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 ~ Draft Day

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The Facts:

Synopsis: At the NFL Draft, general manager Sonny Weaver has the opportunity to rebuild his team when he trades for the number one pick. He must decide what he’s willing to sacrifice on a life-changing day for a few hundred young men with NFL dreams.

Stars: Kevin Costner, Jennifer Garner, Ellen Burstyn, Denis Leary, Frank Langella, Chadwick Boseman, Sean Combs, Rosanna Arquette, Tom Welling, Sam Elliott

Director: Ivan Reitman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review: About ten minutes into Draft Day, I leaned over to my friend and asked with the deepest sincerity “This movie is in English, right?” because I wasn’t totally sure that I hadn’t walked into Kevin Costner’s first foray into a foreign film.

Now I should admit that I’m not the target audience that Draft Day is banking on will buy a ticket as long as it doesn’t interfere with fantasy football. While not a huge sport nut, I know my way around a baseball diamond and basketball court…but football is one sport that I can’t get my noggin around. I’ve never even actually BEEN to a professional football game and my exposure is limited to high school games of my youth and waiting until the commercials come on during the Super Bowl.

What I am, however, is someone that’s seen a lot of sports related movies and even though baseball season has just started (check out my review of A League of Their Own for nostalgia sake) the 2014 football draft is coming up in early May. In that respect, one thing that Draft Day has going for it is good timing.

Another positive is Kevin Costner’s presence – though the actors has made his fair share of films surrounding sports, this is his first foray into football territory and he shows that he’s still in fine form after being mostly absent from high profile films in the last five years. After Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and 3 Days to Kill, Costner’s third film of 2014 is probably his best because he’s working on familiar territory…but that’s not saying much since Jack Ryan was a bust and 3 Days to Kill barely made it three weeks in theaters.

Another element that should have been a positive is director Ivan Reitman but instead it appears that the only Reitman to take note of in the directing world is his son Jason (Labor Day) While the elder Reitman was responsible for some mega-successful films (Ghostbusters, Stripes, Kindergarten Cop), his output over the last decade haven’t been touchdowns.

The biggest roadblock Draft Day tries to overcome (and doesn’t) is its own plot which never rises to the occasion of creating tension or the kind of excitement it seems to want to shove down our throats. Though Reitman makes some interesting work with the kind of split screens and fancy edits that would make Brian De Palma consider calling up Nancy Allen for Blow Out 2, the film is phenomenally boring and makes you feel every second of the 24 hour period during which it takes place.

While Reitman’s casting of Costner (Man of Steel) is spot-on, the limited gifts of Jennifer Garner (Dallas Buyers Club) creates a problematic situation for the unnecessary romantic subplot. Never mind that Garner looks like she could be Costner’s daughter and is his coworker, she fails to create even friendly chemistry with her co-star and one wonders if she was a last minute replacement or the fifth or sixth choice for the role. I would have loved to see someone closer to Costner’s age in the role, a Catherine Zeta-Jones or a Julianne Moore would have made the character more interesting and on the same level. Garner is usually out of her league, and it’s never more evident than it is here.

I’m not sure if Ellen Burstyn (The Exorcist) is paying attention to the roles she’s being offered anymore. One of our greatest celebrated actresses, I find her choices concerning and well beneath the quality of the work she’s been involved with for the last four decades. As Costner’s widowed mother, her role was either cut significantly after the fact or there was nothing to do in the first place because she only pops up when it’s convenient.

I’d go into the various other recognizable character actors that fill out the cast as agents, players, disgruntled fans, and members of rival team management but I honestly can’t remember who did what so I’ll give them the same amount of attention the script and director did…none.

Now look, this film may be an absolute delight for those viewers that are devotees to the pigskin and will find tension in the down to the wire deal making that goes on in Draft Day. For this (re)viewer, though, I found the whole film too far out in left field, er, deep in the penalty box, um, over the foul line, ack, over the line of scrimmage to be entertaining or memorable.

The Silver Bullet ~ Grace of Monaco

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFYmYWa348c

Synopsis: The story of former Hollywood star Grace Kelly’s crisis of marriage and identity, during a political dispute between Monaco’s Prince Rainier III and France’s Charles De Gaulle, and a looming French invasion of Monaco in the early 1960s

Release Date:  TBA 2014

Thoughts: One of several high profile films that were originally scheduled for the busy final months of 2013 but bumped into a TBA status for 2014, Grace of Monaco was seemingly dealt a worse blow when its studio (The Weinstein Company) moved it off their schedule entirely.  Barely a day later we found out why…the film was set to open the prestigious 2014 Cannes Film Festival which could significantly alter where and when it will see a final release date.  Even so, the film sounds like it could be in trouble with director Oliver Dahan and studio head Harvey Weinstein battling over the final cut of the film.  Weinstein has long known to demand major trims to films under his umbrella and 22 minutes of Grace of Monaco are apparently on his chopping block.  Star Nicole Kidman (Stoker, Far & Away) looks radiant as Princess Grace but at this point the film looks to be headed to a similar fate as her best friend Naomi Watts’ biopic Diana which was pretty much tossed to the sharks by its studio. 

The Silver Bullet ~ Draft Day

draft_day

Synopsis: The General Manager of the Cleveland Browns struggles to acquire the number one draft pick for his team.

