God Knows Where I Am


Some of the beautiful imagery used in the film.

(2016) Documentary (BOND360) Joan Bishop, Lori Singer (voice), Caitlin Murtagh, Kathy White, Brian Smith, Matthew Nelson, Doug Bixby, Lora Goss, Wayne DiGeronimo, Stephanie Savard, Judith E. Kolada, Paul Appelbaum, Kevin Carbone, James E. Duggan, Thomas Scarlato, E. Fuller Torrey, Jennie Duval. Directed by Jedd Wider and Todd Wider

 

In 2008, the decomposing body of a woman was discovered in an abandoned New Hampshire farmhouse. Her shoes were neatly at her side. Nearby two notebooks full of journal entries told the tale of her stay in the farmhouse. She was identified as Linda Bishop, a woman diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder who had walked out of a New Hampshire mental hospital and walked to the farmhouse where she would die of starvation.

This film by veteran documentary producers Jedd and Todd Wider, a brother team best known for their work with Alex Gibney, utilized Bishop’s own words from her journals (spoken by actress Lori Singer) as well as interviews with her sister Joan, her daughter Caitlin, her close friend Kathy as well as psychiatric and medical professionals that treated her, the police officer and medical examiner working her case as well as the Judge who committed her.

The Wider brothers choose to build a story, slowly adding details that complete the picture. We meet Linda as a young woman, charismatic and full of life. We discover her love for the outdoors and nature, and discover that she’s smart, articulate and knowledgeable about the world around her. She gets married, has a daughter, gets divorced but is by all accounts a wonderful mother who is virtually inseparable from her daughter who adores her.

And then the mental illness begins to rear its ugly head. A job as a waitress at a Chinese restaurant is quit because she believes the Chinese mafia is out to get her. This prompts the first of several relocations with her puzzled daughter. Soon it becomes apparent that Linda is incapable of caring for herself, much less her daughter. Caitlin is sent to live with relatives and Linda alternates between lucidity and delusion, depending on how vigilant she is in taking her medication. The problem is that Linda doesn’t believe that she’s ill; as her paranoia deepens, she begins to believe that Joan, one of the last advocates that she has, is out to get her pittance of an inheritance left to her when her dad had passed away. For that reason, Linda refuses to allow Joan power of guardianship, a crucial event which essentially blocks Linda and the rest of the family from getting much of any information about Linda’s care and treatment at all. They aren’t even notified when she’s released. As a result, nobody notices she’s gone while she’s slowly wasting away on a diet mainly of apples she’s picked in the woods and rain water. By that time, Linda had alienated her daughter and her own friends. Only Joan still stood by her and one gets the sense that it was a burden for her.

The movie originated in a story in The New Yorker written by Rachel Aviv who is a producer on the documentary. It is a poignant tale and for the most part it is told well here. The filmmakers for some reason decide to leave some crucial information out – doubtlessly to make it more impactful when it is revealed near the very end of the movie – but I don’t think they’re successful in that matter. We mostly can guess who “Steve” is and his role in the story and as he s mentioned many, many times in Linda’s journal, it gets a bit frustrating.

The cinematography here is absolutely breathtaking. Gerardo Puglia fills the screen with bucolic farmhouses, still winter landscapes and beautifully lit apple trees at sunset. Singer who most will remember from the 1984 version of Footloose reads Bishop’s words with extraordinary depth and even the thick New England landscape does nothing to rob Bishop of her character.

The title is an ironic one; it is taken directly from Linda’s journals in which it is used as an expression of faith. Linda knows that God is aware of her; He knows where she is and will take care of her in the end. However, it can also be construed to be an expression of being lost and there are few souls who were more lost than Linda Bishop was.

The filmmakers very much believe that the mental health care system in this country is badly broken and in all honesty it’s hard to argue with them. In our zeal to protect the rights of the patient we sometimes forget that they often are unable to make informed decisions on their own. The tale of Linda Bishop is a sad one; even in her last days she had a sense of humor and a bluntness that is refreshing and one can only wonder what she would have been like had she continued to take her meds. There’s one certain thing she would have been had she done so – alive.

