A War (2015) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : Inside and outside the war

awar05

Danish film “A War”, which was recently nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, observes difficult moral matters of action and consequence from inside and outside the war. While we come to understand an impossible circumstance its hero and others happen to face on their battlefield, we also see the grave unforeseen consequence he must deal with in one way or another during the aftermath. Both visceral and sensitive in its realistic approach to war and its human ramifications, the movie does not resort to giving easy answers to its moral dilemma as calmly maintaining its non-judgmental viewpoint, and the result is another thoughtful war drama with raw emotional power.

The first half of the film revolves around a Danish military company stationed near a rural village in Helmand, Afghanistan, and the opening scene shows a group of soldiers during their routine patrol supervised by their company commander Claus Pedersen (Pilou Asbæk) at the base. As a decent, diligent, and compassionate leader, Pedersen genuinely cares about his men’s safety in the field, and he feels more urged to protect his soldiers especially after a sudden tragic incident which seriously affects their morale. When one of his men, still devastated by that incident, confides to Pedersen his emotional hardships, Pedersen handles him with empathy and common sense, and this touching scene is one of small authentic human moments to distinguish the film from usual war movies.

While we continue to observe the daily routines of Pedersen and other soldiers in the base including his fellow officer and best friend Najib Bisma (Dar Salim), we also look into the daily struggles of Pedersen’s family in Denmark. He and his wife Maria (Tuva Novotny) have three children, and it is sometime difficult for Maria to take care of their children alone. We learn that one of the kids has a behavioral problem in his school, and he even exasperates his own mother. At one point, she hurriedly takes the youngest one to hospital due to one of common accidents associated with kids, and that moment will come close to you if you have ever gone to hospital because of your kid.

awar01Feeling more and more of her husband’s absence in their household, Maria gets some comfort from her occasional satellite phone conversations with her husband. They casually talk with each other as confirming their enduring relationship to each other, and their children are happy to talk with their father, but Maria worries about her dear husband because, after all, anything can happen in war.

After Pedersen decides to command his soldiers directly in the field, we get a number of sequences packed with tension and verisimilitude, and the director/writer Tobias Lindholm, who previously impressed us with “A Hijacking” (2012), efficiently handles these sequences as generating the constant sense of danger around the screen. When a villager approaches to Pedersen and his men for urgent help, they have good reasons to be watchful of this seemingly harmless guy, and we sense their alert mood as the cinematographer Magnus Nordenhof Jonck’s handheld digital camera steadily hangs around them like another member of the unit. In one quiet but intense moment, Pedersen’s sniper soldier and his partner must be both careful and decisive as watching their possible target from the distance, and the mood becomes more suspenseful as the target in question is coming into their range with the considerable potential of collateral damage.

When Pedersen and his soldiers are suddenly ambushed by Taliban soldiers during their another patrol around the village on one day, the situation quickly gets worse as they are relentlessly attacked by their enemies who must be hiding somewhere inside the village. Vividly presenting the hellish chaos among lots of bullets and explosions, the movie holds us tightly to this gritty combat sequence, which eventually culminates to Pedersen’s impromptu decision. He is technically wrong in his decision, but it is also undeniable that the decision is a desperate measure for him and other soldiers during that chaotic moment.

awar2015 Two parallel storylines in the film converge during its second half as Pedersen is brought back to his country because of the death of several innocent civilians which was resulted from that decision of his. Feeling guilty about this unintentional tragedy and anxious about his upcoming trial, Pedersen considers accepting the cost of his devastating mistake, but Maria cannot imagine her husband taken away from her and their children again, and that only adds more agony and conflict to his situation.

