Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Attack the Block Movie Trailer Official (HD)

John Boyega's (star of the insanely anticipated STAR WARS EPISODE VII) first performance in science-fiction.

Running Time:  88 Minutes (of pure sci-fi anarchy)

Directed by: Joe Cornish 

Staring: Jodie Whittaker 
John Boyega
Alex Esmail
The always hilaroious Nick Frost also has a small part.

Plot: "A teen gang in South London defend their block from an alien invasion." -IMDB

How I Discovered It:
I watched the trailer online when the film was first released and more or less forgot that the movie existed (the trailer seems to try its hardest to hide what makes Attack the Block memorable).  However, over the past year I became aware of the film's devoted cult following and found it on Time Out London's "The 100 Best Sci-fi Movies List,"   

My Iconic Scene: This one comes at the beginning, before there is even a hint of science fiction.  Local nurse, Sam (Jodie Whittaker), is mugged while walking home.  At first the muggers appear to be brutal, hardened criminals but we quickly see that they are a mishmash of (mostly) inept rejects.  The character's true natures are the opposite of what we expect (and what they want to be).  This realization sets the tone for the rest of the film, both in terms of themes as well as the movie's sense of humor. 

Who Should Embrace this Movie: The short answer is: fans of science-fiction and comedy.  It's easy to dub this film: "Shaun of the Dead with aliens."  However while Shawn... has its own message concerning humanity and society, the message behind Attack the Block is considerably more severe and its observations a great deal more critical.

Attack the Block reportedly drew controversy for having heroes who were willing to mug an innocent woman.  These characters aren't charming Jack Dawson-like rogues.  They may be wacky, off-the-wall kids but many other movies would choose to portray them as the villains.

The film doesn't advocate muggings (obviously).  However, it does tell a science-fiction story from the point of view of inner city kids without romanticizing their poverty or their neglect.  These criminals are kids who have been forgotten and don't have much but each other.

Attack the Block is a film for people who aren't just seeking jumps and laughs but also a world that is often ignored in popular cinema.  The film's conclusion is particularly relevant to the racial/economic tension taking place at this very moment.    Of course don't go into this film expecting a documentary. It is very much a fantasy, but it's a fantasy populated by people you normally do not see in this genre (or who are immediately killed off if you do). 

Sunday, November 29, 2015


This is one I wanted to see myself just because of all the buzz surrounding it.  

Running Time: 108 Minutes (of slow boiling science-fiction)

Directed By: Jonathan Glazer

Staring: Scarlett Johansson
Adam Pearson
Michael Moreland

Plot: "A mysterious woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. Events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery." -IMDB

How I Discovered It: Like everyone else who's interested in movies, I heard about the rave reviews surrounding Under the Skin (and Scarlett Johansson's performance) a couple years ago.  It made a ton of "Best Movies of the Year" lists and is already making a few "Best Sci-fi of all time" lists.  When I first heard of the film I figured it would be "Species for the 21st century."  But the more I heard of this strange little movie, the more I realized that it is a film of another breed altogether. 

My Iconic Moment:  Anytime Scarlett Johansson's character (simply named "The Female" on IMDB) tricks one of her male victims to return to her seemingly mundane home.  What happens to them is surreal and horrific and given little explanation, not that we really need one. 

Who Should Embrace it: Fans of 2001: A Space Odyssey should definitely check out Under the Skin.  The two films have almost nothing in common plot-wise, but both are slow-paced, quiet works of science-fiction with almost no exposition.

Many people will come away from both Under the Skin and 2001 scratching their heads and asking their date, "What the @#$! was that?"  In reality, typical sci-fi tropes are being used in both movies, the audience simply isn't being spoon fed the explanations we have come to expect.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone would suddenly turn into an art film if all the exposition was pulled out, and we were simply shown images of a neglected boy being taken to a castle where weird things happen and the boy burns a man with two faces to death (oh yeah, spoiler alert). 

I would also recommend Under the Skin to fans of the David Bowie cult film The Man who Fell to Earth.  These two movies are more similar in terms of plot (and some images).  They also share an overall quirky, brooding tone, and while we get a little more explanation in The Man... it is still a bit of a head scratcher.

The thing about all three of these films is that while they can all come off as being pretentious and weird for the sake of being weird, that really isn't the case.  They all have fairly typical stories that fit into movie archetypes.  They are just more like puzzles, intended for people who are trying to to figure out what is going on instead of being told. 

But if you like smart sci-fi that isn't so puzzling that's okay too.  You might want to check out Moon, Looper and of course Her.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Pieces of April (2003)

So this is holiday appropriate.  

