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Film

Reagan’s Recs: Family-Friendly Horror

I love horror. You probably know that already though. It is, afterall, one of the more notable aspects of who I am, mainly because I basically never shut up about it. I also love introducing people to horror, a task that I understand can be difficult when you might be a bit more on the squeamish side or when you have young children who are difficult to get away from, especially during the pandemic. So, since I’m talking about horror for older audiences next month, I thought it would be nice (and super fun, let’s face it) to write about family-friendly horror this month. This is the realm of Tim Burton and Scooby-Doo, the kind of movies that you look back on as the first stepping stones to a life-long love of spooky stuff. The kinds of things that Halloween just isn’t complete without. So, without further a-do, it’s showtime!

Beetlejuice (1988), dir. Tim Burton, United States

Beetlejuice is a Tim Burton movie from before the name Tim Burton meant movies like Alice in Wonderland (2010) and Dumbo (2019). It’s Burton’s second feature film, his follow up to Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), and becuase of that, it marks his first collaborations with Michael Keaton and Winona Ryder, both of whom would go on to star in four and three of Burton’s movies respectively. As I alluded to previously, by now Burton’s name doesn’t carry the same respect as it does. To put it bluntly, Burton hasn’t consistently made good movies since he made Ed Wood in 1994. Yes there are exceptions like Corpse Bride in 2004 and, depending on your opinion, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 2007 but, over all, Burton hasn’t been doing great work since the 90s. I mean, just look at Dumbo (2019). It’s not great! I digress.

The film is the story of Barbara and Adam Maitland (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin), a recently deceased couple who find that their house has been bought by the Deetz family (Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Wright, and Winona Ryder), a wealthy family from the city. In an effort to get the Deetzes out of their home, the Maitlands enlist the help of Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton), a “bio-exorcist” who promises to get rid of the living for any ghosts who need his help and who can be summoned by saying his name three times. It’s more fun than scary and is buoyed by a killer cast. O’Hara is, per usual incredible, playing an eccentric wealthy woman prone to hysterics with the same skill she would show 27 years later as Moira Rose in Schitt’s Creek (2015-20). Keaton meanwhile, is quite frankly, disgusting, which is exactly what he should be; after all, he’s a rotting sleazeball covered in mold. As for Ryder, this is the role where she became the pattern after which every edgy goth-lite girl modeled themselves; throughout the film, she spouts now-iconic lines like “my whole life is a dark room” and “I myself am strange and unusual”. The kind of stuff that launched a thousand hot topic shirts. 

Beetlejuice is a film that takes place in both the plain world of the living and the seemingly vibrant but in reality, doldrums realm of the Netherworld; a place populated by the dead that takes the form of an office full of colorful, imaginative caseworkers, their assistants, and those awaiting their appointments, all of them sporting signs which point to the causes of their deaths. The production design of the Netherworld realm takes its cues from the German Expressionism films which have influenced the set design of Burton’s films, both animated and live-action across his career. Essentially, to sum up my spiel about this movie, Beetlejuice is fun and creative and made with enough love and care that it’s lived on in the hearts and minds of many for decades now. Oh no, I said his name three times, didn’t I?

Goosebumps (2015), dir. Rob Letterman, United States

After being accidentally released by Zach Cooper (Dylan Minette), the monsters previously contained inside the books, led by Slappy from the Night of the Living Dummy series (voiced by Jack Black) decide to seek their revenge against Stine for keeping them locked up all this time. Zach, along with the help of his friend Champ (Ryan Lee) and Stine’s daughter Hannah (Odeya Rush) spend the night attempting to save the world and put all of the monsters back in the books. 

It’s a veritable who’s-who of the Goosebumps series with appearances from The Abominable Snowman for Pasadena, one of my personal favorites, the giant mantis from Shocker on Shock Street, and as mentioned previously, from Slappy. I’m not going to pretend that Goosebumps is a masterpiece because that’s neither what it is nor what it was intended to be. Instead, I’m going to say the truth about it which is that it’s a fun, spooky movie with a score by the king of fun spooky movies, Danny Elfman, and a great performance by Jack Black, who has yet to let me down once.

ParaNorman(2012), dir. Sam Fell and Chris Butler, United States

The second feature film from stop-motion animation studio Laika,  ParaNorman is a follow-up to their previous film, Coraline. It is the story of Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-Mcphee), an 11-year-old boy who can speak to the dead. Norman is an outsider in both his family and his town at large. He’s a strange kid; he lives and breathes horror and claims to see and speak to the dead. But that strangeness, that outsider status becomes his greatest strength because it’s what allows him to break the 300-year-old curse that plagues his small town of Blithe Hollow, Massachusetts.

ParaNorman is about the consequences of giving in to fear and suspicion of others and it explores those themes by telling a story connected to witch trials, the most famous of which took place in Massachusetts. It’s an example of how movies made for kids can and should be brilliant. There’s a video essay by CJ The X called Skipping the First 5 Minutes of Tangled;there’s a line in that video that instantly stuck with me, “kids like good movies, they also like bad movies but they’re kids! We’re adults, it’s our responsibility to give them good art that’s gonna last.” Kids deserve movies that they can look at throughout their life in different ways, movies that reflect their experiences back to them.

I was always a lonely, spooky kid and when I saw it in theatres it instantly resonated with me in ways that I wasn’t able to fully understand until much later. Kids will consume candy-covered garbage if that’s what we provide them with but they’ll eat up good quality content with equal gusto, ParaNorman is the quality content that we need to put more of into the world. Kids are smarter than we tend to give them credit for and they deserve to have media that understands that.

Scooby-Doo (2002), dir. Raja Gosnell, United States

Scooby-Doo is one of the best movies that James Gun (Dawn of the Dead, The Suicide Squad) has ever written, second only to Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed A.K.A. the movie that I forced my mom to let me stay home from school and watch on loop the minute it came out on VHS. Both of these movies are ingrained in the fabric of who I am, they were on a constant loop throughout my childhood. There are parts that feel firmly stuck in the 2000s but overall, Scooby-Doo is super fun with aspects of it that feel like a love letter to the original cartoon.  

There’s a lot that has been said about this movie but I’m going to pick just two of them. The first is that the cast is great; Sarah Michelle Gellar, Linda Cardellini, Freddy Prinze Jr, and Matthew Lillard (who has been voicing Shaggy in the cartoons since 2009) are all fantastic as the human members of Mystery Inc. My second point is somewhat related to that, Freddy Prinze Jr. says one of the best lines in 2000s cinema when he says “what up dog. And uh dog” in a scene that also contains a Sugar Ray cameo. Have I mentioned that this is a deeply 2000s movie yet? Because it is. Oh yeah, and the lead single off of the soundtrack for this movie is a song by OutKast featuring Killer Mike and Sleepy Brown, the music video for which features Matthew Lillard as Shaggy Rogers and Scooby himself as well as the Mystery Machine. Oh yeah, and Shaggy is on the soundtrack too. What a film, we’re lucky to live in a world where it exists. 

Addams Family Values (1993), dir. Barry Sonnenfeld, United States

Of the two live-action Addams Family movies, Addams Family Values is easily my favorite. The cast is just as good as they were in the first movie only this time they have the addition of Joan Cusack as Debbie Jillinsky. To me, the highlights of this movie have always been Morticia’s (Angelica Huston) ethereal aura, Wednesday’s (Christina Ricci) everything, and Debbie Jillinsky. I say this about basically every scene in any movie I like but the Malibu Barbie scene is iconic. Beyond that, Addams Family Values is just a great time that’s hard to grow tired of. I’ve been watching it every year since I was like seven and I still have yet to get tired of it.

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Film

Reagan’s Recs: Our Fears on Film w/ Neo

Welcome back to Guest Recs, this month’s guest is my sister Neo. Despite her occasionally questionable taste in movies (looking at you Resident Evil), she generally tends to have really great taste in movies.

Back when I started the column I asked her if she would like to be part of the first batch and she (thankfully) said yes. I’ll be honest, I didn’t fully know what to expect when she agreed to do this. Afterall, she could have done everything from bad video game movies to The Matrix power hour. Instead, she blew me away with this rumination on fear in film. As per usual all of these recs are cosigned by me but I just wanted to make very clear that I think all of these are at the very least fun movies that should be seen at least once.


Our world has always had its fears, festering up from deep inside of us at rational and irrational times alike. Whether they be primal fears founded in rationality, like fear of heights, or whether they be more modern fears of a more irrational variety such as fears based around social media. Everyone experiences a particular breed of anxiety from time to time when faced with their fears, valid or invalid as they may be, with some people experiencing it to a crippling amount. Like most media, films often reflect the fears we hold both intentionally and unintentionally, and in some cases have been shown to increase already existing fears societies hold. 

It can be important to recognize what fears that media can be showing us, even unintentionally, and to be critical of them. Films can be used to direct vitriol at different groups and cause ostracization of them by associating different people with terrible things. They can be used as a form of propaganda against groups that the writer or director doesn’t like, or ones that are easy targets to tear down if society already looks down on them. When we see a depiction in a film that scares us it is important to ask ourselves what message the film is trying to get across.

