Pawn Sacrifice


Checkmate.

Checkmate.

(2015) Biographical Drama (Bleecker Street) Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg, Liev Schreiber, Lily Rabe, Robin Weigert, Sophie Nélisse, Evelyne Brochu, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Nathaly Thibault, Aiden Lovekamp, Ilia Volok, Conrad Pla, Andreas Apergis, Katie Nolan, Spiro Malandrakis, Peter Janov, Lydia Zadel. Directed by Edward Zwick

Chess is one of the most complex games ever invented. After just the third move, there are over 40 billion possible combinations that are available. It takes a strong, keen, focused mind to play the game well and to become a grandmaster takes an intellect that most of us can only dream of. To become the world’s chess champion however – well, few ever reach that pinnacle.

Bobby Fischer (Maguire) aspires to that mountaintop. As a young boy (Lovekamp) he developed a passion for the game. His mother Regina (Weigert) raised him and his sister Joan (Nélisse) as a single mom; an American-board Jew who had fled Europe prior to World War II, she had become a communist sympathizer which led to their home being watched by the FBI. Bobby’s chess prowess led Regina to bring him to the attention of Carmine Nigro (Pla), a chess champion who was impressed by Bobby’s skills and even more so by his potential.

As Bobby got older and became renowned as America’s best chess player, he turned his sights to the Russians who were the elite chess players of their day. However, in tournaments the Russians purposely would play Bobby to draws in order to lower his point school, keeping him from qualifying for a championship match with Boris Spassky (Schreiber), then the world champion. Lawyer Paul Marshall (Stuhlbarg), wanting to see Fischer get a shot at the Russians and help America out of its doldrums caused by economic recession, civil unrest and the Vietnam War. He arranged for Bobby to be mentored by Father Bill Lombardy (Sarsgaard), himself a grandmaster.

At last Bobby got his chance to play Spassky for the world championship but by this time his mental illness began to rear its ugly head. Bobby, beset by paranoia and by hyper-sensitivity to sound, began to make increasingly bizarre demands of the chess federation that sanctioned the match. He would arrive late to matches and on one occasion, not at all. His antics would lead him to go down two points to zero in the tournament against Spassky (in the tournament, players get one point for a win and a half point for a draw; a two point deficit is nearly insurmountable). His now adult and married sister (Rabe) is extremely concerned for his sanity.

Unable to maintain any interpersonal relationships because of his increasing paranoia and his poor social skills (he was demanding, uncompromising and often shrill, even to friends) other than with a prostitute (Brochu) with whom he’d had a brief sexual liaison, Bobby is in danger of losing everything he ever dreamed of and worse, being forced to give up the game that made him famous – but may be part of the disintegration of his mind.

The story of Bobby Fischer is a modern tragedy. Zwick, who directed Glory about 20 years ago, has an affinity for tragic stories but he goes a little overboard here. Fischer’s madness, which certainly has to be at or near center-stage for the film, becomes a little MORE than that; we’re subjected to endless scenes of imaginary pounding on his door, voices speaking in Russian, Maguire looking confused or concerned and so forth. I would have been more interested in how he overcame those things to play one of the most memorable tournaments in the history of chess.

Maguire has turned in some notable performances in films both large and small and while this isn’t one of his best, it is far from one that would earn him demerits. It would have been easy to make Bobby Fischer a series of psychotic tics and screaming rage fits but he resists the urge to let those define the character. Maguire actually makes Fischer, maybe one of the most unsympathetic figures in history, somewhat sympathetic here, a little boy lost amid the growing noises in his head that would eventually overwhelm him.

Part of what is fascinating about this story is the enormous pressure that was brought to bear on Fischer; he was playing not just for the championship, but for an ideology. He was playing to show that the West was just as competitive and just as intellectually acute as the Soviets. He was expected to win and the film only touches on that. We don’t get a sense of whether that affected Fischer or not; some accounts say that it did but you wouldn’t know it by watching this.

Schreiber and Sarsgaard are both put in roles that are the sort both actors excel at and they respond with excellence. The former plays Spassky as a man who understands that he is playing a very dangerous game, but knows how to play it very well. He’s a bit of an international playboy but he is also one of the greatest chess players not just of his day but ever. He also works within a repressive system in which he is almost always watched and surrounded by what are ostensibly bodyguards but who are there as much to keep him from defecting as they are to keep him from harm.

&Sarsgaard plays the priest who is also a grandmaster (this isn’t made up; the man really existed) and who served as Fischer’s second, analyzing his game and opponent and preparing Fischer with rapid-fire games. Gentle of demeanor, he doesn’t seem cut out for the cut-throat world of international chess in an era when it was highly politicized. Sarsgaard in many ways acts as the conduit between the audience and the action, letting us know if we should be concerned or overjoyed at Fischer’s various games. The movie spends a good deal of time on Game 6 of the Fischer-Spassky tournament, which many in the chess community view as the greatest game ever played. Certainly to anyone who knows the game, it was a thing of beauty, one which caused even Spassky to applaud his opponent. That doesn’t happen very often; in fact, it’s only happened once.

