All posts by Andrew Wickliffe

Miss Grant Goes to the Door (1940, Brian Desmond Hurst)

Miss Grant Goes to the Door is a rather well-executed propaganda short. There’s an air raid and two British sisters prepare to go to the shelter. Mary Clare is the noncommittal one, who wants to go back to bed, who needs to get her sewing before she can go to the basement. She even turns on the light to find it. Meanwhile, Martita Hunt is the serious, level-headed one. Can’t have the lights on, can’t ignore the sirens, must do our part because we’re relying on others to do their parts, after all, and so we must do ours.

Door wouldn’t work if it weren’t British. Anyone not British coming across like Hunt does would be obnoxious. Instead, she comes off as utterly badass.

The very quick action has the sisters realize German paratroopers are coming down and it certainly seems like they’re about to be invaded. Hunt has to keep her cool while trying to get Clare to get her upper lip stiff enough to be useful. After the quick setup, the rest of the short is full of explosions, spies, paratroopers, bicycles, cigarettes, and hunky home guard officer Ivan Brandt. And it all moves beautifully, thanks to director Hurst.

Good photography from Bernard Browne (especially the night exteriors) and capable editing from Ralph Kemplen—right up until the last shot, everything in Door operates at peak efficiency.

Hunt is awesome. Clare’s… not but more than passable thanks to Hunt overachieving on her end the scene. Clare’s nowhere near as committed to her role as Hunt seems to hers.

Hurst’s excellent direction, even more than Hunt’s performance, gets Door across the finish line. It’s a strong seven minutes of filmmaking, propaganda or not.

2/3Recommended

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Brian Desmond Hurst; screenplay by Rodney Ackland, based on a story by Donald Bull and Thorold Dickinson; director of photography, Bernard Browne; edited by Ralph Kemplen; released by the Ministry of Information..

Starring Martita Hunt (Edith Grant), Mary Clare (Caroline Grant), Ivan Brandt (The Local Defence Volunteer), and Manning Whiley (The Officer).


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Hail Satan? (2019, Penny Lane)

Hail Satan? starts with a joke and ends with Satanic Temple spokesperson Lucien Greaves having to wear a kevlar vest to a rally because so many Pro-Life, Born Again Christians are making legitimate assassination threats. The opening joke is one of the first Satanic Temple rallies, when they’re goofing on Rick Scott. In the span of five years, the Temple (TST) went from being a prank to getting a theatrically released documentary. TST has gone on to become a tax exempt religion (so head to their website if you want to join and get your kid out of corporal punishment, because Satanists aren’t about any of that shit).

The documentary does a mediocre job tracking the organization’s growth. In the first “act,” as the founders recount its early history, all the interviewees are obscured because death threats from Christians. By the end, when the film’s interviewing regional chapter leaders and so on, those folks are on screen unobscured. Hopefully they’re not getting death threats from Christians.

But the film doesn’t get into the death threats. Someone mentions it before they suit up Greaves with the kevlar for what turns out to be the perfunctory finish of the film. Director Lane directs the documentary’s sporadic narrative without any structure, so it’s not like a “let’s talk about death threats” aside would fit but not talking about them also stays in line with how Lane avoids talking about opposition to the Satanic Temple.

Given the TST members define Satan as the “adversary” not the horned beast or whatnot… Hail Satan? not mentioning how the opponents to the Temple are 1) Christian, 2) dedicated to the destruction of the U.S. Constitution, 3) hypocrites, 4) bad people, 5) whatever else. There’s one montage sequence where Lane shows Christians complaining to a city council about the TST giving the daily prayer but not much else. Sure, the film shows Arkansas senator Jason Rapert as an evil fuckwit, but the guy’s objectively an evil fuckwit. Those citizens ignorantly ranting against Satanism? Lane and editors Amy Foote and Aaron Wickenden made the choice of how to present them. Including using a woman who’s apparently an ESL speaker as a joke.

Lane is more than comfortable to present the Satanic Temple as a necessary good but doesn’t get into why it’s necessary; the documentary does at least silver medal gymnastics to avoid talking about how awful American Christians treat everyone who doesn’t think like them. Lane frequently just uses a one-liner from Greaves to comment on something, which “works” because Greaves has got a great onscreen presence as an interviewee (the film relies on following him so much it ought to just follow him), but it’s a major dodge. Lane’s more than comfortable to use Megyn Kelly as a sight gag but not to actually address why Kelly is able to be used as a sight gag. Because she’s an evil white American Christian.

Of course, Lane avoids a lot of other things too. Frequent interviewee Jex Blackmore ends up excommunicated from TST (for promoting the idea of assassinating the forty-fifth president) and Lane covers it, but then seems to use pre-excommunicated interview material from Blackmore again, which doesn’t seem… right. It’s “fine” in a documentary-sense, like Blackmore signed the releases or whatever, but has her perspective changed since the excommunicating. If it hasn’t, it at least ought to be addressed. Pretty much everything Lane avoids ought to be addressed.

