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

watch the trailer


LES MISERABLES (2012)

December 30, 2012

les mis Greetings again from the darkness. One of the most anticipated films of the year is the first from director Tom Hooper since his Oscar -winning The King’s Speech. It also happens to be based on one of the true literary classics by Victor Hugo (first published 1862). And yes, it is presented as a true musical … the dialogue is sung and story advanced through forty-something songs. The latter feature gives it more of an opera feel than the stage version I saw more than 20 years ago.

The biggest question and curiosity going in was whether the cast of top notch movie stars could hold their own vocally. Sure, Hugh Jackman (Jean Valjean) is a Tony winner, Anne Hathaway (Fatine) has some Broadway chops of her own, Amanda Seyfried (Cosette) sang in Mamma Mia, and Russell Crowe (Javert) has toured with his own band. But this is a whole new challenge, as director Hooper decided to have the actors sing “live” during les mis4filming, providing a more intimate feel to the film. Throw in two exceptionally strong vocal performances from Eddie Redmayne (Marius) and Samantha Barks (Eponine) and only the harshest critics will claim the singing disappoints.

Seinfeld” fans will enjoy the comic relief from thieving innkeepers Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as they take advantage of their customers while belting out “Master of the House“. And it’s pure joy to hear Colin Wilkinson‘s wonderful voice as The Bishop who offers Valjean his chance for redemption. Mr. Wilkinson is legendary as the original Valjean in the London and New York stage versions from the mid-80’s.  The historical les mis3relevance of the material includes the 1832 student-led June Rebellion and it’s adequately staged here.

There were a few things that distracted me at times. The most annoying being the incessant facial close-up on every song. This is typically a device to cover-up weak set design, but here the sets are spectacular and really capture the nastiness of 19th century France. And while I certainly enjoyed Ms. Hathaways’ show-stopping “I Dreamed a Dream“, I found her overall acting to be quite distracting during her few scenes. Russell Crowe’s physical presence perfectly captures the omnipresent Javert, though the lack of punch in his vocals les mis2prevented the boom needed in a couple of songs. Lastly, Mr. Jackman seemed to strain on the high notes in my favorite “Bring him Home“, though again, none of these things ruined the experience for me.

As with most film musicals, the best approach is just to allow the story and songs to wash over you … don’t dwell on the minor issues. Keep in mind that this is a powerful and interesting production thanks to Victor Hugo’s source material. It’s a privilege to enjoy a first rate presentation seen through new eyes and heard through new vocalists.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a fan of the stage version OR you enjoy well made movie musicals

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are expecting the movie stars to have operatic voices OR nearly three hours of close-ups is more than you can take

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkHHHUk8RCw

 


HUGO

November 29, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. This latest from Martin Scorsese can be fitted with multiple labels and each would be correct: a tribute to the birth of movies, a case for film preservation, a children’s fable, a special effects/3D extravaganza, a family movie with touches of Dickens. Very few directors would tackle such an ambitious project and succeed in producing such a magical experience.

Based on Brian Selznick‘s (relative to the film giant David O. Selznick) children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret”, this is a story of redemption and fulfillment. Asa Butterfield plays Hugo, made an orphan when his watchmaker father (Jude Law) dies in a fire. Hugo gathers up the project he and his dad had been working on, and  moves in with his drunkard Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone). They live in the walls of a 1930’s Paris train station and maintain all the clocks, ensuring accurate time for travellers. When his uncle disappears, Hugo carries on the daily mission unseen by passengers and station staff. He steals the occasional croissant and milk to survive, all while continuing the mission of repairing the fantastic automaton his dad salvaged. Hugo is convinced there is a hidden message from his father that will be revealed when the automaton is fully functioning.

 Hugo gets cross-ways with a station toy vendor named Georges, played by Sir Ben Kingsley. Georges is a bitter old man and has no time for Hugo the urchin. Chloe Moretz plays Isabelle, a ward unto Georges, and she and Hugo strike up a friendship. Hugo introduces Isabelle to the world of cinema … previously off-limits to her thanks to Georges. She returns the favor by awakening Hugo to the power of books in a store run by the mysterious, and always great, Christopher Lee. All this is happening while Hugo tries to evade the grasp of the oddly dedicated and slightly twisted station inspector played by Sacha Baron Cohen.

 The kids’ research and automaton revealed hint lead them to a film history book written by Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s here that they discover Georges is really George Melies, the famous pioneer of film who developed the first special effects and studio system. If you know much of film history, then you recognize Melies as the one who brought us the 1902 A Trip to the Moon. It is here that Scorsese delivers a quick recap of the origination of film, including the Lumiere Brothers, the famous clock stunt by Harold Lloyd and other silent film classics like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. The best portion is dedicated to recreating the creative community  used by Melies to produce films with his wife in a make-shift studio.

 It is here that we are allowed to remember just how magical movies can be and how the best ones fill us with a sense of wonderment. The lines between what we feel and what Scorsese is showing us becomes so blurred it no longer matters. As Isabelle is overwhelmed in the theatre, that same feeling sweeps over us. How interesting that Scorsese’s first special effects film features the man who originated film special effects. We even get a re-creation of the famous Lumiere Brothers’ oncoming locomotive clip that caused audiences to jump. We get it in 3D in Hugo’s own station!

 I have been extremely critical of 3D and its misuse in movies these past couple of years. It rarely adds to the movie and always dims the colors and brightness. Scorsese is a firm believer in the technology and set out to show what can be done and how it can compliment the story. While more impressive than any 3D since Avatar, I still have my doubts about the benefits. What I do know is that if you can overlook the story that drags a bit and the possibly unnecessary 3D effects, you will probably find the film to be extremely entertaining and fun to watch. Howard Shore‘s score plays a vital role and supporting work comes from Emily Mortimer, Richard Griffiths, and Helen McCrory. It’s not for the youngest kids, but it will make you feel like a kid … while reminding you that movies are the stuff that dreams are made of.

Note: with a budget of almost $170 million, there is almost no chance that this film turns a profit, but for full effect, I would encourage you to see this on the big screen.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can enjoy a tribute to film history wrapped in a family film designed to flaunt the power of 3D OR you have a pretty smart kid aged 8 or older who could appreciate the most impressive movie prop of the year (automaton).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you lean towards a cynical mindset and are unlikely to open up for a big budget children’s fable making a case for film preservation

watch the trailer: