Magnolia Pictures

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.



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.

Tangerine (2015, Sean Baker)

There’s no hope in Tangerine. It’s not a completely negative film–and it’s often quite funny–but there’s no hope. Director Baker leaves the most devastating part of the film in the viewer’s mind. The movie ends. The lives of the characters do not; Baker goes out of his way with these beautiful montages set to a various types of music to give the viewer time to consider, to anticipate, to reflect on the film’s contradiction. Baker never asks the viewer to empathize, even when a character’s sympathetic, likable.

The film is about a prostitute (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez), fresh out of jail, hunting down her cheating boyfriend slash pimp. Her quest gets her best friend (Mya Taylor) involved, but it also ties into the life of one of their customers, a cabbie.

The cabbie, played by Karren Karagulian, gets to do the most dramatic acting for the first act of Tangerine. Rodriguez is this uncontrollable force raging down the Los Angeles blocks with Taylor’s failure to contain her funny but also scary. Baker’s very careful about how he follows Rodriguez and Taylor–they’re the world, everything else is background, but dangerous background.

Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch forecast a lot of the plot but against the viewer’s anticipation; it seems too much, but then Tangerine delivers.

Amazing acting from Taylor, Rodriguez and Karagulian. Great writing; not just the scenes and the plotting, but how Baker and Bergoch so perfectly set up the ground situation.

Tangerine’s depressing, reassuring, mundane, magnificent.



Edited and directed by Sean Baker; written by Baker and Chris Bergoch; directors of photography, Baker and Radium Cheung; produced by Baker, Karrie Cox, Marcus Cox, Darren Dean and Shih-Ching Tsou; released by Magnolia Pictures.

Starring Kitana Kiki Rodriguez (Sin-Dee), Mya Taylor (Alexandra), Karren Karagulian (Razmik), Mickey O’Hagan (Dinah), James Ransone (Chester), Alla Tumanian (Ashken), Luiza Nersisyan (Yeva), Arsen Grigoryan (Karo), Ian Edwards (Nash), Ana Foxx (Selena) and Clu Gulager (The Cherokee).

Capturing the Friedmans (2003, Andrew Jarecki)

Director Jarecki tries to appear like he’s staying out of Capturing the Friedmans. His voice occasionally appears behind the camera when interviewing but these questions are usually for effect. Jarecki is deliberate in the construction of the documentary; he only lets it get away from him once.

Capturing the Friedmans examines a sensational child abuse case from the eighties involving Arnold Friedman and his son, Jesse. Jesse Friedman, his older brother David Friedman and their mother, Elaine Friedman, are the principal interviewees. At least after the first third or so, where Jarecki concentrates on the police and prosecutors, who are all sure of the defendants’ guilt.

Once Jarecki focuses on the story from the Friedmans’ perspective, he’s able to use a lot of home movie footage. Both Arnold and David Friedman were home movies enthusiasts, though Arnold made idyllic family home movies while David used the technology to chronicle his father and brother’s legal dealings and their family’s collapse. That element Jarecki can’t control? Having David Friedman as protagonist while the home movie footage shows him berating his mother.

Jarecki can stay out of Friedmans all he wants, but certain elements–like how he’s able to use that private home movie footage–should be made clear. There are a number of devices Jarecki utilizes to sway his viewer. Like when Jarecki needlessly shows the possibly overzealous cop has a George W. Bush coffee mug.

Or all of Andrea Morricone’s lovely, if saccharine, score.

Friedmans is a well-made, reductive package.



Directed by Andrew Jarecki; director of photography, Adolfo Doring; edited by Richard Hankin; music by Andrea Morricone; produced by Jarecki and Marc Smerling; released by Magnolia Pictures.

Red (2008, Trygve Allister Diesen and Lucky McKee)

Red‘s a really safe movie. I’ve seen Noel Fisher play a young creep multiple times on television–just a few weeks ago even–and I’ve seen Kyle Gallner play the sensitive kid who hangs out with the creep. Twice for him. And casting Brian Cox as a loner who loses his dog and relentlessly pursues justice… well, it’s Brian Cox. It’s the kind of thing Cox has been doing for years. He’s really good, but he’s really good because he’s Brian Cox, not because the role has much depth to it.

The script’s very confused when it comes to that depth. Cox has a long, devastating back story. It comes out in various scenes with Cox reluctantly revealing himself to Kim Dickens. But the film starts so fast–the third scene is the big one, Fisher killing Cox’s dog–it makes all that eventual fill-in unnecessary. Worse, for a film with an utterly predictable conclusion, Red manages not to tie any of Cox’s character’s strings together. Sure, if his back story weren’t so tragic and so terrible, it’d be natural not to have the pieces together, but the film makes such a point about them. It seems to be an oversight.

