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

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

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: 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: ****

Scary Movie Review: Carnival of Souls (1962)

Title: Carnival of Souls
Release Date: September 26, 1962
Director: Herk Harvey
Production Company: Harcourt Productions

This movie begins in media res, three young women in a car at a stoplight are challenged to a drag race by young men in another car.  In the course of the contest, the men’s car pushes the women’s car over a bridge.  In the midst of the efforts to pull the car out of the deep, muddy river, one of the women, Mary Henry (Candace Hilligoss), emerges from the water.  She seems unharmed but also unaffected by the crash.

A few days later, Mary drives to Utah where she takes a job as a church organist and lives in a rooming house.  She finds herself haunted by the vision of a corpselike man (director Herk Harvey) wherever she goes.  Mary is also inexplicably drawn to an abandoned pavilion on shore of Great Salt Lake that was once used for a carnival.  In addition to supernatural torments, Mary also has to deal with persistent come-ons from the creepy John Linden (Sidney Berger), a fellow boarder.

The movie oozes atmosphere as Mary deals with the increasing mystery and terror of her life.  The film feels a lot like a Twilight Zone episode and its style influenced directors such as George Romero and David Lynch.  One thing for sure is I’ll never hear church organ music the same way again.

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

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: ***

Scary Movie Review: Don’t Look Now (1973)

Title: Don’t Look Now
Release Date: 16 October 1973
Director: Nicolas Roeg
Production Company: Casey Productions | Eldorado Films

The Baxters – Laura (Julie Christie) and John (Donald Sutherland) – are a couple staying in Venice while John works on restoring a historical church for the local bishop (Massimo Serato).  They are grieving the accidental drowning death of their daughter Christine (Sharon Williams) from a few months earlier.  They meet a pair of elderly English sisters, Heather (Hilary Mason) and Wendy (Clelia Matania), and Wendy, who is blind, claims she has “second sight.”  She tells Laura that she can see Christine, describing the girl perfectly, and saying she is happy.  This experience proves cathartic for Laura, but John is more skeptical.  And yet, he begins having visions of his own.  In the background to all of this we learn of a series of murders occurring in Venice.

The movie is adapted from a story by Daphne du Maurier who also had three works adapted by Alfred Hitchcock: Jamaica Inn, Rebecca, and The Birds.  This is the second of Nicholas Roeg’s films I watched after Walkabout. Like that previous film, Don’t Look Now features spectacular editing with jump cuts, flashbacks, and flash forwards that play with time and the viewer’s sense of reality.  He’s also is skilled at creating spectacular shot involving water, glass, mirrors, and other reflective surfaces. For someone inclined to do so, one could pick out a lot of interesting symbolism in those shots.  This movie is also notable for one of the longest and most honest sex scenes in a mainstream film.  It’s strange at how rare it is that cinema depicts sex between loving, married adults (especially anyone older than 30!).

There is a lot to love about this movie from its visual style, the way Venice becomes a character on its own, the strong acting from the leads, and its exploration of grief.  I do have to confess that I was not all impressed by the denouement. The movie oozes with uneasiness and many of the characters feel untrustworthy.  It all feels to be building to something, but when it comes it is so far out of left field that it’s absurd.  Nonetheless, the movie is definitely worth watching for its first 100 minutes and you may end up liking the twist ending more than me.

Rating: ***1/2

Scary Movie Review: Hereditary (2018)

Title: Hereditary
Release Date: June 8, 2018
Director: Ari Aster
Production Company: A24 | PalmStar Media | Finch Entertainment | Windy Hill Pictures

Hereditary is not a movie one can really summarize so I’ll keep this short.  Annie Graham’s (Toni Collette, in a brilliant performance) family is not a happy one.  Her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) is easygoing but seems helpless when dealing with conflict.  Her 16-year-old son Peter (Alex Wolff) is shy and tries to connect with kids at school by smoking pot. 13-year-old Charlie (Milly Shapiro) appears most troubled of all, with nervous tics and macabre hobbies. The movie establishes a pattern of mental illness and dysfunction in this family exists even in the best of times.

The film begins with the funeral of Annie’s mother (Kathleen Chalfant) who has died after a long descent through dementia.  We learn very quickly that Annie and her mother did not have a good relationship. Shortly into the film, a tragedy strikes the family and things begin to go off the rails.  Annie begins to feel some solace when a new friend from a support group, Joan (Ann Dowd), shows her how to perform a séance to communicate with the dead.  The trouble is, the spirits she reaches are malevolent.

While there is considerable gore in this movie, I feel it’s real scares come from the long, slow building of tension and uneasiness.  In fact, I like the first half of the movie where troubled family relationships are viewed through a horror lense more than the second half when the more supernatural aspects of the story become more apparent.  Regardless, Ari Aster makes just about everything in this movie creepy, even the miniature dioramas that Annie makes of scenes from her life.  Watch this film with the lights on and with good company!

Rating: ***


Scary Movie Review: Clearcut (1991)

Title: Clearcut
Release Date: 10 September 1991
Director: Ryszard Bugajski
Production Company: Cinexus Capital Corporation

A white lawyer from Toronto, Peter Maguire (Ron Lea), represents an indigenous community in a remote region of an unnamed Canadian province against the logging company that is clearcutting the forests to build a new road.  Peter visits with the tribal leaders on a First Nations reserve, none of whom seem particularly impressed by his promises to make an appeal.  Upon meeting an Indian man named Arthur (Graham Greene), Peter offhandedly suggests the solution is capturing the company’s plant manager and skinning him alive.  Peter is shocked when Arthur abducts him and the plant manager, Bud Rickets (Michael Hogan), and takes them both into the wilderness for several days.

The movie is a psychological standoff between Peter and Arthur, while Arthur also physically tortures Bud.  While there are scenes of graphic violence, they are nowhere near as frequent or intense as I expected.  The horror of this movie is more of a slow burn building of tension.  If I interpret it correctly, the main point of the story is to resolve Peter’s impotence and inaction because the plot resolves when Peter finally takes action.  There are also indications that Arthur may be a mythical trickster figure, Wisakedjak, and that the whole movie could be something Peter sees in a vision. But nothing about this movie is that clearcut (pun fully intended).

Greene is terrific in his role as the menacing antagonist who also makes a lot of sense, and Greene has described this as his favorite part he’s ever played.

Rating: ***1/2

TV Review:  Stranger Things (2022)

TitleStranger Things
Release Dates: 2022
Season: 4
Number of Episodes: 9

The supernatural/horror/thriller/drama Stranger Things returns after a three-year (pandemic-delayed) gap with new adventures for a growing team of residents of the fictional town of Hawkins, Indiana.  After diminishing returns in seasons 2 and 3, season 4 feels like a return to form that comes close to greatness of the debut season.  With a large cast of characters, the season is longer in both the number of episodes and the length of individual episodes to tell all their stories, so it can feel sprawling and uneven at times, but I personally feel the more the merrier.

The show reflects a bigger budget and more ambitious scope than previous series lending it a more cinematic feel. It also has more intense gore and horror elements than previous seasons. New cast member Joseph Quinn stars as the season’s breakout character Eddie Munson, leader of the Hellfire Club at Hawkins High School where the nerdy outsiders bond over Dungeons and Dragons’ campaigns.  Sadie Sink returns for her third season as Max Mayfield getting a chance to really develop her character and show off her acting chops.

My review continues below with spoilers, so beware!

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