Movie Review ~ The Trial of the Chicago 7

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: The story of seven people on trial stemming from various charges surrounding the uprising at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Illinois.

Stars: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong, Daniel Flaherty, Noah Robbins

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 129 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: All of these years I knew I had a good education in high school and in college.  I keep up with the news, I read books, I watch enough Jeopardy! and movies and television to know a thing or two about a thing or two but I almost comically have to admit something.  History buffs, please put down your virtual stones and don’t hate me but I wasn’t familiar with the Chicago 7 before I fired up The Trial of the Chicago 7, now available to stream on Netflix.  Weird, right?  The names Tom Hayden, Abbie Hoffman, and Jerry Rubin were familiar to me for other reasons and I was surprised that such an event could occur that I wouldn’t have at least peripherally tied to the trial over some medium.  Hey, you learn something new everyday, though, so I guess my lesson this particular week was related to the historic court case charging seven individuals with various crimes related to demonstrations and protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

If you’re thinking this hyper-politically charged time we’re living in would be a prime time for a retelling of a landmark case brought by the government under not so honorable circumstances, you’d be correct.  Add writer/director Aaron Sorkin (Molly’s Game) to the mix and you have sparks flying with Sorkin’s traditional rapid-fire banter helping to establish mood and place, not to mention character and intent from the start.  Right off the bat we feel like these are well-formed individuals because even if they may not talk like us (Sorkin’s prose is great but, let’s face it, no one talks like he writes) they are speaking a language that instantly engages you in small ways, helping to paint a picture in your mind.

The events surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago are doled out gradually once the film has introduced us to the defendants by way of brief glimpses into their preparing to head to the event.  Passing glimpses at Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl) & Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp, The Hustle), Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Aquaman), David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch, The Invitation), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong, Serenity) & Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen, Les Misérables), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins, The Assistant), John Froines (Danny Flaherty, Hope Springs) show all signs point to the men having fairly benign plans for the day. From there, we jump forward to Washington D.C. when a young attorney (Joseph Gordon Levitt, Premium Rush) under a new administration is prodded into the prosecution of eight men that were arrested in connection with a string of crimes the former administration had declined to prosecute.  How we get from eight men to seven is something Sorkin will illustrate as he takes us through the lengthy trial that goes on for multiple months and is governed by a tyrannical judge (Frank Langella, Robot & Frank) who may be losing his mind.  A defense attorney for the majority of the men, William Kuntsler (Mark Rylance, The BFG), struggles to make his case in the face of prosecutorial tampering and a judge that doesn’t remember some of his own rulings.

Little doubt remains that this trial was a huge miscarriage of justice and had enormous complexity given the scope of the charges and men involved.  Sorkin’s film also feels equally enormous with a lot of ground to cover and a clock ticking down to get it all in.  What I thought would be the film’s climax turned out to be the first of several false ones and it started to drag as it approached its second hour, a rare occurrence for a Sorkin film that often chugs along with the energy of a locomotive.  Perhaps it’s due to the structure of having to tell so many competing storylines that rarely converge on each other or more likely its because not all of the Chicago 7 are as interesting as the rest.  It might even come down to performance…because I think there is great acting going on here as well as some goofy attempts at faux-counterculture attitude.

For instance, I think Baron-Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman is a strong interpretation of the social activist known for his courtroom antics and outspoken public behavior.  Baron-Cohen is known for creating these larger than life roles that are often obnoxious and finally he’s playing a character that is actually obnoxious and he manages to make him a comfortable fit.  On the flip side, recent Emmy-winner Strong is completely out to sea as Jerry Rubin, giving the exact type of nuts and berries performance you’d expect when you hear the word “hippie” – no surprises here.  I think Rylance could have done this part in his sleep and he looks at half-mast for most of the film, as does Redmayne who feels more concerned about maintaining his American accent and keeping his hands in his pockets than delivering a single focused line-reading.  The best acting going on in the film is far and away Langella as the lunatic judge who terrorizes the defendants, jurors, prosecution, and probably anyone he comes in contact with.  Still one of the finest actors working, Langella should be justly rewarded for his wonderful work.

While I ultimately appreciated the history lesson and education brought on by The Trial of the Chicago 7, it’s fractured time frame and tendency to tell instead of show gets a bit oppressive after some time.  The court moments are the most energetic and where Sorkin finds the best sequences to shine.  That’s when things really pick up and a rhythm is established.  It’s when we head out of that space where The Trial of the Chicago 7 becomes, well, a trial.

