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Movie Review: Road to the Well
Written by Spling   
Monday, 23 January 2017 13:31

Road to the Well is a low-budget dark comedy thriller from the mind of writer-director, Jon Cvack, and stars Micah Parker, Laurence Fuller and Marshall R. Teague. The film journeys with Jack, a drifter who meets up with his old friend Frank, whose desk-bound job and down-on-his-luck relationship status leave him vulnerable. After Frank gets involved with a woman at the bar, he reaches out to Jack for help when he wakes up after a brutal attack only to find the woman's body in the trunk of his car. The cool, calm and collected Jack spearheads the mission to get rid of the body as the friends embark on a road trip with many twists and turns.

Road to the Well is reminiscent of mystery thrillers such as Don't Breathe, Mud and Funny Games. While it starts with a tip of the hat to television series The Office with an offbeat and awkward sense of humour, it quickly ushers in a sense of dread as our co-leads find themselves on the run. While the age-old question of "would you help your best friend bury a body?" comes into play, the filmmakers add an extra layer of tension to proceedings with an inside angle. Offering breadcrumbs along the way like the story of Hansel & Gretel than Jack & Jill, each character's motives become distressingly clear.

This film is at its best when Parker and Fuller, Jack and Frank respectively, come into contact with Marshall R. Teague as Dale. While a pivotal scene, it's a pity that they didn't make this dynamic the focal point of the film. Teague's performance is immense and his character's complexity makes him seem worthy of a spin-off. While Teague steals these scenes, Parker and Fuller are compelling and despicably charming as buddy movie co-leads. Then, Barak Hardley's laid-back and annoyed performance adds to the comedic slant. The shifting power plays and set up have some parallels with Don't Breathe and the tension becomes more palpable as morality themes are expounded upon and a critical stand-off ensues.

"We're all dying... some of us are just impatient."

The co-leads and their dirty secret, set against the urban sprawl leading to Northern California echoes aspects from Mud. While mostly shot at night, the uneasy atmosphere, natural setting and unpredictable air of misadventure give it some similarities as their history catches up with them. The psychotic undertones, lack of empathy and almost playful gamesmanship echo moments from Funny Games, as the filmmakers employ similar off-screen tactics when it comes to representing violence. These dark elements are reinforced by the Lynchland lighting and foreboding, relentless soundtrack.

Road to the Well is a cleverly composed film, making full use of its resources and opting for some thoughtful and lingering shots. Scenes involving a car lighter, the burial and round table discussion show great promise for Cvack's debut. While the balance between comedy and thriller genres is difficult to establish, he manages to keep us on the hook. It's compelling and sharp, but Road to the Well could have used a bit more polish. There could have been more extrapolation around Jack and his telltale motives, and the dark comedy would've worked better with a few awkward situations around the corpse in the boot.

All in all, it's a solid indie low budget comedy thriller with a promising concept and enough substance to keep you invested. The lead performances steady the character balancing act with a noteworthy turn from Teague. The offbeat comedy and dark thriller clash keep us curious, while the writing and delivery make it artful and thoroughly entertaining.

The bottom line: Compelling

Last Updated on Monday, 23 January 2017 13:47
Movie Review: Patriots Day
Written by Spling   
Wednesday, 18 January 2017 11:33

Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg are onto a winning formula. Having worked together on Lone Survivor and followed up with Deepwater Horizon, the pairing found themselves working on Patriots Day. Each of these films has stars Mark Wahlberg, deals with an aspect of American history, is based on true stories and are deeply inspirational. In Patriots Day, Berg chronicles the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the manhunt that ensued from the perspective of police Sergeant Tommy Saunders, played by Wahlberg.

