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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.

 
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Devoured

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Despite the cannibalistic promise of its title, Devoured never actually sees anyone being feasted upon with a nice bottle of chianti. Instead, it could be seen as a reference to the film’s protagonist, Lourdes (Marta Milans), one of the many immigrants in New York who look set to be swallowed up by the city’s seeming indifference to what will become of them. Devoured wastes no time in telling you her ultimate fate, opening with Lourdes’ cold body found at the bottom of some stairs before recapping the events that led her here.

Lourdes is a cleaner for a high-class restaurant where she is verbally abused by her boss and sexually harassed by the head chef. Her only reason for putting up with it all is to raise enough money for her sick son, so he can fly to America for an operation. As her night shifts begin to blur into one, a paranormal element enters the narrative as Lourdes becomes convinced that she’s being stalked by a malevolent spirit amongst the pots and pans.

Directed by Greg Olliver (Lemmy) and written by Marc Landau, Devoured trades in visceral shocks for a slow-burning dread that throbs throughout the narrative. At times, the slow build up can be patience-testing. It’s clear that Olliver and Landau are more interested in Lourdes’ response to the strange phenomenon that happen around her, and scenes set outside of her workplace in which nothing happens are there to highlight the banality of Lourdes’ life. However, they still feel an awful lot like padding. Milans, however, gives the film its true depth with a performance that grounds the whole affair, even as it spirals into insanity in its final minutes.

 
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Dad’s Army

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Out of all the TV-to-movie adaptations that float around the creative ether and have the potential to hit the big screen, Dad’s Army wasn’t the one most thought would stand a chance of ever happening, and yet here we are. For the benefit of those unfamiliar with the (nearly) 50-year-old sitcom, Dad’s Army detailed the weekly adventures of a group of middle-aged men and OAPs in The British Home Guard doing their bit during WW2. Built on catchphrases and inoffensive humour, the show can come across as a bit too sweet and naïve for modern audiences.

However, Dad’s Army cares not for modern sensibilities, and plays out like an extended episode of the show, with actors Bill Nighy, Toby Jones and Michael Gambon stepping into the shoes of the original cast, whilst Catherine Zeta-Jones tags along as an undercover German spy looking to break up their ranks. Everyone involved clearly understand the kind of film that they’re making, and Dad’s Army is more of an end-of-pier revue than a fully-fledged feature film. Fans of the original will be comforted by spot-on impersonations of the affable characters, whilst newcomers will be scratching their heads wondering what the point of the whole exercise is.

It’s all very well evoking the tone and spirit of the show, but there needs to be something more tangible to stick around for outside of jokes about the Germans “not liking it up ‘em.” Some lessons about growth, bravery, and English stiff upper lip are thrown into the finale, but as well-meaning and enjoyable as Dad’s Army can be, the tenacity to stay within the lines and not rock the boat in terms of stakes and characterisation makes you wonder why you shouldn’t just stick on a boxset of the original show instead.

 
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REVIEW: Midnight Special

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Midnight Special is Jeff Nichols’ fourth film, and is an obvious love letter to the imagination of Steven Spielberg. In a quiet but ominous opening, we witness two men, Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and Roy Tomlin (Michael Shannon), escorting a young boy, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), out of their hotel room under the cover of darkness. We later learn that Alton, who is burdened with mystical powers, is Roy’s son, and the pair are fleeing from the cult that they used to belong to. Said cult bases its beliefs on the things that Alton says when he’s “speaking in tongues.” Meanwhile, the government want the trio because Alton’s “teachings” also happen to disclose official secrets.

As Nichols expertly guides the film towards its conclusion, he brings more elements of the story to the table, never promising to truly explain everything that you’re about to see. It’s a bold move, and Midnight Special’s ending is likely to leave some in the audience feeling cheated by its lack of finality. However, to pull at the threads of the end means that you miss the story as a whole.

This is an emotive piece of sci-fi that at times feels like an allegory for the difficult decisions we make as a family, and the acceptance that we must have when we do. Alton’s otherworldly condition is shown to have the potential to kill him, but once his father, and later mother (Kirsten Dunst), decide what’s best for him, they’re basically undermined by religion and the government who seemingly know better. Perhaps this is over-analysing a film about a boy that can shoot lights from his eyes, but the film is so rich in depth that Nichols practically invites you to walk away with your own interpretations. Because Midnight Special will be damned if it’s going to explain everything to you.

 
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REVIEW: Red Billabong

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Home And Away stars, Tim Pocock and Dan Ewing, move from the Bay to the billabong in this Aussie monster movie that marks the directorial debut of Luke Sparke. The two men play estranged brothers brought together after the loss of their grandfather, who has left them a huge amount of land out in the bushland. When a shady land developer (Felix Williamson hamming it up deluxe) shows interest in taking the property off their hands for a princely sum, Tristan (Pocock) wants to sell up, but Nick (Ewing) is concerned about a warning from grandad’s friend, Mr. Garvey, played by Gregory J. Fryer (The Sapphires). There’s something in the dark, and it’s feeding time.

And that’s all that can be said plot wise, as Red Billabong relies on the audience going in as cold as possible to preserve its numerous twists and genre shifts. Tipping its hat to Aliens, Jurassic Park, and even Crocodile Dundee, it’s clear that Sparke’s passion is the bolshy action films of the ‘80s and ‘90s. A fact further demonstrated when drug dealer, BJ (Ben Chisholm), rocks up with his group of mates for a party in the brothers’ new home; a drug fuelled party plus an evil lurking in the bush never works out well for anyone.

With so much in the mix – there’s guns, girls, and The Dreaming yet to be mentioned – Red Billabong starts off surprisingly slow. Perhaps too slow for those in the audience looking for a quick, one-hit-and-you’re-done monster massacre. But once Sparke lets the film off its leash, Red Billabong mutates into a special effects driven action movie that’s undeniably Australian. And whilst the credits hint at a potential sequel, it’s hard not to cross your fingers for the possibility of a spinoff with Mr. Garvey and his band of indigenous Ghostbusters.

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