September 26, 2015


I'm declaring the riveting and flawless "Pawn Sacrifice" (the story of chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, played with acting genius by Tobey Maguire) the best film of 2015. This film has it all: high drama, low drama, human drama, international intrigue, unbeatable odds, fierce competition, poignancy, USA vs. Russia, an alternately elegant and rockin' soundtrack, issues of mental health, and one of the most realistic screen priests ever enacted. Here's hoping it will not be overlooked during awards season. (Director Edward Zwick also did "Glory," and "Blood Diamond.")

The engaging trailer convinced me I needed to see this slice of Cold War history that I knew very little about (I would have flamed out on a "Bobby Fischer" Jeopardy category). I also dearly love playing chess, and am always interested in how priests and nuns are authentically captured (or not) by Hollywood.


Bobby Fischer, born in 1943 in Chicago, raised in Brooklyn, New York, was of Russian-Jewish descent. His mother had Communist leanings, and raised him and his sister by herself. At a young age, his giftedness for chess became apparent as did his obsession with the game. The film doesn't start us off with Bobby and a chessboard, but rather his milieu, the news of the times and a crisis point in his adult life. From there we flashback and proceed chronologically, with never a dull moment, which is quite an accomplishment since we're talking chess here. How do you make a film about a "sport" where two people sit in taut silence? Chess makes golf, tatting (lace, not ink), and croquet look positively vertigo-inducing. Through skillful angles, edits, pacing and a masterful layering of multiple sights and sounds (without ever being too busy), and some of the most mature dialogue in recent memory, the filmmakers succeed effortlessly and with aplomb, and never hype it up just to get and keep our attention. (Screenwriter Stephen Knight wrote the jaw-dropping "Locke"--not to be confused with lockjaw.)


"Bobby has problems," says Fr. Bill Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard)--Bobby's trusted friend, fellow chessmaster and chess fanatic--when approached by a U.S. government operative, Paul Marshall (the lost-deep-in-the-role Michael Stuhlbarg), posing as a lawyer/agent who wants to use the apolitical Bobby as a "pawn" in the "war of perception" with the Soviets. Fr. Bill becomes aware of the "lawyer's" true identity, but it's never clear if he informs Bobby or if Bobby becomes aware on his own. (Fischer is portrayed as paranoid anyway, thinking he was being spied on by all sorts of entities--and he might have been partially right, of course.) In the film, Bobby also suffers from acute hearing and an autism-like sensitivity to sound, especially when preparing for or playing a chess game.

Bobby plays into the hands of both the Americans and the Russians, because ever since he was a child, he wanted to play the Russians, the best in the business. But although Marshall is trying to use him (and the degree of deception is unclear), Fischer was, in actuality, doing what he loved, what he wanted to do. Known for his ego, arrogance, ambition and erratic behavior, Fischer was smart enough to demand a monetary cut of what everyone else was making off his fame. He also demanded conditions that would favor his peevish powers of concentration.


There's one marvelous scene (and the filmmakers could have given us more than one of this type of scene but wisely refrained) where Fischer verbalizes the narrative of the battle going on on the chessboard. Which is really and truly what is happening. If you play chess at all, you know this. In general, the filmmakers went nice and light on all kinds of chess metaphors they could have burdened the film with.

When Bobby begins to crack under various pressures as he movies up the ranks of chess tournaments to face the great Russian world-champion, Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), he makes excuses, blames others and fails to show up for matches. (Mathematics and chess seem to be professions and avocations fraught with madness. But the question is: which comes first? At a certain lighter moment in the film, Boris looks as "over the edge" as Bobby.) The candy-ingesting, cigarette-smoking and not-beyond-profanity-using Fr. Bill is pretty much always there to encourage Fischer and make sure that he is not wholesalely exploited. What does Father get out of this? He loves the thrill of the chase as much as Bobby. But he always sees him and treats him as a person. However--and this might sound strange--he protects Bobby as a chess player first. He knows that "without chess, Bobby is nothing" (meaning Bobby thinks he is nothing without chess). The mutual understanding between Fischer and Lombardy is really what Fischer needed more than anything, but of course, in the film--even friendship was no match for the ravages of Fischer's increasingly manifesting mental illness.


