Saturday, September 26, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice Review

Some people love the Summer blockbuster season, then ignore most of the rest of the year because "there is nothing good in theaters." Personally I also love myself a big, fun, popcorn flick in the Summer, especially if it's a superhero movie. But if I'm being perfectly honest, I really look forward to this time of year because it's the start of Oscar season. Not all the movies released from September through December will compete for actual awards, but there are a whole heck of a lot of movies that are released around this time that are trying their hardest to put themselves in the game. This makes for a ton of amazing movies that flood the theaters, giving me plenty to see and enjoy. Pawn Sacrifice is a movie that I've personally had on my radar for quite some time as it was first released last year at the Toronto International Film Festival, which sparked a whole lot of buzz surrounding Tobey Maguire's performance. It took it a year for it to show up in a theater near me, but when it finally did this weekend, it instantly became my top choice of the weekend. I was not disappointed with the result.

Edward Zwick is the director here. He's given us some pretty dang good movies in the past, the most noteworthy being Glory and The Last Samurai. He's also on board to direct next year's Jack Reacher 2, which I'm stoked for. This time around he takes on another interesting true story about chess champion Bobby Fischer. Born in 1943, Fischer quickly rose to be one of the best chess players in history and possibly the best U.S. chess player in history. According to the movie, he taught himself how to play chess at a very young age and that's essentially all he thought about at that age. He was one of those chess players that would look at a chess board and see a ton of moves in advance. He would even play out games in his head or look at a picture of a chess board and figure out exactly what moves were made to get both players to that point and he would use those strategies in his own game. He was a brilliant. By the time he was a young teenager, he was playing in several U.S. championships and winning them all. Before too long, he decided that he wanted to become the world champion and thus he determined that this would require him playing the Russians. The big match that this movie focuses on is his 1972 World Chess Championship match with Russian Boris Spassky.

What I was expecting when I went into this movie was a great biopic of Bobby Fischer led by a brilliant performance from Tobey Maguire as Fischer. Yes, this is what I got. What I didn't quite expect was for it to play out like a sports movie. The typical formula for a sports me starts with the movie following a huge underdog team or a heavy favorite in which some sort of tragedy happens. After this, the team either overcomes this tragedy and rises to the occasion or shocks the world by playing great. Either way, this usually leads up to a championship game where the team either wins and makes us all happy or they lose and teach us all a very good lesson. This is followed by the movie explaining what happened with the team and/or players through the rest of their careers and beyond. This movie fits perfectly into that. Bobby Fischer is our underdog player. No one expects the young kid to be any good. His mom would even be happy if he stopped playing chess and did something else with his life. But he keeps winning and winning, getting better and better throughout the years. This leads to many championships and the ultimate world championship match. What makes this really unique is that I don't think I've ever seen a chess movie like this. There's been plenty of movies that include chess games in their movies, like the sequence at the end of the first Harry Potter movie. But I don't remember a movie where chess was the main focus. If there is, I haven't seen that movie. Thus I was super invested in this because it felt fresh.

However, there is also much more to this movie than just chess, so if you don't like chess, this is still a movie for you. Mental health is a big theme of this movie. We aren't just watching a guy win a bunch of chess matches. We're watching a guy with a lot of mental issues. I don't know what specific mental diseases he had, so I'm not going to attempt to label them, but playing chess was all that this guy could focus on. When he wasn't playing someone, he was playing himself or going over games in his head. He also heard random voices on occasion and all the noises around him were amplified quite a bit. If someone was lightly knocking on the door, to him it felt like they were pounding. Whispering was too much for him to handle at times. Coughing was loud. He could hear the cameras rolling from a distance. This was a huge issue for him during his games because he just could not focus at times. When he was on the big stage with everyone watching, all the little sounds around him bothered him so much that there were moments where he refused to play. It got so bad for him that he would start making a whole bunch of ridiculous demands and if they weren't followed exactly, he wouldn't show up. He didn't care how important the game was or how many people were watching. If everything wasn't perfect, he wasn't going to play. He often felt like the world was conspiring against him if his demands weren't met. And his mental health just got worse and worse as his life moved on.

