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REVIEW: Nerve

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Every so often, film studios try to capitalise on trends that “the kids” are into, like “those computers and social medias and such.” Sometimes the results are baffle-witted idiocy like the Sandra Bullock starring shocker, The Net. Other times, they’re engaging and lively like the camp-nonsense-with-a-great-soundtrack, Hackers. More recently, we had the surprisingly effective, terribly-titled, Unfriended, and now we have Nerve.

Nerve’s premise sees brainy-but-repressed high schooler, Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts), attempt to take a risk for once as she joins the popular online reality game, Nerve. The game is described as “truth or dare without the truth” and basically entails “watchers” encouraging “players” to commit to increasingly dangerous dares. The bigger the dare, the better the cash reward. Initially, Vee takes a fairly easy dare where she has to kiss a stranger. This brings her into contact with handsome young Ian (Dave Franco), and the pair hit it off. The watchers encourage them to play as a duo, much to the shock of Vee’s wild friend, Sydney (Emily Meade), and the chagrin of her mopey lovestruck pal, Tommy (Miles Heizer).

For the majority of Nerve’s running time, we’re following the adventures of Vee and Ian, and that’s actually a good thing because despite their lesser performances in other movies and TV shows, Roberts and Franco really light up the screen. Roberts, in particular, offers levels of nuance that you’d never expect after her seemingly endless “cold-hearted blonde bitch” roles in various seasons of American Horror Story. Franco too manages to exude both genuine confidence and vulnerability, and the energetic direction by Catfish collaborators, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, gives the proceedings a pacey energy.

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Sadly, things go horribly wrong in the third act when the film decides that it needs to be “about something” and begins to resemble a particularly silly episode of Mr. Robot, possibly after suffering severe head trauma. Nerve is at its best when it sticks to being a slight but clever little tech thriller that uses social media as a backdrop, and less so when it attempts to mawkishly make a point about society. With that caveat in place, Nerve has its charms – it’s just a pity that they didn’t dare a writer to fix the goofy final third.

 
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REVIEW: Blood Father

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The best reference point for Blood Father is The Simpsons episode where Homer helps Mel Gibson re-edit his remake of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington after a bad test screening. The formerly staid drama quickly becomes a parodic action film, with Gibson’s Mr. Smith breaking necks in congress and impaling a judge over the American flag. Like Homer Simpson’s conception of Mel, Blood Father heightens all the excesses that we associate with the actor, who spends ninety minutes shooting, stabbing, and swearing a blue streak while he rides a hog and kills Mexicans. Virtually a satire, what the film lacks is humour, which means that it is closer to self-parody instead.

Gibson plays a recovering alcoholic, ex-con named John Link. He lives out in the desert with his AA sponsor, William H. Macy, and some other Aryan hangers-on. Into his life comes his estranged daughter, Lydia (Erin Moriarty), on the lam after shooting her cartel criminal boyfriend (Diego Luna) in the neck during a botched home raid.  The cartel comes after Lydia, tracking her down, smashing up Link’s trailer, and inveigling him in a madcap road trip with his daughter to either escape from, or kill, their pursuers.

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It isn’t hard to understand why Gibson chose a film like this: it’s squarely in his comfort zone, and rightly, the role suits him as an actor. Unfortunately, his presence cannot carry what is in reality a predictable, empty film that would have gone straight to DVD if it starred Eric Roberts or Chuck Norris. The characters are too two-dimensional to ever care, and there is no value beyond the surface of events to make it more than mildly diverting. Like a bowl of ice cream, it’s perfectly enjoyable while you’re eating it, but afterwards you realise that the empty calories were a waste of time.

 
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Sunset Song

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With masterworks like Distant Voices, Still Lives behind him, director, Terence Davies, is assured of a lasting place in the history of British cinema. More than most of his generation, he could be described as taking a poet’s eye to his films. Now in his 70s, he is still producing work, and all his fans will want to check this release. In recent years, Davies has moved away from his heartland of the recollection of working life in Northern England to adapting novels and plays for the big screen, such as his 2011 take on Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea. Now Davies turns his attention to the classic 1932 novel, Sunset Song, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, once described as “the greatest Scottish novel you have never read.”

