Queen Of Katwe (2016) (Blu-ray Review)

Queen of Katwe (2016)


Quietly joining the ranks of films that branch out from Hollywood’s usual “white people do things” plot, Queen of Katwe is a refreshing and unpredictable entry from Disney about a young girl in Uganda who discovers a spectacular talent for chess.

The true story follows the life of Phiona (Madina Nalwanga), a teenage girl living in the Katwe slum of Uganda’s capital Kampala with her mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) and her siblings. She discovers a talent for chess at a missionary program run by sports coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo), and soon begins to compete against children from other, richer schools. She finds friendship and a sense of belonging among the other chess players, but gradually begins to chafe under her lack of education and the extreme poverty in which her mother and family are forced to live.

Queen of Katwe relies on some of the usual clichés about exceptional people in terrible circumstances, painting a picture of Phiona’s rise from poverty in very recognizable and clean-cut terms. But, more so than most Disney films, it also closely depicts the depths of poverty in which Phiona and her family live without either romanticizing them or making them appear exceptional. This is simply their lives, and chess – of all things – might very well be their ticket out of poverty. Phiona’s mother just wants a home with a roof over it, a request seemingly impossible to satisfy. Her daughter wants a way out of the slums. As Phiona becomes increasingly dissatisfied with her family life after every chess tournament, the conflict with her mother and her younger brother increases – she no longer feels at home anywhere, unable to match her growing thirst for education with her impoverished circumstances.

Robert and Harriet both approach Phiona’s talent with love and understanding – Robert sees her as a brilliant child who needs an opportunity, while Harriet recognizes both her daughter’s talent and the undeniable struggles of her daily life. The conflict between the two develops as what they think is best for Phiona, and whether the girl can ever achieve more than just notoriety in chess competition.

Queen of Katwe is a Disney film, and so even the extreme poverty of Phiona and her family is treated with a soft-focus edge. The film avoids going into the seamier side of poverty – Phiona’s elder sister Night (Taryn Kyaze) draws her mother’s condemnation by running off with a boy on a motorbike, but this is treated as mostly ancillary to Phiona’s life. Yet the fact that this is a Disney film works to Queen of Katwe’s benefit. The film presents the day-to-day life of impoverished people rather than dwelling on suffering or violence, avoiding the usual problems of more “adult” films that tend to focus on the dreadful nature of poverty rather than the humanity of the people.

Director Mira Nair gets excellent performances out of her cast – Oyelowo and Nyong’o are predictably good in their respective roles, but the children really steal the film. Newcomer Madina Malwanga turns in a riveting lead performance, fully embodying Phiona and lending her the depth necessary to carry the film. She avoids being overshadowed by the older and more experienced actors – no mean feat, given the calibre of acting on display here.

Queen of Katwe‘s sole weakness lies in the somewhat meandering nature of its story. Nair chooses to bookend the film with an important chess match, but the efficacy of those bookends make the rest of the narrative feel arcless. Phiona’s development from gifted amateur to a potential Grand Master forms the main focus of the story, but secondary plot threads threaten to imbalance the narrative. The film occasionally loses focus, eliding over important events and puncturing the development of suspense. While this doesn’t condemn the film, it does lessen the dramatic impact.

This Blu-ray release is as lovely and rich as one would expect from a Disney Blu-ray. Nair makes use of her usual vibrant color palette, here presented in sharp HD. The extra features include deleted scenes and an audio commentary with Nair that serve to flesh out the story. Two featurettes, including a short film about Robert Katende, explain the background of the real people on which Queen of Katwe is based, while Disney gets in its musical product placement with an Alicia Keys music video. As usual, the film is the major attraction on this disc, but the behind-the-scenes featurettes are especially informative and showcase the reality behind the gloss.

A smart and interesting story that seeks neither to romanticize nor pity its protagonists, Queen of Katwe is a strong entry into Disney’s live action world.

The Light Between Oceans (2016) (Blu-Ray Review)

The Light Between Oceans (2016)


The romantic melodrama The Light Between Oceans comes to Blu-ray today, so get out your Kleenex and prepare yourself to be moved (and just a little bored) by the trials of a lighthouse keeper, his wife, and the choice that changes numerous lives in a small town in Australia.

