Then Playing — The Trial of the Chicago 7; Slice; Horse Girl

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Aaron Sorkin, 2020). Aaron Sorkin finds the ideal vehicle for his talky liberal indignation in the sham legal case leveled against a group of protestors who were bullied and brutalized by Chicago police officers during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The flagrant abuse of the Nixon White House prosecuting activists was compounded by the ludicrously irresponsible rulings of Judge Julius Hoffman (Frank Langella), most infamously his flagrant abuse of Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), the original eighth defendant who was such a target of judicial ire that the case against him was declared a mistrial before the proceedings were over. Dramatizing these events allows Sorkin to simultaneously indulge in the courtroom banter of A Few Good Men and the political outrage of The West Wing and The Newsroom. The script is snappy and smart, but Sorkin’s direction is so flavorless that it undermines the film’s momentum, which in turn calls attention to his more manipulative structural choices. Sorkin’s good and bad instincts tangle as destructively as the hippies and cops. A cast of ringers delivers strong work, with Mark Rylance and Eddie Redmayne as the standouts.

Slice (Austin Vesely, 2018). The perils of actively attempting to make a cult film are illustrated nicely by Austin Vesely’s debut feature. In a small town with a troubled history that’s included all manner of ghouls and monsters, a spate of gruesome murders of pizza delivery people becomes fodder for political posturing by the mayor (Chris Parnell, doing his standard pompous-doofus thing) and a cause for sleuthing by both an intrepid young reporter (Rae Gray) and a headstrong woman (Zazie Beetz) with a personal connection to the ill-fated pizzeria and its employees. And Chance the Rapper (credited as Chance Bennett) show up, playing a misunderstood werewolf. Slice is bloody and rife with clumsy self-mockery, as if Vesely is actively hoping for inclusion in the roster of Mystery Science Theater 3000 favorites. A generous evaluation might deem it satire, but it’s not smart enough for that, nor deft enough to straddle the line between genuine scares and cheeky mockery. The amateurish nature of the film comes across not as a pose, but as a genuine shortcoming.

Horse Girl (Jeff Baena, 2020). Jeff Baena’s first feature credit was as co-writer on I Heart Huckabees, directed by David O. Russell. As with that delirious mess, Baena tries to build imagery out of psychological dilemmas in the Horse Girl. The first portion of the film has a nice live-in quality as it follows sad craft store employee Sarah (Alison Brie), hinting at the worries that weigh on her. Baena’s screenplay adeptly portrays small, tentative interactions between people, many of them with an aching need to find their place in the world. As Sarah’s struggles escalate, the film grows more strained, especially as Baena indulges in visuals that come across as the lo-cal version of David Lynch. Brie is game all the way through, bringing so much conviction to the role that she squeezes poignancy out of the narrative like the last drops of juice from a seemingly spent lemon rind.

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