The first thing you’ll notice about Luc Besson’s Mafia action comedy, The Family, is its stellar cast, featuring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer and Tommy Lee Jones. The film functions as a tongue-in-cheek look at the life of a gangster trying to escape his sordid past. It’s also a fish-out-of-water comedy in the way that this former mob boss still solves problems like he used to.
A notorious mobster who snitched on his own “family” finds himself in France with his wife and two kids as part of a witness protection programme. Unable to fit in with the local community, for the umpteenth time, they find keeping their cover more and more difficult to do as their history of violence and knack for organised crime resurfaces. They could have been vampires, but this is a gangster flick.
Robert De Niro is a fine actor, one who many would say hasn’t been part of a great movie for some time. Unfortunately, the same can be said for The Family. While the premise of an undercover mobster and his family trying to pass as ordinary Americans in France has potential, the film suffers from a genre identity crisis.
Luc Besson’s films are dynamic with touches of comedy, however The Family doesn’t seem as surefooted, unable to balance the dark comedy against the violent action. The performances range from comedic to dead serious with a whirlpool of tonal shifts. Unfortunately, while entertaining, The Family comes across as discordant, uneven and contrived in places.
"Baseball, no, but I once smashed a couple in the park."
The calibre of the cast go a long way to redeeming these inconsistencies, however they are unable to save the film. Robert De Niro plays a sadistic and somewhat charming spoof of some of his most famous roles. Then it’s great to see Michelle Pfeiffer again, playing opposite De Niro as a wily retired mob trophy wife.
Tommy Lee Jones delivers his usual leather-faced special agent performance, almost like a "20 years later..." version of his character in The Fugitive. Diana Agron (I Am Number Four) and John D’Leo (Wanderlust) deserve a special mention as the mobster high school misfits. Agron is a beautifully maniacal teenager with several of the most memorable scenes, while D’Leo makes a charming knock off the old block.
The Family is entertaining and has some wickedly funny moments, but the sadistic and violent tone narrows the appeal of this action comedy. One moment involving a French newspaper almost derails the entire film, and actually functions as a turning point as the action intensifies. Despite Luc Besson's best efforts, The Family will have to go down as a misfire.
The 48 Hour Film Project encourages filmmakers around the world to produce a complete short film within two days. Teams are assigned a character (Nandi or Neil Msimang), a prop (An Envelope), a line of dialogue ("You Gonna Learn.") and a genre on the Friday night. Over the rest of the weekend, creativity, problem solving, team work, deadlines and sleepless nights ensue in order to deliver a finished short movie that checks all the boxes. For this year's competition, the best short film from each city will screen at the Filmapalooza Film Festival in New Orleans, and the ten best films are screened at the Short Film Corner at Cannes in 2014.
SPLING'S TOP FIVE
WINGS | FIVE MINUTES TILL NOON | ADELARD | JACK OF HEARTS | DECEIT
Having been a judge for Cape Town's selection of 20 short films, I was impressed with the overall level of film-making. What I gleaned from reviewing each of the films was a passion for the medium and a determination to deliver a concise and entertaining finished product. Small teams, big teams... small ideas, big ideas, the 48 hour time constraint was a challenge in itself. The films that excelled were those that presented a complete idea with consistency, creativity, and flair, getting the most from their low budget resources and offering something fresh, compelling and in-line with requirements.
The judges meeting was scheduled to be an hour and it took three times that long to decide on award category winners, runners up and honorable mentions, testament to the quality of the short films from Cape Town. Of the twenty short films, Five Minutes Till Noon came out on top, claiming Best Film and a spot at the Filmapalooza. The competition was so tight that I thought it would be great to showcase my favourite short films with a few comments. ~ Spling
REVIEW:Wings is a beautifully-crafted, crowd-pleasing, feel good short film with a heartwarming message. The storytelling is vivid and the direction is well-weighted. The beautiful opening sequence with grass blowing in the wind, the old shoes, the bicycle, the boy's hat and the kind pilot's offer to play along... Wings has been handled in a sentimental, yet not overly sentimental manner that make it both endearing and entertaining.
The cinematography has a great sense of movement and space. The choice of music is spot on, giving the film a loftiness in keeping with the theme of flight. For the most part, Wings feels like a live-action Pixar short film, managing to elicit an emotional tug and tapping into timeless themes: man's desire to fly, father-son relationships and pride. All in all,this all-rounder (my personal favourite)manages to engage its audience emotionally, powering home universal truths on the back of an airborne adventure.
