September not only marks the beginning of the school year, but an exciting time for Toronto as movie makers and movie lovers get together for two weeks to enjoy the best of festival films. From the 8th to the 18th, various cinemas across the city hosted screenings for over 100 films. A few of The Underground contributors and masthead had the opportunity to watch and review some of the brilliant films for this year’s festival.
Queen of Katwe
Zarin Tasnim, Arts & Life Editor
Queen of Katwe is the inspirational tale of Phiona Mutesi, a Ugandan chess player, played by newcomer actress Madina Nalwanga. The film begins in 2007, where Phiona is seen trudging through the slums of Katwe, selling maize alongside her brother, Mugabi Brian (Martin Kanbaza), to support their single mother Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o). One day, Phiona follows Brian to discover that he has been learning to play chess from coach Robert Katende (David Oyelowo). Fascinated by the game, she begins to train under his guidance, all the while dealing with difficulties back home.
Through Katende’s coaching, Phiona improves significantly in playing chess pieces and thinking critically, despite having never gone to school herself. She wins her first tournament at a local competition at Kings College Budo, and from there starts her successful streak at winning matches. The film’s director, Mira Nair, effectively captures the doubts and struggles Phiona goes through to work on her passion for chess. In most cases, students in North America have the resources to pursue what they aspire to achieve. With Phiona, it was a matter of having money for her family’s survival, and making the choice to stay home and study chess, which was initially discouraged by her mother.
Throughout the film, Nyong’o’s character Nakku remains pessimistic after her husband dies of AIDS. As a single mother, she is constantly persuaded to remarry, but does not, as she continues to fiercely protect her children.
This movie is important to watch because of its focus on a black-centric narrative that isn’t about slavery or racism. Despite living in poverty, Phiona’s success is not one without trials. Indeed, it is her failures that give the movie the realism that many inspirational movies often lack. This is a film that anyone, whether you’re planning a movie night with roommates, or a day at the theatres with the family, will enjoy.
Michael Chen, Contributor
Contract killers, plastic surgeons, and gender reassignment surgery are all part of the unusual combination that makes up Walter Hill’s Re(Assignment). In the film, Michelle Rodriguez plays Frank Kitchen, a gun-for-hire who finds himself on the operating table of back-alley plastic surgeon Rachel Jane (Sigourney Weaver) after he kills her brother. As revenge, the doctor gives Frank an involuntary sex change. He wakes up, understandably upset, and intent on finding whoever’s responsible.
Perhaps the most surprising element of film is that the surgery, and Frank’s gender identity, are handled pretty accurately. Dr. Jane’s methods may involve the removal of Frank’s genitalia and facial hair, as well as the addition of breasts, but his male voice remains unchanged. It’s also repeatedly stressed that despite appearing female, Frank identifies as a male. All this seems to indicate that Hill has done his homework into the process, and I applaud him for making an effort to depict everything as well as he does.
However, the movie still manages to fall apart in a myriad of other ways. With its straight-forward plot and paper-thin characters, it’s hard to care about what’s happening on screen. While it does touch on interesting ideas about gender, with scenes where Frank is subject to sexist treatment because he appears female, these moments are offset by the way Frank is defined as male by other characters, based purely on the fact that he acts like a stereotypical “macho guy.”
The utterly unremarkable action scenes also fail to improve the movie. While the comic-book style transitions are sometimes cool, they mostly look as if they were done in iMovie. Re(Assignment) may not be as offensive as its plot implies, but it still ends up being just a really bad movie. At least the soundtrack was decent.
Samantha Ryan, Contributor
Most people know the story of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, and its impact on an entire generation; however, an aspect of the event told far more superficially is that of Jackie Kennedy, the woman left tragically widowed after his death. This harrowing real-life story is retold in the feature film Jackie by Chilean director Pablo Larraín.
The film already has its hat in the ring of Oscar contenders thanks to glowing reviews, particularly with respect to Natalie Portman’s performance as the titular character. With gender equality still such a hot button issue well into the 21st century, it’s hard to watch the film without being reminded of Jackie’s refusal to be defined by others and the time in which she lived.
Yes, Jacqueline Kennedy was worshipped for her beauty and her fashion sense and, yes, she was the dutiful wife to a womanizing man, but she refused to be defined by these things only. Her grace and steely strength are on full display in Portman’s transcendent and riveting performance. Instead of falling victim to her circumstances, and letting herself be silenced by men and societal norms, Jackie learned to navigate the realities of the political world, becoming so much more than a wife and a widow. This film presents an iconic feminist to a new generation for whom she is just a name in history.
Jackie premieres in wide release Dec. 9.
