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.