Movie Review: Pawn Sacrifice

Madness, in reality, tends to be tedious; most people who struggle with mental illness get up every day and manage their routine without constantly ranting about being spied upon or dismantling their office to track down phantom bugs. But that makes for a dull translation on the movie screen. Hence Hollywood has to come up with attention-holding ways to tell the story of a character with mental issues. One way is to focus on the relationship between the patient and therapist, but if the character never seeks mental help to begin with, as in “Pawn Sacrifice,” that obviously can’t happen.  In this case, the main character, Bobby Fischer, is presented as perpetually paranoid and doesn’t improve or change in markedly noticeable ways.

In this movie, Tobey Maguire as the chess grandmaster/genius, huffs and puffs and does everything but blow the house down to be convincing, and does a good job, but at some level, I was always aware I was watching Tobey Maguire put on a performance. Bobby is played in flashbacks at earlier ages, and the adolescent Bobby (Seamus  Davey-Fitzpatrick) has a convincing Brooklyn accent, but by the time the characters morphs into Tobey, he seems to have lost most of it and sounds more like, well, Tobey.

We first see Bobby Fischer as a young child, interrupting his mother and her guests to inform her that there’s an unfamiliar car outside, and indeed the real Mrs. Fischer was investigated by the FBI for the crime of spending time in Russia.  The mother then rehearses with her son what to say if he’s ever stopped and questioned, which is “I have nothing to say to you.”  Eventually, he teaches himself chess and begins playing in Washington Square, though he’s often impatient at the slowness of his opponents.  He then sets out to become the greatest player of all, which includes defeating opponents from the Soviet Union.  After a few starts and stops, he starts playing in earnest, traveling the world with a priest mentor (Peter Sarsgaard) and a journalist (Michael Stuhlbarg).  Ultimately, he will compete against the Russian champion, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) in a 1972 match in Iceland with the eyes of the world on them.  In an epilogue, we’re told that Fischer turned down millions in endorsements and disappeared from the public eye.

There are several theories floated in the film about the main character’s shaky mental health.  One is that, like Mozart, being partly unstable comes with being a genius.  Another, detailed by Liev, is that the paranoia and “delusions” are actually cannily employed strategies to throw off Bobby’s opponents.  Would treatment somehow remove his desire to be the best in the world, even as it decreased his tendency to dismantle the hotel phone and insist on as close to complete silence during matches as possible?  And there’s the chicken and egg question: does chess somehow trigger mental instability or does it merely attract the brilliant and eccentric?  Overall, this is a movie which despite its real life inaccuracies, raises intriguing questions like these.




Movie Review: The Intern

Last week, I was waiting in line at a local store that sells produce and other fall items, overhearing the owner discuss the new employees hired, who seemed to be doing an overall good job, “except one showed up in flip flops.”

The young uns’ at Jules Ostin’s (Anne Hathaway) online fashion site don’t quite stoop that low, wardrobe-wise, but they do, at least the men, tend to take a casual approach to dressing, something that new seventy-something intern Ben Whittaker (Robert De Niro) is able to help correct.  By the end of “The Intern,” they’re even wearing ties and carrying bona fide briefcases – purchased on eBay.  Perhaps there is hope for that generation yet.

If you’ve seen the trailer, you pretty much know the plot of “The Intern,” which is that Robert decides to participate in a program run by Anne’s company which has decided to recently recruit people over sixty.  After making a decent video pitch (cover letters are so old-fashioned) and acing a round of interviews with some uncomfortable questions (i.e. “Where do you see yourself in ten years?”), he’s ready to go.  He has ample experience in sales and marketing, among other departments, after retiring from a phone book making company.  (And actually, they still seem to be in circulation, at least one showed up at my doorstep, source unknown, last year.)  Anyway, soon Robert’s bonding with the other interns and employees, giving them advice on relationships and enjoying the unexpected perks today’s workplaces offer (at least in the movies), such as a sexy company masseuse (Rene Russo).  But winning over Anne will take more time.

