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An Average Courtroom Drama
There's something strangely alluring about courtroom dramas. Dramas for the most part seek out ambiguity or at the very least explore it when it presents itself within a narrative. When Amon Goeth attempts mercy in Schindler's List (1993), there's a moment, however brief when we think we see humanity in the darkest of places. Not so much in courtroom dramas. In courtroom dramas there is a clear wronged party, a clear defense and prosecution, and a clear result at the end of the day. In many ways, they're not meant to be a celebration of people but a celebration of a system. One where we take for granted a presumption of innocence.
"Well, not here in the U.K." remarks Anthony Julius (Scott), a popular Solicitor tasked with taking on Deborah Lipstadt's (Weisz) defense against a particularly nasty libel suit. In the real life case, the American historian and Professor of Jewish History was sued for calling historical author David Irving (Spall) (among other things) a Holocaust denier. In order to make her mounting problems disappear, Lipstadt must either settle for a measly sum out of court or raise the funds for a case that ends up putting the entire Holocaust on trial.
Audiences will no doubt feel the same stifling lack of autonomy Lipstadt the character feels throughout the four year long trial. She's pitted against a blistering and theatrical villain whose quotable discourse sells copy but she herself is ordered by her defense team to keep quiet and let the big boys do their job. What results is a defendant that pokes, prods and creates undue drama under the guise of trying to give Holocaust survivors a voice but only seems to be serving her damaged ego.
That may be fine and acceptable characterization if your goal is to show the consequences of crusade a la Greg Kinnear's character in Flash of Genius (2008). But this isn't about windshield wipers, this is the Holocaust, a very real, very painful chapter in 20th century world history. In that regard Denial has a problem seeing the forest through the trees. It pads time with examinations of court procedures and what amounts to just two set pieces involving denier claims. The rest of the time the film takes detours to Auschwitz in sequences that should have been poignant and gripping but simply aren't.
As it stand Denial is too obvious in its message to give the audience much to mull over. The film amounts to nothing more than a big angry rant against Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and brazen falsifiers of the truth. While there's nothing inherently wrong with that, I do think Denial has the talent, opportunity and evocation to do and say a lot more. Perhaps widen its umbrella to a message about building a worldview based on the facts and not the other way around.
One of the last scenes in the film involves a completely discredited Irving still spouting nonsense on TV. Lipstadt turns him off as if to be an analog to the disinterested crowd in Harrison Brady's courtroom. Yet with constant references to David Vs. Goliath it's troubling to think that it is Irving who doesn't give up or give in. Perhaps in this case, it's the heroes who are in denial.
Boo! A Madea Halloween (2016)
A Poem Review of Boo! A Madea Halloween
'Twas the week before Halloween, all filmgoers are vexed, Not a single good movie is at their Cineplex; Max Steel and Ouija leaves audiences cheated, Jack Reacher, a sequel that nobody needed.
Alas all is silent, hushed, peaceful and mute, No Halloween horrors, gore or even green puke. It's quiet at the theater, too quiet it seems, So this holiday season I suppose you could stream.
When all of a sudden I heard such a clatter, I went to the cine to see what was the matter. I darted through lines, my mind full of doubt, But $28 mil is nothing to sneer about.
The movie begins with plans of a party, A group of school girls are asked not to be tardy. Tiffany, the youngest of the skimpy clothed brats, Tries to trick her father so she can go to the frat.
Yet her father, a simpleton, has a trick up his sleeve, That's when I shuttered, steeped, coiled and grieved. Theater 16, I should have bought some sangria, For I came face to face with yet another Madea.
Adorning cheap pearls and a faded red frock, She can make windows shatter with the way that she talks. Her anger filled face is framed by her glasses, And she solves every problem by "whooping some a**es!"
She's invited the night to keep tabs on her brood, And seems to want to bring fusspots from the old neighborhood. On Hattie, on Bam, on stale jokes that tease us, On Joe, on Brian and constant references to Jesus.
Atrocious blather reigns forth from her lips, Not to mention in this movie she shows us her tits. Through it all there's some nonsense about parenting well, A tacked on sentiment that all falls to hell.
The young girls attempt to deceive the old dame, Yet Madea's nature leaves her wise to their game. She "thugs out" at the party in search of her ward, Gets thrown out, calls the popo and causes discord.
