The Shape of Water movie review

For inSing

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Director : Guillermo del Toro
Cast : Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Doug Jones, Michael Stuhlbarg, Octavia Spencer
Genre : Drama, Fantasy
Run Time : 2h 4m
Opens : 1 February 2018
Rating : M18 (Sexual Scenes And Nudity)

       In The Godfather, the Corleone family received a threatening message, telling them that the enforcer Luca Brasi “sleeps with the fishes”.

This fantasy romance film puts an entirely different spin on that phrase.

It is 1962, and Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) is a mute janitor working at a secret government facility in Baltimore. Elsa lives alone, and her two best friends are her neighbour, illustrator Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

Col. Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), the severe head of security, arrives at the facility with precious cargo in tow – a humanoid amphibian creature dubbed ‘the Asset’ (Doug Jones). Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), who is studying the Asset, takes issue with Strickland’s harsh treatment towards the creature.

Elisa gradually begins to bond with the creature, bringing him eggs and playing music on a gramophone in his presence. As unlikely as it seems, Elisa begins to fall in love with the Asset. When she discovers his life is in danger, Elisa sets about rescuing the Asset from the facility, making her a target of Strickland’s wrath.

Director Guillermo del Toro, who also co-wrote the film with Vanessa Taylor, has always been a genre filmmaker. All his films can be classified as fantasy, horror, science fiction, or some combination of the above. However, this has never restricted him – rather, working within these genres has freed del Toro as a storyteller. General audiences often view genre films through a somewhat narrow lens, but del Toro broadens said lens, and The Shape of Water is an excellent example of this approach. The film has garnered 13 Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture and Best Director – it’s not every day that the Academy recognises fantasy romance monster movies this way.

This is a weird, beautiful, enchanting movie. On the surface, there’s the oddness of a woman falling in love and entering a physical relationship with a humanoid fish creature. Originally, del Toro wanted to remake Creature from the Black Lagoon, but from Gill-man’s perspective, recasting the classic movie monster as a romantic lead.

Naturally, cheesy romance novels in which women fall in love with supernatural creatures of various stripes, including but not limited to vampires, werewolves, angels and immortals, come to mind. However, The Shape of Water is far more poetic and less literal than that. Its bizarreness is intertwined with enveloping warmth. This is a movie about outsiders finding solace and understanding in each other, and past the genre trappings, there’s something pure and resonant about that.

The film treats 60s America with a degree of romanticism, but is also keenly aware of the societal tensions at the time and how those attitudes continue to manifest themselves today. This is a fantasy, but the world in which it unfolds is eminently believable.

Like all del Toro’s movies, The Shape of Water is deliberately designed. All the little details vividly evoke the period, and the atmospherics, from the colour palette to Alexandre Desplat’s harp-driven score, sell the film as a meticulously crafted whole. As envisioned by production designer Paul D. Austerberry and shot by cinematographer Dan Laustsen, there’s a cold dankness to the research facility. However, this proves to be the right setting for the romance between Elisa and the Asset to blossom, the unromantic surrounds throwing their bond into sharper relief.

The Elisa character gives Hawkins the opportunity to deliver a sensitive yet electrifying performance. The character is mute, and has always felt like she’s been regarded as missing something everyone else does, but she is a whole person, with dreams and desires of her own. The character’s sexuality is portrayed with a refreshing frankness, and Hawkins brings no vanity to the part at all.

Hawkins’ physicality complements the physicality displayed by Doug Jones, an oft-collaborator of Guillermo del Toro’s. Like classic movie monster portrayers Lon Chaney and Boris Karloff, there’s more to Doug Jones than the fact that he’s in special effects makeup in most of his roles. In The Shape of Water, he gives a legitimately masterful performance, overcoming the constraints of what must’ve been a very uncomfortable suit, especially since Jones was in water for most of the film.

With his luminous skin and limpid eyes, The Asset is beautifully designed, and has become something of an unlikely sex symbol. Legacy Effects developed the special effects suit and makeup, and it’s easy to buy the Asset as a living, breathing entity. However, he looks so much like Abe Sapien from the Hellboy movies – also directed by del Toro – that this reviewer couldn’t help but imagine the Asset was Abe Sapien, even though del Toro has said they’re different characters.

