Sci-fi

REVIEW: Possessor

NEON
Rated: R
Run Time: 104 minutes
Director: Brandon Cronenberg

Possessor is a good film. I just can’t think of a single good word to describe it. The strongest word that comes to mind is “violation” because this narrative is built on them. It’s a Black Mirror episode gone horribly wrong–if there could be such a thing. Let that sink in. Possessor is labeled as a sci-fi, horror, psychological thriller. It ticks all of these boxes while remaining thought provoking (hopefully the philosophical or existential kind of thoughts); though, it seems to care more about depicting an act in brutal, excruciating detail than exploring why the act occurred in the first place.

In a near future where the level of technology is just right enough to enable all the wrong things, Andrea Riseborough is cast as Tasya Vos. She’s an assassin who uses the minds and, by extension, bodies of others to perform her work. The method can be taken as a microcosm of the film itself: relatively low-tech and high-concept. The efficiency of such a clandestine operation is really not the point. I believe writer/director Brandon Cronenberg is driving home the concept of violation and boundaries they cross….over and over and over again. It’s not enough to secretly poison a target or simply shoot them. Victims are bludgeoned and maimed and butchered. Here, in Cronenberg’s future, professional assassinations look more like rage or crimes of passion. Close up shots of needle injections and knife wounds are paid as much care as close ups of the actors themselves. One could argue that Vos’ body snatching is no different than a sharp object entering a victim’s body. All are violations. The collateral damage caused by Vos’ various masquerades are emotional violations. All do irreparable damage, but which of these instances is the most morally bankrupt way to do it? Is the Possessor or the host to blame for the savagery of these acts?

Cronenberg’s themes are apparent. Technology has pervaded every nook and cranny of our lives. Our privacy is gone. Secrets are easily laid bare. Social interaction isn’t the same as it was for the previous generation. All of it can be weaponized–is weaponized. This would have been a very different film in different hands. When I say “different” I mean just that. Not “better.” The visual aesthetic is right on the money and some creative visual choices are on display. They lend themselves well to the psychological aspect of the film, because the technology is the means and not the end. The flip side of that coin is the Cronenberg family penchant for body horror. I accept its symbolism only so far because there comes a point where it’s not about “the point” anymore. It becomes about shock and violence and perhaps appeasing the conventions of genre.

Jennifer Jason Leigh and Andrea Riseborough in a scene of Possessor | NEON.

Though Possessor will hopefully elicit some existential questions, I don’t know if a deep analysis is required. That’s not slight to Cronenberg, but more a comment on how committed he is to his message. Peel back the layers and you’re left with a bloody, nihilistic dissection of human nature. I don’t think it has more to say than that. Anyone familiar with sci-fi knows the hidden dystopia that’s configured underneath the surface of society. It often operates parallel to everyday life, giving you the good things while hoping you forget the toll it can exact upon you. Possessor will be a challenging watch because I see it as the opposite. There’s great art and an interesting premise, but you will feel every bit of the transaction. Some of you will find this film right down your alley. Some of you will find it difficult. I say err on the side of the challenge.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

ROUNDTABLE REVIEW: Tenet

*Editor’s note: Today’s review will be the first of its kind on Backseat Directors. Since our writers’ opinions of TENET varied quite a bit we decided to give each of them an opportunity to share their experience and thoughts of the movie. Each writer was given one paragraph to share their quick thoughts. For a more in-depth (spoiler-filled) discussion of TENET, go listen to Ep. 113 of the Backseat Directors Podcast.

Warner Bros. Pictures | Rated: PG-13 | Run Time: 150 minutes | Director: Christopher Nolan

Parker Johnson: One thing that made the movie so enjoyable for me was seeing Kenneth Branaugh as a villain. Most of the time I’m used to either seeing him as the protagonist, a mentor figure, or Gilderory Lockheart. I was impressed by the range of emotions his character went through, and how his character genuinely believed he was in the right–even in the act of doing awful things. There’s one scene in the movie where he flies into a rage that made me more tense in a movie then I’ve been for years. Bravo sir, bravo. 

Recommendation: Go See It!

Rachel Wagner: There will be some people who try and paint those of us who did not enjoy Tenet as simpletons unwilling to embrace risky filmmaking. I would ask those people to consider what their own basic demands for a film are? For me, it’s engaging characters, interesting story, and coherent dialogue. Tenet failed at all 3 of these requirements. The characters for the most part were flat with little backstory or depth to their roles. The story was difficult to follow and overwhelmed by a loud blaring score and very choppy editing, and the dialogue was frequently unintelligible. If I literally can’t understand what the characters are saying because of the bizarre sound mix choices it doesn’t matter how great the visuals and action are. In fact, it only makes me more frustrated that such craft and spectacle is wasted in a self-indulgent slog. I have always been a fan of director Christopher Nolan, even in his more divisive films like Interstellar (2014) or The Dark Knight Rises (2012), but he deliberately made choices in Tenet to ostracize his audience from the picture and make it an overall unpleasant experience. Especially having such a yearning for a big blockbuster on the IMAX I wanted to love what he offered in Tenet, but I did not.