I believe that Fischer's most salient victory was to keep it all about the game. To keep it all about chess, which for him was to keep it all about life (his own life and life in general) and "truth." He refused to be detoured by fame, money, politics or any other considerations. He was the purest of purists. There is so much that is humanly triumphant about this film.

Sarsgaard's inhabiting of a sardonic, taciturn, wry, serious-minded and self-possessed priest who is nonetheless completely at ease in the world is just grand. I know priests like this, and I hope you do, too.

Like the "based on a true story" films "A Perfect Storm" and "American Sniper," I really had no idea of the final outcome of Bobby Fischer's story as I watched. So I found the Epilogue shocking, arresting and poignant.

The issue of mental health looms large in "Pawn Sacrifice" and is treated with great delicacy, compassion and forthrightness. It's a contest the film imagines Bobby didn't win, but one he never stopped fighting.


--I share Bobby's love of silence.

--Chess is soooooooo addictive.

--The film is stylish but never for the sake of style alone. All in the service of the story.

--How cool is it when the soundtrack incorporates the clicks of the chess clock into one song?

--I am not at all a Toby Maguire fan, but wow.

--Beneath it all, Fischer is still a quintessential New Yorker.

--In real life, Kissinger would never play chess with Brezhnev, because chess reveals how you think.

--The stakes were so high.

--As great a victory as it was for an American to beat a Russian at the mind game of chess (in 1972)--what went down in 1980 was even better. :)

--Some of the meat and ethos of the game in this film. Much to ponder.

--It's hard not to admire someone's total dedication to something (good).

--Fischer’s very brief visit to a prostitute (we see nothing) actually de-glamorizes the transaction. Fischer is much more interested and excited about chess.

--Fischer's purported last words: "Nothing is as healing as the human touch." (Theology of the Body!) For a man who lived in his head, that says a lot.

--Keen statement about a boy needing a father. Single Mom won't tell Bobby who his father is: "What does it matter?" Bobby starts sleeping at the chess club as a teen, parts ways with his Mom.

--Fischer and Spassky. It seems these two men rose above it ALL.

--Watch the movie first, then read this Wikipedia entry:  and this one:

--Check out this great review (that devotes 3 paragraphs to Fr. Bill Lombardy's character):

--Here's my review all spiffed up on Life Teen website:

September 20, 2015


Got in a Facebook conversation about this film. An incredible film, incredibly well done all around, and a great statement about news media and media in general and where it's all going today. (Great for a Media Literacy discussion!)

September 10, 2015


"90 Minutes in Heaven" is the screen version of a book  by the same name that came out several years ago. It is a memoir, a firsthand account of a Christian pastor's near-death experience. The book is excellent. The film? Far from it. In fact, it fails pretty miserably as a film, and also in doing justice to this incredible story. Granted, this was difficult to make into a film because so much of the drama was internal, lacking action or activity of any kind: After a horrific car crash that left Pastor Don Piper dead, the bulk of the story is his long, slow, excruciatingly painful recovery. Notwithstanding this challenge, the film is excruciatingly boring and unintriguing.


One of the film's main flaws is the casting: Hayden Christensen as Pastor Don Piper, and Kate Bosworth as Eva Piper, his wife. Christensen looks like a kid dressed up in his father's toupé, moustache and best business suit. I can do a better male Southern drawl. It was truly comical. I have seen many a high school play where any student could have bested this feeble thespianizing. And that moustache. No matter where he is: preaching a sermon, being declared dead in wreckage or undergoing rehab in a hospital bed, the squirrely and distracting moustache abides: always in creepy pristine shape. It almost has a life of its own.

Kate Bosworth*--looking and acting like a beautiful wax mannequin or an overly-Botoxed model--shows exactly zero emotion through everything (except that one time when she briefly slams her hands up and down on the steering wheel of her car). There is also exactly zero chemistry between pastor and wife.

