Pop Aye


Never get between a man and his elephant.

(2017) Drama (Kino Lorber) Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong, Chaiwat Khumdee, Naronng Pongpab, Yukontorn Sukkijja. Directed by Kirsten Tan

Sometimes we get feelings in our lives that threaten to overwhelm us, feelings we just can’t ignore. They become the elephant in the room, that feeling like we don’t fit in any longer or never fit in, that life has somehow managed to pass us by. Sometimes it takes a desperate action to get our lives back in order.

Thana (Warakulnukroh) is an architect who no longer feels at home in the firm he helped put on the map. Once a brilliant, bright shining future, he designed Gardenia Square, a shopping center which is now slated for demolition a mere twenty years after it was built. The son of his former boss now runs things and has replaced most of the architects with younger men who look at Thana as something of a dinosaur whose only use is to provide files.

Things are bad at home as well. His wife Bo (Sirikul) no longer seems attracted to Thana – and to be fair, his attempts at seduction are mostly awkward. Bo lives to shop and while her husband was a well-respected architect, there were plenty of things to buy. These days she knows she’s married to a man widely regarded as a fool and their marriage is a shell that isn’t going to last much longer. She seems shallow when we first meat her but as the movie goes on we see that there are heretofore hidden depths that explain her actions somewhat.

One day in the streets of Bangkok Thana spies an elephant (Bong) who he believes to be the elephant that he once had as a boy in the village of Loei, some 300 miles northeast of Bangkok. Nicknamed Popeye after a favorite cartoon of his as a youth (he trained the elephant to do the “toot toot” at the end of the “I’m Popeye the sailor man” theme), the elephant is mostly a means of making a quick buck for the mahout that owns him. Wanting more for his beloved elephant, Thana buys him on the spot and tries to bring him home but Bo is not having it.

Instead, Thana who has grown tired and disillusioned with city life decides to return to Loei where Thana’s Uncle Peak (Pongpab) will care for the creature. He and Popeye begin a journey from the bustling city of Bangkok into rural Thailand where they will meet a bevy of eccentric characters, including a transgender woman named Jenny (Sukkijja) who Thana treats with some compassion and who eventually gets a chance to return the favor, Dee (Khumdee), a gregarious homeless man living in an abandoned gas station who knows that his days are numbered but only regrets having left the love of his life whom he wishes to connect with one last time and a pair of officious police officers who are trying to move Thana and Popeye to the police station for “violating urban tidiness” even though the cops encounter the two on a road in the middle of nowhere.

All of these encounters serve to help Thana grow into a different man, one at peace with the disappointments of his life. While it may be true, as Thomas Hardy once put it, that you can never go home again, Thana finds out the secret to life; home is where you are at.

Tan was born in Singapore and has lived in a variety of places including Thailand where she worked as a t-shirt vendor on the streets of Bangkok. Now based in New York after attending the Tisch School of Visual Arts, she has made several impressive shorts. This is her feature-length film debut and it is a strong one. The movie has a gentle kind of surrealism to it that makes of unusual situations a kind of normality that makes them more palatable to the viewer. There is a sense of humor throughout but it is a gentle one, more of a chuckle than a guffaw at the ridiculousness of life.

The cast is mainly unprofessional but they do a fair enough job in conveying the various eccentricities of the various characters involved.  Warakulnukroh, a former progressive rock musician, manages to convey the puzzlement of Thana as he moves through a life that has left him behind. I don’t get the sense that he’s trying to adjust very much; he seems to be fairly bothered by the situation but doesn’t seem too motivated to change things until Popeye shows up. Khumdee also has some quiet moments that are compelling in his all-too-brief appearance here.

Most important here is the elephant and he is more expressive than a lot of human actors I’ve seen. I’ve never had the privilege of looking directly into the eyes of an elephant but there is a wisdom and sadness locked in those pachyderm eyes, an emotion that conveys empathy for the plight of Thana and by extension, himself. In many ways, Popeye is our avatar, marching slowly and resolutely towards an end that is pre-ordained but not necessarily without surprise. It is indeed the journey and not the destination since we’re all headed the same way anyway.