Recommendation: NO GO

The Formal Review: Nolan uses numerous scientific theories and the ROTAS palindromic square in a very ambitious and ingenious way. He is able take those ideas and stage them via action sequences that run backward and forward through time simultaneously. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema gives some amazing scenes that make a James Bond film look low key. Ludwig Göransson’s score is very Hans Zimmer like, and it is a thunderstorm. The film has Nolan trying to outdo the espionage film genre by making his own filled with speedboats, glamorous locations, and a lot of crisp suits. Each actor does a good job at playing their roles with Washington and Branaugh being the standouts. The former is able to be like his father while also establishing himself as a lead man. The latter is no surprise as he is a Shakespearean actor and he can do almost any role. The film does have some issues with dialogue being muffled and it feels too short for the complexities it tackles. This can make the film feel confusing, and maybe subtitles would have been beneficial. The character development and Nolan’s treatment of his female characters could be better. For better or worse, this movie has Nolan trying to outdo himself, and each viewer will decide if he is successful. In short, it is in the top tier of Nolan films; go see it! The best experience would be in a theatre with the best audio possible like Dolby Cinema. Any other thoughts would involve spoilers and a full analysis will be coming later.

Recommendation: Go See It!

Rachel Ogden: With Hollywood plagued by a one-time-watch epidemic, director Christopher Nolan has created something you can’t possibly grasp without multiple viewings. Every choice is a gesture of faith in the audience; faith that we will do our best to keep up and that we’ll come back for more. The dialogue moves as fast as John David Washington runs, and the content is cerebrally ambitious without losing the thrill of the ride. Rather than be intimidated, I think you should be excited; just don’t get hung up on what you don’t understand and enjoy what you do. Though I’m only on my first viewing, I wouldn’t be surprised if TENET became my favorite Nolan movie.

Recommendation: Go See It!

André Hutchens: As it goes with every Christopher Nolan film (it seems), TENET was one of the most, if not THE most highly anticipated film of 2020. Coronavirus pandemic be damned, there was no stopping this film from debuting in actual movie theaters, and allowing audiences worldwide the opportunity to experience the latest Nolan film the way every Nolan film should be experienced. Perhaps his most complex and intellectually challenging movie yet, Nolan has crafted a unique and bold movie that will be discussed in social circles for months (and maybe years) to come. TENET presents time-travel like no other movie before it, which will require the intent concentration and focus of its audience. John David Washington is a star in the making, and Robert Pattinson’s role only helps to build my excitement for his next project as Bruce Wayne in The Batman (2021). Other than a few scenes that really struggled to properly sound mix the audio and I was unable to understand the dialogue, this movie is a must see in theaters. See TENET in IMAX if you can; this movie deserves that kind of spectacle.

Recommendation: Go See It!

REVIEW: The New Mutants

20th Century Studios
Rated: PG-13
Run Time: 94 minutes
Director: Josh Boone

  The New Mutants release date has become something of a joke as of late. Between the rumors of reshoots, the confusion between the Disney/Fox merger, and delays because of the Corona Virus- The New Mutants seemed to be cursed. But against all odds, it ended up being one of the first new movies to be released in 2020. Being a fan of the X-Men films, and of Anya-Taylor Joy and Maisie Williams in particular, I was eagerly awaiting this film for two years, and I leapt with joy when I finally got to see it in theaters.

My Quibbles

  The New Mutants has been described by its director as “John Hughes meets Stephen King”–a combination of the horror and coming of age genre. This hybrid is nothing new with shows like Stranger Things and the It movies. So having some of the X-Men set in this kind of environment is such a great idea for a film. However, The New Mutants fails to do something that is absolutely vital in order for a horror movie to succeed: establish the scare.

In the beginning of every horror movie you need to establish what we should be frightened of–whether it be a setting (like a haunted house), a supernatural entity (like a ghost or demon), or a specific person. Once we establish the scare, we are then able to increase tension until the final confrontation or twist.

The first two acts are really weakened because we are shown scares without it connected to anything. Frightening events happen with seemingly no connectivity until the final act.  We are unable to determine if we should be wary of the hospital our characters are in, the director of said hospital, or one of the characters in the hospital. If we had any lead (even a false lead) we could have been more engaged with the scares instead of just randomly jumping from horror scene to horror scene.

