Category Archives: ★★

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).



Born in East L.A. (1987, Cheech Marin)

Born in East L.A. is a much lighter comedy than expected. Maybe not more than writer-director-star Cheech Marin portends—and a lot of the film’s ineffectiveness isn’t first time feature director Marin’s fault, he needed one of his four editors to have some clue about creating narrative continuity. And while his cinematographer—Álex Phillips Jr.—isn’t at all incompetent, one does wish he’d have given Marin some pointers about how to frame establishing shots. There are a number of times in the film where it seems like Marin’s setting up a sight gag but… no. He really just doesn’t seem to realize he doesn’t have to shoot in medium shot so much.

Marin’s an L.A. mechanic who goes to pick up a visiting cousin (Paul Rodriguez, in a role cut down what probably ought to be an uncredited mega-cameo) and gets scooped up in an immigration raid. So while Marin’s getting deported, Rodriguez is trying to figure out his way in L.A. He’s staying with Marin and family, but family is out of town, which gets to be a problem since Marin needs someone to come down to the border with his ID so he can return home. The casual, nonspecific, almost benign racism from the border guards—including Jan-Michael Vincent is the boss in one scene, which should probably be uncredited too, even if it wasn’t cut down. Just having creative opening titles would probably help the film a bit.

Anyway, the racism. It doesn’t just date East L.A. it makes the film a very peculiar cultural document. At least in the first fifteen or twenty minutes, because once Marin realizes he can’t sneak across the border, he sets about making some money to buy his way back across.

One of the major plot holes, which may or may not be a result of the cuts, is whether or not his family ever misses him; they’re only supposed to be gone for a week. There’s some stuff with Rodriguez alone at the house and it’s all pretty funny, but doesn’t go anywhere. For a while, Rodriguez is giving the film’s best performance too. Because Marin starts the movie wanting the audience to think he’s a bit of a goon. The opening titles, while they aren’t giving away all the eventual cameos, is all about Marin following a woman (Neith Hunter) around L.A. landmarks and catcalling her. Only, because Marin’s not really good at the shots—if they’re not second unit—it’s never clear she hears his catcalling, which just makes him an ineffective stalker? He’s definitely supposed to be harmless, but it’s not clear how lovable he’s supposed to be for quite a bit longer into the film. When he tells someone about his history in the U.S. Army.

Marin hides he’s got backstory for about sixty of the film’s eighty-five minutes. Odd, odd, odd choice.

Though I suppose when you consider him being a vet who can’t get back into his country… but, wait, 1980s, all the border guards were swell fellows.

Marin’s got some really good gags, some really good jokes, a handful of excellent ideas; he’s able to execute about thirty percent of them satisfactorily. The plot’s pretty traditional, down to greasy scuzball Daniel Stern—but not dangerous greasy scuzball—being Marin’s “boss” and sidekick in Mexico (Stern’s in forced expatriation) and Kamala Lopez as a love interest (though, as she’s eighteen years younger than Marin, he comes off like an uncle, chemistry-wise). They could’ve had someone pretty easily doctor the script. Just saying.

Instead, the film’s a hodgepodge of funny moments and performances—Lopez is more likable than good, while Stern is funnier than good. Producer Peter Macgregor-Scott really should’ve gotten Marin a better crew.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Written and directed by Cheech Marin; director of photography, Álex Phillips Jr.; edited by Don Brochu, Stephen Lovejoy, David Newhouse, and Mike Sheridan; music by Lee Holdridge; production designer, Lynda Burbank; produced by Peter Macgregor-Scott; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Cheech Marin (Rudy), Daniel Stern (Jimmy), Kamala Lopez (Dolores), Paul Rodriguez (Javier), Jan-Michael Vincent (McCalister), Lupe Ontiveros (Rudy’s Mother), and Tony Plana (Feo).


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Dramatic School (1938, Robert B. Sinclair)

Given Dramatic School is all about top-billed Luise Rainer’s rise of stage stardom, it might help if she were actually the protagonist of the story, instead of its—occasional—subject. Because Rainer’s got to share the film with a bunch of other characters, none particularly interesting. There’s Rand Brooks, who’s the headmaster’s son and from a long line of actors. Then there’s Gale Sondergaard as the renowned stage actress turned instructor, who resents having to teach in general and Rainer specifically. Though Rainer idolizes her. Supposedly. We don’t ever really see much of it. And then there’s second-billed Paulette Goddard, who doesn’t have much interested in acting, just gossiping with her classmates and dating a string of wealthy men and refusing to marry any of them.

Virginia Grey, Lana Turner, and Ann Rutherford play some of the other students. Rutherford is dating Brooks and ends up getting more to do than either Grey or Turner (Turner gets fourth billing, which is way too high even without Rutherford).

