“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.

___________________

[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.

True family values: Saving Mr. Banks (PLUS – Steve Jobs, Vivien Leigh, and The Way Way Back!)

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]

Christmas is rough. It’s an emotionally, physically, financially exhausting gauntlet. And, please, no “reason for the season” kickback. I can’t take anymore cornpone trumped-up “War on Christmas” and “you better honor my good old fashioned values” talk when someone dares to suggest this end-of-year retail bonanza is anything but an overhyped, overbaked marketing ploy foisted on us all.

(And I might add: that internationally embarrassing and entirely unnecessary dust-up about the Southern-fried dipsticks in Duck Dynasty and their inane social views has about finished me off on any and all “values talk” at this point. Sarah Palin, you should be proud – your insidious, brain-dead buffoonery is complete. The nation has become completely addle-headed. Cue spooky lightning bolt and thunder effects.)

I love my time with my family over the holidays – the movies and card games with my parents in Indiana, the quiet moments after the holiday has passed at home in Michigan enjoying the new gifts and getting ready for shiny Baby New Year’s imminent arrival. Unfortunately, this year Typhoid Roy hit and I managed to infect everyone in my path with the ugliest cold/flu hybrid this side of a Michael Crichton novel. Consequently, our standard film marathon was trimmed to just one flick – the delightful Saving Mr. Banks – while the rest of the holiday was spent dozing with visions of NyQuil and Kleenex dancing through our heads.

Fortunately for us, Banks is a keeper. The film is an exploration of the unending challenges Walt Disney faced convincing author P.L. Travers that he and his film studio would respect the spirit of her literary creation in bringing Mary Poppins to cinematic life. The movie suffers from a rather conventional narrative structure with a few too many clunkily intrusive flashbacks to Travers’ girlhood in dusty rural Australia. Overall, though, Banks is a gem.

Emma Thompson takes the fussy personage of Travers and spins comedic (and dramatic) gold from the character. Travers’ unease with the Mouse House’s carnival huckster ways leads her to throw barrier upon barrier in Disney’s unceasing path. The poignant joy of the film is the discovery as to why Travers is so resistant … and I’m not going to spoil your potential “fun” (fun being debatable, as I suspect you will shed as many tears as I did).

She is well met in Tom Hanks who succeeds marvelously in the unenviable task of taking on the iconic role of Walt Disney himself. With a twinkle in his eye, Hanks resists the urge to play too far to the cuddly “Uncle Walt” end of the spectrum, tempering his portrayal by hitting all the right notes of Disney, the canny businessman. Hanks and Thompson dance a fine tango of two strong personalities, scarred by life but undeterred in their respective visions.

The supporting cast is outstanding, including Paul Giamatti as Travers’ relentlessly cheerful driver, Jason Schwartzman as one of the songwriting Sherman Brothers, Rachel Griffiths as a Travers’ family member who may (or may not) have inspired the Poppins character, Kathy Baker as Disney’s impish executive assistant, Bradley Whitford as the put-upon screenwriter, Ruth Wilson as Travers’ long-suffering mother, and most notably Colin Farrell as Travers’ beloved, fancy-free, ultimately tragic father.

Farrell is in great respect the heart and soul of the film, turning in a deeply felt and moving portrayal of a father, whose steady diet of whimsy and rye leads him to a number of questionable if well-intentioned parenting decisions.

Ultimately, the film serves as a Valentine to true family values, the ones whereby we in the present try to honor the spirit and aspirations of our forebears. Travers is depicted lovingly and honestly by Thompson as an artist who struggles to make meaning of a fractured childhood, exploring the written word to create an indelible flight of fantasy that could provide sanctuary to others like her and that would honor and redeem the father she dearly loved.

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]

Postscript…

Given that rampant illness kept me generally confined, there are a few home viewing options to mention. Jobs with Ashton Kutcher (!) in the title role as Apple’s storied founder is a meandering dud. Everyone in the cast seems to have done less research than reading half a Vanity Fair article on Silicon Valley’s hey day, mumbling their lines ‘neath shaggy 70s ‘dos. I was bored silly and I don’t think that was the influence of my cold medicine.