Much like Deepwater Horizon, Patriots Day is more of a docudrama and is much broader, functioning like an ensemble drama with Wahlberg as curator. It's got a comprehensive feel to it, logging times and places in the buildup to the bombing, delivering the story in a chronological and straightforward manner. Berg covers the story from both sides of the law, introducing the bombers as people, refusing to resort to faceless one-dimensional villains. We follow the lives of several critical people in the hours that followed the bombing, getting a slice of Boston life and culture in the process.

Patriots Day has similarities with Zero Dark Thirty, chronicling and covering a terrorist manhunt with unflinching determination. The recreation of the Boston Marathon bombing is authentic and harrowing as real and recreated film footage merge almost seamlessly. This realism and urgency is carried into the rest of the film as the manhunt intensifies. Berg manages to recover many of the missing puzzle pieces to give a much fuller and clearer rendition of the events that transpired. We see the commitment on the part of the Boston Police Department, the lengths to which the FBI analysed the act of terrorism and witness some thrilling moments in the resolution to the manhunt.

Patriots Day

"We're takin' it to the streets..."

Mark Wahlberg continues to play the "everyman" as Police Sergeant, Tommy Saunders. He may not be quite as talented as Tom Hanks but is known for his generosity as an actor, allowing everyone to shine, sometimes to his own detriment. He is relatable, grounded enough to flatten his ego and accessible enough to make you feel that you could grab a beer with him. This makes him likeable, easy to rally behind and even easier to believe as "that guy". As curator of Patriots Day, he's always putting himself on the frontline and racing to keep up with the action.

He's supported by a stellar lineup including: Michelle Monaghan, Kevin Bacon, John Goodman and JK Simmons. While relegated to smaller supporting roles based on the sheer size of the ensemble, their experience and presence is vital. Monaghan plays Wahlberg's dependable and loving wife, Carol, Bacon leads the FBI investigation in a restrained performance as Special Agent Richard DesLauriers, Goodman gets in everyone's grill as Commissioner Ed Davis while JK Simmons brings experience and bravery as Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese. Themo Melikidze and Alex Wolff also deserve a special mention as the prime suspects, adding a layer of complexity to their performances.

Patriots Day is a thrilling film but it's also heartfelt, serving as something of a tribute in much the same way as Sully did for New York servicemen following the Hudson River landing. However, this film isn't just about the rescuers but also about the way the city of Boston pull together to stay Boston Strong. Interviews with the victims show hope for the future as one diabolical act of terrorism serves to unify instead of divide. Bridging the reality of the tragic event, it's difficult not to be moved by the beauty of the humanity in the face of such hatred.

The bottom line: Stirring

Last Updated on Wednesday, 18 January 2017 11:44
Movie Review: Passengers
Written by Spling   
Wednesday, 11 January 2017 12:50

Passengers is a sci-fi romance thriller, directed by Morten Tyldum and starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. It's a sci-fi because the story takes place in outer space, dealing with a transporter by the name of 'Avalon', which holds over 5000 passengers on a 120 year voyage to 'Homestead II'. Their hibernation pods prevent them from ageing, allowing them to essentially travel into the future, foregoing friends and family on earth to start over on a new colony. The corporate colonisation of another inhabitable planet, the technology surrounding a mass relocation and the questions surrounding a "geographical suicide" give Passengers plenty of science-fiction fodder. Add a premature awakening for some of the passengers and you've essentially got Castaway in outer space.

Passengers is a romance because we are dealing with a story akin to a futuristic Adam & Eve on board the Titanic. Chris Pratt plays Jim, a likeable engineer, who discovers he is all alone on the 'Avalon' after a malfunction causes his pod to open prematurely. Jennifer Lawrence plays Aurora, an aspiring writer, who also finds herself awake with 90 years of space travel ahead of her. Devastated to learn that they may spend the rest of their days alone on a floating hotel, the two try to make the most of the situation. As their fates align, so do their hearts and instead of collapsing into a slump they try to enjoy their togetherness, deferring their troubles to an android barman played by Michael Sheen.

