Queen of Katwe

queen_of_katwe_ver2_xlg

Release: Friday, September 23, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: William Wheeler

Directed by: Mira Nair

Despite the illusion of diversity and the notion that films are now being tailor-made for niched audiences, director Mira Nair’s latest feels like a rarity, one that’s not only good for the soul, but good for Disney. Here is a work of substance that is going to satisfy, dare I say move, those seeking a more refreshing point of view. Better yet, themes of poverty and desperation are never overwrought, the drama working comfortably within the PG rating to effect one of the year’s feel-great experiences.

The film was shot entirely on location in Uganda and in Johannesburg, South Africa, and it features a Ugandan director in Nair, who was born in India but presently lives in the country and it is her vision and her choice cast that earns the film a refreshingly authentic African vibe. Though it does visit some dark places, the narrative chooses to forego any sort of political commentary in favor of celebrating what makes African culture so distinct; rich in personality and heart, warm in spirit and color — much of which is reflected in the stunning wardrobe courtesy of Mobolaji Dawodu.

With Disney of course you’re never short of a few doses of cloying sentimentality but in Queen of Katwe the feel-goodness feels really good and it feels earned. It’s also not that simple, as you’ll likely feel on more than one occasion, really, really bad.  It doesn’t hurt that the picture features two of the year’s finest performances and a star-making turn from Ugandan newcomer Madina Nalwanga. Incidentally, Nalwanga has experienced considerable changes of fortune in her own life having afforded an education subsidized by the dance company she performs with. When the film screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, it was the second time she had ever seen a film in a theater, and this time she was the star.

The story tells of Phiona Mutesi, a 10-year-old chess prodigy from the slum village of Katwe — a region within Kampala, Uganda’s capital — who manages to transform her life by competing in major chess tournaments. The movie traces her rise to prominence while delineating the tension between the gifted Phiona and her mother, who doesn’t want to see her daughter’s dreams crushed. Phiona comes from an especially impoverished family of five — she has two younger brothers and an older sister. Her widowed mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), is the glue that holds everything together, working tirelessly to keep the family under a roof and to keep her children fed. She often goes hungry and works long hours selling vegetables on the streets. Life’s desperate and Phiona’s sister Night (Taryn “Kay” Kyaze) has already had enough, having become infatuated with the city life after meeting a man of some wealth.

One day she comes across a group of kids playing chess in a tent. They’re being mentored by a man named Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) who also happens to be working for the town ministry. After quickly learning the basics, Phiona shows promise as a player, often beating her fellow competitors, which stirs up quite the fuss as no girl should be allowed to beat a boy. It’s not long before Katende realizes her quick wit and intellect separates her and he finds himself jumping through hoops to encourage her mother to allow Phiona to pursue this. There are cash prizes awarded at these tournaments, he says. But Nakku pushes back, concerned that exposure to an altogether unattainable life will ruin Phiona.

Queen of Katwe falls upon familiar underdog story constructs but Nair employs them such that they’re necessary plot propellants. The most familiar of the obstacles manifest themselves in the competition scenes. When the youngsters travel to their first competition nerves are high, the opponents are well-dressed and contemptuous. Perceptions of inferiority and illegitimacy can be traced back to the moment Katende advocates for Phiona’s inclusion in competitive chess to members of the Katwe school council. Bureaucrats tell him bluntly that those from the slum should not intermix with people of another class. Additionally, the constant degradation on the home front as the family find themselves temporarily evicted isn’t anything we haven’t experienced before but there’s a rawness to these developments that just can’t be ignored.

The resolution is far from unpredictable, even given the oppressive circumstances into which this bright young girl has been born. Phiona is obviously an anomaly. We know she’s going all the way to the top, and we know she’s going to ultimately succeed. It’s the journey getting there, and getting to experience her family’s struggles and their perseverance that ultimately rewards. And when the film is so handsomely mounted and beautifully acted, particularly by Nyong’o and Oyelowo who offer powerful resilience and unwavering support respectively, that makes the culmination of all things positive and predictable that much more acceptable. Queen of Katwe is a Disney film that reminds us of the power of perseverance and the importance of intellect, one that creatively parallels the complexities of chess with the decisions one has to make in life, whether the end game is elevating one’s social standing or finding a way just to make ends meet. This is a born winner.

medina-nalwanga-and-lupita-nyongo-in-queen-of-katwe

Recommendation: Powerful performances allow Queen of Katwe to transcend cliché and they also help the film speak to a larger human experience of rising above circumstance and overcoming serious odds. It’s nice that the film focuses on a part of the world that doesn’t get the big screen treatment very often. And as to the sport that lies at the heart of the film — I concede I don’t find chess altogether exciting but the way the director and the screenplay works it in to the story actually makes it pretty compelling. I personally have no idea what’s going on on a chess board but I had no problem believing that this brilliant girl did. That’s the mark of a good actor.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “Sometimes the place you are used to is not the place you belong. You belong where you believe you belong. Where is that for you?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Beasts of No Nation

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga

Beasts of No Nation represents another first for the mecca of online streaming media that is Netflix, becoming its first original feature-film debut, and a potent one at that.