FIVE MINUTES TILL NOON
REVIEW: The Atlantic Rail and scale of Five Minutes Till Noon gave this film an austere you would expect from bigger budget productions. The film-makers were undoubtedly aiming for a 1930s period piece short film, reminiscent of Poirot. The costumes are in keeping with the train, the cinematography is beautifully composed, the performances are good and the visual effects facilitate the overall vision. Five Minutes Till Noon was a real team effort and you can see that the film-makers have invested all their energy into this polished short film, which ultimately paid off, garnering Best Short Film at this year's 48 Hour Film Project.
A solid lead performance from Scot Cooper laces all the elements together with a great use of the required line of dialogue. The direction is smart and the storytelling is intriguing, luring us into this old world wanting more. The only element that doesn't quite ring true is the Western genre. The Atlantic Rail worked well enough and the title helped instill a showdown, but for a period piece Western set in the Cape... you'd expect less finesse and more cliched Wild West paraphernalia.
REVIEW: This fantasy short film feels like an excerpt from a much broader work, something that works for and against it as a short film. Adelard is ambitious, channeling an angelic and alien sort of nostalgia into a bleak and desolate landscape of Cape Town. The dark coats and wistful performances add to the overall tone, giving the short film a City of Angels meets Superman type allure.
The CGI and visual effects were handled well, adding a touch of reality to sell the door to another dimension and similar yet different world. The minimalistic wardrobe gives it a timeless quality, while the music helps set the mood and dream state atmosphere. Adelard's elements work well together and the film-makers have composed a short movie that's engaging and mysterious with a sense of elemental grandeur.
JACK OF HEARTS
REVIEW: There are many short stories about Russian Roulette style life-and-death gambles, which is probably why Jack of Hearts works quite beautifully as a suspense/thriller. The concept of cheating death is always fascinating, especially when a number of strangers are willing to risk it all for a chance at eternity. A strong ensemble, featuring Gary Green as a creepy key master, and a fitting soundtrack create the perfect atmosphere for murder and mayhem around a card table as several strangers stare death in the face.
Jack of Hearts was one of the more ambitious short films, focusing in on a card game, with one of the largest ensembles. Filming in a candle-lit dungeon at the Castle with a driving and intense score gives this thriller a claustrophobic and eerie atmosphere. While much of the card game's dynamics have to be picked up on-the-fly and the grand prize lies beyond a door only the key master can unlock, these loose ends add to the uncertainty and fear factor. Jack of Hearts may lean on cliches to the point that it's two notches away from being a comedy, nevertheless it remains an effective suspense/thriller genre entry.
REVIEW: Shooting a short film over a weekend is a daunting task, one that requires some shortcut-thinking. Deceit is an example of how to use voice-overs in a clever way, that gives more exposition time for the characters, without taking away from the thread of story. This sexy and savvy thriller about a thief embodies a frantic energy thanks to resonant cinematography, sharp editing and some clever twists.
While some of the story's turns require you to roll with it, Deceit's sleek edge, good-looking cast and smart writing go a long way to smoothing over creases. The internal monologues make the short film more abstract and immersive, while the on-screen action keeps it taut. The title and central theme of deceit filters into almost every aspect of the short film, presenting a streetwise confidence trickster trying to escape a web of lies by getting even more ensnared.
South African-born, Stelio Savante, pursued his love for acting after a tennis scholarship led him to the United States. Savante established himself in New York, relocating to Los Angeles for a recurring role as Steve in Ugly Betty, which led him to a SAG nomination. With numerous high profile film, TV and theatre credits to his name and lauded as one of South Africa's top exports, Savante continues to ratchet up experience, proving his versatility and reliability.
He recently starred opposite Isaach de Bankole in Where the Road Runs Out, and played supporting roles in Jimmy, The Secret Village and the South African film, A Million Colours. On stage, Savante both performed and produced 110 Stories, a 9/11 tribute and a very personal commemoration for the actor, who lived in New York for 15 years
We caught up with Stelio to find out, which movies hold a special place in his heart. An avid film lover, Savante had to narrow down a Top 50... and take our word for it, his Top 15 is a great starting point for anyone wishing to expand their cinematic horizons.
"I’m a long-time film student that owns hundreds of classic films..."
