Reviews by Ken Burke
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ insightful reviews. Therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when you’re ready to be transported to … wherever we end up. Please protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.
(intended) Short Takes (that aren't so short after all)
East Side Sushi (Anthony Lucero)
Set in Oakland, CA, this is the story of a Latina living with her father and her daughter, struggling to be acknowledged for her substantial culinary skills; she takes a job in a sushi restaurant, picks up the menu’s concepts quickly but wants to be out front rather than being stuck in the kitchen which goes against the all-male-chef-tradition that the owner insists be maintained.
Even though those Google audience statistics don’t tell me who’s actually reading these words (except by country, so my only specific insights into the Two Guys audience come from the meager direct responses I get to the postings), I fear that if there are enough of you in the Oakland area I may face a tar-and-feathering-session from disgruntled locals appalled that, even though I’m right here in the East Bay (across from San Francisco) myself, I’m not raving any more than I am about East Side Sushi (especially when it scores the Holy Grail of Rotten Tomatoes, a 100% positive score; keep in perspective, though, that this accomplishment is currently based on only 10 reviews so you might want to check that link far below again later to see if further responses alter this triumph-of-the-underdog-story to maintain that lofty status). Further, writer-director Lucero is an Oakland native making his feature-film-directorial-debut (B.A. in Film from SF State, special effects work for the Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, Iron Man, and The Twilight Saga series) for a product that’s playing only in our Bay Area (including the specular Art Deco palace, the Grand Lake Theatre, which gets a quick cameo shot in the movie; also see the links far below for more on this) and Southern CA sites at present so I don’t want to undermine any options for this uplifting story to not be a hit for the cast and crew, BUT my truth is that it’s a well-meaning-but-easily-predictable-bit-of-melodrama that I encourage financial support for in hopes of furthering the careers of those involved but has little hope of being much remembered after it finishes its present CA and festival circuits (with hopefully more bookings to come, based on audience awards that it has already won at competitions in my local area).
The story is a simple, sentimental one, focusing on Juana Martinez (Diana Elizabeth Torres) who lives in a small apartment in the East Oakland Fruitvale neighborhood (which you’ve possibly also seen in the more-impactful Fruitvale Station [Ryan Coogler, 2013; review in our July 16, 2013 posting]) with her father, Apa (Rodrigo Duarte Clark), and daughter, Lydia (Kaya Jade Aguirre), attempting to bring in whatever income she can by helping Papa with his fruit cart (which requires a lot of daily-early-morning-purchasing-and-cutting, even before Lydia’s off to school) as well as working in a gym wiping down machines after customers use them (I guess if they pay for the privilege of sweating there they can’t be expected to clean up after themselves, as is the requirement at my condo clubhouse gym, a fault I’ve recently been chastised for—although in my defense, I’m trying to avoid contributing to the overuse of anti-bacterial agents in our environment which is causing some serious medical problems so I used my own dry towel, a rationale that didn’t fly with neither my anonymous complainers nor the management). Given the meager income from those sources, Juana takes a job as an assistant to the chefs at a sushi restaurant, where she’s right at home with chopping but completely unfamiliar with the cuisine (and an initial flop at home when she tries out her fumbling attempts with this “foreign” form of nutrition), but she’s a fast learner, soon in command of her new-found-foodstuffs, aching for a chance to move out of the kitchen to work behind the bar with the other chefs where she has support from the manager, Aki (Yukata Takeuchi), but not from the Japanese-male-chefs-only-traditionalist-owner, Mr. Yoshida (Roji Oyama).
