Movie Review ~ Roman J. Israel, Esq


The Facts
:

Synopsis: An attorney at an L.A. law firm discovers some unfavorable things about his partner and decides to right his wrongs.

Stars: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Shelley Hennig, Carmen Ejogo

Director: Dan Gilroy

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: Oof…can someone please, PLEASE find Denzel Washington a comedy?  Flying (deservedly) under the radar until it’s late 2017 release, Washington’s Roman J. Israel Esq. is one of those painfully pointed exercises in social importance that thinks it’s a power player but is really just an also-ran that drags several good actors down with it.  Coming off a fun roster in 2016 that saw him cut loose (a little) in the undervalued The Magnificent Seven remake and nearly nabbing another Oscar for his tremendous Fences, this is a paltry piffle of a film that deserves to be buried in paperwork and forgotten.

Writer-director Dan Gilory gave us one of 2015’s best films, Nightcrawler, and one of Jake Gyllenhaal’s most impressive roles so I’m sure the hope was that lighting could strike twice with Roman J. Israel Esq.  Sadly, Gilroy’s follow-up is a draining affair that’s far too long and isn’t destined to be the high point for anyone involved.  This is a film that feels like one you’re assigned to see in a social justice class that you watch half off, get the point, write your paper, and never think of it again.

Washngton (Flight) is the titular character, an enormously intelligent partner in a small Los Angeles law firm.  Best suited for working behind the scenes writing briefs and letting his colleague be the face of the firm in the courthouse, he’s called into action when his partner suffers a stroke and is unable to continue working.  The first day Roman must take over the docket, his consternation at the broken judicial system lands him in contempt of court and running afoul of his clients.

When the niece of his partner brings in a big-wig lawyer (Colin Farrell, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) to take-over the existing cases and close up shop, instead of accepting his offer to work at his fancy firm Roman decides to go it on his own. Reaching out to a non-profit social worker (Carmen Ejogo, The Purge: Anarchy) with the hope of finding assistance in introducing a long in the works brief he thinks will fix the system, Roman finds doors closing to him left and right.  Reluctantly returning to work for the expensive law firm, he’s put in charge of a case that will change everything.

Gilroy’s script has some interesting twists and turns for our leading man, placing upon him a moral dilemma to show that Roman might be just as susceptible to corruption as his colleagues.  Yet the film, told mostly in flashback, struggles with its own timeline and can be confusing if you aren’t paying rapt attention.  This is hard to do with Washington turning in a skittish performance on the spectrum that doesn’t provide any heart or soul.  In Nightcrawler, Gilroy presented an anti-hero as the protagonist that we’re supposed to abhor, but in this one the way Washington plays it we’re supposed to find some nobility in his actions and that never comes together correctly.

When the film first screened at a film festival, the buzz after was that Washington and Gilroy went back and took several minutes out…but by my estimation they could have done well with removing another fifteen.  The film has a serious case of droopy drawers in its middle half, with much too much time spent with Washington trying to intellectually woo Ejogo who strangely falls under his spell much too easily.  Audiences won’t be as receptive, I think, and with good cause.

This is another much too serious film from Washington that’s not as bleak as other recent works but is somehow darker because the actor never truly forms a connection between the material and the audience.  I can see why Washington was attracted to the role but it’s trying to say more than we want to hear, it all winds up a jumble of jargon that feels more like homework than entertainment.

The Silver Bullet ~ Alien: Covenant

alien_covenant

 

Synopsis: The crew of the colony ship Covenant discover what they think is an uncharted paradise, but it is actually a dark, dangerous world, whose sole inhabitant is the synthetic David, survivor of the doomed Prometheus expedition.

