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On Blu-ray/DVD/VOD: VIVARIUM (2020) and THE TRAITOR (2020)

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VIVARIUM
(Ireland/Belgium/Denmark - 2020)

There's about enough material for a 20-minute short film in this tiresome sci-fi/horror suburban nightmare, but once it establishes what's going on, it just has nowhere else to go and nothing else to say. It wants to be something akin to a feature-length BLACK MIRROR episode with Kafka-esque undertones that incorporates a bit of the novel The Midwich Cuckoos and its classic film adaptation VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, but its messaging is ham-fisted, shallow, and juvenile, the kind of thing a writer would scrap after sleeping on it and looking at it again in the morning with fresh eyes. Schoolteacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and her groundskeeper boyfriend Tom (Jesse Eisenberg) are house-hunting and discover a new gated community called Yonder. They're met by very odd but persuasive realtor Martin (Jonathan Aris), who has them follow him in their car through neighborhoods of endless streets with hundreds of identical green houses. "You're Home Now," says the ominous billboard at Yonder's entrance, and Martin seems hurt when Gemma and a snarky Tom aren't immediately taken with what he insists is their "forever home" with the address "9." Gemma and Tom check out the backyard with the same privacy fence and perfectly landscaped lawn as every other, and when they go back in the house, Martin is nowhere to be found and his car is gone. They drive around for hours looking for Yonder's exit (Tom annoys Gemma by arrogantly asking "Want me to drive?" as if that's why they can't find a way out), and keep ending up back at 9. When they walk around and find a house with the lights on, they enter through its back door to find themselves back at 9 just the way they left it. There's hundreds of vacant homes, no way out, no phone reception, and as the days goes on, they're left packages of flavorless, vacuum-sealed food and other necessities, until one day the care package contains something else: a baby, with the instructions "Raise the child and be released."






Cut to some time later, and the baby is now an eight-year-old boy (Senan Jennings), though it's only been a few months and he's growing at the several-years-to-one rate similar to a dog. The boy insists Gemma and Tom are his parents, he mimics their words, mannerisms, and actions, spies on them having sex, and speaks in a voice that's an electronically-enhanced mix of both Poots' and Eisenberg's voices (an unsettling effect the first time, not so much over the next hour). He emits a piercing scream when he doesn't get his way, spends hours watching what looks like a hypnotic screensaver on TV, and soon drives a wedge between the couple, with Tom even suggesting they kill him at one point. Gemma attempts to bond with the child, while Tom spends days and weeks digging a bottomless hole in the front yard. Directed by Lorcan Finnegan and written by Garret Shanley, VIVARIUM makes some facile points about the bland sameness and homogeneity of planned, gated communities, the day-in/day-out grind of life (Tom's symbolically digging his own grave! Get it?), doesn't seem to have a very positive view of raising children, and just tediously spins its wheels after a promising start. It's a half-baked concept in search of a story, and it's not immune to horror movie cliches (when Gemma screams "I want to go home," the glaring boy replies with the sinister proclamation "You are home!"). By the time it finally reaches its finish--and you'll see the ending coming long before Gemma and Tom do--it's just an exhausting, pointless waste of time that its capable stars can't salvage. (R, 99 mins)



THE TRAITOR
(Italy/Brazil/Germany/France - 2019; US release 2020)


Part of the radical movement in Italian cinema in the 1960s, director Marco Bellocchio made his name with his 1965 feature debut FISTS IN THE POCKET. He was also the center of controversy two decades later with 1986's DEVIL IN THE FLESH, where a scene of Maruschka Detmers performing unsimulated fellatio on her male co-star earned the film an X rating in the US. Bellocchio is a filmmaker of sterling repute in Italy but he's never really made any effort to crack the global market. He's never tried to find Hollywood fame and, unlike politically-minded '60s and '70s contemporaries such as Pier Paolo Pasolini, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Gillo Pontecorvo to name a few, has never sought a well-known American or British star to secure funding or increase export value. At 80 years of age, he's as busy and efficiently prolific a director in Italian cinema as geriatric Hollywood workhorses like Clint Eastwood, Ridley Scott, and a pre-cancellation Woody Allen, though the last Bellocchio film to get much arthouse attention stateside was 2009's excellent VINCERE. Sony Pictures Classics picked up his latest, THE TRAITOR, and it chronicles the last 20 years in the life of Palermo Cosa Nostra figure-turned-informer Tommaso "Masino" Buscetta (Pierfrancesco Favino). THE TRAITOR opens in 1980 as Buscetta is living in exile in Rio (cue mandatory establishing aerial shot of Christ the Redeemer statue) with his third wife Maria Cristina (Maria Fernanda Candido), after escaping from a Turin prison. Wanted by Italian authorities, he still long-distance oversees his Palermo-based operation, which has been under siege by chief Corleonesi rival Salvatore "Toto" Riina (Nicola Cali). Riina orders a barrage of hits on Buscetta associates and even family members, and when Buscetta's two oldest sons from his first marriage go missing in Palermo, he's taken into custody by Rio police, who torture him and dangle Maria Cristina from a helicopter. After attempting suicide by poisoning himself, he's extradited to Italy, and offers to turn pentito, spilling everything to notorious anti-Mafia judge Giovanni Falcone (Fausto Russo Alesi), who's in the process of making a huge case against hundreds of Cosa Nostra figures in what became the epic "Maxi Trial" in Sicily in 1986, which eventually put away over 350 defendants for upwards of 2500 years' worth of prison sentences.






Part of this story--the Falcone side--was told in the 1999 HBO movie EXCELLENT CADAVERS, with Chazz Palminteri as Falcone and F. Murray Abraham as Buscetta, but most of THE TRAITOR focuses on the numerous trials at which Buscetta testifies throughout the 1980s. He wasn't the only informer at the Maxi Trial, though less time is devoted to the other, Salvatore "Totuccio" Contorno, played here by dead ringer Luigi Lo Cascio. Buscetta's family is placed in witness protection in New Hampshire, where he eventually joins them until he's spooked by a Santa in an Italian restaurant singing an old Sicilian song, at which time they're immediately moved to Colorado, and eventually Florida. THE TRAITOR seems entirely too long at two and a half hours, though its length may play better for Italian audiences who are more familiar with Buscetta, Falcone, and the Maxi Trial. Falcone really only figures in the first half of THE TRAITOR, but his horrific 1992 assassination at the hands of the Sicilian Mafia in the Capaci highway bombing (which also took the lives of his wife and several agents assigned to protect them) is depicted here in an incongruous sequence that seems more fitting for a FAST & FURIOUS sequel, and it's strange seeing Bellocchio embrace CGI action technology this far into his career. Favino, who occasionally has supporting roles in Hollywood movies like ANGELS & DEMONS and WORLD WAR Z, and is probably best known to America audiences as Christopher Columbus in NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM, turns in a strong performance as Buscetta, but while there's a compelling story here, THE TRAITOR is a film that expects you to be up to speed on its events going in. One might want to consult some Wikipedia entries on Buscetta and the Maxi Trial before watching, especially since the first 20 minutes are a dizzying blur of background info and character introductions with onscreen captions that only make things more confusing, since every other Sicilian Mafia guy seems to be named "Salvatore."(R, 150 mins)



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