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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 LacĂ´te (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

 
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


 
Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven (2016)


The Magnificent Seven is a revisionist Western remake of a classic Western, which was based on a Japanese film called The Seven Samurai. The story of heroes vs. cowards, little man vs. big man, defending your fortress and fighting for freedom from tyranny and persecution has remained timeless. The altruism at the heart of The Seven Samurai is part of the reason this film has been immortalised and still holds up today. The heroic seven are an inspiration to audiences, who feel powerless in a system that only seems to make the rich richer and the powerful, invincible.

Perhaps this is what makes the remake of The Magnificent Seven a timely affair, demonstrating the power of a few in their capacity to mobilise and arm the downtrodden in an effort to overcome unreasonable tyranny by force. While this The Magnificent Seven doesn't reinvent the basic story of a few guns-for-hire defending a helpless village, it does redress it, bringing a diverse cast of characters together as a ragtag team of strays who unite to defend the common man. Several Wild West minority groups are represented by The Magnificent Seven and each of them have their reasons, whether motivated by destiny, revenge, money, justice or the wind of change and it's refreshing to see Denzel Washington charging on a stallion as team leader, Sam Chisolm.

Following in the wake of The Hateful Eight, it's probably not as novel having a black actor taking the lead in a classic Western, but Washington does good as a bounty hunter and "peace-maker" partnering with Antoine Fuqua in a film that stands its ground. He's supported by Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio as part of his posse, opposing Peter Sarsgaard as the despicable mining tycoon, Bart Bogue. Pratt isn't quite as charming and cheeky as he was in Guardians of the Galaxy, but adds some extra firepower. Hawke seems to enjoy himself as the tarnished legend, Goodnight while D'Onofrio gets to grips with a part-bear-part-man in Jack.

The Magnificent Seven Movie

"I suppose you're wondering why I called this meeting?"

The film works mostly thanks to its book ends, starting with an intense church scene that recalls There Will Be Blood, and moving onto a high body count showdown to cap things off. The Magnificent Seven would have done well to stay in the channel of There Will Be Blood as they tap into the idea of big business enslaving a town and buying the very soul of justice from the Sheriff and his men. However, this cinematic opening gives way to a more generic rounding up the men middle as Chisolm gathers the usual suspects with one or two surprises.

The third act is all gunpowder and bravado as the town prepare for onslaught and Bogue's men muster on the scene. Having influenced many Westerns over the years and already broken in the concept, much of the film has a dull familiarity tipping the hat to the original while bowing to genre cliches. It was to be expected and you'd be foolish to go in expecting a complete reinvention. What does work is the gunpowder and star power, slowly building to an explosive and violent massacre, and using some big name stars to get us there.

This Western could have done with more camaraderie. While the actors create an easy-going chemistry, it's not in danger of dislodging Robert Redford and Paul Newman. Chris Pratt looks like he's enjoying himself in all the mayhem, but sometimes you wonder if his character isn't just psychotic that way. Washington and Hawke do add some class, but it's always good and rarely great. The grit of The Revenant may have spoiled things a bit for this Western, but then again they're more concerned with popcorn thrills than breathtaking cinematography.

It's a wild and entertaining ride that has enough quality to serve as a solid remake, but this film realises its place within the broader context. The diversity and representation makes this underdog tale sizzle below the surface and the stellar cast helps overcome the cracks in what is otherwise a fairly routine film. You may already know the drill, but there's enough twinkle, some epic landscape shots and plenty of shoot 'em up spirit to get the job done.

The bottom line: Enjoyable


 
Movie Review: Blair Witch


Blair Witch is comparable with Evil Dead 2 in as much as it's delivering what the first one did, with less novelty and more finesse. The original The Blair Witch Project was one of the first found footage horror films to emerge and while the hype exceeded delivery, managed to carve out a new genre of cinema, signalling a cross-over between high-end and commercially available video recording.

While the low budget horror was something of a shaky-cam pioneer, it received favourable reviews, tipping the hat to its mock-doc style shooting, genuine creepiness and the way it leveraged our imagination with an "invisible" villain. Since then, the reality camcorder genre has blossomed and it just seemed like a good time to introduce a new generation to one of the founders with a modern skin.

Blair Witch is a terrifying ordeal and a strong redux. The new version is cleverly refreshed and supplanted in the original with an X-Files style "missing sister" device. Instead of Mulder, we have James, who still believes his sister Heather is out there... in the woods. After another video surfaces of what he believes to show she's alive, he assembles a brave expedition party, including two strange locals.

Blair Witch has been updated to include contemporary technology with over-the-ear cameras and I loved the introduction of the untrustworthy guides. The filmmakers could have done so much more with the evil locals to the tune of Funny Games, but keep us guessing with their odd behaviour and off-balance with rising group tensions.

Blair Witch Movie

"Damn."

The cast is good, with James Allen McCune starring in a similar mold to Nicolas Hoult as James. He's the calm and steady hero, leaning on Callie Hernandez as Lisa with Corbin Reid and Brandon Scott playing fellow campers, Ashley and Peter. Wes Robinson is probably the most memorable act from Blair Witch as Lane, whose cold blue eyes make him seem almost possessed with the film-makers obscuring us from him and his partner, Talia, played by Valorie Curry.

Adam Wingard maintains this uneasiness by playing on a multitude of fears from claustrophobia to nyctophobia (dark), xenophobia (unknown) and even acrophobia (heights). Switching from one perspective to another and given access to multiple cameras, including a drone, gives him more options as a film-maker. He doesn't add polish or finesse, but keeps the spirit of The Blair Witch Project with shaky cam shooting, creepy situational dynamics and using what-goes-bump-in-the-night scare tactics.

Instead of going play-for-play, Wingard takes it up a notch by creating a hellish environment for his characters and audience, where being lost in the woods suddenly takes on a whole new dimension of terror. Blair Witch is a solid remake but also serves as a tribute to the genre, incorporating elements from all the best reality horror thrillers, including: REC and Paranormal Activity.

It probably would've been better, if Blair Witch had teased out the suspicion on the "guides" longer. As with most of these low budget found footage thrillers, the loose ends contribute to the uncertainty and fear, while the jerky camera motion is a strength and a weakness. It's not going to change the world, but it will immerse you in the pitch black nightmare just long enough to be utterly relieved to see the light of day again.

The bottom line: Terrifying


 
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