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
Summary/Review:

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

90 Movies in 90 Days: Hardware Wars (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: Hardware Wars
Release Date: October 16, 1978
Director: Ernie Fosselius
Production Company: Pyramid Films
Summary/Review:

“Filmed on location in space.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the idea of amateur film gaining widespread exposure was unheard of.  Videocassettes and home movie cameras were just becoming widely available, while YouTube and TikTok were well in the future.  So, when someone, anyone, made a parody of the biggest movie of all-time, Star Wars, using household appliances, it was pretty special.And to think this was released even before the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special! I remember seeing it on television, probably on a show like TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes, and thinking it was hilarious.

Well, over four-decades later it’s not so special.  We’ve been saturated in Star Wars content and Star Wars parody for years, and the jokes just feel stale.  Actually, it surprising how much Hardware Wars just follows the plot of Star Wars straight up, just with a lot of gurning and comedic sound effects.  But the visual gags are still fun.  I laughed at the Country & Western bar and the “tractor beam.”  And the flying irons are memorable enough to get a tribute in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  It’s probably still funnier than Spaceballs, which I always thought was just kind of pathetic, although I know I’m in the minority.

Rating: ***

Holiday Movie Review: The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special (2022)


Title: The Guardians of the Galaxy Holiday Special
Release Date: November 25, 2022
Director: James Gunn
Production Company:  Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

In this goofy special, The Guardians learn about the Earth tradition of Christmas and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and Drax (Dave Bautista) decide that they need to cheer up Peter Quill (Chris Pratt).  Their plan involves going to Earth and abducting Quill’s favorite person, Kevin Bacon (Kevin Bacon). Hijinks ensue.

Centering the special on two of the secondary characters is an interesting opportunity to give them some development (Klementieff succeeds more than Bautista), and Bacon looks like he’s having a blast playing himself.  And less Chris Pratt is an advantage.  While I doubt this will become an annual holiday tradition, it was a fun bit of whimsy to watch this year.

Rating: ***

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Movie Review: Slash/Back (2022)


Title: Slash/Back
Release Date: 13 March 2022
Director: Nyla Innuksuk
Production Company:Mixtape VR | Red Marrow Media | Scythia Films  | Stellar Citizens
Summary/Review:

On the summer solstice, all of the adults in the Inuit village of Pangnirtung, Nunavut have gone away to a dance.  So when blood-sucking aliens who take on the skin of dead animals and humans invade the town, it’s up to four teenage girls to rely on their hunting skills to defend the village.  Maika (Tasiana Shirley), Jesse (Alexis Wolfe), Uki (Nalajoss Ellsworth), and Leena (Chelsea Prusky) have relatable problems when they’re not killing aliens, such as attraction to boys, tension with their parents, and the desire to escape their “boring” hometown.  More uniquely, they also struggle with identifying with their Inuit heritage or adapting to more “modern” culture.

Slash/Back name drops The Thing and a lot of people correctly note a similarity to Attack the Block.  But I also feel there’s a connection to 80s childhood dramas like E.T. and Stand By Me.  I’ve seen a lot of criticism of the undeniably stiff acting of the nonprofessional actors in the cast.  But personally I feel that it lends a feeling of authenticity to this contemporary Inuit tale.  This is also helped by the fact that the girls in the film also worked with the filmmakers to inform the script and characterization.  I also found the practical effects for the monsters to be simple but effective.  In short this is a fun and interesting horror/coming of age film from well outside of Hollywood.

Rating: ****

Movie Review: After Yang (2022)


Title: After Yang
Release Date: March 4, 2022
Director: Kogonada
Production Company: A24 | Cinereach | Per Capita Productions
Summary/Review:

In a near future society, Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) purchase a “techno-sapien” – a human-like android – named Yang (Justin H. Min) to act as an older sibling for their child adopted from China, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). Since Jake purchased Yang refurbished from a “previously-owned” shop, when Yang malfunctions they are unable to get him repaired by the corporation that manufactures techno-sapiens.

