90 Movies in 90 Days: 3-Iron (2004)

I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: 3-Iron
Release Date: September 2004
Director: Kim Ki-duk
Production Company: Kim Ki-duk Film | Cineclick Asia

A young itinerant, Tae-suk (Jae Hee), breaks into houses when the owners are away and makes it his temporary home.  He steals nothing apart from food and spends his time repairing broken objects and taking selfies with the homeowners’ property.  At one house he discovers that one of the residents, a young former model named Sun-hwa (Lee Seung-yeon), is actually at home.  She is abused by her husband Min-gyu (Kwon Hyuk-ho) and stays quietly in her home to hide her bruises.

Tae-suk and Sun-hwa form a bond and run off together, continuing Tae-suk’s life of occupying other peoples’ houses.  Their’s is a silent relationship, as Norma Desmond says “”We didn’t need dialogue. We had faces!”  The movie takes on more and more of a fantasy element that by the end text on the screen asks whether it is a reality and a dream.  The movie is an interesting concept and the leads’ silent acting is well-done, although it stretches credulity at points.

Rating: ***1/2

90 Movies in 90 Days: The Public Enemy (1931)

I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: The Public Enemy
Release Date: April 23, 1931
Director: William A. Wellman
Production Company: Edward Michael McDermott

Like Scarface (1932), on-screen text at the beginning and end of The Public Enemy warn of the dangers and evils of a life a crime, while in-between depicting how cool and fun it is to be a gangster. It’s actually impressive how much of the basic gangster movie structure later explored in Once Upon a Time in America and Goodfellas is already present here.

Jimmy Cagney stars as Tom Powers who from childhood is drawn to the quick money and flashy lifestyle of Chicago’s criminal underworld.  With his lifelong friend Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), Tom comes of age just as Prohibition makes bootlegging a profitable undertaking.  Tom and Matt become enforcers for the sale of beer brewed by bar owner Paddy Ryan (Robert Emmett O’Connor) with the backing of gangster Nails Nathan (Leslie Fenton).  Donald Cook plays Tom’s straight-laced brother Mike who tries to set Tom on the straight and narrow path.

Cagney’s charisma shines through in this film, making Tom likable despite his cruelty and arbitrary violence.  The rest of the cast doesn’t rise up to Cagney’s performance, with some of them acting as if they were in a stage play (perhaps they hadn’t figured out the whole “talkies” thing yet).  The movie has some iconic shots, such as a Cagney beneath the El in a rainstorm, that really work well in the language of film.  As a pre-code film it is also surprisingly frank about violence and sex (although actual acts of killing and sex are still off-screen).  And the twist ending is quite shocking! I’m not a big fan of gangster films in general, but for the time of it’s making this one stands out as pretty good.

Rating: ***1/2

90 Movies in 90 Days: Detour (1945)

I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, all of which will be 90 minutes or less.

Title: Detour
Release Date: November 15, 1945
Director: Edgar G. Ulmer
Production Company: Producers Releasing Company

Made by “the smallest and least prestigious of the Hollywood film studios of the 1940s” (according to Wikipedia), Detour is a lowest-of-budgets movie that distills the essence of film noir down to an efficient 68 minutes.  Al Roberts (Tom Neal) is a pianist who hitchhikes from New York to join his aspiring actress girlfriend in Hollywood.  When an accidental death leaves him in a compromising position, Al takes on the identity of another man (as well as his car, clothing, and wallet).

But when Al picks up a hitchhiker himself, a woman who calls herself “Vera” (Ann Savage), it turns out that she knows his whole story and manipulates him into bigger crimes.  Dripping with venom, Savage’s performance is one of the most feral of Classic Hollywood.  The movie ends on a brilliant twist that I didn’t anticipate at all.  Of course, Al is an unreliable narrator, and he’s shown telling this whole story to himself.  So perhaps what we’re seeing is just the version of events that Al can make himself live with?

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Emily the Criminal (2022)

Title: Emily the Criminal
Release Date: August 12, 2022
Director: John Patton Ford
Production Company:Low Spark Films | Fear Knot Productions | Evil Hag Productions

Emily Benetto (Aubrey Plaza) lives in Los Angeles and struggles with making ends meet as an independent contractor for a catering firm. She’s burdened by student debt and unable to get a better-paying job because of a felony assault conviction on her record which also prevented her from completing college. A co-worker gives her a tip on how to “earn $200 in one hour,” which turns out to be acting as a dummy shopper to buy luxury goods with stolen credit card information.

As her personal situation becomes more desperate, Emily returns to credit card fraud with bigger and bigger jobs.  She also strikes up a romance with Youcef (Theo Rossi of Luke Cage fame), one of the leaders of the credit card fraud ring.  Without ever being preachy, Emily the Criminal exposes the ills of capitalism such as crushing student debt, the gig economy, unpaid internships, and other exploitative labor practices.  Plaza is a very recognizable celebrity but she expertly fades into her role as an Everywoman who seems vulnerable but has an inner toughness when needed. As a crime film, the tension around these arguably low-stakes crimes feels stronger than in a lot of mobster movies.

