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Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy

Guardians of the Galaxy is one of the most highly anticipated films of 2014. Apart from being yet another superhero comic book adaptation, the ragtag Guardians of the Galaxy have been described as "Space Avengers" and have been toting an exciting trailer in the build-up to their intergalactic adventure.

James Gunn directed Rain Wilson in Super, a low budget vigilante crime thriller about a guy who decides to beat up the bad guys. It followed in the tradition of Kick-Ass and Defendor, giving Rainn Wilson a chance to go darker and deeper, whilst showcasing Gunn's affinity for dark comedy and the paradoxical drama of a self-made superhero.

His ability to convey action and comedy in a ballsy and strangely compelling way, made the oddball director perfectly poised to direct Guardians of the Galaxy. He seized the project with both hands, injecting a Tarantino-fueled passion for the characters and George Lucas scope for setting into the production.

We're cast into the depths of space as we learn of an American pilot named Peter Quill, known to a few as Starlord, who finds himself on-the-run with his awesome mix tape and a powerful artifact after stealing it from the tyrannical Ronan. On his misadventures, he runs into a number of would-be enemies, some of which he sequesters to join him.

By casting a number of underdogs, Gunn inadvertently gave Guardians of the Galaxy fighting spirit, turning typical heroes like Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel into voices for Rocket Raccoon and Groot. In turn, giving Avatar's Zoe Saldana and wrestling superstar Dave Bautista the roles of Gamora and Drax the Destroyer with our charming protagonist Starlord played by the nothing's-gonna-get-me-down Chris Pratt.

The actors give their all: Pratt's mischief drives the tone, Saldana makes a tough-as-nails female character, Bautista is brutally funny, Cooper's snarl sells the lovable Rocket and Diesel gives Groot soul. The Guardians are counterbalanced by some great villains in the Skeletor archetype Ronan, played by Lee Pace and the psychopathic Yondu, brought to life by Michael Rooker.

Guardians of the Galaxy Movie Review

"Amy Allen, Hannibal, Face, Mad Murdock and Mr. Tree, right?

Guardians of the Galaxy is the sort of film that was designed to succeed through runaway success at the box office or misfire failure thus ensuing a cult legacy. Gunn makes some bold decisions, borrowing aspects from some films and yet setting it apart with its own distinctive comic flavour. If they ever considered a Bravestarr adaptation, Gunn would be hired instantly.

The film's epic intergalactic proportions, motley crew of heroes and mix of bizarre humanoids and alien beings give it a Star Wars dimension. The off-beat sci-fi comedy, larger-than-life characters, eclectic production values and comical scenarios echo The Fifth Element. Glenn Close, the Utopian existence and clash of cultures have parallels with Elysium, while the dark lords, fighter pilot wars and epic earth to space conflict resonate with Robotech.

Guardians of the Galaxy's tone is its biggest asset, delivering a mix of nostalgia and laugh-out-loud comedy with plenty of fun, wink-wink action. Just like its lead, it never takes itself too seriously and gives the audience permission to be entertained by the A-Team style camaraderie and team chemistry with a '60s and '70s mix tape soundtrack to keep one foot on the ground and the other one tapping.

While inundated with CGI, the film world keeps its integrity by keeping the characters as real as possible through exquisite make up artistry and immersive visual effects. We never doubt what we're seeing or the props the actors are using, whether Rocket is blasting his gun or Groot is hyper-extending his limbs.

Ironically, Guardians of the Galaxy only really finds its true identity when the team band together. In essence, the process of forming, storming and norming is exciting, yet seems rather cold and distant at first. We're fascinated by the slew of characters, yet wishing we hadn't seen the trailer. Luckily, Gunn kicks the movie into overdrive before too long, forcing the rivals to fight side-by-side, revealing more heart and charm.

By the time the Guardians of the Galaxy jell and realise who they are, it becomes much easier, entertaining and enjoyable viewing as they riff off each other. The classic rock music, cheeky tone, plucky performances, great chemistry and crowd-pleasing action more than make up for a slow start and power the comical superhero shenanigans home with style.

