Historical Drama

REVIEW: The Trial of the Chicago 7

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 130 minutes
Director: Aaron Sorkin

There’s just nothing like a good court room drama. If you’ve set it up right and created colorful characters, it can be the perfect storm of emotional pay-off and problem-solving. Some manage to explain the mechanics of the law so well and so thrillingly that lay people like myself get a false feeling that we understand the law better than those who spend years studying it. The best ones have me thinking that it’s my destiny to go to law school, change the world, and look good while doing it. Such was the effect of The Trial of the Chicago 7. There’s a lot of context and a lot of set-up, but if you’ve been paying attention, the magnetism of the second half will have you glued to your screen. Aaron Sorkin both directed and wrote the film, as he did with his directorial debut Molly’s Game (2017), which was one of my favorites from that year. His fast-fire dialogue and endless exposition provide engaging entertainment through weighty subject matter, though at times it feels heavy-handed. It will definitely appeal to fans of his previous works, A Few Good Men (1992) and The Social Network (2010).

Even if you are suffering from political fatigue, you have to see this movie just to take in the characters. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite from such an extremely talented group, as even supporting characters with sparse lines are memorable and incredibly engaging. Sorkin’s talent for presenting opposing sides and yet making both sympathetic is on full display. The Chicago 7 (plus Bobby Seale, played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) make for a fascinating group; though under the same charges, their different backgrounds, followers, and agendas make for compelling conflict as they interact with each other. What appears one dimensional is slowly fleshed out and made into real, more rounded people, though certainly creative liberties were taken with history to produce an entertaining, inteligible tale. As long as you remember that you are watching a movie, I don’t think those stylistic changes should bother you.

From left to right: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Ben Shenkman, Mark Rylance, Eddie Redmayne and Alex Sharp in a scene of The Trial of the Chicago 7 | NETFLIX.

This stellar Aaron Sorkin script brought to life by an all-star cast is definitely a Hollywood home-run. I have no doubt it will be a big dog at the awards circuit, but I also believe it has the potential to be the film that brings Netflix its first Best Picture Oscar. Certainly, the timing of its release is no coincidence, as it’s evident that producers had both an election and an awards season on their minds. Viewing it in the context of our current climate is especially insightful and affecting. It’s hard to say whether it will have the staying power of 12 Angry Men (1957) and To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), but I do think it’s one of the most socially relevant viewings you’ll have this year. And even if it doesn’t convince you to go to law school, I hope that once the pixie dust wears off you’ll still want to make a difference.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Personal History of David Copperfield

Searchlight Pictures
Rated: PG
Run Time: 119 minutes
Director: Armando Iannucci

If you’re wondering, this movie has nothing to do with a magician. It’s about the O.G. David Copperfield, a fictional character created by the one and only Charles Dickens from which the famed illusionist took his stage name. Finding inspiration in Dickens’ own story, The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020) details a young man’s personal struggles and the strong personalities in his 19th century lifetime. To attempt detailing the plot further would only create confusion or do the film disservice, but it’s definitely a period film with plenty of witty one-liners, poignant messages about misfortune, morality, and all the things you’d expect from a Dickens tale. It’s beautifully shot, creatively told, and peacefully thought-provoking. Though other films might be more ruminative of our time, ‘Copperfield‘ is cathartic and sweet, presenting an unflinching hope that though fortunes fall, they are fated to turn right again.

By far, the characters are the best part of the film. David (Dev Patel) is blissfully awkward and earnest, Agnes Wickfield (Rosalind Eleazar) is the best friend everyone wishes they had, Mr. Dick (Hugh Laurie) is present and absent in all the right ways, and Aunt Betsey (Tilda Swinton) is the sweetest/sternest oddity around. The simple, homespun sense of Peggotty (Daisy May Cooper) and the contrasting cold of Jane Murdstone (Gwendoline Christie) are, in a word, perfect. The entire cast is just a skill-fest. It’s like the actors are all on the Great British Baking Show; technically they are all trying to outdo each other, but it’s just so friendly and fun and they are so busy celebrating each other that you forget it’s a competition. The film drew attention for its “color-blind” casting, for which there are a number of fair criticisms. For my part, I enjoyed a movie where race didn’t seem to matter; they were just brilliantly talented British actors absolutely killing their individual roles. There’s great beauty in a bunch of weirdos navigating a troubling life that could easily get the better of them. At one low point in the film for our characters, David tells Mr. Dick, “We must be cheerful,” at which point Mr. Dick nods in serious understanding and proceeds to put on a nervous smile that unsettles his fellow characters but sends ripples of laughter through any in the audience. 

