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Movie Review: The Promise

The Promise is a film by Terry George, the same writer-director who brought us the terrifying vision of genocide in Africa, Hotel Rwanda. He's covering an epic romance drama in the same sweeping fashion as David Lean's Doctor Zhivago set against the last days of the Ottoman Empire. The Promise hinges on a love triangle between Mikael, a gifted apothecary turned medical student, Ana, a budding artist and her partner, Chris, an American journalist. While the windswept romance remains centre stage, George keeps the Armenian genocide as the backdrop, encountering some similar issues to Sean Penn's well-meaning yet fundamentally-flawed, The Last Face.

We're whisked from a small town to the ornate churches and architecture of Constantinople, Turkey, where our young Mikael enrolls at a medical academy in 1914. Being betrothed to a woman from his community, things become more complicated when he's introduced to the beautiful Ana and her stoic partner, Chris. The wartime situation aggravates matters of the heart as Mikael, Ana and Chris are subject to the chaos of hostile powers, intercepted by soldiers and fall in the path of an ever-encroaching army.

Oscar Isaac is a fine actor, who demonstrates his versatility in The Promise, managing to keep the thread of the film almost based on his performance alone. Charlotte Le Bon is given a chance to stretch her wings in a role that could've been based on Princess Diana, while Christian Bale delves into another serious role that recalls his performances in films like The Flowers of War and Empire of the Sun. The Flowers of War serves as a reasonable litmus test to decide whether you should see The Promise, since both films have a similar balance of drama, war, ethical, melodrama and symbolic power.

The Promise

"It's safe as houses, not safe as horses..."

Part history, part drama, The Promise plays out like a sprawling Biblical epic with a soaring score to match the vivid visuals. Journeying through parts of Armenia on donkey, gathering with crowds and weaving between churches and pastors, there's a spiritual dimension to the film as the story of Moses reverberates. While the Biblical element is mostly experienced in the scope of The Promise, rather than the dialogue, the sheer weight of the drama threatens its foundations. The net result is an unwieldy multi-genre film that moves from sweeping romance to dusty survival to harrowing historical war film. These transitions make the continual evolution entertaining, yet keep one on the periphery.

The central concept could have used more gravity and time in setting the scene and loses some power into the third act. Much like Australia, the quality of the ingredients make some moments heartbreaking and powerful, yet the overall impression is a bit shaky as they reinvent the film halfway in. Then, while the intentions are noble, it's difficult to side with the lead whose dubious and shadowy decision-making alienates despite Isaac's inviting performance. George tries to elevate the love triangle but this jars with the overpowering history of the environment, making it seem at odds.

While it has its struggles, George delivers some beautifully understated scenes and mines some heartbreaking and powerful moments. The talented trio give their all, despite the off-key casting of Christian Bale... and make it easier to simply accept the overarching story and plight of the characters. It's pleasing to see that sprawling epics like The Promise are still being made and while it lacks storytelling focus, the finesse of the visuals, score, history and performances make it admirable and important.

The bottom line: Evocative

Talking Movies with Spling - The Case for Christ, Warehoused and T2 Trainspotting

Spling reviews The Case for Christ, Warehoused and T2 Trainspotting as broadcast on Talking Movies, Fine Music Radio. Catch Talking Movies on Fridays at 8:20am and Saturdays at 8:15am every week on Fine Music Radio.

Movie Review: Pronoia

Pronoia is a haunting, eerie and atmospheric mystery sci-fi drama short film written and directed by Nick Efteriades, starring Stelio Savante, Hannah Jane McMurray, Catherine Chadwick and Lou Mastantuono. A man (Savante) and woman (McMurray) wait out a rainstorm in a hotel bar somewhere between '"here and nowhere.' When the TV news reports the disappearance of a high-ranking Pentagon official, neither he nor she know of the ramifications it will have on their brief, seductive encounter.

The intriguing title, Pronoia, refers to a state of mind and polar opposite to paranoia, describing the sense that there is a conspiracy that exists to secretly benefit people. The Shining's influences are present in the hotel corridors, ghostly patrons and lobby as a curious dialogue plays out between a couple, whose alienated standpoint creates palpable tension. We're thrown in the deep end, as this dark, cold and sleek film plays out with minimalist precision. From the graceful camera movement, we get a suave look at what seems like an excerpt from a much broader work.

