Searching for Bobby Fischer, and a few more movies

#163   [archive]

Searching for Bobby Fischer
a/k/a Innocent Moves

This is a sports movie, with all the familiar touchstones of the genre — the gifted player, the wise coach, the concerned dad, the crisis of confidence, the big game. Instead of baseball or boxing, though, it's about a child chess prodigy.

At seven years of age, Josh Waitzkin has the talent, but it needs refining, so he's taught first by chess-wiseacre Larry Fishburne, then by an extremely up-tight-ass Ben Kingsley. The latter's character says he knows all of chess great Bobby Fischer's moves, and tells the boy, "You have to have contempt for your opponents. You have to hate them."

The kid, though, doesn't want to hate anybody. He just wants to play chess, and also be a kid.

How do you make a movie about chess, a game where two people stare at a board? They just sit there, don't even roll dice, so unlike a baseball or boxing movie, there's no action to it.

The solution seems slightly ridiculous — never been to a big-time chess tournament, so maybe it really is as loud, fast-moving, athletic, and almost violent as the chess played in this movie. I'd be surprised, though.

Over the course of almost two hours, we get lots of perfectly-staged "chess action shots," with players aggressively slamming pieces on the board, and then slapping the chess-clock with such force that you know a few of the movie's hundreds of chess-clocks must've been shattered.

That's not a criticism, though. It's a compliment — it makes a slow, thoughtful, almost entirely internal game into a fast-paced, entertaining movie. At one point, the kids play standing up and angry, and you'll wonder if they're gonna deck each other. (They don't.)

The movie is intelligent, full of believable characters, and it dangles serious questions like: What's really important in a kid's life? Does sportsmanship count for anything? Is winning all that matters? And what should decent parents do with a prodigy kid, anyway? It comes up with the right answers, too.

No chess expertise is needed on your part. You'd have to freeze the frame to understand the piece positions in any of the games, and scant attention is paid to chess strategy, beyond occasional quips between Fishburne and Kingsley over whether the kid tends to bring his queen out too early (which is elementary, chesswise).

And again, that's the way to make a chess flick. Only a geek among geeks wants to see a chess movie with discussions about moves and mistakes and what's the right response if your opponent plays the Caro–Kann Defense. This ain't that. It's a movie about people, not pawns and bishops and rooks.

Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen play the kid's parents (Allen steals every scene she's in), with quick bits from Dan Hedaya, Laura Linney, William H. Macy, David Paymer, and a few more stars before they were famous. 

Max Pomeranc, the child actor playing the kid, is angelically cute, almost too cute, and comes complete with a slight but darling lisp. He's so frickin' perfect, smart, well-behaved, and darn it, just nice, he ought to get on my nerves, but remarkably, he's never even nerve-adjacent.

His key rival is even more impressive. He's a personality-deprived, humorless horror of pre-adolescence, with a mean demeanor reminiscent of Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) in Rocky IV — you know, "If he dies, he dies."

Evil chess boy was played by someone named Michael Nirenberg, who lived only 13 years before dying of cancer, the internet says, though there's some skepticism about that.

Searching for Bobby Fischer is the first film directed by Steven Zaillian, and it's very nearly perfect. He also wrote the script, and he's written other several terrific flicks — A Civil Action, Awakenings, The Falcon and the Snowman, and more.

The music is by James Horner, with the soaring triumphant symphonics of a good stand-up-and-cheer flick. 

The story is non-fiction, based on a book written by the real Josh Waitzkin's father, a sportswriter who barely knew the rules of chess until he played against his son and got his king handed to him. 

"The game's not over yet, Josh."

"Yeth, it is."

Verdict: BIG YES.

♦ ♦ ♦    

The Arnelo Affair (1947)

This is film noir, written and directed by Arch Oboler, one of my favorite minor-league moviemakers. He was most successful in radio, and never achieved big-time success in the movies, but he made several small movies with big ideas, including The Bubble, and including this. 

It's about a married woman who's drawn into an affair with an unsavory sort, "the man with the four-alarm eyes," as a friend calls him. He owns a nightclub, has a hand in murder, and he's trying to frame or blackmail his mistress.

It's complicated and, sorry Arch, but, lacking in direction. Based on a radio play by Oboler, it's odd, intriguing, and good but never great. It features a no-star cast, but has the delightful Eve Arden and cute-kid Dean Stockwell in supporting roles. 

At one point, the camera zooms in on a newspaper story about a murder, and the text is highlighted to make sure you read it: "The police assert that the only clew is a woman's compact, bearing the initial 'A'…"

What the—? I had to pause and Google, but find no evidence that 'clue', meaning evidence, has ever been correctly spelled 'clew'. In the same fake clipping on-screen, the word clue is also spelled correctly, which is evidence that it's simply a 75-year-old typo in a movie that's adequate but uninspired.

Verdict: YES.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Invisible City (2009)

This is a watchable but holy-crap sad documentary set in Regent Park, Toronto's oldest public housing complex, which (at the time this film was made) was undergoing a "revitalization" project that would involve tearing down thousands of people's homes.

It mostly focuses on a couple of black kids, on their way to being hoodlums. They talk to the camera, and we get to know them, and see that between prejudice, poverty, and the dilapidated housing project they've called home, they've never had a chance, and they probably never will.