It is a large tale taking in a panoramic view of Scottish highland history around the beginning of the twentieth century. At the centre of the story is Chris Guthrie (played by relative newcomer, and model turned actress, Agyness Deyn). She is an independent young woman growing up in a remote highland village. Life on the farm is basic and hard. Her father, John (the scary but always unforgettable Peter Mullan). rules his wife and two children with a rod of iron. He is fiercely overprotective, but not in himself a bad man. He just has problems showing his softer side. In particular, he picks on Chris’ younger brother, Kevin (Ewan Tavendale), in a way that bonds Chris to her sibling. The scenes where the father shows more than “tough love” – including elements of the almost ritual – in his dominance of the grown up son, are visceral and memorable. It’s no spoiler to say that the father’s mode of working drives his children away. Later in the film, the canvas opens out to include global events such as WW1. Although this considerably lengthens the running time, it does not achieve the intensity of the first part of the tale.

Davies being Davies, there are sumptuous visuals to sweep us along. A lot of the film was actually shot in New Zealand (it looks like Scotland, but has more reliable light, apparently) but, either way, it often looks stunning. The acting –especially from the ever-reliable Mullan – is nuanced and moving, although the film sometimes has to shift awkwardly between different registers. Also, there is an extra burden of the very pronounced Scottish dialect that is used throughout, with no subtitles for the linguistically challenged, unlike America. All in all, there are flaws. This is not Davies at his very best, but it still contains characteristic moments of great beauty, and is obviously made by someone with an instinctive feel for cinema.

 
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REVIEW: Don’t Breathe

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In 2013, Fede Alvarez made his feature film debut with the technically competent and extremely gory remake of Sam Raimi’s 1981 classic, The Evil Dead. The remake made a bunch of money and reignited interest in a Bruce Campbell-starring sequel (which eventually became the delightful Ash Vs. Evil Dead TV series), but amongst horror fans, the question became, what would Fede do next? The answer is the slick, pitch-black horror thriller, Don’t Breathe.

Don’t Breathe features a simple premise: Rocky (Jane Levy), her boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), and friend-who-wants-to-be-more, Alex (Dylan Minnette), are all looking for a way out of their economically depressed circumstances in modern day Detroit. Money convinces the pair of them to rob the house of a blind man, Norman (Stephen Lang), who allegedly received a large cash settlement from a rich family who killed his daughter in a car accident. But after the trio break into the creepy dwelling, they soon discover that Norman is far from helpless, and he’s hiding much more than cash within the house’s thick walls.

To go any further with plot descriptions would be to blunder into spoiler territory; suffice to say, Don’t Breathe features a number of surprising twists and turns, and does a good job of shifting your sympathies between the characters. More impressive than the story, however, is Alvarez’s direction, which essentially allows the movie to ratchet up tension from the end of the first act right up until the twisted conclusion.

Unlike Alvarez’s Evil Dead, Don’t Breathe uses gore sparingly, relying on well-executed set pieces that cleverly play with light, sound, and cramped spaces to keep the story engaging. Jane Levy’s Rocky is a likeable lead, despite the fact that she’s attempting to rob a blind war veteran, and you’ll genuinely want her to escape the horror of her own making. Stephen Lang offers a standout performance as Norman, a broken man whose physical, intense performance creates a palpable sense of dread any time he’s on screen, and quite a few when he’s nowhere to be seen. At a slender 88 minutes Don’t Breathe knows exactly what it’s about: keeping the audience on the edge of its seat, and it accomplishes this with great alacrity. It occasionally lapses in the logic department (Norman’s heightened senses seem to wax and wane when convenient) but overall delivers a riveting, white-knuckle ride, and a cracking good time at the movies.

 
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Walking Distance (The Sydney Latin American Film Festival)

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Walking Distance is the debut feature for Mexican director, Alejandro Guzmán Alvarez, with the film focusing on Fede (Luis Ortega), a morbidly obese and socially isolated man. The film runs at a leisurely pace, and the tale is ultimately a simple one. However, standout performances from Ortega and Joel Isaac Figueroa as Fede’s young friend, Paulo, elevate Walking Distance to a work that is both heart-warming and memorable.

Luis Ortega (a well-known drummer in a Mexican rock band) does a great job in conveying the physical stresses of his character. His laborious breathing mimics his slow lumbering movements, and he’s always sweating. At the beginning of the film, we see that Fede’s only visitors are his overbearing sister, Rosaura, and her husband, the supportive and quirky Ramon (Mauricio Isaac). Ramon encourages Fede to take up photography, which leads to Fede meeting Paulo, a young man obsessed with comics who works at a photography store. Fede, Paulo and Ramon end up bonding over the course of the film, and from there, it re-treads familiar oddball comedy tropes.

