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Birthmarked

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Most memorably cinematically distilled in the 1983 comedy classic, Trading Places, the concept of – or rather, questions around – “nature versus nurture” have long fascinated big and small thinkers alike. Is a person’s character primarily formed by what they’re born with, or is it the experiences that one goes through during life that makes a person what they truly are? That query is right at the heart of the quirky and engaging comedy drama, Birthmarked, which doesn’t come up with any definitive answers, and in the process, perhaps proves that there actually aren’t any nailed-down answers to be found. From co-writer, Marc Tulin, and co-writer/director, Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais (who crafted the little seen 2013 thriller, Whitewash, starring Thomas Haden Church), it’s an enjoyably unusual rummage through a big bag of old but always valid ideas.

Eccentric married scientists, Catherine and Ben (played with typical perfectly nuanced abandon by the always on-point Toni Collette and Matthew Goode), are so hung up on the question of nature versus nurture that – under the guidance of the even more eccentric bigwig scientist, Gertz (Ben Wheatley fave, Michael Smiley) – they opt to turn their own family home into a petri dish. Along with their own baby-on-the-way, they also adopt two children from diverse backgrounds, and then set about raising them in a manner directly defiant to the circumstances of their birth: the child of the two scientists is brought up to love and focus on art, the progeny of two less-than-intelligent parents is pushed toward the academic, and the son of two people with serious anger management issues is prodded in the direction of pacifism.

To say that the “experiment” doesn’t go as planned would be an understatement, with the general instability of this oddball family having the greatest influence on the lives of its children. The continuing roll of eccentricities (not to mention the arch narration, 1970s setting, top notch soundtrack, and unashamed intellectualism) make comparisons to Wes Anderson starkly obvious, but Birthmarked remains a thoroughly original charmer, always showing a genuine warmth towards its characters. Smartly written and superbly performed, it cannily shows that the only thing predictable about families is how unpredictable they are.

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The Second

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Sexy mystery thrillers (if that is a genre) are a hard thing to pull off. This Australian feature from first-time helmer Mairi Cameron (from a script by Stephen Lance) tries hard to keep the well-known elements fresh. In the end, it is the experienced and attractive cast that more or less brings the ship home.

It mostly takes pace in and around a giant isolated mansion somewhere in the semi-outback. A novelist (Rachael Blake) is having difficulty following up her first bestseller. She goes to this house as a sort of writer’s retreat to pen the sequel – the ‘second’ which the title refers to.

Perhaps unwisely she takes along her publisher (the redoubtable Vince Colosimo) with whom she appears to be having a fling. He soon makes himself at home by the pool while she bashes away at the keyboard. Their little tryst is quickly disturbed, however, by the arrival of a brash and brazen childhood friend of the writer (the ageless Susie Porter).

The three protagonists – it is an oddity of the approach that we never learn their actual names – circle around each other as various plot twists and double-crosses pile up. The problem is that the more you pile them up, the more teetering the tower becomes, and our focus is drawn from any actual identification with the characters to the sheer anticipation of it all crashing down. Sure enough, a genre cascade of near-absurdities does eventually occur and in a way that is likely to leave the viewer baffled.

This is all deliberate on behalf of the filmmakers, of course, but whether the audience will go along with it depends a lot on their appetite for this sort of plotting and scripting. The film also wants to get intertextual by lobbing in a load of elements from films that play on the idea of the threatening local psycho terrorising the city slickers.

The Second does have its pleasures – and it is being fast-tracked to streaming platform Stan, who helped produce – so maybe it will fare well on the content-hungry small screen.

 
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Tech Review: JBL BAR Series, BAR 3.1

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For someone who has to watch a lot of movies at home (hey, it’s work, someone’s got to do it!), up until now, my greatest extravagance was a flat screen TV. Living in inner city Sydney with two young children doesn’t quite allow for the luxury of a stand-alone home theatre, so when the boom happened a few years back, I had to visit a friend’s house to understand what all the fuss is about. Admittedly, it was impressive to watch a film in a darkened theatrette with sound that shook the seats when it needed to, and dialogue that was comprehensible all the time.

So, when tasked with reviewing a new soundbar, I jumped at the chance, wondering if my movie viewing experienced could be improved, especially as the FIFA World Cup was about to kick off as well.

