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A chess prodigy saves the day at Sundance

Posted 11:25am on Saturday, Jan. 22, 2011

On of the most enjoyable aspects of attending the Sundance Film Festival is that it’s constantly affording you the opportunity to cash in your chips and cut your losses. With seven or eight films screening simultaneously, if you don’t like the one you’re watching, you can always just bolt for the door midway through and head off in search of something new.

Such was the case for me Friday evening, during the world premiere of Miranda July’s comedy-drama The Future. I loved July’s last picture, the delicate and endearing Me and You and Everyone We Know, which I saw here in 2005. But this new effort -- about a pair of rudderless thirtysomethings (played by July and Hamish Linklater) scared of the commitment involved in adopting a cat -- struck me as cloying and cutesy. After forty minutes, I cried uncle. The folks at the shuttle bus told me I was the thirtieth or so walk-out that they had witnessed -- not good news for a movie that many expected to be one of the high-profile acquisitions of the first weekend.

But better things were literally just around the corner: I left The Future just in time to make it to the Holiday Village Cinemas, about a half-mile away, where I caught the press screening of Liz Garbus’ Bobby Fischer Against the World. I don’t want to make any great claims for this film, which follows the life of Bobby Fischer from his years as teenage chess prodigy, through his famous 1972 World Chess Championship against Boris Spassky, to his final days as a bitter, probably insane exile in Iceland. It takes the form of a fairly straightforward and square sports documentary, the likes of which you see often on HBO, where this one will air later this year.

But if you aren’t familiar with Fischer’s strange, sad story -- or if you just want to be reminded of how arrogantly charismatic and compelling the young Fischer could be -- this movie proves a fascinating history lesson.

Indeed, it was a welcome tonic after an afternoon marked by ho-hum efforts. The general feeling thus far at Sundance is that none of the films have yet broken out of the pack -- or will command that elusive multi-million dollar deal distributors on the hunt for the next Little Miss Sunshine.

A drama called Martha Marcy May Marlene, about a young woman (Elizabeth Olsen, Mary-Kate and Ashley’s younger sister) who escapes from a cult, shows some promise, but never really heats up dramatically. Another movie starring Olsen, the thriller Silent House, is certainly an impressive technical feat -- it’s filmed in one continuous, 90-minute shot, meaning the actors were basically performing as if in a stage play -- but the story is laughable and riddled with plot holes. Both films will likely eventually make their way to theaters, courtesy of a smaller distributor, but neither stands much of a chance of being remembered for very long.

Here’s hoping for a better Saturday: Next on my list are Circumstance, a drama about lesbian teenagers in Iran, and Benavides Born, about a female teenage power lifter in a small Texas town dreaming of a better life. (It was filmed in numerous towns throughout the state.)

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