The bottom line: Exhilirating

Top Ten Movies with... Larry Soffer

Larry Soffer Magician

Larry Soffer is a breathtakingly brilliant Cape Town-born mentalist, who pursued his childhood dream of becoming a magician when he enrolled at the College of Magic at the age of 13. He was inspired by the charisma and showmanship of David Copperfield, graduating with top honours, earning a Silver Medallion after four years of studying the art of magic.

The young magician continued to work hard, performing at corporate and private events, sharpening his skills and picking up a number of national and international accolades in the process. Vegas magicians, Siegfried and Roy, were so impressed with Soffer that they awarded him The SARMOTI (Siegfried and Roy Masters of the Impossible), a bursary for his final year at the College of Magic in Cape Town.

Larry focussed his energy on mentalism or magic of the mind, which includes mind-reading, metal bending and telekinesis. This enabled him to bend spoons and forks, fix broken watches and even make light bulbs burst across television and radio. He's traveled far and wide, entertaining notable celebrities such as: Beyoncé and Jay-Z, the Prince of Saudi Arabia, Prince Harry, Michael Johnson, Andie MacDowell, Ruby Wax, Mike and the Mechanics and Vinnie Jones.

In 2006, he performed at, and was inducted into the World Famous Magic Castle in Hollywood, a club with some of the most prestigious magicians of the world as its members, making him the only South African member to join this elite group. Other career highlights include: making the Voortrekker Monument disappear, working with the magical advisor and creator of Copperfield's best illusions and taking Uri Geller's achievements a step further by making light bulbs burst and TVs switch on via radio and telephone lines.

Having personally witnessed his magic up close and personal, with the bent coin and twisted spoon to prove it, Spling can attest to Soffer's spectacular mentalism as awe-inspiring and gob-smacking. As they say, seeing is believing, but in his own words... Larry wants people to believe to see. Cinema and magic have many parallels when it comes to illusion, which is why we thought it was essential we bring you Larry's Top Ten Movies.

You can catch him at Cafe Roux on 27 August, 2014 and at Sea Point Primary on 30 August. Visit larrysoffer.com for more information and be sure to watch Larry in action in the video below.

"I even remember singing to the moon as a little boy..."

I can't watch movies without...

- ...popcorn, and I don't mean the microwave kind, the kind you make with kernels. I am kind of an expert by now.

Which famous people share your birthday?

- I have to be honest, I had to Google that, but I was quite disappointed to find out that there weren't more well known celebrities that share their birthday with me. The best one was Katy Perry. Oh, and Pablo Picasso.

What is the first film you remember watching?

- I think it was E.T., I'm not sure if that was the first movie I ever watched but it was definitely the first one that made an impression on me. The reason being that I thought it was so realistic and above that, a really touching story. I have always been fascinated by the possibility of life beyond this planet. I even remember singing to the moon as a little boy.

What's the worst movie you've ever seen?

- I think we all will remember this one. This movie freaked us all out as children; so much so that I had to shower with my legs spread far apart so that he couldn’t come through the drain and get me. I think you know which one I am talking about. Yes, IT, another good old '80s favourite.

What movies have made you tearful?

- Where do I start?! I tear up so quickly it's embarrassing. Just call me a softy but anything with an inspirational message and an emotional story line gets me balling my eyes out. If I had to name a few I would have to go with, Cinderella Man, Real Steel, We Bought a Zoo and Avatar.

Who is the most famous movie star you've ever met?

- Does Beyonce count? I performed for her and JZ at their private party when they visited Cape Town. I have also performed for Luke Perry from Beverly Hills 90210, Bryan Brian from the movie Cocktail, as well as Vinnie Jones from Gone in 60 Seconds.

What's your favourite movie line?

- "All you need is 20 seconds of insane courage. Just literally 20 seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it." ~ We Bought a Zoo

Who would you choose to play you in your biopic?

- Tom Cruise! Definitely! I just think he's such a great actor and people say that I look like him. Don't you agree?

If you could produce a movie, what would it be about?

- That one is way too easy. It will be about magic.

