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Searching for Bobby Fischer

Chess attracts obsessives, the kind of people who don't come in out of the rain during a match in a park, even if it's just for spare change. It's the kind of game in which any brainy kid who's good at speed-chess receives the accolade "The next Bobby Fischer," uttered with nodding finality in reference to the only American world chess champion of the past century. Seven-year-old Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) is one of those kids, and Searching for Bobby Fisher, based on the memoir by Fred Waitzkin, recounts what happens to the family in the wake of discovering Josh's genius. When his mother Bonnie (Joan Allen, in yet another faithful wife role) tells Fred (Joe Mantegna), a sports reporter, about Josh's gift, Fred becomes a "chess father" — fretting at tournaments, driving his son on, hiring an expensive and demanding coach (Ben Kingsley), and trying to keep him away from the park patzers, such as Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne), who instill bad chess habits in the youngster. Screenwriter-turned-director Steven Zaillian (Awakenings, Schindler's List) captures the flavor of chess in Searching for Bobby Fischer without attempting to explain the technical side of the game, and he stumbles only by submitting to commercial imperatives and imposing Rocky-style moments of exhilaration, augmented by James Horner's evocative score, that don't work simply because the nature of chess hasn't been fully communicated. The villain of the piece is an awful, smug little kid with a sneer on his face and a big puffy shirt, and this kind of reductionism doesn't work for otherwise intelligent and well-observed material. Frankly, the movie lacks the detail and the scope of the source book, but Zaillian nevertheless manages to make cinematic a game that exists mostly in the head. Zaillian gathered together a great cast for this 1993 movie, including also David Payer, William H. Macy, Anthony Heald, Dan Hedaya (who has a funny scene where, as the supervisor of a tournament, he lectures the chess parents as if there were children), Tony Shalhoub, Robert Stephens (in one of his last movies), and a young Laura Linney. She only has one scene, but it's a really good one in which she plays a shortsighted teacher whom Mantegna tells off. Sharp, warmly colored anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with good detailing, born of a print in good condition with only some scratches and marks during the opening studio logo. However, Conrad Hall's photography for this film favors shards of reflected light in faces — a quirk that can grow maddening after a while. Dolby Digital 5.1 or Dolby Surround 2.0. Keep-case.

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