Roman J. Israel, Esq.

(USA 2017)

“Each one of us is greater than the worst thing we’ve done.”

“[Esquire] is a title of dignity. Slightly above gentleman, below knight.”

— Roman J. Israel

I didn’t love Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler (https://moviebloke.com/2015/04/04/nightcrawler/), but I like his style — it’s a noirish kind of ’70s grit. He uses the same thing to greater effect in Roman J. Israel, Esq., which is a noticeable improvement. Unfortunately, it’s still just an okay movie.

Another drama set in Los Angeles, Denzel Washington is the titular character, an idealistic old school Luddite attorney who focuses on criminal procedure and civil rights. He’s forced to give up his dingy bankrupt two-man practice when his law partner falls unconscious. He takes a position working for slick George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of his partner. George, who runs a swanky firm big enough to have departments and refers to his clients’ “team,” is all about the billing.

Roman, who prides himself on zealously representing his clients, runs into an ethical dilemma when he’s assigned a criminal matter — and he makes it worse.

I appreciate what Gilroy is getting at here; I understand it firsthand. Personal convictions all too often clash with professional obligations. It’s tough not to lose sight of your beliefs in the face of deadlines, billable hours, and client service. Whatever point he’s making, though, is muddled in an aimless plot that lacks intensity and runs out steam early on. The ending is hard to follow; I had to rewind a couple times to see the caption on the brief to catch what happens. Big deal.

It’s never a good sign when I’m paying more attention to the locations than the plot. Washington does a fine job — his performance is stronger than the material he has to work with. Farrell does as good a job, especially with even less to work with. I’m curious to see what Gilroy does next, but I hope it’s punchier and less clouded than Roman J. Israel, Esq.

With Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravátt, Amanda Warren, Hugo Armstrong, Sam Gilroy, Tony Plana, DeRon Horton, Amari Cheatom, Vince Cefalu, Tarina Pouncy, Nazneen Contractor, Niles Fitch, Jocelyn Ayanna, Eli Bildner, Robert Prescott, Elisa Perry, Shelley Hennig, Annie Sertich, Ajgie Kirkland, Franco Vega, Lauren Ellen Thompson, Anthony Traina, King Orba, Danny Barnes, Joseph David-Jones, Andrew T. Lee

Production: Bron Studios, Cross Creek Pictures, Culture China / Image Nation Abu Dhabi Fund, Escape Artists, Imagenation Abu Dhabi FZ, LStar Capital, MACRO, Topic Studios, Creative Wealth Media Finance

Distribution: Columbia Pictures (USA), Cinépolis Distribución (Mexico), Sony Pictures Releasing (Argentina), United International Pictures (UIP) (International)

122 minutes
Rated PG-13

(iTunes rental) C+

http://www.romanisraelmovie.com

A Fantastic Woman [Una mujer fantástica]

(Chile 2017)

“The thing is, Orlando started feeling sick. And he died.”

— Marina

“When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing.”

— Sonia

Whichever meaning of the word fantastic is employed, A Fantastic Woman is a fitting title for Sebastián Lelio’s latest film; some might consdier the protagonist a fantasy (i.e., not real) or think her head is in the clouds, but she’s definitely marked by her extreme individuality. She also proves to be quite amazing.

Things are good for transgender singing waitress Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega): she just moved in with her older lover, Orlando (Francisco Reyes). He took her to dinner for her birthday (and surprised her with plane tickets). They have a dog, Diabla (Diabla).

Everything changes when Orlando has an aneurysm and dies in the hospital. Marina is forced to deal with Orlando’s son, Bruno (Nicolás Saavedra); his ex-wife, Sonia (Aline Küppenheim); the police, who keep insisting that she had something to do with the wound on Orlando’s head (he hit it against the wall when he fell down the stairs on their way out to the hospital); and mourning her profound loss — something no one but Orlando’s brother, Gabo (Luis Gnecco), will give her the space to do.

