Review: ‘The Father’ (2020), starring Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman

February 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Olivia Colman and Anthony Hopkins in “The Father” (Photo by Sean Gleason/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Father” (2021) 

Directed by Florian Zeller

Culture Representation: Taking place in London, the dramatic film “The Father” features an almost-all white cast of characters (with one person of Indian heritage) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An elderly man with dementia has problems determining what’s real and what isn’t, as his middle-aged daughter contemplates putting him in a nursing home.

Culture Audience: “The Father” will appeal primarily to people interested in high-quality dramas with excellent acting and a unique take on the issues of aging and mental deterioration.

Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman in “The Father” (Photo by Sean Gleason/Sony Pictures Classics)

The well-acted dramatic film “The Father” is a different type of psychological horror story: The movie is told entirely from the perspective of an elderly man with dementia. Viewers are taken on a harrowing ride that feels like an endless loop of uncertainty and confusion, anchored by outstanding performances from Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman.

Directed by Florian Zeller (who co-wrote the screenplay with Christopher Hampton), “The Father” is adapted from Zeller’s West End play. “The Father” movie, which is Zeller’s feature-film directorial debut, is designed very much like a theatrical stage production. Almost everything in the story takes place inside a building, and the movie is very heavy with dialogue.

But it’s not the type of performance piece that can be done by just any actors. This movie greatly benefits from having two remarkable leading actors who are also Academy Award winners. Hopkins gives the type of performance that is quietly devastating. Colman convincingly expresses the heartbreak of who someone who feels helpless to stop a loved one’s inevitable decline.

Even if viewers don’t know before seeing “The Father” that the story is from the point of view of someone who has dementia, this perspective is made clear very early on in the movie, which takes place in London. Hopkins portrays a retiree widower named Anthony, while Colman portrays his daughter Anne. Or is she really his daughter? Sometimes he doesn’t know who she is, and sometimes she tells him different stories about who she is.

Watching “The Father” is very much like putting pieces of a puzzle together where some of the pieces are missing, while other pieces aren’t meant to be there at all. There are scenarios that are repeated, and sometimes the same characters are portrayed by different actors. The intention is to make viewers feel as disoriented as Anthony feels.

What is consistent is that there is turmoil and indecision in Anthony’s family over what to do with him. Anne has grown frustrated because she’s having a difficult time finding a caregiver who will tolerate Anthony’s mercurial ways. He can be charming but also insulting. He can insist on being strong enough to take care of himself, but he can also show vulnerability and beg Anne not to abandon him.

The most recent caregiver whom Anne has hired is a young woman named Angela (played by Imogen Poots), who has her patience tested in taking care of Anthony. Simple tasks such as giving Anthony’s prescribed medication to him become lessons in jumping over mental minefields through his convoluted and erratic conversations. One minute Anthony tells Angela that he used to be a professional tap dancer and wants to show her some dance steps. The next minute Anne corrects him and says that Anthony was never a dancer and that he’s actually a retired engineer.

Anthony keeps telling Angela that she reminds him of his other daughter Lucy, whom he describes as a painter artist who doesn’t visit him as much as he’d like her to visit, because she’s always traveling. In front of Anne, Anthony also tells Angela that Lucy is his favorite child, as Anne’s eyes well up with tears. (One thing that’s clear is that Anthony doesn’t have any other children besides Anne and Lucy.) The real story about Lucy is eventually revealed, and it’s not much of a surprise.

Meanwhile, Anne’s husband Paul (played by Rufus Sewell) has grown increasingly frustrated with Anne’s insistence on having a caregiver for Anthony. Paul thinks that Anthony needs to be in a nursing home or some other institution where he can get 24-hour care. This disagreement has caused tension in their marriage, and Anthony notices it.

At certain parts of the story, depending on what you believe to be real, it’s explained that Anthony lived in his own apartment with a live-in caregiver. But the caregiver who preceded Angela abruptly left, so Anne decided to let Anthony temporarily stay with her and Paul until they could find a new caregiver for Anthony. Anne and Paul work outside their home on weekdays, so Anne has arranged for Angela to work until 6 p.m., when Anne is able to come home.

But then, in another scenario, Anne is divorced, has fallen in love with a man named Paul (who is never seen in the movie), and Paul lives in Paris. Anne breaks the bad news to Anthony that she will be moving to Paris, but she plans to visit Anthony on weekends on a regular basis. Meanwhile, Olivia Williams and Mark Gatiss portray two people who might or might not be in Anthony’s family.

Anthony has a fixation on his wristwatch, and it’s symbolic of his desperation to hang on to something from his past that he thinks is reliable. There are moments when he becomes enraged when he thinks that someone has stolen his watch. He has hiding places for his valuables that Anne might or might not know about when he inevitably tells her that something valuable of his is missing.

