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Non-Review Review: Vivarium

This film was seen as part of the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival 2020. Given the high volumes of films being shown and the number of reviews to be written, these may end up being a bit shorter than usual reviews.

Vivarium is an abrasive and aggressive work of surrealism.

It is very much of a piece with director Lorcan Finnegan’s earlier work, feeling like a clear descendant of his “ghost estate” short Foxes and his “land will swallow you whole” horror of Without Name. Indeed, Vivarium taps into many of those same fears, essentially beginning as a horror story about a young couple going house hunting and ending up lost in a monstrous and seemingly unending estate. It morphs from that into an exploration of a broader set of anxieties about the very idea of “adulthood”, of what young people expect from their adult life and what it in turn it expects from them.

Vivarium often feels like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. It features a small core cast. Although shot on an actual housing estate, Finnegan pushes the production design into the realm of the uncanny so that it looks like a gigantic creepy sound stage. The script consciously pushes its narrative into the realm of the absurd. However, throughout it all, the film remains keenly focused on a simple and strong central metaphor. Although Vivarium operates at an unsettlingly heightened level of reality, and although its populated by a mess of signifiers it never entirely explains, it remains firmly anchored in relatable ideas.

Vivarium is perhaps a little over-extended and little heavy-handed in articulating its central themes and ideas, but it is consistently interesting and ambitious. It’s well worth the time.

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Non-Review Review: The Invisible Man (2020)

The Invisible Man makes his victims visible.

Freed from the confines of the ill-fated blockbuster “Dark Universe”, writer and director Leigh Whannell is able to craft a version of the iconic H.G. Wells story that speaks to the modern moment and which taps into a set of fears that are a lot easier to acknowledge these days. Horror stories have always worked best as allegories for the things that unsettle a society – even back to the sexual anxieties of Dracula and the monstrous procreation of Frankenstein – as so Whannell reconfigures The Invisible Man to speak to a terror that was largely invisible until recently.

Ringing true.

The central protagonist of The Invisible Man is not the eponymous translucent figure. Appropriately enough, the man who turns himself invisible is largely marginalised by the narrative. In the opening ten minutes, he’s glimpsed lying in bed and then through a car window, but his face is consciously obscured. Through the rest of the film, he is largely present in a few photographs and acting through his brother as a proxy. His absence is both clever and effective, underscoring the extent to which he dominates and haunts the film even when he is off-screen.

Instead, The Invisible Man is built around Cecilia Kass. It remains tightly focused on her efforts to escape her abusive ex-boyfriend, even after his apparent suicide. The Invisible Man suggests that such trauma cannot easily be evaded and eluded. “Adrian will haunt you, if you let him,” one of Cecilia’s friends warns her. The Invisible Man argues that he’ll haunt her either way.

Interrogating assumptions.

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New Escapist Column! On the Fascinating Paradox at the Heart of “Alien: Covenant”…

I published a new In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine yesterday. Because it was a light week for geek culture, I actually got to write a little bit about something I’ve thought far too much about; Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant.

Covenant is not a great film. It’s not even a particularly good film. However, it is a fascinating film. A large part of that is because it emerged in the middle of a wave of compromised big budget blockbusters like Suicide Squad, Justice League and Solo: A Star Wars Story, films that often felt like watching a wrestling match between the director and the studio. Covenant feels the same way, trying to reconcile Fox’s desire for an Alien prequel with Scott’s desire for a Prometheus sequel. However, what’s most interesting about Covenant is how that conversation seems to play out within the movie itself.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

171. Knives Out – This Just In (#—)

Hosted by Andrew Quinn and Darren Mooney, and this week with guests Alex Towers and Luke Dunne, The 250 is a fortnightly trip through some of the best (and worst) movies ever made, as voted for by Internet Movie Database Users.

This time, Rian Johnson’s Knives Out.

The apparent suicide of noted mystery author Harlan Thrombley attracts the attention of consulting gentleman detective Benoit Blanc. Interviewing the deceased man’s family, Blanc finds a nest of vipers hiding in plain sight and comes to suspect that Harlan has been victim of murder most foul.

