Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar Review

The heights of Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo’s writing partnership has been airborne for a decade now. In their 2011 collaboration Bridesmaids (which was Wiig’s deserved breakout on the big screen), the funniest scene of many took place on a plane with the bridal party trying and failing to get to Vegas. That thwarted flight was uproariously due to the lead’s drunken exploits. Wiig and Mumolo’s teaming ten years later in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar again provides my favorite highlight above the clouds.

Wiig is Star and Mumolo is Barb. They are Nebraskan BFF’s recently fired from their jobs and looking to shake things up. When they decide that a Florida trip is the way to do it, their discussion on the flight involves them inventing a superstar woman named Trish. The dialogue proves the following: just like their characters, Wiig and Mumolo can create seemingly improvised silliness that is downright hilarious. Their emotional investment in the fictitious Trish is a sight to behold.

The best moments here are throwaway lines and conversations that could have worked just as well with Barb and Star as characters on Saturday Night Live doing a Weekend Update bit. Is that enough to satisfactorily fill two hours? Not really, but you can’t help but praise the leads/co-writers for trying.

Barb and Star is far more of a dumb comedy than Bridesmaids and I don’t mean that in a bad way. The tone is pure farce and there’s unexpected musical performances that interrupt the absurdity. We have Jamie Dornan showing a different shade of his personality from his Christian Grey persona (he gets perhaps the most memorable singing assignment). Wiig gets to pull double duty as a villainess with an aversion to sunlight. Her grand plan involves destroying Vista Del Mar and unleashing deadly mosquitoes on the town’s populace (think Austin Powers levels of scheming). Dornan is her lover/henchman sent to do some of the dirty work. When he meets the sweet and naive Midwestern besties, the possibilities of a throuple get real and then real complicated.

It seems irrelevant to spend much word space delving into the plot – which is incidental. Barb and Star works or doesn’t based on how much you believe this premise can be stretched. I have to be frank. I’m not referring to the franks that our two heroines put in their soup during Talking Club, which is Nebraska’s version of ladies night and is run with military precision by its leader (Vanessa Bayer). The film sort of runs out of steam (not the steam emanating from said franks) about midway through by my meter. The inventive Trish talk, the hot dog soup, and the dawning of the Dornan dalliances are all first half occurrences. I do give the script some props for being so gleefully bizarre. Wiig and Mumolo’s second effort is destined to become a cult classic and I imagine Barb and Star Halloween costumes (love those culottes) this fall. I could never quite fully escape the feeling that it might have worked better as shorter sketches on the program that made Wiig a star before Star.

**1/2 (out of four)

The Little Things Review

John Lee Hancock’s The Little Things was apparently written in 1993 and there is indeed a retro vibe. This feels like it could have been in a VHS case taking up a whole shelf at Blockbuster. It might have starred Denzel Washington back then. Not everything has changed. Nearly three decades later, however, you can stream it away without having to remember to rewind.

Set in 1990, someone is killing young women in Los Angeles and those investigating haven’t moved past square one. Joe Deacon (played by Washington) is a former LAPD detective now doing deputy grunt work north of the city. When he has to make a trip to the City of Angels, he discovers the spree could be related to an unsolved series of killings that he never cracked. Newcomer Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek) is heading up the current investigation. For reasons never quite spelled out, he’s more than eager to allow Deacon to become his off the books partner. It’s hinted at early on that Deacon’s previous work left him unwelcome in the force and that lurks over the two hour plus runtime.

Their pairing leads to some dead ends until they happen upon Albert Sparma (Jared Leto), who seemingly fits the profile of the perp. Problem is, the aggressively weird suspect might just have a jones for the attention. He’s a true crime buff who appears thrilled sitting in the interrogation room with the iconic one way mirror. Deacon and Jimmy are the cats trying to catch this potential killer with the mousy hair for most of the second half. With Leto portraying him, he gives the character his bizarre all that is pretty humorous and compulsively watchable.

So many of these procedurals pose the question of whether all this grisly work by the detectives is worth the emotional strain it causes. In The Little Things, the answer is murkier and that provides some slightly intriguing twists. I don’t want to give it too much credit, but every little bit helps and so does the involvement of three Oscar winners.

