Sunday, October 04, 2015

“Steve Jobs”–Movie Review




This weekend, I attended the Centerpiece screening at The New York Film Festival – the new biographical drama “Steve Jobs”, starring Michael Fassbender and directed by Danny Boyle.


When the co-founder of Apple alienates both colleagues and family, will he be able to repair those relationships or will his personal demons prevent him?


Before the official introduction of The Macintosh computer in 1984 before a packed crowd, Apple Computer co-founder Steve Jobs (Fassbender) celebrates his latest innovation with the company’s Chief Executive Officer, John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), over a glass of expensive wine.  But things are not as joyous with Jobs’ other colleagues; his partner and co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) feels as though he and his engineering team are being severely compromised because the people who made a name for the company by building the Apple II are being phased out; he’s also in an ongoing imbroglio with his Director of Marketing Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet).  On top of that, Jobs’ ex-girlfriend Chrisann (Katherine Waterston) encounters him with the reality that in spite of Jobs’ public denials, he’s the father of their 5 year old daughter, Lisa. 

Despite meeting with great fanfare, The Macintosh fails to meet sales expectations.  As a result, Jobs is forced out of his own company and eventually becomes the founder of a competitor, NeXT.  Prior to the 1988 launch of their first product – known as The Black Cube – Jobs is once again encountered by ghosts from his past, some of whom are now suing him.  Although he is now paying substantial child support to Chrisann, she demands more, but Jobs counters with accusations that she may be an unfit mother.  Meanwhile, rumors abound that Apple might buy NeXT – even though the new company’s biggest secret is the fact that their computer doesn’t even have an Operating System yet!

With Apple Inc. now under Sculley’s control, his major product introduction is the a pocket-sized personal productivity tool, The Newton, which uses a stylus to convert handwritten text into computer-readable instructions.  Unfortunately, that flops, too, and Apple begins to lose stock value, market share and industry confidence; The Board Of Directors winds up firing Sculley and lures Jobs to return.  By 1998, Jobs sees which direction the wind is blowing and invents The iMac, a new version of The Macintosh that’s solely designed to be used to surf The Internet.  But when a now college-age Lisa challenges her father over his threat to stop paying her tuition, will the two be able to resolve their differences in time for the official announcement of Apple’s newest product?


Steve Jobs may have been a flawed human but “Steve Jobs” is an excellent movie.  For those looking for the complete life story of this marketing genius, you’ll be disappointed; instead, this film offers insights to Jobs’ personal and professional life using three major events:  the introduction of the Macintosh at Apple, the introduction of The Black Cube at NeXT and the introduction of the iMac upon his triumphant return to Apple.  The choices turn out to be quite appropriate, given that it forces Jobs to confront problems with his family, friends and co-workers. 

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has developed a reputation of writing scripts that are dialog-heavy; “Steve Jobs” is no different.  At times, the movie feels like a play not necessarily because it has a static feel (although most of the action takes place backstage at different product launches) but more because of its talky nature.  During battles with various people, the history behind those fights are revealed in flashbacks intercut with the present-time arguments; whether this was how the screenplay was written or it was an editing choice by Danny Boyle is hard to say.  Particularly well-written were the scene where Lisa begs Jobs to let her live with him (little Ripley Sobo is guaranteed to break your heart in this one) and where Woz lays into his former partner (Seth Rogen nails it here). 

Prior to the screening, the movie was introduced by director Danny Boyle, who brought screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and stars Jeff Daniels, Kate Winslet and Michael Fassbender on stage.  Boyle was both personable and funny, cracking a few jokes; he claimed that the Saturday night screening at The New York Film Festival was The World Premiere of the “finished” version of “Steve Jobs” because after it was shown at Telluride, he decided to re-edit the film, so he considers the one screened here as what will be the final version.  Boyle also mentioned that this weekend was Winslet’s birthday, so he had the audience sing “Happy Birthday” to her. 

Steve Jobs (2015) on IMDb

Saturday, October 03, 2015

“Where To Invade Next”– Movie Review



This week at The New York Film Festival, I attended the United States Premiere of the new Michael Moore documentary “Where To Invade Next


When other countries can claim a better quality of life than America, what lessons can this country learn in order to improve?


With The Joint Chiefs Of Staff a bit flummoxed as to what the next military move should be for The United States Of America, director and political activist Michael Moore boldly takes it upon himself to assume the role of their Commander in order to decide which country America should look to invade for its subsequent political incursion.  But in taking on this great responsibility, Moore takes a different tactic:  Which country should The United States “invade” in order to steal ideas from them for the express purpose of making America better?