Rating: ***

Movie Review: See How They Run (2022)

Title: See How They Run
Release Date: 9 September 2022
Director: Tom George
Production Company: Searchlight Pictures | DJ Films | TSG Entertainment

I saw this movie described as “the Wes Anderson-ification of Knives Out” and I can’t shake it out of my head.  It’s definitely a stylish and quirky take on the ensemble cast whodunit mystery and while not exactly like Anderson’s work, it does give one a sense of what it’s like.  It’s also a meta-commentary on detective stories, particularly Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, with the West End theater where it is performed becoming the site of the murder mystery.  The Mousetrap, of course,  is the longest running play in the world having over 28,000 performances at the time I write this. I saw it myself about 25 years ago, and thus am solemnly sworn not to reveal the killer.

Meta-commentary can be a knife’s-edge of whether it will work or not, so fortunately See How They Run also has some enjoyable performances. Set in 1953 when the company of The Mousetrap is celebrating a mere 100 performances, the mystery begins with the murder of the loutish American film director Leo Köpernick (Adrien Brody) who is working on a movie adaptation of The Mousetrap even though he’s never watched the play.  The investigation of the murder falls to the world weary and alcoholic Inspector Stoppard (Sam Rockwell) and his chatty, wise-cracking assistant Constable Stalker (Saoirse Ronan). Suspects/potential victims include theater producer Petula Spencer (Ruth Wilson), script writer Mervyn Cocker-Norris (David Oyelowo), and real-life figures such as film producer John Woolf (Reece Shearsmith), David Attenborough (Harris Dickinson), Sheila Sim (Pearl Chanda), and Agatha Christie herself (Shirley Henderson).

The movie is not much of a mystery nor is it really a period piece as it’s full of deliberate anachronisms.  The humor is hit or miss, but it’s mostly an enjoyable 90 minutes.  To be honest, Ronan’s performance is delightful and she really carries the film.  Luckily, she’s on screen for most of it.

Rating: ***


Movie Review: Cairo Station (1958)

Title: Cairo Station
Release Date: July 1,  1958
Director: Youssef Chahine
Production Company: Al-Ahramm Studios

Cairo Station was produced just a few years after the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy and the birth of the Egyptian republic and captures the nation at a time of great social change and modernization. The film’s frank depiction of the lives of the working class and sexuality would not be possible even a few years later when government censorship became more restrictive. Director Youssef Chahine took inspiration from Italian neorealism and film noir, and I also see flashes of French New Wave and a Hitchcock thriller as well. Indeed, Chahine’s performance as Qinawi presages Anthony Perkins in Psycho two years later.

Set in Cairo’s main railway station, the film focuses on the everyday lives of the people who work their, including the vivacious soft drink vendor Hannuma (Hind Rostom), the union-organizing porter Abu Siri (Farid Shawqi), and the kindly newspaper seller Madbouli (Hassan el Baroud). When the shy and physically disabled Qinawi arrives from the countryside Madbouli gives him a job selling papers. Qinawi becomes obsesses with Hannuma and immediately proposes marriage. Hannuma casually rejects him since she plans to marry Abu Siri. Qinawi’s obsession then turns murderous.

I”ve seen a lot of reviews that refer to Qinawi by the modern term “incel,” which is an apt shortcut to describing the toxic masculinity and violence against women depicted in this film.  While the Hitchcockian final act is a tense thriller, one should not overlook that the early parts of this film are a sympathetic look at the quotidian lives of the working class.  There’s even space for joy as in a vibrant scene where Hannuma dances to the music of a band of buskers in a rail car, which is beautifully filmed. Cairo Station is definitely a film worth checking out.

Rating: ****

Book Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

Around the World for a Good Book selection for Jamaica

Author: Marlon James
Title: A Brief History of Seven Killings
Narrators: Robertson Dean, Cherise Boothe, Dwight Bacquie, Ryan Anderson, Johnathan McClain, Robert Younis
Publication Info: [Minneapolis, MN] : HighBridge Audio, 2014.

This novel is anything but brief, but instead an epic story told from multiple points-of-view sprawling over three decades and spilling out of Kingston to New York City.  There also a lot more than seven killings depicted.  The title of novel is sort-of explained later in the narrative as a kind of story-within-the-story.

The action of the story takes place over five days.  The first two are in December 1976 and detail the attempted assassination on Bob Marley (referred to throughout the novel as “The Singer”).  Later sections of the novel are set on single dates in 1979, 1985, and 1991 and deal with the ongoing personal and political ramifications of the assassination attempt as well as the rising crack epidemic.  The narrators include gang members and dons of Jamaica’s political party-aligned gangs, a CIA agent, an American music writer originally from Rolling Stone, the ghost of a murdered politician, and a young woman desperate to leave Jamaica for the USA who changes her identity several times throughout the novel.