Juana attempts to overcome this intercultural-sexist-impasse by entering a regional competition run at a local TV station, offering a $20,000 prize along with a shot at the national championship. After meticulous preparation (and encouragement from her new assistant, Apa) she begins to distinguish herself in the live-broadcast-contest after a slow start but just like in the ultimate-underdog-movie, Rocky (John Avildsen, 1976), she comes up short at the end (leaving it to the audience to decide if the winner truly had a better result after the 1-hour-challenge-finale or whether misogyny was also creeping into the judging); yet, all ends well as Mr. Yoshida’s impressed enough to give her a spot at the bar, she’s clearly in a relationship with Aki, and her family has now embraced her new career (with the added touch of Juana introducing new sushi recipes that include ingredients from her Mexican heritage). It’s all very sweet, another tale of triumph for women to be taken seriously in careers that have previously been closed to them, and a great display of Oakland as offering more than the ongoing stereotype of rampant crime in the streets (another similarity to Fruitvale Station, just as this tale of accomplishment might also ring a familiarity-bell with those who know the marvelous Japanese film, Tampopo [Juzo Itami, 1985] where another female chef proves her mettle with her own ramen restaurant)—although crime can be a reality too, both with a scene early in the movie where Juana’s robbed at gunpoint while working the fruit cart and for me when I recently parked on a busy street while attending an Oakland Athletics’ afternoon baseball game, only to return later to find the window smashed out of my 1998 VW, with my “attractive” $65 Pioneer radio ripped completely out of the dashboard (to add insult to injury, the A’s lost 8-1 to the Texas Rangers, home team of my last Lone Star State residence some 30 years ago), but, despite competent acting supporting Juana's inspiring determination, East Side Sushi’s a completely-predictable-tale, except for the failed expectation of an out-of-left-field-win for her in the TV battle. If you can give this earnest movie some love now or later on video, I encourage you to do so, but don’t expect more than a standard-California Roll-level of impact from Lucero’s sincere story.
The Intern (Nancy Myers)
A 70-year-old-widower is bored with retirement so he gets a Senior Internship at an Internet-based clothing company, run by a tightly-wound-but-easily-emotional-much-younger-woman; he’s assigned to her, soon becomes her chauffer and confidant, imparting his acquired business acumen while becoming the go-to-guy for everyone’s betterment at work.
Like East Side Sushi, The Intern is a very sweet experience on screen (so much so at times that you may think you’re gaining calories just by watching it), but, unfortunately for me (not so much for Nina—she liked … Sushi more than I did as well; the PR people for such movies should pay her to write some of these reviews—even if she got 10 cents for each of them she’d be making more than I do on this project), it’s another exercise in sentimentality that’s pleasant enough to watch, as well as even-more-well-acted given the Oscar-caliber-talent of Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway in the lead roles (surely the impetus behind this movie’s active debut last weekend, coming in at #2 for domestic grosses but with “only” just shy of $18 million, a far cry from the kid-friendly Hotel Transylvania 2 [Genndy Tartakovsky], opening at a hefty $48.5 million) along with solid support from the rest of the cast, but really isn’t all that funny as a comedy most of the time (with the exception of one madcap-break-in-scene) nor very powerful when it attempts to turn to aspects of drama. The premise, as easily understood from the trailer (available far below in the suggested links), is that 70-year-old-widower Ben Whittaker (De Niro) is getting bored from retirement in upscale Brooklyn after working 40 years as an executive at a phone-book-company (part of the inter-generational-comedic setup here, as virtually everything Ben’s familiar with is like unknown territory to the 20-to-30-somethings he’ll soon be surrounded by) so he applies for, then gets a Senior Internship at Above The Fit (ironically housed in the same building where Ben worked, but that’s not revealed until well into our story), an Internet-based-clothing-company founded and run by Jules Ostin (Hathaway).
She’s supposed to be demanding and feared but usually comes across as distractedly-distant at worst, sincerely-inquisitive at best (so as she moves from assistant [The Devil Wears Prada (David Frankel, 2006)] to boss in fashionwear she doesn’t inherit the frigid personality played by Meryl Streep in that previous movie). To help the plot run smoothly, Ben’s assigned to Jules, although she has little for him to do (probably the most negative, off-putting trait she displays throughout the entire plot) until he ends up as her chauffeur, leading to more of a personal-confidant role as his business expertise proves valuable for her too-rapidly-growing-to-manage-enterprise.
