VIVARIUM – movie review

VIVARIUM
Saban Films
Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Lorcan Finnegan
Screenwriter: Garret Shanley
Cast: Imogen Poots, Jesse Eisenberg, Senan Jennings, Eanna Harwike, Jonathan Aris
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 3/3/20
Opens: March 27, 2020

One of the most explosive and controversial books in recent times, David Benatar’s “The Human Predicament,” takes the view that giving birth is bad. Benatar is an anti-natalist not so much because of the usual reasons—too many people in the world leads to disastrous climate change and food shortages—but because, he believes, you are inflicting pain on your children. The happiness our children feel will is subordinate to their pain. Citing Benatar’s example, would you be willing to accept an hour of pain in return for getting an hour of pleasure? Hardly anyone would say yes. Which brings us to “Vivarium,” the word meaning a structure for keeping animals under semi-natural conditions for observation and experimentation.

Director Lorcan Finnegan, whose “Without Name” follows a land surveyor’s measuring an ancient forest, who loses his reason under supernatural conditions, is in his métier with “Vivarium,” a intriguing puzzle of a movie that will evoke several interpretations. The easy one is that the film is a satire on suburban living, which it is, not unlike “Suburbican,,” “The Burbs,” “Pleasantville,” “The Stepford Wives” and “Get Out.” However, think of the movie on deeper terms and you may agree that Garret Shanley’s screenplay is in its way a promulgation of Benatar’s book as the images on the screen for most of its 98 minutes show a young couple whose initial happiness gives way to months of continuing pain.

How so? Watch the progress, or regress, of a young couple on the cusp of life; Gemma (Imogen Poots) and her boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg). They’re looking for a dream house, white picket fence and spacious rooms, of course, because that’s what America is about. Gemma, an elementary school teacher, is good with her class, putting them through an exercise that has them identify with winged creatures. Just after dismissal she runs into one of her pupils who discovers two dead birds who have fallen out of their nest shortly after birth, a time that finds the young birds with open mouths tasting their first pangs of hunger. Perhaps they have just bird brains or maybe they can tell already that life is a vallis lacrimarum.

When Gemma and Tom consult Martin (Jonathan Aris), a real estate agent whose oddball behavior should have them running for the hills, they are escorted by him to a development called “Yonder,” where they behold a labyrinth of ticky-tacky houses, all painted puke-green. (Great set design by Julia Devin-power.) Impressed by the spaciousness inside number 9, they are surprised to note that the agent has disappeared. Set to go home, they wind up driving in a circular fashion, always landing back on number 9. Life is a circle, isn’t it? They take in a baby deposited in a box outside, a brat who grows daily, who imitates the actions of his, or its, foster parents, screams like the devil, and speaks in a voice not like Linda Blair’s Regan in “The Exorcist,” but like a grown man. Tom is ready to kill. Gemma has not reached that stage but hates the kid’s calling her “mother.” “I’m not your f******mother!”

Already the suburban dream has been smashed. The desire to have a child? Gone. The boxed-in togetherness of the trio drives both off the wall, the child being the only one who, despite screams, is looking to learn. Benatar’s prescription is swallowed with a vengeance, as relative moments of happiness are dissolved into hellish suffering. Like many other psychological thrillers, “Vivarium” begins with a light touch, moments of humor, dissipating in the second half, just as weird as the opening but loaded with misery.

This is a low-key sci-fi adventure with almost bloodless smidgens of horror which, with the crackerjack acting especially of Imogene Poots with Jesse Eisenberg in almost a supporting role is entertaining and enlightening. A fine performance from child actor Senan Jennins, who looks and acts something like CBS’s Young Sheldon, delivering the goods. Think before you marry or before you trust that a long-term relationship is heaven on earth. Think before you have children. Think before you believe suburban life is a cure-all or protective cocoon for life’s misfortunes. The universe is indifferent to you and so is your real estate agent.