The courtroom scenes during the second half of the film are compelling and gripping under its impeccably sobering atmosphere, and the main performers are superb in their respective roles. Pilou Asbæk, who was wonderful as one of the ship crew members held as hostages by Somalian pirates in “A Hijacking”, is fabulous as quietly conveying Pedersen’s inner conflicts behind his calm façade, and Tuva Novotny holds her own place beside Asbæk. As Pedersen’s no-nonsense lawyer, Søren Malling, who was another crucial part of “A Hijacking” as a shipping company CEO patiently negotiating with Somalian pirates, makes a nice contrast to Charlotte Munck’s prosecutor character, and three young performers Cecilie Elise Søndergaard, Adam Chessa, and Andreas Buch Borgwardt deserve to be mentioned for their natural interactions with Novotny and Asbæk. While several military characters in the film are played by Dar Salim and a few professional actors, many other soldiers in the film are played by real Danish soldiers who really have been to Afghanistan, and they do bring another realistic touch to the film along with the genuine sense of comradeship among them on the screen.

While I was watching “A War”, it was automatically compared with several recent war films and documentaries in my mind. “Brothers” (2004), which was directed by Lindholm’s fellow Danish filmmaker Susanne Bier, already attempted the juxtaposition of war drama and family drama in a similar background, and I could not help but think about that unforgettable Danish documentary film “Armadillo” (2010) as observing the Afghanistan scenes in the movie. Although “A War” may not bring anything new into its field, the movie is a superlative work fueled by powerful moments, and Lindholm scores big again as solidifying his rising status as another interesting filmmaker from Denmark.

awar03

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Theeb (2014) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4) : A simple but haunting tale of a young desert boy

theeb02Desert is a harsh environment for any living creature. As watching those barren desert landscapes in Oscar-nominated Jordanian film “Theeb”, I wondered about how men came to live there many thousands years ago. This is a stark world where survival is usually the first priority above anything else, and, as reflected by the opening narration, trust and kindness can be dangerous for its wandering human inhabitants who have to deal with their meager living condition in the desert day by day.

While the period background of the movie is not directly explained to us, we come to gather that it is around the late 1910s when the Middle East was being shaken by the Great Arab Revolt against the ruling Ottoman Turks. Its young hero Theeb (Jacir Eid) is a boy living with his Bedouin tribe in the western Arabia region, and the early scenes in the film show him spending another usual day around the current staying spot of his tribe in a vast desert area. We also meet his older brother Hussein (Hussein Salameh), and we sense their close relationship as this good brother teaches Theeb how to shoot a rifle.

When Theeb and Hussein are spending evening time along with other male members in the tribe (we never see any female member in the tribe, by the way), there come unexpected guests. They are a British officer (Jack Fox) and his Arab escort Marji (Marji Audeh), and they need someone who can guide them along the pilgrim’s trail which has been obsolete since the Ottoman railway was built. Many people in the desert area once earned their living as pilgrim guides, but their service is no longer needed now, and the trail also becomes too risky while ridden with raiders.

theeb04 As these two strangers are welcomed by the chief who recently succeeded his diseased father and is also Hussein and Theeb’s eldest brother, Theeb cannot help but curious about the officer, who looks like a nice guy but is quite sensitive about a wooden box in his possession. It is implied that he is carrying out some secret mission, and it seems going through that dangerous route in question is essential for whatever he is going to do once he reaches to the destination near to the Ottoman railway.

Under the chief’s permission, Hussein is going to guide the officer and Marji along the trail, and Theeb wants to go along with them although he is too young to be allowed to do that. As soon as Hussein and two other guys are gone from his sight, Theeb immediately follows after them alone, and he manages to arrive at a spot where Hussein and others are spending the first night of their journey.

Hussein is not so pleased to see his brother, and neither is the officer. Nevertheless, Hussein is adamant about having his dear brother near him instead of sending Theeb back to the tribe alone, and the officer reluctantly accepts Hussein’s demand although he is nervous about this small complication which may interrupt his plan. In case of Theeb, he is simply happy to join the company while eager to have new experiences along the journey.

Of course, it turns out he is going to get far more than he wishes for. As expected, Theeb and others come to face a big danger in the middle of their route, and that eventually leads to a violent scene unfolded within one canyon. I will not go into details, but I can tell you that 1) our young hero finds himself in a very desperate circumstance in which he must defend himself alone and 2) his situation is developed into an interesting local variation of Western morality play as he comes across an unreliable but only chance of survival later in the story.

theeb03  This is the first feature film by its director/co-writer Naji Abu Nowar, who previously made only one short film in his nascent filmmaking career but is quite impressive here in his confident handling of mood and story. He and his crew shot their film at the real desert locations in Jordan, and the cinematographer Wolfgang Thaler did a stunning job of establishing the stark atmosphere on the screen while vividly capturing the unnerving beauty of desert landscapes on Super 16 with an anamorphic lens. Some of these awe-inspiring landscape scenes in the film reminded me of “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962), and I was not so surprised to learn later that David Lean actually shot his great film in the same area.