The movie then devolves into horror house clichés, In an attempt to lazily connect tale to holiday. Lights flicker, doors knock, shadows lurch and scamp round, Vengeful teens dress as zombies and those demented clowns.
There's nothing remotely clever about this incessant noise, I at one point felt sorry for obnoxious fratboys! Their motives were simple, nefarious, but clear, Which is more than I can say for Madea my dear.
At one point near the end I felt a great numbing, Somewhere around the phrase "they hacked into the plumbing" Kids learn their lesson through a prank too accursed In a moment of candor one said "It keeps getting worse".
Nine movies we've endured of this sad minstrel act, Nine movies I equate aptly to a physical attack. Yet Perry still makes millions off a dress and hairdo, So after so many bad movies, this s**ts now on you!
Shin Gojira (2016)
I Must Be Missing Something Here...
I'm clearly missing something here. I watched this feckless waste of time in a crowded theater amid rabid fans and uproarious applause. I stayed composed as the stiff clumsiness of the titular monster mimicked the same directionless ambling of the script and editing. I twiddled my thumbs as audience member after audience member laid down a periodic blaze of pompous commentary. After two-hours, I slinked away, drove home, had a beer, took a shower, sat by the computer and waited for a review to pour out.
That was nearly a week ago and believe me I'm still trying to wrap my head around the supposed "return" of the classic Godzilla. Perhaps the appeal of 31st film in the Japanese franchise (and the third reboot) is strictly limited to just Japanese audiences. Those on the island nation would no doubt feel a slight chill when comparing the images of destruction with memories of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Yet any heart strings that are unceremoniously plucked for the sake of reviving a franchise, should be muted by the film's airlessness and off-putting attempt at natural horror.
The plot of Shin Godzilla might as well be copied and pasted like a macabre, disaster film mad-lib. The monster emerges from Tokyo Bay and causes incalculable destruction, meanwhile a committee of Japanese politicians, experts and military brass try to put a stop to it. Wait, did I say committee? I meant a huge helping of committees and teams, and working groups, ministries, extra- governmental bodies, national and international task-forces; pretty much any kind of personnel organizational group who dedicates part of its man-hours justifying itself. Apart from the odd snippets of monster-on-city mayhem, Shin Godzilla is basically In the Loop (2009) without the jokes or the potty-mouth.
As I am familiar with the Toho films (though not as familiar as I should be), I was somewhat prepared for some kaiju inspired silliness. To that end, Shin Godzilla does deliver adorably lo-fi set-pieces of models being toppled, crushed and otherwise destroyed. The climax of the film; a hasty, time-clocked gamble that involves cranes and trains, is enough to give casual fans a moment of glee. Then of course there's the design of Godzilla himself which properly pays homage to the original 1954 version while cleverly adding on a few adaptations.
If this film were comprised of thirty more minutes of Godzilla running around Tokyo under helicopter fire, I'd like to think we'd all get our money's worth. Unfortunately the film is stuck in the tall weeds trying to justify itself with realism in all its bureaucratic glory. Much of plot revolves around research taskforce leader Rando Yaguchi (Hasegawa) and his band of personally selected misfits and flunkies. Using a long dead professor's impenetrable research into (insert faux science here), Rando navigates through a Kafka-esque maze of red tape to get his ideas to the attention of, among other people Kayoko Patterson (Ishihara) Special Envoy to the U.S. President.
The fact that this movie colors it's conceptually silly plot with shades of Fukushima as well as the old bogey-men nuclear fallout from WWII, is just enough to put this film on notice. Yet if a worthy message alone were enough to warrant recommendation then The Purge: Election Year (2016) should be considered a contemporary classic. It's not, and neither is Shin Godzilla.
Closet Monster (2015)
Evocative and Melancholic Drama
Closet Monster is that rare first feature coming from an auteur with vision, clarity of thought and a voice unique enough to rise above the noise. Chances are few will see it; its limited appeal, not to mention limited release isn't likely to turn many heads. Yet for those who seek it, and more importantly, those who stumble on it years in the future, this movie is just enough to maybe fall in love with.
Even at a young age, Oscar (Jessup) didn't exactly have it easy. His parents divorced early on in a scene depicted as both turbulent and petulant. He boards largely with his father (Abrams), in a living situation that highly suggests some serious transgressions on the mother's (Kelly) part. What's worse is somewhere amid the memories of tree house building and playing vampire hunter, Oscar vividly remembers the beating and paralysis of a gay teenager from his school. Years later Oscar's worst kept secret is hidden from his father by his presumed interest in his photography model Gemma (Banzhaf) and a macabre fascination with monster makeup. That of course all changes and threatens to unravel with the arrival of Wilder (Schneider), whose wavy blonde hair and exotic accent appeals to the tortured Oscar.
