Roman J. Israel, Esq.

It generally might be difficult to sympathize with lawyers, yet Roman J. Israel Esq. certainly gives it a shot.

However, this awkwardly titled character study from director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) overdoses on quirks and stale platitudes about social and legal injustice, leaving its intriguing title character in search of a better film.

Roman (Denzel Washington) is a legal savant who has spent three decades working as the right-hand man to a Los Angeles defense attorney whose best days came during the civil-rights movement. Despite noble intentions toward finding justice for the disenfranchised, his out-of-touch cadences and inability to follow protocol makes it easy to see why he’s not the face of the firm.

When his boss dies suddenly, his family opts to shutter the fledgling firm with the assistance of a hotshot lawyer (Colin Farrell) who doesn’t account for Roman’s persistence, and winds up finding a way to utilize his skill set almost out of pity.

Meanwhile, Roman befriends the leader (Carmen Ejogo) of a legal nonprofit who sees the compassion beneath the clumsiness. But an impulsive decision while defending a case involving dangerous gang members is what precipitates his downfall.

Gilroy’s screenplay frames its protagonist as an underdog crusader who represents countless others working tirelessly behind the scenes for little or no credit. Roman’s passionate idealism stretches credibility, although the film provides balance through character flaws, mostly related to his extreme social awkwardness and lack of sufficient money management skills.

Some of his eccentricities are endearing. When a client asks him about the self-imposed “esquire” title, his explanation is that it’s a special designation “slightly above gentleman and below knight.”

Washington offers another committed performance, embodying Roman through a physical transformation that includes an Afro, a paunch, oversized glasses, hunched posture, and an entire closet’s worth of cheap suits.

Like his wardrobe, Roman is a bit of a relic from a bygone era. Yet the film, to its credit, doesn’t dwell on the specifics of his generational deficiencies, other than a couple of amusing references to his gigantic briefcase and reliance on handwritten note cards.

Ultimately, his greatest strength is also his biggest downfall. In making that point, the film projects the same cynicism and heavy-handed moralizing as Roman. Amid the ensuing third-act contrivances, much of the moral complexity becomes lost in the process. The verdict is mixed.

 

Rated PG-13, 122 minutes.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

If Al Gore is the man who invented the Internet, than it’s possible that Charles Dickens is The Man Who Invented Christmas, with all due apologies to Santa Claus and the birth of Christ.

Of course, the title of this speculative historical drama isn’t meant to be taken seriously, and neither is the film itself — a supposed chronicle of the creative inspiration behind the author’s A Christmas Carol that feels considerably more embellished than authentic.

It takes place in Victorian-era London, with Dickens (Dan Stevens) under pressure to regain his popularity after following his smash debut, Oliver Twist, with a handful of flops.

Haunted by a series of nightmares involving a greedy miser named Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) with a contemptuous view of the working class, Dickens sets out to craft a novella that would both heal socioeconomic strife and rekindle the spirit of Christmas in Britain.

Along the way, he confronts some inner demons while enduring some of the same spiritual crises as the fictional character he chronicles. However, he needs to get the book into stores before Christmas to ensure it will reach the masses. As he races toward his deadline, the question remains: Do his motives spring from genuine holiday cheer or financial opportunism? It’s probably both.

The film essentially is a Dickens biopic that offers flashbacks to his troubled blue-collar upbringing with his now-estranged father (Jonathan Pryce), as well as how his workaholic habits distance Dickens from his pregnant wife (Morfydd Clark).

The brainstorming process might not be very cinematic, although director Bharat Nalluri (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day) incorporates some stylish period touches, while Susan Coyne’s script provides a glimpse into the nature of literary fame well before an era of movie stars or viral videos.

Even if it lacks meaningful insight into the creative process, the idealistic film celebrates the power of imagination and inspiration. Like the novella, it promotes optimism while dismissing cynicism — an attitude that the ghosts of adaptations past would share — while prompting the same lessons about seasonal kindness and generosity.