I can't watch movies without...
- ...total darkness. I like all my senses to be absorbed by the screen and only the screen. A completely visceral commitment.
Which famous people share your birthday?
- Barbara Streisand, Shirley McClaine, Djimon Hounsou. Uhm, no pressure to live up to the date or anything like that.
What is the first film you remember watching?
- The Godfather. On VHS, yes I’m a fossil, when I was in my late teens in South Africa. I was mesmerized by the characters. They were all such a world apart from anyone I’d ever met in my life. Seeing that lifestyle as an innocent kid was brutal, and yet so attractive to me.
What's the worst movie you've ever seen?
- Gigli, do I really need to say more?
Which movies have made you tearful?
The Mission, Scarecrow, Of Mice & Men and The Passion Of The Christ. The Mission defined redemption in an alpha male, something I identify with. Scarecrow… the friendship, and its journey and the same with Of Mice & Men. I find they hit similar notes that rip your heart out. And The Passion, very personal to me… a translation and vision that put into reality what God went through as a man.
Who is the most famous movie star you've ever met?
- Well, I’ve gratefully worked with most of these and some are friends: Russell Crowe, Al Pacino, Sidney Poitier, Melissa Leo, Susan Sarandon, Samuel L. Jackson, Sean Penn and Ryan Gosling. I had 2 lines in A Beautiful Mind, worked with Crowe for 3 days. Pacino, I met several times at the Actor’s Studio and his best friend Ed Setrakian directed me in Mortal Coils. Ed told me that Al liked my work and I almost died.
Sidney Poitier just a few weeks ago at my play, he came backstage to congratulate his daughter and did the same with me. We spoke for a few minutes, a very special moment in my life. Leo, Sarandon and Jackson all in 110 Stories with me. And Penn and Gosling, even though I wasn’t in the film, Gangster Squad… I was invited to be part of the rehearsal and table read for the director and then a second time for the studio and got to meet and work with all of them. A tremendous experience.
What's your favourite movie line?
- "Leave the gun, take the cannoli." - The Godfather.
I say this because I lived in New York for 15 years, and have tasted many many cannolis and I would have left the gun behind too. There’s simplicity and poetry to that line.
Who would you choose to play you in your biopic?
- Javier Bardem, he would bring to life the darkest days of self-hatred in my youth and my inner conflict through my adulthood. With his capacity to play pain and loss and simultaneously a spontaneous madness.
If you could produce a movie, what would it be about?
- The journey of Paul The Apostle. I’m amazed by what he went through and what he overcame in the face of adversity. And I think it would have a profound effect on people the world over.
Finally, your top ten movies of all-time...
I’m a long-time film student that owns hundreds of classic films so I have a top 50. But my top 10 changes all the time for me – this is hard – I’ve given you my current top 15 which changes constantly as I watch these classic movies all the time – this is in no particular order.
- The Godfather I & II ...it is a very pure film. Long takes, slow shots, and a study of characters in an era and genre that people are fascinated with. Great dialogue, great characters, great cinematography, great direction and a great script. It feels like the first true 3D film because you felt like you were in it.
- The Bicycle Thief ...so simple, so brilliant, De Sica built the tension and conflict through great story – there was no CGI, no tricks and the film still stands up today.
- The 400 Blows ...it’s a coming-of-age story that breaks your heart and never gets old.
- The Seven Samurai ...one of the most visually stunning films that is so good, they continue to remake it over and over and over again.
- The Good, The Bad & The Ugly ...I love minimalist filmmaking and Leone was a master at it, this film defines it. An amazing soundtrack puts it over the top.
- Goodfellas ...living in NY for 15 years, this film just feels like the ultimate neighbourhood film and the characters are so real.
- Midnight Express ...it haunted me as a child, and obviously haunted the Turkish Government because they changed their prison system after it won awards. Possibly one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. .
- Taxi Driver ...the reference point for so many acting classes, film classes, and without a doubt broke the world of cinematography wide open.
- Heat ...I think it’s one of the greatest crime films ever made, Mann is such a master of the cops and robbers genre.
- To Live ...Zhang Yimou’s masterpiece is so compelling on every level that I can’t say enough about it.
- The Wages of Fear ...Clouzot created the most edge-of-your-seat thriller I’ve ever seen. It was made in 1953 and then remade, and is about to be remade again.
