Thursday, May 11, 2017

Don't Think Twice

The newest addition to my Hidden Gems columns over at

Writer/director Mike Birbiglia’s 2016 film Don’t Think Twice is the exact kind of movie the Hidden Gems column was made for. It’s a small, low-key, almost bittersweet look at the life of a group of performers in the improv comedy scene in New York City. The movie has a lot of comedy in it, both in the kind that’s funny and in the kind that we observe the group performing. Overall it’s also kind of a drama, but not really. It’s one of those great types of movies that reflects life in the most human and beautiful way. There’s friendship and love and jealousy and supportiveness and misfits-making-a-family and all other kinds of wonderful themes and behaviors.

We first see the improv group The Commune backstage getting ready for a show in the small theater they rent. Miles (Birbiglia) seems like a kind of leader of the group, though it’s Sam (Gillian Jacobs) that MC’s and takes suggestions from the audience. Sam’s boyfriend Jack (Keegan-Michael Key) is the charismatic “star quality” type performer of the crew, while Allison (Kate Micucci), Lindsay (Tami Sagher), and Bill (Chris Gethard) fill out the rest of the scenes with able supporting work. But, of course, in the world of improv, there are no stars, because it’s not about the individual, it’s about the team and the overall performance and success of the show. That is until word comes one night that a producer from Weekend Live (the SNL stand-in for the movie) will be in the audience, scouting for talent.
We see what happens to the group as it begins to splinter when Jack gets the gig on Weekend Live. He is raised to a whole new bar of performance, one which the Commune gathers around the TV to hate-watch every week, simultaneously proud of Jack, jealous of his success, and disgusted at the lowest common denominator comedy. Jack, meanwhile, now has to navigate the cutthroat world of “me first” comedy that’s totally antithetical to the community that got him there. Miles becomes bitter, because he was Jack’s teacher. He should have that success, he taught Jack everything he knows (obviously ignoring the work Jack put into his craft, along with his natural charisma, and is a stance that hurts Jack's feelings, though he doesn't say it). Sam starts to see her relationship with Jack (lovingly handled in touching moments of subtlety by Birbiglia as a director) slowly crumbling away as Jack’s work schedule and their conflicting ideas and ambitions clash. Jack isn’t trying to leave behind his cohorts, in fact he’s willing to stick his neck out to try and at least get the others in the group onto the show as writers, despite repeatedly being told not to do that by those behind the scenes of the new show. Still, resentments and tensions rise, and relationships are put to the test, sometimes even during the performance of the show.

Just the story of Jack, Sam, and Miles is enough to make a good movie about, but Birbiglia as a writer also doesn’t skimp on characterizations of the other three in the group. Bill, Allison, and Lindsay are all given wonderfully written subplots so that we know who they are (and all three actors give really terrific and heartfelt performances too). They aren’t there just to fill out the scenery, these are all real people we come to know over the 92 minute runtime. And this is really solid writing, not just the “give each person one defining characteristic so that the audience can easily keep up” type mainstream comedy writing we’re so used to. It’s a wonderful ensemble of characters, each brought to amazing life by the cast.
Though I must admit, even as improv is a group activity, the stars of the movie are Gillian Jacobs and Keegan-Michael Key as Sam and Jack. Jacobs’ huge eyes and delicate delivery lets us into Sam’s journey of owning her own power and talent and where she fits in the world. She is luminous in the role and I hope gets some real acting work from it as well, I’d love to see more of her. Key, as Jack, is truly extraordinary in his ability to show the rumbling, boiling, overflowing thoughts and ideas and emotions going on inside Jack that he may or may not share with Sam or the rest of the group. There are scenes that brought tears to my eyes in the humanity that Key brings to the role. Having only known Key from his work on Key and Peele and MadTV, I did not expect the depth of characterization he brings to Jack. Jack is complex and fascinating and that he gets to bounce off of the same qualities coming from Jacobs’ Sam is all the more intriguing and delightful to watch.

Mike Birbiglia is a stand-up comic by trade, that’s how I first came to know him with his specials like What I Should’ve Said Was Nothing, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, and multiple Comedy Central Presents showcases. He was always funny, but also often sprinkled in some poignancy and heart into the stories he was telling. And that’s what he slowly became, less stand-up comic and more long form storyteller. So, naturally he’s a great fit for the movies because he’s not just a joke man (though he does have great jokes). He made his first foray into filmmaking with 2012’s Sleepwalk with Me, based on his off-Broadway one man show of the same name. And while Sleepwalk with Me is really good, and you should check it out as well, it doesn’t have quite the impact that Don’t Think Twice has. Both are available to stream on Netflix, as are three of Birbiglia’s stand up specials.

