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Movie Reviews
Movie Review: Arrival


Arrival is a science fiction mystery drama from Denis Villeneuve, based on the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Villeneuve continues his outstanding run of form: having directed IncendiesPrisonersEnemy and Sicario, he turns his attention to science fiction with Arrival. The film has similarities with Contact, the Robert Zemeckis film, in which Jodie Foster plays a woman desperately trying to interpret a message to prove the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence originating from the Vega star system.

Instead of Jodie Foster, we have Amy Adams, playing linguist Louise Banks. When 12 mysterious shell -shaped spacecraft touchdown around the globe, Banks is commissioned by the US military to use her communication skills in order to translate and establish contact. As each nation races to translate their own version of the message from the visitors, misinterpretations provoke international forces to prepare for war. With the help of a theoretical physicist, Banks tries to discover the purpose of the alien landing before the suspended peace gives way to anarchy.

Arrival stars Amy Adams, who is supported by Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg. Her performance has a knowing heaviness to it, serene in the chaos, seemingly out of her depth and yet selflessly compelled to find answers for herself, her nation and the peace of mankind. This unfettered character is the thread that seems to knit everything together, as intimate memories whisk us away from a threatening situation. Renner, Whitaker and Stuhlbarg keep Adams relatable and in check as her motives are questioned and trust is earned. While a stellar and accomplished cast, Arrival will be remembered for Adams, who embodies the tone of the drama.

Arrival movie review

"I learned how to speak alien... what did you do today?"

While somewhat slow-moving, Villeneuve gives this science-fiction mystery drama a mercurial flow. It's a reflective piece of cinema, delivering smart and thought-provoking content without spoon feeding. The mystery and uncertainty surrounding the alien visitors remains and helps generate a tense atmosphere. Villeneuve cloaks their appearance and objectives, allowing us to form our own opinion and jump to conclusions with the constant threat of the unknown. This tunnel of echoes ends up saying more about humanity and our fear of otherness than getting to grips with an alien race.

The crisp and clinical cinematography is reminiscent of Looper. Elemental and at times ethereal, we are swathed in surreal and beautiful visuals, which have a great balance of familiar versus unfamiliar. These enchanting visuals, characterised by the surrealism of a giant, smooth spaceship suspended over a landscape, are complemented by an otherworldly soundtrack. Together, the audiovisuals have a similar harmony and majesty to Inception, immersing us in a dream state and then teasing us with the promise of limitless peril.

Arrival is a breathtaking and immersive cinematic experience that slowly lowers you into a body of amniotic fluid as philosophy and drama mingle. The nature of time is examined and just like Inception, you'll feel compelled to watch the film again to truly comprehend the overarching message. It's like the science fiction antithesis of War of the Worlds, delivering a more pensive, thought-provoking and even Socratic exploration of what can be gleaned from extra terrestrial life.

The bottom line: Mesmerising


 
Movie Review: Shepherds and Butchers


Shepherds and Butchers is a South African courtroom drama, directed by Oliver Schmitz and based on the award-winning novel by Chris Marnewick. The story follows Johan Webber, a defence attorney, who takes on the controversial case of Leon Labuschagne, a young prison warden, who is charged with killing several black men in 1987. Marnewick, an advocate in Durban, delivers a powerful retelling of this capital punishment court case, which is based on actual events.

The film adaptation stars Steve Coogan, who is best known for Philomena, Andrea Riseborough, who starred in Shadow Dancer and South African actor Garion Dowds as Labuschagne. Coogan has a rich comedy background, but like many comic actors, has an equally layered dramatic depth. He brings a fortitude and resilience to the role of Johan Webber, a character which while underdeveloped, carries clout. Riseborough gets a handle on the South African accent and goes head-to-head with Coogan as a bullish and hardened advocate. If Coogan is the heart and Riseborough is the mind, then Dowds is the soul of this powerful drama. While the character clouds proceedings, we see the events unfold through his eyes and Dowds gives the manchild a vulnerability, which helps foster empathy.