Michael Shannon is in maximum creep mode, playing a truly despicable antagonist. Strickland is inherently cruel, racist and exacting, but has also bought in to the consumerist message of the ‘American dream’, coveting a fancy new Cadillac. There’s a bit of a supervillain air to Strickland, but Shannon never goes the full moustache-twirling hog. There’s the religious zealot angle, with Strickland referencing Bible stories and saying that the Asset is an aberration for not being made ‘in God’s image’. Shannon can always be counted on to play a scary villain, and Strickland is plenty scary.

Jenkins’ Giles is a loveable character, someone who’s harbouring a secret and whom, like Elisa, knows what it’s like to be an outcast. The friendship shared by Elisa and Giles is sweet, and Jenkins and Hawkins play off each other to create an unconventional, lightly comedic double act.

Spencer plays to type as Zelda, sassy and chatty and always an understanding friend and co-worker to Elisa. Stuhlbarg’s character seems like the stock sci-fi movie scientist, but we see a few layers to him as the film progresses.

The Shape of Water is an exquisite creation that brims with humanity. It’s not afraid to expose some of the ugliness of humanity, but it counteracts that with indescribable beauty. This is a fairy tale for grown-ups, with plenty to say beyond its central conceit of ‘woman falls in love with humanoid fish monster’. There will be audiences who might be put off by its superficial weirdness, but most viewers will find it easy to surrender to the film’s embrace, however cold and slimy it might seem at first.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Arrival

For F*** Magazine

ARRIVAL

Director : Denis Villeneuve
Cast : Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Genre : Sci-fi/Drama
Run Time : 1h 58min
Opens : 12 January 2017
Rating : PG-13

arrival-posterIt’s Close Encounters of the Learned Kind: aliens are greeted not with a barrage of laser fire, but by academics seeking to understand their motive for travelling to Earth. When 12 extra-terrestrial spacecraft appear hovering above Earth, US Army Colonel GT Weber (Whitaker) ropes in linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) and theoretical physicist Dr. Ian Donnelly (Renner) to head a team that will attempt communicating with the aliens. The arrival of the 12 ships throws society into disarray, with other countries’ handling of the situation posing the threat of all-out war. Louise and Ian enter the ship, making contact with the aliens, which come to be known as ‘heptapods’. Louise studies the heptapods’ language, a series of complex circular shapes, gradually figuring out how to speak to them. In the meantime, tensions escalate worldwide, with many Americans calling for a show of force against the heptapods after the aliens convey that their purpose on Earth is to “offer weapon”.

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Arrival is based on Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, a Nebula Award-winning novella. Director Denis Villeneuve, currently working on the Blade Runner sequel, had wanted to make a science fiction film for some time. Meanwhile, screenwriter Eric Heisserer had been unsuccessfully pitching an adaptation of Story of Your Life and was about to give up on it. Producers Dan Cohen and Dan Levine eventually united Villeneuve and Heisserer, with the result being a towering achievement in the genre. Villeneuve’s approach of measured stillness gives this first contact story considerable gravitas, while keeping it intimate and personal in that the events are largely seen from one character’s point of view. Aficionados of the genre will recognise certain elements in Arrival, but the way they’re assembled and presented is unlike any sci-fi film before it.

arrival-shipVilleneuve refrains from flashy stylistic flourishes, with the aliens and their ships deliberately under-designed. Much of the atmosphere comes courtesy of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score. Its ominous electronic tones are contrasted with the stirring strings of Max Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight, which opens and closes the film.

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Arrival’s premise is built on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the concept in linguistics that one’s worldview is intrinsically shaped by the structure of one’s language. While Arrival does require its audience to be engaged in the story, it doesn’t drop one off in the deep end to drown in dense techno-babble. Several sci-fi/fantasy TV shows and movies have boasted entirely invented alien languages, but this has generally been done as a world-building move to give the fictional civilisations more texture. In Arrival, the heptapods’ language is the backbone of the story rather than a detail, with the structure of the language demonstrating the heptapods’ transcendent perception of time. By the time we get to the mind-bending conclusion, we were fully invested in the plot. As trippy as the ending is, it does not break any of the earlier-established rules.

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Villenueve’s films can generally be described as “cold”, but Adams’ performance anchors Arrival with warmth and humanity. Adams’ ability to convey a rich range of emotions while remaining understated is an invaluable asset here. We are presented with a back-story for Louise that seems emotionally manipulative, but Adams’ performance gives the character great depth, and we are later provided context for said back-story. Louise is analytical, but not condescending in the way academics in movies often can be. She is shaken by her initial encounter with the aliens, as anyone would be, but she forges ahead to make sense of the information she’s been given.

