Luciferina


There is beauty in wisdom.

(2018) Supernatural Horror (Artsploitation) Sofia del Tuffo, Pedro Merlo, Marta Lubos, Marlena Sanchez, Francisco Donovan, Stefania Koessl, Gastón Cocchiarale, Desirée Gloria Salgueiro, Tomás Lipan, Vando Villamil, Victoria Carreras, Juan José Flores Qulspe, Maru Zapata, Juan Vitali, Silvana Di Sanzo. Directed by Gonzalo Calzado

 

Roman Catholicism is a bit different in Latin America than it is in the rest of the world. In the area from Mexico south to the tip of South America, it is more old school than its counterpart in Europe and North America (above Mexico anyway). In some cases, Catholicism has merged with native pagan religions to form often bizarre hybrids, leading to such things as Voodoo and Santeria.

Natalia (del Tuffo) is a 19-year-old novitiate who joined the convent to escape a chaotic and stressful household. She is happy in her choice – until the Mother Superior (Carreras) who informs her that her mother (Salgueiro) died in some sort of accident and that her father (Villamil) was gravely injured. Natalia is loathe to return home but the Reverend Mother insists.

Back home Natalia finds her more worldly sister Angela (Sanchez) who is not at all happy that Natalia abandoned her. However, the bond between sisters is still strong and when Angela asks Natalia to join her and her friends in the jungle for a Shamanistic ritual involving the psychotropic drug ayahuasca (which some may remember from the documentary The Last Shaman last year) that will allow them to explore their inner selves and maybe, along the way, exorcize some demons. Boy, they have no idea how literally true that is.

So accompanied by Angela’s abusive douchebag of a boyfriend Mauro  (Donovan), the sweet Abel (Merlo), know-it-all Osvaldo (Cocchiarale) and the fragile Mara (Koessl), they trek into the Amazonian jungles of Argentina. There they find the shaman at a ruined and abandoned abbey which Natalia has been having nightmares about – that’s never a good thing – her friends begin to have some horrible visions and it becomes apparent that Natalia is up against a powerful supernatural force that is intent on killing her friends – and having sex with Natalia to father an abomination. Aided by the midwife (Lubos) who delivered the baby in Natalia’s visions, she will have to take on a foe that may just bring about the end of days.

This is a very Catholic film; the attitudes throughout reflect the influence of the religion on the Argentine culture. Natalia is a virgin which is an important component of the story. It is no coincidence that the two who survive to the end are both virgins and deep down in the Catholic psyche that’s the way it should be.

The movie is bookended by CGI images of a baby floating around in the womb. The CGI is a bit primitive but the symbolism is unmistakable when the two images are taken together – I’ll leave that to you to figure out because I don’t want to give away too much of the plot. In fact, the movie is rife with symbolism (mostly of the Catholic variety). For example, Natalia’s mother before she died drew in her own blood crude drawings of the female uterus. Look more carefully and the shape is not unlike the Satanic ram’s head.

Del Tuffo is an amazing young actress who is absolutely fearless. She is required to be naïve innocent, pure of heart novitiate and eventually self-confident action hero and sexually rampant woman. There is a scene that other critics are referring to as a “sexorcism” (which is a bit cheesy but accurate) which is as graphic a sex scene as you’re likely to ever see from a Latin American film. Natalia is the most deeply defined character in the movie which helps del Tuffo but even without that she really plunges into the role and makes it her own.

Donovan is similarly strong as Mauro, although his character is a bit more cliché; so too is Cocchiarale who is the smart fat guy who is a bit of a know-it-all. Like most of Angela’s friends, he’s a bit of a jerk which is a departure from American norms for that kind of character; had this have been n American film, Osvaldo would have been sweet but annoying. He’s neither here, however.

The movie is a bit slow in the first half and relies overly much on jump scares. The score is a little too earnest, trying too hard to build up a sense of foreboding which is a good idea but could have been executed better. Given the jungle location, the Colonial architecture of the city and the hacienda-like home that Angela and Natalia grew up in, the images here range from really good to really, really good. I think if the movie had been paced a little better, this would have been one of the best horror films of the year. It’s not quite there – this has been a particularly strong year for horror movies – but it’s not far from the top.

