Queen of Katwe

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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.

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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

Chappie

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Release: Friday, March 6, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Neill Blomkamp; Terri Tatchell

Directed by: Neill Blomkamp

The nonsense that is Chappie makes one sorely nostalgic for the days of Elysium and awkward Jodie Foster performances. At least in that semi-disappointing spectacle we were teased with the notion of leaving behind a civilization that Neill Blomkamp clearly despises. Here, no such escape is possible.

Six years ago there spiked an irregularity in the heartbeat of the contemporary science fiction flick. District 9 represented a revolutionary leap forward, in its case coming damn close to confirming the notion that we are not alone in the universe. While the framing device wasn’t exactly revolutionary — documentary-style footage of the conflict between mankind and alien life — the Johannesburgian director’s blend of visual panache with hard-hitting themes such as apartheid and political corruption reestablished a healthy pulse for the genre. Sharlto Copley’s descent into madness as he found his body evolving into that of a ‘Prawn’ following his contact with the aliens’ biotechnology remains unquestionably Blomkamp’s most emotionally engaging story to date. It is unfortunate that within the span of three admittedly unique films Blomkamp’s ability to inspire and provoke meaningful conversation is trending in a similarly ugly way.

If you don’t consider yourself much of a student of pessimistic filmmaking then it’s perhaps best you don’t attend the school that Blomkamp has established. I certainly wouldn’t advise the more optimistic to check out his latest lecture, Chappie, a punishing and unenjoyable lesson in how human beings are really terrible creations and that artificial intelligence should be regarded as an improvement. Granted, this is a director who has grown up in a part of the world that hasn’t exactly given him reason to champion our species, but the cynicism on display in his latest is tough to justify. At the very least, the marketing campaign touting it as a relatively uplifting experience is an exercise in false advertising.

Chappie pivots around the notion that a robot can reflect the best and worst of mankind if exposed long enough to the elements. Not exactly the most novel concept if we want to consider things like RoboCop and Terminator, but the titular character here is nevertheless compelling. What surrounds him, then, manifests as a metaphor for how variations in one’s upbringing ultimately impact the individual as an adult.

A discarded police droid is “brought to life” by tech genius Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) who sees an opportunity to instill consciousness in a machine. He brings his newly-created Artificial Intelligence software to his boss, Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver, in a role/performance reminiscent of Foster’s Delacourte) who of course shoots down the idea to install it in the defunct machine. With a middle finger aimed at his superiors, Deon goes behind her back and creates what will soon be dubbed ‘Chappie’ by a pair of thugs (South African rap duo Yo-Landi and Ninja, collectively known in our reality as Die Antwoord). The former is quick to establish quasi-maternal instincts while the nasty Ninja’s loathe to treat the thing as an intelligent form of life, putting it in harm’s way every chance he gets.

After all the mocking and physical suffering Chappie endures — he gets lit on fire and his arm sawed off in a scene that impressively makes us cringe — which parental style is going to have the most profound impact upon him? What’ll happen when Chappie’s metaphorical balls drop? When he is able to fully tap into his own consciousness? The narrative hits its fair share of high notes as a notable change within the droid redirects it away from its heretofore abusive upbringing, sending Chappie out as a black sheep amongst a field of hungry wolves in a quest to find out why he is what he is. But the characterizations of everyone, including Chappie’s well-intentioned creator, lack inspiration. In fact the most interesting way to describe the majority is having a cold metal block where a heart ought to be. It’s not that the performers fail to live up to the characters; it’s vice versa.

And Hugh Jackman’s sadistic Vincent Moore couldn’t get out of the picture fast enough. Hell-bent on controlling the robotic police force that is in turn responsible for controlling citizens, he is one brute force who has no real motives and a terrible haircut to boot. He’s most representative of Blomkamp’s disregard for coloring people in shades of grey. There are no shades of grey in Chappie; people are vile and that’s just the way it is. Jackman’s is twice the caricature Copley’s outrageous but much more enjoyable rogue agent Kruger was in Elysium. He’s the type of villain who hints at a climactic gunfight from miles away. His prized possession is a gigantic remote-controlled robot goofily named ‘Moose’ that makes its sole appearance in the film by blowing everyone away with ease.

Regarding the kind of performance art he and his counterpart have been creating over the years, Ninja believes “people are unconscious, and you have to use your art as a shock machine to wake them up. Some people are too far gone. They’ll just keep asking, ‘Is it real? Is it real?’ You have to be futuristic and carry on. You gotta be a good guide to help people get away from dull experience.”

