Saturday, 16 January 2021

Vivarium | review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Running in circles, digging for answers. And somebody’s watching, but who… or what?

In house number nine, an exhausted Gemma (Imogen Poots) sits on the floor. Clothes spin in the dryer behind her. In front of her, a boy (Senan Jennings) runs in circles and moves into and out of the frame. This seemingly benign scene encapsulates Vivarium, in which a young couple gets lured into a “forever home” in the community of Yonder. In this tract housing development, every home has the same design, the same mint shade of green, and the same fence and yard. And the perfectly spaced clouds are all shaped like… clouds. Gemma, her partner Tom (Jessie Eisenberg), and the odd nameless boy who comes to live with them are the only residents in Yonder. Most disturbing, every time Gemma and Tom try to get away, they end up back at number nine.    

Vivarium, directed by Lorcan Finnegan, brings to mind The Truman Show (1998). However, in this case, the guinea pigs are completely alone and the viewer is just as in the dark as the them. Questions accumulate: What is this place? How will this couple get out? Who (or what) is watching them? “Number nine is not a starter home,” says the awkward salesman (Jonathan Aris) who takes them on a tour. “This house is forever.”

Where this film succeeds is in its placement of an ordinary (perhaps even dull) couple in an extraordinary circumstance, as well as in its exploration of how each of the two protagonists chooses to pursue answers: Tom becomes obsessed with digging a hole in their front yard. Gemma focuses on the boy, whose adult voice, mimicry, and inhuman scream grow increasingly grating to his caretakers. More than once, Gemma tells the freakish boy, “I am not your mother.”

There are some Lost-like things happening, from cryptic television broadcasts to indecipherable symbols. In one especially unsettling scene, the boy imitates someone he claims to have met within the neighborhood. 

Both main actors offer performances that support the consequences of their situation. Poots’s resigned Gemma radiates the malaise that has taken over her life. Eisenberg, despite his reputation as a fast-talking comedy type, adequately portrays the deterioration of a normal guy – there are times when he appears downright menacing. Unfortunately, during a climactic scene, his performance wanes and end ups feeling mawkish. 

Vivarium might stand as an extended metaphor for the young couples who get stuck in parenthood and find themselves in a condition where nothing excites and nothing changes. “Do you remember the wind?” says one character. “The wind was great.” The circle theme resurfaces at the film’s conclusion, which conveys a nihilistic message.—Douglas J. Ogurek ****

Monday, 11 January 2021

Heads Will Roll, by Kate McKinnon and Emily Lynne (Audible) | review by Stephen Theaker

This Audible series is written by and stars the reliably hilarious Kate McKinnon and her sister, Emily Lynne. It is often very funny, like an 18-rated version of Radio 4’s Elvenquest, albeit without a studio audience. McKinnon plays Queen Mortuana of the Night Realm, a typical fairy tale evil queen, albeit with a foul mouth and a sex dungeon, who is warned by a soothsayer that a peasant rebellion is imminent. Lynne plays JoJo, a former princess cursed to live as a crow.

Meryl Streep, no less, is in it as the nation’s beloved actor, Catherine Staunch, who becomes a political rival as democracy starts to rear its beautiful head. As well as Peter Dinklage and Carol Kane, there are appearances from half the SNL cast, including Aidy Bryant, Heidi Gardner, Alex Moffat as romantic interest Odin, and Chris Redd as Lil Pelicayne, a prince cursed to live as a pelican. (He raps in character on Flap It Out, available as a free download from Audible.) The chaps from Queer Eye also make a fun appearance, giving Mortuana a makeover.

I hadn’t planned to review this audiobook, but when I found myself handselling it to one person after another online I realised (a) how enthusiastic I was about it and (b) that it might be somewhat quicker to tell you all about it at once in a review. It may not be astonishingly original, but it is a lot of fun, and a good deal of work has clearly gone into it. The only thing that gets a bit annoying is the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song used as the theme song at the beginning of each episode, and that’s only because it’s a bit too loud. ****

Friday, 8 January 2021

The Beasts in the Arena, by Sophia McDougall (Gollancz) | review by Stephen Theaker

In a world where the Roman Empire lasted long enough to develop trains, an animal trainer is asked to provide a lion for a celebration of the new emperor. But the lion is dead, and it died on the day the old emperor died. The new emperor might see this as an unwelcome omen. As well as this enjoyable short story, the free ebook also includes a long extract from Romanitas, a novel set 250 years later, by which time the Empire has invented “longvision”, and expanded as far as India and Mexico. Stephen Theaker ***

Monday, 4 January 2021

Assassin’s Creed: Gold, by Anthony Del Col (Audible) | review by Stephen Theaker

Aliyah Khan owes her friend’s dad a lot of money. Well, she doesn’t really – he invested in her business and it failed – but she feels like she does. Her attempts to pay him back lead her into contact with the Assassins, who fight throughout history to protect freedom and counter Templar authoritarianism and tyranny. One of the ways they do this is by tapping into the DNA of suitable volunteers, to see if their ancestors came into contact with valuable artefacts and information.

Aliyah’s ancestor, Omar (played by Riz Ahmed), was blind, and thus she is told, “all you need to do is sit back and listen”. This makes these flashbacks ideal for an audio drama, though Omar does possess the magical “eagle vision” of the games, so he is still able to get involved with the action. Much of it involves Isaac Newton, played by Antony Head in the best tradition of historical celebrity guest stars.

This was originally announced as a podcast, but was released as a regular audiobook, albeit one made up of eight episodes of about thirty minutes each. A bit like the film, which I enjoyed more than most, it’s hard to understand why this bothered with a present-day story. In the games it makes sense to have a framing device to take the player into the past, but in a narrative like this it denies the protagonist any agency during large stretches of the story. Why not just tell the whole story in the past? Aaliyah’s frequent and anachronistic interjections just remind you that we’re listening to a replay. But I quite enjoyed it. Riz Ahmed is very good as Omar, and if he returns for a sequel it would probably earn my Audible token. ***

Friday, 1 January 2021

Abigail and the Snowman, by Roger Langridge (Kaboom!) | review by Stephen Theaker

When Abigail moves to a new school, the first friend she makes is an abominable snowman. Unfortunately he is being pursued by agents who want him back in captivity. This is a charming book, with smashing art by writer and artist Roger Langridge. The bumbling agents are basically Laurel and Hardy, which is fun, the monster is very sweet, and Abigail is a cool kid, who takes time to think about things, which I always love in a character. But she is, essentially, a nine-year-old girl sneaking an adult male into her bedroom and school, making it rather unsuitable for school libraries. Stephen Theaker ***