Roman J. Israel, Esq. (***1/2) – We can’t have nice things

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Roman J. Israel, Esq. – 2017

Written and Directed by Dan Gilroy
Starring Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Nanzeen Contractor, Joseph David-Jones, Andrew T. Lee, Shelley Hennig, Amanda Warren, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton, Hugo Armstrong, Lynda Gravátt

This, is our fork in the road…

Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a man for whom the hard, narrow and treacherous path of righteousness has been his only source of solace for his whole working life. He’s been the silent partner in a law firm with his inspiration and former Law School professor for almost 30 years. Now that his professor has had a heart attack, he has a crisis on his hands.

He gets an offer of employment from another one of his ailing partner’s former students George Pierce (Farrell), but he really wants to do is work with the poor and dispossessed. Unfortunately, he finds during his interview with Maya (Ejogo) that they are all volunteers, so he must accept Pierce’s offer of working in a high pressure and way more successful firm while offering help to Maya when he has time.

One of his first clients provides for Roman an opportunity, and in a moment of weakness, he pounces on that chance to improve his lowly existence. In true Thomas Hardy (the 19th century novelist) form, as soon as he takes the risk, he begins to succeed, while attempting to push his past behind him. His past will not be ignored, however.

Ultimately, Gilroy and Washington do an above average job of hitting every doomed note of the unsung hero, whose miserable life starts to get better while immediately falling down around him. All because…well, he’ll tell you that himself.

To say this is a great film would be stretching it a bit. It certainly is better than the advanced word out of the Toronto International Film Festival. The fact that they cut almost a quarter of an hour out of it didn’t entirely help, if we’re trying to give the motivations of both the protagonist and the two people who end up being disciples of the man he was before he changed.

It’s at this point that the story requires the most willing suspension of disbelief. The script requires us to accept that each of very few interactions with Israel has made enough of an impression with George and Maya as to push them into new heights of dedication to social causes. They dive right in, asking Roman for further words as he clearly struggles for his own inspiration, which is now seemingly out of reach.

The ending, like the rest of the film, relies on a series of exact happenings that give Washington’s protagonist increasingly fewer options. Even so, he’s such an excellent actor, he gives enough grist and flawed good intentions, the story works.

Gilroy and cinematographer Robert Elswit continue the marvelous work they did on the best movie of 2014, Nightcrawler to set a mood of Los Angeles which allows its vast expanse to feel claustrophobic as well as sadly beautiful.

If there is any disappointment to the film it’s that there doesn’t seem to be enough room for the script to acquire peripheral characters that have more dimension than required to push the plot forward. Farrell is as engaging here as I have seen him, but in the end, he feels more a mechanism of the plot than a fully fleshed character.

The same goes for the incredibly appealing Ejogo, whose idealism still has a shred of innocence after years of neglect. She gives the effect of a withered flower, once more opening to a beautiful bloom under Israel’s now eclipsing sun.

There’s virtually no shot at this film winning any awards, and perhaps it doesn’t truly deserve any. Washington’s about the only actor alive that can so eloquently display his faults as a virtue. He’s able to color a little outside the lines of his somewhat limited character. Even though he shows signs of a high functioning autism, he knows the point of his character is self-analysis that the others will learn from. This limits him to acknowledge he’s doomed from the start.

This is why it would appeal to me as a Catholic. It’s a brand that he needs to accept, and there’s no outrunning the shadow, especially if you avoid the truth about yourself.

Gilroy is now in that special zone as an incredibly talented writer and director who is outside of the glow of Hollywood, particularly because he doesn’t rely on the powers that be to fulfill his vision. If anything, this story was a little too well written, as it doesn’t leave much room for the viewer to contemplate how they’d react to the hero, even if the hero knows he’s become a fraud. If the judgement of this film is a little too harsh, it is certainly no crime to write something so well you leave little room for nuance that most scripts don’t have anyway.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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Unfriended (***1/2) And into the future of horror

Unfriended – 2015

Director Levan Gabriadze
Starring Shelley Hennig, Moses Storm, Renee Olstead, Will Peltz, Jacob Wysocki, Courtney Halverson, Heather Sossaman
Screenplay Nelson Greaves

One year ago, Laura Barnes (Sossaman) killed herself as the result of a cyberbullying episode. So, of course one year later, when her friends are all sharing a group conversation via Skype, it only occurs to one of them, after a series of glitches, that tonight’s the night. Slowly, it dawns upon each of them that this one, anonymous Skype partner named billie227 cannot be rid of. Then, one by one…well, you know.

