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Movie Review: Between Friends

Between Friends is a character-driven reunion romance comedy drama in the style The Big Chill and The Best Man Holiday. This is something new for South Africa, delving into the secrets of a group of friends, who get-together at a game lodge 7 years after university. Zuko Nodada brings his experience from directing TV series like IntersexionsMtshika-shika and Bay of Plenty to his first feature film.

The trailer for Between Friends, makes it seem superficial and melodramatic. While it certainly touches on these points, it's not an accurate assessment. As a reunion movie, the magic is found in the performances as we get to know the characters better and revelations create or release tension.

To generate spark, Nodada has harnessed the energies of a young, sexy, up-and-coming ensemble of South African actors. Siyabonga Radebe (Intersexions) plays Njabulo, the slacker playboy son of a wealthy businessman, who pretends to run the show. Radebe's easy-going natural charm smooths over his character's rough edges delivering an infectious silly-serious Martin Lawrence style performance.

Amanda Du-Pont is Nisha the troublesome vixen, sent into the coop to make the feathers fly. She's gorgeous, perfectly detestable, convincing as a bitchy diva and playfully over-the-top with her snooty fashion sense. While her character's manipulative agenda make her a comical villain you love to hate, Du-Pont keeps us hissing and laughing.

Star of Nothing for Mahala, Thapelo Mokoena, is a welcome addition to the cast as Nkanyiso. He's the cool, smooth-talking and likable bachelor, who appears to have it made. As the straight man to Du Pont's comic flap, he's also the fall guy, unwittingly landing himself in all kinds of trouble. Then there's Lihle Dhlomo, the smart, more subdued and sophisticated beauty, whose indecision and past begin to catch up with her.

"When you're a man-eater, you're always on top... of the food chain."

Dumisani Mbebe and Mandisa Nduna round off a pretty solid ensemble of South African talent as Winston and Portia, a married couple with no qualms about who wears the pants. While first appearances are somewhat stereotypical, it's ultimately a fun poke at marriage that provides a number of jokes and some bizarre cartoon sound effects. Then, let's not forget Morne du Toit's amusing role as the late-to-the-party "sore thumb" and Canadian outsider.

The plotting and characterisation may have its origins firmly grounded in TV soaps with a myriad of love, deceit and confessions playing out. Yet, there's enough game lodge experience fun and outside influences to keep it from devolving into all-out melodrama. While the characters are mostly charming, their sense of morality is murky and their redeeming qualities require a bit of spit 'n polish.

It was wise to keep things locked into one primary location, making it easier to focus on the performances with the game lodge as a convenient meeting place and beautiful backdrop. While this serves as a great launchpad, Between Friends is about the characters, performances and genre's over-arching entertainment value.

While toying with superficial values and leaning toward melodrama, Between Friends is stylish and has an amusing happy-go-lucky tone epitomised by Siyabonga Radebe. We're there to poke fun at the well-to-do characters as much as entertain their selfish romantic aspirations. It's a light-hearted reunion romp that doesn't amount to much more than a good time.

The bottom line: Enjoyable

Movie Review: Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys is a film adaptation of the Tony award-winning musical about Franki Valli and The Four Seasons. While The Four Seasons have a rich history of chart-topping singles, you'd be forgiven for thinking they were a Vivaldi tribute band. Their story may not be as well-known as that of The Beatles, but after the long-running and wildly popular musical inspired Clint Eastwood to commit it to celluloid, their legacy will live on...

It's not unlike any rock band story. Four guys get together, make some magic, sharpen their sound... work hard to get noticed by the right people and hit the big time before suffering some setbacks. Eastwood has directed a drama that encompasses the musical, rather than vice-versa. While the rags-to-riches story may be familiar, the toe-tapping music is what really stands out along with the characters occasionally breaking the fourth wall to give us the scoop.

He hasn't simply slapped it onto film, insisting that stage actors play the main parts, with Christopher Walken the only echo of Hollywood. These guys know the music well and perform at Broadway level, allowing the film to house and capture the feeling of the era. Their relative anonymity adds another dimension of realism to the drama, blending the innocence of That Thing You Do with a slice of Raging Bull intensity.

John Lloyd Young plays Franki Valli. Having won a Tony for his stage performance, you could say he's cultivated an appreciation and understanding of the rather naive Franki. While the star of the group, he's almost reluctant to stand out and take the glory without pulling his "brothers" into the limelight. It's an understated performance, one that has been quite effortlessly transferred to film with the help of actor's director, Clint Eastwood.

Jersey Boys Movie Review

"Sing it, boys! Forget supper, this is for our lives."