The screenplay written by Nowar and his co-writer/co-producer Bassel Ghandour is simple but subtle as slowly building up its narrative momentum. I like how the movie inverts conventions as firmly sticking to Theeb’s viewpoint, and its seemingly plain mixture of coming-of-age drama and adventure tale is surprisingly compelling and complex as Theeb comes to learn a hard lesson on what it takes to be a man in his world. For the authenticity of his film, Nowar hired many local non-professional actors who bring unadorned realism into their performances, and the young lead actor Jacir Eid ably carries the movie through his earnest acting. He and Hussein Salameh click well with each other in their scenes (they are real-life cousins, by the way), and Hassan Mutlag is also fine as another crucial character in the movie.

“Theeb”, which deservedly won the Best Director award at the Venice International Film Festival in 2014, is a film of haunting beauty and aching poignancy. It requires some patience due to its slow pace and reticent storytelling approach, but, once you follow its mood and rhythm, it will be a rewarding experience on the whole, and you will come to care a lot about what inevitably happens in the end – and how much its young hero is changed as a result.

theeb01

 

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

What Happened, Miss Simone? (2015) ☆☆☆(3/4): What happened in her life and career

whathappenedmisssimone01Oscar-nominated documentary film “What Happened, Miss Simone?” gives us close, intimate glimpses into Nina Simone, a legendary American singer who was called “the High Priestess of Soul”. Even if you are unfamiliar with her career like me (full confession: I do not know much about her except her famous rendition of “Sinner Man”), this documentary is still an informative and interesting overview on her dramatic life and career, and you will come to see and feel a dynamic but vulnerable artist who struggled hard against many obstacles including herself for a long time.

After an archival footage clip showing Simone’s performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1976, the documentary goes back to her early years. Born in 1933 as Eunice Waymon, Simone was the sixth child of a poor black family living in Tryon, North Carolina. After learning how to play piano at her early age, she began to play piano at a local church, and Simone, who mainly talks to us through archival interview recordings, reminisces about how much she enjoyed playing music along with that rapturous spirit among churchgoers.

Her considerable talent was soon noticed by people outside her black community, so young Simone was taught by a local white piano teacher for becoming a classical pianist, but then she found herself being blocked by racial prejudice. Although she enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music in New York, she was later rejected by the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia despite her excellent audition, and that was a very painful moment she would remember for the rest of her life.

whathappenedmisssimone03

For earning her living, she had to perform at a bar in Atlantic City, but she wanted to hide it from her mother who would not approve of her job, and that was how Eunice Waymon became Nina Simone, a stage name inspired by her nickname and French actress Simone Signoret. With her new name, she quickly became popular thanks to her own deft mix of classical approach and pop sensitivity, and we see her rapid rise to more fame and success during the early 1960s.

Around that time, she encountered a New York police detective named Andrew Stroud, and he eventually became her husband while also working as her manager. Although he was a shrewd, forceful figure behind the further success of his second wife (the documentary does not mention that it was the second marriage for both of them), Stroud was sometimes quite harsh and abusive to Simone, and we hear about a number of disturbing episodes between them. While fondly remembering her father, their daughter Lisa also remembers well when he hit her mother hard in the face during their drive on one day, and Simone’s close colleague Al Schackman tells us about when she hurriedly came to him for refuge after she had just gone through another abusive incident by her husband. The documentary also looks into Simone’s personal diary, and it is really unnerving to see how she let herself abused in her tempestuous relationship with Stroud, who gets a rather fair treatment in the film through his interview clips shot several years before his death in 2012.

