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Friday, September 23, 2016

QUEEN OF KATWE is a Gorgeous, Inspiring Look at a Young Life Fully Realized

A few months ago at the Tribeca Film Festival, I had a chance to catch the first episode of the new Roots mini-series on the History Channel (which later became a ratings success), as well as the pre-screening discussion with the actors, including the series lead Malachi Kirby, who marveled over his experience working on the project in Africa. Rarely do big screen depictions of the continent highlight its joy and beauty, he said.

I thought of his statement again recently while watching QUEEN OF KATWE, which tells the true story of a young girl from Uganda who rises to become a chess prodigy amid challenging circumstances. Sean Bobbitt's radiant photography, capturing the crease in each character's smile line, the wistful yet determined furrow of their brows, and the movement of their hips as they dance with excitement, combined with the vibrant costumes and gorgeous landscape, immediately invites you into the narrative. That's because you never feel like you're watching the typical somber meditation of life in Africa that is relentless and one-dimensional. Rather, you're watching life in all its shades: joyful, messy, devastating, and triumphant. Powerful.

Based on a remarkable true story, which later became a bestselling book, QUEEN OF KATWE shines a light on the journey of 9-year-old Phiona Mutesi (portrayed by astonishing newcomer Madina Nalwanga), who, lured by the smell of porridge in her nearly depleted belly, stumbled onto a makeshift chess group and defied all the odds to become an international hero.

If this sounds like a quintessential Disney film to you, then you're half right. Yes, it's wholesome and finishes on a heartwarming high like many other cherished Disney stories. But at its core lies a story of redemption, cultural pride, feminism, and economics--elements of a young life contending with extraordinary challenges. As one of few girls in war refugee-turned-missionary Robert Katende's (charmingly played by David Oyelowo) group of budding young chess stars, Phiona's genius is at first an unwelcome threat against her male counterparts. But with time she was embraced, and was even looked up to, by everyone from her teammates to her firm yet loving single mother (Lupita Nyong'o) and even Katende himself. And years later (the film spans several years of her life, beginning in 2005), when the little Katwe team battles the upper class prep school prodigies when she takes her first ever flight across Uganda, Phiona comes face to face with the realization of how Katwe (and more specifically, the people of Katwe) are regarded--or disregarded--to everyone else. With a fighter's passion and a fierce yearning to overcome her circumstances, Phiona simultaneously comes of age and transfixes a world of fans--ultimately going on to compete in the 41st Chess Olympiad in 2014.

QUEEN OF KATWE is a mesmerizing story of a life fully realized, a life that's often overlooked and not given a chance. Its young cast, led by the Nalwanga's nuanced performance, help illuminate layers of humanity resting deep in the "slums" of Uganda, exhibiting talent well beyond their years. Meanwhile, Oyelowo and Nyong'o's performances temper the film with heart-wrenching emotion. And Mira Nair's touching portrait of Katwe's inspiring young queen with a dream is one to remember.

Rating: A (***** out of *****)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Trailer Watch: 'AND STILL I RISE' Promises to Illuminate the Inspiring Life of Icon Maya Angelou

If there was ever a documentary that was stacked with pressure to be absolutely perfect from audiences across the world, it is MAYA ANGELOU: AND STILL I RISE. First of all, it is tasked with illuminating the life of iconic writer/activist/performer/hero Maya Angelou (something that could really take several movies in a row could struggle to exemplify). And it features interviews with other greats like Cicely Tyson, U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, and Oscar winner Common (to name a few of the stars), sharing how Angelou and the legacy she left behind has impacted their lives. Oh, and the late Angelou herself appears in her own words, adding a deeply personal element to the narrative.

Guys, this could be major. Read the synopsis:

With never before seen footage, directors BOB HERCULES and RITA COBURN WHACK present her incredible journey, shedding light on the untold aspects of her life with remarkable unmatched access. This intimate and personal portrait of Dr. Maya Angelou's life is a touching and moving tribute to her legacy. Distinctly referred to as “a redwood tree, with deep roots in American culture,” icon Maya Angelou gave people the freedom to think about their history in a way they never had before. Dr. Angelou’s was a prolific life; as a singer, dancer, activist, poet, and writer she inspired generations with lyrical modern African-American thought that pushed boundaries.

This unprecedented film celebrates Dr. Maya Angelou by weaving her words with rare and intimate archival photographs and videos, which paint hidden moments of her exuberant life during some of America’s most defining moments. From her upbringing in the Depression-era South to her work with Malcolm X in Ghana to her inaugural speech for President Bill Clinton, the film takes us on an incredible journey through the life of a true American icon.