Setting up BAR 3.1 was relatively painless. There are two major components in the pack, with a bar that is light and around the width of a standard flat screen TV, and a subwoofer that’s chunky, but heck, it needs to be to feel the vibration. Although Bluetooth capability is easy to set up (check out our review by filmmaker Serhat Caradee), I didn’t really have the time, so just went for the wire straight from the bar into the headphone jack on the TV, and away it went. Switching to the AUX setting on the speaker, I discovered that my volume for the TV, which I controlled with the TV remote, was now being sent through the speaker, including the subwoofer, after I pressed one button to pair it with the bar. Smart tech indeed.

The sound quality difference was immediately evident as I tested it by watching Dunkirk on Netflix. Christopher Nolan’s immersive, and sometimes plain evident, sound design on the film was better than I remembered when I watched the film in the cinema, but most exciting was that I could finally understand what Tom Hardy’s character was saying, even with that pilot’s mask over his face.

Without looking into this too much, I believe that the BAR 3.1 product is enhanced by an extra central speaker which makes the dialogue pop, and truly makes this skew perfect for movie watchers.

Next up, I flicked over to the soccer, switched the bar’s setting to sport, and was immediately struck by the surround sound difference, transporting me into the stands of the packed stadium ambience.

Occasionally, I am also privy to watching unfinished films, assembly cuts that are pre-sound mix. I flicked one of these on, and the magic of BAR 3.1 and the job of a skilful sound designer was truly revealed to me. Having watched the same thing on a laptop previously, with the sound output through the one speaker, it seemed flawed but excusable, whereas watching it with sound coming out of the bar, it became obvious how complicated both the thinking behind a film’s sound architecture is, and that this type of product is necessary to do a film viewing experience justice.

As I packed away the speakers to return them to JBL, there was a part of me that was nagging away, realising that my movie watching experience can be vastly improved without having to invest in a stand-alone home theatre. I unpacked again, set up BAR 3.1 and switched on The Dark Knight Rises! Woah!!

To find out more, click here.

 
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GLOW Season 2

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And so we return to the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and their ongoing battles within and without the ring. Netflix’s feminist underdog story, which traces the fortunes of a troupe of dreamers, wannabes and cynical veterans at the very fringes of the entertainment world as they try and carve out a place for themselves in the fascinatingly lurid milieu of professional wrestling, is such a vibrant, funny, and defiantly weird piece of television that it’s easy to forget that, under all the spandex and big hair, it’s actually doing serious cultural work.

At base, GLOW is about marginalised women fighting for self determination. The ace up its sleeve, the thing that makes it such a pitch perfect cocktail of comedy and drama, is that failure is built into the narrative model. Hell, most of the characters have already failed, from Alison Brie’s would-be serious actress to Betty Gilpin’s fallen soap star to Marc Maron’s cynical B movie auteur, and they expect to fail again. Moreover, the world expects them to fail. What this means is that every little victory, every incremental win, feels momentous. It means that even when we’re laughing at the excesses of the period and the setting, we’re cheering for our characters – it’s a heady emotional high.

Season 2 does lack the novelty of the previous run, although it still pops with vitality. Whereas the sheer audacious weirdness of the conceit could carry us through the first 10 episodes, now the show – like its characters – has to settle into the production groove. The sprawling ensemble means that there’s always something going on, even when it feels like, overall, we’re not making too much narrative headway. As we said, small victories, incremental steps. The focus remains more or less on Ruth (Brie) and Debbie’s (Gilpin) frenemy-ship, as the latter tries to flex her muscles by taking on a producing role on the show-within-a-show, while the former leans into her position as the wrestling franchise’s chief bad guy, the USSR-themed Zoya the Destroyer.

There’s more interesting stuff happening elsewhere in the ensemble, though, especially when the show grapples with issues of race and representation. Kia Stevens’  Tammé “Welfare Queen” Dawson has to deal with her college student son learning that she’s playing a damaging African American stereotype in the ring, while Sunita Mani’s Arthie struggles to shed her character “Beirut the Mad Bomber”, a role she finds particularly demeaning given that she’s actually Indian.

Meanwhile, Maron’s embittered Sam Sylvia tries – and largely fails, because, hey, he is who he is – to forge a meaningful relationship with his newly discovered daughter, Justine (Britt Baron), although the real meat of his arc is him dealing with his feelings for go-getter Ruth, whose talents he both respects and finds threatening. Men feeling threatened by talented women is a big theme in GLOW, and its embodied by guys we’re also positioned to like – mainly Sam and rich kid producer Bash (Chris Lowell), who spend a lot of time shutting down freshly minted producer Debbie just because they can.

