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Movie Reviews
Movie Review: The Great Wall


The Great Wall of China is a defensive structure spanning 8850 km along the historical northern borders of China. While it was thought to be visible from the moon, the theory has been debunked several times and at best, it's visible from a low Earth orbit. The Great Wall movie takes advantage of some of the mythology surrounding the wall, its origins and its primary use as a defensive line against invading hordes. Part war epic and part action fantasy, The Great Wall introduces us to the idea that the hostile forces were in fact monsters, re-emerging to launch a full-scale siege every 60 years. We follow two European mercenaries in search of the legendary "black powder" (gunpowder), who find themselves at the mercy of a secret order of Chinese soldiers, who have made it their life's work to prepare for this attack.

Directed by Yimou Zhang whose filmography includes: Hero, The Curse of the Golden Flower, House of Flying Daggers and more recently The Flowers of War, expectations were understandably high. Zhang's body of work is impressive and substantial, despite encountering some tonal imbalances. In The Great Wall, a co-production, he finds himself walking the line between what attracts Chinese and American audiences. While it doesn't have the finesse of his earlier works, it still shows great flair and promise, as if he was adapting a graphic novel.

While The Great Wall received criticism around the nature of the casting with calls of "white saviour", Matt Damon's star quality and grounded history of performances is essential to pinning down this tale. He's supported by the likes of the crooked Willem Dafoe, noble Andy Lau, indomitable Tian Jing and humourous Pedro Pascal as his sidekick, Tovar.

"Hello wall."

The dazzling visuals, flag-waving call-to-arms and pageantry recall films like Ran and The Curse of the Golden Flower. We are immersed in a spectacular scenario as history and fantasy enmesh to create a beautiful tapestry, recalling the Ming dynasty's altruistic fortitude and reimagining battles with flair and imagination.

Matt Damon may seem slightly out of place, but so did Kevin Costner's American accent in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. A gifted archer and "prince of thieves", accompanied by a trusted warrior, there's a definite synergy between the films in terms of entertainment value and pulp fiction. While the action adventure of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves was more grounded and gritty, both films have a comic twinkle with machismo and one-liners at the ready.

The Great Wall also has many affinities with science fiction action adventure, Starship Troopers, starring Casper von Dien. The epic tour of duty, battles against monstrous creatures, handsome cast, video game simplicity, unflappable lead and die hard camaraderie make them comparable, despite being worlds apart.

Perhaps a better contrast would be The Mummy, a mythological and historical action adventure that also straddles the real and unreal in an enjoyable and entertaining fashion. While steeped in ancient culture, it manages to leverage monuments to spin a tale of romance and high adventure on the back of pure popcorn entertainment.

While comparable with a number of rousing, entertaining and enjoyable popcorn films, The Great Wall doesn't quite have the spirit, substance or CGI to rank amongst them. Matt Damon's solemn performance isn't anything special, the video game plotting makes it all about the action and style, and while you're able to roll with it, the design and execution of the monsters is a bit clunky.

Still, while thinly scripted and bordering on ridiculous, the relentless action, spectacular visuals, ambitious mash-up and quality of the ensemble are good enough to keep you constantly amused. It's not a good film, but a surprisingly enjoyable one, which is made even easier on the ear and eye by 3D IMAX.

The bottom line: Fun

 
Movie Review: Tess


Tess, is a film adaptation of Tracey Farren's novel, Whiplash, which follows the heartrending journey of a sex worker who falls pregnant, and the difficulties she encounters on the streets of Cape Town.

Directed by Meg Rickards and starring Christia Visser, this important and hard-hitting drama is a passion project. Important, because it sheds light on long-standing social issues such as the abuse of women in a country deemed as one of the worst affected in the world. Hard-hitting, in the way the filmmakers don't spare the audience from some unsettling scenes, which while graphic, are necessary in representing the plight of a lowly sex worker and a violent rape culture, which has shaped her view of the world.

Christia Visser delivers a full range performance as the title character, Tess. Jaded and somewhat numb, she captures the essence of a woman who has been sidelined by an unforgiving society, destined to a rinse-and-repeat lifestyle trading her soul in exchange for a meagre existence. While she captures the nature of the character, it's also a brave and gritty performance.

Supported by Brendon Daniels as an unhinged criminal, Dann Jaques Mouton as a sincere patron and Nse Ikpe-Etim as a concerned neighbour, it's easy for Visser to immerse herself in the role. The ensemble's inherent quality extends to smaller supporting roles with Mark Elderkin playing a violent misogynist and Greg Kriek a family "friend". Each of the actors is forced to push the limits of comfort, portraying a range of men with deep-seated social and psychological issues. Rickards isn't clustering all men as evil, but conveying the tragedy and terror of Tess's past and present circumstances.