REASONS TO GO: The performances are pretty solid all around. The gore and the special effects (for the most part) are spot on.
REASONS TO STAY: This isn’t as much of a roller coaster ride as I would have liked.
FAMILY VALUES: There is lots of profanity, graphic nudity, sex, graphic violence and gore as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first film in a proposed trilogy entitled The Trinity of the Virgins.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Now, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/7/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Rosemary’s Baby
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Swimming With Men

Love & Saucers


David Huggins does his best Nosferatu impression.

(2017) Documentary (Curator/The Orchard) David Huggins, Michael Huggins, Harold Egeln, Anthony Lisa, Nitten Patel, Doug Auld, Jeffrey Kripel, Andrzej Nowicki.  Directed by Brad Abrahams

 

There are those who insist that we are not alone in the universe. Certainly the law of averages agrees with them; there are so many habitable planets in this galaxy alone that the odds are that life has evolved on at least some of them and of those that life evolved on, the odds are that intelligent life has evolved on at least some of those. Some perhaps even intelligent enough to invent faster-than-light space travel; some perhaps curious enough to explore this big blue marble.

David Huggins at first glance seems like an ordinary 72-year-old man in Hoboken, New Jersey. He works part time at a deli; he’s quiet but personable and radiates a grandfatherly kindness. He spends most of his time painting, a passion of his that at one time he wanted to turn into a career but that never materialized, alas.

David has a strange story to tell; as an 8-year-old living in rural Georgia he began to receive visits from creatures not of this world. As a 17-year-old, he lost his virginity to an alien woman he called Crescent; for six years she would be what he termed his “girlfriend” and they had regular…er, conjugal visits.

He largely forgot about his bizarre past until the episodes began showing up as paintings that he felt compelled to create. He had gone on to marry a fellow artist and had a son (Michael) by her but Michael was apparently not his only child. David recalls a hybrid alien child who Crescent informed him was his child and it was dying. Clearly he was distraught about the situation but it eventually ends with the child surviving; and as it turns out, the hybrid had many brothers and sisters.

Skeptics are going to have a field day with this; Abraham doesn’t do much to argue with any of David’s claims. I can understand why; David certainly seems pretty sincere in his beliefs and while there may be alternate explanations for what David has experienced, they aren’t explored and one gets the sense that Abrahams is giving David the benefit of the doubt and accepting his story at face value. Not every filmmaker would have the objectivity to do that.

One of the things that annoyed me about the documentary was the music. Derk Reneman alternates between Korla Pandit-like organ noodling to electronic burbling. It’s very repetitive and very noticeable which is not what you want out of your soundtrack. However, it’s offset by the visuals of the paintings themselves which Huggins himself admits are heavily influenced by impressionism but aren’t quite in that genre. They are quite interesting albeit a little on the fantastic side. Some won’t connect to them much but art is always – always – in the eye of the beholder.

There aren’t a lot of talking heads in this (other than David himself) until the end of the barely an hour long film and for the most part they all agree that David is a very nice guy and sincere in his beliefs. His son Michael appears and is very diplomatic; one suspects that while he loves his dad he finds his beliefs somewhat eccentric. In any case, Michael has moved to Thailand with his family and seems well-adjusted enough. Conspicuous by her absence is David’s wife Janice who declined to be interviewed for the film. One wonders if the marriage itself is on stable ground or if Janice just finds her husband’s stories annoying. I can imagine it’s a very different experience living with someone who has these tales to tell.

This isn’t an essential movie by any means but it is entertaining and while it is unlikely to change your mind about the existence of extra-terrestrials, it will at least fill up your hour with an unusual take on them. The movie is widely available on VOD (see below) and if you enjoy biographical documentaries about unusual people or if you’re just reasonably interested in alien abductions, this might be something new for you to consider.

