Movie Review ~ The Trial of the Chicago 7

1


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 ~ Dunkirk


The Facts
:

Synopsis: Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surrounded by the German army and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.

Stars: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy

Director: Christopher Nolan

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Coming off of the enormous success of The Dark Knight trilogy, director Christopher Nolan stumbled a bit with his next film, Interstellar.  Though far from a complete miss, the movie was a little too smart for its own good and is one of the rare Nolan films to get less interesting with subsequent viewings.  Three years later, Nolan is back in a big way with the release of Dunkirk, a superbly structured World War II adventure that almost assures a long overdue Best Director nomination is headed his way.

Instead of giving you the same old review, I’ve compiled a list of Dunkirk Do’s and Don’ts.

Do bring earplugs.  Nolan has continued his use of IMAX technology to film select scenes and with that comes a sound design that’s positively ear splitting.  Looking around the audience in several key moments I saw numerous movie-goers with their fingers in their ears yet still enraptured with the film.  Bullets whiz by with sharp zings and fighter planes streak across the sky with a sonic boom.  Your teeth will be rattling by the time the credits roll.

Don’t be late.  I’ve had some bad luck with technical problems plaguing screenings lately and the showing of Dunkirk I attended was delayed by almost a half hour due to sound issues.  When we were told that it would be another five or ten minutes before the screening would resume, many audience members (including my guests) headed for the bathroom only to have the movie start up the moment they were out the door.  That left their movie mates to quickly explain to them in loud whispers what was happening when they returned because Nolan’s script doesn’t repeat itself or explain the setting other than short title cards as the movie opens.

Do pay attention. Dunkirk is typically Nolan-esque with multiple overlapping storylines that take place at different times.  There’s three ‘pieces’ to Nolan’s puzzle, each capturing a specific stretch of time during the evacuation of British and French soldiers from a beach in Northern France.  The Mole covers a week stretch, following several young soldiers as they desperately try to escape the sand in any way possible.  The action in The Sea unspools over a day while merely an hour is the length of time The Air covers.  All three start and end at different places/times and if you aren’t fully paying attention you’ll miss the point at which they all convene.

Don’t look for star turns.  While Nolan has cast dependable actors like Kenneth Branagh (Murder on the Orient Express), Mark Rylance (The BFG), Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins), and Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road), the real stars are the young unknowns that make up the soldiers and civilians that played a part in the withdrawal of the armies from Dunkirk.  Even singer Harry Styles turns up as a tightly wound army man and acquits himself nicely as no mere bit of stunt casting.  Only Hardy could be considered a leading player as his ace airman eventually takes center stage in his storyline.  It’s unfortunate that Nolan didn’t learn from his critics in The Dark Knight Rises that bemoaned not being able to understand Hardy behind Bane’s mask.  Once again, much of Hardy’s performance in covered by an air mask, obstructing his words from coming through clearly.  The good news is that Nolan’s script is fat-free, never too speechy or preachy. So even though you can’t always understand Hardy, you aren’t missing  ton of exposition.

Do bring some kind of stress ball and clip your nails judiciously before the movie starts.  This was one of the tensest movies I’ve seen in some time…and it begins almost as soon as the first images appear onscreen.  With Hans Zimmer’s score switching back and forth between graceful and pulse-racing, the music is almost another character.  Even when nothing of note is happening, the score is always present to remind you that no one is truly safe.

Don’t miss this one on the biggest screen possible.  Cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her) has lensed a staggeringly beautiful film with its overwhelming wide aerial shots of fighter pilots in action and smaller moments between soldiers hoping for a miracle trapped in the hull of a grounded boat.  Another name to mention is editor Lee Smith (The Dark Knight) who has cut Nolan’s film into a lean example of cinematic efficiency.  At 106 minutes, it’s Nolan’s shortest film to date and were it any longer it would lose valuable steam.

Do read up on the real-life story that inspired Nolan’s fictionalized screenplay.  While not a huge WWII buff, even I know that the events that happened on Dunkirk aren’t always mentioned in the same breath as other acts of heroism.  Nolan affords time to take on the perils of war but tops it all off with a message of sincerity and hope that feels justly earned by the characters and audience, considering all we’ve been through together.

In summary…Do go, Don’t delay.

Movie Review ~ The BFG

bfg_ver2

The Facts:

Synopsis: A girl named Sophie encounters the Big Friendly Giant who, despite his intimidating appearance, turns out to be a kindhearted soul who is considered an outcast by the other giants because, unlike them, he refuses to eat children.

Stars: Mark Rylance, Ruby Barnhill, Penelope Wilton, Jemaine Clement, Rebecca Hall, Rafe Spall, Bill Hader

Director: Steven Spielberg

Rated: PG

Running Length: 117 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: There’s something about a Steven Spielberg film that makes it instantly recognizable. I feel I could watch a film of his with or without a blindfold and know right away that the director of Jaws, E.T., Raiders of the Lost Ark, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind was the captain of the cinematic ship. Lately, Spielberg has dug into more dramatic territory with the historical epics of War Horse, Lincoln, and Bridge of Spies with many of the muscles he used for his early flights of fancy going unstretched.