Michael Fassbender is Tom Sherbourne, a traumatized World War I vet who becomes a lighthouse keeper at Janus Rock, off the coast of Western Australia. He falls in love with Isabel Graysmark (Alicia Vikander) and together they build an idyllic but isolated existence at Janus. After suffering two miscarriages, Isabel despairs of ever having a child. Then a boat is washed up on shore, containing the body of a man and a very much alive baby girl. Isabel convinces Tom not to report the boat so that they can keep the child as their own. But that’s not the end of the story, of course, when Tom thinks that he’s come across the girl’s real mother Hannah (Rachel Weisz).

The Light Between Oceans is in the best traditions of romantic melodrama – it wouldn’t be out of place in 1930s cinema, probably starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne (actually, they did make a similar film called Penny Serenade). The film allows the complexities around the trauma of loss and the sacrifices people make for those they love to come to the fore without laying too much blame on anyone. The drama feels unforced, once you’re willing to accept the somewhat unbelievable and romantic notion of a baby literally being washed up on the shore and taken in by a childless couple. There are no real villains, but people living at odds with each other, manipulated by circumstance and coincidence and affected by the choices of others. It would have been easy to vilify Hannah, or to force Isabel into the wrong, but both women are wrenched apart by their mutual love for a child and their personal tragedies.

There are elements that strain credulity, however, with at least one questionable plot complication that is both necessary to what follows and is unreasonably forced. Once that is gotten over, the film moves along cohesively enough, but I confess that I continued to come back to that point, wondering whether the novel on which the film is based succeeded in eliding over this issue with greater success. The moral complications of Tom and Isabel’s decision are dealt with carefully, although there are moments when the film threatens to tip over into soap opera territory. A secondary theme that could have been handled with greater complexity are Tom’s issues with faith – as the final act of the film proceeds, this becomes an important point, yet was never really elucidated or developed earlier in the film.

The Light Between Oceans boasts beautiful cinematography and this Blu-ray release showcases that, lovingly painting the gorgeous landscapes and the close, intimate images of the actors. The extras on the disc are mostly what one would expect: an audio commentary with director Derek Cianfrance, a few featurettes detailing the film as an adaptation and the use of location and cinematography. These are interesting enough insights into the production circumstances, though they naturally don’t touch on the greater thematic complexities of the narrative. The strength of the Blu-ray is in the presentation of the film itself.

Moving and complex and a touch melodramatic, The Light Between Oceans never quite rises to the heights of greatness, but neither should it be ignored. It’s an excellent piece of entertainment, beautifully presented on the new Blu-ray, with strong performances and some gorgeous locations. An enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976) (Blu-Ray Review)

The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976)


Nicholas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, out on Blu-ray January 24, is a strange, sometimes successful cross between a straight sci-fi and an art installation. The film attempts to incorporate pretty much everything you might expect from both forms of art, mixing perception, dreams, reality, and drug-induced hysteria into a plot that doesn’t so much arc as hover slowly to different ethereal planes.

What little plot there is concerns Thomas Newton (David Bowie), an alien from a drought-stricken planet who arrives on Earth to bring water home. He immediately acquires great wealth using the technology from his home planet, bringing him power and increased scrutiny. He falls in love (sort of) with Mary-Lou (Candy Clark), a maid and bellhop in a rundown hotel, who introduces him to booze, sex, and religion (and cookies). With the help of Dr. Nathan Bryce (Rip Torn), a womanizing scientist who guesses at Newton’s alienness, Newton hopes to construct a spaceship to return him home to his wife and family.

Of course, The Man Who Fell To Earth can’t do something as easy as tell a coherent story about a stranger in a strange land. Newton’s rise and fall is interspersed with a complexity of images, sounds, and scenes as he flashes back to (or dreams about or has foreshadowings of) his home planet and the family he left behind. His experience of Earth is likewise informed by media, as he absorbs everything from TV to music in a smorgasbord of sensory experience. Never having had alcohol before, he becomes an alcoholic; never having experienced human sex, he becomes a nymphomaniac. Yet he’s also curiously distant, unable to make real connections with those people around him.

The problem with the film is that it doesn’t seem to be entirely certain what it’s trying to do, or why it’s trying to do it. Whole swathes of time are covered in single scene changes, while other scenes drag on and on, for no clear reason. While I never argue about a naked David Bowie, I could have done without seeing Rip Torn bed an ever-increasing number of ingenues. Nor is it clear what, if anything, these scenes are supposed to accomplish. The Man Who Fell To Earth is too linear to be surreal, but too scattered to tell a coherent story. It seems to be desperate to say something without having much of a clue about what it wants to say.