A mysterious key and a need to say goodbye to Orlando’s body are the impetus of the story. Lelio and Gonzalo Maza’s screenplay is not what makes A Fantastic Woman compelling; Vega’s sorrowful and quietly defiant performance does. Faced with a string of indignities over the course of two days, Miranda handles herself smartly with toughness and grace, giving in when she needs to but always pushing back — or at least ahead.

Benjamín Echazarreta’s sharp cinematography places Marina dead center in every frame, bathing her in color and shadow. The look is fluid, underscoring a water motif that runs throughout the story. Lelio’s dream sequences and hallucinations add a hazy, otherworld quality. This is eloquent.

With Amparo Noguera, Trinidad González, Néstor Cantillana, Alejandro Goic, Antonia Zegers, Sergio Hernández, Roberto Farías, Cristián Chaparro, Felipe Zambrano, Erto Pantoja, Loreto Leonvendagar, Fabiola Zamora, José Raffo, Pablo Cerda, Moises Angulo, Veronica Garcia-Huidobro        

Production: Fabula, Komplizen Film

Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics

104 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B

http://sonyclassics.com/afantasticwoman/

https://youtu.be/PJHex4ZitgA

Loveless [Nelyubov]

(Russia 2017)

With his 2014 film Leviathan [Leviafan] [Левиафан] (https://moviebloke.com/2015/01/18/leviathan-leviafan/), director Andrey Zvyagintsev presented a glum picture of a city in decline. He continues on that trajectory with Loveless [Nelyubov] [Нелюбовь], a glum picture of a family falling apart.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are in the midst of a nasty divorce. Still winding down their marriage, both have moved on: Zhenya spends nights with her boyfriend (Andris Keišs) and Boris is expecting a baby with his girlfriend (Marina Vasilyeva). The problem of their introverted and sad 12-year-old son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), their only child, prevents them from turning the page. Neither wants custody, and they bicker over it. Constantly. He hears it all.

One morning when she gets home, Zhenya gets a call from Alexey’s teacher: he hasn’t been to school in two days. No one has seen him. He seems to have vanished. The police aren’t helpful, dismissing the matter as a case of a runaway who will be back in a few days. Frankly, Zhenya and Boris have been absobed by their own affairs and haven’t noticed Alexey much lately. They hire a group of volunteers to trace his steps and find him.

Loveless is an improvement over Leviathan, which was also a good film. Partnering again with Oleg Negin on the screenplay, the pace here is better and the story is a lot more engaging. No love is to be found here, and the adults are why. Shallow and selfish, they’re incapable or maybe just uninterested in seeing how their own toxicity adds to a bad situation. I have the impression that nothing changes at the end of the ordeal.

Spivak’s coldheartedness is chilling, and it’s hard to listen to her admit in one scene that having Alexey was a mistake and she should’ve had an abortion. Her mother (Natalya Potapova) — Alexey’s grandmother — is even worse. Novikov is another standout, bawling quietly behind a bathroom door or letting a tear stream down his cheek as he doesn’t eat his breakfast. Cinematograpger Mikhail Krichman, who gave Leviathan its crisp gloomy grey, does the same here, but somehow makes the whole thing look even bleaker.

With Aleksey Fateev, Sergey Dvoinikov, Artyom Zhigulin, Evgeniya Dmitrieva, Natalia Vinokurova, Djan Badmaev, Yanina Hope, Maksim Stoyanov, Denis Tkachev, Yuriy Mirontsev, Oleg Grisevich, Aleksandr Sergeev, Varvara Shmykova

Production: Non-Stop Productions, Why Not Productions, Fetisoff Illusion, Senator Film Produktion, Les Films du Fleuve, Arte France Cinéma, Eurimages, ARTE France, Canal+, Cine+, Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Wild Bunch

Distribution: Sony Pictures Classics (USA), Altitude Film Entertainment (UK), Pyramide Distribution (France), Academy Two (Italy), Golem Distribución (Spain), Alpenrepublik Filmverleih (Germany), Wild Bunch (Germany), Cinemien (Netherlands), Seven Films (Greece), Against Gravity (Poland), Albatros Film (Japan), The Klockworx (Japan), Star Channel Movies (Japan)