98 minutes. © 2020 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B+
Technical – B
Overall – B+

FAST COLOR – movie review

FAST COLOR
Code Black
Reviewed for BigAppleReviews.net linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Julia Hart
Screenwriter: Julia Hart, Jordan Horowitz
Cast: Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, Saniyya Sidney, David Strathairn, Christopher Denham
Screened at: Dolby 24, NYC, 3/27/19
Opens: April 19, 2019

Fast Color Movie Poster

Are movies in 2019 heading for the metaphoric and the allegorical? You’d think so after seeing Jordan Peele’s “Us,” which throws symbols at us so fast that we’re glad the film is not in 3D. Where his “Get Out!” was about racism and the white liberals’ hypocrisy, “Us” is about the whole America, which Peele divides into the rich and powerful and the underclass that serves it. “Fast Color” is at base a sci-fi thriller with a few mild aspects of horror, its domestic scene serving largely to make us more aware of the need for men to crush feminism, but it is also about a helicopter parent who smothers her daughter to such an extent that she becomes rebellious and moves away for a long time. Still, it can be enjoyed even by folks who don’t give much of a fig (to coin a metaphor) for symbols, since it shows domestic scenes to which some of us can relate. And for those who like computer graphics/visual effects, director Julia Hart has her abundant visual effects team throw in some bright color, albeit not of the fast kind.

Julia Hart, whose “Miss Stevens” tracks a teacher who shepherds a group to a drama competition (to which I can relate since I arranged similar activities for my high school students), and the upcoming “Stargirl,” about a homeschooled teen who shakes this up in an Arizona high school, may not be dealing with high-school kids in “Fast Color” but her interest remains with young women. The primary focus, and that of her real-life husband Jordan Horowitz who serves as co-writer, is on Ruth (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a confused woman in her early thirties who is on the run. Formerly a drug addict, she for the past eight years of so has left her daughter Lila (Saniyya Sidney) in the care of Ruth’s mother Bo (Lorraine Toussaint).

Without the help of her mother, she is on the run from the government in a dystopian America that has not seen rain for a long time, conjuring up John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” if you will. She has a special power that makes a pursuing government out to haul her in to study her since when she has a seizure, the earth shakes and pictures fall from the wall of her solitary New Mexico town where Bo and Bo’s granddaughter are living. In particular Bill (Christopher Denham), a scientist who will advise Ruth to stop running because she is “hurting people,” has been trying to track her down.

This power has been handed down through the generations, though Bo, who does not get seizures, has a hobby of breaking up objects into molecules and putting them together, shown as she whips her cigarette into its toxic parts and puts it together. Much of the action is like the CGI; on a low key until the final minutes when the sky bursts into colors, the family’s principal trick consisting of taking the sky apart and putting it together into its current, bland blue color. Ultimately Sheriff Ellis (David Strathairn) hopes to track the runaway down, while we in the audience get the story’s principal twist. Yes, there’s something about this fellow that makes him more than just the enforcer of laws, a guy who has no intention of locking up his prey.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw has entertained audiences in “A Wrinkle in Time,” another imaginative tale involving a father’s disappearance in space and the team sent to find him, but you’re probably wondering about her name. Her father, Patrick Mbatha is a Black South African doctor, and her mother Anne Raw, a Caucasian English nurse. The British-born actress delivers nicely, whether causing earthquakes all around her during her seizures, breaking free of the ropes that bind her, or checking into a fleabag motel that charges as much for a huge jug of water as it does for the room, though despite her special powers she is vulnerable almost throughout.

The problem with “Fast Color” is that the story is not solid enough to convince the audience that it serves the transcendent purpose of seeing it as a feminist allegory of three women (yes, even young Lila can make a bowl rise from the table and disappear into a collage of colorful dots) being chased by men who, if they could, deprive the trio of their powers. Nor are we convinced that the behavior of Ruth’s mother, Bo, caused Ruth to disappear from a forlorn home and desert her own daughter for eight years. In short, the tale could have used more flashes of melodrama.

“Fast Color” was filmed by Michael Fimognari exclusively in New Mexico.

102 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – C+

THE ENDLESS – movie review

THE ENDLESS

Well Go USA Entertainment
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead
Screenwriter:  Justin Benson
Cast:  Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead, Callie Hernandez, Emily Montague, Lew Temple, Tate Ellington, James Jordan
Screened at: Review 1, NYC, 2/21/18
Opens: April 1, 2018
Inline image 1
As you watch “The Endless,” you may wonder where to file its genre.  Is it horror?  No, nobody gets slashed or murdered in any other way; quite the opposite, in fact.  Is it sci-fi?  To some extent only.  There are elements, but there’s no time travel, no new technology to rave about.  Is it dystopian?  Not that either.  It does not show the Earth after nuclear holocaust.  Zombie?  Vampire? What is it?