I recently asked my good friend Chris which movie he thinks more people should watch.  Among many other titles, he suggested the (dysfunctional) family dramatic-comedy, Pieces of April

Running Time: 81 Minutes (of Thanksgiving catastrophe)

Directed by: Peter Hedges

Staring: Katie Holmes
Derek Luke
Oliver Platt

Plot: "A wayward daughter invites her dying mother and the rest of her estranged family to her apartment for Thanksgiving dinner." - IMDB

How I Discovered It: I vaguely remember watching the above trailer sometime around my Sophomore year of college.  Since then it's become something of a holiday cult film.  I've heard plenty of people talk about it but didn't know much about the movie until Chris selected it.

My Memorable Moment: As you can probably tell from the trailer, Pieces of April has several off-the-wall moments that are absolutely hilarious (many in a cringe-worthy sort of way).  That makes it all the more devastating when April's father (Oliver Platt) pulls the car over and stares at his dying wife (Patricia Clarkson) who is lying motionless in the passenger's seat.  He places a finger under her nose to check her breathing and she comes awake.  When April's Grandmother (Alice Drummond) asks what is wrong, her granddaughter (Alison Pill) stares at her parents and simply says, "Dad thought...." leaving the rest of the thought hanging in the air. 

Who Should Embrace It:  I expected Pieces of April to be one of those holiday movies you don't want to watch with your family, but it turns out that this is exactly the kind of film many families should see together. 

Yes, this is a movie that is painful to watch and the characters break many tabbooes regarding how family members should treat one another, but unless your family is particularly delicate, there isn't much here that will make you wish grandma wasn't in the room.  (The movie is rated PG-13 for some language, a scene of sensuality, drug content and an image of nudity.  Also, cancer is discussed very bluntly)

The moments in Pieces of April that are comical are downright hilarious and the parts that are dramatic are nothing but heartbreaking.  The film ends on a note that touches on the importance of family but manages to remain 100% sap-free.  The movie acknowledges a state that many families are in.  Yes relationships with the poeple who are meant to love you the most can be painful.  Yes parents/children/siblings will often break your heart.  However, it may be a relief for some families to sit down and watch a holiday movies that takes them out of the ABC Family realm without plunging them into ironically profaine holiday movies, and see a film that may be an honest characature of their own home life.

So if you get a chance this Thanksgiving (or any Thanksgiving in the future) sit down with your loved ones and check out Pieces of April

The last movie I covered left me stumped as to if there was anyone I could suggest that film to.  It was kind of a relief to cover a movie that I can recommend to just about everyone.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

MARTYRS (2008)

I was recently talking to my good friend Jon Balog (The same Jon who recently helped me with the Flight of Dragons post) about the unbearably intense horror film Martyrs.  He said that he liked the movie but couldn't in good conscience "push it on anyone."   

 Running Time: 94 Minutes (of gore, extreme violence, nausea and eventual enlightenment)

Directed by: Pascal Laugier

Staring: MorjanaAlaoui
Mylene Jampanoi
Catherine Begin

Plot: "A young woman's quest for revenge against the people who kidnapped and tormented her as a child leads her and a friend, who is also a victim of child abuse, on a terrifying journey into a living hell of depravity."- IMDB

So not a movie to watch with the folks after Thanksgiving dinner.

I tried to find the trailer but for some reason it wouldn't load.  This might be for the best.  

How I Discovered It: (Just as a warning, a few of the links in this section go to IMDB pages that feature posters some people might find unsettling.) I don't remember exactly when I first heard of Martyrs.  It's been on a lot of lists that cover the best horror films of the twenty-first century (or the most unsettling movies of all time).  It lands at 31 on Time out London's: The 100 Best Horror Films.  The blurb that accompanies the movie points out that Martyrs is the closest example to "torture porn" that made the list.   

I probably heard about this film around the same time that I first heard about the French New Wave of Horror.  It's a recent trend of "extreme" horror films that push the boundaries of what the audience can take.  The genre includes A L' Interieur (Inside) and Haute Tension (High Tension).

Obviously this is not to be confused with French New Wave which was a movement of films released in the 1950's and 60's that (among other things) wished to capture the spirit of "modern french life." They included titles such a A Bout de Souffle (Breathless-1960) and Les Quatre Cents Coups (400 Blows - 1959).

