Video Vault: Forgotten film deserves new look

Will Pfeifer

Late last year, when the critics were naming picks for the best of movies of 2007, something odd happened: A strange movie with an even stranger title, “Killer of Sheep” showed up on several lists, right up there with “There Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men.”

But here’s the strangest thing of all — “Killer of Sheep” wasn’t made in 2007. It wasn’t even made in this century. Instead, this low-budget film was completed in 1973 and (barely) released in 1977.

Charles Burnett filmed it as his master’s thesis while at UCLA, and though it was seen by very few people during its initial release, its reputation grew over the years. Before Spike Lee helped launch the modern era of black filmmaking in the late 1980s, Burnett was creating a powerful, personal look at one family’s struggle.

It’s rough around the edges — heck, it’s rough all the way through — but that’s what makes it memorable. It feels more like a documentary than a fictional film, with tiny, seemingly meaningless moments adding up to paint a compelling picture of poverty in America.

“Killer of Sheep” focuses on a struggling father (Henry Gale Sanders) who spends his days at the slaughterhouse (where the movie gets its title) and his nights with his wife (Kaycee Moore) and their kids. There’s no plot to speak of. Instead, Burnett follows the family members as they work, play and try to get by. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s sad and sometimes, frankly, it’s dull. Just like real life.

Thankfully, after being restored and given a brief theatrical run last year, “Killer of Sheep” is now available on a DVD that puts its existence in context. Besides the movie and a cast reunion, the two-disc set also includes some of Burnett’s short films, two versions of his 1983 film “My Brother’s Wedding” and a commentary track from Burnett, where he shares the story of the making — and rediscovery — of “Killer of Sheep.”

With Black History Month just a few days away, I can’t think of a more appropriate movie to watch. “Killer of Sheep” isn’t just a sample at black history, it’s a genuine piece of cinema history. For more information about the movie and Burnett, go to


“Sunshine,” the newest film from “Trainspotting” director Danny Boyle, is an imaginative slice of science fiction with breathtaking visuals and a compelling plot.

Too bad it stumbles so badly so close to the finish line.

The setup is simple and strong: In the future, a skeleton crew flies the spaceship Icarus II to the sun, planning to drop a colossal bomb into the dying star and reignite it.  The first Icarus was lost near the end of its (unfinished) mission, and no one knows what happened to the ship or its crew. Naturally, we find out near the end of “Sunshine,” and that’s where the movie loses its way.

While it’s frustrating to see such a visionary movie become another “Alien” ripoff, at least “Sunshine” redeems itself in its final moments. Where the movie excels is conveying the sheer majesty of the sun. If it looks this bright from 93 million miles away, imagine what it would look like up close. Sure, your eyes would sizzle in a split-second, but what would you see in that split second? “Sunshine” is at its best when it asks — and sort of answers — that provocative question.

Will Pfeifer writes about new DVDs on Tuesdays and older ones on Sundays. Contact him at or 815-987-1244.