Bowie is the weirdly comforting center of all this, his beauty as ethereal and mesmerizing as ever. While he gave better performances in his acting career, he would never step into a role that suited him as closely as playing a gentle alien who just wants to go home. His moving performance attempts to articulate his experiences to human beings ill-equipped to understand them, and keeps the film from vanishing into its own personal black hole. Newton stretches out for contact that he’s not capable of, trying to express love or connection in a way that he can’t accomplish. There’s a sadness to Bowie’s performance that makes the viewer feel that we’re truly watching someone desperate to connect who doesn’t have the means or the language to do so.

This Limited Collector’s Edition Blu-ray release of The Man Who Fell To Earth is a gorgeous one, and offers the film in a beautiful 4K restoration, so that one may experience the Thin White Duke in all his multi-hued glory. The extras on the disc itself consist of new interviews with the costume designer May Routh and producer Michael Deeley, a multitude of archival interviews with Bowie, Candy Clark, Roeg, and writer Paul Mayersberg, and a “Lost Soundtracks” featurette, detailing the sound design of the film and what might have been. Although the interviews are interesting, they don’t entirely clarify the meaning behind the film and fail to reinforce it for anyone who might be unconvinced as a fan. The inserts in the pack are great, however, including a 72-page booklet, art cards, and a mini-poster with Bowie front and center (and which now adorns my wall).

The Man Who Fell To Earth is one of those films that’s interesting as a curiosity and provocative for what it doesn’t quite succeed at doing. It’s an incoherent film, but it’s an interesting incoherent film, one that doesn’t entirely fail despite it’s incoherency. It aspires to the photographic beauty and depth of 2001: A Space Odyssey and the emotional resonance of The Day The Earth Stood Still, and seems to forget, at times, to just be a film.

Dearest Sister (2016)

Dearest Sister (2016)

*Now streaming exclusively on Shudder.


As women make ever greater strides into the horror genre, one to watch is certainly Lao director Mattie Do, Laos’s first female director and first horror director. Her second horror feature Dearest Sister showed at Cannes in 2014, at last year’s Fantastic Fest in Austin, and now finally sees a streaming release on AMC’s Shudder.

Dearest Sister tells the story of village girl Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya) who travels to Vientiane, the national capital, to attend to her cousin Ana (Vilouna Phetmany) who lost her eyesight years before. Nok is treated as an indentured servant, paid by Ana’s Estonian husband Jakob (Tambet Tuisk) to act as a companion and guide to his partially blind wife. As such, Nok occupies a nebulous class space – she lives in the house with Ana and Jakob and is treated with suspicion and eventually outright hostility by the two servants who sleep outside. But she’s also not quite family, working as she does for payment, which she’s supposed to send home to her parents.

Nok soon discovers that Ana’s blindness enables her to see and communicate with the dead. In a fit, Ana sees a ghost and begins muttering numbers, which Nok proceeds to play in the national lottery. She wins, discovering a way to obtain money quickly and without the knowledge of her cousin or her family. As the film proceeds, the dangerous nature of Nok’s game, her relationship with Ana, and the low-key horrors of class and femininity are drawn to the fore, producing an increasingly dark narrative that can only end one way.

Do’s film is restrained by contemporary horror standards, relying far more on low-key anxiety and implication than on gory horror (though there’s that too). The camera becomes increasingly disjointed, at times taking Ana’s perspective in foggy POV shots. Do often films in extreme close up, or through gates, bushes, railings, and windows, forcing viewers to constantly realign themselves within the cinematic space and with different perspectives. The cinematography has an imbalancing effect that serves to unnerve viewers even when apparently innocuous things are happening.

Dearest Sister offers up a dark, critical vision of Laos, mixing in contemporary concerns about class, language, and poverty with mythology, folk tales, and traditional structures. Nok strives for what her cousin has in the way of material comfort and security. The simple acts of purchasing an iPhone or going to a nightclub become transgressive acts, digging Nok deeper into a series of half-truths as she uses money meant for her family in order to obtain possessions. Ana’s class position is likewise tenuous and built on theft – a secondary plot involves Jakob figuring out how to dupe an inspector coming to investigate his company, which has been cutting corners and skimming money off the top. Ana’s visions are treated as hallucinations or tricks of the eye by Jakob and Ana’s doctors, but taken far more seriously by Nok, who accepts them as ghosts or psychic images.