Christia Visser - Tess Movie 2016

"Nobody should ever own anybody."

It must have been quite painful for Rickards to direct this film, going through hell along with the actors to establish intensity and realism. While harrowing, it also has a raw beauty as evidenced by the artful cinematography and rich symbolism at play. Set in Muizenberg village and along the Baden Powell beach road, the seaside vistas and blue skies give the film a sense of hope as they contrast this freedom against the confines of her apartment block.

While the intention is to expose abuse and create awareness, Tess does walk a tightrope in effecting this message. While unsettling at times, this harsh realism gives the film clout, delving into the devil's playground to create impact value and hopefully provoke the right conversations. It's a challenging film that will undoubtedly haunt audiences and Rickards hasn't shied away, giving Tess dramatic tension instead of simply churning out propaganda.

It's been sparsely scripted, allowing the beautifully shot visuals to tell a deceptively simple story about a vulnerable sex worker trying to decide whether she wants to keep the baby or not. The gritty, minimalist and poetic treatment of this character portrait drama makes it a niche film, laced together by an excellent lead performance and a hard-hitting story.

While Tess maintains good tension, it does become a bit repetitive in translating the day-to-day routine, adding to the kitchen sink reality and distancing itself simultaneously. The third act subverts what would have been a deeply depressing and tragic ordeal, however this doesn't seem to match the tone of the rest of the film. While a welcome relief, you wonder how much more powerful and thought-provoking it could have been if they had gone colder and darker. Still, despite its shortcomings, it remains steadfast and a fine achievement all things considered.

The bottom line: Gritty


 
Movie Review: Resident Evil - The Final Chapter


Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is the sixth installment in the Resident Evil series starring Milla Jovovich and directed by Paul WS Anderson. Very few people would have guessed that the Resident Evil series would be a trilogy never mind a six part series. It's arguably the best video game to film adaptation, possibly owing to the fact that the character of Alice wasn't part of the original game, giving the filmmakers creative licence to create a film and character loosely based on Ridley Scott's Alien.

Who better to herald the series then Milla Jovovich, who had already proven herself worthy in The Fifth Element and continues to be an actress who can command the physicality of a demanding action role without compromising the allure of femininity in the process (Spling's Interview with Milla Jovovich). It's been more than a decade since the first Resident Evil set the franchise in motion and while the series hasn't always been met with critical acclaim, it's continued to satisfy zombie action junkies and fans of the game. Writer-director Paul WS Anderson and leading lady Milla Jovovich have a good understanding, which is just as well considering they are married!

This installment of the Resident Evil film series finds Alice and her friends betrayed by Albert Wesker as he summons the forces of Umbrella to launch a decisive blow against the apocalypse survivors. This sequel is a culmination of sorts, seeing the reprisal of Claire Redfield, played by Ali Larter, Dr Isaacs played by Iain Glen and Albert Wesker played by Shawn Roberts. New additions to Alice's ragtag crew include: Ruby Rose, Eoin Macken, William Levy and Fraser James.

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

"Don't make me come down there..."

The post-apocalyptic series has become more and more CGI heavy over the years. It's understandable, recreating Raccoon City and furnishing an environment which switches between futuristic technology, dilapidated urban sprawls and dusty wastelands is no easy feat. The filmmakers decided to shoot the film primarily in South Africa, yet it still has a universal could-be-anywhere feel to it. Being in post-production for over a year gives you an impression of just how much visual artistry is involved in completing the picture.

While typically stylish and replete with trademark Resident Evil shoot 'em up turned Matrix kung fu action, it does seem slightly more frenetic than usual. This in-your-face post-apocalyptic roadie action seems to have been partly inspired by Mad Max: Fury Road, which released a few months before The Final Chapter commenced shooting. The film does settle into its own rhythm, returning to some familiar set piece territory, although you do find yourself wishing you could slow down the action frame rate. Happening primarily at night, some of the nuances of the visuals are lost, heightening the realism but detracting from the overall spectacle.

While it features a promising and charming cast of up-and-coming talent, the real showdown is between cool heroine Alice and the evil Dr Isaacs, played by Milla Jovovich and Iain Glen respectively. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter is first and foremost an action movie and it's no secret, relying on minimal dialogue and some fun one-liners to power home rivalries. Post-apocalyptic mayhem is all about the cool set pieces and cult appeal when it comes to appeasing Resident Evil fans. Being the sixth installment, Paul WS Anderson's latest actioner is dedicated to the fans. He sticks to his guns, delivers more of the Resident Evil carnage we've come to expect and ties things up with a big red bloody bow.

