Review: Vivarium

Vivarium

House hunting is a tiresome ordeal that most people dread, and with Vivarium, the horrors of house hunting are taken to the extreme. Here, young couple Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) and Gemma (Imogen Poots) find themselves in a strange real estate agent’s office with an even stranger real estate agent who takes them to an unnervingly strange neighborbood consisting of completely identical houses with no personality whatsoever.

Being suddenly abandoned by the real estate agent, the couple attempts to leave on their own, but regardless of which road they turn down, they always end up in front of the house they had just been shown – and things only get increasingly stranger as the film goes on.

From here on, this unconventional science fiction horror focuses on how Tom and Gemma cope with their captivity as they seemingly settle into what appears to be a surreal simulation of suburban home life, where various supplies are dropped off outside their doorstep without any indication of who left it there.

As the title and the unexplained appearance of supplies suggest, Tom and Gemma soon come to realize that their every move is being monitored by an outside force, and they find different ways of coping as they continue to question what is going on and how they can escape.

The sense of unease felt by the protagonists is emphasized by the production design, which is unnerving in its streamlined simplicity and gives off the intended impression of having been created by someone who has attempted to create something reassuring and homey, but clearly does not understand what such a deeply human concept entails. Everything from the house to the furnishings, food and garden all feel like imitations of everyday objects we take for granted, allowing the superficiality of the setting to add further mystery to the film.

In terms of the performances, both Eisenberg and Poots are relatable as they bring a grounded energy to the characters of Tom and Gemma that keeps you invested in them throughout the film. The way their circumstances alter them as individuals and as a couple feels organic, serving as a realistic contrast to the otherwise thoroughly surreal and synthetic scenario they find themselves in.

As for the young boy also featured in the film, while Senan Jennings’ performance is fine in itself, what elevates this character to being truly sinister is how his voice is altered, which makes the character’s presence deeply unsettling on a level that brings the likes of The Omen’s Damian Thorne and the pod people of Invasion of the Body Snatchers to mind.

The pacing of the film is slow but smooth, striking an ideal balance between effectively showcasing the debilitatingly repetitive nature of the story without becoming dull or dragging along a before reaching an equally delirious and disturbing conclusion.

Like a diabolical Groundhog Day, the protagonists are trapped to live identical days in the hellish fever dream that is the realm of Vivarium. Unlike the Bill Murray classic, however, there is nothing amusing about this scenario as the film does not feel the need to inject humor where it is not needed. Instead, Vivarium stages its two protagonists as sincerely human characters trapped in a relentlessly dystopian setting, and the end result is an intriguing, deeply original and genuinely mystifying science fiction thriller that keeps a firm grip around its dystopian theme and storyline from start to finish.

Verdict: 8 out of 10.

Review: The Mandalorian

Mandalorian

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, audiences were enthralled by the vision of George Lucas’ Star Wars as the film took the world by storm upon its release in 1977, and the franchise has been a cornerstone of contemporary popular culture ever since.

However, after Disney bought the rights to the franchise from Lucas, the onslaught of feature films that would ensue became exhausting, and many a lifelong fan will undoubtedly tell you that their love for the franchise had somewhat begun to fade thanks to feature film fatigue.

While Rogue One gained a faithful fan base after audiences’ interest had been piqued by The Force Awakens, the flawed Solo was largely met with indifference after The Last Jedi had caused a great disturbance in the Force that tore a rift in the fandom, splitting it between those who appreciated the unpredictable direction of Rian Johnson’s installment and those who wanted more nostalgic regurgitations a la The Force Awakens.

And it only got worse.

Having seemingly no reason to exist other than to shift merchandise by poorly attempting to replicate the appeal of the original trilogy and implementing a myriad of references purely for the sake of references, the sequels had become a tangled, directionless mess that had removed the franchise from its simple, effective roots.

In the end, the sequel trilogy would conclude with the incredibly disheveled and absurdly convoluted The Rise of Skywalker, which spent the majority of its runtime undoing unpopular plot points and sidelining unpopular characters from The Last Jedi with a nauseating amount of fan service that would send J.J. Abrams’ finale to the saga crashing to the ground with a hollow thud like that of R2D2 after he was stunned by Jawas on Tatooine.