The movie is pretty slow-paced and might have benefited from some shorter more concise scenes particularly in the middle third. Keep in mind that an elephant never gets anywhere from anywhere else quickly so your best bet is to sit back and just enjoy the ride and that’s really good advice for watching any movie like Pop Aye. Allow it to wash over you and immerse you in its gently skewed universe. The ending is a little unexpected which is most appreciated, and you never really know what’s around the next bend in the road. All good journeys are like that.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a low-key sense of humor. The elephant is a keeper.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a touch too long and may be too slow-paced for some viewers. Some characters just fade from the movie without explanation.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tan won the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first filmmaker from Singapore to win an award at the prestigious event.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walkabout
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: I Don’t Feel at Home In this World Anymore

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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

Meat (Vlees)


This is not your ordinary meat market.

This is not your ordinary meat market.

(2010) Thriller (Artsploitation) Titus Muizelaar, Nellie Benner, Hugo Metsers, Elvira Out, Kitty Courbois, Gurkan Kucuksenturk, Wilma Bakker, Jasper van Beusekom, Ali Sultan, Frans Bakker, Eric van Wijk, Taco Schenkhuizen, Guido Paulsen, David Jan Bronsgeest, Nadine Roodenburg, Philippe de Voogdt, Florian Visser, Maarten Wijsmuller, Cindy Robinson, Sander Schreuders, Piet Leendertse. Directed by Victor Nieuwenhujis and Maartje Seyferth

 

We are a carnal species, creatures of the flesh. Most of us are meat-eaters and all of us indulge in a healthy interest in sex and, occasionally, unhealthy. As civilized as we like to think ourselves to be, we are at heart animals with animal needs and animal desires.

In a small Dutch seaside town lives a Butcher (Muizelaar) who runs a small but tidy butcher shop. He’s a lonely guy looking for someone to love and who’ll love him back, but he’s not an exceptionally handsome, in good shape kind of guy and I suppose people just inherently don’t trust people who work with a lot of knives. He has a prostitute friend named Teena (W. Bakker) whom he has romantic illusions of but she turns out to be all business.

The butcher’s apprentice is Roxy (Benner), a comely student who has a boyfriend named Mo (Kucuksenturk) who is, ironically enough, an animal activist. Roxy has a handy-cam that she turns on whatever turns her fancy, whether it is the Butcher disconsolately shagging Teena in the freezer, or a tray of freshly butchered offal. When the butcher begins what can only be termed sexually harassing Roxy, she doesn’t seem to be bothered by it. In fact, the two begin shagging themselves, particularly after Teena starts flaunting her sexuality, having sex with clients and her pimp (who happens to be the butcher’s boss) in the freezer which seems to spur on Roxy, who is much younger than Teena, to initiate a sexual affair with her boss.

Parallel to that is Inspector Mann who has a startling resemblance to the Butcher – mainly because he’s played by the same guy. Inspector Mann seems to be floating along through life on whatever current might take him. His marriage to Sonia (Out) is disintegrating, largely because of Mann’s own disinterest. The only things that apparently interest him are watering his desultory office plant, and eating. Sex with his wife seems to frighten him. Even tragedy doesn’t move him much; he just seems to shrug his shoulders and move on.

The butcher’s tale (which sounds like it should have been written by Chaucer but in this case more like by way of Lars von Trier) intersects with that of Inspector Mann in an unexpected and somewhat horrific way. Once that happens, the lethargic Mann is moved to take action, but where does the connection truly lie?

This isn’t a horror film precisely. It’s more of a psychological thriller but on LSD. Maybe it would be more accurate to call it a psychedelic thriller; some of the images resemble an acid trip and truly they speak for themselves. There isn’t a lot of dialogue here (a previous film by Seyferth had none at all) and indeed Roxy doesn’t speak until nearly halfway through the film. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot going on though.

There is an awful lot of naked flesh here, both of the human and slaughterhouse varieties. We see the butcher plying his trade which may make some sensitive vegetarian/vegan sorts more than a little nauseous. We see a lot of very graphic sex, almost to the point of pornography which may make some sensitive prudes more than a little squeamish. If you fall into either category, it would be a wise thing for you  to stop reading now and move on to something else because there’s no point in you seeing this movie at all.