Oscar's story might as well be an analog to every closeted teen, suffocating under the provincialism of their hometown, longing for an escape to the assumed gay utopias of New York, San Francisco or Miami Beach. The universality of his story is further hammered home by a host of tried and true storytelling techniques literalizing his journey. Oscar infers his conscience via his pet guinea pig Buffy (Rossellini) in order to process his complex emotions. Key images and plot points are amplified by hyperbole and forays into body horror and intellectual montage. In many ways Closet Monster invites comparisons to other fanta-fablest films like Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) and Swiss Army Man (2016) especially when it comes to exploring emotionally salient themes.
Yet just like those films, Closet Monster occasionally undermines its themes in the service of artistic flourish. Director Stephen Dunn indulges in one too many moments of ponderous slow-motion and euphoric whimsy with the same film-school pretension that sunk similar films like Before I Disappear (2014). Yet when the movie pivots into its groove, it really does have a lot to say through Oscar's unique, granular life. Connor Jessup does an incredible job balancing a role that requires layers of alienation, tension and longing while also conveying outward vulnerability and priggishness. While I personally wish his relationship with his father had more complexity and objectivity than the average emotional abuse cliché, the film does leave things open for reconciliation.
Closet Monster is certainly not the definitive coming-out movie; I'm pretty sure The Way He Looks (2014) took that spot away from My Own Private Idaho (1991) quite some time ago. Yet as a evocative drama and melancholic piece of entertainment, it has the seriousness and caprice to stand on its own merits. And if it gives young kids like Oscar the courage to be themselves then I say it's all worth it.
Max Steel (2016)
Yikes What a Piece
Make no mistake, Max Steel, the Mattel toy property, turned Cartoon Network staple, turned full length movie has become the worst reviewed wide-release film of 2016. After a single weekend, the movie has garnered a staggering Metascore of 26, and a 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. Those are scores usually reserved for direct to DVD video game adaptation and the occasional Pauly Shore movie. I'll admit with so many metrics stacked up against it, my interest both as a critic and a connoisseur of junk cinema was piqued. I wanted to hate this movie; I came in with the expectation that this movie was a special kind of crappy. But alas it's just the regular kind of crappy.
The plot of Max Steel promises the adventures of a middle-America teenager named Max (played by perennial kids-TV bit-player Ben Winchell) and his alien companion named Steel. Due to Max's seemingly inexplicable ability to conjure energy on a molecular level, Steel acts as a symbiotic techno-parasite consuming it with relative safety. In return, Steel (voiced by Josh Brener) enhances Max's physical abilities and protects him with a laser spewing bio- tech suit. Little does Max know that his new friendship with his alien buddy upsets a certain celestial balance, that holds the future of our world in the hands of a sinister enemy.
The plot promises these things but in an election year, we should all be wary of false promises by now. While watching Max Steel I was less concerned about the fate of the world than the fate of those involved in this project and made the mistake of taking it seriously. The film co-stars award nominated actors Maria Bello and Andy Garcia whose natural gravitas threatens to give Max Steel more weight than your average Smallville (2001-2011) knockoff. I understand that veteran actors need to eat but most actors should draw the line when asked to put on a half-assembled Power Rangers outfit.
The film itself is a cheap, shabby, impotent mess that tries oh so hard to ape the grungy self-serious aesthetic from recent superhero fare. But instead of finding a balance between pretension and moment- focused excess, the camera diddles through colorless scenes that look like they were shot through a layer of cellophane and Vaseline. This of course is when we get exteriors of antique pickup trucks chugging through amber-waved back-roads. When it comes to the heavy climaxes, the movie seems poised to give us the same blighted industrial zones we've seen in everything from low-budget horror movies to late-period Steven Seagal flicks. Only this time it's lighted like a neighborhood Zap- Zone to give the film's target audience (mainly toddlers and their misguided gamgams) the desire to whip out their video games.