This is obviously a very sensitive issue that needed to be handled with care and also needed someone to absolutely nail the role. Tobey Maguire was perfect in this. Looking at his filmography, he actually hasn't been around the movie scene very much since his role as Spider-Man in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man trilogy. Despite the scene that shall not be named from Spider-Man 3, I do think he was a decent Spider-Man. Outside that, though, he has had several really good roles. He was great in Seabiscuit back in 2003. He was also amazing in The Great Gatsby in 2013. So he's an actor that I've respected throughout the years. However, this role as Bobby Fischer in Pawn Sacrifice is easily the best performance of his career. Never have I watched Tobey Maguire and said that he deserves an Oscar nomination. But I'm saying that now. He may not get it because of all the competition, but at the very least I will say his performance is Oscar caliber. And speaking of performances, there was also a lot of good performances around him. The most notable one was his main opponent, Boris Spassky, played by Liev Schreiber. It was one of those performances where Schreiber disappeared into his role. When they showed the cast in the end credits and I saw his name, it was one of those moments where I was like, "That was Liev Schreiber?" I like those moments.

I also can't leave this review without talking about all the cinematography and other technical aspects of the movie. We constantly went back and forth from in actually looking like an early 70's movie to looking like a modern day movie. This worked very well. We also had a lot of genuine news reports thrown in to help us move the story forward and I'm pretty sure they were actual news reports from back when this actually took place. If they weren't, they did a pretty dang good job of replicating those reports. We also got a lot of fan reaction from around the world thrown in there as the big match moved along, which did a pretty dang good job at letting us know how big this event was. All these news reports and fan reactions made me really get into this as I got the sensation that this was a huge event that I needed to pay attention to. I felt like I was watching the Super Bowl. And not just a boring, blowout like the Broncos vs. Seahawks from two years ago, but a Patriots vs. Seahawks game where you are on the edge of your seat the whole time. It was intense. It was awesome. Then there was the actual cinematography and editing from the chess game itself. There were a lot of quick shots from many different angles and viewpoints. One shot we were zoomed in on the chess piece that was about to be moved. Another we were watching from over the shoulder. Another we were watching the TV that everyone else was watching after Bobby demanded to play in the ping-pong room.

Then there was the score. I actually do like watching someone play chess. It's a lot of fun. But it can also be super boring, especially in a professional chess match where they spend a whole lot of time thinking before every move. But when we are watching the chess matches in this movie, especially the final one, this is anything but boring. It's intense. It's exciting. It has you on the edge of your seat. Yes, the editing and cinematography, as well as the inclusion of the news reports and fan reaction played a big part in this as previously mentioned. But the score is the glue that holds this all together. It's what makes this movie interesting. James Newton Howard is the man behind the curtain here and thus deserves a lot of praise. He's composed some amazing scores which have included the first two movies in The Dark Knight trilogy, all of The Hunger Games movies, most of M. Night Shyamalan's movies (great or awful, you have to praise those scores), Maleficent, Snow White and the Hunstman, The Bourne Legacy, Nightcrawler, and many, many more. The man is one of many musical geniuses of our day and has rightfully been nominated for eight Oscars. Here's to hoping a win is in his not-to-distant future. He even got a Billboard Hot 100 top 20 hit last year with The Hanging Tree from last year's Mockingjay - Part 1.

There's been a lot of movies released in theaters in the past couple of weeks and with Oscar season being underway as well as the Halloween and the Holiday seasons right around the corner, the number of releases aren't going to slow down any time soon. Amidst this crowded movie season, if Pawn Sacrifice has shown up in a theater near you, I would definitely recommend you check it out. We all constantly blame Hollywood for running out of ideas. Although the themes in this movie as well as the sports movie formula are nothing new, the fact that this is a chess-based movie makes this feel fresh and original. That's what it did for me, anyways. Even if you don't feel this idea is original, it's still worth checking out because it's a great psychological movie that focuses on the mental health decline of Bobby Fischer and Tobey Maguire really knocks it out of the park. This is a really fascinating and surprisingly intense movie surrounding the chess board. There's also a tagline at the end that I found simple, yet very deep and profound as concerning the game of chess as it relates to life itself. I highly recommend you give this movie a shot. I will award Pawn Sacrifice a 9/10.

No comments:

Post a Comment