Yet by comparison, The Man Who Invented Christmas simply doesn’t convey the same intimate charm, and it would benefit from a more subtle approach (and less grating score). The classic story of redemption still resonates, but in this case, the author is less compelling than his characters.

 

Rated PG, 104 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Nov. 22

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story

The title has a double meaning in this documentary about the glamorous actress nicknamed “The Most Beautiful Woman in Film” during the 1930s and 1940s, who also happened to invent a weapons communication device during World War II, which was later used by the U.S. Navy. Using fresh interviews and abundant archival footage, rookie director Alexandra Dean effectively combines these disparate elements, as well as other biographical tidbits about an Austrian immigrant who fled Nazi persecution for Hollywood, dated Howard Hughes, and later pioneered technology that eventually was incorporated into modern Wi-Fi. Even for those familiar with its subject, the film is compelling and insightful. (Not rated, 89 minutes).

 

Mr. Roosevelt

Some familiar concepts are given a fresh twist in this slight yet amusing character-driven comedy that marks a promising directorial debut for Noel Wells, who also wrote the screenplay and stars as a fledgling comedian who returns to her roots in Austin, Texas, to tend to family medical matters. But she’s forced to come to terms with her past while staying with her ex-boyfriend (Nick Thune), who now has a new girlfriend (Britt Lower). It’s not especially profound as an examination of self-discovery and modern relationships, but the film is sharply observed, with an endearing quirky sense of humor and a genuine affection for its setting. (Not rated, 90 minutes).

 

On the Beach at Night Alone

Although its excessively deliberate pace can be frustrating, this intimate Korean relationship drama rewards patience by evolving into a powerful meditation on loneliness and regret. Younghee (Kim Min-hee) is an actress rendered emotionally vulnerable after her affair with an older filmmaker is broken off, prompting her to sort out her feelings during a vacation with a friend before returning to confront him. Much of the emotional payoff is ambiguous in the screenplay by veteran director Hong Sang-soo (Right Now, Wrong Then), especially in the titular sequence. Yet the film also manages moments of unsettling and heartbreaking authenticity, thanks in part to Kim’s perceptive performance. (Not rated, 101 minutes).

Justice League

© 2017 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND RATPAC-DUNE ENTERTAINMENT LLC

(L-R) RAY FISHER as Cyborg, GAL GADOT as Wonder Woman, EZRA MILLER as The Flash and JASON MOMOA as Aquaman in Warner Bros. Pictures’ JUSTICE LEAGUE, a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures/ TM & © DC Comics

For as long as I can remember I just wanted to do what was right. I guess I’m not quite sure what that is anymore. And I thought I could throw myself back in and follow orders, serve. It’s just not the same.
– Steve Rogers

As a moviegoer, you steel yourself before a film like this, “I have no expectations.  I just want it to be fun.  Anything beyond that is gravy.”

But gravy has texture.  And this review has spoilers…

Wonder Woman thwarts a terrorist plot using the Lasso of Truth to credibly work in the expository monologue in which the bad guy explains his scheme.  In the real world, the terror is the motivation, so threatening to do it seems rather counterproductive.  This opening is punctuated, unsubtly, with slow-motion scenes of (hold your laughter) a skinhead kicking over a fruit stand while a hijabi recoils in horror.  I did not make this up.  This was an actual scene, in an actual movie, that actually cost over a third of a billion dollars to produce.

It’s equally funny (or painful) to observe the way in which this prologue beats us in the head:  Nazis and other evil proliferated because Superman is dead and the world is an irredeemably horrible place.  Or maybe, just maybe, it’s that the movie is irredeemably horrible.

Written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, directed by Zack Snyder, JUSTICE LEAGUE is one of the ugliest and most disorganized films I have ever seen.  It’s offensively ugly, as with an establishing shot of the Amazonian lands of Themiscyra.  Patty Jenkins’ WONDER WOMAN introduced us to the gilded fortresses and lush vistas of this mythical land.  As if to purposely insult her work, a seconds-long CG sequence that feels minutes-long presents this magical place in the most unimaginative, boring, flat angle humanly possible.

