Monday, December 19, 2016

On DVD/Blu-ray: I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER (2016); SHELLEY (2016); and BROTHER NATURE (2016)

(Ireland/UK - 2016)

Based on the 2009 novel by Dan Wells, which led to five books thus far centered on protagonist John Wayne Cleaver, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER is one of the best genre offerings of 2016, an eclectic mix of teen angst, detective story, and supernatural horror. John (Max Records, who's grown a bit since his first big role in 2009's WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE) lives in Clayton County in the rural outskirts of Minneapolis. It's a small industrial town where everyone knows everyone, and John is the weird, bullied outcast at school because his single mother April (Laura Fraser) owns and operates the funeral home which, whether it was nature or nurture, has had a profound impact on him. His therapist Dr. Neblin (Karl Geary) has diagnosed him as a sociopath, the school is concerned because he wrote a term paper about BTK serial killer Dennis Rader. John believes that he has the innate psychological capacity for serial killing, but he does things to keep his impulses in check. These include repeating a reassuring mantra, hanging out with his only friend Max (Raymond Brandstrom), because goofing off and playing video games makes him feel normal, and regularly chatting with and helping out friendly, elderly neighbor Bill Crowley (Christopher Lloyd). John's fascination with death leads to his investigating a series of brutal murders that have rocked the small community. The victims are found dead, often with vital organs missing. Eating lunch in the town's greasy spoon, John spots Crowley talking to a drifter and offering him a ride. Following them on his bike at a distance, John witnesses Crowley slaughter and disembowel the drifter, then removing several of his organs and appearing to eat them. There's an oil like residue left at all of the murder scenes, and as John follows Crowley as he claims other victims over the next several weeks, thus begins a game of cat-and-mouse, as John, fighting his own sociopathic impulses and desperately trying to be a good person, leaves a note on Crowley's windshield reading "I know what you are," but he really has no idea exactly what his seemingly normal neighbor really is.

An Irish-British co-production, directed and co-written by Irish Billy O'Brien and shot in Minnesota, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER first and foremost establishes its starkly effective atmosphere with its gray color palette, overcast skies, and plumes of smoke and steam billowing from factories. Much like Italian filmmakers really nailing the seediness of NYC in their guerrilla-shot excursions of the early 1980s, O'Brien captures the midwestern dreariness in a way that only outsiders with different eyes sometimes can. With the lonely and isolated small-town atmosphere (John riding his bike around town accompanied by the song "On Your Side" by The Family Dog is maybe the best opening credits sequence of the year) and the teen angst despair, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER manages to evoke memories of everything from PHANTASM to DONNIE DARKO. But it's not all downbeat navel-gazing, as there's some darkly funny touches throughout, like John following Crowley and his wife (Dee Noah) to a Chinese buffet and running into his mom and Dr. Neblin on a date. Records is terrific as John and Lloyd takes the best role he's had in years and just runs with it. A thoughtful, insightful, smart, and often terrifying genre-bending mash-up, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER juggles a lot but keeps focus and emerges as an original piece of work that deserves all the cult movie glory it's going to get. (Unrated, 103 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(Denmark/France/Sweden - 2016)

There's a vividly Scandinavian chill in this horror film that looks like what might've hypothetically happened had Ingmar Bergman made ROSEMARY'S BABY. Married, well-to-do couple Louise (Ellen Dorrit Petersen) and Kasper (Peter Christoffersen) live in a very remote and isolated cabin, largely off the grid and living off the land. They raise their own chickens, get water from a well, and eschew the modern benefits of things like TVs, computers, and even electricity. This is a jarring adjustment to Elena (Cosmina Stratan), a Romanian immigrant and single mother who left her child with her parents while she headed to other parts of Europe to find work. They've hired Elena to do housework and farming chores, as Kasper is often away and Louise is recovering from surgery after her most recent miscarriage. Louise and Kasper are both pushing 40 and have endured multiple miscarriages, the most recent resulting in a hysterectomy. With a lot of down time and little in the way of leisure activities other than reading, Elena finds herself bonding with Louise, who then reveals the real intention they hired her: to be a surrogate mother and have the child she isn't capable of carrying. The financially secure couple offers Elena significant compensation and enough money to move her young son and her struggling parents to Denmark. Elena agrees, and for a while, everything is fine. But before long, Elena's morning sickness becomes something else. She grows increasingly ill, suffers from horrifying nightmares, starts behaving erratically, and is convinced something is wrong with the unborn child.

