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Posts Tagged ‘Tobey Maguire’

One of the more peculiar distractions of 2021 has been an occasional background buzz of speculation about whether we will be seeing Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire back on screen, possibly together, before the year is out. Normally studios cleave very enthusiastically to the there-is-no-bad-publicity maxim, so when they refuse to comment on the presence (or not) of a star in one of their films it’s a bit out of the ordinary, to say the least.

Perhaps one of the reasons this has gathered so much traction, in Maguire’s case at least, is the fact that he seems almost to have dropped off the face of the earth in the last few years. His last major role was in Baz Luhrmann’s version of The Great Gatsby (to be honest I’d forgotten he was in that), since when it seems like he has mostly been concentrating on producing and exec-producing, the resulting films being variously very good (Nobody), fairly indifferent (Z for Zachariah), and distinctly rotten (The 5th Wave). Perhaps one of the reasons he knocked acting on the head, at least temporarily, was the relative failure of his last vehicle, the 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice, directed by Edward Zwick.

We’re back in the realm of the true-life sports drama here – well, sort of. Maguire plays Bobby Fischer, who is one of those late-20th-century-figures of great significance in his own little sphere – in this case, the world of chess. After some framing material with Fischer clearly on the point of throwing a major wobbly in Iceland in 1972, the film jumps back twenty years to his youth, as the son of a Marxist Russian Jewish immigrant and… well, his father’s identity is left vague (apparently the favoured view currently is that the fluid dynamics expert Paul Nemenyi was Fischer’s biological father). Having taught himself to play chess, and gone on to play it obsessively, Fischer makes a splash at the local club and soon finds a mentor and trainer.

His prodigious abilities inevitably lead to celebrity and the international circuit, dominated at the time by Soviet players. With Communist chess dominance being seen as a sign of ideological dominance, the Soviets are ruthless when it comes to playing as a team against their lone American opponent. By this time Fischer is already showing signs of arrogance, volatility, and paranoia, and quits international play in disgust.

However, he is lured back to the game by lawyer (implied to be a front man for the state) Paul Marshall (Michael Stuhlbarg), with chess-master-turned-priest William Lombardy (Peter Sarsgaard) as his counsellor and second. The Americans see the possibility of opening a new front in the Cold War by deploying Fischer against the Russian world champion Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber), regardless of what effects the strain of such an undertaking may place on his fragile mental health…

I think Pawn Sacrifice is a pretty good movie (though not really a great one, for reasons we shall come to), but the problem it faces nowadays is that… well, look, it’s a story about an immensely talented American chess prodigy, growing up in the 1960s, struggling with their personal demons while attempting to make their mark in the Soviet-dominated sport. In other words, it’s the true-life version of The Queen’s Gambit (or perhaps we should just be clear as to how much the story of Bobby Fischer may have influenced Walter Tevis while writing the original novel of The Queen’s Gambit). Suffice to say the two works are very similar, but the Netflix show has the edge in most respects.

Why should this be? I think it is more than just a simple question of greater length (therefore depth) and budget (therefore scope). Pawn Sacrifice has well-mounted depictions of the period it is set and an effective script, plus the advantage of being able to incorporate real-life events so outrageous that no wholly fictional story would dare to include them – the 1972 world championship match may be remembered for including possibly the greatest single chess game in recorded history (the sixth of the series), but it will also go down in history for the circus surrounding it – Fischer insisting on playing in a tiny room with no audience or cameras, and Spassky demanding his chair be x-rayed to eliminate the possibility of sabotage being just two of the events involved. I know a bit about chess, but am not so well-versed in its history, so this was all fascinating to me.

The problem is really that – well, at various points Fischer is explicitly compared to Mozart and Leonardo, in terms of his sheer genius. How do you show Mozart’s genius to an audience? You play some of his music and let that speak for itself. How do you communicate the genius of Leonardo? You point the camera at La Gioconda or one of his other paintings and quietly step back for a while. The thing about chess is that while it may be one of the most remarkable products of human culture (a game with limited options, no random factors or hidden information, and yet there are still more possible games than there are grains of sand in the galaxy), it’s not exactly accessible in the same way as art or music. Two actors replaying one of Fischer’s greatest games is not that different from a couple of schlubs re-enacting one of my own quixotic deployments of the Grob opening, to the untrained eye at least. (And genuine chess masters have apparently complained that the chess on display in this movie is actually quite moronic, to the point where the board is not correctly oriented.)