Comparisons to Seven (basically the standard bearer of these types) are inevitable and there’s even a car ride with the killer (?) bearing the promise of a case cracking discovery. The Little Things is often boxed in with familiar story beats and some head into credibility straining territory. Isn’t that what most of those 90s era VHS selections did though? Perhaps I’m being too kind and I don’t envision rewinding Things anytime soon. Yet even with its flaws, Hancock’s delve into this genre is a reasonably rewarding throwback.

*** (out of four)

Run Review

**There’s really no proper to review Run without some spoilers, so consider yourself warned.**

Cinematic logic dictates that no matter carefully the villain in a thriller strives to cover up their crimes, they will save a newspaper article in a fairly convenient location that exposes their vicious deeds. Same goes for opened mail that was meant for someone else. These time tested cliches are in Aneesh Chaganty’s Hulu pic Run, the director’s follow-up to his well regarded Searching from 2018. And there are additional moments in the efficient 89 minutes of screen time that are straight out of its Genre 101.

That said, Run has some things going for it. We open with Diane Sherman (Sarah Paulson) giving birth prematurely to her daughter whose survival in question. Flash forward 17 years later and Chloe (Kiera Allen, making her film debut) is alive, but in a wheelchair and experiencing various other illnesses. It’s time for the homeschooled teen to eagerly leave the nest for college which Mom appears cool with. Not so fast.

It takes little time for the screenplay to establish that a Munchausen by proxy situation could be happening. For those who haven’t consulted their medical journals lately, the question is whether Diane is purposely keeping her actually health child sick and confining her to their Washington farmhouse. The casting of Paulson, known for playing whackos, is a solid clue.

Run is elevated by its lead performances. We know what to expect from its known actress and Paulson plays this Mommie Dearest to the hilt. However, it’s Allen who shines. Chloe is certainly a character to be pitied, but she’s also much smarter and resourceful than your average daughter in distress.

As mentioned, the mechanisms of the storyline do cover familiar ground as Chloe tries to wheel or (maybe) walk far away from this matriarchal mayhem. Diane would have been wise to invest in a paper shredder as she tries to cut off Chloe’s access to the outside world. Yet Run earns points with a genuinely strong and sympathetic heroine and a final twist that confirms she is still a step ahead of her captor.

*** (out of four)

Wonder Woman 1984 Review

I wish Wonder Woman 1984 wasn’t the disjointed viewing experience that it mostly is. I wish it had the humor that landed in the 2017 pic and the sweet love story between its heroine and her man that was well-developed. Here the humor seems forced as does the interplay between Gal Gadot’s title character and WWI pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). This is a sequel that feels like busywork and it’s devoid of, yes, some of the wonder that made the original a bright spot in the DC Extended Universe.

1984 means leg warmers and action sequences set in shopping malls. It also means part 2 picks up nearly seven decades later. Gadot’s Diana fills her days as an anthropologist at the Smithsonian and her nights pining for the long departed Steve. Of course, she also does some Wonder Woman stuff in between. When she thwarts a jewel heist in one of those sprawling shopping structures, it turns out the thieves were really after some black market artifacts that weren’t on display. That includes an ancient “Dreamstone” of Latin origin that grants wishes no matter how dangerous they might be. For Diana, it means bringing her lost love back. This is handled by Pine returning in the form of some random DC dude. While Pine’s courtship with Diana was a high point the first time around, the actor is now relegated to gawking in wide eyed disbelief at rocket ships and escalators. His participation here never smacks of anything more than plot device mechanics and that’s a letdown. He does get a reverse Pretty Woman style sequence in which he tries on pirate looking shirts and fanny packs in front of his nonplussed girlfriend. So there’s that.

Of course, this “Dreamstone” leads to nefarious actions from others. Max Lord (Pedro Pascal) is a failed businessman who’s known for cheesy infomercials. His acquiring of the artifact allows him to amass significant power and oil. He also has a young son that he’s desperately trying to impress and that results in some mawkish moments. And there’s Kristin Wiig as Barbara. She’s Diana’s supremely unconfident geologist coworker. Barbara feels invisible until her interaction with the Stone makes her as tough and beautiful as her fellow employee. Unfortunately her power trip partners her with the megalomaniac Max and his misguided plans. For Wiig, Barbara is one of those characters who immediately becomes attractive once her big glasses and frumpy dress go by the wayside. She’s simply not a memorable villainess. There are shades of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman from Batman Returns, but she’s not written nearly as potently.