It's also a thriller as the romantic pairing start to realise how they came to know each other and that a much greater threat begins to make itself known. Just as they are coming to terms with their solitude and the fact that they may eke out the rest of their lives on a spaceship, things start to fall apart. Through darker themes and the manifestation of mounting troubles, the two discover they aren't as alone as they had previously imagined and band together to save the 'Avalon' and its precious cargo.

Passengers 2016

"So we're kinda like 2-in-1 now."

Instead of embracing these three genre elements simultaneously, Passengers transitions through each of them like phases of the day. The notion of being trapped in space, isolated from humanity and alone with your thoughts is much like Tom Hanks being stranded on an island. We saw Sandra Bullock facing her own mortality in Gravity and Passengers takes a page, using its futuristic setting to pick up where George Clooney left off. At the outset, it may seem like "Gravity for Two", but the focus is more on relationship than survival. Setting this relational dynamic against the backdrop of the "unsinkable" 'Avalon' makes it seem like a sci-fi version of Titanic. Adding a writer, a rambling hotel, cold exterior and an old world bar all point towards The Shining.

Passengers could have gone the Event Horizon route with nightmarish happenings or geared up towards Ex Machina with an introspective psychological thriller. However, this is not a niche film, but a commercial one. Morten Tyldum may be the director from the acclaimed The Imitation Game, but he is operating with two of the hottest properties in Hollywood, delivering on a lightweight script with a genre identity crisis. Instead of teasing out characters and themes, it seems content to simply poke around in the dark, fumbling its way from one room to another.

Luckily, they can rely on the charms and talents of their co-leads, who go a long way to redeeming this space melodrama of what-ifs. The sleek CGI and design architecture keep us visually stimulated as the handsome cast provide enough twinkle to keep us watching as many fanboys get a chance to play out that fantasy about confronting Jennifer Lawrence "as the last person on earth". Passengers is a mixed bag, but it's beautiful to look at and entertaining enough to get through. While it's better and less ambitious than Jupiter Ascending, it belongs in the same league of misfires, inspired by greater films but unable to seize its place among the stars.

The bottom line: Trashy

Last Updated on Wednesday, 11 January 2017 13:01
Movie Review: A United Kingdom
Written by Spling   
Monday, 12 December 2016 10:39

A United Kingdom is an important biographical romance drama. While the international stir caused by Prince Seretse Khama of Botswana happened in the late 1940s, the familial and societal prejudices exposed at that time still echo today. After meeting Ruth Williams in London, the two fell hopelessly in love and decided to get married against the wishes of their families and governments.

David Oyelowo played Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and now Prince Seretse Khama, both inspirational political figures in two rousing standalone performances. Instead of riding on the back of a role many thought deserved an Oscar nomination, he's taken the time to cultivate an entirely different energy, carving out a character of great moral resilience with a more passive disposition. He couldn't do it without Rosamund Pike, who was a psychotic force in Gone Girl. She takes on a more grounded and resilient role as Ruth Williams, the personification of grace under fire. The ensemble is further reinforced by a host of solid supporting acts from Jack Davenport, and South Africa's very own Terry Pheto and Vusi Kunene.

Amma Asante directed Belle, another cross-racial historical romance drama, which now makes her something of an authority on mounting taut and handsome period piece romance dramas. While set on location in the United Kingdom and Botswana, the film also has a South African slant as the government of the time tried to exert their influence to intercept the publicised relationship, which was deemed radical and threatening to the Apartheid system.

A United Kingdom

"Near, far, wherever you are..."

We're transported to the life-and-times through old London, which makes a stark contrast with the dusty plains of rural Botswana. These visual polarities create tension as the "Romeo & Juliet" at the heart of this film fight to stay together, weathering the storm of family disapproval, separatist racism and international politics of the day.