Walking Distance is indicative of the pace of the film, as it is a slow burn. Very little happens in the first hour, and the majority of the film takes place in Fede’s run-down house. Rarely does the film get bogged down in self-pity or melodrama. There are a few times where darker aspects concerning Fede’s backstory are explored, but they are largely left to the audience’s imagination. It may be that these questions are deliberately left unanswered as the audience’s empathy with Fede relies on his childlike innocence and fragile ego. The moments where Fede and Ramon joke about the controlling Rosaura are some of the funniest moments in the film. There is humour to be found here, and importantly, very little, if any of it, thankfully, comes from Fede’s weight.

Alejandro Guzmán Alvarez should be lauded for such a strong debut effort, as Walking Distance is a charming film that is full of heart. Fantastic performances from the cast, top-notch cinematography, and a nice score from Ortega himself ensure that Walking Distance will leave you with a smile as its final credits roll.

Walking Distance screens at The Sydney Latin American Film Festival, which runs from September 8-12. For more on Walking Distance, head to the official website.

 
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The Dreamer (The Sydney Latin American Film Festival)

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Sebastián (Gustavo Borjas) is the titular character in Peruvian director, Adrián Saba’s second effort, The Dreamer. It’s never explained at all why Sebastián has the ability to seemingly dream whenever he wants, and it’s unclear whether he is actually asleep or simply has a vivid imagination. Furthermore, the film’s dream sequences have little to do with the plot for the most part, and are only vaguely tied to events that happen in the story. The Dreamer gives away so very little that – very much like a dream – it is hard to find any meaning within the film.

Sebastián is part of a street gang, and makes a living by stealing from abandoned warehouses and shipyards. Borjas does an excellent job portraying the character, particularly in his body language, effectively conveying a deeper sensitivity and dissatisfaction with his predicament compared to the others in the gang. He seeks something more, but is exploited by his so-called friends for his lock picking ability. Eventually, he falls in love with Emilia (Elisa Tenaud), the sister of two of the other gang members.

There are a lot of elements and themes explored, but very little are given any room to properly grow or reach a satisfying conclusion. There are elements of a love story, coming of age, crime, poverty, abandonment, destiny, injustice, substance abuse, and more…all within a mere 80 minutes. The trouble is that nothing really new or meaningful is said about any of these issues. The two lovers are likeable enough, and we want to see them achieve their dreams, but there is never really any conviction in the belief that those dreams are ever really possible. They are also both overwhelmingly stoic, Sebastian especially so, and it takes far too long in such a short movie for his characterisation to progress.

The performances are genuine from the novice cast, there is beautiful cinematography and sound design work, especially in the contrasting sequences of the city, where the “real” plot occurs, and the dream sequences shot in a range of natural environments. It’s a shame, because if this were a longer film, perhaps some of the ideas which were introduced could have been explored more thoroughly. But in the end, we are left with a stylish film that struggles to find its focus and meaning.

The Dreamer screens at The Sydney Latin American Film Festival, which runs from September 8-12. For more on The Dreamer, head to the official website.

 
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Patient (The Sydney Latin American Film Festival )

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It’s every parent’s nightmare: a child falling ill. And yet, it’s only the beginning of this story, which might start as a battle against cancer, but ends as a battle against bureaucracy.

The documentary, Patient, is an inside look into the Colombian health care system, where absurd bureaucratic obstacles prevent many patients from receiving the medicine and care that that they need. As we follow Nubia Martinez, the mother of a declining cancer patient, struggling to overcome the system and receive appropriate assistance from her daughter’s hospital, we are privy to many hours of waiting, pacing, and going back and forth between the officials that makes dealing with the illness all the more difficult.

Despite the relatively short runtime, Patient feels agonisingly long, partially reflecting the long waits that the patients are subjected to, but mostly because there’s not a lot going on. Though the film alludes to interesting ideas beneath the surface – systematic disregard for patients’ urgent needs, the idea of being a “patient” patient, the recurring soundbites from Colombia’s Next Top Model as a reminder of the “perfect body” – there is no drama, no story, and only one character that we barely know. We are recounted a story that, though the illness is terrible, gives us nothing to connect to; whilst we do get little glimpses of Nubia’s humanity, her tiredness, and her care for her daughter, we have no character to identify with. And in the end, none of it matters; the passive story ends abruptly, leaving us nothing to dwell on, because the story barely registers in the first place.

Patient screens at The Sydney Latin American Film Festival, which runs from September 8-12. For more on Patient, head to the official website.