Rarely do we get a movie with characters this well drawn, this balanced in the ensemble, to where we come out really caring about some of these people. Cameo appearances by actors like Lena Dunham and Ben Stiller (as hosts of Weekend Live) are nice, and not overplayed or overused by Birbiglia, since he knows his characters are the show here. They are the reason this movie works. The writing and the brilliant and unshowy work from each and every one of the performers, that’s what makes this movie such a gem.

Friday, January 27, 2017


What is real? Who are you? What do you need to become whomever it is you wish to be? Never have these heady questions been so thoroughly explored in a movie as they are in the 2011 documentary Kumare. New York born and New Jersey bred director Vikram Gandhi set out to look at spiritual leaders, professing a lifelong skepticism of anyone who claims to be more holy or more enlightened than anyone else. He was raised strictly Hindu, studied religion in college, but it never clicked with him. Among other things, there was always the resistance to leaders. Gandhi ultimately decided to take on this subject by becoming a guru himself. So he grew out his hair and beard, put on flowing robes, began carrying a walking staff with the Om symbol on it, and affected an Indian accent inspired by his grandmother. All with the idea of “let’s see what happens”. Will people follow this nonsense just because it comes from an exotic looking man with an accent? The social experiment could’ve gone terribly wrong, and the movie as well. But as Vikram says, it ended up being about “the biggest lie I ever told, and the greatest truth I ever discovered.”

He set up shop in the Tuscon and Phoenix, AZ areas, gained followers in yoga communities by spouting philosophy of real and gibberish words and yoga moves. He had practiced yoga for years himself, so his moves looked authentic. He led a “blue light meditation” meant to connect everyone through their blue light. But it was nonsense. He would preach to his followers that they, not he, had the answers. He repeatedly told them he was not who he seemed to be. "I am the biggest faker I know,” he says to them at one point. But people just dismiss that as guru Kumare's deep humility and allow their spiritual hunger to guide them back over and over again to Kumare and his teachings.

This may sound like the seeds of a prank movie, something Sacha Baron Cohen might dream up to put next to his Borat and Bruno characters. But Kumare is much deeper and more ambitious (and good hearted) than that. Kumare was started as a trick, but his teachings became a sort of "you already have all the answers" or "salvation lies within" kind of teaching that many self-help teachers and even religions preach. “You are the guru” he repeatedly tells them. Are we not all our own gurus?

So the movie then starts to consider the question of: if you achieve some amount of enlightenment from working with a fake teacher, is that enlightenment fake? The teacher didn't achieve it; the enlightenment was your own. Should you feel duped because you reached a place of higher truth for yourself in a different way than you thought you did?

That may make this movie sound like some highly intellectual exploration of these ideas, a dry and possibly unengaging scholarly exercise, but that's not the movie that Vikram Gandhi made, nor even the character that Kumare is. Kumare is very funny, and the movie is as well. I never felt it looking down on these people who come to Kumare for spiritual growth. Instead it looks at them and says, "wow, people are so hungry for connection and self improvement that they're willing to listen intently to a man who's telling them that he doesn't have the answers and is a fake."

The people open up to Kumare about their troubled relationships and childhoods and see the caring and loving eyes putting their full attention on them. That would be enough for any of us. How often do you feel like you truly have someone's 100% attention focused directly on you and lovingly listening to your every word? That could make being around Kumare intoxicating.

And this is where Vikram Gandhi starts having some serious internal conflict. He never meant to make a fool of anyone; he was really just conducting an experiment. But he’s actually making a difference in people’s lives, a real, tangible, happiness that is radiating through these people who’ve struggled through addictions, abuse, uncertainty, and more. He’s not trying to swindle anyone out of money, or sleep with all the women the way that some of the guru’s were that he began the project covering. One of his students worked two or three jobs to support her four children who are now grown and out of the house. She now feels guilty when she does anything for herself. Kumare is helping this woman heal that pain. That’s real. Just because Kumare is a character doesn’t negate that progress and much needed and deserved happiness.

What is he doing to these people? How will they react when he tells them he's not who they think he is? He has to tell them, he has to come clean, but what will that mean? Will people feel betrayed? Will they realize that his "it's all inside of you already" teachings were still true no matter what source they came from? Vikram struggles mightily with when and where and how to reveal his true identity to his disciples. He realizes that Kumare is who he wishes he were in his every day life. Not the fake accent and robes, but the attentiveness, the being fully present and aware and engaged with every moment in life. Really listening to people and communing with them from his heart. Why isn't he like that all the time? Kumare isn't just a character, it's inside him. It all came from him. Why can't he live his life that way? Is that how easy it is to become the one you long to be? Just do it?