On the heels of Jenkins’ critically- and commercially-successful film, JUSTICE LEAGUE unites Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince/Wonder Woman with Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck), Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), to defeat the horribly-animated Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds voicing what vaguely resembles a horned Liam Neeson in one of several absolute wastes of talent herein).

In some kind of unpoetic symmetry that would make George Lucas proud of his worst rationalizations, this “Save The World” plot steals from the Marvel universe twice–THE AVENGERS (2012) invokes the Cosmic Cube from Marvel’s Tales of Suspense (1966) which was then copied in D.C. Comics’ Fourth World series (1970-73).  Like the Cosmic Cube (the “tesseract” in the movies), the Mother Boxes are an Asimovian abstraction; both are technologies so advanced they’re sufficiently indiscernible from magic.  In cinematic terms, they’re the same MacGuffin.

The picture makes a great deal of hullabaloo about the Amazonians as protectors of the Earth from the wrath of various gods and demigods.  In a massive battle, reminiscent of Tolkien’s War of the Last Alliance, the Amazonians, Atlanteans, and humans, fight off Steppenwolf.  He attempts to combine the Mother Boxes into the world-shattering Unity the same way Thanos from the Marvel universe acquires the Infinity Stones to combine them on the Infinity Gauntlet.

When Steppenwolf returns centuries later, their Mother Box is housed in a fortress.  The Amazonians went to considerable trouble to protect this artifact.  We see enormous doors and a series of gigantic barricades and then, one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in film:  Steppenwolf bursts through an earthen side wall like the Kool-Aid Man.  Cue Rich and Randolph’s “Yakety Sax”.

Ultimately, the Unity can only be stopped by the cooperation of these heroes with extremely disparate abilities which somehow the writers have to cripple at key moments to arrest what might otherwise become an incomprehensible plot.  Aside from a casting stroke of genius–Ben Affleck plays a smug asshole–Wonder Woman, essentially a living god, could blow the thing apart with her magical bracelets but D.C. always saves the worst deus ex machina for last.

Anyone who can read IMDb understands that Warner Bros. has no choice but to revive Superman (Henry Cavill) because we’re now stuck in a nuclear arms race of apocalypses and reboots.  Aside from his drawn-out re-appearance (it’s neither a twist nor a delight, more of a slow dribble), it’s nice to see Superman bring back some of the lightness-of-foot of the old Justice League cartoons–particularly his sporty banter with Ezra Miller’s Flash.  In spite of the much-needed booster shot of levity into a crassly-dark core franchise that perverted the concept of the incorruptible Übermensch, the film remains a visual and conceptual hot mess.  Warner Bros. usually gives us at least two acts of somewhat noble conceits before unraveling in the third.  JUSTICE LEAGUE is a cacophonous mess from start to finish.

Some of that is going to be blamed on the untimely family tragedy suffered by Snyder necessitating the last minute rewrites by Joss Whedon, but the video game cutscene-quality animations, digital composites, and generally horrible editing on a $300 million budget seem consequences of a franchise caught off guard by Marvel and serially incapable of gaining a proper footing.

Setting aside the laws of thermodynamics for a moment, where is this idiot who keeps inventing these world- and universe-destroying MacGuffins and what was he thinking?  Yes, I’m sure there’s a backstory that began with good intentions and it’s probably documented in the errata of some comic book appendix somewhere that nobody who sees JUSTICE LEAGUE has either time or inclination to read.  It’s not in the film, nor do we see how the Box protected by the race of Men is recovered.  I guess it was just accidentally unearthed at some point.  Next time, throw it in a volcano or something…

Wonder

We’re not supposed to judge someone solely by their appearance, as Wonder tells us, but the film itself tends to delve only skin-deep.

The well-meaning drama could find a soft spot with anyone who’s felt like an outsider, especially during their formative years. Yet by lacking subtlety and tugging too aggressively at the heartstrings, it misses an opportunity to be more impactful.

The story centers on Auggie (Jacob Tremblay), who was born with severe facial deformities that required several surgeries, prompting his mother (Julia Roberts) to homeschool him as he bashfully wears an astronaut helmet in public.