Amidst the bickering over the feature films, however, The Mandalorian was released as Disney’s streaming platform Disney+ launched towards the end of 2019, and then the unthinkable happened – the show gained praise from both critics and fans across all spectrums of the fandom, and the creative forces behind the show are undoubtedly to thank for this.

Considering his 2008 directorial effort Iron Man would turn out to kickstart the film franchise we now know as the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Jon Favreau is no stranger to breathing new life into franchises whose live action properties have otherwise seemingly gone stale. Joining forces with Dave Filoni – who has been integral to the creation and success of the majority of the animated Star Wars shows – the creators share a love and understanding of the Star Wars universe that saturates The Mandalorian.

The production design is stripped down and simplistic, which automatically gives the world of The Mandalorian a look and feel that is in tune with that of the original trilogy. And while the show is definitely anything but lacking in the reference department, the way the references are used add texture to this particular parsec of the galaxy without detracting from the original story of the new show as these references are fond, not forced.

Favoring showing over telling, the mystery of the origins of the titular Mandalorian is maintained throughout the show, striking a balance that leaves you guessing while still giving you enough tidbits of his backstory to keep you invested as the character slowly develops from episode to episode. This character development is further strengthened by how his relationship with the unexpected companion he gains at the end of the first episode develops in a way that is highly influenced by stories such as the manga Lone Wolf and Cub.

Towards the middle of the season, the storyline diverts from the overarcing narrative to what would essentially be considered side quests in the world of gaming. However, these standalone episodes still serve a purpose as they increase the world-building, introduce new friends and foes, and expand on the Mandalorian’s personality and skillset. Similarly, these episodes also serve as a way to catch your breath with isolated narratives before the show reverts to its main storyline with spectacular results in the Taika Waititi-directed season finale.

Delving into the underworld of the bounty hunters as well as the history and code of the Mandalorians, the show expands on the Star Wars universe while also taking the franchise back to its roots. Delicately referencing elements from everything from the infamously atrocious Star Wars: Holiday Special to the convoluted prequel trilogy with great success, The Mandalorian is like a tidal wave of bacta fluid that engulfs a wounded franchise with a revitalizing concoction of engaging storytelling and intriguing world-building that serves as a reminder of what made so many of us fall in love with Star Wars to begin with.

This the way.

Verdict: 10 out of 10.

Review: Sonic the Hedgehog

STH

Before the trailer for Cats went viral and violated eyeballs across the globe with its hellish humanoid cat demons, the greatest digital effects abomination in recent memory had been the first trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog’s first big screen outing. With the horrifyingly illogical choice to attempt to make Sonic’s features and proportions more human, this nightmare fuel was met with a severe backlash, which resulted in Paramount postponing the release of the film in order to redo the character design.

However, while the re-design of the blue hedgehog was decidedly more palatable than the lambasted previous version, the question remained if the film itself would actually be any good. Historically, live action adaptations of video games rarely fare well, and while Sonic the Hedgehog turns out to be on the better end of that spectrum, that is not necessarily saying much.

The elephant in the room is undoubtedly if Paramount has managed to successfully pull off implementing the re-design of the blue speedster so late in the production process, and they thankfully have. At no point does the character design look unfinished or rushed – *cough* Cats *cough* – so listening to people on the internet was, for once, a great idea. Additonally, Ben Schwartz brings a light and likable energy to his performance that encapsulates enough of Sonic’s personality to satisfy fans as well as easily entertain those who are being introduced to the Blue Blur.

The true star, however, is undoubtedly Jim Carrey as Dr. Robotnik. Clearly relishing the unlimited ludicrousness embodying such an over-the-top character allows, Carrey appropriately mugs, screams and flails his way through the film. Evoking a sense of nostalgia that serves as a reminder of his extremely animated earlier performances such as Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Stanley Ipkiss’ alter ego in The Mask and, particularly, The Riddler from Batman Forever, Carrey easily steals every scene he is in, and the film is decidedly better off for having him in it.

However, aside from Carrey’s fittingly unhinged Dr. Robotnik and the nostalgic and childfriendly playfulness of Sonic, the film is violently derivative, the surrounding film being decidedly cliched and banal and therefore feeling much too much like so many other family films before it. That being said, the very low marks some reviewers have given the film are undoubtedly down to those who have thoroughly dissected Sonic the Hedgehog and scrutinized it well beyond what a film such as this can reasonably withstand.

