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ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.

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Reviewer: Philip Price

Director: Dan Gilroy

Stars: Amanda Warren, Amari Cheatom, Carmen Ejogo, Colin Farrell, Denzel Washington,DeRon Horton, Hugo Armstrong, Kevin Balmore, Lynda Gravatt, Miles Heizer, Niles Fitch, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana

Released: February 2nd, 2018

Rome and Israel. They share quite the history with one another; a history that is splattered with wars over ideals some of which deal in economics, but those most notably that deal in religious and/or philosophical dealings. In the latest from writer/director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) it seems the use of these two titles that exist in the realm of common knowledge as opposing forces is to illustrate another kind of philosophical war-the one within a person who has principles, a code of ethics he has lived by his entire life, and the choice to betray those principles, a choice he is totally justified in, due in large part to the fact the world doesn’t understand him. One could draw many conclusions as to why Gilroy might have chosen these two words to identify the unlikely hero of his story, but it seems to make the most obvious sense that Rome and Israel are these two ideas, these two kinds of states of consciousness that are constantly at odds with one another. In Roman J. Israel, Esq. these two pillars of opposing thought form the basis of Denzel Washington’s character, a savant of sorts who has worked behind the curtain at a law firm for thirty plus years while his partner, an unseen enigma of a man who was nicknamed “The Bulldog”, handled all of the courtroom dealings that Roman didn’t have the desire nor the social skills to navigate. It is when our titular character is unexpectedly put under this spotlight and then further humiliated by the realization he’s invested his life in a practice that has seemingly invested nothing in him that he comes to this fork in the road where his ideals no longer seem to matter and so the point or validity in continuing to try to fight for them is futile. On a broad scope that all may sound like a fancy way of saying this film deals in themes of doing what one feels is right for the recognition and doing what one feels is right because it’s right and the difference in character that dictates the difference in intent, but Roman J. Israel, Esq. goes a little deeper than that for Washington’s Roman gladly worked in the shadows for years doing work he needed little recognition for, but that he at least thought was making a difference. When Roman is forced to awake from his routine he comes to realize the system he has worked under all these years has allowed for little change after all, but has instead been replaced by a world that isn’t based around right or wrong or bad or good, but more around what deal can be made to avoid circumstance as long as possible.

For the first hour or so Roman J. Israel, Esq. was shaping up to be one of my favorite movies of the year as it has this insatiable appetite to dissect and devour the justice system as well as both its strengths and shortcomings through the eyes of a character who, by nature, would seemingly be unable to comprehend the minutia in between the black and white-the informalities of the system, if you will. Roman doesn’t do informalities, you see. Roman is the kind of guy that has a massive record collection at his small apartment in New York City as well as over eight hundred songs on his dated iPod that he listens to constantly with the same pair of (Sony) headphones. Another constant is JIF peanut butter as it is seemingly stocked so as to never run out in Roman’s small apartment where he eats a sandwich over the sink for dinner every night. Roman, as someone who is clearly on the spectrum, desires order and consistency in as many aspects of his existence as possible. Consistency is comfort. Through this mindset, and through what is another stellar Denzel Washington performance, we are brought into a world where that comfort is being threatened on a daily basis which causes both compassion on the part of the viewer because we sympathize with Roman’s situation while also intrigue with how such a character will handle the sudden and dramatic shifts his life is taking. It is in this first hour that all of these kinds of avenues are explored and investigated-leading Roman to make friends with a local leader of a civil rights group in Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo) with whom he finds someone, the rare person, that sees him for who is, what he’s sacrificed, and the good he can genuinely do as well as Roman’s new boss at a new law firm run by a former student of his long-standing partner, the flashy George Pierce (Colin Farrell). George is more interested in profit than he is bettering the world which initiates this conflict in Roman that he’s never had to invest effort in before. While the film never outright states what Pierce’s intentions are or how sincere some of his proclamations are meant to be taken, though some are clearly telegraphed to be generalized boilerplate for the sake of gaining business, this leads one to believe Farrell might be a bit miscast here due to extenuating circumstances that have to deal with roles played in the past, but overall these avenues in which Roman travels create interesting questions of identity and even more layers for Washington to play while at the same time continuing to reveal plot points that are engaging so as to not allow the film to lose itself in these thoughts of the nature of how we all continue to tick. It is in finding this balance that the first hour or so of Roman J. Israel, Esq. reaches moments of inspired greatness.

