There is something particularly unnerving about demon possession. It's the idea of something you can't see or control creeping into your body and taking up residence eventually obliterating all you once were and turning you into nothing more than a sack of meat to be manipulated. Then there's also the shrouded ritual around exorcisms: the Latin chants the flesh-sizzling crucifixes and the burning Holy Water. As it turns out exorcism isn't just the domain of Catholics.
The myths and legends of the Jews aren't nearly as well known but their creepy dybbuk goes toe-to-toe with anything other world religions come up with. There are various interpretations of what a dybbuk is or where it comes from — is it a ghost a demon a soul of a sinner? — but in any case it's looking for a body to hang out in for a while. Especially according to the solemn Hasidic Jews in The Possession an innocent young person and even better a young girl.
The central idea in The Possession is that a fancy-looking wooden box bought at a garage sale was specifically created to house a dybbuk that was tormenting its previous owner. Unfortunately it caught the eye of young Emily (Natasha Calis) a sensitive artistic girl who persuades her freshly divorced dad Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Watchmen and Grey's Anatomy) to buy it for her. Never mind the odd carvings on it — that would be Hebrew — or how it's created without seams so it would be difficult to open or why it's an object of fascination for a young girl; Clyde is trying really hard to please his disaffected daughters and do the typical freshly divorced parent dance of trying to please them no matter the cost.
Soon enough the creepy voices calling to Emily from the box convince her to open it up; inside are even creepier personal objects that are just harbingers of what's to come for her her older sister Hannah (Madison Davenport) her mom Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick) and even Stephanie's annoying new boyfriend Brett (Grant Show). Clyde and Stephanie squabble over things like pizza for dinner and try to convince each other and themselves that Emily's increasingly odd behavior is that of a troubled adolescent. It's not of course and eventually Clyde enlists the help of the son of a Hasidic rabbi a young man named Tzadok played by the former Hasidic reggae musician Matisyahu to help them perform an exorcism on Emily.
The Possession is not going to join the ranks of The Exorcist in the horror pantheon but it does do a remarkable job of making its characters intelligent and even occasionally droll and it offers up plenty of chills despite a PG-13 rating. Perhaps it's because of that rating that The Possession is so effective; the filmmakers are forced to make the benign scary. Giant moths and flying Torahs take the place of little Reagan violently masturbating with a crucifix in The Exorcist. Gagging and binging on food is also an indicator of Emily's possession — an interesting twist given the anxieties of becoming a woman a girl Emily's age would face. There is something inside her controlling her and she knows it and she is fighting it. The most impressive part of Calis's performance is how she communicates Emily's torment with a few simple tears rolling down her face as the dybbuk's control grows. The camerawork adds to the anxiety; one particularly scary scene uses ordinary glass kitchenware to great effect.
The Possession is a short 92 minutes and it does dawdle in places. It seems as though some of the scenes were juggled around to make the PG-13 cut; the moth infestation scene would have made more sense later in the movie. Some of the problems are solved too quickly or simply and yet it also takes a while for Clyde's character to get with it. Stephanie is a fairly bland character; she makes jewelry and yells at Clyde for not being present in their marriage a lot and then there's a thing with a restraining order that's pretty silly. Emily is occasionally dressed up like your typical horror movie spooky girl with shadowed eyes an over-powdered face and dark clothes; it's much more disturbing when she just looks like an ordinary though ill young girl. The scenes in the heavily Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn look oddly fake and while it's hard to think of who else could have played Tzadok an observant Hasidic Jew who is also an outsider willing to take risks the others will not Matisyahu is not a very good actor. Still the filmmakers should be commended for authenticity insofar as Matisyahu has studied and lived as a Hasidic Jew.
It would be cool if Lionsgate and Ghost House Pictures were to release the R-rated version of the movie on DVD. What the filmmakers have done within the confines of a PG-13 rating is creepy enough to make me curious to see the more adult version. The Possession is no horror superstar and its name is all too forgettable in a summer full of long-gestating horror movies quickly pushed out the door. It's entertaining enough and could even find a broader audience on DVD. Jeffrey Dean Morgan can read the Old Testament to me any time.