Verdict: YES, but also, jeez.

♦ ♦ ♦  

Coming attractions:

Animal House (1978)

At the Circus (1939)

Bamboozled (2000)

Barbarians at the Gate (1993)

Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Brain Donors (1992)

Curse of the Black Widow (1977)

Dark Days (2000)

Delicatessen (1991)

Edge of Fury (1978)

Elysium (2013)

The Flipside of Dominick Hide (1980)

Ghosts with Shit Jobs (2012)

The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

The Invisible Man (1933)

Labyrint (1963)

My Life in Monsters (2015) 

Our House (2006)

The Thing from Another World (1951)

Where the Wild Things Are (2009)


There are so many good movies out there — old movies, odd or artsy, foreign or forgotten movies, or do-it-yourself movies made just for the joy of making them — that if you only watch whatever's on Netflix or playing at the twenty-plex, you're missing out.

To get beyond the ordinary, I recommend:

CultCinema Classics
Films for Action
Internet Archive
Kino Lorber
Korean Classic Film
Christopher R Mihm
National Film Board of Canada
New Yorker Screening Room
Damon Packard
Mark Pirro
Public Domain Movies
Scarecrow Video
Timeless Classic Movies
or your local library.

Some people even access films through shady methods, though of course, that would be wrong.

— — —
Illustration by Jeff Meyer. Reviews are spoiler-free, or at least spoiler-warned. Click any image to enlarge. Arguments & recommendations are welcome, but no talking once the lights dim, and only real butter on the popcorn, not that fake yellow stuff.

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  1. I've been to two big-time chess tournaments, but no scholastic ones. That's what's portrayed here: scholastic chess. From my perspective, you got everything right in the review and wrote it much better and more succinctly than I could have (hey, you do this for a living). If it's almost a great movie, that was an entirely great review.

    Entirely separate from the movie and the review is the question of how to dramatize chess (TV & movies). The reason that Searching . . . was a better experience than The Queen's Gambit is that the former is from a non-fiction book by one of the characters in the middle of the action. Like any good reviewer, you didn't spoil the ending of the film, but Josh didn't go on to an adult life as a competitive chess player, which is the point of the movie from the opening scene. In fiction, he would be playing Garry Kasparov or some other Russian for the World Chess Championship.

    Bobby Fischer emerged from the New York Chess Club and defeated he world, then descended into madness. Josh Waitzkin had similar origins, but became a functional adult. For a couple of decades, American chess geeks were searching for the next Bobby Fischer. They found a new generation of very good players, but, thankfully, none of them was the next "young Fischer".

    Thanks for the insightful review.


    1. I was in some school chess tournaments when I was in school, and it was like a library, the rule was no unnecessary noises and no talking except 'check' and 'jadoube'.

    2. Thanks Mr Basket, for kind words. I thought the review was long and too fragmented, but the movie was great.

      I may have said "almost great" in conversation a while back, but that was me being stubborn. I always want the movie some schlub makes in his back yard to be great, but kinda hold a grudge against big budget Hollywood stuff that has all the money and skill advantages. But SEARCHING, man, I not only watched then and again now, I watched it two more agains in the last few weeks, and it's splendid, and splendidly assembled, despite all the money and talent, so — not almost, genuine great.

      At the big-time chess tournaments, did they play slam chess?

      Pretty sure I'll never find time for THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT.

    3. Sorry, I don't know what "slam chess" is. If you mean, "do they play for blood", at the two US Championships I attended people won and lost like ladies and gentlemen. If that's not what you mean, feel to clarify.


    4. I meant, like in SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISCHER, moving a piece and then slamming it onto the board hard enough to echo off the walls, and smashing the chess-clock like it had said something unsavory about yo momma.

    5. No. Of course they play for blood, but at the end of the game there is a handshake and, in general, kind words. These folks all know what it takes to get there. Once the players leave the roped off area, they are usually willing to converse with the fans and even sign autographs. Very few assholes at the US Championships I attended.


    6. Do they slam the pieces around, deck the clock, or are the players hush-hush about such noises?

  2. Nice review of Searching for Bobby Fisher. Before even reading your review, the very first thing I remembered abou the movie was that super-serious boy in the white shirt. He was very unsettling to me!

    I am sorry to hear that he's dead or isn't.

    1. His life or death has gotten all the thought and time it'll get from me. If he dies, he dies. But I prefer thinking that Mr Nirenberg is alive, and simply wanted to quit show biz with a *very* final "bite me."

    2. Mr Nirenberg sounds like a good candidate for a demonstration a la Schrödinger of Quantum superposition. He seems to be very much alive and very much dead, which doesn't violate the rules of quantum mechanics until you open the box and the collapse the state vector. I'm not advocating anything in particular. I'm perfectly happy leaving him in the box.


    3. Oh, man, I just had a long comment explaining the layout and dynamic of the 2000-2002 US Chess Championship in Seattle and my comment just went poof. My fault, not the Googs. I managed to fuck myself in the ass. I just don't have the heart to try to reconstruct it.


    4. It's too late for advice, sorry, but having been felled by Schrödinger comment box too many times myself, my habit now is to create comments in my word processor, and paste 'em here.


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