Which sounds heavy, but GLOW‘s charm is that it channels these themes inside a bright, poppy, garishly candy-coloured package, and it never lets its thematic concerns bog down the action of the narrative, which nimbly skips along. For a show that concerns itself with failure and the fragility of dreams, GLOW is almost never not fun. It’s hard to see it lasting for too many more seasons – after all, what’s the end game here? – but while it’s here, it’s a must watch.

 
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Luke Cage Season 2

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Following on from the events of last season and crossover series The Defenders, season two of Luke Cage (or Marvel’s Luke Cage if you prefer) sees the titular Hero for Hire (Mike Colter) settling into the groove of being Harlem’s champion-about-town. Old enemies are still around to make life difficult for him, chiefly politician-turned-crime-boss Mariah Dillard/Stokes (Alfre Woodard) and major-domo Shades (Theo Rossi), and a new threat arises in the form of Jamaican gangster Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir), who wants to take Harlem for himself and has no qualms about employing horrifying violence to do so.

Which sounds like there should be plenty for our man to deal with this year, but unfortunately Luke Cage Season 2 is a fairly sluggish affair. It’s a show that absolutely shines in the details but fumbles the big picture, filling the screen with fascinating and vibrant elements of African American culture (the soundtrack, again highlighted by live performances at the nightclub Harlem’s Paradise, is all killer), but hampered by leaden pacing and an almost terminal lack of narrative direction. It’s always fun to hang out in Luke Cage’s Harlem, but this season it seems to have a real problem with figuring out what kind of story it’s trying to tell.

That’s weirdly appropriate in a way, as Luke’s main arc is figuring out what kind of hero he’s going to be. He spends a lot of time this season ruminating on his position in the community, and figuring how to get paid (Hero for Hire, remember?) without compromising his ethics – and he’s not always successful. In parallel, we get Mariah trying to negotiate her transition from political player to, ultimately, gangster, which is a rough journey and not as well written as you might hope. The series seems to have a real problem with understanding who Mariah is or who they want her to be, and as a result her characterisation is wildly erratic and inconsistent, lurching from calculating mastermind to drunken mess to aggrieved matriarch and back. Luckily Alfre Woodard is an absolute gun and remains eminently watchable even when the script doesn’t give her the support she deserves.

Season 2 also continues the grand Marvel thematic tradition of Oh No My Dad Was Problematic, bringing in the late, great Reg E. Cathey (this was his final role and the series is dedicated to him) as Cage Senior, a preacher who has been alienated from his son since the latter was jailed, and who blames the stress of that ordeal for putting his wife into an early grave. Mariah is also struggling with her legacy, trying to reconnect with her daughter, Tilda (Gabrielle Dennis) a doctor-turned-naturopath who has turned her back on the family legacy. Between this and season 2 of Jessica Jones that’s two instances of Oh No My Mum Was Problematic we’ve had from Marvel this year, which is some kind of blow for representation, we guess.

Still, themes of family, legacy and community run deep in Luke Cage, with pretty much every character directed by, or struggling to get out from under, generational issues – old debts, bad blood, family shame, cycles of violence and revenge. Even Bushmaster, a charismatic and ruthless villain with a nice line in capoeira kick-fighting, is driven by the desire for vengeance for crimes against his family. This is the good stuff – by grounding the action of the series in this palpable sense of place and history, the whole thing has a greater dramatic weight.

That weight does slow things down though – although perhaps that’s just Netflix’s insistence on sticking to their unwieldy 13 episode season plan, which we have griped about before. Once again, there’s not enough story to stretch over the 13 hour framework comfortably, and we spend a lot of time spinning our wheels or dealing with needless complications that don’t forward either the plot or the themes of the series. This is a problem endemic to the Marvel Netflix stable, and perhaps it’s no more prevalent than in most episodic entertainment, but given we’re encouraged to binge this stuff, it becomes all the more apparent and damaging in this context.

It does allow time for little detours and fun moments, though, and as we pointed out, it’s in these little details that Luke Cage sings. We get a few fun cameos from the broader Marvel Netflixiverse, and we get to spend a lot of time with tough cop and – since the events of The Defenders – amputee Misty Knight (Simone Messick), who refuses to let the loss of a limb slow her down (even if it is eventually dealt with in the most Marvel way possible). One of the most fun interludes involves Knight hanging out with Iron Fist’s Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick) and kicking an impressive amount of ass in a barroom brawl – this might be the closest we get to a Daughters of the Dragon show, but we’ll take what we can get.

