It is a week of serial killer films. POOR AGNES and MY FRIEND DAHMER have serial killers as their main subjects and MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS also have killers on board the train.
BEST FILMS PLAYING:
THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER
GOD’S OWN COUNTRY
DADDY’S HOME 2 (USA 2017) **
Directed by Sean Anders
One can tell that there is something wrong with a movie when the movie within a movie turns out to be more interesting than the movie itself. In DADDY’S HOME 2, the families end up at one point stranded at a suburban cinema where a fake movie MISSILE TOW starring Liam Neeson is playing. Neeson pays a character (voice only heard) that rescues his family from terrorists at all costs. That fake film is heard for only a minute or two before director Anders turns the audience back to his nightmare Christmas movie - DADDY’S HOME 2
Moviegoers must have been very naughty during 2017 as Santa has rewarded them already with two awfully bad Christmas comedies - A BAD MOM’ S CHRISTMAS and now DADDY’S HOME 2. DADDY’S HOME numero uno arrived on Christmas Day 2015 and went on to gross a remarkable $150 million domestically. Thus arrives number 2 with Paramount hoping to do well again at the box-office.
The first film dealt with step-dad Brad (Will Ferrell) having to deal with his wife’s kids’ real father Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) showing up to undo all the values that Brad had instilled in his family. HOME 2 ups the angst with the arrival of the dads’ dads in the form of Mel Gibson and John Lithgow. Gibson has had quite the bad press and has been successful behind the camera (HACKSAW RIDGE, PASSION OF THE CHRIST) than in front of it. Surprisingly, he is the funniest and best of the cast in the film, playing against his true character in life - a macho, gun-totting anti-feminist old goat.
Like all Christmas comedies, the usual disastrous set ups are there - the setting up of the electrical house decorations that go wrong (at least this one is quite elaborately done); the Christmas tree shopping; the snowball fight (not funny at all); the Christmas dinner; the feel good sentiment (it is only the children that count); the breaking of a hard heart (John Cena’s as the biological father of Dusty’s kid). The worst of all is the film’s climax, which must rank as the corniest set-up of all time that takes place in a cinema theatre during a blackout. There is a shameless promotion of the good of going to the movies whee audiences are encouraged to turn to the next person to greet them.
A few non Christmas setups are included - the most notable being the bowling segment where one son has the problem of throwing his bowling ball into the gutter. It is a rather simple setup that turns out to generate only a few laughs, if any pity laughs. The predictable shoplifting gag does not work either nor the revelation of the notes that Dusty’s girlfriend takes of Brad’s wife that turn out to be good ones.
DADDY’S HOME 2 might work for the undemanding moviegoer. There were people applauding at he end of the film, but critics can only shrug at this early Christmas enterprise.
INFINITY BABY (USA 2017) ***
Directed by Bob Byington
The execution of the movie is as queer as its conception of the infinity baby. INFINITY BABY, shot in black and white is a absurdist social comedy that almost becomes a viable satire.
THE INFINITY BABY is so called because this baby does not age (hence being a baby forever). By giving the baby a fixed medication, the baby only needs to eat once a week and have its diaper changed once a week. The baby never cries but coos as cute as any cooing baby can be. The whole package comes at a cost of $20,000. The film follows one such baby that had her medication changed, died and ended growing up. How all this happens with all its absurdist hilarity makes up Byington’s occasionally very funny movie.
It is not this baby person that is the subject of the movie. The subjects are the employees involved with the infinity baby enterprise. These are imperfect people with imperfect lives which the film milks for all its hilarity. The inventor of the infinity baby is Neo (Nick Offerman) rich and powerful, and in his own works gives advice that people actually listen to. In his employ is Ben (Kieran Culkin, brother of the HOME ALONE Culkin) who wants a woman but is afraid to commit to a relationship. When things get too sticky, he brings the girlfriend to her mother who will ream her out and therefore break up the relationship with no guilt accosted to Ben. It is later learned that this woman is not really his mother, but a woman he pays to impersonate his mother to break up his various relationships. These scenes have to be seen to be believed. Ben is nothing more than an overgrown child, wonderfully portrayed by Culkin.
More outrageous are the two baby delivery guys, Larry (Steve Corrigan) and Malcolm (Starr). They are a gay couple who end up stealing a baby and keeping the $20,000 in order to boost their relationship. But they are lazy and increase the medication doses of the baby so that they do not have to clean and feed the infant so often. The bay dies. All hell breaks loose.
