While indexing all my film reviews into a comprehensive archive last month, I came to a perturbing realization – my penchant for film reviews had taken a hit. The last movie I gave a full review to was Onward back in early April – and even that was partly motivated by the need to continue my trend of reviewing each new Disney/Pixar film as it’s released.
Of course, much of my current cinematic dry spell can be attributed to outside circumstances – like many Americans, I have not been to a theater since early March, still counting the days (weeks… months…) till it is deemed safe to sit in a dark room and munch oversalted popcorn and wonder whether the guy three rows in front of me is checking his texts or secretly recording the screen.
The truth is that I have been watching a lot of movies this year, and will probably pick up the pace as awards season starts to kick in. But most of the films I’ve seen – via streaming outlets and online rentals – aren’t the sort of films I see myself writing full reviews of.
So instead, I’m going to start collecting my thoughts into mini-reviews, under the inspired banner of “Movie Roundup.” Each of these pieces will cover 3-4 films that I’ve been watching lately, and I’ll devote a few paragraphs of thought to each. I’ll also try to vary genres within each piece, so I can cover a lot of different types of films and keep things interesting.
Today we’ll explore a trio of films that I watched recently. Let’s begin with:
The Trial of the Chicago 7
This may sound odd coming from someone who has spent many hours writing reverent words about The West Wing, but… I’m beginning to understand why many people dislike Aaron Sorkin. His work in recent years has been a truly mixed bag, some of it brilliant (The Social Network) and some of it disastrous (The Newsroom). Though I still love a good Sorkin script, I can’t help but cringe every time he turns in a bad one.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 is not a bad Sorkin script, but it is laden with the weaknesses that has come to define a lot of his post-TWW political work. Lots of self-righteousness, an abundance of heavy-handed historical commentary, and a broad inability to write compelling, three-dimensional women. Some of these flaws were present in the late ’90s as well, but the starry-eyed idealism he stamps his work with doesn’t have quite the same ring in 2020.
Sorkin believes that American institutions are noble and good at their core, yet also believes they are overrun with greed and corruption. That’s a difficult balance to maintain in a screenplay, as we saw in Charlie Wilson’s War (still his worst film), and sadly that same imbalance gives rise to several problems with The Trial of the Chicago 7.
The story follows the protests and riots that broke out at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and the infamous trial that followed. It zeroes in on the seven defendants, including student leader Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), antiwar activist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), and hippie protestor Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen). The hearings are threaded alongside a concurrent trial for Black Panther chairman Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), and the prosecution is represented by young lawyer Bobby Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt).
A lot of talent on this set, but as with a lot of Sorkin scripts, these actors are there less to play characters than screenwriter soapboxes. Hayden is a young idealist who believes in the fairness of the justice system even when it targets his cohorts; Schultz is a legal expert who finds that the court system is crueler than his law degree led him to believe. Anyone familiar with Sorkin’s work (or heck, cinema in general) can guess what choices both these men will make by the film’s end, but that doesn’t make their characters any less hollow.
The effect is repeated across the spectrum, with characters who each appear stuck on a single setting – Mark Rylance as a lawyer who rants about The System, JC MacKenzie as a disdainful city prosecutor, Frank Langella as a judge who WILL HAVE ORDER. The best performance of the film belongs to Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin, a hippie whose fixation to the cause feels more believable and sympathetic than that of the other half-dozen defendants.
The film’s constant forays into the obvious become nearly comical after a fashion. At one point, Hoffman takes the witness stand, quoting a famed historical figure as a way of refuting the prosecution. I will award no prizes if you can guess the identity of this figure, just as I will not hand out any medals for guessing, in another scene, whether AG Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) chooses to risk his reputation in order to tell the truth about the riots.
The film’s courtroom climax is silly – I had to suppress a laugh during the last five minutes – but it doesn’t do much to upend an already risk-averse and overly earnest film. It mainly serves to let the breezy film off the hook with a gentle punchline, tweaking history to give the Chicago 7 a happier ending than reality did.
Through it all, Sorkin’s dialogue remains fluid and engaging, even as it recycles old bits from his previous work. (A joke about French people and eggs is lifted straight from a twenty-year-old TWW episode.) But the film lacks the bite it needs to get its messages across, and releasing it right before an election doesn’t make those messages more pointed.