How his disciples react to the bombshell I’ll leave for you to discover, but I’ll say that I wonder how I would react if I was one of them. I wonder if I’d have a different feeling about the movie if I weren’t looking in from the outside. If a man had led me into some happier place in my mind, I’d likely be pretty pissed that that man was a fake. But seeing the movie as I do, I see that Vikram Gandhi has a good heart, and Kumare brought that out even more in him. He even says, “My idealized self is Kumare.” And aren’t we all looking to become the best version of ourselves?

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Rick and Morty

Rick and Morty is one of the best shows I've ever seen. A ridiculous sci-fi comedy that also has a ton of heart, Rick and Morty is the brainchild of creators Dan Harmon (creator of Community) and Justin Roiland (who voices both title characters). It follows the adventures of mad scientist Rick Sanchez, an alcoholic misanthrope, and his grandson Morty Smith, a 14-year-old regular seeming kid. The rest of the family often gets roped into some things too, or are just on their own great stories. Beth (Sarah Chalke) and Jerry (Chris Parnell) have a crumbling marriage, while their daughter Summer (Spencer Grammer) is a pretty typical 17 year old girl. The stories range from exploring weird alien lands, to accidentally fracturing time, cloning, hopping into infinite alternate dimensions (or sometimes watching the TV from those infinite parallel universes), alien parasites burrowing into memories, and oftentimes a b-story of Jerry and Beth's failing relationship that manages to be both sad and hilarious.

One of my favorite things about the show is how it explores a lot of traditional sci-fi concepts, like alternate universes and things like that, with both a humorous and playful side but also a real emotional weight to it. Morty and Summer hate that their parents are always fighting, and part of the reason they want to go with Rick on his adventures is to get away from their crazy parents. Jerry and Beth got pregnant in high school and married because of that, staying together "for the kids" but hate each other for it. Still, over time their relationship has developed and they do really care for one another. Beth's anger at not achieving the career goals she had (she's a horse doctor who dreams of being a surgeon who operates on people) and Jerry's timid mediocrity (mixed with a misplaced sense of self importance) often inform hilarious stories, and it isn't depressing like it may sound.

But the key relationship that drives the show and keeps me coming back again and again (I must've watched all 21 episodes four or five times now) is between Rick and Morty. Rick is the smartest man in the universe, while Morty is naive and good hearted but not exactly Einstein. Rick is constantly half drunk (or often full drunk), and Morty has to navigate the outlandish worlds and creatures Rick has them stumble into. Occasionally those creatures even turn out to be Rick's and Morty's from other dimensions. Rick really cares about Morty even if it acts like he doesn't (at one point even using math to prove to Morty and Summer that Grandpa Rick thinks they're pieces of shit).

In addition to the great regular voice cast, there are also a ton of terrific guest voices on the show. Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele (Key & Peele) play time cops, Tom Kenny (Spongebob Squarepants) plays a pedophile jellybean, Alfred Molina plays the Devil (who Rick calls "honky ass motherfucker"), Jemaine Clement (Flight of the Conchords) plays a singing gaseous creature, Christina Hendricks plays a hive mind planet of people that Rick dates (while Patton Oswalt is a rival hive mind jealous of the attention Rick gets), Stephen Colbert plays a scientist who is almost as smart as Rick, John Oliver as Rick's partner in an scheme trying to set up an amusement park inside the human body (with Dana Carvey as the voice of the body, in a Fantastic Voyage/Jurassic Park type episode), Werner Herzog is an alien giving a speech about humanity's dick obsessed humor, and many more.

We also meet characters like Rick's best friend Bird Person, old family friend Mr. Poopy Butthole, genetic experiment Abradolf Lincler (where Rick combined the DNA of Lincoln and Hitler in an attempt to make a superior leader), and so many other great one off characters that you just want to revisit soon.

Influenced by shows like The Simpsons, Futurama, and Doctor Who (directly parodied/homaged in the title music, which also has a hint of X-Files to it, now that I think about it), Rick and Morty goes right alongside those brilliant shows. There are belly laughs, chuckles, and everything in between in every single episode. With only 11 episodes in the first season and 10 in the second, there are no filler episodes. Each one is killer. The season two finale has one of the best uses of pop music I've ever seen in a show, as Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" is played to underscore exactly where Rick is at, and I won't spoil anything more than that.

So if you haven't seen this brilliant show, please remedy that quickly. The only downside can be the length between seasons, as season two ended in October of 2015 and we have yet to receive even air dates for season three. That said, it's one of the great shows and I'll wait as long as it takes to get more episodes.

