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Movie Reviews
Movie Review: Moonlight


Moonlight is a coming-of-age drama that chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he tries to cope against the flow of everyday adversities while growing up in a rough Miami neighbourhood. The film deals with a range of negative social themes such as: drugs, bullying and gangsterism. Ordinarily, these hard living themes would translate into a gritty and difficult-to-watch film, but this is the magic of Moonlight, turning the ugliness of real-life into a thing of luminescent beauty.

Director Barry Jenkins has composed an elegant drama that treats all of its subjects with great dignity and respect in spite of their transgressions. This is a very human experience, viewed from a nonjudgemental perspective and powered home by an ensemble of equally sincere performances. Mahershala Ali's towering performance is tough yet heartfelt, and he manages to captain a strong ensemble of performances, despite his limited screen time. The lead role is played by three fine actors, namely Alex R. Hibbert as Little, Ashton Sanders as Chiron and Trevante Rhodes as Black. All the while, the mercurial Naomie Harris tries to keep them in check as troubled mother, Paula.

Richard Linklater delivered a similar coming-of-age film about a white lower middle-class Texan boy approaching adulthood with docudrama realism. While Moonlight doesn't enjoy the continuity of having a single actor as its lead like Boyhood, the casting is convincing and the chapters are equally realistic. There is a poetry and sombre depth to this filmmaking, which transcends other dramas with its natural ebb and flow, maintaining a curious tension as we revisit a character whose neighbourhood, family and social constraints have shaped him. While the realm is harsh, the heart is tender, turning this drama into a deeply moving, subtle and beautiful piece of cinema.

Moonlight Film 2016

"You want to be like Jimi? You got to kiss the sky!"

Jenkins could have used this platform to launch a scathing attack on race and sexual politics in America. However, he's taken a much more gentle approach in relaying his message, using a lens of acceptance to help shape attitudes. By presenting a vicarious and disarming experience of what it must be like to grow up poor, black and gay, we are forced to either empathise or reflect on our own prejudices. This makes Moonlight powerful in the way it can touch your soul and haunting as its pure elegance sinks into your bones.

As a low-budget drama, this film speaks volumes and is a testament to great writing, fine casting and visionary direction. Its multitude of Best Picture awards are important in demonstrating that art can trump budget and it serves as a huge inspiration for budding filmmakers around the world. One can only hope that the widespread attention it has received as a result of the award season will convert into people taking the time to see it.

The bottom line: Luminous


 
Movie Review: The True Cost


The True Cost is a documentary written and directed by Andrew Morgan, which explores the impact of "fast fashion" on people and the planet. This timely documentary latches onto the fashion industry, another example of how big business is driving profits at the cost of social and environmental responsibility.

Juxtaposing the consumer materialism and capitalist mindset against the reality of sweatshops in developing countries, we explore many facets of this tension as Morgan gives us a behind-the-scenes tour. From poor working conditions, human rights issues and textile factory disasters to industrialised cotton farming, we are led on an eye-opening and heartbreaking journey, which acquaints us with advocates driving change as well as the affected garment workers.

Morgan's message creates awareness about a justifiable concern and it's done with Michael Moore panache, adopting a biased standpoint and powering it home with great emotion. To his credit, he mostly succeeds in exposing the disturbing chain of exploitation and linking it back to major fashion brands and agricultural monopolies. While consumer materialism and capitalist profiteering are demonised, there's enough substance to his argument to provoke the right kind of conversations.

Companies seeking to increase profits are outsourcing their production to developing nations, where it is easier to take advantage of cheap labour and lax labour practices. While offering an alternative income to these impoverished nations seems like a helping hand, it's easier to wash one's hands when you can hide behind outdated regulations and other mitigating socio-economic factors.

The True Cost film

"Why me?"

Travelling between Bangladesh, Haiti, Japan, Cambodia, England and America, Morgan gets first-hand accounts from those directly affected and footage of factory floors to pollution concerns. The documentary is slick, moving fluidly from runways to sweatshops, and from advertising to talking heads. Since roughly 85% of the factory workers tend to be women, there's also a fascinating feminist undercurrent.

