What to watch: ‘Violent Nature’ more than lives up to its name

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There have been reports of audience members getting sick while watching “In a Violent Nature,” an unrated slasher film opening May 31. Is it just hype? Or is the violence too hardcore to stomach?

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We’ll address that and take a look at Netflix’s unbeatable standalone series “Eric,” with Benedict Cumberbatch, and “Ezra,” a family drama that deals authentically with autism.

We also review a Beach Boys documentary and a shocking epic about a Jewish child’s kidnapping that’s tied to the Vatican.

Here’s our roundup.

“In a Violent Nature”: A primordial evil rises from the backwoods muck in northern Ontario and goes on a killing spree — garroting, beheading and dismembering unlucky park campers, one of whom snatched a coveted family heirloom that he wants back. Anyone unfortunate enough to cross bloody paths with Johnny (Ry Barrett, not uttering one coherent line of dialogue) most likely won’t witness a new dawn. Fueled by a rage festering over a decades-old injustice, Johnny dons a freaky old-time firefighter’s mask and cuts quite the memorable slasher figure — the subject of many scary campfire stories, one of which gets shared amongst unsuspecting victims in Chris Nash’s slasher debut.

This bracing, ultraviolent genre entry trumpets the arrival of a brash filmmaker whose bold vision alternates between caressable shots in nature to emotionally detached scenes of extreme, inventive carnage — disturbing sequences that will test the mettle of the most serious horror hound. Should graphic macabre deaths not be your thing, this is not your film. (It’s unrated for a reason).

Nash’s film won raves at Sundance where it debuted, but it doesn’t reinvent the genre so much as revitalize it with buckets of new blood. Nash’s unorthodox style is most welcome in a canon grown tired and lazy in its over-reliance on tacky jump scares and preposterous twists. What contributes in making “Nature” more distinctive is that much of it gets told from the viewpoint of Johnny, who lies in wait in in these ominous woods with the steely intent of an underfed crocodile.

Nash takes risks throughout his debut — the final 10 minutes with Lauren Taylor from “Friday the 13th: Part 2” more than proves that he knows how to feed on our apprehension, and I will reveal no more. But he’s not alone in making “In a Violent Nature” one of the best horror debuts in recent memory. Cinematographer Pierce Derks and sound designers Tim Atkins and Michelle Hwu share in that, making us feel like we are part of the disorienting sights and sounds of the woods. And Steven Kostanski’s prosthetics effects scream with unbearable realism. There’s no doubt character development isn’t the film’s strong suit — nor one of its goals — but Johnny slays his way into the league of unstoppable, unforgettable killing machines: Jason Voorhees (“Friday the 13th”), Michael Myers (“Halloween”) and Leatherface (“The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”). Welcome to the club. Details: 3½ stars out of 4; in theaters May 31.

“Eric”: With a plethora of often salacious if formulaic true-crime series dominating the streaming charts, what a refreshing surprise to discover that this six-part mystery/drama series set in ‘80s New York is, in fact, the product of a fertile imagination. Benedict Cumberbatch bullseyes another role as hair-triggered “Good Day Sunshine” (think “Sesame Street”) puppeteer Vincent. He’s a disrupter who ushers in turbulence in the office and at home, an apartment he shares with his wife Cassie (Gaby Hoffmann) and their creative 9-year-old son Edgar (Ivan Morris Howe). When Edgar goes missing after another loud fight between mom and dad, desperate Vincent hits the skids and the bottle while searching for his child with the help of a monster-like character Edgar created.

Running parallel and later interacting with that search is another investigation by dogged detective Ledroit (McKinley Belcher III, a rising star), a closeted gay man. He’s working on the missing kid case and staking out a disreputable nightclub. Initially, you can’t help but wonder where this story will take us, and it splinters off into directions that tap into homophobia, fear, AIDS, racism, homelessness, corruption and addiction. Above all else, it reflects the danger of oppression and not being true to oneself. Award-winning series creator Abi Morgan (“The Split”) and director Lucy Forbes (“This Is Going to Hurt”) bring their knack for authentic, ambidextrous storytelling to the table. The period details couldn’t be better, and the final episode weaves the many elements together with effortless poignancy. Details: 3½ stars; available May 31 on Netflix.

“Ezra”: An A-list cast — Bobby Cannavale, Rose Byrne, Robert DeNiro and Vera Farmiga (in a small part) — elevates this rewarding family-driven drama that sheds light on the anxieties that can trip up best-intending parents of an autistic child. As “Ezra” attests, flustered parents might need to work more on themselves before they can truly be present with their child. When 11-year-old Ezra (William Fitzgerald) gets bumped from school then gets into an accident, his quick-tempered but loving father Max (Cannavale), a struggling comedian, takes him on an impromptu and illegal father-son road trip. It serves another mark against him and leads to more exasperation from Max’s ex Jenna (Byrne) and his dad Stan (De Niro). Tony Spiridakis’ personalized screenplay rests in capable, warm hands with director Tony Goldwyn. Cannavale channels the emotional complexities and vulnerabilities of his character with compassionate clarity. Details: 3 stars; in theaters May 31.

“Kidnapped — The Abduction of Edgardo Mortara”: This shocking slice of Italian history revisits how in 1858  the Catholic Church went into a Jewish couple’s home and swiped their 7-year-old child. It was done at the behest of Pope Pius IX and it was demanded the child be raised Catholic since a nurse decided to baptize him without the family’s blessing. There’s no reason, really, to embellish this story one bit but acclaimed filmmaker Marco Bellocchio does it anyway at times, turning “Kidnapped” into a melodrama. It’s a mistake and results in an intrusion that takes us out of the tight grip of this beautifully composed but far from subtle story. Bellocchio’s production — from its cast to its cinematography — works well enough, notably with an ending that hits you right in the gut. The cast — child actor Enea Sala’s as an unsettled Edgardo, Paolo Pierobon as a clueless Pope Pius IX and Barbara Ronchi as the distraught and then furious mom Marianna Mortara — all hit the right notes. “Kidnapped” has its problems, but it is gripping. Details: 2½ stars; in theaters May 31.

“The Beach Boys”: In this watchable but routine overview of the classic California band made up mostly of relatives, the more uncomfortable-making elements about the group get addressed rather than explored. So you’re left with a scratching-the-surface documentary that’s enjoyable for any fan but is less filling than you’d like. Director Frank Marshall and Thom Zimny divulge some darker elements – the abuse of Murry Wilson, the father and heartless music publisher for sons Brian, Carl and Dennis and Brian’s struggles with perfection and mental illness. But often it feels like there’s much more to the story than being divulged, even when it brings up Dennis being haunted by his association with Charles Manson. For Beach Boys’ legions of fans, not digging too deep into the sandbox might just be fine. Details: 2 stars; available on Disney+.

Contact Randy Myers at soitsrandy@gmail.com.

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