All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.

Producer: Jennifer Fox, Todd Black and Denzel Washington
Director: Dan Gilroy
Writer: Dan Gilroy
Stars: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo, Lynda Gravatt, Amanda Warren, Nazneen Contractor, Shelly Henning, Tony Plana, Sam Gilroy, DeRon Horton, Niles Horton, Amari Cheatom, Pej Vahdat, Brittany Ishibashi, James Paxton and Joseph David-Jones
Studio: Sony/Columbia Pictures

C+

Like his debut feature “Nightcrawler,” writer-director Dan Gilroy’s sophomore effort is about a character—or more properly A Character—who practically begs to be inhabited by a star giving the most flamboyant sort of performance. Unlike Louis Bloom, whom Jake Gyllenhaal played so creepily in the earlier picture, however, the titular character of “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a decent, principled man, whose uprightness is so abrasive that it often rubs others the wrong way. It’s a showcase role for Denzel Washington, who invests it with his customary vitality and brings a good deal of poignancy to the character’s temporary fall from grace, even though as a whole the picture feels manufactured rather than authentic and the plot goes haywire in the final act.

Israel—who always uses his full name, and at one point sheepishly explains the “Esq.” to a client—is an artifact from the seventies, an aggressively activist lawyer devoted to the cause of social justice. He’s literally living in the past, sporting an Afro, wearing tattered, mismatched coats and trousers and living in an apartment stocked with posters of iconic figures from the civil rights and free speech movements (and lined with thousands of vinyl LPs). He keeps his multitudinous files in paper form, on note cards he can locate immediately as needed, though he has modernized sufficiently to allow for post-its to serve as flaggers.

He also lies, we are directed to assume by the stiff turn he makes onto the steps of his apartment building and his obsessive, repetitive behavior (like calling the code violation office repeatedly to complain of construction noise), somewhere on the autism spectrum. Though not emphasized to the extent that it is in another professional field on “The Good Doctor,” that identifies him as a sort of savant, who can cite case law from memory and has spent years accumulating material for a massive class-action suit against the misuse of plea bargaining, which has put many innocent defendants in prison simply because they could not afford proper defense representation (or bail).

It also explains why Israel has worked for forty years behind the scenes in the small office of William Henry Jackson (whom we never see), a man dedicated to, as Roman puts it at one point, “attempting the impossible for the ungrateful.” Jackson has been doing all the outside tasks—conferring with clients, handling the courtroom appearances—while Israel has been doing all the research, preparing evidence and arguments.

His life is turned upside down, however, when Jackson has a heart attack from which he will probably never recover. Thrust into taking over the office’s cases, Israel proves eloquent but irritating in court, immediately landing him with a contempt citation. He is also confronted by the decision of Jackson’s niece—armed with power of attorney—to close the financially ailing practice down. Everything will be handled by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a slick former pupil of Jackson’s who now runs an L.A. mega-firm, and who, it turns out, idolized the old man. (He regularly quotes from his classroom dicta—which, though unattributed here, actually come from the works of Voltaire—and was, Roman learns, giving kickbacks to Jackson for cases passed on to him.)

News about Jackson’s darker side impels Israel to reconsider his staunchly ethical practices even as he is being pulled back to his activist past by encountering Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo), head of the local branch of a community-service lawyer group who will become a potential romantic interest. He will not only join George’s firm but be confronted with a terrible decision involving one of his clients, Langston Bailey (Niles Fitch), who’s being charged with first-degree murder in the death of a convenience store clerk even though the real gunman, Carter Johnson (Amari Cheatom), got away. Bailey tells Israel where Johnson is hiding, information that could serve as a basis for a plea bargain; but there’s a major reward being offered for information leading to Johnson’s arrest. What to do?

Up to this point Gilroy’s film has been an engagingly flashy if admittedly unrealistic portrait of a quirky character, sparked by Washington’s virtuosity, but while the introduction of this plot twist allows the star to add mournful shades to his performance while Israel struggles with his conscience, it also forces Gilroy to work overtime to find some way to end the scenario on a triumphal note while wrapping up all the various subplots. He doesn’t succeed; things go increasingly awry in the final half-hour (there’s a gratuitous car chase that ends with a comic thud, for example), which is not helped by the tendency for the script to italicize the pronouncements of characters about the ethical issues it’s raising,

Still, it’s undeniably enjoyable to watch Washington sink his teeth into such a florid role, even if he can’t always invest it with dramatic credibility. And while Ejogo is saddled with a thankless part, Farrell offers a nifty turn as a guy who inches back toward his law=school idealism even as his inspiration for doing so is straying from it. That’s an interesting juxtaposition, though it’s rather clumsily handled. The film is technically solid, with Robert Elswit’s production design and Kevin Cavanaugh’s cinematography working to capture the L.A. ambience. And the costumes Francine Jamison-Tanchuk has fashioned for Roman prior to his transformation to nattiness are amusingly goofy.

