Review – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm

FILM REVIEWBORAT SUBSEQUENT MOVIEFILM. With Sacha Baron Cohen, Irina Novak, Luenell, Mike Pence, Rudy Giuliani. Written by Peter Baynham & Sacha Baron Cohen & Jena Friedman & Anthony Hines & Lee Kern & Dan Mazer & Erica Rivinoja & Dan Swimer. Directed by Jason Woliner. Rated R for pervasive strong crude and sexual content, graphic nudity, and language. 95 minutes. Available on Amazon.

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Sacha Baron Cohen can currently be seen playing Abbie Hoffman in “The Trial Of The Chicago 7,” but for many he first came to notice in 2006 with “Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan” (2006). The character of Borat, played by Cohen, was a documentary filmmaker whose outrageous antics – often with real people not in on the joke – turned the film into a surprise comedy hit.

Fourteen years later, Borat is back in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.” He’s spent the years since in a Kazakh prison, doing hard time for embarrassing his country. At least he did better than his sidekick (who has been turned into a chair). His new outing is timed for our current era, as he is sent to America to present a gift to Vice President Mike Pence as a way to curry favor with President Donald Trump. Kazakhstan’s autocratic ruler is feeling left out as a dictator not embraced by Trump.

Borat’s fifteen-year-old daughter, Tutar (Irina Novak), hides in the crate with the gift shipped to the U.S., a monkey who does not survive. Trying to avert failure – and execution – Borat proposes that his daughter become the gift instead. If this doesn’t seem funny you’ll probably want to give the film a pass, but if you’re in sync with Cohen constantly risking offense to make a larger point, the film is often laugh-out-loud funny.

A scene where Borat – disguised as Trump complete with a face mask – attempts to carry his daughter to the real Pence at the annual CPAC convention makes you wonder how he escaped arrest. A later scene where Tutar, as a TV reporter, interviews Rudy Giuliani – who clearly thinks it’s legit – is simultaneously hilarious and downright creepy. Giuliani’s subsequent explanation for his actions are almost as weird as his time onscreen. Borat leading a singalong at an anti-lockdown rally is a reminder of just how easily people are duped.

If it seems that Cohen is just trying to embarrass people, he redeems himself with a scene where he shows up at a synagogue disguised as an antisemite’s cartoon image of a Jew. Having failed in his assignment, he decides he’ll go there to be shot. (Cohen, in real life, is Jewish and outspoken against bigotry.) At the temple two older Jewish women treat Borat with kindness instead of ridicule, and he’s brought up short.

Cohen and Novak aren’t afraid to push boundaries – as in a “moon blood” dance at a debutante party – and yet they keep us sympathetic to their plight: two ignorant naifs trying to find their way in a crazy world. “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” is a good reminder that our reality in 2020 is far more insane than anything we could ever see on screen.•••

DNorth Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.aniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – On The Rocks

FILM REVIEWON THE ROCKSWith Bill Murray, Rashida Jones, Marlon Wayans, Jenny Slate, Barbara Bain. Written and directed by Sofia Coppola. Rated R for some language/sexual references. 96 minutes. On Apple TV+.

Ready, aim, sire
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Sofia Coppola has carved out a strong, independent career as a director, but given that her father Francis is a cinematic powerhouse in his own right, it’s not surprising that she’s drawn to stories about fathers and daughters. “Somewhere” (2010) was a muddled and ultimately disappointing film about a father and his 11-year-old. With ON THE ROCKS, Coppola is on much surer ground, with an adult daughter working her way to dealing with her father on her own terms.

Laura (Rashida Jones), is an aspiring writer, a mother, and wife to Dean (Marlon Wayans), a businessman who has been somewhat neglectful of late. Her father Felix (Bill Murray) is an art dealer who left her mother for another woman and can charm his way out of any situation. In a way we’re in Woody Allen territory here, with the romantic and emotional problems of upscale Manhattanites at the center, but Coppola has her own style and focuses on the challenges Laura is facing.

