Thursday, December 7, 2017

A fairy tale from Guillermo del Toro

The Shape of Water, a romantic fantasy about a cleaner and a "monster.''
Guillermo del Toro chases dreams, attempting (and often succeeding) in mixing horror and romanticism as he allows his ample imagination to invade reality. In his great 2006 movie, Pan's Labyrinth, del Toro produced a dark fantasy about Franco's Spain. Now in The Shape of Water, del Toro turns to American shores, for a fairy tale about the love between a mute woman (Sally Hawkins) and a creature who has been brought from the depths of the Amazon to the US by government officials who see him as a threat.

The second half of del Toro's conception -- the part involving an attempt by a government agent (Michael Shannon) to destroy the creature -- might be the weakest part of the movie, flirting with cliches about the way officialdom inevitably becomes the enemy of beauty and mystery.

But this creature is different. Called Amphibian Man in the credits (Doug Jones under a ton of make-up), the creature has the physique of a man but also has scales and the ability to be fierce when threatened. In the Amazon, natives thought Amphibian Man was a god. Rather than trying to trample his strangeness, they elevated it.

Perhaps never quite as poetic as its wonderful title, The Shape of Water nonetheless allows del Toro to give full vent to an imagination into which movies flow, cinematic tributaries that fuel his sense of invention. It's not coincidental that Hawkins' Elisa lives above a theater called the Orpheum where The Story of Ruth is playing or that her neighbor (a gay artist played by Richard Jenkins) obsessively watches old movies, preferring them to the news of the day.

Set in Baltimore during the 1960s, the movie alternates between two major locations: Elisa's apartment and her place of employment, a government installation where Amphibian man is being held prisoner.

Elisa and her co-worker (a down-to-earth Octavia Spencer) learn that the creature is being tormented by Shannon's character. An authoritarian jerk, Shannon's Strickland becomes the real monster, a self-justifying sadist disguised as a "normal" man. Shannon's Strickland lives in suburbia, indulges himself by buying a Cadillac and pounds away (literally) during sex with his mildly libidinous wife.

Michael Stuhlbarg makes an appearance as a scientist who wants to preserve the creature. He believes that it would be a crime to destroy Amphibian Man. Stuhlbarg's Bob has a double identity. It's not much of a spoiler to tell you that Bob is also a Russian spy and that the Russians have their eye on this creature. They, too, would like to harness its powers.

Hawkins excels in her performance as a silent woman who gradually reveals her strengths. From the beginning, del Toro establishes Elisa's affinity for water. For Elisa, water and sexuality are intimately connected. And, yes, Elisa not only has a romantic interest in the creature; she has sex with him. She explains to Spencer's curious Zelda how this union is possible in one of the movie's giggly joking moments.

Del Toro delivers on the promise of the title. There's a lot of water in The Shape of Water, arriving in the form of flooded rooms, downpours and the tank in which Amphibian Man languishes. Water is life and, as such, can't always be contained.

The movie's romanticism extends to its elements that in the 1960s might have been considered "subversive," a woman who can't speak, a gay man, and a black woman. It falls to these outsiders to appreciate Amphibian Man in all his scaly glory. It is only in union with Amphibian Man that Elisa finds her true identity. She's finally complete.

Those familiar with del Toro's work won't be surprised at the movie's visual mastery, greatly aided by the cinematography of Dan Lausten and the production design of Paul D. Austerberry; they help the movie live in a world all its own.

The Shape of Water doesn't quite reach the magical heights at which del Toro must have been aiming, but it stands as a work in which sweet and sour tones bump against one another with del Toro insisting that only in the full embrace of those we deem alien do we find our deepest humanity -- or maybe he's just telling a small story about a woman who deserves more than life has given her.

Either way, The Shape of Water brims with strange charm.

He made the world's worst film

James Franco directs a comedy about the making of The Room, an awful movie about a comedy that has developed a cult following.
All through the preview screening of The Disaster Artist, I found myself looking for James Franco's face, a strange preoccupation because Franco's in nearly every frame of the movie. We catch glimpses of what we know as Franco's face but he's mostly unrecognizable as Tommy Wiseau, a wannabe film director who made The Room, a movie so awful it has acquired cult status among those who enjoy unadulterated badness.

Often shown at midnight, The Room probably is best appreciated in the company of audiences who feel liberated to hoot and holler at the screen. In real life, Wiseau frequently attends screenings of his movie, which has been called the worst movie ever made.