REASONS TO GO: The viewer gets the sense that Huggins is absolutely truthful or at least believes himself to be. The paintings have their own strange beauty.
REASONS TO STAY: The score is often annoying and cheesy. The narrative bounces all over the place without a lot of flow to it.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much sexuality and some nudity in paintings.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is Abrahams’ first feature-length documentary as a solo director (he also co-directed last year’s On the Back of a Tiger.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Vimeo, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/13/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 88% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Communion
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Boss Baby

Liza, Liza, Skies are Grey


Life’s a beach.

(2017) Coming of Age (Ocean) Mikey Madison, Sean H. Scully, Kristin Minter, Kwame Boateng, Valerie Rae Miller, Adele René, James Austin Kerr, John-Paul Lavoisier, Madison Iseman, Eric Henry, Samira Izadi, Kris Park, Shamar Sanders, Robert John Brewer, Nandini Minocha, James Liddell, Thomas Archer, Evelyn Lorena, Jessica Bues, Kathryn Jurbala. Directed by Terry Sanders

 

Growing up is no easy task. It never has been. Growing up in 1966, for example; kids had a lot on their plate. The Vietnam war was raging, sexual revolution was in full swing, drugs were becoming a thing, the atomic bomb being dropped by the Soviets was a real worry and parents were becoming absorbed in their own issues, so much so that they didn’t have time to think about their kids who were floundering in the surf without a life preserver in sight.

Liza (Madison) is a sweet girl. She plays the cello in the school orchestra, and is interested in the social interests of the day – the war, racial injustice, and so on. Ever since her father inexplicably killed himself, she and her mother (Minter) have been distant. Mom is certain that Liza hates her; Liza doesn’t hate her mother so much as is puzzled by her. Liza’s been dating another sweet boy, Brett (Scully). Liza is also reaching her sexual awakening. She’s still a virgin, but she doesn’t want to remain that way. Curious and forthright, she feels the need to ask her cello teacher (René) about her experiences with men. Of course, being an awkward 15-year-old, she phrases it this way – “You’ve slept with a lot of men, haven’t you?”

Unfortunately for Liza, her mother doesn’t approve of Brett and tries to set her up with an older guy who turns out to be a lot less nice than mom thinks. Mom’s horrible boyfriend (Lavoisier) also makes an attempt to “seduce” Liza although most would call it an attempted rape. Worst of all, Brett who ha been living with his aunt, has been summoned by his father to live with him in New York which will mean the end of his nascent relationship with Liza. Determined to be “his first,” she and Brett take a road trip on his Triumph motorcycle (another reason Mom is less than overjoyed about Liza’s taste in boys) up the California coast, meeting up with creepy hotel clerks, happy hippies and redneck bikers most of whom have designs on Liza.

Sanders won an Oscar producing a documentary; that’s to the good. To the bad, he’s an octogenarian trying to tell the story of a teenage girl’s sexual coming of age. I don’t think he got the memo that there are some stories to tell that old men probably don’t have a clue about. I’m not saying that only teenage girls can make movies about teen girls discovering their sexuality but I think it helps if the filmmaker was a teen girl at some point.

The micro budget for the film didn’t allow for a real immersion into 1966 so there are mainly inserts of news footage, anti-war handbills posted on walls and shots of areas of Los Angeles that haven’t changed much since that era. There are also a smattering of era jargon like “groovy” and “far out.”

The dialogue here is more than cringeworthy, it is basically unlistenable. Real human beings don’t talk like this. Real human beings never talked like this. It doesn’t help that the cast is obviously uncomfortable with the words they’re speaking as their delivery of said dialogue is mega-stiff, as if the actors know that the words they’re speaking are anything but authentic. I would feel for the cast except there is a real sense that none of them want to be there. The delivery is rushed, the body language between Brett and Liza is unconvincing and none of the performances stand out. From a writing standpoint it feels like a juvenile novel written by someone who can’t remember what it is to be young.