In fact, this is a solidly acted movie throughout and quite frankly I wasn’t sure if it was going to be; the story lends itself to scenery chewing of the first order, but fortunately we don’t see any of that except for rare instances. Bobby Fischer is a name that probably doesn’t mean very much to younger audiences; people my age probably remember the Fischer-mania that swept the nation, a notoriety the real grandmaster neither sought out nor wanted. The demons that beset the man and ultimately brought him down until he was eventually a man without a country, whom the world had essentially turned its back on. When he died in 2008, it became a sad obituary in what had once been a flame-brilliant career. Is this the movie that could best capture his life? I don’t think any dramatic narrative could. Even the documentary on Fischer scarcely captures the tragic nature of his life and fall and Pawn Sacrifice only hints at the fall.

In many ways, this is set up to be a sports underdog drama, but I didn’t leave with the cathartic feeling that many of those films instill in their audiences. Instead, I left feeling sad; sad for a bitter, unhappy man who happened to be a chess genius but never could master the game of life.

REASONS TO GO: Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Overdoes some of the “going crazy” elements.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some adult thematic content, a bit of sexuality and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Bobby Fischer was a fan of the Manchester United football (soccer) team.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Me and Bobby Fischer
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Surviving Me: The 9 Circles of Sophie

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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy


Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Believe it or not, George Smiley IS smiling!!!!

(2011) Spy Drama (Focus) Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Jones, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Dencik, Kathy Burke, Stephen Graham, Simon McBurney, Svetlana Khodchenkova, Arthur Nightingale. Directed by Tomas Alfredson

 

Some spies are meant to be shaken and not stirred. Others are more intellectual, preferring to think their way out of a situation by thoroughly researching. For them, the spy game is as complex and as action-packed as a game of chess.

George Smiley (Oldman) couldn’t have been given a worse surname. He rarely smiles, not even for a moment. He is a methodical man, emotionless. He worked as an analyst for MI6, the British counter-intelligence group that was made famous by James Bond. However, his life is much different than that of the dashing Ian Fleming creation. Smiley works for the Circus (it is unclear whether this is a group within MI6 or the directorate of the agency itself) as the right hand man for Control (Hurt). It is 1973 and the Cold War is in full swing.

A disastrous mission to Hungary leads to a purge in the Circus. Control and Smiley are out, and in are a cadre of four men – Percy Alleline (Jones) – the leader, Bill Haydon (Firth), Roy Bland (Hinds) and Toby Esterhase (Dencik).  Control suspected one of them of being a double agent for the Soviets and had nicknamed them Tinker, Tailor, Soldier and Poor Man respectively, after a British nursery rhyme. When field agent Rikki Tarr (Hardy) turns up with information about the identity of the mole, minister Oliver Lacon (McBurney) pulls Smiley out of retirement to ferret out the traitor.

Aided by his protégé Peter Guillam (Cumberbatch), Smiley attempts to quietly find the mole while keeping clear of the MI6 brass, any one of whom might be the culprit and all the while dealing with the estrangement from his beloved (but promiscuous) wife Ann.

Alfredson was the director of the excellent Swedish vampire film Let the Right One In. This is his first English-language movie and given the cold exteriors of his previous film is the right choice for this one. The England of 1973 is a dreary looking one, with grey washed out skies, filthy buildings, dingy interiors and in general, just a depressing place to be. Truly a Cold War.

Oldman gives a performance that is surprisingly strong. Much of the movie he is spent repressing his emotions and has to show his feelings with his eyes. There is a great deal of sadness inside the spy; sadness at the failure of his marriage, sadness that among his trusted friends is a betrayer, sadness that he is growing into an uncomfortable middle age. There is a scene near the end of the film where Smiley tells Guillam about his one and only encounter with the Soviet spy Karla, who is behind the ole plot. As Smiley tells Guillam the story, you can see the regret; the emotions that have been repressed for so long are just aching to be let out. It’s one of the best single scenes that any actor has performed this year in any movie and it’s worth seeing the film just for that one scene. It’s so good that if Oldman gets a Best Actor nomination I’d be willing to bet that’s the clip that gets shown at the Oscars.

There is a bevy of fine English actors here to support him, including the aging Hurt (who mostly appears in flashback), the combed over McBurney and Hardy, who knows he has done some bad things and wants to do just one thing right. Still, it is Oldman who carries the movie in the palm of his hand – a tough gig when you have Oscar winner Colin Firth in the line-up and Firth is far from disappointing here.

