REVIEW: Queen of Katwe

20 09 2016

Triumphing over adversity in competitive environments is a Disney speciality, but the studio rarely pulls it off with the dignity and grace of Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe.” The film is less about dramatic reversals of fortune or epic journeys and far more concerned with how circumstances and biases can prevent such developments from taking place.

As the film’s young protagonist Phiona (newcomer Madina Nalwanga) states towards the end of the film, “I fear certain things will never change.” Yet if not for the perseverance and faith of her mentor Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), this chess prodigy might have let such doubts keep her paralyzed through inaction. He spots her incredible ability to see a whopping eight moves ahead on the board and fosters her intellectual development, a process which requires great sacrifice on his behalf.

The largest obstacle in the way of Phiona’s realization of her own potential is a surprising one – her mother, Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o). A widow forced to support several children by selling maize in the slums of Uganda, she is justifiably hesitant to authorize her daughter spending time on chess. If the pursuit of master status does not pan out, then Harriet views the loss as a frivolous waste that does nothing to prepare Phiona for making a living like her.

Portraying such a perspective presents a conundrum for Nyong’o, who is tasked with conveying both maternal grace and strict authority without coming off as a dream crusher. Her performance engages through its empathy, ultimately allowing for a fuller understanding of why she does not believe in silver bullets – be they chess championships or sugar daddies. While “Queen of Katwe” is primarily the story of Phiona’s rise in the world of chess, an equally important evolution takes place for Harriet as she analyzes her place in the world.

Nair shows that world, it should be noted, in stark detail without ever resorting to so-called “poverty porn.” Her camera, guided by Steve McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt, skips the grimy details and focuses more on the stratification of the two sides of Ugandan capital Kampala. Any long shot taking in Katwe also captures an urbanized, industrialized city center in the background.

Inequality, not destitution, is the real enemy in “Queen of Katwe,” and it makes for a more daunting foe. Hand someone a check, and they can hypothetically walk out of poverty. Alleviating inequality, on the other hand, requires systemic change and the devotion of resources to those given less. B+3stars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (September 15, 2016)

15 09 2016

A few years ago in my film history class, I was assigned to watch the first half of Mark Cousins’ epic historical overview of the medium, “The Story of Film: An Odyssey.” I wound up watching the whole 15-plus hour opus and learned quite a bit about important artists whose contributions to the art form I never even knew. And I also learned that Cousins would have us recognize Paul Verhoeven as one of the major filmmakers of contemporary cinema. Seriously, he devotes a solid 10-minute paean to the subversive qualities of his studio films.

At the time, I dismissed his claim as a lot of pretension and hot air. (The temptation for critics to make a bold statement that you can see something others cannot should not be doubted.) But after watching Verhoeven’s mega-budget 1997 film “Starship Troopers,” I can start to see Cousins’ point. The action flick functions both as good entertainment and subversive social commentary, a dual capability that more than qualifies it as my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

“Starship Troopers” takes the form of a traditional war film not unlike something Hollywood would churn out around World War II. As alien invaders threaten the security of the earth, an urge to defend the planet sweeps through students in Buenos Aires. (Yes, they’re all lily-white. This was the ’90s.) Casper Van Dien’s Johnny Rico, not the brightest bulb, ends up placed on the front lines of the conflict when assigned to the Mobile Infantry. The high aptitude of his girlfriend, Denise Richards’ Carmen Ibanez, earns her a spot in the prestigious starship piloting program.

Rico and Carmen go their separate ways after enlisting, each encountering their own struggles and forging their own camaraderies. The part they play in facing down the threat of “bugs” from Klendathu are interesting, but like in many a great film, the genius comes less from what is told and more from how it is told. Verhoeven cloaks the proceedings in a transparent artificiality, embracing hammy acting as a method for exposing how cinema can glamorize war. Snippets of “news media” interspersed throughout “Starship Troopers” help drive this message home; their throwbacks to the newsreel tradition highlight how thinly veiled propaganda can transmit fascistic and bigoted ideals. More movies should try to pull off this sneaky gambit, allowing you to enjoy what you’re watching while also critiquing your watching in real time.