Moore decides to visit Nordic, European, South American and North African countries in order to determine which would be best to “invade”.  In the various nations he visits, Moore discovers that Italy is very generous in terms of how it treats its workers with vacation time.  France offers its citizens free health care; Moore maintains that American opponents claiming this will raise taxes to an unreasonable level are mistaken – he shows that French taxes are not substantially more than that of The United States – and for that matter, their citizens get much more in the way of services than Americans considering how much they pay (he claims 60% of American taxes go to the military). 

In Argentina, Moore learns their law enforcement policies are vastly different from America’s when it comes to drug-related crimes.  There, the police don’t even arrest people who openly use drugs because it is believed that this does not prevent drug use.  The Scandinavian countries may be the ones The United States might learn from the most in terms of both their educational systems and belief in feminism – even Tunisia could teach America a lesson about freedom and feminism.  While some may choose to wear baseball caps emblazoned with the demand to “Make America Great Again”, perhaps in order to achieve that goal, the country needs to look to its past to see what made the country great in the first place. 


The camera lies.  Even in documentaries.  It is an easy mistake to make that when you are seeing a documentary, then you can understandably assume that you are viewing something that is non-fiction.  Unfortunately, that is not always the case.  That’s especially not the case when the documentary in question has been crafted by someone with an obvious agenda – as in the case with Michael Moore.  Moore has a reputation of manipulating certain facts – or, at the very least, timelines – in order to serve his point of view.  So, it is with a healthy degree of skepticism that one must view any of his work.

“Where To Invade Next” appears to be the current chapter in director Michael Moore’s manifesto of pushing Socialism on The United States.  However, there is a crucial question that is never asked in this movie:  If America’s forcing of Christianity and Democracy on other countries never proves to be a good fit, then why should we believe that forcing the European brand of Socialism on America would be a good fit?  In this documentary, even Moore makes a passing allusion to the fact that he’s not particularly interested in getting other viewpoints (in this regard, he may be the left’s version of Rush Limbaugh).

Make no mistake about it, “Where To Invade Next” is incredibly funny – even funnier than purported comedies aspire to be.  But when necessary, it touches your heart and dares you to open your mind and force the viewer to think.  Perhaps the initiation of these vital conversations is what’s most important in this film.  As a documentary, however, it may be a bit too long; although the screening seemed to be packed with Moore’s stalwarts who both applauded and laughed at several points throughout, there were some members of the audience who walked out before the end.  Was this because they disagreed with the director’s views or because the movie needed some trimming?  Well, if it was because of a philosophical/political disagreement, then they probably wouldn’t have elected to attend the screening at all – and for that matter, they wouldn’t have waited until 15-20 minutes before the end to leave.

Where to Invade Next (2015) on IMDb

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

“The Martian”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new science fiction drama directed by Ridley Scott, “The Martian”, starring Matt Damon.


When an astronaut’s team strands him on Mars, will he be able to stay alive long enough for NASA to save him?


During a research project on Ares III’s mission to Mars, NASA notifies Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) that a severe storm is quickly headed their way.  When given the choice to wait it out or begin the return trip to Earth prematurely, she opts for the more conservative route and decides it’s time she and her team leave the planet while they still can.  As the storm intensifies in its progression, a freak accident occurs right before lift-off:  Astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) is thrown off the ship and blown astray by the storm’s fierce winds.  With no time to waste, Commander Lewis orders take off, leaving Watney for dead. 

Informing NASA of the incident, the head of the organization (Jeff Daniels) conducts a press conference to inform the public that one of their astronauts has been lost.  As Ares III makes its long trip back, NASA continues to monitor the planet and makes a surprising discovery:  Watney is alive!  Back on Mars, it turns out that Watney was able to survive the storm amidst the planet’s unforgiving atmosphere, but he’s seriously injured after a spoke from an antenna pierces his spacesuit and stabs him in the stomach.  Recovering, Watney uses his scientific experience and expertise as a botanist to figure out how to plant and grow potatoes to eat for sustenance. 