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1-5Recommendation: 2015 represents a low point in Neill Blomkamp’s career, but even with Chappie‘s ability to repel through unlikable characters and a consistently oppressive tone, one can do a lot worse when it comes to contemporary science fiction. There exists a level of intelligence in his films that shines through in Chappie but it shines the weakest in this one, there is no doubt. If you are a fan of his previous work you probably should see this but give the theater a skip. Rent it at home where you have the power to pause and return to it later.

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “I’m consciousness. I’m alive. I’m Chappie.”

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 

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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Release: Christmas Day 2013

[Theater]

Nelson Mandela. Now there’s a name that has ‘Hollywood movie’ written all over it.

With the passing of such an extraordinary figure a mere month ago, the moment doesn’t seem to be any riper for a major motion picture about him to be sweeping across the globe. While it’s pretty difficult to conceive of this international release date being any more strategic than just being a ‘Christmas Day release’ (that’s a profitable enough decision to begin with), some of the more pessimistic of us are inclined to speculate that perhaps someone on the inside knew about certain developments in their subject’s health, on a medical level, on a level most of us wouldn’t care to know or recognize as being true. With the saddening foresight that this man might not be around for much longer, why not use that as leverage to potentially gain an even bigger audience?

That is, of course, to suggest: what would the box office turn-out be if this film was released, say this past summer? Next summer? Two Septembers from now? Would a later release date help the film fulfill its potential to move audiences?

Most people probably don’t think of movie releases being manipulative. And yet reality dictates that, with a time frame such as this (Mandela dying twenty days prior to the release), the subject would suddenly become more relevant; the potential for emotional connectivity would become much greater. If we didn’t have to come to terms with Nelson Mandela no longer being with us, this Christmas release would otherwise seem a little arbitrary.

Unfortunately, all of that is pure speculation. Some readers are probably shaking their heads at the level of cynicism on display. I don’t blame those people for thinking I’m overanalyzing the situation, but I think I’m going to stand by my conviction that Hollywood’s suits (i.e. some of the happiest people on Earth) really dug the idea of this suddenly becoming a much more timely tribute to Mandela. Especially when the film’s screenplay seems to support my perhaps off-kilter views.

At two hours and twenty minutes in length, Long Walk to Freedom is really a long sit. It overstays its welcome, a concept that must be difficult to believe if you have yet to see this, because it deals with one of the world’s most influential human rights activists. How, pray, does a topic like this wear thin?

Oh, how it does. . .

Written more as a thoroughly-detailed biography special on the History channel, director Justin Chadwick’s ambition isn’t to blame, entirely. As one can imagine, he had to sift through a tremendous wealth of information about the subject and the climate of South African politics of the time, so perhaps the condescendingly low-brow style of the film should be forgiven. Though this too often has the feel of a history class lecture, there’s ultimately nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just not the film most are going to be expecting when it features one of the most rapidly-rising British stars at this moment.

The film is almost saved by London-native Idris Elba’s authentic portrayal of Mr. Mandela. Naomie Harris vies for some potential nominations as well, as she steps inside the role of Winnie Madikizela, Nelson’s second wife, an extremely frustrated woman who turned to more radical and violent measures of fighting for her fellow oppressed people. With both leads clearly committed to giving the film some gravity — Elba’s heavily-covered-in-make-up facial expressions are on multiple occasions heartbreaking and are effective in visually demonstrating the burden the real life figured carried with him for his long, long life — Long Walk can’t be dismissed completely as a ‘bad’ film.

Perhaps a more accurate description of the experience is underwhelming, which is a crime unto itself. Chadwick makes sure he maintains a reasonable number of inspirational quotes from the man himself, but it looks like we, the folks who were hoping to learn something about this iconic figure, might have to wait a few more years before being treated to the proper Mandela biopic. With absolutely no offense to the two lead performers — since they are virtually the only reason this film bears significance at all — Long Walk feels much too rushed, another sign this was a product of emphatic marketing to the public.

Elba and Harris do all they can with the material, but even their own personal, strong convictions about who their characters were drown in a sea of mediocrity and obligatory sentimentality.

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2-5Recommendation: It’s hardly an offensive film, even considering how middling the end results are. If you know literally nothing about the man (if that’s the case, shame on you) you will come away with a newfound respect for the struggles of these people and this man in particular. But if you’ve done any research whatsoever about this troubling bit of history, you’re not likely to be as moved by his dramatized on-screen plight. And to me, that just ain’t right.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 139 mins.

Quoted: “No person is ever born hating another person because of the color of their skin. People learn to hate. They are taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart.”

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