In the interplay between Nok and Ana’s traditional backgrounds with the (white) modernity presented by Jakob, Dearest Sister develops a disturbing vision of a country mined for its resources, the extreme poverty of some citizens exploited as a support for the ruling classes. Nok runs into constant conflict  with her cousin, who goes back and forth between insisting she act as a servant and insisting she act as a friend, and with the two servants in the house, who use their position to quietly torture their masters and lord it over Nok. Nok’s quiet subservience begins to give way to quiet domination, pushing the plot to its inexorable conclusion.

Dearest Sister gives unique insight into a country that has only recently begun developing a film industry of its own. And it bodes well for Laos to have directors like Mattie Do, pushing the envelope of the horror genre in a new direction that’s very much grounded in Lao culture and modernity.

Dearest Sister can be streamed on Shudder, starting today.

Chimes At Midnight (1967)

Chimes at Midnight (1967) 

*originally published on The News Hub

Chimes at Midnight is available to watch on FilmStruck

“Banish Plump Jack, and banish all the world.” –Henry IV Part 1, Act II, Scene IV.


The stage empties, leaving a solitary figure at the center. The pomp of a king’s coronation ended, the shadows of the castle lengthen and the chimes ring out midnight. The figure is a large man, photographed throughout the film from low angles so that he looms, dominates the screen. Now he’s suddenly dwarfed by the architecture that surrounds him. The grin that always adorned his face might still be there, but we cannot see it as he limps out of sight into the graceful shadows. The chimes sound and the stage is vacated.

We don’t see Jack Falstaff again. The next we hear of him he has died, a huge black coffin replacing the bluff, boisterous clown who forms the gravitational center of Orson Welles’s magnificent Shakespeare adaptation Chimes at Midnight.

Chimes at Midnight was a Wellesian dream finally realized as a Spanish-Swiss co-production. Populated with some recognizable actors, including the overwhelming persona of Welles himself, it is nonetheless an oddity, an amalgam of Shakespeare that takes on different proportions as it places Falstaff in the center and removes some of the extraneous details. The film combines scenes, events, and dialogue from Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and even a bit of Henry V, all held together by voiceover narration from Holinshed’s Chronicles (spoken by Ralph Richardson, no less) that bridges the gaps in the narrative and forms a fascinating counterpoint to the down and dirty experience of war.

Those who are unfamiliar with the original Shakespeare plays might find some of Chimes at Midnight a bit difficult to understand – the story begins long after the deposal of Richard II by Henry Bolingbroke, who becomes King Henry IV (John Gielgud). Henry in turn faces a rebellion by the Mortimer family and their acolytes – the reasons behind this are somewhat obscure if one hasn’t seen or read the original plays, as Welles eliminates all but the most salient details. The point is that there’s a rebellion, led in part by the hotheaded Henry Percy, better known as Hotspur (Norman Rodway). While the King wrestles with a rising danger to his regime, he has a similar concern with the behavior of his eldest son and heir Prince Hal (Keith Baxter), who spends most of his time hanging out at the Boar’s Head Inn in the company of a gang of ne’er-do-wells and thieves, headed by Sir John Falstaff (Orson Welles).

Henry’s guilt at deposing Richard II underscores the scenes at court, as the King becomes increasingly convinced that he’s being punished for his crimes against Richard in the rise of rebellion and the apparent waywardness of Prince Hal. But Chimes at Midnight is not concerned with the affairs of state and kingship. Shakespeare uses the halls of power as a balancing counterpoint to the world of the inn, giving as much time to the aristocratic concerns as he does to that of the underclasses. Welles uses kingship as a point of contrast, not a central argument. The affairs of the mighty only concern him insofar as they affect the affairs of the common. Falstaff is king here, not Henry, and the film is more about his tragedy than it is about Prince Hal’s ascension to the throne. This element plays out in the numerous parodies of King Henry, as Hal, his friend Poins (Tony Beckley), and Falstaff all imitate the King, striking a parodic note against John Gielgud himself in their vocal mimicry.

Yet Welles does not allow King Henry to be a mere foil for his satire – Gielgud gets one of the most striking speeches in the play. As the King nears death, his face framed in a tight close-up, he holds the camera, the screen, and the audience captive, his elongated, mellifluous tones striking a note of seriousness and sorrow that was missing in the earlier parodies. In contrast to the fast, pattering speeches of Falstaff, Henry’s speech is sonorous and moving, a portrait of a man who believes all he worked and fought for will be lost. Gielgud is physically and verbally the opposite of Welles – thin and angular, he seems to meld with the arches and huge halls of the court, his physicality bound up in the world he occupies. He is the quintessential Shakespearean actor, and his voice carries all the weight of tragedy. Henry will get what he wants – the proof of his son’s nobility – too late for real reconciliation. Like Falstaff, he believes the child he loves has abandoned him; like Falstaff, he will lose his kingdom in death.


