Vivarium (2020): Dystopian Suburbia and the Cuckoo Bird

Amazon.com: Movie Poster Vivarium (2020) 13 in x 19 in Poster ...

     “Vivarium” feels like an episode of “The Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror.” The film is just over an hour and a half, so it is comparably short while providing an interesting premise worth checking out.  It could have been more if it had developed the premise and antagonists further but I would recommend this to anyone looking for a good sci. fi. thriller.

The film was directed Lorcan Finnegan and screenplay by Garret Shanley. Shanley also co-wrote the original story with Finnegan.

The story follows couple Gemma (Imogen Poots) and Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) who find themselves trapped in a strange suburb called Yonder when their real estate agent mysteriously disappears after introducing them to their new home.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Premise – The premise of a couple being trapped in the suburbs and physically unable to leave as it is an infinite loop is fascinating. This turns into their only out being offered an out when a mysterious child is dropped in a box for them to raise. The mystery of why they were brought here continues and is explored through the length of the film. This is illustrated by the Cuckoo chick tossing the original young out of a nest as the new mother raises it in the opening credits.

Cinematography – The cinematography in this film is beautiful. It does a good job of showing how trapped the characters are with the use of shadow and is used amazingly in scenes of intensity where the color pallet goes red or green depending on the situation. MacGregor captures the alienness of the couple’s situation and it lended strength to the narrative.

Gemma and Tom – Poots and Eisenberg do a great job together. They clearly have chemistry with Tom being a blue collar guy who enjoys solving problems with his hands, while Gemma is a teacher and clearly has empathy for those around her. This leads to them clashing when the mysterious baby is deposited for them to raise and in how they have no way to escape the suburb. We see moments of joy with them, such as when they turn on the car and dance in the light and moments of connection in the hell. They also fight and you can see that the reason they are still together is there ability to work through things. Imogen Poots’s Gemma is manages to survive to the end as chases after their “son” and even gives a final act of protest before she dies, repeating her refrain that she isn’t “his” mother. This entire story is how Gemma and Tom resist the situation they are in while trying to deal and it could have easily failed as it is their performances that have to carry the piece.

The Parasite – The aliens who created the suburbs function like the Cuckoo bird. They deposit their young to humans they entrap looking for a home and force them to raise the children. It is a messed up system and the threat of these aliens is constant as they are the only hope the couples who enter the world are offered as an escape. I do have an issue tied to this though that is a con. Beyond them being Cuckoos we don’t have a deeper motivation or an understanding of how they tick beyond this.

The Cons:

The Motivation of the Aliens – As mentioned above these aliens have advanced technology that we never see beyond what they present us with. I wanted to see how they run the illusion that raises their children to bring in more humans to raise their young. We don’t know how long this has been going on and even in the final reveal doesn’t quite delve deep enough into how what they do works. We see the basic of the illusion and motivations but given how short the film is, we should have got more.

This is a film that had the potential to be great with just a bit more development. I could see the theme of life in the suburbs being critiqued but it never felt more than surface so wasn’t worth commenting on. The potential was there, just like the motivation of the aliens beyond using humans to raise their young. This film is still worth your time if you are looking for a good thriller sci. fi. I’m curious to see what this writer and director do next.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10 I would have rated it higher if the motivation of the Parasite Aliens had been explored further. We get hints but not enough on how they work beyond them using humans to raise their young.

Guns Akimbo (2020): Great Action That Needed a Better Plot

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      “Guns Akimbo” is a fun movie. I wouldn’t call it good or great but there is a fair amount that worked. During this time of quarantine with the Coronavirus I’ll be only reviewing films that can be rented until it is over. Please, stay safe and stay in everyone if it is at all possible. I hope this review and blog can bring some enjoyment through all of this. Thanks for reading and the conversations the reviews have sparked. Now without further ado, here is the rest of the review.

The film was directed and written by Jason Lei Howden.

The story follows Miles (Daniel Radcliffe) trolls an underground fight club organization called Skizm and is kidnapped and forced to take part in their game.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Fight Sequences – How the fight sequences are filmed are like a video-game or the fights in “Scott Pilgrim.” They are really entertaining and very kinetic. You feel the tension of whomever is being followed in the fight to the death and the stakes always feel high…until the final fight.

