Converting “The Exorcist” to Judaism, “The Possession” might be Hollywood’s first horror film to find its avenging hero in a Brooklyn shul.
The film so knowingly echoes William Friedkin’s 1973 demonic masterpiece that calling it derivative is pointless.
But Ole Bornedal, the stylish Swedish director of 1997’s terrific “Nightwatch,” also picks up Friedkin’s less-imitated traits, from a slowly paced escalation of supernatural takeover to credible performances from a committed cast.
Unfortunately, with a few booming exceptions, he missed the frights.
Eleven-year-old Em (Natasha Calis) is a sweet, animal-loving vegetarian quietly depressed over the recent divorce of her parents (Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Kyra Sedgwick).
During a weekend at dad’s new house, Em makes a yard-sale discovery of a seemingly unopenable wooden box carved with Hebrew writing. The thing speaks to her -- and not in the usual way of must-have bargains.
Soon enough, the dybbuk inside has transformed Em into a moody, kohl-eyed nightmare. We know she’s not just another Goth when she starts spewing moths and causing mom’s new boyfriend (Grant Show) to lose his teeth.
Onward to Borough Park, Brooklyn, the Hasidic community where Em’s dad finds Tzadok, a sympathetic rabbi’s son (played by the Hasidic rap and reggae performer Matisyahu) who agrees to an exorcism.
You know the rest, though writers Juliet Snowden and Stiles White push “Possession” off the “Exorcist” track in one surprising way, setting up a potential sequel. Here’s hoping Bornedal hasn’t seen “Exorcist 2: The Heretic.”
“The Possession,” from Lionsgate, is playing across the country. Rating: ** (Evans)
“The Ambassador,” a grinning documentary by the Danish journalist Mads Brugger, wallows in the corruption of a failed African state.
Brugger shows how he was able to purchase Liberian diplomatic credentials (all it takes, he says, is money) that gave him the access to make shady deals with diamond-mining interests in the Central African Republic.
To make it all more ridiculous, he swaggers around doing a Hunter S. Thompson-esque impersonation of a rich white bwana, complete with cigarette holder. He talks like a jackass, but unlike Sacha Baron Cohen, he greases the palms of the bozos he’s secretly filming.
I’d love to know how much the movie cost. (It was financed by Lars von Trier’s production company, Zentropa.) Enormous sums of money -- 15 million francs! -- appear to change hands; no one mentions that one Central African Republic franc is valued at about $0.0019. Still, those sums mount up.
Brugger claims to be building a match factory that will employ the indigent pygmy population.
“I was giving these people a false sense of hope,” he concedes; but he adds by way of justification that in Africa “diplomats do this every day.”
The shots of deceived pygmies struggling to learn matchmaking skills don’t quite fit the movie’s overall tone of jokey absurdism.
In one sequence, the nitwit bwana tries to “bond” with his pygmy assistants by playing these landlocked tribesmen tapes of whale calls. Brugger serves up their blank, bewildered looks as though he were filming a comedy sketch.
I wouldn’t call him racist. He isn’t mocking them for being black but for being ignorant and poor.
So: Brugger immersed himself in the ecology of corruption, bribing the venal and hoodwinking the naive, in order to demonstrate -- what? That corruption is rampant in failed African states? That’s news?
“The Ambassador,” from Drafthouse Films, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: *1/2 (Seligman)
“The Good Doctor”
Technique isn’t everything. The crumminess of ’40s and ’50s B movies sometimes made them even darker, as though life were so grim there was no point in expending the effort to give them a little style.
That’s how “The Good Doctor” feels: as blah as a soap opera -- which is what it seems, at first, to be.
Orlando Bloom plays an intern having trouble settling into hospital routine. He’s intimidated by the experienced nurses and clumsy at sucking up to the senior doctors who have the power to make or break his career.
We see him at loose ends in his barren apartment; watch him perk up around a pretty patient (Riley Keough) who’s in for a kidney problem; and witness his discomfort when her parents push him at her overbearing sister.
We see him furtively altering her meds so she’ll stay hospitalized. And only gradually do we realize he’s nuts.
Written by John Enbom and directed by Lance Daly, “The Good Doctor” regards everything from the young maniac’s point of view, so the focus of suspense becomes not what he’ll do next but whether he’ll be caught.
It’s icily superficial, showing us little about him but his anxiety and practically nothing about anyone else.
The idea of a doctor sabotaging a patient is so unsettling that the picture has the power to make you squirm and sweat. But it’s no fun. It doesn’t give you anything but the creeps.
“The Good Doctor,” from Magnolia Pictures, is playing in New York and Los Angeles. Rating: *1/2 (Seligman) Rating:
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Very Good ** Good * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Greg Evans and Craig Seligman are critics for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are their own.)
Muse highlights include Jeremy Gerard on theater.