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.

Ingrid Goes West (Spicer; 2017)

Social media is not exactly a new subject for Hollywood, but it also isn’t a subject that’s treated with insight often.  The Social Network is arguably the best work on the subject, but it’s more of a story of how a social media giant came to be than how social media affects our daily lives, while films like Catfish and Hard Candy focus more on very specific dangers inherent to social media.  Ingrid Goes West is the story of a woman who seeks meaningful human contact through Instagram, and it’s one of the first films that meaningfully shows us a mirror of just how pathetic our cultural quest for likes and tags has allowed us to become.

The cast and crew of Ingrid Goes West are not neophytes by a long shot, but neither are they big screen regulars.  Aubrey Plaza plays the titular Ingrid, and most of us know her for her television work than her work in film.  This the directorial debut of Matt Spicer who also wrote Ingrid Goes West, and he only has one other major motion picture credit to his name on the writing end of things.  The Director of Cinematography Bryce Fortner does have a long list of credits, but again these are mostly for shorts and television.  The only true big screen veteran in the cast is Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Taylor, the latest object Ingrid’s obsession, and even she has a relatively young career.  All this adds up to a film that has a very distinct style, even if that style isn’t terribly refined and often comes across as a really good episode of a television series.

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Ingrid Goes West opens with a quick montage showing Ingrid stalking a woman named Charlotte on Instagram on the day of Charlotte’s wedding.  We learn that Charlotte doesn’t even know Ingrid, that Ingrid has latched onto Charlotte since Charlotte once liked a comment from Ingrid on her Instagram page, and so when Ingrid marches into Charlotte’s wedding uninvited it’s a surprise.  When Ingrid sprays mace into Charlotte’s face as reprisal for not inviting her to the wedding, Ingrid lands in a mental institution.   Shortly after leaving the institution, Ingrid finds a new target to stalk – Taylor, an Instagram photographer and model of some notoriety, and when Ingrid’s mother dies leaving her a relatively large sum of money, Ingrid decides it’s time to go to Los Angeles and make Taylor her new best friend.

Ingrid Goes West is a difficult film to talk about in any real detail, as to do so may spoil elements of the film best left to the audience to discover, but I’ll take a small chance on a bit of a spoiler by letting you know that while the acting and visuals on display are well done (if, like I said earlier, a tad “television-y”) the reason to see Ingrid Goes West is it’s incredibly insightful look into just how much social media has infested every element of our culture and the impact it has had on our ability to treat others and even ourselves as real people rather than dispensers of instant gratification.  It’s easy to look at Ingrid in the film and write her off as pathetic and crazy, if also entertaining, but when we start to see that the characters we empathized with and saw ourselves in are just as fake and needy as Ingrid, just better at hiding it because they aren’t our point of view character, the movie starts getting real, for some it may be a bit too real.  The insight goes even deeper than this, and when the plot lines wrap up and our various characters are left to their fates at film’s end, you can see what a truly poignant and damning film Ingrid Goes West really is.

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Your enjoyment of Ingrid Goes West will depend not only on how open you are to the film’s themes, but also on how much you enjoy Aubrey Plaza’s style of comedy.  While Ingrid Goes West does have a strong cast of characters, Plaza’s Ingrid is the obvious ever present focus of the film, I don’t remember a single moment of film without her, and if you are not a fan of her deadpan, snarky, self deprecating while also disdainful delivery, then the other performers are probably not going to be enough to make up for the film taking on her demeanor as its own.  Elizabeth Olsen does give a great performance, as good as her showing in Wind River, O’Shea Jackson Jr. is charming as Dan, Ingrid’s long suffering landlord, and the remaining supporting cast are all darkly, quirkily humorous, but this movie is Plaza’s through and through.

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Final verdict:  Ingrid Goes West is a film that uses its razor sharp insight into our instant gratification social media society as both its main source of humor and commentary.  The humor is deadpan, often mean, and always smart, but it most certainly will not be everyone’s cup of tea.  Last week I praised Taylor Sheridan’s script as the best of the year so far.  Ingrid Goes West, while radically different in style and tone, matches, and possibly even surpasses Sheridan’s effort.  Ingrid Goes West, while entertaining, is never light entertainment, and often is downright nasty, but it’s nasty with a purpose.  Ingrid Goes West exposes truths about ourselves we don’t want to confront, but if it forces some of us to do so, we may find ourselves better off and happier for it in the long run.