It's all so genuinely and quite unpleasantly sad to see a movie like Max Steel. Watching bloated, intelligence insulting, big-budget fare fall flat can give anyone a sudden jolt of schadenfreude. Yet watching something whose only real crime is being too big for its britches, well it's just not that much fun. The film and its makers are trying to mimic a certain style, a certain flow, a certain spirit yet it simply have none of the right tools to do so. So they patched this puppy up with as much exposition, flashbacks and Josh Brener inspired wisecracks to trick you into thinking it was all worth it. But it's not, it's really, really not.
Max Steel is like going to the zoo, visiting the tiger exhibit and seeing a tiger born and raised in captivity. Many people arguably worked their best on this film, but because their best is inspired by the limited cultural echo chamber of comic books, blockbuster movies and Halo, we get a movie that lazes about, the fierceness in its eyes completely absent.
The Accountant (2016)
Knower of All, Master of None
Christian Wolff (Affleck) has a secret. Behind the cover of an unassuming CPA office, the otherwise resourceful and bashful math savant works free-lance for some of the world's most nefarious criminal enterprises in the world. Yemen, Pakistan, New York, London, no matter where the man goes, there's simply no balance book too unclean nor any employer too dangerous for Wolff not to find missing money. Those recalcitrant enough to think he knows too much, end up at the business end of an anti-aircraft gun.
Yet this is only part of the story of Christian Wolff, as hinted in the puzzle-piece graphics of the film's brilliant trailer. One thing we get to know almost straight away is Wolff is somewhere on the spectrum. Asperger's, PDD, high-functioning autism; "I prefer not to put a label on things," says Jason Davis's neurologist character as young Chris (Lee) jostles in the background. Convenient; now we can assume Wolff's abilities to uncooked 15 years of books in a single afternoon, kill an assailant with a J. Crew bridle belt and find the works of Jackson Pollock stimulating are all functions of his un- categorized disorder.
Now in fairness to the film, Hollywood hasn't exactly had a stellar track record when it comes to giving autistic characters moments in the limelight, even when they're being portrayed with a modicum of sympathy or humanity. To give credit where credit is due, The Accountant does a good job differentiating between the attributes of Chris's disorder with the skills he has ascertained through years of tutelage from his roughneck father (Treveiler). As exploitative as the film could have been, I give props to writer Bill Dubuque for not making our entrenched protagonist an autism powered super assassin but rather a gifted assassin who also processes the world differently.
Yet the film also seems to want to add more to the soup adding layers of espionage thriller dramatics, murder mystery reveals and oddly familiar flashbacks which all seem to serve different masters. Much of the film diverts attention between Wolff and blackmailed Treasury analyst Marybeth Medina (Addai-Robinson) who is coaxed by Director King (Simmons) to find the mystery accountant. The buildup in itself is alright but the backlog of reveals and plot-twists culminates in one fifteen minute exposition drop that capsizes the film like throwing a brick at a miniature sailboat.
Meanwhile the mystery afoot in The Accountant involves Wolff's newest freelance job which has him investigating biomedical pioneer Lamar Black (Lithgow) and his company. While initially a mundane audit job, Wolff finds himself in a web of intrigue that ensnares the company's board of directors, a sinister security force and a salaried accountant (Kendrick) who first uncovered the can of worms.
Again, the mystery in itself could have worked if it lent itself more organically to the character. Unfortunately the unexpected Michael Clayton (2007) milieu only made me want to see Wolff's less legitimate work all the more. It'd be one thing if Wolff was a pedestrian CPA with Asperger's, who was suddenly thrust into a plot of corporate intrigue. Yet knowing that the man has a clientele that includes terrorists, drug cartels, the mob and a suspiciously quaint melon farmer, I kept expecting bigger fish to come swimming up.
Overall, The Accountant is a skillfully done semi-decent thriller that could have done infinitely better if it defined what it was early and kept its focus. Is it a cerebral mystery, a ballsy action flick, a family drama, a cautionary tale, a morality play, an excuse to commend Ben Affleck's range; certainly it can be all. But sadly it settles for being a knower of all and a master of none.
The Girl on the Train (2016)
A Little More Than a Mimic of Gone Girl
I feel the need to defend this film a little bit (not a lot just a little). Story-wise it has the same bemusing melodramatic tone, shifts in perspective and twist-turny moments that set the foundation for Gone Girl's (2014) moody atmospherics. Much like that film, our leads, a triumvirate of Emily Blunt, Haley Bennett and Rebecca Ferguson, do very well as sympathetic characters audiences are willing to hang their coat and hat on for two hours. The editing shuttles back and forth in time, patching in layers of information to give us conclusions where it once was hazy. So what's actually missing here?
