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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

 
Movie Review: Beyond the River


South Africa needs Beyond the River, an uplifting sports drama based on a true story. At this point in time, our country's politics is still divided along racial lines, or rather that's what some parties would have you believe. We've come a long way since our rainbow nation was inaugurated in 1994 under the guidance of Nelson Mandela, whose levelheaded leadership navigated us through what could have been a much more radical transition. While some of the injustice around the old South Africa still haunts us today in terms of economic disparities, social incohesion and emotional wounds, we need to stop blaming in order to change our circumstances and fix our minds in getting to a place where we can all feel proud to wave our flag.

Beyond The River has got a clear agenda in terms of promoting common goals, interracial harmony and social upliftment, through its inspiring story about an unlikely Dusi canoe marathon pairing. Craig Freimond directed Material, a well-balanced and personal story for lead actor and doctor comedian Riaad Moosa. He's extended his talents into the sports genre, carefully nurturing another relationship-based story in the process. While competing in the Dusi canoe marathon is the end goal, this drama is more about the personal challenges experienced by two men on opposite sides of the fence.

While based on the true story of Siseko Ntondini and Piers Cruickshanks, the screenplay has been modified taking creative license to instill more dramatic tension. Duma, a poor young black man from Soweto is coaxed into taking up canoeing by a would-be mentor, Oupa, who challenges him to make something of his life. He meets Dusi veteran, Steve, a middle class older white man and teacher from the suburbs, who is also seeking some new direction and focus in his life.

Beyond the River movie review

"There's only one race, the human race."

Lemogang Tsipa and Grant Swanby take on the roles of Duma and Steve. Tsipa's experiential knowledge and lingual versatility enable him to live in Duma's world. From a difficult home life and struggling to break free from a bad influence, it's a pleasure to see Tsipa take Duma from zero to hero. Swanby's face is fascinating, carrying a heavy emotional burden and channeling all his determination and rage into being the best he can be no matter the cost. Together these underdogs make a curious duo, representing a cross-section of South African diversity. Their solid performances keep us rooting for them on an everyman level since we're kept at a arm's length through relative anonymity and a lack of charm and warmth.

Israel Makoe, Garth Breytenbach, Kgosi Mongake and Emily Child serve as a dependable supporting cast. Makoe takes on a tough yet refreshing mentor role with his usual fire and vigour getting Duma to make a lasting change as Oupa. Breytenbach adds some light-hearted banter and much-needed charm to proceedings as the ever-likable Dan. Mongake is beautifully tragic as Duma's best friend, Zama, and Child brings some melancholy to the drama playing Steve's estranged number one fan, Annie.

While the sports story is fairly predictable, it's the inspiring drama that makes Beyond the River worth your time. It's emotionally taut as we witness two men trying to dig themselves out of a rut through team work and perseverance. They're constantly breaking barriers, overcoming prejudices and inspiring others around them with the symbol of the river adding layers of meaning. It makes for compelling viewing to see the everyday battles playing out against the background of a much grander narrative for South Africa's future. The message is powerful and timely, especially for a sporting nation like South Africa, where working together, overcoming intercultural and economic barriers to establish unity is a familiar narrative.

Freimond ups the production value through aerial photography of the Dusi marathon rapids, Kwazulu-Natal's Valley of a Thousand Hills and energises the film with a nostalgic mix of classic South African music. It's stirring to see the guts and glory play out in a uniquely South African underdog sports drama. While it weaves a story of amazing contrasts and curious tensions, we struggle to break into the inner worlds of our co-leads, whose fuzzy standpoints make us empathise for them yet never truly befriend them. Watching from the sidelines, it's easy to cheer Beyond the River over the finish line as an inspiring albeit predictable crowd-pleaser, but it's always more fun being in the canoe.

The bottom line: Inspiring


 
Movie Review: Beauty and the Beast


It's hard to believe that it's been more than 25 years since the original Beauty and the Beast. Before Pixar, Walt Disney was the animation giant responsible for box office success stories, Aladdin and The Lion King. While there's been some seesawing over the last three decades, they've reinvented themselves and have started adapting their most successful animated features into live-action films, most recently Cinderella and The Jungle Book.

Their latest adaptation is of the beloved Beauty and the Beast, a timeless tale that many parents will remember having seen as children. The nostalgic hooks will undoubtedly lead many families to the cinema in the hopes of capturing some of that former glory, but does Disney's latest effort match its animated predecessor or live-action contemporaries?

Unfortunately, the short answer is no. It's no secret that Disney is in the film business to drive profits. Their acquisition of Lucasfilm and the Star Wars, Marvel franchises echoes this sentiment with sequels scheduled from now into the forseeable forever. As much as they would want us to believe they are simply making family magic and childhood memories, these romantic gestures are a means to an end.

Getting Bill Condon to direct was a cold reality business decision. While he has an Oscar for his screenwriting and several notable directorial film credits, he directed two of the Twilight films. Vampires, beasts, a virgin... there were obviously some synergies driving this casting call over and above the franchise's staggering box office numbers.

Beauty and the Beast

"Would you like to prance?"

The casting of Emma Watson was equally transparent, bringing her history as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter series into focus. An enchanted castle, a headstrong young woman and uneasy romance made the stars align, bringing Watson and her loyal fan base to the tale.

Unfortunately, while deemed bankable... this puzzle piece is in the wrong box. Emma Watson is an accomplished actress and has demonstrated she can command leading roles in Hollywood. However, the role of Belle would have been much better suited to a newcomer or the likes of Emma Roberts or Lily Collins. Watson is determined and her quality shines through, yet she just seems at odds with the character description and temperament, unable to exude the same warmth and joyous spirit as her animated counterpart.

