Friday, October 2, 2015

"Pawn Sacrifice" and The Week in Reviews

[I review the new movie "Pawn Sacrifice" and DVDs "Wild Tales" and "November Man." The Book of the Week is "Reckless: My Life as a Pretender" by rocker Chrissie Hynde.   I also bring you up to date on "My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project" with "Pandora's Box"]

Pawn Sacrifice

Biopic of the chess phenomenon, Bobby Fischer, whose battle with World Champion Boris Spassky of Russia riveted the nation during the Cold War.

The film starts in true biopic fashion - from the end of the story, during the 1972 chess match between Fischer and World Champion Boris Spassky, and then through a series of flashbacks we are brought back to where the film started.

Bobby Fischer might not be a familiar name to the current generation but back in the 1970's during the Cold War with Russia, he was a rock star - a rock star of chess - and his brilliance brought chess to the mainstream public.  But he was also arrogant, selfish and paranoid.

But no matter how aberrant Fischer's behavior became, he was a brilliant chess master and he was expected to represent the U.S. and beat the Russians in a kind of intellectual war. No one had ever beaten the Russians at chess.  We couldn't bomb the hell out of Russia, as we probably would have wanted to, but, by god, with Fischer, we could kick their butts in chess and prove our intellectual superiority.  Despite the fact that his family and his handlers knew he was losing his grip on life, they kept him going because there was so much riding on his becoming World Champion. He was exploited, much as Amy Winehouse was (see the documentary "Amy," one of the best films of the year) - she was clearly unfit to continue to tour and perform but too many people were making money off of her success. 

Eventually, it became apparent from Fischer's strange behavior that he was going off the rails.  In fact he was a total loon.  He hated Communists and Jews, despite the fact that he was Jewish, and he believed in all kinds of conspiracy theories.  He thought the Russians were bugging his phones and rooms.  There is a funny counterpoint scene to that in the film where Spassky comments on his phones and rooms being bugged.  Except in his case, they probably were!

Did chess and the pressure to beat the Russians make Fischer crazy?  Was it his mental illness that led to his solitary focus on the chess game? Does genius inspire madness? Or did his being raised by a single Communist mother with her own paranoia about the government contribute to Fischer's mental illness?  Unfortunately, though the film alludes to the chess game's ability to make anyone crazy (there is a scene where Spassky appears to have his own issues), the film also alludes to Fischer's lonely childhood without a father and his turning to chess to escape as a possible reason for his mental illness.  However, the film doesn't really answer those questions.
The title is chess lingo but it is also a metaphor for Fischer being used as a pawn and exploited to beat the Russians and give glory to the old U.S.of A. when in fact he should have been treated for his mental illness. 

Who knew chess matches could be so dramatic and exciting?  Directed by Edward Zwick with a script by Stephen Knight, the chess matches for the 1972 World Championship are the dramatic highlights of the film, but of course, a character doesn't get much more dramatic than Bobby Fischer himself.  Game Six with Spassky is a nail biter and is still considered the greatest chess match of all time.

Toby Maguire plays Fischer brilliantly.  There is no trace of Spider-Man here. There was a rumor that during the making of the film, Maguire was so into his character that he was a total jerk to everyone.  Not sure about that but he seemed to be channeling something here. 

Liev Schreiber as Spassky says hardly a word in English but is a riveting presence, especially during the chess scenes.  Michael Stuhlberg is the celebrity lawyer, Paul Marshall, who considered himself an American patriot and saw the opportunity Fischer presented to represent the U.S. and who kept exploiting him until it was too late. Peter Sarsgaard plays Father Bill Lombardy, who was his coach and supposedly the only one who ever beat Fischer in his younger years who travels with him during his tournaments as his "second," but his relationship to Fischer is not really explained.  But all of the acting is first rate, though I could have done without the scenes with the kindly hooker.  It was an unneeded distraction.

The film ends with another biopic cliché:  what happened to Fischer in real life after his World Championship win and it wasn't pretty.  It's not a spoiler to say he never recovered from his mental illness, continuing to be anti-Semitic and anti-American as he lived his life out in Iceland, the only country that would give him asylum after he defied a United Nations Resolution against dealing with Yugoslavia by playing Spassky again there.  He died in Iceland at the age of 64.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a sad tale of genius gone awry and a wonderful, moving film, despite the fact that Fischer is so hard to love.

Movies You Might Have Missed
(And Some You Will Be Glad You Did)
***Available on DVD***

Wild Tales  (2014)
Six black comedy vignettes in an anthology of revenge.

Vignette #1 - "Pasternak:"  Everyone on a plane discover they were all invited on this plane ride by the same person - a person they had all done wrong.

Vignette #2 - "The Rats:" A waitress recognizes a customer as a gangster who had something to do with her father's death.  She and her co-worker discuss the pros and cons of putting rat poison in his food.

