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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

Movie Review: The Accountant

As a movie title, The Accountant conjures up images of office paper, photocopiers, spreadsheets and responsible haircuts. Luckily the movie poster went for something less sensible: Ben Affleck kitted out like he was going to audit an "entrepreneur" in the slums of Rio. The stark contrast creates a series of nagging questions and presents much more promise than a Wednesday in the life of Ben Affleck as a self-employed accountant. The Accountant echoes the equally irritating movie title, The Informant!, which starred his old buddy, Matt Damon. Thankfully it's not some leftfield sequel, but rather a film that seems to be aiming for a blend of The Professional and A Beautiful Mind.

We track the story of Christian Wolff, a mathematics genius and highly skilled marksman, who gets caught up in the affairs of a robotics company after auditing their books. The concept has weight and The Accountant has style, but the story is convoluted, the storytelling is muddled and the execution is off-balance. The action thriller is trying to do too much and feels scattershot, diminishing the power of some otherwise great moments. It's the sort of movie that could become a treasure trove for spoof film-makers with scenes that border on the ridiculous and a story that keeps getting more and more ludicrous.

Affleck plays a man with autism and while convincing as an elite soldier, the odd smirk throws us. It's a committed performance, probably in the build up to or shortly after playing Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, based on his physique. Despite the odd bemused look, it's a captivating oddball performance that helps string the film together.

The Accountant movie

"I don't fanny about."

It's as if director Gavin O'Connor is trying to adapt a 'string theory' board. The action thriller moves excitedly from one crazy pin to another, struggling to find its balance but eager to please with its daredevil exploits. We're given snippets from Wolff's childhood, recalling his tough upbringing, throwing in evidence of a mysterious and bloody massacre as we try to piece his story together, much like the FBI investigation in the backdrop. The filmmakers have married Wolff's two worlds together like movies colliding, throw in a third film from the FBI's point-of-view and even position The Accountant as an autism awareness film.

This choppy and swirling mix of amusing drama, thrilling suspense, autism infotainment and pensive detective work keeps you mildly entertained as you try to connect the dots. While it brims with confidence, this film just doesn't have the skeleton to hold it all together. It's great to see Anna Kendrick, John Lithgow and J.K. Simmons throwing their abilities into the mix, but despite the quality of the cast, it never reaches cruising speed. Kendrick recalls her role in the equally imbalanced Mr. Right, we try to forget 3rd Rock from the Sun while Simmons makes you want to see him play a film noir detective. The ultraviolent action and rising body count heightens the suspense and will appease action junkies, but the dramatic element of The Accountant is incredulous and hesitant.

The Accountant has some terrific moments and keeps you watching through its twists-and-turns, but this is a bendy, bloody and rocky road that gets by with a bit of flair and the best of intentions. If you switch off completely, you'll have a good time watching Affleck do his thing, otherwise this film may make you want to stick to watching films Affleck directs.

The bottom line: Riddled

Movie Review: Hands of Stone

Roberto Duran and Ray Arcel are boxing legends, who each deserved their own respective biopics. Duran, a Panamanian professional boxer, is widely regarded as one of the greatest boxers of all-time and American boxing trainer, Arcel, trained 20 world champion boxers. Hands of Stone, the nickname Duran earned for his devastating punching power, tries to encompass their uneasy relationship and both of their stories. While ambitious, this is probably where writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz went wrong, trying to bundle two larger-than-life characters and their stories into one film.

Robert De Niro is a luminary of the sports genre, having starred in the black-and-white Scorsese classic, Raging Bull and more recently, Grudge Match. Instead of casting someone like his Grudge Match co-star Alan Arkin as Ray Arcel, the film-makers have given the big name star the duty, which he does with his usual vigour. While it's punted as a co-lead role, it was probably intended to be a supporting role to Edgar Ramirez as the cantankerous, Roberto Duran. There's some good sparring between the actors as Arcel tries to rope Duran's ego in, but you just feel they could've done more to foster the tension.

The cast is bolstered by the presence of Ana der Armas, Ruben Blades, John Turturro, Ellen Barkin and Usher Raymond, who plays Duran's main rival, Sugar Ray Leonard. The exquisite Ana der Armas lights up the screen taking on a role similar to that of Margot Robbie in The Wolf of Wall Street. Ruben Blades is the unscrupulous manager, who parades like a drug kingpin. John Turturro brings the mafia's influence while Barkin keeps De Niro honest at home in the complete antithesis of his role as Jake LaMotta.

Hands of Stone movie review

"They came here to see a fight, now please... let me punch you!"

Having a fine cast and captivating performances gives Jakubowicz hooks to hang his story on. Unfortunately, it seems like the scope is too broad as he attempts to check as many boxes as possible whilst keeping within the confines of the sports genre. We get a view of Duran's upbringing as a poor Panamanian kid during a turbulent political time, his tempestuous relationship with Felicidad, his escalating egomania, his lack of education and some of his big boxing match ups. This is punctuated by a behind-the-scenes on Arcel's journey, his troubles with the mafia and the nature of the sport through its transition to television.

Hands of Stone should have been two biopics, but tries to coast on its 2-for-1 deal by keeping you off-balance with its frenetic pace and dynamic visuals. It's as if Jakubowicz is trying to relay Duran's very nature through the tone, delivering a fierce, exciting, hedonistic and unpredictable film. The colours, panache and vigour with which its presented keeps you locked into the action, even if the drama's a little formulaic and undercooked. The boxing matches are one of Hands of Stone's highlights, delivering raw, visceral boxing sights and sounds like never before. You feel every punch and jolt vicariously thanks to some sharp cinematography, editing and foley work.

The amazing true story may be diluted by the glut of similar pugilist dramas out there, but the excesses of fame and fortune make this biopic fascinating and drunk with power. Hands of Stone swaggers around like it owns the screen but never really gives you a reason to care for Duran, whose self-destructive tendencies make it difficult to identify with his arrogant, rags-to-riches brawler. The by-the-numbers script doesn't give us anything fresh to chew on, making this one more about style than substance. It's entertaining and has enough power to follow-through but you should probably only consider watching it if you enjoyed films like Southpaw and The Wolf of Wall Street.

The bottom line: Fierce

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