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Renner’s Ian serves as a foil to Adams’ Louise, with Renner bringing just enough roguish charm to the part. Ian takes a back seat to Louise for most of the film, but in the middle of stressful circumstances, they find solace in each other. In Ian’s introductory scene, he disagrees with Louise that language is the foundation of any culture, contending that science is instead. Louise and Ian’s relationship is symbolic of how the ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ sciences intersect. By working together towards a common goal, Louise and Ian overcome the obstacles in their path instead of getting in each other’s way, making the duo one that is easy to root for.

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Whitaker plays the military man whose every action is governed by orders from on high, and who baulks at some of the unorthodox methods employed by Louise and Ian but is ultimately supportive of their efforts. The film lacks nuance in its portrayal of how other countries are reacting to the alien ships stationed in their backyards. Louise and Ian are spearheading the American effort to establish contact with the heptapods and as expected, Russia and China are seen being the most aggressive. Still, “lacking nuance” is relative, since most the film is complex and sensitively realised. It is disheartening to think that the current U.S. President-Elect would likely nuke the heptapods into oblivion as a knee-jerk reaction instead of sending a linguist and a physicist to deduce the aliens’ raison d’être.

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While Will Smith welcoming an extra-terrestrial marauder to Earth with a swift punch to the face might be the pop culture conception of first contact with aliens, sci-fi abounds with more contemplative approaches to this hypothetical situation. As Arrival draws to a close, it becomes clear that this film deserves a place in the sci-fi pantheon alongside the very best examples of the genre.

Summary: As intelligent and thought-provoking as it is moving and profound, Arrival’s approach to the scenario of mankind’s first contact with beings not of this Earth is powerful and sublime.

RATING: 4.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Trumbo

For F*** Magazine

TRUMBO 

Director : Jay Roach
Cast : Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Louis C.K., Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg, Alan Tudyk, Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, Dean O’Gorman, David James Elliott, Christian Berkel
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 124 mins
Opens : 25 February 2016
Rating : PG13 (Coarse Language)

How agonising would it be to write something so spectacular and widely-lauded, yet be forcibly denied credit? This reviewer wouldn’t know because he’s never written anything nearly that good, but Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) certainly knew that feeling.

It is the late 1940s in Hollywood and Trumbo is highly in demand as a screenwriter. He is a member of the American Communist Party, he is one of the “Hollywood ten”, a group of screenwriters subpoenaed to testify before Congress. Trumbo is ostracised as his relationship with his wife Cleo (Lane) and three children is put under immense strain. Trumbo becomes a target of gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Mirren) and his disavowed by his friend, actor Edward G. Robinson (Stuhlbarg) so Robinson can protect his own career. Trumbo is unable to find work after being blacklisted, so he lets his friend Ian McLellan Hunter (Tudyk) take credit for Roman Holiday, which eventually wins an Academy Award. Gradually, rumours begin to swirl surrounding Trumbo’s clandestine ghost-writing. As the likes of Kirk Douglas (O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Berkel) hire Trumbo to craft screenplays for them, Trumbo inches closer to finally getting the credit he is due.


            It’s no secret that Hollywood loves movies about itself, and as a biopic about a prominent Hollywood figure, set against the backdrop of Cold War political turmoil, Trumbo does come off as Oscar bait. It’s a noble story of a stridently principled and talented man who risks everything to stand by his ideals. It is the hope of the filmmakers that audiences at large will find something in this story to identify with, because Trumbo often plays a little too “inside baseball” to be readily accessible. It’s not a difficult story to understand and Dalton Trumbo does deserve to have his story told, but if one isn’t that big a cinephile, specifically of the era in Hollywood during which Trumbo and his peers were active, Trumbo can be difficult to get into. This might sound disparaging and rest assured we don’t mean it that way, but Trumbo does feel like a film made for HBO. Director Jay Roach and star Cranston will next collaborate on one such HBO film, the Lyndon B. Johnson biopic All The Way.

