90 Movies in 90 Days: For All Mankind (1989)

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

Title: For All Mankind
Release Date: November 1, 1989
Director: Al Reinert
Production Company: Apollo Associates

I’ve watched a lot of documentaries about the Apollo missions to the moon, including Earthrise, Apollo 11, and Apollo: Missions to the Moon, and always learn something new. This documentary was made in 1989 for the anniversary of the first moon landing included a lot of footage never before released to the public (and footage I haven’t seen reused in other documentaries). It also features a sharp soundtrack from Brian Eno.

There are some artistic decisions made that make it a fascinating film but less likely to be informative to people who don’t know a lot about the Apollo program.The film is edited to follow the timeline of a mission to the moon but uses footage from all of the missions.  Similarly, the movie is narrated by the voices of astronauts and mission control but with no indication of who is speaking (unless you’re like me and watch with closed captions on).  The feeling it gives is that it’s one big mission to the moon and we’re all on it.

Rating: ****

90 Movies in 90 Days: The Go-Go’s (2020)

I’m kicking off 2023 by trying to watch and review one movie every day for the first 90 days, most of which will be 90 minutes or less. It’s a goal increasingly unlikely to be met, but I persevere.

Title: The Go-Go’s
Release Date: January 24, 2020
Director: Alison Ellwood
Production Company: Fine Point Films | PolyGram Entertainment

This is a bog standard rock documentary with lots of archival footage intercut with talking head interviews with the subjects in the present day.  That said, the archival footage is pretty good, the interviews feature candid thoughts, and this is the story of The Go-Go’s, an amazing band that I nevertheless didn’t know much about before. The Go-Go’s rose out of the late 70s Los Angeles punk scene to hit it big in the early 80s as groundbreakers in New Wave music and women in rock in general.

The band hit it big right at the point in my childhood when I was at the age that I started paying attention to popular music so I feel lucky that I never knew a time when a woman’s rock band didn’t exist. The Go-Go’s were the first all-woman rock band where they wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, and hit Number One on the Billboard album charts (an accomplishment that they still hold alone).  You will be reminded of this fact numerous times while watching this documentary.  But as great as this accomplishment it is, the weight of being a Go-Go was heavy on all the band’s members as they were forced into an endless cycle of touring and promotion.

The band’s problems are not an unusual story in rock and roll.  Drummer Gina Schock and bassist Kathy Valentine seemed to be hurt most in the process as they resented that the songwriters – guitarist Charlotte Caffey and rhythm guitarist Jane Wiedlin – made a lot more money from publishing rights, or that lead vocalist Belinda Carlisle got a lot more popular attention.  Original members of the Go-Go’s Margot Olavarria and Elissa Bello are also interviewed about the unfortunate manner in which they were dismissed for more talented musicians.  Substance abuse is also a problem. It took the arrival of Paula Jean Brown in 1985 as a substitute for Wiedlin for someone to recognize that Caffey had a serious heroin addiction.

Much like the Pixies, the members of the band are just not able to communicate with another which allows problems to exacerbate.  Even in the present day interviews it is clear that they haven’t worked out their problem even though the band has reunited several times.  The documentary says very little about anything after The Go-Go’s initial breakup in 1985 (and doesn’t even mention that they recorded an album in 2001).  Its a bummer that such a great band ended up having such a short initial run.  Imagine if they had been still been together as elder stateswomen for the alternative music boom in the 1990s?  Nevertheless, The Go-Go’s were a great band for the time they had and this documentary makes me appreciate them all the more.

Rating: ***1/2

90 Movies in 90 Days: Requiem for the American Dream (2015)

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: Requiem for the American Dream
Release Date: April 18, 2015
Director: Peter D. Hutchison, Kelly Nyks,  and Jared P. Scott
Production Company: PF Pictures | Naked City Films

Noam Chomsky, a professor of linguistics at MIT, is better known for being one of the more outspoken intellectuals on the left.  This documentary is built on interviews with Chomsky where he discusses the great increase of income inequality in the United States since the early 1970s.  The film is based on Chomsky’s book of the same name and in it he breaks down “The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power.”  The interview sections are broken up with archival footage and animation based on the dollar bill. While I was already familiar with much of what Chomsky discusses in this film, I found his synthesis is well done and the movie serves as a good introduction to how we got to where we are now.