REVIEW: Snowden

14 09 2016

At 69 years old, Oliver Stone isn’t likely to change his filmmaking style, but a little bit of uncommon subtlety might have behooved his latest work, “Snowden.” So often is the director determined to write the first rough draft of cinematic history on a current event – Vietnam, the Bush administration, the 2008 recession – that he sacrifices insight for topicality.

His take on NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden doubles as a discussion about the trade-offs between privacy and security in the digital age. When he’s not blaring the themes through dialogue in lines such as “terrorism is the excuse; it’s about economic and social control,” the talking heads trade lines that sound excerpted from TED Talks. Moreover, the dust is still settling here. Why remake Laura Poitras’ perfectly good documentary “Citizenfour” with flashbacks when the story is still unfolding?

The film’s background information on Edward Snowden, largely left out of news media discussion, does provide some intriguing context to his giant revelation. His participation in questionably legal CIA operations, bipartisan disenchantment and operational disillusionment all played a big role in leading Snowden to rendezvous with Poitras and journalist Glenn Greenwald in June 2013. To Stone’s credit, he lets these events slowly form the character’s resolve to leak information; no one moment seems to snap him.

As Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt delivers a turn that belongs on the Wikipedia page for “uncanny valley.” He channels the familiar real-life figure in many surprising ways: a deeper voice, a less frenetic pace, a quiet resolve. The only thing that stands in his way is the repository of ideas we have about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, which he automatically taps into by appearing on screen.

Between “Snowden,” “The Walk” and even going back to “Looper,” Gordon-Levitt has amassed an impressive body of work where he selflessly attempts to bring himself closer to the character, rather than the other way around. He’s busting his hump to ensure we see the role he plays as someone distinct from himself, not just some costume he puts on to slightly mask his own persona. Frequently, Gordon-Levitt’s reckoning with the character of Snowden feels more fascinating than the character himself. B2halfstars

REVIEW: The Fits

13 09 2016

the-fitsIn Anna Rose Holmer’s “The Fits,” 10-year-old actress Royalty Hightower pulls off a feat that takes an entire career for some experienced thespians to achieve: a silent film-style performance. Through her largely nonverbal boxer turned dancer Toni, Hightower establishes pathos quickly and never lets up.

Unlike the silent actors of Hollywood’s golden age, she does not have to define her character by what – or how much – she does. Expressive action is not necessary to move dialogue-free plot given all the sonic tools in a filmmaker’s toolkit. Holmer can use the camera of Paul Yee to capture the subtlety in Toni’s yearning. Her attraction to the more feminine girls on the other side of the door in her gym makes no sense, even to herself. But “The Fits” never tries to explain the newfound passion for rhythm and dance, simply capturing Toni’s looks of admiration even as they are greeted in return with scornful curiosity.

As the camera stares deeper, events get stranger. A spate of heavy breathing spasms overcome the dance crew’s leaders, and Toni seems indirectly responsible for it all. In spite of (or maybe because of?) the freak occurrences, she begins coming into her own with the footwork.

At one point during “The Fits,” the camera lingers on a shot of Toni’s self-examination, which then turns into practice for her dancing routine. It feels like she’s performing directly for us, but about a minute later, Holmer reveals that she’s looking into a mirror. It’s a performance for herself. As the smirking grin that creeps onto Toni’s face in the film’s final shot indicates, the film is hyperaware of an audience outside the frame – and it’s not afraid to toy with those viewers playfully. Perhaps Toni is performing a similar alchemy within the film itself. B+3stars

REVIEW: Kumaré

12 09 2016

kumareEastern spirituality and meditation are having a moment in American culture as people drift away from institutionalized religions and get in touch with a more therapeutic, deistic system of thought. The attraction of this system was lost, however, on filmmaker Vikram Gandhi. As someone who grew up in eastern faiths, Gandhi sees the yoga and meditation that sets westerners free as something oppressive to liberated from.

In the documentary “Kumaré,” Gandhi decides to get to the bottom of what attracts people to the very thing that repels him by posing as a fictional guru, Sri Kumaré. Spouting a real beard and a fake philosophy, he starts reeling in followers who find true contentment in his teachings.