            John McNamara adapted the biography Dalton Trumbo by Bruce Alexander Cook into this film. It seems that any writer tackling a script about a titan in the same field would be painting a target of considerable size on his own back. Adding to the risk is the fact that such revered classics as Roman Holiday, The Brave One and Spartacus are not only referred to, but are key components of the story. There is a righteous indignation that McNamara brings out in his script, but Trumbo says in a speech that there were “no heroes and villains” while the witch-hunt for “commies” was ongoing, yet several characters do feel exaggerated in the name of artistic license. Director Roach is known for helming comedies such as the Austin Powers and Meet the Parents trilogies as well as Borat and The Campaign. Perhaps the closest he’s come to directing a drama is the HBO film Game Change, about Sarah Palin’s vice-presidential bid. While there are no obvious missteps in his direction, perhaps the material could have benefitted from a defter touch.

            The ace up Trumbo’s sleeve is Trumbo himself, brilliantly portrayed by Cranston. For audiences who only knew him as bumbling dad Hal from Malcolm in the Middle, Cranston made the world collectively drop its jaws with his staggering, indelible Walter White in Breaking Bad. Cranston’s Trumbo is not a boring hero, he can be frustratingly stubborn and ornery but that twinkle in his eye and the spark of true giftedness draws us to him.

Leading the supporting cast, Lane is wonderfully convincing as a woman of the 50s. She handles the role, particularly the scenes in which Cleo confronts her husband about being swallowed up by his ghost-writing and becoming hostile towards his family, with strength and grace. Elle Fanning portrays Trumbo’s eldest daughter Nikola, and her relationship with her father is contentious but understandably so. Louis C.K. and Alan Tudyk, both more often associated with comedic roles, both deliver solid dramatic turns. O’Gorman and Berkel’s impressions of Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger respectively are entertaining and just broad enough. Goodman is charismatically boorish and Mirren chomps down on the role of the catty, flamboyant gossip columnist with great relish.



            Trumbo is a biographical drama set in Hollywood with a talented actor in the lead role just waiting for the kudos to roll on in. In that regard, it’s a safe albeit not especially satisfying awards season offering. For those already enamoured with the period, the 50s style and décor might be eye-catching, but director Roach doesn’t do quite enough to hook the audience in and transport them right into the thick of 50s Hollywood. There’s earnestness aplenty, but a disappointing lack of pizazz.

Summary: Star Bryan Cranston is firing on all cylinders, but because it is only moderately successful at breathing life into the history it depicts, Trumboholds the audience at arm’s length.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Steve Jobs

STEVE JOBS 

Director : Danny Boyle
Cast : Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, Katherine Waterston, Perla Haney-Jardine, Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss
Genre : Drama
Run time: 122 minutes
Singapore theatrical release currently unscheduled

Director Danny Boyle and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin take us on a journey to the core of the Apple in this biopic. The film dives into the frantic lead-up to three key product launches during the career of tech entrepreneur Steve Jobs (Fassbender). In 1984, Jobs and marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Winslet) labour over the demonstration of the Apple Macintosh. In the meantime, Jobs brushes off his ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Waterston), denying that he fathered Chrisann’s daughter Lisa (Moss, Sobo and Haney-Jardine at different ages). In 1988, Jobs attempts to get the NeXT computer off the ground after being ousted from Apple by CEO John Sculley (Daniels). The final act of the film skips ahead ten years to the unveiling of the iMac in 1998. Across the three segments, we also see Jobs’ interactions with his close collaborator Steve Wozniak (Rogen), member of the original Mac team Andy Hertzfeld (Stuhlbarg) and GQ journalist Joel Pforzheimer (John Ortiz).

            When Aaron Sorkin writes a movie, it’s immediately known as an “Aaron Sorkin movie”, regardless of however prolific the director is. Steve Jobs sees Danny Boyle take on Sorkin’s screenplay, imbuing what could very well be a stage play with considerable vim and verve. Boyle has never shied away from experimenting with style and Steve Jobs’ visual dynamism complements the wit of the script. Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Küchler shot each act in different film formats: 16mm for 1984, 35mm for 1988, and digital for 1998, with the look of each segment reflecting the gradual evolution of Jobs’ own style. Likewise, Daniel Pemberton’s score employs analog synthesisers for the 1984 segment, an orchestra for the 1988 segment and digitally-produced tracks made on an iMac for the 1998 act. There are conscious stylistic choices running through the film which enhance and reinforce the firecracker dialogue to string the three distinct acts into a holistic piece.