You're bound to find a number of flaws and a lack of emotional connectedness in the script and way they have mounted this production. However, if you're looking for anything more than mindless entertainment, a fun jaunt and an action sci-fi horror thriller blockbuster, you're probably forgetting it's based on a video game. While lightweight, Jovovich and Glen's star quality and performances go a long way to cementing the film's pop culture credibility and anchoring the visual overload and escapist fare.

The bottom line: Frenetic


 
Movie Review: Live by Night


Live by Night is produced by, directed by and stars Ben Affleck as Joe Coughlin in an adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel. Set in the 1920s and 1930s Prohibition Era, we journey with Joe, the troubled and wayward son of a Boston police captain, who becomes involved in a life of organised crime. After serving a prison sentence he's relocated to the neighbourhood of Ybor City in Tampa, to take revenge and build a rum-running empire in balmy Florida.

The first thing you'll notice about Live by Night is its amazing cast and first-rate production values. Ben Affleck headlines a film of superb character actors including but not limited to: Brendan Gleeson, Sienna Miller, Elle Fanning, Chris Cooper, Matthew Maher and Robert Glenister. In front of camera, behind the camera, on the front page and behind-the-scenes, Live by Night is a labour of love for Ben Affleck. Wearing so many hats, you can understand why his performance is diffused, almost trying to sidestep the spotlight like a circus conductor.

He does this to his own detriment, distancing us from the character and preventing Live by Night from becoming a true gangster classic. While Affleck shies away from the limelight, he opens the stage for his supporting cast flourish. Brendan Gleeson is always immense, so much so that you wish they had made more of the father-son relationship. Live by Night is further complemented by a host of fascinating character performances. Sienna Miller is feisty and poisonous as a mob boss's girlfriend. Elle Fanning is haunting as a prodigal daughter in a role that is complex enough to warrant a spin-off film. Her police chief father, played by Chris Cooper, also deserved more unpacking in his attempt to rise above a sea of hypocrisy and moral ambiguity. Then Matthew Maher deserves a special mention for his malevolent and unpredictable role as a diabolical Ku Klux Klan "clown".

While the story has an old-fashioned air to it, the finishes are modern. We are immersed in Boston, where vintage cars line the streets and old world charm abounds in the form of fashion and pop culture from the time. Then, we're transported to the balmy panache of Ybor City. The details in the pageantry are quite exquisite and the film is beautiful to look at, also largely thanks to its hand-in-glove cinematography. It's a tip of the hat to the Warner Brothers gangster films of the '30s and '40s as we chronicle the life of a reluctant gangster in this handsomely mounted crime epic.

Live by Night

"I said... we'll always have Ybor!"

Live by Night slots in somewhere between Public Enemies and The Untouchables. It matches Public Enemies for machine gun action and star quality, but dwarfs this film with its scope as a saga. It's not quite as involved, meticulous or weighty as The Untouchables, but carries a similar prestige and grandeur in terms of its visual poetry and sense of importance. While flawed, it's one of the better Prohibition era crime dramas to emerge from Hollywood over the last two decades, enchanting us with a sprawling tale, gripping performances and a vicious elegance.

It's refreshing for Live by Night to tackle the Ku Klux Klan and racial prejudices of the time. Unfortunately, while it splays these social anomies wide open, it fails to truly grapple with the underlying tensions in the same way A Time to Kill managed to exploit them. As a chronicle of Joe Coughlin's life, these forces seem like a series of hurdles rather than protracted local tensions. While a little slow in places, it's free-ranging enough to keep us constantly entertained, distracted and hungry to link characters and outcomes. There are many powerful moments and quotable quotes, but Live by Night seems content to circle greatness.

While it has tremendous scale, Live by Night would have benefited from a sharper focus on Joe Coughlin's inner struggles. The story would have maximised its dramatic tension by dwelling a little longer on the unresolved father-son issues, the strife caused by racial prejudice, his projected daddy issues and the inner turmoil of a man trying to shield his heart from the shadows of his criminal enterprise. While passable, Ben Affleck and Zoe Saldana's on-screen chemistry seemed a little underwhelming given the circumstances.

All in all, Live by Night's top production values, sharp cast, fascinating supporting characters, entertaining storytelling and elegant cinematography make it a cut above your average gangster crime epic. While it's not in the same league as The Godfather, Goodfellas or Gangs of New York, it shows glimmers of brilliance and amounts to more of a missed opportunity than a misfire. While somewhat sporadic, it has enough fine qualities to lean back on, making it fleeting yet enjoyable for moviegoers wanting to immerse themselves in a haunting, swirling and violent magpie of a gangster picture.

The bottom line: Respectable


 
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