The last 15 minutes of “The Father” deliver an emotional wallop that lays bare the torturous nightmare of having dementia. The movie’s directing and screenplay are impressive, but the movie’s stellar casting and performances make it a superb movie that will leave a lasting impact on viewers.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Father” in select U.S. cinemas on February 26, 2021, with expansions scheduled for more U.S. cinemas on March 12, 2021. The movie’s VOD release date is March 26, 2021. “The Father” was released in Spain on December 23, 2020, and had one-week theatrical run in Los Angeles in December 2020.

Review: ‘French Exit,’ starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges

February 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges in “French Exit” (Photo by Tobias Datum/Sony Pictures Classics)

“French Exit”

Directed by Azazel Jacobs

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and Paris, the comedy/drama “French Exit” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one black person and one Asian person) representing the wealthy, middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: An American socialite widow and her young adult son relocate from New York City to Paris after she loses her fortune.

Culture Audience: “French Exit” will appeal primarily to fans of star Michelle Pfeiffer and to people who like stories about drastic life changes, but the movie’s abrupt shift from realism into becoming a wacky supernatural story might annoy some viewers.

Pictured from left to right (in front) Danielle Macdonald, Valerie Mahaffey and Imogen Poots; (in back) Isaach de Bankolé, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Coyne in “French Exit” (Photo by Lou Scamble/Sony Pictures Classics)

The comedy/drama film “French Exit” starts out as a straightforward story about two Americans who’ve relocated to Paris, but then takes a bizarre turn that involves a psychic, a missing cat and a plot that becomes about reincarnation. Despite impressive performances from co-stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges, “French Exit” is a messy, uneven film that tries to be too quirky for its own good. The characters in the movie act more and more ridiculous until the story reaches a very uninspired and tepid conclusion.

Directed by Azazel Jacobs and written by Patrick DeWitt (who adapted the screenplay from his 2018 novel of the same name), “French Exit” begins with a flashback scene of the story’s two main characters. Haughty socialite Frances Price (played by Pfeiffer) and her 12-year-old son Malcolm (played by Eddie Holland) hastily leave the boarding school where Frances has arrived to withdraw his enrollment. Frances has taken Malcolm back home to live with her in their spacious New York City townhouse.

The next time that viewers see Frances and Malcolm (played by Hedges), it’s now 12 years later. Frances’ husband Franklin (who was Malcolm’s father) has been dead for 12 years, and Frances has run out of the money that she inherited. She’s also been told that the house is in foreclosure and she’s going to be locked out of her home in a matter of weeks. It’s implied that either Franklin left behind a lot of debts that Frances (who is now 60 years old) could not pay and/or that Frances racked up a lot of debts on her own after Frank’s death. At one point in the movie, Frances says she’s never worked a day in her life and she has no intention of ever doing so.

After Frances gets over the shock and denial that she’s no longer wealthy and is about to be homeless, she takes her accountant’s advice to sell all of her jewelry, artwork and many other possessions, in order to get enough cash for the near future. Frances has almost no friends, but she has the good luck of having a socialite confidante named Joan (played by Susan Coyne), who generously offers her unused Paris apartment as a place for Frances and Malcolm to stay.

Frances accepts the offer, even though her pride is wounded by having to take this charitable handout. Frances is so broke that she can’t afford to pay the $600 salary that she owes to her maid Sylvia (played by Christine Lan), who demands to be paid in cash because Sylvia’s most recent paycheck from Frances was returned due to insufficient funds. Frances doesn’t have the cash, but Malcolm does, so he pays the $600 that’s owed. Sylvia isn’t going to be working for Frances for much longer anyway, because Frances has told Malcolm that they could be living in Paris “perhaps for the rest of our lives.”

Meanwhile, Malcolm is dealing with some problems in his love life. He has an on-again/off-again girlfriend named Susan (played by Imogen Poots), who’s slightly older and more emotionally mature than he is. Malcolm and Susan are secretly engaged, but he’s been afraid to tell his mother Frances. In fact, Malcolm tells Frances one day over breakfast that he and Susan are in a “holding pattern,” as in, his relationship with Susan is now on pause.

It becomes very obvious early on in the movie that Frances and Malcolm have a very co-dependent relationship. Frances is the type of domineering mother who probably doesn’t approve of anything that would result in Malcolm getting his own place and starting his own independent life. Just like his mother, Malcolm is somewhat of a loner. Unlike his mother, Malcolm is tactful when dealing with people and he doesn’t have a snobbish attitude.

Franklin is never seen in the movie in flashbacks, but his presence looms large over Frances and Malcolm, who talk about him often in this story. His voice is heard later in the movie, with Tracy Letts as the voice of Franklin. Based on what Frances and Malcolm say, Franklin was an emotionally distant and often-cruel husband and father. Frances mentions that her marriage to Franklin started off happy, but then it turned into a love/hate relationship.

