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+

Baby Driver

(USA 2017)

“You’re either hard as nails or scared as shit. Which is it?”

— Griff

“Streisand, now Queen? The fuck, what y’all gonna do, you gonna belt out show tunes on the way to the job?”

— Bats

“Don’t feed me anymore lines from Monsters Inc. It pisses me off.”

— Doc

A movie that starts with a bank robbery while the driver blares Jon Spencer on his headphones can’t be all that bad. And it’s not. Baby Driver calls to mind films like Bonnie & Clyde, Dog Day Afternoon, and my favorite, True Romance, yet it has enough going for it that it stands apart as a contributor rather than a ripoff.

Ansel Elgort is Baby, a young buck constantly plugged into his iPod. He works as the getaway driver for a rotating crew of bank robbers headed by kingpin Doc (Kevin Spacey). He’s paying off a debt, and he wants out as soon as it’s done — like, in one more job. Baby’s plan is to disappear with cutie waitress Debora (Lily James). Unfortunately for him, other plans get in the way — plans he didn’t make.

Frankly, all the hype over this movie led me to expect more. A lot more. Admittedly, my expectations were high — too high. That said, I liked Baby Driver. It’s a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll. I’d be lying if I denied that my mind wandered at points, but seeing a millennial Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is worth its weight in gold, or at least its weight in Bitcoin. If nothing else, all those hours I spent making mix tapes are now validated.

With Hudson Meek, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, Jon Bernthal, Flea, Lanny Joon, C.J. Jones, Sky Ferreira, Lance Palmer, Big Boi, Paul Williams, Jon Spencer, Micah Howard, Morgan Brown, Sidney Sewell, Thurman Sewell

Production: TriStar Pictures, Media Rights Capital (MRC), Double Negative (Dneg), Big Talk Productions , Working Title Films

Distribution: Sony Pictures Releasing (International), TriStar Pictures (USA), United International Pictures (UIP), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (Netherlands), Big Picture 2 Films (Portugal), Columbia Pictures (Philippines), Feelgood Entertainment (Greece), Sony Pictures Entertainment, Sony Pictures Filmverleih, Sony Pictures Releasing

112 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) C+


(USA 2016)

“If you could see your whole life from start to finish, would you change things?”

—Louise Banks

Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival isn’t exactly what I expected. A sort of updated Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Eric Heisserer’s adaptation of Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life is a pretty straightforward observation about language. However, it’s a bit more academic than the average alien movie: it examines the theory of linguistic relativity, the idea that the structure of a language shapes the way its speakers relate to their environment ( (

12 mysterious otherworldly spacecrafts land in what appear to be random places all over Earth—including remote Montana. It isn’t clear why they’re here, and people are freaking out. Not surprisingly, world leaders are perplexed—some are handling the so-called invasion better than others.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

The aliens, octopus-like creatures dubbed “heptapods,” hold visiting hours each day, allowing those who wish to engage them to do so—up close and personal inside their ship. A U.S. Army colonel (totally underused Forest Whitaker) seeks out linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) for a mission working with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a team of scientists to figure out how to communicate with the aliens and find out what they want. Banks learns that they have a language—circles and curlycues that they blow into the air. The more of their “words” she learns, the more Banks has visions of her deceased daughter (Jadyn Malone, Abigail Pniowsky, and Julia Scarlett Dan).

Arrival does a nice job showing the limitations of language. A clever plot development involving a mutual misunderstanding of a word demonstrates how things can unravel on a dime. I like the depiction of the aliens in a totally plausible form. Villeneuve slowly builds suspense; he kept my interest almost all the way through. Sadly, Arrival pulls an emotionally manipulative sleight of hand toward the end. The wrap up is insipid; it knocked the film down a few pegs for me.

With Michael Stuhlbarg, Mark O’Brien, Tzi Ma

Production: Lava Bear Films, 21 Laps Entertainment, FilmNation Entertainment

Distribution: Paramount Pictures (USA), Sony Pictures Releasing (International)

116 minutes
Rated PG-13

(ArcLight) C+

Django Unchained

(USA 2012)

“The ‘D’ is silent, hillbilly!”


If anyone would take a stab at something that sounds as ridiculous and cringeworthy as tackling American slavery in a spaghetti Western, it’s Quentin Tarantino. “I want to do movies that deal with America’s horrible past with slavery and stuff, but do them like spaghetti Westerns, not like big issue movies,” he said, clearly referring to Django Unchained in a 2007 interview—five years before it came out. “I want to do them like they’re genre films, but they deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it.” (

The title here references Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 film Django, an actual spaghetti Western in which the titular hero, a cowboy, is thrust into a row between Southern Klansmen and Mexican revolutionaries. In Django Unchained, the story starts in 1858—just a few years before the American Civil War. Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave separated from his wife, the curiously named Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington), after they were caught trying to escape a plantation. He’s shackled to a group of slaves that the Speck brothers (James Remar and James Russo) are driving on foot to be sold.

Enter traveling dentist Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz), a genteel German driving a wagon with a big wooden tooth on top of it. Schultz is actually a bounty hunter looking for the Brittle brothers—Big John (M.C. Gainey), Lil Raj (Cooper Huckabee), and Ellis (Doc Duhame)—who happen to be Django and Broomhilda’s former masters. He makes Django an offer he can’t refuse: help him find and kill the brothers, and Schultz will pay him, set him free, and help him find Broomhilda.

Django Unchained is structured in essentially three “episodes.” The first takes place in a one-horse town near El Paso, where Schultz provokes the ire of the townfolk, the sheriff (Don Stroud), and a U.S. Marshall (Tom Wopat). The second takes place on a plantation owned and operated by Spencer “Big Daddy” Bennett (Don Johnson—um, wow!). The last, longest, and most twisted takes place on another plantation in Mississippi, the bountiful Candie-Land, owned by charming but sadistic Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) and operated by his shifty Uncle Tom house-slave, Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Tarantino actually pulls off what he said he wanted to, and he does it quite well. Django Unchained could have been a really dark film like its immediate successor, The Hateful Eight. The two films have a lot in common. The tension—and there’s lots of it—built into the story is deliberately and profoundly slow in reaching a boil. Django Unchained certainly has Tarantino’s trademark violence, revenge theme, and liberal use of the ‘n’ word—116 times, a record for a film according to IMDB ( A few scenes are difficult to watch, the “Mandingo fight scene” being the worst for me. Unlike The Hateful Eight, though, the violence here is Tarantino’s typical flagrantly graphic cartoonish gore. He also shows a more conspicuous sense of humor—for example, Django and Broomhilda are ancestors of John Shaft of the Shaft franchise (

Django Unchained is an unlikely and uncomfortable pairing of an ugly part of our collective past with absurdity, but it’s entertaining while still getting its point across: we’re still living with the aftermath. It’s the kind of film you mull over for a long time after you see it.

With Laura Cayouette, Jonah Hill, Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, Dana Gourrier, Nichole Galicia, Miriam F. Glover, Quentin Tarantino, Franco Nero, Russ Tamblyn, Bruce Dern, Misty Upham, Danièle Watts, Robert Carradine

Produced by The Weinstein Company, Columbia Pictures

Distributed by The Weinstein Company (North America), Sony Pictures Releasing (International)

165 minutes
Rated R

(iTunes rental) A-