Skip to main content

It’s an enema of sunshine.

Roman J. Israel, Esq.
(2017)

(SPOILERS) The main takeaway from Roman J. Israel Esq. is that every Dan Gilroy movie can't be a Nightcrawler. That jet-black satire was a hit both with critics and (in a small but distinguished way) audiences, nabbing Gilroy an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay into the bargain. Sony doubtless gave him carte blanche as a result, on the basis that if material as unlikely as that did well, what did they know? The result is almost perversely uncommercial, an awkward movie that marches in dislocated beat with its awkward protagonist, staunchly refusing to chart the expected, stirring course of the "underdog hero" legal thriller and leading to a dénouement that hardly feels justified by its diffident content.


RomanPublic speaking is something I'm usually encouraged to avoid.

On the plus side, Denzel Washington's performance reminds you why he wins Oscars (though not this time), after years of reliably unremarkable performances in stony-faced actioners and the odd overly theatrical theatre adaptation. Roman’s a memorable creation, an aspergic "savant" (George Pierce’s word, in an understated turn from Colin Farrell) with an encyclopaedic knowledge of law and case histories, over-sized suits and billowing afro. 


It invited much actorly "business", teetering on the brink of Rain Man-lite Hollywood caricature at times, but that's part of the appeal. We see Roman's socially dysfunctional behaviour (he's been forced into the frontline after his partner suffers a heart attack) in front of judges and a generation to whom his values can appear prehistoric (if not patronisingly sexist – "I'm not an asshole, sister"). There's also half-hearted flirting with an unfulfilled love interest (Carmen Ejogo) that seems either studio mandated or Gilroy pre-empting studio mandates. 


RomanMy lack of success is self-imposed.

And most of all there's his unimpeachable standards with regard to civil rights and exposing the flaws in the system. This surely, we think, will lead to some sort of cathartic validation of the man, preferably in a courtroom, where his goal of social reform in respect of unfair plea bargaining receives a boost amid flashbulbs on the steps of the court building. But Gilroy resists the impulse. I get that; it would be too easy. Instead, though, he unravels everything Israel stands for on a whim of conflict, and it never once feels earned, that this man would make that decision, submit to that weakness of character. Instead of following his struggle to be heard in a system of corporate and state indifference, Gilroy doubles back and asks us to become involved in Roman’s moral quandary, and it stops the picture’s potential stone dead.


RomanWhat makes you different from this car?

Whatever Gilroy needed to do to justify this choice, he doesn't pull it off. Farrell's Pierce is too undernourished to really make the impact he should as the hot-shot lawyer who reveals his belief in Roman's values isn’t just an act, but Gilroy seems to think his filing of the latter's long-prepared brief is the validation needed, that Roman is ultimately a hero. Unfortunately, it lacks that impact. Even in the '70s, when this kind of downbeat character would have been essayed by Pacino or Hoffman (and directed by Lumet or Jewison), the makers would have resisted a course quite so passively antiseptic.


RomanThe ability to have conflicting ideas in your head takes effort.

Ultimately then, Roman J. Israel, Esq. muddles whatever it is Gilroy thought he was saying. As a character, Roman garners insufficient sympathy for his fate and fuck-ups to elicit pathos, and in terms of his reformist goals, they're pushed aside when he goes astray. Consequently, there's a sense that the picture focuses on the side dish over the main course. It isn't a complete failure – Washington's too watchable for that – but it's never more than a trifle. In the legal thriller genre, Gilroy's in no danger of eclipsing his brother's record.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

We’re not owners here, Karen. We’re just passing through.

Out of Africa (1985)
I did not warm to Out of Africa on my initial viewing, which would probably have been a few years after its theatrical release. It was exactly as the publicity warned, said my cynical side; a shallow-yet-bloated, awards-baiting epic romance. This was little more than a well-dressed period chick flick, the allure of which was easily explained by its lovingly photographed exotic vistas and Robert Redford rehearsing a soothing Timotei advert on Meryl Streep’s distressed locks. That it took Best Picture only seemed like confirmation of it as all-surface and no substance. So, on revisiting the film, I was curious to see if my tastes had “matured” or if it deserved that dismissal. 

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

If you could just tell me what those eyes have seen.

