STEVEN ZAILLIAN’S SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER – A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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I love Steven Zaillian’s directorial debut Searching for Bobby Fischer. Zaillian has a nearly flawless track record as a big-gun Hollywood screenwriter, and his directorial efforts have also been excellent (A Civil Action and the underrated All the King’s Men), but his first film is a nearly perfect, humanistic piece that zeroes in on character in a way that few dramas ever dare, especially when considering that the film is told through the POV of a 10 year old chess prodigy, who likely has some developmental and social anxieties, if not outright disorders. I’ve been obsessed with this film for over 20 years. I viewed it in the theater at 13 years of age, it was a go-to film when it endlessly played on HBO back in the day, and throughout the years, I’ve turned to this great, unassuming, patient work at least once every 365 days on my well-worn DVD, because it reminds me of how effective a simple story can be when the acting is extra-precise and when the writing compliments the direction and vice versa. It also helps to have Conrad Hall calling the shots behind the camera; this is yet another beautifully textured and composed piece of work from one of the most legendary of cinematographers ever to grace the medium.

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The plot centers around a kid named Josh who is discovered to be a chess whiz by his parents and family members. They encourage his passion and gift, which leads him to an extremely intense and strict instructor named Bruce (played with devilish charm by Ben Kingsley), who pushes young Josh both emotionally and psychologically to be the best chess talent he can be, along with never forgetting how to be a decent person along the way, without sacrificing a competitive edge. Bruce continually hypes up and compares Josh to chess great Bobby Fischer, allowing the youth to develop the idea that one day, he might be as great as that iconic yet mysterious figure. There’s also an affecting subplot between Josh and a speed-chess hustler named Vinnie, perfectly captured with great spirit and flair by Laurence Fishburne. And let’s not forget about the incredibly moving family dynamics between Josh and his parents, played by the brilliant team of Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen, both of whom radiate warmth and respect and support for their son, even under the most trying of situations and circumstances.

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And over the course of the film, it’s remarkable to witness Josh become his own person, after so many others have projected what they want him to be or to become, without ever asking Josh what it is that he really wants to do. The lead performance from then eight year old Max Pomeranc is nothing short of sensational; there are adults who have been acting for years who don’t come close to the complexity that he delivered in this challenging piece of work. It’s also interesting to note that Pomeranc was an actual chess player before filming began (even appearing on a Top 100 list for his age group, according to Wikipedia), and that he never went on to act in another substantial film again. But he’ll always have his tremendous performance in this amazing film to hold close to his heart. Zaillian has long been a considerable talent, expertly balancing his artistic sensibilities with the demands of the studios who are always courting him for big adaptations or structural work. It’s not hard to see why. This is a great film and Zaillian is a class act.

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SIDNEY LUMET’S THE OFFENCE – A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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The Offence is a deeply upsetting movie, thoroughly downbeat, and anchored by a riveting performance from Sean Connery, who was clearly working overtime to shed the image of James Bond in his first post-franchise starring role. Directed with customary precision and intensity by Sidney Lumet, this is a stagy, depressing film that pits Connery, playing a dogged British detective who has seen one horrible crime too many, going up against a supposed child rapist/killer, played with menace and questionable intentions by Ian Bannen. Most of the action is confined to an interrogation room, a room which is continually made to feel smaller and smaller thanks to the expert camera placement and air-tight editing, which goes a long way in producing a disquieting and unnerving sense of claustrophobia. There were some early visual cues that reminded me of what Roger Deakins was going for in some stretches of the similarly themed kidnapping film Prisoners, and I loved how Connery never wavered from delving into such a disturbing lead role, one that was clearly intriguing to him for being so far removed from the screen-defining role of 007. The early sequence where Connery discovers the narrative’s chief victim is scarily believable and tears-inducing (for me, anyways…), and it was a further reminder of how when a scene is so well directed, fear and tension cab be so well conveyed without ever resorting to gratuitous tricks. But when Lumet wants you to feel the punches and taste the sweat and blood, he’s not afraid to unleash an ass-kicking, but it’s never unimportant to the narrative, or without motivation from the characters, which always makes for a more honest story. The themes of revenge and transference are probingly discussed and the finale, while mildly ambiguous, allows for the viewer to know that nothing will ever be OK for the people within the framework of this relentlessly grim worldview. United Artists released The Offence in 1973, and while it would be a box office disappointment (it was barely given a European release with the country of France skipped entirely), it has gained a reputation for being a unique item in Lumet’s massive filmography, and a challenging piece for Connery, who should have gotten more respect for his work on this film at the time of its release. Also, it must be noted: Connery says the phrase “bloody” a lot in this film. A bloody ton. It’s sort of comical.

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Episode 6 Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT, GEORGE MILLER’S MAD MAX FURY ROAD and Top Five Colin Farrell and Jodie Foster

Hey everyone, we’re excited to post Episode 6.  We discuss Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT as well as George Miller’s MAD MAX FURY ROAD and our top five performances of Colin Farrell and Jodie Foster.

