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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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Hereditary

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Every couple of years a horror movie arrives on the scene, buoyed along on a sea of foaming hyperbole and exaggerated accolades. On the plus side this tends to get said film noticed in a crowded market, on the minus side audiences can feel duped into seeing something not represented by the marketing materials. It happened with It Follows (2014) and The Witch (2015) – both fine films, but hardly the soul-scarring fright fests promised by the advertising campaigns – and apparently it’s happening again with Ari Aster’s Hereditary. “This generation’s The Exorcist” is the feverish commendation hung around the neck of this genre flick, like a recently killed albatross, and though it’s an exciting notion it’s utterly facile. Hereditary is not the equal of The Exorcist, nor is it trying to be the heir to that meticulous, pragmatic masterpiece – it’s very much its own thing. But is that thing a winner? That’s… kind of a big question.

Hereditary begins with a deceptively simple premise. A family comprising Annie Graham (Toni Collette), husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), son Peter (Alex Wolff) and daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro) are dealing with their complicated feelings of grief over the death of a frankly difficult matriarch. Annie begins to notice some strange behaviour exhibited by the already fairly odd Charlie, and while investigating her mother’s belongings begins to suspect something sinister lurked in the difficult lady’s life. And then, just as you’re relaxing into your seat because you know exactly what kind of movie this is going to be, something genuinely shocking happens and Hereditary switches gears completely. And, without spoiling the specifics, the film will do this at least twice more before its too-long runtime of 127 minutes is over, leaving you gaping at the screen and wondering what the fuck just happened.

It’s not an exaggeration to say the second half of Hereditary contains some of the weirdest, most surreal imagery in a mainstream horror film for some years. This is less William Friedkin and more Lucio Fulci, with shades of off-the-wall 1980s Italian cinema and some of the more outré gear from the US in the 1970s. Ari Aster’s direction is initially sombre and contained, using close-ups of Annie’s miniature houses to subtly convey menace, but also manages to showcase the later supernatural shenanigans with surprising restraint, rarely resorting to jump scares or hokey cliches. Toni Collette absolutely gnaws the scenery with relish, making her neurotic, complex character live and breathe in ways both deeply uncomfortable and profoundly human. That said, the script has Alice and the rest of the family making frequently baffling decisions that work in a Dario Argento-esque fever dream kind of way, but are hard to empathise with on any logical level. The film is also too long, with the second act in particular chugging along before finding its feet for the finale, and some judicious edits would have helped sustain the tension throughout.

Ultimately Hereditary is a strange, shaggy beast. Beautifully acted and directed, featuring a gleefully bizarre script and containing some wonderful imagery, it’s an easy film to recommend to adventurous genre lovers. But please, for you own sake, don’t walk in expecting The Exorcist or anything like it. For all the controversy it generated, that iconic 1973 film was a fairly traditional tale of good vs evil. Hereditary on the other hand is a strange, horror/art house hybrid that contains as many shades of Yorgos Lanthimos (The Lobster, The Killing of a Sacred Deer) as it does Friedkin and Blatty. Hereditary is absolutely worth watching on the big screen, but just know you’re in for an unsettlingly surreal, discomforting experience rather than the “cower behind your cinema seat in terror” caper promised on the tin. Expectations adjusted accordingly Hereditary is well worth your time and stunned confusion.