As fifth grade starts, Auggie’s father (Owen Wilson) decides to place him in a mainstream private school to encourage social interaction, knowing the risk for bullying. Alongside the stares and taunts from classmates, the precocious yet painfully shy Auggie manages to make a few friends, with some assistance from the kind headmaster (Mandy Patinkin).

His travails have unexpected consequences for those around him, including his teenage sister Via (Izabela Vidovic), whose adolescent crises become lost in a domestic world that constantly  revolves around Auggie’s need for attention.

The screenplay takes a structural cue from its source novel by R.J. Palacio by devoting chapters specifically to the backstories of some key characters, but it doesn’t fully commit itself to such a strategy. Arguably, Via is the most intriguing player, although her story too often is shoved to the backburner by a main narrative that feels false in its awkward conclusion.

As directed by Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), the film has its heart in the right place, and it’s genuinely powerful in spots. However, equally as often, its character-driven charms are replaced by sentimental platitudes and music cues in an attempt to accentuate the inspirational nature of the material.

Still, Tremblay (Room) showcases remarkably versatility for such a young actor, and the rest of the youngsters in the cast bring depth and authenticity to what could have been standard-issue roles.

Wonder makes a worthwhile plea for acceptance, both for others and for yourself. Yet unlike the 1985 drama Mask, which covers similar subject matter, the film unfortunately provides depth to its circumstances over its characters.

 

Rated PG, 113 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Nov. 17

Almost Friends

Some intriguing coming-of-age concepts are lost in a heavy-handed mishmash in this lightweight romance about Charlie (Freddie Highmore), an aspiring chef who has a crush on a local barista (Odeya Rush), whose boyfriend is an arrogant jock (Jake Abel). Besides that obstacle, Charlie must contend with his own social awkwardness and a family life thrown into disarray by a sudden visit from his estranged father (Christopher Meloni). The two stars develop an offbeat chemistry, although the screenplay by director Jake Goldberger (Don McKay) pushes an abundance of cutesy contrivances to muddle the emotional payoff. Despite some solid moments, there’s not enough freshness amid the familiarity. (Not rated, 101 minutes).

 

Angelica

There’s not much substance beneath the Gothic horror surface in this mildly unsettling but mostly tedious psychological thriller from director Mitchell Lichtenstein (Teeth). It takes place in Victorian London, where a mother (Jena Malone) experiences hauntings after a troubled birth, which prompts some overprotective maternal instincts that cause alarm with her high-society husband (Ed Stoppard). Amid the muted emotions and pretentious supernatural trappings, the handsomely mounted film hints at deeper Freudian explorations of sexual repression and gender politics. Yet it remains cold and emotionally distant, and not especially creepy, only somewhat redeemed by an intensely wacko finale that at least should generate discussion afterward. (Not rated, 95 minutes).

 

Cook Off

It shouldn’t be a surprise that this ensemble comedy feels so stale — it was made about a decade ago and is just now finding its way to theaters. That also explains the presence of a much younger Melissa McCarthy as one of a handful of eccentric contestants who bring their wacky recipes to a national cooking contest to compete for a million-dollar prize. The mostly improvised dialogue and mockumentary structure provides only intermittent chuckles in this lampoon of reality cooking competition shows, except the film is neither witty nor insightful in its comic observations, instead relying on low-brow gags and stereotypes out of desperation. (Rated R, 98 minutes).

 

Porto

The titular Portuguese coastal city provides a resplendent backdrop for this gritty yet evocative romance in which the performances are deeper and more complex than the material. It follows the relationship ups and downs of an American expatriate (the late Anton Yelchin) and a French student (Lucie Lucas) who each have powerful memories of the passionate one-night stand they once shared. While the overall impact is slight and the nonlinear script — bittersweet and deliberately paced — feels disjointed in spots, rookie director Gabe Klinger mixes film styles to craft some lovely imagery. Plus, the two actors have an appealing chemistry that conveys both intimacy and poignancy. (Not rated, 76 minutes).

