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
Summary/Review:

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 Days in 90 Movies: Slavery by Another Name (2012)


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: Slavery by Another Name
Release Date: February 13, 2012
Director: Sam Pollard
Production Company: TPT National Productions
Summary/Review:

This documentary explores a dark period in American history from the collapse of Reconstruction in 1874 until World War II when the southern states contrived ways for force labor from Black Americans.  I suspect many Americans know of the horrors of Jim Crow segregation, lynching, and even the exploitative nature of sharecropping.  But most of us probably assume that actual enslavement ended with the passage of the 13th Amendment.

And yet the 13th Amendment contained the seeds of what happened next by allowing slave labor by prisoners.  Governments in the southern states began giving harsh penalties to Black people for minor crimes (as well as convictions of people falsely accused of crimes) and then profiting by renting out the prisoners to coal mines, factories, and farms.  Later the state used the convict labor directly on chain gangs for public works projects such as building roads.  It’s an irony that the South modernized and industrialized on such barbaric practices.

Another form of extracting labor in the South is through debt peonage.  Black people who owed a debt to white people were forced to work off those debts.  Again, sometimes these debts were wholly fictional and people were held in peonage long past when their debt should’ve been paid off.  In a shameful incident, the federal government under Theodore Roosevelt killed an investigation into peonage due to the need to retain political support of Southern white leaders.

Like many documentaries Slavery by Another Name features interviews with experts.  But they also focus on a few individual cases of Black people enslaved by convict leasing and peonage and feature dramatic readings of letters and court testimony.  Reenactments can be cheezy in documentaries but I think they’re well done and effective here.  They also interview descendants of the enslaved people and the white people who enslaved them.  All and all, a very informative historical documentary.

Rating: ****

90 Movies in 90 Days: Daisies (1966)


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: Daisies
Release Date: December 30, 1966
Director: Věra Chytilová
Production Company: Ústřední Půjčovna Filmů | Kouzlo Films Společnost
Summary/Review:

In this cornerstone film of the Czech New Wave, two waifish young women – Marie (Ivana Karbanová) and Marie (Jitka Cerhová) – determine that the world is spoiled so they will be spoiled too.  What follows is a series of vignettes in which the Maries cause mayhem while fulfilling their hedonistic desires.  This includes A LOT of eating.  Their episodes are intercut with found footage and collages as well as switches from color to black & white and various tints and filters.

This style of film should feel familiar to anyone familiar with music videos, but must have been shocking to audiences in the 1960s.  Like a lot of performance art there’s a message in all of this nonsense that’s not readily apparent to me, but it is clear that they are undermining the notion of femininity. Apart from that, the movie is very funny.  Karbanová and Cerhová have fits of malicious laughter that is just hilarious.  So find your good friend with whom you get into good trouble and watch this together!

Rating: ****

90 Movies in 90 Days: The Unbelievable Truth (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: The Unbelievable Truth
Release Date: May 15, 1989
Director: Hal Hartley
Production Company: Possible Films | Action Features
Summary/Review:

Audry Hugo (Adrienne Shelly) is a high school senior in the Long Island suburbs who has embraced a fatalistic viewpoint that the world will soon be destroyed by nuclear annihilation.  Josh Hutton (Robert Burke) is a car mechanic (often mistaken for a priest) who returns to his home town after serving time in prison for manslaughter who finds work in the garage owned by Audry’s chauvinistic father Vic (Christopher Cooke).  Can Audry and Josh find love?

That’s the putative plot of the movie, but director Hal Hartley seems less interested in plot and more in slice of life vignettes of everyday people in sometimes improbable situation.  The world melodrama may sound like a dig, but the stiff acting and inconsistent characterization seem to be a feature rather than a bug of this movie. The style of this movie feels oddly like Twin Peaks without a supernatural element (but this came out before Twin Peaks, so maybe it’s like Blue Velvet without the gruesome violence?).  At any rate, this is a fun, definitively 80s take on the art house flick.

Rating: ***

90 Movies in 90 Days: Alice (1988)


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: Alice
Release Date: 3 August 1988
Director: Jan Švankmajer
Production Company: Film Four International | Condor Films
Summary/Review:

As a fan of Lewis Carroll’s  classic novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, I’ve never been quite satisfied with film adaptations.  This Czech film adheres to the spirit of the original’s surreal, dreamlike quality through a child’s point of view. It is after all, a film made for children.  Perhaps.