Aneurin Barnard and Dev Patel in a scene of The Personal History of David Copperfield | Searchlight Pictures.

In the preface of his novel, Charles Dickens calls David Copperfield his “favorite child,” perhaps because much of the character’s life is taken from his own. It provided some light to him in difficult times of his life, and I feel that director Armando Iannucci strives to do the same with his film adaptation. ‘Copperfield‘ is a healthy dose of happiness amidst a year defined by illness. Its charming way of winking through worries makes you feel like it will all be okay, for them and for you. The movie takes a few liberties with the original novel, but I enjoyed the changes. It is still a timeless tale touching on homelessness, poverty, prison, struggle, and the beauty of imperfection. As David Copperfield comes to see his life differently as he writes about it, you can’t help but feel grateful, even cheerful, about your own.

It’s an easy film; I’ll definitely be adding it to my collection of period films perfect for rainy days and a good, clean laugh. Not many films make me wish I was sick, but this one had me yearning for a fever or a head cold, just so I could cuddle up with a fuzzy blanket. When it is digitally released in the fall, I will be sure to have my granny sweater and hot cocoa ready. That being said, it was a real joy to take my mom to see it in the theater. My only disappointment, though admittedly a severe one, was that only 4 people attended our showing. I wanted to look around and see rows of smiling faces all feeling the same warm fuzzies; instead, I just listened to the elderly couple a few rows down bicker about whether they should take the leftover popcorn home. While it isn’t a blockbuster or big-screen spectacle, ‘Copperfield‘ deserves to be seen, so see it any way that you feel comfortable. But go see it!

Recommendation: Go See It!

REVIEW: The Banker

Apple TV+
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 120 minutes
Director: George Nolfi

I know how I’m supposed to feel about The Banker.

I’m supposed to see the story and its significance. Two African-American men owned over one hundred buildings in 1960’s Los Angeles, and then went on to own two banks in Texas. Texas, in case anyone has forgotten, was a stronghold of the South in an area rife with oppression towards people of color. That story alone is so amazing I’d find it hard to believe were it not true. Let’s add in the fact that these same men hired a white employee to sit in for them on the business meetings. Now we have some potential fun and intrigue thrown into the mix.

A good story is one thing, but how you tell the story is another matter entirely, and this is where The Banker failed to return on my time investment.

The Banker works on paper. Anthony Mackie and Samuel L. Jackson are the stars. The ever versatile Nicholas Hoult lends support. Nia Long co-stars as a long suffering, always faithful, supportive-to-a-fault wife. They are the winds in the sails of a film that often finds itself afloat in the doldrums. You see, The Banker works on paper because it ticks all the boxes to a tee; there is not one biopic trope that’s gone missing. If the movie felt any less natural, it would be perfectly at home on the Discovery Channel (and if I’m being honest about how I feel, it’s really only missing a narrator and some financial expert sidebars to be that kind of experience). Education is a good thing—endless exposition about the real estate market and the equations to match are the other thing.

Left to right: Nicholas Hoult, Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie appear in a scene of The Banker | Apple TV+

I do understand why this is the approach they took; these men were playing in a rigged game, and what better way to show it than to have them express their superiority at every turn: they were smarter than everyone, had more money than most, and they had a giant chip on their shoulder. A lifetime living among racism will do that.  These men had to dress as janitors and chauffeurs to secretly be present at their own business meetings. The film uses this fact as a running gag. I see it as a sad commentary. Perhaps it’s both.