This is a cerebral spy film, one which is more of a chess game than an action thriller. The pace of the movie is going to drive most Bondphiles absolutely batty. There are no car chases, no high tech gadgets and no henchmen. There are no bon mots delivered after the spy beats some thug up without so much as a hair going out of place;

This is spycraft in the real world circa 1973. This is listening devices with operators recording and then writing down the transcripts of the conversation. This is conferences in soundproof rooms. This is tired old men sending down orders to foolish young men. It’s trying to out-think your opponent, knowing that if you guess wrong that your country could wind up a smoking ruin of irradiated ash.

This is a very different kind of spy movie – it’s been made as a television miniseries back in the day with the late Sir Alec Guiness as Smiley and his performance is still considered the definitive one for the role, although I’m sure in the years to come there will be plenty to take up Oldman’s side on the issue.  Alfredson does a great job of re-creating the era and the screenwriters Bridget O’Connor (who passed away shortly after finishing the script) and Peter Staughan capture the soul of le Carre’s work. The movie does it justice to a certain extent but I only wish the movie wasn’t so damn glacial. I’m all for thoughtful but a little action is nice too.

REASONS TO GO: Very cerebral. A definite throwback to Cold War-era spy stories. Oldman gives an understated but terrific performance.

REASONS TO STAY: Lacks action and inertia; can be very slow in places.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and a bit of sexuality and nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Oldman based his performance as Smiley on some of the mannerisms that he observed from author John le Carre, who also has a cameo as a somewhat drunken partygoer at the Christmas party.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100. The reviews are extremely good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The American

SWINGING SIXTIES LOVERS: Plenty of smoking, drinking and shagging (by inference) – all things that are politically incorrect these days. What once were habits now are vices.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Hall Pass

Apollo 18


Apollo 18

These astronauts discover to their shock that the moon really IS made of green cheese.

(2011) Found Footage Horror (Dimension) Warren Christie, Lloyd Owen, Ryan Robbins. Directed by Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego

Once upon a time, traveling to the moon seemed like the ultimate adventure in human achievement. Then in 1969, we achieved it and it seemed like afterwards humanity did a collective ho-hum and we went on to other things, like toppling Latin American democracies. The moon landing program was curtailed after Apollo 17 in 1972.

But according to this film, there was one more mission in 1974 – one that landed on the South Pole of the moon (technically impossible according to the technology of the time), one that was made secret by the Department of Defense.

Astronauts Nate Walker (Owen) and Ben Anderson (Christie) along with Command Module pilot John Grey (Robbins) can’t even tell their families about their mission, which is top secret. They are tasked with positioning some listening devices on the surface of the moon that will help give early warning about missile launches from the then-Soviet Union.

However, the astronauts encounter something odd. Their communications are cutting out frequently because of an odd frequency which they think is being transmitted by the listening devices, although frankly that puzzles them because they shouldn’t be transmitting anything. They continue to do astronaut-like things – taking rock samples, driving the lunar rover around, and planting the flag.

However things take a decided turn for the strange. They discover a Russian landing vehicle in a nearby crater where they also discover the body of a cosmonaut who apparently was injured and died. Things get really weird when the astronauts try to take off and something slams into the lunar module, damaging it. Now they are in a race against time for survival – and they aren’t alone.

This is purported to be NASA footage from 1974 that was culled from hundreds of hours of footage uploaded to a bogus website (www.lunartruth.org) which the studio is marketing as actual footage. And yes, some of it is actual footage – from previous lunar missions, mixed in with footage shot in Vancouver.

This is Lopez-Gallego’s first English-language film after a couple of pretty nifty Spanish horror films. Like many Spanish directors, he has an eye for mood and a knack for increasing the tension nicely. There are plenty of startle scares here and quite frankly I cried out several times during the movie, something I very rarely do during horror movies. That’s money as far as I’m concerned.

Yeah, the whole found footage thing is getting a bit tired, but it is done cleverly here and great attention to detail is laid in, from shooting it so the horizon is low (as it is on the moon) to re-creating the lunar and command modules and shooting on 16mm film that is properly grainy and washed out, color-wise. All of these are effective.

The science here has been described as “preposterous” and quite frankly if you know that much about physics and engineering you’re going to be driven crazy, but then again that’s usually the case with most space-set movies. What it all boils down to is whether or not the movie is scary and as I’ve already stated, it is big time. Check your higher functions at the door and be prepared to have your primordial self pee its pants as your nightmares come to life on the multiplex screen.

REASONS TO GO: I’ve seen all sorts of horror films and most don’t scare me much; this one did.

REASONS TO STAY: The handheld cams are dizzy-making at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some nightmare-inducing scenes as well as some bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the movie, the actors walk normally on the lunar surface. In reality, astronauts had to shuffle their feet somewhat in order not to go leaping around the moon like gazelles because of the low gravity.