So essentially, French New Wave of Horror looks like this: 
While "classic" French New Wave looks like this:

My Memorable Moment:  (*Spoiler Alert*) Martyrs is one of the most intense films I have every seen so needless to say there are a few moments that stand out in my memory.  In the spirit of not giving too much away I will just say that one of the most memorable moments in this film (or any horror film for that matter) is when Anna (Marjana Alaoui) discovers a secret room in the house of the family her close friend recently murdered and finds who is there waiting for her.

Who Should Embrace It:  As you can probably tell just from the poster, this is not a film for everyone.  Like Jon, I would be reluctant to recommend this movie to just about anyone, but that's not to say that this is a bad movie. 

I went into Martyrs with an attitude you might expect from someone participating in their first extreme eating competition.  You know you might not necessarily have fun, and you know it's not good for you, but you still want to see how far you can push your limits (without doing anything as athletic as mountain climbing).  This movie's notorious reputation simply made me curious.  And to be completely honest, I found myself enjoying Martyrs a lot more than I ever expected.    

The Saw franchise claims to possess a philosophy about how far people are willing to go in order to survive.  I only halfway buy into this philosophy in terms of the first film and (from what I hear) the later installments are just excuses to see people get ripped to shreds. 

Martyrs contains messages/themes about theology, mindless ideology and humanity's relationship with death.  Granted, I know very little about the director.  He may have just sprinkled these ideas into the story just so the audience can feel like they're watching a halfway intelligent movie, but I buy into the substance behind Martyrs considerably more than any of the Saw movies. (Admittedly I have only seen the first two Saw movies.  I'm judging the later installments based on their reputation).

While Martyrs is one of the most violent films I have ever seen, there are occasional moments of restraint.  Scenes of torture and unnecessary surgery toward the end are summed up in montages or skipped over entirely.  Instead of dwelling on the suffering (like many horror films would have) the audience is quickly moved forward.  There is a great deal of suffering throughout the film but the story perpetually evolves rather than lingering on the suffering.  (Who knows how the American remake will handle this.) 

So who should watch Martyrs?  That's a tough question.  My first reaction is that it's only for people with strong stomachs and a relatively high tolerance for violence.  However, I don't think of myself as someone with either of these, but I still enjoyed the movie so who knows.  At the end of the day I would say that Martyrs is for people who want to see boundaries pushed without forgetting about story, complex characters or intriguing concepts.    

But if all of this doesn't sound like your cup of tea then that's fine.  In that case just rent Jules and Jim and stick with classic French New Wave.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Flight of Dragons (1982)

I recently asked my good friend, Jonathan Balog, which movie he thinks more people should watch.  He suggested the delightful animated epic, The Flight of Dragons.  

Running Time: 96 Minutes (of 80's fantasy awsomeness)

Directed by: Jules Bass & Arthur Rankin Jr.

Voice Cast: Jon Ritter
James Gregory
James Earl Jones

Plot: "A young Boston writer goes back in time into an era where wizards and dragon reign and science is just barely known." - IMDB

I was unable to find the original preview, but here is the opening sequence.  

How I Discovered It: I had never heard of this movie until Jon mentioned it after a certain South Park episode premiered.

This is kind of ironic because Flight of Dragons would have been right up my alley when I was a kid.  It falls into that notorious genre of 1980's children's fantasy films that are much darker than most kid's movies today.  Think The Hobbit, The Last Unicorn and The Dark Crystal (through which Jim Henson fulfilled his lifelong ambition of traumatizing every child on the planet).

Jon goes into more detail regarding this genre below.    

My Memorable Moment: Two dragons shake down a bunch of dwarfs for gemstones and then discuss the scientific basis of dragon flight and fire.


Jon is a fantastic storyteller himself.  You can check out what he has written on his Amazon page

Jon's Thoughts: One of the things I love about the fantasy films I grew up with in the early '80s was that they didn't talk down to their audience. Watching them as an adult I realize they were full of philosophical themes that must have gone right over my five-year-old head, yet I don't remember ever feeling like they were too much for me to handle. That's what gives them such great shelf value—you can have fun with them as a kid, yet they still have things to teach you as an adult. Also, I appreciate that they never tried to sanitize the horrific moments, like the old witch being eaten alive by the harpy in The Last Unicorn, the death of the Skeksi emperor in The Dark Crystal, Atreyeu's confrontation with the Gmork in The Neverending Story, or Gollum's howl of rage in the animated version of The Hobbit (which, I'm sorry, is ten times scarier than any performance by Andy Serkis.) Sure, they might have given us a few years of nightmares, but I can't help but think that we're stronger for it. 