The stark contrasts between first and third world creates a palpable tension between the haves and have-nots. While "fast fashion" bigwigs are criticised for their business strategies and lack of ethics, it's a pity that Morgan was unable to secure an interview with any of their representatives. You can understand why they wouldn't want to be subjected to this kind of scrutiny, but it does make the documentary seem a bit one-sided, even if the outcome seems like a foregone conclusion.

The True Cost is a depressing indictment on big business, which is geared towards profit at the expense of human dignity, as long as it's not happening in their backyard. While reverse engineering the system would definitely lead to major improvements, what's even more saddening is that the governments of these developing countries seem to view their own people with equal disdain.

Morgan's objective for the documentary is to educate viewers to see the fashion industry's exploits and make wiser decisions in much the same way as he experienced it. Featuring fair trade companies demonstrates that there are alternatives and he suggests that by getting the customer to start questioning their spending habits, our collective self-awareness will lead to real change as a spotlight forces business to adjust their policies.

The True Cost captures some truly heartbreaking moments in interviews with subjects and even in the passion of some of the most hardened campaigners. This realness is at the heart of the documentary, which seeks to personalise the lowly garment maker who is making the greatest sacrifice in the clothing cycle. While you can't help but feel guilty for any threads you happen to be wearing, this message needs to be heard so that at the very least you will think about the costs beyond the pricetag.

The bottom line: Eye-opening


 
Movie Review: The Great Wall


The Great Wall of China is a defensive structure spanning 8850 km along the historical northern borders of China. While it was thought to be visible from the moon, the theory has been debunked several times and at best, it's visible from a low Earth orbit. The Great Wall movie takes advantage of some of the mythology surrounding the wall, its origins and its primary use as a defensive line against invading hordes. Part war epic and part action fantasy, The Great Wall introduces us to the idea that the hostile forces were in fact monsters, re-emerging to launch a full-scale siege every 60 years. We follow two European mercenaries in search of the legendary "black powder" (gunpowder), who find themselves at the mercy of a secret order of Chinese soldiers, who have made it their life's work to prepare for this attack.

Directed by Yimou Zhang whose filmography includes: Hero, The Curse of the Golden Flower, House of Flying Daggers and more recently The Flowers of War, expectations were understandably high. Zhang's body of work is impressive and substantial, despite encountering some tonal imbalances. In The Great Wall, a co-production, he finds himself walking the line between what attracts Chinese and American audiences. While it doesn't have the finesse of his earlier works, it still shows great flair and promise, as if he was adapting a graphic novel.

While The Great Wall received criticism around the nature of the casting with calls of "white saviour", Matt Damon's star quality and grounded history of performances is essential to pinning down this tale. He's supported by the likes of the crooked Willem Dafoe, noble Andy Lau, indomitable Tian Jing and humourous Pedro Pascal as his sidekick, Tovar.

"Hello wall."

The dazzling visuals, flag-waving call-to-arms and pageantry recall films like Ran and The Curse of the Golden Flower. We are immersed in a spectacular scenario as history and fantasy enmesh to create a beautiful tapestry, recalling the Ming dynasty's altruistic fortitude and reimagining battles with flair and imagination.

Matt Damon may seem slightly out of place, but so did Kevin Costner's American accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. A gifted archer and "prince of thieves", accompanied by a trusted warrior, there's a definite synergy between the films in terms of entertainment value and pulp fiction. While the action adventure of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was more grounded and gritty, both films have a comic twinkle with machismo and one-liners at the ready.

The Great Wall also has many affinities with science fiction action adventure, Starship Troopers, starring Casper von Dien. The epic tour of duty, battles against monstrous creatures, handsome cast, video game simplicity, unflappable lead and die hard camaraderie make them comparable, despite being worlds apart.

