Tabiya for Success

In chess, a tabiya is a popular arrangement of pieces in the opening of the game. At Brooklyn Intermediate School 318, the pieces fit together to support a very successful chess program; year after year the students and team bring back trophies from national scholastic chess tournaments. Brooklyn Castle spotlights the team in 2009 and 2010, just as external forces threaten to upset the arrangement.

This isn’t to say the school’s student population have it made; over 70% come from backgrounds of poverty. But the neighborhood seems to attract highly motivated immigrant families, based on the students profiled by the film; the principal strongly supports the program, which emphasizes individual effort and self-discipline; the team has a charismatic coach, Elizabeth Vickery; and the larger community is rich with chess resources, such as the venerable Marshall Chess Club.

But at the time covered by the film, Wall Street has just melted down, government revenues have fallen, and the school faces budget cuts. Can the team continue to fly fifty-plus students across the country a few times a year to compete in major chess events?

This threat to the team is one major challenge; the other is faced by each chessplayer: The better your chess game is, the more work it takes to push yourself even higher. Can these kids improve over the board while attending to their other studies, in order to get into the best available high school (and college, eventually)?

Spoiler: This is a feel-good documentary, and the kids we’re rooting for don’t disappoint, by and large. You don’t have to know what a tabiya is to be inspired by the film.

Brooklyn Castle (reviews) (official site)
Directed by Katie Dellamaggiore
Running time: 102 minutes
DVD release date: June 4, 2013

Root Beer Barrel Polka

How do you follow a beloved 30-year-old classic film? The makers of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday decided to put their debt to Pee-wee’s Big Adventure right out in the open: The title and story concept echo the original film, and the music copies the orchestration and much of the harmony from the earlier score. Happily, the new film adds enough spark and inventiveness of its own to pull this off rather well.

We start off in a dream: Pee-wee Herman is about to part with an E.T.-like creature. The two put on friendship bracelets, and Pee-wee declines the offer to go to his new friend’s world. The dream ends, Pee-wee awakens, and an elaborate mechanism sends him off to breakfast, after which he’s off to his job as fry cook at a small-town diner.

Then a stranger enters the diner: Joe Manganiello, star of the TV series True Blood (played by Joe Manganiello, star of the TV series True Blood). Pee-wee doesn’t know the show–it isn’t part of his innocent world–but the two quickly bond when they discover they have identical lists of favorite candies, with root beer barrels at the top. After Pee-wee gives Joe a tour of the town, Joe invites Pee-wee to his birthday party, coming up in five days in New York. Eventually Pee-wee accepts, and the main portion of the film has Pee-wee trying to get across country, falling in with various oddball characters.

The tone of the movie is just right, staying firmly within a child’s perspective while overlaying some more juvenile aspects of the adult world. (Root beer is a good symbol for this.) At one point Pee-wee finds himself mixed up with three buxom bank robbers–based, I am told, on characters from a Russ Meyer film–and three male strippers, but nothing happens that would seriously challenge a child’s sensibility.

Pee-wee himself is a little lower-energy than in the old days, but the imaginativeness of the screenplay and the performances of the supporting characters–especially Manganiello, charmingly childlike–keep the entertainment value high.

Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (reviews)
Directed by John Lee
Written by Paul Reubens and Paul Rust
Running time: 90 minutes
Began streaming on Netflix March 18, 2016

Saving Lives

In 1988, Grete Winton found a scrapbook in the attic of the Maidenhead, England, home she shared with her husband Nicholas. The book was filled with details of Nicholas’s humanitarian work in pre-war Czechoslovakia. She passed the book along to a Holocaust researcher, and its story made Nicholas Winton famous throughout the world. Years later, Slovak filmmaker Matej Mináč made three films about Winton’s exploits, the last of which was Nicky’s Family.

A British stockbroker, Winton postponed a Swiss ski vacation in 1938 when a friend urged him to come to Prague. There in the shadow of Nazi Germany Winton found hundreds of families, mostly Jewish, who feared a German invasion and wanted to get their children out of harm’s way. Winton wrote to governments all over the world, but only Britain would take them in, and then only if they had foster homes waiting. (Eventually Sweden also received some of these refugees.) Winton arranged train transport for the children from Prague to the Hook of Holland, from which they were ferried across the English Channel and then carried by train to London.

