Reviews – New movies opening December 9th 2016

I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER (Ireland | UK/16/104mins)
Directed by Billy O’Brien. Starring Christopher Lloyd, Max Records, Laura Fraser, Karl Geary, Bruce Bohne
THE PLOT: John Cleaver (Max Records) has always been a troubled kid. Working at the family funeral home does not help matters, but being able to talk honestly with his therapist Dr Neblin (Karl Geary) about his homicidal thoughts and fascination with killing. John manages to never act on his impulses, but when people begin to die at the hands of a serial killer in his small town, he must hunt down and confront the killer, while keeping his own inner demons in check.
THE VERDICT: It has been five long years since Max Records last appeared in a film, and the adorable little boy from ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ is all grown up now, and playing a kid obsessed with death and what it might feel like to kill. Max Records amazingly manages to make this damaged and potentially dangerous teenager relatable and likeable as he struggles with his own demons and tries to understand a killer who is on the loose. Christopher Lloyd plays an ailing elderly man who John becomes fascinated with, and does well at making the character affable on the surface, but with his own secrets that he is hiding. Laura Fraser plays John’s overworked and frazzled mother who desperately tries to hold her family together. The rest of the cast features Karl Geary, Bruce Bohne and James Gaulke.
Christopher Hyde and Billy O’Brien adapted Dan Wells’ novel for the big screen, and have managed to make the film darkly intriguing and supernatural, with a hefty dose of humour and strangeness thrown in to make I am Not a Serial Killer less obvious and familiar than audiences would at first think. The dialogue is strong and the eerie feel of the story permeates every corner of the film.
As director, Irish man Billy O’Brien keeps the film moving at a steady pace, while making John’s struggle between the darker and lighter sides of his personality feel natural. The performances in the film are strong, in particular Max Records who ably carries this strange and eerie story on his shoulders. The humour is well dispersed in the film, and John’s increasing isolation throughout the film makes the horror element of the story even more creepy and unsettling. The supernatural element of the film sometimes doesn’t quite sit well with the teen angst side of the film, however, and there are times when the story feels rather drawn out, and as though it is staggering toward a close.
In all, however, ‘I am Not a Serial Killer’ is a dark, twisted and surprisingly affecting story of a disconnected teen who suddenly finds himself drawn to a monster that stalks his home town. The humour is well balanced in the film, the dialogue strong and the performances engaging, but there are times when ‘I am Not a Serial Killer’ is frustratingly slow and a little drawn out.
RATING: 3.5/5
Review by Brogen Hayes

Directed by Nate Parker. Starring Nate Parker, Gabrielle Union, Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Aja Naomi King
THE PLOT: In Virginia, before the US Civil War, Nat Turner (Nate Parker) a slave owned by the relatively lenient Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), leads a short lived rebellion against slavery after he sees too much cruelty visited on his kinsmen.
THE VERDICT: ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is a strange sort of film; presented as the story of a man who wanted to right wrongs, the film is based on the life of Nat Turner, a man who reportedly saw visions and whose spirituality and religion juxtaposed with the murders he instigated and carried out has been compared with that of modern day religious violence. As well as this, the film has been shrouded with controversy since it was first screened at Sundance earlier this year, and with a title taken from DW Griffith’s film of the same name, it seems what writer / director Nate Parker, and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin wanted to court that controversy in some ways.
Nate Parker has cast himself in the lead role of Nat Turner, and it is often hard to tell if Parker is a strong actor or not. Parker’s portrayal of Turner swings from him being meek and gentle, to violent and vitriolic, to seemingly mentally incapacitated, often within one scene. Armie Hammer does a lot better with the role of Samuel Turner, and the character’s progression on screen is arguably the most interesting thing about the film. The rest of the cast features Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King and Gabrielle Union.
There has been a lot of talk about Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin’s screenplay for ‘The Birth of a Nation’, and although there are changes made from the real life Nat Turner’s life, the most troubling thing about the screenplay is it’s languid, slow pacing. There are scenes of great violence – although what could be considered one of the most upsetting scenes takes place off camera – but the greatest crime that ‘The Birth of a Nation’ commits is being dull. Much of the film is taken up with Nat Turner witnessing events of great cruelty and oppression, but although the audience may turn away at the representation of this on screen, Turner does not seem greatly affected by what he sees while touring the county as a preacher, until violence comes to call on his own door, then everything changes. As well as this, it seems as though we do not really ever get a chance to know Nat Turner as a character, although the choice to reduce the man’s religious predisposition from what is known of the real man is probably a wise choice.
As director, Nate Parker should not have cast himself in the lead role; not only is Turner the least interesting character on the screen, but it is obvious that Parker did not give enough consideration to his co-stars. As well as this, the film is badly paced and slow, with not enough focus being given to the short-lived rebellion nor its aftermath.
In all, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is a mediocre film about a man who tried and failed to instigate change. There are issues with pacing and performance in the film, but the main crime ‘The Birth of a Nation’ commits is being dull. Controversy has definitely been courted with The Birth of a Nation, but drawing ironic parallels with DW Griffith’s is indulgent and unnecessary, and the controversy that has sprung up around the film is unlikely to encourage many to see it.
Review by Brogen Hayes

