THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7 (2020)

October 15, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness.  Tom Hayden, Alex Sharpe, Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Bobby Seale, Lee Weiner, and John Froines. Those were the defendants charged with conspiracy and inciting a riot at the 1968 National Democrat Convention in Chicago. So why were there 8, when they are known as the Chicago 7? Well, writer-director Aaron Sorkin (Oscar winner for THE SOCIAL NETWORK, 2010) not only answers that question, but also fills in many of the blanks for those of us who have known only the highlights of the story.

This story has been told many times before in books, articles, and other movies, but it’s never before had Sorkin’s focus on the spoken word and the transcripts pulled from the 1969 trial. For those familiar with Sorkin’s work, his penchant for absurdly rapid and a bit too on-the-nose chatter is renowned. Here, he has assembled a truly superb cast that revels not just in the words, but in the historical aspect and the modern day relevance. There are a lot of characters to get familiar with, and Sorkin doesn’t delay in introducing each of them by name and affiliation.

Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne, Oscar winner for THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, 2014) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp) represent Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and are focused on the lives being lost in the war. Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are the leaders of the Youth International Party (the Yippies) and their goal is to disrupt the system through chaos. Actual Boy Scout leader David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is a conscientious objector and part of the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, aptly nicknamed “The Mobe”. Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is the leader of the Black Panthers, while Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins) and John Froines (Danny Flaherty, “The Americans”) were protesters, but can’t understand why they are lumped in with the more recognizable group leaders.

William Kunstler (Oscar winner Mark Rylance, BRIDGE OF SPIES, 2015) and Leonard Weinglass (Ben Shenkman) are the attorneys for all except Bobby Seale, whose attorney was unable to attend due to a medical emergency. Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is the hand-picked prosecutor for the Justice Department, while Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) is the presiding judge. Other key players include Kelvin Harrison Jr as Fred Hampton, leader of the Chicago Black Panthers, and the always great Michael Keaton as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Lewis.

There is a lot going on here for a courtroom drama. The diverse personalities alone make this a must watch. Flashbacks to the violence and the interactions between police and protesters are mixed in between testimonies. We are also taken into the Conspiracy House, where conversations and debates between the accused get quit colorful. There are also glimpses of Abbie Hoffman’s college campus speeches/performances which illuminate his thinking, and some of the best conflicts occur when Abbie and Hayden are going at each other in such contrasting manners. Langella’s Judge Hoffman is a true lightning rod in the courtroom. Is he biased or incompetent … or both? His behavior is what drives attorney Kunstler, the ultimate believer in the law, to finally understand what Abbie had said all along … this was a political trial – a show of governmental power, and an attempt to quash anti-war activists. This trial occurred mere months after Nixon was elected, and though they never share a scene, the sword-fight between newly appointed Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) and outgoing AG Ramsey Lewis (Keaton) is a thing of beauty. Keaton especially shines in his two scenes.

“The Whole World is Watching” became a common protest chant as the government worked to shut down the movement to end the Vietnam War. Netflix and Sorkin have capitalized on the current political and social environment to demonstrate what happened 50 years ago … the more things change, the more they stay the same. Abbie Hoffman states, “I’ve never been on trial for my thoughts before”, and that ties in brilliantly with the desire for Cultural Revolution. Hayden’s intellect in on display here, and Rylance is the real standout as Kunstler, though Langella (the Judge) and Abdul-Mateen (Bobby Seale) aren’t far behind. The scene where Seale is bound and gagged in an American courtroom is one of the most uncomfortable moments I can recall. There may be some questionable directorial choices, but the story and performances make this one to watch.

Premiers on Netflix on October 16, 2020

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THE HIGH NOTE (2020)

May 28, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who better to play an aging diva at the crossroads of a hugely successful singing career than the daughter of Diana Ross? Of course, nothing is ever that easy and if Tracee Ellis Ross wasn’t ultra-talented herself, the film wouldn’t work at all. Now, please understand, director Nisha Ganatra’s follow up to last year’s LATE NIGHT is excessively formulaic and predictable, but it’s a pleasure to watch Tracee Ellis Ross (“Black-ish”) as singer Grace Davis and to hear her sing for (I believe) the first time on screen.

The film is from the first (and previous Black List) screenplay by Flora Greeson, a former personal assistant in the music industry, and it follows Maggie (Dakota Johnson, “Fifty Shades” franchise) as Grace Davis’ hard-working assistant. While spending most of her time running errands in her Chevy Nova for her celebrity boss, Maggie dreams of becoming a music producer. See, she studied music composition in college and listened to the radio growing up … and she bobs her head when listening to music she likes. So obviously she’s “qualified.” Maggie is as ambitious as she is lacking in self-confidence and experience.

The aforementioned crossroads Grace is facing has to do with choosing whether to record her first new album in a decade, or taking the safe and financially secure route of accepting a long-term Las Vegas residency. Her agent, Jack Robertson, is played by Ice Cube in full tough-guy mode, as he pushes Grace to bank the cash. Although her career is stuck in recycle gear with live albums and greatest hits, Grace longs to record new music, though she also understands the realities of the music business (and explicitly states the history for anyone not following along – including Maggie).

Maggie oversteps her position with Grace by urging her to write and record new songs. Maggie re-mixes some of Grace’s music and butts heads with the hotshot producer (played by Diplo) Jack brings in to turn Grace’s hits into thumping dance beats. “Is that dope or is that dope? Trick question, it’s dope!” (Diplo nailing the punchline). June Diane Raphael adds her comic flair as Gail, the career moocher who lives in Grace’s pool house, and offers up advice to Maggie on how to milk the situation.