The Loser Protagonist – Miles is an interesting character. I can see inspirations of Neo from the Matrix in that he lives so much of his life online and sees himself as a rebel while at the same time is working for a pay-to-play mobile game job that he hates. His arc involves standing up to his job after Skizm has bolted guns to his hands and the one they sent after him (Nix) shows up. His arc of developing courage is handled well, it just sucks that the world around him wasn’t developed further.

Nix – Nix is the most famous killer in Skizm and we soon learn that it was setup by the owner of Skizm when he killed her mother and brother. She is drug addicted and has no human connection besides Miles. When Miles tells her the truth about Skizm and all they have done she works with him to take them down. Samara Weaving was fantastic in the role. She played the broken anti-hero turned hero really well and was more compelling than Miles.

Okay:

Nova – Nova is Miles’s girlfriend? This is ambiguous at first and is never fully explained. They have a history together and he ends up saving her but she isn’t given enough to do on her own besides protect Miles briefly at one point and after be saved. This character could have had so much potential if we learned more about who she was.

The Cons:

Miles’s Job – The pay-to-play game for kids who have cell phones is never explored more than a joke. We don’t see the details of Miles or his co-workers’ work. This was a shame as it felt like this game could have made a point about these types of games beyond a joke.

Skizm – Skizm goes worldwide by the end after Nix and Miles take out their leader. This made no sense to me. They owned the cops…how? How did everyone have an app of illegal fights going on? None of this explained. They were an interesting idea that was not explored well at all.

This movie was solidly fun. Nix and Miles were fun characters and the action sequences draw you in. The film needed to develop Nova, Skizm and the world more but it wasn’t bad. This movie had stakes and that is what made it work. If you are looking for an enjoyable film to check-out, this one is worth your time.

Final Score: 7 / 10 Enjoyable action with ideas and characters that should have been more.

When the Train Stops (2019): A Wonderful Film About Empathy and Redemption Found

Michael Forest, John de Lancie, Vic Mignogna, Rekha Sharma, and Darren Jacobs in When the Train Stops (2019)

        First, this is my first short film that I’ve reviewed on the blog. Second, I want to put my biases up front. This was a film I saw through Indiegogo by being a donator as I was interested in a signed poster from the cast as Rekha Sharma, John De Lancie and Vic Mignogna are three of my favorite actors in Sci. Fi. They are also all a part of “Star Trek Continues” which I take as a spiritual successor to “Star Trek: The Original Series” at this point. So, with all that out of the way, I thought this film was solidly good and wished it had been more than a short film as many of my cons related to the film relate to the wider world I wanted to know better. This is still a film I highly recommend. I plan to watch in the future because it was such an enjoyable film.

“When the Train Stops” was directed by James Kerwin written by Bernadette Hale and produced by Lisa Hansell.

The story follows convict Clive (Darren Jacobs) as he runs from the cops, running from a crime he believes he didn’t commit. The story picks up with the latest escape and his time in Police Headquarters before an old Marshall (Michael Forest) shows up to bring him back to prison.

The Pros:

The Cinematography – The cinematography is dark and mysterious. It brings a beauty that fits the mystery that police feel when they catch Clive and everything is light in the Police Station and also plays into the story feeling very dreamlike. How much of this in Clive’s head? “The Twilight Zone” inspiration is definitely strong in the opening and closing and the cinematography beautifully captures that.

The Soundtrack – Rekha Sharma was behind the soundtrack and it is haunting. I knew she could act but the music and cinematography add a layer to the film that wouldn’t be there without the music in play behind the scenes. There is tension and mystery and what she does with the music is masterful. For example the music moves between the tension of a forest at night in how we kick off the film to the quiet of the police station waiting for the Marshall to the heart felt revelations on the Train between Clive and the Marshall. The music elevates the dialogue, and as someone who doesn’t seek out short films, this one had me hooked.