REASONS TO GO: The cinematography is absolutely gorgeous. The story is truly heartbreaking.
REASONS TO STAY: The identity of Steve, who is mentioned throughout, is withheld until the very end which gets frustrating.
FAMILY VALUES: The theme, having to do with mental illness, is adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film won a special jury award at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto last year.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Devil and Daniel Johnston
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: For Here or to Go?

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The Salesman (Forushande)


Taraneh Alidoosti peers into a room that no longer feels safe to her.

(2016) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Taraneh Alidoosti, Shahab Hosseini, Babak Karimi, Farid Sajjadi Hosseini, Mina Sadati, Mojtaba Prizadeh, Sam Valipour, Emad Emami, Mehdi Koushki, Maral Bani Adam, Shirin Aghakashi, Ehteram Boroumand, Sahra Asadollahe. Directed by Asghar Farhadi

 

They say life imitates art, although it is more accurate to say that art imitates life far more often. On the rare occasion when the reverse is true it can be much more devastating than you might think.

Emad Etesami (S. Hosseini) is a teacher of Western literature in an Iranian high school (or its equivalent). Most of his students are practical jokers and a bit on the unruly side. His job is just that – a job. His passion is the stage and his drama club is producing Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with Emad in the lead role of Willie Loman and Emad’s wife Rana (Alidoosti) as Linda Loman, Willie’s wife.

When their apartment complex becomes uninhabitable due to structure damage, Babak (Karimi), one of their cast members, offers an apartment in a complex that he owns. He’s a bit reticent to talk about the previous tenant, who left suddenly, other than to say “she had too many visitors.” What that cryptic remark meant soon became apparent when they discover that the woman in question had left some possessions she refused to pick up…and that she might have been entertaining men in the oldest profession sense of the word.

But that thought takes a bad turn when one night while Rana is alone and in the shower she buzzes in someone she assumes is her husband. Instead, it is someone who leaves her with a concussion and several bruises. Rana denies she was sexually assaulted but she is definitely reacting as if she was. She becomes paranoid, frightened. She becomes less able to leave the apartment even after she is cleared medically to do so. The relationship between Rana and Emad becomes strained. He becomes obsessed with finding out who committed the assault on his wife. He feels guilty for not having protected her. That obsession will lead to a confrontation that will test his basic decency and moral center. In other words, the Tennessee Miller play is being enacted in his life.

This is the most recent (as of this writing) winner for the Foreign Language Film Oscar and the second such award that Farhadi has won (the first was for A Separation). It’s fair to say that he is one of the best film directors in the world at the moment. Like some of his previous films, he takes an ordinary couple and throws something extraordinary into their lives.

It is never fully disclosed whether or not Rana suffered a sexual assault; whatever happened takes place off-screen and we’re left to wonder, as Emad does, whether or not she was raped. Certainly we are led in that direction through most of the film. Emad changes; he becomes obsessed, enraged and occasionally lashes out at Rana. Rana, for her part, becomes paranoid and withdrawn. While our sympathies lie with Emad about midway through the movie (Rana takes out a lot of her anger on him) we watch as our sympathies slowly change sides until Rana becomes the more rational of the two.

We see how bureaucrats in Iran regulate the arts, calling for slight changes in the Miller script that portray the West as decadent and corrupt. We also see how people are careful about expressing what they want to as there are always secret police around. It is the casual fear and paranoia that are part of the daily lives of Iranians that was the most poignant takeaway for me from this film.

Both Alidoosti and Hosseini are big stars in Iran. They are unlikely to ever cross over to American stardom; the current political climate forbids that. They give performances that while not necessarily Oscar-worthy are certainly worth including in that conversation. Alidoosti strikes me as the kind of actress who could easily be headlining major franchise films in a perfect world. This world is not perfect; it was never perfect and Arthur Miller knew that. The imperfect world is what crushed Willie Loman in the first place. Both Rana and Emad are setting themselves up to be crushed by that same world; whether they survive or not is immaterial. What does succeed is that not only do we see the cultural similarities between Iran and the West but we inadvertently become closer to the Iranian people by doing so.

