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NPR Arts & Life

Toronto, Day 4: Pop Stars, Chess Prodigies And Battling Science

Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a pop star and Minnie Driver as her controlling mother in <em>Beyond the Lights</em>.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw as a pop star and Minnie Driver as her controlling mother in <em>Beyond the Lights</em>.

Beyond the Lights: Gina Prince-Bythewood wrote and directed the terrific 2000 romance Love & Basketball, and here, she looks at the intersection of love and celebrity. Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is a rapidly rising pop star whose hard-driving mother (Minnie Driver) has been pushing her hard all her life. Career-wise, she's doing great. Personally, not so much. On a particularly bad night, Noni meets a cop named Kaz (Nate Parker), who winds up knowing more than she (or her mom) would like about her state of mind.

What Prince-Bythewood does very well is structure romances around the idea that people falling in love is the middle of a story, not the end. As was true with Love & Basketball, her interest here is not in these beautiful people meeting and being interested in each other, but in what happens after that, particularly because Noni's world is so often overwhelming. There's a lotgoing on here regarding not just the love story but also women in the music industry, and the film's presentation of the particulars of Noni's career is depressingly plausible.

Prince-Bythewood retains an uncommonly fine touch when shooting not just sex but other scenes of physical contact and closeness, which give the film a sense of intimacy and gravity. Unlike a lot of what's in Toronto this week, this is not an art-house film or even a self-consciously awards-y project, but a really good version of a kind of popular film that's rarely made this thoughtfully or carefully.

Pawn Sacrifice: Edward Zwick directs Tobey Maguire in the story of Bobby Fischer's World Chess Championship battle with Boris Spassky in 1972. Maguire turns in a good, twitchy performance as Fischer, shedding the cute-young-man vibe that has stuck with him even as he approaches 40. Liev Schreiber, as Spassky, is similarly sharp, though he doesn't get a whole lot to do.

The challenge with this story is shooting important chess matches, which come up often as Fischer's personal history is sketched prior to the Spassky match. It's hard to make chess exciting, and while Zwick does his best, he's forced to fall back on Fischer's supporters breathlessly explaining to each other what he's doing, simply so the audience has some idea of whether what he just did is a good move or a bad move, since a chess move is not like a home run or a touchdown in a sports movie: An ordinary person doesn't necessarily know whether the guy you're supposed to be rooting for is winning.

While the film tries to provide the Cold War context for the match to explain some of the attention it received, it ultimately can't quite escape its fundamentals as part biopic, part sports movie.

Merchants of Doubt: This documentary, based on a book by the same name, examines why, even in cases where working scientists broadly agree on the need for public policy changes based on scientific research, those public policy changes are so difficult to accomplish. While the immediate impetus for the film is frustration with the lack of meaningful action in light of scientific research on climate change, it draws comparisons to other problems, including smoking and even flame retardants in furniture, to examine how scientists have always found it difficult to use research and evidence to drive regulatory policy when those being regulated are skilled at keeping it from happening.

Certainly, Merchants of Doubt-- the title of which refers to figures, often officially or unofficially tied to regulated industries, who work to discredit research and researchers that suggest regulation is necessary — has a thesis. It is the documentary as argument, not just record. But given the strong convictions that drive it, it's pleasantly complex, in that there are figures presented as good and decent who do not all agree with each other about everything. That can be hard to accomplish in a piece of advocacy, but it's welcome. Merchants of Doubtis not a lot of fun to watch, as the stories it tells are troubling, but it's a fascinating peek at how PR battles are won and lost, even regarding things that seem to have nothing to do with PR.

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