- Time of the Gypsies ...when I finished seeing it, I watched it over again – back to back – it’s so good that it tears your heart out and you hope for a different outcome.
- The Lives of Others ...it fascinated me from start to finish, what circumstances these characters, people lived in. Weinstein is now remaking it.
- The Professional ...I love the journey this film takes you on, all through the eyes of a child.
- Inglorious Basterds ...so richly stylized and although a fantasy it rings true in so many ways.
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.
Pitch Black introduced us to the dangerous escaped convict by the name of Richard B. Riddick. The survivors of a prisoner transport ship were stranded on a planet becoming prey to the local flesh-eating alien inhabitants. This gave Vin Diesel, now the poster boy for The Fast & The Furious, xXx and The Chronicles of Riddick, a chance to make right.
Riddick is more of a sequel to Pitch Black than of The Chronicles of Riddick. David Twohy has dialed the Riddick universe back a few notches, returning to old school action, tough guy bravado, unfriendly locals and interplanetary bounty hunting. Riddick digs its feet in the dirt to tell a survivor story, in which ruthless mercenaries and a man from Riddick's past are drawn to him like moths to a flame. The sci-fi actioner embodies elements from films like: Predator, Tremors, The Thing and Assault on Precinct 13.
Vin Diesel can act, but his muscular physique, deep voice and shaven head make him the go-to guy when it comes to playing dangerous, most wanted type characters. He doesn't have the martial arts know-how of Jason Statham, but he delivers just as much attitude and star appeal. Diesel sandwiches the story's first and third act, giving us a chance to meet the new arrivals in the second act only to return to central focus later in the story.
Riddick's emergency signal alerts competing factions to his whereabouts after being left for dead. The teams assemble at the desolate station in order to fetch a generous bounty, one that would pay double for his corpse. In a funny turn of events, the mercenaries underestimate Riddick's Home Alone resourcefulness as they fall prey to a number of traps and decoys, echoing films like Predator.
The alien inhabitants add another layer of danger to the adventure as Riddick first has to earn his stripes and then use the creatures against his enemies. This scenario creates an unpredictable and hostile Tremors setting, where everyone is susceptible to attacks. Riddick may not have the claustrophobia or alien possession of The Thing, but it's a 10 Little Indians guessing game as to who's going to die next.
The motley crew of hired guns become ensnared in a search for the fugitive, whose frank bartering for safe passage become a more and more attractive prospect as the hunt continues and bodies pile up. At one point, the film seems destined to become an Assault on Precinct 13 style lockdown as Riddick plays his trump card.
David Twohy knows how to create a world for Riddick, using CGI to build rough terrains, cool futuristic weaponry, hover bikes and alien wildlife. The visuals add scale to the adventure and an otherness to the environment. We're entranced by this golden, rocky and sun-scorched wasteland. While considerable effort went into realising a pack of dingo dogs to create a companion and ally for Riddick, the canine substitute just feels off, veering towards After Earth rather than Life of Pi for realism and effect.
Riddick downscales the grandeur of visual effects of The Chronicles of Riddick in favour of '80s tough guy action. Jordi Mollà is as funny as he is slippery as Santana, the tenacious yet ineffectual leader of the mercenaries. His performance is entertaining and somewhat cheesy as the bad guy who's got it coming. Matt Nable counterbalances him as a smarter, more grounded and complex soldier and leader.
Mollà is supported by wrestler-turned-actor Dave Bautista as Diaz, a skull-cracking hard man. Nable is supported by Battlestar Galactica's Katee Sackhoff as a right hand woman. While Bokeem Woodbine and Karl Urban add more weight to the production in smaller supporting roles.
Riddick is all about action man bravado, so there are plenty of one-liners doing the rounds. The storytelling keeps the ground shifting as Riddick goes from survivor to custodian, as the bounty hunters become the hunted and the high stakes game of cat-and-mouse gets bloody. Twohy keeps the story taut with explosives, traps, heroics and wit. Unfortunately, as another critic pointed out, the story has misogynistic tendencies in its treatment of women, most specifically Dahl.
All in all, the film does run about fifteen minutes too long, but the survival action adventure story keeps reinventing itself with a fun tone and one climax building upon another. The CGI does create another world, but could have been handled better. The two crews provide comic relief and slasher style entertainment. While Vin Diesel shows why he's the man, using no-tech stealth tactics and primitive force to take on his enemies.