As you would imagine, the film begins with a girl on a train. The girl is Rachel (Blunt), an unemployed, severe alcoholic, who watches from the third car of the Manhattan bound train as the trees and nearby houses fly by. She seems keen on one such house, one belonging to the lovely Megan (Bennett) and her muscular beau Scott (Evans). She imagines them a young couple in love living in marital bliss, unaware that Megan is, in-fact a frustrated former art gallery assistant who babysits for our third protagonist Anna (Ferguson) and her husband Tom (Theroux). Completing the social circle, we're soon made aware that Rachel was once married to Tom...a fact made painfully aware when Megan winds up missing and Rachel becomes suspect #1.
The Girl on a Train coyly treads lightly while introducing us to all of the story's moving parts. The seed of suspicion are planted in nearly everyone involved, including our main audience conduit Rachel, who suffers from episodes of blackouts. Even Megan, whom we've come to know as free-spirited and oversexed, gives us the impression that her disappearance is her merely wanting escape. With so many balls in the air, the film is poised to keep us just that much in the dark until plot-points finally chime in.
This is either a sign of a great mystery or a movie hiding the fact that it has little to say. Those suspicions are certainly not helped by Rachel's constant memory lapses which disappear only when the story need them to. Once of course we get into the final act, everything is made clear not by virtue of a collage-like narrative or clever visual foreshadowing but because Rachel suddenly remembers something which holds the key to everything.
As Rachel, Blunt deserves accolades for her portrayal of the ultimate victim in a plot dominated by characters who despise her. Her character arc, (a salvation through fortitude-type conclusion) fails to really gel with the film's machinations. But at least through her, it has the appearance of being earned. There are times I really wished there was more to her; a pulpy anti-hero angle just this side of Ray Milland from The Lost Weekend (1945). Unfortunately because she has to share screen time with the two other main women, not to mention a host of nefarious men, all we get is an alcoholic who'd only get better if she stopped playing into the "crazy ex" cliché.
Thankfully this film is trying to say something more than just "here's a good yarn". There's been a bevy of new "women's films" over the last few years that stretch out of genre comfort zones to tackle worthwhile themes. Themes as current as workplace discrimination (Equity (2016)), body-shaming (Spy (2015)) and misogyny (Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)). While I don't think shining the light on physical and emotional abuse excuses this particular film's many shortcomings; those teetering on whether or not they should see Girl on the Train may see a selling point here.
As far as movie adaptations of mystery novels, written by women, loaded with red herrings, tinged with pop-psychology, brimming with unreliable narrators, jumps in time and an overall cynical view on love, Gone Girl is a much better film. Yet don't count out Girl on the Train simply because it's always painted with the same brush. There's a little something more to this film than it being just a mimic.
Despite seeing this film more than a week ago, I have been avoiding reviewing it. Not because it is a particularly loathsome film or because it's a particularly big disappointment. To put it simply there is very little to say about Miss Peregrine that hasn't already been said. Everything about the film is basically spelled out in the trailer and despite having a name-brand director whose history of odd images usually has some kind of merit to it, Miss Peregrine remains, to put it bluntly unpeculiar.
The film is based on a trilogy of time-travelling young adult novels written by Ransom Riggs. We follow our seemingly normal protagonist Jake (Butterfield) as he traipses through "time-loops" to uncover the mystery of his grandfather's death. While doing so he comes across Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children which smuggles its young wards into these time-loops to protect them from villains, ne'er-do-wells and the odd muggles. Jake must then face off against a plague of invisible villains all while trying to convince his father (O'Dowd) that he's not completely off his rocker.
As to be expected from the studio that continues to churn out X-Men (2000-present) movies, Miss Peregrine spends an awful lot of time building it's world and painstakingly maintaining it throughout the course of the film. Time-travel can be a cruel, timey-wimey thing concerning story structure thus watching the film beam-balance over the usual pratfalls is a wonder all it's own. Especially given the fact the movie crams in two out of three books into a single 2-hour film, I'm amazed nearly nothing collapsed in on itself.
