THE GAMES PEOPLE PLAY: Pawn Sacrifice and The New Girl Friend


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Warning: SPOILERS
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.

 

Because this Fischer does have serious problems. In their take on the subject matter, these issues arise from a few sources: a natural genius at chess that often is accompanied by a debilitating neurosis; mommy issues (his cold, distant and unloving mother was Jewish and an active Communist in 1950’s America, which resulted in Fischer being virulently both anti-Semitic and anti-Red); and, when as an adult Fischer first tries to become Grand Master, the Russian team manipulates the winners and losers so that only Spassky can come out on top (or from Fischer’s point of view, they cheated).

 

But because Fischer rants and raves and whines enough, and with the help of a shadowy figure from the U.S. government and a priest who formerly played in tournaments and even defeated Fischer once, Fischer is given a second chance to go up against Spassky. He loses (and not just the match, but you’ll have to see the movie to get that joke).

 

And so he rants and raves and whines enough again, and with the help of the same shadowy figure from the U.S. government and priest who formerly played in tournaments and even defeated Fischer once, he is given a third chance to go up against Spassky.

 

And a showdown is set up in Reykjavik, Iceland where, the way everything here is sometimes dramatized, the fate of the free world is at stake since the Cold War, as well as Nixon and Brezhnev’s paranoia, was at its height.

 

No matter what else it might be, Pawn Sacrifice is never less than entertaining. It was a fascinating bit of history at the time, and Knight and Zwick are able to capture that excitement and often make the film just as intriguing. It’s one of those films where, even though you know how it’s all going to turn out, you are on the edge of your seat waiting to find out how it all turns out.

 

The movie is rich in period detail and the whole thing has a dark, overcast look as if the U.S. had already lost the battle against Communism. Even when the characters make their way to sunny L.A., it has a very depressing look to it all.

 

Tobey Maguire plays Fischer with his overly young looks and trademarked falsetto voice. Though he never makes you forget that he is Tobey Maguire, he does bring a nervous and panicked energy to his performance backed up by Peter Lorre eyes that carries you along.

 

pawn sacrifice twoThe supporting cast is solid and first rate. The shadowy government official is played by, who else, Michael Stuhlberg, in the slimy style he used on Boardwalk Empire to impersonate Arnold Rothstein, and Peter Sarsgaard sucks constantly on hard candy as he long sufferingly tries to calm Fischer down as the priest.

 

Perhaps most interesting is Liev Schreiber as the silent and inscrutable Spassky. The filmmakers go out of their way to make sure that Schreiber appears in nothing but a towel or bathing trunks as often as they can, showing off his incredibly cut body. He strides onto the scene as if he were Dolph Lundgren ready to take on Rocky Balboa.

 

Somehow, I strongly suspect this is probably the part of the film that is the least historically accurate.

 

 

new girlfriend twoIf you plan to see writer/director Francois Ozon’s latest film, The New Girlfriend, it is probably best you not see any coming attractions of it before you do. I’m not sure what media consultant decided on the approach to take for advertising the movie, but I would seriously reconsider ever using them again.

 

The reason is that if you do see a preview, you will probably quickly get the impression that the film is a serious, highly dramatic thriller about…well, something, it’s a bit unclear, but whatever it is, it’s of the Hitchcockian variety, filled with the fluid sexuality one often sees in not just Ozon’s films, but French ones in general.

 

It’s even based on a short story by Ruth Rendall, a writer of mysteries and suspense stories who is one of France’s go to writers for source material of the neo noir variety.

 

I mean, that’s how it came across to me. And so there I was, in my seat, panting in anticipation, like a dog who has his head out a car window, tongue flapping in the wind, for something, anything to happen, thriller wise or not.

 

And almost nothing does.

 

Well, that’s not true. Something does. But nothing of any great interest.

 

Because The New Girlfriend is not a thriller; it’s not a neo-noir; it’s not a mystery. It’s a coming out story of a man who likes to first dress in women’s clothing; then go out as a woman; then decide that he is, indeed a woman.

 

That’s it.

 

Not that there’s anything wrong with this. In fact, such is a worthy subject for any film or story. But Ozon not only brings nothing new to transgender issues, he, I think, takes such a reductive approach to it by making a bland, seen it a million times, movie of the week (and not just movie of the week, a 1970’s movie of the week) out of it all, that it’s hard to understand why he even bothered to make the film.

 

The basic premise of the story concerns two BFF’s Claire and Laura, who grew up together. There is an erotic aspect to their relationship, but they each end up marrying, Claire to Gilles and Laura to David. But Laura dies soon after giving birth and one day Claire, who is the baby’s godmother, comes to visit and discovers David dressed in Laura’s clothes.

 

the new girlfriendBut the whole revelation, as well as how the story unfolds, is treated with such heavy breathing and gasps of breath (the only thing missing is a silent film organ and I’m not sure that that wasn’t there), that the whole thing becomes, well, silly.

 

Yes, it’s a silly movie.

 

I’m sorry, but I won’t apologize. It’s not just a silly movie. It’s a silly, silly movie.

 

And not only that, the whole thing constantly threatens to break out and become a farce and in such a way that it left me with the thought of how much better a movie it might have been if it had gone in that direction.

 

The cast does perfectly fine in the acting department. Anaius Demoustier and Isild Le Besco are Claire and Laura respectively, while Raphael Personnaz (who looks like Adam Scott and played Count Vronsky in Keira Knightley’s Anna Karenina and Marius in the films Marius and Fanny) is Gilles and heartthrob Romain Duras is David/Virginia

 

Perhaps the most unintentionally funny aspect of the film is Duras as a man who wants to be a woman. He is undoubtedly one of the most hirsute actors in film today and all I could think of is the pain he’d have to go through just to remove his chest hair (if you’ve seen the scene with Steve Carrell in the 40 Year Old Virgin, you know what I’m talking about).

 

The whole thing is described as a very loose adaptation of Rendall’s short story of the same name. And for a story that won the MVA Edgar Award that year, I would very much hope so.

 

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