Halloween (1978) dir. John Carpenter, United States

Halloween is an all-time classic horror movie that still holds up as frightening to this day, with Michael Myers/The Shape remaining an iconic staple in slasher horror alongside other giants of the genre such as Jason Vorhees and Freddy Kreuger. It is a film that prays on many fears people in society hold, the silent killer, the home invasion, being hunted, but the specific fears I’m focusing on here are those of the fear of the other and the fear of the mentally ill. Both of these fears can be tied together as they often go hand in hand in reality. 

People fear those with ‘scary’ mental illnesses such as psychotic disorders because they are different, because they are other and because it is hard for them to understand the disorders and what they mean. People hear the word psycho in psychotic and picture Patrick Bateman, the eponymous American Psycho or Norman Bates of Psycho fame, when in reality those with psychotic disorders are nothing like the characters meant to represent them on screen. Michael Myers can be seen as another example of the archetypal Psycho Killer (qu’est-ce que c’est?) often found in horror media, a harmful stereotype representing those with psychotic disorders as brutal and unstoppable killers. When in fact they are just people with a mental illness who aren’t going to just start walking around town killing people at random. 

It is easy to see Michael Myers as The Other. He was originally called The Shape, a nebulous title that represented his obscured nature, he always wears his mask, never really revealing his face, and he is almost inhuman seeming with his impossible survival through several attempts to take him down, whether they be by a knitting needle, a gun, or a fire. Despite the fears it can represent, intentionally or not, Halloween is still an excellent horror movie that I highly recommend to those who have never seen it, and highly recommend a rewatch for those who have. 

Train to Busan (2016) dir. Yeong Sang-ho, South Korea

Train to Busan is one of the best zombie movies ever made. While I’m sure some would love to debate this opinion I will plug my ears and ignore them as someone who typically hates zombie movies but loved Train to Busan. The fears it prays on are both obvious and more metaphorical, with it having elements of fears of death and disease, but also having elements of the fear of growing distant from and losing family. 

Trapped on a train surrounded by the living dead, a businessman is forced to confront how distant he has become from his young daughter due to his workaholic nature and ignorance. The film shows how his greed for money and his choice to work instead of spending time with his daughter has pushed a wedge between them, and how it was likely the cause for his divorce. 

Throughout the film, he is forced to reflect on his own nature and his fear of becoming separated from his daughter, both in an abstract and literal sense, as he traverses the train with a group of survivors attempting to reach the other group. The film also shows the fear of disease, with the character of the greedy COO fearing the group trying to connect with his group could be infected and attempting to keep them locked out to save his own skin while ignoring their insistence that they are not infected. Everyone fears disease, and many people fear driving a wedge between themselves and others. Often these fears are rational and irrational alike, and they are ones the film doesn’t use to stigmatize anything but greed and ignorance. Train to Busan is a film I’d recommend even if zombie films aren’t typically your cup of tea.

The Strangers (2008) dir. Bryan Bertino, United States

The Strangers is a film that preys on our fears of stalking and home invasion, similar to the original The Purge but preceding it by a number of years. It tells the story of a couple who are attacked in the night by three masked strangers who invade their home and attempt to hunt them down, simply because they can. Many people have anxiety around these particular fears. Is that bang outside a raccoon or is someone trying to smash a window and get in? Was that creak on the floorboard the house settling or is someone creeping down the hall? Is that shadow in the corner of my eye a shirt hanging on a chair or is it a person trying to hide? 

These are fears further exacerbated by the real home invasions, stalkings, and killings that happen in our real world. They are fears very much based in reality, but ones that are often irrational. While The Strangers isn’t a perfect horror film it is one that I love and recommend to anyone who doesn’t have intense anxiety around home invasions.

Resident Evil (2002) dir. Paul W. S. Andersen, United States

Resident Evil is a film series I will admit is not very good. However, it is incredibly fun to watch, and I recommend at least watching the battle against Wesker from Resident Evil: Afterlife. Both the films and the games explore our fears of disease and our fears of corporations. The T-Virus and its variants across the franchise seem nigh-unstoppable, even when Raccoon City is hit with a nuclear bomb the T-Virus continues to spread across the world. Fear of disease is one that is incredibly prevalent, especially today. Everyone is worried about becoming sick from something, even more, so something that could kill you or that could remove your autonomy. 

Resident Evil also represents our often justified fear of corporations, as the incredibly shady Umbrella Corporation is directly responsible for the outbreak either by incompetence or purposeful infection in an attempt to experiment on an unwilling populace. We often fear what corporations are doing behind the curtain, whether it’s an invasion of privacy, destruction of the environment, or simply causing problems for everyone via sheer incompetence. I highly recommend the Resident Evil series for anyone looking for a good time, at least not critically.

The Matrix (1999) dir. Lana and Lilly Wachowski, United States

The Matrix is a classic sci-fi film and one that I knew would be on this list for certain as soon as I knew I was doing this. It’s my favorite film of all time, and despite not being a horror movie like the others, it still explores some of our societal fears, such as the fear of becoming complacent and the fear of reality not being what we perceive it as. Within the Matrix itself, people are expected to conform to the computer-generated fantasy. Conformity means the computers can keep using the human race as batteries and soylent green. When people don’t conform, such as the characters that teach Neo about the truth of the Matrix, it poses a threat directly to society and the way things are done. The systematic issues are ones the robots don’t want to be challenged as it would threaten their position of power. Sounds a little familiar, even today. 

It can be scary as well to think of the Matrix conceptually. It is scary to imagine the world we know is not real but is instead lines of code on a computer telling us things are a certain way, that things are good when they very much are not. I highly recommend the Matrix to everyone who watches movies. It is a classic and a pioneer for sci-fi visual effects, and an excellent franchise all around. It’s also a good time to watch considering the fourth film in the series comes out this holiday season.

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Film

Reagan’s Recs – Anime

Surprising absolutely no one, I was a pretty big fan of anime when I was in high school. I remember hanging out with my friends at lunch and discussing everything from Madoka Magica to Yuri!!! on Ice. At some point during high school, this excitement and love for the medium faded away, and aside from rewatching some favourites like Tokyo Mew Mew and Princess Tutu every so often, I more or less stopped watching anime.

And then the world started falling apart and I decided to put on Ponyo, a movie that I had loved as a child. And once that was finished I put on Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away, two more childhood favorites who were soon joined by movies I hadn’t seen before like Princess Mononoke and Paprika. Through delving back into anime movies I rediscovered my fondness for anime and while not as intense as I used to be, I’ve started watching anime again. And not just ones I’ve seen before. Below are some of my favourites; either ones I’ve loved for years or ones I’ve just recently seen. Check them out even if you don’t especially love anime, you might be surprised.

Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), dir. Hayao Miyazaki

Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my favourite Studio Ghibli movies. Where do I even start? It’s gorgeously animated (as is the norm) and the backgrounds are beautiful (also the norm.)

It’s about a girl named Sophie Hatter (Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons in the english dub) who, after encountering an (allegedly) heart-eating wizard named Howl (Christian Bale), is cursed by a witch (Lauren Bacall) who turns her into an old woman. In an effort to break the curse, Sophie leaves home and sets off to find a cure in a wasteland aptly called “the waste.” While there she encounters a living scarecrow who she names Turnip Head and finds Howl’s moving castle. After entering it without invitation she meets Howl’s apprentice Markl (Josh Hutchinson) and Calcifer (Billy Crystal), a fire demon whose magic powers Howl’s castle. When Howl finally arrives home, Sophie tells him that she’s a cleaning lady who Calcifer hired.

Howl’s Moving Castle is absolutely a love story but it’s also very much an anti-war movie. Sophie’s country of Ingary is at war with a neighbouring country following the disappearance of Ingary’s Crown Prince. As a result, all of Ingary’s wizards have been drafted to fight, something which requires them to quite literally lose their humanity and transform into monsters, losing the ability to turn back in the process. Miyazaki has never been subtle when it comes to his distaste for war, he did after all refuse to attend the 75th Academy Awards because he “didn’t want to visit a country that was bombing Iraq”. It’s a recurring theme in his works and it’s one that really works well here.

Perfect Blue (1997), dir. Satoshi Kon

(CW: Perfect Blue contains depictions of both simulated and attempted sexual assault)

Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue is the story of Mima, a retired idol who is pursuing an acting career. Over the course of the film, Mima becomes the victim of stalking and loses her grip on reality. 

Today, Perfect Blue feels like a prescient film about the (buzzword warning) dangers of parasocial relationships and the effects they have on both ends as well as having so much to say about the ownership that (typically male) fans feel they have over female creator’s bodies. It’s been almost 25 years since Perfect Blue was released and even though the technology in it is out of date, the plot remains as vital as ever. 

Madoka Magica: Rebellion (2013), dir. Akiyuki Shinbo & Yukihiro Miyamoto

Rebellion is the conclusion to Madoka Magica, a 2011 magical girl anime that follows a group of girls who make a contract with a cat-like being named Kyubey. In return for granting a wish, Kyubey requires the girls led by Madoka Kaname to become magical girls and fight witches. Over the course of that series, Madoka and her fellow magical girls Sayaka, Mami, Kyoko, and Homura learn the real cost of being magical girls.