Yet the movie not stretching into a mobius strip up its own a** is about the only thing really worth celebrating about Miss Peregrine. The acting is serviceable, the cinematography and special-effects are just north of Alice in Wonderland (2010) (no matter how many Jason and the Argonauts (1963) references you add to it) and the themes are right there in the pudding. It's a straightforward heroes-tale that fills the screen with old-fashioned, morose filigree. The kind that would have made the Tim Burton from twenty- years ago the obvious choice to helm the project. Yet like Rip Van Winkle, Burton seems to have just woken up and is unaware that Harry Potter, (2001-2011) The Hunger Games (2012-2015), The Maze Runner (2014-Present), The Divergent Series (2014-Present), Narnia (2005- 2008) and Percy Jackson (2010-2013) already exist.
It's clear the studio was aware these properties exist, and seeing no future for this particular franchise; 20th Century Fox in their all-seeing wisdom decided to cram most of the Peculiar Children trilogy into one characterless film. It's a shame too because the story has so much to setup. So much that, when the inevitable book jump rears its ugly head, the gear change is enough to give any unsuspecting audience member whiplash.
If anyone were to benefit from further movie installments it arguably could have been the villains led by Samuel L. Jackson. Their plan, ambitions and all-around look (somewhere between the monsters of Resident Evil and a brood of Hot Topic fans) could have morphed into something interesting if given a wider birth. Unfortunately their purpose in the movie we got is just so perfunctory. That and their menace is totally undone by zany pranks that feel like they were rejected from Home Alone (1990).
Miss Peregrine works in pieces and if taken out of context of being done before so, so, so many times before, it kinda stands on its own. Yet if ever there was a poster-child for the common phrase "the book was better," this movie is certainly it.
Stale and Utterly Incompetent
Welp, it looks like the dunderheads at the now bankrupt Relativity Media LLC. Are hell-bent in giving us yet another doozy before the year's end. What kind of rightfully shelved prattle do they have for us to mull over and regret buying a $10 ticket for this week? A Zach Galifianakis helmed caper comedy about a love-struck loser turned armored truck robber co-starring Kate McKinnon, Kristen Wiig and Owen Wilson? That doesn't seem so bad.
Well it gets bad folks, real bad. The kind of bad that gives even the most forgiving audience the urge to check their messages before sneaking into Storks (2016) to "check on the kids." Masterminds is an unholy mix of good ideas and concepts made painfully unfunny due bad editing, sloppy storytelling and an over-reliance on the same- old ugly American jokes not funny since Bush was in the White House.
The bang adorned Galifianakis plays David Ghantt, a trailer park doofus whose job as an armored car driver fills his head with notions of tense Mexican standoffs and Lee Marvin inspired bravado. His regular partner Kelly (Wiig) passively encourages his flights of fancy, joining him at the shooting range for target practice and openly discussing what she'd do if she was Phillip Johnson; a Loomis Fargo employee that tried to run off with $18 million. Convinced by Kelly's womanly charms and a heist plan masterminded by Kelly's friend Steve Chambers (Wilson), Ghantt decides to follow directives to steal the cash from the Loomis Fargo vault and run off to Mexico for a lovers' rendezvous.
On paper, Masterminds has a decent amount going for it. The movie's story attracted quite a few members of SNL's (1975-present) present star lineup including Kate McKinnon as Ghantt's awkward wife, Leslie Jones as the fussy lead FBI investigator and Jason Sudeikis as a frightfully obtuse hit-man. The film is directed by Jared Hess the man responsible for bringing deadpan anti-humor into the mainstream with Napoleon Dynamite (2004) so clap if you're into that. Mix in Galifianakis's personal brand of cringe-antics and Owen Wilson's inference to his character in Bottle Rocket (1996) and you got yourself quite a lot to root for.
Unfortunately, this film is much like a foul smelling casserole made with biscuits, Funions and eight-year-old Velvetta; individually each component sounds appetizing enough but clumping all these things together creates a slurry of colon clogging flotsam. The stranger than fiction tale of the Loomis Fargo robbery could have been, should have been a movie about class dispossession. Lacking that, it could have scored some points simply by dialing up the wacky. Yet Hess's inability to graduate his images from weird to laugh-inducing, mutes the good stuff from hitting its frequency. Nowhere is this more clear than when Galifianakis dons bad disguise after bad disguise in order to blend in.
