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.

Fences (Washington; 2016)

Long gone are the days when Hollywood would regularly tap Broadway for film ideas.  Sure, we get a very occasional Into the Woods or Sweeney Todd, but since the millennium changed over to the 2s, it’s more common for Broadway to take Spiderman, or The Lion King, or Carrie than the other way around.  So when a play, granted, a Pulitzer Prize winning play, from 1987 made its way to the big screen nearly 30 years after its initial release it was pleasantly surprising, even when that play was recently revived in 2010 with Denzel Washington and Viola Davis playing the lead roles.  Fences brings that revival to a larger audience with Washington now not just playing the lead role, but also acting as director.

Much of the original cast from the 2010 version of the Cort Theater show makes its way into the screen version as does the set apparently, which while obviously not an exact copy, seems to have been lovingly recreated for the film shoot, except this time without a fourth wall missing.  This sums up both the best element of Fences and the element that is most likely to turn people off, the fact that this really is the umpeenth performance of a stage play put on by some fantastic actors whom aren’t live.

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Having practically one set must have saved a ton on production costs, though.

Most of the hype around Fences has centered around the performances of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis as Troy and Rose Maxon respectively, and that hype is absolutely deserved.  You can tell that these two have worked together as these two characters for a long time, because they give performances that are not just good, but that I can only describe as “lived in”, in that they absolutely inhabit and become these two people.  For most of the movie, you don’t feel like a spectator so much as a voyeur, for better or worse, but that is entirely due to the fact that you forget you are watching actors in a role, at least until a monologue with a close up, and there are quite a few to be seen here, is put on for us.

The original play is a Pulitzer Prize winner, and since what you are seeing on screen deviates only slightly, you are seeing some of the best character writing that can be put to paper.  The story centers on Troy, a black man who was once a professional baseball player in the Negro leagues, and who thinks he could have been much more had the color barrier been broken when he’d been playing.  He now lives with his wife, Rose, and son, Cory (played by Jovan Adepo), and works as a garbage man.  The story is very much a character piece that show what the pressures of race, poverty, ambition, and pride can do to a man, and it never seeks to sugar coat anything, never make villains nor heroes where there aren’t any to be had.  It’s realistic and intimate, and if that sounds appealing to you then you will be blown away by what you see here, otherwise, there’s a good chance you will be bored.

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You see a lot of shots like this, because this really is what the movie is about – conversations, arguments, and tales.

Fences has some of the finest acting of the year on display, and it is worth seeing for that alone.  The story is an important one, too, and while you have to dig deep to get the most out of it, you’ll find it’s one worth digging into.  However, since it is such a stagey, cerebral piece, it isn’t necessary to see it in the movie theaters.  The best way to see it, honestly, would be on stage where it was meant to be seen, though you won’t get Washington and Davis then.  Catch Fences, it’s an incredibly meaningful and thoughtful work of art, but don’t feel the need to rush out to see it, especially since it’s one that needs to be taken in slowly to really get everything out of it you can.

Rating:  7.6 out of 10

 

The Magnificent Seven (Fuqua; 2016)

Hollywood knows that you claim to hate remakes.  They also know you go see them despite this.  Film directors know very well which films are classics that can’t be improved upon and which aren’t.  Remakes of classic films are made for one of two reasons, those being that a studio needs an easy cash grab and assigns a director looking for work to a project they are sure will bring in some box office numbers due to name recognition or that a director decides a classic film needs to be brought to the attention of a new audience even if the remake can never be as good, the film’s legacy must be allowed to carry on.  Since it’s been 62 years since Seven Samurai was initially released and 56 years since the first The Magnificent Seven, I like to think this is a case of bringing a classic to a new generation’s attention.  It’s unfortunate that updating it didn’t do the story any favors.

The plot of this 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven remains more or less the same as its predecessors.  A small town of farmers is beset upon by a group of outsiders (a mining company run by a robber baron rather than bandits this time around) and they have to find someone who will defend them from these outsiders with very little reward since the farmers have already lost most everything they own.  This simple and now classic set up allows for a deep exploration of character as we discover why the various members of the group of saviors put themselves in this situation.  It allows for fantastic action scenes and tense anticipation.  In short, everything you need for truly great drama.  This version of The Magnificent Seven, unfortunately, does not give itself the time it needs for plot and character development.  At over an hour shorter than its predecessors it instead rushes through the gathering of the seven together and straight into the climactic battle.  If Hollywood studios feel, perhaps correctly, that modern audiences will not sit through a movie longer than 2 and a half hours, they shouldn’t attempt films that need more time than that to truly develop.

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Get it?  Develop?  Film?  Just kidding.  It’s all digital now.

The many flaws present in this latest remake, however, are almost never the fault of the actors.  There are a few poor performances here, particularly by the film’s major bad guy (Peter Sarsgaard as Bartholomew Bogue) and the lead female role played by Haley Bennet who was apparently cast more for her admittedly very impressive figure than for her acting range.  Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, and Vincent D’Onofrio as our primary four of the seven are, while certainly not at the top of their game, quite good and give as charming and commanding of performances as we have become used to seeing from them.  D’Onofrio in particular is great in his turn as an older tracker nothing like anything we have ever seen from him in the past, once again showing that he is one of the most underappreciated actors in Hollywood today.

The camera work and choreography in The Magnificent Seven is also very impressive for the most part, though in a few of the more frenetic action pieces late in the movie shaky cameras are relied on a little too much, though not to the extent many recent films have taken the technique and it doesn’t mar the experience too terribly much.  Visual effects are also very well done and seamless to the extent that you can very easily forget that they are even in play here.  Overall the visuals never achieve any level of greatness, but they definitely display a high level of expertise on the part of all those involved.

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Good at shooting is good at shooting, whether it’s with a camera or something else.  But, not really.

Ultimately, The Magnificent Seven is a film I cannot recommend even as a modern reimagining as most of what made Seven Samurai and the 1960 The Magnificent Seven great is missing here.  The action is better, but that’s it, and we lose all the deep characterization, all the thematic brilliance, and the ebb and flow of tension that make Seven Samurai a masterpiece and the 1960 version a rarity among remakes.  The 2016 The Magnificent Seven is more than just a hollow shell of it’s predecessors, but not much more, especially when the predecessors are still out there to demand your attention instead.

Rating:  5.6 out of 10