The Support Characters – This is a film where I’d say the strongest parts are the supporting cast and I’m saying this in that their performances were so strong I wanted more story. Vic is the Sheriff who captures Clive but he clearly mistrusts the Marshall (I had so many questions from it as his performance sells how uncomfortable he is), Rekha Sharma was the Chief Deputy Karen and she is the first to show Clive mercy and reach out to him as a person. I wanted to know where her empathy came from given the Sheriff’s and rest of the force’s hostility towards Clive. What did she see? The Marshall is great too, but giving his story away would be spoilers. So I’ll just say he was great in his role and it is worth watching partially due to him and partially due to John De Lancie who plays his brother.

Okay:

The Lead – Darren Jacobs does a good job in what he is given and he shares a lot of his backstory, but it is hard for me to rate the performance as good given that beyond survival I didn’t get his motivation for escaping prison all the times prior. He is someone who says he was framed and is innocent and we see his innocence but we needed more reasons to question. His anger is only directed at his father and we needed more there for why it looked like was a lifer. This was where a longer film would have helped the story immensely.

This is film I’d recommend to anyone who is a fan to the actors listed above in my initial reasons for watching, any fan of surrealistic fiction and stories like “The Twilight Zone” and those who want to support a film that I hope might be adapted into a full length film some day. I enjoyed this film a lot. The performances are good and besides needing more reasons to question the motivations of the lead, I wanted this entire world expanded and explored more. This is well worth your time and I’m looking forward to my next rewatch.

Final Score: 8.3 / 10.

Here is a link if you want to watch or donate.:

https://www.whenthetrainstops.com/

 

Upgrade (2018): An Amazing Sci. Fi. Thriller Worth Your Time

   “Upgrade” is a really great film. This is the kind of film that reminded me so much of “Ex Machina” as it deals with a similar exploration of Artificial Intelligence and what makes a person, which any story exploring personhood and identity is something I am always intrigued by. These are ideas that when pulled off well, lead to unforgettable films, and “Upgrade” does not disappoint.

The film was directed and written by Leigh Whannell. He’s written a lot of horror movies mostly, like the “Saw” Franchise and “Insidious.” This film certainly has horror elements but is more of a thriller.

The story follows Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) a stay at home mechanic. When his wife Asha (Melani Vellajo) is killed and he is paralyzed in a mysterious attack. After the attack his enigmatic CEO client Eron gives him STEM, an A.I. that makes it so he can walk again also can communicate with him. With new drive he seeks out those responsible for the killing of his wife.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – The world is a sci. fi. future where there are self driving cars and areas of extreme tech. advancement and desolate poverty, such as where Grey grew up. The world is fascinating and it is a believable place where the plot that goes down would happen. The through line of wonder and desperation makes the world real and I would watch another story told in this universe.

The Lighting / Cinematography – Part of what brings this world to light is the cinematography. This is a film that uses light really well. There is a red tinge pver everything and when they are in the poorer areas of town everything is draped in darkness. These things do a great job at racking up the tension and isolating Grey. The use of red and black express the isolation beautifully and that is part of what makes the film’s presentation work.

The Plot – The plot revolves around Grey hunting down his wife’s killer and the mystery with that as he learns to work with an A.I. that he lets control his body in life and death scenarios. There are some dark twists as each new reveal shows that there was another manipulation going on, leading up to the final reveal. All is not as it seems and this film is figuring out just how many betrayals are in store for Grey.

The Reveal – STEM is the bad guy and wins. STEM wanted to become human so it created the circumstances where Grey would accept taking it in and in the end takes control of Grey’s body and mind and kills the CEO who created it, preventing another STEM from being born. It is a dark, powerful and fascinating story.

Okay:

The Wife and CEO / Supporting Cast – The supporting cast is okay but I felt like the wife, CEO and gangster who killed the wife could have done with more exploration. They are plot mechanics in the end for the advancement of STEM’s self-actualization, which worked but it kept the film from perfection. If they’d all felt as fully realized as Grey or STEM this film would have been perfect as the mystery and tension never lets up. All it needed was more realized characters on the sidelines.

