Vivarium: Nature is Cruel, Even Unnaturally – Amazon Prime Review

A couple are trapped in a suburban nightmare.

SUMMARY

Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are a couple who are looking to buy their first house together. Gemma is a schoolteacher and Tom is a landscaper. They visit a real estate agent, Martin (Jonathan Aris), who tells them of a new development called Yonder. Yonder is revealed to be filled with identical houses, all of them empty except for number 9. Martin disappears while showing them the location, and when Tom and Gemma try to leave, they can’t find an exit to the suburb, eventually running out of gas. No matter what they try, they can’t get out of the maze of houses. They end up finding a box filled with food, and a second box filled with a baby, with instructions that if they raise the baby, they will be released. Unfortunately, the child (Côme Thiry/Senan Jennings/Eanna Hardwicke) proves to be just as unnatural as Yonder itself.

I feel like this is a number of red flags.

END SUMMARY

First of all, both of the leads in this movie are fantastic actors who I have loved in other films, including The Art of Self-Defense, their previous collaboration. They’ve both got a knack for balancing dramatic roles with a heavy dose of relatability and humor. This movie takes full advantage of that by having just the right amount of levity to drive home how horrible their situation is. We see two people whose relationship is suffering not necessarily because of their own actions, but because they are in a situation which is literally driving them both insane. The third lead role belongs to Senan Jennings, who I have never seen in anything before, but who absolutely nails his role as the Boy. Not only is his voice constantly unnerving because it sounds so adult despite his young age (I think he was only like 8 when filming this), but everything about him seems like a mockery of humanity. Since he ultimately seems to be just trying to copy Gemma and Tom in order to better understand how humanity acts, much as how the suburb is set up to be a pale imitation of how humanity lives, this is just perfect.

Seriously, this kid’s freaking great.

That’s really where this movie shines. It’s uncomfortable. It’s not that Gemma and Tom are really being tortured most of the time, although having a crazy child that is rapidly aging would be disconcerting for anyone, but their existence is not really existence. The food they have doesn’t have taste. The house they live in doesn’t have any real smells. There’s even a great scene of them going into their car just because it’s the only thing they have left that still feels “real.” The houses are too identical. Even the clouds aren’t right, because they just look like clouds. It’s like living in a twisted caricature of reality. Watching how much it starts to drain the psyche of our leads, particularly Poots, just drives home that this is a torture which is more cruel than any thumbscrews could ever be. 

God, so disturbing.

The one big problem I have with the movie is that it might be a bit too direct in trying to tell everyone what it’s “about.” The film opens with footage of a cuckoo bird’s life cycle, which consists of being placed in another bird’s nest as an egg, hatching before the other eggs and developing faster than most species of birds, which allows the adolescent cuckoo to knock the other chicks out of the nest. Having killed their competition, the cuckoo is then raised by the mother bird until it’s an adult. So, that’s a bit of a massive spoiler about this film’s arc. Also, the title tells us that the neighborhood is supposed to be a Vivarium, a place where life is grown while observed as part of data collection or experimentation. I think the film was clear enough, so it feels unnecessary to have it spelled out so much, but maybe that’s nitpicking. 

Hey, it was just a critique.

Overall, this was a solid horror film. I recommend giving it a try. 

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Reader Request Mini-Review – Black Christmas (2019): How To Not Make a Progressive Horror Film

I finally got around to watching the not-remake of the original slasher film and it tries to update horror films, but it just doesn’t quite pull it off.

SUMMARY (SPOILERS!!!!)

It’s approaching Christmas and Hawthorne College is about to go on break. Sorority girl Lindsey (Lucy Currey) is murdered by a group of masked figures after getting threatening messages from an account with the name of the founder of the College, Calvin Hawthorne. Riley Stone (Imogen Poots) is a member of Mu Kappa Epsilon who was recently raped by Alpha Kappa Omicron fraternity president Brian Huntley (Ryan McIntyre). Unfortunately, no one believes her aside from her closest friends. She meets Landon (Caleb Eberheart), an AKO member who seems to like her. Riley and her sorority sisters Kris, Marty, and Jesse (Aleyse Shannon, Lily Donoghue, Brittany O’Grady) perform a skit at the AKO frat about Riley’s rape which angers the members. While in the Frat House, Riley encounters the brothers performing a strange ritual involving a bust of Calvin Hawthorne which Kris had recently forced the University to move from the main building due to Hawthorne’s racism and misogyny. 

BlackChristmas - 1Angel
Lindsey’s snow angel as she’s made a literal angel. 

