90 Movies in 90 Days: Killer of Sheep (1978)

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: Killer of Sheep
Release Date: November 14, 1978
Director: Charles Burnett
Production Company: Third World Newsreel

This slice-of-life drama set in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts depicts the everyday lives of working class Black Americans.  The central character Stan (Henry G. Sanders) works in a slaughterhouse – hence the film’s title – but the movie is mostly vignettes around Stan’s household and in the neighborhood.  In fact, there are large portions of the film where he is absent, especially the extended sequences of children playing.

Killer of Sheep adopts the Italian neorealist style with a cast of largely nonprofessional actors to great effect.  It also has some excellent needle drops of classic jazz and soul tracks.  In fact, gaining clearance for the soundtracks was an obstacle to the movie getting a wider release for a long time. I definitely want to check out more of Charles Burnett’s work now that I’ve watched this one.

Rating: ****

90 Movies in 90 Days: Documenteur (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: Documenteur
Release Date: October 2, 1981
Director: Agnès Varda
Production Company: Ciné-Tamaris

In this “emotion picture,” a French woman named Emilie (Sabine Mamou) builds a new life in Los Angeles.  She moves into a rental in a working class neighborhood with her son Martin (Mathieu Demy, the real-life son of Agnès Varda and fellow filmmaker Jacques Demy) while she works as a transcriber for a writer.  The movie focuses on images, memories, and, of course, emotions, more than it does story, but is beautifully filmed and edited.

The story is inspired by Varda’s own life and includes a lot of the interests found in her documentaries from gleaning to human faces.  It’s most directly related to the documentary Mur Murs about mural art in Los Angeles and were made as companion films (and I’ve added Mur Murs to my watchlist!).  The film has a docudrama feel to it and a realism that comes from non-professional actors.  Mamou was Varda’s editor before going before the camera, while a couple seen arguing in this movie weren’t even actors, just people in the area that Varda caught on film. Mathieu Demy puts in a really strong performance for his age, perhaps the advantage of being the child of two filmmakers.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles is great for depicting the hidden work of women.  But I feel that Documenteur does the same thing in a third of the time and with zero murders.  Regardless, Documenteur is a movie that deserves greater recognition.

Rating: ****


90 Movies in 90 Days: Miracle Mile (1989)

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: Miracle Mile
Release Date:  May 19, 1989
Director:Steve De Jarnatt
Production Company: Miracle Mile Productions

Somewhere I’d been given the impression that Miracle Mile was a comedy of errors along the lines of After Hours.  Instead, it is a tense-as-fuck grimdark story of societal collapse in the hour before a nuclear apocalypse.  I won’t tell you how far I got into this movie before I cottoned on that there really weren’t any jokes.

Nevertheless, the movie begins with a meet-cute.  Harry (Anthony Edwards) is a musician visiting Los Angeles who meets Julie (Mare Winningham) at the La Brea Tar Pits museum.  They fall in love after spending the afternoon together and plan to meet up again when Julie’s shift at a coffee shop ends at midnight. Harry sleeps through his alarm and misses their date but goes to the coffee shop anyhow.

I won’t spoil things but through a series of unlikely events, Harry learns of an imminent nuclear missile strike on Los Angeles setting off an increasingly large scramble of people seeking safety.  The bulk of the movie is Harry trying to find Julie and get to an evacuation point.  The people he meet along the way include Landa (Denise Crosby), a business woman who confirms Harry’s information, and Wilson (Mykelti Williamson), a young man who Harry carjacks to get around L.A.

I’m not really into apocalyptic stories but I did find myself drawn into this tense drama.  Although the movie is misanthropic in its depiction of an “everyone for themselves” collapse, there is also a scene for pretty much every named character where they want to go save someone.  It kind of works with how the movie evolves from a romance to a thriller.  Just be aware, for God’s sake, that this is NOT a comedy.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: A Bucket of Blood (1959)

Title: A Bucket of Blood
Release Date: October 21, 1959
Director: Roger Corman
Production Company: Alta Vista Productions

Walter Paisley (Dick Miller) is a socially awkward and dimwitted busboy at The Yellow Door Cafe where Bohemians and artists socialize and share their art.  Wanting to become an artist to impress his co-worker Carla (Barboura Morris), Walter starts working with clay at home.  After accidentally killing his landlady’s cat, Walter encases its body in clay and presents it as his sculpture to the denizens of The Yellow Door.

When his art is well-received by the beat poet Maxwell H. Brock (Julian Burton) and others, Walter decides he needs to create more large scale works of … humans.  You can see where this is going. Cafe owner Leonard (Antony Carbone) cottons on to how Walter is making his “art” early on, but plays mum when he realizes how much money Walter is bringing in.

This movie is a wickedly funny satire of Beatniks and scenesters of the 1950s. A lot of the jokes still apply to hipsters six decades later.  Plus ça change …! Miller does a great job of making Walter sympathetic even when he becomes a killer.  He kind of reminds me of Lenny from Of Mice and Men in that he doesn’t seem fully cognizant of the enormity of his actions.  Overall the movie looks pretty impressive for a low budget film shot in only five days!