Instead Jake makes contacts with a repairman and a museum scientist who help him discover Yang’s memory bank which plays back short memories that Yang recorded each day.  The bulk of the film is Jake and later Kyra reviewing these memories and learning that Yang had a relationship with a cloned human named Ada (Haley Lu Richardson) as well as his life with previous families.

This is a slow-moving film that probably isn’t for everyone, but I found it an interesting exploration of issues such as the meaning of life and dealing with grief.  The lived-in feeling of this futuristic society is well-done and reminds me of a similar approach taken in the movie Her (in fact, these two movies could easily be in the same universe).  Apart from the deeply human issues, the film also address concerns of corporate exploitation and surveillance society.  The movie also earns points for one of the most entertaining title sequences ever as the family participates in a dance-off, and having the Mitski song “Glide” significantly in the soundtrack.

Rating: ***

 

Book Review: Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey


Author: Sarah Gailey
Title: Upright Women Wanted
Narrator: Romy Nordlinger
Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2020)
Summary/Review:

This novella has a western vibe while actually set in a dystopian future in which the United States has crumbled under autocratic rule that discriminates against LGBTQ people (ok, maybe not so far in the future?).  Esther hides in a wagon belonging to The Librarians after the execution of her lover Beatriz.  The Librarians officially travel the southwest distributing “approved” reading material but in fact are gun-slinging lesbian women and enby people with ties to pockets of resistance. It seems like a very short story for all of its ambition, but has some great moments, and can be disarmingly sweet and hopeful.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Movie Review: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022)


Title: Black Panther: Wakanda Forever
Release Date: November 11, 2022
Director: Ryan Coogler
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is a sequel that has to contend with death of it’s charismatic star and generational talent, Chadwick Boseman.  The movie begins with T’Challa dying of an incurable illness much like Boseman in real life, handling the problem with greater gravitas and respect for the deceased actor than Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker did for Carrie Fisher.  The women of Wakanda step into the void both as leaders of Wakanda and as the series’ protagonists, particularly scientist and T’Challa’s sister Princess Shuri (Letitia Wright), warrior general Okoye (Danai Gurira), Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and former spy and romantic partner of T’Challa Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o).

T’Challa’s opening Wakanda and its technology to the world has the downside of world powers seeking sources of vibranium.  This in turn leads to the emergence of the Talokan, another hidden society of people descended from the Maya whose discovery of a source of vibranium and the herb that grows from gives the ability to live in a kingdom under the ocean.  Their king, Namor (Tenoch Huerta Mejía), seeks an alliance with Wakanda to destroy the rest of the world.  With Shuri unwilling to carry out mass destruction, the two kingdoms go to war. Wakanda and Talokan each offer an interesting perspective on how colonialism has hurt the non-white people of the world and the lasting trauma contributing to ongoing violence. Namor is also like Kilmonger (Michael B. Jordan) in the first film in that he’s a villain with a very good point, and the question remains how to channel that revolutionary fervor to constructive rather than destructive ends.

There’s also a sideplot with Shuri and Okoye needing to protect a scientist from Namor because she’s invented a device that can locate vibranium.  It turns out that the scientist is Riri Williams (Dominique Thorne)  a teenage prodigy who studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  This means that as a Bostonian we finally get to see the greater Boston area in the MCU, although they never quite make it across the bridge to Boston proper.  Riri also is able to build her own armored suit like Tony Stark and takes on the superhero name Ironheart.  I have a feeling that with Cassie Lang, Kate Bishop, America Chavez, Love, Kamala Khan, Riri, and others that we’re totally being set up for a Young Avengers team.

The original Black Panther is still the best movie in the MCU, in my opinion, and Wakanda Forever had a lot to live up to under the best conditions.  At nearly three hours in length, it is like a lot of MCU movies in being just too long.  I also feel that despite the great performances by all the stars that the movie suffers from not having a single protagonist for much of the first two acts as well as too many sideplots.  That aside, it is still an enjoyable and heartfelt film and a worth successor.