What can be said is that the low-budget indie is adept at creating atmosphere; more effectively, in fact, than any picture that appeared in 2017.  The music, the elements of fog, the occasional lapse into mumblecore, all create suspense, and the suspense will have a payoff in the end.  As the movie moves forward toward resolution, it picks up from a the pleasant chit-chat of a pair of brothers, steadily toward increasing anxieties as the brothers face an ensemble who at first welcomes them to their long-standing party.  They open their arms to them, try out some tricks such as a tug of war that they join with an invisible foe, to a sense that the good will they enjoyed when first meeting the group is turning to hostility.  At the same time the experience that the brothers are facing is pushing the two of them away from each other, the big brother no longer able to convince the younger one about the desirability of backtracking to their previous unfulfilled lives.

Justin Benson, who wrote the screenplay and co-directs the feature with Aaron Moorehead, are also its stars, one of them even serving as cinematographer.  Think of the money they saved by multi-tasking!  With a total production cost of just a million dollars, the film bears some comparison to “The Blair Witch Project,” which took in many times more than its cost. In a directors’ previous feature, “Resolution,” a man imprisons a junky friend in a cabin to force him to sobriety.  “The Endless” has one scene reminiscent but on the whole is a more developed piece of work than either that or of “Spring,” featuring a woman in Italy who harbors a dark secret.

“The Endless” is all about secrets, gaining intrigue as an audience wonders just what makes the group that the brothers meet so different even from other communal folks who have escaped from the rat race.  When Justin Smith (Justin Benson) and his kid brother Aaron (Aaron Moorhead) receive a videotape in the mail, we can’t help thinking that this will be one of those horror movies about screened events that warn or even imprison the viewers.  This time the tape does not intimidate but rather gives the younger man the excuse to revisit the commune at Camp Arcadia whose members took them in ten years earlier when they were orphaned by a car crash.  At that time Justin was barely able to convince Aaron to leave, to escape from what he calls a death cult, warning that they could be drinking the Kool Aid if they did not bounce.

The members, remembering the escape, are now forgiving.  They show magic tricks including a tug of war with a rope that seems to be attached to a cloud, competing with the two brothers by exerting a powerful force.  A baseball is thrown up and remains suspended in space for a minute before dropping into the hand of a guest.  One again, the older man pushes his brother to leave with him before it’s too late, but Aaron is intrigued, this time demanding the right to remain in the camp for good even if Justin leaves.

The visual effects are neat, especially strong since they are used with restraint, and as the twists multiply and the atmosphere becomes weirder and less explicable, we could expect a powerful conclusion to reveal the secrets of the commune which may have already become so much a part of their visit that it will affect them forever.

Unrated.  111 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B+
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – B

CURVATURE – movie review

CURVATURE

Screen Media Films
Reviewed by: Harvey Karten
Director:  Diego Hallivi
Screenwriter:  Brian DeLeeuw
Cast:  Lyndsy Fonseca, Alex Lanipekun, Glenn Morshower, Linda Hamilton, Noah Bean
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 1/17/18
Opens: February 23, 2018
Curvature Movie Poster
The use of time travel by movies is old hat.  Any new sci-fi tale using the hackneyed jargon is bound to be looked on as derivative and therefore without much entertainment value.  On the one hand we’ve got high box-office dramas like the “Terminator” series, and the more cerebral comic episodes of “Back to the Future.”  On the other hand you have films with genuine entertainment value for adults like “Brigadoon” and perhaps the best of all, “Groundhog Day.”

“Curvature” travels somewhere between the two extremes.  It involves time travel all right, though the actual experiments showing people zooming into the past and future are downplayed.  The performers are fine, principally Lyndsy Fonesca’s in the role of Helen, present in most of the scenes, as is the execution of his part by Zack Avery as Alex, a friend of Helen working with her in the robotics industry.

However something seems to be amiss with Brian DeLeeuw’s script.  Connections between Helen in the present and her dopplegänger in the past are cloudy.  It’s never clear just how Helen, having traveled in time to stop herself from a revenge killing Tomas (Glenn Morshower) the murderer and research partner of her husband, has two separate beings.  It’s bizarre enough to hear Helen answering her phone to hear herself give warnings about a BMW whose occupants mean her harm, but despite Diego Hallivi’s direction, the plot falters into incomprehensibility because of a confused screenplay.

As for the ethical dilemma that caused Wells (Noah Bean), her husband, to seek the end of experimentation with the time machine, that is anybody’s guess.  One wonders why Wells would want to conclude the research while his partner, who accuses Wells of being self-righteous, wants to continue.  The film could have been improved by an out-and-out understandable discussion of contemporary ethics.

The director’s only other feature film, “The Duel,” is more realistic, focusing on a man and his mother who move to a new city to start over.

Unrated.  89 minutes.  © 2018 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – B-
Technical – C+
Overall – C+