The obvious film to compare Sonic the Hedgehog to is undoubtedly Detective Pikachu. With the Sonic and Pokémon franchises both appealing to children of all ages and having brightly colored, cute creatures at the forefront, there are many common denominators, but Detective Pikachu arguably has the upper hand. This is not only in terms of which franchise has the best executed character design, but also with how well the humor works.

Where Ryan Reynolds’ performance as the eponymous Pokémon icon frequently elevated the comedy of Detective Pikachu from overwhelmingly pedestrian to sincere hilarity that helped the Pokémon feature sustain its appeal for the majority of its runtime, the plot of the Nintendo caper was nonetheless unexceptional. Similarly, this feature film about Sega’s racing rodent has enough amusing scenarios to be sufficiently entertaining for its target audience of kids and geeks, but the plot of Sonic the Hedgehog ultimately leaves a lot to be desired.

While decidedly disposable in a purely cinematic sense, the fact that Paramount took the justifiably harsh response to the first trailer to heart and managed to deliver a satisfying character design is a testament to the amount of care that has, after all, been taken in bringing Sonic to the big screen. As such, as long as your expectations are proportionate to what should be expected from a cookie cutter family feature such as Sonic the Hedgehog, you will like have a good time with this decent, if forgettable, video game adaptation.

Verdict: 6 out of 10

Review: Ford v Ferrari

FvF

Anyone who has seen the entirety of the 24 Hours of Le Mans will surely tell you that it is a race like no other, and that describing the unique tension and drama associated with the intensity of the legendary annual racing event is nearly impossible – it is simply one of those things you have to witness in order to grasp why it is so revered and surrounded by such infamy.

With Ford v Ferrari, director James Mangold steers the racing film with a calm hand that makes it a highly satistisfying biopic detailing the events that led up to and occured during the 1966 Le Mans race.

Stuck in the middle of a corporate pissing contest between Ford and Ferrari, the competitive friendship of American racing driver and racing car designer Carroll Shelby and English racing driver Ken Miles is the driving force of the film. Thanks to the great chemistry between powerhouses Matt Damon and Christian Bale, the verbal and, at times, physical sparring between two incredibly driven individuals who are deeply passionate about their sport is immensely watchable.

Damon comfortably takes on the portrayal of Carroll Shelby, a role that feels tailormade for the stoicism with an undercurrent of intensity and determination that he so often brings to the big screen. As a contrast, Bale gets to thoroughly flex his thespian talent once more as he imbues Ken Miles with a degree of life that makes him jump off the screen as much as he jumps at the people who make the mistake of triggering his bad temper.

Having proven time and time again that they both possess a potent screen presence, Ford v Ferrari is a noteworthy addition to Damon and Bale’s already impressive resumes. Simiarly, the other players around them also add texture to the drama with competent performaces across the board, and save for one or two emotional beats that feel somewhat forced, the film is a compelling drama that does justice to a milestone in racing by thoroughly fleshing out the two interesting personalities at its core.

How the racing itself is portrayed is, of course a cause for concern, as you need to please the gearheads without alienating the uninitiated. Thankfully, the sequences in Ford v Ferrari are sprinkled in at intervals that allows the drama to take the lead without sacrifing the action.

Much like Rush had very satisfying racing sequences, the racing sequences in Ford v Ferrari are equally enticing from a cinematic perspective, finding a middle ground between a degree of realism satisfactory for fans of motor sports and general entertainment value to thrill the casual viewer.

While the cinematography of the film as a whole is visually pleasing, the creative choices in terms of cinematography during the racing sequences shifts the visual style sufficiently to create a sense of suspense and tension that leaves you hungry for more action. However, the excellent sound design is what truly drives home why motor sports are so thrilling to watch, and a visit to a theater with a particularly good sound system is therefore an essential consideration for those watching this film.

Unsurprisingly, James Mangold has pieced together yet another highly competent film, which ticks all the boxes for what makes for a classic Hollywood tale of success through adversity. From the skillful direction through the high production value to the thrilling sound design and the dynamic performances, Ford v Ferrari is in many ways classic Oscar bait, but it is nonetheless still an excellent piece of narrative-driven action with plenty of heart.

