Movie Review: “Queen of Katwe”

As a Westerner who has never visited, my mental images of sub-Saharan Africa have often included savannas filled with wildlife, violent rebel groups, and historic oppression in the Belgian Congo. I’m well aware that this perspective is horribly blinkered (recently, I’ve become particularly interested in learning more about the history of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, a group about which I knew exactly nothing before this year), but such concepts are the stuff of most news reports circulated throughout Western media. “Queen of Katwe,” set in modern Uganda, tells a very different tale indeed. Suffused with the distinctive beauty and tragedy interwoven throughout contemporary Ugandan culture, the film is on its face a rags-to-riches chess drama, but becomes much more through its willingness to raise provocative questions about the ways in which the “developing world” is often viewed.

“Queen of Katwe” is centrally the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a young Ugandan chess prodigy with virtually no formal education, who succeeds through sheer genius and the efforts of a dedicated teacher (David Oyelowo, who is outstanding here). Rounding out the cast, Lupita Nyong’o turns in a solid performance as Phiona’s mother (though her character in the film feels more incidental than integral to the plot).

“Queen of Katwe” is a much, much more interesting chess film than last year’s “Pawn Sacrifice” – particularly since its narrative will likely be completely unknown to most audiences, and outcomes never feel like foregone conclusions. And as one might well expect, the movie drives home powerfully the message that rare talent can indeed be found in unexpected places. The Western viewer is thus left wondering, sober-mindedly, how many, many geniuses with the talent to transform history are undoubtedly present in the “developing world”…if only the rest of the world had eyes to see them. In an era where education and competence are increasingly assessed by ever-narrower evaluative measures, “Queen of Katwe” has the courage to upend that narrative, celebrating those who think and act “outside the box.” (As a matter of storytelling, also helps that Phiona’s inspirational journey is juxtaposed against some extremely grim thematic undercurrents, of the sort rarely seen in PG-rated films, which give the movie’s dramatic moments an uncommonly deep bite).

I’d be remiss in my critical duty if I didn’t point out that “Queen of Katwe” has some serious third-act problems—most notably a murky denouement that doesn’t have a clear climax. There are also some serious sags in the pacing that feel frustratingly digressive (a full 30 minutes of content could’ve probably been cut without compromising the storytelling). In short, “Queen of Katwe” could’ve done with some more severe editing.

That being said, “Queen of Katwe” is both engrossing and thought-provoking – and well worth a trip to the cinema, if it’s playing in your area. Recommended.

A strikingly engaging and original, if occasionally overambitious, chess drama.

Normalized Score: 3.4

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Posted by on September 9, 2016 in Uncategorized


Movie Review: “Hell or High Water”

In many ways, “Hell or High Water” – set against a backdrop of slow rural decline in the face of an ever-encroaching information society – epitomizes the modern zeitgeist. It is a story of traditionalists’ violent revolt against a changing world, the inimitable beauties of a lifestyle that mass culture has largely rejected, and the fragility of heritable legacies in a society that pushes for ever-broader commoditization. If John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy co-wrote a contemporary Western drama, this would be the result.

On its face, “Hell or High Water” is a simple story about two brothers (Ben Foster and an outstanding Chris Pine) who start robbing banks to prevent the bank from foreclosing on their family ranch. On their heels follows a grizzled-yet-wily Texas Ranger on the cusp of retirement (Jeff Bridges).

The film is ruthlessly lean in its presentation – every frame matters, and not a single second feels like wasted time. Each shot is beautifully composed, and the film unfolds as a haunting work of mastercrafted cinematography. Stylistically a Western but tonally a dark crime film, “Hell or High Water” builds and builds tension in the hands of director David Mackenzie, culminating in an utterly satisfying finale.

To label this movie a “heist thriller,” though, is to cheapen what it’s really about. In some ways, this is a red-state “Wolf of Wall Street” that trades hedonistic ennui for raw anger. Thematically speaking, its message is less-than-palatable to cultural elites on both the left and right, coupling an undisguised contempt for modern neoliberalism with the provocative suggestion that rural Americans are being pushed from their land by globalists just as the original pioneers drove the Native Americans from that same land. In so doing, “Hell or High Water” evokes the sentiments of early-period Bruce Springsteen – dignity, rage, hard work, ancestry, place, and many others.

In the meta-sense, “Hell or High Water” is itself an act of defiance against the slow decline of blockbuster filmmaking. In an era where global receipts matter much more than the domestic box office alone, explosions and superheroes have become the universal language – easily translatable across cultures, requiring no shared enthymemes or history, and owing no real thematic debt to their forerunners. “Hell or High Water” unabashedly exists within the distinctly American filmmaking tradition, drawing on emotions, imagery, and characterization that have no corresponding analogues abroad. The film is in some ways a swan song for a way of life viewed by some casual, external observers as brash, “colonialist,” “hick,” “redneck,” etc. – and those observers will, sadly, fail to appreciate why “Hell or High Water” captures a cultural tragedy in the making. For indeed, juxtaposed against the movie’s sadness and violence are moments of great wonder and beauty: the breathtaking grandeur of sunset on the prairie, the utter absence of artifice in interpersonal dealings, the contemplative communitarianism of old age in small towns, and much more.

In short, “Hell or High Water” is a masterpiece – a Mumford and Sons ballad come to life, one that feels both timeless and searingly relevant. Don’t miss it (even if the Academy does).

VERDICT: 10/10
Beautiful, grim, and achingly elegiac, “Hell or High Water” is hands-down the best film I’ve seen this year. Highly recommended.

Normalized Score: 9.2

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Posted by on August 27, 2016 in Contemporary

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