Rebellion is the third and final movie and the only one to be made up entirely of new material; the first two Beginnings and Eternal serve as recaps of the ten-episode series. Rebellion, meanwhile, picks up after the events of the series and follows Homura Akemi as transfers to a new school in Mitakihara where she meets Madoka, Sayaka, Mami, and Kyoko. Homura and the rest of the girls, joined by Mami’s familiar Bebe, fight creatures called Nightmares as magical girls. Everything is happy and nobody dies. Or do they. Who can tell for sure? I know I won’t be telling you here, you’ll just have to watch it for yourself.

Akira (1988), dir. Katsuhiro Otomo 

(CW: Akira contains sequences of flashing lights)

Set in the far-off future of 2019, Akira is simply put, fantastic. Everything in it connects to make something incredible; the lighting, the colours, absolutely everything works together perfectly to create genius.

I was a concert band kid in school and because of that scores tend to stick out to me. Akira’s score is, at times, haunting. It feels both mechanical and like a living, breathing thing all at once. Sometimes with literal breaths like in “Battle Against Clown”. The composer, Shōji Yamashiro, drew from Indonesian gamelan music and Japanese noh music while creating the score and the juxtaposition of elements of traditional music with the futuristic setting is fantastic. 

Akira’s cultural impact is impossible to deny; without it, franchises like Pokémon and Naruto may never have grown as popular as they did outside of Japan. As well, it kicked off a wave of Japanese cyberpunk works like Cowboy Bebop and Tetsuo: The Iron Man

Belladonna of Sadness (1973), dir. Eiichi Yamamoto

(CW: Belladonna of Sadness contains graphic depiction of sexual assault and sequences of flashing lights)

I struggled over whether or not to include Belladonna of Sadness, it’s a very heavy film due to the nature of the inciting incident and it’s never been especially easy for me to figure out how to talk about it (my review of it on Letterboxd took several days for me to write as I navigated how to discuss both the subject matter and the beauty of the animation.)

Belladonna of Sadness is a 1973 erotic anime film directed by Eiichi Yamamoto (Astro Boy) and inspired by Jules Michelet’s non-fiction book La Sorcière. The final part of the Animerama trilogy, a trilogy of adult anime films, is the only one of the three that Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Buddha, Princess Knight) had no involvement in. It follows Jeanne, a medieval French peasant woman who, after being sexually assaulted by nobles on her wedding day, turns to witchcraft to seek revenge. 

I love this movie for two reasons: the soundtrack and visuals. Belladonna of Sadness was first described to me as “an erotic prog-rock musical” which is not untrue, that is what it is. The soundtrack, composed by Masahiko Satoh, is fantastic. I’ll often throw it on in the background while I’m working on things and it isn’t an uncommon occurrence for it to get stuck in my head for days on end. Beyond the soundtrack, the visuals are incredible. Inspired by the works of Gustav Klimt and Tarot illustrations as well as the art of Aubrey Beardsley and Harry Clarke, Belladonna of Sadness consists mostly of panning shots of still watercolour paintings and it’s gorgeous and absolutely unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.

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Film

Reagan’s Recs: The City w/ Bobby Varghese Vinu

Bobby Varghese Vinu is someone who very obviously loves movies. His passion for all film and most especially the films of Wong Kar-Wai is very apparent once you’ve talked to him for even a little bit. But more noticeable than his love for the films he’s already seen is his desire to learn more, to see more. I asked Bobby to guest on Reagan’s Recs because I knew that he would happily share that love with others if given the chance.

When Bobby came to me with the idea to cover cities all I could think about was how it was such a perfect idea with so much room to work with in terms of what could be chosen. After all, the topic of cities can cover everything from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off to Scott Pilgrim vs. The World to Oldboy. Much like with the real world, there’s just so much to explore.


I grew up in a city, but I lived in a housing colony, which is why I enjoyed going into the metropolitan area where I lived. I was excited when I moved to London to do my bachelor’s degree and whenever I go to Manchester (where I am doing my master’s degree) now that I live in a town near the city. And as someone who’s been indulging in his love for films, I find that the city is a tapestry to weave in a wide range of stories.

And so, without further ado, here are my picks!

Monsoon Wedding (2001) dir. Mira Nair (Delhi, India)

(CW/TW: While it is not shown, Monsoon Wedding deals with the ramifications of family child abuse with one of the characters being revealed to be an abuser)

When I was learning Indian geography as a kid, I remember asking why some people call it “New Delhi. If there’s a “New Delhi,” is there an “Old Delhi?”

Monsoon Wedding goes into that. With the premise circulating around a wedding in India, it does take place in Delhi at the turn of the millennium, which has changed considerably, there is the conflict of tradition and modernity, especially with families, thus creating an “Old Delhi” and the “New Delhi.” The city is a perfect tapestry for that kind of conflict.

That kind of conflict is messy, especially when considering the people who are affected by it on a psychological level. In its use of the tradition vs. modernity conflict, director Mira Nair and screenwriter Sabrina Dhawan tackle long-standing family issues with a sensitivity that I don’t think someone who wasn’t Indian would be able to pull off, such as the one I mentioned in my CW/TW. It’s uncomfortable for the characters involved to grapple with the truth, but it must happen.

But Monsoon Wedding is also a beautiful film about love, with its sincerity. It’s charming in the way romantic comedies can be, and love is a catalyst for change. It’s a way to break free of the shackles of the past and to enjoy the present while embracing the future.

Do the Right Thing (1989) dir. Spike Lee (Brooklyn, New York City, United States)

(CW/TW for an ableist slur, racism, antisemitism, flashing lights, and nudity)

No wonder Spike Lee is the Brooklyn filmmaker.

I love how I got to know the community of characters in this film. The filming techniques utilised in Do the Right Thing, such as the use of the camera angles and the zooms keep this sense of movement with the characters. It gives them an active presence and it also helps with showcasing their mood, especially with the film’s story of racial tensions that are a constant across its Brooklyn neighborhood.

This is what makes the film timeless. These filming techniques aren’t just for show. Lee tells a story about racism, and he uses his techniques to get the viewer to understand Mookie, Radio Raheem, Buggin’ Out, and the like when it comes to their grievances.

And that’s not even mentioning how well this film has aged. 

Heat (1995), dir. Michael Mann (Los Angeles, United States)

(CW/TW for flashing lights, a suicide attempt, and sequences of violence, which includes the off-screen death of a sex worker who’s underage. Some images may be triggering to viewers)

I remember first hearing about Heat when Christopher Nolan talked about how the film inspired his take on Gotham City where he wanted to tell a “city story.” Heat is very much that.

Heat is perfect when it comes to style. It has some of the best set pieces that I’ve seen from action films. And Mann does an excellent job at showcasing the quieter, more introspective moments in the film, such as the diner scene. It’s all to show the kind of characters that exist in his world of LA, where the criminals and the cops may be on the opposite sides of the law, but they have one thing in common: an obsession to do what they’re good at, no matter whatever shred of happiness it costs them.

Touki Bouki (1973), dir. Djibril Diop Mambéty (Dakar, Senegal)

(CW/TW for a racial slur for mixed-race people, scenes of graphic animal violence, and nudity. There are unsettling images involving skulls)

At first glance, Touki Bouki may be the usual story about two lovers wanting to move elsewhere, but what makes this film interesting is the fact that it’s about them wanting to move from the city of Dakar, Senegal, to Paris. It’s a poetic film about colonization and migration, with its innovative use of sound and jump cuts, all of which are used to grapple with the ramifications of post-colonialism. For Djibril Diop Mambéty, Dakar, and Senegal by large, is a place that may retain its own culture, but is also influenced by the decades of French colonialism. It’s not recognizable anymore. And you see that with the lovers, Mory and Anta, who see Paris as an escape from the dullness of their lives, especially since they don’t know if Dakar is a place they can call home. There are the scenes at the slaughterhouse, which are uncomfortable to watch, and while they don’t involve the characters, it makes sense in the context of their lives; they can try to change, but they won’t always be in control.

For most of my childhood and my teenage years, I used to move around a lot, and I remember how four years ago, I was excited to leave Trivandrum (the city I am from) for London, and I remember being conflicted as to whether I really wanted to leave or not. I felt like I was betraying my roots and this film reminds me of that time. 

And I think it’s something a lot of folks outside the West can relate to. 

Paddington 2 (2017) dir. Paul King (London, United Kingdom)

(CW/TW: Heavy use of marmalade)

When I first moved to London, I would constantly hear about the big bear and I never bought into it, until I watched the first film. And the second film is just as excellent.

I related to this film, especially since I live in a country where right-wing rhetoric is all too common to the point where it doesn’t surprise me anymore; it just adds to my ever-growing cynicism. I feel unwelcome as if my voice doesn’t matter.

