Screening Room: ‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’

Getting a limited theatrical opening (whatever that means in pandemic times) before coming to Netflix in October, Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 dramatizes the story of the biggest, oddest political show trial of modern American history. Also: Sacha Baron Cohen plays Abbie Hoffman.

My review is at Slant:

Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 pulses with relevancy in a time when high-stakes debates over authoritarianism, protests, and the necessity of radicalism are convulsing America. Sorkin uses an ensemble approach to tell the story of the anti-war activists charged with conspiracy and incitement to riot after the street fighting that ripped through Chicago in August 1968 during the Democratic National Convention. While necessary, given the number of key characters involved, the approach also allows Sorkin to establish different factions among the defendants who are debating the merits of their wildly varying methods to the same cause even as they’re fighting to stay out of federal prison…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

Dev Patel and Morfydd Clark in The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

The Personal History of David Copperfield opens today. My review is at PopMatters:

Bright, sleek, and shiny, Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield revisits Charles Dickens at a time when the Victorian novelist’s work should have new relevance. While the book’s themes of betrayal, identity, class, and survival-of-the-fittest economics are fairly perennial, they align all too neatly with the current moment. But while David Copperfield’s drive to escape the “shame” of his poverty-stricken past and refashion himself as a gentleman of means has a glint of society-climbing desperation to it, Iannucci’s version emphasizes the author’s entertaining side almost to a fault…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Epicentro’

In Hubert Sauper’s new documentary Epicentro, he explores the in-between world of Cuba, where utopian dreams meet cinematic propaganda amidst rotting infrastructure and tourist fantasia. It makes for a fascinating mix, even if the result is more essay than movie.

My review is at Slant:

Epicentro explores some of the filmmaker’s favorite topics, particularly colonialism, apocalypse, and the law of unintended consequences. But while some of his previous films, most notably Darwin’s Nightmare, showed a developing world careering toward catastrophe, this one illustrates something closer to a feedback loop. Although the Cuba he shows here is actively embracing a tourist economy that seems antithetical to the ideals of the 26th of July Movement, that pivot appears to signal less a capitalist future than a return to the island nation’s colonized past…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Coup 53’

The crackerjack documentary Coup 53 opens this week, with a revealing new angle on the infamous Anglo-American overthrow of Iran’s democratic government in 1953.

My review is at Slant:

When something is an open secret, does confirmation matter? Coup 53, director Taghi Amirani’s crackling, if somewhat hyperbolic, documentary about the overthrow of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh during a 1953 coup d’état, argues loudly in the affirmative. Amirani spends too much of the film recounting his dogged years-long pursuit of this or that document in trying to affirm British involvement in what was usually described as a C.I.A.-led operation. But once he finds the goods, the filmmaker engineers a highly dramatic coup of his own that snaps everything into focus: a long-buried interview in which MI6 agent Norman Darbyshire details with petulant pride how His Majesty’s Government demolished a functioning democracy that wouldn’t play ball…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Apocalypse ’45’

In the new documentary Apocalypse ’45, director Erik Nelson mixes gloriously restored color footage from the Pacific Theater during World War II to illustrate the memories of veterans who witnessed some of that harrowing conflict. It makes for a beautiful and shivery experience.

My review is at PopMatters:

Nelson is paying homage to a vanishing generation of soldiers and includes their yearning for a time when it seemed the US could still unify around a cause. Still, this is not a burnished Veterans Day nostalgia reel. “Golden Gate in ’48, bread line in ’49” is how one Marine remembers their attitudes about how long it would take for the war to end and what would become of them immediately afterward. “Greatest generation,” humphs another when asked about the label, “Goddamn propaganda”…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘She Dies Tomorrow’

My review of the new atmospheric viral paranoia thriller She Dies Tomorrow ran at PopMatters:

It is possible that ten years from now, when COVID-19 cases have hopefully gone the way of the bubonic plague, people will say that films like Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow are emblematic of a certain strain of late-stage Trump Pandemic-era anxiety…

You can see the movie on VOD now. Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Rental’

In The Rental, the debut movie from Dave Franco (James Franco’s far less prolific brother), four hipsters, including a particularly oily Dan Stevens (a long way from Downton Abbey) head up to a secluded cabin for a vacation that turns, well, dicey.

The Rental is available for streaming and can be seen at some drive-ins starting this Friday. Check it out.

My review is at PopMatters:

In many horror movies, once the malevolence of the setting has been made clear, there remains a significant amount of celluloid left to run as the characters fight for survival. That is not the case in The Rental, which feels at first more like a gloomily-lit smaller-scale version of [co-writer Joe Swanberg’s] Drinking Buddies, a far gentler comedic take on two couples who lose sight of boundaries during a weekend at the shore. Not so here, where the foursome just starts to realize the threat of their surroundings when the trap starts to swing shut…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Radioactive’

Rosamund Pike plays Marie Curie in Radioactive, a visually inventive though somewhat dramatically challenged biopic from graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi.

Radioactive is available for streaming this week.

