Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Gilroy; 2017)

The film Roman J. Israel, Esq. opens with the titular character (Denzel Washington) typing up a court transcript in which he is making himself both the prosecutor and the defendant, and apparently also the attorneys, the judge, the jury, and everyone else involved with his imaginary case.  It’s an opening that does grab your attention.  Who is Roman J. Israel?  What did he do that would make him feel he needs to be put on trial?  What sort of person would go to all the trouble of actually typing out an entire false trial in judgment of himself?  This fantasy trial transcript never goes past the point of declaring the plaintiff and defendant at any point in the film, however, and so this transcript becomes an allegory for the entire film.  It’s an interesting premise that is ruined by the fact that it never explores any of its ideas past the introductory concept and even then it doesn’t seem to understand much about people, law, nor storytelling.

First and foremost of the things to talk about in this film is the central character Roman J. Israel, Esq. himself.  After the short introduction is finished, we flashback a short period in time to find that Roman starts the movie a law savant working in a very small criminal defense law firm in which he does all the behind the scenes work while his partner appears in court and performs all the other duties which involve contact and conversation with people.  The savant angle of Roman’s character is the focal point of the film as we a watch person who has entire volumes of legal decisions and case law memorized down to specific subsection numbers but understands next to nothing of the arts of politics and diplomacy which are also so essential in the legal profession.  Yet, we never learn what makes him this way.  Is it a form of high functioning autism?  Is it a form of OCD?  A combination of factors?  Is it just the way he was raised?  We never learn any of these answers and they could very well have a strong influence on how the audience perceives him and his actions in the film.

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It should also affect Washington’s portrayal of the role.  You can tell that this film is more than just a paycheck in the passion he brings to the role.  This is Denzel at his most magnetic and intense.  You can tell that he loves this character, and wants to do everything he can to make us love and understand him, as well.  This is a case, though, of the devil being in the details.  If he’s playing an autistic savant, then there are far too many cases of suave, smooth Denzel making its way to the forefront.  If he’s playing OCD, we never see any of the habits or tics which would define such a person.  Even in the things we know for sure about the character he seems to miss details, making for a character we really want to like and appreciate, but can’t due to a lack of understanding who he is and his motivations from inconsistencies.

These inconsistencies are not solely the fault of Washington, though, the script and direction from Dan Gilroy not only do him no favors but are actually the real source of the majority of this film’s woes.  It’s a script that doesn’t know what kind of film it wants to be.  It’s sort of a character piece, sort of a legal drama, sort of a crime drama, sort of an activist statement, but it never manages to commit to any one plot nor theme so we’re ultimately left with a film full of half-realized plots and thoughts.  These problems extend into every element of the film, from Roman himself to every supporting character and subplot.  Which is too bad, because like Denzel you can tell that Gilroy is passionate about this subject matter, but his passion overrode his common sense and objectivity it seems as he wasn’t able to recognize his film for the inconsistent mess it is.

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Putting the plot and characters aside, though, the technical elements of Roman J. Israel, Esq. are well handled.  The camerawork adds a lot to the tone of the film, showing us Los Angeles through the eyes of Roman himself and how his view of the city and himself change as he makes his own major life changes throughout the film.  The art direction and costumes also add an impressive amount to the atmosphere with the choices of costume in particular almost doing more to let us understand these characters than the writing and the acting do (and, the film seems to know this on some level with the amount of time spent commenting on what Roman is wearing).  It’s a movie that knows when to be pretty and when to be ugly, and obviously loves Los Angeles for its flaws just as much as its glory.

The film’s fatal flaw, though, even worse than its handling of its characters and plot is its handling of its themes.  It’s a movie that seems to want to be an even-handed film showing that people have layers and that an evil act does not make an evil person and vice versa or perhaps that being successful does not make one unethical or perhaps its meant to be a simpler don’t judge a book by its cover style of message.  Due to the fact that its characterizations are so messy, though, I don’t know.  Compare Roman J. Esquire to a film like Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri or Lady Bird (review forthcoming) and you will the difference between characters and story which are complex and realistic and those which are merely inconsistent and not well thought out.

