Tag Archives: Leslie Odom Jr.

Soul Power

The Exorcist: Believer

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

There have been more Exorcist movies than you might realize and almost all of them are good. One is great. One is a masterpiece.

Is it really fair to hold any of them up against the mastery of William Friedkin’s 1973 original? Well, The Exorcist: Believer flies the titular flag, and brings back Ellen Burstyn to reprise her role as Chris MacNeil, so the film isn’t exactly staying away from it. And with two more Exorcist films on the way, director and co-writer David Gordon Green is nothing if not ambitious.

Green has been here before, recently bringing Michael Myers roaring back to life with his Halloween trilogy. That project came out of the gate with strength and promise, which only made the final two installments that much more disappointing.

This opening statement brings cause for both optimism and worry.

Green’s multiple nods to Friedkin’s original start from Believer‘s opening frame, as Victor Fleming (Leslie Odom, Jr.) and his pregnant wife are traveling in Haiti. Tragedy strikes, and we move ahead thirteen years, with Victor raising Angela (Lidya Jewett from Hidden Figures and TV’s Good Girls) as a single father in Georgia.

Angela and her friend Katherine (Olivia O’Neill, in her debut) go missing after a walk in the woods, showing up three days later as very different people. Katherine’s parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz) are true Bible thumpers, and their contrast with Victor’s skepticism becomes an important thread that Green will pull to the end.

The girls’ shocking and blasphemous behavior leads Victor’s neighbor (Ann Dowd) to suggest contacting MacNeil, now a best-selling author who has devoted the last 50 years to understanding what happened to her daughter, Regan.

Odom, Jr. delivers a complex but never showy performance that anchors all the fantastical that orbits him. And it’s great to see the Oscar-winning Burstyn back in this role, but her rushed introduction here reminds you of what an effectively slow burn the original employed. Maybe today that’s a harder sell. But as good as all these performances are, you are just not as deeply invested once the fight for two souls begins.

Green does show a good feel for the callbacks, never going overboard and holding your attention with a consistently creepy mood. The girls’ makeup, demonic voices and atrocities combine for a series of solidly unnerving sequences. Nothing may come close to the shocks from the original, but really, what could? You’re not going to put another child actor through what Linda Blair endured.

Still, 1990’s Exorcist III managed two original moments that bring chills to this day, and nothing about Believer feels destined for iconic status.

The storytelling scores by mercifully limiting the Catholicism, as Green embraces the idea that every culture has a ritual for expelling evil. It’s nice to point out that the Catholics don’t hold a monopoly on exorcisms and that maybe horror fans have grown weary of priests and nuns at this point. Green removes the power from an individual faith and empowers the idea of community, where “the common thread is people.”

But while Believer brings in some welcome new ideas, it lacks the confidence to let a path reveal itself without guideposts of undue exposition. Too much of what happens in the third act is telegraphed early or explained late, even saddling the always-great Dowd with a needless, bow-tying monologue. 

What made the original great? Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty tied us all up in one man’s shame, his inability to do the right thing, and his crisis of faith just to see him sacrifice himself for an innocent. Friedkin terrified us with the most unholy image one could imagine at that time, closed us in a tiny space with this foul idea, and then released us only when one good man died for us. 

The demon is again playing on shame and exploiting grief, ultimately revealing a long held secret that becomes key to the fate of both girls. And while the issue this film raises is worthy and mildly provocative, the question of where the franchise goes next is equally intriguing.

Believer spends two full hours telling the story, and it needs those 121 minutes. But Green doesn’t spend them where he should. He tells us too much, shows us too little, and doesn’t invest our time with characters so we feel for the families. There are scary moments, for sure, but this episode does not feel like a kick start to a beloved franchise or a new vision of evil. It feels like an entertaining sixth movie in a decent series.

Born Under a Bad Sign

The Many Saints of Newark

by Hope Madden and George Wolf

Murmurs, complaints, and whispers come in and out of focus as a camera meanders through an empty cemetery at midday: we hear souls telling the stories of their lives. We stop over the resting place of Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). He has a tale to tell.

It’s a beautiful opening, spooky but with a bitter, familiar humor about it. With it, director Alan Taylor sets the mood for a period piece that lays the groundwork for one of the best shows ever to grace the small screen. The Many Saints of Newark brings Christmas early for Sopranos fans, but this is not exactly the story of Tony Soprano. In uncovering the making of the future, Taylor and writer Lawrence Konner invite us into the life of Uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola).

Nivola makes for an ideal choice to play the beloved “uncle.” The always reliable actor depicts the film’s central figure as the struggling, complicated result of his circumstances – an excellent theme given the film’s long game to uncover the forces that forged a future boss. In many ways, Uncle Dickie’s weaknesses, indulgences, strengths and goals create a mirror image of the Tony Soprano we would come to know over eight years and six seasons.

Longtime fans will have a bada bing blast recognizing familiar characters in their youth. Vera Farmiga is characteristically excellent as Tony’s formidable mother. John Magaro is a spot-on and hilarious Silvio, matched quirk for quirk by Billy Magnussen as Paulie Walnuts. Corey Stoll brings a younger but no less awkward Uncle Junior to life beautifully.

Of course, the one you wait for is young Tony, played with lumbering, melancholic sweetness by James Gandolfini’s son Michael. The resemblance alone gives the character a heartbreaking quality that feeds the mythology, but young Gandolfini serves Tony well with a vulnerable, believable performance that only expands on our deep investment in this character.