Once Watney and NASA figure out a way to communicate with each other, the plan becomes to send Watney some extra food while he is forced to patiently wait for a rescue crew, which will be years away.  Complications develop when his crops get ruined and Watney is forced to austerely ration food; also, NASA’s rush to engineer the technology to save Watney encounters major snafus.  When NASA devises a way for Watney to be saved in a much shorter time frame with assistance from the crew of Ares III, will Watney be able to outlive the harsh terrain for this improbable plan to succeed?


“The Martian” is immense fun – but it’s only good, not great.  A better choice for a space flick that pulls in viewers on an emotional level might be the Sandra Bullock vehicle, “Gravity”.  The problem with “The Martian” is that it doesn’t spend too much time worrying about how it can connect with its audience on an emotional level; instead, it chooses to concentrate on connecting on an intellectual level, perhaps to its own detriment.  In one early scene, Watney says, “I’m going to have to science the sh!t out of this” – and while it is indeed quite fascinating to watch as he does precisely that, there is almost a psychological detachment that results. 

The star-studded cast of “The Martian” puts in excellent performances all around and the screenplay’s dialog is both realistic and outstanding, even if the science behind much of it can tend to be a bit hard to grasp for those of us that didn’t enjoy the benefits of a STEM education.  While many of the shots of Mars may sometimes look like Arizona, Wyoming or New Mexico (although the true landscape was actually Jordan), director Ridley Scott lends the proper touch of The Red Planet hue as to give some authenticity. 

This particular screening of “The Martian” was in 3-D.  While it seems to make perfect sense for a movie of this nature to be shown in 3-D, there is precious little in “The Martian” that truly merits using this technology; arguably, it is put to better use in “The Walk”.  Ultimately, what makes “The Martian” a noble effort is not only its underlying message about the value of teamwork, but also that scientists worldwide (and in this film, China gives the United States a huge assist) are among our greatest heroes.  Scientists, it seems to say, are the ones that children should aspire to being.  Regardless of whether or not they become astronauts, they will no doubt enjoy a fascinating journey of their own. 

The Martian (2015) on IMDb

Saturday, September 26, 2015

“The Walk”– Movie Review



This weekend, I attended the opening night of The New York Film Festival with the World Premiere screening of director Robert Zemeckis’ new drama “The Walk”, starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt. 


When a French performance artist decides to walk a tightrope between The Twin Towers of The World Trade Center, will he beat the odds or can he be stopped before he risks his life?



As a Parisian street performer in the early 1970’s, Philippe Petit (Gordon-Levitt), just barely eked out a living collecting coins tossed by appreciative tourists who watched him juggle, perform acrobatics and maybe even throw in a magic trick or two, just for a little variety.  But Petit considered himself an artist and his ambition demanded so much more; since going to the circus as a child, he was fascinated with being a high-wire performer.  The problem he encountered was that learning how to do this properly would be more difficult than magic, juggling or acrobatics – all skills in which he was self-taught. 

Befriending a local circus funambulist (Ben Kingsley), Petit learns both humility and the secrets necessary to do this professionally.  Once he eventually acquires the skill to his satisfaction, Petit sets his sights high – very high, in fact.  His dream is to walk a tightrope between the two tallest buildings in The United States:  the yet-to-be-completed Twin Towers of The World Trade Center in New York City.  Determined, he sets out to assemble a team of accomplices at home; when ready, they head to New York and recruit other members of the team to help him reach his goal. 

With both the people and equipment in place, Petit decides that the time to strike is August 7, 1974.  At that point, only one of the buildings has been finished and although the other tower is slowly gaining tenants, construction has not yet been completed.  Also, it is important for him to perform this act before the weather turns and begins to get too cold.  Like thieves, they have to sneak into each building and somehow manage to find a way to reach the roof; once there, the tightrope has to be set up across the 140 feet space between the roofs.  But after it’s been connected, will Petit’s training be enough to help him accomplish this impossible feat before the police beat him to the punch?  


As a lifelong New Yorker, it is hard to watch a movie such as “The Walk”, which depicts the original World Trade Center, without feeling a bit of a chill run through your soul.  When you witness a mass murder on the scale of which was seen on September 11, 2001, it is a major understatement to say that it is a life-changing experience.  Just as construction of The Twin Towers was an extraordinary human accomplishment, so was their destruction – but on the other end of the spectrum, to be sure.  In between, shortly after the Towers were first born, there was another extraordinary human accomplishment – and that one was performed by Philippe Petit when he did the impossible by walking a tightrope between the Tower 1 and Tower 2 shortly after sunrise one summer morning.

