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Movie Review: Passengers


Passengers is a sci-fi romance thriller, directed by Morten Tyldum and starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. It's a sci-fi because the story takes place in outer space, dealing with a transporter by the name of 'Avalon', which holds over 5000 passengers on a 120 year voyage to 'Homestead II'. Their hibernation pods prevent them from ageing, allowing them to essentially travel into the future, foregoing friends and family on earth to start over on a new colony. The corporate colonisation of another inhabitable planet, the technology surrounding a mass relocation and the questions surrounding a "geographical suicide" give Passengers plenty of science-fiction fodder. Add a premature awakening for some of the passengers and you've essentially got Castaway in outer space.

Passengers is a romance because we are dealing with a story akin to a futuristic Adam & Eve on board the Titanic. Chris Pratt plays Jim, a likeable engineer, who discovers he is all alone on the 'Avalon' after a malfunction causes his pod to open prematurely. Jennifer Lawrence plays Aurora, an aspiring writer, who also finds herself awake with 90 years of space travel ahead of her. Devastated to learn that they may spend the rest of their days alone on a floating hotel, the two try to make the most of the situation. As their fates align, so do their hearts and instead of collapsing into a slump they try to enjoy their togetherness, deferring their troubles to an android barman played by Michael Sheen.

It's also a thriller as the romantic pairing start to realise how they came to know each other and that a much greater threat begins to make itself known. Just as they are coming to terms with their solitude and the fact that they may eke out the rest of their lives on a spaceship, things start to fall apart. Through darker themes and the manifestation of mounting troubles, the two discover they aren't as alone as they had previously imagined and band together to save the 'Avalon' and its precious cargo.

Passengers 2016

"So we're kinda like 2-in-1 now."

Instead of embracing these three genre elements simultaneously, Passengers transitions through each of them like phases of the day. The notion of being trapped in space, isolated from humanity and alone with your thoughts is much like Tom Hanks being stranded on an island. We saw Sandra Bullock facing her own mortality in Gravity and Passengers takes a page, using its futuristic setting to pick up where George Clooney left off. At the outset, it may seem like "Gravity for Two", but the focus is more on relationship than survival. Setting this relational dynamic against the backdrop of the "unsinkable" 'Avalon' makes it seem like a sci-fi version of Titanic. Adding a writer, a rambling hotel, cold exterior and an old world bar all point towards The Shining.

Passengers could have gone the Event Horizon route with nightmarish happenings or geared up towards Ex Machina with an introspective psychological thriller. However, this is not a niche film, but a commercial one. Morten Tyldum may be the director from the acclaimed The Imitation Game, but he is operating with two of the hottest properties in Hollywood, delivering on a lightweight script with a genre identity crisis. Instead of teasing out characters and themes, it seems content to simply poke around in the dark, fumbling its way from one room to another.

Luckily, they can rely on the charms and talents of their co-leads, who go a long way to redeeming this space melodrama of what-ifs. The sleek CGI and design architecture keep us visually stimulated as the handsome cast provide enough twinkle to keep us watching as many fanboys get a chance to play out that fantasy about confronting Jennifer Lawrence "as the last person on earth". Passengers is a mixed bag, but it's beautiful to look at and entertaining enough to get through. While it's better and less ambitious than Jupiter Ascending, it belongs in the same league of misfires, inspired by greater films but unable to seize its place among the stars.

The bottom line: Trashy

 
Movie Review: A United Kingdom


A United Kingdom is an important biographical romance drama. While the international stir caused by Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana happened in the late 1940s, the familial and societal prejudices exposed at that time still echo today. After meeting Ruth Williams in London, the two fell hopelessly in love and decided to get married against the wishes of their families and governments.

David Oyelowo played Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and now Prince Seretse Khama, both inspirational political figures in two rousing standalone performances. Instead of riding on the back of a role many thought deserved an Oscar nomination, he's taken the time to cultivate an entirely different energy, carving out a character of great moral resilience with a more passive disposition. He couldn't do it without Rosamund Pike, who was a psychotic force in Gone Girl. She takes on a more grounded and resilient role as Ruth Williams, the personification of grace under fire. The ensemble is further reinforced by a host of solid supporting acts from Jack Davenport, and South Africa's very own Terry Pheto and Vusi Kunene.

Amma Asante directed Belle, another cross-racial historical romance drama, which now makes her something of an authority on mounting taut and handsome period piece romance dramas. While set on location in the United Kingdom and Botswana, the film also has a South African slant as the government of the time tried to exert their influence to intercept the publicised relationship, which was deemed radical and threatening to the Apartheid system.

A United Kingdom

"Near, far, wherever you are..."

We're transported to the life-and-times through old London, which makes a stark contrast with the dusty plains of rural Botswana. These visual polarities create tension as the "Romeo & Juliet" at the heart of this film fight to stay together, weathering the storm of family disapproval, separatist racism and international politics of the day.

Fighting for the love of his life and his country's independence, the romance drama is sweeping, sincere and touching thanks to strong co-lead performances, and elevated to a world platform by solid production values. This informative biographical drama covers much of the behind-the-scenes politics on a macro level and retains the intimacy of the central romance in the details. While these competing objectives keep things fresh, and it remains powerful as a true story, the balancing act does simplify and blunt the overall impact.

Despite a slight distancing, two inspiring speeches book-end this beautifully-realised film, which makes a wonderful tribute to the subjects and a timely reminder of that which unites rather than divides.

The bottom line: Moving


 
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


 
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