127 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B

http://sonyclassics.com/loveless/

The Leisure Seeker

(Italy / France 2018)

Paolo Virzì’s last film, Like Crazy (https://moviebloke.com/2016/10/17/like-crazy-la-pazza-gioia/), won me over with its quirky lead characters, their wacky antics, and the surprisingly moving turn the story takes. His follow up, The Leisure Seeker, which also happens to be his first English language feature film, employs a similar template — Massachusetts golden girl Ella Spencer (Helen Mirren) has arranged a trip with her husband, John (Donald Sutherland), a retired literature professor, to Key West. The purpose of the trip is to see the Ernest Hemingway House, something John always wanted to do but never got around to it. They board their trusty old Winnebago from the Seventies — they named it “The Leisure Seeker” — and slip away without telling anyone.

While reigniting passions and having revelations over the course of their excursion, what really prompted the trip becomes apparent: John is suffering a bad case of Alzheimer’s that gets worse by the day. Ella is dealing with the effects of her own condition as well. Naturally, their middle aged kids (Christian McKay and Janel Moloney) freak when they find out what they’re up to.

Based on Michael Zadoorian’s novel of the same name, the topic here is a worthy one: deciding when to call it a wrap. Mirren and Sutherland give fine performances with strong chemistry and realistic intimacy, and the best moments are just as tender as the ones in Like Crazy. Still, The Leisure Seeker somehow comes off as diluted, perhaps aiming too hard for a wide audience. It shows in the screenplay, which has a lot of weak spots and relies on sentimentality too heavily for its own good.

The situations Ella and John get into might be sweet, but they don’t move beyond silly hijinks. They’re pretty easy, actually. Hilarity ensues, for example, when a cop (Robert Walker Branchaud) pulls John over for swerving, when a roadside punk (Sean Michael Weber) tries to rob the couple while they wait stranded for a tow, and later when John wanders into a Donald Trump rally. The Leisure Seeker isn’t quite the compelling film it had the potential to be.

With Dana Ivey, Dick Gregory, Leander Suleiman, Ahmed Lucan, Gabriella Cila, David Marshall Silverman, Lucy Catherine Haskill, Joshua Hoover, Kirsty Mitchell, Mylie Stone, Joshua Mikel, Rayan Clay Gwaltney, Matt Mercurio, Marc Fajardo, Wayne Hall, Denitra Isler, Carl Bradfield, Roger Lee Bright, Chelle Ramos, Joe Hardy Jr., Jerald Jay Savage, Nicholas Barrera, Danielle Deadwyler, Robert Pralgo, Lilia Pino Blouin, Rusty Hodgdon, Ariel Kaplan, Geoffrey D. Williams, Carlos Guerrero, Karen Valero

Production: Indiana Production Company, BAC Films, Rai Cinema, Ministero dei Beni e delle Attività Culturali e del Turismo (MiBACT), Regione Lazio

Distribution: 01 Distribution (Italy), BAC Films (France), Sony Pictures Classics (USA), Concorde Filmverleih (Germany), Filmcoopi Zürich (Switzerland), Filmladen (Austria), Imagine Filmdistributie Nederland (Netherlands), Imagine (Belgium), Norsk Filmdistribusjon (Norway), StraDa Films – Seven Films (Greece), United International Pictures (UIP) (Poland), GAGA (Japan), Shaw Organisation (Singapore)

112 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) C-

Chicago International Film Festival

http://sonyclassics.com/theleisureseeker/

 

Mudbound

(USA 2017)

Netflix surprised me last year with a pair of impressive original films, Okja (https://moviebloke.com/2017/06/22/okja/) and The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson (https://moviebloke.com/2017/07/09/the-death-and-life-of-marsha-p-johnson/). The streak of merit continues with Mudbound, director Dee Reese’s film adaptaion of Hillary Jordan’s 2008 novel.