I don't know if The Disaster Artist will rock your world, but I do know that I laughed at the comic touches that Franco, who also directed, brings to the subject of dismal failure.

As is the case with most good comedies, Franco and his fellow actors play things straight. Wiseau had no idea that he was making a bad movie; in fact, he seems to have had a wholehearted belief in the quality and importance of his effort.

In dead-on fashion, Franco replicates scenes from The Room as the production is being filmed. He also replicates Wiseau's shoulder-length hair and odd manner of speaking; his accent has a marble-mouthed, eastern European flavor. Wiseau says he's from New Orleans.

Given the outrageousness of the subject, there's no need for Franco to veer from straightforward narration in a screenplay that has been adapted from a book written by Greg Sestero, another wannabe actor who traveled to Hollywood with Wiseau to pursue fame, fortune and a career in movies.

Sestero (Dave Franco) met Wiseau in 1968 when both were attending a San Francisco acting class. Sestero saw Tommy do a balls-to-the-wall, completely insane version of a Stanley Kowalski speech from A Streetcar Named Desire. He was impressed by Tommy's willingness to go "raw."

No one knows where Wiseau got the money to support himself and Sestero in LA or how he financed a movie that he believed would put him on the map. A deluded Wiseau also says that his work has a Shakespearean quality, a comparison that, to say the least, represents a stretch.

The Room, the picture Wiseau's making, centers on Johnny (played by Wiseau) and includes some ridiculous sex scenes which Franco shows us as he chronicles the shooting of the movie with an actress (Ari Gaynor), a script supervisor (Seth Rogen) and a small crew.

Jacki Weaver appears as one of the film's actresses, a woman who claims that even a day on the set of the world's worst movie beats a day of longing to act.

It's impossible to make a movie like The Disaster Artist without a bit of condescension toward the movie's woeful cast of characters. We laugh at them precisely because it's so obvious that Wiseau's project is doomed from the start. Nothing would (or could) redeem it.

Franco fully immerses in Tommy's life, presenting it with the same cockeyed seriousness with which Wiseau seems to have lived it. Wiseau released The Room in 2003 and claimed that he always intended it to be funny.

I'm not sure what Wiseau really had in mind, but unlike a lot of other would-be comedies, Franco's rendition of this real-life story actually is funny.

Watching Wiseau try to throw a football, for example, presents a moment so void of athleticism, it's close to astonishing. And that's the whole joke in a nutshell. From the outset, it's clear that nothing about The Room will succeed, yet -- to the amazement of everyone involved -- Wiseau persists.

And, no, you don't have to have seen The Room to go along for this enjoyably nutty ride.

She copes with hard times in Kinshasa

You think you're going through a rough patch. Consider the fate of Felicite, a woman living amid the corruptions of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Felicite, the title character of Alain Gomis's latest movie, must raise money so that her son can have his broken leg surgically repaired. Felicite also has been robbed by a person posing as a do-gooder and, to add aggravation to insult, her refrigerator is perpetually broken. To fully appreciate Felicite, the movie about this beleaguered but defiant woman, you need tolerance for hand-held camera work, but the technique makes sense because Felicite lives in a chaotic world. Felicite (Vero Tshanda Beya Mputu) sings at a local nightclub and proves a force with which to be reckoned, a woman of ample girth who meets trouble head-on when she learns her 14-year-old son, Samo (Gaetan Claudia), has been taken to the hospital. As she tries to gather money for the boy's surgery (the doctor won't operate without a substantial down payment), Felicite takes us on a journey that brings her into contact with a variety of people from whom she hopes to raise money. She also strikes up a relationship with Tabu (Papi Mpaki), a boozer who spends a lot of time trying to repair Felicite's refrigerator. Gomis obtains a fine performance from his lead actress, a singer in her first acting outing. We also are shown glimpses of the Kinshasa Symphony Orchestra playing in interludes that provide a stark contrast with the rough-and-tumble life of the city's nightclubs and streets. In all, Felicite strikes a powerful chord, taking us into a society in which every reward feels hard won. The language (Lingala and French with subtitles) also has a distinctive quality. At one point, Felicite tells Tabu that she likes his way of being in the world. It's not the only expression in Felicite that opens the eye while pleasing the ear.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Broadcast Film Critics nominees

The Shape of Water tops list of nominees for the 23rd annual Critics' Choice awards.
I know. You've hardly digested Thanksgiving dinner and you're already being inundated with talk of year-end movie awards. Well, here's another awards alert: The Broadcast Film Critics Association, of which I'm a voting member, has announced the nominees for its 23rd annual Critics' Choice Awards.