Movie Review ~ The Opening Act

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Will O’Brien is given the opportunity to emcee a comedy show for his hero and has to decide if he wants to continue the life he has set up or to pursue his dream as a stand-up comedian.

Stars: Jimmy O. Yang, Alex Moffat, Cedric the Entertainer, Neal Brennan, Bill Burr, Whitney Cummings, Jermaine Fowler, Ken Jeong, Russell Peters, Debby Ryan

Director: Steve Byrne

Rated: NR

Running Length: 90 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: There have been good movies starring stand-up comedians.  There have been good movies filmed of stand-up specials.  Has there ever been a good movie about stand-up comedians, though?  The few I can think of off the top of my head, 1988’s Punchline and 2009 Funny People didn’t exactly set my world on fire and that I couldn’t come up with any others surely wasn’t a great sign.  I was thinking about that before I started to watch The Opening Act because looking over the cast list and seeing a lot of familiar names I thought I had some reason to be a little concerned.  Here was a movie written/directed by first-timer who was also a stand-up comedian starring a stand-up comedian and featuring a supporting cast that was nearly all from their same colleague pool.  It was a crapshoot which way it would go, either Steve Byrne was going to kill his first time out or he’d bomb.  Remarkably, The Opening Act is a winner and while it shows the tell-tale signs of a novice director, it also does more than hint at a great potential for Byrne on the horizon.  I expected a film that was crass and far more juvenile but was pleased to find a touching story with a sweet soul that wasn’t afraid to hide it.

As far back as he can remember, Will O’Brien (Jimmy O. Yang, Patriots Day) has had comedy in his life.  It was something his parents shared with him growing up and it became a source of comfort between him and his dad after his mother died when he was still a child.  The laughs they shared carried over to adulthood and with his father now gone, he keeps those memories close and uses them to fuel his drive forward.  Stuck in a job he hates working for an annoying boss (Bill Burr, Daddy’s Home) while dreaming of becoming a headlining stand-up comedian, he is having trouble even getting onstage at his local comedy club because he can’t get enough people to come see him.  The thing is, Will is kinda good and when he is onstage tends to do well…something no one seems to really acknowledge since everyone is trying to get to that next level.

When his friend at the club, Quinn (Ken Jeong, Crazy Rich Asians) books a gig and can’t show up to host an out of town comedy event, he suggests Will for the job and it’s his first big opportunity to be seen by a reputable promoter.  If he does well, this could lead to more jobs — all he has to do is make it through the weekend without getting into trouble and be funny.  Oh, and the performer he’s introducing is his all-time favorite comedian, Billy G (Cedric the Entertainer), so it’s a chance to meet his comic hero and he’ll be rooming with a hard-partying comic (Alex Moffat, Ralph Breaks the Internet) who is determined to show Will a good time while he’s in town.  What could go wrong?

Byrne devises three days of chaos for Will, some of it predictable and some of it not.  It’s all delivered with an easy-going performance from Yang who never oversells some of the more bizarre circumstances he finds himself in nor does he underplay the dramatic moments afforded to his character throughout.  These are important days for Will and Byrne knows it so there’s some respect given when it’s appropriate.  That’s not to say the movie isn’t above some low-brow humor or off-color jokes, but these aren’t defense mechanisms it returns to when it gets stuck in a rut…Byrne seems to be more creative than going for gross out comedy and instead finds something important to say by putting Will in uncomfortable situations where he has to pick himself up and face consequences.

Most of the comedians are good as well, to varying degrees.  Moffat is a riot as the ribald comic that could have been a terror but winds up being kind of a sweet Artful Dodger to Yang’s Oliver.  I kept waiting for him to do something nasty that would change his trajectory but he’s exactly who he presents himself to be and that’s refreshing.  I have said it before and will say it again, I am totally completely 100% over Jeong.  Talk about someone who has milked his schtick to death.  He’s the worst part of the movie by far and is agonizingly awful every second he’s on screen.  As Yang’s love interest, Debby Ryan (Life of the Party) doesn’t have much to do but it’s more of a screenwriting problem than anything.  She’s so non essential to the story it feels like it was a character Byrne was compelled to create or include just to establish something about Yang or to use as a plot device for one of Will’s comedic escapades in the film’s midsection.

