Pawn Sacrifice – Edward Zwick (2015)

I normally espouse going into a film almost randomly, not knowing what I am getting into – keeps the experience fresh, you know. So it was with Pawn Sacrifice. I knew it was about chess, rather than having to hock your wedding ring to pay off your bookie, and I was right on that count. I did not know that it was about Fischer and Spassky, or that it was, horror of horrors, a biopic. Naive dunderhead I may be, I only knew it had gotten generally positive buzz, had something to do with the Cold War, and was fictional. Were that it were so! How will they (those phantom filmmakers, as I had not yet discovered it was directed by Ed Zwick) make chess interesting on the big screen? Short answer – they won’t. Instead of the cooler, more serene sequel to Pi I was hoping for, we have instead a rehashing of the life of Bobby Fischer, with the narrative edifice built around his legendary series in Iceland against Spassky in 1972. Does anyone not know this story? I feel like I’ve seen it on PBS, on the History Channel, read about it in Games magazine… so this is hardly freshly trodden ground (except that those were small screen exertions). For those who don’t know, and would remotely care (although I don’t know why), Bobby Fischer was a chess prodigy born in Chicago, son of a German biophysicist (although the paternity is controversial) and physician mother Regina (played by Robin Weigert). Mom, although a consummate leftist, must leave Dad in Moscow during the onset of World War II. Our film finds Regina, now a single Mom, rearing older daughter Joan (Lily Rabe) and Bobby (Tobey Maguire) in a Brooklyn brownstone that also serves as a pressure cooker of paranoia. You see, the Feds are interested in Mom due to her politics and foreign service, so they often park out front and take photos, and Bobby is schooled from a young age in the proper etiquette of putting off impolite inquiries from G-Men. Somehow taking an early interest in chess, Bobby is quickly referred to the Brooklyn Chess Club by his psychiatrist, and is taken under the tutelage of Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla), its president. From there, we are only a series of montage sequences away from Fischer’s early, still relatively sane triumphs, and from there onward again through another series of montage sequences to the heavyweight match against the man most likely to wear sunglasses at the chess board, Mr. Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber). Of course, as anyone who knows the story of Bobby Fischer will understand, the montage sequences are just the skeleton over which the sinews of insanity will be draped. Bobby starts out paranoid (not unjustifiably, thanks to Mom), and gets more so exponentially. Obsessed with Spassky, yet also seemingly afraid to take him on, Fischer continually plays matches, gets to a high level of competition, then explodes, affronted by perceived slights and inequalities which grow more and more absurd and egotistical; he then makes demands, claims that he is the single most important factor in the chess equation, and pushes until, absurdly, his demands are always met. Thus reinforced, he then usually loses the match, but is now confident that he should wash, rinse, and repeat, albeit at an even more fevered and intense pitch. (You can always tell when Fischer is about to snap because Maguire gets a certain set to his jaw, looks up and to the right, into the distance, hands on hips, as if he were about to reveal himself to be Superparanoiaman). Accompanying Fischer in his endeavor to rise to the peak (and then retreat, over and over again) are lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), Fischer’s fixer and personal Iago, who is driven by jingoistic Cold War “patriotism,” and the not cynical Father Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard), who sticks with Fischer (most of the time) due to a mix of compassion and deep love for the game. Eventually, we reach Reykjavik, and the movie slows to a more sluggish mix of montage sequences and hazily portrayed chess games. Yes, eventually Fischer wins, although we are spared having to see all 21 individual matches. Fischer gets a standing ovation from Spassky, which of course does nothing but arouse his suspicions (he starts going Superparanoiaman, but then realizes he has nothing to bitch about, since he is now World Champ). We then get yet another closing montage sequence detailing Fischer’s slow slide into ignominy and at least partial insanity. T h e  e n d.