Here Pawn Sacrifice comes unstuck just a tiny bit, as rather than showing what an extraordinary player Fischer is, the movie resorts to having other characters – principally Lombard, whom Sarsgaard underplays very nicely – telling each other how extraordinary he is. And that is, obviously, slightly suspect storytelling. I suppose it is also an issue that Fischer himself was, certainly towards the end of his life, a divisive, unsympathetic figure. The film addresses Fischer’s history of paranoia and his inclination towards anti-Soviet and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (noting, en passant – yes, thanks, I’m here all week – that Fischer himself was of Russian Jewish stock), and Maguire is unafraid to come across as a deeply unpleasant and obnoxious individual.

The problem is therefore that, of the two sides of Fischer’s character, it’s the negative that comes across much more viscerally and affectingly in the film – communicating just what an extraordinary gift he had is too big a challenge for the script. The Queen’s Gambit, being fictional, is operating with a much looser leash, able to make Beth Harmon more sympathetic (and even here the show still struggles to really express the intricacies of chess).

Nevertheless, this is still a solid movie about some remarkable events, and if nothing else it reminds you of what a capable actor and engaging screen presence Tobey Maguire can be. Maybe we will see him again briefly before the end of the year. (Or maybe not, and we will have to wait until next Christmas for Babylon, which he is apparently in.)  Even if we don’t, this is still a good introduction to Fischer and the Reykjavik match of 1972.

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Would it be a truism or merely trite to suggest that one of the worst ways possible to make someone appreciate a book is to force them to study it? I suspect many people would agree; many friends of mine were undoubtedly put off To Kill A Mockingbird for life after studying it at GCSE. In my own case, though, I don’t know – while it took me over a decade to go back to Pride and Prejudice after being obliged to read it at A level, I’ve always enjoyed Chaucer and was always able to appreciate the remarkable quality of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. To this day I can still bang on at tedious length about the themes and imagery of this novel, and the prospect of seeing what Baz Luhrmann could do with (or possibly to) the story was an intriguing one.

gatsby

Set in New York in the early 20s, this is a tale of obsession, excess, and corruption amongst the monied folk of the city. Nick (Tobey Maguire) is new to the area, and really the only people he knows socially are his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan), her husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), and their friend Jordan (Elizabeth Debicki). One other person he is aware of, however, is the enigmatic Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), the immensely wealthy host of lavish parties at the mansion next door to Nick’s house. When Gatsby becomes aware of Nick, things change for everyone: Gatsby and Daisy have what is delicately known as a Past, and he is desperate to resume their relationship…

Baz Luhrmann isn’t exactly what you’d call a prolific film-maker – this is only his second project since 2001’s Moulin Rouge (one of the very first films I ever rambled on about on t’Internet). However, while Luhrmann may not make many films, the ones he does turn out are super-concentrated stuff: visuals, sound, editing and performances are all usually cranked up to startling levels of intensity. For this reason I find his films to be a bit of a change of pace, and occasionally an indigestible one: I’m surprised he hasn’t done more work making music videos and commercials, because his style is perfect for this sort of short form. Two hours plus of crash zooms, colour saturation, musical iconoclasm and restless camera pans, on the other hand, just leave me feeling somewhat embattled.

Possibly out of a sense of responsibility to Fitzgerald’s thoughtful text, Luhrmann manages to restrain himself at least some of the time on this occasion, but one is still left with an almost irresistible sense that in the making of this film, the interplay of sound and visuals was always the prime consideration, with the actual script being of only secondary importance. This is not to say that there aren’t some startlingly effective moments scattered throughout the film, but they feel like they’ve been inserted into the story from outside rather than naturally arising from within it. The Great Gatsby is a restrained, mostly internalised story, and Luhrmann has had to work quite hard to find ways to insert his idiosyncratic visual energy into it.