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: They Live (1988)

Title: They Live
Release Date: November 4, 1988
Director: John Carpenter
Production Company:Alive Films | Larry Franco Productions

A decade after Halloween, John Carpenter made this even movie that feels even more low-budget.  But I guess he wasn’t going to get a lot of money to make this odd satire of Reagan’s America (that somehow feels even more relevant in 2022).

The movie starts off at a comfortable slow pace with no real science fiction or horror elements. Drifter Nada (Roddy Piper doing a half-decent Kurt Russell impersonation) arrives in Los Angeles and finds work at a construction site and a place to stay at a shanty town adjacent to a church. Nada begins to suspect that the people in the church aren’t really running a church but before he can learn any more, the church and the homeless encampment are destroyed by the police.  And honestly this scene is more scary than anything else in the movie because it so real.

Before fleeing the church, Nada takes a box of sunglasses and discovers that they help him see the world as it really is.  Subliminal messages are everywhere telling people to consume, conform, and not question authority.  Furthermore, there are skull-faced aliens living amongst humanity, and getting people to collaborate with them by giving them wealth and power.  Nada instantly becomes a revolutionary.

Now, this movie has a leftist bent that coincides with my own political leanings, but I am uncomfortable with the idea that everything bad in the world is due to aliens.  After all, conservatives have a lot of conspiracy theories blaming socialists, Jewish people, Muslims, LGBTQ people, you name for all that they see wrong in the world.  Meanwhile some Democrats choose to believe that everything the Trump/MAGA types do is personally coordinated by Vladimir Putin. The truth is that there are a lot of assholes in humanity and a lot of assholishness within every human.

The thing that this movie really gets right is that through ignorance, indifference, or manipulation the assholes can get otherwise good people to fight each other.  This is exemplified by the back alley fist fight between Nada and his only friend in L.A. Frank (Keith David) when he tries to get Frank to wear the glasses.  The fight purportedly last six minutes, although it feels longer and gets at the futility of human nature.

Unfortunately, the final act of the movie isn’t as strong as everything that set it up.  Perhaps because it’s more reliant on special effects the cheapness really shows.  But the pacing also picks up and rushes too swiftly toward a resolution that doesn’t make much sense.  I feel like the first hour would’ve made a great pilot for an ongoing TV show.  Nevertheless, the legacy of this movie cannot be denied.  The “OBEY” logos were adopted into Shepard Fairey’s street art, right down to the font, and the oft-quoted line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass. And I’m all out of bubblegum,” has it’s origin here.

Rating: ***

TV Review: She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (2022)

Title: She-Hulk: Attorney at Law
Release Date: August 18 – October 13, 2022
Creator/Head Writer/Showrunner: Jessica Gao
Episodes: 9
Production Company:  Marvel Studios

Up-and-coming Los Angeles lawyer Jennifer Walters (Tatiana Maslany) is traveling with her cousin Bruce Banner, a.k.a. The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) when a car crash causes her to be exposed to Bruce’s blood and thus acquire Hulk powers.  Turns out that Jennifer is much better at controlling her Hulk powers than Bruce but has no interest in being a superhero.  But her powers are revealed in the most public way possible, and she ends up having to work for a law firm defending super-powered beings while in her She-Hulk form.

This show ends up being something we haven’t seen from Marvel and don’t really see much of at all anymore, an episodic sitcom.  And a very funny one at that.  Following the precedent set by the She-Hulk comics, Maslany to comment on the story.  It ends up kind of being a superhero story crossed with Fleabag and Ally McBeal (but in a good way).  This approach is something that could’ve flopped hard but Maslany’s charm and talent win the day.  I’ve heard a lot about her great work on Orphan Black, a show I’ve sadly not yet watched.

In addition to spoofing legal dramas, She-Hulk: Attorney at Law satirizes the dudebro culture of gatekeeping that all too often manifests itself as misogyny against women in superhero media.  The final episode makes fun of the Marvel formula in a very funny way, although I felt a bit cheated that they didn’t offer an alternate resolution.  Apart from that disappointment this was a very clever and entertaining series. Maslany is boosted by strong supporting cast and guest stars, including:

  • Ginger Gonzaga as Nikki Ramos, Jennifer’s paralegal and best friend.
  • Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky / Abomination, the villain from 2008’s The Incredible Hulk (and the first time in a long time Marvel has acknowledged the events of that movie) who has become considerably more chill.
  • Megan Thee Stallion as herself.
  • Benedict Wong as Wong, because everyone loves Wongers!
  • Charlie Cox as Matt Murdock / Daredevil, Jennifer’s fellow lawyer/superhero who comes from New York for a team-up and a hook-up.
  • And the breakout character of the series, Patty Guggenheim as Madisynn King, who turns being a drunk party girl into a superpower.