A plot synopsis makes SHELLEY sound a lot more formulaic and commercial than it really is. Director/co-writer Ali Abbasi ends up leaving the viewer with more questions than answers, with the unfolding story ambiguous almost to a fault. Strange occurrences are never explained and elements are introduced and never expanded upon. It's by design and it works in creating a sense of unease and menace in the way Elena is never really sure what's happening to her and what is real. Abbasi also has you questioning the characters in the way they'll lose and regain your sympathy: are Louise and Kasper fully aware of what's happening to Elena? Is it part of a plan? They even say they know they should call her family but put her health further in jeopardy by not doing so because they're afraid Elena's family will keep the baby. And just as we begin to worry for Elena, we see she's sneaking cigarettes during her daily walks through the surrounding forest (during one such walk, she's confronted by a wild dog who just stares at her, almost silently judging--we never see this dog again). It's never really clear what's going on in SHELLEY, but Abbasi excels at maintaining an ominous tone throughout, whether it's the stark atmosphere of the interiors that allow for a BARRY LYNDON sense of a natural lighting look thanks to the candles and the lanterns, the way he uses the light and the shadows (the scene where Louise finds a feral Elena cowering in the basement is terrifying) or the unsettling rumblings on the soundtrack. Similar in some ways to the profoundly disturbing PROXY but not quite as good, SHELLEY is a slow-burner that may frustrate those looking for a commercial horror movie, but for those whose fright-film tastes lean toward the arthouse side of things, it's worth a look. (Unrated, 92 mins, also streaming on Netflix)

(US - 2016)

Another buried SNL/Lorne Michaels production to go along with last year's Colin Jost pet project STATEN ISLAND SUMMER, BROTHER NATURE has former SNL cast member Taran Killam (a veteran who abruptly departed the show prior to the current season) as Roger Fellner, the uptight, control-freak Chief of Staff to beloved Seattle congressman Frank McLaren (Giancarlo Esposito). When McLaren announces his intention to retire from politics, he tells Roger that he wants him to run for his seat. But first, Roger is off on vacation at a remote lake with his girlfriend Gwen (Gillian Jacobs) and her wacky, vulgar family. Roger intends to propose on the trip, but can't find any alone time thanks to Todd Dotchman (Bobby Moynihan), the loud, obnoxious boyfriend of Gwen's sister Margie (Sarah Burns). Growing up as the baby of the family with six older lesbian sisters, Todd is desperate for male bonding and comes on a little too strong, but with one mishap after another, Roger manages to alienate the entire family. He causes skunks to spray a cabin, rendering it uninhabitable; he high-fives Gwen's nephew who has a splinter in his palm; he walks in on Gwen's parents (Bill Pullman, Rita Wilson) having sex; he eats some pot-laced potato chips that Todd bought for the sisters' sciatica-suffering grandmother; he gets covered in ants and bitten all over after Todd uses Coke to clean up spilled ice cream near where Roger is sleeping; and he gets preoccupied with work when word leaks of McLaren's retirement and is forced to announce his candidacy live from the lake while covered in ant bites, which of course Todd intrudes upon and becomes a media sensation even though a humiliated Roger feels his career is ruined.

There's definitely a GREAT OUTDOORS and WHAT ABOUT BOB? influence on BROTHER NATURE, especially in the way Killam's increasingly shrieking performance draws from Richard Dreyfuss' masterful raging in WHAT ABOUT BOB?  BROTHER NATURE means well, but it's simply not very funny, with the script by Killam and current SNL writer/cast member Mikey Day (the guy behind "David S. Pumpkins") just too formulaic and filled with too many gags that land with a thud. Few of Roger's mishaps are amusing, and a little of Todd--with Moynihan in total Belushi/Blutarsky mode--goes a long way. Of course Todd is the main reason Roger's life falls apart, but everyone loves Todd and blames Roger, even though Todd a) accidentally throws the engagement ring into the lake, and b) usurps all the attention by proposing to Margie before Roger has a chance to propose to Gwen. We saw all of this in WHAT ABOUT BOB? so Killam and Day add other jokes that go nowhere, like Gwen's mom using the term "nut" but not knowing it means "to ejaculate," and Pullman's character telling a heartwarming story about being hospitalized for shoulder surgery and getting a handjob from his wife. A running gag about the Spin Doctors' hit "Two Princes" plays as lazy '90s nostalgia that leaves no doubt that you're getting a cameo by the band. There are a couple of funny bits--Todd grew up in Reno and can only sleep with a white noise machine programmed with casino sounds, and the ultimate fate of the beloved Gill the Fish is an absurdly over-the-top grossout gag that works (regular SNL viewers will be reminded of last season's "Farewell Mr. Bunting" filmed piece)--but two solid jokes can't carry an otherwise painfully unfunny 97 minutes. Even with ringers like Rachael Harris and WET HOT AMERICAN SUMMER mastermind David Wain, along with SNL cast members Day, Kenan Thompson, and Aidy Bryant in supporting roles, BROTHER NATURE just whiffs too much to be even remotely successful. The film was directed by Matt Villines and Oz Rodriguez, the "Matt and Oz" team behind the SNL commercials and filmed bits. Sadly, Villines died in July 2016 at just 39 after a two-year battle with kidney cancer, two months before Paramount dumped this on 17 screens and VOD with no publicity at all. (R, 97 mins)

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