Dan Stevens lends his considerable talents to the role of the Beast, however one can't help but feel that his performance was lost in translation. CGI has come a long way since 1991, which is why the rendition of the Beast is somewhat disappointing. It's realistic, tipping the hat to the animated version and using Stevens' eyes and expressions to personify the character, yet seems stuck in limbo between animation and live-action. Perhaps they shouldn't have used so many daring close-ups, introduced the Beast more gradually or have resorted to prosthetics and make-up like The Elephant Man in 1980 or the namesake TV series in 1990.

The rest of the ensemble seem much more suited to their roles... Luke Evans delivers one of his best performances in recent memory as the arrogant, pompous Gaston. Josh Gad is a delight as his hero worshipping sidekick and "tactician" LeFou. Kevin Kline is good as Maurice, Belle's quirky and tinkering father, while Ewan McGregor, Iain McKellen and Emma Thompson make a first class trio playing Lumière, Cogsworth and Mrs Potts respectively.

The character design and execution of these supporting CGI characters is extraordinary. From reflections in Cogsworth's glass window to the sheen on Mrs Potts and Chip, the technical wizardry is quite staggering. This extends to the lush production design, which while similar to Cinderella extends even further into the majesty of Versailles. Beauty and the Beast is spectacular to the point of being ostentatious and borderline kitsch... from lavish dance numbers to storming the castle, every frame is chock-full with exquisite detail.

The score is just as rich, supersizing the original animated film's sound and song, and harnessing the power of a big budget Broadway musical. From a pure sound and visual perspective, Beauty and the Beast is sensational, delivering a loud, proud and showy musical adaptation that almost justifies its existence on aesthetic and aural appeal alone.

Sadly, the live-action adaptation isn't quite as charming or innocent as the original. The charm and magic is manufactured rather than earned, giving it a colder edge, which is sharpened by the film's sexual awareness. While faithful to the story of the original film, the film-makers have made some smart little alterations to the tale and given the Gaston-LeFou comedy duo more weight as comic villains. Some of the modernisations don't quite work, but the cheeky bromance and comedic undertones are entertaining nevertheless.

All in all, the live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast is a mixed bag. The sound and visuals give it the impetus to coast on the sensory experience alone. Backed by the timeless fairy tale, waves of nostalgia, an amusing screenplay and a fine ensemble, it seems almost good enough against such a decadent backdrop. The miscast co-lead, tonal shift and odd distraction isn't annoying enough to derail the film, but will certainly undermine your overall enjoyment. Just don't expect to shed a tear or feel the need to watch it again.

The bottom line: Decadent


 
Movie Review: The Dark Tapes


The Dark Tapes is a found footage horror sci-fi thriller told in four parts as the paranormal invades the lives of ordinary people. This independent horror, which has been compared with V/H/S, was driven by Michael McQuown who served as co-director, writer and creator.

The first story 'To Catch a Demon' follows a physics professor and two assistants, who have been hired to oversee a sleep experiment to observe an inter-dimensional being, which has been disturbing the professor in his sleep. The second story, 'The Hunters and the Hunted', follows in the steps of found footage favourite, Paranormal Activity. We're then whisked into the webcam world of "Cam Girls" as an adult entertainer and her partner seduce a customer. Finally, 'Amanda's Revenge' rounds off The Dark Tapes as a girl rescued from a date rape scenario starts experiencing strange side effects.

The Dark Tapes has a female-led cast starring Cortney Palm, Emilia Ares Zoryan and Brittany Underwood. Palm and Zoryan have experience playing horror with Palm featuring in Zombiebeavers and Zoryan in V/H/S: Viral. Together they go to some dark places in the stripped down 'Cam Girls' webcam segment, while Underwood suffers a strange haunting in 'Amanda's Revenge'. It's a large ensemble, which features a number of up-and-coming talents including South African actress, Jo Galloway, as Susan.

"It wants the people responsible for the latest Ghostbusters movie..."

Being a low budget production, you've got to meter your expectations in terms of production value and choose to marvel at the achievement within its context. The eclectic mix of cinematography, guerilla horror effects and overall feeling is low budget. Luckily, being underproduced can actually enhance horrors and McQuown has done a good job with the resources at his disposal. He's tailored a horror film with merit, which works thanks to earnest performances from a large ensemble, creepy atmosphere and a compelling anthology of horror stories. While many of the formats are familiar, McQuown adds a fresh twist.

The biggest setback in The Dark Tapes is that there's no clear cohesive narrative thread. The stories are choppy and dissimilar in format, rules and theme making it difficult to connect the dots and establish a fixed universe for the "found footage" tales. There's no central character, narrator or device to guide us through the tunnel of dark tapes... making the whole experience alienating and distancing the audience from each of the happenings. This keeps us ever-curious yet detached from the characters, who we never have enough time to invest in or trust. Perhaps these could have worked better if they were presented as short films.

While housed under the umbrella of horror, each story seems like a kernel for a full feature film rather than complete within themselves. It's entertaining by virtue of its unpredictable nature, but frustrating that we're never immersed in any of the environments long enough to form any attachment with the characters. Watching from an arm's length makes the experience hollow and while there are one or two great scares and clever twists... The Dark Tapes simply teases us with some promising starts with what could have been.

McQuown demonstrates his ability and knows the genre well, concocting some juicy horror set ups in the process, but unfortunately there's just not enough follow-through with The Dark Tapes. Perhaps having a better "bed" for all of the tapes to nestle in would make all the difference, giving us the platform to be creeped out rather than bewildered. There's loads of great stuff going on in The Dark Tapes, making it a pity it didn't work out better.

The bottom line: Alienating


 
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