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 (, 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+


(USA 2017)

Netflix surprised me last year with a pair of impressive original films, Okja ( and 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