At time of recording, it was not ranked on the list of the best movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

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New Podcast! The X-Cast – Season 5, Episode 14 (“The Red and the Black”)

Continuing on from our discussion of Patient X last week, I was thrilled to join the sensational Kurt North on The X-Cast to discuss the second half of my second favourite mythology two-parter, The Red and the Black.

This was a fun and wide-ranging discussion of the two-parter, which really leaned into the sort of goofy epic stuff that I loved about The X-Files at its peak, the sort of free-wheeling “all ideas at the wall” approach to plotting that managed to fold in concepts like an existential “war in heaven” while recycling ideas from Millennium for a blockbuster adventure that seemed to be as interested in setting up Two Fathers and One Son as it was in lining up with the pending release of The X-Files: Fight the Future. There’s an enjoyable ambition to the two-parter, which has largely been missing from the mythology since Talitha Cumi.

As ever, I hope you enjoy. You can listen to the episode here, or click the link below.

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New Escapist Column! On the “Necessity” of the R-Rating for “Birds of Prey”…

I published an In the Frame piece at Escapist Magazine last Friday, looking at the debate around the “R-rating” that Birds of Prey earned.

Following the film’s release, there’s been a lot of a debate around Birds of Prey, particularly in light of its box office performance. One of the more interesting arguments has been around the film’s age rating, with several pundits arguing that the film did not “need” to be rated R, that it could have been cut to a PG-13 movie without losing anything of value. This is an interesting argument, one that deserves a little interrogation. After all, the scenes which likely earned Birds of Prey its R-rating – certainly the scenes singled out as unnecessary by such critics – are essential to its identity. They make the film unique and distinct.

You can read the piece here, or click the picture below.

Doctor Who: Ascension of the Cybermen (Review)

The cynical observation about Ascension of the Cybermen would be that Chris Chibnall has spent the previous season building to an excuse to do Earthshock on a modern television budget.

After all, for all that Ascension of the Cybermen seems to tease mythos-shattering revelations, there is very little in the episode that hasn’t been seen before. The episode builds towards two concurrent cliffhangers. The first is a standard “unexpected Master reveal”, a cliffhanger that Chibnall employed earlier in the season with Spyfall, Part I. More than that, it’s pretty much one of the most archetypal Doctor Who cliffhangers. (There is something be said for symmetry, but recycling the same cliffhanger beat from the season premiere is decidedly unambitious.)

“Okay, it’s season finale time. So generic grey battlefield.”

Similarly, a large part of the power of the climax of Ascension of the Cybermen comes from the revelation that Doctor Who now has the budget to offer a particularly impressive riff on the classic “army of monsters” cliffhanger of the kind employed in beloved stories like Tomb of the Cybermen and less beloved stories like The Leisure Hive. There’s a real sense at the end of Ascension of the Cybermen that the audience is meant to be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of Cybermen on screen.

There are other smaller familiar cues tucked away within Ascension of the Cybermen. Chibnall also borrows a few smaller touches from his direct predecessor. The seemingly disconnected snapshots of mundane life juxtaposed with science-fiction spectacle is a familiar narrative trick within Steven Moffat’s two-parters for the show, notably the thread focusing on CAL and Doctor Moon in Silence in the Library and Danny Pink’s bureaucratic induction into the afterlife in Dark Water. Brendan’s plot offers a broader sort of conceptual mystery, a plot waiting to tie in.

Lone ranger.

However, amid all of this cacophony, there’s a strange modesty to this season finale. Ascension of the Cybermen is very much a triumph of production; it features a big introductory battle sequence, a host expensive-looking sets, galactic stakes and a sense of escalating danger. It takes its cues from a variety of familiar and populist sources, from Russell T. Davies’ work with the Daleks in Bad Wolf and The Parting of the Ways through to the set-up of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. The special effects are impressive. The production design is remarkable.

Despite all of this, even as it gestures at grand twists and turns, Ascension of the Cybermen seems to suggest that “Earthshock on a bigger budget” is the platonic ideal of Doctor Who in the twenty-first century. Like The Battle of Ranskoor Av Kolos, there’s a sense in which Ascension of the Cybermen believes that a large part of any Doctor Who season finale should be spent running up and down large and atmospheric industrial corridors. It’s impressive, but it’s all rather hollow.

From the Ash(ad)s…

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