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Berlin Syndrome

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There’s a common misconception among cinemagoers that our public sector national funding body Screen Australia is all about 100% hardcore Australiana content; Kangaroos, the outback and VB, that sort of thing. And while there is some truth to that commitment, the organisation does a bloody ripper job of looking at Australians and our national identity within a much wider, global context. Berlin Syndrome is yet another excellent example of Screen Australia’s continued efforts to demonstrate the nuances of Australia, Australians and our culture to the world.

Based on a 2012 book by Melbourne novelist Melanie Joosten, Berlin Syndrome follows an Aussie photographer (Teresa Palmer) who travels to Berlin and meets a charismatic local named Andi (Max Riemelt). Their attraction is instant, and after a day wandering the streets of Berlin together, a night of passion ensues. But what initially appears to be the start of a romance suddenly takes an unexpected and sinister turn when Clare wakes the following morning to discover Andi has left for work and locked her in his apartment. An easy mistake to make, of course, except Andi has no intention of letting her go again. Ever.

Thanks in large part to Australian director Cate Shortland (Somersault, Lore), the film is definitely far more auteur than blockbuster. Generally, these kinds of kidnap-thrillers are so infuriating – particularly for female viewers – where there is a very clear “Man is strong, woman helpless” vibe going on. It makes the whole affair predictable and boring to watch, especially when another man ultimately “rescues” her (insert derisive eye roll).

Here, Shortland and screenwriter Shaun Grant (Snowtown, Jasper Jones) do a tremendous job of leveling the playing field of power in this narrative. Sure, Clare is being held prisoner – but she is certainly not a victim, in fact she may be more devious and clever than her captor. It’s refreshing if nothing else to see the genre being ripped up a bit, and makes the uncertainty of the story far more interesting. You just never know what’s going to happen.

Another persistent bugaboo with these kind of films is that there’s usually an unbearable heavy-handedness to them, where the directors rely almost entirely on clumsy tropes like a big, swelling brass musical score (dum..dum DUUUUUMMM!!) and closely cropped “waist-up” camera angles to build suspense. It’s completely ineffective and always spoils an otherwise great story from being told.

Again, Shortland seems to know when and how to stay out of her own way. She is measured in her directorial devices, where the less she uses the more impact the film seems to have.

This presents a particularly massive challenge for the actors – taking away every conceivable crutch and leaving them with nothing but each other and a single room. It was a big ask on Shortland’s part, but bloody hell, Palmer and Riemelt are explosive. Unencumbered by the standard genre elements, the pair instead undergoes a furious tête-à-tête of focused and surprisingly subtle mental and physical battles.

Palmer – traditionally speaking – has never really been given a good go without the dramatic training wheels. But here, with nothing but herself and sometimes one other person, she exercises every weapon in her arsenal to deliver a performance that is disturbing, ugly, vicious and unequivocally her best to date.

Berlin Syndrome is a remarkably tense and extremely confronting film. Shortland’s bleak and “everything-in-plain-sight” direction makes the viewer feel this terrible sense of dread and panic. You may not have been kidnaped while travelling overseas, but there is somehow an intensely unsettling familiarity created here – “It’s too real” you’ll find yourself saying. If you’re into feeling really anxious or like it when directors break all the genre rules, you’ll be stoked with Berlin Syndrome.

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American Gods Episode 1: The Bone Orchard

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After a short stretch in prison, all gentle giant Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) wants to do is get back to his Indiana home town and pick up where he left off with his loving wife, Laura (Emily Browning). Her death in a car accident scuppers those plans, and with his whole life ripped out from under him he sees no reason not to take a job as bodyguard and general dogsbody to Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane, and hallelujah for that), a mysterious itinerant conman. That decision leads Shadow into a weird underground world of fallen gods and strange magic – a world that is gearing up for a war between the Old Gods and the New.

That is, at least, the overall conceit, but whether your average viewer can pick up what American Gods is putting down might depend on whether they’re familiar with the source novel by Neil Gaiman or, indeed, his broader body of work. In its first episode at least, American Gods gives up its secrets reluctantly, and while there are clues aplenty layered into the dense pilot, there are also surprises that would be a shame to spoil.

Still, there are enough pieces in play to get a sense of the show’s ambition and general direction. A hilariously bloody opening that sees a shipful of Vikings chopping each other into sashimi sets up the notion of immigrant populations bringing their own gods to America, and subsequent scenes leave us in no doubt that those gods are still around, eking out a living in what Tom Waits once called the warm, wet, narcotic American night. We only meet a couple in this first outing. There’s Bilquis (Yetide Badaki), a love goddess who lives on the worship of her romantic conquests, and Mad Sweeney (Pablo Schreiber), a pugnacious Irishman who claims to be a leprechaun and can produce gold coins out of thin air.