Director Robert Zemeckis has performed his own amazing feat with “The Walk”, but that one is of a more technical nature.  While the movie is lacking on some levels, the special effects artistry is nothing short of breathtaking.  The screening of “The Walk” that opened this year’s New York Film Festival was a 3-D version, which only added to the thrill of the technical artistry.  Although the best part of it is arguably the tightrope walk itself which occurs at the end, there are a few other scenes earlier on which definitely make it worth the effort to see “The Walk” in 3-D, if at all possible. 

Regarding the misgivings of “The Walk”, there are a few.  First and foremost is the obnoxious performance by Gordon-Levitt, which is ostentatious, even if you are somehow able to get past his phony French accent without cringing.  Then, there is also the matter of the screenplay.  “The Walk” is based on a true story; as a high school student during that period, I have vivid memories of hearing the feat described on a local radio station while it was happening.  As such, the challenge in telling it is maintaining a certain level of suspense; this was a story that was not merely local, it went international, so we all know how it ends, even if we weren’t already aware of the details and backstory.  With the Petit character presented as narrator from the start and no acknowledgement of The Towers’ gruesome end years later, it would seem that the true heart of this story is sorely missing. 

The Walk (2015) on IMDb

Friday, September 18, 2015

“The Intern”– Movie Review




This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new comedy, “The Intern”, starring Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway.


When a retiree becomes an intern at a start-up company headed by a young woman, can his decades of experience help her navigate through the rough waters of her personal and professional life?


As a widower and recent retiree, Ben (De Niro) is finding himself both bored and lonely.  He’s tried finding various things to occupy his time, but he still seems restless.  That’s when he happens upon a flyer in his Brooklyn neighborhood about a local company looking to hire senior citizens to work as interns.  While finding the technology behind the application process a bit daunting, he nevertheless winds up securing a spot in the company, with the unenviable task of interning for the founder, Jules (Hathaway).  Since Jules is notoriously difficult, Ben’s work is definitely cut out for him. 

Right off the bat, Jules proves resistant to Ben’s offers to assist and be kept busy – but after years of working in the corporate world, Ben knows how to be a go-getter; instead of waiting for projects to be handed to him, he turns proactive and takes on responsibilities the younger employees would not.  Recognizing Ben’s initiative, Jules is eventually won over and begins to trust him with more important and highly visible duties.  Before too long, Jules allows Ben to become closer to not only her, but her husband and daughter as well.

Soon, Ben learns that all is not as well with Jules as she would have everyone believe.  For one thing, her company’s Board of Directors wants her to hire a Chief Executive Officer; she’s understandably wary about this because it means she’d have less control over her own company.  At home, her marriage may be falling apart; when her husband turns out to be cheating, Jules becomes increasingly concerned about how she’ll be able to balance work with being a single parent.  Can Ben step up and use his knowledge and wisdom to help Jules with both her company and marriage?


Who is the key demographic for “The Intern”?  (A.) Geezers who yearn to feel relevant; (B.) Young women with Daddy Issues; (C.) Anyone who enjoys watching Anne Hathaway cry for two solid hours; or (D.) Folks who need a warm and fuzzy flick with a happy ending.  The answer (as though you haven’t already guessed) is of course (E.) All Of The Above.  For viewers wanting chewing gum for the mind that doesn’t feature a superhero from Marvel Comics, “The Intern” is a perfect choice.  On the other hand, folks in the mood for a sophisticated, edgy comedy are best advised to look elsewhere.

Sadly, “The Intern” is about as modern as a pogo stick and about as hip as any member of The Tea Party.  Should anything less be expected of writer/director Nancy Meyers?  The movie borders on offensive the way it treats feminism – shocking considering this was a work by a female director, a relative rarity in Hollywood.  There was little exaggeration regarding the comment about Hathaway’s character’s sobbing; it seems as though her Jules is liable to burst into tears simply by knocking over the salt shaker at the dinner table.   Are we really to believe this is the same woman who discovered a company that has become an overnight internet sensation?

All of that having been said, the audience at this screening – and yes, they were a mix of senior citizens and young women – genuinely seemed to enjoy “The Intern”, based on the applause at the end; this may be a reasonable predictor for the movie’s success.  Once the screening finished, a very polite young man approached and introduced himself as someone from Warner Brothers, requesting feedback about “The Intern”; the young man seemed disappointed when the offer was declined, but he’s probably better off – he likely wasn’t equipped to handle the vehement onslaught from A Certain Viewer. 