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]

The Way Way Back on the other hand is a witty and touching romp, detailing the travails of a poor sad-sack kid stuck at a summer beach house with his mother (the always dependable Toni Collette) and her stultifyingly arrogant, menopausal-jock-bully boyfriend (the also great Steve Carrell playing the drama for once and eerily reminding me of some relatives whom I would just as soon forget). It’s one of those “aren’t we proud to be an indie film!” movies with a lo-fi pop-punk soundtrack and plenty of glowering, but there is much sweetness afoot, particularly when the boy finds his muse in Sam Rockwell’s scruffy water park lothario.

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]

Finally, I read a book. Yes, a book! Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait by Kendra Bean. In both visual and written detail, the book rhapsodizes over the talent, beauty, and ambition of the once and forever Scarlett O’Hara. Leigh’s dynamism leaps off the page. The author stumbles a bit with a near canonization of Leigh’s husband Laurence Olivier, whom I’m not convinced was as saintly as implied. Regardless, the book is an exuberant and frothy look at a true star who blended celebrity and craft with genius-level precision and who left this world too soon, haunted by a career that lends itself too easily to wildly veering swings of colossal fame and crushing rejection.

Post…postscript…

To come full circle, happy 45th wedding anniversary today (December 28th) to my parents Susie and Don Sexton – I’m very proud of them! And, yeah, it happens to be my birthday today too. I told you the holidays are something for my family! Thanks for reading…

Until you are ready to shove popcorn in your ears: Seven Psychopaths

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 should preface this review of director Martin McDonagh’s latest film Seven Psychopaths by admitting that I have never given into the cult of actor Sam Rockwell. He has bubbled under the radar in a number of indie films over the past 15 years, and many have succumbed to his smarmy, winky, “isn’t life ridiculous,” Gen X charms. Alas, I am not one of those fawning fans. (The first time I ever suffered through him was in his shuffling, toothpick-chewing, pseudo-villain role in Charlie’s Angels ten years ago, and, to my mind, he has been recycling the same schtick ever since.)

Conversely, I long ago gave into the cult of Christopher Walken, who, like Rockwell, also pretty much gives the same performance in every film. In Walken’s case, though, it is a wide-eyed, acerbic, halting, wackadoodle, “life. is. ridiculous” delivery that I find charming. Why the hypocrisy on my part? I can only ascribe it to this: Rockwell’s self-indulgence is always in service to Rockwell; Walken’s self-indulgence is in service to the script.

With that paradigm in mind, it should come as no surprise that Seven Psychopaths worked best for me in those quiet, gentle moments when Walken – playing a reformed, Quaker (!) revenge killer who now kidnaps/returns dogs for reward money – interacts with his dear, cancer-stricken wife or his criminal cohorts as mayhem otherwise ensues. And, similarly unsurprising, the film falls apart for me in the final act when it is all about Rockwell’s character staging some sort of zany cinematic gunfight standoff with Woody Harrelson, a gangland thug who just wants his Shih Tzu returned. (This is all done while Rockwell sports an ever-so-dear, bear-shaped knit hat…and THAT would be the kind of twee, self-indulgent touch I mean.)

What is the film about exactly? I’m not sure. I suspect it was meant to be some kind of postmodern meditation on a culture whose warped idea of manhood is all about guns and violence and posturing to the detriment of meaningful human interaction. There are some fine and funny moments throughout with a great supporting cast. Harrelson is a joy as he continues to ride a career resurgence as a witty character-actor, and Tom Waits is spectacular as one of the psychopaths in question, who simply pines for the return of his long, lost love while petting his white fluffy rabbit (literally). However, the script seems to have been written by committee as if every goofy Quentin Tarantino-esque cliche was tossed into a blender, and I guess I just didn’t quite understand the point.

A few final observations. First, I didn’t know how I would stand the dog kidnapping angle, but I will say the film/actors were so sweet-natured about it and Walken is so heartfelt and dear that it ended up oddly charming.  Second, I’m not sure when Colin Farrell crossed over to achieving a likable, decent acting presence, but I enjoyed him and his reactions to the film’s random acts of absurdity. He kept the shenanigans nicely grounded. Finally, my mom once said about the theme song to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, “It has such a pretty melody…but it is ruined by the need to shoehorn the words ‘beauty’ and ‘beast’ into the chorus.” The same is true of this movie – by the fifth time the word “psychopath” is invoked by one of the characters, it just sounds silly…by the twentieth, if not thirtieth, you are ready to shove popcorn in your ears.