Under pressure from her investors to hire an experienced CEO to take some of her tasks, Jules attempts to accept that challenge but finds no one whom she believes will have the same level of dedication to her “baby” as she does (a source of interpersonal problems at home where her house-husband, Matt [Anders Holm], and actual baby… well, young daughter… Paige [JoJo Kushner] are feeling increasingly distanced from her, with the extra guilt of Matt choosing to give up his own thriving career so that Jules could fully blossom with hers). Ben provides a rock-solid-source of direction for Jules, just as his lifestyle of suits, multiple devices (instead of a multitasking-smartphone he’s got all sorts of stuff in a briefcase, including a dinosaur-era-flip-phone [like mine]), and easy-going-attitude makes him a hit with his much-younger-co-workers (“Grey is the new green” they say but we never see the other 2 Senior Interns again after their quick introduction as new hires along with Ben, although traditional-aged-intern Davis [Zack Pearlman, backseat-left in this accompanying photo] becomes a key minor character; by the way, in case you think you’ve somehow seen this movie already, you may be thinking of The Internship [Shawn Levy, 2013; review of this even-worse-attempt at the older-apprentice-concept in our June 14, 2013 posting]), which proves useful when he has to lead a team of housebreakers into Jules’ mother’s home in order to erase an offending email accidently sent by a daughter fed up with Mama’s (telephone voice of Mary Kay Place) meddling demands, an expedition that succeeds despite an unplanned, active house alarm—the most successfully comic bit of the entire movie, using frantic, slapstick situations, although there are other amusing moments that give the first hour an upbeat overtone challenged by the seemingly-manufactured-attempts at tension in the second half when Ben struggles with telling Jules that he’s seen Matt kissing another woman.
Even this aspect of potential crisis is softened, though, when Jules tells Ben she already knows about the affair, which is why she’s hoping that hiring an outsider CEO will allow her more time at home in an attempt to repair her fraying marriage (in context of the moves this movie makes, it’s surprising that precious Paige hasn’t already found a way to steer Mommy and Daddy back together, but I guess she’s just too young yet to even realize that there are such serious problems between her parents—especially as she’s not witness to their bedroom-lack-of-antics where Jules continues working on her laptop well into the night so that when she’s finally ready to respond to Matt’s sexual invitations he’s now sound asleep). However, even when Jules does find an appropriate CEO candidate in San Francisco (if she’d needed a sushi chef, I guess she’d have come over to Oakland), before she can hire him Ben encourages her to stay in charge herself in order to preserve her passionate vision of the company (a bit of an odd move, given what he knows about how that will impact her family life), followed by an awkward-last-minute-“rescue” the next morning as Matt rushes into her office, encouraging her as well to ditch the job offer to the proposed-new-CEO with a promise that he’ll make new efforts in rekindling the fire of their marriage even as she attempts to manage the ever-growing-business. With that understanding, Jules rushes off to join Ben in his outdoor tai chi group (which helps him stay in shape for his new-found-romance with company in-house-sensuous-masseuse Fiona [Rene Russo]), so that all ends beautifully for everyone concerned, including the young male workers who now have a proper role-model for the suave, sophisticated, caring guys they need to become (with no clumsy hints at a romantic-complication between our story’s leads, as we got in the final scenes of Learning to Drive [Isabel Coixet; review in our September 17, 2015 posting]). Maybe I’m being too cold-hearted to appreciate the heart-warming-situations here, but I just kept feeling that The Intern started with an interesting premise, then had to find something to do with it for 2 hours, which the characters’ voiceover narration didn’t help accomplish despite everyone’s best efforts.
OK, now on to the main courses in our menu of reviews, with the first one being a substantially-satisfying-cinematic-meal on its own, followed by another of even-more-impactful-proportions.
Black Mass (Scott Cooper)
A biography of notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, a ruthless criminal whose chilling actions terrified everyone in contact with him, including the FBI handler who arranged an alliance with Bulger in an attempt to undercut a wider range of crime but soon found himself having to hide the vicious deeds of his “associate” from his Bureau superiors.
What Happens: This docudrama-account of notorious criminal James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) begins in 1975 when his Irish-American Winter Hill Gang is beginning to announce quite a presence for themselves in South Boston, especially in collision with the Mafia-connected Italian gang that rules the north side of the city. Although Whitey’s brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), as a state senator attempts to keep his distance from the illegal side of his family (they both visit their beloved mother at the same time, though), another Southie old friend, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), is quite willing to be in contact with Whitey, even to the point of offering him an “alliance” with the Feds against the Italians, thereby convincing Whitey that the information he’s providing doesn’t amount to ratting on fellow criminals because there are mutual victories to be had when Whitey’s competition is eliminated. Whitey eventually accepts the advantages he perceives of the deal (although his gang members aren’t convinced, to the point that they later offer testimony in FBI interrogations about Whitey, providing the Citizen Kane [Orson Welles, 1941]-like-structure of Black Mass as their visualized-verbal-evidence about their former boss is gathered for the increasingly-damning-case against Bulger the Butcher [I just made up that title, but as this film gruesomely demonstrates, it would be an appropriate nickname for him]). However, Whitey’s initial promise to not be involved personally in the worst sort of crimes, especially murder, proves to be short-lived indeed, putting Connolly constantly on the hot seat with his boss, Charles McGuire (Kevin Bacon), who becomes increasingly unwilling to accept that Whitey has no involvement in many of the heinous crimes under their jurisdiction, even as Connolly tries to argue that no actual evidence exists against Bulger even though John knows full well the brutal deeds that his childhood pal’s responsible for (despite scenes that show his ability to be a loving son to his Mom [Mary Klug], semi-spouse to girlfriend Lindsey Cyr [Dakota Johnson], and father to their son, Douglas [Luke Ryan], while going about his business of viciously killing people).