The Intern (2015) on IMDb

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

“Black Mass”–Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new crime drama “Black Mass”, starring Johnny Depp.


When a gangster agrees to be an FBI informant, can either he or the agent he works with trust each other despite the fact that each as known the other since childhood?


Growing up together in South Boston, Jimmy Bulger (Depp) and John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) understood the meaning and value of friendship and loyalty.  Despite this, the two wound up following drastically different paths in life:  Connolly became an FBI agent and Bulger chose a career as a hoodlum, spending years in prison before returning to his hometown where he continued to pursue a life of crime.  With the Mafia becoming increasingly successful on the north side of town, the FBI is feeling humiliated and frustrated as they can stop neither the Italian-led group nor the Irish gangsters, headed by Bulger. 

This gives Connolly an idea:  what if he reached out to Jimmy, his childhood pal, to see if he’d be interested in helping the FBI take down the Italians?  Connolly approaches Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), Jimmy’s brother who’s now a State Senator in Massachusetts, and is officially rebuffed.  Nevertheless, Jimmy gets word of the offer and decides to meet with Connolly.  As much as Jimmy hates rats – he’s certainly killed enough of them himself – he agrees to help Connolly because it would be good business:  in this zero-sum game, if he brought down the Mafia, his own gang would only prosper. 

Over the ensuing years, Jimmy’s brutal hold over his fellow Southies only becomes stronger – and yet, Connolly is being heavily criticized at the bureau because his main informant has not been forthcoming with useful information about his Italian counterparts.  When Connolly informs Jimmy their little arrangement is in danger of terminating, he finally provides the FBI with some concrete facts which eventually leads to the mob crumbling.  Now, with both Connolly and Jimmy excelling in their chosen professions, can they maintain their trajectory or will their ambition wind up doing them in? 


One of the reasons why Johnny Depp has been among this country’s great actors is due to the fact that he winds up losing himself in many of his roles; while some might say Depp is really allowing his make-up to do most of the acting, such a comment greatly ignores the nuances – some more subtle than others – that he brings to his widely-varied characters.  In “Black Mass”, Depp again submits himself to the process and truly becomes Bulger; looking in the eyes of Depp’s Bulger, it is hard to believe that there is actually a human being somewhere deep inside that psychopath. 

While Depp’s performance is certainly sufficient to recommend “Black Mass”, there are some misgivings about the movie that cannot be ignored.  For one thing, there is the script – specifically, the dialog.  At the risk of sounding prudish, the screenwriters drop so many F-Bombs into the script, viewers might think they’re watching any given episode of Showtime’s “Ray Donovan”.  Clearly, they are doing this because they want to make their characters appear to be tough guys; most likely, this is due to the fact that they don’t trust their own screenplay to portray these men as tough, regardless of their language. 

Another problem can be cited with the directing; specifically, Scott Cooper seems to be trying to invoke Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas”, based on selection of music (and when it’s used) and use of the camera (both in its positioning and movement).  “Black Mass” pales in comparison to that Scorsese classic and Cooper only winds up doing a disservice to his own movie by forcing so many similarities to be readily recognized.  All of that said, “Black Mass” is worthy of a viewing, although it may never go down as being a classic gangster film – despite being based on a true story.

Black Mass (2015) on IMDb

Saturday, September 12, 2015

“Why Sinatra Matters”– Book Review



My final book of this year’s summer reading is “Why Sinatra Matters” by noted journalist Pete Hamill.


For decades, journalist Pete Hamill was friends with the legendary entertainer Frank Sinatra.  While never the closest of friends – which Hamill readily admits – they nevertheless spent a considerable amount of time together whenever the singer was visiting New York City; occasionally, whenever Hamill was in Las Vegas, Los Angeles or anywhere else where coincidence might have found the two simultaneously, he would meet Sinatra for dinner, or to attend a sporting event or simply to spend a night out drinking with the coterie of Sinatra’s hangers-on at the time.

With this as his perspective, Hamill draws upon years of personal experience – both before and after meeting Sinatra – to attempt to provide an explanation as to exactly what the singer’s importance and relevance was to society.  Despite being significantly younger than Sinatra – he recounts times when he was growing up that he would hear young “Frankie” on the radio – the two were able so somehow form a bond even though Sinatra hated and distrusted most reporters.  Based on his relationship to Sinatra, Hamill maintains that the singer matters for two reasons:  Immigration and Culture. 

