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Movie Review: Democrats


Democrats is a 2014 Danish documentary about the contentious 2008 election in Zimbabwe and the subsequent coalition's attempts to redraft the country's constitution. The film, directed by Camilla Nielsson, has been subsequently banned in Zimbabwe. In an interview with eNCA, Douglas Mwonzora, a lawyer and representative of the MDC-T said that the depiction of violence at various political meetings forced the censorship boards to ban this honest account of what happened behind-the-scenes. Filmed over three years, Nielsson gains seemingly unlimited access to COPAC campaigning and negotiations.

While this account is informative, eye-opening and even disturbing in the way misinformation and political tampering can impede constitutional progress, it's essentially the story of an unlikely friendship. ZANU-PF representative, Paul Mangwana, former Minister of Information and MDC–T representative, Douglas Mwonzora, are instructed to carry out the coalition government's mandate to draft a new constitution based on feedback from the people. So begins an arduous process of hosting thousands of rural and urban gatherings across the country to give the people an opportunity to speak.

Their task is to gather information and seed it into the drafting of a new constitution for Zimbabwe. However, the process is delayed through political interference, intimidation, violence and transporting additional party representatives into meeting areas. Intended to be peaceful, things break down and an inspirational governmental mission is hampered by false arrests, misinformation, instability and media involvement.

Democrats

"This revolution will be fought with pens and words..."

Through this journey, Mangwana and Mwonzora are at first pitted against each other, storming to get the best foothold for their political parties. Worthy adversaries, they maintain a healthy respect for one another, deliberating on a shared vision for a free and fair Zimbabwe. This common goal means different things for each of them, as one man tries to preserve the old order and the other tactfully negotiates his way to a more inclusive Zimbabwe. There's something to be said for the nation's sense of humour, for as serious as matters get, there's always room for a disarming laugh or smile.

Mangwana is a charming man and you could imagine Forest Whitaker taking on his role of devil's advocate, moving from self-assured smiles to the grave seriousness of a most wanted man. Mwonzora is a quietly confident man, who instead of resting on his party's legacy, is forced to use his lawyering skills in order to navigate a clear path. Their interactions range from affable to heated as they argue on various issues, from political meddling to contentious clauses.

Nielsson cleverly pivots the film on this relationship which demonstrates that while their political ideologies may differ, they are still able to get along. You wonder what kind of influence the documentation of their roles may have had on the outcome, since most people behave differently on camera. However, over such a long period of time, the filmmakers must have become like a fly-on-the-wall.

This is reinforced by footage capturing meeting violence and the honest expressions on the faces of these men. Being Danish, probably also aided them in representing a much more "independent" standpoint. Although, the translators are each listed as Anonymous in the credits, demonstrating just how unsettled the situation remains. While at face value, seemingly balanced, Mugabe and organised ZANU-PF machinations serve as a constant threat to completing the task of writing a new constitution.

Being a South African, the idea of drafting an inclusive and respected constitution echoes the sentiment of the New South Africa, which made this film more personal beyond sharing a border. The notion that two "enemies" can forge ahead and usher new life into a politically war-ravaged country is moving. Having journeyed with them through their many trials and transitions in Democrats, the thought that a suspended peace and justice can be achieved in a situation as volatile as Zimbabwe, is inspirational... even if for a brief moment in time.

The bottom line: Embroiled


 
Movie Review: Maggie's Plan


Maggie's Plan is directed by Rebecca Miller, but you'd be forgiven for thinking it was Woody Allen's latest romance comedy drama. The New York setting, the quirky dialogue, the excitable performances and the many shades of love make it comparable with this filmmaker. Even the calibre of the cast makes you think that this could only be Woody Allen, but it's not. Maggie's Plan is like a blend of Before Sunrise, What Maisie Knew and Mistress America. While Miller may be tipping the hat to the veteran, arguably master of romantic comedy, it has a misguided quality to it.