Everyone in this film shamelessly acts out their best Joe Dirt (2001) impression, likely enjoying each other's company to the detriment of the audience. In so doing, they come up no funny lines or endeavor to make their characters anything more than poorly defined caricatures. The film then pads the narrative's plot-points to the brink; insuring whatever tiny morsels manage to get a giggle remain few and far between. By the time the robbery takes place (a mire half-hour into the film), all humor has ceased and all opportunities for humor have long choked on the lack of oxygen,
In a confounding moment of stupidity, Ghantt fumbles into the back of his armored truck and locks himself in, just as he's getting ready to leave. Seeing Ghantt panic and struggle to breathe at that moment is in many ways the perfect metaphor for this film. Clustered, confused, angry with himself and shambling to find the gears in the next compartment, Ghantt, like the audience feels stuck in a situation that should have never happened. This movie should have never happened.
Queen of Katwe (2016)
A Well Done if Familiar Film
Queen of Katwe is a happy marriage between inspirational underdog sports movies and maudlin feel-good success story clichés; churned into velvety, buttery food for the soul by Disney's well-oiled dream machine. That may come across as a put down but I assure you the greater ends of this film are admirable enough on their own merits to shoulder its various clichés, and dully earns its moments of tears. You may have seen a version of this before, but like a cherished Sunday hymn, Queen of Katwe is familiar in all the right, comforting ways.
The true story of Phiona Mutesi (Nalwanga) begins in the Ugandan slum of Katwe. Due to an unexpected death in the family, Phiona, her older sister Night (Kyaze) and younger brother Brian (Kabanza) were taken out of school to help their tenacious mother (Nyong'o) sell maize on the streets. As a result Phiona is functionally illiterate and quickly faltering under the weight of life's hardships. One day, intrigued by the smell of porridge and the laughter of other children, Phiona and Brian stumble into Robert Katende (Oyelowo) Sports Outreach Program. It is there, among other things the trained engineer teaches chess to interested children with hopes of putting rich kids in their place. After a time, the spirited Phiona develops a hidden talent and passion for chess which Katende encourages to the point of training her to be a tried and true prodigy.
Arguably the most striking thing about Queen of Katwe is just how seamlessly the static game of chess lends itself to comely sports dynamics. While not exactly pulse-pounding - the only film to my recollection that made chess truly cinematic was Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) - the spirit of competition instilled in Katende's group sets in motion many tiny setups and payoffs. The David versus Goliath staging of the chess matches crackle with anticipation, much like watching the wick of a firecracker moments before it begins to hop. As Phiona gets more serious about her goals of becoming a Chess Olympiad champion, so too do the matches. The opponents become less foolhardy and more calculated only serving to make the scenes more intense. This is despite the camera wanting to linger on grimaces instead of rooks and bishops.
Yet the film's intention isn't to make chess interesting in and of itself. It's goal is to make Phiona's underdog tale the focal point. In that regard, we're treated to a cautious yet effective examination of a slum kid turned African champion, made a hair better than usual, by director Mira Nair's surgical approach to the story. While Nair rests a bit too comfortably on her laurels as a humanist for hire, there's no debating her ability to infuse life into every frame. Queen of Katwe is awash in color, brimming with energy and ably wins even the most cynical among us with effervescent glee.
The other side of that effervescence of course is the young Madina Nalwanga whose discovery ranks up there with Keke Palmer in Akeelah and the Bee (2006). The largest stumbling block of the movie; an extended tangent about hubris that goes nowhere, actually morphs into a proving ground for the young actress. She proves not only that she can be a child actor but a child actor with range even while the film feels like its slowly deflating.
Then of course there are the ample talents of David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong'o to consider. As Katende, Oyelowo is solid as the kindly mentor the kids all call Coach. The script pigeonholes the character to the tune of a saintly mentor beyond reproach; thankfully Oyelowo plays a few new chords out of that old ditty. Yet while Oyelowo glitters, Nyong'o shines as a tough-as-nails single mother whose seen it all. When it comes to taking hardship with a noble sense of courageousness, her Harriet does all the emotional heavy lifting and carries it through with aplomb.
Somewhere in the middle of the film, an official observes that Phiona's strategies on the board are the most aggressive she's seen from a girl. Secretly I was hoping the film would have taken just as many bold risks. Fortunately thanks to the vibrant mis en scene and three excellent performances by our main cast, Queen of Katwe succeeds in being the heart-warming crowd-pleaser it was designed to be. I suppose there are worse things to be in the world than that.