REASONS TO GO: The performances of Alidoosti and Hosseini are strong. There’s some insight here into the repressive regime in Iran. The effect of the assault on all involved is realistically depicted.
REASONS TO STAY: The film moves at something of a slow pace.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a brief bloody image and adult thematic content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Farhadi chose not to travel to Hollywood to participate in the 2017 Academy Awards due to the travel ban that was enacted by the United States against seven Muslim nations including Iran. When the film won, Anousheh Ansari read a statement by the director explaining his absence.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Irreversible
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: Wilson

Gold (2016)


They may be in the middle of nowhere but at least they have a good pot of coffee.

They may be in the middle of nowhere but at least they have a good pot of coffee.

(2016) Adventure (Dimension) Matthew McConaughey, Edgar Ramirez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Corey Stoll, Toby Kebbell, Bill Camp, Joshua Harto, Timothy Simons, Craig T. Nelson, Stacy Keach, Macon Blair, Adam LaFevre, Bruce Greenwood, Rachael Taylor, Frank Wood, Michael Landes, Bhavesh Patel, Vic Browder, Dylan Kenin, Stafford Douglas, Kristen Rakes. Directed by Stephen Gaghan

 

A wise man once wrote that “all that glitters is not gold” but gold does glitter and its pull on some men is irresistible. It is the lure of riches and fame but also of conquering the odds. Not many who go looking for gold actually find it.
Kenny Wells (McConaughey) is once such. His company – the Washoe Mining Company that he inherited from his respected and revered dad (Nelson) and which had been founded nearly 80 years earlier by his granddad – is foundering, a once-thriving organization doing business out of a bar and down to a few loyal employees who hadn’t been paid in months. The economic downturn of the 80s has hit Washoe and Kenny hard. As it turns out, Kenny is a bit of a carnival barker, trying to get funds from disinterested local bankers to take one last stab at the dream. While his girlfriend Kay (Howard) remains loyal and believes in him, things look pretty bleak for Kenny Wells.

Then he discovers the largely discredited theories of Michael Acosta (Ramirez) who had discovered a sizable copper deposit years earlier. A rock star among geologists at one time, Acosta is also on a downward spiral. However, Acosta believes there is a major gold deposit in one of the most remote areas of Indonesia.

At first, things go badly. Kenny has sunk every last dime he has and what little he is able to borrow into the venture. To make matters worse, he’s contracted malaria and nearly dies. Acosta nurses him back to health and even as the miners (who also haven’t been paid) have left in droves, the patience pays off as gold is discovered and not just a little bit – billions of dollars worth. Kenny and Michael have just hit the big time and for Kay, her ship has just come in.

Immediately as word spreads of the small company’s find spreads, Wall Street sharks begin to circle in particular in the form of Brian Woolf (Stoll) who is all smiles and white teeth but means to wring every penny out of Washoe that he can. It looks like easy pickings, too – Kenny’s drinking, always a problem for him, has reached massive proportions. He also smokes like a fiend and is paunchy and sometimes he’s not all together mentally speaking, or at least so it appears.

But Kenny proves to be cannier than people give him credit for. The small time operator has a few tricks up his sleeve as he fights to protect what he worked so hard to obtain. And for awhile, it looks like he might succeed until a bombshell drops that threatens all he has earned – and then some.

This is loosely based – VERY loosely – on the Bre-X mining scandal of the 1990s. For one thing, that took place in Canada rather than in Nevada and led to some major reforms on the Canadian stock exchange as well as in mining practices. The investigation also overwhelmed the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who simply didn’t have the resources to investigate the scale of corruption that took place so there were never any charges filed.

Otherwise most of the salient facts that are shown here jive with what happened in Canada back in the 1990s. Some of the characters here were based on people who were involved in the real case (primarily Wells and Acosta). Otherwise, this is mainly a yarn about greed and dreams.