Enjoy!

FLASHCAST! A special Bondcast with guest Paul Rowlands!

Hey everyone, we wanted to drop a special flashcast on you guys!  We had the Godfather himself, Paul Rowlands (Money Into Light) on for a very special James Bond themed podcast!  Don’t worry, episode 6 will be live tomorrow.  Enjoy guys!

A VERY LONG ENGAGEMENT – A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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The staggering and wildly undervalued 2004 film A Very Long Engagement is a masterpiece of storytelling and filmmaking, representing the greatest and grandest achievement yet for visionary filmmaker Jean-Pierre Jeunet. And I feel that’s saying something, as this is the man responsible for Amelie, City of Lost Children, and Delicatessen, to name just a few (the latter two being collaborations with Marc Caro). Melding the bubbly romantic whimsy of Amelie to the gritty and grimy battlefields of WWI, this is a true genre-bender, a war film with a bleeding, aching heart, boasting a finale that’s incredibly poignant without being overly sentimental; it never fails to devastate during the final moments. It’s utterly criminal that this film was buried with a half-hearted domestic release by Warner Independent (why bother getting involved in the first place if you’re aren’t interested in supporting an endeavor such as this one?!) and it’s a joke that the film is only available as a Region B Blu-ray (thankfully, I have a Region Free player). Hollywood has long held a fascination with all aspects of WWII, with WWI movies in short supply by comparison; every future film to explore the rigors of trench war fare should be compared to this one. Jeunet co-adapted the storybook-style screenplay with Guillaume Laurant from the original novel by Sébastien Japrisot, and he brought his handmade style to every facet of this enormous and elaborate production. I adored his idea to shoot some of the flashback scenes in Academy Ratio 1.33:1 black and white, which gives those beats the sense of archival footage, when in reality, they feel like their own short film embedded into this massive canvass of people, places, and things.

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The busy narrative of A Very Long Engagement pivots on five French soldiers, all of whom have been convicted of self-mutilation in an effort to ditch their remaining service time and be sent home and away from the horrors of battle. One of these soldiers, Manech (Gaspard Ulliel), is engaged to his childhood sweetheart (Audrey Tautou), and all he can do to mentally survive is continually think of her and how strong the love is between the two of them. Sent to “no-man’s land” (the highly dangerous and deadly area of land in between the French and German lines), Manech and the other solider-prisoners meet their individual fates in ways that I won’t dare spoil, but I will allow that the tale is told in slight Rashomon style, with various versions of the events explained to Mathilde as she works to put the mysterious pieces together of her future husband’s whereabouts. She sets off on an epic quest with the help of a private investigator to collect information and meet the wives of the other four soldiers that Manech was condemned to death with, leading her to some truly dark and upsetting revelations, but despite all of the sadness around her, she never gives up hope in finding the one person she loves the most. There’s a poet’s sense of the fragility of life on display all throughout this carefully mounted film, and the intricate storyline engrosses the audience immediately from the start, with the startlingly beautiful images washing over the viewer like a suffocating lather of exquisiteness. Bruno Delbonnel’s bronze-tinted and utterly ravishing cinematography, is, simply put, some of the best I’ve ever seen on a big screen, small screen, whatever size screen. Each shot is post-card ready, boasting immaculate vistas, raw and immediate battle footage with lots of graphic carnage, a sumptuous color palette, and grand and sweeping camera movements that defy logic and give you perspectives that you’d never expect. A late set-piece involving an exploding hydrogen blimp inside of a makeshift triage center is horrifying and beyond comprehension, and the various sequences of bloody combat are handled with extreme technical finesse without ever sacrificing grit and muck.

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The performances are all uniformly excellent, with the appropriate supporting actors hitting their moments of expertly placed comedy in perfect ways to lighten the dramatic load, while Tautou and Ulliel are left to do the majority of the heavy emoting and dramatic lifting, and both are more than up to the task. Exuding a palpable chemistry and a deep longing for each other that’s wonderful and heartrending, the two of them were a perfect match. Marion Cotillard and Jodie Foster both have knock-out extended cameos, especially Foster, and Jeunet regular Dominique Pinon makes his customary appearance. A Very Long Engagement would only be nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Production Design at the Oscars (rightfully so, but predictably, it won neither award; The Aviator took both), which seems massively shortsighted, but because this film wasn’t a true Hollywood production, it was up to the French government to select their country’s film for Academy consideration, and they didn’t go to bat for A Very Long Engagement. I’ll never understand why. The film grossed $70 million theatrically worldwide, with only $6.5 million of that total coming from United States ticket buyers, a fact that makes me sick to my stomach. This is epic, massive filmmaking of the highest order, made by an artist who is totally in love with all of the visual and narrative possibilities of the filmic form, and I’ll always be blown away by the handcrafted feel that A Very Long Engagement possesses; it’s so enormous yet at the same time feels so intimate and fragile, an attribute that’s incredibly hard to find.

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