“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.

The Oscars … A Final Word on 2017

 

US-OSCARS-SHOW

All: MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

The #Oscars … a final word. I always enjoy the show. A family tradition, we watched every year. We enjoyed the spectacle. We appreciated the good and the great amidst the marketing and the gamesmanship. We embraced the sense of community and the half-baked overtures at social consciousness. We lived for those odd and memorable moments that set one year apart from another. And we relished that we live in a country where this kind of goofy escapist display is celebrated.

 

89th Annual Academy Awards - Show

All in all, I liked last night’s show. And I’m grateful for the arts on all levels – from shameless commerce to high-falutin’ … glad it is ALL there for our consumption.

Other than that delightfully bizarre ending (La La Land wins … oops, sorry … give those back. Moonlight wins!), I thought this year’s Oscar telecast was a good-hearted and balanced production, and, while I am not a fan of Jimmy Kimmel, I thought he did a decent job of poking fun at the right personalities without being too invasive/obtrusive. And the whole enterprise moved as efficiently as it ever does, with a high point being the musical numbers … for once.

Here are some parting shots, culled from my social media observations of the evening …

  • Emma Stone,Ryan Gosling,Mahershala AliEmma Stone! And now she has an #Oscar … so we get a little break from the relentless charm offensive? Pretty please?
  • I know we are supposed to love Matt and Ben, but they seem like marginally interesting guys with whom I may have gone to high school.
  • Dammit. “Both Sides Now”?!? That song makes me a puddle. Perfect choice.#SaraBareilles #JoniMitchell #InMemoriam
  • “Dedicated to all the kids who sing in the rain. And all the moms who let them.” – “City of Stars” Best Song acceptance
  • Oh my! John Legend singing “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” … beautiful and elegant throwback to another era. A little Sammy Davis, a little Johnny Mathis, a little Nat King Cole. A lot of gorgeous.
  • Javier Bardem + Meryl Streep = swoon!gettyimages-645743660
  • “To save one life is to save all of humanity.” – White Helmets Oscars acceptance
  • Miracle of miracles. Seth Rogen actually made me laugh. #schuylersistersbucketlist
  • Audible – 1984, Zachary Quinto – commercial. For the win. #Orwell
  • This tour bus thing is a pretty funny bit. And Nicole, Ryan, Denzel, Jennifer, Meryl, Jeff, etc are playing along beautifully. #Gary
  • Yes. Zootopia! Most cleverly subversive film of the year. (And here comes the Moana debate again…)
  • Great ad, Cadillac. Though, it would have been better as Chevrolet. #CadillacNotTheEverymanCar … Cadillac … cars for fancy people … no, wait, for the common man … no, wait. Fancy people. Yeah. Fancy people.
  • Shirley MacLaine, still looking adorable, and still milking the reincarnation jokes…
  • US-OSCARS-SHOW“People and words and life and forgiveness. And grace.” – Viola Davis
  • “I love Lady Gaga’s grandma’s house.” – Ellen (I am not sure what the ad was for, but that line made me LOL.)
  • For the first time … in, like, ever … the music on the #Oscars is (mostly) on point. But I’d like Lin-Manuel to stop rapping. For a long time.
  • “We don’t discriminate based on country of origin here in Hollywood. We discriminate based on age and weight.” – Jimmy Kimmel
  • Words I thought I’d never type. Suicide Squad, Oscar winner.
  • John Travolta should send Warren Beatty a cookie basket. Adele Dazeem is a distant memory now. #Oscars

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89th Annual Academy Awards - ShowReel 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.

 

“Times are changing.” Or so we had hoped … Fences (2016)

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Nothing says happy holidays like a little family drama, and just in time for Christmas is Fences, a cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play directed by and starring Denzel Washington. Fences focuses on the inner workings of an African-American family in Pittsburgh in the mid-1950s.

Washington plays Troy Maxson, a former baseball player from the Negro Leagues caught in a downward spiral of male menopause, uncertain whether he wants to be a devoted husband and father or a gin-drinking rounder, whether or not he wants to continually relive his glory days or shield his children from the false promise of organized athletics, whether or not he wants to be a swaggering blowhard or a wizened patriarch.

The play owes its DNA to Arthur Miller as much as Lorraine Hansberry, with a tight lens on a small, struggling family in a small, claustrophobic house in a small, insular corner of Pittsburgh. Fences fits neatly in that genre of “up against it” 1950s family drama, where the walls closing in (economically, emotionally, socially) spark tension and narrative complications.