Regarding immigration, the early 20th century saw America maintaining immense distrust and prejudice towards Italians; many – whether or not they were in the entertainment business – wound up changing their name so that no one would know the truth about their heritage.  As far as culture is concerned, the author explains that Sinatra – particularly during the 1950’s and 1960’s – showed America what it meant to be “cool”; in fact, Hamill seems to imply, Sinatra defined “cool” for a generation.  While John Wayne may have been a symbol for macho, Sinatra taught men how to be men. 


This was by no means my first read of this book; it was my second pass at it – I originally read it over 16 years ago when it was first published, just a matter of months following Sinatra’s death.  In this, the year of The Sinatra Centennial, the reason why I re-read this book at this particular time is because it comes on the heels of my recently having read an early history of Sinatra (reviewed here) in which it was frequently cited and because it is such a short book, making it a quick read; I literally re-read it in a day.  Since summer is rapidly drawing to a close, I wanted to finish with something I knew could be completed relatively quickly.

After reading many biographies about Sinatra over the years, it is my personal opinion that in order to understand Sinatra, you must first understand the history of America in the 20th century; likewise, to understand the United States of the 20th century is to also understand Sinatra – and not just to understand who Sinatra was, but also to understand why he was relevant and to appreciate his impact on modern society at that time.  Sinatra was a fighter because he had to be; he was brought up during a time when bigotry was less subtle than it is now – to put it simply, intolerance was tolerated (if not expected). 

Lastly, understanding where the nation was in the 1950’s is to realize that it was an America that was putting behind it memories of World War II.  In that joyous post-war time, men and women were encountering relationships that were more sophisticated – some would argue complex – than what had been experienced in the simplicity of previous decades.  What Sinatra brought our society during that time – aided in part by technology combined with new social and sexual mores – is how the two sexes would relate to and interact with each other. 

Hamill writes with great passion about his old friend, whom he honors by making the subject of this book. “Why Sinatra Matters” is not so much a biography as it is a personal memory.  In a sense, it somehow feels more like the protracted eulogy the author wanted to give his old drinking buddy rather than a biography of any sort.  But the author does not whitewash matters in any way; he acknowledges Sinatra’s unpredictable behavior and his cruelties without excusing them.  Instead, Hamill tries to explain peccadilloes by reasoning that such conduct is not entirely uncommon among artists as great as Sinatra. 


Why Sinatra Matters: Pete Hamill: 9780316347969: Books

ISBN: 0316347965
ISBN-13: 9780316347969


Thursday, September 10, 2015

“Pawn Sacrifice”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama “Pawn Sacrifice” starring Tobey Maguire and Liev Schreiber. 


When Bobby Fischer attains his dream of competing against a Russian to prove himself the world’s greatest chess player, will his mental problems interfere with his ability to finish the contest?


As a child, Bobby Fischer (Maguire) was something of a child prodigy, exhibiting remarkable skills as a chess player; in fact, he went on to become the youngest Chess Grandmaster the country had ever seen.  Growing up, Fischer had one desire in mind:  to prove himself to be the world’s best chess player.  In order to do that, however, he knew he would have to do the impossible – beat a Russian chess master.  Since the Russians had long dominated the world in the field of chess, this would prove to be no easy task by any means. 

Soon, Fischer builds himself quite a reputation, both nationally and internationally.  At the Chess Olympiad, he walks out, informing the press that it is his belief that the entire competition is rigged in favor of the Russians and that there is no way for him to win.  Developing notoriety as a lightning rod for attention (much of it negative), he has turned chess into an intellectual professional wrestling match is perceived as the game’s bad boy who gets mercilessly booed at every public appearance.  This manages to work for him just as much as it works against him as he attracts the attention of lawyer Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), who forces himself on Fischer and offers to represent him professionally in future matches. 

Finally, Fischer gets what he wants and a chess match between himself and Boris Spassky (Schreiber), a Russian who is widely acknowledged as the world’s greatest chess player; a series of 24 games will be played between the two in order to determine who is the best at the game.  But under the stress, Fischer seems to be cracking and his quirky behavior comes out in full force; after losing the first game, he refuses to show up for the second one, causing a forfeiture.  He then makes many unrealistic demands before agreeing to continue in the contest; somehow, Fischer’s demands are met, allowing the match between the two to continue.  But with his erratic behavior becoming exacerbated, will he be able to continue playing – and if he does, will he be able to win?