Which is not to say he’s taken particularly great liberties with the story: in fact, his additions to it seem atypically restrained. There’s a framing device in which Nick, now morbidly alcoholic, is recounting the events of the story as a form of therapy, but this is really it so far as I can remember. More conspicuous is the way in which the story has been subtly trimmed and reshaped so it now focuses almost entirely on the Gatsby-Daisy romance. DiCaprio, admittedly, does not make an appearance for quite a long while, but the mystery of his character is at the centre of the story nevertheless. And once he departs from the plot, Luhrmann wraps up the film with almost indecent haste, jettisoning some of the book’s most poignant moments in the process. The main consequence of this is that the character of Jordan is much reduced in significance, and her relationship with Nick almost totally excised. As a result Nick seems even more of a passive onlooker, and Maguire struggles to make the character particularly endearing.

This is not to say that the acting in this film is sub-par: Joel Edgerton is very good, as is DiCaprio – most of the time at least. Certainly, nobody is what you’d call actively bad. The problem is that at least some of the time, everyone is being obliterated by the art direction and sound design, which swamp the subtleties and paradoxes of the story and reduce it to a succession of lavish, frenetic tableaux. The human story and emotions just aren’t there when you need them to be, and the result is a film which is polished and intricate, but ultimately hollow. Given that two of the key themes of The Great Gatsby are the contrast between appearance and reality, and the perils of superficiality, for Luhrmann to have made such a superficial adaptation of it is actually quite ironic: whether this is the sort of irony F Scott Fitzgerald would have appreciated is another matter.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published June 13th 2002:

A conversation, c.1980 :

Me:Dad, dad! Can we go to the pictures?’

My Father:Why, what’s on?

Me:The new Spider-Man film!

[This was actually Spider-Man: The Dragon’s Challenge, a Spidey-versus-evil-kung fu American TV movie starring Nicholas Hammond that somehow got itself a theatrical release in the UK.]

My Father:What does Spider-Man do in it?

Me:He climbs up buildings, throws his web over people, slides down a lift shaft! It looks great!

My Father:Oh, I suppose so…

A conversation, c.2002 :

My Father:Hey, hey! Let’s go to the pictures!

Me:Why, what’s on?

My Father:The new Spider-Man film!

Me:What does Spider-Man do in it?

My Father:He climbs up buildings, throws his web over people –

Me:Does he slide down a lift-shaft?

My Father:Not in the trailer I saw. Can we go? Can we can we can we?

Me: (remembering the rubbish Hammond film and feeling rather guilty about forcing him to see it) ‘Oh, I suppose so…

Well, there’s the cycle of the generations writ large for you. Actually I needed no persuasion whatsoever to go and see this movie: one of the most exciting and overdue developments in mainstream cinema over the last few years has been that Marvel Comics and their characters have finally begun to punch their weight on the big screen: recently we’ve had Men in Black, Blade, and X-Men, and within the next year we’ll see Ben Affleck in Daredevil and Ang Lee’s take on the Hulk. And obviously, a Spider-Man movie, done right, has the potential to be a fantastic movie.

Sam Raimi’s film falls roughly into two acts. The first of these is the story of overlooked nerd Peter Parker (a tremendously likeable Tobey Maguire) whose life is transformed after he’s bitten by a genetically engineered spider. His delight and excitement as he discovers, one by one, the different powers this gives him is utterly irresistible, and the story is told with the same self-mocking humour that characterised the original comic-books. But along with the powers come responsibilities and drawbacks (not least Peter’s new inability to climb out of the bathtub unassisted) and Peter is in for a harsh lesson…

The Spider-Man origin story is the finest in all superherodom, essentially a fable concerning guilt and loss and redemption, and Raimi tells it near perfectly: so much so that you barely notice the radical re-conception of one of Spider-Man’s signature powers. The actual effects set-pieces are a long time coming but well worth the wait, and you really don’t mind such are the warmth of the performances and wit of the script.