Benner is a fresh faced beauty and certainly seeing her naked (as she is for a good percentage of the film) is no great hardship; Muizelaar is a fine actor and has two similar but disparate roles to work on here, although he is less pleasing naked. However, both Inspector Mann and the butcher have body image issues so the flab both of them display naked is somewhat necessary.

The movie doesn’t always make narrative sense and the ending is something of a bad trip. This isn’t a film for everybody – let’s be very clear about that now. It requires a bit of work to get into but I thought it well worth the effort. Not everybody will. This Meat is rather highly seasoned and spicy, but for those of that particular palate, this is a dish best consumed quickly.

REASONS TO GO: Benner and Muizelaar give sterling performances. The film keeps you off-balance in an unsettling way.
REASONS TO STAY: Some might find it too “artsy fartsy.” A little bit on the disjointed side.
FAMILY VALUES:  Graphic nudity and sex, some disturbing butchery images, an attempted rape and adult situations.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Although the film is just getting released in the states, it debuted at the Rotterdam Film Festival way back in 2010.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Vimeo, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/20/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Wetlands
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Nick Cave: Once More with Feeling

The Tail Job


Nicholas pleads with Stacy as Trevor looks on.

Nicholas pleads with Stacy as Trevor looks on.

(2016) Comedy (Moses Millar) Craig Anderson, Blair Dwyer, Kellie Clark, Laura Hughes, Dorje Swallow, Georgina Symes, Daniel James Millar, Stephen Anderton, Dave Eastgate, Grant Dodwell, Rakesh Dasgupta, Gary Waddell, Troy Russell, William Ryan, Ralph Moses, Dave Williams, David Attrill, Claudia Barrie, Ursula Mills, Lauren Orrell, Jessica Saras. Directed by Bryan Moses and Daniel James Millar

Slamdance

There is no doubt love breeds jealousy. The simplest of acts can be misinterpreted to be sinister – a phone call taken in another room, a vague identification of the caller as “just a friend,” a mysterious rendezvous that you’re not invited to – all can point to infidelity to the jealous mind. And let’s face it; the jealous mind is capable of some pretty imaginative stuff.

Nicholas (Dwyer) is in just such a situation. He believes his beautiful fiancée Mona (Hughes) is having an affair with a man named Sio Bohan. Hurt and stung, when she says she’s off to a girl’s night out in downtown Sydney, he hires a taxi with the idea of following her and taking photos of her caught in the act. Unfortunately, the cab he hires is driven by Trevor (Anderson).

Trevor is one of those “G’day mate” Aussies who means well and is a solid citizen, but Trevor is also one of those guys who can’t catch a break. When he hears of Nicholas’ plight, he is all in to help the cuckold tail his girl. Unfortunately, an encounter with a psycho driver (Millar) with terminal road rage leads them to lose their quarry. Nicholas (whom Trevor repeatedly calls Nick, much to his annoyance) first chats up Stacy (Clark), a friend of Mona’s, to see if she has any idea where Mona is going that night and who clearly has a thing for Nicholas.

After consulting a phone hacker (Anderton) friend of Stacy’s as well as finding out from the cabbie (Dodwell) who drove Mona downtown where he dropped her off, the duo turn out to be miserable detectives, misinterpreting one clue after another and running afoul of the real Sio Bohan (Swallow) who turns out to be a vicious gangster. Nicholas is determined to get the evidence that will end his relationship with Mona, who is actually on an innocent girls night out with her mate Siobhan (Mills), but to rescue her first from the clutches of a dangerous man. Trevor turns out to be far more loyal than you’d expect a cabbie to be, but can the two crack the case and bring Mona back to Nicholas?

Millar and Moses have been filmmakers for a decade but this is their first feature. Made on a shoestring budget shooting mostly at night and on weekends in Sydney, they utilize local actors and Aussie celebrities who make cameo appearances, all of which will fly right over the heads of American audiences unless they’ve spent some serious time in Oz. And that’s okay because it won’t diminish the film any if you don’t get the references, but I’m sure that Australian audiences will get more of a kick out of the film than we Americans will.

