Queen of Katwe
⋆⋆½ out of four stars
Rated: PG for an accident scene and some suggestive material
Filled with platitudes galore, this underdog story borrows a worn-out template to tell a remarkable true story.
The year is 2007, and 10-year-old Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) supports her family by selling maize on the streets of her Uganda slum. A chance encounter with a missionary introduces her to chess, a game she clearly was born to play — and it could be her ticket out of poverty.
None of the plot comes as a surprise, and the rhythms of the movie tend to drag, especially during the first half. But rousing moments materialize eventually, especially as Phiona begins traveling to chess tournaments, where she takes on snooty kids from private schools in big cities.
Directed by Mira Nair (“Monsoon Wedding,” “Mississippi Masala”), it does something rare for a family-friendly movie: It offers a realistic portrayal of modern Africans, remaining completely immersed in their world rather than showing it through the eyes of outsiders. Its images of poverty and desperation will be eye-opening for children in the Disney audience — not to mention their parents.
The leisurely pace drains some of the emotion from the story. The corny dialogue doesn’t help get it back. “In chess, the small one can become the big one,” a girl tells Phiona, explaining how a pawn might be exchanged for a queen.
Subtlety isn’t the film’s strong suit. But beneath the hackneyed aphorisms, there’s a thrilling story worthy of our attention.
Stephanie Merry, Washington Post
⋆⋆ out of four stars
Rated: PG-13 for crude and sexual humor, profanity, violence
There’s a certain subset of the population that might find Zach Galifianakis in a ridiculous hairdo the height of comedy. If you are in that segment, you’ll find much merriment in this lightweight and very silly comedy in which he sports a variety of insane wigs and ’dos.
For viewers not into hair jokes, however, this is a small, very strange film. It definitely doesn’t enter the upper echelons of director Jared Hess’ oeuvre, which includes the wacky comedy classics “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Nacho Libre,” or even the best work of its stars.
Galifianakis plays aw-shucks naif David Ghantt, an employee of an armored truck company, trapped in a loveless engagement with Jandice (an unblinking Kate McKinnon), carrying a torch for his co-worker, sassy Kelly (Kristen Wiig). Kelly and her petty thief buddy Steve (Owen Wilson) hatch a plan to rob the company vault, and ensnare lovelorn David into their plot as their inside man.
There’s something about the slower, dry, Hessian tone working in concert with this high-octane heist story that doesn’t quite jibe. Perhaps it’s that this is the first film that Hess has directed that he hasn’t written, but it’s as if there are too many characters, plot twists and action-based, broad story moments, which ultimately curb the opportunities to let the actors loose.
Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service
⋆½ out of four stars
Rated: R for obscenity, violence
Set in the early 1950s, this toxic tale of madness, mendacity, perversity and revenge is a manic, ultimately wearying pastiche of that era’s cinematic genres. One minute it’s quoting the twangy foreboding of spaghetti Westerns, the next it’s paying homage to moody noir thrillers. Kate Winslet plays Myrtle “Tilly” Dunnage, a seamstress who returns to her tiny Australian hometown, nursing a lifelong grudge against her former neighbors and hoisting a sewing machine like a six-shooter.
Adapted from Rosalie Ham’s novel by director Jocelyn Moorhouse (“Proof’) from a script she wrote with her husband, P.J. Hogan (“Muriel’s Wedding”), the film pays little attention to narrative or tonal coherence, instead trotting out wildly disconnected scenes that, at their best, bear little or no relation to what’s come before and, at their worst, are downright offensive, including a marital rape scene that is played for laughs.
The details of Tilly’s misfortunes eventually become clear, as do the reasons for her 25-year exile. Less logical are the reasons for her return. Granted, she wants to reconnect with her mother, a dotty, cantankerous old bat nicknamed Mad Molly (played with snaggletoothed relish by the great Judy Davis). And Tilly wants to avenge her mistreatment as a child, when the mayor, schoolteacher and sundry bullies and hangers-on framed her for an act she didn’t commit. But if she’s so angry, why does she put her sewing talents to use by draping her erstwhile enemies in dazzling couture-like creations?
Overplotted, undercooked and extremely well-dressed, the movie has style to burn, but it has a mean streak as wide as the Outback.
Ann Hornaday, Washington Post