The film also features a remarkable series of interviews with friends and family including President Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, Common, Alfre Woodard, Cicely Tyson, Quincy Jones, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, John Singleton and Dr. Angelou’s grandson, Guy Johnson.

Now watch the trailer:

Very, very hyped about this. MAYA ANGELOU: AND STILL I RISE will open in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco theaters on October 14.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

And in Non-BRIDGET JONES'S BABY News, The Trailer for THE WHOLE TRUTH Starring Renée Zellweger and Keanu Reeves

Suffice it to say that just as much energy media spent criticizing Renée Zellweger's alleged plastic surgery in the trailer for Bridget Jones's Baby, also went into lambasting the film's ultimate box office disappointment. But you know where nearly no energy was spent? On discussing the actual quality of the film. So, I guess we're left to assume from the media narrative that the actress's face ruined the film. Ah, Hollywood, you're nothing if not ridiculous.

Flash forward to less than a week after Bridget's release, Zellweger gets another chance to win over critics (and hopefully stage a real comeback) with THE WHOLE TRUTH, a crime thriller in which she's starring alongside Keanu Reeves, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, and Jim Belushi. So far, it sounds promising, and a welcome departure from the otherwise straightforward, likable characters Zellweger normally plays.


Defense attorney Richard Ramsay (Keanu Reeves) takes on a personal case when he swears to his widowed friend, Loretta Lassiter (Renée Zellweger), that he will keep her son Mike (Gabriel Basso) out of prison. Charged with murdering his father, Mike initially confesses to the crime. But as the trial proceeds, chilling evidence about the kind of man that Boone Lassiter (Jim Belushi) really was comes to light. While Ramsay uses the evidence to get his client acquitted, his new colleague Janelle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) tries to dig deeper - and begins to realize that the whole truth is something she alone can uncover.

Check out the trailer:

THE WHOLE TRUTH opens in theaters and VOD on October 21.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

IFP FILM WEEK: Rose McGowan - Unfiltered, Ambitious, and Tired of Hollywood Bulls**t

Few other women in Hollywood have given it a bigger middle finger than Rose McGowan. We all know about the double standards, racism, sexism, ageism, and all the other lovely perks of being in the show they call biz. But McGowan, who you may know from Scream, Jawbreaker, Charmed, or Grindhouse: Planet Terror (my personal favorite), a product of the Hollywood machine, has been astonishingly vocal about all of it. After quitting the acting business a few years back after seeing a distorted image of herself on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine in 2010, McGowan decided to take the reins of her career and pivot behind the camera to present her directorial debut, Dawn (reviewed here).

As part of IFP Film Week last weekend, McGowan candidly discussed everything from her latest endeavors (including a book and an small screen project with SeriesFest!) to Hollywood patriarchy and growing up as an actor:

A movie she admires:

The Parent Trap (1961 version, the only one that matters).

On social media:

"To quote Ashton Kutcher, 'Twitter is the only place where an actor can have a voice for themselves.'"

On battling injustice, inequality, and Hollywood fatigue:

"So many directors treat actors like couches that talk. There is no human resources for actors."

Advice she'd give male filmmakers on how to portray genuine women characters:

"Don't just look at how you would consume a movie. Think about your female audience."

On playing Paige on Charmed:

"It was the hardest character I ever played because she was so normal." #Irony

On her reported "feud" with Shannen Doherty:

"One of Shannen's strong points is that if she didn't like you, she told you."

On other Hollywood gripes:

"My biggest problem was working with people who had no clue what they were doing. I often found that I was directing myself."

Monday, September 19, 2016

IFP Film Week: Rebecca Hall On Portraying the Complex, Eccentric, and Tragic CHRISTINE

In less than one month audiences nationwide will be able to immerse themselves in the big screen dramatization of a Florida news anchor's startling true life story that culminated in her taking her own life in the middle of a live broadcast. But, as its star Rebecca Hall is quick note, CHRISTINE (previewed last week on the site) isn't about her jaw-dropping death. "It's a film that shows how you can celebrate a life without glorifying its ending."

Hall discussed working on the film with director Antonio Campos as part of the IFP Film Week conversation series in Brooklyn this past weekend, moderated by Scott Macaulay of Filmmaker Magazine. It was an engrossing dialogue that highlighted the film's depiction of 1970s feminism in the workplace and depression, while also examining Hall and Campos's artistic process to create the character of Christine Chubbuck with very little information about her to go by.

