Tag Archives: Disney

Disney’s Queen of Katwe: David Oyelowo and Lupita Nyong’o interview

21 Oct
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David Oyelowo as chess coach Robert Katende, with young prodigy Phiona Mutesi, played by Madina Nalwanga, in Disney’s Queen of Katwe

It’s wonderful to see Disney taking a chance on an film set in Uganda, played by an all-black cast, centring on the world of competitive chess – not a pitch to get Hollywood accountants’ pulses racing. Queen of Katwe boasts fine performances from David Oyewolo, as the chess coach who inspires slum kids to dizzy heights, and from Lupita Nyong’o as the young prodigy’s mother. The kids are very watchable, if not always wholly intelligible, and Mira Nair has gone for a realistic style, working with “real” rather than stage-school kids, which suits the true story subject matter but must have taken Disney out of their comfort zone – especially once Lupita Nyong’o’s eldest daughter falls in love with a pimp.

“The line about ‘selling yourself’ was a bit strong for Disney,” Mira Nair confirmed at a recent Q&A, which the two stars also attended. “But after a preview got a 99% approval rating, they let me put the line back in.”

Apart from that episode, the portrayal of family life in the film is a strong and loving one – particularly between Oyelowo’s character and his wife. It’s a big contrast with the other Uganda-set movie Oyelowo was in: King of Scotland, about the crazed, murderous dictator Idi Amin.

“That was a great film,” says Oyelowo, “but gosh, I remember thinking, as a person of African descent myself, that I would love to show a different side. I cannot tell you the significance of seeing [in Queen of Katwe] a black man who loves his wife, and has kids and it’s fine. These are images we don’t get to see! The healing balm that the film is cannot be underestimated.”

He worried at first that the teacher he plays was too good. “When I read the script I was slightly terrified. We as actors tend to gravitate to someone who is flawed, edgy, who grapples with the light and dark. But when I met him, I discovered how much it was costing him – he was a bright man, not just intellectually, but also very good at playing football, and he put all these things to one side for the sake of the kids. He doesn’t think twice. See a need, meet a need. It’s seeing that that gave me the edge.”

Nyong’o says that she was less than ten pages into reading the script when she decided to commit to the film. She subsequently met the chess prodigy’s ballsy single mother, whom she plays in the film, and says that “What I find in her presence is that she’s very grounded, very practical, but there’s stuff going on behind her eyes that you’ll never know. The one thing she wanted to do is to keep her family together. She’s suspicious of dreams [she at first forbids her daughter to join in with the chess classes], and her journey is to discover that love is acting out of radical hope, not fear.”

The result is a feelgood movie full of lovely moments, many of which ring wonderfully true for the simple reason that they are true. David Oyelowo’s declaration of love to his screen wife was taken from his real-life marriage proposal. Or when the slum kids attend their first big chess tournament, held at a posh school, they leave the unfamiliar beds empty and curl up together at night on the floor. “That was all true,” says Mira Nair. “Even the chess games in the film were entirely accurate, and exactly as Phiona played them.”

Queen of Katwe is in UK cinemas from today

 

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Star Wars: should the critics put the boot into the reboot?

29 Dec
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Incoming! Daisy Ridley and John Boyega dodge the critical flak in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

After the success, the backlash. The new Star Wars film seems to be getting a lot of negative press in the US to go with its billion-dollar (so far!) box-office haul, of which the best written and best argued is probably by my old Times mucker Stephen Dalton in the Hollywood Reporter. Funnily enough, the criticisms are mostly on the mark: yes, the plot is pretty much a mish-mash of the old films; yes, the new characters are much like the old characters, with the odd gender and race swap thrown in to keep things fresh; yes, you can see the big reveals coming a parsec off.

But these things are deliberate. With all due respect, JJ Abrams didn’t make it for the critics. Nor, I believe, despite some critics’ suggestions to the contrary, did he make it cynically to swell Disney’s coffers. He made it for the fans.

Fans like himself. Fans like me.

I first saw Star Wars as a sci-fi-obsessed teenager, and it blew my mind. As the credits rolled, I vowed to make the cinema my life: I wouldn’t have gone into journalism, wanting to be a film critic, or started writing screenplays of my own, were it not for Star Wars. Later, when I discovered that Star Wars was just one part of a trilogy that itself was part of a projected trilogy of trilogies, I literally prayed to God to spare my life until I had seen them all. [So if I drop dead round about Christmas 2019, don’t be surprised – He will have kept His side of the bargain.]

Imagine my excitement when, two long decades later, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was released. I was still alive! I could watch the saga continue! I packed into the Odeon Leicester Square at 11pm on opening night… and fell asleep. No kidding. I was so bored that halfway through my mind shut down.