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Final verdict:  Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a mess of a passion project.  It’s a movie that I really want to like because you can tell that the people behind it really believed in what they were doing.  That very belief, however, seemed to blind them to the reality which is that this movie was trying to do so much that it couldn’t accomplish much of it effectively.  As a visual testament to the city of Los Angeles and to the maxim of clothes making the man the movie hits, but aside from that, it spins its wheels never letting us really understand who these people are nor what they are trying to say.

Suburbicon (Clooney; 2017)

Suburbicon is going to be a difficult film to review without giving spoilers largely because the marketing campaign does such an excellent job at not giving away anything about the true nature of the film.  As usual, I will do my best to not give away any major plot points in the movie, but to even discuss the pros and cons will give away elements of the movie that are not obvious at all from the trailers,  So, I will say here to start that I do not recommend the film for prime time theater viewing, but it does have a message told in a unique if overly heavy-handed and over-familiar way (yes, I realize unique and over-familiar are contradictory, but I stick by that description) which makes the movie worth catching eventually on streaming or now at a matinee.

The year in which Suburbicon takes place is never explicitly mentioned, but it during a period in the United States in which the middle class was prosperous, houses in close-knit communities with greener than green lawns and white picket fences were the fashion, and ending segregation was one of the nation’s hot-button issues.  The film opens with a short faux advertising film reel letting us know why we should move to the community of Suburbicon followed by a bit showing a mailman making his rounds through the town which only needs Doris Day and a musical number with neighbors dancing with push mowers to make it complete,   We learn that new neighbors have moved into Suburbicon, and this has everyone excited and curious, but when the mailman goes to their house and discovers the African American woman answering the front door (Karimah Westbrook) is not an indentured servant, but is in fact the new neighbor Mrs. Mayers, Suburbicon’s attitude immediately changes.  The film’s plot really gets underway when Rose (Julianne Moore who also plays Rose’s identical twin sister Margaret) suggests to her son Nicky (Noah Jupe) that he invite the new neighbor Noah Mayer to go play baseball with him.  Despite Nicky’s protestations, he does befriend his new African American neighbor, but the very next day two men appear in the middle of the night to attack Nicky, Rose, Margaret, and Gardner (Matt Damon) in their home.

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Suburbicon is the latest directorial effort from George Clooney, who has previously given us a handful of mediocre to pretty good films, my favorites being Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night and Good Luck, when working behind the camera.  Clooney has worked a lot with the Coen Brothers over the years, and you can see their inspiration in his directing, so I assumed when I was seeing such strong Coen Brothers’ influences in Suburbicon that it was just Clooney’s style.  While that may be part of the reason this seemed so much like one of their films, the real reason I discovered upon seeing the closing credits was that Joel and Ethan Coen share writing credits along with Clooney himself and Grant Heslov.  Comparing a film to the Coen’s films is nearly always a compliment, but here it is really just the trappings of a Coen film without the extra spark of wry eccentricity that makes their films so engaging.

I’m sure Clooney himself can be largely blamed for that lack of spark, but I think the biggest reason comes from the story itself.  The next sentence is such a spoiler I am going to make it only readable by highlighting it, but it is the number one problem with the film so it has to be mentioned.  The real problem with Suburbicon is that we’ve seen this movie before, but the first time it was called Fargo and it took place in North Dakota and Minnesota rather than in Pleasantville and it didn’t attempt social commentary via an awkward, honestly unneeded, parallel storyline.  This was also my major problem with Star Wars: The Force Awakens but in this case not only is the story being retread, it’s also being watered down and diffused.

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The cast of Suburbicon gives us some good work for the most part, though Noah Jupe comes across very one-note especially after seeing some excellent child performances this year from so many people that I’m wondering if actors under eighteen need to have their own category at the Academy Awards.  Julianne Moore and Matt Damon have the lion’s share of screen time, and while neither gives a particularly nuanced performance, they do obviously have fun with their roles and allow their natural goofball charisma to grab our attention.  Oscar Isaac has a small supporting role in the film, and he manages to steal the show every single time he makes an appearance making me wonder why he hasn’t gotten more lead roles as aside from his turn as Apocalypse in X-Men: Apocalypse he has never given us a bad performance.