Of course, every hero needs a villain to contend with and Spider-Man spends the second act of the film doing battle with the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe, displaying a hitherto-unseen talent for manic hamming), a millionaire weapons designer driven insane by exposure to experimental performance-enhancing drugs. To be honest this part of the movie is slightly less impressive, being more formulaic superhero stuff. But the characterisation and energy continue unimpaired and the various bouts between hero and villain are visually startling. Most impressive of all is the ending, which isn’t your standard blockbuster fare, but is entirely in keeping with the source material.

Spider-Man is a treat: not only the most faithful and impressive comic-book adaptation yet, but a genuinely terrific film in its own right (much better than The Dragon’s Challenge, anyway), with great performances (apart from Maguire and Dafoe, Kirsten Dunst is great as the love interest, James Franco does a slow burn as Peter’s best friend and Cliff Robertson is just right as Spidey’s Uncle Ben), fantastic visuals, and a wonderful script from David Koepp. Hugely entertaining and pretty much not to be missed – go see! Go see!

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 22nd 2004:

[Following a review of Thunderbirds.]

Oh well, onto a movie I can confidently describe as a success in all departments: Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2, currently mounting a serious challenge for the title of all-time box office champion. Readers with long memories and short attention spans may recall I was rather impressed with the original when it came out just over two years ago – something not diminished in the slightest by this second instalment.

Two years on from the events of the first movie – which are helpfully recapped in another stylish title sequence – things have changed a bit for Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire) and his amazing friends. The lad himself is juggling responsibilities as Spider-Man and Pizza-Delivery Boy and not making a very good job of it, his love interest Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) is mixing occasional interludes of dangling-in-jeopardy with a successful acting career, and his best friend Harry (James Franco) is now a suit at his dad’s old corporation, and obsessing over Spider-Man (who he believes killed his father). Basically, being a super-hero is making Peter incredibly miserable as his work and relationships are constantly suffering. Does he really still want the gig?

Things don’t get any better when a freak accident with an experimental fusion generator – er – fuses brilliant scientist Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina on fine form) with four malevolent cybernetic tentacles. Restyling himself Doctor Octopus, he sets out to recreate the experiment, no matter what the risks to the city. But he needs Harry’s co-operation to do this, and Harry’s price is the head of Spider-Man…

After a couple of Affleck- and Bana-shaped wobbles last year, Spider-Man 2 should put Marvel Comics’ film division back on course for world domination. This is thanks to a production in which performances, script, and direction all come together to produce a film which is thrilling, moving, and funny in all the right places. The style of the original film is continued seamlessly, with several gags and motifs re-used (Bruce Campbell pops up again in another wittily-performed cameo).

Where it surpasses its predecessor is in its freedom to just pick one story and follow it through, rather than combining the Spidey origin with various Goblin-related clashes. And it’s a very human and personal story, very much focussed on the troubled personal life and guilty conscience of Peter Parker. While people are probably going to go to the cinema to see Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus duking it out on the sides of buildings – and the battles themselves are terrific, the villain impressively realised – this isn’t really at the heart of the story. Given this it’s a shame the climax boils down to a rather generic special effects set-piece that only loosely ties in to the themes of the script. (And if anyone knows how Spider-Man finds out where Doctor Octopus’ lair is, I’d love to hear from them.)

But never mind. The performances of the cast are every bit as memorable as the special effects. Normally in a superhero movie you’re glancing at your watch when the lead character’s in secret-identity mode, but Maguire manages to be utterly engaging as Peter Parker (and seems to be quite a good sport about the achey breaky back problems which nearly cost him the role). Dunst is fairly touching, even if Franco seems ever so slightly over-wrought in a slightly one-note part.

All this just adds into the overwhelming impression of supreme confidence this movie gives off: it’s not afraid to go from quite sombre personal moments to offbeat visual humour, to include wild directorial flourishes, or even to run the risk of seeming camp and goofy. It’s also not afraid to shake things up and plan for the future: the relationships and situations of the main characters at the end are very different from how they stand at the beginning, and while it’s fairly obvious who one of the villains of Spider-Man 3 will be, the script also plants seeds for at least two others somewhere down the line.