A worthwhile effort that has heart to go along with the laughs, The Opening Act could also apply to Steve Byrne’s career as a writer/director.  There are some fixes to be made and technique to be learned, especially in the establishing first twenty minutes that feel a bit awkward.  However once the film hits its stride it keeps up a healthy dose of energy and good will towards, uh, Will until the very end.  If his sophomore feature narrative film is as winning, sunny, and confident as this, he’s one to keep your eyes on.  Ditto for Yang who makes an assured jump from stand-up comedian and sorta actor to unconventional leading guy with ease.  This will surprise you.

Movie Review ~ The Devil Has a Name

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A psychotic oil matriarch leaves the whole industry exposed when she attempts to outfight a bullish farmer whose water has been poisoned.

Stars: David Strathairn, Kate Bosworth, Pablo Schreiber, Katie Aselton, Haley Joel Osment, Alfred Molina, Edward James Olmos, Martin Sheen

Director: Edward James Olmos

Rated: R

Running Length: 97 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: When Netflix first came out, the hardest part was waiting for those discs to come in the mail.  It was especially difficult when you got a movie that you hated and didn’t watch all the way through because you essentially just wasted up to a week of your monthly subscription waiting for another film to arrive.  That’s why the streaming service was such a fantastic upgrade because whenever you wanted to tap out of a movie or show that wasn’t grabbing you, there wasn’t as much guilt as before.  That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.  Good because of the reasons I just mentioned but bad because we’ve all talked to someone that stopped watching Schitt’s Creek after the first few episodes of Season 1 saying they “just didn’t get it” though we all know that show took several episodes to find its stride.  People just aren’t willing to stick with something if they aren’t into it…there’s too much out there to waste time.

I have a confession to make.  Sometimes I feel that way about screeners as well.  Look, when I say I’ll review something, I’ll review it and I’m going to give it my all.  Take the new drama The Devil Has a Name (not The Devil All the Time…which is, coincidentally, a Netflix film) from actor-director Edward James Olmos.  This was one of those examples where the movie started and I had that sinking feeling in my stomach that I had gotten myself into something that was going to be trouble to review.  It starts off very badly and stays that way for at least the first twenty or so minutes.  I wanted to chuck it and give up but forced myself to stick with it…and I’m glad I did because while it got only marginally better it did have some redeeming qualities that I wouldn’t have caught if I gave up at the outset.  On the other hand, the more I watched, the more problems I had with the turgid script, oversized performances, and sloppy filmmaking.

Gigi Cutler (Kate Bosworth, Homefront) is in big trouble with the head honchos at her family’s Houston-based business, Shore Oil.  For what, we aren’t sure of yet but, like many a film, she’s going to down a swig from a flask and tell them (and us) just what brought about her bad behavior.  Flashing back, we’re introduced to Fred Stern (David Strathairn, Lincoln) a widowed almond-farmer whose land has been unknowingly polluted by a nearby oil-rig owned by Gigi’s family.  They’ve found this out before him and, wanting to avoid a costly lawsuit, attempt to buy his land for a paltry fee via negotiations by local yokel Alex ( Haley Joel Osment, Tusk).  Sensing something isn’t right and eventually uncovering the truth with the help of his longtime foreman Santiago (Olmos), Stern turns the offer down and hires legal counsel (Martin Sheen, The Dead Zone) to sue the company.  A legal battle ensues which brings out a whole host of nasty actions and a brutal fixer (Pablo Schreiber, Skyscraper) into town to make sure nothing gets in the way of a win for the oil company.

Viewers are going to have to hunker down and commit to the film from the start, there’s no easing into Robert McEveety’s screenplay and the direction from Olmos (Wolfen) doesn’t help much either.  I found the first twenty minutes to be disorienting as character introductions were slack or nonexistent and when they are onscreen they’re so oversized that it feels as if Olmos used a fifth take where he told them to “be as big as possible, just for fun.”  The degree of seriousness afforded to some rote dialogue is pretty funny after awhile.  Things pick up once the legal proceedings begin (because who doesn’t love a good courtroom drama?) but even that starts to get wacky after a bit, with the kind of grandstanding and unbelievable turn of events even the soapiest of legal dramas would raise an eyebrow at.