Book Review: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki

Author: Ryka Aoki
Title: Light From Uncommon Stars
Narrator: Cindy Kay
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2021

Shizuka Satomi is a world-renown violin instructor who has made a deal with a demon to trade the souls of 7 violin prodigies for success.  She has one more soul to collect and has returned home to Southern California to find a likely candidate.

Lan Tran is a starship captain who has escaped a galactic war with her family, and now operate a doughnut shop as their cover.

Katrina Nguyen is a teenage transgender girl who has run away to Los Angeles from her abusive family and supports herself making YouTube videos.  She also plays the violin.

Somehow not only are all these characters in the same novel, but their interactions create a heartfelt human story that transcends genres. Shizuka and Lan meet, share their strange histories, and strike up a romance. And of course, Shizuka takes on Katrina as her student, and yet treats her with such tenderness that it’s hard to believe she plans to sell Katrina’s soul to the Devil.

And that only scratches the surface of the brilliant, warm, funny, and creative novel!

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Documentary Movie Review: Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) #atozchallenge

Welcome to Panorama of the Mountains! My name is Liam and I enjoy watching documentary movies.  This month I will be reviewing 26 documentaries from A-to-Z!

Documentaries starting with the letter Documentaries starting with the letter L that I have previously reviewed include: 

Title: Los Angeles Plays Itself
Release Date:  August 1, 2004
Director: Thom Andersen
Production Company: Thom Andersen Productions

Director Thom Andersen’s film-length essay (narrated by Encke King) uses clips from Hollywood movies to discuss the myth and reality of the city of Los Angeles.  As a native Angelino, the Los Angeles depicted in the movies bears little resemblance to the actual city.  Granted, Los Angeles is used in movies largely because of its convenient location to the film studios, and just as often can be used to play other cities, real and fictional.  But there are also attempts by filmmakers to make Los Angeles into a character without really capturing Los Angeles as a city.

Anderson also focuses on issues such as modern architecture, transportation, and how Hollywood accidentally captured long-since-demolished landmarks.  Andersen can get awfully grumpy, especially went ranting about his dislike for the abbreviation “L.A.” but the movie remains compelling despite this (or maybe because of it).  By my count, I’ve only watched 26 of the over 200 movie excerpted in Los Angeles Plays Itself, although a lot of them are really bad movies.  I’m pleased that he considers The Exiles among the most authentic Los Angeles movies since it is one of my favorites of the movies featured.  I’m also pleased that this was released before Crash, because I’m sure Anderson would hate that movie as much as I do.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: The Exiles (1961)

Title: The Exiles
Release Date: July 13, 1961
Director: Kent Mackenzie
Production Company: Contemporary Films

In the early 1960s, when Native people were still routinely the villains of Hollywood Westerns, this independent film captured a day in the life of young adult Native Americans who have left their reservations for life in Los Angeles.  The movie was filmed on location in the Bunker Hill district of the city before shiny office tours replaced derelict Victorian houses, although there are some elements still recognizable today such as the Angels Flight incline railway and the Grand Central Market.

The film is kind of a hangout movie with no real plot.  The documentary-style movie follows several Native people as they socialize, drink, and finish the evening with a drum circle on top of a hill overlooking the city. In short, it’s pretty much how any group of 20-somethings might spend a  Friday night, with elements of Native tradition setting it apart from other forms of contemporary youth culture. It really feels like a remarkable document of a time and place and an honest movie at a time when Hollywood specialized in artifice.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Boogie Nights (1997)

Title: Boogie Nights
Release Date: October 10, 1997
Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Production Company: Lawrence Gordon Productions | Ghoulardi Film Company

Set over the years 1977-1984 in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Boogie Nights is the story of Eddie (Mark Wahlberg), a busboy at a nightclub recruited by the idealistic adult films director, Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds), to be an actor in his X-rated movies.  Taking the stage name Dirk Diggler, he rises to a superstar level within the porn industry.  This movie has the familiar feel to of a typical show business story of a meteoric rise to fame followed by a descent into drug abuse and violence.  And it is all those things, but it also is disarmingly sweet.

Dirk forms a found family with Jack and fellow actors Maggie (Julianne Moore), Rollergirl (Heather Graham), and Reed (John C. Reilly).  I suspect the adult entertainment industry, like the movie industry in general, is ripe for abuse and exploitation, but I suspect that it is also plausible for a group of outsiders to come together as a community in a place where they feel like themselves as depicted in this movie.

What makes this movie great is that each of these characters is shown in their full humanity.  It helps that this movie features some amazingly talented actors.  Don Cheadle, William H. Macy, and Philip Seymour Hoffman all appear in smaller parts that are nonetheless fully-realized characters.  And yes, I do see the irony of great acting being the biggest strength in a movie about pornographic films.

If I can quibble with this film, it’s main flaw is that its runtime is too long and might feel less ponderous if given some judicious trimming.  I also felt that the running gag about Eddie/Dirk’s large penis kind of undercut the sympathetic and non-judgmental tone of portraying these outcasts as real people.  Still, I never thought that I would like this movie at all, and I ended up being really impressed.  It’s definitely not the movie I thought it would be and that’s a great thing.

Rating: ****