By Susan Granger
Special to WestportNow
With Netflix’s “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” the 2021 Oscar race is officially underway. For this surprisingly timely, compelling courtroom drama, writer/director Aaron Sorkin has assembled a stunning all-star cast.
The story begins before the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago when the presumptive candidate Hubert Humphrey indicates his support for America’s continued involvement in Vietnam.
Sorkin sets the stage for the seven Anti-Vietnam protestors who will subsequently be accused of conspiracy, inciting to riot, and other troublemaking charges stemming from disruptions during the Convention.
So we meet Abbie Hoffman (Sasha Baron Cohen) and Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), founders of the Youth International Party, known as Yippies, along with pacifist David Dellinger (John Carroll Lynch), social/political activist Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), and protesters Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), John Froines (Daniel Flaherty), and Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins).
There were original eight defendants but Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a Black Panther Party leader, was so constantly reprimanded by Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella) and so repeatedly found in contempt of court that he was removed from the case.
Lawyer William Kunstler (Mark Rylance) led the defense against prosecutors Tom Foran (J.C. MacKenzie) and Richard Schultz (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) with former Attorney General Ramsey Clark (Michael Keaton) as the star witness.
Best known for his sharp, perceptive dialogue, peppered with succinct soliloquies, writer/director Aaron Sorkin (“The West Wing,” “The Newsroom,” “The Social Network”) has crafted a timely, yet talky tale, utilizing flashbacks and newsreel footage. Free speech and demonstrations are interpreted as lawless rioting with the government and its supporters expressing complete faith in the police.
In the production notes, Aaron Sorkin explains its relevance: “The script didn’t change to mirror the times; the times changed to mirror the script.”
Perhaps Baron-Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman puts it best: “The institutions of government are wonderful things, but right now are populated by some terrible people.”
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Trial of the Chicago 7” is an incisive 8, a showcase for the superb acting ensemble.
If you’re still suffering “Game of Thrones” withdrawal, let me recommend “Britannia,” a nine-part series from Europe’s Sky Atlantic, owned by Comcast. There’s war, family intrigue and witchcraft aplenty.
In 55 BC, Julius Caesar invaded Britannia to exploit the island’s legendary tin deposits. But—after facing the wrath of barbaric Druids—he soon departed, noting: “Druids conduct public and private sacrifices and interpret all matters of religion … sacrificing fellow Gauls by burning them alive inside giant wicker cages.”
(That brutal ritual was vividly depicted in Robin Hardy’s folk horror film “The Wicker Man.”)
Some 90 years later—in 43 AD—Roman legions returned and discovered warring Celtic tribes. There are the Regni, ruled by Queen Antidia (Zoe Wanamaker), and the Canti, governed by King Pellenor (Ian McDiarmid)—plus ruthless Druids, led by shaman-like Veran (Mackenzie Crook).
The marching Roman invaders with “SPQR” on their banners are led by Gen. Aulus Plautius (David Morrissey), who proclaims “Behold, gods of Britannia! I am Rome! And where I walk is Rome!”
Amid the blood feuds, treacherous decapitations and secret alliances, there’s 16 year-old Cait (Eleanor Worthington-Cox), introduced in an interrupted Celtic girlhood-to-womanhood ritual on the Summer Solstice, along with a wandering Druid outcast Divis (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who exerts strange mind-control over those he encounters.
There’s Antida’s eunuch son Gildas (Joe Armstrong) and regal Amena (Annabel Scholey), a manipulative Canti who plays her two husbands against each other. Perhaps the most compelling character is King Pellenor’s rebellious, red-haired daughter Kerra (Kelly Reilly, familiar as Kevin Costner’s daughter on “Yellowstone”).
Writers Jez Butterworth, Tom Butterworth, and James Richardson use the Druids’ murky, nature-worshipping, pagan history as a launching point for this fictional fantasy.
The language the Druids speak is ancient Welsh, still used in Wales. And the song during the introductory credits is “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” released in 1968 by singer/songwriter Donovan Leitch.
On the Granger Gauge, “Britannia” is a blood-soaked, sword ‘n’ sorcery 7—on Amazon Prime.
Occasionally, there’s a movie like “Death of Me” that so dumb and dull that one wonder how and why it ever got made.
Neil Oliver (Luke Hemsworth) is a travel writer who takes his wife Christine (Maggie Q) to a remote tropical island off the coast of Thailand. After experiencing the local culture and cuisine, they wake up one morning with their hotel room in shambles and no memory of the previous night.
Searching on Neil’s digital camera, Christine finds shockingly explicit footage as Neil appears to murder her by breaking her neck. And, sure enough, she has fresh bruises around her throat.
To add to their confusion, a typhoon is threatening the region and, because their passports are missing, they have to find them in order to catch the next ferry to the mainland.
“No typhoon has hit this island in 200 years,” they’re told. But the weather reports are increasingly dire.
Meanwhile, mysterious locals, many wearing grotesque masks and moaning incoherently, are preparing for an upcoming festival. They all seem fascinated by Christine as she dashes around the village, trying to figure out what’s happening.
Apparently, Christine and Neil drank a cocktail that turns out to be heady hallucinogenic brew, served by Madee (Kat Ingkarat), who may have placed a sinister tribal talisman around Christine’s neck.
After projectile vomiting, Christine asks to see a physician, so their Airbnb hostess Samantha (Alex Essoe) recommends the local ‘witchy’ doctor (Chatchawan Kamonsakpitak).
Writers Arli Margolis, James Morley III, and David Tish patch together a murky, improbable horror/thriller—with obvious cult allusions to “The Wicker Man” and “Midsommar.” But the action is lethargically directed by Darren Lynn Bousman, credited with three installments of the “Saw” franchise.
Vietnamese-American actress Maggie Q (“Divergent”) deserves better, as does Aussie actor Luke Hemsworth (“Thor: Ragnarok”).
On the Granger Gauge, “Death of Me” is a tedious 3, available on digital platforms and VOD.
(Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)