THE EXORCIST: BELIEVER
I so should've known better, but I was really looking forward to The Exorcist: Believer, and for the simple reason that the trailer creeped me the eff out.
Certainly, there was little reason to expect fright-flick-reboot wonders from writer/director David Gordon Green given how thoroughly he mucked things up in his recent Halloween trilogy. (Yes, those films made a lot of money and gave significant screen time to Jamie Lee Curtis. They're still terrible.) But what Believer delivered in its first trailer was really quite something: an overall tone of unsettling seriousness; the promise of strong performances by Leslie Odom Jr., Ann Dowd, and legacy-sequel requirement Ellen Burstyn; chilling hints of “Tubular Bells” before the full refrain eventually kicked in; a devilish voice that eerily echoed Mercedes McCambridge's; makeup effects that made one of the possessed girls look uncannily like the Pazuzu-infected Linda Blair a half-century ago. Unless you counted the fact that we were now getting two traumatized tweens for the price of one, there was nothing remotely original about the preview. Yet unlike his largely jokey (or at least laughable) Halloweens, these three minutes suggested that, this time, Green would do justice to an iconic '70s horror staple. I thought the movie might actually be good.
Silly, silly me. The Exorcist: Believer is not good. Worse still, it isn't at all scary. It's just tired – when, that is, it isn't content to be unbelievably inane. To its moderate credit, the film doesn't feel like the cynical cash grab it easily could have. Green and co-screenwriter Peter Sattler (with Scott Teems and Green's frequent collaborator Danny McBride receiving “story by” credits) clearly had ideas about where the material could go and what themes they wanted to introduce. Unfortunately, those ideas are largely stupid, and they're left floating in a two-hour greatest-hits package that brings back many of the juicy bits you remember from the original but with none of their original shock and awe. Here's the twisted head! Here's the levitation! Here's the puked-up pea soup! It's hardly a shock that David Gordon Green isn't a William Friedkin; he wasn't a John Carpenter, either. But I was still astounded by the sheer volume of genre beats he was failing to successfully pull off, and embarrassed that the climactic exorcism boasted all the terror of – and strangely resembled – a potluck dinner held in the basement of a nondenominational church.
As Green and company seem (perhaps literally) Hell-bent on conjuring memories of Friedkin's classic, Believer also opens outside America, with photographer Victor Fielding (Odom) enjoying a vacation in Haiti with his wife Sorenne (Tracey Graves), the latter of whom appears, by rough estimate, about 14 months pregnant. If you thought that Green wouldn't be so shameless as to incorporate into his tinny excuse for a plot a real-life catastrophe that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, you'd be wrong, because soon enough the 2010 earthquake hits Port-au-Prince and buries Sorenne in the rubble. Victor is consequently faced with a dilemma, given that doctors can save the life of either his wife or his unborn child, but not both: Which would Victor prefer?
Perhaps blessedly, there's no time for Sophie's Choice hand-wringing, as the subsequent sequence shows Victor, in present-day Georgia, hustling his 12-year-old Angela (Lidya Jewell) off to school. She asks Dad if she can skip coming directly home and instead study at a friend's house, and Victor reluctantly agrees, apparently for the first time in the girl's life. Secretly, though, Angela has other plans – namely, joining her Baptist pal Katherine (Olivia Marcum) in the woods for a ritual in which the youths hope to communicate with Angela's deceased mother. Into the woods they go. After an agonizing three days for their parents – and, presumably, for the girls themselves – the children finally resurface. And they've brought a Satanic friend with them.
Up until this point, Believer was already so rife with minor idiocies that my head was spinning. What is an American in an obviously very advanced stage of pregnancy doing vacationing in Haiti? I doubt she would've been let onto a plane; did Sorenne and her husband take a cruise? Are we meant to blame the tragedy of the 2010 Haitian earthquake for the release of a demonic spirit, just as Max von Sydow's discovery of Iraqi tchotchkes released Pazuzu? (An equally offensive thought: Are we instead meant to blame the Haitian-marketplace vendor who blesses, or “blesses,” Sorenne's unborn baby?) Has Victor honestly never before allowed his smart, personable, capable daughter to go to a friend's house after school? Did the screenwriters really need to unsubtly name this kid “Angela”? Yet the petty annoyances begin to turn into major grievances after the girls come back possessed – a condition that, as in 1973, initially manifests itself as confusion and disorientation, as well as a tendency to urinate in places other than a bathroom. I needn't mention that the signs of demonic entry escalate from there. As Green is surely counting on, you've seen the same movie he has.
