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  • David Parkinson

Parky At the Pictures (3/4/2020)

(Reviews of System Crasher; and Vivarium)

Cinemas may be closed during these dismal days. But there are still ways to connect with some of the films on general release over the next few weeks and months. In addition to Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI Player, it should also be possible to access the titles under discussion via iTunes, Apple TV, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Microsoft, Vimeo, Google Play, Rakuten, BT and Playstation. SYSTEM CRASHER. German director Nora Fingscheidt has been making shorts since 2009. Having explored the relationship between half-siblings in the mid-length drama, Brüderlein (2013), she completed the documentary feature, Without This World (2017), which focused on a Mennonite community in Argentina. Now, Fingscheidt makes her feature bow with System Crasher, a well-meaning, but problematic study of a troubled child's welfare issues that follows Michael Caton-Jones's Urban Hymn (2015) in compromising its largely authentic action with unpersuasive dashes of sentimentality and simplistic strategising. Following another trip to Dr Schönemann (Melanie Straub) to have some self-inflicted wounds and her medication assessed, nine year-old Bernadette Klaass (Helena Zengel) returns to school after a period of suspension and promptly throws a tantrum that gets her expelled. She wants to live with her single mother. Bianca (Lisa Hagmeister), but she has problems of her own and doesn't want Benni being a bad influence on her younger siblings. Consequently, after a shoplifting spree and a punch-up with some neighbourhood kids who know to upset her by touching her face, Benni is taken by social worker Maria Bafané (Gabriela Maria Schmeide) to a new group home. For once, Benni seems to warm to her new surroundings, as there are rabbits to pet and supervisor Robert (Tedros Teclebrhan) seems relaxed. Maria warns him about the face touching and alludes to a childhood trauma of having nappies rubbed on her face. She also reminds Benni that she is running out of options if she fails to make a go of her new placement. But, when Bianca fails to show for a planned visit, Benni runs away and hitches a lift to the family apartment. She finds brother Leo (Bruno Thiel) and sister Alicia (Ida Goetze) alone watching television and makes a big fuss of her mother when she gets home. However, she is furious that Bianca is still living with her abusive boyfriend, Jens (Roland Bonjour), and lashes out so violently that he has to lock her in a wardrobe until the police come to collect her. As she drives away, Benni experiences flashbacks to moments of calm intimacy with Bianca, who loves her daughter, but simply isn't able to cope with her rages. Robert is also powerless when Benni refuses to go with new school escort Michael Heller (Albrecht Schuch) and she has to be strapped down to a gurney and taken to hospital so that Schönemann can sedate her. Looking through the glass at the small, blonde child zonked out on a bed, Micha feels a connection and comes to the hostel run by Marc (Asad Schwarz) with a plan of action to earn Benni's trust and persuade her to improve her behaviour. He challenges her to a game of bar football and she accepts a walk to school as the consequence of her defeat. She even enjoys asking Micha questions about himself. But, when a classmate taunts her during a lesson, Benni slams her face down into the desk and Micha has to restrain her. When Maria reports back to the care group that 37 homes have refused to take Benni, Schönemann suggests sending her to an experimental facility in Kenya. But Micha suspects that three weeks in his remote woodland cabin, with no electricity and lots of one-to-one attention might just do the trick. Benni is excited by the prospect and promises to co-operate if Micha shows her some wild owls. Yet, while she seems to be on her best behaviour, Benni still scrolls through Micha's phone when he's asleep and discovers that he has a young child with his partner. Things get off to a rocky start when Micha throws a tea towel at Benni to wake her up and she has a screaming fit after it lands on her face. But he apologises and she calms down with a bear hug. She agrees to fetch some milk from the nearby farm, but annoys the owner, Bockelman (Axel Werner), by throwing stones at his barking dog. When Micha marches her back to say sorry, he has to bite his tongue to stop giving the farmer a mouthful because of his snide remarks about troubled kids. However, Benni recognises a kindred spirit who has managed to turn his life around and, consequently, she throws herself into