONE of those films would have been fine, particularly given the great character work Washington delivers as a sensitive yet obtuse attorney with a database-like brain, a penchant for keeping all written records on index cards, a fixation on jazz music, and a lion’s heart for civil rights and human equality. Washington’s Israel has been the back-office partner for a two-man law firm in Los Angeles, and, when the face of the practice is felled by a heart attack, Israel finds himself unemployed.

As in Nightcrawler, director Gilroy’s Los Angeles is a concrete jungle of oppression and temptation (photographed perhaps a bit too exquisitely). Israel offers his services first to an ACLU-like organization helmed by Carmen Ejogo’s Maya, but finds that the volunteer organization has neither the money nor the appreciation for what his generation has brought to the movement.

Israel ends up in a Faustian contract with Colin Farrell’s George Pierce who runs a criminal defense firm, a man more interested in the pricing model depicted in his slick brochures than in the rights of his hardscrabble clientele.

Israel’s sweet self-righteousness quickly is subsumed by the earthly pleasures of a regular paycheck, and when he finds himself using privileged information to gain a bounteous reward for the capture of an alleged murderer, his world spirals downward.

Yet, everyone who meets Israel transforms into a better human for some inexplicable reason, including Farrell’s character whose 180 degree turn gives the audience whiplash. As Israel’s world devolves, the other characters get religion (metaphorically speaking), but the film presents little compelling evidence as to why.

Oh, and all of this happens over just a three week period. Whew.

I wanted to love this move and to be moved by its message that “purity can’t survive in this world.” In fact, the movie is filled with bon mots like that: “my lack of success is self-imposed,” “hope don’t get the job done,” “each one of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve ever done,” “gang sign? like that flag pin on your lapel?” That may be its biggest problem. It’s a movie of bon mots, adding up ultimately to not very much more than a big budget Hallmark Hall of Fame that fancies itself an expose of the seamy gonna-get-mine underbelly of modern Los Angeles. That’s a shame.

Whereas Nightcrawler was a gut punch to the Horatio Alger myth that underpins Americans’ preoccupation with sparkling capitalism, Roman J. Israel, Esq. fails to deliver a similar blow to the endemic racism and deal-making that undermines our faith in the criminal justice system. That movie has yet to be made. Let’s try less quirk next time.

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Surrounded by the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.” Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

 

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is to the “Harry Potter” cinematic universe what Captain America: The First Avenger is to the “Marvel” one. Bear with me here. In the obvious, both films are set in a golden-hued America of yesteryear where art deco glitter and workaday charm belie a dark societal underbelly of xenophobic, segregated bullying. In a more esoteric way, both films are surprising throwbacks to a slower paced, quieter, more subdued (escapist fantasy and overindulgent special effects notwithstanding) kind of film-making, where whimsy and poignancy meet and where heartbroken underdogs have their day.

I like cinema like that – Frank Capra, The Wizard of Oz, Howard Hawks, Saturday matinee cliffhangers, and so on, and even latter day homages like The Rocketeer or Dick Tracy. Modern audiences aren’t always sprung on this kind of retro storytelling – though Fantastic Beasts‘ box office returns seem to buck that trend.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter book series (and the movie adaptations) focused, in a Brit boarding school milieu, on young wizarding students overcoming adversity, championing inclusion, and saving the day. Goodbye, Mr. Chips meets The Once and Future KingA Separate Peace meets Bewitched. Directed by longtime series helmer David Yates, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – a Harry Potter prequel of sorts that explores the American side of this magical world, nearly a century earlier (1926 to be exact) – is a different animal altogether (pun intended).

Newt Scamander (portrayed by Oscar-winner Eddie Redmayne with the same shaggy-dog, twitchy, social misfit schtick he employed in The Theory of Everything) is a Hogwarts dropout who has dedicated himself to rescuing, rehabilitating, and protecting the mythical, magical animals of this world, woebegone creatures that neither muggle nor wizard seem to treat with honor or respect. He ventures across the pond for mysterious reasons, and some of his furry and feathered friends escape his watchful eye to frolic in a Jazz Age Manhattan. Spirited hijinks ensue, with surprisingly genuine peril and minimal lowest-common-denominator slapstick. In fact, Redmayne frets that these runaway critters are now “surrounded by the most vicious creatures on the planet: humans.” If Al Gore and PETA collaborated on a Harry Potter backstory, I suspect it wouldn’t be too different from the screenplay J.K. Rowling crafted here. Again: ok by me.