And yet, I still feel my cynicism disappear for a moment with this film. In Paddington 2, London is a city where different cultures coexist and mingle with each other. It may not be a perfect city, but the filmimbues London with a humanistic warmth that just feels like a hug, especially with its title character’s presence, who’s just an amazing person. There’s also some incredible commentary on Brexit and prison reform. It’s a film that dares to ask hard questions of a country that has not done anything to stem the systemic problems it faces.

It’s a marmalade-infused charm of a masterpiece.

Chungking Express (1994), dir. Wong Kar-wai (Hong Kong)

(CW/TW for the drugging of a character and flashing lights)

One of the best things to happen to me this year was discovering the work of Wong Kar-wai. There are numerous films I could pick here, but I wanted to go with Chungking Express, the film that captured my heart with its energized depiction of Hong Kong. 

In Wong’s depiction of Hong Kong, now a retrospective ode to the pre-handover days, you can meet someone with your eyes and in an instant, a connection is formed, with all the endless possibilities that come with it. Hong Kong is a character that brings different kinds of people together.

And with the use of bold colours, courtesy of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, Wong uses the city to provide that insight into connections. I was drawn to the characters to the point where I connected to them in some ways, especially when it came to love.

Another aspect of Hong Kong that I loved in Chungking Express is how it’s “international.” Whether that be the depiction of the Chungking Mansions with its wide assortment of cultures that are in one spot, or the use of American music such as The Mamas and Papas’ “California Dreamin” or Dinah Washington’s “What A Difference A Day Makes,” it adds to the identity of Hong Kong. It adds to the exhilarating romanticism of living in the city.

California Dreamin’ indeed.


Now maybe it’s because I have Chungking Express on this list, but I think a certain thing is starting to become clear to me.

I moved around a lot in my younger years, and what always struck me was how I live in an interconnected world. I have friends around the globe, including the folks at GateCrashers and I think there’s something about the city that allows for that.

The city is global. And with that comes the terror of capitalist exploitation, but there’s also the beauty in talking to different kinds of people and understanding them.

I think that’s beautiful.

Categories
Film

Reagan’s Recs: Sci-Fi

In honour of Star Wars month here at GateCrashers, this month’s theme for Reagan’s Recs is Science-Fiction. 

Science-Fiction is one of my favourite genres and it has been for a very long time. For just about as long as I can remember I’ve always loved everything from B-movies to more horror-leaning stories to science-fantasy epics. Star Wars and Star Trek have long been staples of my life but they aren’t the only pieces of Science-Fiction that I love nor are they the pieces that have been in my life the longest. 

That honour instead belongs to Godzilla (1998), the first movie I ever saw and to date, the only movie that has ever caused me to get so upset about it that I’ve given myself a tension headache while talking about it (true story).

Most of the movies or franchises I mentioned (with one very big exception) aren’t part of this list. Instead, I chose to focus mostly on stand-alone features ranging from the 1950s all the way up to 2019. This list went through several variations, some of the movies I wanted to include earlier didn’t make the cut not because I didn’t feel they deserved it, but because I didn’t feel I could do my love for them justice in the way I was writing about them. Others that did make the cut felt so necessary to include that I just had to. One in particular (the second-to-last one) struck me as perhaps the most necessary inclusion to this list. 

Rather than prattle on for even longer than I already have, I’ll let everyone move on to what they’re actually here for; the recs. 

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), dir. Robert Wise, United States

Perhaps my favourite science-fiction film ever; The Day the Earth Stood Still is a cold war-era film about an alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) who travels to earth with a message: “change or be destroyed”. 

Directed by Robert Wise who would later go on to direct Star Trek: The Motion Picture, The Day the Earth Stood Still is, at its core, hopeful sci-fi. Klaatu doesn’t come to Earth with only the intention to destroy it, he comes with the intention of help. 

Hopeful sci-fi is my favourite sci-fi, I was raised on Trek, why would I want a story that says that humanity is doomed, that there’s no hope for us. 

Treasure Planet (2002), dir. Rob Clements, John Musker, United States

Treasure Planet slaps, it just does. Look me in the eyes and try to deny the fact that this is a good movie. It’s Treasure Island in space! There’s some dad stuff! What’s not to love? (I admit that these two points are very specific to me and my tastes.)

This movie understands two things: pirates are cool and space is awesome, it also understands that the best way to improve on both of those concepts is by combining them. 

But it isn’t what’s on screen so much as the story behind the production that really stands out to me. For decades, Treasure Planet was Rob Clement and John Musker’s passion project. First pitched in 1985 at the same time as The Little Mermaid only to be rejected because Michael Eisner was aware of a Star Trek film with a similar approach that was in production at Paramount (as evidenced by the fact that no such film exists, it eventually went unproduced) In 1989, following the release of The Little Mermaid Musker and Clements pitched it a second time with Disney still uninterested in the idea. Following the release of Aladdin, the duo pitched Treasure Planet for a third time only for Jeffrey Katzenberg to reject it. Eventually, they brought the idea straight to Roy E. Disney himself who backed the idea and made his wishes known to Eisner who finally agreed to produce Treasure Planet. Following the completion of Hercules, production on Treasure Planet finally began with principal animation beginning in 2000. 

Treasure Planet is very different from Musker and Clement’s other projects in that it isn’t a musical. Instead, the film makes use of an orchestral score and two songs by John Rzeznik of The Goo Goo Dolls (“I’m Still Here” and “Always Know Where You Are”). That isn’t to say that the songs aren’t as good as the songs in say The Little Mermaid or Hercules, I included a link to “I’m Still Here” for a reason after all. 

I could say so much more about this but I’ve already said so much so instead, I’ll leave you with this: Treasure Planet has heart and it has it in spades. 

Annihilation (2018), dir. Alex Garland, United States

Based on the book by James VanderMeer, Annihilation is about a group of women who enter a quarantined zone known as The Shimmer that is full of flora and fauna that has been mutated by an alien entity. 

Cosmic horror (which is what Annihilation is, let’s face it) is woefully difficult to get just right. But when it’s done right it’s great. Annihilation does it right and it does so (quite literally) beautifully. The events unfolding onscreen are horrifying and yet still, they’re beautiful. It’s eco-horror that pays painstaking attention to making the horror as gorgeous as possible. An entire world in the form of a carnivorous plant, drawing its victims in and invading them, making them part of it. It’s horrific. It’s awesome in the most traditional sense of the word. It’s beautiful. 

And yet the true beauty of Annihilation lies not in the visuals. Instead, the true beauty of this film comes from the fact that everyone who sees it seems to come away from it with a different idea of what it’s about; to some, it’s ano-cancer, to others it’s about how relationships change us on a fundamental level, and even still others see it as addressing humanity’s leaning towards self-destruction. I prefer the second explanation myself, the idea that loving someone is something that you don’t come out of unscathed regardless of how things turn out is something that’s really struck me from the moment I first heard that interpretation. The idea that love is a powerful enough force to change our very beings is both beautiful and terrifying; just like the movie. 

The Vast of Night (2019), dir. Andrew Patterson, United States

(CW: The Vast of Night contains a fictionalized reference to the United States government employing minorities — in this case, Black men and Mexican men — to work hazardous jobs, with one of the characters remarking on whether or not those people were chosen on purpose and several instances of period-typical use of the term “Indian” in reference to First Nations people.)

The Vast of Night is one of those rare debut features that knocks your socks off. Made on a budget of $700,000, Vast of Night makes up for lack of funds with clever tricks and snappy dialogue. The movie, which is framed as a Twilight Zone type of story is a simple, quiet, 1950s science-fiction story about two teens in a small New Mexico town. 

While both of the lead actors are incredible, the real star is the cinematography. With an overabundance of the technique in recent years, it takes a lot for a long take to be impressive but somehow, someway, cinematographer M. I. Littin-Menz makes his standout amongst the crowd. The four-minute, fifteen-second shot takes us from the switchboard to the radio station where Everett (Jake Horowitz) works, along the way showing us just how small this town is. It’s both a show of brilliance on the end director Andrew Patterson and Littin-Menz and a clever way to get us oriented. 

Aside from that long take, one of the other standout scenes is the scene where Fay (Sierra McCormick) is running the switchboard. It’s one of a few scenes that allows the movie to introduce the idea of an alien invasion through the calls that Fay is listening in on and the strange frequency she hears over the radio and as she listens in on calls. 

The Vast of Night is brilliant both as a debut and as a vintage-flavoured science-fiction story that feels reminiscent both of the radio dramas I used to listen to on long car drives and the AM radio shows I would turn on when I was bored and couldn’t sleep late at night. 

Star Trek: Beyond (2016), dir. Justin Lin, United States

Star Trek: Beyond has one of the best needle drops in the history of cinema and I will fight you on that.

The most important thing about this movie is that it’s fun. After all, a key moment is set to the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage”

Star Trek is about space exploration, yes, but it’s also about hope. The world of Star Trek is a world that says “we are going to be ok.” This is a world in which humanity has come together for the greater good. It’s a world where space exploration can be for anyone, not just the ultra-wealthy. It’s a world I’ve wanted all my life, one that seems less likely as each day passes. The world outside is harsh, but Star Trek, in many of its forms, argues that that harshness will not be forever. It’s a kind of hope that at times feels useless.