The Lobster

The Lobster is one of the oddest movies I think I've ever seen. It's the first movie I've seen from Oscar nominated Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, his first in English, and I've actually seen it described as his most conventional and easy to get into movie. I thought the trailers looked weird, but hilarious, and I was excited to see it. After getting a great critical reception (90% approval on RottenTomatoes) I got even more intrigued. I knew from reading about Lanthimos's previous films that it would be bizarre, but I also knew it had Colin Farrell, who is a fascinating actor when he's not doing big budget Hollywood stuff. And it also boasted other terrific actors like Ben Whishaw, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, and John C. Reilly. So I took the dive and it was a much stranger journey than I would've expected, and I kind of liked it.

The movie is set in a world where people are not allowed to be alone, romantically. When David (Farrell) is told by his wife that she's leaving him, he gets sent to a hotel where he'll have 45 days to find another suitable mate, or else be turned into an animal. David chooses a lobster as his potential animal. He arrives at the hotel with his dog, who used to be his brother Bob. During his stay at the hotel, David meets some fellow singles (Reilly and Whishaw) and they talk, commiserate, and scheme to get mates. Something that also happens is that every day the hotel guests are driven in a bus out into the forest surrounding the hotel, given tranquilizer guns, and they hunt loners, people who've escaped the hotel or the city and live out in the woods. For every loner they bring back, another day is added to their stay at the hotel. We hear much of these happenings narrated by an unnamed woman (Rachel Weisz), who we eventually realize is reading from a diary.

All of this is told in an strangely stilted manner, from everyone and everything involved. The actors performances aren't what we're used to seeing. They're not unrecognizable, but they're just....odd. The production design is wonderful, the cinematography and framing of shots is fascinating and beautiful, but there's something off. It's almost like watching a bizarro world version of a Wes Anderson movie. Gorgeously made, lots of terrific actors, but not resembling reality in the slightest. Everything from the look, to the dialog (and the speech cadences as well) is completely it's own thing. Seemingly not informed by other movie or real life.

The first half of the movie is the much more interesting, as we explore this strange world. The second half, while still good, is the lesser even as it is the more conventional piece, as Farrell and Weisz develop their sweet love story. But while I laughed a lot at the trailers, the movie itself is so unusual that I often found myself feeling at too far a distance to be able to laugh at anything but the absurdity of the movie. Farrell and Weisz are able to add the only real bits of emotion found in the film, and their story is involving up to a point. But while outlandish and eccentric, the movie kinda dragged for me as it went along. This crazy new world we're introduced to and explore in the first half isn't really developed or expanded as well when we start to focus on the romance.

Overall, I liked it and would definitely recommend it as something to check out if a person was even remotely interested. It's stranger, and delightfully also more interesting, than the trailers made it out to be. More people need to see more odd things too, I think. We need more new things like this in the world. We may not always love the new things, but this is one I liked, am very glad exists, and happy that I saw it.

Saturday, November 26, 2016


Another I am late to the party on is Deadpool. One of the few R-rated superhero movies, Deadpool ended up as one of the top grossing comic book movies ever made, with great critical and audience response (84% and 90%, respectively, on RottenTomatoes). Ryan Reynolds had been trying to get the movie made for many years, and we all had to suffer through the atrocity against the character perpetrated in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But finally we got the "merc with a mouth" onto the big screen in all his fourth wall breaking, bloody, profane glory. I gotta say though, my response was...meh.
We're given some nice story layout, as we begin in the middle of the movie, jump back through Deadpool's sardonic flashbacks, and then pick up and charge towards the end. We see Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) fall in love with Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), an escort with a heart of gold. We see Wade's cancer diagnosis which leads him to the extreme experimental treatment that ends up turning him into the seemingly indestructible Deadpool. Along the way he meets famed X-Man Colossus (Stefan Kapicic), a childhood favorite character of mine, as well as Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who is Colossus's protege. There's also the standard villains, main guy Ajax (Ed Skrein) and his sidekick Angel Dust (Gina Carano).

First time director Tim Miller shows a fine command of the unfolding of the story, and a terrific incorporation of Colossus, an entirely CGI character. But despite the bawdy humor, language, and fourth wall breaking, it all feels pretty standard. There weren't any surprises. Some of the jokes work, others don't. Some of the action is engaging, some isn't. The arc of the story is one we've seen before, even if the characters are just slightly different. I really get the feeling that this was hailed as something new simply because superhero movies have become such well trod ground that anything that's even surface level different feels monumentally different in comparison.