Flight of Dragons seems to be one of the less-remembered movies from that era, which is a crying shame because it's pretty damn good. Like other Rankin/Bass films, it features a pervasive sense of melancholy stemming from the fact that the world is transitioning from an age of magic into an era that will be dominated by man and guided by science and reason. The open-ended question is: what will be the role (if any) of magic in the coming Age of Logic? Will magic (read: fantasy? faith?) by necessity dissipate in a scientific culture, or is there room for coexistence? 

I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that it ends on an optimistic note. Mankind moves into the scientific era, bringing untold wonders into the world. The realm of magic is forced underground, yet remains, and (we're promised) can still be accessed by those in the know. Flight of Dragons does something I really love: it tells a great story while celebrating the act (and necessity) of storytelling itself. Check it out. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Spirited Away (2001)

I recently asked my good friend, Susie, which movie she thinks more people should watch and she suggested the delightful Studio Ghibli masterpiece, Spirited Away. 

Running Time: 124 minutes (of the greatest animation you will ever see)

Directed by: Hayao Miyazaki

Voice Cast: Rumi Hiiragi
Miyu Irino
Mari Natsuki

Plot: "During her family's move to the suburbs, a sullen 10-year-old girl wanders into a world ruled by gods, witches, and spirits, and where humans are changed into beasts." - IMDB

How I discovered it:  My friends in college.  All I knew going into this film was that it was by the same creators as Princess Mononoke (one of my three favorite works of animation).  While this one didn't grab me quite as much (it's more like my seventh favorite work of animation) it is still universally considered one of the greatest films to come out in our lifetimes.

Time Out London ranked it at #2 on its 100 Best Animated Movies list.  On Empires 100 Best Films of World Cinema list, it made #10.

Take that La Dolce Vita (aka #11)

My Memorable Moment: The part that has always stood out to me is when ten-year-old Chihiro's parents are turned into pigs and she first stumbles into the bathhouse of the spirits and the gods.  There is more imagination in this ten minute sequence than there is in an entire summer of Hollywood Blockbusters.   

My friend, Susie, does not have a blog of her own so I asked her if there was a charity whose website she wanted me to put up here.  She requested Barcs (Baltimore Animal Rescue & Care Shelter) which is where she adopted her two perfect cats.

Susie's Thoughts:  I loved Spirited Away because it reminded me of a beautiful and vivid dream. The story progressed like dreams do - odd and strange bits combining, making sense somehow. The main character, Chihiro, meets some strange and delightful characters, with names like Haku, No Face and the Radish Spirit. She goes on quite an adventure you have to see to believe! Perhaps the best part is the animation and background art. It is beyond compare. I recommend seeing this film - it will leave an impression on you.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Advantageous (2015)

I recently asked my good friend, Melissa, which movie she thinks more people should watch and she suggested the sci-fi drama, Advantageous.

Running Time: 90 (very beautiful and thoughtful) minutes

Directed by: Jennifer Phang

Staring: Jacqueline Kim
Samantha Kim
James Urbaniak

Plot: "In a near-future city where soaring opulence overshadows economic hardship, Gwen and her daughter Jules do all they can to hold on to their joy together, despite the instability surfacing in their world." - IMDB

How I discovered it:  Honestly, I had never heard of this movie until Melissa recommended it to me.  This really is really a shame because I think it is something that would touch a lot of people.  It certainly deserves more widespread recognition.   

My Memorable Moment: Gwen's young daughter has a breakdown in which she sobs that she should study harder, be a better person, be prettier and so on.  While it is not directly related to the plot, this scene is one of the most human moments in the whole work.  Who has not felt overwhelmed by all the things we need/want to change about ourselves?  Many of us work so hard just to get by day to day but resent ourselves for not being "better".

Where I watched it: Netflix Instant.  

Below are Melissa's thoughts on the film.  Also you here is a link to her fantastic blog.  

Melissa's Thoughts: For me, finding a movie to watch can be difficult. I don’t really enjoy violence or gore or horror, and I’ve noticed a growing trend in movies towards this hyper-realistic violence—throats getting slit, bones breaking with a reverberating crunch—along with a general public consensus that if you don’t sit and stoically watch these scenes, you are silly and childish, and you must prefer saccharine rom-coms or tepid Disney fare. When I was young, I would stoically watch The Ring (three times, actually) for fear of being the lame duck in my group of friends, but now that I’m 32, I approach my life with a healthy dose of ‘I don’t give a fuck.’ 