This comes through in the characters and even in the storytelling. Maggie wants to have a baby, so much so that she's willing to enter single parenthood on purpose. Just as she thinks she has found the right donor, along comes John, whose work-in-progress novel gives them a shared goal and leads to greater intimacy. While you can appreciate the chemistry, John is a married man and after he requites his love for Maggie, it's not long before he's divorced and they are married with child.

Maggie's Plan would be pretty ordinary without its strange "romcom" plot and stellar cast as Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke and Julianne Moore form the three corners of this love triangle. Their range of interplay encompasses each aspect of the romance comedy drama genre quite beautifully with some poignant and funny moments reflecting on the nature of fidelity. While at first quite excitable, playing into the screwball dynamic, they mellow with time as we come to terms with the lighter and darker sides of their endearment.

"There's just one thing... I'm married."

Gerwig is a strong actress playing into the stoicism and fortitude of Maggie. Hawke relishes the opportunity to play head-in-his-book writer, John, whose narrow focus and passion becomes both a strength and weakness. Moore plays Georgette like something out of a Wes Anderson film, using a bracing accent and high strung disposition to block empathy for the stylish ice queen. The ensemble is reinforced by the presence of Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph, who inject some hilarity into proceedings as Maggie's friends, while Travis Fimmel is convincing as the bohemian nice guy and sperm donor.

While Miller establishes a curious and unusual tone, leaning on her actors and whiplash dialogue, the storytelling is scattershot. While it's easy enough to fill in the blanks, the bits-and-pieces come at us like a game of Tetris, making it a bit unwieldy. The overall experience is not unlike Greta Gerwig's previous film, Mistress America, generating spark from a talented ensemble and charging into the inner city screwball comedy with wit and reckless abandon. This finicky mix isn't a crowd pleaser by any stretch, but is easier to appreciate if you focus on the performances and have a soft spot for the films of Noah Baumbach and Woody Allen.

The bottom line: Entertaining


 
Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


J.K. Rowling's adventures of a young wizard named Harry Potter have entrenched themselves in pop culture. Books, movies, theme parks, wand TV remotes... the franchise continues to swallow book worms whole. After the series came to an end in two parts, a relief for some and travesty for others, we thought we'd seen the end of Potter's world. However, like some American public house sitcoms... some things have a way of reviving themselves through what is called an open air quotes... spin-off... close air quotes, just ask Frasier.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows the adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York's secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school. It's a stand-alone film that exists within the Harry Potter universe, feeding into the lore and showing a similar consistency, delivering its own story without Potter or Radcliffe.

While visual effects wizardry and wondrous sound design rules, the imaginative story doesn't get left behind... even if it may have started as a desperate attempt to reinvigorate the Potter dynasty. Rowling's writing seems boundless as we slip into magical briefcases, encounter a number of funny, familiar yet unheard-of beasts and are whisked away into an enchanted world between worlds.

Guided by the enigmatic Redmayne, given a sense of humour by Fogler, counterbalanced by the ever-suave Farrell and enlivened by the Goldstein sisters, played by Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol, there's a never-ending supply of laughs and fun characters.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

"One day I hope to call it Newt York..."

Redmayne is a bit of a cold fish but has an otherworldliness about him, clouding himself in questions and refocusing us on the perilous yet magical adventure. While we never really get any answers, he's surrounded by a troupe of likable co-stars with Fogler playing into a buddy movie dynamic to root the New York element with some funny and charming interplay.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them doesn't delve too deeply into Scamander's life and without a substantial emotional investment, the adventure does seem a little superficial. Although you won't really notice this aspect thanks to good pacing, smart writing and eye-popping visuals. There's never a dull moment as Newt's briefcase of tricks causes havoc across the city and magic society.

We enjoy the same level of quality we've come to expect from the Harry Potter series under the direction of David Yates with a brand new layered tale. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is enriched by some smart allegories that feed back to the here and now. A lot of thought has gone into the film and it shows without becoming over-reliant on its Harry Potter heritage, but appealing to the same generation of fans who grew up with Rowling, who may have kids of their own by now.

