Movie Review ~ The Trial of the Chicago 7

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The Facts
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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 ~ Molly’s Game


The Facts
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Synopsis: The true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game and became an FBI target

Stars: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Chris O’Dowd, Rachel Skarsten

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 140 minutes

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review: There’s some good fun to be had in Molly’s Game, a true story based on the bestselling novel that’s been adapted by award-winning writer Aaron Sorkin…but sadly the good time doesn’t last.  It’s not that Bloom’s life isn’t a fascinating character study because her rise and fall tale is so outrageous it’s hard to believe it’s all true.  There’s value in seeing a woman rightfully taking a piece of the pie in a traditionally male fronted field but under Sorkin’s sleepy eye as a first-time director he can’t find the same type of balance that’s propelled his previous screenplays into first-class features.

It’s easy to see what drew Sorkin and his star Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty) to this project.  Bloom was a former skier on her way to the Olympics tragically sidelined by a freak accident just as she was coming into her own.  Having trained her whole life for this pinnacle, she’s untethered without much to fall back on.  Her father (Kevin Costner, Man of Steel) always pushed her but never truly supported her and by the time she winds up crashing on the couch of a friend in Los Angeles, Bloom isn’t sure where her life is headed.

Making ends meet by waitressing and running bottle service in a popular LA hotspot, she connects with a man that offers her an office job.  This day job turns into a lucrative gig hosting weekly poker tournaments for the very rich and very famous in the backroom of a unassuming bar.  Building relationships and getting on the job training with each passing hand, Bloom makes the leap to running her own ritzy poker game and that’s when she realizes how high stakes her cash flow business has become.  Running afoul of a famous actor (a nicely nasty Michael Cera, This is The End) looking to profit off of her hard work, she moves the game to NYC all the while keeping things on the up and up.

Forced into making an illegal choice in order to protect her bottom line, Bloom loses everything and then gets arrested by the FBI in their crackdown of a gambling ring she was involved with that, unbeknownst to her, had mafia ties.  Enlisting the aid of a defense attorney (Idris Elba, Prometheus) she doesn’t entirely trust, Bloom has to decide whether to tell the FBI all she knows and avoid jail or keep her secrets safe and pay further penalties for decisions that weren’t entirely hers to make.

Sorkin’s dialogue is, as expected, laser sharp and barbed with the best of intentions.  He knows his way around a tricky turn of phrase and his script is filled with his trademark quick wit.  If only it had also been populated with real characters.  Save for Bloom (aided by Chastain’s fierce performance), all of the supporting players feel like alien creations of people pretending to be human.  It’s fine when one character has a sharp comeback or humorous exposition but when each and every person is battling to be the smartest in the room it all starts to get muddy.

Elba is usually a slam dunk in movies but here Sorkin has cast him as a caustic man trying to play a father figure to Bloom as well as his own daughter that he regularly assigns reading material to.  Instead of being a lawyer passing judgement on his client, Sorkin has him upbraiding her for her actions like she’s being reprimanded like a child and that feels a bit icky.  Same goes for Costner as Bloom’s real father, a typically Costner-esque creation that’s cool to the touch and rather unlovable.  He shows up again late in the film for a sequence that was so strange in its composition I kept waiting for it to be revealed it’s all in Bloom’s imagination.

The good news is that Sorkin has finally done something he hasn’t been great at before…writing for a woman.  His male-heavy scrips for television and film have also felt like they were deliberately excluding the fairer sex so perhaps Molly’s Game was a chance for him to challenge himself.  Working with Chastain helps a great deal, even if the movie could have been tightened by a full 20 minutes if the aforementioned Costner scene had been trimmed and other flashbacks excised.

A decent hand of adult entertainment for those not ready to commit to the history lesson of Darkest Hour, the pitch-black comedy of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, or those that find their screening of The Post is sold out, Molly’s Game might be created by a one-eyed Jack but it’s ruled by a commanding queen.

The Silver Bullet ~ Steve Jobs

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Synopsis: Set backstage at three iconic product launches and ending in 1998 with the unveiling of the iMac, the film takes us behind the scenes of the digital revolution to paint an intimate portrait of the brilliant man at its epicenter.

Release Date:  October 9, 2015

Thoughts: Less than two years after another biopic of the late Apple wunderkind was released, another look into the life of Steve Jobs is coming our way.  After the cool reception and workmanlike effort of Jobs, I was wondering if we actually needed another film on the same life so soon.  Turns out, we did.

The first trailer for Steve Jobs is out and looks like something to get, if not excited by, then overly interested in.  Directed by Danny Boyle (Trance) from a script penned by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network), the film is comprised of just three scenes set at the unveiling of key products that Jobs had a hand in creating.  A bold structure to be sure but it’s different enough than the earlier film that any comparison will hopefully just be on who did the better interpretation of several key characters.  Though Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) was set to reteam with his The Beach director Boyle, another film (Revenant) took him from the project.  Replacing him is Michael Fassbender (Prometheus) and he looks like a better fit anyway…and let’s not forget Kate Winslet (Divergent), Seth Rogen (The Guilt Trip), and Sorkin favorite Jeff Daniels (Arachnophobia) are part of the team as well.