So I was thrilled to stumble upon a film that was not only atmospheric, but also feminist science fiction. Advantageous uses the techniques of film to reveal the dystopian nature of the setting without a lot of exposition. The main character, Gwen (played by Jacqueline Kim, who approaches the character with both nuance and grace) illustrates what a woman might do when she “ages out” of her job, a job for which she is still the most qualified in everything but her looks. Though the consequences of her decision make up the latter half of the movie, it isn’t as relentlessly bleak as most dystopian sci-fi (like HBO’s The Leftovers); there is still a glimmer of hope, especially at the end. 

However, had I not stumbled upon a the film on a feminist blog, I probably would have never heard of it. So this is one I think more people should watch. Plus it’s on Netflix Streaming, so quite literally all you need is a subscription and an hour and a half of your time. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2014)

So I asked my good friend, Chris, which movie he thinks more people should watch and he suggested A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Running Time: 101 (Artsy Vampire) Minutes

Directed By: Ana Lily Amirpour

Staring: Sheila Vand
Arash Marandi
Mozhan Marno

Plot: "In the Iranian ghost-town Bad City, a place that reeks of death and loneliness, the townspeople are unaware they are being stalked by a lonesome vampire." - IMDB

How I Discovered it: I don't exactly remember where I first heard of this movie.  It was all over the place about a year ago.  I heard that it was something that people were very excited about but at the time I knew nothing in terms of plot.  Since then, I've seen that it was on Netflix Instant but hadn't gotten around to actually clicking on it.  (Thank you Chris for giving me that extra push). 

My Memorable Moment: The Girl (Sheila Vand) takes Arash (Arash Marandi) back to her apartment.  The boy is as high as the moon on ecstasy and has no idea what she is.  While they sway to the music, she manages to resist his vulnerable throat. 

Random Facts:
  • The film has been described as "Iran's First Vampire Western."
  • The film is apparently set in Iran but was filmed in the town of Taft in Southern California.
  • The Director has written a series of comic books based on the film that expands on the characters and setting.  
  • This movie is a longer version of a short film also directed by Ana Lily Amirpour.  

Chris' Thoughts:  For myself, the vampire movie has always been an example of our greatest concerns amplified to 11: life, death, love, lust, passion. From the day I saw a red eyed Dracula with one drop of blood on his mouth in a child’s adaptation of Dracula at a school book fair, I have been hooked. So when I saw an ongoing conversation on twitter between an author I follow and others, on what it would be like if the vampire from ‘Let the Right One In’ and ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’ ever met, I was ecstatically intrigued. The former is one of my all time favorite movies, but I had never heard of the latter. I tweeted so to Alexander Chee, and his response was, stop everything you are doing and go watch it now. I sat down a few days later, and yes. A luscious, vibrantly shot black and white story of a vampire surviving in an Iranian town (Iranian ex-pat actors moving through California doubling as Bad Town, Iran) rife with a James Dean/Byron lead, a drug addicted father lost to love’s memory, a prostitute seeking escape, a child witness to all and fearful out of his mind; every character preceded is so desirous of more, more, more. It’s the human condition, whether you are a supernatural creature of the night, afflicted by drugs or wanderlust, or just gazing up at the lights in the sky, wanting a path to somewhere other than where you currently are rooted. There is the more heady influence of a very present examination of the nebulous, possible intersections of American and Arabic culture; a strident argument for feminism in Iranian culture (the female vampire’s chador is as powerfully enveloping as Dracula’s cape), but at its heart, ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night’ is a dark joyride of the darker temptations that pop culture has always welled up in us: illicit love, the control over life and death, self identity, and of course, the inspiring power of a great pop song to communicate volumes between two people. 

By the way, here is a link to Chris' own blog.  

Saturday, October 24, 2015

22 Things I have recently learned about Life, the Universe and Everything.

So it's been a while since I have gotten a chance to post something about movies.  This will soon be rectified.

First, I want to share 22 things I learned during my recent visit to this place. 

1) Flights can sometimes be delayed for over four hours.  Here is a helpful list of fun things you can do while waiting in an airport:
            #1 Drink Alcohol
*End of List* 

 2) Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) is considered by many to be Rome's favorite artists.  His sculpture the Ecstasy of St. Teresa has been considered scandalous by some as it depicts an angel thrusting his spear into the breasts of a saint.  Americans don't know as much about Bernini because he was never turned into an anthropomorphic turtle.  

3) My wife will literally find one cat for every city we will ever visit in our lives.  

4) Churches in Rome can be misleading.  On the outside they look like this....

But then you step inside.
(Almost like an allegory.)

5) Everyone and their overbearing mother already knows you're an American tourist.  You might as well flaunt it. 