Rating: ***1/2

 

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Movie Review: Nope (2022)


Title: Nope
Release Date: July 18, 2022
Director: Jordan Peele
Production Company: Monkeypaw Productions
Summary/Review:

A brother and sister struggle to manage the family business of wrangling horses for Hollywood movies and commercials after the sudden death of their father (a small role for Keith David of The Thing and They Live). The laconic Otis “OJ” Haywood, Jr. (Daniel Kaluuya) is determined to carry on the family business, but the more free-spirited Emerald “Em” Haywood (Keke Palmer) is ready to move on to other interests.  They have an offer to buy the ranch from  Ricky “Jupe” Park (Steven Yeun) a former child actor who runs a Western theme park on an adjacent ranch.

When they discover something mysterious hovering in the clouds above their ranch and taking their horses, OJ an Em determine that capturing a high-quality film of the UFO is their key to fame and fortune.  They are soon joined by Angel (Brandon Perea), the technician from an electronics store who installs surveillance cameras on their party.  Later, Antlers Holst (Michael Wincott), an auteur filmmaker, joins the team.  As you can imagine from a horror movie, things don’t go to plan. In fact they go horrifyingly wrong.

I’ve seen a lot of commentary that this movies is Jordan Peele’s homage to early Steven Spielberg movies like Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  While they’re not wrong, the movie comparison that comes to my mind is Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.  Both films have a carnival in the desert setting while thematically dealing with the idea of spectacle and the willingness of people to exploit human suffering.  Black Americans especially are dehumanized for the entertainment of others, a point the movie makes with the Haywood’s claim that their ancestor was the jockey in Eadweard Muybridge’s first motion picture but is invisible to history.  Of course, OJ’s name brings to mind the spectacle of the O.J. Simpson trial, although Peele refrains from the obvious callback of having OJ ride a white bronco.

The movie is very good at building tension especially early on by not showing much about the mystery in the sky.  Later in the film when we see more of what it is, the movie takes on a more surreal feel.  I’m particularly impressed by the editing and the sound design of the movie.  All the acting is great but Keke Palmer is the standout performer for me.  While not quite as good as Get Out or Us, I think Peele has added another great horror flick that makes you think to his oeuvre.

Rating: ****

Scary Movie Review: They Live (1988)


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

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: ***

Book Review: Time Traveling with a Hamster by Ross Welford


Author: Ross Welford 
Title: Time Traveling with a Hamster 
Narrator: Bruce Mann
Publication Info: Listening Library (2016)
Summary/Review:

“My dad died twice. Once when he was thirty-nine, and again four years later when he was twelve. (He’s going to die a third time as well, which seems a bit rough on him, but I can’t help that.)”

Al Chaudhury is a nerdy 12-year-old growing up in the North of England who is off Indian and Welsh heritage.  He lives with his mom, her boyfriend Steve with whom he doesn’t connect well, his goth half-sister Carly with whom he does not get along, and his genius Grandpa Byron.  On his twelfth birthday, Al is given a letter written by his father Pye before his death four years earlier.

Al is tasked with finding his father’s time machine and traveling back to 1984 when the young Pye suffered an accident that would contribute to his early death decades later.  Pye was unable to do it himself because the rules of time travel prevent the same person from appearing twice at the same time.  In this very sweet story, Al makes several attempts to figure out the time machine and how to fix the past, while forming a bond with his father as a boy his own age.  And yes, he travels with Alan Shearer, a pet hamster that was also a birthday gift.

I love time travel stories and really enjoyed this messy, heartfelt adventure even if it makes me feel old that traveling to 1984 is treated as the distant past.  Grandpa Byron is a great character and reminds me of my own grandfather who tried to get me to read a book about learning memorization skills. And this is a light spoiler but I love that this is the only time travel story other than Back to the Future where changes in the past lead to a more positive future for the protagonist.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****