For Reel

Sing and Like It (1934)
June 26, 2017, 11:03 pm
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Director: William A. Seiter
4 Stars
Sing and Like ItFans of character actors often watch otherwise interminable films just to see Edward Everett Horton, Pert Kelton, ZaSu Pitts, and myriad of others steal a scene or two. Sing and Like It had the novel idea of forgoing everything but the bit players. There is no generic love story in the middle of it, nor do the supporting players simply function as outsiders who conveniently move the plot along for others—they are the active participants who tell their own story. In the case of Nat Pendleton’s T. Fenny Sylvester, he will literally strongarm his way to getting what he wants, threatening a hapless theater producer (Horton) into making a star out of the clearly untalented singer Annie Snodgrass (Pitts). For all the film’s cynicism, there is something refreshing about how earnest each of the characters are—Pendleton truly believes Pitts is a genius, Pitts truly believes Pendleton will fall in love with her, and Horton truly believes he’s absolutely screwed. That these characters so readily wear their hearts on their sleeves makes the sarcastic banter of Kelton all the more biting. Sing and Like It is a satire about how taste-makers have so thoroughly taken power over the arts that “quality” is no longer of any concern, as seen when the terrific Ned Sparks literally threatens a critic to cheer (and therefore the rest of the audience to join him) during a clearly bad performance. If Pitts’ awful rendition of “Your Mother” is a repeating joke on the film, it is the audience who favors the critic to the art that director William A. Seiter wishes to humiliate.

Maid’s Night Out (1938)
June 26, 2017, 10:59 pm
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Director: Ben Holmes
1.5 Stars
Maid's Night OutAfter her pairing with Fred Astaire in A Damsel in Distress lost the studio money, Joan Fontaine would be relegated to programmer pictures at RKO prior to her big breakthrough in Gunga Din. This screwball comedy demonstrates both the fact that RKO didn’t know how to use her and that Fontaine herself was uncomfortable with the genre. As strong as her dramatic chops would prove to be, this early outing shows her as utterly incapable as a comedic actress—she delivers every line (no matter the context) with a wide smile on her face, and her awkward forced bits of laughter happen with a frankly uncomfortable frequency. As the leading man, future cowboy star Allan Lane is amusingly miscast as an ictyologist who makes a deal with his father to work as a milkman for a short period of time. Although the film intends to demonstrate that the couple’s love goes beyond social class (they each fall for someone whom they believe is of the working class), their dual identities are so thinly sketched that the class tensions never come to a substantial boil.

And So They Were Married (1936)
June 26, 2017, 10:58 pm
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Director: Elliott Nugent
2.5 Stars
And So They Were Married.jpgA reversal of the familiar trope in which conspiring children attempt to bring their parents together, this screwball comedy finds Jackie Moran and Edith Fellows playing two bratty children who will do whatever they can to destroy their parents’ engagement. As the central couple is Melvyn Douglas and Mary Astor, the latter of whom is so storied as an empowered, strong-willed presence on screen that Douglas’ grouch is sickly sweet by comparison. This is part of the problem—Douglas’ stubbornness is hardly convincing, and in many scenes it seems like he simply doesn’t care about the material. It is the amount of screen time given to their offspring, however, that ruins its potential as a screwball comedy. A good screwball comedy typically involves healthy doses of cynicism and sexuality. In pairing that genre with a story about two rambunctious children who become friends, the script completely neuters the potential of Douglas and Astor’s relationship. Regardless, the ski lodge setting was relatively uncommon for the genre and it works well as a device to keep the couple trapped until they fall in love. Donald Meek is expectedly amusing as the exasperated hotel manager.

The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)
April 29, 2017, 7:19 pm
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Director: Sean Branney
3 Stars
The Whisperer in Darkness.jpgIn their previous feature film outing, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society crafted an homage to the world of silent film with The Call of Cthulhu and the effect was undoubtedly convincing. In addition to bringing the first truly faithful Lovecraft adaptation to the screen, the project also took great advantage of the tonal qualities relating to the art of silent films. That is, the mystifying and the unknowable seemed tailor-made for the world of German expressionism, which similarly prides itself in forging logical gaps. The Whisperer in Darkness, the production company’s equally ambitious follow-up, mimics the style of 1930s and 1940s horror in the way it uses a melodramatic score and bathes its sets in shadow (complete with the requisite nighttime thunderstorms), but unfortunately the filmmaker’s desire to meet more modern demands breaks the spell. An early lecture scene is quickly-cut, alternating between shots of at least four significant figures as well as the audience while the camera roams throughout the auditorium. If recreating the style of an old film is an unabashed gimmick, audiences will accept it if the filmmakers totally abide by those rules. In this case, however, the bizarre mix of contemporary pacing and old-fashioned aesthetic is a barrier to entry. The middle section, in following Lovecraft’s work faithfully, finally starts to gather steam as it unveils the disturbing implications of man’s sheer lack of knowledge regarding the world he inhabits. Turning the last act into a standard SyFy film translates better than one might think—Matt Foyer’s smug scholar turned action hero heightens the sense of desperation—but an attempt at character building towards the end happens a little too late to be fully convincing or effective (as it is, it plays as so forced that it becomes more than a little creepy). If The Whisperer in Darkness is not as enchanting as The Call of Cthulhu, however, it is equally enjoyable to watch for fans of the author, and the pair of films remain the key faithful adaptations of Lovecraft’s work.

