Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

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Released 9-Sep-2003

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Drama None
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 1993
Running Time 105:41
RSDL / Flipper No/No Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 4 Directed By Steven Zaillian
Studio
Distributor

Paramount Home Entertainment
Starring Max Pomeranc
Joe Mantegne
Ben Kingsley
Laurence Fishburne
Joan Allen
Case ?
RPI $24.95 Music James Horner


Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame None English Dolby Digital 5.1 (448Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio 1.78:1
16x9 Enhancement
16x9 Enhanced
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.85:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

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Plot Synopsis

 "What is chess, do you think? Those who play for fun or not at all dismiss it as a game. The ones who devote their lives to it for the most part insist that it is a science. It's neither. Bobby Fischer got underneath it like no-one before him and found at its centre: art."
 - Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley)   

"Maybe it's better not to be the best. Then you can lose and it's OK." - Josh Waitzken (Max Pomeranc)

    This is one of my all-time favourite films and one which I've owned on DVD from Region 1 for a number of years now, so it is with much pleasure that I get the opportunity to review the Region 4 release. This is in my opinion a much underrated film and deserving of a significantly wider audience than it receives. Unfortunately, the subject matter of chess turns many people off straight away as, let's face it, chess doesn't immediately excite as a subject that will make for a visually enthralling film. But I would urge you - please do not dismiss this film just if you do not happen to be into the game. This film is in fact about much much more than just the game and its subculture - indeed, chess is really just the setting for what is essentially a heart-warming story exploring the bond between father and son. You certainly do not need to understand the game or its history to enjoy the film. This is an emotionally-charged film that is extremely well written and directed by Steven Zaillian (Academy Award winner for his screenplay of Schindler's List the same year), solidly acted all round and impressively photographed by Conrad Hall (Academy Award nominee for cinematography for this film and Academy Award winner for cinematography for American Beauty and Road To Perdition, amongst others).

    The quote at the top of this review gets to the very essence of the subject matter. It is a story about those who devote their lives to the passion of chess. Based on an autobiographical novel by father Fred Waitzkin (Joe Mantegne - Godfather Part III), it tells the story of real-life 7 year-old chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin (the amazingly talented young actor Max Pomeranc). The story begins with a "typically normal American family" and a "typically normal" 7 year-old boy, Josh, who enjoys a healthy relationship with his loving parents (Joe Mantegne and Joan Allen). In Washington Square Josh meets speed-chess hustler Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne) and is here introduced to the subculture of chess, sparking an immediate affinity with the young boy. It soon becomes apparent that Josh has a natural ability at this game and it is his mother who quickly latches on to this, while his father needs to test this to believe it by "challenging" his son to a game - and losing - before appreciating his son's abilities. And so sets in chain the events that will shape this family's life; as the movie's tagline states: "Every journey begins with a single move."  Josh's parents hire renowned but now retired chess coach Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley) to teach Josh in the style of the grand master chess champions; that is to teach him the art of chess as a structure, a disciplined approach of not just learning the game, but being indoctrinated into an appreciation of the school of learned moves, the lessons of past master class games and the building of a tactical knowledge base with which to out-manoeuvre your opponent (in short: "playing the board"). But this is everything different to the hustling, risky, aggressive style of speed-chess that Josh has been taught from Vinnie ("play the man, not the board"). And so the story unfolds of a chess prodigy torn between two mentors, and ultimately the story of an ordinary kid who happens to have a gift, growing up and forging relationships with his dad and others.

    Where does the film's title come in? Well, for those who may not be aware, Bobby Fischer was arguably the most famous, talented, yet mysterious and controversial chess champion of all time. Fischer was a child chess prodigy who outperformed all other prodigies before him. He was playing Master level chess at age 12, won the US Championship at age 14, became the youngest Grandmaster in the history of the game at age 15, and subsequently the youngest candidate for the World Championship. In 1972 he defeated then reigning World Champion Boris Spassky to become the first player of the modern era outside of the Soviet bloc to become World Champion. All this and he was basically self-taught!  Fischer was quite simply the most extraordinary phenomenon in the history of the game and a man who single-handedly raised the world profile of the game. Mysteriously however, on several occasions during his tumultuous career Bobby Fischer surprised and shocked the world by simply disappearing completely from the public eye, going into self-imposed exile often for years at a time. The most memorable of these occasions was in 1972, just after he had defeated Russian Boris Spassky and at the height of his world fame.

    In addition to his erratic behaviour, Bobby Fischer always was and still is to this day a controversial figure. Depending on your views, this genius is either full of self confidence (arrogance?), strong-willed and single-minded (opinionated?), a master at always winning the psychological game before the actual game begins and always forthright with comments about (contemptuous of?) his opponents and the chess administration. Of recent years, Fischer has been even more controversial, coming out with heated opinions about issues much wider than just chess. But regardless of your views of his most recent conduct in particular, the fact that Bobby Fischer was one of the greatest chess players this world has ever seen cannot be disputed.

    Despite what this film's title may indicate, this is not a film directly exploring the life of Bobby Fischer. Rather, the story of this man's life is told in parallel to Josh's story, mostly by newsreel extracts with voiceover narration by Josh himself. The events of Bobby Fisher's life are seen to have taken place in the recent background or else referred to directly as Josh's story unfolds. Those around Josh keep referring to and comparing him to "a young Fischer" and everyone in this movie seems to be either looking for Fischer, trying to be like him, or else trying to mold Josh like him. So has the world "found" their Bobby Fischer?....