Viola Davis is heart-wrenchingly exquisite as Troy’s long-suffering wife Rose. As the film unfolds, we learn about their courtship, the familial secrets between them, the intimate details of their daily rituals.  Davis so fully inhabits this world (and the detailed set design – truly, the Maxson home in Fences is a compact marvel of on-location perfection), striking the right balance between being a recognizable “movie star” and completely immersing herself in the mundane beauty of her character’s daily life. As a result, Troy’s eventual emotional/physical betrayal of Rose hits like a sucker punch, and Davis’ Rose doesn’t take kindly to her husband so blithely imploding her idyllic quietude.  Davis’ mid-film confrontation with Washington is well worth the ticket price alone. You remember that scene in Doubt when we all first said “Who is that?!?” as Davis’ character gave Meryl Streep the what-for over Streep’s well-intentioned meddling? Well, multiply that by 100. Someone get Davis – and the audience – a gilded box of Kleenex, stat.

Washington just can’t compete with Davis, though he does credible work as both director and actor creating presence and ambience that linger well after the final credits roll. I have long suspected that an actor cannot direct him or herself with full objectivity, and I fear that is a bit of the problem with this film. Davis and Washington won Tony awards for playing these very roles on Broadway a few years back, and Washington no doubt was confident he could effortlessly transfer his performance from one medium to the other. I think an outside perspective may have helped eliminate the trademark Denzel twinkle that runs the risk of sinking his performance with hambone indulgence. YET, Denzel is playing a character whose Achilles’ heel is self-indulgence, so it is difficult to parse what may be an actor’s trap from what is compelling characterization.

Wilson’s play, which he adapted for the screen before his death, is a meditation on mortality, racial marginalization, gender identity, socioeconomic restrictions, and the very nature of family. The “fences” in the title are ubiquitous, sometimes physical as in the fence Troy is building around his backyard, but often they are metaphorical. The characters’ true inner natures conflict with their projected personae and their deepest desires, boxing them in with unfulfilled potential. If there ever was a movie about dreams deferred, it is this one, whether it is Troy’s stunted career as a professional athlete or Rose’s desire for a peaceful nuclear family or their son Cory’s pursuit of a football scholarship which is sadly and predictably derailed by the egomania of his father.

Jovan Adepo is thoughtful and engaging if unremarkable as Cory, and Russell Hornsby leaves a more haunting impression as Lyons, Troy’s troubled son from an earlier relationship. Mykelti Williamson is playing to the cheap seats as Troy’s war-vet brother Gabe. Gabe’s closed-head injury provides a steady stream of government income to the Maxson family, and Williamson’s characterization provides a steady stream of cringe-worthy moments for the audience. The character may have worked ok as a plot device in the mid-80s when Fences was originally conceived, but today Gabe just comes off as an obvious plot device and a rather tone-deaf one at that. Stage vet Stephen McKinley Henderson (also making the transfer from the Broadway revival to the film version) is by far the strongest supporting player as Troy’s confidante and co-worker Jim Bono. Like Davis, Henderson imbues the proceedings with an authenticity and an integrity that the other players can’t quite nail. The script’s rat-a-tat interplay rolls effortlessly off Henderson’s tongue, yet he is strongest in the too-few quiet moments (I wish there had been more – this is a talky piece), conveying a world of hurt with a flick of his eyes as he listens to and observes the Maxson family deteriorate around him.

I admit that I have never seen the play Fences on stage, and I am curious how a theatrical presentation illuminates the piece’s more esoteric themes. As my mom noted after our viewing, there is a King Lear quality to Troy’s character arc – a “man without a country” vibe that Washington gets within a hair’s breadth of achieving. Monologues that are likely lightning rods of plainspoken existentialism onstage are muddled in the need to open up more cinematic vistas. The film does its work maintaining an oppressive sense of claustrophobia, but doesn’t quite reach the levels of caged ferocity I suspect the play might.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

We are living in a moment where race and gender politics are more heated than ever, and people feel attacked on all sides just for being themselves. Fences comes at an interesting time, and it will be noteworthy to see how audiences embrace the film and its narrative. Throughout the first act, Viola Davis’s character often tries to get Troy to accept son Cory’s hopes and dreams of a better future by insisting that “the world has changed.” During our particular showing, that line received a vocal reaction from the incredulous and world-weary audience, a sound that hovered between a gasp and a guffaw.  I have to admit that hearing a screen character from 1956 express a sentiment that 60 years later rings so hollow gave me pause as well.

Neither playwright Wilson nor director Washington condescend to their subject matter, and Fences resists the urge to marginalize its creations by pushing them to melodramatic extremes. Rather, the film shows us our own humanity by detailing the very real life – both tragic and hopeful – occurring behind every front door on every neighborhood block. Praise be.

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Thanks to my loving and lovable parents for this early birthday surprise …

Thanks to my loving and lovable parents for this early birthday surprise!

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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.