The plot isn’t particularly praiseworthy; there are some lapses of logic that give me the sense that certain plot points exist mainly to send poor Nicholas into a death spiral of jealousy, but the thing is that the Nicholas character doesn’t seem to be unduly emotional or prone to going off half-cocked. He seems like a pretty reasonable guy. Then again, as I said earlier jealousy can manufacture crazy ideas in the brain.

The movie is a comedy and has some genuinely funny moments, like the second road rage encounter and Trevor’s attempts to get into a posh club that end up with him asking a prostitute (Symes) to be his date. There are also some moments of pathos, as when Nicholas finds a photo of Trevor’s family in the glove box and realizes the deep wounds in Trevor’s soul may be what is motivating him.

At times this feels a bit too much like a sitcom for comfort; as I alluded earlier, some of the plot points feel contrived and the movie relies far too much on magic coincidences. However, it also has an immense amount of charm and plenty of heart at its center and those are things you can’t fake. That tells me that these are filmmakers who love what they do and have some truly marvelous films in them. That’s something you can feel in the film and it makes it so much more enjoyable for the viewer.

This is one of those movies who as the late Roger Ebert pointed out wouldn’t exist if the lead characters had a two minute conversation. Then again, divorce probably wouldn’t exist if couples would have more two-minute conversations but that might be a bit of a stretch. Certainly one wonders what sort of chance the relationship between Nicholas and Mona has if they can’t even communicate over a night out with a friend.

The Tail Job isn’t perfect but it is solid entertainment. While Americans might find the Australian sense of humor a trifle broad, the film definitely has its heart in the right place. After making its world premiere at Slamdance this past weekend, it is likely to play the festival circuit and hopefully pick up some distribution. There’s always room for a movie like this and it would be a shame if a wider audience didn’t get to see it.

REASONS TO GO: Has plenty of heart and charm. A cut above similar American films.
REASONS TO STAY: Has a bit of a sitcom feel. Loses its steam towards the end.
FAMILY VALUES: A bit of foul language, some violence and sexuality and brief frontal nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moses and Millar based their movie on a friend of theirs who actually believed his fiancée at the time was cheating on him with a man named Sio Bohan; the two thought that would make a good movie if they took it to the next level.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/31/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Other Guys
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Boy

The Shameless (Mu-roe-han)


He's a Seoul man.

He’s a Seoul man.

(2015) Crime Drama (CJ Entertainment) Do-yeon Jeon, Nam-gil Kim, Sung-Woong Park, Do-won Gwok. Directed by Seung-uk Oh

We are victims of our own circumstances, whatever they might be. Whether we are trapped in our jobs, or trapped by our bad (or even good) decisions, wherever we are in life, that’s where we are. We can break out of our circumstances if we choose to, and if we’re willing to step out into the unknown but it requires a kind of courage that as we get older, we find that we no longer possess.

Detective Jae-gon Jung (Kim) is a lonely man. He is divorced and is hopelessly corrupt; in fact, his entire squad is essentially on the take from organized crime. He gets an assignment and not from his superiors in the police but from members of a criminal organization; Joon-gil Park (Park), a mid-level mobster with a gambling problem, has committed the ultimate sin; he’s murdered one of his own.

By their own rules, the mob can’t kill him, but they can let the cops have him…and if he gets crippled or killed during the arrest, so much the better. Park is on the run, but his weak point is his girlfriend, Hye-kyung Kim (Jeon). She is a madam in what is called a hospitality room but is essentially a brothel. Jung goes undercover, taking over as her head of security under the guise of Park’s cellmate in prison.

Although she’s initially suspicious and antagonistic with him, the two begin to warm up towards each other, finding out that they are kindred spirits. Kim is desperately lonely, her boyfriend on the run and the sexual encounters with her clients meaningless and almost perfunctory. She has accumulated a huge debt, mostly because Park has been gambling away her money and loan sharks have begun to make threatening noises against her.

Although Jung is using her to get to Park, he begins to fall for her and soon the two end up as lovers. Meanwhile, the forces that turned Jung loose to find Park are growing impatient and Park is broke, needing money to get out of the country and Kim is ready to give it to him. With everything stacked up against them, can Jung and Kim actually break away from the life they find each other in and make something better…together?