Anne is being pressured to hire another more “seasoned” CEO with whom, I think, they are supposed to share the company with an agreement that neither fires the other.  Of course, all of the proposed candidates are male, and no one even raises the prospect of another woman coming on board.  Anne is also having marital conflict with her stay-at home husband and young daughter, who feel that they hardly ever get to see her, and the latter soon adopts Robert as a kind of honorary grandfather, once he begins driving Anne home and occasionally stepping inside to observe the not-so-happy family  As a chauffeur, as well as taking on more and more responsibility at work, Robert quickly becomes familiar with Anne’s quirks, including her lack of confidence in herself and her fear that she will die single (don’t ask).  Ultimately, there is a happy ending for all involved, if a bit too rose-colored for my taste.

“The Intern,” is a nice light romantic comedy, and it’s hard to deny that Anne and Robert have a great rapport (which helps as both take many turns making speeches about life while the other listens sympathetically).  It is best enjoyed by not thinking too hard about plot holes and simply sitting back and observing this world where everyone is well-off and photogenic, and all problems can be solved if both parties are willing to bare their souls and deliver some very clichéd dialogue.  Otherwise, if you’re in the mood for something darker, give it a skip.

A Look Back: Office Space

What transforms a good movie into a classic?  Well, if at least a few quotes have staying power, that’s a bonus.  “Office Space,” which came out in the nineties, like a John Hughes or Monty Python movie, has the advantage of not only expressing something universal, it’s compulsively quotable.  A few gems.

“It’s not that I’m lazy…it’s that I just don’t care!”

“You’ve been missing an awful lot of work lately.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve been ‘missing’ it.”

“The ratio of cake to people is too big.”

Ron Livingston plays the protagonist of “Office Space,” a white collar computer software drone named Peter Gibbons, who deals with the same petty indignities most of us do in our jobs.  For starters, he has to crawl through bottleneck traffic, and when he arrives, he’s greeted by a perky colleague who chirps, “Looks like someone’s got a case of the Mondays!” complete with an exaggerated Frowny Face.  He doesn’t have one supervisor, he has seven or eight, so when he makes a minor error such as forgetting to attach the cover to his TPS report, he gets reprimanded umpteen times. His boss is the skin-crawlingly smarmy Lumbergh (Gary Cole), whose hand is permanently attached to his coffee mug, whose speech is punctuated by “Mmmm…yeah…m’okays,” and who has a habit of asking him to work weekends on the spur of the moment before he can think of an excuse not to.

Unsurprisingly, Ron’s free time is depressing, too.  Every night he collapses on the couch, only to be interrupted by his next door neighbor, a single guy who bellows, “Check out the breast exams – Channel 9!” Nor is Ron happy with the girl he’s dating – he half-suspects that she might be cheating on him, and his friends are sure of it.  But he’s stuck in a rut of inertia, and there’s seemingly no way out.

Ron, of course, is not the only corporate drone who is unhappy.  There’s his two pals Michael Bolton (David Herman) and Samir (Ajay Naidu), who suffer even more indignities based on their names.  If the three of them don’t do something about their festering discontent, one fears they may one day morph into Milton (Stephen Root), the elderly “squirrelly” guy who wages daily battles to listen to his radio at a reasonable volume, remain in the same cubicle for longer than a week, and keep his prized Swingline stapler out of the clutches of others who may filch it.

One day after work, Ron accompanies his girlfriend to a hypnotist shrink, whose treatment has a unique effect on Ron, mainly that he still lacks motivation but now no longer cares who knows.  He starts coming in late for work, guts fish on his TPS reports and starts dating a server from a chain restaurant nearby (Jennifer Aniston), who also has major issues with her job and the level of enthusiasm for it that she’s expected to display.  So Ron’s happy until he learns that there is some corporate “restructuring” going on, and that his friends’ jobs are on the line.  After that comes embezzlement, comuppance, and ultimately arson, brought about by the theft of the Swingline stapler, which is apparently indestructible and survives the inferno at the end.  As for Stephen, he’s last seen on a tropical beach complaining about the drinks and plotting revenge.  Some people are never satisfied.

