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Possessor: body horror head case

Cronenberg the younger can’t resist the gross-out effects

Possessor: Isn’t that Christopher Abbott behind the warped Andrea Riseborough mask?
Possessor: Isn’t that Christopher Abbott behind the warped Andrea Riseborough mask?

Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature will no doubt confirm those nasty rumors that daddy David set his son on the road to dreamland every night with Videodrome projected on the nursery wall opposite the baby’s crib. With all the omniscient intensity (and some of the uncomfortability) associated with having a mind-altering jumper cable clamped to the medulla oblongata, Possessor leads audiences on a fantastic, at times insanely original voyage through the inwardness of a brain-implant assassin.

Tasya Vos’s (Andrea Riseborough) performed her first “hit” when she was still young enough to experience pangs of guilt — over the butterfly she had killed and mounted. It hardly prepared her for a career in specialized contract killing, a field in which she can turn anyone into an assassin simply by commandeering their bodies and directing them to kill in the name of corporations eager to bear the cost. We open at the conclusion of one such assignment: a tight shot of a woman furrowing through her cornrows in search of the plug that will connect her to a mood regulator.

With the mental tune-up complete, Tasya — operating from beneath a tomography helmet somewhere in another part of town — commands the cocktail waitress to eliminate a partygoer and then take her own life. The first half of the mission is a snap, but when it comes time for the self-offing, Tasya opts for the “death by cop” method of suicide. Star performer that she is, Tasya ignores the mounting toll this type of profession takes on one’s soul. Her controller Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) agrees to give her time off for good behavior, but Tasya is not one to leave her work at the office: images of the recent stabbing flash across her mind while she performs mechanical sex with her estranged husband. The next victim on the docket is Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), a coke dealer on the verge of marrying well, only to find his wealthy future father-in-law (Sean Bean) is assigning him an entry-level position in the family business. This time, Tasya gets so close to her prey that the mind she now occupies may be her last.

Riseborough has played so many strong, smart women over the past decade (Shadow Dancer, Welcome to the Punch, Nancy) that it’s hard to find an actress working today with more adventurous taste in projects. And Possessor is an adventure — clearly the work of a visionary filmmaker. Even the film’s overall design is an active contributor to the general disquietude of the piece. The chairs in Girder’s office are inconvenient iron wishbones upholstered with evenly-spaced bolster cushions. And even though it’s a mask, there is something about cavorting around in other people’s body parts that has always impressed me as being rather Ed Gien-ish. Though Cronenberg the younger has yet to establish a clinician’s eye of his own, when it comes to basting his frames with “body horror,” the apple not only landed close to the tree, it hit the ground with such force that the limbs began to shudder. And there’s enough explicit sexuality on display to make dad’s sex-in-sedans epic Crash blush.

As stylish as the ride was, we arrived at our final destination with little in the way of a point to the journey. The violence here isn’t meant to disturb the viewer. But Brandon can’t resist the gross-out effects — hacking away at characters as if they were sugar cane plants — needed to mollify a jaded youth market. ★★★

VOD New Release Roundup

Bad Trip — There have never been female Jackasses or Jackasses of color, an oversight that Bad Trip, the latest hidden camera road movie from producer Jeff Tremaine (Bad Grandpa), is about to set right. We follow director Kitao Sakurai’s squad of plucky pranksters — co-writer Eric André, straightman Lil Rel Howery, the prison-tatted Tiffany Haddish, and an eager-to-pitch-in Michaela Conlin — as they wend their way from West Grove, Florida to the Hamptons. The plot, what little there is of one, entails André convincing Howery to steal jailed sister Haddish’s prized pink ride and drive him to New York, where he’ll hook up with high school sweetheart Conlin. Not all of it connects. An acid trip reenactment in a supermarket presents a hurdle, as does a gag involving the least convincing gorilla suit since At the Circus. And the White Chicks tribute that brings down the curtain falls far afield of that old showbiz rubric about saving the best for last. That said, I had to pause several times throughout the movie to wipe the tears from my glasses. 2020. S.M. ★★★