Malcolm, who was never close to Franklin, only started to bond with Frances after she took Malcolm away from the boarding school. It’s implied that Frances only did so after Franklin died and she was lonely and needed someone else in the house to live with her. Malcolm is a socially awkward lost soul who clings to his mother for love but knows that his relationship with her can be very unhealthy.

Susan has been pressuring Malcolm to tell Frances that they are engaged, but he keeps postponing telling Frances this news. Malcolm and Susan are on the verge of breaking up when he tells Susan that he and his mother are moving to Paris the next day. Shocked and dismayed, Susan breaks up with Malcolm because she says there’s no point in continuing in the relationship if he’s going to live so far away. She also feels disrespected that Malcolm was keeping their engagement a secret from his mother.

And so, Frances and Malcolm pack up the modest number of their remaining possessions, including their black cat Small Frank, and head to Paris on a cruise ship. Before the trip, Frances converted all of their cash into euros to carry with her. And it’s a stash that gets smaller as the story continues.

During this journey across the Atlantic Ocean, Malcolm meets a woman who calls herself Madeleine the Medium (played by Danielle Macdonald), who works as a fortune teller on the ship. Frances first sees Madeleine giving bad news to an elderly woman, who is sobbing because Madeleine predicted that the woman would die soon. Malcolm is intrigued by Madeleine, and when he sees Madeleine alone at the ship’s bar one night, he strikes up a conversation with her.

At first, Madeleine is standoffish, but eventually she warms up to Malcolm, and they end up having a sexual tryst. She spends the night in the cabin that Malcolm shares with Frances. And the next morning, Frances seems unbothered by this overnight guest because she assumes that Madeleine is just a one-night stand.

And then, things get weird. At the ship’s bar, Malcolm meets a very drunk elderly man named Boris Maurus (played by Vlasta Vrana), who’s the ship’s doctor. Boris chuckles as he tells Malcolm that he wants to show Malcolm something on the ship. Where does Boris takes Malcolm? To the ship’s morgue. Boris explains to Malcolm that it’s not unusual for people to die on a cruise ship, but cruises never advertise this fact.

Boris also points out a recently deceased woman among the bodies and says that Madeleine had predicted that this woman would die. It’s the same woman whom Frances had seen sobbing during a fortune-telling session with Madeleine. Malcolm is predictably uncomfortable with being in the morgue, but he’s too polite to scold Boris for bringing him there. And so, Malcolm gives an awkward thank you to Boris and then makes a hasty exit. The main purpose of this scene, except for being morbid and creepy, is that it lets viewers know that maybe Madeleine’s psychic abilities are real.

When Frances and Malcolm arrive in Paris, there’s a somewhat comical scene of them illegally smuggling in Small Frank through customs. (Frances gave the cat a tranquilizer that rendered the cat unconscious, so she’s able to hide the cat in her travel bag.) After Frances and Malcolm settle into Joan’s apartment, they mostly keep to themselves, simply because they don’t know anyone in the area. It’s not the first time Frances has been to Paris, but the last time she was there was when she was on a trip with Franklin in happier times.

Malcolm gets lonely, so he calls Susan to invite her to visit him in Paris. He’s hurt and surprised to find out that she’s gotten back together with a boyfriend named Tom (played by Daniel di Tomasso), whom she dated when Susan and Tom were in college. Susan drops hints that it’s a rebound relationship on her part because she doesn’t want to be alone and because Tom is very much in love with her.

Malcolm reacts as if Susan has been cheating on him, by telling her that he still thinks of Susan as fiancée. It’s a hypocritical reaction, considering that Malcolm was acting very single and available when he hooked up with Madeleine. Malcolm also doesn’t tell Susan about Madeleine in this conversation. Susan is annoyed by Malcolm’s possessiveness, and she asks Malcolm not to contact her again.

When Malcolm and Frances first arrive in Paris, the movie drags a little in showing how bored and lonely they are. In one scene, Frances and Malcolm have lunch together in a fairly empty café. When they’re ready to leave, Malcolm asks the waiter to get the bill for the meal. The waiter rudely tells Malcolm to wait.

Malcolm and Frances watch as the waiter casually jokes around with a co-worker, as if he’s on a break and doesn’t need to attend to any customers. Frances gets visibly annoyed and then calmly puts some perfume on the small vase of flowers on the table, and then sets the flowers on fire. That definitely gets the waiter’s attention, and the horrified waiter can’t believe what he’s seeing. The waiter tells Frances that she’s crazy, as he and other employees rush to put out the fire, while Frances and Malcolm just sit there and smirk.

