John “Derf” Backderf’s fact-based graphic novel comes to life in a chillingly effective adaptation of My Friend Dahmer
Disney star devours My Friend Dahmer; offbeat Infinity Baby glories in immaturity;
nonactors save Gabriel and the Mountain; Bad Moms Christmas is covered in pubes.
MY FRIEND DAHMER Starring Ross Lynch. Rated PG
America’s fixation on serial killers mostly concentrates 2 on the procedural aspect of playing god. My Friend Dahmer sticks to the psychological context that helped create an unusually sensational criminal, eventually convicted for killing at least 17 young men (mostly of colour) and having sex with and/or partially devouring their bodies.
None of that happens in this smartly crafted indie feature, based on the graphic novel by John “Derf” Backderf, who hung out with future killer Jeffrey Dahmer in their last year of high school, in late-’70s Ohio. Of course, you don’t need to know that writer-director Marc Meyers filmed in actual locations, including the Dahmer family home. But this matters because it’s an exceptionally creepy hideaway off a busy road, on the edge of dense woods. The isolation makes it possible for him to collect roadkill and dissolve the corpses of silent lambs in acid, courtesy of skills learned from his chemist father. (“I’m trying to quit,” the lad promises, at one point.)
Said dad is played by The Good Wife’s Dallas Roberts as a meek, stuttering fellow, bullied by his harddrinking, mentally unstable wife (Anne Heche). Daily tensions take a toll on their introverted son, played in a breakout (if rigidly controlled) performance by young Disney veteran Ross Lynch.
Young Jeffrey stalks school hallways with sunken chest and hoodie of blond hair hanging over his aviator glasses. Unsure of his own sexuality, he’s currently fixated on a middle-aged doctor (Mad Men’s Vincent Kartheiser) who jogs his stretch of highway. The kid is notably passive, but when he defuses a school situation by imitating his mom’s heavily palsied interior decorator, he’s embraced by the punky cool kids. They’re led by the compulsive sketcher called Derf, played winningly by Alex Wolff—another former child star (alongside his brother Nat). They adopt this weird mascot, but warn him to stay away from the local pot dealer, “because that guy’s a total psycho”.
Aside from its dead-on period feel, the wellpaced movie’s main pull is the banality of the behaviour on display. It’s not aberration that stands out but the effort to blend in. “You want to seem normal, right?” Jeff asks a geeky girl when he needs a beard for the prom. His little brother, by the way, turned out just fine. > KEN EISNER
BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS Starring Mila Kunis. Rated 14A
For a movie that pretends to be against excess—three exasperated moms are going to “take Christmas back”, dammit—this sequel really doesn’t know when to stop. Sailing on the surprise success of their 2016 hit Bad Moms, The Hangover writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore are back and ready to get more crassly over-the-top with Bad Moms Christmas. So instead of just being happy with their three central characters—kristen Bell, Mila Kunis, and Kathryn Hahn—getting wasted at a food court, the writers have them then dry-hump the mall Santa and steal a gigantic, sneaker-adorned Christmas tree from Foot Locker. Kunis’s wealthy mother (Christine Baranski, doing her haughty shtick) doesn’t just take over redecorating her daughter’s house in a silverand-blue scheme, but hires a gospel choir for door-to-door carolling and a live camel for a cocktail party. And Hahn’s aesthetician, Carla, doesn’t just wax the pubic region of a well-endowed male stripper but explicitly maps her way back to the poop chute. (Cue one of the most cringe-inducing pickup scenes in the history of film.)
The problem is that so much about Lucas and Moore’s script feels fake here: start with an unlikely family outing that amounts to an extended ad for a trampoline-park chain, then go on to the little kids saying “oh my fucking god”, penis-shaped cookies suddenly appearing at a church gingerbread-housemaking class, and the fact that most of these women don’t appear to have worked a day in their lives.
This might all be fine if the guys writing this had taken a page out of the equally offensive but blackly comic Bad Santa and didn’t insist on going for the treacle at the end.
At least Hahn, Susan Sarandon as her waste-case grifter mother, and Cheryl Hines as Bell’s creepily clingy mom do amusing work despite the script.
But Lucas and Moore’s ideas of what women feel like they have to live up to seem rooted somewhere back with June Cleaver. And if the pube-happy, malestripper-gawking, eff-bomb-dropping antics these women rebel with are what She Power is supposed to look like these days, then getting hammered at the mall food court suddenly doesn’t look so bad. > JANET SMITH
GABRIEL AND THE MOUNTAIN Starring João Pedro Zappa. In English and Portuguese, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable
To get the most out of Gabriel and the Mountain, you need some background. The most impressive thing about this long-form travel diary is that Brazilian filmmaker Fellipe Barbosa (who made 2014’s Casa Grande) went to the same African countries his friend Gabriel Buchmann visited on an almost year-long trip, before the latter lost his way on a Malawi mountainside and perished there, alone, in 2009. It’s an intense portrait of courage and stupidity, and also a sympathetic introduction to the real people our hubristic hero (played by João Pedro Zappa) met and genuinely befriended in his truncated journey. English is the lingua franca that connects the Kenyan farmer, Tanzanian truck driver, and Rwandan customs officials he meets along the way, among many others. These nonactors still seem pleasantly baffled that this odd fellow came into their lives briefly and still has some resonance today. The only other professional on hand is Caroline Abras, as Gabe’s Brazilian girlfriend, shocked to see how monomaniacal the guy has become on his travels. (Curiously, these are the film’s flattest scenes.)