There are a few (and I mean damn few) bright points. Sarsgaard is likable enough as chess priest. Liev Schreiber speaks passable Russian. Time can be spent pondering if Fischer is insane, or if he is indeed playing the greatest (meta)game of all time. (This is the film’s strongest suit). Otherwise, the film really is the poster child for everything that is horrible about biopics. It is deeply boring, as it tells us a story we already know without anything but the most superficial insights into the psychology of the tale’s actors. Spassky is a Soviet tank, lumbering ever onward, crushing all opposition, while Fischer is that most charming combination, an insecure egomaniac. Having to watch scene after scene where he builds himself up as the most indispensable man in the world, and having to watch Marshall kowtow to him, does begin to achieve some degree of impact at least, as Fischer’s arrogance, no matter what the cause, becomes totally intolerable. The film tries to provide some compassion in the form of Father Lombardy (“he’s not afraid to lose… he’s afraid to win”), but Fischer, as in real life, is bulletproof. Our sympathies cannot penetrate his force field of tooth grinding jerkiness. There are more montage sequences than in an NBC Olympics broadcast, and they are of about the same quality – reductive, and telegraphing exactly which one emotion we are supposed to feel. (Admiration during young Fischer’s speed chess wins, gritty nostalgia during the oh-lord-I-can’t-believe-I-actually-have-to-watch-a-’60s-greatest-social-unrest-hits-set-to-White-Rabbit sequence, patriotism during the canned reactions to Fischer’s defeat of the Soviet menace, etc etc). And the montage sequences are cheaply done. I mean, some are crappy beyond belief. (One features a street interview, supposedly referencing the early ’70s, although looking like an ersatz ’90s music video, with three contemporary looking tween girls stuffed into tie-dyes, a lame After Effects video separation filter slapped on top). We are forced to look at idiots waving flags in slow motion celebration of an egomaniac for far longer than anyone who is not George W. Bush should have to. Having to watch every character in the film – from Mom and Sis to the guy at the front desk of a motel Fischer once stayed at – sit in front of a TV, waiting with baited breath for Fischer’s triumph, and then having to watch their feeble celebrations of that triumph (“yippee, a guy who once paid me to screw him just won a board game!”), will make you yearn for a seven hour analytic viewing of the Zapruder film with Oliver Stone sitting in your lap. But I digress. Even if we put aside the fact that Fischer’s Wikipedia entry is more compelling (and accurate), there is the fact of the portrayal of chess. It is absolutely pitiful. Chess in this film is reduced to a bunch of Rain Man style autistics shooting rapid fire notation at each other, playing games in their heads. If you don’t know how to play chess, you are patronizingly asked to sit in slack-jawed admiration of dem damn smert peeple. If you do know how to play chess, you can only sit there in slack-jawed disgust at the shallowness of the game’s representation. It is reduced to semi-mystical mumbo jumbo, emptied of any content or interest except as a site for vacant veneration. Yes, anyone watching the Spassky-Fischer match live in ’72 might have known little about chess, but at least they would have learned something by the end of the process. This film does not even attempt to achieve the pedagogical level of Wide World of Sports. Too much work, I suppose, or too much imagination required to conceive of a way to portray the abstractions of chess on a screen. What is a pawn sacrifice? You’ll never learn, nitwit. You obviously lack the IQ to drool on Fischer’s Cliff’s Notes. The only sacrifice required of you is the two hours of your life you’ll never get back.

Half a star out of five

Black Mass – Scott Cooper (2015)