It’s a very unrealistic “only in a movie moment” (and there will be more to come as the story goes downhill), because in the real world, causing arson in a restaurant can get someone arrested. Perhaps this arson scene was supposed to make Frances look like a “badass” who doesn’t put up with anyone disrespecting her son. But it just makes her look mean-spirited and mentally unstable, with Malcolm as her enabler.

Malcolm and Frances soon meet someone who comes into their lives as a possible friend. Frances shows Malcolm a house party invitation from another American in Paris named Madame Renard (played by Valerie Mahaffey), a widow who used to run in the same New York City social circles as Frances. Malcolm and Frances go to the party at Madame Renard’s home and find out that they are the only guests.

It turns out that Madame Renard only invited the two of them to this party. Madame Renard confesses to Frances and Malcolm that she’s been lonely since her husband died and was hoping that she could become friends with Frances. Madame Renard gives effusive compliments to Frances and says that she’s always admired Frances from afar.

Even though it’s obvious that Madame Renard is feeling very emotionally vulnerable, Frances callously tells Madame Renard in a disgusted tone of voice that she’s not interested in being her friend and isn’t looking for any friends. Madame Renard looks crushed and embarrassed, while Malcolm makes a sincere apology for the way his mother is behaving.

Despite being insulted in her own home, Madame Renard invites Frances and Malcolm to stay for dinner. Frances eventually makes an apology to Madame Renard for being so rude, and makes the excuse that she’s going through a difficult time too. Madame Renard accepts the apology and she ends up spending more time with Frances and Malcolm.

Some viewers will have a hard time connecting to Frances and Malcolm, which is why “French Exit” isn’t the charming oddball movie that it wants to be. Frances is emotionally cold, usually selfish, and really isn’t that great of a mother. She also doesn’t seem to have any talent for anything. And she’s definitely not very smart, considering she had a lot of privileged advantages and yet ended up in this awful predicament at this stage in her life.

At one point in the movie, Frances declares: “My plan was to die before the money ran out.” It tells you a lot about how short-sighted, boring and empty her life is if all she has to show for it is an emotionally stunted son and a fortune she’s squandered (money that was earned by someone else, since Frances has never worked), thereby leaving her son’s future uncertain too. Most socialites at least have some hobbies, but Frances doesn’t seem to have any interests other than trying to be the center of attention and getting what she wants.

Malcolm is a man-child who’s fairly articulate and has good manners, but he’s completely sheltered from a lot of reality and wants to live in the same psychological “bubble” that Frances tries to use to shield herself from life’s harshest problems. He also doesn’t seem willing or concerned about finding a job to help with their financial problems. Frances is close to retirement age and has no job skills. But there’s no excuse for Malcolm, who’s young and healthy, for him not to try and find work. Is he really that lazy and incapable of problem solving? Apparently so.

An example of how socially clueless Malcolm can be is in the scene in New York when Malcolm told Susan that he was moving to Paris. He brought flowers to their lunch date, even though he probably knew that Susan would break up with him. Susan sees the absurdity of this romantic gesture and chastises Malcolm for bringing flowers to this date. It’s almost as if he thinks a gift of flowers could erase the bad news that he was moving to Paris.

However, Malcolm has a sympathetic side when viewers find out how much his parents neglected him when he was a child. There’s a scene that shows how deep Malcolm’s emotional wounds run in feeling unloved by his father. It explains why Malcolm can’t quite tear himself away from Frances, because he’s trying to get the unconditional love and approval from her that he didn’t get from his father. As toxic as his mother’s love can be, Malcolm thinks it’s better than nothing.

The filmmakers clearly didn’t want “French Exit” to be a typical mother/son movie, but in trying to buck convention too much, the movie falls off the rails. In the last third of “French Exit,” the movie then turns into a silly indulgence of séances and people who don’t know each other conveniently showing up in the same place in a short period of time to continue the absurdity. There’s also a private investigator named Julius (played by Isaach De Bankolé) who comes into the picture, for reasons that are explained in the movie.

The cinematography, costume design and production design make the movie look very stylish. (“French Exit” was actually filmed in Montreal.) But the music of “French Exit” is a weird mix of sitcom schlock in some scenes and classical elegance in other scenes. It’s an example of the wildly contrasting tones in this movie, which seems like it got weirder and weirder to distract viewers from the fact that Frances and Malcolm have very aimless lives. Paris is one of the most exciting and fascinating cities in the world, but this miserable mother and son of “French Exit” have such hollow lives that their boredom comes at the expense of making Paris and this movie look like mindless gimmicks.

Sony Pictures Classics released “French Exit” in select U.S. virtual cinemas in New York City and Los Angeles on February 12, 2021. The movie expands to more cities across the U.S. on April 2, 2021.

