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Review: Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist

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Poor Paul Schrader. His career is a roll call of classics (he wrote Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Mosquito Coast, and directed Blue Collar and American Gigolo), but has lately his good name has been disparaged. After the production company saw his cut of the latest installment of the Exorcist saga, they brought in Renny Harlin to reshoot the whole thing. When Harlin’s monstrosity, released as Exorcist: The Beginning, tanked, Schrader fought to get his version seen. What’s worse: He won.

Schrader’s film, now called Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist, is better than Harlin’s, but not by much. Detailing the experiences of Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard, reprising the titular role Max Von Sydow immortalized in the 1973 original) in post-WWII British East Africa, it plays out like a theology seminar interrupted by the occasional computer-generated hyena. All that blather about The Value of Faith in the Face of Evil is easily undermined when Evil appears as a naked bald dude floating on air. Plus, the audience seems to have a key piece of information the characters don’t: It’s well over an hour before we hear the words, “This boy is possessed!”

The original Exorcist was a classy shocker from an age before Freddy Krueger. That might explain why so many have failed to turn it into a successful horror franchise. Harlin went for pure schlock, and Schrader aims for strained seriousness. After witnessing their twin failures, you realize some things are better left alone. — Bilge Ebiri

Review: Tell Them Who You Are
  This new documentary gets to the point pretty quickly — the opening scene features cinematographer Haskell Wexler (the film’s subject) yelling at his son, Mark (the film’s director), about all the things he’s doing wrong. Haskell, the loudmouthed, legendary cinematographer of such films as American Graffiti, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Days of Heaven, never stops riding his kid hard. But the fortysomething Mark is no shrinking violet either. Their snippy banter gives this otherwise staid documentary portrait of Haskell’s life the occasional air of a spectator sport: When Mark hands his committed anti-war activist dad a photo of himself with George Bush, you just want to yell, “Oh no he dih-iiiin’t!”

As evidenced by his own films — the seminal cinema-verite Medium Cool, and several documentary shorts early in his career — Haskell likes his movies raw and direct, with a minimum of exposition: “Don’t direct me, just do it!” he admonishes Mark. Junior doesn’t really take that advice to heart. Tell Them is full of soul-searching narration and interviews with talking heads such as George Lucas, Jane Fonda, and Dennis Hopper. But that too may be a coping strategy for dealing with his domineering subject. We can see Haskell’s point (one senses he’d have made a better movie), but we still sort of want to see the kid do his own thing. — Bilge Ebiri

Date DVD #33: Tarnation
This week, there’s explicit sex on two DVDs that aren’t tucked behind the video store’s back curtain, but neither is sexy. For Team America, Trey Parker and Matt Stone collect the excised graphic puppet fornication they filmed just to piss off the MPAA, but there was enough puppet sex for me in the theatrical cut. For the utterly unerotic biopic Kinsey, Bill Condon packages extra features on sex-ed history and even adds an "interactive" sex questionnaire, which unfortunately sounds more interesting than it is.

Since both of those are teases, I’d take a risk with Tarnation, Jonathan Caouette’s odd, intensely personal auto-biopic, which has no sex at all. In some ways, Caouette’s festival hit is an arty extension of the memoir craze in publishing, or the reality boom on TV — a video confessional about his messed-up Texas youth, his messed-up mother, and his eventual salvation in the form of this film and a New York apartment. It’s hard to explain it in any way that sounds even vaguely palatable, but his self-indulgence works. Caouette has collected an astonishing amount of footage from his childhood (he filmed himself from a very young age, from brutal breakdowns to comic skits). And, better yet, he’s composed it all with a grace that belies his micro-budget. The film can be almost too-pretty in parts, but the story is painfully direct throughout, and relentlessly intimate.

Yes, it’s earnest, and thus dangerous for a date. But sometimes confessional films can get viewers to respond in kind. Let Caouette can take the first step; you two can talk all night. — Logan Hill

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