PAWN SACRIFICE (2015)

September 17, 2015

pawn sacrifice Greetings again from the darkness. Being such a fan of the expert documentary film Bobby Fischer Against the World (2011), I found it a bit challenging to clear my head and accept a dramatized approach to the story. This was after all, one of the most fascinating reluctant public figure during one of the most energizing signature events of the Cold War between Russia and the United States … it was even described as World War III on a chess board.

Director Edward Zwick (Glory, Blood Diamond) and writer Steven Knight (Locke, “Peaky Blinders”) wisely focus the story on the infamous World Chess Championship match in 1972 between American Bobby Fischer and Russian Boris Spassky. This was 8 years prior to the “Miracle on Ice” when the USA Olympic hockey team upset the powerhouse Russian hockey team, but this chess match caused every bit as much media frenzy and national pride as that day in Lake Placid. This international attention is as important to the story as the psychological state of Bobby Fischer and his genius-level chess skill. And it’s the media and citizenry reactions that provide the contemporary comparison to what we see too often these days thanks to social media … icons are born, chewed up, and forgotten.

Tobey Maguire plays Fischer, and despite lacking the height and physical presence of the real chess champion, he expertly conveys the paranoia, fear, and arrogance that burdened the man and created even more suspense for those of us keeping a watchful eye at the time. Liev Schreiber (“Ray Donovan”) plays Boris Spassky, and even speaks his lines in Russian. Schreiber captures the iciness for which the Russians were known, but also interjects subtle personality and insight in a story where his adversary is constantly over-the-top. Chess strategy isn’t so much the story here, as are these two men from different worlds forced together on a stage in Iceland – with the full attention of the world.

Supporting work is varied, but exceptionally strong. Robin Weigert plays Bobby’s mother, and we get glimpses of why he later suffered from Mommy issues – in no small part to her intimate gatherings of Communist friends. Lily Rabe is touching as Bobby’s sister and possibly the only person who ever had his best interest at heart. However, the real intrigue comes in the form of Peter Sarsgaard as Father Bill Lombardy, and Michael Stuhlbarg as Paul Marshall. Lombardy was Fischer’s coach and confidant, and seemed to be the only one who grasped the severity of Bobby’s mental state. Marshall, a well known attorney in the Music industry, is a shady fellow who seems connected to the government, and is really the driving force behind getting Fischer to play Spassky. More background and the motivation for these two gentlemen would have been welcome and filled a gap. The soundtrack of the era compliments the tone and is used smartly throughout.

The story of the tortured genius always makes entertaining fodder – think Van Gogh, Mozart, and John Nash. Bobby Fischer certainly fits that description, but his story is frustrating because we just don’t understand the mental issues that caused him to evolve from teenage chess prodigy to World Champion to literal anti-social outcast spewing hateful words (watch the end credit film clips). This film is a worthy primer for the man and the times, and a reminder that we are always searching for the next hero … the next person to hoist up on the pedestal, only to be replaced soon after with another, and then another. Perhaps the film says as much as about us as a people, as it does about Bobby Fischer as a person.

watch the trailer:

 

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LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS (2010)

November 26, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Based on Jamey Reidy‘s book “Hard Sell: The Evolution of a Viagra Salesman”, the film bounces around between rom-com, disease-drama and an editorial on the medical profession and drug companies. The single best reason to watch the mashed-up film is the performance of Anne Hathaway, who surprisingly, has developed into an excellent actress.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a hot shot, charming, womanizing, always “on” pharmaceutical rep who will stop at nothing to eclipse his quota and achieve a promotion to Chicago, the promised land for Pfizer. Struggling a bit to make a name for himself selling Zoloft, Jake’s destiny seems pre-disposed when Pfizer introduces Viagra. Talk about a pitch in the batter’s wheelhouse! However, as so often happens in life, a speed bump appears. The best laid plans …

When Jake’s character meets Anne’s character (Maggie), things change for both of them – despite the less than perfect introductory scenario. Turns out, her character suffers from Stage One Parkinson’s, while he is a Stage Four jerk. Actually, that makes for the perfect couple … for a short while. You can guess what happens.

When the film transitions from rom-com to heavy handed drama, many of the best scenes occur, but overall the movie suffers. The scene at the un-convention for sufferers of Parkinson’s is undoubtedly the film’s best. Furthermore, when Jake meets the husband of a Stage Four Parkinson’s patient, he gets the one minute down and dirty along with the advice to just walk away.

Rarely will a love story have so many moments of the couple trying so hard to push the other away. Speaking of Love Story (my attempt at a smooth transition), it is important to note that despite the drama and dark tones, this film never delivers the expected sobbing out loud moment … like the bedside payoff in Love Story. Instead, it actually does a terrific job of treating the disease with respect and directness. A nice change for Hollywood.

Directed by Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond), the film rests squarely on the shoulders of Ms. Hathaway, who doesn’t disappoint. Supporting work is not as effective or important. That includes Gabriel Macht (phamaceutical competitor), Hank Azaria (the only doctor who needs help with women), Judy Greer (the eager office assistant), Oliver Platt (Jake’s boss in the film’s most confusing role), and Josh Gad (in the Jonah Hill knock-off role), plus George Segal and Jill Clayburgh as Jake’s parents. A sad note: Ms. Clayburgh died on November 5th this year. She had a varied and important Hollywood career and will be missed.

What’s odd about this film is that I have actually many good things to say about it despite my overall disappointment. I love some of the fast quips from the early part. The points made against drug companies, insurance companies and the medical profession are spot on (though a bit obvious). The serious portion of the program is handled with dignity and pulls no cheap punches. Much of the interaction seemed accurate and real. But for whatever reason, the film is just not very cohesive and comes across as choppy … a series of scenes, rather than a full story. That said, it’s worth seeing for the continued growth of Anne Hathaway as an actress.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF:  you want to see Parkinson’s disease treated with dignity OR you just enjoy watching beautiful movie stars roll around in bed

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer a cohesive, clear story OR you are looking for this year’s “big cry” (ala Terms of Endearment or Love Story)