At one point in the film a woman asks Roman what the Esquire on the end of his name means to which he replies that it is a title of dignity, just above a gentlemen and just below a knight, in the legal arena. It is seemingly another example of Roman’s taste for the formalities of life, but as this pattern comes into question the film becomes more about how far Roman will go to the other side before realizing he’s fallen victim to a perspective he could never truly believe in. This becomes the crux of the movie, but is positioned as that beginning of the third act slump where we typically see a character mess-up, or ruin whatever was going their way so that they might redeem themselves in the climactic act of the film. What Gilroy might be saying with the fact the moment this man, Roman J. Israel, turned on his principal that he then falls victim to the pitfalls of such a lifestyle rather than prosper in it could mean something, but I’m not sure I’ve quite settled on an opinion yet. As Roman clearly states, “he’s tired of doing the impossible for the ungrateful.” It’s a great line (and make no mistake, Gilroy has come up with a handful of solid ones here) and it summarizes the breaking point we see Roman reach perfectly. This is a character we’ve come to care about and are invested in-this is a man who would risk his well-being for an instance of righteousness when most of us live day to day hoping we aren’t forced to make such choices-who turns away from the truths he’s always believed upon realizing the movement he once stood for no longer stands with him; it has morphed into something else that Roman can’t fully comprehend. This realization he is a man out of time is legitimately heartbreaking and understandably complex. Gilroy never forces these complexities on the audience though, for they can be as layered as one wants to see them-Washington certainly offers a performance worthy of and that could withstand heavy scrutiny and the picking apart of-but Roman J. Israel, Esq. could just as easily be about little more than a man who decides to abandon the conflicting ideas in his head, the effort it takes to have as much, and the decision to look out for himself for once. Roman comes to the conclusion after the succession of events in the first act that purity can’t survive in this world and maybe he’s right, but there is always those, such as Maya, who can’t believe as much it true. It doesn’t seem Gilroy can convince himself of this either, for as much darkness and pessimism that is present in his screenplay it is impossible to believe a man who ends his film with a The Spinners track doesn’t believe there is some good in the world. Speaking shortly to the extraneous factors that add to the overall feel of the film, James Newton Howard’s score feels appropriately dated in its use of a haunting choir that serves the tone in a more suggestively epic way than expected. Robert Elswit’s (There Will Be Blood) cinematography is also to be noted as it captures Los Angeles in this light that doesn’t feel familiar whereas the whole concept of Roman and who he is, the staples of his appearance, and what Washington is doing with these to better inspire interest in the arc of this character are each elements that only enhance this complicated, but involving character study.

It is at about the halfway point of the film (the movie runs just over two hours) that one can feel the shift in tone that Gilroy employs so as to begin the back-half of the discussion he’s started on identity and how we balance doing what is best for us and what is best for all of us. While Gilroy walks the line between story and plot to impressive degrees what ultimately stands to not necessarily be the downfall, but more so the less interesting side of Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the fact Gilroy more or less paints himself into a corner where there can be only one way in which the majority of what he has set in motion resolves itself in a realistic and rather dignified manner and so this second half of the film comes to be more a confirmation of what we know has to happen in order for the movie to have the necessary impact rather than a movie that continues to surprise the viewer in the perspective it takes on the material and the themes it is tackling. And yet, despite this slight level of predictability I still found myself invested in these characters-hoping against all odds that Gilroy might come up with a way in which to avoid the obvious conclusions viewers would draw and instead wrap his story up in a satisfying, but maybe even more profound way than could be gleaned from where it seemed everything was headed. And while the second half of the film certainly doesn’t derail the movie completely it certainly knocked it down a few pegs for me as it went from being a movie that puts its own spin on the character study by utilizing a unique set of circumstances and a different persona Washington has yet to explore onscreen to the kind of conspiracy drama that feels the need to push actions on its characters that might otherwise fall outside the realm of that grounded reality of social activism that roots the first hour so strongly. Like Nightcrawler, Gilroy uses this very particular, very strong personality as an “in” to discuss an aspect of society that he finds fascinating and so, while Roman J. Israel, Esq. is meant to be a conversation around the judicial system and the decline of activism in general, it becomes so much about the arc of its titular character that the latter part of the film feels like it’s trying to recover a handful of the scenes that actually dissect these conversation pieces. The uncompromising nature of Roman and how it applies to this world of the judicial system and activist groups that he once felt a part of is arguably the better way to convey Gilroy’s main ideas anyway, but the movie seems to feel as if it needs to make up for lost ground when, to have followed this character who is his own worst enemy through to a natural conclusion instead of a more concocted one might have allowed this to rank among the best of 2017. I get it though, endings are tough.