And there’s Mr. Wednesday himself, whose identity is heavily hinted at without being stated outright (a quick perusal of Gaiman’s latest, Norse Mythology, might be in order). His agenda is similarly opaque at this stage. Indeed, American Gods is pulling as much from noir tradition as from the various mythologies that Gaiman is famous for remixing – if you look at Shadow as a kind of hulking Philip Marlowe going down these mean and magical streets, you’re not too far off. At one point he even gets shanghaied by the opposition for a limousine-backseat interrogation by one of their number, computer spirit Technical Boy (Bruce Langley).

We don’t learn much about Technical Boy and his pantheon yet, and that is as it should be – a few more episodes like this, and you’ll either be praying for an info-dump or overwhelmingly grateful there hasn’t been one yet. The world of American Gods is a strange and sorcerous one, and as viewers we should be on the backfoot to some degree, looking for meaning and causality in a place that runs on older and stranger rules, where symbols mean more than objects, and dreams are as real as waking life.

All of it is packaged in a gorgeously rich and dark visual package, as you would expect from showrunners Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) and Michael Green (Gotham), not to mention pilot director David Slade (30 Days of Night). The show has been production-designed to within an inch of its life, but with the narrative’s emphasis on signs and portents in mind, that makes perfect sense – on some level this thing is all about finding a signal in the noise of the mundane world, and presenting an ordered, readable and, lest we forget, darkly beautiful version of the world underlines that theme.

As a first step into a weirder, wider world, the pilot for American Gods is the business. This promises to be a rich, resonant, haunting series, in the way you hope every urban fantasy show is. What puts it ahead of the pack is that it takes itself seriously. So many series in this vein hedge their bets, winking at the audience about the ludicrousness of their premise. It’s something Joss Whedon was able to pull off with his Buffyverse, but almost no other creator has managed the trick since. American Gods, while not without humour, goes in the other direction, shooting for weirdness and awe. Our first meeting with Bilquis will probably be the litmus test for most viewers: whether that sequence strikes you as amazing or preposterous will tell you whether this series is for you.

It’s certainly for us. If this high note is maintained, American Gods is liable to be the best urban fantasy series since, well, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If it can avoid the Fuller Curse, whereby the erstwhile showrunner tends to get his series’ cancelled out from under him by the powers that be, we should be in for a hell of a trip.

American Gods will premiere on Amazon Prime Video on May 1, 2017. Customers who are not already Amazon Prime Video members can sign up for a free 7-day trial at PrimeVideo.com.

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Mass Effect: Andromeda

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The original Mass Effect trilogy had the feel of a trashy but engaging series of space operas. The story was compelling if derivative, the gameplay was fun albeit familiar, but it was the characters, and the player’s relationship with them, that made the series so strong. The bonds you forged, sometimes emotional, sometimes physical, with the characters – human and alien – were where the true joys of the series lay.

The series ended with Mass Effect 3, featuring a conclusion that very few found satisfying. Still, despite not sticking the landing the first three Mass Effect games are generally remembered fondly. Sadly I suspect the same will not be true for Mass Effect: Andromeda.

Released five years after ME3, Mass Effect: Andromeda is an attempt at a soft reboot: new galaxy, new characters, new adventures. In theory it’s a wonderful idea. No more Shepard baggage, no need to deal with “that” ending, a clean slate. Why then did BioWare choose to play it so damn safe and dull?

This time around players control one of the Ryder siblings as they attempt to guide the various people of The Initiative in the Andromeda galaxy. The concept of you the player being the alien in a mysterious new galaxy is a fantastic one, but it’s never even vaguely explored in a meaningful fashion. Within one or two missions everyone will be calling you “Pathfinder” and the reused, bipedal aliens you’ve seen in the original trilogy (plus two new, rather dull, also bipedal races) all react in familiar, predictable ways.

Mass Effect: Andromeda Gameplay

Mass Effect: Andromeda Gameplay

Worse still is the game’s writing. It’s wildly inconsistent, veering from mildly interesting to jaw-droppingly infantile from moment to moment. It’s like the writers chucked the script in blender full of tropes, quirky one-liners and solemn-sounding bullshit and concocted a smoothie of staggering, derivative mediocrity. Every moment of wonder is swiftly undone by a clanger delivered by you or an NPC and it’s hard to engage with characters when they seems to change at the capricious whims of someone unseen, idiotic deity.

All this would be pretty disappointing even if the game functioned beautifully but, as you may be aware already, Mass Effect: Andromeda is beset by a bewildering number of bugs, glitches and outright broken elements. On my playthrough on PS4 I glitched through walls, fell through the ground, experienced mission markers that wouldn’t work until I reset the game and textures popping in and out like a demented fever dream. Although the combat is slicker and better tuned than previous ME games, it’s difficult to get swept up in the action when your enemies randomly hover above the ground staring into the middle distance like gormless mannequins.

The end result is that Mass Effect: Andromeda often feels like a slog. Occasional moments of combat and exploration-based excitement are buried beneath bad writing, poor characters and technical issues that sap the immersion and enjoyment with depressing regularity. There are elements of a good game buried in the mess that is Mass Effect: Andromeda, hidden beneath fetch quests and howlingly bad dialogue, but it too often feels like tedious grunt work to try and find them. Exploring a brand new alien galaxy should never feel this relentlessly average.

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