The Call of Cthulhu (2005)
April 29, 2017, 7:10 pm
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Director: Andrew Leman
4 Stars
The Call of CthulhuThat The Call of Cthulhu was produced by an independent company known as the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society tips off that it was a labor of love more than anything else. What surprises is that, in addition to paying justice to the eponymous story in keeping nearly all details the same (the twist that the narrator is driven insane by the findings only brings the film closer to the spirit of the writer’s fiction), it is just as dedicated as an homage to filmmakers such as Murnau and Lang. Using what the filmmakers dubbed “Mythoscope”, the film incorporates both vintage techniques such as the use of miniatures and stop motion animation and more modern, computer-focused practices. Therefore, the film not only uses impressively scaled, abstract sets in the vein of The Cabinet of Caligari, but can precisely and convincingly use special effects to allow actors to inhabit several parts of the set in a way that seamlessly conveys depth and scale. As a filmed narrative, the film suffers in the same way the source material does—the episodic nature of the plot feels less like a steady investigation and more rambling, whereas Lovecraft’s more linear works tended to develop the themes of madness and dread with a sharper sense of progression. Regardless, the filmmakers’ care for technique elevates this beyond what would expect of a “fan film”—in some sequences, the effort recalls the films of Guy Maddin, who similarly uses the silent film aesthetic in achieving a tone of madness.

Belladonna of Sadness (1973)
April 29, 2017, 7:05 pm
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Director: Eiichi Yamamoto
3.5 Stars
Belladonna of SadnessAt the time of its release in 1973, Belladonna of Sadness was such a financial disaster that it bankrupted the pioneering Japanese animation studio that released it. Now, with its reissue over four decades later, the film remains… well, equally inaccessible. At once a psychedelic, orgiastic sexploitation film in which genitalia morphs into animal forms and a deeply disturbing rape-revenge story, Belladonna of Sadness is loosely modeled on Jules Michelet’s 1862 study of medieval witchcraft. Shortly into the film, a peasant woman is brutally raped by a king and his henchman. The act is as disturbingly rendered as has been put to film, and expressionistically honors the unthinkable violence of the act—in the film, the perpetrators are little seen, but rather the victim is depicted as being torn in half in pulsating rips. After the brutal act is committed, the woman is visited by a phallic devil that becomes her abuser and mentor, and before long her powers create a plague in which images of decaying bodies and obscene sexual acts coexist. These later scenes, which would make the LSD-addled flora of Pink Floyd: The Wall blush, are the film’s weakest. If they have a hypnotic quality, they largely exist by the merits of their surface-level pleasures, harmonizing pleasure and pain in increasingly absurd images. But the first half, upsetting as it is to watch, is genuinely moving, and the way that the film conceives sexual pleasure as a means of thwarting oppression and sexual violence makes it a radical, under-seen feminist film of the period. Director Eiichi Yamamoto’s intentions are occasionally questionable—Satan’s seduction of the protagonist is eroticized to the point where the invasiveness becomes kinky—but the way he depicts open female sexuality as a literal demonic force plays as sharply satirical, turning erotic art into something that is decidedly anti-authoritarian in nature.

Radio Days (1987)
April 29, 2017, 6:59 pm
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Director: Woody Allen
3 Stars
Radio DaysOn the heels of one of his most narratively ambitious features (the much lauded Hannah and Her Sisters), Woody Allen released this equally ambitious piece of nostalgia that serves as a series of anecdotes about what it was to grow up in the 1940s. Santo Loquasto’s set design recreates a crowded, rambunctious house of the period—a place where the radio was always on, its legends inevitably burrowing into the inhabitant’s psyches. Allen’s wistful voiceover confirms that the film’s ambition is to serve as a sharing of memories rather than to string the audience through a typical narrative, and as such Radio Days admirably suggests the ways that memories (already prone to half-truths) can intermingle with media in unusual ways. That is, as much as it recounts what it was like to grow up in the 40s, Radio Days spends much of its runtime detailing anecdotes relating to radio, such as the fact that a famous gunslinger could actually be voiced by a man with the stature of Wallace Shawn. And yet, if the radio could lie to the listener, it was a lie that its devotees truly believed in—a relationship not far removed from the ways we interact with our own histories. If Radio Days is successful in independent vignettes, however, its aimlessness comes to its detriment. Memories are founded not only by the “tone” of a specific period, but by the hopes and dreams of the people you surround yourself with. In Radio Days, the supporting characters are largely comical afterthoughts, whose interactions with the Allen stand-in are largely forgettable. For a film that celebrates humanity, none of the people in it particularly resonate. We can take Annie Hall similarly as a film about memory, and if that film lacks the obsessive tone control of this one, it more profoundly deals with how our interpersonal relationships shape the people that we come to be.