The Exorcist (William Friedkin) 1973 **** 2/15/2017

This movie really is scary, and it really is good.  From the Egyptian opening to the first jolt of the piece moving on the Ouija board, seemingly of its own volition, the tension is built to a fever pitch.  The first moment of real fright comes with Regan (Linda Blair) being examined; she closes her eyes, and for an instant, until she reopens them there’s the terrible image of that white sunken, smiling almost face.  Some of the absurd contortions of her body are disturbing going forward, but it’s the fearful expectation of that face that keeps the film buzzing with a quiet intensity.  Perhaps its most frightening appearance is on the hood of a stove for a moment in the flashing of faulty lights.

The exorcism by the losing-his-faith Father Karras (Jason Miller) and the elderly priest late of Egypt is compelling, as is the very real fright of Regan’s mother (Ellen Burstyn), a movie actress playing in a film she calls something like ‘Woodstock by way of Disney.’

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Spotlight (Tom McCarthy) 2015 **** 2/2/2017

The story of the reporting team who told the story on the Catholic Church raping and systemic abuse, and told very well.  Chiefly because the movie choses not to elide the mistakes in not picking up the story years before, because of judging witnesses “paranoid and wacky.”  Good acting all around, and the passion and reporting provided a much needed kick in the ass to me.

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Passengers (Morten Tyldum) 2016 *** 12/31/2016

A science fiction romance starring Chris Pratt (who is at his most compelling here) and Jennifer Lawrence (who despite dealing with a hackily written character, Aurora Lane, shows once again her wonderful access to emotion that comes through as strong and real).  Briefly, Jim (Pratt) is woken from hibernation 90 years early on a 120 year colonization trip from Earth.  He tries everything to go into hibernation again, and failing that, to stay happy.  His only human contact is a simulation of one, an android bartender in red tails played note perfect by Michael Sheen.  After almost walking out into space (the thrilling space vistas up on the big screen are beautiful alone) without a suit, he sees another passenger (Lawrence) in her hibernation pod.  This gives way to the most interesting part of the movie, when Jim has to decide whether or not to open her pod and relieve his terrible loneliness, but also condemn her to 89 long years in transit.  Lawrence Fishburne as Gus, an officer woken later by a malfunctioning ship (predictably but compellingly saved in a dramatic fashion) sums up this condition well: “When a man is drowning, he takes someone down with him.  Doesn’t make it right, but he’s drowning.”

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Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach) 2013 **** 12/25/2016

This is a really special movie, and reveals the great talents of Greta Gerwig, who wrote the thing along with Noah Baumbach.  She plays Frances, adventuring around New York City with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Summer), apprenticing at a dance company, trying to make it by.  Sophie moves out and she gets dropped from the Christmas shows at the company, so she goes from a ‘rich kid apartment’ with two guys (Adam Driver & Michael Zegen), to a trip in Sacramento to see her parents for Christmas to staying with a dance company friend.  From there a dinner party encounter sends her impulsively, romantically to Paris for two days where she sleeps in until 4:27 after staying up until 3:47 upon the night of getting in, then wandering around doing nothing and missing the calls back of a friend she tried calling.  That anticlimax of romanticism (partially self-inflicted) is a feeling I deeply empathize with and have experienced in foreign countries.  The beautiful moment of the film comes in a moment between her and Sophie, that was described at the dinner party earlier (and after Sophie had moved to Japan, miscarried, came back).  The one where you catch a friend’s eye across the room at a party, and engage that secret world between you.

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Chef (Jon Favreau) 2014 **** 12/24/2016

This father-son story is about Jon Favreau’s character Carl, who, after losing his Head Chef and high-end job prospects by unloading on a food critic to the pleasure of the internet, decamps to a food truck with his son (Emjay Anthony) and his longtime buddy and former co-worker (John Leguizamo).  The bonding between Dad and son is treated well, and modern (Twitter is represented on film in a way that works, and the internet exists in this world).  Every supporting character works and adds something neither expendable nor too outfront.  Favreau hits the note as a guy whose life is food, the Cuban music is great, and the food makes your mouth water.  Gary Clark Jr.’s in it too, which I like.

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Black Mass (Scott Cooper) 2015 **** 12/19/2016

Amidst the doughy, pockmarked Boston-Irish faces, Johnny Depp’s smooth cheekbones pole out from under a sheen of perfect skin, accentuated by a dramatically receded gelled back hairline.  The effect is a grotesquely beautiful Whitey Bulger.  Bulger is a Southie hood who graduates from a nine-year turn in Alcatraz to become the undisputed Crime King of Boston.  He’s able to do it because of the careerist aspirations of a fellow street kid John Connolly (Joel Edgerton) who cultivates him as an informant to take down the Italian North Side mob.  “It’s an Alliance,” says Whitey, one that even only peripherally involves Whitey’s younger brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch), a State Senator and a powerful figure.  Jesse Plemons gives a great performance as granite-faced Kevin Weeks, the young Irish foot-soldier, and Corey Stoll provides an intense brow for the conflicted FBI agent who rats Connolly out to the Globe.  The best assessment of Whitey comes from a former ally under FBI interrogation: “Strictly criminal.”

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Brooklyn (John Crowley) 2015 **** 12/11/2016

Brooklyn’s a great immigrant story about Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), who emigrates from Ireland to the titular land.  She misses her sister Rose desperately, and her mother, as she adjusts to living in a boarding house taking meals with her landlady (a charmingly funny Julie Walters) and the group of girls and working at a department store while learning book-keeping three nights a week at Brooklyn College.  Then she meets Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen), and they fall in love, their two accents blending together perfectly.  But Rose dies back in Ireland suddenly and it’s not clear whether it’s suicide or suicide in the face of a disease.  Saoirse is one of the great criers onscreen and these scenes are touching and sad without being mawkish or over-dramatic.  Eilis visits her grieving mother back home, where everyone tries to get her to stay, from her understandably alone mother to her best friend who sets her up with Jim (Domnhall Gleeson).  And for a moment, maybe more, she finds herself falling in love with Jim, until a confrontation with her witch of an old boss reminds her of why she left that town.  She heads back to Brooklyn no longer lonely, and with a self-assurance she could only have there.

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