5-Word 365 #322 – Bobby Fischer Against The World

I was briefly in the chess club in high school. Now that that embarrassing revelation is out of the way, let’s talk about someone else who used to play a little.

Bobby Fischer Against the World

Not just for chess nuts.

From award-winning documentarian Liz Garbus comes the first film to examine the life of the mercurial chess genius who fought for years to become World Champion, only to disappear into self-imposed exile and deepening mental illness.

Moreso than any other chess player in history, Bobby Fischer has achieved immortality. Hailed by many experts as the greatest player who ever lived, he was a prodigy as famous for his outspoken opinions and erratic behaviour as for his prowess at the board. This film is a gripping look at the man behind the legend, made up from extensive archive footage and fascinating interviews with his fellow players, friends and notable figures from the time.

The crux of the film is of course Fischer’s epic 1972 match in Iceland against reigning World Champion Boris Spassky. As someone who wasn’t there, the closest parallel I can use to describe its depiction here is as a real-life Rocky IV; the precocious American in one-on-one competition against the powerhouse of the Soviet Union. I half expected Hearts On Fire to pop up on the soundtrack. That’s not to say that Garbus isn’t respectful of her subject. Of course she is, but not to the point of lionising him. The film does not shy away from showing the uglier aspects of Fischer’s personality, such as his increasing anti-Semitism and anti-American viewpoints in later life, particularly after his return to the public eye for a controversial rematch with Spassky in 1992.

The man, the legend, the jumper. Bobby Fischer in Iceland, 1972 (photo by Harry Benson)

Liz Garbus has managed to obtain unprecedented access to documents, photographs and film clips concerning Fischer, which she uses to paint an insightful and captivating portrait of one of the last century’s true tortured geniuses; the Mozart of the chess board.

5-Word 365 #307 – The Karate Kid (2010)

It’s a good thing we’re getting near the end of the year, because my unnamed movie streaming services have turned out to have pretty slim pickings when it comes to kids films that are even remotely watchable for anyone with a mental age higher than 3. Luckily though, today’s choice doesn’t fall into that category.

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5-Word 365 #265 – Ice Princess

I had three options today for a film that fit in both Kids Film Friday and Sports Movie Week. Two of them were about baseball, but I did baseball yesterday, so I figured I’d go for door number 3. A Disney flick, about figure skating. Don’t worry; I chased it with three episodes of Breaking Bad to get my testosterone levels back up.

Ice Princess

Learning to skate… WITH SCIENCE!

Seventeen-year-old Casey Carlyle has been aiming to study physics at Harvard since she was a kid. As part of a project to get a scholarship, she begins analysing some local competitive figure skaters to develop formulae for the ideal moves. Soon watching the other girls isn’t enough, and Casey decides to have a go herself. Using her analysis and putting her years of skating on the pond behind her house to good use, Casey discovers a natural talent for figure skating. Soon she must choose which life she wants to live: one of dry academia, or one of the thrill of competition. Blisters ensue.

Watching this film this evening, I gradually became aware of something surprising. Something I truly did not see coming. It’s actually good. Well-written and directed, populated by rounded, developed characters played by talented actresses, I was honestly shocked.

Michelle Trachtenberg leads the way as Casey, the “Hollywood nerd”* science geek. The former Dawn Summers (whose sudden appearance in Sunnydale has got my roommate all kinds of perturbed, for those of you keeping up with Buffywatch. She keeps floating all sorts of random theories to explain it, while I keep insisting that Dawn’s been there the whole time. Hours of fun.) puts her years of ballet training to good use as a natural skater with a sudden passion to compete. It’s a decent role and she’s very good in it, but I thought Hayden Panattiere’s character was much richer dramatically. Gen Harwood – Gennifer, not General – starts off the movie as an apparent prototypical high school bitch, but turns out to be a young girl whose entire world has been ruled by her mother’s desire to make her a champion skater, at the expense of her getting any kind of life. She’s presented initially as Casey’s rival but their relationship develops into something much more realistic as the story progresses.

This was from a very dramatic moment in the flick. You can tell by the lighting. Ooh, drama!

Kim Cattrall and Joan Cusack play the mothers of Gen and Casey, respectively. The hyper-competitive Tina Harwood is a former skater herself whose career ended in disgrace. She now owns the rink where the girls practice and is Gen’s and Casey’s coach. Joan Carlyle, on the other hand, is a feminist college lecturer who has been pushing Casey to go to Harvard. The two seem very different at first glance but are actually very similar. Both are single mothers and forceful influences on their daughters’ lives. Both are also trying to live vicariously through them and both are going to be in for a shock before the end of the movie.

While the writers haven’t abandoned cliché altogether – there are certain story conventions that must be observed for this sort of thing – it is refreshing to see a flick where the four main roles are all so clearly defined yet fluid at the same time. Each one of them goes through real changes, and develops in genuine, believable ways. It’s nice that there is no moustache-twirling (figuratively speaking) villain as well although someone does come pretty close at one point.

That’s not to say that Ice Princess is a five-star classic though. This isn’t the Citizen Kane of junior figure skating movies. There were times when the frustrated physicist in me was almost choking on his Frosties over some of Casey’s science babble, and the speed at which she goes from backyard pond skater to New England Championship is a bit of a stretch. I’m also somewhat curious about what alchemy it is that keeps said backyard pond frozen through the summer. The Carlyles live in Connecticut, not the wilds of Alaska. Other than Michelle and Hayden, the rest of the skaters featured in the film are actual competitive skaters, not actresses, so I’m guessing they’re basically playing themselves only with different names.

Much like Miss Pettigrew‘s Bharat Nalluri, director Tim Fywell is a British TV veteran who has worked on everything from soaps to primetime dramas. The man understands pacing and does a good job marshalling his mostly young cast. The skating scenes are well-shot too, using the actresses themselves whenever possible. The messages of choosing your own path in life (for the kids) and allowing your kids the space to choose their own path in life (for the mothers) are nothing new, but it is good to see them handled with some degree of finesse. This is one of the better films I have watched for Kids Film Friday, particularly in the last three or four months. I certainly wouldn’t mind screening this for my nieces, when they’re a bit older of course.

They’re both really committed to that hug. Obviously.

*In case you missed the memo, a Hollywood nerd is where the character is into science or comic boks or something and sees herself as plain or even ugly, but the actress is usually the most beautiful in the whole flick. This trope is even lampshaded at one point where Gen tricks Casey into coming to a party, still in her usual jeans and no makeup and with her hair clumsily tied back. When she complains, Gen pulls out Casey’s hairclip and tells her to shake it out. Casey ducks out of the close-up, shaking her head. When she stands back up she looks like she just stepped out of a shampoo ad. I’m going to assume this was planned to be a cheap gag, even if it is the only one in the movie.