Director Byington claims that the film is inspired by Woody Allen’s BANANAS. The relationship part of the Wood Allen film is similar - the one where the character played by Allen’s then wife, breaks up with him. Byington’s film, based on the script by Onur Tukel (CATFIGHT) is made up of a series of comedic set-ups that are related by the theme of the infinity baby but mostly unconnected in flow. The film feels disjointed not aided by a non conclusive ending.
One would hardly expect a proper closed ending from a film with an absurdist plot. Still INFINITY BABY is highly amusing for its inventiveness, weirdness and very funny humour. The film was selected for the SXSW Film Festival and also won the CENTER Film Festival Special Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (USA 2017) ***
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
One of the most famous and read of the Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS the film benefits and suffers from being just that. There have been already 4 film adaptations of the novel, the best remembered being the 1974 Sidney Lumet directed outing with Albert Finney in the role of the titular detective, Hercule Poirot (the last syllable of his surname pronounced like a kiss) with his coiffed moustache.
This latest version directed by Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh who has directed films as diverse as THOR, DEAD AGAIN including Shakespeare’s HAMLET and HENRY V
written by Michael Green takes more liberty with the classic story.
When the film opens, it is crystal clear (no detective skills needed) that the first bits have nothing to do with the novel. Poirot (played by Kenneth Branagh himself) solves the case of a missing relic as the introduction to the film, just as in many a James Bond film that begins with an action sequence for an unrelated case. This shows Poirot’s efficiency and style with an added sequence of his complaint of not being able to get the perfect half-boiled eggs for breakfast.
The film then continues with the assortment of characters introduced as they board the Orient Express, most of whom Poirot always knows. A murder takes place in the midst of the journey and all the passengers in the first and second class departments fall suspect. The train is stranded due to a snow avalanche and Poirot has time to use his wits to solve the case.
There are a lot of factors going against this film version. The most important of these is the fact that everyone already knows who the murderer is. It does not take one with good memory to recall the 1974 version that all the passengers did it, taking turns at stabbing Ratchet (Johnny Depp), the evil man who masterminded a kidnapping that affected a dozen or so lives, all of whom seek the satisfaction of seeing the man dead. That said, the 1974 version has popped up on TV once too often and inevitable comparison will be made.
Both films are quite different. In the 1974 version, director Lumet has assembled an all-star cast more impressive than this one, and he has managed to isolate each character while making each one as interesting as the next which won Ingrid Bergman her second Oscar and his cast other Best Acting and Supporting Role Oscar nominations. While Lumet concentrated on the actors, Branagh chose to pick the cinematography (by Haris Zambarloukos who did THOR). Though Branagh’s film is stunning to look at, one can only look at landscape for so long. His film is monotonously paced and too slow in parts and too fast when Poirot explains the details of the murder. The trouble with film adaptations of Agatha Christie’s works is that too much plot needs to be revealed on film, whereas in a book, the reader can take the time to digest all the details. The missing button on the conductors’s suit, the kimono, the planning of the murder, who is who during the Armstrong kidnapping are all a lot to take in, in a very short time. Branagh also gives himself too much screen time including a speech on heart over justice. A few actors have to little to do like Judi Dench and Penelope Cruz while others like Michelle Pfeiffer overacts her role for all it is worth.
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS ends with the hint of Poirot’s journey to Egypt to take on his next case which means perhaps a remake of DEATH ON THE NILE. Remember that one directed by John Guillermin with Peter Ustinov as the detective, the most campy one with Elizabeth Taylor as the killer?
MY FRIEND DAHMER (USA 2017) ***1/2
Directed by Marc Meyers
Marc Meyer’s MY FRIEND DAHMER tells the tale of a high school misfit called Jeffrey DAHMER (Ross Lynch). On the surface, the film looks like the popular hit NAPOLEON DYNAMITE with the leads in the two films looking a bit similar.
The similarity stops there. This film is based on a true story and does not take the easy route of feel good underdog film that NAPOLEON DYNAMITE took. Credit is due to Marc Meyers for daring to make a totally different film, different in outlook, feel and character treatment. The film is the haunting, sad, funny, true story of Jeffrey Dahmer in high school, based on Derf Backderf’s critically acclaimed 2012 graphic novel of the same name and Meyers’s own 2014 Black List script.