Larry Soffer - Top Ten Movies

Finally, your top ten movies of all-time...

- Man of Steel ...I love Superman’s strength and his courage to do what is right even when he is betrayed by the people he helps. He has the strength to see past their shortcomings and still care for them.

- Transformers ...these massive beings in steel bodies have the heart of a human and so much care. They are colossal and powerful and even then they welcome and need the help of a little guy with lots of heart, who lacks fear in time of pressure.

- The Matrix ...I love the idea of this world being able to be decoded and the secrets being revealed if we could really see what is in front of us. This movie has great messages about how the answers to life are not in what we see but what is inside of us.

- The Avengers ...the movie is about hope, courage and being in the spirit of play whilst fighting the most intense battles. As superheroes they don't take life seriously even when the going gets tough.

- Avatar ...money and greed are seen to be the driving factors of destruction in our world and on the planet these people traveled to. Yet, one man can make a change for the better and save the goodness that exists within all of us and on this planet. In our history it has been single men and woman with great ideals and purpose to make a better world that have made the greatest changes, and this movie reminds us how we too can change the world if we are willing to find the courage within.

- A Knight's Tale ...I love this movie because it's a love story with action where a young boy named William, played by Heath Ledger, believes that the impossible is possible and that he can "Change his stars". He becomes a knight against opposition of the law, he rises to heights that no commoner ever managed and changes his stars.

- Hook ...the great thing about this movie is that Peter Panning has become a person who is a product of the world we live in. He has lost touch with the boy inside (Peter Pan) and has become cynical. He's forced to look at himself due to the threat of losing his family, he finally finds that boy inside and starts to believe in magic again giving him the freedom to be in control of life.

- Liar Liar ...this is a great comedy filled with laughter. It made me laugh over and over again and I love the strong message that comes through about how it's important to keep your word once given.

- Gladiator ...I love Gladiator because it's a movie about inner strength, courage and persistence. No matter what comes our way we have the strength to fight back and change our circumstances. In the movie he also had a purpose... righting the wrong done to him and his family... and that purpose drove him to be able to be triumphant!

- Bruce Almighty ...everyone would like more power and ability to control one's life and this movie gives the message that all the power you need exists within you right now, you just have to be willing to "be the change" you want to see in the world.

Top Ten Movies with... is a people series on SPL!NG, featuring a host of celebrities ranging from up-and-coming to established personalities from all industries including, but not limited to: Internet, Radio, TV, Film, Music, Art and Entrepreneurs. It's a chance to discover who they are, find out where they're at and to get a fun inside look at their taste in movies.

Carey McKenzie on 'Cold Harbour'

Carey McKenzie on Cold HarbourCarey McKenzie is the savvy South African writer-director behind noir crime thriller, Cold Harbour. After graduating from New York University, she geared up to direct her first film with the likes of Philip Seymour Hoffman, Andie MacDowell and Jared Leto. While financing was secured, the project suffered a series of deal-breakers and McKenzie was left frustrated with looming credit card bills.

She was able to rise again. Through a series of on set jobs, she was able to assimilate crucial on-the-ground knowledge, observing the world and keeping her passion for cinema alive.

After directing an award-winning and thought-provoking documentary Original Child Bomb and writing ten screenplays, she was on-track to realising her long-awaited feature film and passion project, Cold Harbour.

McKenzie's film stars Tony Kgoroge, Fana Mokoena and Deon Lotz, and opens nationwide this Friday.

Cold Harbour exposes abalone smuggling, corrupt police officers and the Triads… what inspired the story?

I wanted to do a unique Cape Town story and turn the city and the harbour into characters. News stories about a syndicate kept catching my eye at the time. There would be a staged bust, where they would take the stock of abalone, followed by a public auction where it was bought back by someone in the organisation.

There was a big bust in Sun Valley, and that was really interesting to me, being such a residential area in the South Peninsula. Then, there's an environmental issue with the ocean's ecosystem being threatened with abalone poaching. What strikes me as a humanist, was the impact organised crime can have on a community, when the perlemoen goes out and the drugs come in.