demolishing a rickety wooden shack and enjoys wielding an axe without any ramifications. She also likes Micha calling her `Mighty Mouse' and is fascinated by the space in the roof where the owls hide. During the night, Benni wets the bed and tries to climb in beside Micha. He is taken by surprise and, knowing how inappropriate the situation would be, he orders her to return to her own room. But Benni feels betrayed and she runs away and Micha curses himself when he can't find her. The next morning, he discovers her watching television in Bockelman's kitchen and he hauls her outside and lets her know in no uncertain terms how much trouble she could have landed him in. Aware that she appreciates what he stands to lose, Micha takes her hand, as they trudge back along the muddy path to the chalet. With her pink anorak standing out against the woodland hues, Benni enjoys her freedom by striding out through the long grass. Micha shows her how to make an echo and she shouts `Mama' repeatedly before averring that Bianca hates her. She's quiet on the journey home and cuts her forehead on the car window when she refuses to go back to the shelter. Against his better judgement, Micha agrees to let her spend a night at his place and she is sweetness and light to his pregnant wife, Elli (Maryam Zaree). Over hot chocolate, Benni chats about Bianca's craving for fish fingers and she plays happily with the couple's toddler son, Aaron, before bedtime. As Micha tucks her in, however, she threatens to throw a tantrum when he explains that he can't adopt her and chides her for calling him `Papa'. When Micha returns Benni the next morning, she clings to his leg and Marc mocks him for making such little progress. But Maria has made plans for Benni to stay with a former foster mother, Silvia Schwarz (Victoria Trauttmansdorff), who is also currently caring for (Cedric Mardon). They seem to get along well and Micha watches them ice skate. However, he has told Maria that he needs to step back from Benni because he has been having rescue fantasies and confides that she had spent the night at his new house. But Benni hardly notices he's there when Bianca comes to the shelter to inform her that she has left Jens and wants her to come home as soon as possible. They celebrate in a fast food bar, with Benni dancing on the table with delight. She starts trying harder at school and relishes her trips to the ice rink with Silvia and Justin. Unsurprisingly, however, Bianca backtracks and Benni winds up in a secure facility after dashing Justin's head into the ice. Fortunately, he's not seriously hurt and Maria and Micha are allowed to attend Benni's birthday party. But Schönemann refuses to let her stay at the home, even though she seems settled, and insists on booking her into the farm in Kenya. Packing her cuddly deer into her rucksack, Benni runs away. She makes for Micha's place and Elli agrees to let her stay for a day before they phone the home. Feeling part of the family, she lays the table and makes everyone join hands for grace. The next morning, she wakes early and takes Aaron down for milk, As they play, she lets him touch her face and she tells Elli that she had been letting them have a lie in. When Elli asks for her son, however, Benni refuses to let go and locks herself in her room. Micha kicks down the door, but can't catch Benni as she runs across a frozen field in her pyjamas. She seems to run into the dog from the farm and her helps her keep warm, as she huddles in a chicken coop. But a cutaway shows ambulance men loading Benni on to a stretcher, as she has been found in the woods suffering from exposure. In her reverie, she sees Bianca beside her bed and she reaches out to her in a soft-focusedly motherly way. An abrupt cut takes us to an airport, as Maria is seeing Benni off to Africa. However, she causes a scene at the security desk when she refuses to hand over her deer and she sprints off across the concourse with her escort in hot pursuit. Finding an open door, Benni pushes on to the empty viewing platform. She spreads her arms like wings, as she runs, and the film ends on a freeze frame, as she leaps into the unknown. The less said the better about this ruinously misjudged coda, as it undoes so much carefully done work. Indeed, the entire escape sequence feels as though Fingscheidt was straining for a big finish and resorted to a freeze frame in the mould of François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959) after having painted herself into a magic realist corner. This is a shame, as much of what went before is potent, poignant and plausible. Much of this is down to the precision of Fingscheidt's research. But the picture's shortcomings would have