Movie Review: Black Mass

As I settled into my seat at a local theater before the start of “Black Mass,” questions ran through my mind.

Will Johnny Depp give a chilling performance as the lead, notorious James “Whitey” Bulger: a psychopathic criminal from Boston’s South End, who had his finger in just about every illegal pie, and wound up collaborating with the FBI to decrease crime (at least that of his rivals), an arrangement that worked nicely for years until it no longer did?

Can both a British and an Australian actor nail that pesky Boston accent?

Since I’ve lived near Boston, will I recognize any of the scenery?

Answers: Yes, more or less, and yes.

The movie begins with various informants being interviewed and then goes into flashbacks, beginning when Johnny has been released from prison (“It’s nice to have you back,” a neighbor says sincerely.) and is ready to get back in the game.  We’re soon introduced to his brother, a Senate member, (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his old pal turned FBI agent (Joel Edgerton).  We briefly meet Johnny’s mother (who cheats at cards), but there is no sign of a father anywhere.  The movie does not really address the natural question, which is how two brothers from the same environment took such divergent paths in life, which perhaps is unanswerable.  Instead it focuses more on the complex system of loyalties between Johnny and his allies, something that is eventually threatened when a former Boston FBI agent moves back and cannot be bought or derailed from bringing Johnny to justice.

Throughout “Black Mass,” Johnny wears the same black jacket and the same inscrutable expression for pretty much the whole thing; he stays deadpan (helped by lots of makeup) regardless of whether he’s shooting someone at close range, strangling them or just wheedling out the secret to a friend’s steak sauce.  Lots of characters are beaten to a pulp in this movie, and most wind up at the bottom of a river.  Benedict and Joel attempt to stay loyal to Johnny, and do a decent job here, but I never got a sense that either was struggling too hard with his conscience over what the right thing to do was (something that would have brought more depth to the movie).  There are female characters, too, but they are basically there to nag at the men and fail to grasp the concept of loyalty to one’s brothers and friends.  At one point, Joel attempts to explain his wife that Johnny looked out for him when they were growing up.  “What did he do – take you trick-or-treating?” she snaps, unimpressed.  Women just don’t understand in these kinds of films.

At the end, consequences are finally meted out, and we find out what happened to most of the major characters, although if you’re already familiar with the story, there’s nothing new.  Overall, “Black Mass” is an absorbing way to spend two hours, even if the cleverest part of it is the title.   My theater was full, and except for a few people, everyone seemed riveted to the screen.

Movie Review: The Black Stallion

“The Black Stallion,” embodies every horse crazy girl’s dream, which is to be stranded on a totally deserted, but highly photogenic island (not a beer can or cigarette butt anywhere) with a wild horse, who becomes tame through a mutual life-saving effort and having no one else to rely on. Then, once you return to civilization, you get to train the horse to compete in a race, and not just any race, but The Match Race of All Time. That’s why it’s a little odd, if you don’t know that the movie is based on a series of books by Walter Farley (which I believe his son later took over writing), that the young hero, Alec Ramsey (Kelly Reno) is a boy. But it doesn’t really matter, given that 95 percent of horse movies star a young actress.

This movie opens on a ship chugging its lone way across an unnamed body of water, but some hints are given when a group of Arab passengers come on board, leading a wild black stallion who mainly rears and screams as they attempt to manhandle him into his accommodations. Kelly soon notices the commotion and attempts to bond with the horse by leaving it sugar cubes when no one’s looking. It’s never really explained why mom (Teri Garr) isn’t on the trip, too, but it’s just Kelly and his dad (Hoyt Axton), and we see the dad for only a scene where he brings his poker game winnings back to their cabin and winds up giving Kelly two gifts that come in handy – a pocket knife and a little figurine of an Arab horse.