Release Date:  April 11, 2014

Thoughts: Kevin Costner (Man of Steel, The Bodyguard) is going to have a busy first few months of 2014 from the looks of it.  In February he stars in the action thriller 3 Days to Kill and in April he headlines this sports drama in a role that already feels like a good fit for the aging star.  Costner took a bit of break from mainstream Hollywood after his habit of producing overblown epics caused his A-List status to fade but the Oscar winner is bouncing back nicely in the last few years by centering in on scripts that play to his strengths.  With an impressive cast there for support (even though Jennifer Garner, Dallas Buyers Club, looks too young to be any kind of love interest for Costner) and veteran director Ivan Reitman on board, Draft Day may be the kind of film that helps Costner move up another rung in the comeback ladder.

Movie Review ~ Robot & Frank

The Facts:

Synopsis: Set in the near future, an ex-jewel thief receives a gift from his son: a robot butler programmed to look after him. But soon the two companions try their luck as a heist team.

Stars: Frank Langella, Susan Sarandon, James Marsden, Liv Tyler, Peter Sarsgaard,

Director: Jake Schreier

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 89 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review

It really is the quiet ones that sneak up on you.  From the preview of Robot & Frank, I was guessing that the film itself would be a blip on my radar in the grand movie-going scheme of things.  Good buzz propelled me to see it opening weekend and I’m so glad I did.  Now, I have more time to spread the word about the film and encourage others to take it in as well.  What on the surface appears to be a Driving Miss Daisy-esque film with a cranky old-timer rebelling against the services forced upon him by his offspring is really a rare film of integrity and surprising heart.

Set in the near future but looking quite similar to the world we live in today, the film opens with Frank (Langella) and his daily routine.  With his rumpled attire and his set-in-his-way gait, we quickly pick up that he lives alone and likes it.  He spends his days in the upper NYC hamlet he calls home trudging into town to flirt with the librarian (Sarandon) and shoplifiting some items from a local store.  Gradually we learn that Frank’s become more forgetful lately and shows early signs of Alzheimer’s. 

That’s when Robot comes into his life courtesy of his son (Marsden) but against the wishes of his human rights minded daughter (Tyler).  Programmed to keep him active and healthy, Frank resists the Robot until naturally he can’t any longer.  It’s only when Robot accidentally gets a five finger discount on something that retired cat burglar Frank starts to feel like his old self again. 

That’s more of a plot description than I normally like to give but it’s key to have that groundwork for what’s to come next.  The film doesn’t so much change gears as it just chooses a different fork in the road that we didn’t notice originally.  The symbolism of a man losing his memory working with a robot who can easily be reformatted is not lost on the viewer or Frank.  As acceptance of the future starts to set in for all of our characters a new, more poignant film is revealed that’s quite impressive. 

I’ve always found Langella to be a bit inaccessible as an actor as he is mostly cast in aloof roles.  In Robot & Frank, this coolness works in his favor.  Frank (the character) sees what’s happening to him and begins to pull away from the world either out of fear or pride and it’s only when he starts to regain his old spirit that he warms.  It’s one of Langella’s best performances, understated and nuanced and played to perfection.

Marsden and Tyler also do strong work as his children who approach their father’s declining health from different points of view.  Marsden plays a family man who is trying to be there for his kids like his dad wasn’t there for him.  Moving into the role of caregiver, he brings Robot to his dad not as a way to remove burden from him, but as a way to give some peace of mind.  Tyler’s character strongly opposes the use of advanced technology and struggles to do right by her dad while still providing him the same care Robot does.  Both actors have great familial chemistry with Langella and each other.

I could go on and on about my continued admiration for Sarandon in every role she touches.  Already scoring strong in 2012 with her sensitive work in Jeff Who Lives At Home, she too turns a secondary character into one with a lot of heart and authenticity.  As her past is revealed slowly throughout the film I marveled at the way she took control of her seemingly innocuous librarian and made her flesh and blood.  Langella and Sarandon are pros and you’ll know what I mean after you see the film.

In the pivotal role of Robot, first time director Schreier wisely chose to eschew any CGI work by using an actress (Rachel Ma) to portray Robot onscreen and cast Sarsgaard as the robot’s calming voice.  In his soothing delivery, there are echoes of HAL2000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey but that’s where the similarities end.  Both performers are key to the success of the interactions onscreen between Frank and Robot with Ma making the movements believable and Sarsgaard holding steady as the stolid marvel.

An unobtrusive but lingering score by Francis and the Lights and beautifully detailed cinematography by Mathew J. Lloyd all work in conjunction with Schreier’s touching direction of Christopher Ford’s script.  There’s a lot to say about progress, memory, aging, and family and it’s all delivered in a manner that never feels false.  It could have been easy to make the future world look more tech-heavy but instead the lower budget may have worked in its favor with only a few slight upgrades to items you’ll believe will have advanced that far in the next decade.

At only 89 minutes, the film feels like an early Christmas gift that’s waiting to be unwrapped.  Thanks to spot-on performances and a delicate third act, I was so impressed with what I was seeing onscreen.  Like The Intouchables before it, this is one of the most moving films I’ve seen in 2012 and recommend it highly.