All it takes is a chance encounter at the local market for Maggie to have a career opportunity fall in her lap. She meets charming and smooth David Cliff (Kelvin Harrison Jr, WAVES), and after some classic music banter, she hears him sing and is convinced she can produce his music. The only problem … she lies to him about her profession and experience. Lying and misrepresentation may have played a key role in the music profession over the years, but it creates a real mess for Maggie and David.

When things go sideways for Maggie in every aspect of her life, she retreats to the security of her dad’s (Bill Pullman) humble home/studio on Catalina Island. He’s a DJ and the one who taught Maggie her love for music. His home also leads to the reconciliation that allows the film to move towards the ending it was meant to have. It should also be noted that Zoe Chao and Eddie Izzard have brief roles as Maggie’s roommate and a veteran pop singer, respectively … both talented performers underutilized here.

The film has a similar structure to THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA minus the biting dialogue and insightful commentary on a high profile industry. It briefly touches on ageism, sexism, and nepotism, as well as the ‘money vs art’ question, but the purpose here is entertainment, not enlightenment. True artists have an incessant need to create, often risking a comfortable position to stretch themselves … showing the iconic Capitol Records building a few times, and contrasting Maggie’s Nova with Grace’s Bugatti, doesn’t quite make the philosophical statement that we’d expect for a deeper message. Instead, it’s a feel good movie. It’s comfort food, and it’s delivered with a crisp bow on top. Expect a romantic fantasy, where the love partner is music, and enjoy the talents of Tracee Ellis Ross. And let’s hope they got clearance from Michael B Jordan for his mention.

Available VOD on May 29, 2020 at https://www.focusfeatures.com/the-high-note/on-demand/

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WAVES (2019)

November 29, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Whether in sports or music or movies, watching talent blossom and grow is wondrous. For movie lovers, this describes young filmmaker Trey Edward Shults, whose first feature film KRISHA really grabbed me at a film festival in 2016. His follow-up was the critically acclaimed IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), and now with only his third film, Mr. Shults has delivered an even more ambitious story with wide-reaching impact, yet he remains true to his intimate and personal approach. In fact, with WAVES, he basically delivers two brilliant films in one.

A terrific opening credits sequence takes us inside the life of a teenager. There is constant motion, laughter, the longing for independence, and signs of responsibility and structure. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr, LUCE, 2019) is a high school student, talented athlete, pianist, son, brother, and boyfriend. He’s living an upper-middle class life in a beautiful home with his dad (a powerhouse Sterling K Brown), stepmom (Renee Elise Goldsberry), and younger sister Emily (breakout star Taylor Russell). His dad owns a construction company, and is tough and demanding as a parent, incessantly pushing his son to do and be more. His fatherly advice comes in the form of telling Tyler that black men have to work harder than white ones … never stopping to give praise or affection. He’s the type of father who challenges his son to arm wrestle while in a restaurant and critiques his wrestling match victory by telling him the lesser opponent should have been dispatched much quicker. The pressure is relentless, though offered with the best intentions … a college scholarship and a successful life.

Tyler’s stepmom is loving and supportive, and his sister Emily is very sweet and quiet, living in the shadows of big brother. Tyler and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) seem to have a good relationship and Tyler appears to be dealing with the pressures. But then, as is common with life at this age, things go sideways quickly. A shoulder injury, self-medication, and Alexis’ late period bring this ideal world crashing down on Tyler. Just when it seems things can’t get worse, they do.

Shults’ film is really two love stories separated by a tragic line. Whereas the first half belongs to Tyler, the second half is owned by his sister Emily. Dealing with a situation and emotions that should be beyond her maturity level, Emily proves how strong she is, and how the heart can always respond to compassion and caring. She meets one of Tyler’s ex-teammates Luke (yet another brilliant Lucas Hedges performance). Luke is socially clumsy and 180 degrees from being a smooth-talker, but he’s smitten with Emily and offers her a lovely, if unlikely, companionship. First love is almost always awkward and watching these two navigate is quite charming and heart-warming. A road trip leads to bonding and a better understanding of each other.

As the film shifts in focus and tone, characters are pushed to emotional limits. The film offers snapshots of moments without disturbing the flow or Shults’ commitment to rich texture. The photography from cinematographer Drew Daniels is creative and varied, and adds much to the presentation. Music is also vital here. The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross adds the perfect touch, and the soundtrack contrasts the tastes of today’s generation with what the parents relate to (Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Makes”), even forming a surprising connection at one point. For other fans of Shults’ film KRISHA, you will enjoy a quick scene with Krisha Fairchild as a high school teacher.

Proms, pregnancy, parties, pills, and parents are all common topics for films dealing with teens, but this one digs deeper than most. It’s based in south Florida and is quite the stylish and heartfelt drama, slicing open the traits that make us human. A lifetime of good decisions builds a foundation, and one or two bad choices can topple all the good ones. When Tyler and his teammates are pumping up before a match with chants of “I cannot be taken down!”, we all know that life can absolutely take you down. Tyler learns this lesson in the harshest of ways, while his sister Emily deals with the aftermath. Themes of acceptance and forgiveness give this the feeling of the work of a much more experienced filmmaker, but evidently Trey Edward Shults is just this talented.

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