Posted in 2020-2029, Film Review

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

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The Trial of the Chicago 7 – Film Review

Cast: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Michael Keaton, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Noah Robbins, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, Jeremy Strong

Director: Aaron Sorkin

Synopsis: In the run up to the 1968 Democratic National Convention, the organisers of several protests at the time, who later became known as the Chicago 7, are put on trial by the Government…

Review: It’s hard to get away from the fact that in this most chaotic of years, that the world of politics, especially in the USA, is a very fraught and bitterly divided arena. As politics becoming increasingly partisan in nature, society has been reeling from the riots and civil unrest that has stemmed from senseless brutality from law enforcement, and a fundamentally flawed judicial system that significantly disadvantages ethnic minorities and people of colour. The parallels between the current situation and the unrest of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s are extremely hard to avoid, lending increased relevance to the second directorial effort from seasoned screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. To say this is “timely” is practically doing the film a disservice, for the simple reasons that right from the start, there’s a real sense of urgency about the film, with a message that needs to be heard around the world, because as they say in the film: “The whole world is watching.”

With the 1968 Democratic National Convention taking place in Chicago, several different groups of people, with numerous leaders, converge on Chicago to protest the Vietnam War. With the Civil Rights Movement of the time in full swing, a tense atmosphere exists between the protestors and the police/National Guard who quickly arrive on the scene. It doesn’t take long for the situation to escalate into brutality and violence, leading to the arrests of the leaders, who would go on to become known as the Chicago 7. The Government, under President Richard Nixon, is eager to make an example of these protestors. Hence, they appoint a top prosecutor Richard Schultz (Gordon-Levitt) to seek prosecutions and lock these protestors up for allegedly inciting violence. The stage is now set for one of the most politicised trials in the history of the United States.

As he demonstrated with his slick and stylish debut feature Molly’s Game, Sorkin’s proved himself to be a confident director to combine perfectly with his skill as a master screenwriter. It’s to his great credit that he made stories about about numbers and baseball, and the social media company that would change the world, extremely compelling watches. It raises the possibility that Sorkin could craft something extremely riveting based on the most ordinary of tasks. Though, the events being depicted here are given extra significance by the politically charged nature of this story. There’s no holding back when it comes to its subject matter, and how these events that are being depicted over fifty years ago, are starkly relevant in today’s society. A society where those in positions of power seek to use the political and justice systems as weapons to punish those who dare to have a dissenting opinion. The dialogue, as you would expect from Sorkin, is sharp and engaging throughout, and he effortlessly blends the urgent and important drama, with some brilliant humour.

With a massively stacked cast, there’s always a risk that not everyone will get their moment in the spotlight, and while Sorkin does his level best to give each of the Chicago 7 a moment, some use their opportunity better than others. One of the brightest spots by far is Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman. On first glance he might seem like nothing more than an eccentric hippie, but don’t let that fool you, for he is a man with razor sharp wit, with his finger on the pulse. While his accent wobbles in a few places, Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden is another who uses his screen time effectively. He might seem like a more quiet and reserved individual, but he has his moments where he exhibits fierce passion for the cause that all of the defendants stand for. While there are clashes within the ranks of the Chicago 7, they remain committed to their goal of exposing this trial for what it is, a sham and politicised trial.

On the other side of the courtroom, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Richard Schultz is a little concerned about the Government’s position, but is determined to do his job to the best of his abilities. By contrast, Frank Langella’s Judge Hoffman is one character who will infuriate every time he’s on screen. The sheer contempt he exhibits for the defendants, their legal representatives, and the fact he fails to be impartial throughout illustrates how he’s unequivocally unfit to be a judge in this situation. Through his clear disdain for the defendants, it makes for some fiery (and sometimes entertaining) clashes between the Judge and the Chicago 7, as well as their legal counsel William Kunstler (a truly excellent Mark Rylance). Additionally, while they’re not in the film for sufficiently long enough, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s Leader of the Black Panther Party Bobby Searle and Michael Keaton’s, former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, both leave lasting impressions with their performances.

In this politically charged era that we’re currently living in, battlegrounds are being drawn between those on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Furthermore, as they were in 1968/69, those in power today are using the flawed justice system and the courts as a means of achieving their own ends. This powerful and urgent drama is an important reminder of the power of protest, and how people should use their voice to speak out and should not let government intimidation bully them into silence. Like they were fifty years ago, the whole world is watching, and it is essential to stand up for democracy, and ensure that people make themselves be counted.

Signature sharp Sorkin dialogue throughout, this urgent drama is a sharp and stinging look at social, legal and political issues that even after a generation, continue to be deep-rooted thorns in today’s society.

Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review, London Film Festival 2019

The King (2019)

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The King – Film Review

Cast: Timothée Chalamet, Joel Edgerton, Sean Harris, Lily-Rose Depp, Robert Pattinson, Ben Mendelsohn, Dean-Charles Chapman

Director: David Michôd

Synopsis: Following the death of his father, a young Prince succeeds his father as King, and immediately finds his rule under threat from internal politics, and the ever-present threat posed from across the English Channel…

Review: The world has undoubtedly changed in the several hundred years since the times of medieval politics. However, what hasn’t changed is the squabbling and backstabbing that goes on behind the scenes in politics and policy making in governments the world over. Though, it has to be said that considerably less swords are now involved. Though that hasn’t prevented this era from being dramatised quite a few times, most notably in recent times by Netflix. After 2018’s Outlaw King, with sword in hand, they are taking another swing at crafting a compelling medieval drama.

England has been at war for many years, and as such, a considerable proportion of the country’s resources are crippled. With the current king Henry IV (Mendelsohn) approaching the end of his life, he seeks to appoint his successor. Through not initially his first choice, his son Hal (Chalamet) is eventually crowned King, becoming Henry V. Having previously expressed little desire to assume the throne, the young King finds many obstacles in his path, from within his own circle to the prospect of invasion from foreign adversaries, all while finding out what kind of ruler he wishes to be. Shortly after being crowned, he is the recipient of a rather derogatory and insulting gift, which prompts the young King to have to decide if he wants to continue going to war.

Given that much of the film is on his personal struggle on his ascension to the throne, such a role would require an actor of immense stature to play such a Kingly figure. Chalamet is certainly a very capable actor, and while he gives it his all, but you can’t help but wonder if this was a role that was came too early on for him in his career. He certainly puts everything he’s got into the role but unfortunately for him, his performance is a bit too one dimensional and lacks that aforementioned stature and charisma that such a King should have in his armoury.

Though like any good King, he has some capable aides by his side, and its these performances that give Chalamet a run for his money. Most notably the jovial, and consistently entertaining John Fastolf (Edgerton). Similarly for William Gascoigne (Harris) who despite being a loyal adviser to the new King, has a personality and a demeanour of a man who you should keep a close eye on. Though on the opposite side of that coin, Robert Pattinson as the leader of the opposing French army really sticks out like a sore thumb. He’s certainly a capable actor, but unfortunately he provides some (perhaps inadvertently) comedic moments. His extremely dubious French accent leaves an awful lot to be desired, and one can perhaps question as to why a French actor was not hired for the part.

French actor or not, there’s clearly no expense spared on the production design, nor the costumes, and these help to bring an air of authenticity. From a technical perspective, the battle scenes are extremely well executed. With Michôd’s solid direction, and Adam Arkapaw’s impressive cinematography, they are by far, the highlights of the film. Yet, while the battle scenes are consistently entertaining, they are not nearly as enthralling when compared to the likes of HBO’s Game of Thrones. Unfortunately, what really lets the whole film down is a mixed bag of a script. Given that it’s a very loose adaption of the works of William Shakespeare, there was potential for greatness. While, it certainly has its moments, it ultimately falls short of providing a riveting narrative, that would make the audience bow down in wonder.

There’s some excellent technical aspects that deserve to be hailed. However due to a somewhat melodramatic leading performance and an indifferent script, The King does not earn the Crown it clearly covets.

Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review, London Film Festival 2019

Marriage Story (2019)

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Marriage Story  – Film Review

Cast: Adam Driver, Scarlett Johansson, Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta

Director: Noah Baumbach

Synopsis: As their marriage starts to fall apart, a couple living at opposite coasts of the United States go through a difficult divorce, that threatens to push the pair of them to breaking point…

Review: The day that two people tie the knot and agree to spend the rest of their lives together is usually a joyful, momentous occasion. However, through a plethora of circumstances, that romance and joy can regrettably diminish. Consequently, a couple begin to break apart and regrettably there comes a time when their marriage comes to an end, and they make the painful decision to divorce. Such circumstances would undoubtedly be extremely difficult. So it is to director Noah Baumbach’s immense credit, that he captures the pain and heartbreak of that process in such an emotionally powerful manner.

Charlie (Driver) and Nicole (Johansson) have spent many years happily married, and have a son together. Yet, their relationship has deteriorated and they have made the difficult decision to divorce. The matter is significantly complicated as Charlie is a theatre director, who has his theatre commitments in New York.  Meanwhile Nicole has moved to the West Coast of the USA to pursue her career in acting, leaving their son Henry in a far from ideal predicament. Though both Charlie and Nicole strive to ensure that the process be as amicable, and as complication free as possible, things start to go sour and the situation threatens to push them both to breaking point.

As the main couple in the film, both Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are nothing short of phenomenal in their performances. As a couple, they have strong chemistry, their romance feels so raw and authentic that you no longer see the actors, but rather the characters that they are portraying.  The script firmly takes a neutral stance, in that it doesn’t paint one as the hero, and the other a villain. Like anything in life, there are two sides to every personal struggle, and Baumbach’s strong script and expert direction shifts perspectives to allow the audience to see where both of them are coming from.

Despite the divorce, it’s clear that both Charlie and Nicole have strong feelings for one another, and want to do what is best for their child. However, as the divorce process goes on, it threatens to turn them completely against each other. With sublime leading performances from Driver and Johansson, Laura Dern threatens to steal the show, with a scintillating performance as a lawyer who has been recruited to help deal with the proceedings. She’s a consummate professional, but when push comes to shove, is not afraid to be ruthless, especially when it comes to defending her clients.