Black Mass should have been titled Grey Slab – the movie descends like a winter migraine and sits on you until, final credits rolling, you escape from the theater into (hopefully) a brighter reality. Nominally the story of how Whitey Bulger made use of FBI chumps to further his criminal career, the film is, aside from the Boston accents, about as generic and bland a mobster film as you could imagine. Yes, we are in sub, sub, sub Goodfellas territory here (I am not stuttering, unlike our dearly departed Spider). There are plenty of slow motion wiseguys walking sequences. There’s the requisite attempt, also anemic as can be, to marry period pop to the scenes of wiseguys walking. There are the wiseguys themselves, so bloated and misshapen they look like beefsteaks shot full of Botox, their cheeks stuffed so full of cotton balls that even Don Corleone would, embarrassed, shoo them away, refusing to extend his hand in friendship. And the proceedings themselves are rote, predictable, and downright tedious. Like the Brutalist architecture of lovely downtown ’70s Boston that plays such a large part in the scenery of the film, this script was not written, I do believe, but simply marked up on a page in large chunks of brown, gunmetal, and worn, pockmarked slate. “Honor,” “loyalty,” and other such terms are dropped almost as frequently, and meaninglessly, as the f-bombs, and the more coherent exchanges reach high points like “Remember the old neighborhood Jimmy?” “Yeah.” “Those were the days when loyalty meant something.” “Fucking right.” How such a deeply dull derivative attracted the talents of Misters Depp, Cumberbatch, et al. remains a mystery. For Depp, I can see the appeal, I suppose, in that it allows him to play against type, or, at least, to try out big screen psychopathy for the first time. Looking like Gollum who has been sampling too much Spice (not the bodega variety, but the finer Arrakeen stuff), but unfortunately unable to fold time, he contents himself with folding his hands around the throats of hookers and housewives, all while enfolding pathetic FBI dupe John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) into his tasteless souffle of prurience. Overall, he does a credible job of disappearing into the part, such as it is. Cumberbatch, as Whitey’s younger brother, the “most powerful politician in the state” (eat that, Gov), does a good job with the accent, and with acting smug and powerful, although why we care is a mystery. Really, though, the best acting resides with the supporting players, often strutting their moment on the stage simply so we can revel in the snuffing out. Peter Sarsgaard, as pitiful jai-alai hanger on and sometime psycho Brian Halloran, and Juno Temple, as a young prostie done in by her association with step-dad meatwad Steve (Rory Cochrane – yuck), all but steal the show. (Which is, admittedly, not hard given the competition). And Kevin Bacon, looking, unlike the rest of the cast, lean and free of lumps, at least seems to have eaten his Wheaties and has some energy about him. What else? Well, there is the cinematography, again derivative and dull. Autumn and winter in Boston, awash in hideous ’70s fashions (that is, drapes and flares of brown, black, and, you guessed it, grey non-breathable fibers) and more Chevy Novas than you can shake a pimp cane at need not be uninterestingly shot, need it? Sadly, though, Black Mass follows many similar generic crap-outs in using very shallow depth of field for all but the widest shots, meaning that we are often looking at close-ups of hideous men with a thousand (or, rather, three or four) points of light floating behind them. Perhaps the cinematographer is in hiding, if not from the Mob, then from his guild, and so shot everything with a telephoto from across the street? The score, by the recently ubiquitous Junkie XL, who did a fine job for Mad Max: Fury Road, in keeping with the aesthetic, delivers more lead, the music a lulling, lugubrious nonentity. Okay, let’s get this wrapped up. Is there not any point of light here, you ask (aside from the unfocused floating variety already discussed)? Well, not really. What little interest exists in the film lies in the relationship of Whitey to the FBI, and the desire to see Connolly, who is very weaselly indeed, get his (which he does). Otherwise, this is one of those movies that, within five minutes of the (also lackluster) opening credits, you wish were already over. Take two Excedrin, spend the rest of the day lying in curtained, twilight repose, and sleep off the hangover.

One star out of five

The Diary of a Teenage Girl – Marielle Heller (2015)

The Diary of a Teenage Girl is without doubt one of the most honest and nuanced portraits of unabashed feminine sexuality in the history of (mainstream) American film; it is probably the best, and most sex positive, portrayal of specifically adolescent female desire we have had in this country. There have, of course, been other films that treat this subject matter, such as Larry Clark’s Kids or Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen, but most of those films have been perceived, often unfairly, as chronicles of threat, gritty warnings of the perils about to befall our children. In a recent positive review of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Amy Taubin compares the film to the work of Catherine Breillat in which the sexuality of girls is treated with all due honesty and without pulled punches or a fear of giving offense (that is, Taubin sees Diary as an American counterpart to such work). While I take her point, it is also the case that Breillat is a provocateur, and that films such as A Real Young Girl, 36 Fillette, and Fat Girl are transgressive avant la lettre. (Those films, devoid of such niceties as Diary‘s animated flowers and winsome heroine, are interested in serving as aggressive critiques of larger chunks of social terrain than the film before us, which functions more as a mostly gentle corrective). Which is to say, although its success with audiences is hardly assured, The Diary of a Teenage Girl is an appropriately American film, in which its strengths are also, to my taste, its limitations.

Adapted from a graphic novel of the same name by Phoebe Gloeckner (who also illustrated the RE/Search edition of J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, which I was obsessed with while in college), The Diary of a Teenage Girl chronicles the coming of age (or, more bluntly, the quest for sexual experience) of Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley), a budding 15 year old artist living in San Francisco with her divorced Mom (Kristen Wiig) and younger sister (Abby Wait) during the swinging ’70s. Mom is a semi-wreck, having recently parted ways with her (second?) husband, and Minnie’s surrogate father, Pascal (Christopher Meloni, always a treat), who now lives in New York. Mom parties too much, does drugs unabashedly in front of her kids, and is dating a semi-layabout dreamer named Monroe (Alexander Skarsgard). Monroe is the object of Minnie’s sexual fascination, so when Mom suggests that he take her out drinking with him one night, as she is too tired to attend, Minnie takes advantage of the opportunity to plant the not so subtle seeds of her desire within his mind. Pretty soon, Minnie and Monroe are having an affair behind Mom’s back, which sends Minnie not into a tailspin, but on to further sexual adventuring as she satisfies curiosity while at the same time exploring the reach of her powers. She does this by, for instance, hitting on and then sexually dominating one of the boys at her school, dropping her drab nerdy wardrobe to dress up for a Rocky Horror midnight screening, and, in what she and her girlfriend both concede is a bridge too far, giving random guys in a bar blowjobs for $5 each (holding hands with each other while kneeling on the bathroom floor). Eventually Monroe starts to lose his luster (in proportion to how quickly he reveals himself to be a real person, and possibly in love with her) and Minnie, empowered by a correspondence with cartoonist, and riot grrrl touchstone, Aline Kominsky, seeks to move on – but not before Pascal gets the drift of what is happening, and the whole house of cards comes crashing down as Mom takes a listen to Minnie’s audio diaries. Minnie skirts dangerously close to leaving home for good as Mom tries to work through this revelation, but eventually things smooth over (if not for Mom, then for Minnie) and the film ends with Minnie vowing that, unlike her mother, she will never need a man to be happy.

I fully admit that I am not doing the film justice with my synopsis. It is very funny in many parts (perhaps unintentionally so at times), coming close to a non-juvenile sex comedy, and also transgressive in its own way. Indeed, the opening, which features Minnie sauntering in slow motion through a park laden with big breasted joggers and topless sunbathers, who she ogles, happily exclaiming (internally) “Wow! I just had sex!,” obviously elated at that fact, skirts close to the tropes of pornography. It would not be surprising if this libidinous teenager, comfortable in her wielding of phallic power, made male viewers equally and oppositely uncomfortable. According to Taubin’s report, one male audience member at the Sundance festival screening asked the filmmaker to address the fact that the film was “obviously about pedophilia.” (He was met with laughter from many female members of the audience). There should be little doubt that the film is not about pedophilia, as we are quite clearly inside Minnie’s head and point of view for the entirety. The film communicates this not only through the narrative structure, but by the use of Minnie’s voice-over and by bringing Minnie’s art to life on the screen, animating moments of her affective response. This is part of what sets the film apart from the work of Breillat; here, we are with Minnie all the way, and rooting for her, as we are inside her head. There is none of the distance, and irony, that Breillat often employs to question the points of view of her protagonists, even as she is sympathetic to them. (Her protagonists tend to be “unsympathetic” to begin with anyway). For instance, Diary ends with Minnie, in voice-over, rejecting her mother’s apparent need for a man, and basically saying, “This is for all the girls out there like me.” While perhaps an important political move on the part of a filmmaker trying to communicate to a particular audience, it also has the impact, and tone, of pat after-school-special messaging. A director like Breillat, even if she deployed such a device, would not allow us to forget that this “you go girl” wisdom comes from the mouth of a 15 year old; we would be left with the bitter understanding that time proves most of us, no matter how spunky, wrong. Another “problem” which could be considered a feature for an American audience is the setting. Although it adheres to the reality of the graphic novel, setting the film in the 1970s allows the director a certain license for honesty and, hence, the audience a certain distance, that setting such events in a contemporary setting would not. Yes, Minnie is a 15 year old who does drugs with her Mom and has an affair with her boyfriend, but after all, it is the 1970s, and San Francisco. The setting helps naturalize what should, rightfully, cause question, regardless of Minnie’s maturity and empowerment. The director has stated that she’d really like teenage girls to be the audience for the film, and I don’t disagree – girls need images that show their desires as normal, powerful, and their sexuality as fully their own. At the same time, where is the film that addresses these same issues for today’s teenage girl, in her own milieu? (That is, post Reagan-era sexual repression and paranoia, and post-Internet double standard of valorized exhibitionism coupled with To Catch a Predator prurience). While these issues niggle at me, they mostly do so