Queen of Katwe
In Katwe, a slum outside of Kampala, Uganda, Phiona (Madina Nalwanga) drops out of school at a young age to help her widowed mother, Harriet (Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o), support the family. Meanwhile, Robert (David Oyelowo) takes a low-paying job at a Christian youth center in Katwe since he cannot find a job as an engineer.
Phiona follows her brother to the center one day. To give the children something to do, Robert teaches them chess, using rustic boards and rocks as chess pieces. Phiona, dressed in rags and with minimal hygiene, is self-conscious, but catches on quickly. It’s not long before Robert realizes that she is a chess prodigy. He registers Phiona, her brother, and another student in a district competition. The authorities resist having poor children among the other students, but the games go on.
Chess competition is not an easy road for Phiona, and Robert must find the money for travel and clothing. He must also get permission from a disapproving Harriet for Phiona to continue. When the young prodigy makes it to a competition in Moscow, Robert has his own crisis about staying at the center.
This may sound like your typical feelgood sports movie, but it is so much more. When the story focuses on a young girl who overcomes such abject poverty and is able to rise above it through the game of chess, it is sheer inspiration. The film is based on Tim Crothers’ 2012 book The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster. I was riveted all the way through.
Nalwanga is a natural actor, while famed director Mira Nair lets us see the beauty of humanity and hope amid natural and human-made chaos.
Not yet rated, PG ♦ Mature themes.
The Little Prince
A stunning stop-action animated film, The Little Prince is about a lonely but resilient girl (Mackenzie Foy) and her mother (Rachel McAdams) who move to a house that looks like all the others.
Mother works all day, but has great ambitions for Little Girl, making her study constantly. But Little Girl is distracted by the house next door and the old man who lives there, the Aviator (Jeff Bridges). They become friends without Mother knowing.
The Aviator tells Little Girl a story about the Little Prince he met when he crashed his plane years before. The boy, who came to earth from a faraway asteroid, met a selfish rose and a wise fox on his journey here. The Aviator and the Little Girl get in an old, battered plane to find the boy, who is now grown. The Little Prince (Paul Rudd) is now called Mr. Prince, and has no memory of his past. He is part of a workforce that no longer sees people as individuals—only work and profit. He has forgotten to look at the world and those around him with his heart, as the fox had advised him.
This lovely film had a brief theatrical release in the United States, and is now available on Netflix. The story is told within the context of modern times when some would say that cookie-cutter houses and soulless labor replace the imagination and care for others.
Not yet rated, PG ♦ Some peril.
Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang
About one thousand years ago, the Chinese were looking for an elixir for immortality. When the “medicine” exploded, they called it “fire medicine.” They began to use it for celebrations, and modern fireworks were born.
This documentary centers on artist Cai Guo-Qiang and his 21-year global quest to create a 500-meter “sky ladder” using fireworks to unite heaven and earth.
Cai grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. He saw the destruction of art, books, and imagination under Mao Zedong, but in the 1980s the arts reemerged. He and his family finally left China permanently, ending up in New York.
As Cai’s reputation as an artist grew, so did his desire to challenge his home country about its abuse of the environment. His art reflects this by using biodegradable fireworks. When Cai designed the fireworks for the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 2001, and the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, he was criticized for sacrificing artistic freedom for political ideology.
This excellent documentary, which is available on Netflix, explores the soul and sacrifice of the artist in a world of conflict. It is stunningly beautiful.
Not yet rated ♦ Some peril.