Saturday, October 15, 2016

"The Queen of Katwe"

 4.5 / 5 

The Queen of Katwe is a movie about a girl from a Ugandan slum who becomes a chess player.

That might be the worst high-concept logline for a movie since, "A boy from an Indian slum becomes a contestant on 'Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,'" but Slumdog Millionaire went on to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and The Queen of Katwe bears a lot of resemblance to that movie in the best possible way, especially in their shared sense of quiet, defiant optimism.

Phiona Mutesi, a real-life chess prodigy played flawlessly by first-time actress Madina Nalwanga, cannot read or write, she is just a little girl, but her life has already been defined for her: She will help her mother (Lupita Nyong'o) and her brother Brian (Martin Kabanza) sell corn on the streets.  Her sister, named Night (Taryn Kyaze) has seen her own way out, through finding a fast-talking man on a motorcycle.  (The movie, which is rated PG and released by Disney, implies but never directly states prostitution.)

But Phiona and Brian stumble across a ministry-sponsored chess club run by Katende (David Oyelowo), and though the unbathed, slovenly Phiona is mocked by the others on her first day, she refuses to accept their taunts.  Katende is impressed.  Chess, he observes, is a game about fighting, and Phiona is a fighter.

From here, The Queen of Katwe follows a familiar sports-movie trajectory: training, success, unexpectedly devastating defeat, resilience and victory.

The Queen of Katwe is as predictable as they come, but director Mira Nair and screenwriter William Wheeler turn that familiarity into an asset, and the extraordinary cast capitalizes on it.  The strength of the movie rests on how much we are willing to believe we haven't seen this story again, and Nyong'o, Oywelwo and, especially, Nalwanga make us believe.

Chess, of course, isn't exactly a cinematic game, and most movies that have tried (Searching for Bobby Fischer is a noteworthy exception) don't generally succeed in making it particularly compelling.  The Queen of Katwe solves the problem of the complexity and general unfamiliarity with the chess by ignoring it.  The specifics of the game aren't important; the concepts of the game are: strategy, long-range thinking and discipline.

They're not qualities that would generally be rewarded in the kind of world in which Phiona lives, but Katende, her coach, gets her and us to understand why they matter.  In one of the movie's most affecting scenes, when Phiona has lost a key match and wants to give up, he reveals some of his own childhood, and then gets to the movie's meaning: Losing isn't easy, but what's important is not (contrary to conventional wisdom) how you've played, but in how you reset the board and line up the pieces to try again.

It's a beautiful moment in a beautiful film, one matched in emotional honesty when Katende reveals to his wife (Esther Tebandeke) that he has turned down a job in order to keep coaching his kids.  Her response runs counter to every cinematic stereotype we've ever seen of the long-suffering-but-stoic wife, and the same could be said for the movie.

The Queen of Katwe could all too easily have slipped into condescension, but it consistently avoids the easy way out; it's an intelligent, emotionally open-hearted and frequently surprising movie, a film that takes a story that follows a trajectory that seems entirely familiar but sends it into a place that feels new, warm and completely fulfilling.

In large part due to its flawless cast and the honestly won catharsis of its final scenes, The Queen of Katwe is a movie that reminds us why, to paraphrase a popular Internet meme, everything is going to be OK.

Viewed Oct. 15, 2016 -- Century Regency


Monday, October 3, 2016

"The Girl on the Train"

 3 / 5 

Other than a puzzling and thoroughly unnecessary relocation of the action from suburban London to suburban New York, the film adaptation of The Girl on the Train holds no surprises at all for anyone who's read the snappy, twisty, addictive novel with the same name.

Indeed, to call The Girl on the Train an "adaptation" isn't quite right; this is what used to be called a "filmization," a direct re-telling of the action with almost no embellishment.  Emily Blunt's drunken, meddling title character (and it's hard to consider her as anything other than the latter, really) is exactly the image millions of people had in their heads while reading the book.

The same goes for the other characters, the settings, even the interiors.  There were times, watching The Girl on the Train, that the images on screen felt a little creepy: I had seen this movie before, but it was last year while on vacation in Europe while I was reading Paula Hawkins' novel.  Clearly, Ms. Hawkins has a talent for writing film-ready novels, because The Girl on the Train was apparently as film-ready as they come.