Felix is used to having his way not so much by bullying but by being so fun and engaging that people tend to go along. Laura and her father love each other despite their rocky history, and so she confides in him that she’s concerned about her marriage. Felix advises her to “get ahead” of the situation, and soon finds herself joining her father in spying on Dean which gets them into increasingly complicated situations.

This is the second film Coppola has done with Murray, after “Lost In Translation” (2003), and once again she elicits a wonderful performance from him. Felix manipulates people by making them feel included in whatever is going on, as in a scene where he’s pulled over by a cop. You want to be part of the fun. Jones’s Laura has the more difficult path, in that she eventually will have to confront both her husband and her father and take control of her life. Jones never lets Laura play the victim. Her journey’s end is both satisfying and believable.

Coppola, who also wrote the script, puts a fresh spin on the situation depicted in “Lost In Translation” by pairing an older charismatic man and a younger woman by making it a father/daughter relationship. Without making any claims to it being autobiographical, the movie clearly taps into both the affection and the tension of that bond. In the end, as in any relationship, one must come to accept the flaws and doubts about the other person, while also seeking out what’s worthy of love.

As a filmmaker, Coppola has established her own impressive career. “On The Rocks” amply demonstrates why her work continues to be worth seeking out.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Friendsgiving

FILM REVIEWFRIENDSGIVINGWith Malin Akerman, Kat Dennings, Aisha Tyler, Chelsea Peretti, Jack Donnelly, Jane Seymour,. Written and directed by Nicol Paone. Rated R for crude sexual content and language throughout, and for drug use. 95 minutes. Available on Demand and Digital October 23, on Blu-Ray and DVD October 27.

The laugh supper
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You’ve seen this plot countless times. A group of friends and/or family get together for a celebration – usually, but not always, a holiday – and chaos ensues. Secrets are revealed, people get drunk and/or drugged, and sexual connections are attempted for better or worse. Most of them don’t work because we simply don’t care about those people. They’re unengaging or whiny or offensive and leave you with the feeling that if this was your family you’d never go home again.

There are multiple reasons why FRIENDSGIVING – the latest entry in this genre – shouldn’t work. Yet, amazingly, it does. It’s a funny, quirky movie about a bunch of Southern California types brought together for Thanksgiving. The feature directing debut by Nicol Paone, who also wrote the script, it manages to make the characters endearing rather than off-putting, even at their most outrageous.

Molly (Malin Akerman) is an actress who is going through a divorce and being the mother of a baby boy. Her friend Abby (Kat Dennings) came out as a lesbian at 29 and has spent the year mourning her late relationship with her ex. It’s supposed to be a quiet Thanksgiving for two old friends, but the party keeps getting bigger, including Jeff (Jack Donnelly), Molly’s new boyfriend, and Helen (Jane Seymour), Molly’s mother who has boundary issues. Indeed, Helen has invited Molly’s old boyfriend (Ryan Hansen), and if Molly doesn’t want him, she might.

As the afternoon and evening progresses, complications ensue, (naturally), but Paone’s script sets each plot point up so that it works in context. Jeff is helping out in the kitchen, but Abby has snagged the only apron, so he ends up spending much of the movie shirtless. Molly’s friend Lauren (Aisha Tyler) is there with her husband two children but is caught consoling Abby who complains she hasn’t made out with anyone for a year. Her husband’s (Deon Cole) reaction is not what you’d expect. Lauren has also brought psychedelic mushrooms to the party, leading Abby to be visited by her “Fairy Gay Mothers” (Wanda Sykes, Margaret Cho, Fortune Feimster).

Paone makes it work by not giving us heavy-handed moments where characters break down and dramatically bear their souls or where they are humiliated. For all their quirks – including the friend who has become a “shaman” (Chelsea Peretti) – they are fundamentally good people traversing the ups and downs of life. When an emergency arises with Molly’s baby, it’s played neither as tragedy or for cheap laughs, but as yet another challenge to get through.

“Friendsgiving” is not destined to be a holiday classic, but it shows that with a good script and a talented cast, even an old formula can result in a surprisingly entertaining movie.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Witches

FILM REVIEWTHE WITCHESWith Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, voices of Kristin Chenoweth and Chris Rock. Written by Robert Zemeckis & Kenya Barris and Guillermo del Toro. Directed by Robert Zemeckis. Rated PG for scary images/moments, language and thematic elements. 106 minutes. Available on HBO Max.

