Arts & Leisure

“Roman” and “Billboards” small film gems

WOODY HARRELSON and Frances McDormand star in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.”

By Jim Tortolano

This hasn’t been a great year for memorable Hollywood blockbusters, but there have been some noteworthy “small” films that deserve attention. Here are two.

“Roman J. Israel, Esq.” is a tour de force by Denzel Washington. It’s a performance for the ages, partly because it shows the great actor is a less-than-great light.

The screenplay, written by Dan Gilroy, feels not only authentic but also full of delightful ambiguity. The story of a principled criminal defense attorney, it demonstrates that sympathy for the disadvantaged has a lot of facets, including the occasional disappointment.

It’s especially interesting to see Washington not as the dashing hero but as a paunchy, poorly-dressed fellow with a powerful brain but limited social skills. The moral dilemmas that he faces mirror those many of us confront every day, especially the tug-of-war between principle and integrity.

This isn’t a great film, but it’s a fully-realized performance by one of America’s finest actors. No special effects, but a special thing to watch.

DENZEL WASHINGTON stars in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

Speaking of great performances, you get several good ones in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” You expect top-flight work from Frances McDormand, but you also get a strong showing from Woody Harrelson and Sam Dixon as well.

The story revolves around the unsolved rape and murder of McDormand’s characters’ daughter. The billboards are there to put pressure on the local chief of police (Harrelson) to make an arrest. The quality of the local law enforcement is demonstrated by the comic book-reading racist officer Dixon (Rockwell).

But things – and people – aren’t always what they seem. In “Three Billboards” the lines between good and bad, and guilt and innocence blur in a thought-provoking way.

This is one of the finest films of the year. As with “Roman,” it’s got mass appeal that’s close to invisible, but if you can see past the explosions and hard bodies of the other films in the cineplex, you could do a lot worse than watching these small gems of the big screen.

“Roman Israel, Esq.” is rated PG-13; “Three Billboards” is rated R.

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