The Social Dilemma
Social media, we are often told, is a toxic element to society. It hooks us, it addicts us, it eats up our personal info and spits them out to willing advertisers. Worse, it seals us into airtight information bubbles, polarizing an already fragmented civilization beyond repair.
We’ve heard a lot about the negative effects that Facebook and Twitter have on society; now we have a documentary that examines how and why. As someone who has been a critic of social media for several years (and still uses it far too much), I obviously went into the documentary with some biases, yet was still surprised to learn how far and how deep the digital manipulation goes.
The Social Dilemma is not a feel-good movie, and makes little attempt to appear as one. It is shocking, frustrating, and consistently depressing. The filmmakers wisely take a nonpartisan approach in exploring the way political extremism online has fed similar extremism in the real world. Interviewing several tech exerts and former Silicon Valley denizens, the filmmakers explore how seemingly harmless memes and hashtags can seed mistrust and misinformation, from election results to the effects of Covid-19.
For all its intentions, the film does squeeze its audience’s hand a bit too hard. The documentary is punctuated with several scripted scenes following a fictional family’s obsession with social media, and the writing in these scenes is fairly heavy-handed. There is some fun in watching Vincent Kartheiser playing a smarmy humanized version of the AI that keeps the main character glued to his phone, and I did chuckle at the film’s excoriation of the fictionalized “Extreme Center,” but the whole venture feels like a step too far.
At its best, The Social Dilemma works by focusing on reality, dissecting the adverse effects that the online world has had on the real one. It may not be a pleasant analysis, but it’s certainly one worth the effort.
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm
Almost as wild as the original Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan is the fact that it’s been fourteen years since the film’s release. Premiering in my early adolescence, Sacha Baron Cohen’s mockumentary had a prominent influence on many of my friends who either snuck into the theater or got their hands on a DVD. Being the relative squish that I am, I did not watch the film until years later, but I could recite plenty of lines simply based on how commonplace they had become.
The film played well in 2006, earning a reputation for its brand of shock and discomfort humor and the way it played with our perceptions of America. Fast-forward to 2020, however, and one wonders if Borat Sagdiyev can reveal a crazier side of America than the one we see on the news each day.
The good news for ardent fans of the original (who, let’s face it, are going to watch this subsequent moviefilm no matter what the critics say) is that the new film retains much of what made the original so popular; Borat’s wide-eyed naivete about American culture, compounded with his inability to pick up on the social cues around him, remains very much intact. And while the film may not be as distinctive these days – the rise of Internet culture has made hidden-camera pranking and political trolling as common as cat videos – it still provides plenty of laughs, both at the expense of Borat and those who were unwise enough to sign waivers for the movie.
The real downside is that Borat’s character no longer has the anonymity he did in 2006 – Americans are too familiar with his face to be pranked by it. So Borat takes to adopting various disguises, some humorous, many contrived, as a way to work under the radar. It’s a sign that the film needs to work overtime to keep up the premise that the original utilized so fluidly.
But Borat Subsequent Moviefilm has a secret weapon in Borat’s daughter Tutar, played by newcomer Maria Bakalova. Like all women in the film’s version of Kazakhstan, Tutatr is treated like livestock, and the film’s plot has Borat attempting to deliver her as a gift to “Vice Premier Mikhail Pence.” But the film gives her a charming (though suitably gross-out) arc that sees her learn to appreciate her value as a human being, leading to a touching (in the figurative sense, thank you) father-daughter reconciliation.
Shortly before its release, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm became embroiled in controversy surrounding a scene involving Rudy Giuliani. Having watched the film, I can attest that the scene – while disturbing and off-putting – has obviously been edited and is not quite as heinous as the Internet makes it out to be. But as we know all too well, perceptions of political wrongdoing spread like wildfire on the Internet, and this is no exception.
So the moral here is that social media is bad. And also, Sacha Baron Cohen is better-served in a mockumentary than a Sorkin historical drama. Let these be the lessons you take from today’s review trilogy.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 and The Social Dilemma are streaming on Netflix; Borat Subsequent Moviefilm is streaming on Amazon Prime.