Question:  What’s more boring than watching two men play 24 games of chess?  Answer:  Watching other people watching two men play 24 games of chess.  The reaction shots by people following these games on television are incredible (and not in a good way, either); they respond as though they’re watching the Super Bowl and had money on the game.  Director Edward Zwick’s stylistic choices here come across more like self-sabotage than good storytelling technique.  He includes some manufactured newsreel footage shots we are apparently supposed to buy as genuine, then tacks on a mini-documentary in the last couple of minutes of the movie.

The distraction of the directing quirks aside, Maguire and Schreiber are excellent in their performances.  Maguire is especially convincing as the rapidly unraveling Fischer who seems to fear success more than failure (talk about acts of self-sabotage!).  In some ways, “Pawn Sacrifice” is reminiscent of “Raging Bull”, but a less violent version; the reason for the comparison is clear:  a famous public figure at the top of his game competes at a high level and the fame causes him to suffer a mental breakdown.  Sadly, the comparison ends there because this movie is nowhere near as good as “Raging Bull”.

Where “Pawn Sacrifice” redeems itself to some degree is the relatively normal relationship Fischer has with his older sister, who is more of a mother to him than his own mother.  As Joan, Lily Rabe tries to conduct something of an intervention with Stuhlbarg’s character when she shows him letters from her brother which express severe paranoia and delusional ideations.  It underscores the true tragedy of the story, which is Fischer’s failure to properly deal with his mental health issues by ignoring them altogether. 

Pawn Sacrifice (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

“A Brilliant Young Mind”– Movie Review



This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new drama, “A Brilliant Young Mind”, starring Asa Butterfield.


When a teenage boy is discovered to be a mathematical prodigy, does he have what it takes in order to compete in an international mathematics contest?


As an adolescent, Nathaniel (Butterfield) is impressive because of his mathematical superiority over not only his peers, but adults, as well.  But during childhood, he exhibited some rather odd behavior that caused him to be diagnosed with autism; part of the way in which this manifested itself was that he was withdrawn and incommunicative – but also, he had a heightened sensitivity to bright lights and colors in addition to a strong aversion to being physically touched.  As if growing up were not already challenging enough for young Nathaniel, he was also in a traffic accident which killed his father. 

All of this put immense pressure on Nathaniel’s patient, kindly mother Julie (Sally Hawkins) to raise her brainy but tortured son as a single parent.  Fortunately, she found some help in an unlikely source.  When Julie brought Nathaniel to a school where they could meet Humphreys (Rafe Spall), a teacher noted for his extraordinary mathematical skills, the man is impressed by the child’s potential and agrees to tutor him; they grow particularly close over the years, Humphreys almost taking on the unintended role of surrogate father.  

In his mid-teens, Nathaniel is encouraged by Humphreys to take a path he himself tried to follow when he was the young man’s age:  to compete in (and win) the International Mathematics Olympiad.  After studying diligently for the test, Nathaniel is informed he’s been accepted, but must go to a kind of boot camp in Taiwan where he and other British students will train with their Chinese counterparts.  With great trepidation, Nathaniel makes his first trip overseas, where he is teamed with Zhang Mei (Jo Yang), a sweet young student who, while quite bright, is not quite the math whiz either Nathaniel or the rest of the competitors are.  But when a romance blossoms between the two, will they be too distracted to follow through in the competition or can they focus on winning The Olympiad? 


The strength behind “A Brilliant Young Mind” lies in the performances – particularly that of Sally Hawkins, the constantly beset upon saintly mother who winds up engaging in something of a chaste romance of sorts with Humphreys, who is debilitated by Multiple Sclerosis.  Although Nathaniel’s character is clearly the protagonist in this movie, it is by far and away the character of Julie that garners most of the audience’s sympathies – largely due to the performance by Hawkins, who is able to balance strength and vulnerability in a most convincing way. 

That said, there is some of “A Brilliant Young Mind” that feels forced – and not just that it seems like a copycat version of “A Beautiful Mind”, right down to its embarrassingly similar title.  The ending of the movie is a bit too tidy and convenient; whether you believe the protagonist did the right thing (or more to the point, that the screenwriters made the best dramatic choice) will depend on where and with whom your sympathies lie.  An argument could be made that as the protagonist, Nathaniel did not do the most heroic thing because a heroic action requires a difficult choice that has a potentially negative impact on the life of the hero (and possibly others as well). 

