For Reel

Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016)
August 21, 2016, 12:40 pm
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Director: Werner Herzog
4 Stars
Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected WorldOn first glance, Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World seems to have arrived a little too late—the considerations of the Internet’s effect on our culture, the theories behind Artificial Intelligence, and the addictions to a cyber-world have all been in the conversation for many years. And yet Werner Herzog’s singular curiosities not only have the potential to propel conversations forward, but serve as a thoughtful reflection of the last two decades of cultural evolution. The film struggles when it imagines the hypothetical apocalyptic event of a solar flare, but when Herzog ponders the new ethics of interconnectivity and its potential on human consciousness, there is joy to be had in his line of questioning (who but Herzog, when confronted by an engineer and an impressive soccer-playing robot, would ask the man if he loves it?) That the film dwells on the question, “Does the internet dream of itself?” suggests Herzog reaching self-parody, but the beauty of his documentaries is not just his singular worldview, but the surprising ways his subjects respond to it—some of the thinkers meet the question with almost childish glee, whereas others seem to want to blow it off entirely. Herzog’s recent retreat into very contemporary issues of morality (the death penalty, texting and driving, the internet) is not a retreat from the wilderness, but a suggestion that technology itself is the new frontier, posing both unimaginable potential and threats to the way that we conceive of ourselves in the world.

Fancy Pants (1950)
August 21, 2016, 12:33 pm
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Director: George Marshall
2 Stars
Fancy PantsBob Hope and Lucille Ball teamed for the second time in this loose adaptation of the Leo McCarey classic Ruggles of Red Gap, with Hope attempting to fill the sizable shoes of Charles Laughton. That Hope is so unconvincing as an English butler is wrought into the script—he’s a lousy American actor who only barely passes as one! Director George Marshall had worked with Hope on one of his most successful pictures in The Ghost Breakers, but here the storytelling is shallow and inept. If it hits the notes of a traditional romantic comedy involving a confused identity, Marshall’s flat direction and the rushed script gives the film no sense of an emotional trajectory, much less a suspense in the growing infatuation between the unlikely couple. No one involved seems inspired to use the drawing room comedy as the canvas for a Hope genre subversion, and the western elements that become introduced late in the picture are tangential at best. While viewers going into a Hope picture are not necessarily expecting emotional resonance, one would have liked to see this re-imagining carry over a fraction of the sensitivity of its predecessor, which is among the most heartfelt dramas of the 1930s.

Nashville (1975)
August 21, 2016, 12:28 pm
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Director: Robert Altman
4.5 Stars
NashvilleNashville is a film of alarming contradictions, imagining America as a nation at war with itself and yet holding off on an intervention with blind optimism. The songs of the film reflect this notion—how can one stomach lyrics like “I pray my sons won’t go to war but if they must they must” or “We must be doing something right to last 200 years” as a tribute to patriotism and not blind naïveté? The great thing about Robert Altman’s film, however, is that if there is an undeniable cynicism in the way things play out, there is no sensationalizing of the details. It’s a tonally complicated film precisely because the only tone Altman is concerned with capturing is what it felt like to be in Nashville in 1975. When performers take the stage the Grand Ole Opry house, the performers and the crowd are given equal importance—it is impossible to ignore fans shuffling in and out of the theater during Henry Gibson’s performance, whereas many filmmakers would have insisted on falsifying their united interest in the music. The cumulative ironies make the film a darkly funny one at times in a way not unlike a Christopher Guest improvisation, but the situations that are inherently humorous can’t overcome the fact that they are desperately sad and hopeless (Ronee Blakely’s on-stage banter seamlessly transitions from endearingly awkward to a woman having a breakdown in a hurry). If Nashville is almost overwhelming in scope, these consistent themes of contradictions and hopes being pitted against realities is a powerful through-line that substitutes for the need of a traditional narrative.

Terror by Night (1946)
August 20, 2016, 12:10 pm
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Director: Roy William Neill
3.5 Stars
Terror by NightBasil Rathbone had been feeling his career was limited by the Sherlock Holmes series by the mid-1940s, and during the production of Terror by Night he knew it would be his penultimate representation of the character. That fans of the film series applaud this installment as one of the best might have to do with a newly enlivened Rathbone—a man who not only saw the light at the end of the tunnel, but one who wanted to go out on a high point. It helps that the dramatics are limited to the confines of a train and in a brief sixty minute running time. The suspense levels are high and the story pushes forward at a nice clip. Director Roy William Neill takes a moment about halfway through the picture to explain who the main suspects are by providing each with a close-up and a brief description—if it’s gimmicky and even insulting to a perceptive audience, the technique actually works quite well not because it narrows down the field of potential suspects, but allows each of them to occupy a similar weight. If the ultimate reveal and a few late coincidences are overwrought (the film was loosely adapted from bits and pieces of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories), there are a few effective setpieces along the way, such as an attempted murder on Holmes in which he is shoved from an open train door. Alan Mowbray lends support as Watson’s friend and is quite good at both casting suspicion and quelling it in equal measure.