Redmayne is joined by a fabulous rogues’ gallery of character actors:

  • Katherine Waterston, suggesting Maura Tierney’s introspective authority as a low-level American wizard cop;
  • Dan Fogler, the Putnam County Spelling Bee-Tony winner bringing limited comic relief as a sadsack “Non-Maj” and wannabe baker along for the ride;
  • Alison Sudol, breathily transfixing – a Marilyn Monroe with Jessica Chastain’s flint – as Waterston’s mind-reading sis;
  • Ezra Miller, delivering the film’s most refreshingly unsettling moments as a glowering, abused Jimmy Fallon doppelganger (with an Oliver Cromwell haircuit) concealing a deep, dark secret;
  • Samantha Morton, always so ethereally captivating, this time as an ominous, muckraking evangelical;
  • Jon Voight, another great presence, when not getting tripped up by his own politics, ironically cast as a William Randolph Hearst-ish proto-Trump;
  • Carmen Ejogo, stately and evocative as the president of American wizarding society, tangled  in her own bureaucratic machinations;
  • Ron Perlman, nearly unrecognizable as an  Edward G. Robinson-ish mobster troll (literally, a troll), who runs muscle and intel from the murky corners of a Grimms’ fairy tale speakeasy;
  • And Colin Farrell, arguably the best of the bunch, having an understated field day, full of stylish gravitas, as Newt’s chief nemesis, maneuvering chess pieces to ignite a race war between wizards and humans.

Unlike other entries in the Harry Potter canon, Fantastic Beasts unfolds less like a picaresque and more like a candy-colored potboiler. (Technicolor noir?) Why is Newt in America? What is the political endgame for the various players introduced? Why is there such loathing and fear for these beautiful, mischievous creatures Newt hides and hauls around in a battered brown suitcase, a valise that magically hides a portal to Rowling’s version of the world’s grooviest “no-kill” shelter? By the film’s predictably cacophonous denouement (my only criticism), many answers are provided, but enough dangling threads are left to tee up (no doubt) another (very profitable) series of films. I think I’ll be packing my suitcase to tag along.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

MLK holiday movie marathon (VIDEO): Paddington, Foxcatcher, Selma, American Sniper

Enjoy this quick video synopsis of movies we saw over the Martin Luther King holiday weekend – Paddington, Foxcatcher, Selma, American Sniper. (You can read the full reviews of all four below this entry).

 

And thanks to The Columbia City Post & Mail for this additional shout-out for the release of Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2: Keep ‘Em Coming!

Post and Mail RRR2 Redux

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“A vicious lie as placation.” Selma

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Selma is a beautiful film beautifully made and could not arrive at a more appropriate time in our nation’s history. Selma depicts a world in which we as a nation invest time and energy fighting foreign wars while neglecting our own people at home. Sound familiar? This core message in the film resonates today as it did then, and it is delivered flawlessly.

I won’t go into the recent Oscar controversy surrounding the film, but I do concur with those who feel the film’s lead actors and director not being nominated is a gross oversight. Like so many modern films depicting historic situations, Selma suffers from some genre clichés: collapsing too many complex issues into a glib exchange or two, projecting the passage of time chiefly through changes in wardrobe and hairstyle, giving us historical figures who sometime seem as if they walked out of a book of paper dolls.

However, and this is key, Selma is written and directed with a sharp eye toward how far we think we’ve come yet how little we’ve actually achieved when it comes to human rights in America. We are a country that celebrates freedom and equality but thrives economically on an ingrained caste system, which is based on race and ethnicity and gender and age, all superficial qualities ultimately irrelevant to one’s true value. The film wisely focuses on an episode in Martin Luther King‘s storied career (the march on Selma) as a means of understanding the man and his role in history, rather than doing the tired lifetime-crammed-into-three-hours biopic approach of yore.

Director Ava DuVernay stacks the deck with a cast that is both credible and compelling. David Oyelowo so inhabits the soul and voice and mannerisms of  Martin Luther King, you forget at times that you’re watching an actor (let alone a Brit) portray one of our greatest historical figures. Carmen Ejogo (another Brit!) offers a Coretta Scott King who is flinty and self-possessed, gracious and justifiably exhausted in the face of harrowing trials both domestic and public.

Tom Wilkinson (Brit number three!) as a blustering, well-intentioned, frustrated and frustrating LBJ and Tim Roth (Brit number four!) as misguided/misanthropic political animal George Wallace round out a terrific cast. All are dynamite. With great nuance, Oprah Winfrey, one of the film’s producers (and not a Brit), plays a pivotal (if small) role in Annie Lee Cooper , whose efforts to gain the right to vote are the essential issue at play in King’s historic march from Selma to Montgomery.