Vignette #3 - "The Strongest One:" A guy in an expensive Audi is driving on a lonely country road and encounters a slow-moving truck in the left lane.  The truck eventually gets over but as the yuppie drives by he calls the red neck truck driver an asshole.  A few miles later, the expensive car gets a flat tire and just as our guy gets out to fix it, guess who comes along? Uh-oh.

Vignette #4 - "Bombita (Little Bomb):" A guy leaves work to pick up a birthday cake for his daughter's birthday party.  While picking up the cake his car is towed which makes him very angry especially since he missed his daughter's birthday party.  When he goes to retrieve his car, a series of Kafka-esque events occur that end up ruining his life.  Think of spending the rest of your life at the DMV.

Vignette #5 - "The Proposal:" The son of a rich family is involved in a hit and run where a pregnant woman and her baby are killed. They try to get their gardener to take the fall for the son for 500K and then try to bribe the prosecutor.  Things go from bad to worse.

Vignette #6 - "Til Death Do Us Part:" At the wedding reception, a bride starts wondering who some of the people are. She realizes her new husband has invited some old girlfriends and during their first dance, she accuses him of sleeping with one of them. Let the wedding from hell commence.

Written and directed by Damian Szifron, all of the stories are tied together by people frustrated by a sense of unfairness and inequality when things fall apart and how they react.  It seems it is our nature to resort to revenge and out-of-control behavior.

Nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (Argentina) in 2014, this film is a master of color and atmosphere thanks to cinematographer Javier Julia, the actors are all wonderful, and despite the dark themes, this film is hilarious.  Think Almodavar meets Quentin TarantinoAnd it's no surprise since the Almodavar brothers co-produced.

Rosy the Reviewer says...if you are a fan of Almodavar or you like black comedies, you will love this film.
(In Spanish with English subtitles)

November Man (2014)

An ex-CIA agent, Peter Devereaux (Pierce Brosnan), who left service because of a botched operation in 2008, is brought back into service to find another agent and bring her in.  She has some information that scares even her.

Five years after a botched mission to protect an Ambassador in Montenegro,  ex-CIA agent Peter Devereaux is now retired and running a café in Lausanne, Switzerland.  He retired from the CIA after his protege, Mason (Luke Bracey), disobeyed Devereaux's order and a child was killed during an operation.

Now Devereaux is approached by his old boss, Jake Hanley (Bill Smitrovich), who convinces him to come back to extract Natalia Ulanova (Mediha Musliovic), who is working undercover as an aide to a Russian Presidential candidate, Arkady Federov (Lazar Ristovski).  She has uncovered some information about the Presidential candidate that can ruin him.  Unfortunately the Russians figure out where her loyalties lie and just as Devereaux is rescuing her, she is killed by our own CIA.  She was no longer valuable to them because the Russians had "made" her.  Before she dies, she leaves Devereax with only a name:  Mira Filipova. 

Now Devereaux's ex-team led by his ex-protégé, Mason, wants him killed because they think he will come after them for killing Natalia.  It's a cat and mouse game between mentor and student.  Both sides want Devereaux dead while both Devereaux and a Russian assassin are looking for Mira because Mira knows something that can damage Federov. The last person to see Mira is a social worker named Alice (Olga Kurylenko) who it turns out has a dark past.


It is easy to be confused by these spy thrillers, because the plots are usually so complicated and convoluted. I often question my intelligence when I am watching these things because I never seem to know what's going on.  But here, the plot is actually easier to follow than most, though it has its "huh?" moments. I figured out the twist but still enjoyed the film.

Based on the 1987 novel "There Are No Spies" by Bill Granger, the 7th installment in his "November Man" series, and directed by Roger Donaldson, this is all very old school "Mission Impossible," the TV show, not the movies. Not much in the way of special effects, just a good old spy thriller that also seems to be an indictment of the U.S. government and how our CIA seems to back bad guys and get us into wars.  We do "bad" to "do good."

Pierce is always good, especially with the snappy dialogue.  He is also aging exceptionally well and he's still got "it." This movie makes it on the strength of his performance. I couldn't help but wish he was still James Bond.

Rosy the Reviewer says...just a really good and satisfying spy thriller.

***My 1001 Movies I Must See Before I Die Project***

278 to go! 

My faithful followers may note that the cover of the "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die" book looks different. You are so right!  And if you have been following my journey on this project, you will note a discrepancy from last week in the number of movies I have to watch to attain the "1001."  Last week it was 291 and now it's 278!

Wouldn't you know that since I started this project, they have now come out with a NEW edition!

However, after painstakingly going through this new edition, my new goal is 278!  It must be all of those "new" movies I have seen since the earlier edition.

Since this is a new edition but the number to attain is still 1001, I am assuming there are some new movies included and some others (THAT I HAVE PROBABLY ALREADY SEEN AND NOW WON'T COUNT) left out.  But nevertheless, I have seen some great movies I otherwise might never have seen.

So, with my new revised number, let's get on with it!