HOME OR THEATER: The lunar desolation should be seen on the big screen, but the 16mm cameras work on the home screen as well.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Bringing Out the Dead

The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)


The Lives of Others

Careful what you say - you never know who may be listening.

(Sony Classics) Ulrich Muhe, Sebastian Koch, Martina Gedeck, Ulrich Tukur, Thomas Thieme, Volkmar Kleinert. Directed by Florian Henckel von Dommersmarck

Knowledge is power. In a repressive state, the more knowledge that the state has of its people, the more power it has over them.

In the communist government of East Germany in 1991, the secret police – known as the Stasi – have absolute control over the people of East Berlin. With an army of informants and strategically placed listening devices, the hallmark is that the knowledge of the lives of others protects the state and makes it stronger. Captain Gerd Wiesler (Muhe), one of the most skilled interrogators of the Stasi, believes this implicitly.

While attending a play with his ambitious superior Grubitz (Tukur), they run into Minister Hempf (Thieme). He remarks that the playwright, Georg Dreyman (Koch) may not be as loyal to the GDR as was first assumed and that a full-scale surveillance operation might not be frowned upon. Grubitz pounces on the opportunity and assigns the operation to the personal control of Wiesler, one of his most trusted men.

Dreyman lives with the celebrated actress Christa-Marie Sieland (Gedeck) and as such are something of the Brad and Angelina of East Germany. They have never fallen under the scrutiny of the state before and at first, it is apparent why. While most of their peers are critical of the GDR, Dreyman is not. Even when he assumes that he is in the privacy of his own home, he utters not a word against the government. However, Dreyman’s loyalty wavers when he discovers that his girlfriend has been pressured into a sexual relationship with Minister Hempf. It is further eroded when Dreyman’s friend and mentor, Albert Jerska (Kleinert) commits suicide after having been effectively blacklisted by the GDR for seven years.

No longer content to be silent against the GDR’s repressive policies, Dreyman is determined to inform the outside world about the high rate of suicide in the GDR which its government has covered up. He authors an article in Der Spiegel, the West German magazine, about the subject. Published anonymously, the article creates an uproar in the corridors of power. The Stasi becomes determined to find out who published the offending article.

Wiesler has been observing all this. He alone knows who authored the article, and that information could be advantageous to his own career advancement, as well as that of Grubitz. However, Wiesler himself has doubts. Having seen first-hand the corruption of the government and its effect on the people, he wonders if he is working on the right side. Enchanted by the freedom – however repressed it may be – of the artistic couple, he is drawn into events that will change not only his life, but the lives of those he has been charged to spy on.

Director von Dommersmarck has created an amazing movie, all the more so because of its miniscule budget (roughly $2 million American, which on most Hollywood productions would barely cover the catering). He manages to create a great deal of tension, and in many ways this reminds me of the classic Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation. There, as in here, the act of surveillance changes those who are doing the listening.

Most of the actors lived in East Germany during the era portrayed here (although von Dommersmarck claimed that was unintentional) and so they bring a certain amount of personal experience into the movie. This has all the elements of a great thriller, one that would do Hitchcock proud, but it isn’t a thriller precisely. There are equal amounts of drama and character study as well.

Muhe does a magnificent job of playing the quiet, emotionless Wiesler. His face registers nothing, no anger nor joy; he is a faceless bureaucrat doing a job. And yet there is sadness in his eyes, almost as if deep down he realizes what he is doing is wrong. This contradiction is at the crux of The Lives of Others and is one of two things that make it so compelling.

The other thing is a little more esoteric and a bit more political. The question that this movie raises is not just about the communist dictatorship of the GDR, but about our own system. Given the advancements in computer tracking and listening devices, our own privacy has been severely compromised. How much of our lives does our own government keep tabs on – and is the security that it supposedly affords worth the potential for abuse? Do we have an expectation of privacy anymore? Does big business have the ethics to keep our information private? Certainly this movie provides an answer to these very important questions, although on the last one you may have to draw your own conclusions.

While the movie runs a bit on the long side, I was never bored. Because the thriller elements keep the tension level high, the viewer is left on the edge of their seat for much of the movie. This won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar back in 2008, and could easily have been the Best Picture overall. This is one of the best movies of the decade and you should see it if you have a chance.

WHY RENT THIS: This affords a look at life in the kind of environment that Americans may not have a good deal of experience with, even if we are rapidly becoming a similar environment.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At two hours and 17 minutes, the movie runs a bit long.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some nudity and a good deal of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This movie received more Lola nominations (the German equivalent of the Oscars) than any in history.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While most DVD and Blu-Ray releases contain some sort of commentary track, this one is noteworthy in that it is all director von Dommersmarck and it is one of the most extensive and informative tracks I’ve ever heard.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: Day Night Day Night