But the thing about hope (or at least the thing I believe about hope, relentless optimist that I am) is that it’s a form of rebellion. To see darkness on the horizon and to still refuse to give up and accept that darkness as inevitable is, on the one hand, stupid. But at the same time, who are rebels if not those who saw the worst was to come and yet still refused to give in, refused to accept that hope is worthless. 

Categories
Film

Reagan’s Recs: Sci-Fi w/ Ethan Chamberlain

Welcome back to another guest edition of Reagan’s Recs. This month’s guest is Ethan Chamberlain who up until now has been entirely behind the scenes as my editor.

I haven’t known Ethan for very long, if memory serves (it often doesn’t) one of our first conversations was me pitching Reagan’s Recs to him. In that short time, however, I’ve come to consider Ethan a good friend; he’s always willing to send stupid jokes back and forth, even at the expense of his own sleep schedule. While planning for July, Ethan asked if he could take the July guest spot; what else could I say except yes? After all, Ethan has been the mastermind between Star Wars month, what better way to celebrate than by having him talk about sci-fi; a frequent staple of our conversations, what with our mutual love of Trek et al.

Ethan loves movies, and he specifically loves these movies. I’m glad that all of you get a little bit of insight into why he loves these movies.


Hi, I’m Ethan. While normally I’d be behind the scenes editing Reagan’s Recs, I’ve stepped in front of the imaginary camera this week to talk about some of my favorite sci-fi films. It’s been a joy working on these with Reagan so getting the chance to shout about these films is a real pleasure.

Now, when it comes to sci-fi, I have a deep-rooted love of the genre dating back to the first film I remember seeing in theatres, Star Wars – Episode II: Attack of the Clones. It was a life-changing experience getting to see all the varied worlds, people, creatures, and especially spaceships. Since that day I’ve never looked back and I’ve grown to appreciate what sci-fi can do when it comes to exploring themes of a social nature, be it head-on or via allegory. And not only that, I still geek out over all the new, exciting worlds that are out there to be discovered.

So let’s take a look at just a sampling of my favorite sci-fi films. You’ve probably heard of most, if not all of these, but hey, I enjoy them so you’re gonna listen to me wax poetic about them.

Contact (1997), dir. Robert Zemeckis

(CW: Strobe lighting)

While being the oldest film on the list, Contact is the most recent addition to my sci-fi top picks having watched it for the first time just this year. Let me tell you, I kicked myself for waiting this long to watch it. Zemeckis, perhaps best known for another sci-fi film: Back to the Future, brings an incredibly realistic sensibility to the central premise of the film, what happens when we make contact with extraterrestrials?

Anchored by an incredible performance from Jodie Foster, the film tackles the cultural conflicts between religion and science brought on by the apparent first contact head-on, and whether the two can co-exist in this new world order. Foster’s character goes on one hell of a journey throughout the film, being the one who discovers the message from outer space, all the way through to being the one sent to make the proverbial handshake with these extraterrestrials, before finally standing up for her belief in the truth at the film’s conclusion.

With what was at the time, state-of-the-art special effects that still hold up to this day, Contact makes for one of the best sci-fi experiences out there, not just due to said effects but because it has heart and empathy at its center.

The Martian (2015) dir. Ridley Scott

(CW: Strong language, Intense action scenes, 70s disco music)

Have you found yourself getting increasingly angry about the state of the world lately? Yeah? Well, let me tell you about The Martian. Directed by the GOAT Ridley Scott, the film follows astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) after a near-death experience leaves him stranded on Mars, seemingly without hope of rescue.

So how exactly, I’m hearing you ask, will this make me feel better? Simple, through sheer ingenuity and belief in himself, Watney works through problem after problem to survive, even managing to plant crops on the red planet. Accompanied by one hell of an ensemble cast (special shoutout to Mackenzie Davis and Donald Glover) back on Earth working to bring Mark home, The Martian will make you feel good about the goodness of humanity, and that there is hope for the future. Oh, and it also has both an incredible score from Harry Gregson-Williams, and one hell of an accompanying soundtrack of 70s disco bangers that bring a sense of joy to what can, at times, be quite an emotionally taxing film.

Live, Die, Repeat: Edge of Tomorrow (2014) dir. Doug Liman

(CW: Graphic scenes of death, Tom Cruise running)

Time Loops! Perhaps my favorite sub-genre of sci-fi. I love time loops so much I could have just chosen films of that nature and been happy with this article. But I went with what I consider to be the best of the lot. Originally released under the title Edge of Tomorrow, before being changed to  Live, Die, Repeat when put out on home media (stupid, I know). The film follows Tom Cruise as a military major who talked his way into being a media liaison to stay out of the fight because he is, at heart, a coward who gets found out and sent to the front lines in a war against alien invaders.

He is accompanied in his quest to now win the war and overcome his cowardly sensibilities Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt), who had been caught up in a similar time loop at a previous battle against the alien invaders, winning the day in the end and becoming a war hero in the process. Rita is the true highlight of the film, Blunt’s performance captures something not often seen to such an extent; the soldier, no, the hero, who saved the day and now has the expectations of the world weighing down on them to do it again. It’s good stuff and takes the film from being a fun way to spend a couple of hours to one of the best sci-fi films around.

Star Trek (2009) dir. JJ Abrams

(CW: Scottish accent)

When I started figuring out what films I was going to include on this list I originally set out not to include any “franchise” films, as that can go down a tricky road of differing opinions of what film is the best to start with when getting into a specific franchise. But then I remembered how much Star Trek ‘09 as it’s commonly referred to, served as an introduction to not just Trek, but the genre as a whole.

Being an almost completely fresh start for the series, the film, directed by JJ Abrams, jumped over to an alternate timeline separate from the shackles of the franchise and able to explore new story angles, while still keeping the core of Star Trek at its heart.

With a cast of newcomers who capture the essence of the original actors perfectly, Star Trek ‘09 makes for an enormously enjoyable watch that will get you excited to check out more of the iconic franchise.  

Interstellar (2014) dir. Christopher Nolan

(CW: Intense action, Will make you cry)

And so we come to the last film on the list, not just my favorite of the lot, but my favorite film of all time: Interstellar. Christopher Nolan’s ode to space travel, the film follows an Earth not too far into the future ravaged by dust storms, which serves as an allegory to climate change. The film explores the question of how exactly can we survive, and Nolan points the film in the direction of space travel. We are meant to leave the Earth.

I could talk about the insane visual effects of the film once it takes flight into space, or the familial bond across time between Coop (Matthew McConaughey) and his children, I could even talk about Hans Zimmer’s heartbreakingly beautiful score, instead, I’ll leave you with the following:

The make-or-break point for a lot of people in Interstellar comes around the halfway mark. Dr. Amelia Brandt (Anne Hathaway, putting in a career-best performance) asks both the characters she’s with, and the audience, to believe in love, not just as a shared bond between individuals, but as a driving force of the universe. And I don’t know about you, but I’m more than willing to take that leap. I’m happy to believe in love. Because love is the key. Maybe we should trust that even if we can’t understand it.

 

Categories
Film

Reagan’s Recs: The Monstrous-Feminine

Traditionally, horror has been a genre heavily defined by its gender roles; masked killers are usually male, their victims have traditionally been “bad girls” who engage in activities that society has in the past viewed as shameful.

The Monstrous-Feminine is a term coined by film theorist Barbara Creed in her 1993 book The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis wherein she argues that female horror villains take on fundamentally different archetypes than male horror villains, tying the roles that women play as villains back to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of sexual deference and his demarcation of female sexuality as dangerous; this is seen most obviously in Creed’s writing on the Monstrous Womb and Vagina Dentata. At this point, I feel it is important to mention that Creed’s writing is entirely focused on cisgender bodies, especially when Freudian theories become involved. 

I won’t get too heavily into Creed’s theories here as I don’t want to spend too long with the intro at risk of writing several hundred words before even starting to write about my first recommendation but I highly suggest checking out Creed’s work as well as an essay by Aviva Briefel entitled Monster Pains: Masochism, Menstruation, and Identification in the Horror Film if you’re interested in reading more about gender roles and horror, admittedly, that essay is very much written from a cis perspective. As well, if you’re interested in discussing this further and/or have your own recommendations for further reading please don’t hesitate to reach out either through my email: rhymeswpicard@gmail.com or on Twitter, I would love to hear your thoughts and get more perspectives on this. 

Carrie (1976), dir. Brian De Palma, United States

(CW: Carrie contains scenes of religious abuse)

BrianDe Palma’s adaptation of Stephen King’s novel of the same name is a classic. Carrie is about a sheltered girl raised by her deeply religious abusive mother who discovers that she has telekinetic powers. One of the best adaptations of King’s work, while very male gaze-y, Carrie is incredible. 