That night, there is a fire, and the crew and passengers are forced to evacuate. Kelly manages to wash up on the aforementioned desert island, and he soon discovers that “The Black” (originality is not his strong point when it comes to naming things) is also a “prisoner” of sorts there.  Eventually, rescue comes, and the Black briefly takes up residence in Kelly’s suburban backyard (where the mom emerges at one point and informs the horse she wishes he could have saved her husband, too)  Perhaps to get away from this guilt trip, or more probably because he’s startled by the morning garbage truck, the Black jumps the fence and takes off.  Fortunately, he winds up heading for Mickey Rooney’s barn, where when Kelly comes in search of him, is happy munching hay in a stall and decides to move in permanently.

Rooney had a long and distinguished career appearing in quite a few horse movies I saw as a kid, including “National Velvet.”  Here he trains Kelly to race, as well as the Black, though the horse’s only real obstacle is accepting a bridle and saddle (so superfluous after he’s been galloped over the sand dunes bareback).  At the same time, there is a big match race being arranged between a champion racer in the East and one on the West Coast, and with the aid of a local journalist, they manage to get the Black entered, too as a (literal) dark horse.  The jockeys of the two, when they finally meet, are surprisingly affable to each other and share snickers when they see the pint-sized Kelly and the out-of-control Black against whom they are to compete.

This movie, which went on to spawn a sequel (in which Kelly and the Black travel to the Middle East) and a TV series that was on for approximately a few seconds, has a traditional ending which doesn’t really need to be revealed here.  But it’s probably safe to say that the movie fueled many a horse lover’s fantasy, which was rudely shattered if they actually began riding lessons and found that it’s actually work to master the art of equitation.  Still, if they did stick with it, it was likely they eventually found some of that joy so evident in the relationship between this boy and his horse.

Movie Review: The Visit

Once in awhile, I encounter a movie so bad that I’m seriously tempted to stand by the ticket counter begging people who are queuing up for the next show not to spend their money on such tripe.  “The Visit,” released in the US today, was one of those movies.  Still, there’s always the danger of reverse psychology, and so I refrain.

I’ve never met its director M. Night Shyamalan, but I have a feeling he and I watched the same TV detective shows about a decade ago.  There are definite elements of a rather macabre episode of “Without a Trace,” (complete with the phantom swinging swing), in which a little girl is kidnapped from the playground and imprisoned by a nice elderly couple.  The episode also featured an oven.  It gave me a nightmare, and I suspect that “The Visit” will give me one tonight, although that is not a reason to avoid it.  It should be avoided simply because it’s not very good.

In “The Visit,” Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould are the standard issue movie children of Kathryn Hahn (she’s a precocious would-be filmmaker; he’s a would-be rap star), who spend a week with their grandparents, played by Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie.  The plot is one that requires a degree of negligence on the part of the mother that would be cause for calling Child Protective Services in real life, but it’s a movie, so it’s not an issue. Anyway, Kathryn sends her kids to stay with her parents in their isolated countryside house (no landline, and no signal for cells), while she takes a cruise with her boyfriend.  It isn’t long before two things become clear: a) the kids still haven’t processed their dad moving out, and b) something is off with both the grandparents.

Olivia is using the time to film a documentary, which makes a great excuse for the camera to tilt and turn and generally go all “Blair Witch Project.”  She also hopes to find out just what transpired that led to her mother moving out and refusing to communicate for years with her parents.  It’s good that they at least have a laptop so they can Skype with mom about certain bizarre behaviors Nana and Pop Pop are displaying.  Like Deanna’s penchant for sneaking into the space under the house and scaring the pants off both kids – and then merrily retreating to the kitchen to bake.  Or like Peter’s mysterious shed.  Not to mention both grandparents’ warnings about the supernatural.  Are they going senile, displaying signs of mental illness, or is something else going on?

Both Deanna and Peter do a great job swinging from sweet to sinister and back again.  Kathryn is very convincing in the role of the ditzy mom, as well.  But the plot is not particularly original, and it becomes obvious what’s going on to the viewer, even though the kids at that point are still figuring things out.  (I also found the rapping extremely annoying, though it could just be my age.)  My main problem was the fact that no child could possibly emerge from the experience these two did so healed so fast, but that’s movie trauma for you.  Apparently, multiple brushes with danger can be cured in a few weeks, while Dad moving out takes years to adjust to.  Good to know.