Rating: ****

90 Movies in 90 Days: The Martha Mitchell Effect (2022)

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 Martha Mitchell Effect
Release Date: June 17, 2022
Director: Anne Alvergue and Debra McClutchy
Production Company: Foothill Productions

This short and straightforward documentary that’s made exclusively of archival film and sound recordings, focuses on an element of the Watergate scandal that is overlooked by history. Martha Mitchell was the wife of John Mitchell, attorney general during Richard Nixon’s first term until 1972 when he took on leading the Committee to Reelect the President (CREEP).  Martha defied the expectations of the demur Washington wife and was often outspoken about issues political and personal which made her a minor celebrity on talk shows.

When the Watergate scandal breaks, John has Martha brutally imprisoned in a California hotel.  The Nixon administration then starts a gaslighting campaign that Martha is mentally ill in order to silence her.  But she continues speaking out on the scandal, at first to protect her husband who she thinks is innocent (he wasn’t) and then to try to expose and end corruption in government.  If you have 40 minutes to sit and watch this film it will be well-spent learning about this overlooked historical figure.

Rating: ***

90 Movies in 90 Days: Good Night Oppy (2022)

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: Good Night Oppy
Release Date: November 4, 2022
Director: Ryan White

This ambitious documentary tells the story of the twin  rovers – Spirit and Opportunity – landed on Mars in January 24 with the mission of exploring the planet for 90 sols (Mars days).  Remarkably, the persistent little robots went above and beyond with Spirit lasting over 6 years, and Opportunity ceasing transmission after 15 years! Narrated by Angela Bassett, the documentary features archival footage from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory operations facility and interviews with the scientists and engineers who made the mission possible. A running theme of movie is how the rover’s had an anthropomorphic appearance and the personal connection that the NASA crew formed with them.  Visual effects recreate what it may have looked like for the rovers on Mars. Industrial Light & Magic (founded by George Lucas) and Amblin Entertainment (founded by Steven Spielberg) were involved in the film’s production, so you can imagine the types of special effects used to illustrate this real-life adventure.

Rating: ***1/2

90 Movies in 90 Days: Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers (1980)

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: Garlic Is as Good as Ten Mothers
Release Date: October 1980
Director: Les Blank
Production Company: Flower Films

There was a time when garlic was not known in mainstream white American cuisine.  According to this documentary the convergence of hippie counterculture philosophies on natural foods and medicines and the gourmet cooking in Northern California gave garlic new prominence.  The documentary is shot mainly at the Gilroy Garlic Festival and at restaurants in the Bay Area where Italian, Spanish, African American, and Chinese chefs, among others, ply their trade with large helpings of garlic.

Large portions of this film show cooks at work (many of them working with animals, should you be squeamish about such things) accompanied by traditional music ranging from flamenco to Cajun.  Often the musicians are performing right there in the kitchen.  This is a documentary that plays on the senses, although sadly smell and taste are not possible through film.  This is sad because this movie looks good enough to eat.

Rating: ****

90 Movies in 90 Days: Blackfish (2013)

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: Blackfish
Release Date: July 19, 2013
Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite
Production Company: CNN Films | Manny O. Productions

I’ve been meaning to watch this documentary for some time but knowing it featured animal cruelty, I’ve procrastinated.  The focus of the film is the orca (a.k.a. killer whale) and their conditions in captivity particularly in the Sea World park in Florida.  The death of trainer Dawn Brancheau while performing with an orca in 2010 is the central incident of the film.  Tilikum, a large male orca held at Sea World is responsible for the death of Brancheau and two other people in earlier incidents.

