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.
The Painted Veil is based on W. Somerset Maugham’s 1925 novel about British colonialism in China. The film's cohesion is largely helped by a user-friendly script from Ron Nyswaner (Philadelphia) who tackles amorphous movie-unfriendly themes like emotional longing. We meet Walter Fane (Edward Norton) a lovesick middle-class bacteriologist who spots Kitty (Naomi Watts) an upper-class socialite approaching the upper limits of marrying age at a party. Walter not smooth with women woos Kitty with his intensity and persuades her to join him in cholera-stricken China. With a wandering eye Kitty is soon caught in a lusty affair with a local British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber) but Walter eventually forgives her but imprisons her in the desolate green south China countryside. The film's crucial problem is its setting of a Western-centric love story on top of a palette of Chinese human death and disease albeit framed beautifully and exotically. Norton and Watts take producers' credits as well. The actor pushed for years to get The Painted Veil made painstakingly and authentically co-produced with the China Film Board. These facts hint at the commitment and intelligence Oscar nominees Norton and Watts bring. Norton always impresses and surprises. Each role in his resume is tasty in its own way a wholly new creation and never derivative. In Norton's previous film The Illusionist he was a similarly powerful opaque character from a far away time and place. Although sometimes seeming she’s on autopilot Watts is also brilliantly underrated as the conflicted Kitty who doesn't love the man she married even though he loves her as much as she loves herself. Her tricky darting eyes mixed with uneasy body language tells us we don't know what to expect other than that she'll probably sabotage herself. Toby Jones--who played Truman Capote to critics' acclaim in Infamous--does a provocative turn as the mysterious opium-smoking neighbor. The Painted Veil falls short of greatness when the second half crumbles into laziness right when the emotional impact should be the strongest. Director John Curran is relatively untested ( We Don't Live Here Anymore) especially with difficult material and he stumbles a bit in this ambitious drama. Veil's storytelling meanders with a few unnecessary scenes. Lame mini-montages lapse into TV movie territory. Attention to detail however (minus Norton's highlighted hair) is superb. Four exquisite wisely picked Chinese locations were used in concert with local actors and crew to produce an internationally representative work of Chinese/American art. Interior sets are post-WWI prudish and upper-class underlying the movie's "painted " hidden ideas. Old-world rickshaws and water systems are true to the time. The haunting soundtrack feels postmodern and contemporary. But overall like last year's disappointing Memoirs of a Geisha the mish-mash of American and Asian story themes doesn't quite work.
Scooby and the gang at Mystery Inc.--Fred (Freddie Prinze Jr.) Daphne (Sarah Michelle Gellar) Velma (Linda Cardellini) and Shaggy (Matthew Lillard)--are at the top of their game and just about everyone in Coolsville loves them. Even the Coolsonian Museum is honoring them with an exhibit--a costumed display of Mystery Inc.'s former foes such as The Pterodactyl Ghost The Black Knight Ghost and The 10 000 Volt Ghost. Yet at the museum's gala opening the team's stellar reputation is put in serious jeopardy when said monsters come alive re-created by a masked villain who vows to bring Mystery Inc. down. Under pressure from relentless reporter Heather Jasper-Howe (Alicia Silverstone) the gang launches an investigation into the monster outbreak but as the mystery deepens Mystery Inc.'s members end up questioning their roles within the organization. Can macho leader Fred and image-conscious Daphne look past the superficial and find the identity of the Evil Masked Figure? Will brainy Velma let her feelings for Coolsonian Museum curator Patrick Wisely (Seth Green) blossom even though he is a key suspect? And finally can Shaggy and Scooby stop cowering--and eating--long enough to prove they can be detectives? These are tough times for the gang but they've got to pull it together so they can solve the mystery and save the day.
Even though it seems a little ridiculous that Scooby-Doo 2's fleshed-out cartoon characters would try to dig deep to find answers within the returning actors continue to have fun exploring their alter-Scooby-egos. Prinze's Fred has a hipper haircut this time (the original matted blond 'do had to go) and isn't quite the braggart he once was. He is still unquestionably the "face" of the group until he is made to look foolish by the ruthless Heather played with relish by Silverstone who shines in the bad-girl role. Gellar has definitely dropped Daphne's "damsel-in-distress" routine getting all Buffy on the monsters but is still worried that its her looks not her skills that get her attention. Cardellini's Velma on the other hand gets a love interest--and even all dolled up at one point--but can't get rid of her inherent geekiness. It's Shaggy and Scooby who experience the biggest revelation realizing they really are nothing but giant screw-ups. Lillard actually turns in some (and I can't believe I'm actually saying this) poignant moments as Shag grapples with his inequities. They all realize in the end though that for the good of Mystery Inc. it's best to be true to yourself. Thank god.
Director Raja Gosnell goes full throttle in his second Scooby effort with more action and more elaborate theme-parky sets than the original. Even as the characters pause to reflect on their faults these moments are thankfully short-lived before the gang is thrust into another wild chase or fight sequence keeping the kiddies' minds occupied--and allowing the adult fans to laugh at all the monsters they remember from the TV show. One of the criticisms from the first Scooby-Doo was that it didn't provide enough "inside" jokes for the grown-up enthusiasts (and face it there are probably more of them than kids). But Scooby-Doo 2 harkens back to the good old days and even pokes fun at all those criminals whose evil plans and ghost disguises were foiled by the meddlesome quintet. They all gather at their own watering hole called the Faux Ghost where they can throw darts at pictures of the Mystery Inc. gang. Funny stuff. Overall the sequel provides the same madcap fun the original did without requiring the use of too much brainpower.