Long interested in bringing Roald Dahl’s 1982 book The BFG to the screen, Spielberg finally gathered the pieces together and I think that’s owed in no small part to the director finding a new leading man muse. After teaming with stage actor Mark Rylance on Bridge of Spies (which brought Rylance an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, surprisingly beating out odds-on favorite Sly Stallone in Creed), Spielberg has caught Rylance fever, casting the actor in The BFG and (as of now) his next two pictures.

In the not too distant past, a lonely orphan girl goes on the adventure of a lifetime one night when she’s plucked out of her bed by The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) and brought to his home in Giant Country. Not really a prisoner but not quite allowed to leave, the headstrong Sophie clashes at first with her towering friend. As she comes to know him better she recognizes the loneliness of this outsider as reminiscent of her own life and sets about to help him out from under the thumb of nearby giant bullies. Pretty soon there’s a trip to Buckingham Palace and a finale involving the Royal National Guard, with Sophie and The BFG bonding over dreams, sadness, and wishes for the future.

All of this is right up Spielberg’s alley and reteaming with the late Melissa Mathison on her final script, Dahl’s world is recreated from the ground up in a faithful adaptation. While other Dahl works like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Witches have had memorable their trips to the big screen, The BFG feels the most like it sprung from Dahl’s brain fully-formed. And that’s where there’s some trouble.

Dahl’s books are lovingly bonkers escapades with numerous tangential diversions along the way, almost feeling like curated episodes than one streamlined work. The BFG has several of these that don’t quite land the way I think Spielberg or Mathison (or Dahl for that matter) intended. Each moment of the film is beautifully shot by Janusz Kaminski (The Judge), gorgeously scored by John Williams (Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens) and skillfully designed by Rick Carter (Jurassic Park)  but the middle of the film seriously drags and it winds up a solid 20 minutes too long. Though the trip to meet the Queen (Penelope Wilton, The French Lieutenant’s Woman) is a nice lark, it goes on for an eternity as Sophie and The BFG have a spot of tea with Her Royal Highness before an extended sequence of fart jokes.

The whole thing is perhaps too sophisticated for its target audience and likely should be marketed more to adults than young children who will tire quickly of the talky nature of the piece. When Spielberg does give us something substantive, such as a knockout sequence where Sophie and The BFG catch firefly-like dreams, it can feel too heavy-handed and repetitive.

I’m not sure if any other actors were considered for the titular role but it’s hard to imagine anyone playing it quite like Rylance has. While the performance may be motion-captured, Rylance brings a special magic to the part, uniting the actor with technology to fairly stunning results. Many have felt that motion-capture performances should be recognized by the Oscars and you can be sure Rylance’s work here will be cited as an example of why.

Newcomer Ruby Barnhill is a real find, believably navigating a range of emotions that suggests a promising career as she matures. Wilton is a hoot as the Queen while Jemaine Clement (Men in Black 3) voices The BFG’s tormentor with a nice mixture of weirdness and humor. I’m not quite sure what Rebecca Hall (Closed Circuit) and Rafe Spall (Prometheus) are doing here, with their characters feeling exceedingly extraneous to the proceedings. Hall and Spall (hey, that rhymes) are pleasant actors but they seem to know they’re little more than human-sized props.

Any chance for Spielberg to make us feel like a kid again is a worthy experience in my book. While not on par with the best of the director’s works from the past, The BFG is a reminder of how good a storyteller he is when working with material that’s personal for him. I just wish he hadn’t been quite so precious with Dahl’s source material, I think even Dahl would say there’s opportunity to trim it down without losing any heart.

The Silver Bullet ~ The BFG

disney_s_the_bfg___poster__fm__by_edogg8181804-d9313uc

Synopsis: The imaginative story of a young girl and the Giant who introduces her to the wonders and perils of Giant Country.

Release Date:  July 1, 2016

Thoughts: The works of Roald Dahl have found their way to the screen over the years, from a 70s take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and Tim Burton’s unwise remake thirty years later) to a splendid retelling of The Witches. Dahl even wrote the screenplay to You Only Live Twice, one of James Bond flicks that took major flights of fancy.  Now comes The BFG, Dahl’s celebrated tale of an orphan girl and the Giant she befriends.  The Disney production reunites E.T.’s director (Steven Spielberg, JAWS) and writer (the late Melissa Mathison) so you know it will have its heart in the right place. This nice teaser trailer creates some interest…but I’ll be interested to see the blending of live-action and CGI that will bring Dahl’s novel to life.

The Silver Bullet ~ Bridge of Spies

bridge_of_spies

Synopsis: An American lawyer is recruited by the CIA during the Cold War to help rescue a pilot detained in the Soviet Union

Release Date: October 16, 2015

Thoughts: Director Steven Spielberg (JAWS) has been pretty quiet lately. The last film he released was 2012’s lauded Lincoln but while he was attached to any number of rumored high-profile projects he’s making his return with this Cold War thriller starring Tom Hanks (Saving Mr. Banks, Captain Phillips, Cloud Atlas). Reteaming with Hanks for the fourth time, Spielberg seems like a good fit for this period piece that could be thinking man’s action film after a summer of brainless blockbusters. With a script from Joel and Ethan Cohen (Unbroken, Inside Llewyn Davis) and supporting cast that includes Alan Alda (Wanderlust), Billy Magnussen (Into the Woods), Amy Ryan (Birdman), and Mark Rylance…expect this one to attract a lot of end of the year awards talk.