For what it's worth, Jewell and Marcum look like they're having a blast letting their freak flags fly as the possessed girls – and that's kind of its own problem. The game young actors shriek and spasm and grin malevolently and spit out (or mouth) profanities with so much evident glee that it's impossible to accept Angela's and Katherine's plight as a gravely serious threat. (Whether you considered Linda Blair a staggeringly gifted neophyte or a cruelly employed living prop, one thing was certain about her '73 turn as Regan MacNeil: It didn't look like she was having any fun.) Still, Jewell and Marcum manage to give Believer's only impressive portrayals.
Odom's stalwart deadpan can't disguise the fact that, from beginning to end, Victor comes off as a self-involved, closed-minded, unlikable jerk. (Within his first two scenes in Georgia, the guy is overtly dismissive of his neighbors and rudely blocks traffic at the school drop-off point; you'd almost think Satan came a-callin' simply because Victor was ill-mannered enough to deserve it.) As Katherine's parents, Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz have nothing to play but shrill Southern-Baptist caricatures. While I firmly believe that Ann Dowd is physiologically incapable of a bad performance, she's been given so many aggressively earnest monologues about love and faith here that, for the first time ever, I quickly grew tired of her. As for Burstyn, looking utterly gorgeous at age 90, her tremulous readings are things of beauty, and there's a definite kick, at first, in seeing her return to the Exorcist franchise after 50 years away. But despite the performer's welcome aura of through-the-ringer gravitas and the promise of her re-introduction, she's treated as such an audience-goosing afterthought that I was frankly offended for her, and would have rather not seen Burstyn at all than see her talents so completely undermined.
Green does come through with one mildly upsetting scenario in which a deranged-looking Katherine, while being welcomed back by her congregation, rifles through a hymnal with her bare feet and briefly engages in one of Regan's notorious activities, albeit without the aid of a crucifix. The rest of the time, it's merely one loud, formulaic jump-scare after another – all of them as flat and predictable as we've come to expect from decades' worth of Exorcist knock-offs – augmented solely by fan-favorite routines. (In case you were wondering: No, we don't get a reprise of “Your mother sucks c---s in Hell!” But we do get to hear “Your c---ing daughter!” in the voice of Chris MacNeil's British film director, which was admittedly unexpected – I'd all but forgotten that one.) Nothing quite prepared me, however, for the abject silliness of the finale. With the idea being, I guess, that the original Exorcist was too specifically Catholic for modern crowds, it now takes a village – Catholics, Baptists, agnostics, witch doctors – to take on Satan's minions, the guiding principle apparently being that evil can be eradicated with togetherness and community spirit. I don't think the Beatles' “All You Need Is Love” was playing as background music, but it wouldn't have surprised me. The Exorcist: Believer stinks. Hopefully it won't require the power of Christ to compel you to steer clear.
NO ONE WILL SAVE YOU
For far more effective, inventive frights that any you'll find in David Gordon Green's new trilogy-starter (God help us), I'll instead guide you toward writer/director Brian Duffield's sci-fi/horror outing No One Will Save You – but I think I'm probably guiding you too late. The film made its Hulu debut on September 22 and, as I've only recently discovered, was an instant sensation, standing (reportedly) as the most-streamed movie across all services in its first week, and the third-most in its second week. It deserved to be, because this thing is marvelous; not since Andrew Patterson's The Vast of Night in 2020 have I been so knocked out by an unheralded genre work by a previously unknown talent.
Its setup, like The Vast of Night's, is almost startlingly simple, with a lonely, socially maligned outsider (Kaitlyn Dever's Brynn) forced to use all of her wits to survive an epic alien onslaught. In general outline, it's a standard home-invasion thriller with martians in the place of, say, those masked loons from The Strangers or Jared Leto. But the movie's chief calling card, as those who've seen it will agree, is its dialogue. Or rather, its lack of dialogue, given that all of five intelligible words are spoken over the course of Duffield's zippy 90 minutes. If you only count words that don't repeat, it's three.