We're entranced by the mysterious man at the centre of Pronoia, played by South Africa's very own Stelio Savante. Surrounded by question marks, we try to get a better understanding of him as Savante's mercurial performance keeps us guessing, unsettled and on edge, waiting for him to explode with answers. He's supported by Hannah Jane McMurray, who heightens the intrigue with her exquisite features, an otherworldly disposition and a deer-in-the-headlights vulnerability.

The story seeps out in moments as we piece together a puzzle, which is obscured to layer further tension. Pronoia swathes itself in atmosphere and style in a similar fashion to the work of Anton Corbijn. While beautiful, the jagged storytelling leaves one feeling alienated and muddled, feeding on scraps and falling back on the eerie atmosphere and pensive mood. While somewhat incoherent as a short film, one gets a good taster of what to anticipate from a full feature.

Movie Review: Free Fire

Free Fire is a crime thriller and dark comedy caper from Ben Wheatley, who seems to have been heavily influenced by stylish action directors, Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie. The film is set in a Boston warehouse in 1978 as a meeting between two gangs turns into a bloody shootout and a game of survival. While never short on ammunition, he's armour-plated this single location vehicle with an ensemble including the likes of our very own Sharlto Copley, Brie Larson, Sam Riley, Cillian Murphy, Michael Smiley, Jack Reynor and Armie Hammer. Some of the coolest cats in Hollywood enter the fray of a gangster's playground to get the money, the guns or both.

Free Fire is aimed squarely at fans of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, essentially blending American Hustle with Reservoir Dogs and b-movies of the '70s. This dusty minimalist ensemble crime thriller takes place at a warehouse and is there to stay as a deal goes horribly wrong. Bad language and gunfire pepper the film as some rather amusing dark comedy plays out between a hotch-potch of surly characters. With very little dialogue, lots of shouting and ricocheting bullets, it's a pretty dark, gritty and violent flick.

Ben Wheatley laces it with style in the quick draw editing and wardrobe department, even making some space for the nostalgic and peaceful music of John Denver to usher in a refreshingly sombre Deer Hunter mood. Unfortunately, while amusing and stylish, it lacks substance... and nothing, even Sharlto Copley's outrageous South African accent and ad-libbed "lekker" and "boet" can refurbish the bullet-riddled target. While the off-the-cuff dialogue, fresh cinematography and paintball style camaraderie make it entertaining - it never rises above it pulpy comic book actioner status.

Free Fire

"Boys, I guess we'll never have Boston."

The character performances from the underdog crew keep it on-track as relational discord is established and plays out in the body count. Copley is a lynch pin acting like a kingpin, playing into his South African heritage with great gusto and off-handed charm as a wild card. Brie Larson holds fort as the sole actress, wrangling her way into the picture against some cringe-worthy chauvinist barbs. Sam Riley is slithery as a low-life scumbag, Cillian Murphy keeps his composure as the dark horse, Michael Smiley is reminiscent of Peter Stormare, Jack Reynor lands some good laughs while Armie Hammer plays Big Daddy Cool.

Quite amazingly, despite its quick unraveling, it holds together, but could have benefited from more dark comedy in the vein of Monty Python or the unscripted comedy genius of Christopher Guest films. With so many wounded gangsters crawling around and trying their hand at chin-up bravado, it seemed like a perfect opportunity for great comedy went to waste. It's still pretty funny, especially with Copley's outrageous character trying to call the shots and opening the floodgate, yet one gets the impression Wheatley was trying to keep a lid on the potboiler to maintain some level of reality and prevent it from drawing direct comparisons with Anchorman.

If you prefer films with a bit more meat and a story that doesn't just skip the car chase onto the third act showdown, Free Fire may not be your blood-smeared cup of tea. However, if you've enjoyed single location films before and can handle a barrage of urban artillery and f-bombs with tongue-sticking-through-cheek humour, you may just like it!

The bottom line: Off-the-wall

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