The big surprise is Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito. This role should unlock a number of golden doors for Piazza, who is utterly convincing as the charming, ill-mannered problem child of The Four Seasons. He works De Niro moxie and Broderick charm into a nuggety role that helps propel the conflict in Jersey Boys. Erich Bergen also deserves praise for his smooth and savvy take on Bob Gaudio, another naive character, who completes the foursome to the point of making Chris Cooper and the cast of American Pie seem like their understudies.

Jersey Boys is an understated biographical music drama. The dull colours, wardrobe, styling and music are reminiscent of Inside Llewyn Davis, transporting us to the '60s and keeping us up-to-speed with the age without becoming a distraction. It's not a loud, flashy movie and perhaps Eastwood didn't want to do the story a disservice, considering how indistinguishable and under wraps it's been all these years.

While it seems downplayed, this just enhances the King of Comedy flavour of the film. The music is performed beautifully without the characters simply breaking into song. The dramatic performances are noteworthy and contribute to the day-in-the-life stream of consciousness. While the formulaic rise-and-fall band story is refreshed by the gritty characters, who can't escape their small town values, with zippy music filling the soundtrack.

Jersey Boys is by no means a life-changing music drama, but Eastwood has delivered a fine and unpretentious rendition that doesn't romanticise or exploit. It's entertaining, enjoyable and has enough quality ingredients to keep you invested in the story and the plight of the flawed stars on their ascent.

The bottom line: Engrossing

Movie Review: Hercules

Hercules has been doing the rounds this year with three films including: Hercules RebornThe Legend of Hercules and now Hercules starring the top-grossing actor of 2013, Dwayne Johnson. Of the three, Hercules, is head and shoulders above the rest and we're not just talking about Johnson's physique. Although to be fair, it wasn't going to be a task based on the quality of the other two.

The film's enjoyment depends largely on your expectations going in. This isn't an attempt at recreating an epic like Braveheart, but more to the tune of Conan with A Knight's Tale sensibility. That being said, Hercules is heavy on the action with a side order of comedy, and doesn't really try to delve deeper than its pulpy graphic novel origins.

We enter the story after the legendary twelve labours, and journey with a band of sidekicks under the banner of Hercules. Now that he's established himself as a legend, he turns his attentions to aiding the King of Thrace and his daughter by turning his cohort into a band of mercenaries for hire in a bid to seek-and-destroy a pillaging warlord.

Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson plays Hercules. Besides being The Scorpion King, he's next generation Schwarzenegger, and if you've been able to appreciate Arnie's unmistakable accent, disarming charm and demi-god form in films like Conan, you're halfway there. Johnson usually relies on his charisma, but he's a humble hero as Hercules... playing it down like Mark Wahlberg. The eight month gym regime clearly paid off, and he retains his star presence without deferring to The Rock persona.

While it's an epic action-adventure based on the Thracian Wars graphic novel, it also serves as a comedy. What else would you expect from a film starring The Rock and directed by Rush Hour's Brett Ratner? It's not a complete send up, but falls in line with films like A Knight's Tale. You actually find yourself wondering if adding a couple of killer rock anthems to the soundtrack wouldn't have done the trick.

Hercules Movie Review

"Friends, Greeks, countrymen, ready your spears..."

The tone is a little problematic. We've got seriously epic sword-and-sandal Greek mythology playing out with Braveheart speeches, 300 style warfare and a band of merry mercenaries under the mighty Hercules. Then, to complicate things... they've thrown in some amusing banter and tongue-in-cheek comedy you'd expect from The A-Team. It's fun and works if you're able to roll with it, but does create a slightly off-balance quest.

Luckily, we're able to fall back on the solid cast. Rufus Sewell echoes A Knight's Tale as the smirking second-in-command. He and Ian McShane are the pick of the heroes, delivering the funniest lines and also sharing a strange history thanks to their involvement in Pillars of the Earth. McShane is a welcome addition and pretty damn funny as a fatalistic part-time psychic. John Hurt, Peter Mullan and Joseph Fiennes add some finesse to Hercules as respected actors and high-ranking officials.

Then, there's some viking fighting spirit from Norway in Ingrid Bolsø Berdal and Aksel Hennie. Berdal is striking like a young Nicole Kidman, playing Atalanta in a similar role to Evangeline Lilly's archer character Tauriel in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. Hennie doesn't have much to say, but makes the unhinged and explosive Tydeus a cantankerous joy. Reece Ritchie rounds off a strong cast as Iolaus, the team's herald.

This take on Hercules is similar to Kenneth Branagh's handling of Thor. There's a sincerity to the pompous retelling of mythology, yet it's tempered by the wink-wink tone and spurts of comic book comedy. As with many self-made superheroes these days, the writers have taken the opportunity to debunk the mythology to represent a mortal backed by an exceptionally loyal marketing entourage. It takes away from the magic, but keeps the story as grounded as a Biblical story like Samson with a little extra grit.

