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Movie Reviews
Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them


J.K. Rowling's adventures of a young wizard named Harry Potter have entrenched themselves in pop culture. Books, movies, theme parks, wand TV remotes... the franchise continues to swallow book worms whole. After the series came to an end in two parts, a relief for some and travesty for others, we thought we'd seen the end of Potter's world. However, like some American public house sitcoms... some things have a way of reviving themselves through what is called an open air quotes... spin-off... close air quotes, just ask Frasier.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them follows the adventures of writer Newt Scamander in New York's secret community of witches and wizards seventy years before Harry Potter reads his book in school. It's a stand-alone film that exists within the Harry Potter universe, feeding into the lore and showing a similar consistency, delivering its own story without Potter or Radcliffe.

While visual effects wizardry and wondrous sound design rules, the imaginative story doesn't get left behind... even if it may have started as a desperate attempt to reinvigorate the Potter dynasty. Rowling's writing seems boundless as we slip into magical briefcases, encounter a number of funny, familiar yet unheard-of beasts and are whisked away into an enchanted world between worlds.

Guided by the enigmatic Redmayne, given a sense of humour by Fogler, counterbalanced by the ever-suave Farrell and enlivened by the Goldstein sisters, played by Katherine Waterston and Alison Sudol, there's a never-ending supply of laughs and fun characters.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

"One day I hope to call it Newt York..."

Redmayne is a bit of a cold fish but has an otherworldliness about him, clouding himself in questions and refocusing us on the perilous yet magical adventure. While we never really get any answers, he's surrounded by a troupe of likable co-stars with Fogler playing into a buddy movie dynamic to root the New York element with some funny and charming interplay.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them doesn't delve too deeply into Scamander's life and without a substantial emotional investment, the adventure does seem a little superficial. Although you won't really notice this aspect thanks to good pacing, smart writing and eye-popping visuals. There's never a dull moment as Newt's briefcase of tricks causes havoc across the city and magic society.

We enjoy the same level of quality we've come to expect from the Harry Potter series under the direction of David Yates with a brand new layered tale. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is enriched by some smart allegories that feed back to the here and now. A lot of thought has gone into the film and it shows without becoming over-reliant on its Harry Potter heritage, but appealing to the same generation of fans who grew up with Rowling, who may have kids of their own by now.

The bottom line: Enchanting

 
Movie Review: Vir Die Voëls


South African film has come a long way as evidenced by Vir Die Voëls or For the Birds, a South African romantic comedy drama with a similar ebb-and-flow to the American sitcom, The Wonder Years. The film is directed by Quentin Krog, who is best known for Ballade vir 'n Enkeling. While Vir Die Voëls also has a dramatic and romantic element, its quirky comedic undertones are carried by a plucky lead character who narrates and stars. We follow Irma Humpel, beginning with her wedding day and then going back in time to her childhood as she assumes the role of invisible bystander. We fast-forward to her high school years, learning about her difficult home life situation, her decision to stay with her grandmother and forge a new life. She inadvertently reconnects with Sampie de Klerk, a boy who used to bully her as a child, and this is where the unlikely romance begins...

The Taming of the Shrew is definitely a strand to this story, as Irma gets to grips with life in South Africa. Living in a patriarchal and traditionally male-dominated culture, Irma's defiant journey finds her doing a lot of upstream swimming. She's the eptiome of "tough cookie", the kind of girl who used to beat up boys in the playground and continues this legacy into her adult life. Her fierce independence and strong will make Sampie's advances seem futile, despite his tenacity and neverending reserve of charm. Set in South Africa in the '70s, the romance between Irma and Sampie, a homefront nurse and soldier in the South African Border War, has nostalgia and a wistful edge.

The production design is authentic, carving a very accurate depiction of a seemingly forgotten time in Afrikaans culture. For a South African film, Vir die Voëls is very white – something it may be criticised for – actively avoiding race and politics in favour of keeping the spotlight on the budding small town romance. This film is inspired by a true story, focussing on a close-knit community and the "Pleasantville" scenario feeds into the notion that some white Afrikaans working class communities may have been locked in a small town bubble during the '70s. It's refreshing, brave or maybe even foolish, for a South African film to completely sidestep the A-word, even if the subliminal is highlighted by virtue of its absence and it favours tackling gender issues.

Vir Die Voels

"Runaway turned bride... who would've guessed?"

When you learn of the film's origins, having been derived from a Huisgenoot reader's real-life story, you go in expecting a slapped-together project honouring a competition. However, Vir Die Voëls is anything but perfunctory... as we witness a surprisingly entertaining, spirited and passion-led project. Krog continues to impress with a film that dexterously navigates some difficult genre terrain, lacing a character's difficult upbringing and determined singleness into a film that remains upbeat, quirky and fun.

The most surprising element is Simoné Nortmann, whose star quality and presence is evident from the get-go. Reminiscent of Zoe Kazan, Nortmann's pixie features and cheeky disposition keep her likable as she immerses us in her own life story. At first, you wonder if the bride is going to narrate the entire story but the film-makers cleverly slip her into the proceedings with a license to break the fourth wall and address the audience from time-to-time. While not as instantly likable, possibly owing to his character's background, Francois Jacobs grows on us like moss. Just as cheeky, he complements Nortmann and their magnetic relationship becomes more endearing as the two push-and-pull.

The lead couple are supported by Lara Kinnear and Bennie Fourie as their best friends, Marieda and Karel, who give them respite and reasons to meet by a mistake-on purpose when they're not enjoying married life. The film is bolstered by the presence of Neels van Jaarsveld, Nicola Hanekom and Elize Cawood as Irma's father, mother and grandmother respectively. Tackling alcohol abuse and dealing with the ripple effect is a subplot, which shares a cast member and parallels aspects from 'n Man Soos My Pa. While there to add more dramatic depth and heft, these experienced actors round off a strong ensemble with fine and heartfelt performances.

Vir Die Voëls may have rose-tinted glasses and a selective memory, but this sliver of romance comedy drama will uplift film goers. The cast chemistry is fantastic, the production design is immersive, the nostalgic music will take people back, the story's verve is infectious, the performances are charming and heartfelt, the cinematography is effortless, the screenwriting is deft, the themes are universal and the direction is sensitive yet sensible. While decidedly niche, this is an entertaining and touching film that transcends the bounds of "romcom" with a thoughtful and enjoyable tour down memory lane.

The bottom line: Earnest


 
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


 
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