REVIEW: A United Kingdom

22 02 2017

History is rarely tidy enough to have personifications of complicated systems of belief like racism and colonialism, but movies nevertheless tend to present the past in such a way to simplify what seems unfathomable to modern audiences. Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom” lies among these crisp-edged period pieces and stands out as one of the better of the bunch.

The film succeeds at depicting high-level concepts of segregation and prejudice that are still relevant today. Yet it also works when pinpointing the ethos of a specific moment in the late 1940s where the sun was setting on the empire in which the sun never sets. British-born Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) falls head over heels for African tribal king Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), who studied in London to prepare himself to assume the throne in Botswana.

The grumblings from her ardently colonialist father could sufficiently set in motion the drama of an entire film altogether. But don’t worry, “A United Kingdom” charts the vast geopolitical complications arising from their marriage. What begins as mere disruption in a community presents an opportunity for the waning British powers to destabilize an entire region.

Guy Hibbert’s script front-loads the film’s most explosive moments – a refreshing change of pace. A fiery speech from Seretse in defense of his wife feels like the climactic moment of a more conventional story, but Hibbert situates it towards the beginning. The shocking segregation of blacks in their own country also appears primarily at the outset. These micro-level moments are just drops in the bucket of a larger narrative, one whose ever-expanding scope consumes “A United Kingdom.” Seeing how far those ripples extend proves the most fascinating component of Ruth and Seretse’s history, although little moments such as Ruth’s limp imitation of Queen Elizabeth’s wave to appear more regal to Botswanans delight along the way. B2halfstars

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

REVIEW: A Most Violent Year

23 01 2015

A Most Violent YearThe twelve months referred to in the title of “A Most Violent Year” are those of 1981, a period that saw an unprecedented spike in crime within the boroughs of New York City.  This illegality is not the story of the film, though; it is merely an intriguing backdrop for the saga of Oscar Isaac’s Abel Morales as he attempts to expand his property holdings in order to become a more competitive player in the heating oil business.  All the world seems to be operating without regard to law or ethics, and it practically invites him to abandon moral high ground.

Abel clings stubbornly to his principles, refusing to arm his trucks even when they get held up and robbed.  The film rarely mentions this, but Abel is an immigrant from Colombia who married into a leadership role in the company.  While mostly masks the traces of his accent, the effect of his heritage is present in every decision he makes.  Abel realizes how far he has come, as well as how far he has to tumble with just a single prideful misstep.

Isaac makes this deliberative stoicism absolutely riveting, coloring Abel with shades of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone from “The Godfather” series.  He knows when the character is weak, when he is strong, and, most importantly, when he has absolutely no idea why any of it is worth the trouble.  It’s one of the beautiful ironies of “A Most Violent Year” that Isaac seems so in control of Abel, yet each passing scene in the film slowly strips away the illusion of control of his destiny from the character.

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7 01 2015

Selma” is not a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic.

Or, I should say, “Selma” is not just a Martin Luther King, Jr. biopic.  It is so much more than just the story of one man.

Director Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb create their “Lincoln,” a film concerning the premier orator of his era set in the twentieth century’s ’65.  This man, standing with little more than ideology and conscience, must work against a political establishment stacked against them.  What is right, in the minds of these officials, must take a backseat to what the voting public is ready to accept.

But DuVernay, thankfully, disposes of Spielberg’s hagiography of Honest Abe that reeked of cinematic mothballs.  She opts for a portrayal of Dr. King that focuses on who he was and what that allowed him to accomplish.  In a way, not receiving the rights to use King’s actual speeches makes “Selma” a stronger movie.  Whether organically or out of necessity, he becomes so much more than a collection of recognizable catchphrases that trigger memories of a high school civics class.

“Selma” certainly does not shy away from some character details that the history books often elide, such as his vehement opposition to the Vietnam War and his marital infidelities.  Dr. King, as portrayed by David Oyelowo, does not always don his shining armor, either.  The film’s most powerful display of racially motivated violence takes place when hundreds of protesters attempt to cross Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, only to be brutally attacked by a cabal of police and townsmen alike.  King is not there with them.  He is at home, trying to smooth over a marital rough patch with his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).

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REVIEW: The Butler

17 08 2013

ButlerBased on the trailer for Lee Daniels’ “The Butler,” I had prepared myself for “Forrest Gump: Civil Rights Edition.”  It looked to be in a filmmaking tradition of heavy-handed, cloying, and over the top shenanigans designed to easily trigger emotion.  As it turns out, I didn’t even have to resist because the film was not any of these things.

It was just a plain, bad movie.  “The Butler” is poorly written, unevenly directed, and meagerly acted.  It vastly oversimplifies history, both that of our nation’s struggle for civil rights and also the remarkable life of one man who served many Presidents with honor and dignity.  And in spite of its golden hues and stirring score stressing the importance of every moment, the film just fell flat the entire time.

Screenwriter Danny Strong writes the story of Cecil Gaines, Forest Whitaker’s titular character, into a parade of presidential caricatures – leaving out Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter since they apparently never grappled with civil rights.  (I’m ok with a narrowed portrait of history, just not a narrowed portrait of the people who made that history.)  Each man is a waxwork figure, a set of immediately recognizable traits tied up in a bow by a crucial civil rights decision, that happens to be served tea by the same man.

And every president is somehow swayed by the mere presence of Cecil, who will make a passing remark to each.  He’s apparently the perpetual Greek chorus of the White House or even the nation’s most influential civil rights adviser.  It’s a little ridiculous to infer causality here, even with a generous suspension of disbelief.  This trick worked in Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” because it was done with a wink and a sense of humor.  It fails in “The Butler” because no one can seriously believe Cecil was an actual policy influencer.

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REVIEW: Middle of Nowhere

10 12 2012

Middle of NowhereThis might feel like a bit of a rerun for those of you that read my review of “Lincoln,” and for that I apologize.  But I do think it is possible to admire certain aspects of a movie and still not fully like it, and I will fight hard to defend that assertion.

In case you haven’t figured it out already, those are precisely my feelings on Ava DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere.”  It’s an incredibly graceful, poised, and carefully restrained film.  It tells a story that needs to be told about the African-American community, and for once, it actually comes from someone inside of it instead of a white man.  And it feels all the more authentic and genuine for it.

But the whole felt like distinctly less than the sum of its parts; all the virtuosity didn’t add up to an emotional connection for me.  Perhaps it was the film’s moseying, elegiac tone and pace that just kept me cooly disinterested in the proceedings.  But for whatever reason, I just felt distanced from the characters rather than drawn towards them.

I know it has nothing to do with the acting, though, particularly Emayatzy Corinealdi (a name I happily copied and pasted from IMDb) in an impressive leading turn as Ruby.  I had flashbacks to Michelle Williams’ character in “Take This Waltz” with Ruby, as both struggled with falling out of love with their husband and being tempted by a much more appealing man.

But in the case of Williams’ Margot, her husband was merely emotionally distant; Corinealdi’s Ruby, on the other hand, has a physical distance as well since her husband is spending five years in prison.  She does her best to stay faithful and upright, but the years take their toll on her.  And Corinealdi lets that show in moments of quiet breakdowns that allow us to marvel at her acting on a very technical level of precision.  Perhaps in the next big role she lands as a result of her turn in “Middle of Nowhere,” she can add a layer of emotional resonance.  B- 2stars