A staple of movies set in Brooklyn's Bedord Stuyvesant neighborhood is playing chess in the park, and in Brooklyn Castle, the action goes inside I.S. 318, a public school where geeks are the athletes. Katie Dellamaggiore's documentary about a dominant team of aspiring grandmasters makes a tedious game thrilling and absorbing. It also depicts the downstream effects that the actions of a wealthier NYC borough have on this one, where the financial crisis puts a truly great program at risk due to budget constraints. Dellamaggiore locates an absolute good and then invests the viewer in not just the team's success, but also the daily frustration of wondering whether a beloved part of one's life is even going to exist in a month or a week.
Johnny Depp does his heavy make-up thing in Scott Cooper's Black Mass, a crime drama about Boston's Whitey Bulger. Cooper, with the affecting Crazy Heart and the alienating Out of the Furnace under his belt, is leaning more into the Furnace side here, as Black Mass is competent but cold and mostly unmemorable. Bulger is an intriguing subject only for a person otherwise unfamiliar with how criminals operate in ethnic enclaves and are later represented in cinema.
Animation champ Pixar has seen its reign threatened by competing animation studios, but in 2015, they shored up their position as producers of sophisticated fare for the whole family. Their summer release, Inside Out, was a critical and commercial hit, while their fall release, The Good Dinosaur, received modest reviews and was the lowest performing film in their history. Despite the let-down, The Good Dinosaur does a simple thing well. It's nowhere near the most novel plot Pixar's ever been responsible for, but its familiar story utterly entranced this viewer. There's room in cinema for bald rehashes, especially when they are done as well as they are in Peter Sohn's film.
Modern Denmark might be a lodestar of progressivism, but during A Royal Affair, it's a backwater of superstition, serfdom, and despotism. Nikolaj Arcel's period drama finds his homeland at a historic turning point, when the country needed a foreign boost to drag it into the Enlightenment. These kinds of films, with their bodices and cravats, often suffer under the weight of all the extensive production design and costuming, leaving this particular viewer cold. In Arcel's telling, however, the well-appointed events of the film simmer over with high drama. The stakes radiate out from the opulence of the royal court and into the countryside, where a loss of position means that thousands of people's lives become instantly more cruel and devalued. Arcel splits the difference between an Austen romance and a Hugo humanist thriller, crafting the rare period film that can both be about a royal court, and depict character motivations that aren't solely about maintaining a 1% lifestyle.
Indian cinema conjures up images of Bollywood with its choreographed dance numbers and operatic musicals, but Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali shirks any of those eccentricities, telling a simple story beautifully. Inspired by neo-realist classics like Bicycle Thieves and looking towards coming-of-age films like The 400 Blows, Ray's brilliant debut is steeped in lived-in moments and the casual exuberance that children are capable of at any given instance.
Random projects from the MMC Universe.