 

 

La La Land (Chazelle; 2016)

A reputation of Los Angeles is that it is the city where foolish dreamers go to come face to face with harsh reality.  In the pre-credit sequence of La La Land, we are shown a bumper to bumper traffic jam, then the music starts and the commuters are now getting out of their cars, singing and dancing making the best of a lousy situation.  A 1940’s style carefree fantasy meets with the reality of modern annoyance.  This is the glitz, glamour, and misfortune which makes up La La Land.

La La Land is the story of two people who came to Los Angeles because they have a dream.  Emma Stone plays Mia, a girl from a small town who wants nothing more than to become a big time actress, and Ryan Gosling is Sebastian, a jazz pianist who has lived in L.A. his whole life and wants to start his own club so he can give the music he loves a resurgence in a world that has forgotten it for the most part.  The two meet and eventually fall in love, though it’s more obvious to everyone else, audience most certainly included, that they already love each other before they themselves realize it.  If this sounds familiar, it is meant to.  The brilliance of La La Land is not that it gives you an obviously brand new story the likes of which you’ve never seen before, but that it gives you an age old, well worn story with a twist that makes all the difference in the message it wants to say.  The 1940’s story and tropes mixed with a story taking place in the modern era is more than just a stylistic decision, it’s a metaphor.

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Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are not actually real people.  They, too, are metaphors.

Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are two of my favorite younger working actors in Hollywood today, and I loved them both in this movie.   While Gosling gives an excellent performance and his electrifying chemistry with Stone is what makes the movie work, Stone’s performance is a true tour-de-force.  Her multi-layered performance makes the fantastic realistic and the surreal grounded.  When I say La La Land combines both the dreams and the reality the city is known for perfectly, a huge part of that combination realizes itself in Stone’s nearly perfect performance.  Even when her voice occasionally isn’t entirely up to snuff in a few of her more difficult songs, you think that it is more a choice than a weakness, that a break in her voice isn’t a mistake so much as a decision to have her character let her guard down for just a moment.  For his part, Gosling is also excellent, and he learned piano for this movie, and when I say learned I don’t mean he can plunk out a few notes to get through a scene, he gives some virtuoso level performances here.

The music and the musical numbers, of course, have to be talked about.  What we are given continues the metaphor impeccably, the jazz music and Fred Astaire style numbers mixed with modern settings, dance moves, and singing styles work on every level and elevate what was in danger of being cornball to gloriously creative, catchy, and invigorating.  Even the methods of breaking into song bring a new spin on the old, as occasionally, such as in the above mentioned opening scene, the characters do just break into a song and dance number out of nowhere, but sometimes the more modern technique of naturally breaking into song since many of our characters are musicians by profession is the method of getting into a musical number.  Both methods work, neither seems out of place, and this is a huge credit to director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) for being able to pull not only this tough balancing act off, but the balancing act which is this entire movie.

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Chazelle isn’t the only one who can balance.

The art direction and camera work in La La Land just add to the many other already impeccable elements in this film.  Linus Sandgren, the director of cinematography, captures the city, the stars, and the action at their most beautiful and gives us a true glamour piece while never forgetting that the movie is self aware enough to know that the glamour can be very much illusion and knows when to let the feeling that what we are watching is not altogether real sneak through at just the right times.  Classic musical filming techniques are largely on display here, but we also see some very stylized modern camera work, and a bit of what can only be described as live stage performance visuals, the camera doing what it can to capture what it would be like to be seeing this story in person.  All of this works, all is subtle, and most of all it all work to enhance the emotional core of what makes La La Land such an experience.

La La Land is not only a masterpiece, not only one of the best movies of the year, but it is one of the greatest love stories to Hollywood ever captured because it’s not just about Hollywood, but the entire human experience and one of the greatest musicals ever made.  The core of the movie is emotion, and you will run the entire of gamut throughout this movie.  You will be thrilled, joyous, awed, and you will have your heart stomped and beaten at times, as well.  But, once you are done with the emotional experience, you will also see that this was an incredibly smart and intellectual movie as well.  What La La Land has to say about chasing dreams is unlike what any other film before it has had to say, and the message is at once optimistic and grounding.  I recommend this film to absolutely everyone.  If you are the type who says they hate musicals, see this anyway, after La La Land you can then say you hate musicals except for this one.  It really is that spectacular that it will make converts.

Rating:  9.6 out of 10