Situations on the main characters’ home fronts begin to deteriorate, though, when young Douglas suddenly goes into a vegetative state, leading to his termination by distraught Lindsey followed by Whitey’s furious rejection of her; similarly, Connolly’s wife, Marianne (Julianne Nicholson), is disgusted by her own husband’s increasing interactions with Bulger but tries her best to hold her temper as it’s clear that her objections aren’t going to change anything. McGuire’s mood isn’t much better as he keeps on insisting that Bulger’s protected status needs to provide info against the Angiulo Brothers’ gang, which it finally does (although later we learn that nothing the FBI got from Whitey was anything but duplication from other informants—further creating problems for Connolly—but it’s not clear to me why it took so long for the Bureau to get wise to this informant-overlap-situation). Then things get really hot when Whitey’s cut out of a scheme with insiders at World Jai Alai, so he has owner Roger Wheeler (David De Black) killed but not before one of Bulger’s boys, Brian Halloran (Peter Sarsgaard—he’ll pop up in our next film as well), becomes aware of the plot so Whitey pays him off to keep quiet; instead, Halloran, fearful for his life, tries to report the killing to the FBI but his story is intentionally dismissed by Connolly and partner John Morris (David Harbour), although when Bulger learns of it from Connolly he shoots Halloran down in cold blood. Things get really rotten from there, with Whitey becoming increasingly dangerous; Connolly unable to hide Bulger’s failed attempt to provide an arms shipment to the IRA from new, hardnosed U.S. Attorney Fred Wyshak (Corey Stoll); a Boston Globe exposé about Whitey as an informant; then Bulger’s 1998 disappearance (until, as we learn in closing graphics, he was finally captured in 2011) along with the arrest of his chief henchmen plus Connolly—undone by Morris’ fearful testimony—for his cover-up of Whitey’s notorious crimes (brother Billy also hit the rocks in that after he left the state Senate to become Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts he was forced to resign because of implications of his connections to Whitey’s notorious criminal acts).
So What? There’s already a good bit of nomination-speculation that Edgerton as increasingly-put-upon-paranoid-agent-in-over-his-head-Connolly may end up with a Best Actor Oscar nod; that may be so, leaving Depp’s modern-day-pirate-character by the wayside when the initial awards contenders are chosen, but none of that negates just how horrifyingly-frightening Depp is in making it clear to us that Whitey Bulger’s one of the most vicious sociopaths ever to disgrace our society—especially in the unnerving scene where he presents some barely-veiled-threats to Marianne to keep her quiet about what she knows—even though, as the final graphic comments explain to us, he was also very cunning as it took so many years for the government to finally track him down after he went into hiding (you can watch here 14:30 of CBS’s 60 Minutes Presents about the strategies that went into his final capture). Despite all of the revelations about arrests and prison sentences we get at the end of this gut-punch of a film, though, the one thing (even as a fallen-away-Catholic) that I wasn’t sure of until I looked it up is the implication of the intriguing-but-odd-title which comes directly from the book that inspired this film: 2001’s Black Mass: The True Story of an Unholy Alliance Between the FBI and the Irish Mob by Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill, which offers the connotation that the “mass” and "unholy"allusions come from the sense of Bulger’s assassination rituals of rubbing out his rivals while intimidating anyone close to him that might ever act as even a minor threat—just as the term itself comes from the understanding of ancient sacrilegious ceremonies connected to witches and Satanic worship as affronts to Catholicism—all of which makes for a bit of a difficult connection in the mind of the “What-do-we-see-this-weekend?”-moviegoer who might well be interested in this story but can’t seem to remember how this title’s supposed to be a reminder of the bloodthirsty-criminal-acts of Whitey Bolger (his detested nickname, picked up in childhood, refers to the light coloring of his blondish hair; later when he was arrested he truly did sport white hair but that’s not an aspect of his appearance in what we see in the roughly 20 years covered by this plot).
Bottom Line Final Comments: In other reviews I’ve seen a lot of comparisons between Black Mass and Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas (1990), which is a relevant concept, but I think that if you’re going to reference this narrative about Bulger to a Scorsese gangster film then you should also include The Departed (2006), which swept 4 major Oscars (Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay [William Monahan], Editing [Thelma Schoonmaker]) as it provided another meaty role for Jack Nicholson, as fictional South Boston Irish mobster Frank Costello, while playing actively with the idea of embedded-informants as Leonardo DiCapro constantly takes risks as Billy Costigan, a Boston cop within Costello’s inner circle just as Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan is also a cop but a dirty one, actually working for his father-figure, Frank. I can’t say that Black Mass is as magnificent as these Scorsese masterpieces, but it’s an honor for this new film to be aptly grouped with them, all of which—especially Black Mass as it addresses true crime in the streets—should give us serious pause as to how effective any of our law-keeping-agencies are when the lure of the gangster’s luxurious lifestyle is a constant enticement to our “protectors,” making it difficult for those sworn to keep us safe to distance themselves from the attractions that tempt guardians expected to be incarcerating criminals rather than becoming accomplices to their nefarious actions. (Just as we find in another tale of government interests gone wrong, American Hustle [David O Russell, 2013; review in our December 27, 2013 posting} about the FBI’s ABSCAM debacle back in the 1970s-‘80s.)
When it came to my choice this time of a Musical Metaphor that speaks—either seriously or comically—to a feature film under extensive review, here for Black Mass, I found myself drawn to The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” (from the 1971 LA Woman album) at https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=aZT_ OxPRmSw (with appropriate visuals added, although I’ll admit they do get a bit repetitious at times) because its ominous atmosphere, including the sounds of thunder and keyboard patterns that duplicate the pattering of rain, about “a killer on the road” whose “brain is squirmin’ like a toad” brings me back to the malicious acts of Whitey Bulger, a guy who might be “take[n] … by the hand” by a lover or an FBI crony but I doubt that anyone could “Make him understand” anything about human decency that didn’t directly benefit him. Bulger may have felt that “Into this world we’re thrown Like a dog without a bone” so that he had a reason to grab whatever he desired as compensation for things he might think were lacking in his world, but no one could feel safe “giv[ing] this man a ride,” unless you just wanted a quick trip to the morgue. This is a disturbing song that conjures up the essence of a most-disturbing-man, thankfully put away for good as punishment for his many horrid crimes.
Pawn Sacrifice (Edward Zwick)
Another biography, this one about one-time World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer, a prodigy of the intricate game whose early fame led to his well-publicized 1972 match against then-champ Boris Spassky as a David vs. Goliath, U.S. vs. U.S.S.R. Cold War propaganda event set against a complex background of paranoia and madness that tormented Fischer.
What Happens: What’s presented to us is mostly in chronological order, except for the very beginning with newsreels of former U.S. Chess Champion Bobby Fischer (Tobey Maguire) not showing up for the 2nd game of his World Championship match against Russian Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), then we see Bobby in a paranoid state in his hotel room, followed by what could be considered flashbacks for most of the film (or the opening scenes could be seen as flashforwards) to Bobby’s (Aiden Lovekamp) 1951 working-class-Brooklyn childhood (a far cry from the upper-crust-neighborhoods showcased in The Intern) where he’s already developing antagonism toward his Jewish mother Regina’s (Robin Weigert) support of Communism. Bobby becomes obsessed with chess, soon beating an adult, expert Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla)—who’d provided a surprising early defeat for him—with the man continuing in Bobby’s life for quite awhile thereafter as a mentor. As time moves on, Fischer (now played by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick) becomes the youngest-ever-U.S. Champion, before turning 15, soon thereafter is the youngest Grandmaster ever, further deepening his desire to take on the Russian power-players then dominating the game, although they have the advantage of state support while he has nothing like that from the U.S. Surprisingly, though, he’s contacted by highly-patriotic-lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg)), who offers anonymous financial resources so that Bobby could provide a boost for our diminishing-superpower-status (as the U.S. was headed toward what many later described as “declare victory and go home” from our disastrous engagement in the grotesque Vietnam War—my comment, not explicitly noted in the film). With help from Marshall and priest/ chess genius William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), Bobby soon finds himself ready to go to Iceland for a showdown in 1972 with Spassky although he flabbergasts his supporters with increasing demands (more money, better hotel, etc.) that, when not met, lead to his failure to appear.