This is a film I highly recommend to any fan of sci. fi. Like “Ex Machina” before, this is a film that doesn’t have a large cast and doesn’t need one. The core ideas being explored of personhood and fear of A.I. are handled really well and the main thriller is masterfully executed. I highly recommend checking this film out if you get the chance. Might not make my Top 5 at the end of the year, but it is competing to be on that list.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

 

Dig Two Graves (2017): A Wonderful Gothic Horror Exploring the Cost of Revenge

      “Dig Two Graves” is an indie film that was finally released off the Festival Circuit this year. It first premiered at the Midwest Independent Film Festival in 2015 and later that year at Beaufort International Film Festival, Sedona International Film Festival and Beloit International Film Festival (winning awards at the later 3 festivals) it was finally released to the greater public this year, so I’m including it in the films released this year.

This is a wonderful film that explores the cost of revenge and the price that we way for the evils done to others. It has a strong Gothic undercurrent to it and works really with the small cast it has. My biggest issue is length and character development. The film really could have been longer and from that, the character motivations explored a lot better.

The film was directed by Hunter Adams, who co-wrote the film with Jeremy Philips while the film was produced by P.J. Fishwick and Claire Connelly.

The story begins in the 1940s with Sheriff Proctor and Deputy Waterhouse dumping two bodies into the quarry. It is here the Sheriff is forced to give up his badge and we jump to the present day with his granddaughter and grandson Jake and Sean are at the quarry with Sean jumping off. When Jake panics 3 strange men approach her and say she can bring her brother back to life, all she has to do is kill another to take his place. From here the story unfolds.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The Cinematography – Eric Maddeson did a fantastic job on the cinematography as the film feels like you are in a dark fairy tale. The color is slightly off in the flashbacks but they usually always line up to events happening in modern day and the use of darkness and shadows, especially in presentation of the Three Brothers is simply beautiful. This is easily one of the best looking Indie films out there.

Presentation of Time – One of the major themes of the story is events repeated through time. We get the flashback in the 1940’s with the Sheriff and his deputy and how it ties into modern days with the Brothers making a deal with his granddaughter. From here events unfold as we come to see what motivates the characters.

The Cost of Revenge – The main theme, that honestly could have been done better is that of revenge. In the end the 3 brothers are the sympathetic ones, not the granddaughter or grandson as the grandfather is simply a villain who cares about his family. In the end he does save his granddaughter and the brother succeed but they all die in the process. This is where the name of the title comes from, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” Basically don’t expect to come back and that is what it does as he seeks revenge against them and them against him. It was rewarding when the Sheriff finally gets killed given everything he did.

The 3 Brothers and the Sheriff – The sheriff is a racist (his harassing of the Roma family) a rapist (he rapes their mother as does his deputy) and only doesn’t kill the kids because his deputy appeals to what little empathy he has in him…so murder on top of that since he kills the father of the brothers. The brothers are wonderful as they seem to be a mini satanic cult that uses snakes as a part of worship. They are outside society, and given what happened to their parents it makes sense. I wanted to know more about what they were doing though as they seemed to be living in the wild and were the most compelling characters in the film.

Okay: The Rest of the Cast – The grandfather’s daughter is just kind of there, the granddaughter and her classmate have only as much development to show us they are outsiders. Their motivations and ways of being really aren’t explored that well. This was a shame as with a better written story these characters could have been really compelling.

The Cons: Needed More Character Development – This a film that could have been longer as so many of the characters needed to be developed more. This was still a really good movie and one I’d highly recommend. I wouldn’t call it a favorite because I’m not sure if I’d watch it again anytime soon but it is well worth the time.

This is a great horror film that is well worth your time if you enjoy indie films and horror films. The themes are powerful, the story and how it is told is compelling and the older actors do a great job in their roles, though sadly the same cannot be said of the rest of the characters, this is a film that could have been great if we’d had more time with the characters who fleshed out the world. It is currently on Netflix so if you are interested, check it out. I doubt you will be disappointed.

Final Score: 8.5 / 10

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016): A Beautiful Exploration of Groups, Sexuality and Purpose

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    “Everybody Wants Some!!” might end up being my favorite movie of the year. This is a film that never stops being fun and brings depth to the purpose of being alive, group dynamics and the different parts of the self people reveal depending on who they are with and also a pretty real take on sexuality and some of the many expressions of it. I’ll get into greater details in the review, suffice to say on my non-spoiler thoughts…this film is one of the best out there.

