THE GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: Movie Reviews of Pawn Sacrifice and The New Girl Friend by Howard Casner

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pawn sacrifice oneI do remember, somewhat vaguely it must be admitted, when the notorious and neurotic (to be polite) Bobby Fischer played Russian behemoth Boris Spassky for the world Grand Master of Chess back in 1972.

The portrait that was being painted of Fischer by many in the media at the time was of someone who was acting outrageously, unreasonably and very, very strangely in order to out-psyche his blindsided opponent. In other words, everyone thought there was a method to Fischer’s madness.

But writer Steven Knight and director Edward Zwick, in their version of the match in their new film Pawn Sacrifice, take a different approach. In their perspective, Fischer came by his outrageousness honestly. According to Knight and Zwick, Fischer’s actions were the result of some pretty serious mental issues rather than fully conscious choices.

In other words, while everyone, including Spassky, thought that Fischer was playing Hamlet, in reality, he’s the guy in the hospital who thinks he really is Hamlet.

And they make a pretty good case for it. Read the rest of this entry »

Movie Review of SHORT TERM 12, ADORE and POPULAIRE by Howard Casner

Short Term 12 is about a young female supervisor at a foster care facility.  It is a story that is sincere and heartfelt, but in the end, about the only thing it has going for it is its sincerity and heartfeltness.  It’s written and directed by Desin Cretton and I’m not sure that he has anything to offer yet, though it’s only his second feature film, so it’s too early a call yet.   But like so many recent films both written and directed by someone new or relatively new to the job, it’s unambitious, unoriginal and unimaginative, and technically bland and uninspired.  It’s more of the sort of social problem play that use to be de rigueur as movies of the week on network TV thirty years ago.  The acting is of the obvious sort with no real subtlety and everything’s telegraphed before it’s shared.  But when the characterizations are this flat (as flat as the direction), what else is to be expected?  It ends with an action by the lead that I think is supposed to make one respect her.  But for me, it was so irresponsible, over the top and troubling, I was praying she’d get fired before she did something really stupid the next time.



I can just hear director Anne Fontaine and screenwriter Christopher Hampton give their elevator pitch for Adore, their new Australian film about two mothers who have affairs with each other’s sons: MILFS who become GILFS.   That’s kind of basically it in a nutshell.


It’s certainly a well done movie.  One can’t complain about the technical aspects of any of it. There’s a lot of beautiful scenery to salivate over, and the backgrounds aren’t too bad either.  The acting is first rate, especially Naomi Watts, Robin Wright and Ben Mendelson as the adults; the young himbos, played by Xavier Samuel and James (Animal Kingdom) Frecheville, were more cast for their bodies than their abilities.


But when all is said and done the whole thing never really comes together in a satisfying whole.


It’s the sort of movie you can form fit into your favorite Rorschach test psychological theory.  Are they all going to bed together because the women really want to bed each other, the same for the boys, and this is the only way they can do it?  Or is it incest by proxy?     The whole thing is suppose to be tres, tres daring, I suppose.  But the movie takes itself so seriously, I certainly can’t.  And it’s been so long since I cared about who went to bed with whom, I just can’t get much indignation worked up.


If the film had been made in the 1940’s it would have starred Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins and had at least one big cat fight.  Now, everybody does their best to keep a stiff upper lip and be Masterpiece Theater civilized about it all.  I’m not sure it’s an improvement.  After all, if you remove the camp element, all you’re really left with is soap opera.


And to add insult to injury, it just takes forever to resolve itself.  It’s structurally clunky and just when you think it’s about to come to a close, it keeps on going for thirty minutes or more.


In the end, it’s a handsome film, as handsome as its two leading ladies.  But if all you’ve got going for you is shock element (and the element isn’t that shocking), then you really haven’t got a lot going for you.



There’s a scene in Francois Truffaut’s last film Confidentially Yours in which a secretary (Fanny Ardant) has to hire her replacement because her boss (Jean-Louis Trintignant) has rather unceremoniously fired her.  The first applicant can only type with one finger.  Ms. Ardant is ready to dismiss her outright until the applicant actually types—and types like a machine gun on St. Valentine’s Day.


I don’t know if the filmmakers of the new French rom com Populaire (director Regis Roinsard, writers Roinsard, Daniel Presley, Romain Compingt) took that movie as its inspiration, but since the story is about a woman dreaming of becoming that new symbol of female independence, a secretary, and one who can type with two fingers like a said machine gun on said holiday, it would be hard to convince me otherwise.


Populaire is a pastiche of 1950’s American sophisticated comedies (if it had been done in the U.S. way back then, it would have starred Cary Grant or Rock Hudson and Doris Day or Audrey Hpeburn).  It’s as light as a French soufflé and looks as sweet as puff pastry.  It has all the bright pop colors made popular by that rock and roll decade and more recently by the television show Mad Men and the film’s a delight to look at.   And it has its inside droll jokes as when the hero is asked not to smoke in his office by the heroine and he says only a law will stop him (like the U.S., it is now illegal to smoke in places of employment—unfortunately, I was the only one in the theater who laughed).


It also starts off rather well with young, perky Sandra Dee-like Deborah Francois as Rose Pamphyle (in what seems a change of pace roll from such serious ones as L’enfant and The Monk) coming to town to become a liberated woman.  But things go off the rail very quickly with the introduction of Romain Duras  (that incredibly handsome, perpetually sneering, hirsute leading man) as her new boss, Louis Echard.  He hires her not because she’s good at her job (in fact, the implication is that she is suppose to be a terrible secretary, though she never seems all that bad), but so he can enter her in a typing competition.


What is odd here is that though this is Rose’s story, it’s Louis who is driving it.  But Duras is not given a character to play.  It’s unclear why Echard is so desperate to have Rose become the world’s next speed typist champion.  We have no clue as to what his feelings toward relationships are generally.  Duras is left to create a character out of nothing; but unfortunately, he can’t come close, so the movie just meanders along without any real focus or forward momentum.  Without Echard having motivations for his actions or inner or outer conflicts that need to be resolved, there’s really nothing for the audience to grab onto.   It also doesn’t help that there’s little chemistry between the two leads (also the same problem as Truffaut’s Confidentially Yours).   And like Adore, just as you think the movie is over, it just keeps going and going and going.


There’s no reason something couldn’t have been made out of all the ingredients here.  But in the end, it has to be said that the soufflé fell and the pasty just wasn’t as sweet as it looked in the confectionaries’ window.