McConaughey went the “de-glamorize” route, wearing a set of crooked false teeth, gaining 45 pounds on a cheeseburger diet to get quite a bit of a paunch and wearing a hair piece with a bald spot and thinning locks. McConaughey, who is a very handsome man, doesn’t look that way here. In the past, I’ve praised Hollywood actors for going this route for the sake of their art but it’s becoming a much more prevalent event these days so I’ll refrain from a whole lot of compliments; let’s just say that the acting performance that McConaughey delivers is as good as anything he’s done regardless of the sideshow about how he looks here. He’s come a long way since the laidback Texas surfer dude he seemed to always be playing.

The movie runs two full hours and to be honest I’m not sure it needed to. Once the gold is discovered it begins to drag a little bit as the corporate setup takes most of the focus and that portion of the film isn’t nearly as interesting. The ending is definitely Hollywood too – I would have liked it to have been less heart-warming, particularly after everything the principles did to each other. It doesn’t seem terribly realistic to me.

Like many other films that Weinstein distributes, this bounced around the release schedule for a time before settling on a Christmas release in New York and Los Angeles and expanding nationwide in January. I’m frankly mystified that they’d open this up in the holiday season at all; there was never any real chance of Oscar attention here and to be honest this feels a little bit more suited to the less competitive January release schedule. Still, it is competently done and reasonably entertaining which given what dogs we usually get in January is saying something.

REASONS TO GO: McConaughey does a stellar job here despite all the make-up and hair tomfoolery..
REASONS TO STAY: Overall, the film feels long and seems to lose steam in the middle.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bit of sexuality, some nudity and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Gaghan’s first film in eleven years, his last being Syriana.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 41% positive reviews. Metacritic: 49/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fool’s Gold
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Live By Night

Rules Don’t Apply


Lily Collins celebrates being backlit.

Lily Collins celebrates being backlit.

(2016) Dramedy (20th Century Fox) Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Warren Beatty, Matthew Broderick, Martin Sheen, Paul Sorvino, Candice Bergen, Annette Bening, Hart Bochner, Haley Bennett, Paul Schneider, Ed Harris, Chace Crawford, Oliver Platt, Taissa Farmiga, Marshall Bell, Ron Perkins, Alec Baldwin, Dabney Coleman, Steve Coogan, Joshua Malina, Louise Linton. Directed by Warren Beatty

 

Most of us have to live within the rules. The rules after all are there for a reason. There are a fortunate few – or perhaps an unfortunate few – who for one reason or another are exceptions. The rules don’t really apply to them. It can be very liberating – and very lonely.

Marla Mabry (Collins) has come to Hollywood in sunny 1958 to make her fame and fortune as an actress. No less than Howard Hughes (Beatty) has put her under contract. She and her devout Baptist mother (Bening) are met at the airport by Frank Forbes (Ehrenreich), a driver with ambitions of his own.

She discovers that she is one of 26 girls under contract to Hughes, all of whom he is insanely jealous towards. In fact, “insane” is a word that fits his behavior which has grown increasingly erratic as paranoia and obsessive-compulsive disorder have begun to take hold of his life like a dog with a bone. Forbes’ boss Levar (Broderick) shows Frank the ropes, but even though it’s forbidden he begins to have romantic feelings for Marla, feelings which are returned. In the meantime, Hughes begins to fall for the pretty, talented singer-songwriter-actress, but he is under siege as there are those who wish to declare him incompetent and take his company away from him. Those closest to him – including Frank – are determined not to let that happen.

First, this isn’t really a biography of the billionaire. Certainly some of the events depicted here actually happened, but Marla Mabry and Frank Forbes are entirely fictional; so is most of the rest of the cast in fact, although a few historical figures make appearances now and again. This is more of a fable of the Howard Hughes myth than anything else.

Beatty, who hasn’t appeared onscreen in 15 years or directed a film in 18, does a terrific job with Hughes keeping him from becoming a caricature of mental illness. Hughes feels like a living, breathing person here rather than an interpretation of an encyclopedia entry. Often when Hollywood brings real people to the screen, they feel more mythic than actual. I always appreciate films that utilize historical figures that feel like human beings rather than animatronic renditions of legends.