The film features a number of recent interviews with the rescuees, many of whom did not know their own history until Winton’s story came out in 1988. It also features dramatic reenactments of the events of 1938, showing Winton’s activities and the refugee children as they separated from their families and rode the train to freedom. I found this part to be unconvincing, the weakest part of an otherwise gripping film; but the great Stanley Kauffmann, writing his last film review for The New Republic, found the dramatizations moving.

Nicky’s Family (reviews) (Kauffmann’s review)
Directed by Matej Mináč
Written by Matej Mináč and Patrik Pašš
Running time: 102 minutes
DVD release date: December 3, 2013

Oedipus Regina

I Killed My Mother is a terrific example of the memoir-reworked-as-narrative-film genre. Writer/director Xavier Dolan plays Hubert, a 16-year-old Montreal youth going through his teen rebellion phase, tethered by an intense emotional bond to his single mother Chantale (Anne Dorval). Complicating the mother-son dynamic: Hubert has not yet revealed to Chantale that he is gay, even though he has a steady boyfriend, Antonin (François Arnaud).

This portrait of a passionate love-hate family relationship feels very raw and genuine; Hubert and Chantale are well fleshed-out. Perhaps, late in the film, a telephone diatribe delivered by Chantale to a boarding school principal feels a tiny bit scripted. It doesn’t matter; it’s such a brilliant speech on behalf of single mothers everywhere that it would be a crime to edit it or leave it out.

I Killed My Mother (reviews)
Directed and written by Xavier Dolan
Language: Canadian French
Running time: 100 minutes
DVD release date: August 13, 2013

The Untold Story

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu tells its story entirely with archival footage and without narration. Framed by a post-coup interrogation of Ceausescu and his wife Elena, the documentary shows Ceausescu’s years in power, from his succession to General Secretary of the Romanian Communist Party in 1965 to his removal from office in 1989. The three-hour film is loaded with speeches and lavish parades and exhibitions, along with some travel abroad and a few informal moments of recreation. It’s a puzzle to figure out how this forward-thinking leader became one of the world’s most hated tyrants, eventually deposed in a popular uprising and quickly executed alongside his wife.

I mean “puzzle” literally: There are clues right there in the footage that point to the real story of Ceausescu’s reign. Not to spill too many beans, but there’s an early speech calling for closer Party supervision of industry; a visit to China and exposure to Mao’s cult of personality, followed by the plastering of Ceausescu’s image all over Romania; an impossibly ambitious construction project that would break the back of even a robust economy. This film almost demands a commentary track to fill in the blanks.

The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu (reviews)
Directed and written by Andrei Ujica
Language: Romanian
Running time: 188 minutes
DVD release date: July 2, 2013

We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Icarus

Client-9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer is Alex Gibney’s treatment of the royal mess America’s favorite reformer got himself into several years ago. As attorney general of New York, Spitzer went after bankers and other Wall Street malefactors. Elected governor in 2006, he proposed to clean up Albany, all by himself.

Albany did not want to be cleaned up, and Spitzer’s unwillingness to compromise put him at odds with leaders of both parties in the statehouse. Still, he seemed to be making progress when the prostitution scandal broke. Interviewed for the documentary, Spitzer doesn’t quite seem to know why he dared to become a customer of a high-dollar escort agency; hubris, perhaps. When his involvement was made public, he had no allies to back him, and he resigned his office.

Gibney does his usual efficient job, organizing the story into smart, digestible sections. He is trusted well enough as a filmmaker that he is able to interview not only Spitzer, but also his adversaries in government and on Wall Street–and the colorful owner of the escort agency, along with two of the escorts involved in the scandal. I would like to have also seen a close evaluation of Spitzer’s hard-charging, uncompromising style as a prosecutor and a reformer; but that would be a different movie.

Client-9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Alex Gibney
Running time: 118 minutes
DVD release date: January 25, 2011

The Medium Is the Message

For those worried about the imminent disappearance of film cinematography, Side by Side may serve as, well, a palliative at least. Keanu Reeves narrates a history of celluloid film, alongside the fairly recent invention and refinement of digital filmmaking. The latter topic branches into discussions of CGI, digital 3-D, and the decline in theatergoing. All of this is fairly well-known material; what makes the documentary a pleasure is the range of eminent directors, cinematographers, and actors interviewed. A partial list: James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, the Wachowskis, Bradford Young, Greta Gerwig, and Lena Dunham. (There are many others.) Pull up a seat.

Side by Side (reviews) (official site)
Directed and written by Chris Kenneally
Running time: 99 minutes
DVD release date: February 5, 2013