One can enjoy “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” as a pure star vehicle, but as a drama it falls short. And couldn’t at least a bit of credit have been given to Voltaire?

LADY BIRD

Producer: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush and Evelyn O'Neill
Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer: Greta Gerwig
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothee Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smiyh, Stwphen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott, Jake McDorman, John Karna, Bayne Gibby and Laura Marano
Studio: A24 Films

B+

A coming-of-age film that stands head and shoulders above most in that popular genre, “Lady Bird” represents the debut of actress Greta Gerwig as both solo writer and director (she has previously collaborated with Noah Baumbach and Joe Swanberg in those capacities), and it’s an auspicious one. Smart, incisive and emotionally satisfying, it’s both specific (being semi-autobiographical) and universal in its observations about teen angst.

Playing a character who is essentially the younger Gerwig (the film is set in 2002-2003), Saoirse Ronan is a revelation as Christine McPherson, who’s unhappy with everything—her hometown of Sacramento, which she considers stifling, her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who’s bossy and (so it seems to Christine) cheap, and her school, the Catholic Eternal Flame Academy, where she and her BFF Jules (Beanie Feldstein) negotiate the campus. She even dislikes her given name, so she changes it to Lady Bird—something her loving dad Larry (Tracy Letts) accepts genially but Marion abhors. She also finds her adopted brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his live-in girlfriend constant irritants.

Lady Bird’s major desire is to get out of town—specifically, to go to college in New York City. That seems an unlikely possibility, given that her grades are mediocre and the family finances grim (Larry has just lost his job, and Marion is working double shifts at a hospital to keep them above water). Her only bet, her mother insists during a local college tour that ends rather abruptly when Lady Bird tries to escape Marion’s nagging, is to choose a nearby school with in-state tuition. But Lady Bird, with Larry’s connivance, will nevertheless submit applications to more distant schools in hopes of getting a scholarship.

She’s also interested in romance, and finds it—she thinks—with Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges), a drama club star (specializing in singing roles) and all-around nice guy. For awhile that works out well, but there’s an abrupt end to the relationship, and she moves on to Kyle Scheible (Timothée Chalamet), a too-cool-for-school guitarist who enjoys striking rebellious poses. Linking up with him takes her into a richer crowd, and to fit in she not only affects being well-to-do herself but drops Jules from her circle in favor of Jenna (Odeya Rush), the campus mean girl. Needless to say, that does not work out well.

Other things do, however, and like Gerwig, Lady Bird eventually finds her way to New York. She also comes to realize that Marion is no monster, but a woman who has been struggling to make the best of a bad situation for her family, as well as the importance of real friends. The learning curve, moreover, is not one-sided.

As both writer and director, Gerwig handles all these major plot points with incisiveness and skill. She’s helped enormously by an exceptional cast. Ronan is simply inspired here; she might have taken Gerwig as a model in external terms (including, presumably, the red dye job on her hair), but adds to the character a full inner life that becomes almost palpable. Metcalf matches her with a ferociously real turn that ensures her consideration at awards time. Hedges, who is quickly becoming the go-to guy for teens with obstacles to overcome, captures a very different tone from the ones he expressed in “Manchester by the Sea” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and Chalamet, whose resumé is also expanding rapidly, makes sullen Kyle both attractive and a mite appalling. Feldstein is a delightful newcomer, giving Jules genuine poignancy, and Letts does the same with supportive Larry.

Moving beyond the basic plot, Gerwig adds to the scenario plenty of amusing grace notes. The school scenes are enlivened by the presence of veteran Lois Smith as the genial old nun who oversees the place, and the drama club interludes by that of Stephen McKinley Henderson, as the priest who serves as its sponsor—an overweight, weepy fellow who gets a mite too invested in his work (when he’s abruptly replaced by the school’s football coach, it makes for a hilarious change of approach).

Gerwig also assembled a talented behind-the-scenes crew, who give the picture a professional look that belies what was undoubtedly a modest budget. Chris Jones’ production design and April Napier’s costumes provide a period feel without undue exaggeration, and Sam Levy’s cinematography makes excellent use of the locations in Sacramento and New York. Nick Houy’s crisp editing and Jon Brion’s unassuming score are also positives.

Greta Gerwig has already proven herself one of our most watchable young actresses, adept in both comedy and drama. Now she’s shown that she’s an accomplished writer and skillful director as well. And at least in this case, her own life has provided her with ample inspiration: “Lady Bird” is an exceptional portrait of a fraught mother-daughter relationship, both funny and touching.