Back at the MKE house, Lindsey’s killers abduct MKE sister Helena (Madeleine Adams). The next day, the sisters start getting texts from the same account that was messaging Lindsey and one, Fran (Nathalie Morris), is murdered. Riley tries to report the disappearances, but the security officers ignore her. She also has a strange encounter with Professor Gelson (Cary Elwes), whom Kris tried to have fired for his misogyny. Jesse is murdered and Riley, Kris, and Marty are attacked by a masked archer and two other assailants. Marty is killed, but the other two kill one of the attackers, who bleeds black goo. Riley identifies him as an AKO member. 

BlackChristmas - 2Bow
Ah yes, the traditional Christmas archery.

Riley and Kris leave the house and Riley heads to the frat to try and fight the brothers, who she believes are possessed by the spirit of Calvin Hawthorne. She encounters Landon and he comes with her while Kris heads to Lindsey’s sorority, which is also being attacked. Kris rescues the other girls as Riley and Landon get to the frat house. Riley finds Helena, but gets knocked out while Landon is “inducted” into the frat. She awakens tied to a chair and it’s shown that Gelson has been leading the AKO boys as part of a scheme by Calvin Hawthorne to keep “unruly women” in check. His bust spits black goo that allows Gelson to control the pledges and use them to murder rebellious women. Some women, including Helena, have secretly been helping them, but Helena is murdered anyway. Riley is saved by the arrival of Kris and the other sorority girls who attack the frat guys. Riley kills Brian, her rapist, and Kris sets Gelson on fire. Landon and the girls escape, locking the Frat brothers in with the fire, killing them. 

END SUMMARY

First, this is not a remake of Black Christmas, the 1974 film which is typically considered one of the first “slasher” movies, in anything but name. Yes, it involves killing sorority girls, but so does almost every 80s horror film, and I don’t consider those to be remakes of Sorority House Massacre. On the other hand, Silent Night, Deadly Night is already a horror series, so I guess we’re out of names. It doesn’t help that basically nothing in the movie requires that it be set at Christmas aside from name recognition.

BlackChristmas - 4Group
And an excuse for a subversion of a sexy Christmas girl image.

I’m a big fan of using horror as a metaphor for real-life issues, because I think that’s something that horror can do well and I think it’s actually helpful for people to envision their problems as monsters because monsters can be dealt with and it gives hope that problems can as well. This movie messes but by not really coming up with a solid metaphor, and the one that it comes up with does the opposite of what it should. 

BlackChristmas - 5Sisters
This scene came off as less “empowering” and more “deus ex machina” to me, but I admit to bias.

To its credit, the film is trying to address a real issue by talking about rape culture on college campuses. Since that kind of subject matter can make for a challenging and interesting horror movie and can really be done well via a dozen different metaphors, it’s perfect for a female-led cast and crew who can hopefully flesh it out. Unfortunately, while the movie had a great opportunity to do just that, it had three big flaws. The first is that, aside from the opening scene, it didn’t tie the vulnerability of women on campuses in well with the horror elements. Women are constantly put in a position of having to feel like they need to take extra precaution to avoid regular attackers, so expanding that to the slashers has been done regularly over the years and could have been done better here. Second, it just wasn’t that scary. Not that horror movies need to be constantly terrifying, but there was barely any tension in much of this movie because of the pacing. It was either all go on the horror or all go on the subplots, rarely were they blended at all. Third, and most importantly, the ending ruins everything. 

BlackChristmas - 6Mask
Ah yes, the traditional Christmas… masks?

See, the supernatural element really wrecks the potential metaphor and also the narrative, because if the frat brothers were all just possessed by an evil spirit, then they aren’t culpable. I mean, Brian is, because he wasn’t possessed when he raped Riley and Gelson is, because he is the one facilitating the brainwashing, but since Landon could be immediately swayed to do the Frat’s bidding against his will, then so could any of the frat brothers. At the end of the movie, they could have locked in a room full of potentially innocent people to burn to their deaths. What’s most horrible about this is that it was so unnecessary. You could have had a frat that just breaks its members down until they’re obedient cult members or just had a group of ultra-misogynists or even had a group of abusers who actually have supernatural powers, but instead the film effectively burns a group of people to death right after pointing out that they might not have been culpable. It just didn’t need to be that way.

BlackChristmas - 3Bust
Also, the weeping goo bust was a weird way to do it.