As pushed into her heavy schedule by Stroud, Simone frequently felt unhappy, exhausted, and frustrated despite her growing success. She desired for something her heart could be passionate about, and she did find it when the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s entered its most volatile years. Strongly affected by that tragic bombing incident in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963, she went into full throttle mode as participating in the movement, and her incendiary song “Mississippi Goddam” was a forthright public response to the racism in the South. During the Selma to Montgomery march led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965, she sang in front of marchers, and she also hung around with many prominent black public figures including James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, and Malcolm X., whose wife was a close friend to Simone.

whathappenedmisssimone04

But there were also tolls as she threw herself more into politics. As she became more blatant and radical especially after King’s death in 1968, her openly political view damaged her career, and that consequently led to her departure to Liberia shortly after her divorce with Stroud. Although she found some peace as getting out of music business, she came to face financial difficulty several years later, and she had no choice but to go back to stage in Europe while getting paid less than before.

It was fortunate that she had good friends who could help her during this difficult time. After they took her to a doctor in Holland, it turned out she had been suffering from mental illness, and her condition was improved a lot thanks to medication. She successfully returned to spotlight during the 1980s, and we see her singing “My Baby Just Cares for Me”, which was one of the major successes during her later years.

Currently available on Netflix, “What Happened, Miss Simone” is a sincere and engaging tribute to its subject, and the director Liz Garbus did a good job of presenting Simone’s vibrant personality and undeniable talent. While she struggled and suffered through many difficult moments, she prevailed in the end, and you may sense more from her soulful performances after watching this solid documentary film.

What Happened, Miss Simone? Nina Simone

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): There will be more pandas

kungfupanda303
“Kung Fu Panda 3”, the third entry of the popular animated film franchise from Dreamwork, faithfully follows its plot formula which has been established through its two predecessors. Again, its bumbling hero must rise to the challenge when another big danger comes into his world, and we all know he will find more confidence about himself and his destiny in the end after fumbling and tumbling around a series of gags and actions. As a sequel, it is not fresh to say the least, but it is at least buoyed by its jubilant mood and colorful background, and all I had to do during the screening was simply observing how it did its job as much as intended.

The story begins not long after where “Kung Fu Panda 2” (2011) ended. Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), an old red panda who has been the master of the Jade Palace since his grand master departed to the spirit realm, decides that it is the time for his retirement, so he leaves his teaching position to his star pupil Po (voiced by Jack Black), our panda hero who has been enjoying his rising status as the Dragon warrior along with his colleagues Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie), Monkey (voiced by Jackie Chan), Mantis (voiced by Seth Green), Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu), and Crane (voiced by David Cross).

While he has gained lots of confidence through his previous adventures, Po is not so sure about whether he can be a teacher as good as his master, and then he comes across Li Shan (voiced by Bryan Cranston), a panda who turns out to be none other than Po’s biological father who was separated from his son a long time ago. Although he knows that he was adopted by his goose stepfather Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong), Po is surprised to meet his real father, and the father and son quickly get along well with each other because, well, blood is thicker than water.

kungfupanda305

Meanwhile, there is a trouble coming toward the Jade Palace. When Oogway (voiced by Randall Duk Kim), Shifu’s currently diseased master, is peacefully enjoying another meditation in the spirit realm, he is ambushed by Kai (voiced by J.K. Simmons), Oogway’s old comrade who has been his enemy since their deadly duel in the distant past. Determined to become far more powerful than he ever was, Kai has been usurping ‘chi’, which is pretty much like the Force in Star Wars films, from many other masters in the spirit realm, and Oogway’s chi eventually becomes Kai’s last booty before Kai goes back to the world of the living for collecting more chi.

For stopping Kai, Po needs to learn more about how to master chi as soon as possible, so he goes to Li Shan’s hidden mountain village after his father says he can teach it to his son in the village. When Po, Li Shan, and Mr. Pong arrive in the village, we see lots of pandas on the screen, and Po becomes more comfortable with being himself as hanging around his father and all these chubby pandas including Mei Mei (voiced by Kate Hudson), a coquettish panda girl destined for show business.

