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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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Animal World

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Bored with the run-of-the-mill tentpoles populating the local megaplex? Go see the new Chinese actioner,  Animal World. Not because it’s good, but because it’s such a singular beast. Superhero fatigue is a real thing, but there’s not a single documented case of hallucinogenic-clown-vigilante-monster-fighter-oh-wait-it’s-actually-about-rock-paper-scissors-fatigue on record. How could there be? That’s a genre of one (even though it’s kind of a remake).

Our hero, Zheng Kaisi (Li Feng Yi), is a loser. Working a dead end job and struggling to pay for his comatose mother’s medical bills, in times of stress he imagines he’s a sword-wielding superhero clown battling garish demons in a hyper-stylised urban dystopia. You could be forgiven for thinking that this nugget of weirdness would be Animal World‘s main focus, but no – the whole clown thing is just kind of there, one more oddity in a sea of strange. Kaisi goes in with his childhood friend Li Jun (Cao Bingkun) on a dodgy real estate deal, and when old mate blows the money on a gambling spree, he finds himself owing big to a shadowy American crime lord (Michael Douglas, picking up a cheque but still giving it a shot) who offers him a chance to square his debt: all he has to do is get on a ship (called Destiny, because subtlety is for losers), which is departing for international waters, on which a dangerous contest will be taking place…

You’re expecting some kind of underground gladiatorial scenario where jaded plutocrats bet money on the desperate debtor of their choice, and that is almost what you get, but instead of facing off in the Octagon, Kaisi and his fellow unfortunates are forced to play rock-paper-scissors for their lives.

Not even joking.

Animal World is such a strange concoction that you spend a fair bit of time expecting that the film will lurch off in another bizarre direction, but no – this is the main plot. Kaisi and old buddy Li Jun, who has also been pressganged, team up with a third chump to try and win the day – it turns out Kaisi’s father was a math teacher and our man has a knack for running the numbers, working out the best strategy for all three of them to win. Director Yan Han dramatises the film’s frequent discourses on math and game theory in the style of A Beautiful Mind by way of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes movies, employing swirling cameras, crash zooms, CGI diagrams and more to spice up the, for want of a better word, action. It works, too: Yan Han is a madly inventive filmmaker, and his brand of flashy visual style carries the day.

Up to a point, at least – Animal World is easily half an hour too long and it’s hard to get over the fact that, holy crap, this is a movie about rock-paper-scissors and we’re kind of expected to take it seriously. Still, for sheer oddness this film deserves a look – and you can expect Yan Han to be helming a Luc Besson-produced action thriller or similar sooner rather than later.

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Ant-Man and the Wasp

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While the rest of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its hands full dealing with the existential threat that is Thanos over in Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp deals with crises of an appropriately smaller scale: Evangeline Lily’s Hope Van Dyne/The Wasp (she is rarely if ever called by her nom de super) and her genius father, Henry Pym (Michael Douglas) need a gizmo to finish the “quantum tunnel” they’re building in hopes of rescuing Janet Van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), mother to the former and wife to the latter, from the microscopic “Quantum Realm” where she was lost many years gone by. Black market technology broker Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) has the widget, but he wants Pym’s own technology to sell to the highest bidder. The villainous – or is she? – Ghost (Hannah John-Kamen), who can phase through solid objects, also wants the gadget for her own reasons. All reformed thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), aka Ant-Man, wants to do is run out the clock on the two years of house arrest he was sentenced to after the events of Captain America: Civil War. No such luck…

After seeing half the universe wiped out in the last Marvel big screen outing, the modest stakes of Ant-Man and the Wasp seem almost quaint. It’s not about saving the world, but about rescuing one person. We’re not up against the ultimate evil, but a shifty arms dealer and a rogue spy. The big prize is a few mended fences – Scott has been on the outs with Hope and Hank in the two years since we last checked in, and one of this film’s chief narrative arcs is him getting back in their good graces.

It’s actually refreshing, and for all that the Ant-Man films are goofy comedy capers, they’re among the more emotionally astute offerings from the Marvel stable. We might enjoy spectacle, but let’s face it – the idea of the end of the universe is pretty abstract. However, almost everyone can relate to wanting to amend for past mistakes, or be a good role model for your kid (Judy Greer, Bobby Cannavale, and Abby Ryder-Fortson are back as Lang’s family).

