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: Labor Day

27 01 2014

London Film Festival

I’ve made no effort to hide my love of writer/director Jason Reitman. With each of his first four films, I’ve been impressed with his ability to push himself in terms of tone, characterization, and style. Reitman is the first director that I have followed critically since the beginning of his career, and I have truly enjoyed watching him evolve before my eyes.

His fifth feature, an adaptation of Joyce Maynard’s novel “Labor Day,” shows perhaps the biggest stride in his visual storytelling to date. The film boasts impressive atmospheric editing with some eerie impressionistic flashbacks. His sets and staging seem much more delicately composed here, as does the cinematography.

Yet with this step forward, the bedrock of his past films – the characters and the script – take two big steps back. The narrative is essentially stillborn, providing us with three high-strung characters but little accompanying plot tension.

Labor Day” is an odd fit for Reitman’s talents as shown by his previous films, although it’s hard to fault a director willing to go this far out of their comfort zone. The story follows the odd events in 1987 that unfold when the withdrawn Adele (Kate Winslet) takes her son Henry (Gattlin Griffith) to the grocery store … and they come back home with the escaped convict Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin). At first, they appear to be his hostages, but Frank and Adele fall into an odd romance that soothes the sores of their troubled pasts.

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REVIEW: The Great Gatsby

15 06 2013

Cannes Film Festival – Out of Competition (Opening Film)

I found F. Scott Fitzgerald’s great American novel “The Great Gatsby” completely captivating and relevant in 11th grade English.  However, I acknowledge that plenty of people may have had the Jazz Age classic spoiled by poor instruction or a general classroom environment.

For all those people who think classic literature has to be boring and stuffy, let me introduce you to Baz Luhrmann, the world’s coolest English teacher.  He takes antiquated texts like Shakespeare’s “Romeo & Juliet” and reinterprets them for a modern audience, breathing new life into them in the process.  Though some scoff at the idea of combining Fitzgerald and Fergie or jazz and Jay-Z,  it’s that kind of madness that makes Luhrmann’s adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” such a delightfully fresh take on an old favorite.

It’s Luhrmann on all cylinders firing, which is the source of the film’s vibrant strengths.  On the other hand, it’s also the root of the film’s biggest flaws.  Though “The Great Gatsby” is brilliantly refashioned in the image of “Moulin Rouge,” it’s sometimes a little too pumped up for its own good.  Putting Fitzgerald on steroids comes with some loss of subtlety, particularly in the form of his recurring motifs: the green light and Dr. T.J. Ecklenburg’s eyes.  Rather than letting them sneak up on you, Luhrmann hits you over the head with them like a sledgehammer as if to say, “PAY ATTENTION! THESE ARE REALLY IMPORTANT!”

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 23, 2012)

23 03 2012

Before Gary Ross was making us hunger for “The Hunger Games,” he was making thoughtful dramas with insights into society and the individual (which makes him an excellent fit to be at the helm of Suzanne Collins’ hit trilogy). He wrote Tom Hanks’ “Big” and directed a real crowd-pleasing hit with “Pleasantville,” my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” I was expecting it to be a gentle satire of 1950s culture and television, but it wound up surprising me and insightfully looking deeper at the narrow-minded times both then and now.

The high-concept dramedy follows the adventures of 1990s teenage siblings David and Jennifer, played respectively by Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon pre-superstardom, after being magically transported through the television into the world of the series Pleasantville. It’s your typical ’50s utopian small town where the sun always shines, the kids all innocently gather at the diner, mom is happy in the kitchen, and dad is bringing home the bacon. The world is as simple as the color scheme it’s shot in: black and white.

But as the Beatniks and Betty Friedan would later show us, the American Dream of the 1950s was not without a dark underside. People were still unhappy; they just didn’t have the channels to express it, so they repressed it. David slowly begins to introduce color into Pleasantville, showing people that they can see and feel as they were meant to feel.

Change is never easy, though, and it is never met without opposition. The town begins to divide on what they perceive as the shifting moral values being advocated by David and his colorful crew. Ross assembles a fine ensemble cast, including Jeff Daniels, Joan Allen, William H. Macy, and J.T. Walsh to vivify the conflict. While we relish the performances and the story during the movie, we are left to linger with the challenging thematic probing that asks us to apply the color litmus test to our own world.





REVIEW: Brothers

28 03 2010

When it comes to “Brothers,” I’m not sure what I should be reviewing: the movie or the trailer.

If you managed to escape Lionsgate’s advertising push, good for you.  Don’t watch the trailer because you can still be wowed by this movie.