That said, the actors are all quite engaging and easily watchable. Reynolds is an actor I've liked since I watched him on Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place in the late 90's. He was made to play a role like this, and is one of the few times he's seemed well used in a movie. Morena Baccarin (or Moreno Baccarat as my auto correct keeps wanting to change it to) is wonderful as the sexy and strong Vanessa, who is less of a damsel in distress than most girlfriend characters in these movies tend to be. I also liked Brianna Hildebrand as Negasonic Teenage Warhead a lot. I'd never heard of the character before, though from what I've seen she's much changed from the comics and was mostly used for the name. Colossus was nice to see, although they twice show him eating even though it's established in the comics I read growing up that he doesn't need to eat or drink anything when in his metallic form. But minor childhood nerd quibble aside, he works in the context of the movie very nicely. Skrein and Carano as the villains are just kinda there. They don't really make any impression. This is really Reynolds' show.
Who knows what we'll get in the next incarnation, but this movie was enjoyable if still a letdown from all the hype that's been built up about it. Reynolds is engaging and the fourth wall breaking was a nice change up from the standard superhero stuff (the self aware opening credits were probably my favorite part of that though). So, good stuff, but not a movie I would've ever seen and thought would be the runaway success it has been as the highest grossing R-rated movie of all time ("except for Jesus", as Deadpool himself pointed out in the Honest Trailer for the movie, The Passion of the Christ is still #1).

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

Coming a little bit late to the party with this, but that's how it goes sometimes. Tonight I caught up to Zack Snyder's Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice. While Snyder's previous entry, 2013's Man of Steel, had only a 55% critical approval rating on, I enjoyed many things about it. I liked Henry Cavill as Superman, the more serious tone (seeing as Superman has typically been one of the more light hearted superheroes), Michael Shannon's great villain General Zod, and I even liked the maligned decision of Superman killing Zod at the end of the movie, showing that he knew Zod would never stop and it showed that Superman knew Earth was his home now and he'd protect it at all costs. The movie wasn't without its flaws, but I still liked it overall. When this followup was announced, its title suggested at least a partial adaptation of the beloved Frank Miller graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, where Batman and Superman duel. Great news. I applauded the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman, though I was one of the few at the time, seeing how he's grown over the years into a much more interesting leading man (and overall artist, through his writing and directing) than his 90's and early 2000's output would've suggested. The first trailer got me very excited, as it did many people. I even got excited by the trailer for Snyder's next movie, Justice League, before I'd seen this movie. I stayed away while it was in theaters because of the ridiculously low RottenTomatoes score (27%), but knew I'd catch up eventually, so here we go.

I won't bother reciting the plot, as there's far too much (and somehow too little), plus most people who want to know about it already do. Again, Henry Cavill makes for a wonderful Superman and Clark Kent. You can feel his decency, but he's not a boring boy scout. He's complemented by Amy Adams' strong, supportive, loving Lois Lane. The plot revolves around the machinations of Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) eventually pitting the two title characters against each other. Though it probably takes an hour and a half before the movie realizes that's what is happening, even if we know Luthor isn't there for window dressing. Eisenberg is an actor I like a good deal, but whatever it is he's trying to do here is awful. His twitchy, stuttering, odd performance is like it's from another movie. It makes for a thoroughly un-menacing and ineffectual big bad. Ben Affleck is predictably terrific as Batman and Bruce Wayne. He strikes an imposing figure, Affleck is about 6'4" to Cavill's 6'1" though both are sporting ripped physiques here, and he hints at an intelligence behind his scowl and cowl. His Batman is a more hardened and wizened one to what we've seen recently from Christian Bale. Graying at his temples, Affleck's Batman has been at this a long time and is a wearier Batman than we're used to seeing on screen. Gal Gadot makes a big impression as an unnecessary addition of Wonder Woman, but she's great, so why complain about how her character doesn't add anything and just contributes to the fractured feeling of the story?

And about that, this movie has enough plot for a trilogy of films, to the point that every aspect of the movie is underwritten. Every character underdeveloped. Every idea only half formed. This robs us of any dramatic weight that could've been built up either through characterization or simple reliance on standard dramatic formulas. Writers David S. Goyer (who co-wrote one of my favorite movies, Dark City) and Chris Terrio (who won an Oscar for his script for Affleck's Argo) stuff the movie so full of everything possible that nothing matters. This movie has the continuing story of Superman and Lois Lane, the introductions of Batman, Wonder Woman, and Lex Luthor, and when it should be winding down, and would've been just fine to do so, it introduces the infamous villain Doomsday, memorably introduced in the best selling The Death of Superman comic. So this ends up being an adaptation of the stories from two of the most famous and best selling DC comics stories ever written, and doesn't do justice to either of them. We also spend too much time with Holly Hunter's Senator Finch, who talks in ridiculous "southern" metaphors that become comical and detracting, in a storyline that could've been done with zero screen time for that character, since it ultimately amounts to nothing. It's an extra stuffing of junk when we already don't get enough of the main characters we're supposed to care about. The movie is 2 1/2 hours long, and feels longer because there's no drive to it with all these distractions and extraneous parts.