Dahmer’s odd behaviour stems from his dysfunctional family. His mentally unstable mother (Anne Heche) pops pills and drives her and well-intentioned husband (Dallas Roberts) and Dahmer crazy. The father has a lonely job as a chemist and wants his son Dahmer not to follow the same route but to have friends for friends lead to connections in life. With a family life in ruins, he collects roadkill and fixates on a neighbourhood jogger (Vincent Kartheiser). As Dahmer begins to act out at school, and his goofball antics win over a group of band-nerds who form The Dahmer Fan Club, headed by Derf Backderf (Alex Wolff). But this camaraderie cannot mask his growing depravity. Approaching graduation, Jeff spirals further out of control, inching ever closer to madness.
For a teen film, the film contains scenes of teens drinking hard alcohol, drug use and excessive use of foul language. This makes it an uneasy watch, despite its authenticity.
Meyers’ film captures the camaraderie of Dahmer’s group of friends outcast from society - their disrespect for authority, their need for attention, need to be different and their pure restlessness. The small town mentality does not help the kids either, not providing them a way out of their humdrum living or for a better future.
The film finally reveals the true nature of Dahmer.. Jeffrey Dahmer murdered 17 men and boys in the Midwest United States between 1978 and 1991 before being captured and incarcerated. He would become one of America’s most infamous serial killers. This is therefore, the story before that story.
Dahmer’s sexual orientation is hinted in the one well executed and the film’s most intriguing scene in which he visits the school doctor after hearing rumours that the doctor touches the boys’ penises after making them cough. The visit proves futile as the doctor never touches Dahmer, the visit becoming more awkward after him being told he is in perfect earth. Dahmer masturbates in his room after.
The film compares with another film that tells the before story of a serial killer WE NEED TO TALK ABLUT KEVIN. Both films hint at the reason for the subjects decent into a serial killer, while attributing the main cause to be mental instability.
MY FRIEND DAHMER is a portrait of a teenage serial killer and it is a film to be seen at at ones own risk!
POOR AGNES (Canada 2016) ***
Directed by Navin Ramaswaran
The synopsis of POOR AGNES on imdb goes “A serial killer and her next victim form an unexpected relationship”. That description of the movie would be enough to scare away many an audience but writer James Gordon Ross and director Navin Ramaswaran have concocted quite the movie.
The film opens with a few incidents involving Agnes (Lora Burke). She is shown suffocating a victim by placing a plastic bag over his head. The audience sees her pawning the victim’s gold watch and silk tie. When the pawnbroker uses the ‘f’ word at her, she retorts by throwing him an insult. He reduces the price of the gold watch from $200 to $150 which she takes, as she is broke and has no choice. The segments tell a lot about Agnes and the route the film is taking.
Credit should be given to director Ramaswaran for the feat of having his audience root for as unlikeable a character as a non-repentant serial killer. He achieves this (feat) by several means which are interesting to note:
all the characters around her are either seedier or nastier than her, not only her victims
she is all by herself and one usually respects an independent woman
she is funny and she cracks the best jokes
she is smart
she knows what she wants and does it
she is neither annoying nor irritating in any of her conduct
This might be the reason the film is called POOR AGNES (instead of say NASTY AGNES) which makes the audience want to root even more for someone needing sympathy.
The first half of the film establishes Agnes’ personality while introducing her love/sex relationship with Mike (Robert Notman). Mike is the private detective hired to find out more about a missing person a year ago that Agnes did away with. After Mike hits on her, she kidnaps him but lets him go free in an odd love relationship.
One might imagine the film going out of steam after the first half. But the film’s pacing is good and new events keep the audience interested throughout the entire film. Agnes draws the reluctant and unsuspecting Mike into her evil deeds. She kidnaps a previous trick, Chris (Will Conlon) and forces Mike to do away with him.
Credit goes to Toronto actress Lora Burke for an excellent performance as the serial killer/madwoman. Robert Notman is also convincing as her reluctant partner. Everything else in the other departments from music, to sound to sets to cinematography are to be commended.
POOR AGNES does not slag in any way. Despite the rather outrageous plot, the story and characters are kept believable. Humour (especially black) is also injected particularly in the segment where Agnes attends a tortured victims support group.
Director Ramaswaran and writer James Gordon Ross make an excellent team. The film won the Best Canadian Film Prize at the 2017 Fantasia Film Festival.