But if you are among the vast majority that watched the trailer, you are going to find yourself deeply unsatisfied watching “Brothers.”  In essence, it’s an exercise in frustration to watch.  You will probably find yourself like me, wondering why I spent an hour and 45 minutes watching a full-length movie when I had already seen the condensed, two and a half minute version.

I feel like I would have loved this movie had it not been for the money-grubbing executives who feel the need to put all of a movie’s firepower into the trailer in order to put an audience in the theater.  But unfortunately, all of the intensity that “Brothers” can deliver is revealed in the trailer, serving to satisfy only those who visit YouTube or go to see some other movie.

As you can tell by the trailer, there really is some good stuff here.  The wow factor comes mainly from the three marquee actors, all of whom deliver powerful performances.  Tobey Maguire, who earned a Golden Globe nomination for his work, is haunting, particularly after he returns home from captivity in Afghanistan.  Natalie Portman as the grief-stricken wife is solid as usual, and Jake Gyllenhaal helps to build some very taut tension with his brother and disapproving father.

In fact, I almost feel like I should be giving two separate grades for “Brothers.”  The trailer gets an A, but to the movie, I must give a … C+ /





What To Look Forward To In … December 2009

14 11 2009

What is in my mind the finest month for the movies is almost here!  Let Marshall guide you through the best and steer you away from the worst, but most of all enjoy!  The studios have been holding back their best movies all year to dump them all here, where they can get serious awards consideration.

December 4

A major Oscars wild-card is “Brothers.”  No one really knows what to make of it.  If the movie hits big, it could completely change the game.  But it could just fly under the radar like most expect it to now.  However, the trailer makes it look as if it the movie could be absolutely mind-blowing.  Directed by Jim Sheridan, who has received six Academy Award nominations, “Brothers” follows Grace Cahill (Natalie Portman) as she and her daughters deal with the loss of her husband, Sam (Tobey Maguire), in war.  Sam’s brother, Tommy (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes to live with Grace to lend a helping hand.  But romantic sparks fly between the two at precisely the wrong time: the discovery that Sam is alive and coming home.  With the two brothers both tugging Grace’s heart for their share, a different type of sparks fly.

You have heard me say plenty about “Up in the Air.”  If you haven’t read my Oscar Moment on the movie or heard my bliss at the release of the trailer, let me give you one more chance to hope on the bandwagon.

But the movies don’t stop there.  “Armored,” an action-drama that is tooting its own moral horn, starring Matt Dillon and Laurence Fishburne.  “Everybody’s Fine” appears to be a holiday movie, so that might be worth checking out if you’re in the spirit.  The movie, a remake of a 1990 Italian film by the same name, stars Robert DeNiro as a widower who reconnects with his estrange children.  And “Transylmania” looks to cash in on the vampire craze sweeping the nation by satirizing it, but I doubt it will be financially viable because it is being released by a no-name studio and without any big names.

December 11

The highlight of the weekend for many will be “The Princess and the Frog,” Disney’s return to the traditional animation by hand musical.  The movie looks to capitalize on what we know and love Disney musicals for, adding some catchy tunes to a fairy tale we have known since childhood.  Anika Noni Rose, best known for her role as Lorrell in the film adaptation of “Dreamgirls,” lends her talented voice to the princess Tiana.  As a huge fan of “Dreamgirls” during the winter of 2006, I couldn’t think of someone better equipped to handle the sweet, soft Disney music (which isn’t designed for belters like Beyoncé or Jennifer Hudson).  That being said, the music won’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard from a Disney fairy tale.  It is being scored by Randy Newman, not Alan Menken (“Beauty and the Beast,” etc.), and will have a jazzy feel much like its setting, New Orleans.

This week also boasts the opening of three major Oscar players. Two have been featured in Oscar Moments, “Invictus” and “A Single Man.” The former opens nationwide this Friday, the latter only in limited release. I’ll repost the trailers below because they are worth watching. But read the Oscar Moment if you want to know more about the movies.

According to the people that matter, “The Lovely Bones” has all the pieces to make a great movie. But for summer reading two years ago, I read the source material, Alice Sebold’s acclaimed novel. I found it dreadfully melodramatic and very depressing without any sort of emotional payoff to reward the reader for making it through. But maybe Hollywood will mess up the novel in a good way. If any movie could, it would be this one. With a director like Peter Jackson and a cast including Saiorse Ronan (“Atonement”), Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, and Susan Sarandon, it could very well happen.  It opens in limited release on this date and slowly expands until its nationwide release on Martin Luther King Day weekend in 2010.

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