Last year director Garry Marshall hit upon a devilishly canny approach to the romantic comedy. A more polished refinement of Hal Needham’s experimental Cannonball Run method it called for assembling a gaggle of famous faces from across the demographic spectrum and pairing them with a shallow day-in-the-life narrative packed with gobs of gooey sentiment. A cynical strategy to be sure but one that paid handsome dividends: Valentine’s Day earned over $56 million in its opening weekend surpassing even the rosiest of forecasts. Buoyed by the success Marshall and his screenwriter Katherine Fugate hastily retreated to the bowels of Hades to apply their lucrative formula to another holiday historically steeped in romantic significance and New Year’s Eve was born.
Set in Manhattan on the last day of the year New Year’s Eve crams together a dozen or so canned scenarios into one bloated barely coherent mass of cliches. As before Marshall’s recruited an impressive ensemble of minions to do his unholy bidding including Oscar winners Hilary Swank Halle Berry and Robert De Niro the latter luxuriating in a role that didn’t require him to get out of bed. High School Musical’s Zac Efron is paired up with ‘80s icon Michelle Pfeiffer – giving teenage girls and their fathers something to bond over – while Glee’s Lea Michele meets cute with a pajama-clad Ashton Kutcher. There’s Katherine Heigl in a familiar jilted-fiance role Sarah Jessica Parker as a fretful single mom and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges as the most laid-back cop in New York. Sofia Vergara and Hector Elizondo mine for cheap laughs with thick accents – his fake and hers real – and Jessica Biel and Josh Duhamel deftly mix beauty with blandness. Fans of awful music will delight in the sounds of Jon Bon Jovi straining against type to play a relevant pop musician.
The task of interweaving the various storylines is too great for Marshall and New Year’s Eve bears the distinct scent and stain of an editing-room bloodbath with plot holes so gaping that not even the brightest of celebrity smiles can obscure them. But that’s not the point – it never was. You should know better than to expect logic from a film that portrays 24-year-old Efron and 46-year-old Parker as brother-and-sister without bothering to explain how such an apparent scientific miracle might have come to pass. Marshall wagers that by the time the ball drops and the film’s last melodramatic sequence has ended prior transgressions will be absolved and moviegoers will be content to bask in New Year's Eve's artificial glow. The gambit worked for Valentine's Day; this time he may not be so fortunate.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.
The house has been brought down again.
The Queen Latifah/Steve Martin comedy Bringing Down the House stayed at number one for the second week in a row with a $22.4 million* haul.
The new kids on the block were not too far behind. The 'tween actioner Agent Cody Banks opened at No. 2 with $15 million and the knife-driven thriller The Hunted came in third place with $13.5 million, while the creepy rat movie Willard scurried into eighth place with $4 million.
Last week's war-torn opener Tears of the Sun slipped from its No. 2 spot to fourth place at $8.8 million, while the musical Chicago rounded out the top five with a hefty $7.7 million.
THE TOP TEN
Buena Vista's PG-13 Bringing Down the House laughed to the bank once again with an ESTIMATED $22.4 million (-28%) in 2,801 theaters ($7,997 per theater). Its cume is approximately $61.6 million, which means moviegoers apparently do want to see a ghetto fabulous gal from the 'hood turn an uptight white guy's life upside down.
Directed by Adam Shankman, it stars Steve Martin, Queen Latifah, Eugene Levy and Joan Plowright.
MGM's junior spy movie aimed directly at the highly profitable 10-13 age group, the PG-rated Agent Cody Banks, debuted in second place with an ESTIMATED $15 million at 3,369 theaters ($4,452 per theater).
The film centers on a typical teenager who loves to skateboard, hates math and feels like a complete idiot around girls. But Cody Banks differs from other teens in one big way: He's actually a junior CIA agent out to save the world--and of course, a girl.
Directed by Harald Zwart, it stars Frankie Muniz, Hilary Duff and Angie Harmon.
Taking a look at the flip side of what being a government agent is really like, Paramount Pictures' dark R-rated thriller The Hunted opened at No. 3 with an ESTIMATED $13.5 million at 2,516 theaters ($5,366 per theater).
