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.