Based on a graphic novel of the same name by Derf (John) Backderf, My Friend Dahmer (2017) traces infamous Wisconsin serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer’s high school years, as chronicled by a former friend. Written and directed by Marc Meyers, this moody and hauntingly subtle film won best picture at Austin Fantastic Fest. Despite competent performances by its cast, My Friend Dahmer fails to leave a lasting impression. It lacked an over-all plot, and the poorly-mixed sound was barely audible.
Jeffrey Dahmer committed his first murder three weeks after graduating high school. As a teen, he coped with his parents’ failing marriage with alcohol abuse and acting out at school, and developed a fascination with death. He went on to kill sixteen people, preying mostly on young gay men in Milwaukee. He dismembered and ate some of his victims. He was finally caught in 1991, and a fellow inmate murdered him three years later.
Out of what I assume is a strict adherence to the source material, the film never goes below the surface or attempts to explain why Dahmer became a monster or what could have been done to stop him. It subtly hints at his aberrant sexuality without confronting it. What remains is a stark depiction of events without drama, tension, or conflict.
Ross Lynch gives an admirable performance as the wannabe serial killer (although the movie doesn’t give him much to do). This is certainly a departure from his other roles in Disney films and TV shows like Austin & Ally (2011-2016). His brooding, deadpan performance couldn’t contrast more with his usual upbeat, teen heartthrob characters. Such a dramatic acting range bodes well for his future career in film, and I’m looking forward to seeing him in more dramatic roles.
A young woman feels called to become a Catholic nun during the tumultuous period of Vatican II in Novitiate (2017). Written and directed by Margaret Betts, Novitiate is an intimate portrayal of the personal struggle and sacrifices these women made to pursue a religious calling, while others felt abandoned by the institution that gave their lives meaning. This was Margaret Betts’ first feature film, and is a genuine and heartfelt effort with outstanding performances by its cast.
The film opens in 1954. Though non-religious, Nora Harris (Julianne Nicholson) takes her young daughter Cathleen to church. Her marriage is falling apart and her abusive husband leaves. Later, religious sisters visit their home and offer Cathleen a scholarship to attend a newly-opened Catholic school, where she feels the presence of God. At 17, Cathleen (Margaret Qualley) believes she has been called to become a nun and enters a convent as a postulant, over her mother’s objections.
At the Order of the Sisters of Blessed Rose, Cathleen befriends her fellow postulants, Sissy (Maddie Hasson), Emily (Liana Liberato), Evelyn (Morgan Saylor), and others, and meets Reverend Mother (Melissa Leo), a stern headmistress. As the girls progress towards becoming novitiates, Reverend Mother becomes alarmed with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. She believes the changes will destroy their way of life, and tries to resist them despite warnings from Archbishop McCarthy (Denis O’Hare).
Things get complicated when Cathleen feels an awakening sexuality, to which she responds by starving herself. This drives her into the arms of a newcomer, Sister Emanuel (Rebecca Dayan). Also starved for physical affection, the two share a forbidden moment of tenderness. Meanwhile, Reverend Mother grows despondent as she is powerless to stop Vatican II from liberalizing their religious order, undermining her authority and resulting in a mass exodus of nuns.
A young woman comes to grips with her failing marriage and homosexual husband, and oh yeah there’s something about a tentacle sex alien too, in The Untamed (2016), a Mexican sci-fi horror film written and directed by Amat Escalante. Originally titled La region salvaje, it was released in the U.S. in 2017. The film gratuitously uses a provocative subtext to explore serious drama and sexual themes in small town Mexico.
Amat Escalante is a Spanish director known for his gritty portrayal of the Mexican experience. The Untamed paints an unvarnished portrait, and even the natural scenes are bleak and depressing. Its original title translates to “the wild region,” which I’m assuming refers both to untamed nature and female sexuality. There are several close up shots that reinforce that theme scattered throughout the film.
Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) and Ángel (Jesus Meza) are raising two children in an unhappy marriage. Alejandra’s brother, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), is a nurse at a local hospital. Ángel and Fabian are having an affair. Things get weird when Fabian meets Veronica (Simone Bucio), who visits the hospital after being bitten by a lusty tentacle alien her parents (?) keep in their barn.
Veronica lures Fabian to the barn, where the creature brutalizes him into a coma. He is later found naked in a ditch and brought to the hospital, where Alejandra meets Veronica. Police arrest Ángel for Fabian’s injuries because a bystander saw the two men arguing in a parking lot before Fabian disappeared.
In Super Dark Times (2017), a teen must come to grips with his increasingly psychotic friend in this harrowing and tense coming-of-age thriller. Written by Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski, and directed by Kevin Phillips, this indie film’s competency highlights why Hollywood is failing. Younger, more creative filmmakers are using technology and innovation to craft solid, beautifully-rendered films that put big-budget studios to shame.
Director Kevin Phillips is mostly known for his short film cinematography, and he’s spent the past twelve years honing his craft. Nearly every scene in this film is beautiful, but it’s not another example of “style over substance.” The movie is structurally sound, competently written, and the dialogue is believable. It reminds me of films from the ’80s and early ’90s, which tried to ground fantastic or extreme situations in reality.
As Super Dark Times opens, a buck has accidentally crashed into a high school and severely injured itself. Two police officers clear the scene and put it down. This dramatic and brutal scene sets the tone for the rest of the film. Enter four acquaintances, childhood friends Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan), Daryl (Max Talisman), and an 8th-grader named Charlie (Sawyer Barth). Zach and Josh both have a crush on classmate Allison (Elizabeth Cappuccino), but she eventually chooses Zach.
The kids discover a bag of marijuana and a samurai sword in Josh’s brother’s bedroom and take it to a park to mess around. Josh and Daryl get into an argument and Josh accidentally stabs him in the neck, killing him. The teens hide Daryl’s body in the woods and try to forget about the crime, but Josh’s increasingly erratic behavior stokes Zach’s guilt and paranoia. The film’s sickening climax is disturbing and difficult to watch, but the entire film has you on edge from start to finish.
A down-and-out bouncer discovers he has a talent for dolling out beatings in the hockey rink in Goon (2011), a surprising independent Canadian sports comedy film written by Jay Baruchel and Evan Goldberg and directed by Michael Dowse. Aside from being well made, Goon features a solid, nuanced performance by Seann William Scott.
Despite dismal box office returns, Goon is almost universally praised by critics. It currently has a rating of 82 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. I overlooked it many times, because although Seann William Scott has had funny side roles in some of my favorite comedies, I just couldn’t imagine him as a leading man. I was so wrong. In Goon, Scott proves he is a competent actor capable of breaking out of the fratbro trope.
Doug Glatt (Seann William Scott), a tough but polite simpleton, is working a dead end job as a bouncer. His friend, Pat (Jay Baruchel), hosts a public access hockey call-in show. One night at an Orangetown Assassins minor league game, Doug gets into a fight with a player and the Assassins coach invites him to join the team as their “enforcer.” When his skills on the ice improve, he’s recruited to play for the Halifax Highlanders and protect their star player, Xavier LaFlamme (Marc-André Grondin), who is slow to recover from a brutal knockdown.
Along the way, he falls in love with Eva (Alison Pill), an adorkable hockey fan who sleeps around with hockey players, but is in a relationship, and discovers he might one day have to confront Ross “the Boss” Rhea (Liev Schreiber), who was responsible for knocking out Xavier LaFlamme. Will he get the girl and defeat his rival?