Which doesn’t mean we don’t get a healthy dose of effects and action, but it takes a while for Ant-Man and the Wasp to get there, only really kicking into gear with a rather great chase through a restaurant kitchen pretty late in the game. The Ant-Man schtick is a simple one – people and objects shrink or grow – but director Peyton Reed and his team certainly find it malleable enough to keep discovering new wrinkles – although perhaps the best is the office building/roller luggage bit seen in the trailers.

Still, the film’s real strength is its cast – it’s simply a lot of fun to hang out with Lang and his extended circle. Michael Pena’s Luis remains the comedic MVP, but only just; almost everyone gets a chance to crack wise, and the film is only a couple of degrees off being a straight-up comedy. Only John-Kamen’s angsty Ghost really gets to grips with the usual woe-is-me superhero self pity, and she’s got her reasons. John-Kamen’s turn here is pretty great, but as a character Ghost feels a little out of place in this sunnier suburb of the MCU. Similarly, Goggins’ villain hardly seems like a credible threat even when he’s having a sinister henchman dope people with truth serum. Ant-Man’s real nemesis is actually Randall Park’s ineffectual FBI agent, who’s assigned to keep tabs on him while he’s under house arrest – a guy so nice he moonlights as a youth pastor.

Happily, Ant-Man and the Wasp is so breezy and charming that what would be defects in a more self-serious film are assets here. Marvel movies sometimes have tonal issues resulting from trying to straddle the line between the comedic and the dramatic – the much-loved Thor: Ragnarok is notably guilty of this – but this latest effort solves that equation by all but jettisoning the dramatic. What we’re left with is a nimble, light and enjoyable jaunt that probably won’t make anyone’s Best Of lists, but is nonetheless hugely enjoyable in the moment.

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The Swan (Scandinavian Film Festival)

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A girl alone in the wild nature of the world and a girl alone with her thoughts in a beguiling and disruptive atmosphere. Two sides of the same coin in this magical debut feature from Ása Helga Hjörleifsdótirr, which draws on Icelandic folk tales and dreamworlds to produce an enchanting film of subtle intensity.

The ethereal landscape of rural Iceland is beautifully captured in a film seen almost exclusively from the point of view of the girl in question, rebellious nine-year-old Sól (Gríma Valsdóttir). She has been packed off to her great aunt and uncle’s in the countryside after being caught shoplifting.

“You don’t have the eyes of a thief,” are her great aunt’s welcoming words on her arrival, and the tone doesn’t get much easier for Sól, often preferring to converse with the farm animals rather than the local villagers.

One person she does find a connection with is seasonal farmhand Jón (Thor Kristjansson), a troubled young man who spends his nights penning extended diary entries that Sól can only begin to guess at the meaning of. Both characters feel hard done by the world and uncomfortable with the day to day business of the farm. It is in the untamed and enchanting surroundings of the hills, valleys and waterside that they find some brief respite from the pain of normal life.

Further disturbance to Sól’s reading of the day-to-day is brought with the appearance of her cousin   Ásta (Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir). Pregnant and harbouring secrets, she becomes a muse for Sól’s more poetic and dramatic thoughts. The girl empathises with the young woman’s dilemma of whether to give birth to a fatherless child, even as she struggles to comprehend the full implications of it.

All across the film, Sól is given a crash course in just how tough adult life can be. Blood spills onto the flowers and in the farmland, where life is merely surviving and things either have a usefulness and purpose or they don’t.

The film blends the internal thoughts of Sól with dramatic shots of the impressive vistas of Iceland’s rural beauty to great effect. Even when the tone of the story threatens to get too bleak, there is always the idea of the unconstrained natural world coming to the rescue. The darkest of human thoughts and activities can pale and lose their power in the face of the power of nature. A sobering thought, brought to bear by this unusual and memorably reflective drama.

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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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Bam Bam

Australian, Documentary, Festival, Film Festival, Review, This Week Leave a Comment

Jemma van Loenen’s documentary introduces audiences to Bianca ‘Bam Bam’ Elmir, a young boxer from Canberra, on her quest to win a World Boxing Championship.