The film takes place in Paris, which only makes sense when Rainer is onscreen because no one else even hints at a French accent. Rainer goes to acting school all day and works in a factory all night, alongside sympathetic aunt Marie Blake (who has nothing to do in the film whatsoever, not even dote on Rainer when she’s down).

So one fateful night—in the first ten minutes of the eighty minute movie—stage sensation Genevieve Tobin (who’s also way too highly billed at fifth) shows up at the factory with her wealthy beau, Alan Marshal. There’s a little incident, but it’s not important other than to introduce Rainer to Marshal so she can make up this grandiose lie about having an affair with him. Eventually Goddard meets Marshal socially and sets a trap for Rainer, hoping to humiliate her.

Will Marshal let himself be played? Does it end up mattering?

I won’t spoil the first, but it doesn’t end up mattering at all for the narrative. When Rainer gets her big break, it’s got nothing to do with the plot until that point. It’s incredible how fast screenwriters Ernest Vajda and Mary C. McCall Jr. get bored with their… screenplay. Other than Goddard, the script doesn’t dwell on anyone. Turner and Grey are interchangeable, Rutherford is mostly scenery until she all of a sudden gets attention. Goddard doesn’t have a character. She exists as a foil to torment Rainer, who’s usually too busy in her own head to even notice Goddard’s plotting cruelty.

The third act has this big showdown between Rainer and Sondergaard, following the film infusing a “Sondergaard is getting dissed for being an actress nearing forty” subplot, which also brings in Henry Stephenson (as the headmaster) quite a bit. Stephenson’s only slightly less unbelievable as an accomplished Parisian actor than Sondergaard, who no one thought to give more characterization than shrill. She’s in the second scene of the film, bitching about (at that point) utterly harmless and barely introduced Rainer. Sondergaard is opposite Margaret Dumont in that scene; Dumont’s great. Shame she’s only in the movie for two scenes and never when Rainer’s finally out of her shell, which takes way too long. Especially for a movie ostensibly about her.

Rainer’s performance is fine. She gives the best performance in the film, which isn’t much of a compliment. Vajda and McCall can’t even be bothered with thin caricaturization, much less thin characterization. Marshal, for instance, is an utter bore. He’s got some charm, but he’s dramatically inert, upstaged by everyone opposite him. Including an uncredited, nearly silent John Picorri as his valet. Sinclair doesn’t know how to direct his cast, but he really doesn’t know how to direct Marshal.

Of the students, Grey’s probably the best. If Goddard got a character before the third act, she might be better but since she doesn’t… nope. Turner’s kind of annoying.

Sondergaard, who isn’t important for the majority of the runtime, ends up being the most important player in the film. She’s really not up for it. Stephenson’s miscast. Brooks gets a rotten deal as his son too. Supposedly Brooks can’t act. But based on the exercises in the acting classes, none of the students can act. It’s not until the third act, when Rainer’s on a real stage, there’s any evidence of ability. Watching Rainer’s play in the movie, you wish the movie were just Rainer in the play. It might make up for the rest of the nonsense. Unfortunately, it’s not the movie and it’s also way too quick an interlude. Because then there’s the wrap-up, which is simultaneously tepid and vapid.

Dramatic School isn’t terrible. It doesn’t have enough energy to be terrible. Rainer’s got potential, but the script isn’t there and the direction isn’t there. Her character’s name is Louise too. It’s like, if you’re going to have the main character be an aspiring actress with the same name as the successful actress playing her… maybe there ought to be something to that coincidence. At least some emphasis. Instead, the script does everything it can to avoid Rainer and focus on everyone around her. But not give them anything to do until the end. And even at the end it’s just busywork, resolving pointless plot threads.

The film’s competent and useless. Even as a vehicle—as it seems to have been—for MGM ingenues, it’s useless. It seems like it’s more producer Mervyn LeRoy’s fault than anyone else’s. Like, Sinclair obviously wasn’t going to come through on the direction. Ditto the screenwriters. Someone needed to right the ship. No one does.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert B. Sinclair; screenplay by Ernest Vajda and Mary C. McCall Jr., based on a play by Hans Székely and Zoltan Egyed; director of photography, William H. Daniels; edited by Fredrick Y. Smith; music by Franz Waxman; produced by Mervyn LeRoy; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Starring Luise Rainer (Louise Mauban), Alan Marshal (Marquis Andre D’Abbencourt), Paulette Goddard (Nana), Gale Sondergaard (Madame Charlot), Marie Blake (Annette), Lana Turner (Mado), Virginia Grey (Simone), Ann Rutherford (Yvonne), John Hubbard (Fleury), Genevieve Tobin (Gina Bertier), Henry Stephenson (Pasquel Sr.), Rand Brooks (Pasquel Jr.), and Margaret Dumont (Pantomime Teacher).


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THIS FILM IS ALSO DISCUSSED IN SUM UP | LUISE RAINER: AN INCOMPLETE FILMOGRAPHY.