Castle in the Ground — It’s one thing to open up a play for the big screen and another to shut down an original screenplay by turning it into canned theatre. Such is the fate of Joey Klein’s dirty-windshield view of the opioid crisis. Dutiful son Henry (Alex Wolff) begins his day using a spoon to pulverize a bitter pain pill to serve with jam to his dying mother (Neve Campbell). Their relationship is unconventional to say the least. (Who spoons with their mom?) When she does pass on, it’s hinted that Henry may have accidentally overmedicated her on purpose. Do men tend to fall for women who closely resemble their mothers? If so, that’s the only explanation for his attraction to Ana (Imogen Poots), the kooky methadone addict across the hall on whom he spies through the keyhole. The lad isn’t drawn into her world so much as he dives head first into its deep end. The ensuing drug deals and character reversals act to hammer this Castle into the ground. As good as the two leads are, it’s not enough to offset the familiarity. 2019. S.M. ★

Dreamkatcher — After two years of widowerhood, and thinking the time is right for a much-needed getaway, Luke (Henry Thomas) packs Josh (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong), his still-traumatized son and Gail (Radha Mitchell, who also produced), the boy’s replacement mom, into the family roadster and heads to their secluded summer house aka the very spot on which his first wife drowned. Wouldn’t you know it, not only is cell phone transmission spotty, but dad is called back on business, leaving the boy alone to converse with his dead mom and spook the bejesus out of her stand in. Unable to sleep, Josh pockets the titular nightmare-baiter from the general store, and that leaves ample time to send viewers to slumberland. The most bone-chilling aspect of this movie is writer and director Kerry Harris’ belief that audiences will still bolt when a refrigerator door closes to reveal a demonic child behind it. 2020. S.M. ●

The Vast of Night — A round-cornered, black-and-white kinescope opens this resourceful return-to-the-’50’s sci-fi. A pair of small town audio enthusiasts with a newfangled reel-to-reel tape machine in tow — Everett Sloane (Jake Horowitz), a magnetic radio DJ and master of excessive amplitude modulation, and his adoring young switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) — spend a summer night in New Mexico tracking down an otherworldly audio frequency. Dynamic long takes, ‘Scope frames that warrant the title, and crisp night work make Andrew Patterson’s first appearance behind the camera one to remember. (He finds something wonderful in a scene of two characters walking down a street.) One of the few films since COVID-19 hit town that I regret not seeing on a big screen. With the exception of those few moments where, for no explainable reason, Patterson literally leaves his audience in the dark, this is low budget filmmaking at its finest. 2019. S.M. ★★★★

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Possessor: Isn’t that Christopher Abbott behind the warped Andrea Riseborough mask?
Possessor: Isn’t that Christopher Abbott behind the warped Andrea Riseborough mask?

Brandon Cronenberg’s second feature will no doubt confirm those nasty rumors that daddy David set his son on the road to dreamland every night with Videodrome projected on the nursery wall opposite the baby’s crib. With all the omniscient intensity (and some of the uncomfortability) associated with having a mind-altering jumper cable clamped to the medulla oblongata, Possessor leads audiences on a fantastic, at times insanely original voyage through the inwardness of a brain-implant assassin.

Tasya Vos’s (Andrea Riseborough) performed her first “hit” when she was still young enough to experience pangs of guilt — over the butterfly she had killed and mounted. It hardly prepared her for a career in specialized contract killing, a field in which she can turn anyone into an assassin simply by commandeering their bodies and directing them to kill in the name of corporations eager to bear the cost. We open at the conclusion of one such assignment: a tight shot of a woman furrowing through her cornrows in search of the plug that will connect her to a mood regulator.

With the mental tune-up complete, Tasya — operating from beneath a tomography helmet somewhere in another part of town — commands the cocktail waitress to eliminate a partygoer and then take her own life. The first half of the mission is a snap, but when it comes time for the self-offing, Tasya opts for the “death by cop” method of suicide. Star performer that she is, Tasya ignores the mounting toll this type of profession takes on one’s soul. Her controller Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh) agrees to give her time off for good behavior, but Tasya is not one to leave her work at the office: images of the recent stabbing flash across her mind while she performs mechanical sex with her estranged husband. The next victim on the docket is Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), a coke dealer on the verge of marrying well, only to find his wealthy future father-in-law (Sean Bean) is assigning him an entry-level position in the family business. This time, Tasya gets so close to her prey that the mind she now occupies may be her last.