Because Hail Satan? only runs ninety-some minutes but the lack of structure makes it feel like two and a half hours. The middle section is just waiting for something to happen. It rarely does. When TST wins one case then loses another, Lane barely addresses the loss. She doesn’t ask her interviewees about it, she just has some quick newsreel footage.

The use of footage is another thing. It’s where Lane’s most comfortable taking jabs at American Christians, usually letting someone else do it, not the film. And Lane doesn’t have to be making a pro-TST documentary—it doesn’t start out as one (when it covers the Temple’s early shenanigans)—but it definitely ends up making one. Some of that positive light is going to be inevitable with the Satanic Temple. Their seven pillars, after all, are just about being good to one’s fellow humans. They aren’t the hateful shit stains. The hateful shit stains are the Christians, who Lane isn’t willing to address, which is the missing half of Hail Satan?

Because the movie just makes the Satanists out to be regular folk (and now a literal oppressed minority), maybe twenty-first century punk slash retro grunge is a little overrepresented but they’re basically just anti-ignorant humanists. Their opposition? Their adversary? The pro-ignorance Christians.

Who Lane takes a swipe at in the editing room with someone else’s footage, someone else’s words.

As is, Hail Satan? is two or three short documentaries lumped into a feature but about half of what it needs to be. It tries to have the Satanic Temple without its adversary and you always need to show the evil. Rapert’s a loathsome, dangerous buffoon, sure, but he’s a poor stand-in for Christianity. Hail Satan? doesn’t flesh out its villains enough; so Christian privilege even permeates a movie about how Satanists are actually the good guys.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Penny Lane; cinematography by Naiti Gámez; edited by Amy Foote and Aaron Wickenden; music by Brian McOmber; produced by Gabriel Sedgwick; released by Magnolia Pictures.


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Rain (1932, Lewis Milestone)

Rain is an adaptation of an adaptation. Maxwell Anderson’s script is based on John Colton and Clemence Randolph’s stage script of a Somerset Maugham story. The story’s from 1921, the play first ran in 1922, Rain is from 1932. Maugham’s story is a first-person account, the play is not but does follow the original narrator, Rain does not. In Rain, he seems an afterthought, which is kind of the problem. Rain has a lot of good scenes and good moments. Director Milestone has a great time showing off camera movement and editing to convey their intensity. He’s also got a lot of excellent montage sequences (he and editor Duncan Mansfield go wild). But he doesn’t have a good sense of the story. Not how to tell it. He knows where it needs to be effective, but he doesn’t know how to keep the energy up between those scenes.

Rain is just over ninety minutes and the last fifteen or twenty minutes feel like an eternity. It just won’t hurry up and do something. In fact, it gets really low towards the end, only for the finish to save things. Luckily there’s enough drama to interest Milestone and there’s enough heavily veiled (pre-Code or not) material in the script for stars Joan Crawford and William Gargan to get some gristle. Rain works out; just. It might help if the ending didn’t just reveal yet another potentially more interesting character in the narrative to follow.

The film, play, story are about a working girl (Crawford) who ends up marooned—there’s cholera on the connecting ship—on a South Seas island with a crazy Christian reformer (Walter Huston). Gargan’s a marine stationed on the island’s naval base who takes a liking to Crawford, regardless of her past. Meanwhile, Huston and his good Christian wife Beulah Bondi set about trying to slut shame Crawford and then ruin her life. They’re all staying in American ex-pat Guy Kibbee’s general store and hotel. Matt Moore and Kendall Lee are another American couple, traveling with Huston and Bondi. Moore’s a doctor, going to be stationed where Huston and Bondi are traveling to missionary. Crawford’s also going there, which horrifies Bondi who gets Huston worked up. Moore’s out on the slut shaming, which you’d think might lead to some kind of scene where Lee talks to him but I’m not sure she ever does. Lee’s never anything but background. It’s a missed opportunity.

Moore’s lack of material is probably the only not missed opportunity in the picture, which is weird since he was the narrator of the short story and still had stuff to do in the stage version. Much of Rain is from Crawford’s perspective. Some of it is from Gargan’s. Some of it is from Kibbee’s. The balance is all way off. The way Milestone directs the film, it needs to be a lot more focused on one. Crawford’s got a pretty significant arc; while it does eventually work into a big pre-Code infer not elucidate, the film would’ve worked much better with a tight focus on her. But then the same goes for… Gargan, Kibbee, Bondi, Huston, probably Lee, probably not Moore. Bondi and Huston can’t be the protagonists because the film’s got a lot to say about Christian missionaries. Kibbee would make it a black comedy sitcom for most of it then something darker. Lee would’ve worked. Gargan would’ve been a little off too. And Milestone doesn’t care. He’s too busy with the great montage sequences and occasional deft camera move. The script isn’t in his sphere of interest.