While providing a lot of slapstick moments as Po rolls here and there along with other pandas, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, who previously directed “Kung Fu Panda 2”, and her co-director Alessandro Carloni also serve us with a number of kinetic action sequences as Kai is approaching toward his ultimate goal step by step. Besides a pair of knives linked through a chain, this big bad ox can unleash and control a bunch of jade-colored zombies in the shapes of various masters he defeated, and the increasing number of these zombies makes the situation all the more difficult for Po and other characters around him. There are lots of zips and zaps across the screen, and the action sequences in the film are mainly presented through quick, frantic cuts and zooms, but they are fun and exciting enough to entertain us at least.

kungfupanda302The digital animation in the film is bright and colorful on the whole, and I liked its splendid sights which will certainly look dimmer in 3D. The spirit realm scenes in the movie are apparently intended for 3D visual effects, but I did not feel much of the need to wear 3D glasses, and I think you may save some money through watching the 2D version instead of the 3D version.

Reprising his most popular character, Jack Black is good as usual in his engaging voice performance, and he is supported well by the supporting cast members. Like Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, James Hong, and Randall Duk Kim have been familiar with their respective roles, and they fill their positions with ease. The new cast members Bryan Cranston, Kate Hudson, and J.K. Simmons are also solid in their respective voice performances, and Simmons relishes his villain role which is alternatively silly and menacing.

When “Kung Fu Panda 2” was about to be released, I was skeptical mainly because there seemed to be no need for a sequel to follow “Kung Fu Panda” (2008), but then I was surprised to see that it actually had more fun and excitement than I expected. “Kung Fu Panda 3” is not better than its predecessor, but its formula usually works in spite of its thin story and some underdeveloped potentials in the plot (I am still wondering whether interspecies relationship is possible in its world, for example). Its weak points are mostly compensated by its breezy energy and well-made animation, and the endearing quality of its good-natured hero still works on me, but I must say that one panda is more than enough for me.

kungfupanda301

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Mustang (2015) ☆☆☆1/2 (3.5/4): Five sisters trapped inside their house

mustang05They are young and free when we see them at first, and then they suddenly find themselves trapped inside their house turned into a prison for them. “Mustang”, which was recently Oscar-nominated for Best Foreign Language Film Award, often feels like a realistic horror film, and it is sad and infuriating to see how these spirited girls are repressed and mistreated in the name of family and tradition, but the movie also finds warm moments of humor and intimacy generated from their strong mutual bond, which deeply touches us as we look into their harsh predicament they do not deserve at all.

Set in a remote rural village in Turkey, the story is mainly told through the viewpoint of Lale (Güneş Şensoy), and we meet her and her four older sisters during their last school day before summer vacation. This also happens to be the last day for Lale’s favorite teacher who is soon going to move to Istanbul, and Lale gives a sincere farewell to her teacher before she leaves the school along with Sonay (İlayda Akdoğan), Selma (Tuğba Sunguroğlu), Ece (Elit İşcan), and Nur (Doğa Doğuşlu).

These five sisters go to the beach along with their male schoolmates, and the girls have a jolly fun as mingling with the boys, but this innocuous moment results in a serious trouble they never imagined. When they return to their family home later, their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş), who has raised her granddaughters together since they were orphaned several years ago, is furious about their reckless behavior on the beach. Somebody in the village saw the girls being rather too close to the boys during their playtime, and, regardless of their innocence, this can be a major scandal in their very conservative village.

If their grandmother is harsh, their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan) is wrathful in his violent rage toward his nieces because, in his petty narrow-minded view, they tarnish the family reputation. The girls are promptly pushed into the medical examination for their virginity certificate (I am not kidding), and then they are confined in the house for preventing any further transgression.

mustang06The girls are naturally unhappy about this, but they have no choice but to deal with their new situation. Several old aunts of theirs come to the house, and they and the grandmother begin to prepare the girls for their destined future role – housewife. We see these old ladies teaching the girls several things including cooking and sewing, and the girls actually enjoy their lessons at times.