My review is at Slant:

The way the film tells it, fame came easy for the Curies. In one initially comic yet foreboding scene, Pierre shows Marie a series of commercial products wanting to cash in on their glowing discovery: radium matches, chocolate, and even chewing gum. However, that acceptance was likely because the sexist scientific establishment could better stomach Marie’s seeming impertinence (“I’m going to prove them wrong, just like Newton did”) when she was paired with a man, and soon turns against her after a tabloid scandal reminds the French that she’s a foreigner…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘The Old Guard’

Based on Greg Rucka’s comic-book series, The Old Guard is a big-budget attempt to start a new action franchise, this one centered around a band of centuries-old mercenaries who are (mostly) immortal.

The Old Guard launches today on Netflix. My review is at Slant:

Smartly prioritizing the bond of relationships over action in the way of the modern franchise series—doing so more organically than the Fast and the Furious series but missing the self-aware comedic patter of the Avengers films—The Old Guard is in the end only somewhat convincing on both counts…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: Docs to Watch Out For

Last week’s online edition of the AFI DOCS film festival featured premieres of several documentaries that will be worth keeping your eyes peeled for later in the year when they hit broader release. I reviewed two of them for The Playlist.

  • 9to5: The Story of a Movement (pictured above): “Even in our supposedly more enlightened times, when people hear the word ‘labor,’ they are likely to conjure up a predictable set of mental images: Burly white guys in hard hats…”
  • White Noise: “A queasily riveting documentary that puts the audience far closer than comfort to some of the worst people in the world…”

Screening Room: ‘Irresistible’

In Jon Stewart’s new political comedy, two high-powered political consultants turn a tiny mayoral race in Wisconsin into an absurd battle for national attention.

Irresistible opens this week in VOD. My review is at Slant:

The film doesn’t focus its ire on Trump, conservatives, and the like, but rather on the cable news and consultant infrastructure that was accelerating America’s collapsing democratic polity long before anybody in a red baseball cap screamed “Lock her up!” and will continue to do so after Trump leaves the White House. This makes sense from Stewart, who went after Glenn Beck back in 2010 not through white-hot invective, but by holding a rally dedicated to polite, level-headed disagreement. These are desperate times, but if Stewart wants to tack toward a more Frank Capra vein, that’s just fine. We already have one Adam McKay…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Wasp Network’

Wasp Network

In the 1990s, the Castro regime sent several operatives to infiltrate the Cuban-American emigre community in Miami. Olivier Assayas’ Wasp Network is a fictionalization of that somewhat forgotten sidenote of the post-Cold War years.

Wasp Network is available on Netflix today. My review is at Slant:

Based on Fernando Morais’s 2011 book The Last Soldiers of the Cold War, the film starts out as a crisply paced, lavishly photographed, and character-based study of what the members of the so-called “Cuban Five” spy ring did and how they did it. Unfortunately, it spreads its attentions so wide and at times without consequence that the import of the events it depicts starts to get lost…

Here’s the trailer:

Screening Room: ‘Babyteeth’

Babyteeth

Shannon Murphy’s stylized melodrama captures a terminally ill teenager raging against the dying of the light.

Babyteeth opens this week. My review is at Slant:

Babyteeth neatly threads the needle between tragedy and comedy. The film follows Milla (Eliza Scanlen), a teenage cancer patient who’s mostly given up on life when Moses (Toby Wallace), a slightly older drug dealer, bumps into her on a train platform. For her, it’s deep crushing love at first swoon and a reason to keep getting up in the morning. For him, it’s having an adoring fan to goof around with—especially when he discovers that her father, Henry (Ben Mendelsohn), is a psychiatrist who happens to have lots of pharmaceuticals lying around…

Screening Room: Human Rights Watch Film Festival

The 2020 edition of the always worthwhile Human Rights Watch Film Festival is going virtual this year, like everything else. It’s a shorter than normal list of documentaries, but still contains some sharp and unforgettable work.

The movies range from Coded Bias (pictured above), which studies the ways white male coders can embed prejudice in seemingly impartial algorithms, to Welcome to Chechnya, a harrowing nonfiction thriller about the activists fighting to get LGBTQ people out of Chechnya before they are tortured and killed, to Radio Silence, a taut story about a Mexico City journalist being hounded by a government that cares more about investigating her than actual criminals.

My coverage of the festival is at PopMatters:

In a time when specialty movie events have been ever more narrowly targeted (festivals devoted to food, puppetry, and so on down the rabbit hole of monomania), the HRWFF went large. It served as a global snapshot of how humanity was faring in the fight to uphold basic standards of freedom and decency for its people. The unsurprising answer tends to be a variant on: Not well…

Screening Room: ‘The Vast of Night’

The Vast of Night is playing now in some drive-in theaters, and streams on Amazon this Friday. My review is at The Playlist:

A head-snapper of a debut from Andrew Patterson, “The Vast of Night” is one of those eerie indies that uses the trappings of genre (alien invasion in this case) as a launchpad into its own brand of American weird. Located somewhere to the left of a lost “X-Files” episode set in the UFO-haunted 1950s, it unspools over the course of one night in a flyspeck New Mexico border town. Mysterious events are afoot and nobody seems aware of it at first except for two meddling teenagers…

Here’s the trailer: