REVIEW: Pawn Sacrifice

21 09 2015

Pawn SacrificeThe tortured, abrasive genius has gotten a lot of play recently – the 2014 Toronto Film Festival alone saw the premiere of “The Imitation Game,” “The Theory of Everything,” and “Pawn Sacrifice,” all of which played with these tropes to some degree.  The final of the three is the last to see release because it is the most conventional of the bunch and thus the most boring.

Picture “A Beautiful Mind” sans any beauty and you’ll arrive at Edward Zwick’s biopic on Bobby Fischer.  So, in other words, just “A Mind.”  Tobey Maguire stars as Fischer, a chess whiz who also happens to harbor serious mental health issues that convince him the Jewish people are conspiring to bring him down.  (Never mind that Fischer himself was Jewish.)

After some obligatory introductory scenes that set up Fischer as a prodigy from his youth, the majority of the film concerns his 1972 match against Soviet heavyweight Boris Spassky (Liev Schrieber).  Zwick and screenwriter Steven Knight want you to believe that this is the thinking man’s version of the 1980 Miracle on Ice – “World War III on a chessboard,” as one observer calls it.  Yet for something supposedly so important, “Pawn Sacrifice” feels like it has remarkably low stakes and tension.

Part of that comes from investing so much energy in Fischer’s supposed mental deterioration, which Maguire plays like a histrionic marionette.  We can see the strings, so nothing can really surprise us about the turns Fischer takes.  Any more exposition would have made the film intolerable, but it might have been necessary to contextualize his genius.  Without that, the whole film feels played at the intensity of an emotional meltdown in “Spider-Man.”

But a lot of the film’s dullness is due to Zwick’s direction, which is so tasteful that it forgets to entertain or engage.  It’s hard to believe “Pawn Sacrifice” comes from the same man who directed great historical films like 1989’s “Glory” and 2006’s “Blood Diamond.”  This film just feels remarkably drained of any intensity, something it desperately needed in order to make a convincing case that the man and the event depicted are worthy of our time and attention.  C / 2stars

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REVIEW: Fading Gigolo

29 07 2014

Fading GigoloOn paper, “Fading Gigolo” sounds like the kind of movie Woody Allen would have made in the ’70s or early ’80s.  The bored Murray (Allen) facing the obsolescence of his current job decides to pimp out his unconventionally virile buddy Fioravante (John Turturro) to jaded women.  The concept is ripe for laughs and some good character development.

Sadly, Woody Allen didn’t direct “Fading Gigolo.”  That position belongs to John Turturro, who can’t quite recreate the magic of the acclaimed director he managed to cast in a key role.  Whereas even the minor films of Allen manage to provide a unique experience, Turturro’s film is rather bland.

Allen’s character is firmly supporting, which is a shame since he’s the best thing “Fading Gigolo” has going for it.  Even though it’s a little bizarre to hear him speaking someone else’s dialogue, there’s a certain vitality his trademark persona brings to the screen.  The same could not be said for Turturro, who seems to be sleepwalking through the film.

Fioravante is supposed to be entrancing these women, but I’ll be darned if I could tell you what exactly was capturing their imaginations.  Either Turturro was on downers the entire shoot, or he just actually lacks the charisma to hold the screen as a leading man.  He’s been great as a character actor for the Coen Brothers in the past, so I don’t quite know what to think.

In the director’s chair, Turturro is every bit as colorless.  He could certainly have learned the economy of comedy on set from Allen, but he proceeds with making a bloated film that lacks a pulse.  Everything from the way Turturro directs the actors to the elevator music he chooses to score the film feels drained of energy.

And I don’t mean to imply that Turturro is some kind of an anti-Semite, but I felt ill at ease with the way he portrayed the Jewish community in “Fading Gigolo.”  Much of the plot centers around Murray trying to convince a Hasidic rabbi’s widow to see Fioravante for some healing sessions, creepily against her strict religious vow of modesty.  His presence brings about the curiosity of a particularly zealous Hasidic neighborhood watchman played Liev Schrieber, complete with fake sidelocks.  The whole community seems to be constructed as rather exotic by Turturro, almost to the point where their differences are the butt of jokes.

Perhaps it’s just me who found that troubling, but I can make other assertions about flaws in “Fading Gigolo” with confidence.  It’s a film conspicuously lacking in humor as well as in panache.  C+2stars





REVIEW: The Butler

17 08 2013

ButlerBased on the trailer for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” I had prepared myself for “Forrest Gump: Civil Rights Edition.”  It looked to be in a filmmaking tradition of heavy-handed, cloying, and over the top shenanigans designed to easily trigger emotion.  As it turns out, I didn’t even have to resist because the film was not any of these things.

It was just a plain, bad movie.  “The Butler” is poorly written, unevenly directed, and meagerly acted.  It vastly oversimplifies history, both that of our nation’s struggle for civil rights and also the remarkable life of one man who served many Presidents with honor and dignity.  And in spite of its golden hues and stirring score stressing the importance of every moment, the film just fell flat the entire time.

Screenwriter Danny Strong writes the story of Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker’s titular character, into a parade of presidential caricatures – leaving out Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter since they apparently never grappled with civil rights.  (I’m ok with a narrowed portrait of history, just not a narrowed portrait of the people who made that history.)  Each man is a waxwork figure, a set of immediately recognizable traits tied up in a bow by a crucial civil rights decision, that happens to be served tea by the same man.

And every president is somehow swayed by the mere presence of Cecil, who will make a passing remark to each.  He’s apparently the perpetual Greek chorus of the White House or even the nation’s most influential civil rights adviser.  It’s a little ridiculous to infer causality here, even with a generous suspension of disbelief.  This trick worked in Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” because it was done with a wink and a sense of humor.  It fails in “The Butler” because no one can seriously believe Cecil was an actual policy influencer.

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