My main take away from this movie is that orcas are social animals that live in large family groups in the wild.  Holding them in captivity not only denies them the space to swim but makes social groups impossible. Calves are separated from their mothers and whales share pools with other whales from vastly different oceanic regions. Former trainers from Sea World are the main interview subjects of the film expressing their love and care for the whales as well as the feeling that Sea World management hid the full extent of the dangers to the whales and trainers.  It should also be noted that after the film’s release that some of the trainers and Brancheau’s family stated it did not accurately reflect their experiences.

The film posits that the isolation and captivity creates the mental state that causes orca to attack their trainers. I don’t think that the movie does a good job of making this case but two independent things are true: 1. it is not good for orca to be held in captivity and 2.  humans should not be performing with these large, toothy animals.  Despite the good intentions, the movie is made in a sensationalist manner.  It’s had a positive mobilizing the public to demand better treatment of orca, but it is not very well structured or edited as a good movie.

Rating: ***

90 Movies in 90 Days: The Battle of San Pietro (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: The Battle of San Pietro
Release Date: May 3, 1945
Director: John Huston
Production Company: Army Pictorial Service

This documentary/propaganda film shot for the War Department by Hollywood director John Huston depicts a key battle in which the Allied forces capture a small town that controls entry to a valley in southern Italy.  The narration takes a just the facts approach but the visuals offer an unflinching account of the horrors of the war.  This begins with the prologue of the film that states the Italian villagers are preparing a future for their children and then immediately cutting to image of a dead child.  Later in the film, several American soldiers killed in battle are shown being tied into body bags.  The realism has lead to The Battle of San Pietro being called an anti-war film, although when it was shown to troops it was recognized as showing the sacrifice necessary to win the war.

Rating: ***

90 Movies in 90 Days: Mur Murs (1981)

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: Mur Murs
Release Date: September 13, 1981
Director: Agnès Varda
Production Company: Ciné-tamaris

Without planning to do so, I have watched three Agnès Varda films in the first month of this year.  And I honestly, I want to watch more!  Mur Murs is a documentary film made at the same time as the narrative film Documenteur.  Varda explores greater Los Angeles through the art painted on its walls.  Dozens of murals are shown and in most cases the artists who created them have the opportunity to talk about their work.. The subjects of the murals are also sometimes on hand as well as many locals who live and work among the wall art.

Like all Varda films, Mur Murs is really about her deep love and humanity.  Through the stories of these murals we learn about the lives and dreams of many colorful characters who call Los Angeles home.  She also focuses on the voices of Chicano and Black Americans whose voices are often ignored as well as the violence they endure whether it be from gangs or the police.  On top of all this, the music is great including a disco track for Venice roller skaters and a live performance by a Chicano punk band.

Rating: ****

90 Movies in 90 Days: News From Home

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: News From Home
Release Date: 8 June 1977
Director: Chantal Akerman
Production Company: Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA) | Paradise Films | Unité Trois | Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen (ZDF)

Before creating Sight and Sounds 2022 “Greatest Film of All Time” Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman lived in New York City from 1971-1973 self-reportedly as a “vagabond.” In 1976, Akerman returned to New York to shoot the footage for this film primarily in areas she’d spent time in on her earlier sojourn such as Hell’s Kitchen, the Meatpacking District, and the neighborhood now known as Tribeca, as well as on the subway and Staten Island Ferry.  Much like New York 1911, the film serves as a time capsule of the city.

What sets this film apart is that the narration, read by Akerman, is entirely made up of letters her beloved mother Natalia sent her from 1971 to 1973.  The letters show that motherhood is universal as they grow increasingly anxious.  They’re also the only insight we have into Akerman’s character as she does not speak for herself.

The camera remains static for much of the film, I think there are 2 or 3 pans the entire movie, as it captures long takes of various parts of the city. The fun part for me was trying to recognize the places in the film, many of which have changed dramatically in the past 50 years. It was also interesting to watch the people in the movie, most of whom don’t seem to notice that there’s a camera filming them.  I wondered if I might see anyone I know.  Would I spot my father going to work? (I did not).

I wonder if I would’ve enjoyed this movie as much if Akerman filmed it in a city that I had no connection with, such as her native Brussels.  All the same, for such a simple concept, I found this movie surprisingly affecting.