6) So you know how people say that Pompeii was an ancient city?  Well now it's a city-sized set of ruins to walk around and explore.  The place goes on and on.  We only had 1 1/2 hours before we had to head back, but could have been there all day.  More than any other place in Italy, it gave a true sense of what life was like for people who lived thousands of years ago.    

7) Even on a cloudy day, Capri is more beautiful than Baltimore.  
8) See number 5. 

9) Catching an otherwise debilitating cold while traveling isn't that bad because you're surrounded by places like this and somehow you just push through it. 

10) It's often a smart idea to order pizza when traveling.  1. It's usually cheaper than many of the alternatives.  2. You know you're going to get a healthy portion.

But on the other hand I'm so !@#$ing tired of pizza!

11) I'm assuming that hanging the laundry is not a chore your assign your clumsy seven-year-old son who is prone to dropping things.

  12) Alfred Hitchcock was right. 

13) Venice is the most surreal place I have every been to.  It really feels like you are walking through a dream (especially at night).  You are in a city but there is no traffic and there are canals instead of streets and churches instead of office buildings.

14) Most of the time you need to listen to reason (reason=my wife) but sometimes you need to ignore reason (once again, my wife) and just get that photo you really want.   I really wish I had thought to pack my swim trunks.

(By the way this was taken in Switzerland, not Venice)

15) However, most of the time you should listen to your wife and not jump up and down really hard on the grate. 

16) You can cross an ocean, climb a mountain and journey to the highest railway station in Europe but Baltimore will always know where to find you. 

17) Despite #5, it's still smart to attempt to blend in with local customs and traditions.  Like baby eating. 

18) In Switzerland you can buy the best tasting beer you will ever drink in your entire life for less than 10 dollars at a random gift shop and leave with the assurance that soon you will be returning to America where Budweiser is considered an acceptable beverage. 

19) A hike that I will remember for the rest of my life = A weekly Sunday afternoon stroll for everyone who lives in Switzerland.  

20) Someday I'm going to move to a place where I can walk out of my front door and see mountains.  (Instead of my neighbor's racist bumper stickers.) 

21) Airline seats are really comfortable. 

22) Finally, I know that a lot of the things I have "learned" may be a little tongue in cheek but I'm being completely serious when I say, if you EVER get a chance to go hang gliding actively seek out a chance to go hang gliding.  I know a lot of people who say that they could never do this because they're too scared, but I guarantee you that you will be so happy that you did it.  Yes, I had butterflies right before we took off but once you're up there you don't even consider how it might be dangerous.  It's simply one of the best experiences of your life. 

Also, cat's really like it when you leave them with relatives for two weeks.     

Saturday, September 12, 2015

STALKER (1979)

Running Time: 163 (metaphysical) Minutes

Directed by:  Andrei Tarkovsky

Based Upon: The Novel Roadside Picnic by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky

Staring: Aleksandr Kaydanovskiy
Nikolay Grinko
Antoliy Solonitsyn

Plot: "This science fiction milestone from director Andrei Tarkovsky takes you into the Zone, a mysterious, guarded realm containing a mystical room in which occupants' secret dreams come true. Stalker, a man able to lead others to this holy grail, escorts a writer and a scientist through this foreboding territory and confronts several unexpected challenges along the way." -Netflix

 How I Discovered It:  Years ago I  found this movie on a list of the top ten best science fiction films of all time.  I immediately put it on my Netflix queue and ended up only getting thirty minutes into it before turning it off.  Since then I have seen it mentioned in a number of lists and articles on the greatest sci-fi films and surreal films from around the world.  Last week I gave it another shot with a better understanding of what I was getting myself into.

Memorable Moment: Stalker is filled with philosophical concepts and discussions on the nature of reality so it's kind of embarrassing to admit that the moment that stands out the most to me was when the three central characters sneak through the military perimeter surrounding the Zone.  This intense action sequence was filmed in black and white which makes the sudden transition into the silent yet color-filed zone all the more shocking

  • According to the Director, Andrei Tarkovsky, the film and the original novel have nothing in common except for the words "Stalker" and "Zone."
  • After a year of shooting the exterior scenes, Tarkovsky discovered that the film had been improperly developed and the footage was unusable.  All of the scenes had to essentially be reshot. 
  • Many of the scenes were actually filmed in locations where the crew was exposed to toxins in  rivers.  There is one scene where snow appears to be falling in the middle of summer.  This "snow" is in fact poison produced by nearby plants or factories.  Several members of the crew (including the director) died from conditions supposedly connected to this exposure.  