(The precise title of what is burned in my memory as “the creepy oven episode,” turned out to be an episode of “Criminal Minds” called “Mosley Lane”. Bud Cort of “Harold and Maude” plays one of the kidnappers.)


When the Bard Goes to Hollywood

I once saw a TV movie, where in movie tradition, the bell rings before the teacher can give the next day’s assignment, so she is forced to bellow over the herd of hastily departing students: “Sinclair Lewis’s ‘Main Street’ is due next week, and you can’t pick it up at the video store!” Of course, now it’s much easier for students to have access to movies that might help them better understand the intricacies of the books they are assigned in English class.  If you want to watch “Romeo and Juliet,” there are over thirty versions to choose from, ranging from TV dramas to movies set in a later time period (“West Side Story”) and even a version featuring garden gnomes.

It’s additionally thoughtful when Hollywood decides to update the classics and make them more accessible to the “average” person. Often this specifically includes teens. For example, “Clueless” starring Alicia Silverstone as a pampered rich girl who loves giving makeovers, is supposed to be an updated version of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” And more recently, “Easy A” was intended as a modern version of Nathanial Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.”

One English class author (or should I say playwright) who is perennially popular in Hollywood movies is William Shakespeare, a man who lived in the Elizabethan era and wrote a ton of tragedies, comedies, historic plays and sonnets. Unfortunately, the language he used is very “flowery,” meaning lots of “thees” and “thous,” and can give even a bright student difficulty at first when figuring out what he is trying to say. This can cause friction between the teacher, who has read the plays so many times he/she could recite them in a coma, and the class who is used to reading works that may be equally dull but easier to decode. The odd thing about Shakespeare is that, as inaccessible as his language may seem at first, it’s likely an English speaker can quote at least one of his famous lines.

Coincidentally, when Hollywood portrays a high school English class, many times the protagonist is studying a Shakespeare play. However, the protagonist is luckier than the average real life student because the assigned play always mirrors the plot of the movie. Cinematic drama productions, especially class plays, also frequently are Shakespearean. For example, in “Dead Poets Society,” a boarding school student (Robert Sean Leonard) takes a role in a community production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” against his father’s wishes.  The lines spoken by his character, Puck, at the play’s end: “Give me your hands, if we be friends/ And Robin shall restore amends.” take on a definite irony, when we see what happens in the aftermath.

Shakespeare’s movies that have gotten the teen-friendly Hollywood treatment include “The Taming of the Shrew” turning into “10 Things I Hate About You,” starring Julia Stiles, the late Heath Ledger and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Stiles plays an adolescent rebel/feminist whose dad (Larry Miller) won’t let her little sister date, until she does, too.  There is a bet involved, and of course, a message about seeing past the surface.

During her teen character period, Stiles also appeared in the movie “O,” an updated version of the tragedy “Othello,” in which Mekhi Phifer plays an African-American basketball star at a posh boarding school, who winds up having his future jeopardized when his coach (Martin Sheen) openly prefers him to his own son (Josh Hartnett), but his own insecurity and pride may also contribute.

In another strange twist, “Twelfth Night,” morphed into “She’s the Man,” in which Amanda Byrnes played a soccer star who transfers to her brother’s boarding school in order to still play (her team is disbanded).  This involves impersonating the brother, resulting in many wacky high jinks in which various people fall for other various people, mistaking them for the opposite gender.

Movies for a more mature audience also have tried to update the Bard.  “A Thousand Acres,” based on the novel by Jane Smiley, is a modern version of “King Lear,” a movie starring Jessica Lange and Michelle Pfeiffer about a family torn apart by one daughter’s accusations of incest.  “The Ides of March,” starring Ryan Gosling and George Clooney, takes its title from a famous line of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” both having themes about the abuse of political power.

And if you’re studying “Macbeth,” a version starring Michael Fassbender is due out next month.  Thanks to Hollywood, even if you don’t quite get the gist of a Shakespeare play on the page, watching it on screen should clear up most confusion.