It’s awards season, a heady time when the movie biz pats itself on the back for a job well done. Tuxedoes are rented, Botox injected by the gallon and hundreds of miles of red carpets unfurled as industry insiders honour the best of the best with statues and speeches.
But is it really a time for celebration? The movie biz had a record-breaking year, raking in north of $11.4 billion on the backs of, as one industry insider said, “a forgetful fish, infighting superheroes and some intergalactic rebels.”
But for every Finding Dory, Captain America or Rogue One, which all earned good reviews and audience support, there were dozens of others that acted as public repellent, driving viewers away in droves. Those unsuccessful movies are dark clouds hanging heavy over the Hollywood landscape. Metro has some thoughts on how to clear the skies and ensure smooth sailing until Hollywood runs out of awards to hand out.
Let’s spend more time watching imaginative new worlds and ideas brought to life on the screen. Give me more movies from Guillermo Del Toro, Edgar Wright and Andrea Arnold, filmmakers who constantly reinvent our relationship with story and cinema.
Although I’m looking forward to John Wick 2 and Skull Island, let’s cut back on the reboots, reimaginings, remakes and films with numbers in their titles.
Let Kristen Stewart do anything she wants. Her death-defying leap from a Young Adult idol to indie star has been inspiring to watch. She digs deeper and deeper with every role, distancing herself from the teeny-bopper image that defined the early part of her career. Her choices are wild and woolly and you don’t know what to expect next from her. More please.
No more ‘interesting’ movies from Will Smith. His overthinking has done more collateral damage to his once towering career than his last film, Collateral Beauty.
More convulsive belly laughs triggered by thoughtful, interesting jokes please. That means fewer films that mistake politically incorrect “did he really just say that?” jokes for actual humour.
Can we have more reliance on the human touch on screen; directors like Jim Jarmusch, Mira Nair and Barry Jenkins who use instinct and experience to create their art.
Let’s have less studio reliance on branding, formula and script algorithms like ScriptBook, ScripThreads and Slated. Successful movie ideas don’t come from marketing departments or mathematical analysis, they come from the hearts and minds of interesting storytellers.
We need more films that pass both the Bechdel Test (does the movie feature a scene where two women discuss something other than a man?) as well as the DuVernay Test (do the African American and other minority characters have fully realized lives or are they just scenery in white stories?) If the answer is yes to either of these questions, you’ll have more films that better reflect the world we live in.
Finally, it’s time for Hollywood to be truly egalitarian. We need to see an end to white actors cast in non-white roles. It’s not knee-jerk political correctness — it’s justice for years of whitewashing in Hollywood. Recently in Doctor Strange, Gods of Egypt, Aloha and many others caucasian actors were cast in roles written or conceived for people of colour. Let’s stop that in 2017.
Imagine seeing a movie in a theatre for the first time. Now imagine the first movie you see on the big screen is the story of your life. That’s what happened to Phiona Mutesi.
“I’ve never been in a theatre,” she said at the Toronto International Film Festival the night after Queen of Katwe premiered in front of a sold out crowd of twenty-six hundred people. “This has been my first time.”
Based on the book The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster the movie tells the tale of how Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), an illiterate girl from a very poor family in Kampala, Uganda, learns to play chess and with the help of mentor Robert Katende (David Oyelowo) moves from local tournaments to the World Chess Olympiad.
“We have had video shacks for the longest time,” says director Mira Nair, a Uganda resident of almost three decades, “but until five years ago we didn’t have theatres in malls. The price of a ticket is almost ten dollars which prices it out of everyone’s reach. It is true that a kid like Phiona would not choose to spend that kind of money to go to the theatre. She’d see a pirated DVD in a shack somewhere.”
The Disney movie was shot on the streets of Kampala and features over 100 local actors, many of whom, Nair points out, had never seen a camera before.
“I actually took a bunch of the kids to see Jurassic World while we were doing the film,” says star David Oyelowo, “and Madina [Nalwanga] who plays Phiona was sat next to me and was clutching me the whole time, terrified by the movie. She turned to me and said, ‘Is this what we are doing?’ I asked her if she had ever seen a film before and she said no. We were halfway through shooting a film in which she is playing the lead.”
Oyelowo, a Golden Globe nominee for his work playing Martin Luther King in Selma, says working with the young, inexperienced actors was a “was a wonderful thing for the film.”
“Because the kids in this film were not necessarily connecting what we were doing in shooting the film with what they had seen before, because they hadn’t seen a movie in a movie theatre before, it meant there was something really unaffected, something really free, something genuine about their performances. I found I was getting a refresher course in how to be truthful in front of a camera. Inevitably after you have done a few movies you start adopting a house style. You start knowing too much in a sense. Even though it is kind of a mind-blowing thing that they haven’t seen a movie, because we in the west take it very much for granted, it actually lends a very specific quality to the film itself.”