Connections to Other Works: 
  • The video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl is loosely based on the movie as well as it's source material.
  • This isn't necessarily a connection to another work so much as real life: seven years after the film was completed, the Chernobyl disaster took place.  The surrounding area is called the "Zone of alienation" and many of those who are employed to take care of the abandoned nuclear plant call themselves "stalkers."
Who Should Embrace it:  Anyone looking for a film with heavy philosophical concepts and who enjoys (or doesn't mind) a slow, easy going pace.  This is a film for people who are looking for the next 2001: A Space Odyssey or Solaris (same director).  

If Hollywood were to make a film about a mysterious area guarded by the military where laws of physics no longer apply the results would probably look a little something like this.  

If I were completely honest with myself, I would have to admit that I'd probably enjoy the Hollywood version more.  That's certainly not to say that I don't appreciate Stalker for what it is.  The film is simply not what most American audiences (including myself) are used to.     

To give an idea of what I'm talking about, Stalker is 163 minutes long and contains 142 shots.  The average length of each shot is more than a minutes and many last for more than four.  (To put this into perspective, Inception's average shot length is just over three seconds.)  Many of these long takes follow the three main characters through fields and tunnels as they discuss the nature of humanity and nature.  This produces a movie that is slower and heavier than your average work of cinema.        

Tarkovsky was reportedly frustrated with people who were dissatisfied with Salker's pace.  He stated, "[T]he film needs to be slower and duller at the start so that the viewers who walked into the wrong theatre have time to leave before the main action starts."

I will be the first to admit that much of the film went over my head.  For English speaking audiences, the dialogue is completely given through subtitles.  I normally have no problem with subtitles, but in this film I got the impression that the translators had to trim vital information because the characters talk faster than the audience can read.  Also there are many cases where the subtitles ran uncomfortably fast.  In many cases following the story would have been easier if it had been told in novel format because re-reading passages is much easier than rewinding a DVD.  In fact, I can think of more novels I could compare Stalker to (The Heart of Darkness, Crime and Punishment) than movies.       

Okay, so after reading all that you might not be leaping out of your chair and declaring that Stalker is going to the top of your Netflix queue.  It is a heavy, slow film.  In some ways it is one of the most challenging movies I have ever watched.  However, it is a film that has perked my curiosity and I will be watching it again because I do feel like it is a movie that has a lot to say.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS: My favorite Wes Craven movie.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, I’ll let the trailer speak for itself:

Or if you're in a place where you can't watch a preview for a horror film, I'll let Netflix do the talking:

Master of horror Wes Craven brings an urban twist to the classic fairy tale in the story of Fool, a 13-year-old lad who succumbs to ghetto pressures to steal from a local house. Fool's instant karma comes in the gruesome form of the house's residents -- an insane, deformed family of murderers. The perils of latchkey kids and warnings about absentee parents are the subtle social subtext as Fool and other victims try to escape the deadly home.

 My first encounter with The People Under the Stairs was when I was a kid and would (like many of us) sneak into the “Horror” section of the local video store to stare at the unsettling VHS covers until I was thoroughly freaked out.  Granted, People’s cover was relatively tame.   

But it was the title that caught my attention.  Not that I was a horror movie expert at the age of 8 mind you, but I thought that they should have names like Vampire Sorority Babes.  

Everything I learned about the way things should be I learned from Calvin and Hobbes

The People Under The Stairs sounds more like a children's story.  It's almost whimsical. 

I never got around to actually seeing the movie until a few years ago.  It was the morning of a wedding (not mine) and I had a couple hours to get ready before my girlfriend (now wife) would pick me up.  I noticed that this movie I’d been meaning to watch was on Netflix instant (sadly it is no longer) and I turned it on just to have something in the background. 

Now typically you’re supposed to watch Horror late at night with a couple of beers while your cats make creepy noises in the next room (at least that's how I watch it).  In this case it was 10 AM on a beautiful Saturday morning, but the movie still sucked me in.  Before i knew it I was sitting on the floor, unable to take my eyes off the laptop while my jacket and tie lay forgotten on my bed.  (Don't worry, we made it to the wedding on time.)

 Granted, this isn’t Wes Craven's scariest film and it probably isn't his best.  What makes it stand out to me personally, though is that it manages to combine typical horror tropes, with serious social issues (that are unfortunately still relevant today) and stick them into the plot of a dark fairy tale.  Also, while I love horror, there are too many cheap films where frankly I just don't care if the "heroes" live or end up hanging on the end of the killer’s meat hook.  This is one horror movie where I legitimately wanted to see them get out and (SPOILER) it hurts that they don't all make it. 