Review: ‘Castle in the Ground,’ starring Alex Wolff, Imogen Poots, Tom Cullen, Keir Gilchrist and Neve Campbell

May 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tom Cullen, Imogen Poots and Alex Wolff in “Castle in the Ground” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Castle in the Ground”

Directed by Joey Klein

Culture Representation: Taking place in Sudbury, Ontario, in 2012, the drama “Castle in the Ground” has a nearly all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 19-year-old straight-laced guy becomes addicted to opioids after getting involved with a female opioid addict and her problems with drug dealers and other criminals.

Culture Audience: “Castle in the Ground” will appeal primarily to people who like watching grim stories about drug addiction.

Alex Wolff in “Castle in the Ground” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

With numerous documentaries and scripted movies being made about drug addiction, there really isn’t a lot of mystery in showing how a seemingly straight-laced, middle-class young person can go from having a promising future to being a drug addict. “Castle in the Ground” (written and directed by Joey Klein) is not an innovative or particularly well-paced film, but a nuanced performance by Alex Wolff makes the movie worth a look for people who are interested in seeing yet another “wasted youth” story.

“Castle in the Ground” begins with 19-year-old Henry Fine (played by Wolff) going through the ritual of crushing a prescribed opioid pill and putting it in food that he serves to his bed-ridden mother Rebecca Fine (played by Neve Campbell), who has an illness that’s not explicitly stated but it’s implied to be cancer. Henry and his single mother (who are the only people living in their apartment in the Canadian city of Sudbury) are so close that he often sleeps in the same bed with her to be a comforting presence. (Henry’s father is neither seen nor mentioned in the film.)

Henry has chosen to delay going to college until his mother “gets well.” And he sincerely believes that she will recover from her illness. But there are signs that he’s also fearing the worst, because he’s begun praying in Hebrew. His mother somewhat teases Henry that she hasn’t seen him openly pray in years.

After a doctor’s appointment, Rebecca tells Henry the bad news that her health situation has gone through another “relapse,” and that they have to prepare for every possible outcome, including her death. He is in complete denial and doesn’t even want to think about his mother dying. Henry gets very upset when she tells him that after her death, she wants Henry to live with his Uncle Yosef and his wife, and the arrangements have already been made.

Meanwhile, a new neighbor has moved in directly across the hall from Henry and Rebecca. Details about the new neighbor are revealed in bits and pieces, as Henry sometimes looks through his apartment’s peephole to observe what’s going on at the apartment across from his. His neighbor (played by Imogen Poots) is a woman who’s about 10 years older than he is, and she likes to play music loud enough that Henry and his mother can hear it in their apartment. She also has a few men visiting her, whom she greets warmly when she answers the door.

One evening, while Henry is having dinner with his mother, his girlfriend Rachel (played by Star Slade) texts him. His mother asks Henry to tell Rachel that she’s interrupting their dinner. But because he wants to talk to Rachel, he takes the conversation with her out in the apartment hallway.

While Henry is on the phone with Rachel, a young man named Stevie (played by Kiowa Gordon) stops by the neighbor’s apartment and introduces himself. Stevie asks if Henry is someone named Polo Boy. Henry says no and tells him that his name is Henry. Before Stevie goes into the apartment, Henry politely asks Stevie to tell the friend who lives there to turn down the music.

Henry then meets up with Rachel for a date, which they spend at an arcade. When he gets home, he hears loud music again from the neighbor’s apartment, so he looks through the peephole and sees something bizarre: A tall man, wearing a face mask of a baby, is knocking on the door.

When the door is opened, the man barges in, and there’s the distinct sound of a woman’s scream and a physical fight. It sounds like a crime in progress, but it could also a prank, so Henry doesn’t call 911 or check to see if the neighbor is in danger or not. It’s revealed later in the movie what that incident was all about.

The next day, Henry is at the pharmacy to pick up some medication for his mother. He sees the mystery neighbor woman arguing with the pharmacist, who has refused to fill a prescription for her and threatens to call the police. The neighbor says that her phone is broken and angrily accuses the pharmacist of being rude and unfairly “profiling” her. It’s an obvious sign that the woman has a drug problem and is trying to fill a fraudulent prescription.

After this heated exchange, the neighbor walks away in a huff, while Henry gets the medication for his mother. As he’s about to leave, he sees the neighbor stealing candy from one of the pharmacy shelves. Henry introduces himself and asks her if she’s doing all right because he heard a scuffle in her apartment the night before.

She tells Henry that what he heard was no big deal, and she introduces herself as Ana. She’s also very agitated, and complains to Henry that pharmacies “hook you … and then fuck up your life.” And if it weren’t obvious enough that she’s a desperate junkie, Ana then asks Henry if she could borrow $40. When he tells her that he has no cash with him, she asks to borrow $20. He tells her the same answer.