Speaking of performances, I wonder if Strathairn watches the film and wonders what movie everyone else is in.  He’s essentially playing the same low-key role he’s played before and that works well for the high strung movie but everyone else can’t decide exactly what volume they want to pitch their performances.  Schreiber is having a field day with his professional slimeball, aiming for dark and lethal but landing on gentlemen’s club bouncer.  The only thing he’s missing is a well chewed toothpick in his mouth. Come to think of it, he may have had one of those, too.  It’s always great to see Olmos in front of the camera, but wearing two hats seems to have clouded his ability as an actor to question some of the crappy dialogue he has to wade through.  I don’t quite know where to start with Osment, what worked for him as a child actor has not carried over to adulthood.  He’s just completely unappealing (which is the point of the character) but as an actor he’s also unquestionably terrible. Aside from Straithairn, Bosworth probably comes off the best because she at least puts some dynamics into the role so she has some place to go.  There’s a regrettable scene where she goes mental on a piece of carpet but anytime she’s cool, calm, and collected is when she’s at her most dangerous…and most interesting to an audience member.

Clearly, this is a film with a targeted message at the protection of the environment but the message gets lost in the large performances (can I say again how awful Osment is?) and the messy storytelling.  Olmos has directed films before that have had more solid footing but for some reason, either the directing or maybe even it’s the editing, The Devil Has a Name gets off on the wrong foot and never finds its way back in time with the music.  There should be a better way of getting the point across than relying on the unreliable resources gathered for this project.

Movie Review ~ Time


The Facts
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Synopsis: Fox Rich fights for the release of her husband, Rob, who is serving a 60-year sentence in prison

Stars: Fox Rich

Director: Garrett Bradley

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 81 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: There’s always that one person at parties that’s either snapping pictures or taking video constantly.  They aim to document the whole thing and I sometimes wonder why they aren’t there in the moment and watching what’s happening in front of them instead of seeing it all through a camera lens.  The way that social media works, everyone has photographic or video documentation of much of their lives and while that may be a bit of a nuisance now, in five or ten or twenty years we may look back and be thankful we have those artifacts to tell our story.  Just like we do now with the stacks of memory cards, movie files, DVDs, VHS, or 35mm films that families have taken throughout the past six decades, these are evidence of the way we’ve grown and thrived, lived and loved, won and lost.

That’s what I often think of when I see documentaries such as Time, new to Amazon Prime from director Garrett Bradley.  Using an incredible amount of footage gathered from author and motivational speaker Fox Rich who has spent the last twenty years trying to get her husband out of prison after he was sentenced to 60 years without parole for a failed bank robbery, Time chronicles her life as a single mother raising six children.  The black and white feature uses this footage and newly shot material from the latest appeal for the release of Rob Rich to give viewers an insight into where this family came from, how they got to be in the situation they found themselves in, and what they’ve done for two decades to turn things around.  Imperfections, frustrations, successes, steps forward, set-backs, difficult decisions, and forgiveness are all discussed in a powerfully compact run time that lays bare one woman’s truth and the children that have grown up in the shadow of a man they’ve never really known.

High school sweethearts, Rob and Fox Rich had dreams of opening their own clothing store but ran into difficult times keeping their business afloat.  With hungry mouths at home to feed and more on the way, the couple were part of an unsuccessful attempt to rob a bank that landed them both behind bars.  Accepting a plea agreement, Fox served a reduced sentence but refusing to plead guilty, Rob was given the maximum sentence without the possibility of parole.  The first five minutes of Bradley’s film are a dizzying blur of home video images showing Fox and her children when they still held out hope Rob would return in short order.  We see Fox talking to another mother and telling her that Rob is “out of town” when questioned and another showing her reminding her young son to behave in school.  Doing the double duty work of both parents, Fox is already on her way to raising the children on her own and the title card hasn’t even shown up yet.

Then we jump to now with Fox filming a commercial for her car rental business and we see she’s just as in control of the situation as she was twenty years prior.  The children are grown with some in college and others making successful strides in school.  Another appeal for Rob is looming and this is a big one.  This may grant him a meeting before the parole board where he could make a case for early release…and finally some hope returns to the Rich family.  Channeling her energy over the years into becoming a motivational speaker so that she can help others avoid the same path she found herself on, we hear Fox tell of her deep emotional connection with her husband and what the time apart has meant for their relationship.  Bradley also wisely includes more footage from the past where Fox makes amends at her church (a striking moment) as well as conversations with Fox’s mother.  The filmmakers interviews with the mother are some of the most telling in the film, make sure to watch her even when she isn’t speaking but only in the background of shots toward the end of the movie.  How she observes her daughter and grandchildren are revealing.

