Tuesday, October 20, 2020

REVIEW: The Trial of the Chicago 7

Ever since its 1990s heyday of John Grisham adaptations, pure courtroom dramas have largely fallen out of favor within pop culture. With its grandstanding monologues, showy acting and easy moralizations, the genre has been even more dismissed by film critics, who now prize subtle realism and ambiguity. It therefore takes a skilled filmmaker to rise above the fray, like writer-director Aaron Sorkin and his latest film "The Trial of the Chicago 7." 

The case at hand in this riveting film was one of great national concern. It is the year 1969 and the United States is knee-deep in an unpopular Vietnam War. Frustrated by the senseless loss of both American and Vietnamese lives, groups of anti-war citizens decide to stage a peaceful protest in view of the 1968 Democratic National Convention. But when the protest unintentionally erupts into a riot, the newly elected Nixon government decide to make an example out of a select seven men to quell rising dissent. A criminal case is charged against them, seeking to prove that they initiated a plan to incite violence against the police. But as one of the defendants quickly declares, "this is a political trial." 

That statement is made by Abbie Hoffman, a leader of the counterculture Youth International Party (Yippies). Mischevious yet principled, he believes widespread cultural revolution is needed to foster progress. In the film's greatest casting coup, Sacha Baron Cohen is at his chameleonic best in the role, which acts as an extension of the subversively political comedy of his own productions like "Borat" and TV's "Who Is America". But the film also finds its bleeding heart through his dramatic scenes, anchoring the film through its most liberal viewpoint. 

As Hoffman and his fellow defendants face off against a determined prosecution and a brazenly unsympathetic judge, Sorkin's screenplay works its magic through the sheer spectacle of the courtroom proceedings. Through testimonies and circumstantial evidence, it becomes clear that the accusations of a conspiracy are baseless, most obvious in the case of Bobby Seale (fiercely portrayed by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who is charged along with the Chicago 7 without any reasonable evidence of collusion.

Like the others, however, Seale's progressive ideologies pose a threat to the establishment. And Sorkin's script puts forth its most astute observations by parsing through such nuances within a larger progressive movement. The confrontations between Hoffman and Tom Hayden (a steady, confident Eddie Redmayne) are especially intriguing, as they explore the tensions between achieving progress through traditional, "respectable" means, versus disrupting the status quo by overturning a failing system and rebuilding anew. 

Through this subplot, "The Trial of the Chicago 7" becomes a fascinating companion piece for Regina King's similarly philosophical "One Night in Miami". Both set during the tumultuous 1960s era of American society, they are resonant testaments to the ways in which long-standing injustices continue to divide us today. "The Trial of the Chicago 7" would have already been a must-see film for its captivating ensemble, engaging pacing and rousing story. But its sincere plea for a more free and fair democracy makes it all the more essential in a pivotal election year for the United States.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

REVIEW: Dick Johnson is Dead

The COVID-19 pandemic is never mentioned in "Dick Johnson is Dead", the latest documentary from cinematographer-turned-director Kirsten Johnson. Yet I couldn't help but think about the virus throughout this extraordinary film that explores aging and mortality. As many of the world's leaders have attempted to offer solace in the fact the virus will mostly prove fatal "only" for older populations, "Dick Johnson is Dead" reminds us that these loved ones are as precious as anyone else. 

Much like her previous effort "Cameraperson", Johnson puts an innovative spin on non-fiction filmmaking with this deeply personal work. In collaboration with her otagenarian father (the titular Dick Johnson), she sets out to craft a film to stage his death through an array of imaginative accidents. As she gives us a peak behind the scenes of this bizarre project, we also learn of the debilitating Alzheimer's diagnosis which afflicted Kirsten's mother and now, her father as well. What begins as an irreverent, humorous endeavour, thus evolves into a deeply moving testament to the pain and beauty of being human. 

Indeed, "Dick Johnson is Dead" is remarkable in the way it plays to Johnson's distinctive strengths as a filmmaker. Through absurdist death scenes and fanciful visions of the afterlife, she showcases her keen eye as a "cameraperson." Cineastes will certainly enjoy seeing "how the sausage gets made" with body doubles, stuntsmen and fake blood. Meanwhile, everyday conversations between herself and her father - as well as extended family and friends - recall the effortless sense of empathy which made "Cameraperson" such a standout. 

Striking this tricky balance between morbid humor and heartrending poignancy is no easy feat, as Johnson plays with reality all the way through to the end. But she is greatly helped by a compelling subject in the shape of her father. With his expressive face and warm personality, you could easily imagine him imparting wisdom and wisecracks alike as a beloved sitcom dad. And indeed, his experiences and outlook add fascinating layers, most notably through heartbreaking memories of his late wife and the hopeful philosophy of his Adventist Christian beliefs. 

As we watch the film's adoring father-daughter pair reckon with mortality, the title "Dick Johnson is Dead" proves to be a misnomer. Despite his age and fading memories, there's no denying his wonderful presence in Kirsten's life. In a time of such uncertainty and fear surrounding a deadly contagion, "Dick Johnson is Dead" is a much needed shot in the arm to cherish the life and lives we have now.