But that does not mean that the girls completely conform to their confinement, and we see how they respectively find a way to vent their boredom and frustration. For instance, one of Lale’s older sisters has a secret boyfriend, and she hopes that he will rescue her someday from the house. In case of Lale, this plucky little girl shows her irrepressible defiance from time to time, and she even considers escaping from the village for herself even though she knows well that is not possible at present.

As the movie moves along a series of their various episodes, the director Deniz Gamze Ergüven, who wrote the screenplay with her co-writer Alice Winocour, brings considerable sensitivity and spirit into her first feature film while closely observing the intimate interactions among her young heroines. As they go through their suffocating summer days together, the cinematographers David Chizallet and Ersin Gok’s camera fluidly moves around and inside the house like another inhabitant, and we gradually get the sense of repression surrounding the girls, which feels palpable even when they are allowed to be outside the house.

The movie is also surprisingly humorous at times. When there will be a big evening soccer game where almost every other girl in the village will go, the girls also want to go there even though their grandmother and uncle will not allow that. Eventually, they decide to attempt a grand escapade for that, and their attempt culminates to a hilarious moment which drew a big chuckle from me.

mustang02None the less, there is always the hard reality in their house, and they become more aware of it as they begin to be regarded as potential brides one by one. Suitors and their families visit the house, and some of the girls get married with different results. During her wedding night, one of the girls is very unhappy about her marriage which will be another prison for her, and then her wedding night ends with a humiliating treatment which is one of the most painful moments in the film.

Under Ergüven’s thoughtful direction, the young actresses in the film, most of whom are non-professional performers, are engaging and spontaneous in their natural performance. While some of them are less distinctive than others, they are all believable together as sisters who have grew up together for years. As her character slowly becomes the dramatic center of the film later, Güneş Şensoy ably delivers several key scenes in the film, and Elit İşcan, who had more acting experience compared to her co-stars, is effective during an emotionally devastating scene.

“Mustang” has received lots of critical acclaims since it was shown at the Cannes Film Festival in last year (it won the Europa Cinemas Label Award in the Directors’ Fortnight section), and this small but powerful film surely deserves that for its vivid, empathetic presentation of unfair treatments on its young heroines, whose desperate circumstance sadly reflects countless similar cases around the world. They will never go back to the way they were, and we can only hope for the best in the end.

mustang01

Posted in Movies | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Pawn Sacrifice (2014) ☆☆(2/4): An unstable pawn of his game

pawnsacrifice01

The life of Bobby Fischer was one of those typical examples of how genius can be both blessing and curse. While being one of the most brilliant chess players during the 20th history, Fischer was also a deeply troubled man who was eventually tumbled into the downward spiral of mental illness and conspiracy theory during his later years, and some of you have probably heard about his reclusive lifestyle and many loony behaviors which added more infamy to his legendary position till his lonely death in 2008.

He was not a pleasant man, and Edward Zwick’s “Pawn Sacrifice” does not hide that at all, but it sadly does not delve deep into Fischer’s mind enough. While following Fischer’s single-minded pursuit of being the No. 1 in the world, the movie merely skims over the best and worst moments of Fischer’s life, and it ultimately fails to engage us despite its interesting historical backdrop surrounding his greatest triumph.

During the early scenes depicting Fischer’s early life in New York during the 1950s, the movie attempts to explain the origin of Fischer’s lifelong paranoia. Because his Russian immigrant mother Regina (Robin Weigert) openly shows her left-wing political belief along with her friends, his home is constantly watched by federal government agents, and young Fischer, played by Aiden Lovekamp, sees some suspicious car parked outside at one point.

As he shows more interest and talent in chess, Regina later takes her son to a chess master named Carmine Nigro (Conrad Pla), and Nigro instantly sees Fischer’s exceptional talent although he beats Fischer during their first game. After being taught by Nigro for several years, Fischer, played by Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick at this point, quickly roses to prominence as a new exciting wunderkind in the town, and he becomes more obsessed with chess while more being distant to his family than before. After he angrily complains to his mother that he cannot concentrate on chess because of her busy private life, Regina moves alone to LA, and he is fine with that.

pawnsacrifice05

Around the time when he is ready go outside US to confront those famous chess players from the Soviet Union, Fischer, played by Tobey Maguire from this point, soon feels exasperated because of how he seems to be strategically blocked by the Soviet players at the World Chess Championship Tournament. He storms out of the ongoing game just because he thinks the Soviet players do not play fair, and he begins to show more of erratic behaviors as he becomes more determined to get a chance to defeat the Soviet players including Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), the current world chess champion.