Hercules is all about the fun. There's loads of exciting action, suspenseful moments and violence to satisfy action junkies. The warring isn't as well-executed or epic as 300Braveheart or Gladiator, but tips the hat to these greats with a similar intensity and gore factor to King Arthur. Then, it leverages the A Knight's Tale tone without going as far as the We Will Rock You anthem from Queen. It's not demanding viewing, but tips the balance in its favour for being such well-paced and entertaining escapism.

The bottom line: Enjoyable

Top 5 Cult Movies

Some movies has a certain je ne sais quoi that keeps on pulling in fans ages after its release. Spling separates the wheat from the chaff to bring you only the best cult movies ever.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

If you want the epitome of cult, The Rocky Horror Picture Show is it. Tim Curry’s exuberant performance as Dr. Frank N. Furter helped cement an off-beat career and a musical comedy horror classic. While a tribute to sci-fi and horror b-movies from the 30s to 70s, the film has become a social phenomenon.

After a false start, the film gathered momentum with midnight screenings in 1976, which had audience members dressing as characters and singing along. The Rocky Horror Picture Shows international cult following inspired a stage play adaptation and continues to draw crowds of fans and converts.

Cult Trivia: Mick Jagger wanted to play Dr. Frank N. Furter in the film version, while Meat Loaf stars as Eddie.

Quotable Quote
Frank: "Do you think I made a mistake splitting his brain between the two of them?"

The Big Lebowski (1998)

While a frontrunner for the film with the most f-bombs, the Coen brothers crime comedy cult classicThe Big Lebowski is arguably their most loved movie. The film revolves around the misadventures of "The Dude", a slacker and ten-pin bowler played by Jeff Bridges, and his best friend and bowling teammate, a cantankerous Vietnam veteran, played by John Goodman.

When The Dude's not taking it easy with a White Russian, he's bumping into a number of oddball characters and trying to unravel an unnecessary plot. Since its inception, The Big Lebowski has inspired the religion of Dudeism and annual festivals, including the Lebowski Fest and The Dude Abides.

Cult trivia: The Dude says "man" 147 times in the movie, nearly 1.5 times a minute.

Quotable Quote

Walter: "No, Donny, these men are nihilists, there's nothing to be afraid of."

The Evil Dead (1981)

Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi struck gold with their micro budget log cabin horror, The Evil Dead. While the crew was largely inexperienced and the conditions poor, Raimi converted his short film, Within the Woods into The Evil Dead on a meagre $100 000 budget.

The film was labelled as a video-nasty based on its violent and disturbing content. While this hampered some commercial success, it helped foster its cult notoriety. Campbell's defining role as Ash Williams, earned him cult icon status as a figurehead for the film's media franchise, which has come to encompass Evil Dead II, Army of Darkness, video games and comic books.

Cult trivia: Stephen King's glowing endorsement contributed to the movie’s success, and was used on film ads and posters.

Quotable Quote

Ash: "You bastards, why are you torturing me like this? Why?"

Donnie Darko (2001)

If you want a structured plot and logical, linear time-line, then Donnie Darko should not be on your to-watch list. While the film received a tepid response after initial screenings, it has developed a massive cult following since its release in 2001. While many would admit to feeling dumbfounded during the rendition of Mad World by Gary Jules in the closing credits, this is just part of the Donnie Darko experience.

The cult classic covers time travel, fate, fear, visions and generally functions as a dark, comic, supernatural high school fantasy drama. The '80s music adds to the surreal quality of the visions and Gyllenhaal's manic performance captures the offbeat and thought-provoking essence of Richard Kelly's film.

Cult trivia: The Arabic-styled font used on the original movie poster was changed after the attacks of 9/11.

Quotable Quote

Donnie:"Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?"
Frank:"Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?"

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

The fearless and now famous Flying Circus comedy troupe managed to give a timeless and iconic quality to their irreverent medieval send up, Monty Python and the Holy Grail. From using half-coconuts to mimic horses galloping, to concocting a string of indelible comedy sketches, the team outdid themselves on a shoestring budget.

The film's quotable quotes, memorable scenes and devoted cult following resulted in a "lovingly ripped-off", Tony award-winning Broadway production musical called Spamalot. Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a testament to great writing and demonstrates that even Arthurian legend isn't immune to camp, silly and over-the-top comedy.

Cult trivia: ‘God’ is represented by a photo of the famous 19th century cricketer, W.G. Grace.

Quotable Quote

French Soldier: “Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”

Close, but no cigar...

This Is Spinal Tap, Harold and Maude, A Clockwork Orange, Eraserhead, Anchorman, Shaun of the Dead, Fight Club and Blue Velvet.

This article originally featured in the August 2014 edition of TechSmart magazine.

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