Release Date:  May 19, 2017

Thoughts: Anticipation was high back in 2012 when director Ridley Scott’s mysterious Prometheus arrived veiled in secrecy.  Was it a prequel to Alien or wasn’t it?  Early previews gave few clues and neither Scott nor 20th Century Fox did much to fill in the blanks.  Prometheus sharply divided audiences and critics, some appreciating that Scott reached further back than mere prequel territory while others loathed it with a vitriol usually reserved for a Transformers sequel.  Personally, I loved it and saw it several times on the big screen; it’s cliffhanger ending only made me more curious about what would happen next.  The answer comes next May with Alien: Covenant and this first look is a neat (if overly gory/spoiler-y) intro to a film that looks very different than its predecessor.  Perhaps Scott (The Martian) and screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall, Spectre, Hugo) are trying to please the fans and detractors of Prometheus at the same time.  Riding that fine line would be good, I just hope they don’t overcompensate and make a faded copy of the original entry.  Aside from Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave) and Noomi Rapace (Dead Man Down) returning in their roles, star Katherine Waterston (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them) certainly is going full-on Ellen Ripley and I’m interested (and a little nervous) to see how actors like Danny McBride (This Is the End) and the recently added James Franco (Sausage Party) figure into the mix. It’s worth noting that Alien: Covenant was originally intended for a release in October 2017.  It was then moved up to August before settling into a prime summer release date in May.  That’s a very good sign of a studio confident they have something big…let’s hope so.

Movie Review ~ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

fantastic_beasts_and_where_to_find_them_ver4

The Facts:

Synopsis: The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York’s secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.

Stars: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Ron Perlman, Carmen Ejogo, Jenn Murray, Faith Wood-Blagrove, Colin Farrell, Zoe Kravitz

Director: David Yates

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 133 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review: For you die hard Harry Potter fans out there, know that this review is going to be as spoiler-free as possible. You’ve waited far too long to have the secrets of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them spoiled for you so…read on with confidence.

It’s been five years since the world said good-bye to Harry Potter and company after the films based on the novels by J.K. Rowling concluded. We all knew the end was coming and it was still hard to bid adieu to these characters and the actors we watched grow up over the course of nearly ten years and eight films. Still, we never really said farewell because Rowling has made sure Potter lives on in theme park attractions (been twice to the one in Orlando and it’s, of course, excellent), on the Pottermore website, and even in a stage adaptation taking London (and soon Broadway) by storm. The hunger for more adventures in wizardry was clearly there but how do you get back to business without sullying the memory of a beloved franchise?

The answer: start a new one.

Adapted by Rowling from her 2001 field guide published as a fundraiser for charity, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is your way back into Rowling’s creative creation and fans of the series are sure to find this was worth the wait. Or is it? If I’m being honest, I had a hard time finding my way in this new world and it’s not because it doesn’t do its job or because it doesn’t fit into the same universe as the series it was spun-off from.

My main problem was that with the Harry Potter movies, we knew what to expect and came looking for our favorite parts of the books to come to life onscreen. There was an endgame to work toward that had set boundaries and pre-defined beats to hit. We don’t have that same advantage in Rowling’s original screenplay which spells a fun discovery for some but uncertainty for others, including this critic.

Arriving in New York City in the late 1920’s, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything, sketching Newt as decidedly on the spectrum) hasn’t come alone. Toting a suitcase with enough capacity to make Mary Poppins green with envy, he’s arrived from London with a mission to restore a “fantastic beast” to its rightful homeland. Before he can get very far, however, he finds himself chasing down some escaped creatures with the help of an American auror (Katherine Waterston, Inherent Vice) working for the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA), her mind-reading sister (Alison Sudol, What to Expect When You’re Expecting), and a No-Maj (Dan Fogler, Europa Report) that mistakenly switches suitcases with Scamander to disastrous results.

As if that weren’t enough, Rowling get political (and dark) with the inclusion of a family of Second-Salemers who seek to rid the country of the witches and wizards they suspect are living amongst them. The matriarch (Samantha Morton, John Carter) is another grave, frightening character crafted by Rowling to represent much of the racism, bigotry, and even homophobia of the day. Her adopted son (Ezra Miller, Suicide Squad) has clandestine conspiratorial meetings with a MACUSA big-wig (Colin Farrell, Dead Man Down) that are staged uncomfortably on purpose by director David Yates (The Legend of Tarzan) and are open for multiple interpretations.

Yates guided the last four Potter films and is signed up for the next installment of Fantastic Beasts. It was a wise decision to keep him involved as he brings a needed tonal consistency to this new jumping off point and nicely balances Rowling’s twists and turns with more than a few delightful moments of special effects flights of fancy. Yet the movie is too long by a good ten minutes, oddly choosing to linger when it should leap.  These are all the problems that go along with the first film in a planned franchise…by the time you arrive at a nifty final twist (and it really is a good one) you realize all of it has been in service to setting up the next four films.