Pascal’s Max is another story. I can’t say he’s not memorable because the performer portraying him goes way over the top in doing so. I think Pascal knows how much he’s hamming it up and his go for broke attitude does provide a bit of fun. That’s welcome because it’s in short supply. I might volley back and forth on whether he’s actually great or kinda terrible here, but it’s a performance worth mentioning. That’s more than I can say for everyone else.

For two and a half hours, 1984 often forgets to bring the joy. There’s a make it up as we go along vibe that wasn’t as noticeable when Patty Jenkins helmed the first (she returns here and is one of three cowriters).

Wonder Woman 1984 is all about how you can’t get ahead by cheating and lying (a prologue featuring some familiar faces from part 1 makes that message clear). The following 150 minutes hammers it home with convenient and haphazard storylines that, ironically, sometime feel like cheats. I wish this came close to the quality of Gadot’s first stand-alone venture, but we are left waiting and wanting in 1984. 

** (out of four)

Tenet Review

What time is it?

It’s an often asked question that usually elicits a clear and simple answer. Not in Christopher Nolan’s movies. The answers in his movies are complicated, often maddening, and frequently grandly entertaining. We’ve seen it in Memento, Inception, and Interstellar with the latter being a mixed bag and the first two being pretty great. His latest is Tenet and it definitely falls more into the maddening territory with big and loud moments of thrills. You may wish you had a physics degree during it, but this is mostly an excuse for Nolan to play in the super spy genre with a bunch of quantum related gobbledygook thrown in. The director’s most ardent admirers may study it endlessly for Easter eggs and clues as to its true meaning. Upon first watch, I’m not so sure Tenet is worth the scrutiny. Yet there’s some car chases and battle scenes played to Nigel Tufnel levels of volume that land pleasingly on screens big and small. Weird science and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of action set pieces… this is Nolan’s rap and he frequently goes to eleven in this one.

John David Washington is (rather annoyingly) known only as The Protagonist. Let’s call him “Pro” for the duration of this review. A government agent who proves his bonafides to his superiors, he’s allowed into a secret organization known as the picture’s title. Pro’s new assignment tasks him with preventing something “worse” than nuclear holocaust in one example of some clunky dialogue. This is where the physics lessons are useful. You see, Russian oligarch Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh) is hellbent on destroying the past and future through the concept of “inversion”. Essentially this means playing with time travel concepts that can wipe out what occurred before or after. I’m not sure Doc Brown could properly provide sufficient exposition without multiple viewings and neither can Pro or his partner Neil (Robert Pattinson). You may want to look up “temporal pincer movements” before you watch.

In addition to Pro’s teaming with Neil, his mission to stop Sator also involves the villain’s estranged wife Kat (Elizabeth Debicki). She’s quite good here and she’s really the only heroic figure that’s written with any layers. Washington and Pattinson are just fine, though their characters are quite dull on the page and screen. For Branagh, this is his chance to ham it up in true Bond baddie style and he relishes it. We have also get a bit of Michael Caine (common for a Nolan experience) and internationally known Hindi actress Dimple Kapadia as an arms trafficker.

Tenet does feature the aforementioned action set pieces that are impressive in scope and tech wizardry. The director doesn’t handle these sequences with half measures. If the scene calls for a 747 to be demolished, you best believe that plane was actually destroyed. The inversion concept lends to eye candy moments with backwards cars screeching on the highway and seagulls (!) even flying in reverse.

Very early on, a scientist is explaining the science behind Tenet to Pro with the following dialogue: “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” I wrote that piece of advice down immediately. I had a notion these words might aptly describe the next two hours plus. And they do. I certainly felt the decibel levels of Nolan and his crew choreographing expensive battles. They take place all over the globe in Norway, Italy, and Siberia. I did not, on the other hand, feel too invested in the complicated narrative mechanics that cause them. In fact, I wrote down something else I didn’t expect to while watching – “Austin Powers”. In that super spy’s second outing, The Spy Who Shagged Me, Austin attempts to understand the highly confusing time travel plot in a conversation with his colleague Basil. After twisting his brain into a knot discussing it, Basil smartly replies “I suggest you don’t worry about those things and just enjoy yourself.” He then turns to the camera and says to us – “That goes for all of you, too.” It’s a funnier way of asking us to feel it whether we understand it or not. That request succeeds only intermittently with Tenet.