Necrofancy
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It’s been thirty years since the last movie adaptation of Roald Dahl’s THE WITCHES, suggesting that the kids who saw it back then may now be parents themselves. Transferring the story from England to late 1960s America, it gives the material a fresh spin, resulting in a family entertainment that really might entertain the whole family.

The story involves a young orphan boy (Jahzir Bruno) being raised by his grandmother (Octavia Spencer) in 1967 Alabama. When she suspects witches of putting her boy in danger – witches hate children apparently – she takes him to a luxurious resort, not knowing that a whole convention of witches will be at the same hotel. There the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) reveals her plan to entice children with witch-owned candy stores into eating hexed sweets that will turn them into mice. The story turns into a battle between Grandma and the mice-children against the Grand High Witch, with the hotel management (headed by Stanley Tucci), staff and guests as innocent by-standers.

Director Robert Zemeckis, who co-wrote the screenplay with Kenya Barris and Guilermo del Toro, has not shied away from special effects movies. Sometimes they work gloriously (“Back To The Future”) and sometimes not (“The Polar Express”). Here he keeps it mostly real, seamlessly blending the CGI with the live action, so that viewers stay with the story rather than get distracted. That sure control of the effects enhances the story.

As the Grand High Witch, Hathaway is dressed in high fashion, but has curious lines on either side of her mouth. Alone among her coven, we discover her mouth is much bigger than it at first appeared. And when the witches remove their gloves and shoes, their misshapen hands and feet reveal who they really are. It allows Hathaway to ham it up to great effect. Likewise, the CGI mice (voiced at times by Chris Rock and Kristin Chenoweth) are as realistic as talking mice can be, interacting with Grandma and the witches. The only special effect that’s real is Spencer’s turn as Grandma, in that she brings dignity and determination to the role. Spencer has turned into one of those performers who’s an asset to any film, worth watching even if the film fails. Fortunately, that isn’t the case here.

Parents of very young or sensitive children may want to check it out first. If your tots would be spooked by the flying monkeys in “The Wizard Of Oz,” there’s stuff here that might lead to nightmares. If, however, they can handle a movie scare with a delighted shiver and then cheer on the good guys, “The Witches” is a family-friendly film that kids will enjoy and their parents will as well.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Rebecca

FILM REVIEWREBECCAWith Lily James, Armie Hammer, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Goodman-Hill, Bill Paterson. Written by Jane Goldman and Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse. Directed by Ben Wheatley. Rated PG-13 for some sexual content, partial nudity, thematic elements and smoking. 121 minutes. On Netflix.

Married to the snob
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It’s been 80 years since Alfred Hitchcock made his American film debut with an adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s gothic romance “Rebecca.”  While the Hitchcock film is a revered classic – and deservedly so – it was made under the strictures of the Hollywood production code and needed to be “cleaned up” in order to get made. A fresh look at the story, with the freedom to tackle plot points that could not have been addressed in 1940, is more than appropriate.

For those not familiar with the book, this REBECCA is about a young woman (Lily James) – employed as a companion to a vulgar socialite – meets the widower Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) in Monte Carlo. They fall in love and marry, and the woman, never identified except as the second Mrs. de Winter, finds herself at Manderlay, the incredible de Winter estate on the British coast. That’s where the story really begins.

Everything and everyone cannot help but recall Rebecca – the late Mrs. de Winter – a vivacious woman who hosted memorable parties and had an impact on everyone around her. This is something that Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas) – the housekeeper who runs Manderlay – never lets her forget. The central mystery of the story is what happened to Rebecca and how she really lived as opposed to the secondhand accounts that the new Mrs. de Winter receives. One can’t help but sympathize with the new wife, overshadowed by a phantom and overwhelmed by a way of life that is utterly alien to her experience. At one point, Maxim says it was a mistake to bring her to Manderlay which devastates her as it seems to be a declaration that marrying her was a mistake.