As has been the case recently, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is another example of a film marketed to all ages of the family audience that’s far too scary and dark for young children. The Potter films always had sadness at their core but this feels exceedingly bleak and unrepentantly so. Parents are encouraged to view this first before letting kids under the age of 10 have a look. For us grown-ups though, whatever faults lie in the story or calculated forward-looking set-up are lessened by Rowling’s admirable devotion to character development that seems to only richen the deeper you look and the super-duper production design and special effects that put you right back into Depression-era New York City (I half expected to see Annie cross by at ay moment).

More good than fantastic, this first entry in the next saga of Rowling’s witches and wizards is far from a disappointment but could have been tightened and brightened in order to live up to it’s title.

The Silver Bullet ~ Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fantastic-Beasts-and-Where-to-Find-Them-Logo

Synopsis: The adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York’s secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school.

Release Date:  November 18, 2016

Thoughts: Now that’s how you make a teaser trailer.  I think in the din of awards season and upcoming superhero movies of 2016, we’ve forgotten that there’s a film arriving in mid-November with some serious pedigree behind it.  Harry Potter scribe J.K. Rowling adapts her own short guidebook for a film directed by David Yates, the man who helmed the last four Potter features (and who will be represented earlier in 2016 with The Legend of Tarzan) with a cast that includes Oscar winner Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), Katherine Waterston (Inherent Vice), and Colin Farrell (Winter’s Tale).  A true teaser trailer in every sense, I’ll admit this one gave me some of those good tingles that few previews nowadays can.  Highly anticipated, this only fuels the growing fire.

The Silver Bullet ~ Selma

selma

Synopsis: Chronicles the tumultuous three-month period in 1965, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led a dangerous campaign to secure equal voting rights in the face of violent opposition.

Release Date: December 25, 2014

Thoughts: Last year, Lee Daniels’ The Butler tried and failed to chronicle the Civil Rights movement as seen through the eyes of a fictionalized historical figure. Self-serving dialogue and a cast roster more interesting than effective sunk what could have been a film of importance. Slipping in at the end of the year just in time to qualify for the busy awards season is the drama Selma and it looks like a more focused work, brimming with the passion of a call to action Lee Daniels’ The Butler was so sorely lacking. I’ve watched the trailer a few times now and found my interest quite energized by the spark director Ava DuVernay has ignited and that stars David Oyelowo (Interstellar, Jack Reacher) and Carmen Ejogo (Sparkle, The Purge: Anarchy) look goose-bumpy good as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Corretta Scott King. Quickly moving to the top of my anticipated list, I’m ready to take the trip to Selma.

Movie Review ~ The Purge: Anarchy

purge_anarchy_ver17

The Facts:

Synopsis: The Purge is a night where all crime is legal and all hospitals, fire stations, poison control centers and police stations in the United States are closed down for 12 hours.  A year after the events of the first film, five people meet in the streets and try to survive the night.

Stars: Frank Grillo, Michael K. Williams, Carmen Ejogo, Zoë Soul, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Keith Stanfield 

Director: James DeMonaco 

Rated: R

Running Length: 103 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  A year ago most pundits would have predicted that The Internship, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaugh’s Google comedy would have easily topped the weekend box office thanks to the reunion of its Wedding Crashers stars and a prime early June opening weekend.  Then people started getting a look at the movie, deemed it middling, and the buzz turned instead to the darker material of the low-budget thriller The Purge.  Made for peanuts ($3 million dollars) and arriving without much fanfare aside from several well timed social media pushes and spooky promotional material, The Purge surged, making $34 million smackeroos…12 times its budget.

Topping out at $64 million in box office receipts, even if the film ultimately wasn’t that great it was inevitable that a sequel was greenlit before the sun set on that first weekend.   So here we are now a year later being treated to what could be the start of a profitable franchise for Universal Pictures…even if the overall quality of the material hasn’t improved much.

There’s something creatively ghoulish about the concept surrounding The Purge; less than a decade from now America will be largely crime free due to 12 hours one night a year when all crime is legal.  That nasty neighbor who lets his dog pee on your hydrangea?  Hit him over the head with a bat.  The barista that keeps screwing up your cappuccino order?  Slit her throat.  All bets are off, and it’s helped to keep the other 364 days safe.