**1/2 (out of four)

Black Bear Review

I’m not entirely sure I’d call Lawrence Michael Levine’s Black Bear a totally satisfying experience, but it features a heckuva lead performance and I’m still trying to figure out of its puzzle of a plot. This is an arthouse movie about characters involved in arthouse filmmaking. They’re self-indulgent, needy, usually drunk or stoned, and they often have fascinating conversations and arguments with each other. There is also the distinct possibility that none of what we’re witnessing is actually happening. I’m not sure. And I think that’s the way Levine intended it.

Aubrey Plaza is Allison, a former indie actress turned director. She’s got writer’s block and retreats to a secluded lake house in the Adirondacks to refuel. Or maybe not. Solitude is not her primary goal as the property is inhabited by struggling musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant wife Blair (Sarah Gadon). They’re far from a perfect couple as they constantly bicker about big subjects like gender roles and whether Gabe is still actually in the music business (she’s not sure 53 cent royalties qualify). During their boozy evening together and with even the expectant Blair imbibing, Allison reveals some details about her life. Or maybe not as we begin to suspect this could all be her way of dismantling an already disgruntled couple’s marriage. A more conventional movie would have this build into a thriller about a romantic triangle.

That is certainly not the direction Black Bear follows. Without divulging too much, the picture is divided in half. The second portion involves the making of a movie where roles from the previous hour are reversed. When we are in the first part, Plaza is basically playing a variation of other roles we’ve seen her in. She’s deadpan, dry, and mostly unbothered by her strange surroundings. It particularly bothers Blair that she can never tell when Allison is being serious or funny. When the switch flips midway through, we see a damaged and emotional wreck slugging and swigging her way toward a hoped for artistic breakthrough. Her performance is remarkable to behold.

Black Bear is often pitch black in its comedy. Abbott’s Gabe goes from hapless hubby to over-the-top auteur over the course of the proceedings. The screenplay’s treatment of him as director is pretty brutal with his self seriousness and crew members around him that are forced to take him seriously. His dichotomous part is challenging as well and he pulls it off.

There’s a moment early on when Allison tries to explain her process for writing and coming up with ideas. In short, she can’t. She mumbles about finding something meaningful to happen. In the second part of this experience, we see the lengths of artists trying to achieve something meaningful. They might be misguided in their methods, but I think Levine is both satirizing and celebrating how anything gets made or written at all. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s just a half formed idea that keeps getting interrupted by a furry animal that comes out of nowhere and you have to start all over again.

*** (out of four)

Mank Review

David Fincher’s Mank is only about the making of one cinema’s greatest achievements Citizen Kane in a limited fashion. Its plot line is a disputed one in which the picture’s cowriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) takes the vast lions share of the credit for creating the masterpiece. This falls in direct contradiction with what some historians have said. There has been a decades long debate as to whether Mankiewicz or director/producer/star Orson Welles was the magic behind the scenes. And there’s no doubt that some viewers could be upset with what Mank is and is not about.

As for this viewer, I often marveled at it. This is David Fincher’s first feature in over six years and it’s a pleasure to have him back behind the camera. The screenplay is from the director’s late father. While it certainly falls more on the side of Mank being the force behind the landmark 1941 production, I found myself wrapped up in its stunning production values and dynamic performances. In other words, the debate of Kane‘s credit can be left to scholars. I was left mostly enthralled by the overall experience.

To say Mank is a movie for cinephiles is not inaccurate. A passing knowledge of the history of Citizen Kane is helpful. An understanding of California politics in the 1930s doesn’t hurt either. Oldman’s Mank is a rather young man when we first see him in 1940. The actor playing him is in his sixties while his subject is about 20 years younger. For those who believe that’s a stretch, I invite you to look at photos of Mankiewicz at that time period. He looked beyond his years due to severe alcoholism as he was climbing the Tinsel Town ladder with his brilliant words.

By 1940, he’s known around town as much for his boorish behavior as his screenplays. He’s laid up due to an auto accident when the new boy wonder from Hollywood Orson Welles (Tom Burke, nailing the legend’s vocal patterns) calls him with an offer. Mank gets working on a massive manuscript that draws on his past experiences. The caveat is that Mank will not receive credit for his contribution. The writer dictates his words to two assistants at a California ranch with his leg in cast. One is Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and part of her duties is keeping Mank away from the hard liquor that serves as his liquid fuel. This job also falls to Orson’s right hand man John Houseman (Sam Troughton) and, less occasionally, to Mank’s wife (Tuppence Middleton). Everyone refers to her as “Poor Sara” (including her spouse) because just dealing with his personality is a full time occupation.

