At The Movies: Homes with a sting in Vivarium and The Rental

A still from the film Vivarium starring Jesse Eisenberg (left) and Imogen Poots. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

SINGAPORE - This week, there are two films about homes that are not quite the dream properties they appear to be on the outside.

The science-fiction horror work Vivarium (M18, 98 minutes, opens July 23, 4 stars) stars Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots, both in this column a few weeks ago for the drama The Art Of Self Defense (2019). In this film, they are Tom and Gemma, an average couple looking for a starter home when they chance upon Yonder, a development the agent promises will be their "forever home".

In this icy satire of the property ladder, Yonder does turn out to be their forever home, just not in the way they expect.

Of late, Hong Kong is the place for bitter comedies about the property market. In Dream Home (2011), a woman murders her way to a progressively nicer flat; in Room With A View (2019), a family goes on a rampage when a millionaire's obnoxious billboard obstructs their view of the sea, slashing the value of their apartment.

In Vivarium, a mostly Irish production selected for the Cannes Film Festival in 2019, the tone is much less literal. Tom and Gemma find themselves in a Twilight Zone landscape of the surreal in which everyday actions yield bizarre results.

Besides revealing home ownership to be the nightmarish burden that it can be, the story asks cynical questions about consumerism and suburbia and even darker ones about parenthood. The South Korean drama Parasite (2019), winner of the Best Picture Oscar, makes a point about one social class feeding on another in a mansion on a hill. In this bleak, unsettling story, parasitism is about as real as it can be, and kept within the embrace of the family.

The Rental (NC16, 93 minutes, opens Jul 23, 2.5 stars) addresses another suburban fear: In Airbnb homes, guests are at the mercy of the owner's moral code.

What sets this apart from other cautionary tales about social media and the gig economy is style. Imagine a cabin-of-terror slasher movie that avoids tropes, such as jump scares, cute teen characters or a villain whose motive is tritely labelled "insanity".

You might end up with this movie written by American Joe Swanberg, veteran of the so-called "mumblecore" scene. It is helmed by an actor making his directorial debut, Dave Franco. Yes, that Dave Franco, who worked with Swanberg in the Netflix drama-comedy series about sex, Easy (2016 to 2019), but who is known mostly for appearing in comedies (21 Jump Street, 2012; The Disaster Artist, 2017).

A still from the film The Rental featuring (from left) Dan Stevens, Sheila Vand, and James Allen White. PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

Four adults from San Francisco, some flush with tech money, find a dream Airbnb rental on the coast for a weekend getaway. As the hours wear on, however, frictions in the group (Dan Stevens and Alison Brie as one couple, and Sheila Vand and Jeremy Allen White as another) gnaw at their sense of well-being. A secret discovered within the home triggers a chain of deadly events.

There is a lot to admire about a film that does away with terrible slasher tropes such as jump scares, and replacing it with naturalistic dialogue. There is a surprising amount of plot to get though for a Swanberg production, though, and Franco struggles to give the story feelings of tension and release.

For a film that wears its naturalism far more easily, look to Indonesian indie drama Humba Dreams (2019, NC16, 75 minutes, Netflix, 4 stars).

Part road trip, part coming-of-age story, it follows Martin (J.S. Khairen), a Jakarta film student who returns home to the island of Sumba, in the east of the country, to settle affairs after the death of his father.

A still from the film Humba Dreams. PHOTO: NETFLIX

It is a journey to a quiet, parched landscape different from that of packed, tropical Java. Martin's people speak their own language and practice a mix of Christianity and animism. Spirits speak to the living through shamans and in dreams, reminding them of debts unpaid and promises unkept.

Martin's quest takes him around the island's towns and villages, allowing him to meet a range of locals, including those whose daughters and husbands joined the tide of Sumbanese seeking jobs in Malaysia, only to disappear.

Writer-director Riri Riza's back-to-home-town setup lets audiences see an older world through the eyes of someone who has a foot in the modern and the ancient. It is not the freshest idea in the world, but in this heartfelt story about a young man coming to terms with his father's legacy, it works.

Films opening this week include the family animation Bigfoot Family (PG, 88 minutes, opens July 23), the follow-up to Son Of Bigfoot (2017). In this eco-adventure, Bigfoot attempts to stop an Alaskan drilling company, but when he disappears, his son, mother and a troop of animal friends stage a search.

In the Korean thriller Intruder (PG13, 102 minutes, opens July 23), the sister of architect Seo-jin (Kim Mu-yeol), Yoo-jin (Song Ji-hyo), returns after a disappearance of 25 years. The prodigal daughter, however, comes home laden with secrets.

Watch the trailer for Vivarium here.

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