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Movie Review: Johnny is Nie Dood Nie


Johnny is Nie Dood Nie, adapted from a play by Malan Steyn, is a reunion drama in the tradition of The Big Chill as four friends gather for a braai on the Sunday after Johannes Kerkorrel's suicide to reminisce about their student days. Set in 2002, Johnny is Nie Dood Nie flips back-and-forth in time to the late '80s when they were young, rebellious Stellenbosch students during the time of the Voëlvry tour. Embracing the protest music of Kerkorrel, Koos Kombuis and Bernoldus Niemand, these hedonistic rebels carved a path in opposition to the National Party government and conscription. Now, more than a decade later, they've grown accustomed to the vibacrete walls of suburbia, haunted by the mysterious circumstances surrounding the death of their varsity friend, Johnny.

This is a wild and restless coming-of-age drama, which juxtapositions the evolution of a group of friends and two ages in South African history. We are introduced to four people at a braai, who with some reluctance are brought together to rehash the past. Through flashbacks, we get a clearer picture and background to the relationships at play and how they have influenced each other. Discussing some of the banal details of their diluted lifestyles with much longing and a solemn atmosphere, they reminisce about the good times and reconcile the past as if they were attending Johnny's wake. Through the lens of Afrikaans pop culture and alternative folk music, we get immersed in student culture and the South Africa of the '80s.

Director Christiaan Olwagen makes his feature film debut seem effortless. He's created an actor's film, giving his talented ensemble enough screen time and depth of character to thrive. This is a good thing considering the majority of the film happens in one location and focuses on their fractious, almost incestuous relationships. A playwright and an actor, this director has a comprehensive understanding of drama and uses this to leverage strong, committed performances from his actors.

Johnny is Nie Dood Nie

"Don't stop living, Johnny..."

Rolanda Marais has a similar intensity to Radha Mitchell - she is unassumingly beautiful and able to navigate a steady median between the worlds of comedy and drama. Her leading role as Lise demonstrates her range as an actor and will undoubtedly serve as her calling card for years to come. Roelof Storm's enigmatic take on Johnny makes it seem like he was inspired in part by Kurt Cobain and Joseph Fiennes. Ludwig Binge has great screen presence and seethes with unchecked rage as Hein. Ilana Cilliers delivers a spirited performance as the no-nonsense Anja, while Albert Pretorius keeps things down-to-earth in a key role as the breezy, consistent and ever-present nice guy, Dirk.

Olwagen must have been inspired by the behind-the-scenes play within a film, Birdman. He's opted for a core cast and continuous shots, allowing the camera to roam freely around his subjects. While it hasn't been edited to create the illusion of one shot, this is the primary shooting style of Johnny is Nie Dood Nie. While the cinematography makes moments more authentic and spontaneous in one sense, the fluidity of movement does detract from the intimacy of the performances and also draws one's attention from story to technique on more than one occasion. This choice does raise the film's profile, elevating it from a local production into something more artful and international, and while a little gimmicky at times - it works!

Careful planning and forethought give the drama a natural rhythm, which together with solid performances, enable Olwagen to establish a free-flowing sense of reality. Johnny is Nie Dood Nie could easily be adapted back to stage, yet justifies its film status by virtue of execution, harnessing a similar pent-up sense of the spontaneous and unpredictable. This is evidenced by a meandering party scene, which demonstrates the power of this vicarious walkthrough reality. As impressive as it is, there are a few moments when the swirling camera does get a bit monotonous.

Johnny is Nie Dood Nie is a bit raw when it comes to the non-stop party lifestyle of the friends, who are in each other's pockets. The hard edge makes it difficult to empathise for the self-destructive characters and as a result its a rather hollow and detached film experience. While verging on gratuitous at times, the use of bad language, drugs, alcohol and sex is frequent, which is to be expected in a movie about sex, drugs and rock 'n roll. It's rough and angst-filled, yet the natural dialogue-heavy format is similar to dramas from Richard Linklater, making it more niche and art house in its approach. The visual decadence and detail will keep the Instagram generation happy as the film oozes with retro cool, while older viewers will be transported by the nostalgic mood and music.