The concept took when I was jogging along the coastal path between St James and Muizenberg and saw a man's severed leg on the rocks as other men with plastic bags were picking up bits. This wasn't train-related, apparently there's one corner along the train line where you can toss a body onto the rocks and if the tide is up, it'll be taken. The whole idea of a body on the beach… it's not a murder mystery, it's not really a whodunnit – it's just the trigger.

...and how much research went into this project?

When we started research on the gangs and Triads in Cape Town, I heard that there was a fairly interesting period in the late ‘90s, mid ‘90s where Cape Town harbour had just opened up and the police had no idea what the Chinese were doing here. They would find the body of a Chinese man, riddled with stab wounds. There was an internal Triads turf war going on, people were shooting each other with AK-47s and Cape Town harbour was open to the world. Organised crime had moved in and they were doing something that police didn't understand.

In terms of research, there was one particular police officer who was incredibly helpful at the time... he's very senior in the Western Cape now. He talked openly about what SAPS were doing, how they were sending police to Hong Kong to train and learn about the Triads. I also spoke to a couple of ex-poachers. If you're going to do a scene and stage something, you need to know how they fish. They shuck the perlemoen in the sea, because what you carry on land is meat, not the weight of the shell. If you've got someone running in the dark with a sack on their back, that makes a big difference. And things keep coming up... since I've been working on the film, they found this huge cache of perlemoen in Gugulethu.

You wrote the script with Tony Kgoroge in mind many years ago, why Tony?

I wanted to write a classic genre hero, a South African sexy, cool, dangerous and charismatic character with something a little bit dodgy in the undercurrent. I hadn't seen that in a South African film and obviously it's all about the actor. You need a Jamie Foxx or the old school Steve McQueen, who was really my inspiration. I saw Tony in Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon, which was really interesting because a lot of the film is a documentary and yet Tony's part is kind of docu-fiction. He's playing a character shot in a documentary way. He had this amazing screen presence and I think that that's what makes movie stars.

Like Jack Nicholson in Chinatown, everything he does is curiously interesting, he’s just someone that has this aliveness. Making a film about machismo, he needs to be a tough guy in that kind of classic “I don't really show my emotions” way and yet be accessible. Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood could stand there and do nothing, but there's this pathos in that and you feel the dilemma – the same goes for Tony.

How has the film evolved from the time you pitched it to Tony to now?

I think the heart of his character evolved in production, but I don't think it changed that much in the writing. Once we got to the set, he really made it his own. He was really committed about physical training in preparation for the film. He did some training at Dragon Power and dance classes like tango or salsa. That kind of physical awareness was part of his preparation and he's also a serious boxer. So that was his way in, inhabiting his body first in a way. That's not my nature, I’ll go at something intellectually, but I'm very grateful for that, because it suited the character so much better.

So I think things changed on the set. The action was always there, it's just his way of inhabiting it in the preparation. The other thing that changed the production in the run-up was casting Fana Mokoena opposite him. He and Fana have been friends for years, and without Fana we wouldn't have had these two characters with such a rich back story. That brought a whole wealth of subtext, you don't really need to spell out the back story, it's just there. We decided to do their scenes in Sotho, even though it's not a common Cape Town language, it seemed like the right decision.

Cold Harbour has some strong film noir elements, how did this affect your representation of Cape Town?

That was always the idea. When I saw we couldn't shoot on Anamorphic and that we had to shoot on Super 16 film. For me, what's amazing about noir is that it's about the darkness of the soul, existential angst in this moral dilemma, about a man who needs to get the money, like Double Indemnity. So the noir was always there... about corruption, this moral marshland, where it's not clear... who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, where the good guys do bad things and the bad guys do good things, that's my experience of life. We once did some word association and my word for Cape Town was ‘struggle’ because I think of the wind, and this is not the Mediterranean, the ocean's freezing, rough and full of sharks!

Carey McKenzie on set

Which films influenced your vision for Cold Harbour?