Verdict: 9 out of 10.

 

 

Review: Little Monsters

Often imitated but never duplicated, Shaun of the Dead still stands as not only one of the greatest horror comedies of all time, but also as possibly the greatest zombie comedy ever made. While Edgar Wright’s 2004 effort was hardly the first of its ilk, as Peter Jackson’s hilariously outrageous Braindead and its record-breaking amounts of fake blood had gained the Kiwi feature instant cult status after its 1992 release, it nonetheless seemed that Shaun of the Dead was released at the right time to be seen as the epitome of what horror comedies can be.

With its myriad of pop culture references and being released at a time where zombies were about to burst out of the horror subgenre bracket and into the mainstream entertainment subconscious, Shaun of the Dead essentially became responsible for spawning an onslaught of gory comedies. However, thanks to often very modest budgets, underwhelming effects and writing that usually seems like little more than an afterthought, few films have managed to come anywhere even remotely close to capturing the witty eclecticism that has made the 2004 film a classic.

With Little Monsters, Aussie writer and director Abe Forsythe offers up the latest attempt of placing a zombie romp alongside Edgar Wright’s 2004 cult classic, and like most zombie comedies in recent decades, Little Monsters is a mixed bag.

Boasting a largely questionable resume in terms of previous features he has starred in, male lead Alexander England nonetheless makes a likable protagonist as the flawed manchild with a heart of gold. An anti-hero, he must embark on a character arc to redeem himself and grow, and while he inevitably does become a better person, he still stumbles along the way, often reverting to his immature ways with puerile hilarity.

Lupita Nyong’o is unsuprisingly the cast member who largely carries the film on her competent shoulders, and she is as enjoyable as usual to watch, not least because she clearly has an immense amount of fun playing the part of the zombie-slaying teacher. Her charisma as magnetic as ever, she works well with her costars, both children and grownups alike, and much like her character takes charge of the apocalyptic scenario in the story, she also takes charge of the film.

Similarly, Josh Gad clearly has a great time as he pokes fun at himself and a career that has been full of overly perky, family-friendly characters. Going from obnoxiously cheerful kids show host to egocentric jerk (arguably traits that are not mutually exclusive), his character descends into amusingly foul-mouthed despair.

As much as the film manages to provoke laughter on several occasions thanks to the playfulness of the cast and a script that never pretends to be aiming to possess any degree of maturity, the humor does, however, come across as somewhat forced at times. While the main trio of performances and the script are the film’s strong points, the decidedly pedestrian production value of elements such as score, direction, cinematography, editing and special effects ultimately prevent Little Monsters from escaping mediocrity and reaching full-blown chaotically hilarious zombie mayhem.

Lacking a sincere sense of menace and genuine threat, the zombies are not portrayed in a way that has sufficient tension or gore. As a result, the comedy therefore does not have a significant level of true horror to help both the scary and the silly offset one another to create the momentum and mounting tension a horror comedy inevitably needs to succeed, meaning that Little Monsters ultimately has more in common with the likes of Cockneys versus Zombies than Shaun of the Dead. As such, Little Monsters is therefore not a bad zombie comedy, but it is a disposable romp that is a easily forgotten as it is enjoyed.

 

Review: Doctor Sleep

DS

While The Shining is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential horror films of all time, Stephen King infamously loathes Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of his book due to the many alterations Kubrick made to the story. As much as King’s frustration is understandable as the book is among his best work, Kubrick’s reimagining of King’s novel is nonetheless an unnerving masterpiece in its own right.

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Review: Ready or Not

Ready or Not.jpg

Surprising as it may be to some, horror and comedy have significant commonalities as both genres must possess the same core elements in order to succeed. Both genres rely heavily on buildup and timing, which are essential to achieve their desired effects on audiences, be it evoking terror with a horror film or laughter in response to a comedy.

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Review: Rambo: Last Blood

RLB

Sylvester Stallone has never pretended to be a cinematic genius, but he is nonetheless immensely successful thanks to his unwavering dedication. A living reminder that hard work and persistence pays off, Stallone has kept doing his thing without being deterred by any of the criticism he has been met with over the years, and he remains an action hero icon as a result.

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