Queen of Katwe

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Director Mira Nair gave us the movie Monsoon Wedding in 2001, and I recently put it on my list of the best movies of the 21st Century. After that, she did a number of movies that got critic praise, but always disappointed me (I’m thinking about you, Namesake!)

I thought she’d win me back with a chess movie. I like the game, and the movies about them. That includes the Kevin Kline picture Queen to Play seven years ago, and Pawn Sacrifice (Liev Schreiber, Tobey Maguire) a few years ago.

Well, Nair and Disney decided to give us a formulaic picture about a true story that’s probably fascinating to read, but bores you on the screen.

Phiona (Madina Nalwango) is a poor girl in Kampala, Uganda. Her life consists of trying to sell vegetables for her mom. Her mom is getting food on credit, and often misses payments to the landlord.

When Robert (David Oyelowo), a soccer coach, decides to start a chess club, she joins them. She quickly proves to be a prodigy, and is soon reading Bobby Fischer books by candlelight in the middle of the night.

Her mom is played by Lupita Nyong’o, one of the most beautiful actresses working today. Now, she may have won an Oscar a few years ago (Best Support Actress for 12 Years a Slave), but she overacts in this. She’s also so unsupportive and mean, you never warm up to her. Even when the story arc goes in the direction you saw coming.

We watch as Phiona starts playing in competitions, and it’s somewhat interesting. It was a bit odd when she wins a few matches, her teammates making weird, cocky gestures from the crowd. She’ll get an opponent in a checkmate, and they sway their body, throw a hand up in the air, and make a snap with their fingers. It’s the type of poor sportsmanship that makes people dislike football players that do those dumb dances in the end zone. The audience shouldn’t be rooting for her to lose, just so the mother of somebody in the audience can stick their finger in the cocky kids face and snap right back at them. But I digress.

It’s heartwarming to see a girl from the slums starting to get some recognition. It’s also nice to see her coach and his wife being so supportive. Even when that means turning down a job that could put them in a better situation financially.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt nicely brings out the interesting sights and colors of Uganda. The costumes are terrific (Mobotaji Dawodu), and the musical score (Alex Heffes) adds nicely, without being overwhelming or manipulative.

It also had an ending I adored. The credits roll, with the real characters walking out and standing next to the actor that portrayed them.

Yet with all those positives, I just found the cliche ridden story to be a bit boring. It needed more subtly, too.

Unfortunately, this movie ended in a stalemate for me.

2 stars out of 5.

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