The tension lies in Labuschagne's unwillingness to co-operate as we try to make sense of the debacle. He's been charged with a multiple homicide in what appears to be an open-and-shut case, but his fragility makes it difficult to imagine the character carrying out the disturbing acts he stands accused of. As we wrestle with our convictions and prejudices, we're given a behind-the-scenes tour of the horrendous state-sanctioned executions from death row. While important to plumb the shock value to get inside the mind of the accused, this harrowing depiction of hangings is intense, graphic and not for sensitive viewers.

Shepherds and Butchers

"..."

Schmitz is best known for Life, Above All, arguably the greatest South African drama. The racial oppression and social issues of 1987 become powerful in their subliminal treatment, much like To Kill A Mockingbird. The overtly white cast and accurate production design foists us into the turmoil of the justice system of the time. Watching from this retrospective standpoint, heightens the underlying tension and stacks even more weight against the defence as we're persuaded to feel sympathy for a "white psycho", who appears to have carried out a racially-motivated killing. Schmitz may not have a character-driven screenplay to leverage, but summons power through the earnest performances, the heartbreaking visuals and gripping true story.

Shepherds and Butchers isn't in the same league as To Kill a Mockingbird, Dead Man Walking or even A Time to Kill, but like The Devil's Knot, delivers thought-provoking drama and a powerful visual testament of a time we'd prefer to forget. We may not engage or identify enough with the characters to be fully immersed in the story, but from the nature of the harrowing imagery and socio-political ramifications, it's safer to watch from the back of the courtroom.

The bottom line: Unsettling


 
Movie Review: My Father's War


My Father's War is a drama from writer-director, Craig Gardner, which examines the fractious relationship between David, a war veteran father, and his rebellious son, Dap. We journey with Dap, a young man whose issues stem from feelings of abandonment and a lack of connection, following his father's prolonged involvement in the undeclared Angolan Bush War. From his birth to adolescence the two have forged a history of missed connections. When David reaches out for the last time only to have Dap accuse him of forwarding the agenda of the Apartheid government, he's brought to his knees. It's only after Dap starts dreaming about being at war with his father that he begins to really see the truth.

This Afrikaans-English war drama stars three of South Africa's finest dramatic talents: Edwin van der Walt as Dap, Stian Bam as David and Erica Wessels as Karina. This tight unit makes a strong nucleus for domestic drama to play out at the Smit household. Edwin van der Walt immerses himself in the role of the angst-filled young rebel, whose temperamental attitude and hard-partying lifestyle alienate him from his family. Stian Bam gives David an understated anxiety and a deep-seated depression, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and trying to push past the guilt to overcome his absence. Erica Wessels draws power from Karina's distressed and frustrated state-of-mind, playing a wife and mother, who is only just holding the fort down.

Gardner focusses on universal issues of forgiveness and empathy, and the film could've easily been transferred to any post-war family dynamic. These underlying themes make the film intensely relatable for any family member involved in some sort of conflict. While he's intent of portraying an accurate and earnest domestic drama, Gardner's other intention is to represent the Bush War in Angola. Through Dap's dreams, Gardner is able to inject these war scenes like flashbacks. Much like the framing of Pearl Harbour, this escalates the human drama from intimate to grand as SADF choppers and trucks enter the fray.

My Father's War

"Old dog... there's still fight in the young dog."

While we're given an introspective tour and some Bush War action that helps us comprehend the stress David underwent, the treatment is a little jarring in contrast with the drama, making the marriage of genres a bit unwieldy. While Dap walks a mile in his father's boots and there's certain license in the dream state, the war music is histrionic and conjures up the solemn heroics of World War II. It's a leap of faith to have David's war experiences relayed through Dap's dreams as if he was there, but if you don't fight this spiritual fantasy element, the ride is much more enjoyable. The Bush War has more in common with the guerilla warfare of Vietnam and probably would've been better served by nostalgic music from the age. It certainly would've added another layer for Dap's musical tastes to clash and slowly integrate with those of his father's.

Although far from perfect, My Father's War has its heart in the right place, which is reinforced by earnest performances. While confrontational at first, it becomes surprisingly moving in the third act. The ensemble's conviction make the high concept easier to accept, urged on by our desire to experience the cinematic illusion in all its fullness. The film-makers have largely accomplished what they set out to achieve and the end result is entertaining and emotionally resonant.