It’s in the third act where the film differs from the Hitchcock film and presumably reverts to the Du Maurier novel. We learn the truth about Rebecca, and her marriage to Maxim and how the new Mrs. De Winter fits into the equation. It also gets closer to the relationship between Rebecca and Mrs. Danvers which may be implied more strongly here but still leaves much to the imagination.

The three principal actors are up to the job, particularly Thomas as Mrs. Danvers, who gives us a strong-willed woman in a subservient role, who defines her success in terms of advancing her superior’s agenda. Hammer won’t be confused with Laurence Olivier, who played the part in 1940, but does have a strong turn as a wealthy, privileged man used to having his own way yet harboring a dark secret. And in the lead, James succeeds in making her character someone struggling in a situation without turning her into a whimpering victim.

“Rebecca” should work for those who are new to the story, as well as those who are familiar with it. It is the sort of lush, intelligent drama that will take let you escape into its world for a couple of hours.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 4 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise

BOOK REVIEWCARY GRANT: A BRILLIANT DISGUISE. Written by Scott Eyman. Published by Simon & Schuster. 556 pages.

A toast to your stealth

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In a 1975 New Yorker profile titled “The Man From Dream City,” Pauline Kael wrote, “Everybody likes the idea of Cary Grant.” Apparently so did a young Cockney lad named Archie Leach, who famously fled a Dickensian childhood in Bristol to become one of the big screen’s most beloved icons, an emblem of effortless sophistication and grace. Of course it was all an act. Kael called Grant’s carefully cultivated persona “a peerless creation,” and much has been written over the years analyzing the psychological schism between urchin Archie Leach and suave superstar Cary Grant. But perhaps never so authoritatively (nor as exhaustively) as CARY GRANT: A BRILLIANT DISGUISE, in which esteemed biographer Scott Eyman positions the Hollywood legend as Gatsby-esque triumph of self-reinvention, with all the tragedy that entails.

Working from Grant’s own papers, archival research and scores of interviews, Eyman’s bruising portrait is sometimes difficult to square with the elegant screen comedian who exuded unflappable confidence and aplomb, even when playing the fool. Yet it was all by design for this savvy, meticulous performer who came to understand perhaps better than any movie star before or since exactly what audiences wanted to see from him on a big screen. It was his salvation as well as his curse, a straitjacket that led to immortality.

Born to an alcoholic father and a paranoid schizophrenic mother who was institutionalized when he was a child, Archie ran away and joined a traveling revue when he was but thirteen years old. His father brought him back once, but after the second escape attempt allowed his wayward son to cross over to America, where little Archie became a vaudeville acrobat and a Coney Island stilt-walker, still a long way away from romancing Grace Kelly on the silver screen.

Eyman paints the invention of Cary Grant as a triumph of discipline and sheer force of will, with the handsome up-and-comer shedding his Cockney accent for that unplaceable mid-Atlantic purr, fastidiously studying comedy with an athlete’s approach to replicating results. Grant was one of the few Hollywood stars who watched his own movies not in Bel Air circuit screening rooms but in actual theaters with regular folks, studying the cause-and-effect of gestures and motions. His apparently effortless timing a matter of strict, scientific rigor, Grant put the most work into making it all look easy.  

It’s why he was one of the few actors who really enjoyed working with Alfred Hitchcock. Both men were obsessed with construction and technique, two result-oriented craftsmen unencumbered by any messy Method searching for the emotional truth of the scene. Cary Grant always knew where the lights were and arranged himself accordingly with his best angles, already having worked out whether the scene called for a double-take or a triple. Hitchcock said he was the only actor he ever worked with who could convincingly fake a charisma he didn’t possess off-camera.

Most acquaintances describe a nervous man, pleasant and impeccably-mannered but difficult to know. We get plenty of detail about all five of his marriages, but considerably less about the notorious time he spent living with Randolph Scott, though conventional wisdom seems to have settled that Grant was (in the book’s oft-repeated phrase) “at best bisexual.” What’s endlessly confirmed is that he was a hilarious cheapskate, charging friends to use the telephone at his home and taking care to save not just the buttons from his old, discarded shirts but also the rubber bands wrapped around his morning newspapers. In his day the highest paid actor in Hollywood with two Rolls-Royces stashed in separate cities, Cary Grant still clipped coupons.