A Southern Gothic soap opera with a bit of social commentary, Mudbound is an interesting story. Written by Reese and Virgil Williams, the screenplay, told in flashback, follows two families, the white McAllans and the black Jacksons, from the Depression until just after World War II.

Fate and circumstance bring them together on a farm in the Mississippi Delta. The McAllans have the upper hand — they own the land — but they rely on the Jacksons, who work as sharecroppers, for more than farming. Mother Florence Jackson (Mary J. Blige) bears the brunt of it through sickness, injury, death, and disrespect.

The plot elements are familiar — poverty, church, white only areas, the KKK — but the whole thing is fresh. Maybe its Reese’s objective approach. Her pace is deliberate and slow; frankly, it almost lost me. I’m glad I stuck it out, though, because the momentum picks up after one boy from each family — Jamie McAllan (Garrett Hedlund) and Ronsel Jackson (Jason Mitchell) — goes off to war. A romance that develops between Ronsel and a German woman enlightens him; it serves as a marked contrast to life at home.

Jamie and Ronsel both face challenges assimilating back into Southern civilian life when they return. They become friends, much to the dismay of Pap McAllan (Jonathan Banks) and, like, the whole town. When Jamie refuses to stop associating with Ronsel, things get brutal. While not on the epic scale of something like Roots, Mudbound got to me nonetheless.

With Carey Mulligan, Rob Morgan, Jason Clarke, Kerry Cahill, Dylan Arnold, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucy Faust, Geraldine Singer, Floyd Anthony Johns Jr., Samantha Hoefer, Henry Frost, Kennedy Derosin, Frankie Smith, Jason Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Windley, Piper Blair, Joshua J. Williams, Claudio Laniado, Charley Vance

Production: Armory Films, ArtImage Entertainment, Black Bear Pictures, Elevated Films, MACRO, MMC Joule Films, Zeal Media

Distribution: Netflix (USA), Diamond Films (Mexico / Argentina), TOBIS Film (Germany), Feelgood Entertainment (Greece)

134 minutes
Rated R

(Netflix) B

https://www.facebook.com/MudBound/

Beauty and the Beast [La belle et la bête]

(France 1946)

“I ask of you a little of this childlike simplicity, and, to bring us luck, let me speak four truly magic words, childhood’s open sesame: Once upon a time…”

— Jean Cocteau

I’m familiar with Jean Cocteau. Somehow, I never saw one of his films until this sold out Sunday matinee screening of La belle et la bête, a story I know well and probably would have passed on but for the fact that he directed it.

Belle (Josette Day) loves her father (Marcel André), a merchant who twice loses a fortune, so much that she steps in to save him when he angers the Beast (Jean Marais) by picking a rose from his garden to bring home to her. The Beast abandons his plan to kill her to avenge the sin of her father as soon as he sees her — he’s smitten. He’s so ugly, though, that Belle faints when she sees him.

Belle wakes up inside a room in his castle, where the Beast executes an alternate plan: every night at dinner he will ask her to marry him. As it turns out, he’s filthy rich and wants Belle to be his queen. She develops a soft spot for him as time goes on, but Belle’s answer is always the same: no. Apparently, she doesn’t love him.

When she learns that her father is dying, the Beast allows Belle to visit her family. He gives her a magic glove that transports her wherever she wants to go and the key to his fortune. Realizing how rich the Beast really is, Belle’s conniving siblings, sisters Adélaïde (Nane Germon) and Felicie (Mila Parély) and brother Ludovic (Michel Auclair), take Belle on a treacherous turn.

Wow! Entrancing and mesmerizing, Cocteau’s La belle et la bête is an impressively cool film, far from the family-oriented Disney musical version that seems to be the default. At times grotesque, surreal, and very imaginative, it’s a darker telling of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s 18th century classic adaptation of Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s original fable (I never thought about where the story came from until I wrote this entry).

