The Trial of the Chicago 7 – 8.5

Pure catnip: an Aaron Sorkin drama with pithy dialogue, clearly drawn characters, a hopefully moral universe and a healthy dose of politics, past and present. Being in my personal revisit-Vietnam moment helped. Having just watched Platoon, the Ken Burns 10-part documentary, Da 5 Bloods and having read Oliver Stone’s and Randy Hobler’s memoirs, this moment of history didn’t seem so distant. The all-star cast was just that: all-star. Sacha Baron Cohen and Jeremy Strong were brilliant, and great fun, as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. The one weak link was Eddie Redmayne, an Englishman miscast as Tom Hayden. Conversely, the most brilliant performance was by another Brit: Mark Rylance’s performance as William Kunstler. The echoes with 2020–street protests and a repressive government–made the story all the more compelling.

Baghdad Central – 8.5

A charmingly unprofessional six-parter set in post-invasion Iraq, with political and ideological overtones overlaying the conflicts: Arab-Western, British-American, Arab-Arab. Waleed Zuaiter excels as the unflappable former Iraqi inspector who navigates the political shoals while trying to find one rebel daughter and get medical help for the other. (Rather like the hero in Trapped.) Corey Stoll got to play the good American–the villain, surprisingly, is British in a British-made show. We knew the ending would be happy–exactly what I wanted–but it was a pleasure to see it unwind. Also fun was hearing Arabic, although Dari (!) and English were also spoken.

Trapped – 8.5

A worthy 10-episode drama for its Icelandic scenery alone, but the characters made returning to it night-after-night as welcome as the hearth in a storm. Best of all was Olafur Darri Olafsson as the bear of an unflappable small-town police chief, but the rest of his team, Hinrika and Asgeir, were also notable for their plain humanity. No Hollywood here. Andri’s wife Agnes had the kind of beauty that grew from inside, rather than hitting you on the head. The villains were clearly delineated as such by looks and manner, which helped keep things straight while the plot packed a half dozen separate crimes into this small coastal village where nothing ever happens.

Social Dilemma – 6

What’s the problem with social media? This film cites two, without particularly differentiating them. 1) It’s an addiction that is consuming the time and minds of the younger generation, especially. 2) It’s driving the polarization of our society, as “likes” determine what information people receive. The first appears soluble, as several of the expert talking heads reveal at film’s end, by limiting, or even banning, their children’s exposure. The second is more accurately an accelerator, albeit on steroids, rather than an inherent problem. Polarization, and the universe of alternate facts, were being driven by Fox News and talk radio before we had Twitter. The problem is people’s willingness to accept false facts, not to mention disseminate them. Social media is just the messenger, and history shows that killing the messenger is never the answer.

If You Could Read My Mind – 8.5

A thoroughly enjoyable musical biography of Gordon Lightfoot, with a Canadian viewpoint and tone. The title song alone was achievement enough for a lifetime, but Lightfoot’s career extended through two eras – the folk rock of the ’60s and singer-songwriter era of the ’70s – both fertile periods with wonderful memories to revive. Practically every recognizable Canadian folk or rock singer opined or appeared (plus, inexplicably, Alec Baldwin), which balanced the autobiographical comments of Gord himself, looking much older than 80. I liked his music when it appeared; I guess I didn’t realize, however, just how good it was.

Boys State – 8

A scary and depressing documentary about the annual American Legion-sponsored gathering of 17-year-olds, in which 1,200 boys divide into two parties and spend a week forming a government, this one from 2018 in Austin, Texas. Scary and depressing because even at that idealistic age, politics is seen as a cynical exercise and abortion and gun control are the defining issues, neither in a good way. The documentarians do a good job of creating a story with a rooting interest, given they didn’t know the outcome when they started. It’s only too bad they couldn’t manufacture a more inspiriting process or a happy ending.

Broadchurch, season 2 – 5

A limp excuse for an unnecessary second season about a crime that was handled quite well in season one. There was no character development and the story consisted of a subplot that was hard to follow and harder to accept and a court proceeding that, week in and week out, made no sense at least to us American lawyers. Charlotte Rampling’s character was particularly inexplicable, and her opponent was insufferable.

Money Heist (season 1) – 8

For six episodes this is an enthralling intellectual chess match between adversaries that are equally likeable, featuring a crew of robbers who are uniformly engaging. If the plan succeeds, no one is to get hurt and no one will suffer the loss of the millions the robbers are minting for themselves. But then around episode 7, the brainy Professor turns into Harrison Ford, one of the robbers is revealed as a sadist, the plot developments become so impossible to believe and the chess match dissolves. We have to wait for season 2 to learn how the robbers get away, and I will be glad to see more of Tokyo and Nairobi and Moscow, though not so much the others, and I wish Raquel, the chief inspector, all the best.

John Lewis: Good Trouble – 4

We watched this in homage to a great American the day after he died. As a documentary, it wasn’t much: familiar clips of the civil rights struggle–still shocking and heartbreaking–mixed with contemporary film of Lewis greeting and hugging well-wishers, with about a fifty-year hole in the middle. The only new piece for me was a reference to his first race for Congress against Julian Bond, in which Bond expressed seemingly sincere disappointment at Lewis’s less than honorable campaign. The sole negative note in 90 minutes, I wish it would have been explained or explored some more, along with some of Lewis’s battles and stands during his Congressional career. The definitive film about John Lewis is yet to be made.

The Truth – 5

I have to admit I don’t know what this film was about, although Siri’s comparison to the previous film by Kore-eda, Shopkeepers, was apt: what constitutes a family. Ethan Hawke seemed to have stumbled in from Before Midnight, in which he was equally lost; the husband Pierre seemed left over from Boudu Saved from Drowning. The director appeared intent on making Catherine Deneuve as unappealing as possible (then why sell the film as a Deneuve vehicle?): heavy, chain-smoking, insecure and inconsiderate, perpetually frowning. Nor was the character of an aging actress remotely original. Juliette Binoche shone, as usual, and the young daughter was a breath of fresh air. But the personal relationships–which presumably was the motif of the film–weren’t convincing, and the plotting was desultory. The Binoche-Hawke family had ostensibly come from America for the publication of Deneuve’s memoirs, but there wasn’t even a publication party in sight.