The film’s actually pretty hard to watch. It’s one of those “rich people with influence escape justice” pictures, but with the crime here (and Cox’s good performance) so cruel and senseless, it’s a constantly unpleasant experience. Directors Diesen and McKee–there are no hints at who directed what or why the film needed two directors, it hardly appears to be a difficult prospect–take the unpleasantness one step further with some of the conversation pieces. Cox’s house is horrifyingly decorated, like the wall paper is supposed to make the viewer’s stomach turn, and the scenes with he and Dickens set there are difficult to endure.

The direction does have some high points. It feels very British at times, like a Masterpiece Theatre entry sensationalized and set in America. I think Diesen’s Norwegian, which is–cinematically speaking–close enough.

While Dickens has the film’s second or third biggest role, she frequently disappears and it always seems like she’s off in a better movie. It’s not really her fault, it’s the script. The script, at the end, both acknowledges her muted attraction to Cox… and his fear of aging (which had never been brought up before). The oversights mount up, especially as the film barrels through the third act, knocking down false ending after false ending.

The rest of the supporting cast is excellent–particularly Richard Riehle and Robert Englund. Tom Sizemore’s got a decent-sized role, but his character makes absolutely no sense after his first scene. Sizemore’s hair is dyed blonde, which looks bad, but he’s got a solid energy to him when he needs it. His writing isn’t good.

If one were to think about Red too long, the entire film would collapse. Not because of the Cox stuff, though. Cox is golden here, except he’s perfectly safe. There’s no risk and, subsequently, no reward.



Directed by Trygve Allister Diesen and Lucky McKee; screenplay by Stephen Susco, based on a novel by Jack Ketchum; director of photography, Harald Gunnar Paalgard; edited by Jon Endre Mørk; music by Søren Hyldgaard; production designers, Leslie Keel and Tiffany Zappulla; produced by Steve Blair, Diesen and Norman Dreyfuss; released by Magnolia Pictures.

Starring Brian Cox (Avery Ludlow), Kim Dickens (Carrie Donnel), Noel Fisher (Danny), Tom Sizemore (Michael McCormack), Kyle Gallner (Harold), Shiloh Fernandez (Pete Doust), Richard Riehle (Sam Berry), Amanda Plummer (Mrs. Doust) and Robert Englund (Willie Doust).

Bubble (2005, Steven Soderbergh)

I’m not sure who’s odder, Soderbergh for making it or Coleman Hough for “writing” it. Since much of the actual scene content is improvised, I think I’m going to have to go with Soderbergh. Bubble leaves one with quite a few thoughts–especially if the viewer knows the cast is nonprofessional and turn in better performances than professionals and if the viewer also knows the story behind the film’s release (it was a simultaneous theatrical, DVD, and cable release)–but the primary thought is about Soderbergh. He’s an odd duck. There’s no better description.

Bubble is exceptional because I’ve never seen a film change so much. It’s only seventy-three minutes long and for the first thirty, I wasn’t sure. The great experiment (also from Soderbergh’s perspective, as he’s planning on doing more of these small films with nonprofessionals across America) was failing. It’s a beautiful looking film–Soderbergh shot it in digital Panavision, it’s got a great score and perfect sound design–but it doesn’t work. Then, all of a sudden, it works. When the film synopsis first appeared, it played up the mystery angle (undoubtedly for the theater-goers) and once the mystery shows up, Bubble comes together. But calling the film a mystery would be misleading. Bubble is a film about nothing, where not much happens. Given how much was out of Soderbergh’s control–the improvised scenes, the location shooting–it’s amazing he pulled it off. Unfortunately, once a film becomes so finely tuned, one or two things can knock it down from the perfection pedestal. In Bubble’s case, one is the end credit sequence (stills of doll factory rejects–Bubble finally becomes a “Steven Soderbergh” film instead of a… film). But, more importantly, there’s a shovel scraping against concrete and Soderbergh didn’t cut right after the shovel left ground. Really.

The nonprofessional cast is fantastic, with the best performance being from Debbie Doebereiner, who’s the lead. Second best is the police detective, Decker Moody. The other two really good ones are Dustin Ashley as the male lead and Kyle Smith, who’s only got two scenes, but one of them–between him and Moody–is amazing.

I frequently forget about Soderbergh. I think it’s because he’s not one of those one-a-year guys. He needs to do more films.



Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Coleman Hough; director of photography, Peter Andrews; edited by Mary Ann Bernard; music by Robert Pollard; produced by Gregory Jacobs; released by Magnolia Pictures.

Starring Debbie Doebereiner (Martha), Dustin James Ashley (Kyle), Misty Dawn Wilkins (Rose), Omar Cowan (Martha’s father), Laurie Lee (Kyle’s mother) and David Hubbard (pastor).

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