I love movies, simple as that. I watch them with an intent to write about them and have always enjoyed discussing the latest news and releases with others. I received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing and Mass Communications/Digital Filmmaking and combined those interests when I began writing about cinema. Hope you enjoy the reviews, Happy reading!

Movie Reviews

LFF Review 2018 – Madeline’s Madeline ★★★★

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Madelines Madeline Movie Marker

Director: Josephine Decker

Stars: Miranda July, Molly Parker, Helena Howard

Released: London Film Festival

Indie favourite actress/director, Josephine Decker premiered her third feature, Madeline’s Madeline at Sundance earlier this year where she received praise for her unconventional take on mental illness.

16 years old Madeline suffers from unspecified mental health problems which have created a wedge between her and her slightly over bearing mother (Miranda July). Spending most of her time alone, she finds comfort when joining an experimental theatre troupe and even develops a strong bond with its ambitious director, Evangeline (the psychotic Molly Parker). When Evangeline starts to use Madeline’s delicate mental state and personal issues with her mother as part of her play, the line between reality and illusion quickly starts to blur.

‘The emotions you are having are not your own. They are someone else’s. You are not the cat – you are inside the cat’. So begins 15 minutes of blurred and beautifully shot sequence that immediately puts the audience in a state of daze. When we are officially introduced to Madeline, we find an energetic young woman who would much rather disappear behind wild animals in theatre rehearsals than have any serious discussion with her mother. Sharing the screen is the interesting Evangeline, who is as passionate as inspiring but whose play doesn’t seem to make much sense to anyone, including herself.

The film’s stand out is the acting and nothing ever feels rehearsed. Helena Howard as Madeline is terrific and easily switches between the disturbed teenager, the cat, the seductress, the turtle and the actress, always bursting with energy and vulnerability.

The film has its witty moments, particularly when during an acting exercise Madeline decides to punish Evangeline for using her personal confessions by simulating a painful childbirth, in the hopes of terrifying the freshly pregnant teacher.

Decker also explores the interesting duality of the role of the artist. Often torn between the idea that creating is disappearing behind someone’s else story or on the contrary it is all about using real experiences to bring depth and authenticity, Decker seems to suggest it is a little of both and that both extremes could end up with either an artificial or violating result. No one understands what Evangeline’s play is about at first and when she finally finds substance that speaks to others (Madeline’s personal issues), she chooses to entirely focus on it instead of adding her own substance and ends up being kicked out by the troupe.

Madeline’s Madeline is visually stunning thanks to Ashley Connor ‘s imaginative cinematography and both Howard and Decker bring to life a condition that is still misunderstood and dismissed. The storyline does takes its time to emerge and the daze occasionally mixes with confusion. Howard keeps the audience in her mental maze throughout the film. It is messy, unusual and dense and maybe that was the whole point.

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LFF 2018 Review – A Private War ★★★

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A Private War Movie Marker

Director: Matthew Heineman

Stars: Rosamund Pike, Jamie Dornan, Stanley Tucci, Tom Hollander

Released: London Film Festival 2018

‘ I see it so you don’t have to!’ Rosamund Pike, as war correspondent Marie Colvin, spits out at her Sunday Times editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) towards the end of A Private War  as they argue on the banks of the Thames which rolls serenely past. She means the atrocities of war which she is compelled to return to time and again to report on despite hating her own compulsion. She does it, she believes, to give a voice to the ordinary men, women and children who are fodder for the military and political ambitions of dictators and leaders themselves safe in their palaces, well, until the mob gets to them and takes selfies with their mutilated corpse as we see later in the film.

Marie Colvin was a much celebrated war reporter who was killed in Syria in 2012 along with her interpreter/guide. She achieved fame in her lifetime for her fearless, uncompromising journalism but also for the black eye patch she wore after losing an eye in Sri Lanka when reporting on the Tamil Tigers in 2001. Her death will still be fresh in the minds of those who follow current affairs as will her extraordinary persona.

It’s a testament then to the tremendous power of Rosamund Pike’s performance that minutes into A Private War she becomes Colvin. The deep gravelly voice, the Long Island accent, the no nonsense, blunt manner of speaking are not only completely captured but taken possession of by the very English rose Pike.

She embodies Colvin with a natural ease which exposes the private vulnerabilities of a woman who could have been simplistically portrayed as a one of those annoying ‘strong, uncompromising women’ that Hollywood seems to think raises the female profile but real women find unbearable. Pike is not afraid to make the chain smoking, heavy drinking, conflicted Colvin unlikable at times. But it’s in the quiet, reflective moments of Colvin’s life when she is alone with her ravaged eye and light desire for the normal suburban life she rejected that Pike is at her most effective. This is a film about the psychological damage of seeing what the rest of us don’t have to as much as it is about the grotesque mess of war on the battlefield.