There is a heavy noir element running through the movie. Initially we see it as a bit of a wink, particularly in the jaunty jazzy score and the references that crop up early. Jung is the kind of role the late Robert Mitchum would have filled admirably and the movie would have benefitted very much by the presence of someone like him – although there really isn’t anyone like him and likely never will be.

While the crime story is really the reason for the film, it is the love story that drives it. The feeling is dark, that it is inevitable that nothing good can happen for the lovers. Regardless of whether Park is arrested or escapes, you realize quickly that it is going to be bad for Jung and Kim. Kim often disappears into the embrace of alcohol, while Jung…well, Jung is a complicated character who leaves maddening glimpses of the guy inside but the script rarely allows Nam-gil Kim to really give us much in terms of who Jung really is. He remains maddeningly enigmatic, a tortured soul who seems at every turn to choose remaining that way.

This is definitely the seedy side of Seoul, where business is crooked and crooked business is business as usual. The corruption is so integrated into every aspect of life that it is almost expected. Everybody is using everybody else to get ahead; the cynicism is palpable and pervasive. In other words, just like any really good noir.

When Jung and Kim have sex is the only time they seem to be truly alive. They both have a kind of dead-eyed demeanor throughout but when passion takes them over, the juxtaposition is really compelling. In that sense, these are masterful performances as the actors seem to be holding their passions in check throughout, waiting for just the right moment to reveal them.

The movie is a bit overly long though and adds a coda which is not only unnecessary but actually hurts the movie. There are some things about the fate of Kim and Jung that really should have been left to the imagination of the audience rather than spelling it out as precisely as it was. That last ten minutes could have been lopped off and the movie would have been better for it.

As noir thrillers go, this isn’t half-bad but the movie could have been made a bit more concise. There are enough elements to recommend it, particularly for fans of the genre and of Korean cinema in general, but it is not an enthusiastic recommendation I’m afraid. Still, that is appropriate for characters like Jung and Kim who have learned to take what they can get – and not to expect much more than that.

REASONS TO GO: Stylish but fatalistic. Sexy in all the right places.
REASONS TO STAY: A little too long. Somewhat convoluted.
FAMILY VALUES: Sex, violence, nudity, drug/alcohol use and a ton of smoking, along with a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Oh’s second feature; his first was 2000’s Kilimanjaro but he has been active as one of Korea’s most sought-after screenwriters.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/21/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Key Largo
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Goosebumps

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

Pretty Woman


Julia Roberts and Richard Gere do the Ascot Gavotte.

Julia Roberts and Richard Gere do the Ascot Gavotte.

(1990) Romantic Comedy (Touchstone) Julia Roberts, Richard Gere, Ralph Bellamy, Jason Alexander, Alex Hyde-White, Hector Elizondo, Laura San Giacomo, Amy Yasbeck, Elinor Donahue, Judith Baldwin, Jason Randall, Bill Applebaum, Tracy Bjork, Gary Greene, William Gallo, Abdul Salaam El Razzac, Hank Azaria, Larry Hankin, Jacqueline Woolsey. Directed by Garry Marshall

Cinema of the Heart 2015

In my day, most little girls dreamed of being princesses swept away by a handsome prince and taken to a life of wealth and pampering. Little girls still have those dreams but sometimes the definition of “princess” and “prince” change a little.

Vivian Ward (Roberts) is a lady of the evening. Not her first choice in professions, but a necessity that will help her earn the cash she needs. Her best friend and roommate Kit De Luca (San Giacomo) is also a hooker. The two work the red light district of Hollywood.

Edward Lewis (Gere) is a ruthless corporate raider from New York, in Los Angeles for meetings to purchase a shipping company from James Morse (Bellamy). Lewis, not familiar with Los Angeles, gets hopelessly lost on his way to the Beverly Wilshire Hotel and ends up on Vivian’s corner. He asks her for directions; she asks for money. Edward, having trouble driving the stick shift on the Lotus Esprit, agrees to pay her to drive him to the hotel.

Once there, intrigued by her wit and her intelligence, he decides to hire her for the profession she has chosen for $300. They have strawberries and champagne (when she flosses the seeds out of her teeth he is amused) and watch reruns of I Love Lucy until they end up having sex.