Alita: Battle Angel (2019)
(SPOILERS) Robert Rodriguez’ film of James Cameron’s at-one-stage-planned film of Yukito Kishiro’s manga Gunnm on the one hand doesn’t feel overly like a Rodriguez film, in that it’s quite polished, so certainly not of the sort he’s been making of late – definitely a plus – but on the other, it doesn’t feel particularly like a Jimbo flick either. What it does well, it mostly does very well – the action, despite being as thoroughly steeped in CGI as Avatar – but many of its other elements, from plotting to character to romance, are patchy or generic at best. Despite that, there’s something likeable about the whole ludicrously expensive enterprise that is Alita: Battle Angel, a willingness to be its own kind of distinctive misfit misfire.

Mountains are old, but they're still green.

Roma (2018)
(SPOILERS) Roma is a critics' darling and a shoe-in for Best Foreign Film Oscar, with the potential to take the big prize to boot, but it left me profoundly indifferent, its elusive majesty remaining determinedly out of reach. Perhaps that's down to generally spurning autobiographical nostalgia fests – complete with 65mm widescreen black and white, so it's quite clear to viewers that the director’s childhood reverie equates to the classics of old – or maybe the elliptical characterisation just didn't grab me, but Alfonso Cuarón's latest amounts to little more than a sliver of substance beneath all that style.

Life is like a box of timelines. You feel me?

Russian Doll Season One
(SPOILERS) It feels like loading the dice to proclaim something necessarily better because it’s female-driven, but that’s the tack The Hollywood Reporter took with its effusive review of Russian Doll, suggesting “although Nadia goes on a similar journey of self-discovery to Bill Murray’s hackneyed reporter in Groundhog Day, the fact that the show was created, written by and stars women means that it offers up a different, less exploitative and far more thoughtful angle” (than the predominately male-centric entries in the sub-genre). Which rather sounds like Rosie Knight changing the facts to fit her argument. And ironic, given star Natasha Lyonne has gone out of her way to stress the show’s inclusive message. Russian Dollis good, but the suggestion that “unlike its predecessors (it) provides a thoughtfulness, authenticity and honesty which makes it inevitable end (sic) all the more powerful” is cobblers.

We’re looking for a bug no one’s seen before. Some kind of smart bug.

Starship Troopers (1997)
(SPOILERS) Paul Verhoeven’s sci-fi trio of Robocop, Total Recall and Starship Troopers are frequently claimed to be unrivalled in their genre, but it’s really only the first of them that entirely attains that rarefied level. Discussion and praise of Starship Troopers is generally prefaced by noting that great swathes of people – including critics and cast members – were too stupid to realise it was a satire. This is a bit of a Fight Club one, certainly for anyone from the UK (Verhoeven commented “The English got it though. I remember coming out of Heathrow and seeing the posters, which were great. They were just stupid lines about war from the movie. I thought, ‘Finally someone knows how to promote this.’”) who needed no kind of steer to recognise what the director was doing. And what he does, he does splendidly, even if, at times, I’m not sure he entirely sustains a 129-minute movie, since, while both camp and OTT, Starship Troopers is simultaneously required t…

Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.

Prediction 2019 Oscars
Shockingly, as in I’m usually much further behind, I’ve missed out on only one of this year’s Best Picture nominees– Vice isn’t yet my vice, it seems – in what is being suggested, with some justification, as a difficult year to call. That might make for must-see appeal, if anyone actually cared about the movies jostling for pole position. If it were between Black Panther and Bohemian Rhapsody (if they were even sufficiently up to snuff to deserve a nod in the first place), there might be a strange fascination, but Joe Public don’t care about Roma, underlined by it being on Netflix and stillconspicuously avoided by subscribers (if it were otherwise, they’d be crowing about viewing figures; it’s no Bird Box, that’s for sure).

You use a scalpel. I prefer a hammer.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout (2018)
(SPOILERS) The latest instalment of the impossibly consistent in quality Mission: Impossible franchise has been hailed as the best yet, and with but a single dud among the sextet that’s a considerable accolade. I’m not sure it's entirely deserved – there’s a particular repeated thematic blunder designed to add some weight in a "hero's validation" sense that not only falls flat, but also actively detracts from the whole – but as a piece of action filmmaking, returning director Christopher McQuarrie has done it again. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is an incredible accomplishment, the best of its ilk this side of Mad Max: Fury Road.