The cast is made up in equal parts of veteran actors, some of whom rarely appear onscreen these days (like Bergen and Coleman) and up-and-comers with huge potential (like Ehrenreich and Collins), with Beatty leaning towards the former in his casting decisions. It is certainly welcome watching some of these pros who are either semi-retired or fully retired plying their craft once more. Of particular note is Bergen as the matronly (and occasionally curmudgeonly) but ultimately kindly secretary/personal assistant to Hughes.

The issue here is that the movie is long and the plot bounces around from scene to scene with an almost manic quality, sometimes giving short shrift to subtlety and other times leading up blind alleys and locked doors. I get the sense that Beatty is trying to craft a parable about the nature of wealth and power and its corrupting influence. Hughes seems like a nice enough guy but his money and influence tends to corrupt everyone around him, including those who didn’t start off cynical. One of the characters gets out before any real harm is done to them; another gets sucked into the vortex.

While this is something of a passion project for Beatty (he’s been trying to get a film made about Hughes since the early 70s) it doesn’t feel like one. It’s a bit bloated and self-defeating, but there’s enough that is interesting going on to make it worth a look. It’s mostly out of the theaters by now – critical indifference and an audience that is attracted to movies about superheroes and aliens more than about those who shaped the world we live in (as Hughes surely did) have hurt the film’s box office receipts. What the movie lacks in spectacle though it makes up for in genuine affection for its subject and that’s something you can’t get with all the CGI in the world.

REASONS TO GO: It’s lovely to see some of these veteran actors in action here..
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is a bit scattershot.
FAMILY VALUES: Some adult thematic elements, some brief sexual material, occasional profanity and drug references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Bo Goldman, who gets story credit on the film, also wrote Melvin and Howard about Hughes’ supposed encounter with Melvin Dummar.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 56% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Café Society
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Monster

Bridge of Spies


Tom Hanks meets the press.

Tom Hanks meets the press.

(2015) True Life Drama (DreamWorks) Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Sebastian Koch, Peter McRobbie, Austin Stowell, Dakin Matthews, Eve Hewson, Jesse Plemons, Scott Shepherd, Lucia Ryan, Wil Rogers, Nadja Bobyleva, Joe Forbrich, David Wilson Barnes, Mikhail Gorevoy, Steve Cirbus, Billy Magnussen, Noah Schnapp, Jillian Lebling. Directed by Steven Spielberg

The Cold War was in many ways, anything but. While the Soviet Union and the United States weren’t shooting at each other, that didn’t mean there weren’t casualties.

Rudolf Abel (Rylance) is a painter living in Brooklyn. The FBI thinks he’s a spy for the Soviet Union and they are following him, although he manages to evade their pursuit. He picks up a nickel on a park bench and discovers the coin has been hollowed out with a message left for him inside. However, eventually the FBI catches up with him and arrests him.

Eager to make a good impression on the world stage, rather than summarily executing the spy the government is keen on putting Abel on trial. They engage insurance lawyer James V. Donovan (Hanks) to represent him. At first Donovan wants nothing to do with it; he knows that representing an accused spy would bring him into a spotlight he doesn’t want he or his family to be in; he knows that people will hate him almost as much as they hate Abel but he truly believes that every man is entitled to a proper defense and decides that this is the least he can do to serve his country after having served it well in the Second World War.

He undertakes to defend Abel, advising him to cooperate with the U.S. Government but Abel refuses. Donovan grows to admire Abel for his loyalty to his cause, even if that cause is diametrically opposed to that of his country. Donovan endeavors to give Abel the most vigorous defense he can, knowing the judge (Matthews) in his case is predisposed to let Abel swing from the highest rope in the land. Donovan pleads with the judge to consider sparing Abel’s life, arguing that it would be a good thing to have Abel in hand just in case an American spy were to get captured, not to mention it would make America look merciful in the eyes of the world.