With his boyish look and offbeat persona, Maguire, who also produced the film, is well-cast, and he puts decent efforts into his performance during many scenes showing Fischer’s dark, disturbing sides, but he is unfortunately hampered by the weak screenplay by Steven Knight, which is based on the story written by Knight, Stephen J. Rivele, and Christopher Wilkinson. While we are served with Fischer’s odd behaviors mixed with his genius and arrogance again and again, Fischer remains as a distant and unlikable one-note figure without any interest to hold our interest, and, to make matters worse, the screenplay does not provide much insight on what makes him tick.

The movie has a few crucial supporting characters revolving around Fischer, but they are mostly underdeveloped or inconsistent, and the talented supporting actors in the film do as much as they can do with their thankless job. Michael Stuhlbarg, who was more engaging in “Steve Jobs” (2015) and “Trumbo” (2015), is a shady lawyer willing to indulge Fischer for making a great public moment for American people as well as their government, and his character mainly functions as a reminder of how Fischer’s ultimate goal was also important to his country during that time when the Cold War was being played between US and the Soviet Union in many fields including chess. Peter Sarsgaard is a priest who understands Fischer’s growing obsession to some degrees as a fellow chess player, and he has some good moments when his character shows concerns on Fischer’s increasingly unhinged state of mind.

pawnsacrifice03As Fischer’s main opponent, Liev Schreiber is a calm counterpoint to Maguire’s ticking intensity, and he is effective when his character is baffled by his opponent’s strange demeanors and tries to see what his opponent’s next move is. When Fischer and Spassky finally have a match in Reykjavík, Iceland in 1972, Fischer demands that they should play in a small, quiet room instead on the auditorium stage just because he does not want to be distracted by any noise. Spassky comes to accept this weird request, but then he makes his own odd move later. Schreiber ably handles that moment without any slightest hint, and we are never sure about the intention behind his character’s action.

In case of the chess play scenes in the film, they feel flat and unengaging, and I doubt whether it will help even if you know how to place chess unlike me. We often see chess pieces being moved here or there on the board, but there is not any sense of strategy being executed on the screen, and the climax sequence is clichéd to the bone while eventually followed by the droning epilogue chronicling Fischer’s later years full of misery and madness.

The disappointing failure of “Pawn Sacrifice” reminds me of Steve Zaillian’s “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993), which is also based on the real-life story of a young chess genius. That film did a better job of presenting chess and human drama, and I recently found that it is still an intelligent and entertaining drama coupled with real thought-provoking ideas on humanity and genius. “Pawn Sacrifice” may admire Fischer’s genius, but it has almost nothing to tell about whatever humanity he had, and I think you will have a better time with the aforementioned film.

pawnsacrifice02

Posted in Movies | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Anomalisa (2015) ☆☆☆1/2(3.5/4): A quirky stop-motion animation a la Charlie Kaufman

anomalisa03“Anomalisa” is a stop-motion animated film from Charlie Kaufman, and this is certainly another odd, fascinating work from a talented writer/director who wrote the screenplays for “Being John Malkovich” (1999), “Adaptation.” (2002), “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” (2004), and his directorial debut work “Synecdoche, New York” (2008). Again, he looks into matters of human mind through an offbeat approach full of surprises and amusements, and the result is a unique work which is funny, insightful, and touching in its whimsical mix of melancholy, humor, and romance.

Its hero Michael (voiced by David Thewlis) is a self-help book author who is going to Cincinnati, Ohio for his book promotion at a hotel customer convention when we meet him during the opening scene. He has been lonely, desperate, and frustrated while feeling distant from others around him including his own family, and we soon notice this depressed guy’s warped state of mind right from the beginning. Everyone around him looks all the same while speaking in the same voice provided by Tom Noonan, and that reminds me of that famous scene in “Being John Malkovich”, where John Malkovich himself enters his own mind and sees a world literally full of Malkoviches.

