Jesse Eisenberg had two films play on back to back nights at Fantasia this year: On Thursday night, there was a screening of Riley Stearns’ dark comedy “The Art of Self-Defense,” which our own Christy Lemire gave three stars. On Friday night, however, Fantasia audiences saw an Eisenberg-led movie that had only previously played Critics’ Week at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Eisenberg was not in Montreal for either movie, as he was in New York City promoting Stearns’ film. But he did record a video greeting for the sold-out Fantasia crowd, saying that he loves Montreal for being a lovely, interesting, diverse place. And then he warned us that we were about to see a “fever dream” about a place that was the exact opposite.
Eisenberg was, of course, not wrong. “Vivarium” is an unflappably cynical but audacious parable about living in the suburbs, presented as an existential crisis this side of “The Twilight Zone.” Eisenberg stars in this debut from promising madman Lorcan Finnegan alongside Imogen Poots, and together they create a wild emotional experience out of the film’s main premise—a married couple tour a massive home development out in the suburbs called Yonder, where every house as far as the eye can see is the same two-floor boxy design, painted in a lifeless green. Clouds are not floating in the air so much as placed there, and the properties are all neatly segmented, even though there’s no neighbors. On the inside, everything is perfect and drab: in the most disturbing detail, the painting over the bed in the main bedroom is merely an image of the bedroom itself.
Led there by a robotic and alarmingly smiley real estate agent named Martin (Jonathan Aris), Gemma (Poots) and Tom (Eisenberg) try to leave the development, but the development isn’t so much labyrinthine as never-ending. Their car eventually runs out of gas, and the couple realizes they are trapped. This is their life now. Without the script outright saying it, this story starts to work through its opinion that such a lifestyle is not meant to inspire people, but contain them. Nature is a key motif in the beginning (the opening credits show the life cycle of the cuckoo bird in particular) and that echoes throughout the movie as Tom and Gemma are in place that has no wind in the air, and their way of “survival” within this sandbox is informed by what they have learned from the real world.
Working from a script by Garret Shanley (who shares story credit with Finnegan), there is a lot to toy with, and it’s important to note that this movie becomes more than just ripping on the easy target of the suburbs, a life choice that people (many happily, it seems) choose. With fascinating performances by Poots and Eisenberg, they become our surrogates into this bonkers experience, and we learn about this unsettling world with them. Through their chemistry, the film expands to toy with ideas of gender roles—what a man and a woman do in the home—and family, especially as they soon open a box outside their new home, and are told they if they raise the baby, they can leave. It’s all a horrific context to make you value what sense of life comes with art, freedom, and diversity; the spell that “Vivarium” casts is in how it makes you think about what makes your life full, all while being immersed in the oppressive emptiness of Yonder.
“Vivarium” holds many surprises and equally messed-up images to make it a rich script, even though it has little plot. So it flags in some points whenever it feels like style over substance, yet the incredible world building detail (sharply blending practical set work and green screen) turns out to be just the beginning. The film builds its creepy world not just with disturbing visuals but the questions they inspire, and is bound to inspire vastly different reactions in turn. Through focused storytelling, expansive imagination and some calibrated madness, “Vivarium” becomes a wild ride within the confines of a nightmarish life.
Fantasia hosted the world premiere for the latest “Critters” movie, making it the first feature from the franchise since 1992. This one is called “Critters Attack!”, which isn’t a title for this unabashedly C-movie indulgence but also the log line, and the entire script. The film will be available on Blu-ray on July 23, but you’ll wish you could watch it on a rented VHS tape 25 years ago.
You might also wish it was just a mixtape of Critters killing, since anything that doesn’t feel like fan service is rest of it is pure padding. Tashiana Washington tries, though, to give some heart, playing a hard working sushi delivery person named Drea, who wants to get into the college that her recently deceased mom had to leave after getting pregnant at a young age. Drea eventually gets a job as a babysitter for a school administrator, which puts her in the care of two younger kids, including her brother. Before the four of them come across the beloved, ravenous hair space beasts and their carnage, they find a big-eyed, white animal alone in the woods. It’s a critter, but this one is fluffier and white, and because it has eyelashes, they gender it and name it Bianca. It’s that type of nostalgia (conjuring memories of Greta the Gremlin and her lipstick) that this movie falls back on.
“Critters Attack!” works on the most basic of expectations, to see critters bound around like kickballs and at times feast on limbs of unlucky adults. The puppeteers, the blood splatter-ers, and SFX artists are the main heroes here. Every now and then a little amusement trickles out in the festivities from seeing a hapless sap get preyed upon and turned into a meal, or to see a critter burst into green gloop. Within the movie’s tonal limits, it can’t get especially nasty and its humor is plain bad, but with a project like this, it’s the little things.
Later in the night after having witnessed “Critters Attack!”, I was having a brief chat with a director on a stairwell. He expressed regret that he didn’t see the new “Critters,” having chosen to catch another film instead. “Do the critters roll up in a giant, hairy ball?” He asked in so many words. Oh, you bet they do. Dee Wallace shows up, too, locked and loaded as a critter exterminator. Sometimes, it’s “Dee Wallace Attacks!”