As he toils away at his pages, the flashbacks begin a decade earlier. In 1930, Mank makes the acquaintance of starlet Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). They hit it off and she soon brings him into the uber-wealthy universe of her older flame, newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Hearst takes a liking to our title subject partly because he’s good entertainment to be around and always has a witty quip at the ready.

In 1934, Mank’s connections with the titans of industry coincide with the political scene. The gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair and his socialist Democratic policies has studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard, in a memorable performance) spooked. Hollywood was far less liberal in these days, you see. MGM implements extraordinary measures to get their candidate elected and that involves their massive make believe factory usually dedicated to Civil War epics and Munchkins. Mank does not approve of these tactics that are ultimately green lit by Mr. Hearst.

These developments are what shape Mank’s screenplay years later as the characters in the eventual Kane treatment resemble both Hearst and Marion. Mank, more than anything, is about what drives the writing process. It’s about how one’s demons and one’s tragedies and shortcomings can result in something special on the page. As we watch the events unfold that result in Kane, we do so in sumptuous black and white with gorgeous cinematography from Erik Messerschmidt. Fincher has fashioned this to look like it was made in early 1940s and he certainly succeeds.

Mank is the latest reminder of Oldman’s ability to disappear into a performance. When he finally works up the nerve to (very) drunkenly confront Hearst at a lavish dinner party concerning the political drama, it’s a sight to behold. This is due to the acting of its lead, as well as Dance’s Hearst and Seyfried’s Marion. Any sequence with Mank and Marion is a fascinating one with their complicated relationship. It might be the most honest one he has.

Returning to historical accuracy, I’m reminded that it’s not particularly my business. Whether Mankiewicz or Welles raised Kane from the start is an enduring mystery. The director and his father present a side here. It’s certainly one Mank would cheers to. It is one that hardcore movie lovers also should.

***1/2 (out of four)

Freaky Movie Review

The joy of witnessing Vince Vaughn in the body of an awkward teenage girl provides intermittent comedic thrills in Christopher Landon’s Freaky. It’s just too bad there aren’t more of them in the latest spotty but certainly watchable low-budget horror flick from the Blumhouse shop. If you have seen the director’s two Happy Death Day pictures, you won’t be surprised he’s behind the camera with this. The first Death reconfigured the Groundhog Day concept to the slasher genre while its sequel veered more toward a sci-fi Back to the Future vibe. Freaky‘s influence is simple and in the title without mentioning the word Friday.

Our body swap involves an urban legend but very real serial killer who goes by the Blissfield Butcher and is played by Vaughn. Millie (Kathryn Newton) is the high schooler mourning the loss of her father while her alcoholic mom coddles her. When the Butcher swipes a mysterious ancient dagger from his previous killing in an attempt to off Millie, it switches their forms. This is just in time for Friday the 13th and they have 24 hours to reverse the effect.

I’ll use this opportunity to praise title cards. I enjoyed how in the lead up to the big day, we see “WEDNESDAY THE 11TH” and “THURSDAY THE 12TH” in bloody scrawl font as if they’re meant to provide a jolt. When Millie does inhabit the Butcher’s 6’5″ frame and has a long pined for romantic moment with her crush, it provides the funniest scene of all (Vaughn’s humorous talents are on full display there).

Yet Freaky is also tonally challenged. Millie’s tragic family dynamics feel slightly forced. The backstory involving that mystical knife called La Dola might be something its makers hope to explain further in a sequel. I’ll credit the screenwriters for finding a couple of Friday the 13th style inventive ways to off lustful adolescents, but the film isn’t exactly scary.

This is more occasionally funny than truly freaky and it ends up being about as entertaining as both Happy Death Day experiences. It succeeds from time to time with its mashup of well known properties, but leaves a bit to be desired.

**1/2 (out of four)

On the Rocks Movie Review

In Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks, Laura (Rashida Jones) spends a lot of unanticipated time with her wealthy and impulsive playboy dad Felix (Bill Murray). They share a mission to find out whether her husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) is cheating and that’s a subject Felix considers himself an expert in. As they push forward in screwball comic fashion to get answers, Laura has some fun while recognizing the flaws of her paternal copilot. And that kind of describes the picture itself. It’s often fun because Bill Murray is by her side. The flaws are also on display. This is often a meandering and predictable journey with only occasionally insightful dialogue about marriage and father/daughter relationships.