Blu Hunt in a scene of The New Mutants | 20th Century Studios.

What I Liked

Relationships: Despite the lack of a proper horror establishment, what kept me interested in the first two acts was the relationships between our characters.

One of the main themes of this movie is how we deal with trauma in our lives and how we each cope with it in our own specific way. Illyana (played by Anya-Taylor Joy) lashes out in anger and sarcasm and is an absolute joy to watch as she learns to open up to her eventual friends. The stand out relationship of the movie is between Dani (played by Blu Hunt) and Rahne (played by Game of Thrones standout Maisie Williams). Rahne offers a really interesting dynamic as she is a person of faith while dealing with the burden of being a mutant. Her positivity during the whole movie was so charming and filled with warmth, and her romance with Dani was so genuine and heartfelt. These characters make the movie, and without these actors giving their all to these roles, the movie definitely wouldn’t have been as good as it was.

Scares: I personally am not frightened by the typical loud jumpscare-noise-thing that infects most of the horror movies Hollywood churns out. I get startled, I jump in my seat, and then I move on. What really gets under my skin is when the scary thing is disturbing and/or specifically relates to a trauma that the characters go through .The latter is what the film chooses to employ. The CGI isn’t anything to write home about, but boy does it know how to pack a gut punch. I audibly gasped “oh crap” when it was revealed what the “smile creatures” shown  in the trailers actually were. And the shower scene shown in the trailer? Terrifying. You don’t have to have the best gory effects, or have something jump out at you every ten minutes for it to be effective. Maybe the real scares are the trauma we made along the way.

Final Tribute: There is no end credit scene, but there is something else fans can look forward to. Bill Sienkiewicz, who originally worked on the “Demon Bear Saga” (the story this film is based on) in the comics drew a portrait of each of the actors in character, which were displayed over the end credits. It was a beautiful tribute to the last X-Men movie we will get from Fox… excuse me… 20th Century Studios.

Final Thoughts

The New Mutants  is a fun and heartwarming  mashup of the best parts of  Glass (2019) and the It movies. Was it worth the two year wait? Honestly, it was for me. It wasn’t the greatest movie ever made, but it certainly doesn’t belong down at the bottom of the mutant list with X-Men Origins (2009) and Dark Phoenix (2019). Booth has created a solid mid-tier horror coming of age tale that should satisfy X-Men fans and young horror fans alike. I know I look forward to having this movie on my shelf and re-watching it whenever I need a fun spooky movie to watch.

Recommendation: Go See It!

REVIEW: Project Power

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 114 minutes
Directors: Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman

Project Power is a superhero film directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. It stars Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Colson Baker, Rodrigo Santoro, Amy Landecker, Courtney B. Vance, and Allen Maldonado.

The Story & Direction

Living in New Orleans has never been easy for Robin (Dominique Fishback). She has been forced to sell these pills to help with her uninsured mom’s medical bills. As a safety precaution, she works with police officer Frank (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). In exchange for protection, she gives him Power pills to give him an edge against the city’s criminals. This relationship and Robin’s dealings become more complicated when Art (Jamie Foxx), a former soldier comes into town and takes down dealers to find the source of the drugs. If one takes a pill, they could self-immolate on the spot or they get powers for five minutes with each person’s abilities being different. This variety of powers allow for some fun and entertaining action sequences. The film even tries to touch on the nation’s history with drugs, health care, and experimentation, especially on it’s poorer communities and people of color.  Because this city is dealing with problems post-Hurricane Katrina, having someone releasing this drug into poor communities one can understand how this would lead to total chaos. As such, New Orleans feels like the perfect location for this film because it allows for the characters to feel grounded.

The Characters

One of the best things about New Orleans is its people, and this film takes place in all the  recognizable downtown areas to residential neighborhoods. This movement through the city helps make the characters more relatable. Frank is a cop who loves New Orleans so much that he is willing to try the product tearing apart his city, but also wears a NFL Saints jersey while on the job. Robin is told that because she is a woman of color an education is the only way to make it in the world, but she struggles in school. Art is only trying to get back his daughter or maybe something more sinister. While Foxx, Gordon-Levitt, and Fishback all perform very well in their roles and really make the film better than it should be, the writing is where this film suffers.

Jamie Foxx appears in a scene of Project Power | Photo credit: Skip Bolen. NETFLIX © 2020

The Flaws

One of the biggest issues with Project Power is that it unfortunately falls into a lot of cliche material, especially in the villain portions. One even ends up being a “mad scientist” type surrounded by a bunch of goons who take the pill before attacking the heroes in the finale. While the main characters feel grounded, they are not much more than what is described above. There’s not a lot of development to them aside from what one would come to expect from a film such as this. Furthermore, the message that it attempts to tackle doesn’t seem thought out fully, and some of the action sequences are edited poorly which can make them a little hard to follow.

