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Movie Review: Arrival

Arrival is a science fiction mystery drama from Denis Villeneuve, based on the short story Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang. Villeneuve continues his outstanding run of form: having directed IncendiesPrisonersEnemy and Sicario, he turns his attention to science fiction with Arrival. The film has similarities with Contact, the Robert Zemeckis film, in which Jodie Foster plays a woman desperately trying to interpret a message to prove the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence originating from the Vega star system.

Instead of Jodie Foster, we have Amy Adams, playing linguist Louise Banks. When 12 mysterious shell -shaped spacecraft touchdown around the globe, Banks is commissioned by the US military to use her communication skills in order to translate and establish contact. As each nation races to translate their own version of the message from the visitors, misinterpretations provoke international forces to prepare for war. With the help of a theoretical physicist, Banks tries to discover the purpose of the alien landing before the suspended peace gives way to anarchy.

Arrival stars Amy Adams, who is supported by Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker and Michael Stuhlbarg. Her performance has a knowing heaviness to it, serene in the chaos, seemingly out of her depth and yet selflessly compelled to find answers for herself, her nation and the peace of mankind. This unfettered character is the thread that seems to knit everything together, as intimate memories whisk us away from a threatening situation. Renner, Whitaker and Stuhlbarg keep Adams relatable and in check as her motives are questioned and trust is earned. While a stellar and accomplished cast, Arrival will be remembered for Adams, who embodies the tone of the drama.

Arrival movie review

"I learned how to speak alien... what did you do today?"

While somewhat slow-moving, Villeneuve gives this science-fiction mystery drama a mercurial flow. It's a reflective piece of cinema, delivering smart and thought-provoking content without spoon feeding. The mystery and uncertainty surrounding the alien visitors remains and helps generate a tense atmosphere. Villeneuve cloaks their appearance and objectives, allowing us to form our own opinion and jump to conclusions with the constant threat of the unknown. This tunnel of echoes ends up saying more about humanity and our fear of otherness than getting to grips with an alien race.

The crisp and clinical cinematography is reminiscent of Looper. Elemental and at times ethereal, we are swathed in surreal and beautiful visuals, which have a great balance of familiar versus unfamiliar. These enchanting visuals, characterised by the surrealism of a giant, smooth spaceship suspended over a landscape, are complemented by an otherworldly soundtrack. Together, the audiovisuals have a similar harmony and majesty to Inception, immersing us in a dream state and then teasing us with the promise of limitless peril.

Arrival is a breathtaking and immersive cinematic experience that slowly lowers you into a body of amniotic fluid as philosophy and drama mingle. The nature of time is examined and just like Inception, you'll feel compelled to watch the film again to truly comprehend the overarching message. It's like the science fiction antithesis of War of the Worlds, delivering a more pensive, thought-provoking and even Socratic exploration of what can be gleaned from extra terrestrial life.

The bottom line: Mesmerising

Talking Movies with Spling - Doctor Strange, Hatchet Hour and My Father's War

Spling reviews Doctor Strange, Hatchet Hour and My Father's War 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: Shepherds and Butchers

Shepherds and Butchers is a South African courtroom drama, directed by Oliver Schmitz and based on the award-winning novel by Chris Marnewick. The story follows Johan Webber, a defence attorney, who takes on the controversial case of Leon Labuschagne, a young prison warden, who is charged with killing several black men in 1987. Marnewick, an advocate in Durban, delivers a powerful retelling of this capital punishment court case, which is based on actual events.

The film adaptation stars Steve Coogan, who is best known for Philomena, Andrea Riseborough, who starred in Shadow Dancer and South African actor Garion Dowds as Labuschagne. Coogan has a rich comedy background, but like many comic actors, has an equally layered dramatic depth. He brings a fortitude and resilience to the role of Johan Webber, a character which while underdeveloped, carries clout. Riseborough gets a handle on the South African accent and goes head-to-head with Coogan as a bullish and hardened advocate. If Coogan is the heart and Riseborough is the mind, then Dowds is the soul of this powerful drama. While the character clouds proceedings, we see the events unfold through his eyes and Dowds gives the manchild a vulnerability, which helps foster empathy.