The second was marginally more fun, mostly because I got to interview George Lucas and take my equally Star Wars-mad son to the after-party. But on the whole, had I been run over by a bus on the way home, the last thought to pass through my mind would not have been fury at God for denying me the trilogy’s climax.

And so it must be with many die-hard fans. Abrams knew what we wanted – something with the same adventure, spectacle and occasional wit as the first films. And that’s what he delivered. The two young lead Londoners are both great, and Harrison Ford gets a lot more screen time than the simple cameo I had expected. And if few of the lines really zing, none of them clunk, either. Most of the joy, and the biggest cheers in the cinema (how many movies do you see which attract spontaneous cheers?), come from nostalgia. It’s half-reboot, and half-sequel. On purpose.

So no, Star Wars: The Force Awakens doesn’t have the freshness, daring and envelope-pushing of the original. How could it? Then it wouldn’t be recognisably Star Wars, it would be something sui generis. But I saw it as soon as it came out in the Odeon Leicester Square, on my own (my cinephile son turned his nose up at the idea), and had a great goofy grin plastered over my face throughout.

JJ Abrams has made exactly the film he wanted to make. And I, for one, am grateful.

 

 

Shock around the Troc: Picturehouse announces huge Trocadero development

19 Sep
Trocadero rooftop

Rooftop bar planned for the new Picturehouse Trocadero

Wow. Today’s online Standard has broken the news that Picturehouse cinemas will be taking over the Trocadero Centre on Piccadilly Circus, and from the drawings and plans, it looks ace. I particularly like the rooftop bar, with a view of the London Eye and Houses of Parliament.

The cinema that was there before was a Cineworld multiplex. It was unloved and dilapidated, with ViewLondon reviews complaining of mice (always a problem in cinemas, mind you, with spilt popcorn etc – that’s why rep cinemas always used to have a cat).

Picturehouses, on the other hand, I love. I live five minutes from the Brixton Ritzy, my favourite cinema ever since I moved to London three decades ago (at least after the Scala closed down). As an Oxford student, I used to haunt the Phoenix and the Penultimate Picture Palace, also both now Picturehouse Cinemas. They cater to an artier, hipper crowd, who (lucratively, from the chain’s point of view) are happy to sit around in the bar afterwards discussing the movie. They have an ace loyalty card that gives you discounted beer and food as well as discounted film tickets.

(Less happily, the Ritzy have a workforce who had been striking, since not enough of that beer money was flowing back to them. Last Friday, staff finally accepted a deal which, while it fell short of the London Living Wage they sought, offered 26% pay rise over the next three years. Just in time for the opening of the miners’ strike film Pride, aptly enough.)

Picturehouse Trocadero

Yet more bar space at the Picturehouse Trocadero

The Trocadero deal is a funny old thing, though. Since 2012, as the Standard strangely did not point out, Picturehouse Cinemas have been owned by Cineworld. So really, the new Trocadero complex is less a grand new development, than a grand new rebranding. With a lot of funky bar space thrown in for those hipster movie discussions.

When the buy-out happened, movie fans were concerned that Cineworld would tarnish the Picturehouse brand, turn these quirky indie-feel cinemas into soulless corporates. On the evidence of the Trocadero development, however, the opposite may be the case. If so, hurrah. A movie example might be when Disney bought out Pixar – but rather than ruining Pixar, installed its supremo John Lasseter as creative head of both.

If all multiplexes could become a little bit more Picturehouse, I’d drink to that. Preferably in a rooftop hipster bar.

Cannes confessions #3: Troma Warriors in Festival Hell!

18 May

Yesterday morning in Cannes a gang made off with a million dollars of Chopard jewellery destined for the swan-like necks of the festival’s red-carpet stars. Later the same day, a lone gunman was arrested after firing blanks at Tarantino actor Christoph Waltz. My first thought, in both cases, was “I wonder what movies these stunts have been staged to promote?”

Maybe I’ve been hanging out in Tromaville too long.

I met up with Lloyd Kaufman, the legendary cult film-maker and founder of Troma, in the Marché du Film. Over nearly four decades, Troma has made hundreds of films bearing a distinctive brand of high-octane schlock, gross-out effects  and occasional gratuitous nudity, coupled with relatively high production values and often surprisingly witty scripts. Some titles to savour: A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell; Alien Blood; Angel Negro; Attack of the Tromaggot; and, appropriately, All The Love You Cannes. And that’s just from the ‘A’s. Enjoy the full list here: http://www.troma.com/films/.

At 67, Kaufman shows no signs of slowing down. With a limited budget for marketing, he has long found inventive ways to generate heat. Hence the foundation this year of Troma’s “Occupy Cannes” movement, staging a different promotional stunt – sorry, piece of performance art – each day.

