If I told you one of the best movies I’ve seen at Toronto this year was an underdog sports story from Disney, I’d understand your cynicism; it’s not exactly a subgenre underrepresented in movies in general, or at TIFF in particular. (Hell, there are two different boxing underdog movies whose similar titles all but dare you to tell them apart.) But Queen of Katwe is something very special, a story that works within the broad strokes of that familiarity, but fills them in with vibrancy, humanity, and emotion.
Director Mira Nair gives her film a sense of place, of lives lived in backgrounds and outside frame lines, that’s typical of her best work (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding). She’s telling the true story of Phiona Mutesi, a slum girl from Katwe, Uganda who became a world chess champion, and yes, I know, framing chess as a metaphor for life isn’t exactly a revelation. But it’s a particularly appropriate one for these lives, and it takes a heart of stone not to root for Phiona, her teammates, and her family (led by the tremendous Lupita Nyong’o)
Fortunately, there’s complexity to this rah-rah story, and William Wheeler’s script, and Madina Nalwanga’s marvelous leading performance, capture the simultaneous thrill, sadness, and fear of transcending your humble beginnings. “You belong here,” her coach tells her at a key moment, and sometimes, we all need that push. You may know this story, but this telling is keenly observed and emotionally awake; it’s the kind of movie where the simplest act (in this case, lighting a match) can become one of extraordinary understanding and kindness.
That coach is played (with unforced charisma and warmth) by the great David Oyelowo, who also stars in director Amma Asante’s Belle follow-up, A United Kingdom. It’s another inspiring true story, of the – shall we say – eventful early years of Prince Seretse Khama (of Bechuanaland, later Botswana) and Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a white British woman he met, courted, and married in London. This was in 1947, and needless to say, an interracial marriage of any kind was a dicey proposition. But at this level, it was especially difficult; these were the early days of apartheid in neighboring South African countries, and his country, a British protectorate, risked annexation.
You can already see how complicated the political maneuverings and ramifications are, and such details somewhat muddy the directness of the storytelling. Asante’s direction is somewhat stiff and old-fashioned (though perhaps, in the latter case, intentionally so). But there are flashes of levity to keep the picture from getting too stuffy and period drama-ish, and the intensity of the protagonists’ love – and Oyelowo and Pike’s chemistry – keeps its motor humming. If it’s all a touch connect-the-dots in story and style, these two gifted actors elevate the material, and shine in it.
A few scenes into Walter Hill’s (re)ASSIGNMENT, its “mad scientist” character (Sigourney Weaver), apropos of nothing, asks the man interrogating her if he’s read Edgar Allan Poe’s “Philosophy of Style.” He hasn’t, so she proceeds to give him the Wikipedia summary of that essay, hitting hard its points on proper art’s indifference to morals and societal norms, insisting that a piece of art must be judged on style alone, and if there’s a less subtle bit of authorial signposting in a movie at this festival, I haven’t seen it. You see what he’s getting at, of course; the idea of an action/exploitation flick about a transgender hit-woman (with, of course, a cis actor in the role in question) is dicey. But that doesn’t matter much, because politics of sex and gender aside, (re)ASSIGNMENT is junk.
Writer/director Hill, the poet laureate of ‘70s and ‘80s machismo movies (The Warriors, Southern Comfort, 48 HRS., Red Heat), hasn’t made a feature worth paying attention to for a while, and this one sadly does not break the streak. The dialogue is stilted (especially Weaver’s), it’s got about twice as many framing devices as it needs, and its use of comic book transitions reeks of desperation for pop relevance. I’d like to think some of the script’s howlers are purposeful, but who knows; the line between intentionally and unintentionally vacuous gets so blurry that by the midpoint, you’ll likely give up altogether. There are a couple of decent shoot-outs – this is, after all, a Walter Hill movie. But they’re for naught. What a waste. What a mess.
You couldn’t ask for a more efficient piece of exposition than the 2015 police dashcam footage that opens Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee. “You probably read about me,” the suspect slurrily tells the arresting officer, and proceeds to run down his resume: developer of the ubiquitous antivirus software, accused of murdering a neighbor after he retired to Belize, escaped to Guatemala to evade authorities before being sent back to the U.S. “The FBI’s gonna be looking for me,” he informs the unflappable officer. And he didn’t even mention he was running for the Libertarian Party’s nomination for president.
Nanette Burstein’s documentary digs deep, delving into her subject’s bonkers backstory: his rise to riches, his stint as a Colorado yogi guru, his bizarre Kurtz-ian takeover of the town of Carmelita, Belize, and so on. It’s easy to write off McAfee as your prototypical “eccentric millionaire,” but the more rocks she lifts, the more bugs crawl out. Gringo doesn’t really land on a satisfying conclusion – her initial inquiry, “Are there different rules for people with money, power, and fame, or is John just a master manipulator?” is kind of a no-brainer – but as a portrait of a deeply disturbed yet somehow socially acceptable figure, it’s awfully compelling stuff.
On the docket for tomorrow: A new documentary from Errol Morris, the new Blair Witch, Natalie Portman as Jackie (Kennedy, for director Pablo Larraín), and my most anticipated film of the festival, Jeff Nichols’s Loving.