Gandhi’s investigation into their experience never feels like he’s setting up his adherents to become a punchline like a Jimmy Kimmel bit to embarrass unwitting participants. His documentary is not some kind of sting operation designed to unmask the hollowness of American spiritual longings. Rather, it’s a sincere investigation of faith from a secular perspective. Gandhi occasionally loses sight of this end goal during “Kumaré,” but he comes back to this wide view enough to make the journey worthwhile. B2halfstars


11 09 2016

Clint Eastwood’s ideas about America tend to get a lot of airtime, be it his decidedly anti-politically correct personal statements or the perceived xenophobia or myopia of his films like “Gran Torino” and “American Sniper.” In some regard, Eastwood’s much-ballyhooed empty chair speech at the 2012 RNC set the stage for a political lens to become the most commonly applied approach to his work. With “Sully,” the director offers up a vision to make America great again – though not in the controversial manner in which you might think.

His film is an ode to the American spirit of communal support and teamwork. It’s a tribute to those brave souls who think like caring, sentient human beings rather than machines. And this tale is not without a dark side; our nation’s faith in the extraordinary capabilities of an ordinary individual can thrust unwitting individuals into the limelight as heroes.

This message gets a perfect vessel through Tom Hanks’ Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, an experienced pilot who successfully executed a water landing in a passenger jet that lost both engines in a bird strike. Less than eight years ago, the so-called “Miracle on the Hudson” captured the public’s imagination amidst financial scandals and economic woes. The event took place just days President Obama’s inauguration, but it might as well be lumped in with the optimism his early days in office. (Most of the major news networks opted to show footage from the “Miracle” over George W. Bush’s final address to the nation.)

At one point during the ensuing scrutiny from federal investigators, Sully looks into his wallet and finds the message from a fortune cookie: “Better a delay than a disaster.” The film itself possesses about the same level of wisdom and insight. That might sound a bit like damning with faint praise, but Eastwood – and Hanks, too, for that matter – knows there is something to be learned from the simple philosophy of the common protector. Thoughts and words are just fine, yet they mean little unless backed up with action. In “Sully,” the staff aboard U.S. Airways Flight 1549 and countless New York City first responders show their commitment to human life by dropping everything to save 155 passengers on a moment’s notice.

“It wasn’t me, it was us,” says Sully after hearing the audio recording from the cockpit. The lone hero might be a staple of Eastwood’s western iconography, but he’s all about civic unity in “Sully.” Tragedies do not define our nation. Our responses to them do. Some uneven storytelling tactics might prevent the film from rousing a groundswell of collectivist feelings, although it certainly stirs the yearning for a moment that once again rallies us together in hopefulness.  B2halfstars

REVIEW: Disorder

10 09 2016

Disorder 2016 posterAt its best, Alice Winocour’s “Disorder” functions as a more elemental spin on the political conspiracy thriller. Matthias Schoenaerts’ Vincent, a recently discharged Army member, takes on a gig as private security detail at the opulent estate of a Lebanese businessman and his wife, Diane Kruger’s Jessie. Everyone comes to learn the true nature of his enterprise, however, by the threats he attracts when leaving for business.

Winocour can be aggravatingly vague about the identity of the menace facing them, very nearly arriving at the point where ambiguity crosses over into ambivalence. The film stays afloat thanks to the strong character work by Schoenaerts, whose difficulties with hearing hobble his effectiveness as a guard and even emasculate him as a person. The actor’s portraits of fragile masculine performance can sometimes carry a lot of sulking swagger – “Rust and Bone,” “A Bigger Splash” – but his angst in “Disorder” feels truly rooted in Vincent’s PTSD.

Winocour works in Vincent’s aural deficits into the very grammar of the film, playing with both white noise and utter sonic clarity. Ironically enough, Vincent gets tipped off to the shady dealings by overhearing a conversation at a party that seems to indicate these wealthy elites are putting their fingers on the scale of democracy. While details of their nefarious negotiations remain willfully obscured, at least Winocour is willing to engage with the issues of veteran stability and the omnipresence of our surveillance and security state. “Disorder” leaves us with a chilling reminder of the extent to which violence paradoxically secures peace – and how comfortable we are living with this oft-hidden reality once it makes itself known. B-2stars