 

Sweet Virginia

Strong performances elevate this slow-burning thriller set in the appropriately chilly backdrop of Alaska, where former rodeo star Sam (Jon Bernthal) is the night manager at a rundown motel, where he befriends one of the guests (Christopher Abbott), unaware that he’s a hitman with ties to recent murders in the area, including the husband of Sam’s mistress (Rosemarie DeWitt). Things become more complicated from there, thanks to a web of deception that ominously tightens as the desperation for each of them increases. Some stylish neo-noir touches from director Jamie Dagg (River) compensate for some uneven stretches before the suspense ratchets upward in the final act. (Rated R, 93 minutes).

Murder on the Orient Express

The biggest mystery concerning Murder on the Orient Express might be why Agatha Christie’s venerable novel lacks a spark in its translation from page to screen.

Indeed, this new big-screen adaptation from director Kenneth Branagh (Thor) features slick visuals and a first-rate ensemble cast, yet falters in the second half, when the central whodunit should be at its most suspenseful.

The film retains the book’s setting in 1934, aboard an intercontinental voyage on a lavish locomotive crowded with well-to-do passengers. One of them is eccentric and elaborately mustachioed Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh), seeking some rest and relaxation after solving a recent case.

However, the train becomes stranded after an avalanche causes a partial derailment. Then a shady gangster (Johnny Depp) turned up dead overnight in his sleeping quarters, meaning the perpetrator is someone else on board. And it’s up to Poirot to sort everything out.

The multicultural ensemble of potential suspects has some clout, with actors including Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Leslie Odom Jr., and Derek Jacobi.

This version lacks some of the breezy, old-fashioned charm of the 1974 adaptation, directed by Sidney Lumet and likewise featuring an all-star cast, including Albert Finney as Poirot.

It’s not a remake, but rather a reinterpretation of the source material, with a screenplay by Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049) that makes a few minor tweaks while mostly retaining the throwback vibe — not only to the setting, but also the dialogue and the methodical structure with which the mystery unfolds.

Branagh keeps the train on the tracks from a visual perspective, showcasing some lovely mountain scenery while emphasizing the claustrophobic confines of the exquisitely detailed period railroad cars.

Still, the potential mayhem is fairly subdued in a film that curiously lacks emotional urgency as plot twists are unspooled, red herrings are tossed around, and suspicions are cast in various directions. The most appealing element is Poirot, charismatically portrayed by Branagh, since the other passengers generally aren’t developed much beyond some quirky snobbery — rendering the resolution practically inconsequential.

Such issues might be inherent in translating the material from the get-go, yet as the tension dwindles, Murder on the Orient Express gradually runs out of steam.

 

Rated PG-13, 114 minutes.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Don’t be so quick to dismiss a form of advertising you might lump alongside the Yellow Pages and newspaper classifieds, because Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri knows how to attract attention.

This exhilarating mix of biting dark comedy and taut crime drama from British filmmaker Martin McDonagh (In Bruges) showcases some terrific performances and a sharp-tongued script packed with incisive sociopolitical subtext.

“Raped While Dying. And Still No Arrests? How Come, Chief Willoughby?” That’s the message plastered across three dilapidated billboards along a rural road by Mildred (Frances McDormand), whose daughter was murdered seven months ago.

She blames the terminally ill police chief (Woody Harrelson) for a lack of progress in the case, and takes out her frustration on a dimwitted and ethically challenged deputy (Sam Rockwell) who becomes the first of many to confront her about the messaging.

While others come out of the woodwork, mostly to voice their displeasure with Mildred, we meet others affected by the scheme, including her exasperated teenage son (Lucas Hedges), the advertising agent (Caleb Landry Jones) who sold her the space, and an ex-husband (John Hawkes) who’s now dating a young bimbo.

Although the titular locale is fictional, its Midwestern anonymity could resonate with small towns across America, where a controversial act of defiance divides the citizenry with cries of inequality or moral outrage.

McDonagh’s crackling, multilayered screenplay weaves a compelling mystery around Mildred’s plight while also prompting discussions, subtle or not, about racial profiling and organized religion. In fact, one highlight comes when Mildred lambastes a Catholic priest for denouncing the billboards, claiming he has no moral authority concerning crimes against children.