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Transfer Quality

Video

    The video transfer on this DVD is great, only just let down by being a little grainy.

    The transfer is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 - close enough to its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 - and is 16x9 enhanced.

    Luminance in this transfer is perfectly sufficient, and in some scenes rises to excellent, but for the most part the edge is taken off the transfer just a bit by the visible grain, leading to an overall soft resolution. There is, however, no low level noise to worry about.

    Colour is superb. The director and cinematographer have gone for a fairly even and moderate colour palette here, but with bright bold colours every now and again to very good effect, usually in Josh's clothing or in some incidental background element here and there. The transfer captures all colours beautifully, displaying rich but not excessive levels of saturation and some nice deep blacks.

    There are no MPEG artefacts to note, other than what might be minor Gibb Effect around the closing credits. The area of film-to-video artefacts also scores highly, with the only issue to even mention being some trivial and infrequent aliasing. Film artefacts are not quite as scarce, but they too are restricted to the very minor, in this case minor film flecks every so often and a few very brief/unobtrusive negative artefacts. Overall, this DVD has been mastered from a very well preserved interpositive.

    There is no subtitle stream available on this DVD. Furthermore, there is not even any time-coding or chapter marker indication available, which would appear to be a slip-up in the disc authoring for this Region 4 release, noting that time-coding and chapter markers are included on the Region 1 release.

    The disc is single-layered.

Video Ratings Summary
Sharpness
Shadow Detail
Colour
Grain/Pixelization
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts
Overall

Audio

    The audio transfer also rates very highly.

    The Region 4 release receives only one audio track, being the English Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack (encoded at the full bitrate of 448 Kb/s).

    Dialogue quality remains strong and easily discernable in the mix throughout the feature. This is putting aside one or two instances of voiceover narration being slightly less articulated around the edges by young Max Pomeranc, but this lies in the original delivery of these lines by the very young actor and is no fault of the audio transfer. In any event, these narration voiceover parts never get to the point of being indecipherable, they just require a bit more effort at listening, and the choice of Josh narrating the story of Bobby Fischer's life is apt, lending to the story and parallel much better than having (say) his father narrate these sections.

    Audio sync is spot on, with no issues noted.

    The music score is provided by veteran James Horner, a man who knows his craft and delivers yet again, this time with a subtle, understated, but complementary and emotionally-tugging score where needed. The DVD's audio track carries the music very well, with adequate dynamic range and clarity.

    The audio track is a 5.1 channel re-mix from the original theatrical Dolby Stereo track, and highly effective and intelligently mixed it is too. The use of the surrounds is constant, yet subtle, and immerses the viewer most effectively into the film. Surround speaker use includes the more obvious things such as thunder claps and background street/park noises, but also many more subtle background noises and room atmospherics as well. This is an excellent demonstration of how an original theatrical stereo soundtrack can be embellished, but not overcome by, the use of a new surround re-mix for DVD.

    This is not a demanding action soundtrack, but the subwoofer also has its fair share to do here and is liberally called upon where appropriate for LFE rumbles and bumps and also to drive the bottom end of the music. Again, most effective without being obvious or overdone.

Audio Ratings Summary
Dialogue
Audio Sync
Clicks/Pops/Dropouts
Surround Channel Use
Subwoofer
Overall

Extras

    None. We get a very basic still-frame main menu screen with scene selection options only.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

   This DVD is also available in Region 1 in a similar bare bones release, however in comparison to the Region 1, the Region 4 does miss out on the following minor items:

    This is hardly anything to worry about.

    The DVD is not available in Region 2 at all.

    The fact that our Region 4 disc does not have the English subtitle stream, or even time coding and visible chapter markers, is annoying, yes, but nothing to be too upset about. The most important thing is that we do receive the same higher specified 5.1 audio track as the Region 1 release, so I am going to put this one down as even across regions. I would recommend then to opt for the Region 4 release for price and the superior PAL resolution.

Summary

    This film is about much more than just chess. It is an underrated film but a very important one. Containing rock-solid acting performances all-round, and particularly so by young Max Pomeranc, an emotionally-charged script by award-winning master screenwriter Steven Zaillian, warm direction by the writer and the usual excellent standard of cinematography by Conrad Hall, this film deserves a much much wider audience than just those who happen to love the game of chess.

    The DVD rates highly for video transfer, sourced from a well-preserved interpositive, and audio transfer, effectively embellished by its new 5.1 re-mix. It is just a pity there are no extras at all.

Ratings (out of 5)

Video
Audio
Extras
Plot
Overall

© Sean Abberton (read my bio)
Tuesday, September 16, 2003
Review Equipment
DVDToshiba 2109, using Component output
DisplayToshiba 117cm widescreen RPTV. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum/AVIA. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderYamaha RXV-1000. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum/AVIA.
AmplificationElektra Home Theatre surround power amp
SpeakersOrpheus Aurora III mains, Orpheus Centaurus 1.0 centre, Velodyne CT150 sub and B&W DM303 rears

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