Christiaan Olwagen has burst onto the scene with an artful, moody, stylish and refreshing coming-of-age reunion drama that brims with spirited performances, lures with the recklessness of youth and immerses with inspired cinematography. While a little repetitive, alienating and in search of its core, Johnny is Nie Dood Nie captures the Zeitgeist and uncertainty of South Africa in the '80s through free-flowing dialogue, and powers home with an angst-riddled, haunting and self-reflective vigor.

The bottom line: Wild


 
Movie Review: Bypass


Bypass is a medical thriller, directed by Shane Vermooten and starring Natalie Becker, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Greg Kriek and Deon Lotz. It centres on, and creates awareness about the controversial criminal world of human organ trafficking. We journey with Dr Lisa Cooper, a renowned cardiac surgeon, who is forced to take desperate measures in order to secure a future for her son, Sam. After giving her consent for Sam to undergo an illegal procedure at a clinic in East Africa, she begins to realise that she may have inadvertently endangered both of their lives.

While there have been a handful of good medical thrillers, exposing the darker side of hospitals, medicine and surgery... most of them have approached the subgenre from a psychological standpoint. While Bypass deals with a mother's mindset in response to being separated from her child, it's one of the few medical thrillers that actually takes place in a hospital. This setup would usually involve horror, and while Bypass was influenced by horror thrillers, this isn't its primary currency, staying true to its positioning as "Africa's first medical thriller".

A first for Africa, it also marks the feature film directorial debut for Shane Vermooten, a passionate young filmmaker who has a bright future ahead of him. Together with his team, they've managed to present a respectable big film on a small budget. Through talent, hard work, resourcefulness, networking and partnerships, they have pieced together a visually-enticing film with good production values, compelling sound design, convincing special effects and a solid ensemble in a timely story with positive social implications. Unfortunately, while Bypass checks many boxes, it's undermined by a thin script and some naïve decision-making.

Bypass Movie 2017

"One organ donor can save 8 lives."

Dr Lisa Cooper features prominently enough for Bypass to have been a character portrait. While we understand her emotional journey, it all seems like one-way traffic without giving her the time to form relationships with any fully-formed characters. The story is primarily event-driven and there aren't enough meaningful interactions with other characters to truly excavate her inner world. This impacts on perceived nuance and subtext, making the story straightforward and seem as two-dimensional as a graphic novel. Some moments seem staged, failing to accommodate or reason with possible external forces and allowing our heroine to go through the motions with perceived rather than actual opposition.

Without the rich dialogue to help develop each character's unique disposition, Bypass becomes action-orientated forcing us to glean character details on-the-run. While it maintains good pacing, this makes for a fairly lightweight and painless medical thriller. It's easier to enjoy thanks to the beautiful and elemental Natalie Becker, whose fascinating face graces almost every scene. The wealth of character actors do what they can to ground their supporting performances, yet without the necessary exposition, we have to make do with broad brush strokes.

It's wonderful to see Natalie Becker taking on a lead role as the determined actor grinds out a gritty performance with emotions rippling across her face. Up-and-coming actor, Greg Kriek, tackles the duality of a man constantly subjugating his identity and sense of morality. Hakeem Kae-Kazim is a dependable actor and turns out a composed and well-balanced performance as Dr. Chris Moanda. Shoki Mokgapa embodies the word 'clinical' as the serene Sister Mmaya and could've been given more story responsibility. Joel Brown is sweet-natured and innocent as Sam, while Deon Lotz gets a grip on his Dutch accent and adds some maniacal joy to his role as Dr Wright, who was worthy of more exploration.

