As we are about to shift into October, I’m ready to consume a lot more horror cinema. That said, this has been a good year for low-key genre flicks, and this week is no different. This batch of write-ups includes a sci-fi brain scratcher, a Gloria Steinem biopic, a darkly humorous documentary, an alien invasion film for millennials (or those who hate millennials), and an organ-heavy dark comedy. The following features reviews for Possessor, The Glorias, Dick Johnson is Dead, Save Yourselves!, and 12 Hour Shift.
The Setup: Tasya Vos (Andrea Riseborough) is a corporate assassin who uses brain-implant technology to inhabit other people’s bodies complete assignments with total anonymity. These jobs have taken a heavy toll on her mind, making her latest job inside the mind of a man (Christopher Abbott) her most challenging yet.
Review: I’ve been amused by the “Uncut” label tagged onto Possessor, as the film ramped up its ad campaign. Whether this was to simply highlight how the film has not been altered since its graphic debut at Sundance, or if there’s a more industry-related reason, no one will be confused about whether or not director Brandon Cronenberg (son of David) was willing to go all the way with his premise. I only wish the film had more going on beneath the surface.
That’s not to say Possessor is all style and no substance. This is a movie where I imagine some deep considerations can be made regarding the mental anguish Riseborough’s Tasya is experiencing and what that could say about identity, among other themes. There’s also the underlying idea of extreme corporate espionage and business practices taken to deadly conclusions, speaking to other thoughts on society.
Still, the film never really explores these thoughts. Instead, the viewer is simply hit with the same idea repeatedly, but with more precision and gore, the deeper one goes. That in mind, there is a lot of gore and other grisly material.
Taking a page from his father, Cronenberg revels in the chance to deliver on the body horror surrounding this premise. There is plenty of nightmarish imagery ranging from horrific violence committed to complete missions to literal out-of-body experiences leading to graphic dreams detailing thoughts on how to escape these mind prisons in ways hinted at in the film’s poster. Maybe I’m just used to this kind of material at this point, but this is not a film for the squeamish.
Possessor is the sort of film that will easily find an audience willing to turn it into a cult favorite in the months to come. The effective visual effects and makeup are matched with aggressive yet confident direction, allowing the film to be presented in a manner fitting for a film reliant on its unrelenting aspects. Plus, Sean Bean eventually shows up, allowing the audience to imagine what kind of horrible fate he may meet before the film shows its hand. Possessor never loses control; just be ready for the bloody path it takes.
Where To Watch: Neon will release Possessor (Uncut) in select theaters and drive-ins October 2, 2020.
The Setup: The story of feminist icon Gloria Steinem as seen through the eyes of her as a child in 1940s Ohio up to her later efforts in helping to lead the women’s liberation movement.
Review: It would be great to say co-writers Julie Taymor and Sarah Ruhl managed to adapt Gloria Steinem’s autobiography for the screen in a way defying what we’ve seen in so many other biopics. Sadly, that’s not the case here. Even when matched with the impressive visual innovations that made Taymor’s other films like Across the Universe and Frida into notable efforts bearing an unmistakable signature from the auteur behind them, The Glorias still comes across as unfocused, overlong, and hollow. I have no doubt some will be more affected by seeing what Steinem represents in cinematic form. Still, I can’t deny once again not being won over by the standard traps a biopic falls into.
There actually shouldn’t even necessarily be an issue with a film taking on a particular structure familiar for the biopic were it to be handled better. However, with an admittedly clever conceit bringing four actresses (Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Lulu Wilson, and Ryan Kiera Armstrong) playing Steinem at different ages together on a bus ride, only to have them push forward very obvious metaphors concerning the road they are headed down, it’s hard to find ways to give the film proper credit when it only aspires to do so much.
At least the film’s roughly chronological structure makes good on the section involving Vikander, who has a chance to show Steinem as a character who grows based on what’s taking place around her. During this point in the film, Steinem writes for newspapers and magazines in a “man’s world,” complete with a firsthand look at the frustrations occurring around her. Along with the visuals flourishes working hard to keep the film interesting, these are the times when The Glorias comes together best.
It would have been great to see more from the all-star appearances from various women’s rights figures, which include Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monae), Flo Kennedy (Lorraine Toussaint), Bella Abzug (Bette Midler), Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), and Dolores Huerta (Monica Sanchez). However, even with a lengthy runtime, Steinem’s interactions with these people play more like a chance to press buttons, activating their catchphrases rather than doing anything more substantial with them.
Yes, the actors do what they can with the material. Sure, the production design is top-notch, as one would expect from a Taymor picture. However, it only feels so beneficial when the expected income doesn’t arrive. I can admire the effort to make a biopic for Steinem in a way more interestingly directed than most of the “white guy overcoming adversity” biopics that arrive every awards season. Still, the relatively simplistic and trope-filled storytelling only goes so far.
Where To Watch: Now on digital and streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.