Overall

Project Power isn’t as deep of a movie as it tries to be, and it’s one that likely will not get a sequel. However, the characters are played well by their respective actors and they are worth rooting for in this fairly fun film. As with a lot of Netflix’s action films (e.g. The Old Guard and Bright), there’s enough in the film to keep it interesting for its runtime. It’s not the best film put out by Netflix but it’s not really trying to be. One’s reaction to the film will go along with those taking the pills. They will either explode with anger or find some enjoyable qualities that do not make it a hard swallow. Both are understandable reactions when it comes to this film. The ideas are there for a good film even though it’s not as good as it could have been. It is worth checking out if you’re looking for a new and entertaining film with decent acting and action sequences.

Project Power is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

REVIEW: The Old Guard

NETFLIX
Rated: R
Run Time: 125 minutes
Director: Gina Prince-Bythewood

The Old Guard is a superhero film directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Greg Rucka. It is adapted from Rucka’s comic book of the same name. The film stars Charlize Theron, KiKi Layne, Matthias Schoenaerts, Marwan Kenzari, Luca Marinelli, Harry Melling, and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

The Story & Direction

The Old Guard tells the story of a small group of vigilante warriors who all share a special ability, and attempt to use that ability to make the world a better and safer place. Our “superhero” team is led by the fearless Andy (Charlize Theron), along with three others who are extremely skilled in the art of combat. But what is the one superpower they all share? …Immortality. Almost every time that Andy and her team are shot, blown up, stabbed, fall from great heights, or are injured in any way, they are able to heal and recover—to the surprise of their attackers. This film was advertised as an over-the-top action film, which director Prince-Bythewood definitely delivers. The action is fast, fierce, and isn’t filled with excessive CGI aspects. The film is about the characters and their extended lifelong journey together.

The Characters

Aside from the obvious star aspect, Theron’s Andy is the one in charge because she has been alive the longest. We aren’t given her exact age, but she has been around “long enough” to have more life experience than her teammates. Her team is made up of partners Joe (Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (Luca Marinelli) who met interestingly on opposite sides of the Crusades. They are joined by Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts) who found the others during the Napoleonic Wars. They all have died and come back multiple times and lost a lot of people along the way. They have even lost other immortal team members. You may ask, “How is that possible when they are immortal?” The answer is what makes this story very compelling as it adds a very vulnerable aspect to these “superheroes.” To say what it is would be entering spoiler territory; however, it does allow for someone to watch this intriguing film all the way through—even if the story is somewhat familiar. Theron is definitely the standout and continues to show that she is a chameleon in Hollywood. Her acting in The Old Guard shows her character’s age and wisdom. Her experience has shown that the world hasn’t changed very much and any good she has done may have been in vain.

Charlize Theron and other cast members in a scene of The Old Guard | NETFLIX.

The team finds a new immortal, Nile (KiKi Layne), whom they have to convince of their powers and her own. Nile develops a bond with Andy and their relationship is a good one to follow throughout the film. Layne, mostly known for her work in 2018’s If Beale Street Could Talk, provides a funny (at times) and heartfelt performance. However, Theron’s and Layne’s performances aren’t able to fully elevate the movie’s (somewhat) unoriginal story.

The Flaws

This film’s plot is not a unique one, even though it is decent enough to keep most viewers entertained. Each major plot point is fairly predictable and some of its attempted ethical aspects are not executed well. For example, Andy’s team sees themselves as an intervention force similar to that of DC Comics’ League of Shadows. They kill people when it is absolutely needed, but their newest recruit Nile does not approve of their methods. They are “saving” people by killing others. It’s contradictory but because this film’s biggest draw is its action sequences, this ethical dilemma seems glossed over; also there are some parts of the film that feel drawn out and could have been cut. In addition, the villain is fairly cliche, even though it tries to modernize a younger villain within a pharmaceutical company. Merrick is over-the-top at times but Melling does act his part well. It almost feels that this role is Dudley Dursley from the Harry Potter series who grew up and became successful. 

Cast members appear in a scene of The Old Guard | Netflix.

Overall

Even with these issues, The Old Guard does build a very interesting world, and the characters are intriguing enough to watch… With perhaps future sequels. Theron is an amazing star that continues to shine in this film, even if it is slightly unoriginal. You don’t need to rush to watch it, but it’s definitely worth watching if you have some free time for a decent action film. The Old Guard is streaming exclusively on Netflix.

Recommendation: STREAM IT

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