Unlike Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which presented another take on the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Selma does not fall prey to its own high-minded aspirations. The filmmakers are not afraid to show King warts and all (his philandering is addressed in a quietly powerful confrontation between Coretta and her husband) or even to imply that King is as much a political opportunist as those white leaders both alongside and in opposition to his efforts. DuVernay lets her lens show King in a number of lights: noble, maddeningly self-serving, obtuse, kind. I found that approach refreshing, educational, and enlightening, particularly as I continue to scratch my head at the decision-making of our world’s current leaders.

In the film, King, in his climactic speech in Montgomery, uses the phrase “a vicious lie as placation,” impugning the very nature of a system that pushes one class down to the benefit of another. This insidious concept continues to corrupt our ability to peacefully coexist, both among ourselves as Americans and with all other denizens of the world; viewing Selma could be part of the antidote: instructive, heart rending, and essential

________________________________

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Fun escapist trifle far better than it deserves to be: Sparkle

Description: Film poster; Source: Wikipedia [linked]; Portion used: Film poster only; Low resolution? Sufficient resolution for illustration, but considerably lower resolution than original. Other information: Intellectual property by film studio. Non-free media use rationales: Non-free media use rationale - Article/review; Purpose of use: Used for purposes of critical commentary and illustration in an educational article about the film. The poster is used as the primary means of visual identification of this article topic. Replaceable? Protected by copyright, therefore a free use alternative won't exist.

[Image source: Wikipedia]

I have foggy half-remembered impressions of the original Sparkle with Irene Cara and Philip Michael Thomas. I, like so many others, am more keenly aware of all the films and musicals that came in its wake, paying homage (or swiping) its central conceit, including both stage and film versions of Dreamgirls. But, probably my most memorable exposure to the film was hearing En Vogue’s hit remake of the original Sparklesoundtrack cut “Giving Him Something He Can Feel” in the early 90s.

Consequently, this remake is no doubt going to land with an anti-climactic thud, which is a bit unfair. Yes, the film manages somehow to outdo both Douglas Sirk AND Tyler Perry in overwrought, under-scripted, over-accessorized, oddly-bewigged melodrama. Yes, it is yet another in the strange new subgenre of cheaply made, kinda junky, shamefully enjoyable Hollywood film musical featuring pop divas at odd way-stations in their careers (see: Cher and Xtina in Thanksgiving turkey Burlesque).

HOWEVER, a key difference is that the generally winning cast here overcomes limited material and an unfortunate Lifetime TV-movie approach to direction and screenplay to deliver a pretty compelling and always entertaining two hours. The specter of Whitney Houston’s passing hangs heavy on the production but also gives it an emotional heft it might not have otherwise had. Never an actress of great depth but always a presence, Houston, in this case, gives a nuanced performance, providing the film its emotional center. She plays a matriarch whose misspent youth has left her living in fear that her daughters will repeat her sordid deeds (which one of them does) and overcompensating through religious zealotry. If you can make it through Houston’s singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” at a key moment in the film without becoming a puddle, well, you’re a stronger soul than I…or you’re a cyborg.

The other performers all turn in credible performances, and keep the enterprise moving along. Mike Epps is quite effective as a charmingly smarmy and eventually rabidly mean comedian who woos (and worse) Houston’s eldest daughter, the equally good Carmen Ejogo. Ejogo is kinda like a less-scenery-chewing Thandie Newton. As Houston’s middle daughter, Tika Sumpter has great fun with an otherwise thankless role – I looked forward to every line she zippily delivered. There was far too little of her in the film.

I’m not a fan of American Idol Jordin Sparks who played Houston’s song-writing title character daughter, and she and fellow romantic lead Derek Luke were a bit too cloyingly wholesome to be endured at times. BUT she dutifully served her purpose as a pleasant cipher upon whom we as audience members could project our own reactions to the, at times, goofy “movie logical” moments that would never actually happen in reality. (For example, not to spoil anything, but at one point a key figure is, yes, murdered with a fireplace poker, and, while the murder is in self-defense and no court in the land would debate it…all the other characters cover it up, while another nobly takes the rap. That’s what I call “movie logic.”)

Catch this one at the dollar theatre or on DVD/online. It’s a fun escapist trifle that is far better than it deserves to be because the ensemble is so devoted and engaged. Whitney Houston’s passing broke my heart for many reasons, though not necessarily because of her prior film performances. After seeing her in this, though, I think we have been deprived of what could have been a very interesting third act in her remarkable, challenged, and challenging career.