The first film took place at a house in the middle of a posh gated community and focused on a family’s fight to keep ghastly Purge participants out on the curb.  The sequel, as most horror sequels are apt to do, expands its cast, concept, kills, and setting to only mediocre results.  Instead of simply remaking the cat and mouse game of the original, The Purge: Anarchy introduces new targets navigating their way out of the inner city…aka Purge central.

Returning writer/director James DeMonaco again scores points for turning his film ever so slightly into the morality tale it really is deep down but can’t quite seal the deal when it comes to providing dramatic support for his concept.  He’s scripted rather dumb, unlikable characters that speak mostly in questions (“Who are they?” “Don’t you know?” “How am I supposed to know?” “Weren’t you supposed to know?) that are forced to bond together if they are to survive the night.

While DeMonaco had Ethan Hawke to head the original film, the sequel features the equally appealing Frank Grillo (The Grey, Captain America: The Winter Soldier) as a man that sets out into the Purge night for revenge  but winds up saving a mother (Carmen Ejogo, Sparkle) and daughter (Zoë Soul, Prisoners) from an elite squad picking off residents from the lower income part of the city.  Soon they’re joined by milquetoast couple Zach Gilford (The Last Stand) & Kiele Sanchez fending off mask wearing killers scooping up unfortunate souls for a sinister purpose revealed later on.

The fivesome go on a quest straight out of Adventures in Babysitting as they look for a car to get them out of the city.  Working on bland street sets seemingly constructed for multiple uses by numerous films, there’s not a lot of tension to be had…though there is a dandy of a jump scare early on in the film.  Almost thirty minutes longer than the previous film, the extra time isn’t put to good use as we are witness to scene after scene of bickering within the group and the dodging of multiple bullets throughout the night.

Grillo is a valuable character actor that has yet to really capitalize on his break out star potential, even after turning in some great performances over past few years.  He perhaps gives the soggy material more than it deserves in terms of character development but both he (and his hair) are the clear standouts here.  Ejogo and Soul may be the least convincing mother daughter duo in recent memory, not helped by the fact that both actresses mentally check out before the first reel is over.  It’s hard to say what real life couple Gilford and Sanchez are up to here because they’re assigned the worst kind of drivel dialogue: the self-narration.  Speaking everything they’re doing because DeMonaco couldn’t or wouldn’t find a more stylish way to do it, they stumble through the film as the token white people that are clueless and ultimately helpless.

Though the film starts off strong, ironically it’s when The Purge actually begins that the cracks begin to show and grow with each passing second.  While there’s some intriguing material surrounding the government and their ulterior motives surrounding The Purge, it’s quickly relegated to a marginal subplot in favor of awkwardly moving the five hunted souls from point A to point B.

I’m still hoping this franchise finds a way to make the most out of its concept in future installments.  The premise lends itself well to the kind of isolated story telling that could go on forever…but only if the films find the characters and setting to support it.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Purge: Anarchy

purge_anarchy

Synopsis: A young couple works to survive on the streets after their car breaks down right as the annual purge commences

Release Date:  June 20, 2014

Thoughts: A sequel to 2013’s The Purge was pretty much guaranteed when that very modestly budgeted film surprised everyone by raking in some serious cash during its opening weekend.  Sure, the film dropped like a stone in the weeks following but success isn’t measured in longevity anymore…it’s all about that critical first few days.  While The Purge was a movie with a diabolical concept, it suffered in an execution that didn’t know how to finish what it started in a satisfying way. I’m not expecting the sequel to be much different and can see future installments being a yearly occurrence ala the Paranormal Activity (Paranormal Activity 4 & Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones) and Saw films.

Movie Review ~ Sparkle

The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in the 1960s, three sisters form girl group and soon become Motown sensations, but fame becomes a challenge as the close-knit family begins to fall apart.

Stars: Jordin Sparks, Whitney Houston, Derek Luke, Mike Epps, Carmen Ejogo, Tika Sumpter, Omari Hardwick, Cee-Lo Green

Director: Salim Akil

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 116 minutes

TMMM Score (6/10):

Trailer Review: Here

Review:  There are two large shadows that loom mightily over this remake of the 1976 film of the same name.  The first is the obvious comparison to that other musical centering on a Supremes-like girl group in the 60’s: Dreamgirls.  If you look at the timeline carefully you’ll note that the original Sparkle came out a full four years before Dreamgirls opened on Broadway…thereby making it the first on the scene.  The parallels between the two are more than a little coincidental but Sparkle takes a harder edge in its latter half that would have seemed out of place in Dreamgirls.  Also, I’d say that Dreamgirls is an outright musical while Sparkle is a drama with the occasional musical number delivered from a stage, nightclub, or church.  The two may be similar in story but their paths diverge, making Sparkle less obviously about The Supremes.