Material support finally materializes from a British donor so Bobby shows up but loses the 1st match, then fails to show for the 2nd one unless a series of extreme logistical requirements are met to assuage his intense-sensitivity to the playing conditions (distractions from the audience, cameras recording the event, etc.). However, Spassky, with apparently just as big an ego as Fischer’s (although he, like Fischer, feels that he’s being bugged by Soviet spies but in his case to maintain their satisfaction with his loyalty and competiveness whereas Bobby assumed his enemies—which he felt also included the Jews worldwide, despite his own heritage—were trying to find a method of advantage over him) doesn’t want the backhanded “honor” of retaining his title by default so he agrees to Fischer’s outlandish stipulations (that the games be played in an obscure ping pong room with no audience and a single TV camera simply broadcasting the “action” to the attendees still seated in the original auditorium). Soon, Bobby’s changed the score from being down 2-0 to being up 3½-2½ (they played Game 4 to a draw, although that’s a tactic that Bobby assiduously tried to avoid in an attempt to force an opponent to become more reckless, knowing that Fischer was adverse to such a result therefore becoming increasingly more furious in his strategies), after winning Game 6 in such an astounding fashion that Spassky stood up to applaud him, an unheard-of-show-of-respect. Fischer eventually triumphs 12½-8½, a substantial victory but one that may have pushed him further into the madness that was already eating away at him (causing him to become debilitatingly-attenuated to sounds in the environment, assumptions about microphone bugs in his quarters, doubts about his support team, etc.; as Spassky begins to lose he gets paranoid as well, demanding to have his chair X-rayed to see if he’s being remotely harassed by transmitted noises), so that he became a recluse stripped of his title (arrested for vagrancy in 1980), a violator of a U.N. agreement that should have prevented him from a rematch with Spassky in Yugoslavia in 1992 (he won again, though), finally a political/tax-fugitive from the U.S., resulting in Icelandic citizenship until his death in 2008 (with those post-1972-events presented quickly in newsreel footage of the actual Fischer).
So What? If chess is a mystery to you, the Cold War some obscure reference from a history class that you barely stayed awake in, and Bobby Fischer just a complete enigma as to why such a self-centered-mental-case should have become a mass-media-sensation at a time when the U.S. populace might have been better served paying attention to the Watergate break-in than a bunch of chess games in Reykjavik (fortunately for the stability—at least during the mid-1970s if not so much now—of the U.S. government the Watergate situation finally rose to the top of public consciousness in the ensuing years, despite the landslide Nixon re-election in the fall of 1972), it may be difficult to get interested in what’s offered with Pawn Sacrifice (the critical community as a whole has been surprisingly uninterested as well, with the current positive scores from Rotten Tomatoes only at 73%, Metacritic at 65%; more details if you like in the links not too much further below). If that’s the case, all I can do is highly encourage you to seek out this marvelous film which not only gives context of why the U.S. was so bitterly engaged in that long-lasting, paranoia-inducing, horribly-expensive (in both defense dollars and buried bodies as the Vietnam death toll grew, in our failed attempt to prevent the “domino theory” from occurring throughout Southeast Asia with China setting up puppet governments unless we prevented such, which we did not even though that vision of Sino-domination didn’t come to pass either) Cold War conflict with our Communist adversaries (specifically, the Soviet Union in the Fischer story) but also presents a compelling story of the fine line between genius and insanity, done here as brilliantly as was the biography of John Nash (Russell Crowe) in A Beautiful Mind (Ron Howard, 2001), an Oscar Best Picture about the severe mental problems suffered by an economics Nobel Laureate.