Between the aliens themselves, who resemble the skinny, hairless, big-eyed creatures that emerged from the Mother Ship, and Brynn's spacious, isolated farmhouse with cascades of orange light pouring in and electrical devices magically starting themselves, No One Will Save You is frequently reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (If, that is, the travelers in that film had possibly murderous intent and weren't simply beatific souls who just wanted a sign-language chat with François Truffaut.) But that 1977 masterpiece also kept coming to mind because Duffield demonstrates much of the craft and confidence that the young Spielberg did, creating suspense through routinely clever staging and composition, and accompanying the tension with a genuine sense of wonder. For the effects it delivers, Duffield's film was made on an obscenely low budget ($22.8 million), yet the money was obviously used wisely: on beautifully clear images of spaceship-laded horizons; on subtle CGI as otherworldly creatures shimmy about in victims' necks; on a sky-high downward view, and subsequent tracking shot, as we discover just how many vessels have touched earth near Brynn's home. Although I was oftentimes freaked out by No One Will Save You, I'm not sure I ever stopped smiling.
Then there's the quiet to consider, by which I mean the quiet interrupted by consistent debris, occasional screams, and some of the most extraordinary extraterrestrial noises I've ever heard. Certainly, when Kaitlyn Dever is your lead (and practically the only human on-screen), you don't need much in the way of conversation; as she proved in her rape victim's brutal examination scene in Netflix's limited series Unbelievable, this superbly gifted performer can crush you via expressions alone. But Duffield's almost wholly dialogue-free script gives Dever a far wider range of emotions and motivations to play than you may expect, and as we inch toward the reason behind Brynn's status as the town pariah, we're given true rooting interest in her fate beyond merely being “the victim” in an E.T.-turned-evil tale. Hell, even the aliens are allowed distinct personalities here, and though we can argue about what precisely is happening in the film's final scene, it's hard to argue that it isn't also an ideal capper to this ingenious, enthralling entertainment. It's been three years since The Vast of Night, and we're still waiting for an Andrew Patterson followup. Let's hope it's doesn't take Brian Duffield nearly as long to wow us again.
FLORA & SON
If anyone is going to save the art of 21st-century movie musicals, I don't think it's gonna be Rob Marshall or Pasek & Paul, and while I'm hesitantly hopeful about the forthcoming take on Broadway's The Color Purple, I don't think it'll be Blitz Bazawule, either. It'll be John Carney, the Irish director/screenwriter/songwriter primarily responsible for 2007's Oscar-winning Once (which everyone I know loves), 2014's Begin Again (which no one I know has seen), and 2016's Sing Street (which is like having an overflowing bucket of '80s pop poured on your head … and I mean that in the most appreciative of ways). Carney's latest is Flora & Son, which debuted on Apple+ a couple weekends ago and is also enjoying an engagement at Iowa City's FilmScene at the Chauncey, and it's as corny, delightful, and ravishingly tuneful as anything on its creator's résumé. If Carney's profile in regard to original screen musicals continues to rise the way I think it might, it won't be because you want to watch his movies. It'll be because you want to propose to his movies.
With its “R” rating for language most assuredly deserved (F-bombs are breezily dropped even into the songs' lyrics), Flora & Son is saltier than Carney's previous winners, and just as magically unlikely. Its premise finds single mom Flora (Eve Hewson) living a lower-middle-class existence outside of Dublin, and looking for a way to win back the musician husband who left her (Jack Reynor, the Irish Chris Pratt doppelgänger who co-starred in Sing Street and, memorably, Ari Aster's Midsommar). If she can also find a way to connect with her perpetually angry teen-hooligan son Max (Orén Kinlan), she'll take it, though that's more of a secondary concern. Flora consequently decides that the route to success will lie in her learning and mastering guitar, which she chooses to do by snatching a discarded instrument out of a dumpster and enlisting the services of an American guitar instructor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Jeff) who, for $20 per session, agrees to tutor Flora online. As you've probably surmised, this plot is madness, and made madder still by Flora herself – a hard-partying, dance-club-addicted trainwreck with no prior musical training. Needless to say, she proves herself a prodigy. Needless to say, she helps Jeff as much as he helps her. Needless to say, the two fall in love from afar. Also hopefully needless to say, musical-comedy fans are sure to devour this thing and immediately ask for seconds.
As one of those fans, I'm looking forward to my own second encounter with Flora & Son, even though I didn't take to the Flora-Jeff romance as strongly as we were obviously meant to. As usual, Gordon-Levitt is solid, and Carney performs smooth cinematic sleight-of-hand whenever he whisks the guitar teacher off Flora's laptop and into her actual world. But there's a strange reticence to Gordon-Levitt, as a performer, that I'm unable to put my finger on; I bought him more as a dumped boyfriend in (500) Days of Summer than as an in-the-moment boyfriend. (Is it the actor's Eastwood-ian squint? I can never quite tell what's going on in his eyes.) That said, Carney's latest is positively teeming with pleasures, none greater than Hewson, whose performance here, in a just world, would make her an instant star. Hilarious, complicated, soulful, and foul-mouthed to beat the band, Hewson is utterly intoxicating, and that's without the questionable benefit of smelling the white wine wafting from Flora's breath.