The book gets bogged down a bit in the financial details of the star’s laborious contracts (agents called them tomes) but Grant’s fixation on finances reveals a child of poverty’s essential insecurity. He carried on throughout his career as if it could all disappear at any minute, which explains his conservative approach to the profession, remaining careful never to stray too far from the audience’s perception of what a Cary Grant movie should be. The list of roles he turned down later in his career is far more interesting than any of the films he wound up starring in (Harry Lime in “The Third Man” and Humbert Humbert in Kubrick’s “Lolita,” to name just two mindblowers).

But then perhaps someone who saw screen acting as inherently a mechanical exercise didn’t feel a yearning to stretch out in colorful character roles the way other leading men tend to after they reach a certain age, or maybe he still wanted to be the only name above the title. Though the star claimed his anxiety was eased in later years thanks to massive amounts of LSD – I’m still laughing trying to imagine Walter Burns from “His Girl Friday” or Roger Thornhill from “North By Northwest” zonked on acid – the biography is nonetheless a devastating portrayal of imposter syndrome. Eyman describes it as “always 3AM” in the star’s emotional life, playing the role of “Cary Grant” both personally and professionally as if afraid he was about to be found out. Such a shame this persona that brought so much joy and pleasure to the world inspired so little in its brilliant creator.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3.5 out of 5.Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – The Antenna

FILM REVIEW – THE ANTENNA. With Ihsan Önal, Gül Arici, Elif Cakman, Enis Yildiz, Levent Ünsal. Written and directed by Orcun Behram. Unrated. 115 minutes. Available on Demand.

P.U.H.F.
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A first feature film coming from a country not known as an international cinema powerhouse warrants cutting the filmmaker some slack. The dystopian horror film THE ANTENNA from Turkey is slow-moving and, at times, heavy-handed, but if writer/director Orcun Behram can learn from the experience, it may be a sign of better things to come.

Mehmet (Ihsan Önal) is the manager of an apartment complex who seems to be sleepwalking through his life. Indeed, he’s chewed out by his boss Cihan (Levent Ünsal) for sleeping on the job. His day is disrupted by the installation of a new antenna which is to bring in official state media. People are told that this will help them get the authorized news, starting with a “midnight bulletin” which is apparently mandatory viewing. During the process the installer falls to his death.

This is followed by signs that the antenna is more than just a means for government propaganda. A mysterious black goo starts oozing throughout the complex, coming out of faucets, electrical outlets, and even where picture-hanging nails have punctured the walls. Is the antenna the cause of this? As with much of the film’s proceedings, it’s ambiguous and never really explained.

Meanwhile, the residents of the building are having to cope with this deadly invader. In the most detailed sequence, a man (Enis Yildiz) unknowingly ingests some of the goo and turns into a homicidal maniac, going after his family, with his daughter Yasmin (Gül Arici) first hiding, and then running for her life. It’s here where the film gets most surreal, with some of the tenants turning into – literally – faceless creatures, and Mehmet trying to figure out some way to fight back.

It helps to know that Turkey, under its current leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has turned increasingly authoritarian, suppressing the media and restricting freedom. The metaphor here is so obvious that it’s a wonder the film was made and released at all. Behram’s turning Turkey’s autocratic rule into an all-encompassing ooze may be honestly felt but, alas, it doesn’t make the story any more compelling.

Part of the problem is the lack of a strong narrative line, exacerbated by the leaden pace of this nearly two-hour-long movie. In one sequence, Mehmet is seen going up flight after flight of stairs, trying the door at each landing, and then going back down the same stairs. As Crow T. Robot – of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” fame – observed of another sluggish film, “Hasn’t the director ever heard of editing as a way to compress time?”

“The Antenna” may remind you of the early work of another filmmaker associated with horror, David Cronenberg’s “Shivers,” about a Canadian apartment building taken over by horror. Cronenberg has gone on to a strong career. Perhaps Behram will as well.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Trial Of The Chicago 7

FILM REVIEWTHE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7With Eddie Redmayne, Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Rylance, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella. Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. Rated R for language throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use. 129 minutes. On Netflix.