None of that necessarily makes The Girl on the Train any less of a movie than it is, but the disappointing part is that it doesn't make it any more of a movie, either.  No one will walk out of this movie unsatisfied by the outcome, but the filmmakers also missed an opportunity to do something unexpected with the source work, to give it just enough of a twist to leave audiences surprised that they didn't know exactly how every beat of the ending would play out.

Of course, that's not the kind of "adaptation" a big studio does anymore -- the days of Hitchcock playing with Psycho or even Spielberg playing with Jaws are over, and no one can afford to gamble with the investment money, which will probably pay off very handsomely for the producers of The Girl on the Train.  Perhaps I was just holding out a little too much hope that there would be something boldly unpredictable about the movie version.

It begins with such fidelity to the book that it even starts by introducing each of the main characters in "chapters" that use their first names.  But this strict adherence to the book leads to a confusion that seeps through the rest of the movie, too; as it jumps around in time, from character to character, it frequently lacks some clarity.  It works in print because if we're confused we can just flip back and re-orient ourselves, but there's no such opportunity in linear filmmaking.

Even more confusing is that two of the characters look astonishingly alike.  They're meant to, of course, it factors in to the plot; but it leads to some frustrating moments since the movie just keeps plowing ahead, not giving any chance to think about what we're seeing.

That is, naturally, part of the plan.  It's a murder-mystery, after all, one that features a highly unreliable narrator.  For her part, Blunt plays the hell out of the pathetic, continually drunk Rachel, whose life has been in a shambles ever since her husband (Justin Theroux) left her, and the younger, prettier, sexier new wife (Rebecca Ferguson) moved into their beautiful home on the Hudson River.

Every day, Rachel takes the train into New York and passes right by their old house.  She's trained herself not to look at it, but instead has grown increasingly obsessed with fantasizing about the perfect couple who lives a couple of doors down, Scott Hipwell (Luke Evans) and his wife Megan (Haley Bennett).

One day, Megan goes missing, and Rachel is shocked to discover that she has literal blood on her hands and knows only that she was drunk as a skunk that night, got off at her old suburban stop, and then blacked out.

It's a great setup for a mystery, and on the page it plays like gangbusters.  For those who haven't read the novel, it will probably be great, too.  But like any mystery, once you know the secrets, you also see how the trick is done, and because The Girl on the Train is so slavishly faithful to the book, that means one of the biggest tricks of the story is all too clear: The key clues and evidence are withheld from everyone -- from Rachel and from the readers and viewers -- until they need to be revealed.

Like the best magicians, really great mysteries do it right in front of you and you're never the wiser until you get to the end, when you can turn back to the beginning again and see it all laid out.  That's not the case here, and the flip-flopping perspectives, the too-large cast and the too-jumbled motivations end up being more perplexing than thrilling.  We learn too much about the backstories of some characters and too little about the history of Rachel herself.  We have no hope of piecing it all together ourselves because we're not given enough information.

(Oddly, several of its characters are played by actors with missplaced accents, making the transposition of the action from London to New York even more mystifying.  One of the central characters -- and suspects -- is Eastern European in the novel, and in the film retains his Croatian-sounding name, but inexplicably speaks Spanish, while the screenplay has to go out of its way to comment on Blunt's out-of-place British accent.)

In the book, the surprises are truly surprising, and the novel is a page-turner until the very end.  But as a movie, The Girl on the Train ends up being a bit too twisty for its own good.  If you haven't read the book, it might all come as a nasty little surprise (and these are, make no doubt, nasty characters, each of them as sick and unpleasant as they are beautiful to look at).  But what if you did finish novel?  Well, the only surprise may be how easily the denouement all comes rushing back.

That leaves The Girl on the Train as something less than completely fulfilling but still better than average, which is due in no small part to Blunt's terrific, frantic performance, along with some great scenery and the chance to see some pretty people who live in catalog-ready homes and have a rather eye-opening amount of sex in a rather eye-opening variety of locations.

Blunt's performance alone almost wholly redeems The Girl on the Train, as does a fine cameo by Lisa Kudrow, who's the one truly new addition, but whose character (as good as Kudrow is) feels a little like cheating.

Though its plot twists and turns, this adaptation mostly ends up being as straight-on, relatively uneventful and, perhaps to its credit, as reliable as a commuter train through suburbia.

Viewed Sept. 28, 2016 -- ArcLight Hollywood