The lovely Day is perfect as Belle: kind yet knowing, she plays her character as something of a girl next door fatale. Marais evokes compassion for his character, even with a mask covering his face. Lucien Carré and René Moulaert’s otherworldly sets and Pierre Cardin’s Victorian wardrobe are both tailor made for Henri Alekan’s grizzled, shadowy, and hard black and white cinematography. Something about the time when this came out — immediately after WWII — enhances the overall eerie feel of this film. I can’t come up with enough superlatives to describe it.

Cocteau is buried beneath the floor of the Chapelle Saint-Blaise des Simples in Milly-la-Forêt (http://www.chapelle-saint-blaise.org/html/en/home/home.php). A plaque marking his gravesite states, “Je reste avec vous” (“I stay with you”). It’s a fitting epitaph for the director of this particular version of La Belle et la Bete, which will stay with me. It’s a haunting beauty to behold.

With Raoul Marco

Production: DisCina

Distribution: DisCina (France), Actueel Film (Netherlands), Nederland NV (Netherlands), Wivefilm (Sweden), Internationale Filmallianz (IFA) (Germany), Artfree (Greece), Lopert Films (USA)

93 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) A

The Insult [L’insulte]

(Lebanon / Belgium / Cyprus / France / USA 2017)

“We live in the Middle East. The word ‘offense’ was born here.”

— Wajdi Wehbe

The plot of The Insult [L’insulte] [قضيةرقم٢٣‎] recalls the old saying, “a stitch in time saves nine.” Perhaps someone should have told Tony Hanna (Adel Karam), a hothead Beirut mechanic in his forties (born about three weeks after me), and Yasser Salameh (Kamel El Basha), the sixtyish foreman of a construction crew.

While tending to plants on his balcony one afternoon, Tony accidentally spills water on the guys in the crew working below him on the street. Yasser spots the problem: a sawed-off pipe is coming out of the balcony. He offers to fix it, but Tony declines. Rudely. Yasser directs the guys to fix it anyway. Just as they finish, Tony sees the new pipe — and he busts it up into pieces. Watching it happen, Yasser calls Tony a “fucking prick.”

This is where it all starts to snowball. Tony is a Lebanese Christian, a devotee of Bachir Gemayel. Yasser is a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon. Tony demands an apology. Yasser refuses. His boss (Talal El Jurdi), overwrought by the combustibility of the situation, persuades him to do so after he learns what happened.

When the two men approach Tony at his garage, he makes a vicious ethnic remark to Yasser, who punches him in the gut and cracks two ribs. Tony sues Yasser — involving the police in a small criminal investigation doesn’t quench his thirst for “justice,” which to Tony is more about putting Yasser in his place. Initially, both men represent themselves before a lower court. The judge (Carlos Chahine) dismisses the case in a huff, annoyed that neither man can articulate his position.

Infamous attorney Wajdi Wehbe (Camille Salameh), who fancies himself a defender of the Christian perspective, takes a political interest in Tony’s case. He convinces Tony to appeal the dismissal. Nadine (Diamand Bou Abboud), an attorney from legal aid, offers to represent Yasser for her own political reasons.

Soon, the media gets wind of the case. Before the watchful eyes of reporters, the two attorneys, who have a relationship, drag personal and political wounds into the light of the courtroom. The trial ignites tensions and threatens to spark national unrest. Even the President is concerned.

The Insult is not perfect — I could’ve done with less time in the courtroom and none of Éric Neveux’s flimsy techno soundtrack. Still, director Ziad Doueiri, who wrote the screenplay with Joelle Touma, hits the right notes here, diving right into the religious-cultural-political differences that do more than divide — they affront. The conflict is specific to Lebanon, but the outrage — consuming and exhausting everyone it its path — is the same that you see all over today, from Europe to South America to the United States.

With Rita Hayek, Christine Choueiri, Julia Kassar, Rifaat Torbey, Georges Daoud, Christina Farah, Elie Njeim

Production: Ezekiel Films, Tessalit Productions, Rouge International, Scope Pictures, Douri Films, Cohen Media Group, Canal+, Ciné+, L’Aide aux Cinémas du Monde, Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), Ministère des Affaires étrangères et du Développement International

Distribution: Cinéart (Netherlands), Diaphana Films (France), Cohen Media Group (USA), Distribution Company (Argentina), Filmarti (Turkey)

112 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

http://www.3b-productions.com/tessalit/linsulte/

http://cohenmedia.net/films/theinsult

Darkest Hour

(USA / UK 2017)

I’m coming clean on a few things. First, I had little to no interest in Darkest Hour; had it not been nominated for Best Picture, I wouldn’t be writing about it. Second, Dunkirk (https://moviebloke.com/2017/07/20/dunkirk/) already satisfied the WWII epic category earlier this year. Third, if I hear one more accolade for Gary Oldman transforming himself for this role, I’m going to pull out five or six DVDs of his earlier films and literally throw them at the person who says that. Like Meryl Streep, he’s made a career out of transforming himself. It’s what he does.

Okay, that’s off my chest.

Darkest Hour is a textbook historical war drama, this one about Winston Churchill (Oldman) and the obstacles he encountered early in his term as Prime Minister. His biggest though certainly not his only problem was mounting pressure from Conservatives and Parliament to negotiate a peace deal with Adolph Hitler as Europe fell to the Nazis in 1940. Churchill flatly refused because he didn’t trust Hitler. The predicament of British soldiers trapped at Dunkirk and Calais didn’t help his cause, at least not in the eyes of his peers.

Joe Wright’s directing and Anthony McCarten’s screenplay are both highly competent, buoyed nicely by Bruno Delbonnel’s luscious cinematography. I like that no bones are made about Franklin Roosevelt’s (David Strathairn) initial refusal to get involved. A later scene on the London Underground is amusing. The acting is exactly what you’d expect in a big budget historical drama like Darkest Hour, right down to the rousing eleventh hour do-or-die speech. Oldham is great, but frankly I’ve seen him do better, or at least more interesting roles.

I don’t mean to rip into this film. The finished product is fine for what it is. Darkest Hour just didn’t wow me. It’s conventional and predictable, working from the same template as other films of its ilk. The subject is overdone. I counted at least three recent movies made about events referenced here — the aforementioned Dunkirk, The King’s Speech, and W.E. Enough said. Speaking of Dunkirk, it moved me more than this did.

With Kristin Scott Thomas, Ben Mendelsohn, Lily James, Ronald Pickup, Stephen Dillane, Nicholas Jones, Samuel West, David Schofield, Richard Lumsden, Malcolm Storry, Hilton McRae, Benjamin Whitrow, Joe Armstrong, Adrian Rawlins, David Bamber, Paul Leonard, Eric MacLennan, Philip Martin Brown, Demetri Goritsas, Jordan Waller, Alex Clatworthy, Mary Antony, Bethany Muir, Anna Burnett, Jeremy Child, Hannah Steele, Nia Gwynne, Ade Haastrup, James Eeles, Flora Nicholson, Imogen King

Production: Perfect World Pictures, Working Title Films

Distribution: Focus Features

125 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Landmark Century) C+

http://focusfeatures.com/darkesthour

Suspiria

(Italy 1977)

I saw a stunning digital restoration of Dario Argenta’s weird masterpiece Suspiria back in October:

https://moviebloke.com/2017/10/18/suspiria/

It was such a sensory experience, I convinced a good friend to join me for a midnight screening. It’s no better the second time, but the visuals are decadent. Lush. I could watch it again and again with only Goblin’s soundtrack playing. Perhaps the secret is to watch it high?

98 minutes
Not rated (alternate version)

(Music Box) C+

The Florida Project

(USA 2017)

I saw The Florida Project when it first came out in October:

https://moviebloke.com/2017/10/03/the-florida-project/

A few months haven’t changed anything. I’m just as moved as the first time, and a few scenes made me more emotional. I even shed a few tears at the end. Frankly, seeing The Florida Project a second time made me love it more.

This is a brilliant film. I can’t believe the Academy ignored all but Willem Dafoe.

115 minutes
Rated R

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A-