There are some sweet moments – as when Liza dances to the ad jingle for Virginia Slims cigarettes, singing along with the catchy tune – and then sneering to Brett “We’ve come a long way baby. Now we can get cancer too.” It’s one of the better lines of dialogue although it may be anachronistic; I am not sure the surgeon general’s report on the link between cancer and cigarettes had come out by 1966. It may have but I can’t be bothered to look it up as I normally would; I don’t think enough of my readers are going to bother to see this. Needless to say, sweet moments like that are few and far between in the film.

The movie is a mess unfortunately. The cast is young and earnest and I hope that they don’t get discouraged by the film. There are plenty of good movies being made and hopefully some of them will find one to sink their teeth into; it’s truly hard to make a determination of underlying talent when a movie is so magnificently fouled up from a writing and directing standpoint. However, I have to say that this is extraordinarily hard to sit through and I feel as if I should get some sort of medal for doing so. Feel free to check it out if you have a masochistic streak in you, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

REASONS TO GO: There is some sweetness in some of the scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: The dialogue is absolutely dreadful. The acting is stiff and unrealistic and the actors are obviously sending strongly worded emails to their managers about choosing better projects.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some nudity, a smattering of profanity, plenty of sexuality and a couple of scenes of attempted rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s title is taken from the 1929 George Gershwin song “Liza (All the Clouds’ll Roll Away)” the best-known version of which was performed by Al Jolson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 29% positive reviews. Metacritic: 37/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 3/10
NEXT: Turn it Around: The Story of East Bay Punk

The Handmaiden (Ah-ga-ssi)


In every life a little rain must fall.

In every life a little rain must fall.

(2016) Drama (Magnolia) Min-hee Kim, Tae-ri Kim, Jung-woo Ha, Jin-woong Jo, So-ri Moon, Hae-suk Kim. Directed by Park Chan-wook

 

What a tangled web we weave, so the saying goes, when we set out to deceive. Deception can take many forms from little white lies to complete fabrications. We can invent ourselves as someone who we are not; we may have the best of intentions or the worst when we assume a different persona. At the end of the day, however, we end up unable to escape the person we actually are.

Sookee (T-r. Kim) is a pickpocket and petty thief in the Japanese-occupied Korea of the 1930s. She is part of a criminal gang led by the self-stylized Count Fujiwara (Ha), a con man from humble birth. He has managed to set up Sookee in the position of a handmaiden to a noble Japanese lady living on an extensive estate far from anywhere in the mountain woods of Korea. The Count has designs on the lady to marry her and then have her declared insane so he can inherit her considerable wealth.

Lady Hideko (M-h. Kim) is a virtual prisoner on her estate. Her cruel Uncle Kouzuki (Jo) is a pervert who gets his rocks by having her dress up as a noble Japanese woman of ancient times and reading pornography to he and a group of like-minded friends. Kouzuki intends to wed Hideko soon in order to inherit her considerable wealth as he has none of his own.

Sookee has one job; to convince her new employer that the affections of the Count are genuine and that she would do well to marry him. However, Sookee has a revelation that changes everything and suddenly the players in this very dangerous game reveal that none of them are exactly who they are perhaps perceived to be.

Park, director of the notorious Oldboy, has a thing about pushing boundaries and he shoves quite a few here, although only relatively. He based this loosely on Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith, transplanting the action from Victorian England to occupation-era Korea. This adds the element of cultural clash to the story, one which is not only welcome but incredibly intriguing.

Park has a terrific visual sense and the cinematography here is downright gorgeous, from the lacquered interiors of Hideko’s strange mansion – constructed by an Anglophile, it has an English main house with a very Japanese wing added on – to the rain and moon shrouded forests of the estate. It is a visually lyrical film, dancing to a beautiful soundtrack by Yeong-wook Jo. I thought the soundtrack elevated the film, although parts were cribbed from The Thin Red Line which is a war movie of a different sort.