Rebecca Hall on getting into character:

"I only had about 15 minutes of video of Christine to get an understanding of her." While the actual video of Chubbuck's death remains MIA now, Hall said she watched footage of Chubbuck doing one of her typical human interest interviews, which she described as "very dull." She credits screenwriter Craig Shilowich, who interviewed some of Chubbuck's coworkers and friends, as helping her round out the character.

On what compelled her to take the role:

Hall had never heard of Chubbuck's story before, but upon reading Shilowich's script, she asked herself, "Why am I so disturbed by this? I knew that it felt important. It made me think about what it must have been like to be this person. It's so rare that as an actress that you get such a feminine film. A woman who is unlikable."

On the role feminism plays in Chubbuck's story in the film:

"She isn't sexually viable and she doesn't get saved by a man." Hall said.

On understanding Chubbuck's character:

"Christine is a unique and eccentric individual. She was constantly performing for those around her and checking in with those watching to see if what she was doing was ok," Hall said.

On the effect Chubbuck's story had on the film's talent:

"For better or worse, the act was a public tragedy," Hall said. Campos added, "By the end [of the film], you just feel devastated." Hall also said that Shilowich, who combated his past depression by throwing himself into his work, was fascinated by how it was Chubuck's work that served as a catalyst.

CHRISTINE hits theaters October 14.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Trailer Watch: Rebecca Hall Transforms into the Real-Life News Anchor Whose Name Tragically Made Headlines

This looks so good, guys.

Coincidentally, I was just tweeting the other day how as a J-school grad, I continue to be surprised by how journalism has evolved (and in some instances devolved) in favor of click baits and sensationalism. Which is perhaps at the basis of CHRISTINE, starring the criminally underrated Rebecca Hall as the real life Christine Chubbuck, the Florida news anchor who made national headlines in 1974 when she committed suicide during a live broadcast. I know, wild.

Looking at the new trailer, which is definitely intriguing, the film looks like it also explores such topics as depression, feminism in the workplace, and social awkwardness--all embodied in Hall's performance.

Full synopsis:

Rebecca Hall stars in director Antonio Campos' third feature film, CHRISTINE, the story of a woman who finds herself caught in the crosshairs of a spiraling personal life and career crisis. Christine, always the smartest person in the room at her local Sarasota, Florida news station, feels like she is destined for bigger things and is relentless in her pursuit of an on-air position in a larger market. As an aspiring newswoman with an eye for nuance and an interest in social justice, she finds herself constantly butting heads with her boss (Tracy Letts), who pushes for juicier stories that will drive up ratings. Plagued by self-doubt and a tumultuous home life, Christine’s diminishing hope begins to rise when an on-air co-worker (Michael C. Hall) initiates a friendship which ultimately becomes yet another unrequited love. Disillusioned as her world continues to close in on her, Christine takes a dark and surprising turn.

Based on true events, Campos’ intimate and sensitive portrait of a woman on the brink is grounded by Hall’s impeccable and transformative performance as Christine. Rounding out the supporting cast are superlative performances by Michael C. Hall (“Dexter”), Tracy Letts (“Homeland,” Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright), Maria Dizzia (“Orange Is The New Black”), Timothy Simons (“Veep”) and J. Smith-Cameron (“Margaret”).

Watch the trailer:

I'm actually attending a panel with Hall and Campos as the special guests for IFP Film Week, which should be interesting. CHRISTINE opens in theaters October 14. What do you think?

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Jessica Chastain is Channeling All Kinds of Corporate Badassery in the MISS SLOANE Trailer

So, as some of you may already know, I worship at the church of Jessica Chastain. I think she can do no wrong, even in the wrongest movies like *ahem* The Help (yeah, I said it). After her Oscar-nominated turn in the aforementioned movie, she's gone on to portray some of the most interesting ice queens in modern cinema--Lucille in Crimson Peak, Anna in A Most Violent Year, Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, and the title character in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, to name a few. In short, I think she's the cat's meow.

Which is another reason why MISS SLOANE caught my attention. The actress stars as a ruthless D.C. lobbyist who goes to great lengths to get her way--no matter the risk. Synopsis:

MISS SLOANE is the story a brilliant but ruthless lobbyist (Jessica Chastain) who is notorious for her unparalleled talent and her desire to win at all costs, even when it puts her own career at risk. The thriller pulls back the curtain on how Capitol Hill games are played and won as Sloane faces off against the most influential powers in D.C.

Chastain re-teams with director John Madden (The Debt), and stars alongside Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alison Pill, Mark Strong, and John Lithgow.

Watch the trailer:

I'm very intrigued. MISS SLOANE hits theaters December 9. 

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