 
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The Carer

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This twee drama about a cantankerous and ailing actor and the caregiver who cracks his crusty shell is vaguely reminiscent of 1983’s stagy film, The Dresser (with a smattering of Scent Of A Woman), thanks to its bombastic thespian central character.

Brian Cox plays Sir Michael Gifford, a theatrical legend and an insufferable curmudgeon who has a reputation for alienating the parade of caregivers appointed by his long suffering daughter, played well by Emilia Fox. Sir Michael stubbornly insists on remaining in his massive country home while suffering from a rare type of Parkinson’s disease. Enter the newest hire, Dorottya (Coco König), a charming Hungarian refugee and gently persuasive care assistant who worms her way into Sir Michael’s crabby heart by judiciously deploying Shakespeare quotes along with the adult nappies. It turns out that she’s an aspiring actress with designs on being accepted into a prestigious drama academy, so Sir Michael soon finds himself useful once again, and a friendship is forged.

Director, János Edelényi, oversees a handsomely produced movie that nevertheless feels as if it belongs on the small screen. There’s a mild subplot involving a lifetime achievement award and “will he or won’t he” be permitted to accept it in person by his interfering daughter. Despite Cox’s fine performance and numerous epic rants, including an apoplectic tirade from King Lear (“how sharper than a serpent’s tooth…”), the drama is weak, and the sentiment is troweled on with a heavy hand.

 
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Cleverman: Season One

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When Ryan Griffen noticed that there were no indigenous superheroes for his son to look up to, he came up with the basic concept of Cleverman, which blossomed into a six-part TV series that takes the tales of The Dreaming and applies them to a dystopian Australia. Despite the show’s futuristic setting, parallels with modern Australia run deep, from government run detention camps for Hairypeople (a stand-in for numerous oppressed people), through to indigenous rights and identity.

Koen West (Hunter Page-Lochard) is a disenfranchised bar owner, who thinks nothing of grassing up “illegal” Hairypeople immigrants, aka Hairies, in return for cash. He’s clearly a man out of touch with his own heritage. Inheriting the title of Cleverman from his Uncle Paddy (Jack Charles no less), and much to the chagrin of his older brother, Waruu (Rob Collins), Koen must reluctantly defend his people from the creatures that dwell in Sydney’s shadows. Elsewhere, we follow two members of a hairy family, Araleun (Tasma Walton) and Djukara (Tysan Towney), who have been incarcerated in different ways. We even stop off to watch Game Of Thrones’ Iain Glen playing a businessman with a dodgy line of work.

Cleverman is rich detail, and you can get joyfully lost in discovering the stories that influenced its narrative. There’s so much going on in Cleverman that the first episode hits the ground running and refuses to wait for those who can’t keep up. That eventually becomes an issue, as with only six episodes to unspool its numerous threads, Cleverman does leave some frustratingly by the wayside come the finale. This, however, simply highlights how engrossing the show is, with Koen having to perform the same rights of passage any superhero has to, as well as plugging himself back in to his own heritage. With a second season already greenlit, Cleverman is sure to become an important TV property.

 
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Fathers And Daughters

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There’s something of the obvious about Fathers And Daughters, the latest from director, Gabriele Muccino. Like his previous film, The Pursuit of Happyness, despite the presence of a strong cast, the film’s insistence on wearing its heart on its sleeve means that there’s nothing here to surprise you. If anything, the whole thing feels like its only aim is to make you cry by hell or high water.

Russell Crowe plays Jake Davies, a popular but broke writer, struggling to raise his daughter, Katie (Kylie Rogers), after the death of his wife, which prompted a mental breakdown. Running parallel to his narrative is Amanda Seyfried as the now adult Katie, a psychologist in training who fills her evenings with drinking and one night stands. When Cameron (Aaron Paul), who also happens to be a writer and just so happens to have Jake as his all-time hero, enters her life, she must learn to address her own problems if there’s any chance of them being together.

Fathers And Daughters is very quick to point out that Katie’s lifestyle choice is not a good one, whilst linking it straight back to abandonment issues with her father. Cameron is lover and father all in one, and she just can’t handle it. Katie’s story never rings true, and when the film compounds her fate further by suggesting that it was also a drunken comment by her auntie that influenced her lifestyle, all agency she had is depleted. Jake’s story is handled slightly better, but only just, with the tortured artist falling into seizures whenever life gets too rough. What does work though are Crowe’s scenes with the young Rogers. The moments that they share shatter some of the more problematic elements of the film, and it becomes a shame that we never get to stay with them for long enough.