Edward needs a date to several social events during the week and having hit it off with her, hires her to be with him for the entire week for $3,000. He also gives her a credit card and tells her to purchase some elegant dresses to wear. She goes to a shop on Rodeo Drive and is humiliated by snooty salesgirls who make fun at her overtly sexual appearance and her apparent non-sophistication.

She returns to the hotel completely devastated and snooty manager Barney Thompson (Elizondo) who at first felt disdain at the prostitute, sees her as a human being and a young girl. He helps her purchase a dress, then coaches her on etiquette. Edward returns from work and is amazed at the transformation. However, the business dinner he takes Vivian to with Morse and his son David (Hyde-White) doesn’t end well when Edward admits his intention is to break up the company and sell the land which is worth far more on the open market than it is with the shipping company on it. The Morses leave the table in disgust.

As the week continues, Edward begins to fall for the lively Vivian and she finds herself falling for Edward who is more vulnerable than he admits to being. His lawyer and business partner Philip Stuckey (Alexander) doesn’t approve of the changes he sees in Edward and blames Vivian for it which leads to a heated confrontation among the three of them.

In the meantime, Vivian is swept up in Edward’s world, flying up to San Francisco to see La Traviata at the San Francisco opera which transports her (it doesn’t hurt that the opera is about a wealthy man falling for a prostitute). He, on the other hand, is beginning to see just how empty his life has been without Vivian. Can their two worlds truly be compatible? Will she stay with him beyond the week he paid for?

This movie, along with When Harry Met Sally is credited with the resurgence of romantic comedies which popular in the 50s and 60s had declined to the point where not a single one was produced by a major studio during the 70s. The film is a frothy mix that benefits from Roberts’ bubbly personality and of course that amazing smile which lights up the screen. This would be her second Oscar nomination (she’d already received one for supporting actress in Mystic Pizza) and first for leading actress. It would also make her a genuine star and one of the biggest female box office attractions to this day.

There are those who look at this as anti-feminist and degrading to women, as Vivian seems to need to be “rescued” by a man from a life of exploitation by other men. I don’t agree with that assessment. Vivian is strong and yes, she’s being exploited but she wants more and is on the road to achieve it without Edward’s help (she even refuses it). That she ends up with her knight in shining armor is because she changed him, not because she needed him to save her.

That aside, this is one of those movies that is a Valentine’s Day go-to. For many women, this is a favorite and for a lot of men as well – not just as a romantic comedy but as a movie. There’s something about it that appeals to people, the idea of being plucked out of your mundane existence and into a life of wealth. Who wouldn’t want that?

Roberts, who is amazing here, isn’t alone. Elizondo has always been one of my favorite character actors and this is the performance that made him that for me. Bellamy and Hyde-White are sympathetic, and San Giacomo, who I had a bit of a movie crush on at the time, is gorgeous and feisty, a perfect foil for Roberts. Even Alexander, who would go on to play more bumbling comedic roles, does a terrific job as the truly nasty Philip.

There is a warmth here that is quite frankly a hallmark of Garry Marshall films. In many ways, this is the movie he’ll be remembered for (although there are those that insist that the TV show Happy Days will be his artistic nadir) and if so, not a bad legacy to leave behind. It’s a modernization of the Cinderella fable that resonates with all of us as to the trasnformative power of love, something that is so powerful it changes our lives for the better. There’s no doubt that for most couples, this is a Valentine’s Day movie that you can’t go wrong with.

WHY RENT THIS: Roberts at her very best. One of the most romantic movies of all time. Nice supporting performances by Elizondo, Bellamy and San Giacomo.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some are uncomfortable with Vivian’s performance.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sexual situations and adult themes to go with a smattering of foul language here and there.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This would be Bellamy’s final film.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The 15th Anniversary DVD edition is loaded with ’em; a Natalie Cole music video, footage from the wrap party (in which we get to see Gere, Roberts and Marshall warble “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” to an appreciative audience, a tour of the locations that the production filmed at in 1990 with Marshall as your tour guide and a blooper reel.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $463.4M on a $14M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental), Amazon (buy/rent), Vudu (buy/rent),  iTunes (buy/rent), Flixster (not available), Target Ticket (not available)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cinderella
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Still Alice