By Susan Granger
Special to WestportNow
Who would have thought that “The Queen’s Gambit,” a seven-episode Netflix series—built around an intellectual game like chess—could be so compelling?
It begins in Kentucky in 1958, as young Beth Harmon (Isla Johnston) is placed in a Dickensian orphanage after a car crash killed her mother. Tipped off by an older girl named Jolene (Moses Ingram), Beth discovers that they’re being force-fed habit-forming drugs to “tranquilize” them.
One day, when Beth wanders into the basement to clean erasers, she befriends the grumpy custodian, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), who teaches her how to play chess. Beth becomes so adept so quickly that when she’s invited to compete with the local school’s chess team, she trounces every player.
Years pass and teenage Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) is adopted by a suburban Lexington couple: alcoholic, piano-playing Alma (writer/director Marielle Heller) and Allston Wheatley (Patrick Kennedy), who often disappears on “business trips.”
Realizing that her phenomenal chess acumen is her ticket to fame and fortune, Beth starts competing in local tournaments, followed by national and international matches, culminating in Moscow, where she faces legendary Russian champion Vasily Bogov (Marcin Dorocinski).
Despite Beth’s confidently frosty demeanor, three different competitors (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Harry Melling) are openly vying for her attention and affection.
Based on a novel by Walter Tevis (“The Man Who Fell to Earth,” “The Hustler”), it’s written and directed by Scott Frank (“Godless”), who turns this fictional character-study into a fascinating coming-of-age drama about an obsessive, self-destructive young woman taking control of her life and succeeding in what is traditionally considered a man’s domain.
What’s most remarkable is the sustained tension of the chess scenes; filmed with authenticity, thanks to New York City chess coach Bruce Pandolfini and former world champion Garry Kasparov. And, if you’re intrigued about chess-on-film, find “Searching for Bobby Fischer” (1993) and “Queen of Katwe” (2016).
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “The Queen’s Gambit” is an intriguing 8—about the emotional price paid for genius.
Set in Manhattan, Sofia Coppola’s snappy comedic drama “On the Rocks,” available on Apple TV+, revolves around a meddling father, his anxious daughter and a marriage that may or may not be falling apart.
Retired high-end art dealer Felix (Bill Murray) is a suave, smooth-talking playboy; his shameless philandering destroyed his marriage to the mother of his daughter Laura (Rashida Jones).
So, naturally, when Laura suspects her husband may be cheating on her, chauvinistic Felix is the one she confides in.
Lecherous Felix wryly explains: “It’s his nature. Males are forced to fight to dominate and impregnate all females.”
After starting his own company, Laura’s ambitious husband Dean (Marlon Wayans) travels a lot. So he’s spending less and less time in their SoHo apartment with their two youngsters: school-age Maya (Liyanna Muscat) and toddler Theo (twins Alexandra/Anna Reimer).
Meanwhile, Laura is an author with writer’s block. And when Dean comes home from a London business trip, Laura finds a woman’s toiletries bag in his luggage.
Could it belong to his assistant Fiona (Jessica Henwick)? Turns out—it does. Fiona couldn’t fit it into her carry-on so Dean stuffed it into his luggage. At least, that’s how he explains its presence.
But then why is Dean so hesitant to commit to a summer vacation rental? And what’s up with his “sudden” business trip to Manzanillo, Mexico?
While Rashida Jones embodies vulnerability, Bill Murray steals the show, as he did in Coppola’s “Lost in Translation” (2003), this time embodying an irresistibly endearing scoundrel who helps his daughter spy on her husband.
Obsessed with the concept of monogamy/marital fidelity, writer/director Sofia Coppola conveys her smart, sophisticated, incisive observations about men, no doubt formed by the dynastic Coppola family and her first marriage to director Spike Jonze.
With two young daughters, Coppola’s now married to musician Thomas Mars, frontman for the French synth band Phoenix, supplying the musical score.
On the Granger Gauge, “On the Rocks” is a deceptively sly, bittersweet 7, aimed at young women.
Back in 1990, Nicolas Roeg made a terrifying version of Roald Dahl’s children’s novel “The Witches,” starring Anjelica Huston as the villainess, utilizing anthropomorphic mice from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop. When Dahl saw the result, he wrote Henson, deploring the “vulgarity, bad taste and actual terror displayed.”
In this new HBO Max remake narrated by Chris Rock, director Robert Zemeckis opts for macabre silliness although, at times, it also gets a bit too intense for impressionable youngsters.
Shifting the locale from 1980s England to late 1960s Alabama, the story is told by an eight year-old Black lad (Jahzir Kadeem Bruno) whose parents died in a car crash. When he goes to live with his maternal Grandma (Octavia Spencer), she feeds him cornbread and gives him a tiny white mouse that he names Daisy (voiced by Kristin Chenoweth).
One day, at the grocery store, he’s approached by a bizarre woman (Josette Simon) offering him candy. Soon afterward, Grandma warns him about witches, noting they always wear long gloves to hide their claws and wigs to cover their bald-and-blistered heads.
Sensing danger, Grandma calls in a “favor” from a cousin and seeks refuge at the Grand Orleans Imperial Island Hotel on the Gulf of Mexico. She’s sure they’ll be safe there because the resort is filled with rich, white folk—and she believes that witches primarily prey on the poor.
But that luxurious beachfront hotel is just where the Grand High Witch (Anne Hathaway) is meeting with her coven, secretly teaching them how to turn children into mice, utilizing “Formula 86.”
Originally conceived by Guillermo del Toro, who shares screenwriting credit with Zemeckis and Kenya Barris, as a stop-motion animation feature, it’s now a live-action fantasy.
While the CG chase scenes are diverting, there seems little reason for this muddled remake. Octavia Spencer oozes warmth, but Anne Hathaway must have practiced her pseudo-European accent at the bottom of a cauldron because she’s often unintelligible.
On the Granger Gauge, “The Witches” is a creepy 5—not as bewitching as it should be.
(Editor’s Note: Westport resident Susan Granger grew up in Hollywood, studied journalism with Pierre Salinger at Mills College, and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with highest honors in journalism. In addition to writing for newspapers and magazines, she has been on radio/television as an anchorwoman and movie/drama critic for many years. See her reviews at www.susangranger.com.)