But Carney has additional aces up his sleeve, because this intensely charming film is as rigorously devoted to the frustrations and joys of songwriting as his other three aforementioned titles. With all of the movie's tunes composed by Carney, Gary Clark, and Hewson and Gordon-Hewitt themselves, Flora and Jeff co-compose a real beauty titled “Meet in the Middle,” and the climax features an open-mic night miraculously involving performers from both sides of the Atlantic. Yet there are roughly a dozen other debuting songs that can compete as your favorite (even if some of them only last 30 seconds or so), and just like Once, you can easily imagine Flora & Son making an entirely successful transition to the stage and similarly dominating the Tony Awards. Transition Eve Hewson along with it, and the show will have at least one Tony in the bag.
STOP MAKING SENSE
Given that I pretty much stopped actively listening to popular music during the second Clinton administration, I've made the completely non-regrettable, employer-approved decision to not review this upcoming weekend's blockbuster-in-waiting Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour. As I literally don't know the title of a single Swift song and really only recognize the icon as that tall, slender blond who wasn't around for long in last fall's David O. Russell comedy Amsterdam, I'm sure you'll learn to live with the loss, and agree that Eras coverage might be better-suited to someone in-the-know. But fear not: We've recruited a willing substitute in the Reader's longtime theatre reviewer Madeline Dudziak, who appears happy to detail the experience for fellow Swifties after she sees the film during its second weekend of release. In the meantime, I can relate my own experience as the only patron at a recent screening of Stop Making Sense, the late Oscar winner Jonathan Demme's seminal 1984 concert movie filmed over four Talking Heads concert engagements during the band's Speaking in Tongues tour. In truth, although I'll include others, I can effectively summarize the whole 90 minutes in one word: bliss.
This was hardly my first exposure to Demme's and Talking Heads frontman David Byrne's electrifying work; I can still name the VHS retailers in my hometown of Crystal Lake, Illinois, and my college town of Rock Island (Hogan's and Hilltop Video, anyone?) where I rented Stop Making Sense for movie nights with friends, or just because. But somehow, ridiculously, I never thought to own the freaking thing, and until my Davenport Cinemark viewing last Thursday, it had likely been 30-plus years since my last viewing. And I had never before seen it on the big screen. I can die happy now.
Roundly celebrated, and for reason, as perhaps the most exhilarating concert film ever recorded, it's all just as you remember but so much better. The pristine sound quality was to be expected yet somehow still beyond belief, as were the glorious renditions of “Burning Down the House,” “Swamp,” “Take Me to the River,” and loads of others. Yet beyond re-igniting timeless memories of the first half-hour's miraculous building-the-band escalation and Byrne's swizzle-stick “Life During Wartime” gyrations and The Big Suit – to say nothing of Byrne's pas de deux with a standing lamp that's damned near romantic – I was astonished at how much of the movie I'd actually forgotten.
That Demme chose to film Byrne, now looking impossibly young and handsome, performing “Once in a Lifetime” in an almost total one-shot, cutting to the other band members only near the finale. That there would be so few closeups on ecstatic audience members. (That some seats in Hollywood's Pantages Theatre, where the concert was filmed in December of 1983, would be empty! The nerve!) That we'd be made so conscious of the easy professionalism of the crew members who, at their exactingly choreographed apparent leisure, constructed the final stage configuration with admirable no-biggie skill. That we'd get quite so many shots of the undeniably jazzed musicians sharing each other's company. That David Byrne would smile so much. (At least three or four times!) If you still can, catch Stop Making Sense on the big screen while it's still around. Even considering The Silence of the Lambs, Melvin & Howard, Something Wild, Swimming to Cambodia, Married to the Mob, Philadelphia, Beloved, Rachel Getting Married, et cetera, it's Jonathan Demme's finest ever. It goes without saying that it's also Talking Heads at their absolute peak, and while I thought about ending this review with appropriate reference to an included song such as “Heaven” or “Genius of Love” or “Thank You for Sending Me an Angel,” I think it best to go with a suggestion of my grinning-through-misty-eyes joy after seeing this sublime, almost-40-years-later remastering: “What a Day That Was.”