Sorkin’s hook is that instead of giving an overview of Jobs’ whole life, the film offers snapshots of it. The clear-cut three act structure (or a symphony in three movements, if one prefers) is a gambit that pays off. While it might be frustrating that only these specific events are given focus and that the film concludes a fair bit before the iPod or iPhone happened, the interpersonal drama is constructed with admirable intricacy. Naturally, Boyle and Sorkin take a considerable amount of artistic license and many of the incidents depicted in the film have been invented out of whole cloth. Sorkin said of the lines he wrote, “If any of them are real, it’s a remarkable coincidence.” However, because of how trippingly on the tongue all that Sorkinese is delivered, there is nary a moment for the audience to sit back and pick apart the inaccuracies.

Fassbender has been garnering deserved Oscar buzz for his portrayal of Jobs. While many leading men that Hollywood has attempted to foist on us in recent years are blandly handsome and lacking in screen presence, Fassbender is the master of magnetism. His lack of physical resemblance to Jobs is compensated by a bravura intensity and confidence which draws the audience in no matter how utterly unlikeable the character gets and how many tantrums he throws. This is a markedly different character from Jesse Eisenberg’s take on Mark Zuckerberg in the earlier Sorkin-penned tech icon biopic The Social Network. Both screenplays are Sorkin pieces through and through, and it is fun to parse the similarities and differences. Despite the sheer strength of Fassbender’s portrayal, this reviewer couldn’t help but imagine what Christian Bale, who was attached to the project in its earliest stages, could have done with the part.


The film quickly establishes that it takes someone with an iron constitution to not only tolerate being around Jobs but to regularly stand up to him, and Winslet conveys exactly this with her portrayal of Joanna Hoffman. Winslet spent time with the real Hoffman to capture her mannerisms and she nails the slight Polish accent – her work with the dialect is better than Fassbender’s.  When she or any other character goes toe-to-toe with Jobs, it’s like watching a sparring match. Rogen has memorably stated that he “won’t ruin your fancy drama” and while the role of Steve Wozniak is not exactly the acting challenge playing Jobs is, Rogen is personable and the ideal counterpoint to Fassbender’s performance. Daniels’ performance as the mentor figure who eventually has a falling out with Jobs has considerable emotional impact in spite of the relatively small size of the role.
Steve Jobsis not a hagiography because its subject is not a saint. It’s not blind hero worship because its subject is not exactly a hero. If anything, several of the real-life figures portrayed in the film have come forward to say Jobs was nicer than written and portrayed in the film. The film does get it across that Jobs was driven and immensely passionate. The opening archival footage of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke standing in a room occupied by one massive computer from the late 60s as he predicts that personal computers will one day be as ubiquitous as telephones does put Jobs’ vision of a “computer for the rest of us” and Apple’s eventual realisation of said vision in perspective.

            Biographical dramas, particularly those calibrated for awards season consideration, can often be stodgy affairs. Steve Jobs practically cartwheels across the screen – it’s an exhilarating experience and it’s fun to soak in all those quotable, razor-sharp lines and momentarily feel smarter by osmosis. There are certain conflicts that feel a mite overblown and the ending is somewhat schmaltzy in spite of Sorkin’s and Boyle’s best efforts, but Steve Jobs succeeds as an insightful, unconventional character study that is enthralling throughout.

Summary: Factual inaccuracies are smoothed over with mesmerizing performances, electrifying direction and whip-smart storytelling in this unconventional and beautifully crafted biopic.

RATING: 4.5out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong 

Pawn Sacrifice

For F*** Magazine

PAWN SACRIFICE

Director : Edward Zwick
Cast : Tobey Maguire, Peter Sarsgaard, Liev Schreiber, Lily Rabe, Michael Stuhlbarg, Robin Weigert
Genre : Drama/Biography
Run Time : 114 mins
Opens : 1 October 2015
Rating : PG13 (Brief Coarse Language)
Awards movie season has officially begun with this prestige biopic focusing on chess champion Bobby Fischer, often considered the greatest player of all time. Fischer (Aiden Lovecamp as a child, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick as a teen and Maguire as an adult) is a chess prodigy from Brooklyn, developing a love for the game at an early at age. At 15, Fischer becomes the youngest player to earn the title of grandmaster. In the meantime, the Cold War heats up and Fischer is adamant on taking on and beating the Russians, considered the best players in the world. Represented by manager and attorney Paul Marshall (Stuhlbarg) and backed up by fellow grandmaster William Lombardy (Sarsgaard), Fischer works his way up to the 1972 world championship match in Reykjavik, Iceland. His opponent: world no. 1 Borris Spassky (Schreiber) of the USSR. As Fischer’s fame and ambition grows, so does his mental instability and paranoia, leaving his sister Joan (Rabe) worried for his well-being as the eyes of the world are fixed upon him, his opponent Spassky, and the chessboard.

