Then Playing — Hallelujah; Ghostbusters: Afterlife; Villain

Hallelujah (King Vidor, 1929). Hampered by problematic stereotypes imposed by studio leadership that was otherwise unwilling to fund a production featuring a cast entirely comprised of Black performers, Hallelujah nonetheless provides a hint as how different the Golden Age of Hollywood might have been had their been interest in and allowance for a wider range of voices. The story follows a sharecropper (Daniel L. Haynes) who gets tripped up by sinful temptation before becoming a Baptist minister, a vocation that, it turns out, doesn’t make him immune from the continued allure of decadence. The main appeal of the film is its survey of the Black culture of the moment: spirituals, jazz, and all manner of vibrantly alive dance. A cautionary drama in its soul, Hallelujah is structured like a musical, and the monumental excitement of that carries through. (The film was released a mere two years after The Jazz Singer necessitated the coining of the word “talkies.”). King Vidor directs impressively within the technological limitations of the era, especially in several location shots. The whole cast is strong enough to lament the lack of opportunity to prosper in a prejudiced industry, with Nina Mae McKinney a crackling standout.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife (Jason Reitman, 2021). As if the typical fan service of modern revivals of moldy franchises isn’t bad enough, Jason Reitman treats taking over stewardship of the characters and concepts of his dad’s biggest hit as if he’s been handed Excalibur still dripping with lake water. The reverence in Ghostbusters: Afterlife is complete to the point of teleporting in the first film’s primary threat with only the barest attempt to incorporate any new ideas. The imposition of heavy family drama and needlessly complicated mythologizing further seep the energy out of the enterprise. As the embittered daughter of Egon Spengler, Carrie Coon cracks off a few choice line readings in the first half of the film, partially because there’s an undertone of sardonic irritation that is the appropriate response to cheap slathering underway. By the second half, even she must succumb to being nothing more than a squeaking gear in a garish machine. The final act’s attempt at memorial tribute cooked up by Reitman and his co-credited screenwriter, Gil Kenan, is ghoulish opportunism at its worst.

Villain (Michael Tuchner, 1971). As is the case with many other British crime dramas of the nineteen-sixties and -seventies, the plot of Villain is so awash in hazy allegiances, double-crosses, and shorthand schemes that it’s borderline impenetrable. In this case, the situation isn’t helped by squeamishness that prompted filmmakers to tone down some of the homoerotic elements (though they are definitely still present, if cryptically). The movie needs to get by on style. Michael Tuchner’s pedestrians direction doesn’t provide it, so the performances must carry the weight. None of the actors is in peak form, yet it’s friskily entertaining to watch Richard Burton bulldogging his way through a turn as a Cockney thug and Ian McShane bringing an almost foppish care to his henchman a few decades before perfecting powerhouse menace on Deadwood. The film is more of a curiosity than a wholly satisfying experience.

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