The visuals of Suburbicon are excellently put together with camera work which borders on art and charming art direction.  But perhaps best of all visually is the snappy editing style from Stephen Mirrione (Birdman, The Revenant, and many others), and while this effort won’t win him another Oscar, it is still worthy of what we’ve come to expect from him.

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Final verdict:  Suburbicon could have been a great film if its plot hadn’t been recycled, but it has so it isn’t.  Visually, there is a lot to like even if none of ever reaches the level of stunning, and the actors obviously have fun with Oscar Isaac really going above and beyond.  Heck, even the writing could have been something special as it does tackle a message so sorely needed in Trump’s America, but that message is so clumsily presented in a story we’ve already seen that it comes across as insulting rather than inspired.  While Suburbicon was directed by Clooney, it’s really a Coen Brothers’ film through and through, and it’s one closer to the Intolerable Cruelty and Ladykillers end of the Coen scale than Fargo and No Country for Old Men.

 

I Am Not Your Negro (Peck; 2016)

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an American author and activist whose life was often on the fringes of the American civil rights movement, but due to his self imposed exile in France and his cynical nature never ended up front and center in the movement’s spotlight.  He met and describes himself as friends with Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr, and I Am Not Your Negro is a narration of his writing, and in particular his writing about these three men and his thoughts about their place in history and what the history of the black man in America really is, read by Samuel L. Jackson and set to images relevant to his prose.

Essentially, watching I Am Not Your Negro is listening to a book on audio while viewing relevant images and interspersing contextual video clips.  It isn’t an innovative documentary style, but it does the trick.  The style ensures your interest never wanders and emphasizes the points made through Jackson’s voice and Baldwin’s words.  Since the words were written in the late ’70s by a man who had largely divorced himself from American culture at the time, the visuals also do the majority of the work in tying the message to the culture and issues of today.  Baldwin may be making a point about Alabama but the images we see are from Ferguson, Missouri, for example.

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What Baldwin does excellently, better than any author I’ve ever read before, is eloquently and poetically describe the experience of living black in America.  The story has been told many times, before, of course, and every person’s experience is going to be a little different, and it seems Baldwin’s may be even more different than most who get films ade about them, but his use of language is so simultaneously sumptuous and descriptive that his account hits home in a way few before ever have, these are the words of a classic author, not an everyman.

The message behind the words in I Am Not Your Negro is very modern, even if the examples and references are very outdated.  Baldwin speaks about Malcolm X, King, and Evers in some detail, of course, but he also has much to say about Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Bobby Kennedy, Nina Simone, Ray Charles, and many other 60’s civil rights icons.  What he has to say about these figures is very honest, sometimes praising other times condemning them for what they said and did, and making it very clear that Baldwin himself didn’t align himself with any of the era’s leaders or organizations thinking all of them had their place, but all had flawed visions, as well.  He felt liberals were condescending, the church born from a lust for power, the Black Panthers too single minded and angry.  No one escaped his criticism, but he also saw the good in most everyone as well.  Only conservatives truly eluded him, making him ask, “Why do you need a nigger?”, and admonishing them by telling them that once they figure out the answer to that question they will have their eyes opened to the evils of the United States.

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Final recommendation:  Baldwin himself makes the point, albeit in a different manner, in I Am Not Your Negro that it is pathetic that racism is still a relevant topic in the modern era of the United States, but relevant it is and will continue to be.   African Americans will unfortunately be the largest audience to see this film, most likely, and see it they should as it will give them validation, solidify their feelings with their thoughts, and will almost certainly allow them to see the problems they deal with on a daily basis at a slightly different angle.  For those of other races, seeing this film is even more important, as the lessons to be learned within are truly deep, thoughtful, phenomenally spoken, and can hopefully lead to a deeper empathy with our fellow man.