Riseborough has played so many strong, smart women over the past decade (Shadow Dancer, Welcome to the Punch, Nancy) that it’s hard to find an actress working today with more adventurous taste in projects. And Possessor is an adventure — clearly the work of a visionary filmmaker. Even the film’s overall design is an active contributor to the general disquietude of the piece. The chairs in Girder’s office are inconvenient iron wishbones upholstered with evenly-spaced bolster cushions. And even though it’s a mask, there is something about cavorting around in other people’s body parts that has always impressed me as being rather Ed Gien-ish. Though Cronenberg the younger has yet to establish a clinician’s eye of his own, when it comes to basting his frames with “body horror,” the apple not only landed close to the tree, it hit the ground with such force that the limbs began to shudder. And there’s enough explicit sexuality on display to make dad’s sex-in-sedans epic Crash blush.

As stylish as the ride was, we arrived at our final destination with little in the way of a point to the journey. The violence here isn’t meant to disturb the viewer. But Brandon can’t resist the gross-out effects — hacking away at characters as if they were sugar cane plants — needed to mollify a jaded youth market. ★★★

VOD New Release Roundup

Bad Trip — There have never been female Jackasses or Jackasses of color, an oversight that Bad Trip, the latest hidden camera road movie from producer Jeff Tremaine (Bad Grandpa), is about to set right. We follow director Kitao Sakurai’s squad of plucky pranksters — co-writer Eric André, straightman Lil Rel Howery, the prison-tatted Tiffany Haddish, and an eager-to-pitch-in Michaela Conlin — as they wend their way from West Grove, Florida to the Hamptons. The plot, what little there is of one, entails André convincing Howery to steal jailed sister Haddish’s prized pink ride and drive him to New York, where he’ll hook up with high school sweetheart Conlin. Not all of it connects. An acid trip reenactment in a supermarket presents a hurdle, as does a gag involving the least convincing gorilla suit since At the Circus. And the White Chicks tribute that brings down the curtain falls far afield of that old showbiz rubric about saving the best for last. That said, I had to pause several times throughout the movie to wipe the tears from my glasses. 2020. S.M. ★★★

Castle in the Ground — It’s one thing to open up a play for the big screen and another to shut down an original screenplay by turning it into canned theatre. Such is the fate of Joey Klein’s dirty-windshield view of the opioid crisis. Dutiful son Henry (Alex Wolff) begins his day using a spoon to pulverize a bitter pain pill to serve with jam to his dying mother (Neve Campbell). Their relationship is unconventional to say the least. (Who spoons with their mom?) When she does pass on, it’s hinted that Henry may have accidentally overmedicated her on purpose. Do men tend to fall for women who closely resemble their mothers? If so, that’s the only explanation for his attraction to Ana (Imogen Poots), the kooky methadone addict across the hall on whom he spies through the keyhole. The lad isn’t drawn into her world so much as he dives head first into its deep end. The ensuing drug deals and character reversals act to hammer this Castle into the ground. As good as the two leads are, it’s not enough to offset the familiarity. 2019. S.M. ★

Dreamkatcher — After two years of widowerhood, and thinking the time is right for a much-needed getaway, Luke (Henry Thomas) packs Josh (Finlay Wojtak-Hissong), his still-traumatized son and Gail (Radha Mitchell, who also produced), the boy’s replacement mom, into the family roadster and heads to their secluded summer house aka the very spot on which his first wife drowned. Wouldn’t you know it, not only is cell phone transmission spotty, but dad is called back on business, leaving the boy alone to converse with his dead mom and spook the bejesus out of her stand in. Unable to sleep, Josh pockets the titular nightmare-baiter from the general store, and that leaves ample time to send viewers to slumberland. The most bone-chilling aspect of this movie is writer and director Kerry Harris’ belief that audiences will still bolt when a refrigerator door closes to reveal a demonic child behind it. 2020. S.M. ●

The Vast of Night — A round-cornered, black-and-white kinescope opens this resourceful return-to-the-’50’s sci-fi. A pair of small town audio enthusiasts with a newfangled reel-to-reel tape machine in tow — Everett Sloane (Jake Horowitz), a magnetic radio DJ and master of excessive amplitude modulation, and his adoring young switchboard operator Fay (Sierra McCormick) — spend a summer night in New Mexico tracking down an otherworldly audio frequency. Dynamic long takes, ‘Scope frames that warrant the title, and crisp night work make Andrew Patterson’s first appearance behind the camera one to remember. (He finds something wonderful in a scene of two characters walking down a street.) One of the few films since COVID-19 hit town that I regret not seeing on a big screen. With the exception of those few moments where, for no explainable reason, Patterson literally leaves his audience in the dark, this is low budget filmmaking at its finest. 2019. S.M. ★★★★

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