Ana asks Henry what he was doing at the pharmacy, and he tells her that he was picking up allergy medication for his sick mother. The look on her face tells viewers that she knows Henry is probably lying, and his access to pain medication might be useful to her. Henry mentions that Ana sometimes plays music too loud, and he nicely asks her if she could turn down the music since his mother is sick.

Ana agrees, but then says since she’ll do that favor for him, she needs a favor from Henry. Ana asks Henry if she could borrow his cell phone and if he could give her a ride to somewhere she needs to go. Although Henry has some initial reservations about this obviously shady person, he seems fascinated and somewhat attracted to Ana, so he says yes to her requests.

When Ana is on the phone, she makes angry calls that indicate she’s probably trying to get in touch with someone who can give her drugs. Ana and Henry drive to an abandoned house, and when he gets tired of waiting for her, he goes into the house to see what’s going on. Henry tells Ana that he has to go, but she begs him to give her a few more minutes.

She then calls her doctor to refill her Oxy prescription, since she’s out of methadone. The doctor refuses. So now that it’s been made clear that Ana is a drug addict, Henry has the choice to avoid her or get involved with her. It’s pretty obvious from the way she easily manipulated him what his choice will eventually be.

Shortly after Henry and Ana meet for the first time at the pharmacy, tragedy strikes: Henry’s mother dies in a way that won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that he blames himself for her death. Henry is understandably grief-stricken and depressed. He also breaks up with his girlfriend Rachel, since she will be going away to college.

Alone and despondent, Henry is staying in the apartment with no visible means of income. However, viewers can assume that he might have gotten an inheritance from his mother, because Henry refuses an offer from his Uncle Yosef (played by Joseph Ziegler) to live with him and his wife.

When Henry goes through his mother’s belongings, he inevitably sees her bottles of medication. He continues the ritual of crushing the pills, but this time, he’s the one taking the drugs. And when he goes over to visit Ana at her place, she finds out that Henry has been getting high on his mother’s medication, which he ends up sharing with Ana.

The rest of the movie follows Henry’s downward spiral, as he gets more and more involved in Ana’s dangerous games. She’s constantly broke, so she owes drug dealers money, and she’s always thinking up ways to get money for drugs.

Ana has a job as a bartender at a local restaurant/bar, but she also gets money from her enabling mother, who pays for Ana’s rent. Ana’s mother is neither seen nor heard in the movie, but Ana frequently communicates with her worried mother by phone. Ana’s father is not seen or mentioned in the story.

As the more experienced drug user, Ana also gives Henry advice on what she considers to be the best way to use opioids. She doesn’t have a car, so Henry essentially because her willing chauffeur. Henry lets Ana use his cell phone, and eventually he gives her his dead mother’s cell phone, because Ana says that her phone is “busted” and she can’t afford a new one right now. (More likely, she’s stopped paying her cell phone bill.)

Ana constantly seems to be hiding from people who are looking for her, but she downplays any threats to their safety. However, Henry can’t ignore it when he and Ana start getting followed by men in a mysterious white van. And she also shows signs of paranoia that someone could try to break into her apartment while she’s gone, which is why she sometimes stays at Henry’s place.

Henry finds out that Ana’s main drug connection is a young dealer named Richard (played by Keir Gilchrist), who goes by the name Polo Boy because he used to wear preppy shirts with polo logos. Ana used to babysit Polo Boy, so she sometimes taunts him about his youth and tells him that he’s an “amateur” drug dealer who doesn’t have what it take to be in the big leagues.

However, Ana also offers sexual favors to Polo Boy when she can’t pay for the drugs that she wants. She makes this type of offer right in front of Henry—which is an indication that she doesn’t care if Henry knows how far she’s willing to go to get drugs. In a private conversation between Polo Boy and Henry, Polo Boy warns him about Ana: “She will sell your soul for something … that’s probably going to kill her.”

There’s also a fellow opioid addict named Jimmy (played by Tom Cullen), who’s close to Stevie and is part of Ana’s circle of druggie friends. And this isn’t a harmless group: Jimmy, other clique members and the drug dealers they encounter carry guns and aren’t afraid to use them.

“Castle in the Ground” has some suspenseful moments, but much of the film realistically captures the foggy-minded, sluggish pace of people in the throes of opioid addiction, when there are long pauses in conversations, frequent nodding out, and difficulty focusing on doing simple things such as getting out of bed.  People should not expect this movie to have a lot of non-stop adrenaline-pumping action where the drug addicts careen from one dangerous situation to the next. There are some elements of that in the story, but “Castle in the Ground” is more of a character study than a crime thriller.