been all the more magnified without the exceptional performance of young Helena Zengel. This is her third feature after Leonie Krippendorff's Looping (2016) and Mascha Schilinski's Dark Blue Girl (2017). As Zengel also has the lead in the latter, an enterprising distributor should be speed-dialling its producers to get it on a UK VOD platform as soon as possible. Recalling 13 year-old Noée Abita in Léa Mysius's Ava (2017), Zengel combines pugnacity with fragility in a manner that makes her both resistible and pitiable. Gabriela Maria Schmeide, Lisa Hagmeister and Albrecht Schuch provide generous support, as the entirely credible Maria, the predictably flaky Bianca and the infeasibly soft-hearted and unprofessional Micha. While Fingscheidt's script can seem as episodic as a case study, her direction is more ambitious, as she and cinematographer Yunus Roy Imer use juddery handheld footage to convey Benni's outbursts, as well as her sudden rushes of joyous energy. The blurry point-of-view shots are less innovative, but they capably suggest the girl's loss of emotional control and editors Stephan Bechinger and Julia Kovalenko deftly intercut smears of pink that link in with Benni's coat and the notion that she is still a child, who clings to her stuffed toy in times of crisis. The shifting psychological tensions are also reflected in John Gürtler's score, although this also has its melodramatic passages, as well as the more effective moments of percussive disconcertion. In this regard, the music complements Fingscheidt's sincere, advocatorial approach to dealing with a child who crashes the system. But it lacks the rawness and the rigour that the Dardennes brought to Le Fils (2002). VIVARIUM. Arriving on viewing platforms with the world in lockdown, Lorcan Finnegan's eerie parable about a couple being trapped in a dystopic suburbia with a nightmare child for company hardly feels like the most enticing prospect. Taking its title from a container used to observe life forms, Vivarium develops an idea that Finnegan and co-scenarist Garret Shanley first explored in the 2012 short, Foxes. In expanding the conceit, the pair slot in references to numerous features that have exposed the mundanity of everyday existence in the `burbs. But, in so doing, they place a strain on the overstretched material and one wishes they had heeded writer Rod Serling's lesson in adapting a 1953 Jerome Bixby short story for `It's a Good Life', a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone, in which the residents of Peaksville, Ohio are cut off from the rest of civilisation in order to pander to the whims of a six year-old with deific powers named Anthony Fremont. As Gemma (Imogen Poots) gets her primary class to pretend to be trees in the wind, a cuckoo evicts two chicks from of a nest in the tree that her gardener boyfriend, Tom (Jesse Eisenberg), is pruning. At home time, Molly (Molly McCann) sees the birds and declares that the natural way is cruel. Tom conducts a mock burial service before they call in at the nearby estate agency to enquire about available properties. The unctuous Martin (Jonathan Aris) tries to interest them in the Yonder development, which is `near enough and far enough' from the city. Despite not being interested, Gemma and Tom agree to a viewing and sing along with The Specials on `A Message to You Rudy', as they drive through the countryside. They exchange dubious glances on first seeing the endless rows of identical mint-green houses and pull up outside No.9, where Martin can hardly wait to show them inside. He rushes them through the room and almost delivers his patter through clenched teeth. At one point, he unsmilingly mimics Gemma and seems hurt when they refuse his offer of complimentary champagne and strawberries. As he shows them into the garden, Martin slips away and Tom and Gemma are puzzled to find themselves alone. They hurry out to the car to leave the estate. But every turn leads them back to No.9. Gemma dubs Tom childish when he insists on taking the wheel, but he merely runs out of petrol in going round in circles. Deciding to spend the night, they polish off the champagne and flavourless strawberries and notice how eerily quiet it is when they lie in bed in the enveloping darkness. The next morning, Tom uses his ladder to climb to the top of the house. But all he can see are Magritte-like clouds and endless rows of identical tiled rooftops. When they try to follow the sun to find a way out of the trap, they wind up back where they started. Gemma finds a box of groceries and Tom uses the cardboard to set light to the curtains. They sit on the pavement and watch No.9 burn. When they wake up, however, the house has been restored. Moreover, they