A slice of strife
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In an ideal world, we’d all have our dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin. As he proved on the TV series “The West Wing” and the movies like “The Social Network,” he is one of the best screenwriters of our time. He’s at the top of his game with THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7, which he also directed.

For those not old enough to remember those times, 1968 was a year of deep divisions in the United States. There was police violence and public demonstrations, and this trial raised the question of whether it was possible to get justice in America. Sorkin doesn’t have to draw parallels to today, which would have been heavy-handed and unnecessary. Instead, he lays out a chapter of history and lets the viewers draw their own conclusions.

The Democratic National Convention held in Chicago that August brought out a diverse group of protestors. For Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne) and Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), it was to take a principled stand against the war in Viet Nam, which had escalated under President Lyndon Johnson. His vice president, Hubert Humphrey, would be accepting the presidential nomination. For “Yippies” Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), it was a chance to protest and engage in street theater, as well as take drugs and celebrate. For David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), a middle-aged father, it was to promote pacificism as well as opposition to the war. For Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a leader of the Black Panthers, it was to take advantage of the situation to make a statement against racism and oppression.

Violence broke out, much of it instigated not by the protestors but the Chicago Police, and when the Nixon administration opened shop in the following year, Attorney General John Mitchell (John Doman) decided to make an example of the leaders of the various protests as if they were part of a single conspiracy. The trial before Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) was a travesty. He cited several of the defendants for contempt, including their lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance), refused to listen to Seale’s objections that his own lawyer was not present – having him bound and gagged in the courtroom at one point – and refusing to allow the jury to hear from Mitchell’s predecessor, Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton), about how the Justice Department had previously found that no crime had been committed.

Sorkin takes a complex story and by focusing on a few of the characters turns it into compelling drama. Hayden and Hoffman represent very different approaches both to the protest and the proceedings, while Kunstler’s skepticism is mirrored by the prosecutor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who seems to be suppressing doubts while carrying out his task. Redmayne, Cohen, and Rylance – all Brits – play their American roles as if they were born to them, and Langella is a standout as the clearly unfit judge who seems utterly lacking in self-awareness.

“The Trial Of The Chicago 7” is riveting. It provides an important history lesson as well as a reminder that we have confronted anger and divisiveness in our nation before and – somehow – managed to survive it and set things right. It’s a message whose timeliness makes this one of the best movies of 2020.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 5 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – The Opening Act

FILM REVIEWTHE OPENING ACTWith Jimmy O. Yang, Cedric the Entertainer, Alex Moffat, Neal Brennan, Debby Ryan. Written and directed by Steve Byrne. Unrated. 90 minutes. Available on Demand and Digital.

Punch and broody
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There are movies that are more incisive looks at the world of stand-up comedy – the 2002 documentary “Comedian” is a standout – but few have more heart than THE OPENING ACT. It’s a love letter to the trials and tribulations of those people who feel compelled to put themselves in the spotlight and try to make us laugh.

For unknown Will Chu (Jimmy O. Yang), it’s working as an insurance claims adjuster by day while looking for his big break. He gets his shot filling in as MC at a comedy club, where he’ll be introducing big name comic Billy G. (Cedric the Entertainer) and Chris (Alex Moffat), a rising star. The manager (Neal Brennan) can give him a career boost if he does well, but it starts bad with his name being misspelled on the club’s marquee and Chris looking to party even though Will has a girlfriend (Debby Ryan) back home.

Will has entered comedy’s school of hard knocks, which includes hecklers, screwing up a radio interview, and bombing on Saturday night. Billy G. seems uninterested in mentoring the young comic. It’s disheartening, because it’s been his dream since childhood – we see him as a child watching various real life comedians with his father – and he even quit his job to take the gig. Ultimately, he’ll have to decide if this is what he was meant to do.

Writer-director Steve Byrne knows this story well, having been successful as a stand-up and comic actor on the 2012-14 series “Sullivan & Son.” Two of his fellow cast members, Dan Lauria and Roy Woods, Jr., have small parts here, as do a number of other comedians including Bill Burr, Jermaine Fowler, and Whitney Cummings. Several of the cast members appear as themselves in clips during the closing credits, talking about their own experiences in stand-up.