Colvin wants a child and considers it with the man (Greg Wise) she’s already divorced a couple of times despite having suffered two miscarriages. She may or may not be prone to seeking connection through other convenient liaisons. Her friend tells her she’s an alcoholic and she thinks about convincing a psychiatrist she’s sane so she can leave a rehab clinic she’s an inpatient in before she’s really up to it. She’s plagued by flashbacks and nightmares.
We learn all this about her but, like her, don’t have time to fully process any of it before she and we are whisked off to Iraq. There she meets a freelance photographer, Paul Conroy, (Jamie Dornan – Fifty Shades Freed) and the two quickly form a professional partnership with Colvin very much in the driving seat as to where they go and what risks they take. In one case this involves her confidently flashing a gym membership card to get through a heavily armed checkpoint. The friendship which builds between the two is not explored enough and Dornan is not given enough to do but when the inevitable danger which is foreshadowed throughout the film befalls them it’s intense and a swallow-hard moment.

Even though we know her death is coming , when it actually does, there’s a real sense of loss, largely due to Pike having brought Colvin to life so brilliantly beforehand. I predict we’ll be seeing a lot of Rosamund Pike during awards season for this timely film produced by Charlize Theron about a very modern heroine.

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LFF 2018 Review – Assassination Nation ★★★★

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Assassination Nation Movie Marker

Director: Sam Levinson

Stars: Odessa Young, Hari Nef, Suki Waterhouse

Released: London Film Festival 2018

When Director, Sam Levinson started writing Assassination Nation over two years ago, he probably had no idea how shockingly relevant this dark comedy would be today. Written as his wife was about to give birth, he credits his fear of raising his child in an increasingly brutal country as the main inspiration behind this vivid satire, depicting the disastrous consequences of living online.

The city of Salem, Massachusetts is about to delve into chaos when a data hacker starts exposing highly porn-ified secrets of its population. Internet search history, digital photos and texts conversations are published. Political careers and marriages end. The hack reaches Salem’s high school whose principal is also targeted and forced to resign, despite claiming his innocence. In need of a scapegoat, the town’s authority (macho detective and police man) finds it in high school head girl, Lily (Odessa Young), whose affair with a married man,  just leaked. Lily and her friends must face the town’s growing hysteria that quickly turns into a blood bath of sexism and brutality.

The film’s core storyline revolves around Lily, who with her friends make up the popular clique of Salem’s High School. The 1990’s had their mysterious virgin nymphs (“Virgin Suicide”) and the 2000s, their bullying princesses (“Mean Girl”) but in 2018, the popular girls are fun, clever and most of all, nasty. Born in a comfortable middle class family, Lily has good grades and a cheeky talent for drawing. What Lily and her friend lack is a reliable grown up figure to look up to. Surrounded by threatening boyfriends and denigrating parents, the only grown-up who pays her some attention is her principal but even he cannot completely give in when she makes a clever accusation of the sexism of internet and social media while defending her pornographic art work.

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There is thin line between victim and executioner in Assassination Nation and Levinson strategically jumps from teasing to threats as if one didn’t exist without the other. Levinson seems less interested in exposing the already well established outcomes of the digital age than exploring the hypocrisy and shaming young people, and particularly young woman, face on a daily basis.

Half way between  Little Red Riding Hood and Nikita, and far from victims, these girls fight back with whatever they are threaten with, usually guns but at times razors and even a shovel. Full of extreme close-ups, the camera is intrusive, and if this closeness can be difficult at first, it quickly helps creates a real connection with those girls.  Surrounded by obvious and familiar characters (naïve head cheerleader, immature boyfriend, cheating husband…), and lifted by invigorating performances by Hari Nef (Bex) and Odessa Young (Lily), these girls can only shine in authenticity and it is hard not to root for them.

Salem’s utter obliviousness takes final form in the slushy sipping little brother, revealed as the hacker. Youngest and quiet, he seemed like a harmless addition to the dinner table and yet could bring a nation to its knee. The warning signs were there, adults chose to ignore them. The film ends with a public letter to a certain president of a certain powerful nation and a feminist call to action against any form of violence and misogyny.

The film will most likely not affect every generation in the same way and will probably swing between anti-sexist fantasy revenge to painfully relevant. Yet there is nothing in this film that can’t be traced back to a recent newspaper headline or twitter feed, regrouped to create a bloody picture of the modern America, kids are made to grow up in.

“Don’t take your anger out on me, I just got here.”

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