As it turns out, they were about to get a reason to keep Abel alive when pilot Francis Gary Powers (Stowell), piloting a U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union, is shot down and contrary to his orders captured alive (his orders was to take a cyanide pill and kill himself before getting captured). The government, knowing that Powers has knowledge of their spy plane program that they don’t want the Soviets to have, discovers that the Soviets are making overtures for a prisoner swap through the East Germans and to Donovan. CIA chief Allen Dulles (McRobbie) sends Donovan to East Berlin to negotiate the exchange. However, the Berlin Wall is being built, splitting the city in two. Tensions are high and the East Germans have captured an American student named Frederic Pryor (Rogers) who was studying economics there as a spy. Everyone knows that Pryor is no spy but now there is another element to the mix – and the Soviet and East German agendas might be entirely different.

Spielberg is a master storyteller and in many ways he’s the equivalent of Frank Capra. Hanks as I’ve mentioned before is the modern Jimmy Stewart and like Capra and Stewart, Spielberg and Hanks make as dynamic a director/actor pairing as we’ve seen in the last 20 years (with the exceptions maybe of Scorsese/Di Caprio and maybe Burton/Depp in that mix. This is the fifth time the two have been paired together and they’ve never made a bad movie.

And neither is this one. Hanks imbues Donovan with decency without making him cloying. Donovan’s faith in the Constitution resonates and once more, he’s absolutely right to. Donovan – and through him Spielberg and writers the Coen Brothers – preach that the Constitution is our roadmap to guide us through difficult situations; suspending it or ignoring it lessens us as a nation. Considering how fast and loose we’ve played with the Constitution in our War on Terror, the lesson has an extra importance especially now.

Rylance, who has won his share of Tony Awards for his work on Broadway, nearly steals the show from Hanks (a daunting task) by creating a man who is loyal to his nation, intelligent but also a human being, who grows to respect Donovan for his own loyalty to the U.S. Constitution. The real Rudolf Abel was a complicated man and Rylance conveys that.

The movie really is divided into two halves; the first part in which Donovan defends Abel which is essentially a courtroom drama, and the second in which Donovan goes to arrange the exchange which is more of a Cold War spy thriller. The first part actually works a little bit better than the second although it is in fact a bit drier in some ways; while I suspect the average moviegoer will like the second half better (the first can be slow-moving), it is the first where the meat of the message is delivered and has much more connection with me, at least.

For those who lived through the Cold War, the fear of nuclear holocaust was a real one you lived with every day. Duck and cover was a real thing. It looks quaint to modern eyes but it was the reality of the situation. People fully expected that World War III would be the last war – and that war would be inevitable. People in America really thought the Soviet Union was as evil as Nazi German. The Soviet citizenry probably thought much the same about America.

In some ways we haven’t grown much past those days. We still need an enemy to fear. We still lose our shit when someone outrages us. We still think the constitution should be suspended when it comes to terrorists, never realizing that once you go down that road that you can never go back – and that constitution that has guided us and protected us all these years becomes a little less shiny, a little less secure. The lessons from Bridge of Spies are extremely important in that regard; that they are presented in a well-crafted tale is icing on the cake.

REASONS TO GO: Spielberg and Hanks make a terrific pair. Rylance gives Oscar-worthy performance. Period of history brought ably to life.
REASONS TO STAY: Plods a little bit. Feels like two different movies…
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, some brief foul language and adult thematic material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene filmed on the Glienecke Bridge near the end of the film is the exact spot where the events depicted in the scene took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/10/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirteen Days
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Too Hip for the Room

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

Black Mass


You don't want to get on Jimmy Bulger's bad side.

You don’t want to get on Jimmy Bulger’s bad side.

(2015) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp, Juno Temple, Mark Mahoney, Brad Carter, Scott Anderson, Lonnie Farmer, Mary Klug, Bill Haims, Erica McDermott. Directed by Scott Cooper

There are certain people that you meet who are corruptors. Any contact with them sends you spiraling down a rabbit hole of bad choices which once taken build upon each other until you are hopelessly lost in it. One day you wake up and realize that you are as corrupt as that which you associated with, without meaning to be.