The prom scene alone is enough to declare this movie a masterpiece. As soon as Carrie is doused in pig’s blood, the previously swelling score cuts out as the only sounds present become that of dripping blood and the clang of a bucket as it drops, the sound cutting back in as soon as the bucket has fallen with the laughter of the prom attendees combining with lines from early in the movie, including a loop of Carrie’s mother saying “they’re all going to laugh at you”. The entire time, Sissy Spacek is incredible switching from anguish to wrath in the blink of an eye as the entire scene becomes drenched in red from the lights. The panic combined with Carrie’s quieter rage is masterfully done. 

As I said, Carrie is one of the best adaptations of King’s work. 

Teeth (2007), dir. Mitchell Lichtenstein, United States

(CW: Teeth contains scenes of sexual assault)

Teeth is a movie about a girl who has teeth in her vagina. It’s also a movie directed by a man, as so many of the movies on this list are (I am once again begging for more female-directed horror movies about monstrous women).

The protagonist, Dawn O’Keefe (Jess Weixler), discovered that she has teeth in her vagina after biting off her rapist’s penis. Again, I would rather this movie had not been directed and written by a man. Dawn is continually assaulted by men only for her vagina to bite off their penises. Eventually, she realizes that her teeth only come out when she isn’t consenting to the intercourse.

As the movie progresses, Dawn continues to be assaulted by different men, killing each of them in turn until eventually, she begins to use her teeth to seek revenge on those who have wronged her, starting with her stepbrother Brad. 

Teeth is far from perfect, it’s no Jennifer’s Body and it honestly never had a chance to be that. Instead, Teeth is an entry in the “Good For Her” Cinematic Universe that is brought down by the fact that it’s written and directed by a man. 

Ginger Snaps (2000), dir. John Fawcett, Canada

(CW: Ginger Snaps contains simulated images of suicide)

Ginger Snaps is about a pair of sisters named Ginger (Katherine Isabelle) and Brigitte (Emily Perkins) who hate the suburb they live in and have vowed to either get out or die together by age 16. While on the way to kidnap the school bully’s dog, Ginger gets her first period and is attacked by a werewolf who was drawn to her by the scent of blood.

Over the course of the movie, Ginger undergoes a transformation as she takes on the curse of the werewolf. She becomes more aggressive, begins to heal at an accelerated rate, hair grows from her scars, she grows a tail, and she begins to experience heavier periods. Basically, Ginger Snaps is a movie about puberty and how the changes that the body undergoes are at times terrifying.

Ginger Snaps is easily one of the best Canadian horror movies ever and is well worth a watch.

Jennifer’s Body (2009), dir. Karen Kusama, United States

(CW: Jennifer’s Body contains depictions of violence against women, ableist language, and some gore)

Originally a flop, Jennifer’s Body has, much like the title character, been resurrected, only rather than becoming a succubus, the movie has become viewed as a cult classic feminist horror film. It’s easy to see why considering that the title character is a teenage girl who was taken advantage of by men who wanted to get ahead, something that is very relevant, even over ten years later.

Written by Diablo Cody and directed by Karen Kusama, Jennifer’s Body is above all else, funny. It strikes that delicate balance between horror and comedy and hits the very rare sweet spot between the two. I could say so much about Jennifer’s Body but I’ll just say one more thing: it’s one of those movies that I have never forgotten. If you haven’t watched it yet, take this as your chance to do so. If you’ve seen it before, use this as an excuse to watch it again.

Raw (2016), dir. Julia Ducournau, France

(CW: Raw contains scenes of cannibalism)

This is the second time I’ve featured Raw and that’s because it’s good and you need to watch it immediately.

If this is your first time joining us, a quick recap on Raw. Raw is a 2016 French horror film about a first-year veterinary student who, up until a hazing ritual gone wrong results in an intense craving for meat, has been a vegetarian her entire life. The movie follows Justine (Garance Marillier) as her craving intensifies to the point that she craves human flesh. 

Raw is bloody and atmospheric and easily one of my favourite horror movies. It’s also the first foreign-language film that I ever saw and for that reason, it holds a very special place in my heart. 

Categories
Film

Reagan’s Recs: Jesus Shit W/ Rob Secundus

Welcome to Reagan’s Recs. As you may have noticed, based on the title, things are a tiny bit different this time around. That’s because this is our first-ever guest spot! Before the first edition of Reagan’s Recs was even published back in April, I’ve wanted to have guests talk about movies they love and think more people should see. A big part of why I want more voices involved in this is because I firmly believe that there should be no one person who decides what is and isn’t worth watching. I am not the only voice in film criticism, and I definitely shouldn’t be. After all, I have blind spots both due to who I am and what I enjoy watching. That’s where guests come in. On the second Tuesday of each month, we’ll have a guest come on to recommend five(ish) movies based on a theme of their choosing. This way, a more diverse selection of films will be recommended than if it were only me picking the film. 

So, without further ado, I would like to introduce the first guest. Robert Secundus is someone for whom I have an immense amount of respect. His writing has been a massive influence on mine, and if not for his work at ComicsXF, I wouldn’t even be writing in the first place. Rob is someone whose work is always incredible and fresh, and I was absolutely ecstatic when he agreed to take the first guest spot because his taste in movies is fantastic. So rather than bore you with more housekeeping, let’s get right into it. Here’s Rob!


Hi! I’m Robert Secundus. I write mostly about comics, but I love movies too. I’ve really enjoyed the work Reagan has been doing on GateCrashers, and so I was honored and delighted to be asked to guest host Reagan’s Recs. I’m going to repeat her disclaimer that these aren’t necessarily going to be new or obscure recs—I’m a relatively normie cinephile, with tastes shaped by stuff like film twitter and the Criterion Collection. But I hope I can add an unusual perspective here. 

In my offline life, I’ve spent most of my professional career studying religious literature, and so I have a lot of thoughts on religious films. When you hear a phrase like “Christian Film” you probably think about atrocities like God’s Not Dead, or saccharine oldies like The Bells of St. Mary’s, but the truth is there’s a rich Christian tradition (or, really, traditions) in cinema that grapple with the glories and failings, the struggles and scandals, the creeds and the devotions of Christianity. There are Dantes and Miltons in cinema just as there are LeHayes. If that sort of thing sounds interesting to you, what follows is where I’d recommend you begin exploring. A lot of my favorite religious films didn’t make the list— you won’t find Doubt, Ida, Les Innocentes, In Bruges, or any of a great number of other Catholic movies, because even though Catholic literature/art is my focus, my guiding principle here was to ensure I addressed a variety of Christian aesthetic traditions. 

Andrei Rublev (1966), dir. Andrei Tarkovsky


(CW: Violence)

We’re beginning with the tradition (and the director) I understand least: Eastern Orthodoxy. The Protestants/Catholic split I can wrap my head around, because it’s centered in very clear doctrinal debates, but the Orthodox, as I understand them, don’t even conceive of the concept of “doctrine” in the same way I do. It’s a lot less catechetical and a lot more mysterious over there. Add the further complications of a religious film directed under the USSR, and you’ve got a product that I’ve got no chance whatsoever of understanding. I just know this—this biography of a medieval iconographer is intensely, incredibly beautiful.

Note: the first time I saw this movie, I was teaching at an extremely conservative institution. I wanted to give the kids a break, and we were reading some real dense Russian lit, so I thought, why not spend a class just watching some scenes from classic Russian cinema? And what better movie than the Tarkovsky flick about a monk? I watched the first half hour, picked a few scenes I definitely wanted to show them, a few to skip, and headed to class. I figured if I needed to fill time, I could just let the movie keep going. Reader: as I learned later when I finally saw the whole thing, it’s a good thing I did not do this, as I stopped the disk exactly two minutes before the appearance of an orgy of very naked witches. I was very close to losing that job. I tell this story not just because it’s funny, but because you need to know that one of the most beloved examples of religious cinema does include naked witches.

Calvary (2014), dir. John Michael McDonagh


(CW: Sexual abuse and trauma; graphic violence; violence done to animals)

This is probably the movie I understand the most of these; it’s not just the one Catholic film I’ve picked, but it’s also, specifically, a grotesque, darkly comedic Irish Catholic flick, which is extremely in my wheelhouse. The weird thing about Catholicism is that it’s, unlike the Orthodox Churches, very easy to break down doctrinally, but looking through that doctrine doesn’t really give you a good sense of what the religion is. Instead of a catechism, I’d hand someone a stack of books by Evelyn Waugh, Louise Erdritch, James Joyce, Kirsten Valdez Quade, and Toni Morrison if I wanted to give them a real sense of the actual religion as it’s lived rather than just what creed adherents claim to profess. Or maybe I’d just show them Calvary.

Calvary is directed by the far less famous brother of Martin McDonagh, John McDonagh. It’s about a priest who is told in the confessional that he’s going to be shot in seven days. It’s about how he spends those last seven days of his life. And it’s about his congregation, his community. Every single person in this movie is deeply traumatized; every person is suffering immensely. They’ve been harmed by poverty, by capitalism, by colonialism, by physical and sexual abuse. They’ve been harmed by the Catholic church, or by forces associated with it. They’ve been harmed by living in this fallen world. And they’re also all terrible people

It’s a weird experience, watching this movie; often you don’t know if you’re supposed to laugh or if you’re supposed to feel bad for laughing. It’s funny and horrifying. The characters are often sympathetic and often revolting. Monstrous things are done— and yet there’s also hope. There’s also beauty. The thing about Catholics is that their typical home decor isn’t the empty cross, signifying the resurrection, but statues of Jesus being tortured to death, and this is taken as cheery. Humor and horror, grace and suffering, hope and despair are all tied together in Catholicism. Calvary is the best movie I’ve seen that captures how that feels.