But the film is really more interested in those we never got to know: Tony’s father Johnny Boy Soprano (Jon Bernthal), Dickie’s father Aldo and uncle Sal Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, in two exceptional and very different roles), and stepmother Guiseppina Moltisanti (Michela De Rossi).

De Rossi and Leslie Odom Jr. (who plays colleague-turned-competitor Harold McBrayer) offer some of the most intriguing complexity and context in the entire film. The first half pokes holes in the “woe is me” backstory of the entitled white male Mafioso figure by spending some time with two characters who actually did have a tough go making a life for themselves in this community.  

Taylor (Thor: the Dark World, Terminator Genisys, GoT) helmed nine Sopranos episodes, winning an Emmy for one, while Konner penned three solid episodes of his own, although his decades of work for the big screen has been mediocre at best.

But here the filmmakers combine for extended family drama that, despite one major plot turn landing as entirely illogical, weaves themes old and new in a ride that is often operatic and downright Shakespearean.

If the Sopranos family feels like family, turning back the clock on these indelible characters is just as giddy and delightful as it sounds. But The Many Saints of Newark impresses most by the balance it finds between fan service and fresh character arcs.

It’s an often cruel and bloody tale of wanton crime, treacherous deceit, family dysfunction and cold-blooded murder. And it just might be the most fun you’ll have at the movies all year.

The Room Where It Happened

One Night in Miami

by George Wolf

The room where it really happened was in Miami’s Hampton House. After a young Cassius Clay won the Heavyweight title from Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964, he joined his long time mentor Malcolm X, NFL legend Jim Brown and soul sensation Sam Cooke at the South Florida hotel.

Writer Kemp Powers first imagined how that meeting of legendary minds might have played out, and now Regina King – who already has an acting Oscar – jumps into the race for Best Director with a wise and wonderful adaptation of Powers’s stage play. Propelled by a bold, vital script from Powers himself, King invites us into a frank discussion about the steps in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and about each man’s role in the struggle.

Though existing mainly inside that single hotel room, One Night in Miami is in a constant state of motion, as four talented actors serve and volley through a ballet of insight and intellect.

Portraying a bigger-than life-personality such as Clay without a hint of caricature is no easy feat, but Eli Goree handles it with smooth charisma.

Clay’s braggadocio is as playful and charming as you remember, but Goree also finds authentic shades of apprehension about the societal role Clay (who would publicly join the Nation of Islam and announce his name change to Muhammed Ali just weeks after the meeting) was about to accept.

Kingsley Ben-Adir’s Malcom X is a measured voice of wisdom, but the film finds its gravitational pull in the forces of Aldis Hodge and Leslie Odom, Jr.

As Brown, Hodge is beautifully restrained power, a man of incredible strength still able to be staggered by sudden blows of racism. Brown’s path as a leader of the civil rights movement contrasts sharply with Cooke’s, and Odom, Jr. gives the singer surprising and resonant layers that include anger at the thought that he’s not all in for the cause.

The characters continually challenge each other, as King and Powers challenge us with a profundity that comes from their refusal to settle for easy answers. Each question the film raises connects past to present with committed grace, and One Night in Miami finds a beautiful dignity that shines in the face of bigotry. 

Greatest American Hero


by Hope Madden

In just her third feature film, Cynthia Erivo has quickly proven herself to be a chameleonic performer of remarkable breadth and depth.  

How is she as Bad Times at the El Royale’s just-naieve-enough would-be Sixties pop singer? She owns the movie.

As Widows’ overworked and underestimated single parent? Another eye-catching performance among another stunning ensemble.

American history’s second most important figure in the abolition of slavery, runner up only to Lincoln himself?

Harriet Tubman is a big role to shoulder. The routine problem with breathing cinematic life into a figure we know only from history class is in overcoming an audience’s preconceived notions about the person. As is the case with most African American – let alone female African American -figures, this is not really a problem. Tubman is so underrepresented in our historical epics that, unlike Lincoln, she doesn’t trigger an automatic image in the audience’s mind.

So while Erivo needn’t be concerned with imitation, the more daunting challenge is to find a recognizable human inside the truly superhuman accomplishments Tubman managed during her 91 years on this earth.

Here’s where Erivo gets the most support from director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou), whose historical biopic is heavy-handed enough in its hero worship to celebrate Tubman’s genuine, unparalleled heroism.

Harriet is also quiet enough in spots, Lemmons never making the common, gruesome slavery-saga misstep of ogling a whip-scarred back or a rape. Her restrained approach to the unimaginable horror of slavery manages never to wallow or to disregard the suffering, but focuses more clearly on the urgency and agency to end it.

Erivo repays Lemmons’s efforts, bringing to bear an otherworldly presence as the film’s enigmatic central figure. Her Harriet is not here to wallow, not here to reflect. She’s come for action.

Lemmons and co-writer Gregory Allen Howard (Ali) don’t quite fare as well elsewhere. Though they wisely narrow the story, beginning immediately before Harriet’s escape from a Maryland plantation and ending just after her astonishing Civil War battle, the film still feels a bit shallow in its telling.

Of the large ensemble around Erivo, Leslie Odom, Jr. makes the most of his limited time onscreen, animating Philadelphia abolitionist William Still with a kind of awestruck tenderness that matches the audience’s response to Tubman’s obstinance and fearlessness.

Does the film suffer from hero worship? Suffer feels like a very wrong word. What Harriet does is honor a woman whose acts of heroism are so superhuman they are truly difficult to believe.

Erivo will make you a believer.