Fighting for the love of his life and his country's independence, the romance drama is sweeping, sincere and touching thanks to strong co-lead performances, and elevated to a world platform by solid production values. This informative biographical drama covers much of the behind-the-scenes politics on a macro level and retains the intimacy of the central romance in the details. While these competing objectives keep things fresh, and it remains powerful as a true story, the balancing act does simplify and blunt the overall impact.

Despite a slight distancing, two inspiring speeches book-end this beautifully-realised film, which makes a wonderful tribute to the subjects and a timely reminder of that which unites rather than divides.

The bottom line: Moving

Last Updated on Monday, 12 December 2016 10:47
Movie Review: Democrats
Written by Spling   
Monday, 05 December 2016 13:22

Democrats is a 2014 Danish documentary about the contentious 2008 election in Zimbabwe and the subsequent coalition's attempts to redraft the country's constitution. The film, directed by Camilla Nielsson, has been subsequently banned in Zimbabwe. In an interview with eNCA, Douglas Mwonzora, a lawyer and representative of the MDC-T said that the depiction of violence at various political meetings forced the censorship boards to ban this honest account of what happened behind-the-scenes. Filmed over three years, Nielsson gains seemingly unlimited access to COPAC campaigning and negotiations.

While this account is informative, eye-opening and even disturbing in the way misinformation and political tampering can impede constitutional progress, it's essentially the story of an unlikely friendship. ZANU-PF representative, Paul Mangwana, former Minister of Information and MDC–T representative, Douglas Mwonzora, are instructed to carry out the coalition government's mandate to draft a new constitution based on feedback from the people. So begins an arduous process of hosting thousands of rural and urban gatherings across the country to give the people an opportunity to speak.

Their task is to gather information and seed it into the drafting of a new constitution for Zimbabwe. However, the process is delayed through political interference, intimidation, violence and transporting additional party representatives into meeting areas. Intended to be peaceful, things break down and an inspirational governmental mission is hampered by false arrests, misinformation, instability and media involvement.


"This revolution will be fought with pens and words..."

Through this journey, Mangwana and Mwonzora are at first pitted against each other, storming to get the best foothold for their political parties. Worthy adversaries, they maintain a healthy respect for one another, deliberating on a shared vision for a free and fair Zimbabwe. This common goal means different things for each of them, as one man tries to preserve the old order and the other tactfully negotiates his way to a more inclusive Zimbabwe. There's something to be said for the nation's sense of humour, for as serious as matters get, there's always room for a disarming laugh or smile.

Mangwana is a charming man and you could imagine Forest Whitaker taking on his role of devil's advocate, moving from self-assured smiles to the grave seriousness of a most wanted man. Mwonzora is a quietly confident man, who instead of resting on his party's legacy, is forced to use his lawyering skills in order to navigate a clear path. Their interactions range from affable to heated as they argue on various issues, from political meddling to contentious clauses.

Nielsson cleverly pivots the film on this relationship which demonstrates that while their political ideologies may differ, they are still able to get along. You wonder what kind of influence the documentation of their roles may have had on the outcome, since most people behave differently on camera. However, over such a long period of time, the filmmakers must have become like a fly-on-the-wall.

This is reinforced by footage capturing meeting violence and the honest expressions on the faces of these men. Being Danish, probably also aided them in representing a much more "independent" standpoint. Although, the translators are each listed as Anonymous in the credits, demonstrating just how unsettled the situation remains. While at face value, seemingly balanced, Mugabe and organised ZANU-PF machinations serve as a constant threat to completing the task of writing a new constitution.

Being a South African, the idea of drafting an inclusive and respected constitution echoes the sentiment of the New South Africa, which made this film more personal beyond sharing a border. The notion that two "enemies" can forge ahead and usher new life into a politically war-ravaged country is moving. Having journeyed with them through their many trials and transitions in Democrats, the thought that a suspended peace and justice can be achieved in a situation as volatile as Zimbabwe, is inspirational... even if for a brief moment in time.

The bottom line: Embroiled

Last Updated on Monday, 05 December 2016 13:31
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