The Shape of Water led the list with a total of 14 nominations, including best picture. Call Me By Your Name, Dunkirk, Lady Bird and The Post followed with eight nominations each.

At some point, I'll publish my 10-best list for 2017, but for the moment, I offer the BFCA list as a way to get you started on your own year-end thinking.

The CW Network will broadcast the Critics' Choice Awards show on Jan. 11 at 8 p.m., eastern time. The BFCA, by the way, represents more than 300 television, radio and online critics.


BEST PICTURE
The Big Sick
Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Dunkirk
The Florida Project
Get Out
Lady Bird
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST ACTOR
Timothée Chalamet – Call Me by Your Name
James Franco – The Disaster Artist
Jake Gyllenhaal – Stronger
Tom Hanks – The Post
Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out
Daniel Day-Lewis – Phantom Thread
Gary Oldman – Darkest Hour


BEST ACTRESS
Jessica Chastain – Molly’s Game
Sally Hawkins – The Shape of Water
Frances McDormand – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird
Meryl Streep – The Post

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Willem Dafoe – The Florida Project
Armie Hammer – Call Me By Your Name
Richard Jenkins – The Shape of Water
Sam Rockwell – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Patrick Stewart – Logan
Michael Stuhlbarg – Call Me by Your Name

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Mary J. Blige – Mudbound
Hong Chau – Downsizing
Tiffany Haddish – Girls Trip
Holly Hunter – The Big Sick
Allison Janney - I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf – Lady Bird
Octavia Spencer – The Shape of Water

BEST YOUNG ACTOR/ACTRESS (under 21)
Mckenna Grace – Gifted
Dafne Keen – Logan
Brooklynn Prince – The Florida Project
Millicent Simmonds – Wonderstruck
Jacob Tremblay – Wonder

BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE
Dunkirk
Lady Bird
Mudbound
The Post
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

BEST DIRECTOR
Guillermo del Toro – The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Christopher Nolan – Dunkirk
Luca Guadagnino – Call Me By Your Name
Jordan Peele – Get Out
Steven Spielberg – The Post

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor – The Shape of Water
Greta Gerwig – Lady Bird
Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani – The Big Sick
Liz Hannah and Josh Singer – The Post
Martin McDonagh – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Jordan Peele – Get Out

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
James Ivory – Call Me by Your Name
Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber – The Disaster Artist
Dee Rees and Virgil Williams – Mudbound
Aaron Sorkin – Molly’s Game
Jack Thorne, Steve Conrad, Stephen Chbosky – Wonder

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Roger Deakins – Blade Runner 2049
Hoyte van Hoytema – Dunkirk
Dan Laustsen – The Shape of Water
Rachel Morrison – Mudbound
Sayombhu Mukdeeprom – Call Me By Your Name

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Paul Denham Austerberry, Shane Vieau, Jeff Melvin – The Shape of Water
Jim Clay, Rebecca Alleway – Murder on the Orient Express
Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis – Dunkirk
Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola – Blade Runner 2049
Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer – Beauty and the Beast
Mark Tildesley, Véronique Melery – Phantom Thread

BEST EDITING
Michael Kahn, Sarah Broshar – The Post
Paul Machliss, Jonathan Amos – Baby Driver
Lee Smith – Dunkirk
Joe Walker – Blade Runner 2049
Sidney Wolinsky – The Shape of Water

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Renée April – Blade Runner 2049
Mark Bridges – Phantom Thread
Jacqueline Durran – Beauty and the Beast
Lindy Hemming – Wonder Woman
Luis Sequeira – The Shape of Water

BEST HAIR AND MAKEUP
Beauty and the Beast
Darkest Hour
I, Tonya
The Shape of Water
Wonder

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Blade Runner 2049
Dunkirk
The Shape of Water
Thor: Ragnarok
War for the Planet of the Apes
Wonder Woman

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
The Breadwinner
Coco
Despicable Me 3
The LEGO Batman Movie
Loving Vincent

BEST ACTION MOVIE
Baby Driver
Logan
Thor: Ragnarok
War for the Planet of the Apes
Wonder Woman