The new movie has been compared to Into the Wild, about another naif who thought he was well prepared for survival. But this doesn’t have a structure built around a diary or any other singular source. The result is more kaleidoscopic, and the colours extend to all the impressive places and cultures our pale-faced protagonist wandered through. (And to the most outrageous versions of “native garb”, making him look like Barney Rubble while most locals wear jeans and T-shirts.) At 130 minutes, however, the dynamic is quite repetitive: Gabriel arrives, pushes his way into people’s lives, sometimes obnoxiously, and even so makes a positive impression. Ultimately, the movie does have subtle things to say about colliding worlds, class privilege, and human unpredictability. > KEN EISNER
JIGSAW Starring Tobin Bell. Rated 18A
After a typical cop/action–show opening
where a fleeing scuzzball criminal gets shot and captured, the eighth film in the Saw franchise takes on the expected torture-porn traits. Five freaked-out individuals are shown in a big room with steel buckets on their heads and thick chains running from the metal rings around their throats into a wall embedded with buzz-saw blades. As usual, the raspy voice of Jigsaw announces that it’s game time, and that each captive will be given a chance to confess to and atone for past sins—or die tryin’. The blades whir, the chains pull, and the dumbest among the bunch gets taken out first.
While Jigsaw’s busy making up for lost time, a street-tough detective (Canuck film vet Callum Keith Rennie) gets on the case when the first victim’s body appears in the morgue. “He looks a little pail,” quips a foxy coroner’s assistant, setting the tone for hokey one-liners to come. When they remove the bucket we see that the guy’s been halfdecapitated lengthwise, which is always the worst way to lose half a head.
The rest of the film flits back and forth between the police investigation and the torment of Jigsaw’s
playthings, but doesn’t get half decent until the titular baddie, aka serial killer John Kramer, shows up in the flesh about two-thirds of the way through. Tobin Bell has always been the best thing about the Saw movies—even better than those wicked torture devices. He’s an electrifying presence, and his performance, a twist ending, and a final, hilariously over-the-top gore effect make the last half-hour of Jigsaw quite entertaining.
On the way out of the theatre after an advance screening I overheard a guy behind me saying that he liked the ending but wasn’t impressed by the film’s showcase death machine, a large, funnel-like contraption with spiralling red blades powered by a motorcycle. I couldn’t help myself, turning around and adding my two bits’ worth in a three-word comment.
“Yeah,” the stranger cheerfully agreed, “bogus meat grinder!” > STEVE NEWTON
INFINITY BABY Starring Kieran Culkin. Rated PG
Texas-based writer-director 2
(and sometime actor) Bob Byington has explored the limits of sly laughter in films like Harmony and Me and Somebody Up There Likes Me, featuring a repertory company of resourceful farceurs like Nick Offerman and Kevin Corrigan. They show up in Byington’s latest no-budget delight, actually written by Turkish American Onur Tukel, but in the same style, which you could maybe call magic unrealism.
Offerman plays the owner of a strange tech company that accidentally came up with a gene that produces children who never age. And Living in Oblivion’s Corrigan is possibly his worst employee, although what the company is selling is pretty murky. Apparently, they pay you to take the babies for three-month periods. Or something. Don’t worry: they only poop once a week!
The Corrigan character’s partner in this enterprise is played by Martin Starr, and a Silicon Valley vibe hangs around the edges, although the tech town here is Austin, by way of Slacker, with its Frank Lloyd Gone Wrong architecture grounded in low-contrast black-and-white. Corrigan and Starr’s duo—they might be a romantic couple, too, but still aren’t sure—answer to the boss’s nephew Ben, played by Kieran Culkin in a part that should be infuriating but simply amuses at every turn. This aging Peter Pan seemingly relies on his mother (Megan Mullally, married to Offerman in real life) to discourage girlfriends from getting closer. He’s no sooner dumped Master of None’s Noël Wells this way than he meets a bigger challenge in a lovable ditz played by Banshee’s funny Trieste Kelly Dunn.
Meanwhile, people drink too much, hurt each other, and occasionally have to go to an underground bag man (Office Space great Stephen Root) to fix potentially fatal problems. Does any of it matter? Of course not. At 70 minutes, there’s just enough “plot” to keep the perfectly matched cast sniping at each other with quips that feel ad-libbed but are actually tightly scripted. “Maybe being selfish and irresponsible isn’t the best way to live,” someone muses to himself. The moment passes quickly. > KEN EISNER
Ross Lynch breaks type big-time after four years on Disney’s Austin & Ally, making a meal of his latest role as one of America’s most notorious serial killers.