Here the war is of sexual tensions and there is plenty of it between the three main characters. The movie is told in three parts; the first and longest is Sookee’s point of view, the second that of Hideko and the third a kind of epilogue. In fact, the movie feels a little bit long but that might be that the first chapter is almost a film in and of itself and the second two chapters are almost added on in feel when you’re watching it but once the film is over you realize the story couldn’t be told any other way and the whole thing makes sense, but you may end up checking your watch a little.

If you do, it won’t be because of the performances of the three main leads. Both of the Kims and Ha generate an enormous amount of heat between them in a strange sort of love triangle; Jo gets to play a Snidely Whiplash-sort of character with an ink-stained tongue and a pervert’s glee in all things sexual. The story takes a number of turns and what really makes it work is that the performances of all of the actors is consistent throughout the varied plot changes and all of the performances make sense.

This is a movie with a good deal of texture; not just in the lush gardens of the estate or the richly decorated interiors but also in the sense that the movie is deeply sensual not just in a prurient way but also in a beautifully sensual way – quite artistic in the use of the naked female body. Some who are easily offended by sexuality will find this abhorrent but I must say that if sex can be art, this is an example of that. The book, which I have not read, utilizes narration from the three main characters; Park delivers that in a masterful way that simply reinforces that he is one of the world’s most exciting and pre-eminent directors. At this point, he is a director I’d go out of my way to view his film. There aren’t a lot of directors I’d say that for.

In many ways this is a beautiful movie and in many ways this is an ugly movie. The two often co-exist side by side in real life as well. One can’t have one without the other, after all. You may well find this a beautiful film to look at, and it is. You may well find this an ugly movie to consider, and it is. It is at the nexus of the two that we often find great art, and it is.

REASONS TO GO: Beautiful cinematography and shot construction throughout the film. The musical score is just amazing. The performances among the three leads are strong throughout. The film is quite textured.
REASONS TO STAY: It’s just a little bit too long, or at least I perceived it to be.
FAMILY VALUES:  Lots of graphic sex and nudity as well as some profanity (much of it sexually oriented), rape and some graphic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  Because two different languages (Korean and Japanese) are spoken in the film, the subtitles are in White (Korean) and Yellow (Japanese) so that English-speaking
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/9/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Liaisons
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: The Siege of Jadotville

Mustang


"Break out up the middle on three. Ready? Break!"

“Break out up the middle on three. Ready? Break!”

(2015) Drama (Cohen) Gűnes Sensoy, Doga Zeynep Doguslu, Elit Iscan, Tugba Sunguroglu, Ilayda Akdogan, Nihal G. Koldas, Ayberk Pekcan, Bahar Kerimoglu, Burak Yigit, Erol Afsin, Suzanne Marrot, Serife Kara, Aynur Komecoglu, Serpil Reis, Rukiye Sariahmet, Kadir Celebi, Muzeyyen Celebi. Directed by Deniz Gamze Ergűven

In a patriarchal society, women are often seen as little more than brood mares and chattel, auctioned off to the highest bidder and made as marriageable as possible in order to take them off the hands of their poor parents who must pay for their care and feeding, the sooner the better. While the world is evolving in general from such beliefs, in more rural areas of certain parts of the world, these attitudes persist.

Lale (Sensoy) is the youngest of five orphaned sisters living with their grandmother (Koldas) in a compound-like home in a small seaside town in Northern Turkey. Walking home from school, they encounter some boys who are friends (not boyfriends) by the beach and decide to go swimming, still in their school clothes. Their innocent childish games catch the attention of an elderly woman who reports their behavior as obscene and libidinous to their grandmother, who proceeds to initiate beatings for all five sisters.

Their brute of an Uncle Erol (Pekcan) proceeds to put the house on lockdown, turning a beautiful home into a virtual prison – a wife-making factory in fact in which the five sisters are removed from school, taught classes in sewing, tea-making and essentially home economics. Uncle Erol and grandmother move quickly to arrange marriages for the eldest, then the others in turn.

In the meantime the high-spirited girls have trouble adjusting to their newfound confinement, growing bold and concerned about the future they have in store that is being made for them without any input from the girls themselves. In heartbreaking fashion, they slowly break as their world shrinks to the confines of their barred and gated home and their purpose in life to please husbands they haven’t even met. Only Lale, the youngest and the most outspoken of the bunch, seems to have any spirit left.