The core of the film are Yang, Moffat and Cedric the Entertainer, representing three stages of a comedian’s life. Cedric’s Billy G. is a star, having had a hit TV series and a best-selling book, and is clearly a headliner. The suggestion that he’s coasting on his past successes goes unanswered. Certainly, his fans don’t seem to think so. Moffat’s Chris is having a good run on the comedy club circuit but is planning to head to Los Angeles to try and break into TV. He enjoys the perks he’s had so far, but he knows that in the comedy hierarchy he still has far to go.

Yang’s earnest Will not only has to grow the callouses to withstand the failures that are inevitable along the way but, more importantly, he has to develop his own voice. It’s not enough to tell jokes. He has to project a personality that audiences will find relatable. In that way, he is not only “The Opening Act” at the club, he’s in the opening act of what he hopes will be his own comedy career.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Nocturne

FILM REVIEWNOCTURNE. With Sydney Sweeney, Madison Iseman, Ivan Shaw, John Rothman, Julie Benz. Written and directed by Zu Quirke. Unrated, but contains violence and profanity. 90 minutes.

Middling Fingers
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Twin piano prodigies get a little too competitive in NOCTURNE, the latest not-quite-there installment from Amazon’s “Welcome To The Blumhouse” anthology of feature-length movies that really probably should have been hour-long shows. Sydney Sweeney stars as Juliet, the meek one of the pair, a few minutes younger and slightly plainer than her more dazzlingly accomplished sibling Vivian (Madison Iseman). Big sis is headed to Julliard in the fall while Juliet didn’t get in and arrogantly didn’t apply anywhere else. But the stew of sibling rivalry at their fancy-schmancy performing arts school doesn’t start seriously stirring until a star violinist finishes practice one afternoon and promptly hurls herself from a balcony.

Juliet clumsily comes into possession of the dead girl’s notebook, which alternates sheet music with occult-ish drawings that look like heavy metal album covers from the 1980s. Suddenly, our shrinking violet’s playing improves enormously, and her attitude changes as well. Gentle Juliet is now sassing back at her washed-up, has-been teacher (John Rothman) about his drinking, putting the moves on her sister’s boyfriend and attempting to steal the spotlight from Vivian by swiping her audition piece. The elder sibling retaliates by leaving a clump of used tampons in Juliet’s mailbox, an act to which others in the film respond with a nonchalance I felt stretched credulity somewhat.

Like last week’s “Black Box,” the story is both underdeveloped and stretched for time, leaving it feeling simultaneously padded and thin. No effort is made to establish the existing dynamic between these sisters at the outset, so the only way we can tell that Juliet’s personality is changing is because other people in the movie keep saying, “This isn’t like you.” Sweeney shrewdly underplays a lot of the character’s Carrie White flourishes, but she’s done no favors by nearly every other scene ending with Juliet passing out. This chick faints more often than the over-corseted Victorians who had couches built for it.  

Writer-director Quirke clearly saw “Black Swan” and liked it an awful lot, but her screenplay’s most interesting elements are off to the side of the supernatural mumbo-jumbo. Classical music is an extremely expensive and demanding form for which audiences are indeed shrinking, and the best scene finds the twins’ horrid mother (Julie Benz) grilling an instructor about the viability of continuing careers in the performing arts. In a field with room for so few, what if you’ve got all the passion in the world but not enough talent?

“Nocturne” never fully marries that tantalizing idea to Juliet’s dilemma, instead doubling down on all sorts of backwards-written prophecy nonsense and a sinister yellow orb that’s a relief from the movie’s milky, washed-out videography. (I’m starting to think that filmmakers should have to apply for a license before being allowed to shoot in Cinemascope. Maybe require them to turn in two or three storyboards showing how they plan to utilize the widescreen frame for something more than just TV that’s squinting.) The final five minutes of this drab, plodding movie finally go buckwild with a flurry of expressionistic effects but by then it’s too late. For poor Juliet and the audience.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.