Neither are the performances. Bondi spends the movie a caricature, which is a really bad move considering how things turn out. Huston’s a little too intense. He’s standoffish in his scenes with Crawford, who tries hard but the lack of insight into her character is the film’s biggest failing. Either way it could go, will she be saved or not, the film makes it about Huston being loud and determined not Crawford’s experience. What ought to be the film’s most striking scenes, when even Milestone realizes it’s time to go to close-ups on a stage adaptation, get tedious instead. Crawford and Huston’s performances just might incompatible. She’s got this long close-up with no dialogue as she starts to break down from his booming preaching and she’s great and the shot’s long enough to see how she’s great… but it doesn’t go anywhere. Instead, the movie drops her for a while so there can be a couple surprises.

Rain had all the parts, someone just needed to think about how to make the stage narrative into a film one. Someone like Milestone, who does a bunch of great stuff, he just doesn’t support his cast’s performances. At all. It ought to be an amazing part for Crawford, Huston, Gargan, maybe Kibbee. But no. Crawford, Gargan, and Kibbee weather it best. Huston eventually gets rained out.

Oh, and awesome bit part from Walter Catlet at the beginning.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by Lewis Milestone; screenplay by Maxwell Anderson, based on a play by John Colton and Clemence Randolph and a story by W. Somerset Maugham; director of photography, Oliver T. Marsh; edited by Duncan Mansfield; music by Alfred Newman; released by United Artists.

Starring Joan Crawford (Sadie Thompson), William Gargan (Sergeant O’Hara), Guy Kibbee (Joe Horn), Walter Huston (Alfred Davidson), Beulah Bondi (Mrs. Davidson), Matt Moore (Dr. Macphail), Kendall Lee (Mrs. Macphail), and Walter Catlett (Quartermaster Bates).



Two Cars, One Night (2004, Taika Waititi)

Trying to describe Two Cars, One Night without getting schmaltzy might be difficult. It’s sublime, gentle, tender, funny, brilliant, inspired, exceptional. Director Waititi’s just as phenomenal directing his young actors as he is at composing the shots to emphasize their experiences; specifically, how they perceive those experiences. The short starts with these two boys sitting in a car in front of a bar. They’re presumably waiting for a parent or two to get done hanging out in the bar. The little brother, Te Ahiwaru Ngamoki-Richards, is quietly reading a book in the passenger seat. The older brother, Rangi Ngamoki, is sitting behind the wheel and watching the adults outside the car.

Waititi does an amazing job subtly implying all these things going on around the boys, which they know are going on but don’t exactly understand. They also don’t understand they don’t exactly understand. Waititi sets up all these known unknowns before there’s the second car. Because amid this situation, where the boys are waiting outside a bar, in this isolated island surrounded by adults adulting, Waikato is going to unknowingly take the first steps towards adulthood.

And here’s why it’s hard to talk about the short without getting schmaltzy. While Waititi avoids sentimentality and instead focuses on his actors and how they convey the action, Two Cars, One Night is about Waikato teasing a girl, Rangi Ngamoki—who arrives in the second car, her parents also going in for drinks (there’s a whole other silent, subtle implication thing regarding the parents who come out first)—but it’s about these two adorable kids flirting. They go from tween and pre-tween (Ngamoki is nine, Waikato is twelve) fighting and teasing to—again—understanding their similar situations on a deeper level than they’re able to consciously recognize. Waititi’s real quiet about it too; he focuses on Ngamoki realizing he wants to talk to Waikato and not really understanding why. Because he’s nine. And she goes from being a grody girl to being worth trying to impress.

Little brother Ngamoki-Richards proves an intentionally bad, more intelligent and thoughtful, hilarious wingman.

Perfect performances from Waikato and Ngamoki. Waititi’s direction, on all levels, just gets more and more impressive throughout. The black and white photography, from Adam Clark, is great. So’s Owen Ferrier-Kerr’s editing. Both Clark and Ferrier-Kerr’s fine work contributes to the sublimeness.

It’s wondrous.

3/3Highly Recommended

CREDITS

Written and directed by Taika Waititi; director of photography, Adam Clark; edited by Owen Ferrier-Kerr; music by Craig Sengelow; produced by Catherine Fitzgerald and Ainsley Gardiner; released by the New Zealand Film Commission.

Starring Rangi Ngamoki (Romeo), Hutini Waikato (Polly), and Te Ahiwaru Ngamoki-Richards (Ed).


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