Yakuza Graveyard was a huge inspiration for this, 16mm handheld, you know 1975... it was amazing. Chinatown was a creative touchstone for Cold Harbour in the way it's about a particular city, deals with corruption, an outcast and has an uncompromising ending. Also, it's a very human story, not just a crime story, with the melodrama in the middle of a crime story.

You assembled some of South Africa’s finest actors, what was the vibe like on set?

They're all serious actors and they really came to it with commitment and put their heart and soul into it. Sometimes, the material’s quite heavy and they worked hard to get to the heart of it. At the same time, I think we enjoyed the experience because everyone was trying to do their best work.

Thomas Gumede was the curveball, on the first scene of the first day. The actors are mic-ed so between takes if you go the bathroom it’s like I've gone with you. So I hear Thomas chatting away to Tony, just basically trying to be pals on the first day. Thomas really respects Tony and Fana, they're a generation up – it was just the first day. He’s very ambitious about his work as a straight actor, I was like: “You're funny, it’s cool… just not now.”

What is the most challenging aspect of filming in South Africa?

Budget, at the moment we need to try and recoup our budget in the local marketplace and there's a very conservative estimate of what a film will make in South Africa because historically local films haven't made very much apart from Leon Schuster and now the Afrikaans “romcoms”.

That means the business model for budget is low. In the case of Cold Harbour, I wanted to make a genre film with some action, it doesn't have many complicated Hollywood fights and there's no pretense about trying to compete with that, because you can't. But we still wanted to do some action and that's very hard because technically when you shoot a fight I could be down to doing half a page in a day. When you're shooting the film in 26 days, my average needs to be six pages a day, so when I shoot half a page in a day, I've got to make it up on the other days.

You need to do that without reverting to some sort of really boring TV shooting style. You still want to be making cinema. Time and money, time and money... those are the same challenges for film-makers everywhere. On the upside, we can do more with less money here.

Carey McKenzie on Cold Harbour setWhat would you want audiences to take away from your film?

When I go to movies I want to see something that feels truthful, even if it's fiction. I want there to be something that resonates with me in terms of my experience of being human, so I want it to be truthfully human and authentic and maybe give me insight into something more. That's what cinema does, it's a uniquely intimate medium, I can come into your thinking space, body language and into the subtext. A novel can tell me what the person is thinking but you've told me, I haven't really gone there with my imagination.

I hope that South Africans will feel that we've reflected something of our current moment in a fictional way. I also hope they come away feeling inspired. Sizwe takes on systemic corruption. You could say it’s futile and that one good cop is not going to change the system… I have no illusions about that, and the way I did the story doesn't suggest that either. What is laudable to me is that even though he's flawed and made some crummy choices, is his courage. He has the balls to want to do the right thing, even though the way he executes isn't perfect and even though the outcome is questionable.

What inspired you to become a director?

When I was in high school, two boys in my year went to the film-makers workshop, so I also decided to go and we made films on Super 8. It wasn't that I had a crush on them, they were cool and I wanted to hang out with them. It had never occurred to me that film-making was a profession. Oh, the guys are still my friends, and one of them is Tim Greene!

Which directors do you consider to be role models?

I'm very inspired by 1970s cinema, mostly American, Scorsese always - things like Raging Bull and Coppola's Apocalypse Now, shooting two months with Harvey Keitel and then having the ability to switch to Martin Sheen. There was something very special that happened in that period, where the studios were investing in films that were grappling with the social moment in a way that was intelligent and challenging to the audience. Those filmmakers had an amazing opportunity and my aspiration is that we have not a situation, which is not completely dissimilar where social issues, a violent history, stuff to grapple with in the culture, and the opportunity to do really original things in cinema.

There was a bag at the Cannes Film Festival and they celebrated all of the names of the great auteurs who had been celebrated and there was only one woman on the bag, Jane Campion. Lately, Kathryn Bigelow... recovered from being married to James Cameron - she did this amazing thing about the new millennium, Strange Days, and then disappeared, got married to James Cameron and then she knocks it out the park with The Hurt Locker. There's a notion that women only do relationship and period piece dramas and she's done some interesting work liberating other female film-makers.

