Monday, September 28, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice and Grandma

A couple of quick hits:

Edward Zwick's entertaining but not totally satisfying Pawn Sacrifice tells the parallel stories of American grandmaster Bobby Fischer's simultaneous ascent into the stratosphere of world championship chess and his descent into stifling paranoia and how these events fed each other. It's quite a ride and Tobey Maguire is quite good as Fischer, but the film is somehow not as absorbing as Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind (2001) or this year's Brian Wilson biopic Love & Mercy (directed by Bill Pohlad) -- both of which examine the connection between genius and madness. Zwick's film lacks the  grace notes and elegance of the other two -- it seems to be all intensity and frustration and very little tenderness. Fischer's (in)famous rivalry with Russian champion Boris Spassky (played with humorless deliberation by Liev Schreiber) during the early '70s is the dramatic core, but it's Maguire's deepengin disconnection from reality even as he lays opponents to waste that drives the picture. Maguire is finely supported Peter Sarsgaard as a former chessmate now Catholic priest who is Fischer's second on his tour and by Michael Stuhlbarg as a lawyer / patriot who is charged with keeping Fischer in the game until he trounces the Russians for God and Country, mostly Country. Recommended.

Lily Tomlin is not a great actress. She doesn't have the range of a Judy Dench or Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren. But she IS a wonderful performer to watch because she seems to fully inhabit the roles she's given, becomes these women. Most of her work has been on television, a medium that calls for smaller, more intimate interactions and it is in these that she really shines in Paul Weitz's Grandma. Tomlin has a deadpan delivery (except when she's cursing) that rather than evoking irritation she draws out our empathy -- she's so beat down by life -- and we understand. Tomlin's retired college professor finds herself miserable and brittle one year after the death of  her life-partner, pushing away another, younger lover (a wonderful Judy Greer) and confronting unexpected news from her teenage granddaughter (Julia Garner) that she is pregnant. Tomlin's Ellie Reid is a brisk, dismissive, verbally abusive mess who, while trying to help her granddaughter find the funds for an abortion, discovers just how much of a mess she, herself, is. The film is both caustic and tender and highly recommended.


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