     The film was written, directed and produced by Richard Linklater and also produced by Ginger Sledge and Megan Ellison.

    The films involves newly arrived Freshman Jake (Blake Jenner) who is part of College Baseball and is staying at the Baseball House since it is a legacy in relation to the College. There are a few days left until College starts and the drama and adventures he and his teammates have is explored.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros: The World – The world is fantastic and manages to transport us back in time to 1980 where it takes place and from there we get to visit so many different environments and groups…from disco clubs, rock concert, country bar, the baseball team and theatre crowd…and none of them exist as stereotypes, they are fully fleshed out characters and it makes the world real.

The Cinematography – The cinematography is beautiful and captures the adventure and different environments and situations so well. If a character feels isolated you are in it, if the environment is big and large and the full ensemble is present…you get to see snapshots of all of them. Shane F. Kelly really did a fantastic job.

The Soundtrack – The soundtrack is awesome and is a fantastic blend of 80’s and 70’s songs that capture the different environments really well as well as the youthful energy of the young unknown cast, who I hope to see more of in the future.

The Writing – The writing is amazing! This is a film of show rather than tell as any good movie should be. We see characters ego and empathy and how none of them are simple caricatures. Characters may claim not to think but demonstrate just how much they think about things the less minute, characters can be jerks but the next moment they are backing up a character they put through Hell. The script is dynamic and shows what great writing actually means. Linklater truly nailed this film.

The Characters – The characters are complex and the actors are great. I didn’t really have a favorite and loved most of them, like I said in the writing…none of them are simple, each of them has a depth that is revealed over the course of conversations and the events of the film.

Group Mentality – Group mentality is something that’s analyzed in this whether it is the pro of people who have your back but at the same time can be cruel when you are the outsider becoming part of the group. This dynamic comes up countless times throughout the film as well as the core competition of the group given how serious being part of the Baseball team is shown to be. The group can the biggest troll or the greatest protector.

Humans and Sex – It is normal for people to want to have sex and this film embraces this. Whether it is a one night stand or a serious relationship sex is such a part of what makes us humans as well as our desire for it that this film cannot escape it, so it embraces it and shows all the different motivations for sex or mistakes that can happen during it. It truly is beautifully explored in this.

Of Faces and Identities – There are some great conversations in this, largely from Finn and how is is natural to shapeshift given we are animals and adapt to meet desires (in his context sex) or what it means to fit in and be your best self as Jake and his girlfriend Beverly discuss as so much of what drives them is their identity and how for them it is tied to motivation, dreams and as expressed in their relationship, the intellect and connection. The characters of this film where many faces and I found it a true expression of humanity and not just group pressure, people want to fit in or to shape a group and we see that here as ego and relationships are constantly in play.

Purpose – Purpose is another theme of the film, “What’s your focus in college?” as one of those questions, with others discussing the purpose of sex, dressing up, reality and even the purpose of the Baseball Team and one’s place on the Team either as outsider or something else. The answers are up to interpretation and that is where a lot of the power in this film lies.

   There weren’t any issues I had with this film, it is a film that when I saw the trailer for it I thought it was just be a stupid party movie, this was so much more. This was a film that tackled all the different aspects of what makes us human and life worth it. It is hard to choose any favorite character since this is an ensemble cast where each character is shown to have at least more than one face or layer that helps define who they are. This is a fun adventure that manages to be so much more than that and this is a film that could easily be my favorite film for 2016.

Final Score: 10 / 10 One of the few perfect films.

Léon: The Professional (1994): When Forming Human Connections is Complicated

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     Luc Besson is a fascinating director who seems to always have some sort of undertone that turns me off from his films. In the film “Taken” and “Lucy” it was the implied or open racism of heroes that made the films difficult to enjoy (even though the action was good) and for this film it is the undercurrent of pedophilia (even though there is a real friendship between the characters). In the instance of “Lucy” and “The Professional” there are counters to this within the film itself, but the fact that I experienced that from what the film was showing me in the first place automatically brought them down and kept them from being truly great films. The only film that hasn’t done this that I’ve seen by the director is “The Fifth Element” which I plan to review on a later date.