Mildred is motivated by a desire for both closure and vengeance, and the film provides a fascinating probe into revenge psychology and other moral complexities while acknowledging the desperate and humorous absurdity in her quest.

Three Billboards will likely draw comparisons to the work of the Coen brothers, especially with the presence of McDormand, who masterfully embodies a fearless balance of sorrow, remorse, anger, and determination in a galvanizing performance.

However, the film brings together more than a dozen richly textured characters with shifting loyalties and a penchant for violence who might likewise divide moviegoers. With its clever twists and ambiguous ending, it also refuses to pass judgment, either on Mildred or the audience.

 

Rated R, 115 minutes.

Capsule reviews for Nov. 10

Amanda and Jack Go Glamping

You could create a drinking game from the number of times the word “yurt” — which is admittedly amusing — is uttered in this lackluster relationship comedy about struggling author Jack (David Arquette) and his wife, Amanda (Amy Acker), who decide upon a luxury camping trip as a method of rekindling the spark in their marriage. But when their trailer winds up double booked by a flirty resort owner (Adan Canto), the getaway turns into a group outing, much to David’s chagrin. The screenplay by director Brandon Dickerson provides some scattered quirky laughs, although it strains to be heartwarming and stumbles while attempting to satirize the social-media age. (Not rated, 91 minutes).

 

Daddy’s Home 2

A few humiliating knocks to the groin must be worth the payday for a top-notch cast in this low-brow sequel that adds a holiday flavor to the patriarchal pugilism. This time, Brad (Will Ferrell) has made good with Dusty (Mark Wahlberg), the father of Brad’s stepchildren. But the chaos resumes with the arrival of both Brad’s lovable dad (John Lithgow) and Dusty’s bullying papa (Mel Gibson) with plenty of hate to go around. The result overdoses on testosterone-fueled misogyny with a barrage of slapstick gags that feels strained and predictable. Lacking both good taste and good cheer, it reeks of a cash grab for all involved. (Rated PG-13, 99 minutes).

 

Mayhem

If you think you’re having a bad day at the office, watch the predicament of the law clerk in this ultraviolent revenge saga from director Joe Lynch (Everly). Derek (Steven Yeun) is fired after becoming the scapegoat for an act of incompetence toward a client. But his attempts to confront executives over the injustice and regain his job are thwarted by the spread of a mysterious virus that causes his co-workers to act out their most prurient and violent impulses. The film skewers white-collar corporate snobbery through its abundant brutality and gore, gleefully choreographed to maximize the visceral impact. The intense result is exhausting yet amusing. (Rated R, 86 minutes).

 

The Price

You can see why Seyi (Aml Ameen) is stressed out — he’s created a rift with his Nigerian immigrant parents over his father’s recent stroke, he takes desperate measures to avoid the latest round of layoffs at a Wall Street firm, his Adderall prescription is running out, and he’s taking out his frustrations on his new girlfriend (Lucy Griffiths). Plus, his character deserves a more intriguing film than this well-intentioned debut from director Anthony Onah, which lacks subtlety and surprise while as the obstacles mount during Seyi’s downward spiral fueled by corruption and corporate greed. Ameen’s performance is heartfelt, yet the film needs more polished insight. (Rated R, 91 minutes).

 

Thelma

What begins as a captivating character study winds up muddled and emotionally distant in this deliberately paced coming-of-age melodrama from Norwegian director Joachim Trier (Louder Than Bombs). Thelma (Eili Harboe) is a shy college student in Oslo whose strict religious upbringing prompts supernatural occurrences and sends her into panic-induced seizures when she drinks alcohol or flirts with a female classmate (Kaya Wilkins). The resulting examination of spirituality and independence is mildly unsettling and provocative, yet ultimately bogs down by trying to juggle too many disparate elements, with the tension gradually dwindling as a result. Trier only sporadically puts a fresh twist on familiar material. (Not rated, 116 minutes).