Any advice for aspiring South African film-makers?

Watch films, not just now, watch all kinds of films. I was lucky enough to go to film school in New York and had this video store called Kim's Video within five minutes walk from where I lived. I decided to watch a film a day because I could, they cost a dollar to rent. Even when you make one little short film, the way you watch films transforms because you have new insight into the editorial process and the language of film, which you receive unconsciously as a general audience member.

When you try to speak through cinema, you start thinking about how you want to speak it your own way. Like among our film-makers, Oliver Hermanus, with his first film Shirley Adams, where he decided I'm going to be behind her to convey her point-of-view all the time. Every film-maker has to figure out what their films are with commitment and clarity. Then, theatre is affordable and accessible, it's a great place to discover new actors. Even though you may have to coach them in film acting.

Movie Review: Cold Harbour

Cape Town is the setting for Cold Harbour, an African noir crime drama that centres on corrupt cops and the smuggling of abalone. While restrictions are in place, it seems the sea produce, known locally as perlemoen, is a valuable aphrodisiac in Asian markets. We journey with Sizwe Miya, a dedicated township warrants officer, who goes solo to solve a murder and stem the tide of an illegal fishing trade and criminal undercurrent.

Tony Kgoroge plays Sizwe, an upright policeman, who is confronted with a series of moral dilemnas. The closer he gets to cracking the case and being promoted to detective, the more heat he attracts from corrupt officials on the pay roll, bent cops, criminal kingpins and a persuasive femme fatale.

Kgoroge is a noble actor and you can't help but respect the man's good intentions as he tries to emerge from the cesspit of criminality unchanged. He delivers a determined and passionate performance as Miya, keeping a low profile as he knocks on the doors of the usual suspects.

This is a murky morality tale and with a title like Cold Harbour, it's not surprising that the film's overcast colour scheme is in tune with the cool tone of the drama. This stormy seriousness is carried into Kgoroge's hardened character, making him all business, no pleasure. He carries great dignity, but the gumshoe could have used more charm to get the audience to rally behind him.

This distancing is most noticeable when Kgoroge shares the screen with the cool yet cautious, Fana Mokoena, an old comrade and known criminal, Specialist. Being friends their chemistry is good and their sense of history is palpable, yet Mokoena comes across as more likable. You can see this comedy double dynamic working in a buddy cop movie.

"Now THIS is red tide..."

Deon Lotz is Sizwe's police chief, Venske, adding considerable presence and conviction to a jaded supporting character. He's perfect for the role and it's just a pity they didn't make more of this subplot. Chinese actress and superstar, Yu Nan adds some sultry international appeal to the cast after a role in The Expendables 2, Thomas Gumede plays a cheeky, fresh-faced rookie and it's great to seeFreshly Ground's Zolani Mahola on-screen.

Cold Harbour has film noir elements, which filter into the crime mystery drama at play. Director Carey McKenzie keeps the swirling mystery familiar yet taut with Sizwe's deepening involvement landing him in one complicated situation after another. While mostly character-driven and drama-orientated, there are a few thrilling action scenes thrown in to heighten the suspense and up the pace.

While local, the film has world-class production values and an inherent maturity thanks to writer-director, Carey McKenzie. As such, it's much more than a competent police procedural, delivering high standards, great shooting locations, a diverse range of curious characters and an intriguing detective story with a similar tone and pace to Roman Polanski's Ghost Writer.

Unfortunately, we're not emotionally invested in the lead character's plight, engrossed in the story or entirely convinced by the plotting by the time the credits roll. Cold Harbour has so much promise that it seems unfair that it didn't work out better. The film has all the earmarks of a solid crime drama, but we're kept at an arm's length and baffled by some of our hero's actions.

While Cold Harbour starts with great aplomb, it begins to unravel in the third act and then fast-forwards through a somewhat shaky, surprising and unsatisfactory ending. It's mostly disappointing because the film works so hard to establish its firm foundations and then boils down to an incomplete ending with some great finishes and gaping holes.

The bottom line: Disappointing

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