I also had an epiphany about Zack Snyder while watching this movie. Sucker Punch, Man of Steel, Batman V Superman, and Justice League all have terrific trailers and yet don't amount to much (well, JL is yet to be seen, but the others still apply). Snyder is an awful storyteller, but a terrific creator of small visual moments. His background as a TV commercial filmmaker shows in his ability to create striking images and moments in a movie, while also showing his inability to sustain any sort of storytelling momentum or drive. His most successful (from a narrative standpoint) movies were the ones based on existing material, his remake of Dawn of the Dead, Frank Miller's 300, and his slavish adaptation of Alan Moore's Watchmen. In all of those he was gifted with terrific established stories. Despite Snyder having the opportunity to adapt either The Death of Superman or The Dark Knight Returns, this movie is doomed from the outset by trying to adapt both. There's no reason to, and I'm not sure the best writers in the world could make those two books into a good single script.

So now I'm quite apprehensive of Snyder's Justice League movie, as a large ensemble of superheroes jockeying for screen time and character development is likely to fall apart under Snyder's watch (especially seeing as he brought Chris Terrio back to script it). Meanwhile, I'm intrigued to see what Ben Affleck does writing, directing, and starring in his next outing with The Batman. Affleck is the best part of this movie, and his assured storytelling abilities as a director (though balanced with his generally flat and uninspiring visual sense) will undoubtedly be better for us in the audience than Snyder's brand of schizophrenic mess of storytelling is.

With the chilly critical and audience reception, I wasn't expecting too much going into this movie, but somehow I still left disappointed.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Searching for Bobby Fischer

Bobby Fischer was, by most accounts, the greatest chess player in history. He spawned generations of interest in the game, and in 1972 beat the Russians at the height of the Cold War. Then he disappeared from public life.

1993’s Searching for Bobby Fischer is a movie of surprising depth and nuance. It’s the story of 7-year-old Josh Waitzkin, whom we follow as he climbs the ranks of the best child chess players in the country. And it’s the story of all the conflicting parental guidance he receives both from his parents, and his two chess teachers. The movie is a wonderful exploration of many varied themes, from the pressures of being a prodigy, parenting, the balance of pushing yourself while still maintaining a love of the game, sportsmanship, the nature of chess, and much more. It is a wonderfully layered movie that also doesn’t require any prior knowledge of chess to understand or enjoy. It is probably one of my most watched movies, and one that would be in my top 10 movies of the 1990’s.

Josh (Max Pomeranc), is just your regular 7-year-old kid growing up in New York City. When playing in Washington Square Park on his birthday, he sees groups of men playing all manner of games, and the chess players really grab his attention. He later asks his mom Bonnie (Joan Allen) if they can go watch the men in the park. Bonnie takes Josh and his younger sister and while nervously standing around, Josh watches as Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne) plays a game of chess while unleashing a constant stream of trash talk to his opponent, who ends up being a chess grandmaster come to hustle the hustlers in the park. Josh watches the board as the men play, and you can see that he just has an innate understanding of the game. Later, when Bonnie brings Josh back to the park to challenge a man to a game, Vinnie watches studiously as even though Josh loses, he uses his pieces in a very advanced way. Vinnie says he’ll be telling people in the future that he used to watch Josh play chess in the park just like people say they used to watch Bobby Fischer in the park.

Josh’s new found love and understanding of chess comes as a surprise to his father Fred (a never better Joe Mantegna), a sportswriter. He and Josh bond over baseball, but Josh is now becoming obsessed with chess. So Fred gets him a teacher, Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley). And this is when the movie really takes off. Josh becomes the most feared young chess player around, winning many tournaments around the country. Bruce teaches Josh strategy, history, and to stop taking his queen out so early. Vinnie, on the other hand, tries to teach Josh to play from his instinct instead of his brain. Vinnie says to Josh, of Bruce, “He didn’t teach you how to win, he taught you how not to lose, that’s nothing to be proud of.” Meanwhile, Fred takes so much pride in Josh’s success that he starts pushing him too hard, expecting nothing less than first place every time. Josh starts seeing his dad’s love tied to winning. Bonnie sees her son’s good heart, his fairness and decency, and is intent on protecting Josh from the dark side of sports that teaches you to hate your opponent, and to win at all cost.