I Am Not Your Negro is normally a film I would say you could wait to see.  After all, America’s racism problem is going nowhere soon and seeing this film, as well done as it is, won’t solve those problems overnight, but given the current political climate in the United States the film takes on an urgency and importance not seen since the 1960’s.

 

Hidden Figures (Melfi; 2016)

Hidden Figures focuses on three major themes:  the brainpower needed to get the American Space Program literally off the ground, racism, and sexism.  All three of these themes are attacked from the very first second of the film in which we see the three main characters of the film, Katharine Johnson played by Taraji P. Henson, Dorothy Vaughan played by Octavia Spencer, and Mary Jackson played by Janelle Monae, stranded on the side of the road with a broken down car.  The three African American women deal with the situation in their own way, Katharine studies for her job later, Dorothy is underneath the car fixing it, and Mary stands behind the car smoking and considering hitching a ride when a white male police officer pulls up behind them lights flashing.  He tells them they can’t be there and they have to move along, and the girls tell him they work for NASA.

“I didn’t realize NASA hired…” (pregnant pause)

“Oh yes, lots of women work for the space program, officer.” (with a polite, but knowing smile)

The police officer then lets them finish working on their car and gives them an escort into work, lights flashing and siren blaring, so that they can get those American boys up in space.

This is a perfect example of a film opening setting the tones and themes of the film to come.  The girls are confronted with a problem, the problem becomes exaggerated because of racism and sexism, the girls use their skills to get them through the problem, and they’ve earned the respect of the white men whom they work with.  The writing is efficient and entertaining, if often a bit saccharine and overly safe.

Looking at the three major themes of Hidden Figures separately, we see first off that the topic of sexism is barely touched on.  When Katherine first meets Colonel Jim Johnson, the man she eventually marries, he seems incredulous of her talents due to her gender, and this gets them off on the wrong foot, and looking at the various departments around NASA, women and men most definitely have their own sectors and only rarely do they mix, but these subjects are only hinted at and touched upon due to the era, but are never explored in any depth.  Johnson quickly gets over his sexism and sees Katherine for the intelligent person she is without any real fight or struggle, and there are no Mad Man type moments in the rest of the film looking at women as objects or inferiors aside from just portraying the mores of the time accurately.  This is enough for an active watcher, and spending more time on the sexism angle of the story would detract from the other two major themes, but don’t expect Hidden Figures to make much of a statement nor shed much light on a feminist front.

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The rhemes of racism are handled with more care and attention.   Modern Hollywood is evolving when it comes to these themes, not focusing as much on the hatred and violence that marks racism at its most extreme, but giving us stories that shed light on the far more common every day racism that nearly every single one of us furthers and accepts whether we know or like it or not.  Hidden Figures can sugar coat the message, but that is not altogether a bad thing as the whole purpose of sugar coating is to make something easier to swallow, and this a message that needs as many people to swallow it as is possible.

A great example of how Hidden Figures approaches the topic is the subplot of Katherine having to use the rest room while working for the department of calculations.  This was still the era of segregation, so white and colored bathrooms were still very much a real thing, and the nearest colored women’s bathroom is on the opposite end of NASA’s campus, making for nearly a mile walk when both directions are taken into account every time Katherine has to pee.  Several times throughout the course of the film we see a scene in which she has to gather up her piles of books containing the figures she has to check and make the half mile each way trek all the while trying to keep her bladder under control.   When things start getting particularly tense because the calculation team is falling behind getting John Glenn’s orbital launch ready, Al Hamilton, Katherine’s boss played by Kevin Costner, blows up at her demanding to know why she disappears for 40 minutes every day when she knows what tight deadlines they are working with.  Katherine responds in kind, screaming at him about what she has to go through just to use the bathroom (among other racist, but socially accepted, double standards she has to endure).  Shortly thereafter we see Hamilton destroying the sign over the restroom which says Colored Ladies’ Bathroom in front of all the African American women who work at NASA and announcing that no longer will the bathrooms be separate, that everyone at NASA is part of the same team, and the women can use whatever bathroom they want, all to thunderous applause (both by the characters in the movie and by the real audience watching the film if my audience is any indication of what to go by).