It shouldn’t really come as much of a surprise if I tell you that Spider-Man 2 is going to be the biggest film of the summer. But it may if I add that the success is thoroughly warranted by a film which mixes thrills, jokes, maturity and heartache to absolutely winning effect. Highly recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 20th November 2003: 

Being fat and lacking in co-ordination, sport (or indeed physical exertion in general) has never really appealed to me – at least, not in comparison with sitting very still for two hours in a darkened room staring fixedly in the same direction. Similarly, I’ve never really seen the need for sporting films – I don’t insist that the FA Cup final is an adaptation of the plot of Logan’s Run, and I expect the same consideration from sports fans in return. And if I were to pick my dream sport movie it would more likely be a bio-pic of darts legend Jockey Wilson than something actually about jockeys.

And yet, and yet. You never can tell. Certainly not when a film has had the quantities of money and talent heaped upon it that Gary Ross’ Seabiscuit has. Yup, it’s a sport movie, and yup, it’s a golden-statue trawling expression of American hegemony (if Working Title made a film about Red Rum or Desert Orchid, just how big a release would it get in the USA?). But I have to confess that it is actually rather good.

This is the story of three men and a horse – automobile tycoon Charles Howard (played by Jeff Bridges), slightly alarming farrier Tom Smith (played by Chris Cooper), ginger jockey Johnny ‘Red’ Pollard (played by Tobey Maguire), and pint-sized racehorse Seabiscuit (played by a horse). During the Depression, all four have more than their fair share of personal tragedy of various kinds, but they’re brought together by a love of racing and a desire to win. Howard owns the horse, Smith trains the horse, and Pollard rides the horse, even though everyone around them thinks the idea that Seabiscuit has any potential must be crackers. Little do they suspect he is really a very tough cookie.

Okay, you could probably guess the plot for yourselves, as the ‘plucky outsider conquers all’ theme has been done to death in this kind of film. But Seabiscuit isn’t trying to be enormously innovative or surprising – the virtues it’s aiming for are those of solid acting and production values, stylish and thoughtful direction, and a sense of the (oh dear) transcendent and unifying power of sport within society. And it hits pretty much every target it sets for itself.

Admittedly the film is probably overlong and certainly mawkish in parts (that Howard’s son’s name is Frankie is a bit unfortunate for UK audiences), and seems a little disjointed near the start. It’s nearly an hour before the titular equine even appears, and for much of this time Ross adopts a very interesting style, piecing together scenes and sequences of the three human characters which on the face of things have little in common, but which clearly express a unity of mood and theme thanks to skilful editing and music. This works better at some moments than others, and as I say it takes a little getting used to, but ultimately works to give the characters a strong grounding which pays dividends later on. Not all of his directorial flourishes work so well – a scene where Smith spies the horse and Pollard simultaneously fighting with stablehands on opposite sides of the same yard needs only a lightbulb appearing over Chris Cooper’s head to complete it – but the actual races scenes are very accomplished, tense and thrilling.

But this is equally an actor’s movie. Jeff Bridges has been underrated as a lightweight performer for some years now, but in many ways he’s the anchor of this film, delivering a very nice turn (and most of the big speeches). Cooper’s performance as the rather taciturn trainer is subtle and nuanced, and Tobey Maguire not only proves there’s much more to him than web fluid and the Daily Bugle, but even manages not to be obliterated by the horrendous ginger perm the part dictates he undergo. William H Macy livens things up with an energetic extended cameo, and Elizabeth Banks is good as Bridges’ wife.

If this movie has a theme beyond one of simple redemption and triumph, it’s a simple one about how America regained its self-belief after the Depression (at one point it looks like adopting a Great Gatsby-ish ‘cars equals progress equals death’ position, but – probably for the best – doesn’t really stick with this). But this isn’t a particularly deep or challenging film, it’s simply a classy, well-crafted and ultimately pleasantly satisfying piece of entertainment.

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