Monday, October 3, 2016

True Story Double Feature: Queen of Katwe & Deepwater Horizon.

We hear the words "Based on a true story" quite a bit. With 2016 being no exception, we've received more than our fair share of films recounting unbelievable or inspiring events and giving them a dramatic narrative format, and a lot of times, given the impossible odds of the scenarios they portray, you can see exactly why studios would think them great choices. However, like any formula, it isn't faultless, as while many of these stories may indeed be incredible, they don't necessarily need these movies to properly honor them, nor do they translate well from book/headline to the screen (ie. Sully).

However, the two films I'm about to talk about today are not among those cases, one being Disney's latest live-action offering, Queen of Katwe about village girl turned chess champion Phiona Mutesi, the other being the latest thriller from Lone Survivor's Peter Berg, Deepwater Horizon about the crew who escaped from the titular oil rig that suffered a catastrophic oil spill and fiery eruption. Both movies are very different in how they approach their respective tales, but both of them are also of considerable quality and dramatic flair, and I hope you'll take the time to give both your attention soon.

Queen of Katwe:
Perhaps the closest Disney has come to releasing an "Oscar bait" type movie in years (as much as I hate using that term), Queen of Katwe is a serious divergence from the usually fantasy and animation-centric Mouse House, but with all honesty, that makes it a divergence for the best. One would think that a story heavily centered around such an acquired and nuanced sport as chess wouldn't make much of an interesting movie, but managing to peel back the layers present within the story, director Mira Nair manages to craft a film just as intelligently judged and patiently executed as the moves made by our main hero. The film follows a familiar sports film formula to be certain, but each event experienced works to serve a higher purpose in the long run, and each of them are tackled with complete honesty and humanity as it takes us through the young girl's journey from barely making end's meat selling food on the side of roads with her family, to bringing home trophy after trophy and growing more and more restless within her comparatively small and modest village.

That level of culture clash tends to be a simple yet effective thematic tactic as well, as while the poor village setting of the film may have its drawbacks, in quite a highly progressive move that thankfully steers clear of cheap exploitation, Nair doesn't intend to look down on this lifestyle in any way, treating the environment of the film in as unbiased and equal a manner as anywhere else, and brings out a great deal of charm from the townsfolk and culture as well. But to be honest, I don't know if the film would have worked as well were it not for Nair's excellent way with the film's acting, with the plentiful ensemble cast showing a tremendous level of heart and sincerity at every turn, and giving the film a further dose of necessary soul. Newcomer Madina Nalwanga is terrific in the lead role, revealing a heavy flow of silent emotion behind her every facial expression and looming overview of the game board, and she even successfully holds her own against her outstanding veteran co-stars, such as David Oyelowo's empathizing and inspiring coach and youth ministry leader, and Lupita Nyong'o's weary and tender mother. It's beats may be familiar, but its heart is always in the right place.

**** / *****

Deepwater Horizon:
Without trying very hard, Peter Berg's follow-up to his 2013 hit Lone Survivor manages to be a marked improvement, even if not free from issues all the same. Deepwater Horizon isn't exactly a (hehe...) deep film when it comes to characterization, barely managing to build upon any of the onscreen characters despite taking a cue from Titanic's playbook, in which the film devotes much of its first half to foreshadowing its epic disaster as well as humanizing the cast of characters caught amidst the destruction. Thankfully the cast at least manages to work better when formed as a group unit, sharing an easy chemistry with one another that at least enables us to care for them and wish for their safety, and Berg is wise enough not to embellish in any cheap or overtly negative political statements, instead focusing directly on the core group's fight for survival. However, he also does so at the expense of allowing us to connect with the 11 men who lost their lives working on the rig, and while the vilification of BP can be quite effective in highlighting the infuriating cut corners that were taken, such moves still manage to occasionally bear some ineffective results, particularly via John Malkovich's inconsistent turn as a company executive.

However, if there's any one thing about Deepwater Horizon Berg manages to pull off without a hitch, it's in executing the disaster of the film. Delivered with a refreshing sense of seriousness and effective intensity, despite it taking so long to finally get to the gargantuan set-pieces, once the film enters these stretches, it becomes a nail-biting emotional thriller that shows Berg has a great skill of forming gripping tales of survival. Running under 2 hours in length, the film wastes not a single second, nor does it intend to hastily speed by any of its intense and visceral highlights, making great use of the cast's terrific capabilities (including Mark Wahlberg, Kurt Russell, and Gina Rodriguez), and the sound design is particularly effective in establishing a sense of dread. Throughout the film, the ticking time bomb of a rig is established as just as much a character as the people in the film, or more appropriately a monster biding its time until the proper moment to strike, punctuated by the grumbling beneath the ocean that slowly begins to morph more into roars, and the whiplash of each mechanical clang. For the rest of the year, you can expect to hear me singing the praises of Sound Designer Wylie Stateman for the amount of sonic terror concocted. The film may certainly not be complex, but by the time its taken us through a fiery inferno and safely back on land during its appropriately sentimental cap-off, the great sigh of relief we finally let out feels very much earned.

**** / *****

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