Despite voluntarily sacrificing potential business, major theater chains such as AMC, Regal and Carmike are throwing a hissy fit and refusing to screen the picture, deeming its online availability a violation of their exclusive 90-day release period. Too bad for them. While the convenience Beasts presents to anyone with a Netflix subscription suggests it will be readily consumed by the masses, its thoroughly brutal subject matter is likely to put it at odds with a great many subscribers. This is a film of almost impenetrable darkness, fabricated out of the stuff of real-life nightmares reminiscent of the Darfurian and Liberian conflicts. Needless to say it takes some courage to watch, at least without pausing.

Cary Joji Fukunaga’s harrowing probe into a war-torn, nameless West African nation finds a young boy named Agu (Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah in a brilliant and heartbreaking debut role) falling into the clutches of a rebel army led by Idris Elba’s sadistic Commandant after Agu flees into the dense forest away from violence recently visited upon his town, violence that has just claimed the lives of his older brother and father. His mother and younger sister manage to make it onto a cramped bus bound for the nation’s capital. Beasts is so consistently bleak that although we never see the pair again, we may as well assume they don’t make it there alive, either. I suppose it would help to be more positive and just assume the opposite, but who really knows.

Fukunaga’s uncompromising vision finds much success in a lack of structure, in unbridled chaos; this is a film centered around child soldiers committing war crimes that grown men would be desperate to forget for the rest of their lives. In fact, that’s one of the subtler tragedies evoked by the quite incidental fate Agu meets when he’s plucked out of the lush canopy by an intimidating man surrounded by kids of varying ages and threatening countenances. Watch how quickly the boy is stripped of his innocence. One particularly gruesome scene suggests Agu loses it in one fell swoop, yet this ‘initiation’ merely marks the beginning of the fall.

Beasts is somewhat aimless in its traipsing through endless overgrowth and through towns just like the one Agu and Strika (Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye), a mute boy with whom he bonds, have been ripped away from, yet there’s a method to Fukunaga’s madness. And that is indeed it — madness. The Commandant takes great pleasure in his propagandistic leadership, while the film zeroes in on the specific relationship he has with his newest recruit. We learn through Agu’s eyes how everyone else has been similarly brainwashed, convinced that it is the war that has done this to them and their families. The leader (who apparently always looks “all right”) has merely saved their lives and now they must avenge what has been lost. (Of course, he’s not a true malefactor without having ulterior motives, like earning a long-sought promotion, which, in effect, demonstrates the degree to which the guy actually cares about his troops.)

Beasts, which was not only written and directed by Fukunaga but produced and framed as well, manifests more as an unfeeling, journalistic observation than a damning political statement. There’s a part where the group is patrolling an open road and gets passed by a vehicle carrying what are obvious outsiders, armed with cameras and looks of horror as Agu and Strika flank Commandant while mimicking his thuggish comportment. However intentional the parallel is remains unclear, but our status as third-party to these atrocities puts us in that vehicle from which we look on, helpless to do anything. The neutrality works insofar as it allows the violence to unfold frankly and from all angles, much of it being dispensed by our tortured protagonist.

But that same neutrality clashes with the internal monologue Fukunaga inserts at sporadic intervals; Agu expressing on more than one occasion how he doesn’t remember time passing, that he fears God is no longer paying attention to him. His thoughts come infrequently to the point where they interrupt rather than compliment the perspective driven by camera angles and a focus on the dynamic between the follower and the leader. Regarding the latter, it helps that Elba is absolutely outstanding in this vile supporting role, but it’s a shame he all but disappears from the frame somewhat surprisingly. Fukunaga leaves just a little too much interpretation up to us by failing to bang his gavel and sentencing the bad guys to whatever fate they deserve.

Would a less ambiguous conclusion have made Beasts an easier watch? Of course not. And it wouldn’t have made the film any easier to forget. But it might have helped crystallize just what we’ve gained by trudging through two hours of hell. All the same, this is a project that displays great confidence in delivering gut punches by focusing on an oft-overlooked aspect of war, and a part of the world that doesn’t receive the attention it ought to. Filmed on location in Ghana, this is a beast of a film.

Recommendation: Not exactly an easy watch, Beasts of No Nation represents a grim reality that mainstream films have for too long ignored. Granted I don’t think the concept of child soldiers perpetrating war crimes makes for an easy pitch, so good for Fukunaga for committing to it and for involving a quality actor in the British thespian. Amazing performances all around, in fact. If you’re strong-willed, you shouldn’t let this one pass you by. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “Bullet is just eating everything, leaves, trees, ground, person. Eating them. Just making person to bleed everywhere. We are just like wild animals now, with no place to be going. Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com