In focusing on the inhabitants of the inn rather than the concerns of state, Welles draws out one of the plays’ central arguments about the experience of the people under a state of war. Falstaff is a rogue, and not always a lovable one – he owes money to his long-suffering landlady Mistress Quickly (Margaret Rutherford), and occasionally indulges himself by holding up people in the forest. Prince Hal participates in his roguery, however, and the film draws out the fact that while Hal might be doing this for a lark, Falstaff and his company do it for their livelihood. When Falstaff is charged with recruiting men for the king’s next war, he does so by taking every man who can stand up, and then pocketing money for releasing them. In the plays, this carries extra villainy because the viewer has been privy to King Henry’s fears about his own deposal – thus we are invested in whether or not the King wins the war. Not so with Chimes at Midnight – the audience barely understands the reasons behind Henry’s war, and so we’re in much the same position as the commoners who will fight it.

The film’s major set piece occurs during the Battle of Shrewsbury, where the forces of Henry IV and the rebels finally cross swords. Welles takes his initial visual cues from Laurence Olivier’s Henry V in the lead up to war. As with Olivier’s film, the heroes lead a cavalry charge across an open field, pounding hooves that lead to a rattling crash of sword. But there Chimes at Midnight sheds any pretensions to triumphalism. The battle, filmed in black and white and at close quarter, is intense and violent and, most importantly, confused. As men writhe on the ground and horses trample the earth into mud, it’s nearly impossible to tell who is fighting for whom. The battle’s origins are obscure – in fact, the whole battle is fought on a lie, as Hal’s challenge to single combat with Hotspur is ignored by the leader of the Mortimer’s. In the background, Falstaff – comically huge in his oversized armor – runs back and forth, hiding behind trees and bushes and generally trying to keep out of the way until he can steal some glory for himself. Yet he seems to be the only sensible man on the field, gamely trying to keep himself alive rather than fulfill a code of honor.

The dialogue between honor and cowardice plays out in the persons of Falstaff/King Henry and Hal/Hotspur. Falstaff may be a coward, but he’s a live coward – unconcerned with honor, except that which he can steal from others, he comments on the war around him with the full recognition that it is a battle between aristocratic forces. The common people don’t much care if Richard, Henry, or Mortimer is King, yet it is their lives that pay the price. As Hotspur and Hal finally meet, Falstaff lingers in the background – cheering on young Hal not as a knight to his king, but as a father to his son. It is Falstaff, not King Henry, who witnesses Hal’s triumph; Falstaff who calls Hal ‘my boy,’ pas proud as a father can be. Hal achieves far more recognition from Falstaff than he ever does from his biological father, who views his antics with shame.


Just as the people of the inn parody the people of the court, Falstaff and King Henry become two sides of the same coin. Both old and exhausted by their pasts, Henry finds himself at the end of his life, fearful that England and his house will fall once he has died. Falstaff consistently begs to be remembered, to be advanced because of his loyalty to young Hal – in his memorable line, he tells Hal that to banish Plump Jack is to banish all the world, as though he encompasses all. Of course, this is exactly what Hal does, as both father and surrogate father pass on. As Hal ascends the throne to take his rightful place, he fulfills his promise to a deceased father, and rejects the father who, for all his failings, supported and guided him. One war begets another, as Henry V goes off to fight France for the honor of his house, to prove that he is not a weak or idle king. Falstaff is left behind, dwarfed by the world that rages around him, too old to be of any more use. Where he has been consistently represented as larger than life, his enormous belly, roaring voice, and broad grinning face photographed in stark, at times terrifying proximity in the deepest focus, he now becomes a tiny, almost insignificant figure, an old man, like King Henry, superseded by the boy he loved. His death, and not King Henry’s, marks the end of the story – plump Jack has been banished, and so the whole world.

Welles achieves a remarkable feat with Chimes at Midnight – by cutting and rearranging Shakespeare, he manages to create a new independent work of art that nonetheless remains true to the Bard’s original. He has not removed the multiple meanings of Shakespeare’s plays but highlighted them, giving the work new depth and new meaning. Chimes at Midnight is a unique achievement that few filmmakers have ever equaled.