The only actor to appear in the movie is the exceptionally young-looking Kristýna Kohoutová (I haven’t been able to confirm her age at the time of filming) as Alice.  In the English-language version I watched, all of the dialogue is narrated by Camilla Power.  Everything else in this film is created by animating taxidermy animals, dolls, and household objects.  The herky-jerky nature of the stop-motion lends an uncanny valley quality to the animation.

The whole production teeters on the line between whimsical charm and nightmare fodder.  I’m sure this movie would’ve terrified me as a young child.  But it fascinates me now both as an adaptation of a great book and as it’s own weird and wonderful thing.

Rating: ****1/2

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90 Movies in 90 Days: Adoption (1975)


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: Adoption
Release Date: 25 September 1975
Director: Márta Mészáros
Production Company:  Hungarofilm | Hunnia Filmstúdió
Summary/Review:

My only prior experience with Hungarian cinema was Sátántangó, so I entered into watching this movie with some trepidation. Fortunately, Adoption is not such a chore to watch. It’s a simple story really.  Kata (Katalin Berek) is a 43-year-old widowed factory worker.  She wants to have a baby and proposes the idea to her lover, a married man, who immediately shoots her down.  Concurrently, Kata forms an acquaintance with Anna (Gyöngyvér Vigh), a troubled teen who lives in a nearby children’s home.

Kata and Anna bond with Kata helping Anna become emancipated from her parents so she can marry her boyfriend.  Meanwhile, Kata is inspired to adopt a baby from the same children’s home.  The film is meditative in style, focusing on details and the sense of found family.  But it also features an ominous ending that suggests that neither of these women are going to get the future they hoped for.

Rating: ***

50 Years, 50 Movies (1987): Where Is the Friend’s House?


I will turn 50 in November of this year, so my project for 2023 will be to watch and review one movie from each year of my life.  The only qualification is that it has to be a movie I’ve not reviewed previously.  If you have any suggestions for movies from the past 50 years, please drop them in the comments!

1987

Top Grossing Movies:

  1. Beverly Hills Cop II
  2. Platoon
  3. Fatal Attraction
  4. The Untouchables
  5. Three Men and a Baby

Best Picture Oscar Nominees and Winner:

Other Movies I’ve Reviewed:

Title: Where Is the Friend’s House?
Release Date: February 1, 1987
Director: Abbas Kiarostami
Production Company: Kanun parvaresh fekri | Farabi Cinema Foundation
Summary/Review:

In first grade, I was goofing around with a friend, taking turns rolling out our bottom lips and laughing at it.  We got caught by our teacher who said we were sticking out our tongues.  Our class had a rule against sticking out tongues, and I denied it since I had in fact been rolling out my bottom lip.  Then my teacher got really angry for lying.  Now in the teacher’s eyes, a bottom lip could be easily mistaken for a tongue and she probably felt that any gestures with the mouth were disruptive to the class. But I was hurt that she insisted that I did something I would not do.  The spirit of the law against sticking out tongues is that it was mean.  And I was not being mean.  My friend and I were having fun.

I bring this up, because in the first five minutes of Where Is the Friend’s House? we see a teacher bring a 8-year-old child to tears.  This sets the theme of the movie in which adults exercise the arbitrary authority of children, refuse to listen to children, and threaten children. It is completely infuriating!

The main plot involves Ahmad (Babak Ahmadpour), a grade school boy, who accidentally takes home his friend’s notebook.  Knowing his friend will get in trouble if he doesn’t complete his homework in the notebook.  Ahmad’s parents and grandfather are not at all sympathetic, so he takes it upon himself to run to the nearby village where his friend lives.  Of course, Ahmad does not know where his friend’s house is located and the adults of the village are absolutely no help.

The movie captures the helplessness of being a child and the way that kids are simply invisible to adults.   I suppose the movie could be seen as a metaphor for living under an authoritarian government in Iran told in a way that wouldn’t get centered.  But the mistreatment of children transcends borders, political ideologies, and religious beliefs, so the story works well on face value. It’s honestly a surprise how kind and conscientious Ahmad is when he lives among such rotten people. The ending holds out hope for him and his friend.

Rating: ****

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
Summary/Review:

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: 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
Summary/Review:

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: 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
Summary/Review:

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