It sounds worse than it is. When we discover that the thing is yet another take on “found footage,” we want to exact vengeance ourselves. I Know What You Did Last Summer meets Paranormal Activity meets Big Brother.

Still, you know, it’s pretty good.

The pacing is perfect. At worst, it serves as a glimpse into the multi-interfacing mind of a teenager. We get to work through the problem these 6 friends have met through the screencast perspective of Blair Lily (Hennig), a high school student who was one of Laura’s oldest friends. The back and forth between applications, screens, conversations and side conversations plays 100% through her perspective. We see that what she types is not always what she sends.

The plot is in no way surprising, but the dialogue is realistically sharp and hits where it counts. Every one of the performances, save for Peltz too easily drunk Adam keeps the viewer’s attention and willingness to suspend disbelief.

So I gotta hand it to Gabriadze as a master technician. This film had me from the start and did not let go, even if I knew what was going to happen every step of the way.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Oujia (**1/2): You made her play the game and now she’s dead

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Ouija – 2014

Director Stiles White
Starring Olivia Cooke, Ana Coto, Daren Kagasoff, Douglas Smith, Bianca A. Santos, Lin Shaye, Shelley Hennig
Screenplay Juliet Snowden and White

For an actress that has been in so many Farrelly Brothers films, Lin Shaye is something of a staple in horror. In fact, she is to horror what Leslie Nielsen was to comedy. In this film, she plays the old sister in the nuthouse. She’s okay, but really, her role could have been played by just about any woman in her 60’s. She must work for cheap. Lord knows the filmmakers did not waste a dime on the rest of the cast.

Ouija is the kind of film one gets these days for the rating of PG-13. There are a few tense moments, almost no gore, and plenty of teenagers to sacrifice. Based on a board game. That’s right. Hasbro profits from this film. It has the amount of thrills and chills that are safely allowed in a boardroom screening. This is not to say it is a bad film. For the moments one is engaged in the film, there is a sense of anticipation. When will the scary old woman show herself? When will her “victims” speak out against her? When will these friends see their dead friend again?

Lest I get ahead of myself, the plot in a thumbnail sketch: Laine Morris (Cooke) has recently lost her friend Debbie (Hennig) to an apparent suicide. Any film that starts off with a suicide at the beginning is almost never a suicide – except for maybe Stephen King’s It – so for now, lets just say the skepticism is limited to Laine and the audience. The ensuing funeral finds Debbie’s parents saying they can’t stay in the house and, strangely, asking Laine if she would mind. Of course not. Her best friend only just died beneath the chandelier center piece. Laine should have no problem getting the mail and spend some quality time hanging out with her…what is this? A Ouija board? It’s not the exact one that they used to play with Debbie as a child with no parents around. This one is creepier and looks like it’s been well used. And burned maybe. And then recreated. But I digress.

She gets the idea to have her friends over to Debbie’s conveniently empty house for a session with said board. Of course they all agree to this, just this once. Then once again. And on and on until they start getting knocked off one by one. Is any of this more scary than it is predictable? There are some nice moments, but as many bland ones to balance it out. This is not as much a story as it is a formula, right down to the religious Hispanic Grandma who gives her granddaughters’ advice on how to end this thing.

As many times as we have seen this story, it is nice to see Olivia Cooke in something outside of the excellent Bates Motel. She is good in that show, and she is the right fit here. Cooke is pretty, but not so pretty that you think she would not survive. The rest of the teens look like models and pageant contestants, if you know what I mean.

Stiles White is primarily known for his work with Stan Winston studio on special effects. His work here is quick enough to be somewhat effective, but also with some moments that look like the real thing. His work is nothing if not competent. There is absolutely nothing here that screams out loud that this is a vantage point one must see again. Snowden has written one other film that could be considered good (The Possession) and a few others that are the same formula we see here.

This film made a nice profit (20x the budget). There is definitely another one on the way, even if they are not in a hurry to do so. Why should they hurry? It’s not like Hasbro is going to stop selling this board game soon.

(**1/2 out of *****)