The Art of Self Defense: The Marketplace of Fear – Hulu Review

I take a look at this strange film about modern masculinity. No, not Fight Club.

SUMMARY (Spoilers)

Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) is an accountant who lives a solitary life. One evening he is brutally attacked by a motorcycle gang, hospitalizing him. When he recovers, he starts to get paranoid about his safety. He considers buying a gun, but instead attends a free karate class taught by “Sensei” (Alessandro Nivola). Casey meets Anna (Imogen Poots), a brown belt who teaches the children’s classes, and becomes friends with Henry (David Zellner), the Blue Belt. Casey dedicates himself fully to the class and soon is advanced to yellow belt. Sensei invites Casey to the night classes, which are more extreme, and tries to get Casey to change his life in order to become an alpha male. Unfortunately, while it impresses his douchier co-workers, Casey gets fired for throat-punching his boss… as you would expect.

So much of the movie is thinking about throat punching.

At the night class, Henry sneaks in and Sensei breaks his arm. Anna brutally spars with a new black belt and beats him unconscious. She reveals that Sensei won’t make a woman a black belt. Sensei hires Casey as the dojo’s accountant and helps Casey track down and beat up a man who Sensei claims was part of the gang that injured Casey. It’s revealed that the man was innocent and Sensei records Casey attacking him as blackmail. Casey returns home to find that someone has killed his dog using a technique from the dojo. He accuses Sensei, who denies it.

He also wears a yellow belt everywhere.

Sensei takes a number of students out to ride motorcycles and orders them to attack people. Anna and Casey are partnered and attack an undercover police officer, who shoots Anna. Casey then kills the officer. Casey takes Anna home and finds a new dog, a German Shepherd, at his house. Casey heads back to the Dojo and finds tapes confirming that Sensei’s students were the gang that attacked Casey. Sensei thought that the threat of a roving gang would increase enrollment in self-defense. Casey challenges Sensei to a death match and Sensei agrees, however, Casey just shoots him in the head when he bows. Casey tells everyone that he used a mystical karate technique that mimics a gunshot using his finger and takes over the Dojo, making Anna a black-belt and taking over the children’s class himself. 

END SUMMARY

I’m surprised that I never saw this movie when it first came out because I do tend to like Jesse Eisenberg’s movies, particularly dark comedies like this one. I think when he’s got a good script he can bring a good performance, but he’s best when he’s a quirky little oddball. In this film, he’s the outsider from the beginning, constantly being the butt of jokes among his co-workers and really only being invited to stuff by his very odd boss. Very early on, we see him brutally beaten, now afraid to even do the modest amount of living that he was doing before. It works great because Eisenberg manages to come off as constantly terrified while also attempting to suppress his emotions. He’s unable to show his fear as much as he wants, because that’s not what guys do, and that’s what this film is about: Masculinity.

The gun buying sequence is pretty great.

Casey is a man who is manipulated by fear into accepting a cult-like mentality that is framed about attempting to recapture the supposed lost masculinity of the modern man. It’s designed to ensure that women are inferior, with Anna never being allowed to be a black belt even though she is clearly the best student. It’s also designed to reframe everything into a single structure where the “highest” position is a person who has achieved an arbitrary skill, Karate mastery, in order to justify the hierarchy. Things that are considered “weak,” like listening to music that isn’t heavy metal, being friends with other passive men, and even owning a small dog, are not acceptable. Later, we find out that Sensei uses traditional cult tactics to force loyalty in his members as well as to inspire fear in order to gain more students, who will in turn cause more fear. It’s hard not to see the thematic similarities to Fight Club, even though this is a very different take. At the end of the film, Casey destroys everything by recognizing the truths: Sensei is crazy and Karate is not particularly useful in a world where people own guns. It’s a metaphor for how you escape a cult mentality. 

If you’re in a group that stresses the inequality of women, leave.

Overall, I liked this movie. I recommend giving it a try if you haven’t.

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.

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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.