Elmir is a determined fighter who will let nothing get in her way. A Lebanese Muslim, who has won multiple Australian and International Championships, Elmir faces many obstacles – getting her family’s approval, the views of her community, opponents in the ring, among others. Elmir at one point is barred from fighting, due to a drugs ban.

Despite her unorthodox nature, and the odds stacked against her, the boxer revels in victory.

Winning supersedes everything. This is what she does it for. To stand victorious.

Elmir’s an individual who thrives on smashing expectations: she takes part in a Muslim Mardi Gras Event; her coach tells her not to go out and drink, she goes out until 4am; she enters a match a significant underdog, and wins handily.

She has no issues reflecting on, and savouring the gory blood of her opponent, and subverting her family’s expectations.

She relishes the fear in her opponent’s eyes, that moment before they receive the knockout punch.

But despite all her victories and tenacity, at the end of the day, Elmir doesn’t quite know how to deal with herself when she’s not fighting. This is what the documentary is about – identity and the subject’s life away from sport. Her biggest fight is within herself.

Elmir’s coach talks about the qualities of the boxer, how she gives back to the community. Unfortunately, at times this feels like a lecture.

Cinematographers William Sheridan and Stephen Ramplin provide intimate footage of the athlete’s struggle, capturing this flight.

Director Jemma van Loenen ultimately serves up an absorbing story of an athlete dedicated to their sport, a portrait of an individual fighting for, and fighting against herself.

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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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Amateurs (Scandinavian Film Festival)

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A standout in this year’s festival, the Swedish film Amateurs is a delightfully crafted drama embracing community spirit and small-town activism.

Gabriela Pichler’s second feature (after her 2012 film Eat, Sleep, Die) focuses on the fictional region of Lafors, as its townsfolk have a month to produce a film to herald a low-cost German supermarket chain opening a new shop in the area.

This great premise allows Pichler to explore the small town in detail, both through the town council’s approved PR film as well as films submitted by local high school kids. These range from a Tarantino style shoot out to a wistful emotional fragment of tormented verse captured shakily on camera.

Two of these high school students, Aida (Zahraa Aldoujaili) and Dana (Yara Aliadotter) both children of immigrant families, are the shining lights of this fantastically effective film, showing us the true Lafors experience, as opposed to the diluted and sanctioned version.

The film brilliantly uses the handheld process of the girls’ filming and interposes it with the ongoing film of their parents’ reactions to them getting into trouble by being too forthright in their interviewing techniques. While Dana’s well to do family are supportive of her creativity, Aida’s mother is fearful of losing her cleaning job because of the girl’s hijinx. Class differences and the threat of racial prejudice hangs in the air, and the further we go into the realities of the place, the more this comes out.

Aida’s mother’s view of the town and Sweden is caught on her daughter’s camera as she takes a brief break from cleaning the council offices. Her daughter asks her what the most Lafors thing is to her and she answers poignantly that it is ‘the air, the wind, the sound of the water’. It is just another remarkable moment in this compelling feature that has so many affecting scenes.

The councilman entrusted with the film’s production is Musse (a fantastic Fredrik Dahl, in his first screen performance), also the child of an immigrant. His mother is suffering from a form of dementia and has forgotten the Swedish she was once fluent in. As it was the language Musse’s family spoke at home, he never learned Tamil, the only language his mother can now speak. Their scenes together beautifully pinpoint the importance of communication, and how some things cannot be expressed with words.

Even when the film gets into the murky territory of local politics and identity, it succeeds in  creating a show of how there are universal problems and universal solutions to all kinds of difficulties. From the economic hardships experienced by small towns everywhere as industries die and unravel, to the challenges faced by new arrivals to distant lands, Amateurs is a skilfully wrought depiction of a modern fable. It is a heart-warming and energetic show of humanity, taking in the power of art and film, culture and language, and more than anything else, friendship. It’s a film to treasure.

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Leave No Trace (Melbourne International Film Festival)

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13 year old Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) lives off the grid with her father, Will (Ben Foster) deep in a forested national park. Theirs is a simple, quiet life: they live off the land, trading for supplies only when absolutely necessary. They fear discovery, running drills to practice hiding from interlopers. When, inevitably, they are found by the authorities and forced to try and reintegrate into mainstream society, the decisions they must make will change their relationship forever.