find a box containing a baby boy (Côme Thiry) and an instruction to raise the child if they want to be released. The boy grows exponentially and, by Day 98, he (Senan Jennings) has come to look like a mini Martin, with his hair slicked down and his crisp white shirt tucked into his black trousers. He wakes Gemma and Tom and proceeds to mimic them until she measures his height against the wall. When he wants feeding, he screams until they fill a bowl with milk and cereal and he drives them mad with his incessant chattering and bursts of rush-around energy. He follows Tom when he takes out the groceries box, which is now filled with recycling and waste. Gemma sits in a chair in the front garden and wonders why they never manage to see the box being collected or replaced. But Tom isn't listening, as a carelessly flicked cigarette butt causes the manicured grass to melt and he uses his tools to start digging a tunnel. She suspects the task is futile, but recognises that he needs something to make himself feel useful and she is only frustrated that the exchange caused her to miss the box being taken away from the kerbside. By nightfall, Gemma's mood has changed, as she has been left alone with the boy all day. She questions the wisdom of digging to Australia or Hell and Tom replies that they are already there. No sooner has Tom finished breakfast than he's out in his hole, leaving Gemma to slump by the washing machine watching the boy run around barking like a dog (even though he's never seen one). That night, Gemma sits in the car to breathe in some normality and discovers that her radio still works. She flicks on the headlights and dances with abandon to Desmond Dekker's `Shanty Town'. Tom joins her and they are enjoying the sense of freedom when the boy comes out to see what they are doing. He starts to dance and pushes Tom in his exuberance. Losing his balance, Tom falls over and Gemma is surprised when he jumps to his feet and knocks the child on his back before storming back into the house. Tucking the boy into bed, Gemma informs him that grown-ups need a little alone time. She also asks him to stop calling her `mother' and shouts at him when he wakes her in the night with a scream. Returning to bed, Gemma tries to arouse Tom, but he's not in the mood and she feels hurt when he rolls over to sleep. He barely manages a word at breakfast when she asks about the progress of the tunnel and feels all the more alone when she turns to see the boy apeing her gestures, as she sits at the table with her chin in her hand. Unable to sleep because of the noise emitted by the kaleidoscopic images that the boy likes to watch on a large screen in his room, Tom tries to snatch the remote control. Gemma attempts to intervene and her growing feeling powerlessness increases the next morning when Tom throws the boy's cereal bowl against the kitchen wall and locks him in the car. He pins Gemma to the floor in a bid to stop her from rescuing the shrieking kid and tells her that their gaolers won't let any harm come to `it' if they leave him out there. But she grabs the keys and puts a protective arm around the lad as she steers him back into the house. With Tom now sleeping in his hole and eating alone, Gemma vows to solve the mystery that is the boy. She tells him about dreams and feels his hand rest on her shoulder when she lies next to him on his bed. When she takes him for a picnic, she explains that the clouds in this odd neighbourhood are all revoltingly the same and she howls at them like a dog in wishing they would morph into different shapes. Tom glowers when he sees her holding the boy's hand and shows no interest when Gemma becomes concerned by his sudden disappearance. Returning from an anxious search, she is relieved to find the child standing by the hole clutching a book. He gives it to Gemma, but refuses to say where it came from, as she puzzles over its simple line drawings and incoherent text. Knowing he likes to impersonate, Gemma tricks the boy into imitating the stranger who gave him the book and she is disturbed when he emits a cackling growl and a lump bulges from his neck, She whimpers that she wants to go home and sobs when he grinningly tells her that's exactly where she is. A sudden leap forward reveals the boy to have grown into a youth (Eanna Hardwicke). But he has also grown more independent and asks Gemma whether she is afraid of him when she is so polite on bringing his supper. She joins Tom in the barricaded bedroom to eat and she apologises to him for not letting him kill the boy when he was smaller. While Tom continues to dig, Gemma takes to trying to follow the teenager when he goes for walks. However, he always gives her the slip and