Queen of Katwe (USA, 2016): A calculated risk for Disney, Queen of Katwe fits among the uplifting sport movies the House of Mouse puts out every year, but it’s also distinctive enough to stand apart. The biopic is set in Uganda, has a mostly African cast and is directed by Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding, The Reluctant Fundamentalist), a filmmaker with a knack to capture cultural nuances without been patronizing.
The Queen of Katwe in question is Phiona Mutesi (newcomer Madina Nalwanga), an illiterate teen struggling to survive in the slums of Kampala. She falls in the radar of an outreach volunteer (David Oyewolo, Selma) who teaches underprivileged kids to play chess. Turns out Phiona is a prodigy, but no matter how much natural talent she possesses, when you live under the poverty line, basic necessities take priority.
Real life is unwieldly and Queen of Katwe fails to find structure in Phiona’s life. While the beginning and the ending feel particularly strained, the middle flows nicely. Though the narrative is problematic, the film scores in other aspects: The cinematography by Sean Bobbitt takes full advantage of the colorful setting and shows landscapes seldom seen in movies. The acting is top notch: Nalwanga is a fresh presence and is well supported by Oyewolo and Lupita Nyong’o, who despite not looking as someone who had two teenage daughters, makes the role believable out of sheer force. Three planets.
Personal Shopper (France, 2016): After the superb Clouds of Sils Maria, it seemed the association of director Olivier Assayas and Kristen Stewart could be fruitful. Based on the follow-up, the assumption is incorrect. In Personal Shopper, Assayas obeys his worst instincts (self-indulgence, abrupt introduction of major plot points late in the movie) and leaves Stewart adrift in a morass of genres.
A personal assistant for a French model, Maureen (Stewart) is still grieving the death of her twin brother. They had made a pact according to which he would visit her and tell her about the other side. Despite many indications her sibling is trying to make contact, Maureen is still waiting for a clearer sign. She seems to be stalling and using the agreement as an excuse not to move forward with her life.
Midway through, this ghost story becomes a thriller with a body count. The gimmick is too on the nose and is less interesting than an average episode of Law & Order. Assayas -who also wrote the script- can be an infuriating filmmaker: For every Clouds of Sils Maria or Carlos, we have to put up with half-baked dramas like Personal Shopper and Summer Hours. It’s a shame, given that Kristen Stewart brings her A-game to this flick. Two planets.
American Pastoral (USA, 2016): Two films based on Philip Roth’s novels are expected to hit cinemas this year, not a small feat given how poorly previous adaptation have fared (The Human Stain, Elegy). The most high-profile of them is American Pastoral, the literary classic many accomplished filmmakers have flirted with but ultimately abandoned. Who could be up to the task? Ewan McGregor, that’s who.
McGregor pulls double duty as director and lead. He is the Swede, an all-American athlete turned pillar of the community. In paper, the Swede has a dream life, married to a former beauty queen (Jennifer Connelly) and father to a brilliant child. Perfection, however, carries the seed of its own destruction: At the height of civil unrest in the Sixties, Swede’s daughter (Dakota Fanning) becomes a radical and is the main suspect in the bombing of a postal office.
American Pastoral has two things going for it: Pitch perfect casting and the strength of the source material. Not only McGregor, Connelly and Fanning are the ideal Levov family, David Strathairn is a great choice for Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s recurrent leading man. Predictably, strong material falls by the wayside, but it’s a remarkable debut. Four planets.
Moonlight (USA, 2016): Another drama arriving with considerable buzz, Moonlight is a solid character study that doesn’t quite live up to the hype, but comes close.
The film chronicles the life of Chiron (aka Little, aka Black), a gay African-American man at three critical junctures of his development. First we meet him as a nine-year old: Considered a ‘soft’ kid, Little is picked on regularly by his classmates. Unable to find solace at home, he finds a father figure in the local drug dealer. Later, we see Chiron as a shy teenager, ashamed of his sexuality and frequent target of bullies. Lastly, we reencounter him as a grown up. All the traumas and experiences of Chiron’s childhood and adolescence have come together and shaped a man filled with self-loathing and reluctant to follow his sexual nature.
All three vignettes are harrowing, but in the end, the film lacks the final emotional punch that could have made it memorable. Regardless, Moonlight has tremendous value both as unflinching dissection of a long-standing problem in the community and for the depiction of a kid with few choices who is unable to rise above the obstacles in his path. Three and a half planets.
Boundaries (Canada, 2016): How is this for a bold move: A film about trade with a side of emotional turmoil. Chloé Robichaud follow-up to the superb Sarah Prefers to Run is an audacious -if flawed- take on the imbalance between developed nations and those with no other assets than the natural resources. The “women trying to combine professional and personal life” angle is old and Boundaries doesn’t have anything new to add, but for those craving some political science and economics in their entertainment, this film is catnip. The star power of thinking-man goddess Emily VanCamp doesn’t hurt. Three planets.
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