The Exorcism of Emily Rose
dir. Scott Derrickson

Lakes of pea soup have been spilled in its wake, but The Exorcist still reigns supreme among demonic cinema, mainly because director William Friedkin didn't appear to give a darn if the viewer was a believer or not. Aspirations to higher art aside, he basically wanted to make the audience whimper. The ambitious, awesomely cast The Exorcism of Emily Rose lacks the utter relentlessness of Friedkin's film, thank God (or whatever), but it still manages to lodge under the skin. Melding sharp court procedural and flesh-crawling flashbacks, it approaches its subject with an unusual and gratifying seriousness. Until an unfortunate late morph into downright religious propaganda, it entertains suspicions of a new classic of the form.

Loosely based on a '70s German incident (Google "Anneliese Michel" for the explicit details), the plot details the aftermath of the disastrous exorcism of a devout college student. As the attending priest faces neglectful homicide charges, a jury must decide whether the bizarre events leading up to the tragedy were due to scientific or supernatural causes. Meanwhile, certain sinister outside phenomena lead the agnostic defense attorney to suspect that someone other than the court reporter is keeping tabs. This is a genuinely terrific premise—Law and Order with a guest appearance by Ol' Scratch—and for a good chunk of the running time, writers Paul Harris Boardman and Scott Derrickson appear to be up to the task. Aided by an almost ridiculously overqualified acting roster including Laura Linney, Tom Wilkinson, and Campbell Scott, they successfully conjure a world in which smarmy psychiatrists and strange apparitions carry an equally malevolent weight.

More's the pity, then, that both the narrative and delivery increasingly fall back on miraculous explanations. As the ooga-booga becomes more explicit, and the filmmakers resort to the genre clichés of light-up eyes and sizzling crosses, the film's tenuous balance is upset. For all the high-tech money shots, what sticks around after dark are the early, subtle shocks, aided by newcomer Jennifer Carpenter's ability to contort her body into otherworldly Stretch Armstrong configurations. (One scene in particular, in which Emily's chaste boyfriend awakes to find something... er, amiss in the bedroom, ranks as an instant hall of famer.) If you have even a passing interest in the genre, Emily Rose is more than worth the ticket price. But, man, it could've been great. ANDREW WRIGHT

The World
dir. Jia Zhangke

If you've ever been lulled by a spectacle that you knew to be empty and corrupt, you'll feel at home in The World. The new movie from festival darling Jia Zhangke wants to condemn China's headlong dash toward Western capitalism. But the storyline, which sends one young construction worker to a useless death by exhaustion and herds two more service employees into fatally inadequate housing, is too cool and meandering to be a searing indictment of anything. Of the film's 143 minutes, the camera spends a significant portion of time transfixed by the ironic beauty of a world flattened by globalization.

At a more urgent pace, the plot would be crushing. The World follows Tao (Zhang Tao), a dancer at an amusement park who works long hours for low pay, negotiates cramped housing, and lives in exile from her family. She watches a coworker marry a borderline abusive boyfriend, learns that a Russian friend has been forced into prostitution, and battles smaller problems of her own. Tao is an eager participant in the new economy, and there's a pointed contrast between her reliance on text messages to communicate even the gravest news (illustrated by super-flat Flash animation) and the way she has to scrub her boyfriend's park uniform with soap and a thermos of hot water.

But the whole enthralling spectacle of her workplace repeatedly disrupts and softens the moral. Set in World Park, an actual suburban attraction that promises lower-middle-class Chinese that they can "see the world without leaving Beijing," the film lingers obsessively on the park's Eiffel Tower (one-third the height of the actual Paris landmark); its ersatz Tower of Pisa; and its ghoulish mockup of midtown Manhattan, with the Twin Towers still standing. Jia often shows us the park at night, or in the rain, when the tourists are gone and there's no one around to lend the simulacra any perspective.