On Thursday they handed out flyers and stickers while a male streaker Tromatised the crowds on the Croisette. On Friday they attempted to stage a lesbian “wedding”, in honour of the tender love story at the heart of Kaufman’s latest oeuvre, Return to Nuke ‘Em High, but the event was shut down by the police.

Opinions vary as to why: Justin the publicist thinks it was revenge by the authorities for the streaker incident. Asta Paredes and Catherine Corcoran, the film’s young stars, say that it was the gay celebration that disturbed the authorities. “France has legalised gay marriage, but it doesn’t come into effect until the 26th, so they said they were in fear of riots. It’s ridiculous: yesterday we had a streaker and nothing happened, but two women displaying a public symbol of love was threatening.”

It’s refreshing, incidentally, that these girls are clearly both highly intelligent (Paredes previously wrote and directed her own short) rather than rent-a-babes. As to Kaufman, there is no doubting his drive and conviction. “You think I do this for the money? These films don’t make any money. Unless you make an underground movie for $150 million and cast Arnold Schwarzenegger, no one gives a fart for true art.”

He likes to smuggle social messages into the films, and behind the laughs, he is in deadly earnest. Kaufman made a promotional film for PETA called Sunny Acres Farms, in which naked humans are locked in tiny cages like chickens, injected with drugs and “humanely” slaughtered. Even Poultrygeist – Night of the Chicken Dead is, he says, about “the dangers of fast food”. The New York Times called it “about as perfect as a film predicated on the joys of projectile vomiting and explosive diarrhea can be”.

As Paredes puts it: “That’s the role of the jester, isn’t it? To make social commentary through humour?”

I’ll leave you with a final intriguing piece of Tromatrivia. I asked Kaufman if, like B-movie maestro Roger Corman, he had helped launch any A-list careers. “They call me the East Coast Roger Corman!” he said, before rattling off a string of names: the creators of South Park; Oliver Stone; Kevin Costner; Samuel L. Jackson; Fergie from the Black Eyed Peas (aged nine in Monster in the Closet).

And you may not have heard of James Gunn, whose first film was Tromeo and Juliet, but you will. He is currently directing the mega-budget Marvel/Disney movie Guardians of the Galaxy.

More on Troma in my International Business Times feature on Cannes promotion: click here.

Click here for the next thrilling episode of Cannes confessions, in glorious Picturerama!

Star Wars: Harrison Ford rides again as Han Solo

16 Feb
Harrison Ford in Star Wars

Harrison Ford as Han Solo: “I’ve got a good feeling about this…”

So, Harrison Ford has apparently signed on for a role in the new Star Wars movie. The deal has not yet officially been announced by Disney, which last year bought Lucasfilm to add to Pixar and Marvel in a $15.5bn land-grab, but the Latino Review insists it has triple-checked with reliable sources. Entertainment Weekly, which last year reported Ford was “open” to the idea, Tweeted today: “Harrison Ford deal? My source says not yet. It will not be for weeks and perhaps months.” That sounds like “when” rather than “if”, and implies it’s just a question of noughts on the cheque.

It makes sense. Ford as Han Solo was key to the original series’ success, and not just in adding some much-needed testosterone swagger to the “use the Force” mumbo-jumbo. He also managed to squeeze some humour into George Lucas’s earnest lines. “George,” he famously told the director, “you can type this s**t, but you sure can’t say it.” He ad-libbed several sequences, including one of the best lines: when Han Solo is about to be deep-frozen in The Empire Strikes Back, and Leia tells her she loves him, he replies, “I know.”

If only there had been a few more actors like him in the trilogy of prequels.

I interviewed George Lucas a few years back, for Time Out. I remember being fascinated by his hair, which was like the whippy top of a vanilla ice-cream cone, but I don’t remember much of what he said. He only really became animated when talking about his teenage years. He had a near-fatal car accident which led him to take stock of his life, and get serious. Too serious, perhaps. But it was that love of cars which produced American Graffiti, Lucas’s warmest film and the start of his collaboration with Ford, whom he had met when he was building him some cabinets. Beats auditions.

Some Star Wars fans have expressed reservations about Disney taking over the franchise, mollified somewhat by the recent appointment as director of JJ Abrams, who rebooted Star Trek. But how can it be bad? No one could screw up Star Wars worse than Lucas himself already has in the recent trilogy.

Star Wars is the reason I’m writing about films, and latterly writing films myself. I was 13 when it lifted the top of my head clean off, and I swore during the closing credits that I would devote my life to movies. Later, when I heard that Star Wars was just the first in a projected nine films, I literally prayed to God that I would live long enough to see them completed.

Looks like I may just get the answer to my prayers. And with Han Solo riding again? It’s enough to shake your faith in Richard Dawkins.