‘Possessor’ Review: The Cronenbergian Energy is Strong with This One

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Possessor (CREDIT: Neon)

Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuppence Middleton, Sean Bean, Rossif Sutherland

Director: Brandon Cronenberg

Running Time: 104 Minutes

Rating: Unrated (with R-Level Gore, Sex, and Disturbia)

Release Date: October 2, 2020 (Select Theaters and Drive-Ins)

Human beings are not meant to house two brains in one head. We’ve seen it attempted in various sci-fi movies, and it never works out peacefully. In Possessor, the result is about as rancorous as it’s ever been. Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a brilliant assassin, and like a lot of brilliant assassins, her days are numbered. In her case, that’s because she infiltrates other people’s bodies while committing the deeds and her latest host, corporate drone Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), is violently resisting her presence. If you’re in the mood for some internal body horror, you’ve come to the right place.

Possessor was written and directed by Brandon Cronenberg, son of body horror master David Cronenberg, and the maxim “like father, like son” certainly applies here. A sex scene is intercut with a stabbing, while a murder sequence features close-ups of an eyeball and teeth getting poked out with a fire poker. You can imagine that this is the kind of movie that the senior Cronenberg would have been making had he come of age during a more digitized era. Which is all to say, Brandon is proudly carrying on the family tradition. With Possessor, he paints us a picture of how violent and blood-splattered it can get when a host fights off a virus. It’s disturbing physically, psychologically, and ethically, but all presented so wonderfully baroquely that you can’t help but be entranced.

Possessor is most satisfying with its aesthetic accomplishments. Various sequences are presented in a monochromatic palette, and a varying monochrome at that. Some mustard yellow here, some blood red there, all contributing to a beautifully distorted sense of reality. One eternally unforgettable image is the mask of Tasya (as seen on the poster) that Colin is attempting to rid himself of, thus conveying a slippery lack of separation between the physical and the mental. The plot is a little harder to parse, but it has enough suspenseful intrigue to keep you engaged. There’s some dialogue that’s difficult to make out, especially from the mumble-prone Abbott, but I imagine that that may be intentional. Possessor feels like exactly the sort of movie that wants you to lean in for you to hear it only to then throw the next highly shocking image right in your face. To which I say, keep leaning in.

Possessor is Recommended If You Like: Devs, Videodrome, The bathhouse fight in Eastern Promises

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Assassinations

‘Burden’ Paints a Possible Path Out of Hatred

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CREDIT: 101 Studios

Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Forest Whitaker, Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wilkinson, Crystal R. Fox, Dexter Darden, Tess Harper, Usher

Director: Andrew Heckler

Running Time: 120 Minutes

Rating: R for The Prosaic Evil of Hate Groups

Release Date: February 28, 2020 (Limited)

Reformed Ku Klux Klansman Michael Burden has the sort of name that only the hackiest of screenwriters would christen one of their fictional characters. But as an actual person, his moniker is a gift to someone crafting a based-on-a-true-story feature. For every living person in this world, a great deal of existence is about carrying burdens, and for Michael Burden, that truth is especially heavy. An orphan who was raised by Klan members from a young age, all he’s ever known is hatred. When he is finally able to pull himself away from that, he keeps buckling under the weight he has to bear: from the manipulation and emotional abuse he has endured and must still contend with, to the guilt from all the wrong he’s done and must atone for, to the general knot of anger at the pit of his soul.

Burden the film asks the question: is it worth the effort to rehabilitate someone who has left an ideology of hate? The example of Michael Burden (portrayed here by Garrett Hedlund) shows that it is possible, but where does that responsibility fall? In this case, the burden of Burden is transferred particularly hard onto his girlfriend Judy (Andrea Riseborough) and her young son, who somehow see a decent soul begging to break free, as well as the black Baptist Reverend Kennedy (Forest Whitaker), who interprets Burden’s predicament as a sign from God but risks alienating his wife and son with his offers of fellowship to a man they fundamentally do no trust. Taking on this burden leads to lives nearly getting ripped apart because of it.

