Monday, October 31, 2016

Queen of Katwe (2016)

I like to feel good as much as the next person, which is why a feel-good sports movie often appeals. (You know, "Go Cubs.") Equal parts Bad News Bears and NPR news feature story—and so as not to miss a bet, "based on true events"—Queen of Katwe is a lively underdog drama, with the story of Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga), a chess prodigy from the slums of Katwe, Uganda. David Oyelowo (MLK Jr. in Selma) is Robert Katende, the inspirational community leader who coaches kids in soccer and chess. This one paints in easily by numbers—that's right, it's Disney. Phiona has a tough life. Her father is dead, her mother (Lupita Nyong'o in a nice performance) is barely making it at a subsistence level. An older sister is growing up too fast, and there are more mouths to feed besides. But Phiona takes to chess right away, and Katende, who loves the game and is a student of it himself, soon recognizes her talent. As sports movies go, chess is one of the harder competitions to dramatize, much like the problems with computer hacking movies, because it's just people sitting around quietly concentrating. I recall from Searching for Bobby Fischer, for example, the recurring fascination with the clocks they use in the game, with players tapping them to signal the end of their moves. There's a lot of those clocks and that tapping here too. I understand the game enough to follow some of the board play they show, which I appreciated for the veracity, though it was nearly as often over my head. But that doesn't matter much. Once the terms of the sports drama are set, it follows familiar rhythms and goes familiar places: the discovery of the remarkable talent, the first surprising achievement against all odds, the overconfidence which leads to a demoralizing defeat, the overcoming of that in turn, etc. As a Disney movie, Queen of Katwe is also full of colorful African detail, such as music you'd expect to find on a Putamayo collection, bright and interesting clothing, busy markets, joyful carrying on, and so forth. I didn't actually feel like I learned much about Uganda or Ugandan culture, beyond the terms of the poverty, but that's sufficient to the cause of the movie. This is an underdog tale, and while it has its share of miscues and overdoing it, it mostly stays out of its own way and lets the drama build out of the games and rounds of tournaments. It's pretty good on the poverty—it's Disney, so inevitably somewhat sugarcoated, but it feels real enough. They plainly have a hard life and few ways out. Chess may be the unlikeliest way out of all, but hey, based on true events, you can't make this stuff up, and what are you gonna do? Keep this in your back pocket for when you're in a Hoosiers or Breaking Away mood.

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