The interactions of the media coverage of Fischer (in footage both real and manufactured brilliantly for this film) with the dramatic conflicts between Bobby and just about anyone in his vicinity (even though a few—particularly the lawyer, the priest, and Bobby’s older sister, Joan [Lily Rabe]—continue to care about him even when he drives them to their own near-insanity) is a soul-shaking, impactful cinematic experience of “grandmaster” status itself, despite what my less-than-enthused-critical-colleagues have collectively declared (I can only hope that it continues to open wider, playing currently in 781 theaters after 2 weeks in release, with only about $1.3 million in total gross so far—if this film doesn’t get wider coverage and a much better box-office-return, that’ll be the “gross” statement, so I encourage you to actively seek it out, at least on video if need be).
Bottom Line Final Comments: As a mediocre chess player myself I’m very glad to see how effectively Zwick has captured the drama of a mind-rather-than-body-based-game (not that physical-sports-athletes don’t use their minds with instantaneous reactions to situations on the playing field but they still have to use well-honed-muscle-responsive-bodily-abilities to follow through on those reactions whereas superior chess players are overworking their cognitive skills in plotting strategies while countering those of their opponents, with the only physical requirements—except for not coming into a match sick or sleepy—being the movement of small pieces around on a checkered board) in such a manner that you can sense the tension as these top-caliber-players contest each other, gain the proper sense of relief as Bobby begins to triumph in the later matches of the championship games (especially the decisive Game 6, as far as momentum was concerned), and feel the exhilaration of Fischer’s victory even if you don’t know the first thing about chess moves. The strain of concentration, the need for either player to move away from the board at times to re-gather his focus, the look of calculated-superiority by Bobby when he offers unpredictable moves that confound Spassky are all conveyed in effectively heart-pounding-fashion using intense closeups (without any attempt to explain to the audience what moves pawns, rooks, knights, bishops, and queens are making in pursuit of the opposing king) proves extremely successful, leaving us with a sense of confidence that it’s no joke this championship series is being covered by ABC’s Wide World of Sports. (Where possibly the intricacies of the game were explained in more detail to a TV audience that might have needed better help in following each well-determined-move rather than the edited version that we see here focused on the intense faces of the 2 men rather than what was happening on that important piece of wood that sat between them; I was certainly aware of these matches back in the summer of 1972—and cheering for Fischer, in that I was no fan of what became of the brutal Soviet Union after the initial 1917 Russian revolution—but I was also finishing up a Master’s degree in Radio-TV-Film and preparing to move to NYC for my first full-time-job [as a media manager at Queens College, Paul Simon’s early-1960s-alma mater] so I doubt that I watched much of the actual “combat” or just don’t remember it if I did.)
In consideration of all this, I’ll encourage you to take a look at a quick video about "Why Do Action Scenes Suck?" which is an relevant recommendation from my frequent contributor, Richard J. Parker, where the videomakers give excellent explanations of why explosive combat scenes in actual action movies often don’t work (compared to ones that do), a useful analysis that I think could be rightfully applied to Pawn Sacrifice as well, even though there aren’t bullets flying nor superheroes heaving supervillains around contemporary metropolitan landscapes. (By the way, in case you’re not much of a chess player, this film’s title overtly refers to a move where you allow one of your least powerful board pieces to be taken by your opponent with the intention of either opening up for you a useful next course of action or possibly allowing a previously-unnoticed-move by one of your more dominant pieces in retaliation; in the context of Fischer’s self-reflections, though, I assume it also could be interpreted as the manner in which he allowed himself to sacrifice everything about his seemingly-unheralded-life for the glory of becoming the international superstar of chess, seemingly the only ambition that ever mattered to him.) Also in keeping with the analysis provided in this video, that what we need in properly-constructed-action-scenes is something that probes into the character of the characters, something essential to the story as it’s progressing, possibly something that catches us satisfactorily-off-guard, Zwick helps us understand that in chess matches played at this level there are rarely surprise moves that occur from an opponent simply not seeing what his adversary is plotting but rather the tension comes from an unexpected offer of sacrificing or exchanging powerful board pieces, in order to see if the opponent is up to the challenge or will simply back away; further, for those of us who expect a decisive winning move in our sports, we also come to understand in Pawn Sacrifice that chess experts rarely finish a game to the state of checkmate (where the king is trapped with no escape) but they can see what moves are left, then simply resign the game rather than bother with playing out a losing scenario, so we can learn a few things here but not enough to become confusing or bothersome.