During the long take that opens the film, Tao sweeps through the dressing rooms in the emerald costume of an Indian princess by way of Las Vegas, screeching for a Band-Aid. It's an entrancing opening scene, and the film that follows gives us a nuanced view of the girl behind the shriek. But despite Tao's vulnerable position in society, it almost seems as though Jia envies Tao's earnest acceptance of her otherworldly milieu. She has never been on a plane, but as she rides the park monorail, she announces into her cell phone: "I'm going to India." And a few minutes later, she's dancing at the foot of the Taj Mahal. ANNIE WAGNER

Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance
dir. Park Chan-wook

With a mere handful of features under his belt (and a generous assist from a rabid fan named Tarantino, who awarded 2003's Oldboy top prize at Cannes), South Korean director Park Chan-wook has quickly ascended to the top rank of promising world cinema maestros. This isn't just empty hype, either: Park's formal control is impeccable, his technical ingenuity is fearsome, and every one of his shots feels like it's been calculated for maximum impact. He's also, cinematically speaking, something of a major-league sadist.

2002's Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first entry in Park's ongoing Revenge Cycle, graphically illustrates—boy, does it ever—the gulf between his skill and taste. Said skill is never in question: From the blackly comic opening frames to the cosmically ordained Kabuki play of a climax, the director delivers the noir goods with an awe-inspiring purity of vision. Minus the hallucinatory trappings that made Oldboy's excesses at least semi-justifiable, though, Park's worldview is grotty to such extremes that it becomes hard to recommend Sympathy in good conscience, no matter how virtuosic the delivery. The plot is worthy of Jim Thompson at his dankest: After getting scammed out of his savings, a hapless deaf-mute twentysomething rashly kidnaps the young daughter of his former employer, intending to use the ransom to buy a kidney for his terminally ill sister. Things soon go awry, to a level of depravity rarely glimpsed outside of NyQuil-induced fever dreams.

The vigilante genre has never been a model of tasteful restraint, of course, but this director's penchant for muck may leave even the hardiest of viewers craving a steel-wool scrub down. (Those leery of syringes, scalpels, or hammer-induced traumas should probably stay home.) Ultimately, what lingers past the nausea is the feeling that Park's willingness to go for fanboy-attracting shock greatly dilutes his other, more genuine talents. By the time a grieving parent witnesses the excruciatingly rendered autopsy of their only child, the overriding impression is of a filmmaker cynically having his cake, and chewing it with his mouth open, to boot. ANDREW WRIGHT

The Memory of a Killer
dir. Erik van Looy

This tight little police procedural from Belgium spins a story of departmental rivalry, corruption, and the powerful men shielding a child prostitution ring. The cinematography is stylish and colorful, and the editing is overblown but genre-appropriate. There's nothing really wrong with The Memory of a Killer that the elimination of a few urine jokes couldn't fix, but it commits one unforgivable sin. The screenplay (by Carl Joos and Van Looy, from a Dutch novel by Jef Geeraerts) wastes its fantastic central conceit.

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The Memory of a Killer is about a hit man named Angelo Ledda (Jan Decleir) who's suffering through the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. (The film's original title is De Zaak Alzheimer. The English translation is literally incorrect, but it gets to the crux of the matter—the movie has nothing to do with the affliction.) There's plenty of time for the film to probe an already twisted psyche facing dementia and eventual obliteration—Ledda even goes to visit his expressionless brother, hunched in a nursing home—but the script translates this terror into a few simple memory lapses and a death wish. It's terribly disappointing, especially since the hardened Decleir appears more than ready to face the abyss.

Verstuyft and Vincke (Werner de Smedt and Koen de Bouw), the Antwerp police detectives who are stalking Ledda, are pleasant enough company—the baby-faced De Smedt especially. But their detective-duo characters arrive direct from countless television sets, and their struggle to buck the authority of their departmental rivals couldn't be more clichéd. There isn't much here, in short, that could elevate The Memory of a Killer above the ordinary, except the unexploited Alzheimer's angle. Here's to hoping the rumored American remake will take care of that. ANNIE WAGNER