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 Hustle

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Two female scam artists, one low rent and the other high class, team up to take down the dirty rotten men who have wronged them.

Stars: Rebel Wilson, Anne Hathaway, Alex Sharp, Ingrid Oliver

Director: Chris Addison

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (5/10)

Review: Just a few short months ago I was praising actress Rebel Wilson for her starring role in the February rom-com Isn’t it Romantic, remarking that I was glad she seemed to be less reliant on her usual fallback shtick to get laughs. The respite from this broad comedy was brief, though, because The Hustle has arrived on the scene as a stealth counter-programming move to the unstoppable blockbuster Avengers: Endgame and it finds Wilson back in well-worn territory that doesn’t do anything to convince her naysayers she’s capable of surprising viewers.

That’s too bad, too, because there was real potential for The Hustle to be more than it winds up being. A more faithful remake of 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (which itself was a remake of 1964’s Bedtime Story) than I originally thought it was going to be, it gives Wilson her best co-star to date in Oscar winner Anne Hathaway but doesn’t seem to really know what to do with either lady. Therefore, it winds up being a modestly entertaining time waster providing some gentle chuckles (and one riotously funny sequence) but it’s mostly content to sneak away with your summer money…much like the two female thieves at its center.

After a frothy animated title scene (side note: boy, do I miss a nice credit sequence in movies) we meet up with Penny (Wilson, Pitch Perfect 3) as she’s sidling up to catfish a man (Timothy Simons, The Boss) in a bar. Penny wants people to like her for who she is on the inside not the outside…but she’s going about it in all the wrong ways. Luring the man to the bar using a picture of a different girl, she waits until he proves himself to only care about looks before justifying swindling him out of cash.  This scene is totally unnecessary to the overall plot of the film and seems to only be in there for a visual gag that’s already been selfishly spoiled (as many, many, many of the jokes have) in the trailer.

The movie starts to show some life when Penny meets Josephine Chesterfield (Hathaway, The Dark Knight Rises) on a train to Beaumont-Sur-Mer on the French Riviera. Amused after observing Penny’s efforts in conning an easy mark, Josephine comes to realize Penny might be more competition than she original thought and decides to take her under her wing. After some brief training passages involving physical comedy at the expense of Wilson’s nether-regions and a nice reimagining of a memorable scene from the 1988 film, Penny has graduated and is ready for the big time cons.  Together, the two women grift rich unsuspecting men until one guy (Alex Sharp, How to Talk to Girls at Parties) comes between them and the stakes are raised even higher when love comes into the mix.

By far, the funniest sequence in the film has Wilson posing as a blind innocent hoping to get money for an experimental therapy…only to have Hathaway show up as the German therapist Wilson created as part of her scheme. Watching Hathaway “test” the extent of Wilson’s blindness and try to cure her had me absolutely crying with laughter. Perhaps it was just the mood I was in or the fact that the rest of the film was so weary in its doling out of genuinely funny moments, but this section of the movie alone is enough for me to give it a recommendation.

With Oceans 8 and now this, Hathaway seems to be trying to politely shed the twee persona that became so aggravating around her Les Misérables days, anxiously sinking her teeth into another unapologetic man-eater role. She takes on a befuddling basso profundo Brit accent as Josephine and I couldn’t quite tell if she was actively trying to be bad or if director Chris Addison didn’t have the heart to tell her it stunk.  Thankfully, she gets into her groove right around the time she takes on the German therapist persona and rides that nicely for the rest of the feature. As I mentioned before, she’s matched nicely with Wilson and they seem to get along swimmingly – you get the impression the scenes were cut off right before the actresses burst into laughter.

When the film sticks to the skeleton of its predecessor it really hums and that’s a testament to how well Dale Launer’s script has held up over the last three decades. There’s a few amusing references to the earlier film that fans will likely catch and I liked that there were times I couldn’t tell if this was a remake or a sequel – I half expected original stars Steven Martin or Michael Caine to make an appearance at some point. Yet with too much reliance on Wilson’s same-old comedic foibles and despite the best attempt by Hathaway to drag her co-star away from the obvious jokes, it can’t make an assertive enough play to be remembered as a lesser-than remake of a more joyous film. Still – I’d be totally lying if I said I didn’t enjoy myself more than I thought I would for the majority of the 90 or so odd minutes the film occupied my consciousness.

Oh…and stay until the very end of the film. There’s a post-credit scene that’s decently long with one very good joke in it.