Writer-director Andrew Heckler has presented us with a striking portrait of faith. Judy and Rev. Kennedy face intimidation and rationalization, but they carry through believing that their efforts are worthwhile. That faith is not simple nor is it easy. On the contrary, it is often frighteningly challenging. But something must be done to stem the intractability of discord. Burden zips through a few beats on its way to get to a fulfilling ending, but it is ultimately a valuable testament to the power of redemption and forgiveness.

Burden is Recommended If You Like: Places in the Heart, Dead Man Walking, the power of faith

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Deers

‘The Grudge’ Just Won’t End, and That’s Fitfully Fascinating

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CREDIT: Allen Fraser/Sony/Screen Gems

Starring: Andrea Riseborough, Demián Bichir, John Cho, Betty Gilpin, Lin Shaye, Jacki Weaver, Frankie Faison, William Sadler

Director: Nicolas Pesce

Running Time: 94 Minutes

Rating: R for Dismemberment, Fire, Drowning, Stabbing, and Gunshot Wounds

Release Date: January 3, 2020

In the spirit of experimentation, I have decided that my first movie review of 2020 will be in the form of an acrostic. The letters I will be using will be those in the title (not including the “the”), that title being The Grudge, the remake of a remake (or perhaps the latest remake of the first version) about the ghostly curse that lingers in a house where an anger-filled murder has occurred. This time, it takes the form of a multi-murder mystery in which those investigating the deaths at 44 Reyburn Drive run the risk of becoming infected by the grudge themselves.

Great cast! I mean, just look at that list. That’s at least half a dozen folks that could carry a horror movie (or any movie) on their own, and here they are together. Do they elevate the material that’s on the page? Yes, and it could use some elevating.

Repeating the formula is the name of the game here, but not the Grudge formula (or not just the Grudge formula). If you’re hankering for a return to J-horror remake glory, chances are you’ve got The Ring on your mind, and so does, it would seem, The Grudge 2020, as Detective Muldoon (Andrea Riseborough) is most concerned about protecting her son from the effects of the curse that she is experiencing.

Upside-down is how you’ll be looking during one particularly grisly moment involving Lin Shaye. It’s also how you’ll be feeling when things turn metaphysical and conversations discuss how supernatural curses go hand-in-hand with time distortion.

Digits (i.e., fingers) get hacked off. In general, writer/director Nicolas Pesce is not shy about bodies becoming pummeled, ripped apart, and decayed. It’s this movie’s most effectively visceral technique.

Generosity, and a fair bit at that, is probably required to give this umpteenth entry in a long-running, occasionally ponderous franchise a chance. An effective atmosphere is met, and frankly, that is a must that must be met in this sort of challenge.

Ending… it looked like it was going to be conclusive, which wouldn’t have been a good fit for the endless hopelessness inherent in this premise. But then there’s a fakeout, and instead of a punch in the gut, you leave with more of a whoosh.

The Grudge is Recommended If You Like: Diving into the infinite reboot loop while allowing some room for hope

Grade: 2.75 out of 5 Hands Popping Out of Hair

This Is a Movie Review: Mandy

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© SpectreVision – Umedia – Legion M – XYZ Films

A couple lives an idyllic life together somewhere way out in the woods. Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) wears her trusty Mӧtley Crüe T-shirt and reads fantasy novels, while Red (Nicolas Cage) dotes on her and dreams crazy dreams. But then a band of weirdos arrives and starts spouting some mystical, hallucinogenic, prog rock-inspired gobbledydook. I guess they’re a cult, but it feels more accurate to describe them as a bastard manifestation of the most destructive forces of nature. So when they put Mandy down for good, Red is wired for one thing and one thing only: unhinged, hardcore vengeance. That means essentially a 45-minute, unbroken Nicolas Cage freakout. Panos Cosmatos’ trippy, delirious style, in which he tints nearly every frame in a blood-red envelope, is a perfect fit for Cage at his most extreme. It’s practically a deconstruction of becoming un-Caged, with the silliest moments (the sword-style chainsaw fight, Cage just giving multiple takes of bulging his eyes out) making their points the clearest.

