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Movie Review: Queen of Katwe

Queen of Katwe is a coming-of-age Disney drama about Phiona, a Ugandan girl from Katwe, who is made aware of a world of opportunity after displaying a remarkable talent for the game of chess. It's based on an ESPN magazine article and book by Tim Crothers, which has been adapted for film by William Wheeler. It's a colourful movie, accentuating Uganda's rich spectrum of colour even further through architecture, fashion and decoration. While a relatively impoverished nation, the people are exuberant and forcibly entrepreneurial, giving the culture a wonderful vitality. Perhaps these parallels with India are what inspired the choice for Mira Nair to direct.

At first it's disappointing to think that an inherently African film was awarded to an "outsider". There are many up-and-coming talents from the continent, like Philippe Lacôte (Run), who could do wonders with this kind of film. However, you can understand why Disney would want a more bankable and seasoned director to helm the project and to Nair's credit, the parallels with India make her a great choice. If Danny Boyle can be charged with directing the Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire, then why shouldn't Mira Nair get a chance to wow audiences with Queen of Katwe.

Both Slumdog Millionaire and Queen of Katwe have their similarities. Instead of Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?, we're dealing with the age-old game of chess and instead of embracing the charms, poverty and kaleidoscope of India, we're dealing with a similar scenario in Uganda. Queen of Katwe isn't specifically striving for 'authentic' or 'gritty' like Four Corners did for Cape Town, but does enmesh these factors into the storytelling, by lacing social issues into Phonia's struggle. The visual tapestry makes it seem like an adaptation of a Coke advert, imbuing a similar upbeat spirit and trying to dilute the "African" dream and Coca-Cola imperialism into a rags-to-riches underdog tale.

Queen of Katwe 2016

"Who cares what Kasparov said, you're a Katwe fighter!"

In this climate of financial insecurity and renewed focus on gender equality, Queen of Katwe serves as a timely and empowering drama. The true story that inspired this dramatisation, gives this film more clout despite its tendency towards Disney formula. This underlying kernel of truth is further cultivated by sincere and stirring performances from David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o. Both actors bring their international class to the production and make a wonderful support for young Madina Nalwanga, whose open-faced acting is convincing, honest and refreshingly present.

Queen of Katwe is delightfully funny and touching with the chess club kids charming their way into our hearts with fish-out-of-water comedy and their flippant yet endearing attitudes. This helps create a light-heartedness to the film and instead of bemoaning poverty and pointing the finger, it demonstrates the power of encouragement in building self-esteem and confidence. It may not have a fully-fledged education to fall back on, but Phiona's natural abilities and drive are inspiring and the activation of these by her tireless mentor is heartwarming.

There are many cliches to this resilient underdog tale, but Queen of Katwe shines in spite of its Disneyfication. We live through the quality of the performances, the vibrant other-worldliness of the backdrop, the sincerity of the humour, the nuances of the direction, the naive spirit of the journey and the feel-good beauty of this wonderful true story. It may be familiar, but it bursts with goodness and will have you finger-flicking like Phiona in no time.

The bottom line: Spirited

Coming Soon: 'Shepherds and Butchers' (28 Oct)

Shepherds and Butchers directed by Oliver Schmitz and produced by Anant Singh, will open nationwide on the South African theatrical circuit on Friday, October 28th through Times Media Films.

Award-winning filmmaker, Oliver Schmitz (Life, Above All) directs the screen adaptation penned by Brian Cox. The gripping courtroom human drama is based upon the acclaimed South African novel of the same name by Chris Marnewick, a former advocate for the Durban bar, who based on the book on meticulously researched factual information amassed from his years as a defense attorney.

Academy Award® nominee, Steve Coogan (Philomena) heads up the cast in the role of defense advocate, Johan Webber, who is up against Prosecutor Kathleen Murray, played by Andrea Riseborough (Shadow Dancer), in an intense courtroom battle to save a 19-year-old warden (Garion Dowds) working on death row from his death sentence for murdering seven men.

Shepherds and Butchers 2016

Singh, known for Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom and Sarafina!, commented that he is pleased that Times Media Films is giving the film such a wide release throughout the country. “We believe that Shepherds and Butchers is an important film for South African audiences as it has particular resonance of the damage done to an entire generation of South Africans, both Black and White, who, respectively, were forced to endure and perform horrific acts against their will in the draconian system of punishment of the apartheid regime. The film sets a platform for critical debate, on a global scale, on the issue of capital punishment.”

Follow @SplingMovies on Twitter or Like /SplingMovies on Facebook to keep up-to-speed in the build-up to this important film's release.

Talking Movies with Spling - Deepwater Horizon, Ida and Equals

Spling reviews Deepwater Horizon, Ida and Equals as broadcast on Talking Movies, Fine Music Radio. Catch Talking Movies on Fridays at 8:20am and Saturdays at 8:15am every week on Fine Music Radio.

Movie Review: Chocolat

Most people may associate Chocolat with the quaint Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp romance drama released at the turn of the 21st-century about a chocolate shop in a small French village. However, the original "Chocolat" became famous for clowning in Paris at the turn of the 20th-century. Rafael "Chocolat" Padilla became the first black circus artist in France and Chocolat chronicles his rise and fall.

Together with George Footit, the pairing revolutionised the art form by concocting a double act featuring the sophisticated white clown and foolish auguste clown. This duo was a box office sensation and helped reinvigorate clown acts and circus attendance figures. The story of Chocolat tries to amuse through an upbeat character study, leveraging his awkward place in Parisian society and candidly exploring societal prejudices and injustices of the time.

Casting the charismatic Intouchable star Omar Sy seemed like an inspired choice, however the role while reliant on personality, seems more suited to an actor of David Oyelowo's abilities. Sy is amusing and convincing when it comes to Chocolat's charisma and physical performance art, making a wonderful contrast to his clown counterpart Footit. However, he falls a bit flat when it comes to soaking up the magnitude of the drama. He's outclassed by Thierree, a hardened French version of Johnny Depp and in real-life a distant relation to Chaplin, playing the complex and melancholic Footit.

Chocolat 2016

"Are you not entertained?"

Their intricate relationship has the most dramatic tension, making you wonder why the film-makers didn't give it more focus to begin with. While promising, the production doesn't power home the fundamental prejudices concerning Chocolat. We're dealing with a fish-out-of-water drama and while it acknowledges inherent racism and double standards in the entertainment business, it doesn't go deep enough to truly grapple with them. Despite Sy's presence, it's not funny enough to be a flat-out comedy and doesn't dig deep enough to excavate the power of injustice, leaving you entertained, amused, informed but relatively unmoved.

Chocolat is a fascinating comedy drama and true story that had great film potential, but the script seems a bit tame and satisfied with scraping the surface. They could've gone with a Life is Beautiful angle by sweeping the darkness under the rug with comedy or taken to the shadows in search of more soul power. By walking this tightrope and struggling to siphon enough depth from Sy's comical performance, we fall back on the aesthetics. In this respect, it's a wonder - treating us to first-class production design and the exquisite wardrobe, steeping Chocolat in the life-and-times of Parisian circuses at the turn of the 20th-century.

The bottom line: Entertaining

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