Debra Granik’s first fiction feature film since 2010’s superb Winter’s Bone isn’t quite a two-hander but it might as well be, so tight is the focus on the relationship between Will and Tom. Other characters come into and out of their story – a small colony of homeless veterans, a well-meaning Christmas tree farmer (Jeff Kober) who offers them a place to live, the matriarch of a small trailer park community (Dale Dickey, and let’s take a moment to acknowledge her as one of the best character actors working today) – but they’re bit players, background noise to Tom and Will and their shifting dynamic.

But what is that dynamic? That’s something the audience has to pay close attention to. The script, adapted by Granik and  Anne Rosellini from Peter Rock’s novel My Abandonment, is a sparse one, lean on dialogue and unnecessary exposition. It becomes apparent that Will is a military veteran suffering from catastrophic PTSD to the point where he is all but non-functional in the confines of normal society. For her part, Tom is devoted to her father, but when exposed to the “real” world she doesn’t see it as all that bad – the horrors it holds for him have no effect on her. For Will, though, the modern world is hell.

That’s the essential tension at work in Leave No Trace – Will can’t live a normal life, but Tom could, and their love for each other is preventing that. Crucially, there are no villains present in the narrative, no stone-faced authority figures trying to tear the pair apart. Rather, there’s a succession of helping hands extended that Will feels driven to slap away – to Tom’s growing consternation. Just as crucially, the film refuses to look down on their woodsy lifestyle – it’s not presented as grotesquely impoverished, dirty, or hardscrabble, but rather a fairly harmonious and tranquil existence. Still, we know that for the bright and empathetic Tom, opportunities that would be afforded her in a more mainstream setting are going undiscovered. As it becomes increasingly clear that no compromise is possible – even a trailer home in the woods is too much for Will – tragedy looms.

Excellent performances carry the day, with Foster in top form and newcomer McKenzie doing great work (given Granik “discovered” Jennifer Lawrence with Winter’s Bone, expect a harsh spotlight on McKenzie while this one does the rounds). The intimacy between them feels real and unforced, and so too does their pain. The stripped down script and Granik’s quiet, unfussy camera and editing style mean that the film relies heavily on its actors to capture the audience’s attention, and Leave No Trace is never less than utterly arresting.

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Stooge (Revelation Film Festival)

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You might love Iggy Pop, but not as much as British fan Rob Pargiter, who has been the Wild One’s principal devotee since first seeing Iggy and his band, The Stooges, back in 1979. Pargiter doesn’t have a lot going for him – he’s long term unemployed, eccentric, and somewhat aimless, bar one burning drive: meet Iggy. Madeleine Farley’s documentary, Stooge, tracks Pargiter’s quest over the course of the three years leading up to his 50th birthday as the fan of all fans, having sold his house to underwrite his campaign, follows the Stooges on tour around the world in an attempt to meet his idol.

What price fandom? That’s the key question here, and one asked by the film overall and Pargiter’s best mate, the droll and philosophical Peter, specifically – he has, after all, seen Rob spend his entire life and meager fortune in pursuit of The Stooges. Yet Pargiter’s love of the band gives him such joy and such drive that it’s hard to fault it – especially when he confesses that Iggy’s music helped pull him out of a very dark place. His love of The Stooges is his raison d’etre.

The question remains: what would Rob do if he ever met Iggy? Perhaps ask him to play ping pong, as our hero once idly muses? The film gets really interesting when Rob has a few near misses with Pop, backing away from opportunities to interact with his idol lest he cross over into stalker territory. Then we learn that Rob has been on stage with the Stooges at various shows around the world, and drummer Scott Asheton and saxophonist Steve MacKay note that they remember him dancing at shows – it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine Iggy remembers him too. So why the reticence? Is it that, once his lifelong goal is achieved he might actually have, as he ruefully observes at one point, “…straighten up and fly right”?

Well, that would be telling. Does it give too much away to say that Stooge is ultimately a celebration of fandom rather than a condemnation of obsession? You might not love The Stooges (but you should), but you can love Rob for loving the Stooges – he’s an amiable, softly self-deprecating guy, and it’s easy to get in his corner and root for him to follow his dreams, even if his dreams might not make sense to the outside observer. At the end of the day, Stooge champions empathy and exults in small victories, and that’s rather wonderful.

If nothing else, you’ll be humming Iggy tunes for days after.