For people who like a gentle story that relies on sentimentality as a crutch, “A Brilliant Young Mind” might well serve them.  While the filmmakers strive to give the disease of autism a face, a name and a sympathetic character for whom you can root, its point gets buried under tons of mawkish contrivances intended to drive home its message in a way that is not exactly subtle.  Nevertheless, the film insists that human life can maintain its meaning and dignity despite various obstacles that fate hurls at us; unfortunately, trying to tell such a story is difficult without being melodramatic. 

A Brilliant Young Mind (2014) on IMDb

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

“Frank: The Voice”– Book Review



This summer, I read Frank:  The Voice by James Kaplan – a biography of Frank Sinatra from the years 1915-1954.


Born in Hoboken, New Jersey a century ago, the teenage Frank Sinatra yearned to become a singer on the level of Bing Crosby; little did the adolescent know he would eventually go on to eclipse his hero by redefining the art of recorded music and making significant contributions to American culture.  The problem, of course, was that Sinatra was up against an almost insurmountable obstacle:  Himself.  Sinatra’s unpredictable behavior in some ways made him a success but also caused his downfall.  If not for a little luck and some assistance from unlikely sources, he would’ve been forgotten altogether long ago. 

Hired by bandleader Harry James after hearing him perform at New Jersey’s Rustic Cabin in the late 1930’s, Sinatra left less than a year later to be a singer for the vastly more successful band led by Tommy Dorsey.  Mingling with knowledgeable musicians, it was there that Sinatra found his craft and audiences (mostly teenage girls known as Bobbysoxers) in turn found him.  Expressing a unique sound different from other singers of that era, Sinatra came to be known simply as “The Voice”.  But as his career surged – he eventually left Dorsey to go it alone and soon wound up moving to Hollywood to star in movies – his personal life suffered. 

Wife Nancy Barbato, Sinatra’s childhood sweetheart, was forced to raise their children pretty much on her own; when Sinatra wasn’t working, he was carousing around town either drinking with the boys or picking up women – including fellow luminaries like Lana Turner.  Sinatra ultimately met his match in movie star Ava Gardner; once he left his wife, he married Gardner – a travesty of a marriage, making the gossip columns almost daily.  His career took a hit as a result; Sinatra couldn’t get work and owed a considerable amount of money.  Offered the part of Maggio in the screen adaptation of James Jones’ novel “From Here To Eternity”, his performance won him an Academy Award.  He had traveled a long and sometimes rocky road, but by 1954, Sinatra was back!


In the years since Sinatra’s death, I have read a great many biographies about the legendary singer; quite a few were rather good – the others probably could’ve been skipped.  The way in which they differed from James Kaplan’s “Frank:  The Voice” is that those other biographies were a comprehensive record of the man’s entire life while Kaplan’s book merely covered his personal and professional goings on up until 1954.  For quite some time, I procrastinated reading this book for precisely that reason.  Why did I want to read another book about Sinatra when it didn’t even finish the story?

Well, now I know my delay was a huge mistake.  The reason why Kaplan concentrated on this particular portion of the singer’s life is because previous books gave that period short shrift; thanks to the author’s extraordinary detail and impeccable research, fans of Old Blue Eyes learn a great deal more about Sinatra’s early career – including his studious approach and his erratic (and frequently obnoxious) behavior.  “Frank:  The Voice” contains a good deal of correspondence between Sinatra and colleagues whom he felt were against him when in fact they were looking out for his best interests. 

Another reason for my appreciation of this book is that it came on the heels of my having read the Ava Gardner biography, “Love Is Nothing” (reviewed here).  Although a good chunk of “Love Is Nothing” covers Gardner’s rocky relationship with Sinatra, “Frank:  The Voice” is significantly more inclusive of the nitty-gritty precisely because its focus is on the period of Sinatra’s professional life from the early 1940’s to the early 1950’s.  A good piece of work – not just a book, but a movie, a song, whatever – will always leave you wanting more.  By the very end of “Frank:  The Voice” when Sinatra collects his Academy Award, the reader is left feeling exactly that way.  Kaplan’s insightful, humorous and analytical writing adds considerably to the enjoyment; fortunately, a sequel will be published later this year, just in time for The Sinatra Centennial.   

Frank: The Voice: James Kaplan: 9780767924238: Books

ISBN: 0767924231
ISBN-13: 9780767924238