Exorcist: The Beginning

Also: Festival Express.

Exorcist: The Beginning

Now playing at Metro and others

I don't want to hear any complaining about the impossibility of this movie living up to the original, because this prequel directed by Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2) comes pretty damn close. It's about the struggle of Father Merrin (Stellan Skarsgard) with his faith 25 years before his struggle with the devil in 12-year-old Regan (Linda Blair). After witnessing WWII atrocities in Holland, he helps unearth an improbably located Christian church in Kenya. During the dig, the villagers are stricken by seizures, disappearances, and horrific deaths leading to a truly gruesome conclusion. The plot of this Exorcist is well constructed, innovative, and scary as hell. What's even better are the endless allusions to the original, from the cracked lips, bluish complexion, and yellow eyes of the possessed to the sequences of eerie background- music silence that make the pounding of our own hearts the scene's thunderous soundtrack. The special effects aren't excessively showy, making it compatible with the original, but the use of gore, many maggots, and psychological manipulation manage to incite almost as much fear as Linda Blair's creepily demonic voice did in 1973. Ungodly things will jump out at you, you'll probably scream, you may not sleep well for a few nights—but how can you resist? (R) HEATHER LOGUE

Festival Express

Opens Fri., Aug. 27, at Varsity

It's tempting to call this documentary, about a five-day May 1970 rock festival that moved by train through Canada, a sequel to Woodstock. But that's inaccurate on three levels. One, Festival Express adds present-day perspective to the rediscovered old footage via interviews with the tour promoter; the Grateful Dead's Mickey Hart, Phil Lesh, and Bob Weir; bluesman Buddy Guy; Canadian folk duo Ian and Sylvia; Janis Joplin's bandmates; and others.

Two, Festival Express is post-utopian—the Woodstock hippie dream of universal brotherhood, freedom from work, and endless good times is visibly crumbling here. The riots at the Toronto and Calgary shows are greed-driven, the rallying cry of "Music should be free, man!" a synonym for "Freebies or else." The musicians' best times are on the train—in private, jamming on everything from loose folk numbers to sharp funk vamps, the party kept going by endless booze. The most memorable nonperformance scene comes when, having drunk the train dry, the musicians stop in Saskatoon, pass the hat, and buy out a liquor store.

The third and most crucial difference: Festival Express' music is better than Woodstock's. There's nothing here as towering as Jimi Hendrix's "Star Spangled Banner," but Sha Na Na's aside (yes, I'm afraid they're in this one, too), the performances are better chosen and frequently stunning—particularly Janis Joplin's electrifying performances of "Cry Baby" and "Tell Mama." Native Canadians the Band get three songs ("The Weight, "Slippin' and Slidin'," and "I Shall Be Released") that bury their smug 1978 final-show doc, The Last Waltz. And the Grateful Dead are at their sharpest with tight, rolling performances of "Don't Ease Me In" and "Friend of the Devil." They all sound amazingly alive—which makes the premature loss of many of the musicians (Joplin, Jerry Garcia, Pigpen McKernan, Rick Danko, Richard Manuel) even more acute. (R) MICHAELANGELO MATOS

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