Without a fully-fledged emotional connection to the characters, the story becomes obscured and safe from a distance. While the quick pacing keeps one entertained with a constant flow of crisp visuals peppered with twists-and-turns, the screenplay doesn't dig deep enough into the inner worlds of the characters, or organ trafficking racket to truly engage the audience on an intellectual level. For its budget, Bypass is ambitious and even commendable within its context, however one can't help but feel that the script would've benefited from more time in the incubator. Then, while it aims for international appeal... the production needed to be tighter, more cautious and more focused.

While Bypass struggles to overcome its inherent flaws, Vermooten delivers a competitive production and a cohesive story with style. A lightweight feature, it's easy enough to adjust to the world of Bypass and enjoy the film for what its worth. Being a competent, female-led, low budget film about organ trafficking with a sharp South African cast, there's much to admire, it's just a pity that it all just seems a bit too rushed.

The bottom line: Painless


 
Movie Review: 20th Century Women


20th Century Women is the story of a teenage boy and the three women who help raise him, set in Southern California in 1979. The comedy drama comes to us from the mind of writer-director Mike Mills, best known for Beginners and Thumbsucker, and plays out like an adaptation of an essay on gender history. Together with a solid ensemble featuring: Annette Bening, Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, Lucas Jade Zumann and Billy Crudup, Mills is able to curate an offbeat, moody, nostalgic and thoughtful film.

It's as if Mike Mills was inspired by the mother-daughter relationship at the heart of Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous, a music drama romance that saw Francis McDormand trying to be a good mother to her budding rock journalist son. Set during a similar time, McDormand's character tries to raise her teenage son over the phone while he tours with an emerging rock band. It's this fascinating tension between the political evolution of women in society and the impact this has on the concept of traditional mothering for a single parent.

The correlation between Almost Famous and 20th Century Women is further evidenced by the casting of Billy Crudup, who serves as a connector having acted in both. However, Mills isn't simply trying to do a rinse-and-repeat. The focus is on family and gender evolution, as we examine an unconventional cluster of relationships. While Bening is the kingpin as an eccentric mother, we get two equally complex characters in a 20-something art school oddball played by Greta Gerwig and a free-spirited teen by Elle Fanning.

20th Century Women

"You're going to miss this... one day."

The film plays out in a similar manner to Dazed & Confused, delivering mood, style and generating some spark from relational interplay between the "family" members over a driving story. As a coming-of-age drama, it's enjoyable for the character mix and spirited performances from a strong cast. The easy-going state of affairs gives it a nostalgic mood as we're given a tour of what was going on in America at the time in terms of pop culture and politics.

Bening's cool performance is laissez faire (with terms and conditions) to the point that her sensible and sensitive son feels the need to keep her in check. He's just being a kid and Zumann delivers a likable, innocent and mature performance much like a young Anton Yelchin. Gerwig is almost unrecognisable with a whole new stripped down punk look and plenty of cold moxie, while Fanning gives the girl next door a seething and paradoxical sincerity.

Mills isn't trying to reinvent Cameron Crowe, but also leverages some nostalgic music from the age to set the '70s scene, moving from Talking Heads to Black Flag, only to settle on the old classic, As Time Goes By. 20th Century Women feels like an adaptation of an tertiary level essay, delivering commentary through its characters and taking the time to excavate each of their back stories like mini profiles. The net result is an entertaining, unconventional and meandering comedy drama that rides on the strength of its characters and performances. It's not quite as polished as coming-of-age gems like Almost Famous or The Way, Way Back, or as loosely knit as Dazed & Confused, but manages to own its space with flair.

The bottom line: Spirited


 
Movie Review: Silence


Silence is the third overtly religious film from director Martin Scorsese, following The Last Temptation of Christ and Kundun. It's a film that Scorsese has been trying to make for more than two decades, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo about two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan in order to find their mentor and continue his mission to propagate Catholicism in the 17th century. While the spiritual perspective may be met with some suspicion, the overriding themes are universal.

It's the second reworking of Endo's novel after it was initially adapted by Masahiro Shinoda in 1971. Scorsese struggled to get the film financed, which resulted in a number of delays in the project's development through the years. Originally, Silence's original cast included: Daniel Day Lewis, Gael Garcia Bernal and Benicio Del Toro. When the production eventually got the green light, Liam Neeson, Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver were assigned to the lead roles.

