Just recently I reviewed The Art of Self-Defense, starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, and here they are again together, in another intriguing indie, Vivarium, from Irish director Lorcan Finnegan. This time the billing is swapped; Poots’ name comes first at the beginning of the movie, the first time I can recall seeing that, and she’s indeed the protagonist, even if her screen time is barely greater than Eisenberg’s. Since he is by far the bigger ‘star’, and since that would, in many circles, grant him the first credit, I like to think that her billing indicates a general sense of decency around the production of this modest film, and, indeed, perhaps Eisenberg himself.
They’re very good together, as a young couple who find themselves trapped in a new housing development being forced to play out a nightmarish version of aspirational peripheral suburban living. It’s Black Mirror adjacent, except that Black Mirror’s loose connective tissue seems to be tales of theoretically near-achievable tech getting nasty, while the plot here plucks a little more at cosmic or unexplainable events. A touch more Twilight Zone than Black Mirror, then, and if that distinction makes perfect sense to you, you’re the intended demographic for this film.
What’s very distinctive about Vivarium’s release in the present moment is how much it reflects that moment. It was clearly designed as a nightmare take on cookie-cutter suburbia and the persistent societal pressure for young people to settle down and procreate, but viewed in Covid-era isolation, it absolutely plays as a tale of the tensions a nice young couple face when forced to live with each other 24/7 in their bland house, small garden and immediate neighbourhood. It’s quite uncanny, a film released in our time, about our time, that was not intended so. Creepy, visually distinctive, and very well acted by the new Lunts of indie cinema, Vivarium will never be more relevant than right now. It’s another timely release from Umbrella Entertainment, who are leading the way in interesting online distribution for the Australian market during lockdown; it can be streamed at http://www.umbrellaent.com.au from April 16th.
Café Society is arguably Woody Allen’s best-looking movie in colour. The cinematography by Vittorio Storaro and production design by Santo Loquasto depicting the mansions, offices, restaurants, bars and cars of 1930s Hollywood (and, to a lesser degree, an apartment in the Bronx and sundry other NYC locations) combine for a ravishing visual feast. If nothing else, you can just revel in Art Deco for ninety-seven minutes and have a good time.
Luckily, this time around there’s also a cohesive narrative (even if it feels like Woody’s done it many times before) and some zippy one-liners (even if they feel like they’ve been lifted wholesale from early Woody scripts). The script really does feel like it’s been cobbled togther by a computer program, but at least a computer program with access to the Woody archives: if nothing else, there’s no doubt this is a Woody Allen movie.
Jesse Eisenberg does a “7” on the 1 to 10 scale of how much Woody to do as the lead male in a Woody film, a refreshing step-down from the 9 he gave in To Rome With Love (2012). Like John Cusack and Larry David, he’s a good Woody substitute, and this time he doesn’t yammer and stammer. He plays Bobby Dorfman, a young man from the Bronx who’s sent to learn from his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a top of the game Hollywood agent. When he falls for Phil’s secretary, complications ensue.
Besides the terrific cinematography (even better than that of Midnight in Paris), the performances are a delight here. Eisenberg’s character actually gets an arc, gaining confidence and sexual chutzpah in a story that spans years, and Steve Carell and Kristen Stewart, as Uncle Phil and his secretary Vonnie, are both terrific. Carell gives the kind of multi-layered, complicated performance that people like Michael Caine were once able to give in Woody films, when the scripts supported them. And Stewart, often shot in close-up with 30s movie-star intensity, not only nails the material but also a huge and difficult character leap.
It may be Woody coasting on a textual level, but the fact that he’s gone out of his way to make such a technically assured movie is refreshing. I enjoyed my visit to his Café.