The movie does falter a bit anytime is strays into territory where it suggests Fox was somehow a victim and it skates a thin line at times in asking you to forget that she did in fact commit a crime.  Her mother is the one to bring it back to reality though, by reminding the director (and us in the process) that she did do it and we should remember that.  She’s done her time and should be able to go on with her life like she has, becoming a success story, but the focus feels better when it stays on her crusade on behalf of her husband and the strong bond they have that hasn’t faded over the years.  How it all comes out, you’ll have to see for yourself, but any resolution was bound to be some kind of emotionally jarring one Time leaves us with.

31 Days to Scare ~ Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter

The Facts:

Synopsis: Debonair supernatural expert Captain Kronos and his hunchbacked assistant meet their match when they encounter a village where vampires have been stealing the vitality of young women, leaving them elderly and decrepit.

Stars: Horst Janson, John Carson, Caroline Munro, Ian Hendry, Shane Briant, Wanda Ventham, John Cater, Lois Daine, William Hobbs, Robert James, Elizabeth Dear

Director: Brian Clemens

Rated: R

Running Length: 92 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Mention Hammer Studios to horror fans and visions of Peter Cushing chasing down Christopher Lee’s Count Dracula will often spring to mind.  The British production company was known for their sophisticated horror films shot both in studio and on beautiful locations across Europe and is often most associated with the Dracula films they produced throughout the ’60s and ’70s.  Of course, Hammer was far more prolific than that and was responsible for a number of other creepy delights featuring a murders row of famous killers and monsters, as well as other vampire tales.  I’d been so Dracula focused for most of my life that I only recently began expanding my horizons and exploring their other bloodsucking catalog.  Last year I reported on the delightful Vampire Circus and for this round of 31 Days to Scare I found another interesting and well-worth a watch vampire yarn, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter.

Made in 1972 but delayed in its release until 1974, this was an original screenplay from director by Brian Clemens who had written for a number of UK TV series as well as several British thrillers noted for their atmosphere.  There’s atmosphere to spare in this one, too, with a pre-credit sequence showing two girls in a forest picking out flowers.  As one goes off in search of one last bouquet, the other stays behind and meets a hooded figure that drains her not of just of blood but of youth.  Recognizing the signs of a possible vampire presence, the village doctor (John Carson) calls an old friend to come and help his community before it is too late.  Enter Captain Kronos (Horst Janson), his assistant Grost (John Cater), and the voluptuous Carla (Caroline Munro), a peasant the men freed from the stocks on their journey who now follows them in hopes of getting closer to Kronos.

Perplexed by this new breed of vampire, Kronos and Grost attempt to track the creature with the help of Dr. Marcus and Carla.  As more fair maidens keep showing up haggard and withered, suspicion falls on a brother and sister caring for their invalid mother in a nearby castle.  Clemens manages to keep the identity of the vampire a secret right up until the end and the reveal was a rather neat surprise and something I didn’t see coming, so audiences can expect a mystery to go with their horror.  They can also look forward to a little bit of a diversion in the slow-ish subplot which sees Kronos traveling to a neighboring town and Dr. Marcus striking out on his own to interview the suspected siblings.  It gives the film a bit of a heavy midsection but at 92 minutes it doesn’t stay stuck in a rut for long.  Bouncing back with a fiery finale, pretty soon Kronos is forging a wicked sword to slay the best, culminating in an impressive sword-fight on one of Hammer’s typically well-adorned castle locales.

It’s too bad this film performed so poorly at the box office that the planned future installments never came to be.  This was a character I would have liked to see more of and deserved another film to get some traction.  Sadly, with audience demand dictating what went forward and what didn’t any hopes of the further adventures of Kronos and his gang would never come to be.  This might be one that could be revived in some fun way, yet there’s something so nicely done about this production that perhaps a one and done effort speaks well enough for it.  Nice discoveries like this tend to be good movies to keep in your back pocket because they can exist on their own merits and be that fun find for those in the know.  For this vampire fan, Captain Kronos: Vampire Hunter is definitely a new addition to the rotation of blood-sucking favorite flicks.