The Reluctant Dragon (1941)
August 20, 2016, 12:08 pm
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Director(s): Alfred L. Werker & Hamilton Luske
2.5 Stars
The Reluctant DragonThe financial losses of Fantasia and Pinocchio led Disney to release this quick, cheap feature as a showcase of their new animation facility, complimenting the studio tour with a handful of already completed shorts. Disney had not yet worked with live-action, and so Robert Benchley and a production team from Fox were brought onboard to film a “documentary” sequence involving Benchley’s trip to the Disney studio with the intentions of selling a story idea. The live-action portions are undoubtedly the film’s highlight—although they are nothing but a fantasy (in reality, hundreds of the studio’s workers picketed outside the studio the same year), the glimpses of the cell animations and the multiplane camera do allow one a genuine peak backstage. Disney enthusiasts are also treated to early looks at Dumbo, Bambi, and the reference models for films like Peter Pan (which halted production for years after this film was released). Unfortunately, the animated segments of The Reluctant Dragon are just not particularly good, with cheap, rushed animation and subpar storytelling. The one exception is Baby Weems if only for its interesting aesthetic—the film introduces the short as a series of storyboards, and therefore the animation is simple and rendered in muted colors (it looks somewhat like the recent Studio Ghibli film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya). Little more than a commercial for the dream factory, The Reluctant Dragon is a hugely unique historical artifact of the studio at the brink of collapse, but ironically does better at its own myth-making than seducing one with exceptional animations.

Below the Sea (1933)
August 20, 2016, 12:03 pm
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Director: Albert S. Rogell
3 Stars
Below the Sea1933 was an unusually productive year for Fay Wray. Not only would she star in the film that made her a genre film icon in King Kong, but she starred in an additional ten pictures—ranging from the feminist drama Ann Carver’s Profession to horror classic Mystery of the Wax Museum. Below the Sea came right after King Kong and once again found her tangling with a monster: this time a giant octopus! Ralph Bellamy is the unlikely romantic lead in this pre-Code adventure that finds crooked divers searching for gold from a German U-Boat that was lost in World War I. The earliest scenes with Bellamy show him playing the brute complete with beard and eyeshadow. It’s a ridiculous performance—his best work would take advantage of his awkwardness rather than try to mask it—but his scowls and groans produce much entertainment. Wray, on the other hand, is quite good as the scientific explorer who seduces him, as is Esther Howard in a small role as a prostitute (she resembles and plays her scenes with the same sass as Miriam Hopkins). Although the film is by-and-large a standard actioner, director Albert S. Rogell shows a playfulness in the presentation, including a lengthy sequence in German without subtitles and a creative editing transition using a diegetic camera. The climax sees a well-handled use of miniatures and some sly editing as an octopus attacks a diving bell, but the film’s real pleasures have nothing to do with a sense of realism—Below the Sea is a delightful blend of pre-Code brazenness and adventure schlock, complimenting each deep diving scene with innuendo-laden dialogue.

Thunderbolt (1929)
August 20, 2016, 12:00 pm
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Director: Josef von Sternberg
4 Stars
ThunderboltJosef von Sternberg’s first foray into sound is a hugely unique, asynchronous genre picture—while some have referred to Thunderbolt as a sound remake of Underworld, it couldn’t be any different in terms of its tone and the way it betrays certain classical forms. It can’t be said that von Sternberg used sound in new ways because it was all new, but he undeniably saw a potential in sound that his contemporaries overlooked. His soundtrack is crowded with noise, with voices coming and going as a means of conveying the moving through space. Strangely, it has the feel of wall-to-wall musical, with the death row setting accompanied by a chorus that sometimes has a maddening effect (the claustrophobia is enhanced by the fact that the music is literally inescapable). Moreover, von Sternberg used sound as an extension of his expressionism—watch, for example, the simple scene wherein George Bancroft squeaks a dog toy, first slowly and then with a rapidity that creates a high-pitch wheezing. It’s an absurd sound and even gesture given the context, but something about the toy’s death wails seems appropriate—a manifestation of the sense of terror that Bancroft rarely shows glimpses of. Thunderbolt‘s first half is almost indisputably great (including a knockout night club sequence), but the latter half poses a number of interesting challenges. Von Sternberg’s camera movements are removed almost entirely, the dialogue moves at a snail’s pace, and the suspense isn’t quite there because Thunderbolt’s change of heart seems inevitable more than a possibility. And yet it is at the same time strangely unforgettable, with its soundtrack alone earning its place among the most ambitious of the early sound films.


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