Laura is a writer in New York City and Dean is constantly traveling as his business is beginning to flourish. We get a quick glimpse of their romantic wedding night before flashing forward to their domesticated existence with two young girls. She may be suffering writer’s block, but her imagination takes hold with possible hints of her partner’s infidelity. Felix is more than ready to help her get to the bottom of it all and is in fact the driving force to do so.

Those who follow Murray (and why wouldn’t you) should know the folklore of Bill Murray Stories. The legendary actor is known to be unpredictable by showing up unannounced at random parties and having odd and sometimes hilarious interactions with fans. Coppola, who directed him in the far superior Lost in Translation, cheekily plays with that persona here. When he’s speeding through NYC with daughter in tow in a red convertible and devouring caviar, I couldn’t help but think that might be something the actor might do. When they’re pulled over and he charms his way out of a ticket, the same rule applies.

In that sequence, watching Bill Murray in said convertible with said caviar and using his iconic charms to keep on speeding is pleasing enough. The same could be said for a scene where he regales a group of strangers who are now his friends with his energetic singing. It feels as if an outtake might have been committed to film. His chemistry with Jones is just fine, though I wouldn’t think too much about how fantastic his interactions with Scarlett Johansson were in Translation. Maybe that’s not fair as Rocks doesn’t aim near as high as that previous collaboration.

Towards the conclusion, Coppola squeezes in some decent material about how Felix has shaped Laura’s views on men. It helps explain the increasingly ridiculous amateur detective shenanigans they find themselves in. On the Rocks is certainly watchable and entertaining enough and it’s primarily due to the guy in the convertible. I just wish a better story drove the action.

*** (out of four)

The Trial of the Chicago 7 Movie Review

A common (and sometimes warranted) complaint about Aaron Sorkin is that he needs a good editor for his dialogue. He absolutely has one in the presence of Alan Baumgarten in The Trial of the Chicago 7, his true life based drama that recounts a riveting and devastatingly unfair courtroom proceeding. With its sprawling ensemble cast, we see sequences from scene one where the principals are finishing each other’s sentences. Most of the players are on the same page in theory as they seek to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention while the Vietnam War roils on. How they achieve their point is where they diverge and Sorkin’s screenplay expertly shows that not all forms of protest seek to follow the same playbook. They may be using similar words, but their calls to action are often with different actions in mind.

Months after the convention, the newly sworn in Nixon administration wants to establish a law and order attitude that its leader was elected on in those turbulent times. The new Attorney General charges his prosecutors (led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Richard Schultz) to try a group of defendants who led unconnected factions in the summer of ’68. Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong) are the Yippies with their colorful outfits and outright disregard for authority. Eddie Redmayne’s Tom Hayden heads up a more organized antiwar effort that looks to change politics via the ballot box. David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch) is a pacifist whose non-aggression stances included even World War II. And somehow Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) is among the arrested group even though he was in Chicago briefly and has never met the other men.

The trial is presided by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), whose scorn for the accused is laid bare in his comments and rulings. There is a sequence, taken from history, where Seale is literally bound and gagged before the jurors and the American public. That was a shock to the collective system a half century ago and it plays that way today onscreen. His silencing is due to his lawyer not being present as he tries to represent himself. The rest of the group is defended by William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), a true believer in the cause who must navigate his way through his clients personalities and the judge who truly believes the opposite of his views.

For a director and writer who pens long passages of dialogue, Sorkin’s Trial is engrossing as we realize what’s not allowed to be said during it. Langella sinks his teeth into the part and you may find yourself verbally objecting to him. The cast’s standouts are the beleaguered Rylance and Baron Cohen. The latter is an inspired choice as he’s the most edgy actor of the bunch portraying the edgiest defendant in the mix (and perhaps the wisest overall). An interplay between his Hoffman and Hayden about the future of liberalism and how to make significant change could be an argument had in 2020. The real star of this movie might be the aforementioned Baumgarten, who cuts the flashbacks to what’s being talked about in court with engrossing efficiency.

There’s a lot of history (some of it altered for dramatic effect) to be unpacked in the 130 minute runtime. This is weighty enough subject matter that Sorkin’s patented righteous indignation doesn’t feel forced. The Trial of the Chicago 7 is right in his wheelhouse and my verdict is that it’s well worth experiencing this fascinating chapter.

***1/2 (out of four)