Which is a good attitude to go into this one with. Luke Cage isn’t a bad show, but it definitely falls short of its obvious inherent potential. It’s entertaining enough and sports excellent performance scenes, but the whole thing doesn’t hang together as well as it should. If we’re getting a third season – and S2 leaves us in a place where that seems like a certainty – hopefully it’s a tighter and more focused affair. We’ve hung out enough – it’s time to get moving.

 

 
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Vampyr

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Some years ago, before the zombie plague swarmed all over the zeitgeist, vampires were the monster du jour. They infested popular culture, sexily biting in books (Poppy Z. Brite’s Lost Souls), fanging it up in movies (Neil Jordan’s lush Interview with the Vampire adaptation) and even taking over the telly (Joss Whedon’s beloved Buffy the Vampire Slayer). One place these toothy mongrels didn’t have much of an impact, however, was video games. In fact, vamps haven’t had anywhere near the same cultural influence on consoles and PC. We’ve had, what, Bloodrayne, Soul Reaver/Blood Omen and Castlevania and maybe a half dozen other notable titles. Compare that to the staggering number of games where you’re battling zombies, demons or Johnny Foreigner. Vampyr seeks to redress that balance, and while it doesn’t always succeed it has a hell a crack.

Vampyr puts the player in the fancy trouser of one Jonathan Reid, a doctor who at the start of the game has just been transformed into one of the undead. The game gets off to a rough start, frankly, making you sit through two endless introductory monologues and an overlong, not terribly exciting starting section that will likely leave players feeling a bit lost. Persevere, because once you arrive at the Pembroke Hospital – the location that essentially acts as your home base for most of the game – Vampyr begins to show its considerable charms. See, Johnno is a vampire but he doesn’t relish the idea of feeding on his fellow man. This leads into the game’s darkest conceit. You, the player, can feed on any NPC in the game. However they’re quite often sick, something you can help with. Then, after you’ve applied the hippocratic oath, you can feed on the very patient whose blood you just improved. It’s super dark, and a little bit funny, especially when your killing has an impact on other characters and may even shut you out of potential questlines. You end up weighing the relative value of a human life versus how much you need that XP to improve your fighting skills in a boss encounter or similar. That brings us to the other divisive element of Vampyr, the combat: it’s just okay. You flit about the screen, using a club, sword or similar and augment your vampire powers, slashing with claws, boiling blood with supers and freezing enemies with a look. It’s not bad, you understand, but it’s a tad limited. For all the Bloodborne-esque gothic aesthetic, Vampyr is no Bloodborne and the late-game boss fights can become quite aggravating if you’re not sufficiently powered up. Essentially this means you’ll often consume humans out of irritation with the fighting mechanics rather than because of the story, which is a bummer at times. That said, the story is wonderful. Dense and detailed and certainly not for people with short attention spans, but the depth of the vampire world – with its factions and in-fighting – is genuinely intriguing and well written for the most part.

Vampyr is truly a strange beast. Beautifully realised environments, strong, interesting characters and a deep, fascinating story are paired with repetitive combat, some janky animation and hit or miss voice acting. You’ll definitely need to do some of the work to appreciate its finer qualities, but my goodness they’re in there. Vampyr is like a dense novel that takes a little while to get into, but is well worth the effort. It won’t be for all tastes, but for fans of RPGs that skew a bit goth, it’s something warm and appealing to sink your teeth into.

 
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Detroit: Become Human

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What does it mean to be human? What is at the very core of this strange state? Are we an accumulation of our experiences or do we have a soul, some other part of ourselves connected to something greater? What happens when we die? What is love (baby don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me… no more)? These are the heady questions posed in Detroit: Become Human and over the ten or so hours it takes to play through the story, they will be explored to varying degrees of success and subtlety. Actually, considering this is a David Cage/Quantic Dream production subtlety is out the bloody window, but there’s still a lot here to like.

The story is essentially divided between three main characters. There’s Connor, a police investigator android – or “RoboCop”, if you will – tasked with hunting down deviants aka androids who’ve gone berko. There’s Markus, a caretaker android who looks after Lance bloody Henriksen (!) and develops sentience, and finally there’s Kara, a robo nanny who wants to get a particularly dull child, Alice, away from her abusive father. All three stories begin small in focus and scope, but expand rapidly and eventually intersect in unexpected ways. Or not, actually, because after all this is a Quantic Dream game (makers of Heavy Rain and Beyond: Two Souls) so there are a variety of different paths the tale can take, some good, some bad, some just plain weird.