Did the filmmakers simply not know what to do with Christians? And a man of the cloth at that? Piper and his wife are not even one-dimensional. They are half-dimensional. Yes, it's that bad. They actually relate to one another the way Amish are depicted interacting: extremely formal and duty-driven. I expected some "thee's" and "thou's" to escape their lips. You may question, as I did, Eva's momentous decision on Don's behalf that becomes a tremendous source of physical torture. It almost felt like some kind of revenge.


Two parts of the film that were done well were the ominous beginning leading up to the crash, and--believe it or not--the depiction of heaven. Most films make heaven utterly cringe-worthy, but by focusing on warmly glowing but otherwise normal-looking, normally-dressed, normal-acting people (no stark white backgrounds or stabs at showing us Jesus) we begin to realize that "love one another" is really what life (and afterlife)  is all about. Don meets family, friends, acquaintances and strangers as he tells us who they are. It's really quite wonderful. It's an aspect of heaven that I think many of us picture in our mind's eye, but don't see in movies.

However, for just about everything else, "Heaven Is For Real" is a much better film about a near-death experience (my review: ). Like "Heaven Is For Real," "90 Minutes in Heaven" ends with us getting to see the real Don Piper, which is rather unspectacular.


The palette is perpetually rather hazy and dim. There are two gaping plot holes (not to be confused with potholes) and a sore, crying need for editing interminably long scenes where nothing is happening. I was not able to feel Don's pain in the film, but it was palpable in the book.

I would love to know why the filmmakers and actors took on this project. Was is a noble purpose? Well then, a noble but awful attempt. Was it simply for the money? (The book was a major best-seller.) Well then, it shows. Sorry to be harsh, but I gotta call 'em like I see 'em. As one of my Sisters said: "Maybe some books just shouldn't be made into movies."

*who is married to film's director

September 6, 2015


I'm not putting the actual trailer here cuz it's too dang S-E-R-I-O-U-S.
This isn't terribly funny either, but at least you get an idea what the film is about.

"The War Room" is a winning film about prayer. A film about prayer? How do you make such a thing? Why would you make such a thing? Who would make such a thing? Obviously, the Kendrick Brothers are at it again ("Facing Giants," "Fireproof," "Courageous"). "War Room" is their best yet. It's definitely a film about prayer, but in the context of a troubled marriage with a meddling older wisdom figure (Miss Clara played by Karen Abercrombie) who lends a smidge of narration and lots of pragmatic advice. That's the thing with the Kendricks' films. They stand alone as solid entertainment (and not "message films" per se), but they leave with you the most practical examples of what to do in your own life.


Tony (T. C. Stallings) and Elizabeth (Priscilla Shirer) and their adorable daughter, Danielle (Alena Pitts), are living a cold, hard existence under the same roof (that is, when Tony is even home). Something's gotta give. Enter Miss Clara, whose house Elizabeth, a real estate agent, is selling. On the surface, Miss Clara is a sweet, doddering old woman, but underneath she is a shrewd, don't-mess-with-me, Jesus-filled overcomer who gets all up in Elizabeth's business and begins mentoring her.

Things are not exactly as they seem. People are not exactly as they seem. When you think you have some of the characters figured out, there will be reveals that only make each character more and more true to life. You will recognize your own habits of thought and "stuck-in-a-rut" patterns of behavior that are all too painfully true to our own lives. Miss Clara unlocks doors to new ways of thinking and acting that are more in accord with reality, make sense, and yield results.


Marriage and family have been underlying themes in the Kendricks' last two films ("Fireproof": unconditional love, "Courageous": fatherhood), and now: how to let God truly be the Lord of your marriage, your family, your home and your life. But the Kendricks never sugar-coat anything. They go there. They get into the nitty grits of people's lives and never offer easy "Just give your life to Jesus!" "Let go and let God!" "God will bless you if you just...!" solutions.