The story follows a Special Forces assassin trained in the use of knives who goes off the deep end and must be stopped by the agent who taught him to be a killing machine.
Directed by William Friedkin, it stars Tommy Lee Jones, Benicio Del Toro and Connie Nielsen.
Sony Pictures' R-rated Tears of the Sun fell from last week's No. 2 spot to No. 4 with an ESTIMATED $8.8 million (-48%) at 2,973 theaters ($2,960 per theater). With a highly patriotic theme about an elite Navy SEAL team sent in to rescue a American doctor and the Nigerian village she's taking care of, its cume is approximately $30.8 million.
Directed by Antoine Fuqua, it stars Bruce Willis and Monica Bellucci.
Riding high on some serious awards buzz after winning several Screen Actors Guild honors, Miramax Films' PG-13 Chicago slipped one notch to fifth place with an ESTIMATED $7.7 million but still managed to gain 13 percent more in box office totals than last week. The film played in 2,600 theaters ($2,966 per theater) and now in its 12th week has a cume of approximately $125.4 million.
Directed by Rob Marshall, it stars Renee Zellweger, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Richard Gere.
Sixth place belonged to the R-rated DreamWorks laffer Old School, which dropped three spots from last week with an ESTIMATED $6.8 million (-26%) in 2,452 theaters (-255 theaters; $2,773 per theater). The comedy about a trio of former college buds who start their own off-campus fraternity has accumulated approximately $60.9 million so far.
Directed by Todd Phillips, it stars Luke Wilson, Will Farrell and Vince Vaughn.
Romance still makes it up there on the top ten list as Paramount's PG-13 How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days dropped from fifth to seventh place with an ESTIMATED $4.8 million (-28%) in 2,430 theaters (-467 theaters; $1,988 per theater). Now in its sixth week, the film's cume is approximately $93.8 million.
Directed by Donald Petrie, it stars Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey.
*Box office estimates provided by Exhibitor Relations, Inc.
New Line Cinema's ratty PG-13 Willard debuted at No. 8 with an ESTIMATED $4 million at 1,761 theaters ($2,286 per theater).
A loosely based remake of the 1971 cult classic, the story revolves around a timid introvert who can psychically command his whiskered, four-legged friends to do whatever he wants--including "tearing up" some of his enemies. Blech.
Directed by Glen Morgan, it stars Crispin Glover, R. Lee Ermey and Laura Elena Harring.
20th Century Fox's PG-13 comic-book actioner Daredevil shimmied its way down from seventh to ninth place with an ESTIMATED $3.040 million (-42%) at 2,054 theaters (-724 theaters; $1,480 per theater). In its fifth week, the film's cume is approximately $96 million.
Directed by Mark Steven Johnson, it stars Ben Affleck, Jennifer Garner, Colin Farrell and Michael Clarke Duncan.
Barely coming in under Daredevil was Warner Bros. R-rated Cradle 2 the Grave, which dropped four spots to take 10th place with an ESTIMATED $3.003 million (-54%) at 2,150 theaters (-475 theaters; $1,397 per theater). The high-octane actioner's cume is approximately $31.7 million.
Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak, it stars DMX, Jet Li, Gabrielle Union, Anthony Anderson and Tom Arnold.
Fox Searchlight's PG-13 Bend It Like Beckham, which was a huge hit in Britain last year, opened in limited U.S. release with an ESTIMATED $151,717 in 6 theaters ($25,286 per theater).
The film follows the aspirations of a young Indian girl living in London whose only desire is to play soccer--even if it means going against her traditional family's wishes.
Directed Gurinder Chadha, it stars Parminder Nagra, Keira Knightley and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
This weekend's top 12 films grossed $93.3 million, down 1.33 percent from last weekend's take of $94.5 million, as well as down 22 percent from the $120 million of the same weekend last year.
Last year's top grossers were all newcomers: 20th Century Fox's Ice Age opened at No. 1 with a whopping $46.3 million (3,316 theaters; $13,966 per theater) while Sony's Resident Evil came in second with $17.7 million (2,528 theaters; $7,004 per theater) and Warner's Showtime in third with $15 million (2,917 theaters; $5,146 per theater).