While lodging at a hotel where the convention is being held, Michael prepares for his speech for the next day in his comfortable hotel room, but he comes to think more about his old girlfriend living in Cincinnati. Their breakup was unpleasant to say the least as reflected her old letter sent to him during that time, but now he wonders whether he can reconnect with her. He eventually calls her, so she comes into the hotel bar for meeting him, but that turns out to be disastrous to his dismay.

But then he comes across an unexpected chance when he returns to his room and takes a shower. He happens to hear a voice which seems to come from one of the other rooms on the same floor, and he is attracted to the voice because it sounds different from those many identical ones around him. He immediately searches for the source, and that is how he comes to meet Lisa (voiced by Jennifer Jason Leigh), a woman who is attending the convention along with her friend. She somehow looks different from others in his view, so Michael suggests that she and her friend should go down to the bar along with him, and he gets to know a little more about Lisa while spending time with them at the bar.

anomalisa02This is basically a conventional setup for romance tale, but the movie is imbued with quirky sensibility to entertain us, and Kaufman and his co-director Duke Johnson did a superlative job of making their characters on the screen look real and believable through skillful stop-motion animation. The body movements of the characters in the film are smooth and fluid without any awkwardness, and their presentation of emotions are conveyed well to us although they are still somewhere around the Uncanny Valley. We often notice their artificial quality, but that aspect somehow fits with the surreal atmosphere in the film, and Kaufman and Johnson often push that aspect to nice comic effects for our amusement. For instance, the movie does not flinch from nudity at all, you will see very clearly that the movie is rated R for good reasons.

The movie is also sincere and serious about its hero’s emotional matters. In objective view, Michael is no more than a miserable loser attempting an extramarital affair, but we come to understand his need and desperation as he clumsily approaches to Lisa. In case of Lisa, this shy woman is happy to receive the unexpected attention from a stranger, and we sense the mutual feeling growing between her and Michael as they talk more and more with each other.

In the end, they come to have their own private time in Michael’s room, and they eventually move onto the next logical step as being more comfortable with each other on the bed. I will not go into details, but I can tell you that Kaufman and Johnson find an effective way to present this rather graphic scene without looking silly or gratuitous. Accompanied with Carter Burwell’s restrained but sensitive score, it feels warm, tender, and intimate as two characters tentatively try to get closer to each other, and it also manages to sidestep the Uncanny Valley successfully and tastefully while letting us gradually involved in what is being exchanged between them.

anomalisa01

It also helps that David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh click well with each other in their voice performance. Thewlis is excellent as a sad man struggling with his deep emotional problems, and Leigh, who is far softer than her nasty Oscar-nominated turn in “The Hateful Eight” (2015), complements her co-star well with her gentle performance. Noonan, who drew my attention for the first time through his crucial supporting turn in “Synecdoche, New York”, has lots of fun with handling the rest of the characters in the film, and his flat, monotonous voice further accentuates the drab environment encompassing Michael and Lisa with great effects.

While less dense and cerebral compared to Kaufman’s previous works, “Anomalisa”, which deservedly received an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature Film, is mostly successful in its bold storytelling experiment despite its few flaws including its overlong third act. It is definitely weird, but it ultimately looks into human matters we can empathize with, and it eventually illuminates a few important things about human relationship.

While watching the movie, I was reminded of that good advice on relationship which is given to the young heroine of “Juno” (2007) by her no-nonsense father: “Look, in my opinion, the best thing you can do is find a person who loves you for exactly what you are. Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you, the right person is still going to think the sun shines out your ass. That’s the kind of person that’s worth sticking with.” I think Kaufman would wholeheartedly agree to that.

   Sidenote: The movie is based on the play of the same name which was written by Kaufman under the pseudonym Francis Fregoli. His pseudonym came from the Fregoli disorder, a rare mental disorder in which, according to the Wikipedia, “a person holds a delusional belief that different people are in fact a single person who changes appearance or is in disguise.”

anomalisa04

Posted in Movies | Tagged , | Leave a comment