     The film was directed by Luc Besson who also wrote the screenplay, and was produced by Petrice Ledoux.

     The story is about Leon (Jean Reno) who takes in Mathilda (Natalie Portman) after her family is executed by the corrupt DEA agent Norman Stansfield (Gary Oldman). After rejecting her at first he comes to be attached to her as he trains her to be a “cleaner” too as she seeks revenge against Stansfield for the murders.

The Pros: The Cinematography – The cinematography is really beautiful and really gives you glimpses into the minds of the characters. From Stansfield’s insanity, Leon’s confusion and good heart and Mathilda’s anger. Thierry Arbogast did a great job on it.

The Soundtrack – Eric Serra did a fantastic job on the soundtrack too as it played up the meditative thoughts and glimpses into our characters’ minds. It fit the New York City atmosphere as well.

The Main Characters – Mathilda, Norman and Leon are all great characters. But the minor characters feel more like archetypes than characters so they’ll be listed further down.

Norman Stansfield – Gary Oldman is great at playing this psychopath. He hams it up so well as Stansfield who is a corrupt DEA agent who is making money off of selling drugs on the side and getting a cut of everything and isn’t above executing a family to keep what he does secret. He was so despicable and reveled in it and was so fun to watch. Sadly he is gone for a good portion of the film before the climax so we miss out on some more crazy moments we could have gotten or seen that he executes all the families of those who go against him or can’t deliver on the drugs. His death is rewarding, even though the wrong person got the kill.

Leon – Leon is the “Cleaner” who takes on Mathilda when she needs a safe place after her family is slaughtered. Both of them are outcasts and it is in forming a connection with her and being the father she never had that he finds his soul too as he has only been a killer for hire who refuses to kill women and kids until this moment. He transforms from their relationship and all the money he has earned goes to Mathilda when Stansfield finally kills him. He shows in the end he is a dark shade of grey, but a good guy. Though he has one issue that I wish the film had addressed that I’ll go into later.

Tony – This is the only minor character who felt like a fully fleshed out character, as he was a mafioso who was holding Leon’s money and held it very close while still always coming through whenever it was asked for and he does fulfill his obligation to Mathilda…though he also gives up Leon to Stansfield…so he’s flawed and complicated and I wish we’d seen him more.

Mathilda – Mathilda is awesome and I wish she had made the kill on Stansfield. She is at the very least physically abused by her step-sister, step-mom and father and her only relationship she cares about is her little brother who is killed by Stansfield’s men. From here she seeks revenge and chickens out when she first confronts Stansfield but does all she can to protect Leon when the men come to kill him. She sees him as her “lover” though their relationship is much more of a mentor or father one, but her saying that made it weird and hard to enjoy as she is 12 and he is in his 40s. She was still a great character though who endured a lot and found some semblance of peace when she takes Leon’s plant that she names after him and plants it in the school that she was kicked out of that accepted her after the events of the story.

The Cons: Disposable Thugs and Minor Characters – Stansfield’s men are like blank slates, which is a shame as they could have had more distinct motivations and personalities. They were just bad as were Mathilda’s family, they were selfish and abusive and that was the extent of their characterization. It was a huge missed opportunity.

Pedophile Undertones – Mathilda calling Leon her “lover” and Leon never saying he saw her as his daughter to counter it made their relationship really uncomfortable. Thankfully he doesn’t do anything sexual or I’d have hated this movie but it is still there as Mathilda calls him that and he does nothing to end that fantasy and establish boundaries. This undercurrent kept from enjoying the film big time.

Leon getting Mathilda’s Kill – The final issue of why I don’t consider this film great is Mathilda’s arc was that of revenge but she never got to kill Stansfield. She should have got that kill and learned from it not had others teach her that learning doesn’t mean you get peace, her lessons were given to her by others and she never got to learn them for herself. She should have killed Stansfield.

  This was a good movie, though like Besson’s other films outside of “The Fifth Element,” troublesome. The acting is fantastic and the character interactions are wonderful too as is the soundtrack and cinematography, just know that the pedophilic undercurrent is there and that Mathilda is cheated out of getting her kill, though she does find some semblance of peace thankfully.

Final Score: 8 / 10