This is an impressive film that was France’s official submission for the Foreign Language Film category, making the Oscar shortlist (as of this writing the Awards haven’t been presented yet) and being nominated for the same award in the Golden Globes as well. The nomination is well-deserved. Ergűven weaves a spell-binding tale that not only exposes the archaic attitudes towards women that exists in certain Muslim-dominated countries but also our own, lest we forget the attitudes of the Christian right having to do with abortion and female sexuality.

Ergűven cast the film wisely, particularly with Sensoy whose jaw-jutting petulance mark her Lale as an utter handful. She’s demanding and opinionated, something not tolerated well in traditional Muslim households when regarding women. In fact, that’s where the film title comes from; Lale is untamed and unbroken, although the same doesn’t remain true for all of her sisters as the marriage train comes to pluck them one-by-one, Ten Little Indians-fashion.

The five actresses with their long flowing brunette locks look like sisters and act like them too. Few films I’ve seen really capture the dynamic of sisters as well, from the bawdy teasing to the occasional rivalry and bitter fights. All five of the sisters are beautiful and not just physically; they have an inner beauty that radiates from them like an angelic glow.

Frequent Nick Cave collaborator Warren Ellis contributes the synth-heavy score, and it is very effective, never intruding on the viewer but always beautiful and haunting. Cinematographers David Chizallet and Ersin Gok take advantage of the bucolic Turkish village, making it seem almost idyllic until we see the ugliness beneath.

If I have one criticism of the movie, it’s that the editing is a bit choppy, going from scene to scene in abrupt cuts that wrench the viewer from one scene to the next. It makes the film a little bit like an old car with a bad engine and a flat tire, lurching from scene to scene. A little defter hand on the editing  bay might have made for a smoother viewing experience but at the same time, that does feel a little bit like the kind of vehicle you’d find in a town like this; well past its prime, beaten up but getting you where you need to go despite the problems.

I won’t say this is a beautiful movie, even though it looks beautiful; some of the scenes are very ugly indeed, with young girls being examined for their virginity, an indignity that American girls don’t have to tolerate. However, this is an incredibly moving and thought-provoking movie that will stay with you long after the movie is over. All five of the sisters – yes, albeit that not all of them are as well-drawn as Lale – are still with me even though I saw the movie days ago. And I’m not in a terrible hurry to ask them to leave, either.

REASONS TO GO: A look at a rarely-glimpsed culture. Forces you to examine attitudes towards women in general. Breaks your heart as the movie goes on.
REASONS TO STAY: The editing is a little choppy.
FAMILY VALUES: The themes are quite adult; there’s also some mild sexuality and a rude gesture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut of director Deniz Gamze Ergűven.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/15/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Fiddler on the Roof
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT: The Forest

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

Fury


Brat Pitt sets Logan Lerman straight about Benjamin Button.

Brat Pitt sets Logan Lerman straight about Benjamin Button.

(2014) War (Columbia) Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal, Jason Isaacs, Jim Parrack, Brad William Henke, Kevin Vance, Xavier Samuel, Anamaria Minca, Alicia von Rittberg, Scott Eastwood, Laurence Spellman, Daniel Betts, Adam Ganne, Eric Kofi-Abreva, John Macmillan, Saul Barrett, Marek Oravec, Orion Lee, Stella Stocker. Directed by David Ayer

If war is hell, the hell of war are metal tubes and tanks. During the Second World War, America lost tanks and their crew at a terrifying rate. It took (and continues to take) a special kind of warrior to lock themselves in those iron coffins and duel other warriors in an effort to pan-fry or blow off the face of your enemies before they do the same to you.

In the waning days of that war, the tank crew for the tank nicknamed “Fury” is led by Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt), a hard, rough fellow who has only one goal – to get his men back home alive. He’d started killing Nazis in North Africa; now he’s killing them in Germany. However, there isn’t much left of the once-mighty German army. They’re mostly children and old men drafted from villages to protect the Fatherland. Those that refused were hung in the name of the defense of the Wehrmacht.