Gameplay in Detroit: Become Human is more hands off than totally interactive. Oh sure, you’ll move your character around the map, and indulge in light puzzle solving, but the bulk of the action is related to the choices you make on behalf of the character on screen. The game shines in these moments – far more than in the frequently eye rolling quicktime events – and having the agency to truly shape the destiny of these (mostly) likeable characters can feel like a heavy responsibility, in a good way. Presentation-wise the game is just gorgeous. Sumptuous graphics, beautiful audio, mostly solid voice acting (except for Alice) and a glossy sheen over everything, really selling the sci-fi conceit and near future setting. Writing-wise things are a little dicier, with David Cage never content to make a point just once (you’ll lose count of the times one of the android characters says some variation of “I’m a slave!”) and quieter moments are rarely given a chance to breathe. Still, Detroit: Become Human is meant to be a blockbuster, not an indie film, and while more nuanced moments would have been appreciated, the swinging for the fences technique works in a stirring albeit blunt sort of way.

Ultimately Detroit: Become Human is a solid, pretty, interactive movie with insanely good production values and a very solid cast. In terms of overall quality it’s less an early Ridley Scott movie and more a Netflix Original, but for all of that it’s still an engaging yarn.

 
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Space Hulk: Deathwing Enhanced Edition

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Space Hulk: Deathwing is the latest attempt to bring the popular tabletop gaming experience into the video game realm, with typically mixed results. The premise is on-brand bombastic and kinda cool. You play a “Librarian” of the Dark Angels 1st company of Space Marines, a group of shooty-bang-bang blokes comprised of Terminators (not the James Cameron kind). This band of hard, gruff men are tasked with heading into a massive derelict spaceship called a Space Hulk (not the Bruce Banner kind) and clear out the deadset antisocial aliens that have infested the joint and made a right mess of things.

The setting is gratifyingly comprehensible. Warhammer games tend to skew more towards lifelong fans, featuring obtuse lore and dense worldbuilding, whereas Deathwing clearly owes much of its inspiration to Aliens. The Space Hulk is looming and imposing, occupying the mech-suited boots of a Terminator feels appropriately bad arse and your base weapon is a freaking enormous chain gun. The first couple of missions are quite a bit of fun, especially if you’re playing with friends but the game’s flaws are never far away. The shooting is serviceable but never particularly satisfying and the AI – of both the enemies and your fellow soldiers – is occasionally shockingly bad. The prolific number of times a friendly terminator interpreted my “kill everything” order as “walk directly into a wall and keep doing so forever” lost its charm very quickly.

The enemies, also, are a wee bit naff from a design perspective. That may court the ire of the tabletop gaming fans, but the creatures just aren’t terribly scary – they sort of look like mildly nonplussed garden lizards and fail to raise the heart rate even when they’re pouring towards you as a wave.

Ultimately Space Hulk: Deathwing is another swing and a miss for a killer Warhammer game, but it does offer moderate thrills for undemanding fans or shooter obsessives who have three mates on call. It’s unlikely to convert anyone dubious about the IP, but offers some light fun for those willing to overlook the patina of shonkiness.

 
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Short Distance

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With the internet, social media apps and video calls, technology is certainly making it feel like the world is getting smaller. For those who are in long distance relationships, however, it can feel like the complete opposite. Marking his feature length debut, filmmaker Nic Barker explores the effects of a long distance relationship in this romantic drama.

Over the course of its brisk 60 minutes, Short Distance follows three couples whose relationship DNA has been altered by geography. Sensing his Queensland girlfriend is set to leave him, Max (Christopher Kay) sets up a romantic weekend when she comes to visit Melbourne. Meanwhile, Belinda (Gabrielle Savrone) seeks something hot and heavy when her partner’s constant travelling for work leaves her cold. Finally, and in perhaps one of the strongest tales in this trilogy, a young couple, played by Calista Fooks and Sam Macdonald, count down the hours until one of them must leave for greener pastures of employment in Perth. All of the tales will resonate with someone, but this last scenario manages to capture that bitter sweetness of two people plastering on brave faces when all they want to do is cry. Yeah, it gets emotional, people.

There’s a softness to Barker’s direction which does not mean he isn’t trying. Rather, it gives the film a dreamlike quality that adds to the suggestion that some of our lovers are sleepwalking through the motions in the hopes of maintaining the status quo. Waxing lyrical about trust, honesty and commitment, Barker’s screenplay is strong and shows off his background in short films; his short, Pint, having received a fair amount of praise.

Boiled down to their narrative bones, the three tales perhaps wouldn’t work indivually as features. However, mixed together and connected by a handful of characters, Short Distance successfully captures a snapshot of modern romance.

Watch Short Distance here for free.