And this movie also isn’t one where the addicts are involved in moving large quantities of dope. Instead, “Castle in the Ground” is a microcosm of how addiction affects young, middle-class white people, who usually get sentenced to rehab instead of prison if they’re convicted of possession of drugs in small, personal quantities. The racial disparity in how drug addicts are treated by law enforcement is probably why police officers are nowhere to be seen in this movie, even though Ana and Henry go to a well-known drug house in the neighborhood and they hang out with gun-toting drug users.

There is no real backstory for Ana, other than she’s been a drug addict for a number of years. Because Ana is such a liar and a manipulator and because very little is known about her background, the movie gives no indication if she was always an untrustworthy person or if she turned into a habitual liar because of her drug addiction. Poots gives a good performance, but the character is the type of “dishonest and flaky” junkie who’s been seen before in many other movies and TV shows about drug addiction.

Ana might be a lost cause for rehab and redemption, but is Henry? Wolff does a very effective portrayal of someone whose life has changed for the worse in a short period of time. One of the strong points of “Castle in the Ground” is that the movie shows how quickly addiction can take over people’s lives.

Henry’s co-dependent relationship with his mother also explains why he gravitated to getting involved with Ana, another “sick” person whom he wants to “take care” of because he thinks she’s incapable of fully taking care of herself. And if that parallel isn’t made clear enough, toward the end of the film, Ana starts wearing a dress that used to be owned by Henry’s dead mother. Ana admits to Henry that she took the dress after his mother died, but he doesn’t object to her wearing it. It’s a haunting and disturbing image, indicating that Henry has to overcome other issues besides drug addiction in order to have a healthy life.

Gravitas Ventures released “Castle in the Ground” on digital and VOD on May 15, 2020.

Review: ‘Vivarium,’ starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jesse Eisenberg, Côme Thiry and Imogen Poots in “Vivarium” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Saban Films)


Directed by Lorcan Finnegan 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in England, the sci-fi thriller “Vivarium” has an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An unmarried couple who live together go to a mysterious housing development to look for a new home and find out that they can’t leave.

Culture Audience: “Vivarium” will appeal mostly to people who like unsettling suspense stories with a sci-fi angle.

Senan Jennings in “Vivarium” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Saban Films)

“Vivarium” is a somewhat haunting sci-fi thriller that’s meant to give people the creeps and/or anxiety throughout the entire film. The movie—directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley—is actually a very simple story that gets drawn out over approximately 97 minutes. The middle of the film has a very sluggish pace, but there’s enough of the story to keep people interested to find out what happens in the end.

In the beginning of “Vivarium,” there are startling images of hungry baby birds in nests, demanding to be fed by their parents. It’s a metaphor for what happens later in the story, which takes place in present-day England. Gemma Pierce (played by Imogen Poots) is a teacher at a primary school (which is called elementary school in the United States) to children who look about 5 or 6 years old. After school lets out for the day, one of the girl students finds two baby birds stomped to death near a tree in the school front lawn.

It’s here that viewers first see Gemma’s live-in American boyfriend Tom (played by Jesse Eisenberg), who climbs down from a ladder placed near the tree where the birds were found. It’s not made clear what Tom does for a living, but since this is one of the movie’s few scenes that’s set in the “outside world,” one can assume he works as a handyman at the school.

Tom and Gemma are looking for a house and they have an appointment at a real-estate company that wants to show them a new housing development in the area. When they arrive at the office, Gemma and Tom are greeted by a very creepy real-estate agent named Martin (played by Jonathan Aris), who has the kind of unblinking, crazy-eyed look that would make most people feel very uncomfortable. There’s something “off” about his mannerisms too: His smile is too fake, his way of talking seems unnatural, and at one point in the conversation, he mimics what Gemma says, almost as if he’s mocking her.

Tom senses that something isn’t quite right about Martin, and so Tom is a little reluctant to go any further in the inquiry about the house. However, Gemma (in an effort to be polite) indicates that she still wants to see the property. Against his better judgment (and since they arrived in the same car), Tom agrees to go with Gemma to get a tour of the house. They follow Martin (who drives in a separate car) to see the house where they might live.

The housing development is named Yonder, which Martin describes as “both tranquil and practical.” And it’s definitely a Stepford-type environment. All of the development’s green two-story houses and yards are identical to each other. Somehow, Tom and Gemma don’t notice that there is no one outside on the streets of this large neighborhood. It’s a major red flag of what’s to come.

Unfortunately, probably because of this film’s low budget, all of the exterior shots of the housing development looks very CGI fake. Once the characters are in the mysterious Yonder environment, it’s very obvious where the “green screen” is whenever there are scenes that are supposed to take place outside.

During a brief tour of the house, which has the number 9 as its address, Martin abruptly leaves Tom and Gemma at the house without a goodbye or any explanation. Gemma and Tom are ready to just write it off as a weird experience, so they get in their car to leave. But every time they try to find their way out of Yonder, they come right back to the house where they were. The bird’s eye view of the Yonder housing development also looks very CGI fake, like a video game.