Each character in the movie is given weight, depth, and motivation. Rarely do we see movies this well written. It was written by Steve Zaillian, who also made his directorial debut. Zaillian’s other 1993 screenplay, Schindler’s List, won him an Oscar. He would later go on to write movies like Mission: Impossible, Gangs of New York, Moneyball, and others, but to me his masterpiece is Searching for Bobby Fischer. It was adapted from the real Fred Waitzkin’s book of the same name. Now, although it was based on a non-fiction book, and features many real acclaimed chess players, that is not what makes it good. The most true to life “based on a true story” movie is still a fiction film. I don’t care if things didn’t happen in real life the way they happen in the movie, this is not a documentary and doesn’t claim to be. It’s a great movie and that’s what matters.

The exploration of prodigy here is fascinating. Fred is not alone amongst the overbearing, brash parents pushing their children. And we see the dark side of lives devoted strictly to one discipline. We see some of the great players in the world, ones that play hundreds of tournaments, who we’re told make only about $2,000 a year. So when Bruce and Josh meet a young rival whose teacher brags about how the child does nothing but play chess, no school, no family, only chess, they’re horrified. When Fred puts Josh into a private school, one that even has chess classes, Josh’s question is whether there are good things in the play yard to climb on. He’s seven. No matter what is projected on him due to his gift for chess, Josh is seven and still has the innocence and decency of a child. This is what Bonnie is so hawkish to protect. She cares only for her son’s happiness and protection of his inner self.

The acting ensemble is flawless here. Joe Mantegna is an underappreciated and underutilized actor, and this is his crowning achievement. He loves his son, he wants him to succeed, and he also sees that Josh, at seven, is better at chess than Fred has ever been at anything. Joan Allen’s Bonnie is full of love and acceptance and warmth. Laurence Fishburne, as Vinnie, is a little dangerous and unpredictable, but obviously cares for Josh and wants him to be happy too. Ben Kingsley makes for an intimidating teacher for young Josh, and we can see the bitterness in this man who was once a prodigy himself. And maybe Josh’s good heartedness can teach Bruce as much as Bruce’s expertise can teach Josh. Young Max Pomeranc gives what is likely my favorite performance from a child actor. He was chosen because he was a top chess player himself, and the filmmakers wanted to have the chess look real. But his sensitivity, intelligence, and inner strength make Josh one of the most fascinating characters in film, to me. The rest of the cast is littered with great character actors like Tony Shalhoub, Laura Linney, William H. Macy, David Paymer, Dan Hedaya, and more.

I would like to also point out the look of the movie. Shot by the legendary Conrad L. Hall (director of photography on movies like Cool Hand Luke, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, In Cold Blood, American Beauty, and Road to Perdition), the movie’s loan Oscar nomination came for the cinematography. It is beautiful to look at, but not distractingly so. There is nothing show-offy about the photography here, but it should be a lesson to students of film in how to gorgeously make a movie that is mostly realistic interiors.

Overall, Searching for Bobby Fischer is a fascinating look at parental love, the conflicting voices and advice we let into our lives, and the effect (both positive and negative) of the competitive nature of sports. It’s a great movie, one that doesn’t get talked about enough.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Getaway

The Getaway was my first exposure to the writing of Jim Thompson. Born in Anadarko, Oklahoma in 1906, Thompson was destined to have a great reputation in hind sight, but his work never sold much while he was alive, and the high profile jobs he had ended up feeling like missed opportunities. Stanley Kubrick hired Thompson to write his 1956 noir movie The Killing, but Kubrick ended up taking writing credit himself, pushing Thompson to a "dialog by" credit. Yet Thompson worked with Kubrick again, writing the script for Kubrick's masterpiece Paths of Glory, though Thompson ended up as the third listed writer, behind Kubrick and celebrated author Calder Willingham. Thompson caught a break when his 1958 novel The Getaway was to be made into a movie by maverick director Samuel Fuller. After going through the Hollywood game, eventually Thompson wrote the script for director Sam Peckinpah, though star and producer Steve McQueen would have Thompson fired for his script being too dialog driven, with not enough action, and the book's strange ending firmly in place. Though The Getaway was a big hit at the box office, and Thompson's The Killer Inside Me was made into a movie a few years later (both movies would be remade, The Getaway in 1994 with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger, The Killer Inside Me in 2010 with Casey Affleck), Thompson's stock didn't rise much and he died a broke alcoholic in 1977. The Getaway is a hell of a novel, but one that I would think is totally untranslatable to the screen.