Perhaps a better contrast would be The Mummy, a mythological and historical action adventure that also straddles the real and unreal in an enjoyable and entertaining fashion. While steeped in ancient culture, it manages to leverage monuments to spin a tale of romance and high adventure on the back of pure popcorn entertainment.

While comparable with a number of rousing, entertaining and enjoyable popcorn films, The Great Wall doesn't quite have the spirit, substance or CGI to rank amongst them. Matt Damon's solemn performance isn't anything special, the video game plotting makes it all about the action and style, and while you're able to roll with it, the design and execution of the monsters is a bit clunky.

Still, while thinly scripted and bordering on ridiculous, the relentless action, spectacular visuals, ambitious mash-up and quality of the ensemble are good enough to keep you constantly amused. It's not a good film, but a surprisingly enjoyable one, which is made even easier on the ear and eye by 3D IMAX.

The bottom line: Fun

 
Movie Review: Tess


Tess, is a film adaptation of Tracey Farren's novel, Whiplash, which follows the heartrending journey of a sex worker who falls pregnant, and the difficulties she encounters on the streets of Cape Town.

Directed by Meg Rickards and starring Christia Visser, this important and hard-hitting drama is a passion project. Important, because it sheds light on long-standing social issues such as the abuse of women in a country deemed as one of the worst affected in the world. Hard-hitting, in the way the filmmakers don't spare the audience from some unsettling scenes, which while graphic, are necessary in representing the plight of a lowly sex worker and a violent rape culture, which has shaped her view of the world.

Christia Visser delivers a full range performance as the title character, Tess. Jaded and somewhat numb, she captures the essence of a woman who has been sidelined by an unforgiving society, destined to a rinse-and-repeat lifestyle trading her soul in exchange for a meagre existence. While she captures the nature of the character, it's also a brave and gritty performance.

Supported by Brendon Daniels as an unhinged criminal, Dann Jaques Mouton as a sincere patron and Nse Ikpe-Etim as a concerned neighbour, it's easy for Visser to immerse herself in the role. The ensemble's inherent quality extends to smaller supporting roles with Mark Elderkin playing a violent misogynist and Greg Kriek a family "friend". Each of the actors is forced to push the limits of comfort, portraying a range of men with deep-seated social and psychological issues. Rickards isn't clustering all men as evil, but conveying the tragedy and terror of Tess's past and present circumstances.

Christia Visser - Tess Movie 2016

"Nobody should ever own anybody."

It must have been quite painful for Rickards to direct this film, going through hell along with the actors to establish intensity and realism. While harrowing, it also has a raw beauty as evidenced by the artful cinematography and rich symbolism at play. Set in Muizenberg village and along the Baden Powell beach road, the seaside vistas and blue skies give the film a sense of hope as they contrast this freedom against the confines of her apartment block.

While the intention is to expose abuse and create awareness, Tess does walk a tightrope in effecting this message. While unsettling at times, this harsh realism gives the film clout, delving into the devil's playground to create impact value and hopefully provoke the right conversations. It's a challenging film that will undoubtedly haunt audiences and Rickards hasn't shied away, giving Tess dramatic tension instead of simply churning out propaganda.

It's been sparsely scripted, allowing the beautifully shot visuals to tell a deceptively simple story about a vulnerable sex worker trying to decide whether she wants to keep the baby or not. The gritty, minimalist and poetic treatment of this character portrait drama makes it a niche film, laced together by an excellent lead performance and a hard-hitting story.

While Tess maintains good tension, it does become a bit repetitive in translating the day-to-day routine, adding to the kitchen sink reality and distancing itself simultaneously. The third act subverts what would have been a deeply depressing and tragic ordeal, however this doesn't seem to match the tone of the rest of the film. While a welcome relief, you wonder how much more powerful and thought-provoking it could have been if they had gone colder and darker. Still, despite its shortcomings, it remains steadfast and a fine achievement all things considered.

The bottom line: Gritty


 
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