The bottom line: Enchanting

 
Movie Review: Vir Die Voëls


South African film has come a long way as evidenced by Vir Die Voëls or For the Birds, a South African romantic comedy drama with a similar ebb-and-flow to the American sitcom, The Wonder Years. The film is directed by Quentin Krog, who is best known for Ballade vir 'n Enkeling. While Vir Die Voëls also has a dramatic and romantic element, its quirky comedic undertones are carried by a plucky lead character who narrates and stars. We follow Irma Humpel, beginning with her wedding day and then going back in time to her childhood as she assumes the role of invisible bystander. We fast-forward to her high school years, learning about her difficult home life situation, her decision to stay with her grandmother and forge a new life. She inadvertently reconnects with Sampie de Klerk, a boy who used to bully her as a child, and this is where the unlikely romance begins...

The Taming of the Shrew is definitely a strand to this story, as Irma gets to grips with life in South Africa. Living in a patriarchal and traditionally male-dominated culture, Irma's defiant journey finds her doing a lot of upstream swimming. She's the eptiome of "tough cookie", the kind of girl who used to beat up boys in the playground and continues this legacy into her adult life. Her fierce independence and strong will make Sampie's advances seem futile, despite his tenacity and neverending reserve of charm. Set in South Africa in the '70s, the romance between Irma and Sampie, a homefront nurse and soldier in the South African Border War, has nostalgia and a wistful edge.

The production design is authentic, carving a very accurate depiction of a seemingly forgotten time in Afrikaans culture. For a South African film, Vir die Voëls is very white – something it may be criticised for – actively avoiding race and politics in favour of keeping the spotlight on the budding small town romance. This film is inspired by a true story, focussing on a close-knit community and the "Pleasantville" scenario feeds into the notion that some white Afrikaans working class communities may have been locked in a small town bubble during the '70s. It's refreshing, brave or maybe even foolish, for a South African film to completely sidestep the A-word, even if the subliminal is highlighted by virtue of its absence and it favours tackling gender issues.

Vir Die Voels

"Runaway turned bride... who would've guessed?"

When you learn of the film's origins, having been derived from a Huisgenoot reader's real-life story, you go in expecting a slapped-together project honouring a competition. However, Vir Die Voëls is anything but perfunctory... as we witness a surprisingly entertaining, spirited and passion-led project. Krog continues to impress with a film that dexterously navigates some difficult genre terrain, lacing a character's difficult upbringing and determined singleness into a film that remains upbeat, quirky and fun.

The most surprising element is Simoné Nortmann, whose star quality and presence is evident from the get-go. Reminiscent of Zoe Kazan, Nortmann's pixie features and cheeky disposition keep her likable as she immerses us in her own life story. At first, you wonder if the bride is going to narrate the entire story but the film-makers cleverly slip her into the proceedings with a license to break the fourth wall and address the audience from time-to-time. While not as instantly likable, possibly owing to his character's background, Francois Jacobs grows on us like moss. Just as cheeky, he complements Nortmann and their magnetic relationship becomes more endearing as the two push-and-pull.

The lead couple are supported by Lara Kinnear and Bennie Fourie as their best friends, Marieda and Karel, who give them respite and reasons to meet by a mistake-on purpose when they're not enjoying married life. The film is bolstered by the presence of Neels van Jaarsveld, Nicola Hanekom and Elize Cawood as Irma's father, mother and grandmother respectively. Tackling alcohol abuse and dealing with the ripple effect is a subplot, which shares a cast member and parallels aspects from 'n Man Soos My Pa. While there to add more dramatic depth and heft, these experienced actors round off a strong ensemble with fine and heartfelt performances.

Vir Die Voëls may have rose-tinted glasses and a selective memory, but this sliver of romance comedy drama will uplift film goers. The cast chemistry is fantastic, the production design is immersive, the nostalgic music will take people back, the story's verve is infectious, the performances are charming and heartfelt, the cinematography is effortless, the screenwriting is deft, the themes are universal and the direction is sensitive yet sensible. While decidedly niche, this is an entertaining and touching film that transcends the bounds of "romcom" with a thoughtful and enjoyable tour down memory lane.

The bottom line: Earnest


 
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