Inside his tank is his lead driver Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Pena), an even-tempered man with a quirky sense of humor; gunner Boyd “Bible” Swan (LaBeouf), a devout Christian who believes that killing the evil Germans is God’s work (and he’s not far wrong). The mechanic is Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (Bernthal), a wizard with mechanical things but an absolute horror with people. Surly and prejudiced against…well, EVERYONE, he’s meaner than a hound dog with a butt itch.

There’s also a second driver whose face and eyeball and a good deal of his skull as well as assorted bits of brain and blood have painted the inside of the tank.

They receive a new second gunner, young Norman Ellison (Lerman) who has not fired a shot in anger at anyone and was originally conscripted to be a clerk-typist for the army who has been forced to start replacing the staggering losses from wherever they can. He has a hard time with this change in duties and when the time comes to fire his weapon at a living human being, he can’t bring himself to do it. His inaction costs another tank crew their lives.

However, even as the Allies are pushing through to Berlin, word comes that a column of battle-hardened SS soldiers are coming down the road to pierce into the heart of the forward command. If they’re successful, they may set the Allies back a bit and add more time and casualties to a war that already has plenty of both. It will be up to the valiant crew of the Fury to stand fast. Will they be up for the challenge?

This was originally thought to be a major Oscar contender but the studio ended up pushing it back from a Holiday release to an October one. I can’t say as I blame them. This doesn’t quite have the feel of a movie that’s going to have a great deal of attention from Academy voters, although there’s a good chance Pitt might get at least some nominating votes.

Ayer was a stickler for authenticity throughout from the uniforms that the soldiers wear, the fashions of the French women that Wardaddy and Norman take a brief break with, and the machines themselves, American Shermans and a fearsome German Tiger. The actors learned to drive the antique vehicle as well as fire the guns it carried. Oddly, they don’t spend a lot of time displaying the claustrophobia of fighting in those tanks, although we get a sense of the limited visibility of the vehicles.

There is a good deal of gore as bodies are burned, blown to pieces and riddled with bullets. While it doesn’t have the visceral you are there feel of Saving Private Ryan, it’s still from my admittedly inexpert viewpoint a pretty accurate representation of tank warfare as it existed in the last days of the war.

The plot is not unlike other movies you’ve seen before, given the characters are pretty cliche including the wise but gruff commanding officer, the nervous rookie having to suddenly re-evaluate his moral code in the heat of battle, the ignorant drunk from the deep South and so on. Pena and Bernthal make the most of their roles and at least offer some personality. Unfortunately LaBeouf doesn’t seem to embrace the role in the same way and quoting the Biblical passages sounds as foreign coming out of his mouth as they would were he saying them in Mandarin Chinese. His Really Awful Mustache doesn’t help matters.

While the authenticity is there, the creativity kind of isn’t. This doesn’t really add anything to the short list of films about tank warfare. Yeah, there’s plenty of camaraderie and some battle thrills. That’s been done. The more interesting elements of the story – how the war affected the men who served in the tank, desensitizing them to what we would consider their humanity, falls by the wayside during the last third of the movie when it becomes a standard “last stand” story. It’s a shame because the movie has a ton of promising elements; it just doesn’t become greater than the sum of its parts but rather, equal to them. Good enough may well be good enough but I was hoping for more.

REASONS TO GO: Drips authenticity. Fine performances by Pena, Bernthal and Pitt. Some intense battle sequences.
REASONS TO STAY: Really doesn’t add much to the tank warfare movies. A little bit too long. LaBeouf is a distraction.
FAMILY VALUES: War violence, some fairly grisly images, plenty of foul language and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the uniforms, weapons and tanks used in the movie were authentic and loaned from various museums around the world including the only currently functioning Tiger tank on loan from the Bovington Tank Museum in the United Kingdom.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/3/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 79% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lebanon
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: The Judge