BEST COMEDY
The Big Sick
The Disaster Artist
Girls Trip
I, Tonya
Lady Bird

BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY
Steve Carell – Battle of the Sexes
James Franco – The Disaster Artist
Chris Hemsworth – Thor: Ragnarok
Kumail Nanjiani – The Big Sick
Adam Sandler – The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY
Tiffany Haddish – Girls Trip
Zoe Kazan – The Big Sick
Margot Robbie – I, Tonya
Saoirse Ronan – Lady Bird
Emma Stone – Battle of the Sexes

BEST SCI-FI OR HORROR MOVIE
Blade Runner 2049
Get Out
It
The Shape of Water

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
BPM (Beats Per Minute)
A Fantastic Woman
First They Killed My Father
In the Fade
The Square
Thelma

BEST SONG
Evermore – Beauty and the Beast
Mystery of Love – Call Me By Your Name
Remember Me – Coco
Stand Up for Something – Marshall
This Is Me – The Greatest Showman

BEST SCORE
Alexandre Desplat – The Shape of Water
Jonny Greenwood – Phantom Thread
Dario Marianelli – Darkest Hour
Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer – Blade Runner 2049
John Williams – The Post
Hans Zimmer - Dunkirk




Monday, December 4, 2017

This 'Wonder Wheel' turns lame

Woody Allen's latest sinks toward the bottom of the director's large filmography.

At times, Woody Allen's Wonder Wheel feels more like a play than a movie -- and not a very good play at that, something along the lines of cut-rate Eugene O'Neill.

As with most Allen movies, a nicely composed surface masks the paucity of the drama. Put another way, the peripherals are top notch. Vittorio Storaro's cinematography and Santo Loquasto's production design skillfully blend beauty and nostalgia in creating the world of Coney Island during the 1950s. Visual competence goes only so far, and the overall effect of Wonder Wheel tracks toward abiding unpleasantness.

Allen breaks little new ground as he tackles familiar themes in this aggressively retro setting: love, betrayal and the way sexual desire and love can blur, creating uncomfortable emotional smudges for all involved.

If you want to spend time wondering how all this relates to Allen's well-publicized private life, have it. But taken on its own terms, the movie represents a misbegotten journey into a lower-class hell of the 1950s. The movie feels strained, artificial and tawdry.

Wonder Wheel revolves around a massively disappointed woman named Ginny (Kate Winslet). After a disastrous first marriage (she cheated), Ginny married Humpty (Jim Belushi). Humpty provides Ginny with stability and safety. He more or less tolerates Ginny's young son (Jack Gore), who happens to be a pyromaniac. The kid likes to set fires.

The arrival of Humpty's daughter (Juno Temple) from a previous marriage upsets Ginny's applecart, which isn't all that sturdy to being with. Humpty, a raging alcoholic who's no longer drinking, still manages to rage. He's Ralph Kramden without the laughs.

Juno's Carolina has been estranged from Humpty, but she fears reprisals from the mobster husband she's fleeing. Humpty warned his daughter against marrying a mob guy, but Carolina didn't listen. It doesn't take long for Humpty to crack; he loves Carolina too much permanently to reject her. Besides, she has no place else to turn.

All of these characters are penned up in a shack overlooking the Coney Island boardwalk, where Humpty operates the merry-go-round and Ginny works as a waitress in a clam house.

Allen sets us up for a kitchen sink drama that's intermittently narrated by a Coney Island lifeguard (Justin Timberlake), a dreamer. Timberlake's character aspires to be a playwright. He also starts an affair with Ginny, who once had acting ambitions and who imagines that she might find a better life with Timberlake's Mickey. She separates herself from reality by claiming that she's only "acting" the part of a waitress.

The actors are often stuck with dialogue that might better have suited Allen's contemporary New York characters, but, in this instance, turns them into labored fictional creations. Temple does her best to be young and flighty. The usually wonderful Winslet elbows her way into an unappealing version of a Blanch DuBois-scale unraveling. Timberlake does his best to portray an Army veteran who dropped out of NYU but doesn't take easily to the role. Belushi either pleads Humpty's case or bellows like a wounded ox.

I'd put Wonder Wheel near the bottom of Allen's abundant filmography. The story isn't very good and it leaves a bad aftertaste when it's done. I'd call that a double whammy of badness.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

A caustic look at the art world

Sweden's The Square takes us into a world where art and basic human values seem constantly to clash.