I can’t really put my finger on what I was expecting. I didn’t find myself moved in any particular manner. I see The Banker as safe. It was a rote exercise in Black History, reworked and rewritten—to what end? I felt no real anger or conflict. These men paved the way for integrated neighborhoods in Los Angeles. They “stuck it to the man” and beat them at their own game… For a time. I thought I should feel more jubilation at that, but I don’t. When everything is said and done, they lost a battle in the larger war. The movie paints this as a small victory but I didn’t see it that way. There’s a sad inevitability that looms over the film from beginning to end, and I feel they scrubbed it over to make the movie palatable instead of digging deep into it. I think I would have appreciated The Banker more if they had decided to use the shovels. There’s a fine balance between entertainment, information, and education. I didn’t find an underlying message beyond the history lesson and that leaves me conflicted. I won’t go so far as to tell you not to watch. The scores for this film are above average. I’ll just say that I may not be the film’s intended audience.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: Emma

Focus Features
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 124 minutes
Director: Autumn de Wilde

One of the biggest sources of contention between me and my darling mother is which version of Pride and Prejudice is superior: the Colin Firth version or the Keira Knightly version. I am more partial to the 2005 version due to its cinematography, music, and more modern approach to the dialogue. My mom prefers the more drawn-out version where the dialogue is super book-accurate. It is an argument that has never (and most likely will never) be resolved. Up until a few days ago, Pride and Prejudice and its varying version, was my only exposure to anything Jane Austen.

I knew from the moment of the trailer that this would be a movie that my mom and I would bond over when she eventually saw it, and I leapt at the chance to see an early screening of it at the Broadway Center Cinemas. I’m happy to say that this Jane Austen adaptation combines the best aspects of both Pride and Prejudice adaptations into a film that movie goers from any generation would appreciate and enjoy.

My Quibbles…

Random butt: Near the very beginning of the film, one of the male characters (I honestly don’t remember who) is changed by his servants and we are exposed to his full backside. There is no other overt sexual humor or nudity for the rest of the film, so the unexposed view of this character’s posterior felt really out of place.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn in a scene of Emma |Focus Features

What I Liked…

Anya Taylor-Joy: Ever since The VVitch, Split, and Glass I have been carefully watching Anya’s career with great interest. After seeing her in all serious roles, I am ashamed to admit that I was doubtful that she could pull off a comedic role, especially in a period piece. Well, I am glad to say that DING DONG I WAS WRONG. Anya embodies a Jane Austen character; she can go from snarky and quick-witted, to incredibly humbled and repentant in an instant and make it believable. It was refreshing to see her have so much fun and delight in such a different role than what she normally does. Her chemistry with all the actors was super genuine, and I really hope she gains more popularity.

Bill Niighy: I am entirely convinced that Bill Nighy can do no wrong. His character as the Woodhouse patriarch was absolutely HYSTERICAL. Every scene he was in had me laughing; it was his subtle mannerisms and biting commentary that did me in every time. The relationship between him and Emma is beautiful and sweet, and he stole the show every time he was on screen.

The score: My hat goes off to both the composer and the sound editor for this film. They managed to pull off a score that is beautiful, period appropriate, and acts as an amplifier for the humor. There is a term called “Mickey Mousing” or “paralleled scoring” where the music is synced with the action on screen, mostly for comedic timing. (60 Second Guide to Film Music [3] – Mickey Mousing) Emma uses this technique in such a brilliant subtle way that highlights the hilarity of the situations the characters find themselves in. It’s not overt, so it doesn’t seem too cartoony, but it is there, and I loved it.

Wes Anderson-like aesthetic: For most film fans, the name of Wes Anderson is synonymous with symmetry, quirkiness, and a pastel color pallet. Emma has all the makings of a Wes Anderson flick without being as precise and detail oriented, which isn’t a bad thing. Emma doesn’t need to be a Wes Anderson film, but the similarities make for an absolutely beautiful thing to look at. The color choice is simply gorgeous and fits right along with the period production design. The cinematography of Emma comes close to almost perfect Wes Anderson symmetry, allowing the film to have an elegant feel to it, without crossing the boundary to overly quirky. Overall, this is a stunning film to look at.

Mia Goth (left) and Anya Taylor-Joy (right) in a scene of Emma | Focus Features

Final Thoughts…

Emma is a quintessential Jane Austen movie that combines the aesthetic of a modern film with the dialogue from the time period. The film is witty, charming, hilarious, and well acted. Each of the four people I saw it with had the same reaction: “My mom is going to love this movie!” And do you know what? I loved it, too.

Recommendation: GO SEE IT!

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