THE TENDER BAR (2021)

December 21, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and journalist JR Moehringer published his memoir in 2005. Fortunately for him, it led to his being in high demand to pen the memoirs of others. Unfortunately for us, it also led to George Clooney directing a mostly listless movie version. Adapted by Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan (THE DEPARTED, 2006), the film does offer a surprisingly interesting performance from Ben Affleck, while also failing to capitalize on other elements that could have provided a boost.

Opening with Golden Earring’s “Radar Love” blasting over the speakers, this is the story of JR – from his childhood through young adulthood. Young JR (the acting debut of Daniel Ranieri) is being raised by his resourceful single mom (Lily Rabe, ALL GOOD THINGS, 2010). Financial hardships force them from the city, back to the Long Island home of JR’s grumpy grandfather (Christopher Lloyd). Although his mother is a bit down at having to move back home, young JR embraces the slew of family members who use the house as a congregating spot. He’s also taken under the wing of Uncle Charlie (2 time Oscar winner Ben Affleck), who runs the neighborhood bar called The Dickens.

Uncle Charlie becomes JR’s adult male role model, and he passes along his love of reading to the boy. It’s this that inspires JR to dream of becoming a writer – a dream that doesn’t necessarily conflict with his mother’s dream for him to attend Yale. Other life lessons include cancer, bowling, and living with regular disappointment courtesy of JR’s absentee dad, a radio DJ referred to by the family as ‘The Voice’ (Max Martini, the “Fifty Shades” movies). In addition to Uncle Charlie’s ever-present cigarette, adult beverage, and book of the day, are the regulars at the bar played by Max Casella, Michael Braun, and Matthew Delamater. Regrettably, these guys rarely offer anything outside of well-placed one-liners. JR is surrounded by folks who say they will always be there for him. And they mean they will always be there. They aren’t going anywhere. Dreams and ambition don’t exist, except for JR’s mother – for her son, not for herself.

The first half of the movie is significantly more interesting and entertaining than the second. Once Tye Sheridan (MUD, 2012) takes over the role of JR, we immediately miss the bright eyes and eager spirit of young Daniel Ranieri. The realities of getting older set in as JR heads to Yale (class of ’86). As JR fumbles through a romantic relationship with classmate Sidney (Brianna Middleton), he’s little more than a typically clueless young man blind to realities of his situation. JR’s post-college stint at the New York Times delivers very little that interests us … heck, we aren’t even sure JR is interested in the job.

I rarely find Ben Affleck’s performance to be the best thing about a movie, but he is excellent here, following yet another terrific performance in THE WAY BACK (2020). Growing up, we all have role models. Affleck’s Uncle Charlie is one of those well-meaning adults who seemed larger than life when we were young. His endless advice can be categorized as some good, some not so good – a combination which renders most of it meaningless. But instilling a love of reading and learning is one of the most important traits one can pass along to a youngster. The movie’s issues aren’t with that message, but rather with the bland storytelling. The recurring gags of ‘what does JR stand for?’ and ‘where’s my 30 bucks?’ are just the most obvious misguided attempts at cuteness.

Opening in theaters December 22, 2021

WATCH THE TRAILER


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:

 


ALL THINGS GOOD

January 23, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Who among us isn’t intrigued by a real life “unsolved” murder mystery? Throw in a very wealthy New York real estate family, a never-discovered body, an executed friend, and a horrible childhood trauma and it is certain to draw the attention of filmmaker Andrew Jarecki. Jarecki’s film Capturing the Friedmans won numerous awards and is among the best  documentaries ever made. He has a knack with dark family secrets.

In the film, Ryan Gosling plays David Marks, disenchanted son of Real Estate mogul Sanford Marks (a powerful Frank Langella), who witnessed the grisly suicide of his mother when he was very young. David meets the energetic and affectionate Katie (Kirsten Dunst) and the two dreamers escape Daddy’s clutches and head to Vermont to open a health food store. Finally wilting under pressure from Sanford, the couple returns to the city and David joins the family business. The good things are soon to end.

Since much of the real life story is still a mystery, Jarecki does a nice job in assembling pieces from the trial records. Along the way, we meet David’s friend Deborah Lehrman (Lilly Rabe), an acclaimed writer who seems to always be there for David … as he is for her. We witness the transformation of David from loving husband to mentally disturbed murder suspect.

Jarecki gives us some guidance on what might have happened and how the plan could have been executed, but we’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that there was not much happiness associated with this family, despite the wealth and 42nd Street real estate holdings.

The acting in the film is tremendous. Gosling, Dunst and Langella are top notch. Yes, Ms. Dunst provides what is easily her best screen performance ever. Support work from Lily Rabe, Phillip Baker Hall, Nick Offerman and Kristen Wiig is all strong and believable. This one will give you the creeps … and rightly so.

A brief overview of the real story: Seymour Durst is the real life NY real estate mogul, whose son Robert stood trial and was also accused of murdering his wife, Kathleen.  Author Susan Berman wrote “Easy Street”, was friends with Robert, and was the daughter of a Las Vegas mob boss.  She was murdered, execution-style, and the case was never solved … though police believe it could be linked to the disappearance of Kathleen Durst.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you believe the best thrillers are based on real life mysteries OR you want to see Kirsten Dunst in her best ever performance (yes, better than Spider-Man)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: real life murder mysteries give you the creeps OR you don’t want to give your spouse any ideas!