I give Mandy 3000 Screams of Agony out of 5000 Violations.

This Is a Movie Review: The Death of Stalin

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CREDIT: IFC Films

When it comes right down to it, people are just people. This is the thought I have when watching the scene in The Death of Stalin in which a group of officials bumblingly drop the body of the dying Soviet Premier onto a bed. No matter how despotic things get, we are still beholden to our embarrassing physical realities. Alas, when the film starts to regularly show people shot in the head without a second thought, it is hard to remain Zen about the situation.

I saw Death of Stalin at the Alamo Drafthouse, and the pre-show programming included parts of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus episode “The Cycling Tour,” which features Michael Palin bungling his way into being the target of a Russian firing squad, who famously misfire at him from only a few feet away. As I prefer my gallows humor with plenty of goofiness, “The Cycling Tour” is definitely more comfort food for me than The Death of Stalin. That is not to say the latter is unsuccessful. I see what Armando Iannucci is doing, I acknowledge that he has met his goals, I laugh where I can, and then I move on, newly grateful that I live in a society that is not quite so dangerous as 1950s USSR.

I give The Death of Stalin 4 Impossible Promises out of 5 Buggings.

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Battle of the Sexes’ is More Than Just a Tennis Match

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CREDIT: Melinda Sue Gordon/20th Century Fox

This review was originally posted on News Cult in September 2017.

Starring: Emma Stone, Steve Carell, Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Elisabeth Shue, Austin Stowell, Alan Cumming, Natalie Morales

Directors: Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris

Running Time: 121 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Systemic Sexism and An Eye-Opening Affair

Release Date: September 22, 2017 (Limited)

The mark of a great biopic is how it transcends its time. It not only illuminates the period it is set in but also the era in which it is released and potentially remains relevant into the future. Battle of the Sexes, a dramatization of the same-named 1973 exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs and the events leading up to it, is filled with social issues that are still urgently pressing in 2017. When you consider the full scope of human history, the fact that a fight to be taken seriously has lasted at least 44 years ultimately does not seem that unprecedented. But it is frustrating regardless, and it is also galvanizing enough to make a crowd-pleasing narrative out of.

As King, Emma Stone must embody a straightforward, but recognizably human, conflict. She struts around with the indomitable spirit of conviction when fighting for women to be treated equally with the men in her sport, but her personal life is searching for the right identity. She instinctively understands that the real roadblock in her professional fight is not her clownish opponent, but rather, folks like ATP Executive Director Jack Kemp (Bill Pullman), who casually reinforces the status quo with subtly aggressive comments like, “the thing about women is they find it hard to consistently handle the pressure.” But of course King can handle the pressure of tennis’ old guard. What she cannot quite handle, at least not yet as a young adult, is her path towards coming to terms with her own sexuality. The presence in this film of a tantalizing but unsettling affair with another woman is crucial, demonstrating that the political is always personal.

As Riggs, Steve Carell reveals that the trolls of today (who couch their racism and sexism with the “I’m just kidding!” defense) come from a long line of deliberate offenders. He is happy to play the male chauvinist pig, but mainly for the purpose of getting eyeballs on his stunts (though he does play the part quite convincingly). But what drives this long-since retired former world number one is not a desire to reinforce the status quo but an inability to give up the hustle. You could roll your eyes at him all you want, but it is hard not to root for him a little bit, because you can actually see how he might be able to be a better human being.

As a compelling story, Battle of the Sexes is undeniably winning. As cinema, it mostly coasts by on that strength but does not add any particularly unique techniques to the inspirational sports genre. The acting is top-notch, the understanding of the subject matter is astute, the pacing is solid, and the attitude is appropriately calibrated. It is not hitting aces with every scene, but its service game is never broken.

Battle of the Sexes is Recommended If You Like: Bend it Like Beckham, Legally Blonde, Cool Runnings, Scheduling your year around the Grand Slam calendar

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Serve and Volleys