The tension lies in Labuschagne's unwillingness to co-operate as we try to make sense of the debacle. He's been charged with a multiple homicide in what appears to be an open-and-shut case, but his fragility makes it difficult to imagine the character carrying out the disturbing acts he stands accused of. As we wrestle with our convictions and prejudices, we're given a behind-the-scenes tour of the horrendous state-sanctioned executions from death row. While important to plumb the shock value to get inside the mind of the accused, this harrowing depiction of hangings is intense, graphic and not for sensitive viewers.

Shepherds and Butchers


Schmitz is best known for Life, Above All, arguably the greatest South African drama. The racial oppression and social issues of 1987 become powerful in their subliminal treatment, much like To Kill A Mockingbird. The overtly white cast and accurate production design foists us into the turmoil of the justice system of the time. Watching from this retrospective standpoint, heightens the underlying tension and stacks even more weight against the defence as we're persuaded to feel sympathy for a "white psycho", who appears to have carried out a racially-motivated killing. Schmitz may not have a character-driven screenplay to leverage, but summons power through the earnest performances, the heartbreaking visuals and gripping true story.

Shepherds and Butchers isn't in the same league as To Kill a Mockingbird, Dead Man Walking or even A Time to Kill, but like The Devil's Knot, delivers thought-provoking drama and a powerful visual testament of a time we'd prefer to forget. We may not engage or identify enough with the characters to be fully immersed in the story, but from the nature of the harrowing imagery and socio-political ramifications, it's safer to watch from the back of the courtroom.

The bottom line: Unsettling

Movie Review: My Father's War

My Father's War is a drama from writer-director, Craig Gardner, which examines the fractious relationship between David, a war veteran father, and his rebellious son, Dap. We journey with Dap, a young man whose issues stem from feelings of abandonment and a lack of connection, following his father's prolonged involvement in the undeclared Angolan Bush War. From his birth to adolescence the two have forged a history of missed connections. When David reaches out for the last time only to have Dap accuse him of forwarding the agenda of the Apartheid government, he's brought to his knees. It's only after Dap starts dreaming about being at war with his father that he begins to really see the truth.

This Afrikaans-English war drama stars three of South Africa's finest dramatic talents: Edwin van der Walt as Dap, Stian Bam as David and Erica Wessels as Karina. This tight unit makes a strong nucleus for domestic drama to play out at the Smit household. Edwin van der Walt immerses himself in the role of the angst-filled young rebel, whose temperamental attitude and hard-partying lifestyle alienate him from his family. Stian Bam gives David an understated anxiety and a deep-seated depression, suffering from post traumatic stress disorder and trying to push past the guilt to overcome his absence. Erica Wessels draws power from Karina's distressed and frustrated state-of-mind, playing a wife and mother, who is only just holding the fort down.

Gardner focusses on universal issues of forgiveness and empathy, and the film could've easily been transferred to any post-war family dynamic. These underlying themes make the film intensely relatable for any family member involved in some sort of conflict. While he's intent of portraying an accurate and earnest domestic drama, Gardner's other intention is to represent the Bush War in Angola. Through Dap's dreams, Gardner is able to inject these war scenes like flashbacks. Much like the framing of Pearl Harbour, this escalates the human drama from intimate to grand as SADF choppers and trucks enter the fray.

My Father's War

"Old dog... there's still fight in the young dog."

While we're given an introspective tour and some Bush War action that helps us comprehend the stress David underwent, the treatment is a little jarring in contrast with the drama, making the marriage of genres a bit unwieldy. While Dap walks a mile in his father's boots and there's certain license in the dream state, the war music is histrionic and conjures up the solemn heroics of World War II. It's a leap of faith to have David's war experiences relayed through Dap's dreams as if he was there, but if you don't fight this spiritual fantasy element, the ride is much more enjoyable. The Bush War has more in common with the guerilla warfare of Vietnam and probably would've been better served by nostalgic music from the age. It certainly would've added another layer for Dap's musical tastes to clash and slowly integrate with those of his father's.

Although far from perfect, My Father's War has its heart in the right place, which is reinforced by earnest performances. While confrontational at first, it becomes surprisingly moving in the third act. The ensemble's conviction make the high concept easier to accept, urged on by our desire to experience the cinematic illusion in all its fullness. The film-makers have largely accomplished what they set out to achieve and the end result is entertaining and emotionally resonant.

The bottom line: Moving

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