The Setup: Dick Johnson is a retired clinical psychiatrist suffering from dementia. He agrees to allow his daughter, cinematographer and documentarian Kirsten Johnson, to film the later period of his life. Additionally, in sharing a dark sense of humor, the two put together a series of imaginative enactments of Dick’s impending death, as well as a version of his funeral, and a fantastical take on his arrival in heaven.
Review: The key to this film is Dick Johnson. That may sound simple, but it is his welcoming nature and overall good attitude that allows the viewer to accept the macabre proceedings that make up this creative and very entertaining documentary. While we see several elaborate scenarios involving stuntmen, fake blood, and more, it strangely all comes from a good place. This not only matters for the film but for the viewers with deep connections to the situation the Johnson family is in.
With a mother who died from Alzheimer’s disease years prior, there’s something courageous about the way director Johnson has decided to approach her father’s condition head-on for the sake of a very elaborate art project. Part of the film’s success is in the way she makes everything relatable through Dick’s narration, as well as her own. Or course, there’s also the big musical number (or however you may see it) making up the heaven-based sequence.
Seeing a major expression of love through these ridiculous concepts proves to add a level of poignancy to the circumstances, allowing the film to both feel outrageous, as well as intensely personal. It speaks to the way people can look at their parents, let alone what life has to offer when it comes to both time spent on earth and the ways it can be instantly taken away.
Perhaps the best takeaway, aside from getting to know Dick Johnson, is the movie’s way of expressing the idea of embracing death. There is a natural urge to fear death, particularly in America, but Johnson puts forth a feature-length documentary confronting this part of life, with a suggestion to lean into acceptance and examining what it may mean personally, ahead of time. For a film about the end, this is a documentary brimming with life.
Where To Watch: Available on Netflix on October 2, 2020.
The Setup: Su (Sunita Mani) and Jack (John Paul Reynolds) are a Brooklyn couple who decide to take a weekend disconnected. They ditch their phones and head out to a cabin in the wood, only to miss the news of an alien attack, leaving them blissfully unaware of the danger that begins to surround them.
Review: This film features a wonderful premise for an alien invasion movie, designed for the millennial age. The approach to a familiar genre reaches new intriguing lengths thanks to the commentary on how obsessed we are with screens, social media, and other aspects depriving people of physical communication.
The simplicity actually calls to mind A Ghost Story, though directors Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson don’t entirely transcend the material given their sitcom-like approach to filming a majority of the film. However, this doesn’t stop Save Yourselves! from finding a fun balance when visually representing these characters during a slo-mo opening credits sequence or the actual aliens seen on screen.
Getting into the extraterrestrial component, what a wild design these creatures have. Portrayed as colorful furry balls that could be confused with pillows found in a teenager’s room, there’s an inherent sense of deadliness from just the way they stick out. The film eventually delves into just how menacing these creatures are, but plenty of humor comes out of the reactions Su and Jack have before realizing they need an escape plan.
Despite leaning more into the genre-heavy side of things in the back half, Save Yourselves! does get plenty of mileage out of this core concept of a couple recognizing how preoccupied they are with their phones. As a whole, the film does serve as a metaphor for growing into a true relationship, complete with clear communication, and the steps taken to move to greater levels. That it also involves poufy aliens with deadly attacks is just an enjoyable bonus (that’s also kinda terrifying).
Where To Watch: Available in theaters nationwide on October 2, 2020, and on digital October 6, 2020.
The Setup: Set in 1999, Mandy (Angela Bettis) is a drug-addicted nurse at a hospital in Arkansas. She’s also the abettor in a black market organ-trafficking scheme. During a double shift, Mandy’s cousin Regina (Chloe Farnworth) mishandles a kidney delivery, leading into a long night of chaos.
Review: I was certainly happy to walk in blind on this one. Writer/director Brea Grant took a unique approach to what could have been a more horrific concept by adding a high dose of comedy. As a result, while it may come off as a Coen Brothers knock-off, there’s a lot of good fun to have in this gleefully bloody caper.
There’s a really sick sense of humor to help pad out this film, which should be immediately evident as the movie starts, but certainly hammered in by the time wrestler Mick Foley shows up as a crime boss. That said, most of the action takes place at the hospital, only this isn’t Grey’s Anatomy. That said, there’s a welcome amount of realism in the choices for casting, as a hospital’s night staff does seem to consist mainly of overworked (and underpaid) women doing what they can for patients in need while contending with the system in place.
As a result, Bettis shines in the lead role. She’s balancing being tired with the idiocy around her, even if she’s less than on-the-level herself. Having made an impression on horror audiences way back in 2002 in Lucky McKee’s May, this is a role that seems built on the strengths she has to carry a feature, which is matched by a game supporting cast.
Perhaps most notably, based on name recognition, David Arquette co-stars as a possibly dangerous patient, who is only one of the many individuals causing a lot of stress on the actual hospital workers. That in mind, with a film devoted to riffing on the Coens, Re-Animator, and even Sweeney Todd, one can take the time to acknowledge the hard work put into this shift.
Where To Watch: Available in theaters and on VOD on October 2, 2020.