The second shadow is more of a ghost like presence concerning co-star Houston who passed away in February just as the film was moving into post production.  It’s hard to say what kind of press the film would have received had Houston not died but it was her return to the screen after more than 15 years so a lot of attention would have been focused on this project anyway.  Houston also acted as executive producer of the film, having acquired the rights back in early 2000 with the intention to star alongside Lauryn Hill and Aaliyah.  When Aaliyah herself passed away the project was put on hold until now. 

Both of these shadows don’t sink the film that winds up being surprisingly pleasant even though it drifts a bit in the latter half.  It’s a fairly predictable flick and if you can’t see the pieces falling into place long before they do then you need your eyes checked.  Even with its telegraphed plot there is a winning quality to the film that keeps you invested based on the strength of the performances, production design and strong direction.

Like Dreamgirls, the star of the film is another American Idol alum making her screen debut and Sparks is mostly up to the challenge though she won’t be winning an Oscar for her efforts.  It’s not a star-making turn like Jennifer Hudson had in Dreamgirls but Sparks doesn’t embarrass herself, even if the role doesn’t quite fit her like a glove.  With her mega-watt smile the camera loves her and she fits the era well in terrific costumes by Ruth E. Carter.  Her Idol-tuned voice doesn’t truly fit the period (1968) however her vocals near the end have a rousing power to them. 

Speaking of the soundtrack, aside from music cues from actual popular music of that time none of the music sounds remotely late 60’s which is a shame.  Much of the new material was written by R. Kelly and its feet are firmly planted in contemporary pop music.  The music isn’t bad (especially the great “Running” sung by a secondary character played by musician Goapele) but authenticity flies out the window whenever the music starts to play.  Also, I would have bet the ranch that several of the actors had their vocals dubbed but careful inspection showed that everyone was doing their own singing…so basically they were just lyp-synching badly in the film.  Houston even struggled with matching her pre-recorded vocals when filming…which is surprising coming from an artist who famously perfectly lyp-synched The Star Spangled Banner at The SuperBowl.

While watching Houston onscreen I started to miss her presence all over again.  Yes, she struggled with addiction but there was no denying she had a voice that wouldn’t quit.  Her acting was spotty in her limited film career and had she made more films I believe she would have evolved…sadly it wasn’t meant to be.  In Sparkle, she’s the mom to the trio of girls that form Sister and Her Sisters and she takes care of business easily.  She’s the stereotypical single mom who has been-there, done-that and doesn’t want her daughters to follow in her footsteps.  At times, Houston plays the role a bit too nasty which makes the inevitable softening of her resolve at the conclusion harder to fully buy.  While Houston works through the material well she appears tired with her eyelids often at half mast and more than a few scenes played with her eyes totally closed.  Who knows what was going on during that period but for a highly hyped return to the screen (and as it turns out her final performance) she’s serviceable but doesn’t ace it. 

Brit Ejogo looks great and sings well as the lead singer of the group.  Without Sparks in the mix she would have (and probably should have) been the star of the show as most of the film revolves around her and the choices she makes as her star rises.  Ejogo has a pretty voice and at times looks an awful lot like Michelle Pfeiffer so you know my attention was rapt when she was onscreen.  Sumpter is probably the best actress of the group and gets to deliver some of the funnier lines as the worldly-wise sister that isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. 

The men in the film are a mixed bag and play their broad characters in support of the females – which is exactly what they should have done.  Epps and Luke play love interests to the Ejogo and Sparks characters and if neither actor gets to dig in deep they make consistent choices throughout.  If you’re going to see Green you’ll be in for a let-down as his appearance is strictly limited to the opening five minutes.  It’s nearly a walk-on role as he opens the movie with a song and then disappears.

Director Akil works from the screenplay his wife Mara Brock Akil updated and for the most part he’s delivered a good-looking, well-formed picture that should please fans of Sparks and Houston.  While some of the plot’s turning points are more convenient than believable (such as Bible-thumping Houston providing Sparks with the lowest cut Jezebel looking red dress this side of Mae West), it all somehow adds up to a harmless watch.