The genius of "War Room" is manifold. Just the thought of "a film about prayer" could make the holiest Christian pastor tremble with boredom. The scenes and dialogue sometimes live on the edge of a deep plunge into "hokey ravine"--but that never happens (only highly-trained and talented professionals can do this, do not attempt this in your first film, kids).


"War Room" is a clinic in filmmaking. So much of today's filmmaking is just lazy. "War Room" is anything but. It's tight, precise, intentional, with razor-sharp timing. The acting and cinematography is impeccable. Reaction shots are perfectly timed, perfectly executed. The style is almost soap opera with so many intimate close-ups, and yet half the time, the poignant moment erupts in unexpected humor. Masterful. The visual gags are laugh-out-loud hysterical (as are many of the verbal jokes). "War Room" is gravity and levity together at one and the same time. Like life with God generally is.

How does the Christianity in the film jive with Catholicism? The Kendricks are Baptist ministers in Georgia (with a delightful Southern sensibility and sense of humor), but they keep strictly Protestant tenets out of their films for the most part.

The Word of God shines in this film: our need to engage and pray with the Scriptures, to stand on God's promises, to beg God in prayer at times, to make the Bible central in our homes. Our characters are nominal Christians who must learn how to pray. Daily. From the heart.


In case we've forgotten that prayer is also spiritual warfare, that we need to bring our personal and other battles to prayer and let God fight for us and those whom we're praying for? "The War Room" is our refresher course. "The battle belongs to the Lord." How will this film jumpstart or change your daily prayer?


The film takes up the themes of forgiveness, reconciliation, restitution (rarely seen in films!), marriage, family, prayer and mercy. It's the perfect film for the Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, beginning December 8.

Bring the whole family to see this film. More than once.


--Theology of the Body? All over it. Marriage. I also like the incarnational, concrete idea of an actual "inner room" or prayer place in one's house.

--This film also shows the beauty of sincerity. Sincerity is so underrated by irony and skepticism today.

--Snappy, crisp dialogue.

--So. Many. Quotable. Quotes.

In this film you will see:
--a grown man jumping rope like a little girl
--a woman taking authority over Satan in her home (Christian feng shui)
--a woman with a, um, recurring foot odor problem

--The usual excuses! "How's your prayer life?" "We're like most people. We're busy. We can't get to church every Sunday, but we're spiritual people."

--I really needed this film.

--Very unfortunately, the trailer is soooooo serious. This film is serious AND very, very funny. It's the kind of funny where after the audience's first gale of laughter subsides, there's a second wave because we're still just so tickled by the joke. The element of surprise is heavily employed in the humor.

--Watch the transformation simply in Elizabeth's facial muscles when she realizes what God's part is and what her part is in relating to her husband. That's acting. And this woman--in real life--is a non-actor and this is her first film. Wha??? Yes. The Kendricks often use non-actors in main roles in their films (a tradition in cinema that Italian Neo-Realism employed effectively).

--T. C. Stallings used to play football in the CFL for the Calgary Stampeders.

--It just dawned on me that Elizabeth and Miss Clara are really the main characters here. And yet this doesn't feel like a chick flick at all. I wonder if people were hounding the Kendricks to make a film like "Courageous" for women. Maybe this is it!

--Good balance of male/female authority in the film. Elizabeth starts the spiritual warfare and kicks the devil out of their home (even that's funny). Prayer changes Elizabeth (it's not a magic wand) and therefore changes the whole family dynamic. Tony is on his own journey, but now Elizabeth knows how to help him.

--The one big disappointment for me was the attempted robbery scene. The Kendricks are really great at action scenes, but this was incredibly sloppy and fake. They really should have put more time and thought into it. It could have injected a lot of tension and been a great use of a red herring. There was also a tad of heavy preachiness in two places (by my count), and some unnecessary break-with-reality-spiritual-trance scenes with Tony toward the end, that didn't really work. The super-Americana altar call at the end would have been so much more effective if it had been globalized.