Winter Light (1963), dir. Ingmar Bergman


(CW: Suicide)

The first of our Protestants, Winter Light is the second movie in Bergman’s God Trilogy. All three are worth a watch, but Winter Light is my favorite because it’s the most exact. It’s about a few hours in the life of a Lutheran pastor as he fails to dissuade a member of his congregation from committing suicide. The title of the final movie in the trilogy, The Silence, is just as applicable to this one, as that’s what it’s really about: God’s Silence.

The thing that’s hard to convey about Christianity in this post-evangelical world is that it’s just as much a troubling thing to its devout adherents as it is a solace. There’s so much uncertainty; why does it seem like God has abandoned this world? Each of us? Why did Revelation come to an end? Why did Jesus not yet return? And Winter Light foregrounds the question that persists even if, in an act of faith, a believer is able to somehow move past the problem of God’s Silence and look still to eternity; it asks when we suffer, and when we inflict suffering, and when we sin.

First Reformed (2017), dir. Paul Schrader


(CW: Suicide, Blood, Pain)

This is the central question of my fourth pick, in which Paul Schrader sort of reimagines Winter Light in the modern day, through his Calvinist rather than Lutheran lens (and through his reaction against Catholicism, and more specifically against the kind of grotesque Catholic art that we find in Calvary; I can’t get into details without severely spoiling the film, but he picks up one of Flannery O’Connor’s most disturbing images and critiques it). The Reformed tradition really heightens the central anxieties in this Protestant artistic tradition, given the emphasis on predestination, on whether you are a member of the elect or the reprobate, on whether you from eternity are saved or damned.

Schrader’s great insight is that this very personal, individual anxiety is an extremely useful metaphor for the apocalyptic anxiety we all feel. The first three movies are all works of art that give you an idea of what it feels like to practice that faith tradition, but First Reformed finds that no matter what you believe, you know what it’s like to experience this kind of anxiety, because it’s what we all feel in this world of climate change and environmental destruction. We have broken our world. 

Again: Will God Forgive Us?

A Dark Song (2016), dir. Liam Gavin


(CW: Violence, Gore, Sexual Manipulation)

I knew when I sat down to write this list that I needed to talk about at least one horror movie (though First Reformed is arguably Calvinist Climate Horror), and I knew that I needed to talk about at least one movie about angels. A Dark Song is a movie about esoteric Christianity. Alongside all those different doctrinal traditions and feuding institutions are spiritual, mystical, and ritual traditions. A Dark Song follows two people practicing a real ritual (well, you know what I mean; a ritual that people do in our own real world) that is supposed to manifest an angel whom you can consult or ask for favors. The ritual requires total isolation, and it takes months to complete, so mostly this movie is watching two actors alone in a house draw marks of sacred geometry over and over again. It’s a slow and quiet movie; an early scare is from the distant barking of a dog. Is the ritual hokum, and is that just the outside world that they continue to ignore? Or is it real, and have they entered some spiritual plane? Is that really the sound of a dog, or is it a hound of hell

If First Reformed escalates the divine silence in Winter Light to apocalyptic horror, A Dark Song shifts it to psychological horror. It’s the movie that has best captured for me the feeling of dread and of hope that accompanies prayer and liturgy. 

The Tree of Life (2011), dir. Terrence Malick

(CW: Child abuse)

I was tempted to cheat twice on this list: above with Bergman, and again here with Malick. In both cases, the impulse was to recommend whole trilogies. While I like Malick’s other movies about spirituality and sin and virtue and grace and life and death and twirling around in the golden light while music plays over a voice whispering strange and comforting things, this is the Big One. This is the one, infamously, with the dinosaurs. 

I couldn’t include so many films that attempt to grapple with the dread of silence without also offering at least one that tries to capture the feeling of presence. There’s a character in one Graham Green novel, Brighton Rock, that’s asked if he believes in hell, and he responds, thinking of all the horror and suffering he has caused and experienced, that of course he does. There isn’t a question for him that hell exists. And then he’s asked if he believes in heaven, and he stops. You get the sense that it’s not something he’s even really considered before. After a long pause, he admits that maybe. Maybe there’s such a thing. It’s possible.

It’s hard to imagine heaven. It’s hard to imagine grace. It’s hard to capture feelings of hope or joy in the face of pain and trauma. I think Malick succeeds in that, though. 

This isn’t a very linear movie. You’re not going to be able to latch onto a compelling plot or arc. Treat it like you would an extremely dumb action movie. Turn off your brain. Don’t try to make sense of it. It follows one guy as he reflects back on his childhood, on his loving mother, on his abusive father, on all the comfort and pain that his memories can bear. It’s scored as a funeral mass. And in the middle, there are, again, dinosaurs. But there are dinosaurs because, like First Reformed, this is a movie that wants to expand a personal spiritual experience to something cosmic. Instead of the end of the world, it turns to the beginning, and it finds there the same questions we are confronted with today: is our world naturally a world of suffering and horror? Or is there grace to be found there? Is it the creation of a benevolent being? If so, does it reflect His image? Or is it meaningless? Or can we fill it with meaning?


I’ve presented this whole list in a kind of amateur-anthropologist sort of way, framing each movie as a work of art that can tell you something about a cultural and aesthetic tradition you might not be all too familiar with, but I hope this last entry, in particular, shows that you don’t need to approach religious art (or at least, you don’t need to approach good religious art) from this outsider’s perspective. Put away the doctrine, the dogma, the institution, and you’ll find that, though it uses unusual tools, the religious film still asks the important questions, presents the important problems, engages with the important paradoxes and mysteries that we all encounter. The God’s Not Deads of the world are designed to heighten barriers, signal to in-groups, and increase conformity, but the First Reformeds and the Trees of Life of cinema honestly (though devoutly) acknowledge the problems and failings of their own religions while proceeding to an art that, though grounded in their very particular traditions, captures something universal. 

I hope you find a movie here that moves you, or troubles you, or brings you some measure of joy.

— Rob Secundus

Categories
Film

Reagan’s Recs: Animation (May 2021)

Beyond the heavy hitters of Pixar and Disney lies a diverse world of animation that oftentimes remains unexplored by the general public. Movies like Perfect Blue, one of Satoshi Kon’s masterpieces, can become massive influences to Hollywood films (Black Swan being an example in the case of Perfect Blue), and go unseen by so many. So, in an effort to introduce some of my favourite animated movies to more people and to just get a chance to talk more about some well-known movies that I love, I’ve chosen to make this month’s theme Animation, and I’ve made the deliberate choice to include movies from multiple countries and time-periods. 

Sidenote: I am not trying to say that these are lesser-known movies. They aren’t and that is perfectly fine. I’m just telling you all to watch them. 

The Last Unicorn (1982), dir. Arthur Rankin Jr and Jules Bass, United States

Based on Peter S. Beagle’s novel of the same name and directed by Rankin and Bass with a screenplay by Beagle, The Last Unicorn is the story of the titular last unicorn as she attempts to discover where the rest of her kind has gone. 

The Last Unicorn was animated by Topcraft, a now-defunct Japanese animation studio that would eventually become Studio Ghibli and it shows. The backgrounds are gorgeous and vibrant and aside from Eyvind Earle’s work on Sleeping Beauty (1959), are my favourite backgrounds in any movie. Interestingly enough, the unicorn tapestries that the opening credits of The Last Unicorn take their inspiration from were also a massive influence on Sleeping Beauty (a little bit more on that movie later). I’m so glad that Topcraft’s work continued even after it ceased existence. 

Aside from the animation, The Last Unicorn’s soundtrack is great and if you somehow haven’t heard the title song yet please listen to it with the understanding that I spent many a day yelling it at the top of my lungs as a child no doubt causing quite a few headaches for my parents. 

I was a unicorn kid growing up and I still adore this movie. To be perfectly honest, I still love unicorns, they’re great. 

Destino (2003), dir. Dominique Monféry, France

Destino began its life in 1945 as a collaboration between Salvador Dalí and Walt Disney. However, due to Walt Disney Studios’ financial troubles in the years surrounding the Second World War, it would not be completed until 2003. After being storyboarded for eight months by Dalí and John Hench, a short animation test was made in the hopes that interest in the project could be rekindled. Instead, it was put on indefinite hiatus. 

It wasn’t until 1999 when Roy E. Disney discovered the project while working on Fantasia 2000 that Destino would get a second chance. Walt Disney Studios Paris would be tasked with completing the project. After deciphering Dalí and Hench’s storyboards, the team of 25 animators led by director Dominique Monféry brought the ill-fated love story of Chronos and a mortal woman named Dahlia to life using a mixture of traditional animation (including Hench’s original animation test) and computer animation. 