If this seems a bit too easy and pat, it is.  Two temper tantrums and suddenly years of policy are overwritten?  Even if it is someone very high up in the organization making the decision, there will still by naysayers and complaints, but here it’s just two people yelling at each other, one realizing that he didn’t understand the other’s position, and suddenly everything is fine.  On the other hand, handling the theme in this manner does make it more easily relatable to a larger audience.  The problem with focusing purely on the hatred and violence of racism is that people never see themselves as such, and showing the extremes of racism makes it easier to deny in yourself.  Showing racism as something far more insidious and accepted gets one thinking about their own prejudices, and exaggerating the ease with which it is overcome makes it easier for people to forgive themselves for their own biases and therefore confront rather than deny something we’d rather not see in ourselves.  Should racism always be dealt with like this in film?  Absolutely not.  Harsh reality must be confronted, as well.  But, Hidden Figures uses a method excellent at getting the average person to question their own prejudices.

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The story behind HIdden Figures, that of the part three African American women played in the Space Race of the Cold War, is for the most part well handled,  but does fail in a handful of areas.  The pacing of the story is excellent, the amount of time handled on each of the three women is well done with Katherine’s story taking the focus while Dorothy and Mary’s stories are large subplots.  The writers do a great job of letting us know about the story’s multiple and very real stakes to ratchet up the tension, and the racism themes parallel the Space Race plot excellently.

One problem is with Mary’s story.  While Katherine and Dorothy show that they were instrumental in getting the American Space Program up and running between Katherine’s calculations and Dorothy’s creativity, determination, and talent in learning FORTRAN, Mary’s story of becoming the first African American woman engineer is sort of sidelined and seems unimportant to the overall plot.  It is interesting and inspiring, to be sure, and Mary is an excellent character, but her story just seems to be wedged in to add a third subplot.

Finally, I’m not completely sure of the real story behind Hidden Figures but I can tell that much of the plot had to have been manufactured to work for Hollywood.  This is not a problem so much as an observation, if they weren’t manufacturing a plot it would have been a documentary and unfortunately had a much smaller audience for that reason, but it still needs to be pointed out.  I have no doubt that Katherine, Mary, and Dorothy knew each other as they all worked for NASA, but did they all carpool together every day, were they best friends outside of work, and did they really all push each other and inspire each other in their separate pursuits?  It’s possible, but seems highly unlikely, certainly unlikely that things happened in exactly the way the film portrayed their relationships.

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As to the remaining factors aside from the themes and story which make up Hidden Figures, all of the acting on display in the film is quite good to excellent.  The true stand out in the acting department is Janelle Monae who steals every single scene she appears in as Mary, making the most of her role which I mentioned earlier may be the least important to the story, but the most intriguing and entertaining as pure performance.  Spencer and Henson are both excellent, and Costner shows that he is still wonderful when he takes on a supporting role.  The only poor performance on display here is Jim Parsons as Paul Stafford, a person who works with the computations with Katherine and resents her.  His character is predictable and uninteresting, around merely to sneer and raise his nose in the air as if something smelled bad near him, and while part of this is the script’s fault, most of the script does tend to the predictable and easily digestible and all of the other actors managed to overcome that handicap.

The visuals are competent, with no scenes or shots particularly standing out in either a good nor in a bad way.  The camerawork has a nice, easy flow to it, the art design does the trick, the costumes look authentic, and the special effects don’t stand out.  All in all what we see on the screen is very competently put together even if there are few out there who would marvel at it as artistic.

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Final Recommendation:  Hidden Figures is a very good film which I recommend to nearly everyone.  If you are a history, and particularly a civil rights, Cold War, or space race, buff then I recommend it absolutely wholeheartedly.  I also strongly recommend Hidden Figures to women of African American descent as this film will make you feel some long overdue power and appreciation.  Perhaps the only group which may not enjoy this film are those whom are sticklers for historical accuracy.  For this group, I’m not sure what to recommend, as I still think you will find the history of the piece intriguing and in my research I was unable to find a documentary which deals with this subject.  Hopefully one day, but for now this is the closest we can get.