Directed by Roger Ross Williams. Starring Owen Suskind, Ron Suskind, Jonathan Freeman, Gilbert Gottfried, Alan Rosenblatt
THE PLOT: When he was three years old, Owen Suskind was diagnosed with autism, and retreated into his own world. Over time, Owen’s parents realised that watching animated Disney films was not only something the family could do together, but it was also something that Owen used to communicate with his family a little at a time. Now aged 23, Owen is just about to move out of home into an assisted living facility, and is facing a whole new set of challenges on his own.
THE VERDICT: Inspired by the book that Owen’s father Ron wrote about living with an autistic child, and trying to find a way to reach him, Life, Animated is a look into the world of a family who are struggling to communicate. Through interviews with the family and home movie footage, a picture is painted of a bright young boy who suddenly struggled to understand and communicate with the world around him, and his only way out was to use a scripted story that never changed, no matter how much everything else did.
Director Roger Ross Williams has carefully put ‘Life, Animated’ together, and obviously had the utmost trust from the Suskind family. Not only does Ross Williams interview Own, his father Ron, mother Cornelia and brother Walter, but he also follows the family as they prepare for Owen to move out and face the world almost alone. Owen comes across as a bright, cheerful and happy person, delighted to be alive and, although he struggles in certain situations, happy to be around people and celebrate his life. What becomes abundantly clear early on in the film is just how far Owen has come from a young boy who constantly spoke gibberish, to a young man who set up a Disney club to help others with learning disabilities – and to make friends – and moved out to live on his own.
It is clear that the Suskind family is loving, united and wonderfully kind, and this played a huge part in Owen being able to come as far as he has, and it is the Suskind’s emotion that gives the film heart and soul, as well as the infectious joy for life that emanates from Owen. Owen is open and honest about how he felt at the time when things went bad for him, and how Disney movies and his identifying with them made an important pathway for him in his life. Roger Ross Williams intersperses a short animated story based on one of Owen’s stories, throughout the film, and it is in this that the audience begins to understand where Owen is coming from, and how these animated films have helped him.
‘Life, Animated’ is a powerful look at communication, and just how an obsession can be something used to open people up when they shut down from the world that surrounds them. It is clear that the Suskind family, and Owen, are an exceptional group of people, but there are lessons here to take away for life in general, and although the film doesn’t so much end as fizzle out, it is a pleasure to spend time with this family.
Review by Brogen Hayes

Office Christmas Party (USA, 16, 105mins)

Three word review: A Christmas cracker

Directed by Josh Gordon, Will Speck. Starring Jason Bateman, Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Munn, T.J. Miller, Kate McKinnon, Courtney B. Vance.

The Plot: It is Christmas in Chicago and IT company Zenotek is gearing up for its Christmas party. Josh (Jason Bateman) and Clay (T.J. Miller) are at the helm of the company, but it is steering towards troubled waters. Clay’s bossy older sister and company CEO Carol (Jennifer Aniston) arrives in town with the threat of shutting down the branch and tossing everyone out into the snow. All discretionary expenditure has been cancelled, including the party. That does not stop Clay from going ahead with the party, funded from his own money. With the help of tech-head Tracey (Olivia Munn) and prim and proper Mary (Kate McKinnon), Josh and Clay set out to snag potential client Walter (Courtney B. Vance) whose investment could save the branch. That is, if the party to end all office Christmas parties does not sink the branch first…

The Verdict: After the sadly disappointing Bad Santa 2, it is a relief to find a Christmas comedy that sets out to have fun and lives up to its rib-tickling trailer. Office Christmas Party: it is all there in the title. Although it was inspired by a Saturday Night Live sketch, it is surprising that nobody thought of this simple postage-stamp concept as a film earlier. Of course, things are somewhat heightened here for cinematic effect. This reviewer’s office Christmas party is a relatively sedate affair compared to the crazy antics involved in this film. This is the office Christmas party you always wanted but never got from senior management… and then some.

With two directors and six writers credited to the film, it is a small Christmas miracle that the film manages to mostly succeed and avoid being a load of humbug. That is partly down to co-directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck. In their third feature together, they reign in what must have been a chaotic script assembly to focus on the characters and situations, while ensuring that nobody is left out in the snow. The main characters are all well-defined and likeable office sorts, played by a motley but reliable bunch of character actors and comedians. Bateman and Miller could do these roles in their sleep, but they remain engaging throughout. Aniston plays another variation on her merciless boss from hell, but gets some good chuckles. Even the smaller bit-part players like Jillian Bell, Rob Corddry and Vanessa Bayer shine.

Sure, there are some flaws like obvious early signposting (a car jumping over a bridge) and an unnecessary third act chase across town involving Bell’s pimp. The film is more steady on its feet when in the riotous office party, rather than out of it. If there is one festive-themed film to see this month, then make an appointment with Office Christmas Party. Yule like it.

Rating: 3.5/5

Review by Gareth O’Connor.