she is dismayed to get back to No.9 to see Tom lying on the pavement. He has developed a cough and his determination has been sapped by something he finds at the bottom of the hole. They sleep in the car when the youth locks the front door and Gemma cradles Tom's head as she leans against the fence and he reminisces about the first time they met. She is touched by this rare show of his romantic nature, but he is sicker than she imagined and she is unable to prevent him from slipping away. Much to her horror, the youth arrives with a parcel containing a body bag and Gemma can barely look as he zips Tom inside and silently dumps him into the hole. Having slept in the car, Gemma sees the youth leave the house the next morning. She tries to creep up behind him and kill him with Tom's pickaxe, but he senses her presence and rolls clear. He crawls to the side of the road and lifts up the kerb to make his escape. But Gemma wedges the pick under the concrete and follows him down into a red-tinted version of the house. She stumbles through a green zone and sees a woman (Olga Wehrly) crying at the kitchen table. Before she can make sense of what she is seeing, Gemma is sucked through the floor into a mauve-blue bathroom. Making her way down the stairs, she passes through the front door. However, the man-child is waiting for her and he zips her into a body bag, as he commends her for fulfilling her maternal duty. In a final act of defiance, Gemma hisses that she is not his mother. But she expires and is bundled into the hole that is filled in before the youth fills the car with petrol and drives out of Yonder. He returns to the estate agency in time to see Martin breathe his last. Taking his name tag, he pins it to his white shirt and disposes of the corpse in a filing cabinet. Taking his place at the desk at the far end of the shop, the new Martin shoots the camera a half smile before turning his attention to the hapless couple that has just ventured inside. As the notes of XTC's `Complicated Game' fade away, aficionados will note the references to such genre gems as Wolf Rilla's Village of the Damned (1960), Bryan Forbes's The Stepford Wives (1975) and Peter Weir's The Truman Show (1998). But this intriguing, but faltering parable about consumerism, conformity, generationalism and dehumanisation lacks the scope and intellectual depth to match these superior predecessors. That's not to say it doesn't have its merits. most notably Philip Murphy's inspired production design and the deft visual effects used to make Yonder seem both real and surreal at one and the same time. Miguel de Oloso's photography and Kristian Eidnes Andersen's unsettling score are also noteworthy, with the latter bolstering the growing sense of anguish without overemphasis. Reuniting after Riley Stearns's The Art of Self-Defense (2019), Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots aren't particularly helped by the screenplay, which fails to provide any fleshed sense of Tom and Gemma as individuals, let alone as a couple. Consequently, it's difficult to summon much concern for their fate, despite Eisenberg bringing a certain skittishness to what is essentially a one-note caricature of a role and Poots occasionally bringing to mind Emmanuelle Devos and you don't get much higher praise than that. As for their tormentor, Senan Jennings plays the boy as an extreme version of Young Sheldon and he is so compellingly quirky that he proves too hard an act for Eanna Hardwicke to follow. To be fair, Jennings is abetted by Jonathan Aris's brilliantly bizarre vocal work, which feels rooted in Matt Frewer's portrayal of Max Headroom. Aris's on-screen turn as Martin is equally eccentric and there is something deeply touching about the relief he feels when his successor finally comes to relieve him of his duties. As for Finnegan, this makes a fine companion piece to his debut, Without Name (2016), which saw another relationship come under strain as land surveyor Alan McKenna and mistress/assistant Niamh Algar are stalked by unseen forces in a mysterious Dublin wood. It's never quite established where Yonder is situated, with the mishmash of accents not helping easy identification. But Finnegan has had a solid sense of place since the days of such innovative animated shorts as Defaced and Changes (both 2007), which doubtless led to him being hired by Charlie Brooker's Zeppotron company. The influence of Black Mirror (2011-) is readily evident, but it's good to see that the hole Tom digs was inspired by Hiroshi Teshigahara's Woman in the Dunes (1964), as this suggests a lively mind that will have plenty more to say in the future - whenever that is.

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