Nair, whose Ugandan film school Maisha Film Lab is taking a thousand school kids to the theatres to see the movie, says Queen of Katwe is “really a portrait of ourselves. It’s going to make a sea change in terms of people realizing that we matter, that our stories can put bums on seats.”
Most of “Queen of Katwe,” director Mira Nair’s true story of chess prodigy Phiona Mutesi, is set in Kampala, Uganda but despite a very specific location, the film is ripe with universal messages.
Based on the book “The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster” the story picks up steam when Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), an illiterate girl from a very poor family, meets Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), at a Sports Ministry Out Reach. The young teacher sees something special in Phiona and her uncanny ability with chess. Soon she is beating the other children at the outreach. “What I’m seeing cannot be true!” says one young boy amazed he’s being beaten by a girl. Another more experienced player accuses her of reading his mind. Katende soon figures out that she is able to see eight moves ahead, annihilating almost everyone who sits opposite her.
Soon, against the wishes of her mother Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o), who, at first, doesn’t see a future in playing a game when the family desperately needs her to work in the market to put food on the table. From local tournaments to World Chess Olympiads, Phiona’s skill becomes her family’s ticket to a better life. “Sometimes the place you’re used to,” Katende tells her, “is not the place you belong.”
“Queen of Katwe” is a story that finds inspiration in a place where there is little hope. Nair vibrantly bring life in Kampala to life. Grinding poverty is on display but so is the indomitable spirit that allows people to survive in diminished living circumstances. “Challenges are not a curse,” the Outreach slogan, is glimpsed only briefly but is the overriding theme of this message-laden movie.
Chess is used as a metaphor throughout. “In chess the small one [the pawn] can become the big one [the queen] that’s why I like it,” says one of Phiona’s early teachers. “Do not be quick to tip your king,” says Katende. In other words never give up. These are about as subtle as a shovel to the forehead but while the film’s messages are syrupy sweet the universal truths are solid. It’s not just about winning or losing in Phiona’s world, it’s about representing her country and bettering her family’s life. These are potent ideas even if they are a little saccharine.
Aided by an appealing cast—although the accents might be a challenge from time to tome—Nair rings every ounce of emotion from the inspirational story.
In Monsoon Wedding director Mira Nair expertly knits together a joyous, sprawling story about a wedding, an affair, and a love-sick wedding planner. Nair is aiming her camera at life in modern day India, but still holds onto many of the traditions of Bollywood filmmaking. Monsoon Wedding is full of life – interesting characters, bright swirling colours, fabulous Indian music – and like one of Nair’s previous efforts, the Oscar nominated Salaam Bombay, seems poised to break through the cultural marketplace and become a mainstream North American hit. Also check out the marvellous score by Winnipeg-born Mychael Danna.
In the two decades since director Mira Nair made a splash with her debut film, the Oscar nominated Salaam Bombay, she has made richly textured movies like Monsoon Wedding and Mississippi Masala that examine family and intimate relationships. Her latest film, an adaptation of the popular Jhumpa Lahiri novel about two generations of a Bengali family is an almost epic work about the immigrant experience.
The sprawling story begins in Calcutta in the late 1970s with an arranged marriage between Ashoke, a survivor of a recent train accident, and Ashima. The couple settle in a cold-water walk-up in New York City and begin to assimilate to a new way of life and one another.
Soon they start to raise a family. Their first child, a boy, is named after Ashoke’s favorite writer, the Russian Nikhil Gogol. The name is loaded with meaning for both father and son, carrying a weight that becomes one of the major themes of the film.
Gogol, who later changes his name to the more American-sounding Nick, becomes the focus of the film. He rejects the traditions of his background, preferring the more cosmopolitan lifestyle offered by Manhattan and his WASPy girlfriend. A death in the family forces him to reevaluate his choices.
That’s the Cole’s Notes version of the story. Nair has reduced Lahiri’s 300 plus pages to two hours of screen time but still manages to cover a lot of ground. At its core, though, this is a movie about assimilation—the parents must come to grips with their new country and their children must find a way to live in America without denying their cultural background.
Gogol’s internal struggle is well presented by Kal Penn, an actor best known for outrageous comedy roles in films like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Epic Movie. He delivers a remarkably restrained performance as he portrays the character from geeky teenager to self-assured young man.
We’ve seen this sort of thing on-screen before, but Nair’s brings a sensitivity to the film that brings the characters alive. Gogol’s struggle with his identity could have been hackneyed in less capable hands, but the director’s nimble touch and heartfelt treatment of the material rings true.