As I’ve noted in previous reviews, we’re still quite a ways away from all of the filmic heavyweights that are set for release between now and the end of the year so it’s premature to make predictions about award nominations, but I certainly think that this film, Zwick’s direction (with all of that excellent incorporation of actual and constructed newsreel footage presented in quick-cut-montages of both black-and-white and color footage, in contrasting graininess and sharp focus, that gives us such an insightful understanding of what was going on in Fischer’s world prior to, during, and after his historical clash with Spassky), and Maguire’s performance (where he makes you believe that Bobby could meet a prostitute, Donna [Evelyne Brochu], walk with her on the beach while he’s wearing his ever-present suit, and have a conversation where she says “I screw people,” to which he replies “So do I,” as if it’s all the most natural thing in the world or at least the casual foreshadowing of a line that would occur in another 1972 milestone event, the multiple-Oscar-winning Cabaret [Bob Fosse]) may well be worthy of such contention when all of the possibilities have been put into play. Put simply for now, though, Pawn Sacrifice is a hell of a powerful film, despite what some might perceive as an esoteric exercise in intellectual profundity; that might hold true for your average chess match between 2 unknown individuals but back then, even with President Nixon’s overtures to our sworn enemies in the U.S.S.R. and China, we as a society knew that our constant competition with these totalitarian empires, tested to our shame in what later was clear as our military/political defeat in Vietnam, represented a struggle for at least some regained-balance in world power, which Bobby Fischer presented as a great hope in conquering a dangerous enemy, even if just symbolically in a game of intellectual conflict. Zwick does a marvelous job of both recreating that time of ongoing tension as well as helping audiences not even alive during the deep freeze of the Cold War understand why so many in the West were actively rooting for Fischer to top the Russians in a contest in which they seemed unbeatable.
In an attempt to effectively reach back to that time and its overlay of nuclear-annihilation-gamesmanship, I’ve chosen for my Pawn Sacrifice Musical Metaphor the Yes song “I’ve Seen All Good People” (from the 1971 The Yes Album) at https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=W9Vml F2HIN8 with its fine chessboard allusions to “Just remember that the goal Is for us to capture all we want,” even as we recall an admonition to Fischer to not “surround yourself with yourself” (overall, these lyrics are a bit allusive so you may want to consider them in print for further elucidation), leaving us with the constantly-repeated-refrain of “I’ve seen all good people turn their heads each day So satisfied I’m on my way,” which could even refer to Bobby’s further mental deterioration and long-term-disappearance, as if he’s noting how former fans gave up on their oddball idol, allowing him to blissfully fade into obscurity at least until he decided to re-emerge.
However, after all of the trauma in the 2 entrées above, I’d like to conclude on a more positive note that takes me back to one of the best parts of the recent Vegas trip, the marvelous Cirque du Soleil’s Beatles’ tribute, Love, at the Mirage hotel (here’s some smuggled footage from it, not shot by me; you can find many other such clips on YouTube as well, although it’s quite surprising that they haven’t been taken down over the many years that this show’s been running, given that the management doesn't allow any imagery to be shot there so do enjoy them while you can). One means of somewhat capturing the full impact of that show is to watch this 2-part-tribute to The Beatles at https://www.youtube. com/watch?v=nWuNXa3AxDE (9:45, Part 1) and https://www. youtube.com/ watch?v=usKnOX6dzGI (8:49, Part II), with snippets from a vast number of their songs illustrated with footage from performances, movies, music videos, newsreel imagery, and TV animation (the text with these 2 videos seems to list everything included therein but, for some reason, not in the order presented).
Related Links Which You Might Find Interesting:
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Here’s more information about East Side Sushi:
Here are a couple of short videos that celebrate this film being made (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FxcdruH7gtc) and shown (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M7FE65LtUD0) in deserves-to-be-better-respected-than-it-is Oakland, CA.
Here’s more information about The Intern:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PeTVXP0hpJI (8:45 interview with director Nancy Meyers [including a brief montage of her previous work] and actor Anne Hathaway)
Here’s more information about Black Mass:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4eDgGV97PVk (3:33 analysis of a scene from the film by director Scott Cooper)
Here’s more information about Pawn Sacrifice:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pKDQYLapOlk (5 facts about Bobby Fischer)
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P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.
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