In the 70s and 80s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) – who incidentally hated that nickname and saying it to his face was a good way to get on his bad side, a place you surely didn’t want to be – was the kingpin of crime in Boston. Something of a folk hero in South Boston where he grew up and where most of the Winter Hill Gang, the crew which he ran, were from, he was known to be less flashy than other criminal bosses but no less vicious, although he could be kind and supportive to those in his neighborhood that he felt merited it, as well as faultlessly loyal to family and friends.

One of those friends was John Connolly (Edgerton) who went into the other side of the law as an FBI agent. A rising star in the Bureau, he was brought to Boston to take down Jerry Angiulo (Haims) and his organization which at the time was the undisputed criminal leaders of North Boston and who were making inroads into Southie which was Bulger territory. The two would form an alliance that in exchange for information about the Angiulo family, Connolly would essentially protect his childhood friend and allow him free reign in Boston, which would come back to haunt him.

In addition, Jimmy’s brother Billy (Cumberbatch) was a state senator and the most powerful politician in Boston at the time. While Jimmy took great care not to involve Billy in his affairs, Billy would later suffer by association to his notorious brother and be forced out of politics.

Jimmy would run roughshod over Boston for more than a decade until an incorruptible Federal Prosecutor, Jimmy’s own hubris and Connolly’s own lies and misinformation would lead to Jimmy going on the run for 16 years until he was eventually captured in 2011 (he has strongly denied that he was ever a government informant, incidentally).

Scott Cooper, most notable for his Oscar-winning film Crazy Heart, has elicited the most powerful performance Depp has given in years and one of his best ever. Barely recognizable in a protruding forehead prosthetic, receding white-blonde hairline and rotting teeth, Depp inhabits his role like it’s a comfortable apartment. Early in the film, he shows a compassionate Bulger – devoted son and father  and loyal friend – but as the film goes on, a vicious and paranoid streak begins to emerge as Bulger, prone to violence, begins to lose control. It’s a riveting performance, not unlike that of Al Pacino in the original Godfather although not quite to that level of accomplishment. Nonetheless, it’s wonderful to see an actor who has been on a bit of a cold streak of late return to form and deliver the kind of performance we know he’s capable of. Hopefully this will mean that Depp will have some really good roles in his near future.

The supporting cast is extremely accomplished. Best of the bunch is Edgerton who is blossoming into an extraordinary actor and building on his performance here and in The Gift is poised to ascend to Hollywood’s A-list. His John Connolly is a Southie street kid who has matured into a federal agent, but whose misguided loyalties and tragic misfire on crime fighting strategy brings the character to an inevitable fall. Cumberbatch, who has parlayed an ability to spot roles that grow his career into stardom, has little to do but when he gets the opportunity to shine makes the most of it. Plemons, Cochrane and Brown as Bulger associates Kevin Weeks, Steve Flemmi and John Martorano respectively are also outstanding as are Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll and David Harbour as lawmen Charles McGuire, Fred Wyshak and John Morris respectively.

While the movie mainly takes place in the late 70s and early to mid 80s, Cooper doesn’t club you over the head with the era recreation. There is a timeless feel to Southie and it is in many ways much the same now as it was then. Cooper wisely chooses not to mess with that by throwing tons of bell-bottoms, mutton chops and floofy hair. Sure, there are period automobiles and signage as well as home furnishings but it is all rather low-key. Boston itself is given a kind of wintry patina that makes you feel a little bit on the cold side throughout, even when some of the action takes place on beautiful spring and summer days.

While I don’t think this is quite as good as some of the gangster epics of Scorsese and Coppola, it nevertheless merits consideration as a memorable addition to the elite films of the genre, which I think it will be considered as when years go by. Depp will have a good deal of stiff competition this year but his performance here will have to merit at least some Best Actor consideration for next year’s Oscars. It may lack quality women’s roles and might feel a little bit on the long side, but it is the best crime drama you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Depp’s best performance in years. Likely to become an essential gangster movie in years to come.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a bit too long and a little too masculine.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of bloody violence, quite a bit of profanity, some sexual references and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the scenes depicting murders in the movie were filmed in the same locations where the actual murders took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Cold Nights, Hot Salsa