Pandora's Box (1929)

The classic tale of a sexually inclined woman being the source of all the evil men do.  Moral:  Women, don't be sexually inclined or something bad is going to happen to you.
Lulu (Louise Brooks) is a chorus girl and bon vivant.  She is also the mistress of newspaper publisher, Ludwig Schon (Fritz Kortner), but he doesn't consider her marriage material.  When he tells her he is marrying someone else, Lulu sets him up backstage at one of her performances and his fiancé discovers them in a compromising position.  His fiancé breaks off the engagement and Schon marries Lulu, even though he says it "will be the death of me."  Which it is.  In an argument, Schon points a gun at Lulu and in the struggle it goes off and he is killed.  But Lulu is arrested for his murder and goes on the run with his son Alwa (Francis Lederer), who has always lusted after her, along with her ex-lover and old gnome Schigolch (Carl Goetz) and her lesbian admirer, Countess Geschwitz (Alice Roberts).  They all end up on an illegal gambling ship where Lulu is almost sold into slavery. After Alwa is caught cheating at gambling they make their escape and finally end up in a garret where Lulu is stalked by a modern day Jack the Ripper. Things don't end well for our Lulu. Girls like Lulu always had to get their come-uppance.
This movie brought fame to Louise Brooks, an American actress who German director Pabst fought to have in this film. She made 17 silent films but never really got very far once sound came along.  She is remembered in pop culture for her Lulu character and her bobbed haircut which was embraced by women in the 1920's.  My own mother was no exception.  Even today, this haircut is known as "The Louise Brooks" or "The Lulu."
Louise Brooks                                                                 My Mother

"[Director G.W] Pabst surrounds Brooks with startling secondary characters and dizzying settings, but it is the actress's vibrant, erotic, scary, and heartbreaking personality that resonates with modern audiences...and her acting style is strikingly unmannered for the silent era."
---1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die

Rosy the Reviewer says...Modern audiences may no longer have the patience for silent films but they can be surprising and this one is worth a look if only for Brooks' remarkable presence.
(Silent with German and English subtitles) 

***Book of the Week***

Reckless: My Life as a Pretender by Chrissie Hynde (2015) 

Rocker Hynde, of the rock group "The Pretenders," tells her story.

In a no-holds-barred, spare prose style, Hynde shares her growing up years in 1950's and 60's Dayton, Ohio, where her parents were decidedly middle class and not ready for a daughter who didn't care for school and just wanted to listen to music and smoke pot.  Despite her lack of academic credentials, she made her way to Kent State and was there on that infamous day when several students were gunned down (one of whom was her girlfriend's boyfriend) during an anti-war protest.  Still rootless, she eventually made her way to London and eventually started her own band - "The Pretenders."

Her book almost reminded me of "Zelig."  She was at Kent State when students were gunned down, she rubbed elbows with rock royalty, wrote for the music paper NME, even though by her own admission she couldn't write, worked for Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren in their early days in their shop "Craft Must Have Clothes but Truth Loves to Go Naked," later named "Sex," hung out with the Sex Pistols and was there when the whole Sid Vicious/Nancy Spungen thing went down and yet, by her own admission, never had anything more going for herself than the ability to hang with these people, play the guitar, shoot her mouth off and do drugs.  But as things do, they came together for her and the rest is rock history.

She lived life as if she was a man and I don't mean that in a sexist way. She was just really ballsy.  Back in those days, there were not many women who lived rough like she did and who took life as it came.  I had a similar upbringing to Hynde and wished I could have just chucked it all and moved to England, but I wouldn't have dared.  But she did it.  And she just lucked out and happened to be in the right place at the right time and knew the right people.  Oh, and right.  She also had immense talent.

She also sings one of my all-time favorite songs, "Back on the Chain Gang," which helped me get through a bad divorce. 

This is not a sentimental memoir. Not much emotion.  It's self-deprecating, tough and there's no rationalizing here. It's much like Hynde's music: rough and real.

You might be disappointed if you know that she had a child with Ray Davies of The Kinks as she barely mentions him.  Nor does she talk about her marriages or even that much about herself once she had success with The Pretenders, though it's apparent she was devastated by the deaths of two of her bandmates (half of her band within a four year time period).  It's all about us Baby Boomers.  Some of us went straight; and some of us became rock stars.

Rosy the Reviewer says...a real rock & roll memoir by a real rock & roll woman.

Thanks for Reading!

That's it for this week.

See you Tuesday for

"The Joy of Retirement"


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  1. Oh I want to see Pawn Sacrifice! If it has the Rosy seal of approval I know it will be worth it. Also I love spy movies. I am right there with you as far as losing the plot at times...will definitely see if I can get it from the library.

    I did finally see "Iris". It's very popular here...lots of holds for it. I LOVE her. I've seen photos of her and had a vague idea of who she was but this was such a treat to hear her and watch her go thru her days. It's a remarkable documentary I might have missed if I hadn't read your blog. Thank you.


    1. You are welcome and, I promise, I will not steer you wrong. We are on the same wavelength! :)