            Bobby Fischer has been a magnet for fascination both within and outside the world of chess and has been the basis for several documentaries and narrative films. Pawn Sacrifice combines two subgenres that have proven popular with Academy voters – the “tormented genius” biopic and the historical sports drama. The screenplay by Steven Knight landed on the 2009 Black List of best-liked scripts making the rounds in Hollywood. Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson, who have a “story by” credit, also penned the biopics Ali and Nixon.  
Director Edward Zwick knows audiences in general might walk into this with the preconceived notion that chess is boring and inaccessible. As such, he drums up the stakes and the thrills, establishing the background political intrigue. “We’re at war – only it’s not being fought with guns and missiles, not yet – it’s a war of perception: the poor kid from Brooklyn taking on the whole of the Soviet Union,” Marshall tells Fischer. Quite the opposite of “this is not the start of World War Three/ No political ploys,” as the lyric in the musical Chess goes. Pawn Sacrifice has inevitably drawn comparisons to the likes of A Beautiful Mind and The Imitation Game and it is certainly in that mould. There is the feeling that the events have been embellished for dramatic purposes, but then again, what biopic hasn’t done that?

            Thanks to the production design by Isabelle Guay, the costume design by Renée April and art direction by Lisa Clark and Jean-Pierre Paquet, Pawn Sacrifice authentically captures the feel of the era in which it is set; all of it bathed in cinematographer Bradford Young’s warm hues. Zwick is gunning for mass appeal and seems determined for the film not to get stuck in the “arthouse” pigeonhole, even as it clearly primed to compete at the Oscars. To establish the period, flashes of news footage showing John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon are spliced into the montage of Fischer climbing the ranks. It can come off as clumsy and on-the-nose, but it’s not egregious enough to pull one out of the movie entirely.
            This is squarely star and co-producer Maguire’s film to carry, and a role like Bobby Fischer is one many actors would kill to sink their teeth into. Fischer is portrayed as petulant, arrogant and socially inept; Maguire gamely tackling the challenge of playing a protagonist who is inherently difficult to sympathise with, but whom we have to root for. Maguire puts a great deal of effort into capturing the real-life Fischer’s mannerisms and Brooklyn accent, resulting in a performance that is good but not transcendent. Maguire is sometimes too hysterical, Fischer’s paranoia and instability manifesting on the surface level without enough nods at what’s festering deeper within his mind. Fischer’s involvement with the Worldwide Church of God sect is given passing attention – exploring his religious affiliation would have made for rich if risky material. Fischer’s anti-Semitic rants, in spite of his own Jewish roots, are touched on – a crucial element that makes his fall from grace all the more tragic.

            Schreiber is a commanding presence as Boris Spassky. We don’t get to spend a great deal of time with the Soviet chess team, but there is an effort made to characterise them beyond being Ivan Drago-esque “I must break you” types. Schreiber’s Russian line delivery is convincing and his equally-driven but more composed Spassky is a pitch-perfect dramatic counterpoint to the zealous Fischer. Sarsgaard, as the level-headed priest/semi-retired player who becomes Fischer’s coach, is subtly comic while being the reserved straight man. Michael Stuhlbarg has a tendency to play up the stereotype of the harried manager seen in many a rock star biopic, closer to a caricature of someone from the era rather than an authentic portrayal, but given Fischer’s varied antics, it is very easy to empathize with the man who had to keep everything under control.


            While it isn’t the deep portrait of all-consuming obsession and the thin line between genius and madness it is pitched as being, Pawn Sacrifice is a gripping and entertaining biopic. For those unfamiliar with the Bobby Fischer story, it is a straightforward, coherent account of the events and serves up an intriguing slice of history. And yes, it’s Spider-Man taking on Sabretooth in chess, a game that is typically the domain of Professor Xavier and Magneto. So much for getting through the review without making that joke.
Summary: Pawn Sacrifice falls shy of greatness, but there’s no faulting Zwick’s play of couching the biopic as a thrilling high-stakes historical tale.
RATING: 3.5 out of 5Stars
Jedd Jong