Destino is a one-of-a-kind short film that very nearly didn’t exist, it’s one of those rare pieces of media that has a backstory as interesting as the actual plot and very specially in the case of this short film, the imagery. Dalí’s work and influence are plain to see in this. After all, it even has a melting clock. 

Princess Mononoke (1997), dir. Hayao Miyazaki, Japan

Princess Mononoke is one of Miyazaki’s many masterpieces. A nuanced story that explores environmental themes through a story about nature spirits, Princess Mononoke is a must-see. It has the gorgeous art you would expect from a Studio Ghibli movie and more than delivers on the heart aspect. 

The first time I saw Princess Mononoke, all I could do was marvel at the fact that someone was able to just come up with that story. It was (and continues to be) astounding to me that someone had the vision for this movie floating around in their head and was able to bring it from a kernel of an idea to a fully formed plot. Of all of his films, Princess Mononoke is easily Miyazaki’s masterpiece. It’s nuanced and gorgeous and it’s in my favourites on Letterboxd for a reason. 

Also, it features Gillian Anderson as a wolf which is far more than can be said for most other movies. 

Song of the Sea (2014), dir. Tomm Moore, Ireland

Song of the Sea is the equally gorgeous follow up to The Secret of Kells (2009), the first film in director Tomm Moore’s “Irish Folklore Trilogy” which concluded with 2020’s Wolfwalkers.

The film follows Ben, a ten-year-old boy who discovers that his sister Saoirse is a selkie (a mythological being who can change from human to seal by shedding her skin), just like their mother was. Ben is antagonistic to his sister Saorsie, something that is clearly a part of the grief he feels at the loss of his mother, which he feels his younger sister played a part in. At the same time, Ben and Saorsie’s father is grieving the loss of his wife in a way that prevents him from taking proper care of his children, leading their grandmother to take them away to live with her in the city. 

Song of the Sea is a story about grief and how different people process it. Ben aims his anger at his sister, his father Conor shuts down, and the villain Macha decides that perhaps emotions aren’t worth it when they hurt so much. It’s always lovely to see animation tackle complicated themes, and it’s even nicer when those themes are not frequently explored in a realm of filmmaking usually reserved for children’s films. Tomm Moore is a masterful storyteller for being able to fit so much magic and heartfelt emotion into his works and I am so excited to see what he does next. 

Sleeping Beauty (1959), dir. Eric Larson, Wolfgang Reitherman, Clyde Geromini, and Les Clark, United States 

When I started this I told myself I would stay away from Disney and yet here I am with two entries by Disney. How the mighty have fallen. 

Sleeping Beauty deserves to be on this list if only because of how gorgeous the art is. Drawing on both medieval art and art deco, Sleeping Beauty is both beautiful and distinctive. Eyvind Earle’s backgrounds are some of my favourite work in any animated film ever and continue to be massively influential (see: The Answer, an episode of Steven Universe). One look and it isn’t hard to see why I love the art as much as I do. 

As well, the music which is heavily based on Tchaikovsky’s The Sleeping Beauty is phenomenal. George Bruns (One Hundred and One Dalmatians, The Sword in the Stone) does an incredible job of blending Tchaikovsky’s work with his own and the end result is nothing short of amazing. 

Also, Skumps slaps. 

The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021), dir. Michael Rianda, United States

Look. I know this is a new movie and is also super well-known. Odds are that you’ve seen this one by now which is totally fine, if that is the case then feel free to skip this section and focus on the previous five recommendations.

The Mitchells vs. The Machines was not going to be part of this until almost the last minute but after seeing it last week, I knew I just had to talk about it. I get affected by movies in many ways and this one affected me deeply and made me so happy that kids who are like I was; a bizarre film nerd who’s just discovering her identity as a queer person, will have this movie as they grow up. When I first noticed the writing on Katie’s hands I broke out into a grin because I still almost constantly have notes written on my hand in various colours of ink. Katie is the kind of character that I would never have let go of as a kid.

Beyond Katie, this movie is so heartfelt as it shows us a messy family and the fraught relationship between a father and a daughter who’s on the cusp of adulthood in ways that I’ve never really seen in an animated movie, and to think it does all of this with a robot apocalypse happening. 

Mitchells vs The Machines is just another bit of proof that Sony Animation knows what they’re doing and that Hollywood animation is able to rise to the occasion and deliver some real gems. Please, if you haven’t already taken the time to watch it, do so. 


I’ll be back next month with more recs, but in case you missed the last column, check it out here.

Categories
Film

Reagan’s Recs: Foreign Films (April 2021)

In 2019, Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won the Academy Awards for Best International Feature Film, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and Best Picture. In his acceptance speech for Best Director, Bong challenged attendees and viewers alike to expand their horizons and explore the wide world of film, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” So let’s do just that, let’s overcome the one-inch barrier.

But first, a quick definition of what I’m considering a foreign film. As a Canadian, by the strictest, most literal definition, any movie made outside of Canada could be considered a foreign film. For the purposes of this series, I will be using the standard definition of foreign films which is generally any film made outside of North America and in a language other than English. It’s worth acknowledging the fact that there are many issues with this definition as it comes from an americentric point of view and boils down the many and varied film traditions across the world into a single category.

Parasite (2019) dir. Bong Joon-ho, South Korea

(CW: Parasite contains depictions of violence and a relationship between a college-age tutor and his teenage student)

A Best Picture and Palme D’or winner (one of three films to win both of awards), Parasite holds up to the hype. Clocking in at 133 minutes, Parasite never feels like it drags, every scene is there because it needs to be there.

Each of the three acts of Parasite feel distinct both in genre and atmosphere with the movie gaining a progressively darker tone as it goes on and as the Kim family falls deeper and deeper into their deceptions. There is a reason why Parasite is as awarded as it is and that reason is because it’s one of the best movies of the last decade. A must-see.

Dead Pigs (2018) dir. Cathy Yan, China

(CW: Dead Pigs contains footage of dead pigs)

Despite premiering at Sundance in 2018, Cathy Yan (Birds of Prey)’s directorial debut wasn’t widely available until February of 2021 when it was released on Mubi. Mostly in Mandarin with a few scenes in English, When compared with Birds of Prey, Dead Pigs makes a case for Yan to be considered an auteur.

Intertwining multiple storylines featuring an incredible ensemble cast, Dead Pigs is an exploration of late-stage capitalism in China and the people it affects. Combining true events (like a 2013 incident in which tens of thousands of dead pigs floated down the Yangtze River towards Shanghai) with a fictional narrative, Dead Pigs is as stylish and fun as it is meaningful and is well worth taking a look at if you enjoyed Birds of Prey.

Gojira (1954) dir. Ishiro Honda, Japan

(CW: Gojira contains scenes of Kaiju destruction)

Perhaps the most famous monster movie of all time, Gojira is the film that launched the Godzilla franchise and created a pop culture icon. A truly harrowing warning of the dangers of nuclear testing, Gojira is a direct response to the final journey of the Lucky Dragon No 5, a japanese fishing boat that was caught in the radioactive fallout of the Castle Bravo test nine months prior to the movie’s release.

Gojira is considered a masterpiece for a reason. From the story to the special effects, everything about it is absolutely incredible. After watching the movie, the Criterion Collection’s commentary track by David Kalat is well worth checking out for the way it both expands on the themes and offers behind the scenes details. Alongside being a masterpiece in its own right, Gojira essentially created the kaiju genre and continues to have an impact to this day.

Raw (2016) dir. Julia Ducournau, France

(CW: Raw contains gore and depictions of cannibalism)

Not for the squeamish, Raw combines a coming of age story with a horror movie. Following a hazing ritual that leads to her eating meat for the first time, life-long vegetarian Justine (Garrance Mariller) is struck with a craving for meat that intensifies over time, eventually leading her to develop a taste for human flesh.

I’ll admit that Raw is a movie that I have a personal connection to as it was the first foreign film I ever saw. I remember hearing about this new french horror movie about a girl who becomes a cannibal and how it was a must-see and then, about a year after first hearing about it I remember sneaking downstairs late at night and turning the TV to the lowest possible volume setting to sneakily watch it as it was broadcast on The Movie Network, desperately hoping that my mom wouldn’t walk down the stairs and catch me in the act of watching a movie she would disapprove of. Raw is not for everyone, but if you think it might be for you, by all means check it out.

Woman in the Dunes (1964) dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara, Japan

(CW: Woman in the Dunes contains depictions of sexual assault)

A masterpiece of Japanese New Wave based on Kobo Abe’s 1962 novel of the same name. Woman in the Dunes follows an amateur entomologist (Eiji Okada) as he is tricked by villagers he encounters on an expedition into living with a widow (Kyoko Kishida) in an ever encroaching sandpit, helping her dig sand to be sold by the villagers. As the story plays out, the film explores themes of societal pressure to fulfill set roles and isolation. Throughout the film, Hiroshi Segawa masterfully utilizes both wide angled shots and extreme close-ups to create a claustrophobic atmosphere that allows you to feel as trapped as the protagonist does.