While the persecution of Christians has continued through the ages, the release of Silence comes at a time when it has not only increased, but spread to more corners of the globe. Viewed as a foreign, "colonial" threat purveying the ideologies of the West, many Christians face persecution in countries with nationalist religious movements, driven by government or in some incidents, extremists. This is the case in Silence, in which a grand Inquisitor was appointed to root out, punish and even execute Japanese Christians, who didn't denounce their faith by trampling on a tablet depicting Christianity.

We are introduced to Father Ferreira, played with steely-eyed sincerity by Neeson, a man rumoured to have committed apostasy after bearing witness to the ruthless torture of other monks, facing terrible acts of physical and psychological hardship. The journey begins with Rodrigues and Garupe, two Jesuit priests who feel led to travel to Japan in search of their mentor. Travelling under the cover of night and hidden by a secretly Christian village, they continue their ministry as they slowly learn of Ferreira and attract the Inquisitor's suspicions.

Silence Movie

"Between the dust and stars lies... Middle Earth."

The lead actors all lost a considerable amount of weight and underwent tutelage, or some form of religious retreat in order to get into the spiritual dimension of their characters. While Bernal and del Toro would have added an extra layer of authenticity to the accent and representation of the Portuguese men, Garfield and Driver immerse themselves in their performances and carry a truth that overpowers minor inaccuracies. Yôsuke Kubozuka embodies the role of Kichijiro like the antithesis of Kikuchiyo as played by Toshirô Mifune in The Seven Samurai, lacing the story together with shameful treachery instead of bold heroics. Then, to round off a solid ensemble Issei Ogata delivers a noteworthy and devilishly charming performance as "The Old Samurai".

Perhaps it's Garfield's role in Hacksaw Ridge that further cements the film's parallels with Unbroken. All three films are based on true stories, which deal with adversity, perseverance, persecution, the darkness of the heart and the stubbornness of the human spirit. The historical permanence and timeless themes make them all equally powerful in terms of emotional and physical resilience. While Hacksaw Ridge and Unbroken are set during World War II, the systematised uprooting of a religion and the persecution of one group over another has a resonance with the events depicted in Silence.

Scorsese must have been influenced by The Mission in 1986. This haunting human drama also dealt with Jesuit priests and was released around the same time that he began his work on the adaptation. Silence is reminiscent of Terrence Malick's films in terms of its elemental visuals, and the way it juxtaposes man and nature. It's a mixture of blood and mud as our adventurers undertake a dangerous undercover mission into the heart of 17th century Japan. They struggle to trust and encounter great suffering, acting like spies beyond enemy lines. While not as ornate, the subject matter, pioneering spirit, historical significance, ideological fillibustering and even some of the trappings reflect aspects from the film, Luther.

Silence is a challenging, powerful and unsettling human drama that tackles despair, faith, sacrifice, suffering, physical and psychological torture. Scorsese's complex representation of characters ensures that everyone has a measure of good and bad, preventing us from simply dismissing one standpoint over another. This grey area generates plenty of tension as believers are put on trial before man and God, forced to decide between rejecting their faith or accepting the road to martyrdom. The right to self-determination and freedom of religion is examined within the context of a country desperately trying to oust insurgents, whose personal envoy to save souls has far-reaching macro effects for Japan's nationalism and international trade.

It's a haunting film that will leave you in silence and stay with you for some time. While somewhat slow burning in terms of pacing, this old world feel helps you to sink into the suspended environment and story. We're treated to beautiful vistas as the mountain meets the sea only to find ourselves on edge as the Inquisitor's ruthless agenda is carried out with the sudden, sharp force of a sword. At almost 3 hours, it's a film you can lose yourself in... enchanted by the performances, mesmerised by the visuals and compelled by the tide of dramatic tension.

The bottom line: Haunting

 
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