The strength of Baumbach’s script lies in its ability to make you laugh one minute, and feel immense sorrow the next. There’s something so raw and powerful in, not just everyone of the performances, but how he handles the devastating drama beating at the heart of this story.  Irrespective of whether you’ve been through a divorce, or seen your parents go through a divorce, or you haven’t been in this situation at all, it will be next to impossible to not be emotionally impacted by the film in some capacity. But if you have, you’ll certainly be able to appreciate the film that much more. The mix between comedy and drama is for the most part well handled. There may be a happy and joyful scene, but at any given moment, it will flick that switch in a heartbeat.

Though occasionally, the shifts in tone don’t entirely work. With one moment in particular, the drama is offset by an out-of-the-blue musical performance. While this is undeniably touching, it does feel completely out of place in the context of the scene. Having said that, it doesn’t negate the emotional gravity of the story, and its ability to tear your heart into a million pieces by the time the credits have begun to roll.

Emotionally raw, with sublime leading performances, Marriage Story presents a sincere and heart-breaking look at the humanity of the people going through a divorce, and the devastating impact that this heavy situation can have on people’s lives.

Posted in 2010-2019, Film Review

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)

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The Ballad of Buster Scruggs – Film Review

Cast:  Tim Blake Nelson, James Franco, Liam Neeson, Zoe Kazan, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Waits

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen

Synopsis: A collection of six unique short stories, telling the plights of various people in very different situations in the West after the Civil War.

Review: Beginning, middle and end, a structure that films tend to adhere to. However, every once in a while, a film will come along that deviates from this structure. It may choose to tell the story in reverse order or to jump back and forth.  Hence this latest venture from Joel and Ethan Coen is unique in this respect, as instead of telling one story across two hours and ten minutes to be precise, they fill this by choosing to tell six unique stories charting the lives of a handful of different folk, each of whom are in a variety of different situations in the wake of the Civil War.

To tell six miniaturised stories as opposed to your more traditional three-structured film is an unconventional choice to say the least, but under the assured direction of the Coen brothers, it for the most part works a treat. Though some are much stronger than others, there is enjoyment to be hand in each of the stories that the Coens bring to life. Telling each story through the perspective of a storybook, we jump in with funnily enough Mr Buster Scruggs himself (Blake Nelson) a tootin’ cowboy who likes to play his guitar and sing a song for y’all. But, he is also a dab hand with a pistol, which inevitably leads to some trouble down the line.

Next we move onto ‘Near Algodones’ a nameless-up-to-no-good cowboy (Franco) who finds himself in a tricky predicament when he tries to rob a bank, with some hilarious results. “Meal Ticket’ features Liam Neeson and Harry Melling as a theatre double act, the latter of whom has no arms or legs. Despite putting on a good show, they find their numbers and income decreasing, which puts Neeson’s character in a tricky situation as to what to do with his companion. While there is some intriguing moments with both of these two segments, they do end somewhat abruptly, which is frustrating, particularly in the case of the latter, it really would have benefited with a bit more closure to the story.

The next two stories are where the film really starts to shine. ‘All Gold Canyon’ features Tom Waits as a prospector seeking the fortune of a rather large collection of gold located in an absolutely beautiful valley. Now would be a good time to mention Bruno Delbonnel’s superb cinematography which is on point across every story, but it is here especially is where it shines brightest. Waits is great as this wacky prospector seeking this fortune that, perhaps unsurprisingly has attracted the attention of some other folk looking for this fortune for themselves. ‘The Gal Who Got Rattled features Zoe Kazan as a young woman who after a family tragedy is seeking a new opportunity. It’s more dialogue heavy than the preceding stories, but Kazan’s excellent performance makes it extremely compelling to watch.

Finally, the last segment  ‘The Mortal Remains’ retains the intrigue but being the most dialogue heavy of all the stories, it is considerably not as interesting as the preceding stories. Though the dialogue is well written once again, it is really quite underwhelming as a final chapter to a rather fascinating collection of short stories. All six stories do explore similar themes about the human struggle as we all navigate this small little thing called life that we as human beings all negotiate, and the rather significant matter of death. However, to ensure that it is not all doom and gloom, The Coens, much like we all do with our own lives, fill each of these segments with their signature style of comedy that, for the most part, serves each story really rather well.

The short nature of each story will undoubtedly leave some viewers unfulfilled. Nevertheless, the thought provoking themes that beat at the heart of all six of the stories, plus some exquisite work in the cinematography, production design and costume department give this anthology film some mighty visual splendour. Though this is not on the level of say a No Country for Old Men or True Grit, given the rambling mess that was Hail! Caesar, a return to the Wild West, and indeed a much more coherent film from the duo is a darn good thing y’all.

Combining comedy and some very dark and dramatic moments, with some strong themes that beat at the heart of all six stories, this is a most welcome to return to form for the Coen brothers.