You could spend a couple of hours unwinding the many subjects addressed in Swedish director Ruben Ostlund's The Square. Ostlund, who shook up the art-house world in 2014 with Force Majeure, takes on the pretensions of the art world and the split between purported cultural values and simple expressions of humanity. He also tackles class divisions and the way a hopelessly elitist art world pushes itself toward weird extremes.

The Square of the title refers to an art space created outside of a museum of modern art in Stockholm. Inside the space, which actually is quite small, the atmosphere is supposed to be one of helpfulness and toleration, a tiny retreat devoted to trust and caring. Not surprisingly, the world outside the square turns out to be ridiculously corrupt.

Ostlund builds his story around the museum's curator. Claes Bang portrays Christian, a museum executive whose hypocrisy will be exposed as the movie unveils a series of episodes that sometimes amuse, sometimes confound and sometimes seem a little too on the nose to be as provocative as Ostlund may have intended.

If you're the sort of person who believes the art world is hopelessly out of touch with anything that concerns "normal" experience, you'll probably side with Ostlund as he poses a series of arty jokes. The main exhibit at the museum consists of piles of gravel assembled in the shape of small pyramids across a gallery floor. It's silly, of course, but just plausible enough to make us see why visitors to the museum might spend hours trying to tease possible meanings from these piles of rocks.

You may do the same with The Square. The movie is ambitious, scattered, funny, flawed and disjointed.

Say this, though, as the curator of the museum, Bang proves an able ringmaster as he presides over Ostlund's circus of a movie. American audiences also will recognize Elisabeth Moss, who turns up as a TV reporter doing a story on the new exhibit. Later, she climbs into bed with Bang's character.

Post sex discussion between the two characters hardly leans toward sweet talk, degenerating, instead, into an argument about who's going to throw away the condom the couple used. Perhaps a suspicious Christian thinks that Moss's character wants to set him up for a Lewinski-like dress moment. Who knows?

Did I mention that before the reporter and her subject have sex, a chimp wanders through Moss's character's apartment, creating both laughs and consternation? It’s one of the film's several WTF moments.

During the interview with Moss's character, Christian reveals that his major (and possibly only) concern centers on raising money for the museum.

That's not the only money-oriented moment in The Square. At a fund-raising dinner, a performance artist pretends to be a gorilla and winds up terrorizing the guests. This bizarre twist presumably is meant to show how much abuse viewers will tolerate if they believe they’re looking at art. The scene also exposes the ruthlessness that afflicts the art crowd. Under those tuxedos, monsters lurk. The whole scene would have made a spectacularly unnerving short.

Earlier, a couple of hip marketing geniuses persuade the museum’s staff that tolerance and compassion never will draw attention to The Square. To spice things up, they create a promotional video in which a girl is blown up. They wanted to give the project an edge.

Perhaps to knock Christian out of his protected cocoon, Ostlund includes a mugging in which Christian loses his wallet, his phone, and a pair of prized cufflinks. The resultant developments expose his silliness, as well as his inability to get beyond his own preoccupations.

So what to make of all this? Clearly, Ostlund has skills. He's a filmmaker who's interested in morality and responsibility, subjects that need plenty of attention at the moment. But in The Square, he's got so much on his plate that it takes him all of 2 1/2 sometimes taxing hours to unravel the movie's many threads.

As a result, The Square stands as a triumph of ambition that results in a wildly mixed achievement, water balloons dropped by a prankish director on the art world's many targets of opportunity.

A girl fights for her family's survival

The Breadwinner takes an animated look at life in Afghanistan under the Taliban.
The Breadwinner isn't the first film to deal with the plight of Afghan women living under the Taliban (2003's Osama was devastating), but it may be the first animated feature to tackle such a difficult subject.

Irish director Nora Twomey, who co-directed the much-admired The Secret of Kells, takes us to Kabul for a story about Parvana (voice by Saara Chaudry), a girl whose father (Ali Badshah) is arrested for possession of a book the Taliban disdains. The young thug who betrays this peaceful older man has personal motives for his actions. Besides, we get the impression that any book, other than the Koran, would have offended Taliban sensibilities.

Parvana's mother Fattema (Laara Sadiq) and her older sister Soraya (Shaista Latif) don't know how they are going to survive because, as women, they can't even venture into the street unaccompanied by a male relative. This prohibition makes a dangerous ordeal out of such simple tasks as buying groceries or fetching water from the local well.

Early on Fattema, who's also caring for her toddler son, attempts to visit her husband in the forbidding prison where he's being held. She's badly beaten for her efforts.

It falls to Parvana to devise a solution to keep the family afloat. She cuts her hair, pretends to be a boy and begins to move about Kabul with new-found freedom. She also receives help with her ruse from Shauzia (Soma Chhaya), another girl who has adopted the same strategy as a means of coping with Taliban tyrannies.

The Breadwinner focuses on children but should not be considered a children's movie, even though older kids would do well to see it. It's a harsh story about what happens when fanatics terrorize a culture.

The story also puts special emphasis on the importance of storytelling as a means of helping people to survive terrible conditions. The movie opens with Parvana's father telling her stories about Afghanistan's past and includes a running fable that Parvana tells her baby brother. Parvana's story involves a boy who must try to save his village from the ravages of the evil Elephant King, a tale that roughly parallels Parvana's efforts to help keep her family afloat.

The animation is simple, sometimes involving cut-outs: Twomey's team creates a dusty picture of Kabul as a place where the life of the marketplace hasn't entirely been squelched.

The Breadwinner, which derives from a young-adult novel by Deborah Ellis, affirms Parvana's strength and determination and serves as a moving introduction to what it means for women to live under constraints that serve to subjugate and dehumanize them. Small but powerful, The Breadwinner qualifies as an adept telling of an important story.

A movie that sets off fireworks

Tultepec, a town of about 92,000 people located about 20 miles north of Mexico City, goes crazy for fireworks. This obsession manifests most prominently during the annual celebration of San Juan de Dios, a holy figure who's venerated as the patron saint of fireworks makers. Fireworks, of course, have dual potential: They're beautiful to observe but also, dangerous. Brimstone & Glory, a documentary by Viktor Jakovleski takes us to Tultepec, where residents are preparing two massive displays: The Castles of Fire and the Burning of the Bulls, both highlights of the town's week-long fireworks festival. The peril becomes apparent when we see one town resident who has lost a hand to fireworks. He still helps make them. Early on, one of the young men helping to create a frame for a giant bull that will blaze with fireworks, says that no one who participates in what he calls "the running of the bulls" escapes without burns. The fireworks we see are amazing, and Jakovleski leaves it to us to decide what to make of this town's obsession with lighting up the sky for an event that evidently attracts upward of 100,000 visitors. I wondered why so many risk injury year-after-year, but most of the people we meet accept the town's commitment to fireworks as an essential part of a community event that celebrates local artisans. (A footnote: In December of 2016, after Brimstone and Glory was completed, a massive explosion in a Tultepec fireworks market resulted in 42 deaths.)

Friday, November 24, 2017

Denzel Washington as a savant attorney

Roman J. Israel, Esq. makes room for moments that are so thought-provokingly enjoyable that the movie, which can't be called a success, may be more interesting than movies that would have garnered more praise. Denzel Washington creates one of his more memorable characters, a legal savant whose values and tastes are firmly stuck in the 60s. Washington's Israel sports an afro, baggy-ill fitting pants, and glasses a couple of sizes too big. Directed by Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler), Roman J. Israel, Esq. is at its best when it's focused on this misfit of a man whose heroes include Bayard Rustin and Angela Davis. A key story element arrives early: Israel has spent 36 years working for a famous lawyer. Israel has been the backroom brains for William Henry Jackson, an attorney who knew how to handle himself in a courtroom. Jackson suffers a heart attack and slips into a coma, igniting a plot that brings Israel into touch with a hot-shot attorney portrayed by Colin Farrell. Farrell's George Pierce has been asked to dissolve Jackson's firm, which -- unbeknownst to Israel -- has never turned a profit. Israel also meets a civil rights activist (Carmen Ejogo). She sees past Israel's strange behavior and finds a righteous man. The plot puts Israel into a position in which he must decide how righteous he really is, a development the movie doesn't seem to know how to explore. For roughly half of its two-hour and 9-minute running time, Roman J. Israel, Esq. complies scenes that don't quite cohere. It's almost as if Gilroy, who also wrote the screenplay, can't figure out precisely what he wants to say. He compensates by giving Washington some scorching dialog and with a bit of cinematic daring, even employing some throwback style to evoke a feeling of '60s cinema. Roman J. Israel, Esq. emerges on one of the year's true oddities, a film that stumbles but, before it falls, hits notes you're not likely to hear anywhere else.*
As was the case with Wonder, I had a conflict with the preview screening of Roman J. Israel, Esq. and caught up with the film after its opening.