In a way, I'm glad that this isn't one of Wes Craven's better known films.  It has been spared the endless parade of sequels and reboots (although there were rumors) until it’s hard to remember that the first Nightmare on Elm Street and Scream were  legitimately good movies.    

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Fritz the Cat (1972)

This movies was released the same year as my previous entry, Solaris.  That is where all similarities end. 

Running Time: 80 Minutes (Only 2 of which you might feel comfortable watching with your grandmother.)

Directed By: Ralph Bakshi

Based Upon: The comic strip Fritz the Cat by Robert Crumb.

Voice Cast: Skip Hinnant
Rosetta LeNoire (Yes, the Rosetta LeNore who stared in Family Matters)
Ralph Bakshi
Phil Seuling

Plot: “In the age of awakening, Fritz (voice of Skip Hinnant) -- New York University student and one cool cat -- embraces every new experience that crosses his path, including easy sex and drugs. But Fritz ends up holding the dynamite that will detonate the ultimate 1960s statement when he joins a group of radical hippies. Based on underground comic-book artist Robert Crumb's revolutionary character, Fritz the Cat became the first X-rated cartoon.” - Netflix. 

“Would I like this movie?” - My wife.

(Awkward Silence) - Me.

How I discovered it:  This is another one that I was vaguely aware of for decades but didn’t really know anything about it until I took a class in animation.  Most likely the first time I had ever really heard a reference to “Fritz the Cat” was in an episode of The Simpsons (Season 7.  "The Day the Violence Died") in which Comic Book Guy shows Bart the following clip. 

When I was a kid, I just thought that this was a funny spoof on cartoon violence.  I had no idea that it was a direct reference to a famous movie from the 1970's.  

Speaking of The Simpsons, Bakshi has stated, “Now they do as much on The Simpsons as I got an X rating for Fritz the Cat."   

Memorable Moment: Who would ever be able to forget an animated inter-species bathtub orgy?  Yep, won’t be able to get that image out of my brain no matter how hard I try.

    •    Director Ralph Bakshi was miserable producing educational animated films before he went on to Fritz the Cat, which was a more personal project.  He has been quoted as saying,  “The idea of grown men sitting in cubicles drawing butterflies floating over a field of flowers, while American planes are dropping bombs in Vietnam and kids are marching in the streets, is ludicrous."

    •    Bakshi had reportedly never heard of the comic strip until he came across it in an East Side Book Store.  He claims that he instantly wanted to turn it into a movie. 
    •    Funding, animating and finding a distributor for America’s first X rated cartoon is a story that deserves its own movie.  Needless to say everyone behind this film were fighting an uphill battle the whole way.
    •    For the opening scene (in which a group of construction workers complain about the debauchery of today’s youth) Bakshi supposedly paid two actual construction workers fifty dollars each and drank scotch with them while recording their conversation.  This is why the sound quality in this scene  is so raw.  The same technique was used for the sequence in the Harlem bar.
    •    In terms of box office Fritz the Cat is the most successful independently animated features of all time.
    •    Robert Crumb (the artist behind the original comic strip) was dissatisfied with the finished film for various reasons and has disassociated himself with the movie.  Bakshi has been openly critical of the cartoonist’s response.

Connection to Other Works
  • The Nine Lives of Fritz the Cat was a sequel was released in 1974.  Neither Bakshi nor Crumb were involved and the sequel is generally considered an inferior work.   
  • Bakshi went on to direct Coonskin, which also features anthropomorphic animals.
  •  Apparently footage from the film was edited to created the music video for Guru’s 2007 song “State of Clarity.”

Who Should Embrace it: The two groups of people who should definitely check out this movie are: 1) Anyone with a strong interest in the history of animation.  Everything I have read about Fritz the Cat indicated that it was a definite turning point for western audiences.  2)  Anyone interested in 20th Century American history.  Watching this film is like opening a time capsule that contains the humor, rage, politics and psychedelic art of the early '70's.

As for the rest of us, the film still possesses an ability to shock and entertain.  However, like El Topo there are few people who I would personally recommend this movie to without a disclaimer.  (The poster itself says ‘We’re not rated X for nothin’, baby!”)

While many of us in 2015 are no longer phased by "adult content" in an animated feature, we as a society have (rightfully) become more sensitive to jokes about rape, race and domestic abuse.  Therefore, there are moments in this film that modern audiences could potentially find more offensive than their 1970's counterparts.  Fritz still manages to push the envelope, although for different reasons than it did when it was first released.

In short, this film is a great piece of history, but audiences looking for some superficial, edgy, mindlessly offensive animated entertainment might do well to look elsewhere.