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Films I Neglected To Review: The Day The Mime Pretended To Cry
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Banana Split," "Resistance" and "Vivarium."

The opening scenes of "Banana Split" chart the course of the romance of high schoolers April (Hannah Marks, who also co-wrote the screenplay) and Nick (Dylan Sprouse) from the blissful early days to its collapse at the end of their senior year, precipitated by the discovery that they have been accepted at colleges on the opposite sides of the country. Already despondent over the break, April is sent further into despair when she learns that he has quickly rebounded with Clara (Liana Liberato), an old friend of Nick's best friend Ben (Luke Spencer Roberts). At a party, April winds up meeting Clara and is startled to discover that she actually likes her presumed nemesis. The two quickly become best friends and spend virtually all of their free time together over the course of the summer, agreeing to hide their friendship from Nick to avoid any potential complications even as Clara continues to date him. Of course, that is easier said than done and as the summer comes to a close, it becomes clear that the four need to come to some kind of terms about what is going on between themselves (Ben is caught between his friendships with both Clara and Nick and his own not-exactly-disguised feelings for April) before everything falls apart between them for good.

The best thing about "Banana Split" is the byplay between the two leads--Marks and Liberato have both proven to be strong and charismatic actresses in their previous performances and they demonstrate themselves to be just as compelling as they spark off of each other in their scenes together. The problem with the film is that while their relationship is believable and there are a few funny moments here and there--many of them involving the adorably profane conversations between April and her mother (Jessica Hecht) and her super-precocious younger sister (Addison Riecke)--it just never quite clicks in the way that you think that it should. The big problem with the film is that Nick is, quite frankly, a first-rate dullard whose only interesting characteristic is his irony-free admiration for the work of Carly Rae Jepsen. Needless to say, he not worthy of the likes of either April or Clara and to see the degree of importance that he still has over their lives is both patently unbelievable and slightly disturbing--you get the sense that in the real world, the two would come to their senses and simply kick his ass to the curb and hang out without worrying about what might happen if the news got back to him. Because of this, I cannot quite recommend "Banana Split," which is a shame because it does have its good points and a winning team in its two lead actresses--hopefully someone will come away from this film with the inspiration to team them up again soon, preferably in the service of a better script.

"Resistance" is another true-life World War II saga involving resistance fighters bravely standing up to the Nazi occupation of France, albeit with an unexpected hook in the fact that it also essentially serves as the origin story for Marcel Mangel, who would go on to worldwide fame a few years later under the new last name of Marceau. When we first meet Marcel (Jesse Eisenberg), he is a young man who dreams of becoming a mime, much to the chagrin of his more traditional-minded father, who would prefer to seem him follow in his footsteps as a butcher. One day, a truckload of Jewish orphans arrives in town who have been ransomed from the Nazis by local scout troops who put the kids up in a nearby castle for protection. Driven by the guilt trip laid on by his brother (Edgar Ramirez) and his desire to impress resistance fighter Emma (Clemence Posey), Marcel uses his mime skills to entertain the children while teaching them survival techniques. Once the war finally spills over into France, Marcel and the others relocate to Lyon but when the presence of the infamous Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighofer) makes that proposition too dangerous, a plan is launched to somehow smuggle all the kids kids into Switzerland.

This is all interesting in theory, I suppose, and Marceau's real-life heroics cannot be denied but, as presented by writer-director Jonathan Jakubowicz, none of it really comes together into a satisfying whole for any number of reasons. For starters, the film is really uneven from a structural standpoint--the first half is a mostly light and comparatively whimsical work that will at times remind some viewers of "Life is Beautiful" before lurching into a more straightforward suspense thriller narrative in the second. It also at times seems to succumb to a desire to shoehorn elements that were indeed part of the historical record but which do not necessarily drive the story along--while the presence of the infamous Klaus Barbie (Matthias Schweighoffer) eventually pays off after a few otherwise extraneous scenes, the use of no less a figure than General George S. Patton (Ed Harris) to serve as a framing device just feels forced even though it is true that Marceau really did serve as a liaison officer for him for a time. A bigger and more unfortunate problem with the film is that the central performance by Eisenberg is pretty much awkward throughout--thanks to his shaky French accent and shakier mime skills, he is never believable for a moment as Marceau and he ends up making the whole project more predictable and cliched than it might have in the hands of a more convincing performer. "Resistance" contains plenty of material for a potentially engrossing film--imagine one focusing on the relationship between Marceau and Patton--but never quite manages to become one itself.

Making the most of the current pandemic, Jesse Eisenberg turns up again in "Vivarium," a very strange puzzle box of a movie from Ireland. As the film opens, schoolteacher Gemma (Imogen Poots) and her groundskeeper boyfriend Tom (Eisenberg) are hunting for a home when they are persuaded by an oddball sales agent (Jonathan Aris) to pay a visit to Yonder, a housing development that he represents. After not finding the cookie-cutter aesthetic of the planned community to their liking, they are all set to leave when they discover that the agent has vanished and every road they take seems to lead them right back to the home, "number 9," that they were shown. After being stuck there for the night, they still find themselves unable to leave the next day and when Tom deliberately burns down the house in the hopes of attracting attention, they wake up the next morning to find it magically replaced and soon receive a box containing a baby boy and a message telling them that they will be released after they raise the child. The boy (Senan Jennings) is equally odd--he ages about seven years in roughly 90 days, screeches when he doesn't get his way and otherwise makes the kid from "The Omen" look cuddly by comparison. Tom and Gemma both find different ways of trying to cope--he spends his days working at digging a hole in the yard that might serve as a path to freedom while she tries to make some sense of their predicament but finds herself constantly at the breaking point as well.

In case the above description makes it sound too subtle, "Vivarium" is a fairly blatant allegory for the fear that many people have felt at a certain point that all the things that we have been programmed to strive for in our lives--a steady job, a family and a home in the suburbs--are to be feared rather than embraced. The problem is that while screenwriter Garret Shanley and director Lorcan Finnegan have assembled enough material to make for a powerful and provocative half-hour short (I can see it easily fitting in as an episode of "Black Mirror" or "The Twilight Zone"), they have tried to stretch it out to a running time three times that length and while I suppose that a certain amount of repetitiveness fits in with the concept, it eventually becomes kind of tedious after a while in ways that not even the twists in the final scenes can quite make up for in the end. Additionally, neither of the two central characters are particularly likable as they succumb to their well-manicured prison--Poots at least finds a certain sympathetic tone that helps to counter-balance Gemma's emerging awfulness but both Eisenberg and his character come off as smug jerks throughout who are more than deserving of the perverse fate that Yonder has in store. "Vivarium" is ambitious and it does have ideas that it tries to grapple with but it never presents them in a manner that is nearly as original or ironic as it thinks it has--the great Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime" pretty much says everything that this movie is trying to put forth in a much more interesting and entertaining manner and it got the job done in under five minutes to boot.


link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4227
originally posted: 03/28/20 00:16:50
last updated: 03/28/20 00:22:55
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