This circling around the neighborhood goes on for quite a bit, as Tom argues with Gemma, demands to do the driving, and then he gets “lost” too. Gemma and Tom soon find out that they have no cell phone service. And as it starts to get dark, the car runs out of gas. In a major plot hole, Gemma and Tom don’t even try to see if anyone else is home who can help. Not that it would matter, since the movie’s entire plot is about them being stuck in this neighborhood with no one to help them get out.

Exhausted by their strange ordeal, they have no choice but to spend the night at the house. Tom and Gemma look in the house’s refrigerator and find it has a gift basket containing a bottle of champagne and strawberries, which Gemma and Tom consume since they have nothing else to eat and drink. Tom remarks that the strawberries have no taste.

The next day, Tom has the idea that he and Gemma should follow the direction of the sun to find their way out. They spend most of the day doing just that, climbing over neighbors’ fences and trekking through the streets. But to no avail. As it gets dark, the only house that they see with its lights on is the same No. 9 house that they were at in the beginning.

Then another strange thing happens: A box of food and other house essentials have mysteriously been delivered at the front of the house. (There’s no sign of who delivered the box.) Out of desperation, Tom (who’s a smoker) decides to use one of his cigarettes to light the house on fire, to see if anyone will notice the fire and call for help. Tom and Gemma watch nearby as the house burns to the ground, before they fall asleep.

When they wake up, Gemma and Tom are covered in ash. And the house has mysteriously appeared again, completely intact, as if the fire never happened. And then they get another box delivered to them. And what’s in the box sets in motion the rest of what happens to Tom and Gemma in the story.

The box has a baby boy in it, with a message: “Raise the child and be released.” Given that Gemma and Tom are stuck in this weird limbo environment, they basically don’t have a choice but to raise the child. (Côme Thiry plays the child as a baby.) The movie then fast forwards to 98 days later, and the baby has grown into what looks like a human boy who’s about 7 or 8 years old (played by Senan Jennings), thereby making it very clear to viewers that whoever Tom and Gemma are raising is definitely not human.

Tom is extremely resentful of the child, who has a tendency to randomly scream at the top of his lungs until he gets something. He always screams this way when he wants food, which is a nod to the bird scene that was shown in the beginning of the movie. One of the creepiest aspects of “Viviarium” is that the child (who doesn’t have a name) mimics what Tom and Gemma say in their own voices. The boy has a normal child’s voice, but more often than not, the voice that comes out when he speaks is a male or female adult voice.

Tom is quick to lose his temper and, at times, he deliberately abuses the child through physical assault and later by locking him in the car and refusing to give him food. Tom also refuses to call the child “he” and instead calls the child “it.” Gemma doesn’t like taking care of the child either, but she’s more patient than Tom is. In a scene that sums up their feelings about their forced parenting of this odd creature, Tom and Gemma both show the child their middle fingers in anger, and the child does the same. 

The middle section of the film somewhat drags down the pace of the story. There are repetitive scenes of the boy doing things that irritate Tom and Gemma. Although Tom wants to try and get rid of the boy in some way, Gemma can’t bring herself to do it, no matter how much she detests taking care of the boy.

At this point in the story, Tom has a distraction to keep him out of the house for long periods of time. He’s discovered, by flicking a cigarette on the front lawn, that the cigarette has burned a mysterious circle on the grass, which exposes the dirt on the ground. Tom begins digging the dirt and hears menacing sounds underneath. Digging as far as he can into the ground then becomes Tom’s obsession and takes up a great deal of his (and this movie’s) time. In one scene, Gemma speculates that the hole that Tom is digging will lead to hell. Tom replies, “No, we’re already there.”

Meanwhile, the boy who lives with them has been fixating on watching something bizarre on the house’s TV: black-and-white color patterns that look like psychedelic cell mutations. And in the house, Gemma finds a book that has strange coding and illustrations which are clues to what is possibly going on and what kind of being that she and Tom are raising.

“Vivarium” is by no means on the level of a Christopher Nolan sci-fi movie. A Nolan film has layers and layers of deep meaning that viewers will contemplate long after the movie is over. The ending of “Vivarium” actually explains exactly why all of this is happening to Tom and Gemma. The explanation is kind of basic and actually not all that surprising.

And because so much of “Vivarium” is repetitive (Tom and Gemma’s stir-crazy angst is pretty much 90% of the movie), the movie probably would’ve been better as a short film. However, if you’re looking for a movie to pass the time and give you some suspenseful chills, “Vivarium” should do the trick. Just don’t expect anything close to a masterpiece.

Lionsgate and Saban Films released “Vivarium” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020. The film’s Blu-ray and DVD release is on May 12, 2020.

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