The Getaway is actually a pretty standard, though wonderful, crime drama for the first 3/4 or so of its pages. Doc McCoy and his wife Carol go on the run after a successful but messy bank robbery, while they try and elude the cops as well as Rudy, the bank robbery partner who tried double crossing Doc only for Doc to shoot him (Doc thought Rudy was dead, but he wasn't), who's intent on revenge. Doc is a smooth talking, fast thinking, tough as nails career criminal. Carol is a former librarian who Doc swept off her feet and who took very well to the quick thinking crime life, though she's not as good as she thinks she is and is in over her head more than she realizes. All of this was adapted onto the screen fairly decently, with the expected small changes here and there. But what McQueen fired Thompson over most of all, I think, is the ending of the book.

For some, the ending of The Getaway is what ruins the book, and for others it's what makes it. After reading it, I'm firmly in the latter camp. Once Doc kills Rudy, and he and Carol try crossing the border into Mexico, is when the book turns to the surreal and allegorical. The couple meet with Ma Santis, a criminal matriarch who hides them on her farmland from the authorities before securing them passage into Mexico so that they can go to "the kingdom of El Rey", a kind of off the map resort for retired criminals, ruled over by an imposing man named El Rey. Doc and Carol hide, first for two days inside of coffin sized underwater caves, then for another few days in a small shack disguised as, and built out of, a huge pile of cow manure. They are next put on a Portuguese fishing boat to sail into Mexico (as crossing on land would be too dangerous) before finally making it to and retiring in the kingdom of El Rey. Once in El Rey, they find living is not as easy as they thought it would be. El Rey is a kingdom of murder (but ruled as "suicide" by the local police), back stabbing, and dwindling finances until there's no money left and people are put into a village where no food is allowed and to survive the residents resort to cannibalism. So as to not run out of money, the couples that come there usually end up killing one another to save their precious money and not end up in the cannibalistic village. The book ends as Doc and Carol are trying to plot the other's "accidental" death. They have a drink and bitterly toast to their successful getaway.

So, one can easily see why the movie adaptations of the book chose to go for the "happy" ending of Doc and Carol making it over the Mexican border, giving us a sense of closure and reassurance that they made their getaway. But this is where the brilliance of the book is lost in the immorality of the movies. Doc and Carol are shown to be truly heinous people, murdering anyone who gets in their way. Rudy is felt to be the bad guy, and we are repulsed by his murders while we are a bit grateful our "heroes" are able to dodge setback after setback through their quick thinking murderous tenacity. We identify with Doc and Carol. When we consume things like this, we want our criminals to be likable and roguish, and not so different from the heroes on the other side of the law, just with bad circumstances. But Thompson's ability to get us to almost forgive these awful people their sins just because they're stylishly done in opposition to Rudy's similar but more crass behavior is simply brilliant writing. I'm a big fan of noir books and movies, and this is the most thought provoking one I've encountered. Just because Doc and Carol are our protagonists does not mean they're our heroes. There are no heroes in Thompson's world. They're not likable anti-heroes either. They're charming, sure, but they're terrible people who should not get a "driving off into the sunset after completing their getaway" happy ending. They don't deserve it, and Thompson doesn't give it to them. He makes them suffer and torturously betray their real love for one another in the name of "survival" in hell. They don't get a happy ending just because they're the main characters of the story. They're cold blooded killers, dropping more than a half dozen people without thinking twice about it.

One could get lost in the symbolism of the last 30-50 pages or so (it's 183 pages in total, so you'll only be out a couple of hours to read the whole thing). Carol struggling to cope with the reality of being in her cave. She's told to take the sleeping pills provided, to help her get through the claustrophobia that creeps in from being in the cave. She initially refuses, this part written in an almost stream-of-consciousness style from Carol's mind as she finally has to face all of her terrible thoughts, and ends up with cuts all over her body from trying to move around in the rocks, suffering in the coffin she put herself in, in every sense of the word. Waiting for days in the shit covered house, symbolizing the decay of their bodies, souls, and ultimately their relationship. Unable to get the horrid taste out of their noses and mouths. Flies and worms digging into the structure and eating at their nerves. The journey by boat, to me obviously representative of crossing the river Styx, on their way to El Rey. El Rey meaning "The King", and being the ruling Satan-like figure of this strange place. And they're put in these places by Ma Santis, "santis" meaning "of the family of saints". So a good person finally put them into their hell, even though it seemed like she was helping.

How often did a dimestore paperback crime novel have so much to talk about in it? I've never read any that had this kinda of surreal turn, which really threw me off initially though I ultimately loved it. It definitely makes me want to read more of Thompson's writing. Makes me wonder how faithful of adaptations The Killer Inside Me and Stephen Frears' The Grifters are to their sources. I am excited to explore more from Thompson now.