This is a challenging book to read due to its sprawling narrative and dozens of characters.  It’s hard to keep track of the whole story and honestly I think some of the chapters may just as well be self-contained short stories.  The Jamaican patois used by many of the characters can also be difficult although I enjoyed listening to the voice actors on the audiobook. But the hardest part of the book is that is just so brutal, violent, and unceasingly grim.  That doesn’t make it a bad book, of course, and I do like to be challenged.  But it was a hard book to read nonetheless.

Recommended books:

  • Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

Rating: ***

Movie Review: The Harder They Come (1972)

Title: The Harder They Come
Release Date: 5 June 1972
Director: Perry Henzell
Production Company: International Films Inc.

The groundbreaking soundtrack from The Harder They Come has long been one of my favorite albums, but I’d never seen the movie until a 50th anniversary screening at The Brattle Theatre this week.  Reggae legend Jimmy Cliff stars as Ivanhoe “Ivan” Martin, a young man who arrives in Kingston, Jamaica and tries to make ends meet while trying to break into the music business.  His repeated attempts at honest work fail and he eventually becomes a marijuana runner for a local gangster.  When he kills a police officer in a panic he goes on the lam and finally achieves the fame he desires as an outlaw.

The story is familiar and predictable but nevertheless well-told.  The story and style seems to have drawn influence from French New Wave movies like Breathless and it shares similarities with Senegal’s Touki Bouki, released the next year.  I particularly like the first half of the film which captures the feel and rhythms of early 1970s Kingston with a neorealist touch.  The latter part of the movie feels more like a hasty pastiche of Bonnie and Clyde. Ivan’s gleeful embrace of his outlaw status feels almost psychotic and he swiftly becomes a character hard to sympathize with.  Nevertheless it’s a fascinating period piece and a groundbreaking movie for Jamaican cinema.

And the soundtrack is just amazing.

Rating: ***1/2

Movie Review: Chungking Express (1994)

Title: Chungking Express
Release Date: 14 July 1994
Director: Wong Kar-wai
Production Company: Jet Tone Production

I really had no preconceptions of this movie but it was still not what I expected.  I guess I thought there would be more trains?  Instead this is a wonderfully weird movie, and I’m not sure I quite understood, but nevertheless I really enjoyed the vibe.  In some ways it reminds me of Amélie (and I would no be surprised if it influenced that later movie), but mostly it is its weird, wonderful thing.

Chungking Express is actually two short films that are tangentially related.  Both of them feature Hong Kong cops as protagonists although we don’t see either of them doing much policing.  In the first story, He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) pines – or pineapples – over a woman who broke up with him. He’s then briefly brought into the world of a mysterious underworld figure (Brigitte Lin) who remains effortlessly cool despite wearing a ridiculously large blonde wig, sunglasses, and a raincoat at all times.  In the other story, a snack bar employee named Faye (Faye Wong) falls for her customer, Cop 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who is also bereft after a break up with a flight attendant (Valerie Chow).  She begins to influence his life in bizarre ways.

That’s all the plot summary I’m going to give, because there are some interesting twists I don’t want to spoil.  Nevertheless, this movie feels more like a mood than a narrative.  The cinematography is interesting as well, sometimes feeling like it’s painted in watercolors.  There are a lot of shots through windows, mirrors, curtains, etc, that make everything feel dreamlike.  This is definitely a movie worth revisiting.

Rating: ****1/2

Movie Review: Andhadhun (2018)

Title: Andhadhun
Release Date: 5 October 2018
Director: Sriram Raghavan
Production Company: Viacom 18 Motion Pictures | Matchbox Pictures

Andhadhun starts as a rom-com in which a blind pianist, Akash (Ayushmann Khurrana), begins a romance with Sophie (Radhika Apte) after a meet cute where she literally crashes into him with her scooter.  She gets him a gig playing piano at her father’s cafe where he meets the aging actor Pramod Sinha (Anil Dhawan).  Sinha hires Akash to play a private concert as a surprise for his young second wife Simi (Tabu) on their anniversary.  But when Akash arrives to perform he witnesses Simi and her lover Manohar (Manav Vij) hiding Sinha’s dead body.

You see (pun intended), Akash actually is only pretending to be blind because he thinks it improves his piano playing.  Now he’s caught in a quandary due to witnessing a crime he shouldn’t be able to see.  If all of this sounds spoilery, it’s really just the set-up for an overly long comic thriller with a new twist every few minutes.  I tend to not like the style of writing that relies too heavily on unexpected twists, so I found this movie to be more and more of a drag after a promising premise.  But if that’s your thing, you may enjoy this movie more than I did.

Rating: **1/2