Sam Natale, Staff Writer
Recovering from drug addiction is never linear. Every day, you have to choose to recover. The Stairs, a documentary directed by Hugh Gibson, follows the stories of several struggling and recovering drug addicts at the Regent Park Community Health Centre in Toronto over a span of several years.
One of the film’s main subjects, Roxanne, says that “relapse is a part of recovery.” During the course of the film, the subject’s portraits of progress and setbacks for each of the individuals whose stories are being shown. The titular ‘stairs’ are a place that represent the idea of continuous recovery.
The film’s main subjects, Marty, Roxanne, and Greg, are in various stages of their journeys with drug use, and yet they all work at the centre to aid other people struggling with drug related problems. This points to the way the film challenges normative ideas of what drug users are like, and who they are. As the film follows the lives of its subjects, the audience is given a sense of the community that these people all have with each other, showing current drug addicts giving other users safe drug use packages, and congratulating each other on every step made towards recovery.
The Stairs is a story of drug addicts, told by the addicts themselves. There is no overarching narrative to tell their stories for them. There is just a camera following the regular lives of people struggling with such a difficult addiction.
Nana Frimpong, Managing Editor
There is this moment in the midst of watching Zoology that one becomes blissfully aware that they are not just watching a film. They are, for lack of a better phrase, experiencing one.
Zoology centers around Natasha, a reclusive middle-aged manager at a zoo, who grows a tail. As Natasha seeks medical help for her condition, she enters into a romantic courtship with a young doctor, who encourages her to live an exuberant life despite her “abnormality.” At the same time, rumours about Natasha’s condition begin to circulate around town, with most individuals, including Natasha’s mother, referring to the alleged “women with the tail” as a devil.
Zoology is director Ivan I. Tverdovsky’s second feature film, for which he won the Special Jury Prize at the 2016 Karlovy Vary Film Festival. A native of Moscow, Tverdovsky’s first film, Corrections Class, previously earned him a series of international accolades. When asked what the intention behind making Zoology was, Tverdovsky, who for most of his professional career has created documentary films, says that he was initially interested in making a “funny film about a woman with a tail, but in the midst of creating the feature, wanted to make a drama.”
From the beginning of the film, Natasha is in one way bound to secrecy about her condition, and in another, forced to explore a world of unabashed honesty, whereby she actively seeks help from her doctors. Natasha’s desire to no longer be burdened by her secrecy is exemplified in Tverdovsky’s deliberate use of close-up shots and a handheld camera. In this way, what Natasha lacks in words, the camera makes up for in its claustrophobic closeness between us and her. We almost become, just by association with the camera, one with Natasha.
Zoology is a powerful and necessary film to watch simply because it forces its viewers to face the stark realities of their own “tails,” and consequently, discover parts of themselves that they would otherwise never dare to face.
King of the Dancehall
Sharine Taylor, Editor-in-Chief
In his directorial debut, Nick Cannon premiered King of the Dancehall at this year’s festival. The story follows Tarzan Brixton (Cannon) who travels to Kingston, Jamaica to earn money for his sick mother (Whoopi Goldberg) and it’s there he becomes acquainted with his hilarious cousin Allestar ‘All Star Toasta’ (Busta Rhymes) who introduces him to selling weed as a means to earn money.
From the beginning, viewers are introduced to Kingston’s dancehall scene. It’s in a local dance hall where Tarzan meets Maya (Kimberly Patterson), a pastor’s daughter, and is mesmerized by her moves. While Tarzan’s affections are fixated on Maya, he is seduced by Kaydeen (Kreesha Turner), who happens to be Dada’s sister. What follows for the remainder of the film is an amalgamation of love, heartbreak, war, arrest and of course dancing.
Cannon’s interpretation of Jamaica’s dancehall scene was thoughtful. It certainly helped that Beenie Man, self-proclaimed King of the Dancehall and the artist who released the ‘King of the Dancehall’ record in 2004, narrated the film and embedded some facts about Jamaica and the country’s dancehall scene.
What would have made for a better film would have been more character development for the cast and addressing some looming thoughts of race. There were some weird colonial aspects that needed to be addressed, or at the very least, more nuanced. The father of Dada and Kaydeen, Pierce Davidson (Peter Stomare), said something to the effect of “running Jamaica.” Though I understand that this was meant in the sense of the circulation of drugs on the island – which is still problematic in and of itself – it would have been best for Cannon to consider the country’s history of colonialism when creating the character.
Considering the film was directed by a non-Jamaican, and it’s clear that Cannon did his research, King of the Dancehall did a good job at showcasing the culture of dancehall for an international audience that may not have been hip to it before.