In defense of the movie, much of it is pretty good, and Imogen Poots and Aleyse Shannon both were amazing in their roles. The dialogue was above-average for this kind of horror film and the direction was, usually, very creative and effective. It’s just that it never all came together. Also, again, it really didn’t need to take place at Christmas at all, except to try and cash in on the classic film. In retrospect, I guess the original didn’t have to take place at Christmas either, although it at least kept using Christmas stuff in the killings. 

Overall, I just don’t recommend it. I hope that the team gets more work, because it’s close to succeeding, but it just didn’t feel right this time.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Netflix Review – Green Room: One of the Best Modern Horror Films (Spoiler-Free)

Due to not being able to run a 90210 DVD on my computer (someone requested I review an episode before Luke Perry died), I have decided to give you all a special treat and review one of the best films of the last 10 years, Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room. I’m choosing to make it spoiler-free because I really want to encourage people to see this film.

SUMMARY

Pat (Anton Yelchin), Sam (Alia Shawkat), Reece (Joe Cole) and Tiger (Callum Turner) are members of  the punk band the “Ain’t Rights.” While traveling through Oregon, they have one of their gigs cancelled and, to make up for it, local DJ Tad (David W. Thompson) tells them that he can get a performance through his cousin, Daniel (Mark Webber), at a bar outside of Portland. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes apparent that the bar is actually a Neo-Nazi skinhead bar. The group, half of whom are Jewish, having pure metal in their hearts, decide to play anyway, even opening with an amazing cover of The Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks F*ck Off!!!” They end up impressing the crowd and getting paid for the show.  

GreenRoom - 1AintRights.png
They truly do rock the hate-filled house.

On the way out, Sam leaves her phone in the green room. Pat goes back to find it and sees the body of a dead girl (Taylor Tunes), having been stabbed to death by a Neo-Nazi. Pat calls the cops, but two Neo-Nazis, Gabe and Big Justin (Macon Blair and Eric Edelstein), take the phone and hold the Ain’t Rights hostage in the Green Room along with the dead girl’s friend, Amber (Imogen Poots). What follows is a solid 70 minutes of horrifying tension between the band and the Neo-Nazis and their leader, Darcy (Patrick “I am the man” Stewart).

GreenRoom - 2Stewart.jpg
The old man is scarier than the big, tattooed guy.

END SUMMARY

This movie is one of the rare horror movies where no one has to be arbitrarily stupid to move the plot along. Do people sometimes make choices that result in bad things happening? Absolutely, but they only do when either A) they don’t have any way of knowing that bad things will result, B) they are forced to make the choice while under duress or pressure, or C) there are no good options available. Personally, nothing frustrates me more in a horror film than where the writer has to force the cheerleader to run up the stairs rather than out the door or the character with the baseball bat to just assume that they killed the masked slasher rather than keep beating until they’re sure. Are there movies where these actions are justified? Absolutely, the original Halloween does both of them well, but most of the time it’s just a sign that the writer had a great idea for another scene, but not the wherewithal to get there organically. This film avoids all of that.

GreenRoom - 3Gun
Like, for example, these guys actually get a gun.

Most of the film is tension developed from both of the groups trying to out-gambit each other while they’re on different sides of a door. It’s basically a super-high-stakes negotiation and, full credit to Saulnier’s control over the setting and interactions, as well as Sean Porter’s great cinematography, it always feels like everything is building up to something bad. Without ever saying it, every moment tells you that the film is not going to end well for someone, whether it’s the Ain’t Rights or the Neo-Nazis. It’s a movie where the sets are basically caked with dread.

GreenRoom - 4Poots
Even the lighting says “misfortune ahead.”

The performances are all top-notch, particularly Anton Yelchin’s Pat, who manages to maintain control over a situation despite often having a weak position, Imogen Poots’ Amber, who is dealing with PTSD from the beginning of her performance and only gets more stressed throughout, and Macon Blair’s Gabe, who acts as a perfectly rational counterbalance to most of the Neo-Nazis. Then, there’s Patrick Stewart. It’s so hard to describe how perfectly he plays this character. He’s a grizzled leader of a group of racists, but he views most of them only as easily-controllable grunts. It’s not even clear that he actually cares that much about the ideology, but is perfectly willing to exploit all of them. Mostly, he’s always completely calm and rational. At every point, he counters any attempts by the band to gain the upper hand, often by talking them into not taking any actions at all. The film only really works as well as it does because he always conveys an inherent wisdom, authority, and control from everything he says.

GreenRoom - 5Stewart
Possibly because he commanded a starship.

If you haven’t seen this film and you have any love for horror or just great performances, you should see it.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.