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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. 

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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.

 

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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. 

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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.