The bottom line: Moving


 
Movie Review: Mandela's Gun


Nelson Mandela has become immortalised as an international icon for peace and transformation. Many know the story of the wise man and freedom fighter, who led a country through a turbulent time in South Africa's history as newly elected President, after being incarcerated as a political prisoner on Robben Island for almost three decades. This true story is comparable with The Count of Monte Cristo and has been popularised in world media, but what about Mandela's life before he was arrested? Mandela's Gun uncovers much of the mystery of a young Nelson Mandela in the time he spent co-founding Umkhonto we Sizwe in the aftermath of the Sharpeville massacre.

His mission was to build an army and led his compatriots to Algeria and Ethiopia to receive military training, during which time he received a Makarov pistol from Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, signalling the ANC's shift toward armed resistance. During this time as South Africa's most wanted man, he was known as the "Black Pimpernel", travelling across Africa through Botswana and Tanzania under aliases and using fake passports, evading capture and even assassination attempts.

Mandela's Gun is a blend of documentary and espionage drama thriller. It's directed by John Irvin, who is best known for classic war films and the iconic British TV series, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. He's brought a finesse to the dramatisation that gives the black-and-white film an epic and important feel. The clinical "Cold War" element to the espionage seems a bit misplaced in the African context, but like the films of Anton Corbijn, the stylish visuals are composed and polished to the point that you wish they'd applied them to a full-length feature film.

Mandela's Gun

"Don't force me to use it."

Tumisho Masha plays a young Mandela, the first South African actor to do so, and at certain angles, the two seem indistinguishable. There's some wiggle-room in this performance since Mandela was much younger, more reactionary and there's much less interview footage to contrast against Masha and Irvin's interpretation. At first, it seems as though the film-makers are trying to protect his determined performance by cutting away for speaking parts and narration. Mandela's unique accent and rhythm is mimicked by Masha, who does a good job, but it does seem like some of his performance is lost in trying to capture the nuances of his speech patterns.

Mandela's Gun is a strange mix, delivering breathtaking and artistic dramatic footage with talking heads jutting into frame to give context and fill in the gaps. It's as if this project was salvaged after it was initially intended to be an art house espionage thriller. You find yourself being immersed into the period and character's plight and underground resistance, only to be ripped out of the dream by a new interviewee's commentary. This concept keeps you constantly distracted, possibly to the film's benefit as the infotainment keeps us off-balance, yet entertained.

This film has been beautifully shot and features an award-winning South African cast, including Zethu Dlomo as Winnie Mandela, Nick Boraine as Cecil Williams and Desmond Dube as Govan Mbeki. While the story is captivating, based on Mandela's legacy and draws some little-known subplots to life, you get the impression that it would struggle as a standalone drama thriller, especially since everyone knows the outcome. The dramatisation is quaint in execution, but seems a bit tame given the political turmoil and lacks the necessary moral and situational tension. While respectable and solemn, Masha's performance is a bit distant, a factor which is further alienated by the documentary hybrid treatment.

The film-makers have gathered some impressive commentators and witnesses from the age, including: Tokyo Sexwale, Ronnie Kasrils, Denis Goldberg and Mac Maharaj amongst others. While they add some testimonial fuel to the fire, it's two interviews – with Mandela's would-be assassin in Ethiopia and with former FBI agent Don Rickard that really take the film up a notch, opening up discussion around some details that have been lost in history. The docudrama mash-up is a bit experimental and uneven in terms of establishing a flow, even though Irvin has spliced the interviews against the backdrop of the film to aid continuity.

Perhaps a better set up would have been to start at Lilliesleaf farm with the current day search for the missing Makarov pistol. Opening with this air of mystery and exploring the symbol's political heritage could have been a better springboard for suspense and given the documentary more direction and relevance to today's audiences. Without this filter, we're simply hitting checkpoints and sifting through a great man's early history, which while curious, is dwarfed by his extraordinary legacy in later life.

The bottom line: Experimental

 
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