The Art of Self-Defense: element of surprise. (No-spoiler film review.)

A young man recovering from a brutal street attack happens upon a martial arts dojo and decides to join in order to learn self-defense.

Seems like a premise for a simple, straightforward plot, right?

We’ve been lucky with movies lately, Callaghan and I. As infrequently as we go to the theater, it’s pleasing when two consecutive outings put us in front of brilliant cinema. First we watched Midsommar, and then The Art of Self-Defense.

 

 

When independent film distributor Bleecker Street released The Art of Self-Defense, we didn’t take notice. The movie wasn’t getting a lot of attention, and we weren’t paying a lot of attention. It slipped by us into the theater as quietly as a ninja too broke to buy a ticket.

As it turned out, we almost missed it! The showing we caught at Alamo Drafthouse would be the last of The Art of Self-Defense not only at that theater, but at any in our vicinity.

I didn’t know anything about this film beforehand. Sitting down unaware that I was in for a black comedy – a favorite genre of mine – proved to be a fascinating experience in and of itself, a treat of a discovery. The film’s comedic elements appear at the beginning (Rex Kwan Do, anyone?), while the dark aspect stalks through at its own, measured pace: it develops incisively and in tandem with the protagonist’s own development as a karate student.

More than comedy with a dark underbelly, The Art of Self-Defense stands as a feat of comedy and horror merging agreeably while maintaining their respective identities. It’s a film with a lot of personality considering its small cast of characters, a black comedy whose darkness takes on a voice and insistence of its own, as if to challenge the humor. First I was amused, then successively perplexed, frustrated, and appalled… and in the end, I was rewarded. I found the ending of this film to be immensely satisfying. A rarity!

(You might be wondering how I didn’t know that The Art of Self-Defense is a black comedy when the words are printed right there on the film poster. This is where I admit that the poster only caught my attention because it features people wearing karate uniforms. I didn’t read the quoted text.)

The Art of Self-Defense stars Jesse Eisenberg  (Zombieland) as its protagonist, and it was written and directed by relative newcomer Riley Stearns. Beyond a sharply penned black comedy piece, Mr. Stearns wrote a straight-up satire on toxic masculinity, the concept of which slaps you in the face over and again as the story progresses, as a good satire should. If you’re unfamiliar with toxic masculinity before seeing this film, I can guarantee that you’ll have an idea of it after seeing it. The Art of Self-Defense is a smart, successful film; it’s jarring in its boldness, which is the paramount feature of exploitation cinema.

My only regret in seeing The Art of Self-Defense is that I got to it so late in its run-time. I wish I’d seen this film early enough to recommend as a theater viewing! You may find it lingering in theaters here and there. No matter – it’ll be just as clever and fun on a smaller screen.

 

 

Midsommar: you don’t go to frolic. (A review, of sorts. No spoilers.)

On Sunday, we went to the movies anticipating a good scare, because we thought we were about to see a normal horror flick. But that plan didn’t turn out the way I thought it would. Nothing about Midsommar turned out the way I thought it would. Midsommar is a film that does things to you. Leaving the theater, it was more “what just happened to me?” than “what did I just see?”

There’s horror, and then there’s Midsommar.

 

 

Writer/director Ari Aster (Hereditary) and independent film distributor A24 bring us a masterpiece of psychological horror in Midsommar. One needs to be somehow mentally prepared to see it. Don’t look to the trailer for help with this, because the “scary” parts aren’t even in it. Midsommar is disturbing to the extreme. For me, it was an unsettling and inexplicably compelling visceral experience.

A group of four American friends travel to Scandinavia at the invitation of a fellow student at the university. He’s from Sweden, and he’s spoken of a special summer festival held in his small community back home. The festival takes place only once every 90 years! Cultural anthropology doctoral candidates can’t pass it up, can they? Especially considering that they’re still wavering on where to train their focus in their graduate studies. An ancient festival in Sweden, now, that would be different. One of the students has a girlfriend suffering in the aftermath of a tragic event; she tags along, desperate to hang onto her caring yet ambivalent boyfriend.

And so we’re all shepherded to Sweden by our congenial Swedish student friend. He’s happy to take us on this trip to experience the festival… and a trip, it is.

I’m leaving by the wayside any attempt at sounding intellectual in this review, because I’m not an expert reviewer, and it’s difficult to characterize how I felt from the time the Americans reached Sweden. Having made this disclaimer, I can say that once the group arrived at the festival in all its isolated, bucolic splendor, it was just WTF piling on WTF slowly and steadily throughout the rest of the film. Midsommar is a true WTF-fest. By the end of the movie, I felt pinned to my seat beneath the weight of a WTF stone tower, each stone heavier than the last. If I needed the restroom during this movie, I couldn’t feel it. Midsommar is completely immersive, and that is one of its horrifying strengths.

In Midsommar, Ari Aster seeded the horror in the atmosphere of the setting; from there, he grew and cultivated it with methodical precision. Simple acoustic music played by festival hosts takes the shape of a voice that serves as much as a character as the actors. Skillful usage of foreshadowing and symbolism help the film to burrow under the skin. There are no jump-scare cheap thrills in this film.* An early scene in which the group is driven through the Swedish forest to the festival is presented upside-down. This bit of symbolism sets the tone for the rest of the movie as standard horror conventions fly out of that upside-down vehicle’s window.

We are in Sweden in the summer. Our tendency is to think of horror unfolding in the dark, but Midsommar is horror unfolding in a place that never gets dark.

Elsewhere in the horror genre, we might experience the horror of, say, a haunted house. In Midsommar, we experience the horror of nature in a peaceful, Scandinavian countryside.

Midsommar robbed me of some pedantic horror-movie joys: a few things happened that I guessed would happen, but I couldn’t take satisfaction in guessing correctly, because the events played out in ways more twisted than I could have imagined. I was too traumatized to be smug.

That’s the thing about this film. Even if you know what f*cked up thing is about to happen, you can’t believe what you’re seeing as it’s happening. The happening is more horrific than the thing, itself.

Another of Midsommar’s strengths is that it’s horror that could occur in real life. You think, this could happen. Then you dare think, maybe it does.

I’ve spent the past few days recovering from this nightmare film, and yet I’m sitting here recommending it. As disturbing as it is, Midsommar is impressive and beautifully wrought. The writing, direction, and acting are superb. It’s a fine work of indie art, as we’d expect from A24.

When we stopped at the store after the movie, I made my way through the aisles feeling disoriented and panicky. I was jumpy and irritable. You would’ve thought I was in Costco, not Whole Foods! Everything freaked me out: interactions with people in the store. The color white. The flowers for sale. My inability to find an item that I needed. The cashier handing me the receipt.

I saw runes everywhere, in everything. I still do. It’s chilling to the core.

I don’t know whether a film this macabre, graphic, and psychologically disturbing can be an Academy Awards contender, but if it can, Midsommar deserves nominations. The big ones all apply: writing, acting, directing, cinematography, musical score, costumes, editing.

If you’re up for the challenge and thrill of psychological horror, go see Midsommar in the theater! You need the theater to optimize the immersive experience of it. I would recommend that you see it in any case. It’s an excellent film. It’s an experience. As the tag-line says, let the festivities begin.

*****

*Don’t get me wrong – I do enjoy carefully placed cheap-thrill jump scares!

 

 

New glasses + weekend shenanigans. (Wedding! Anime Comic Con! Dinosaurs! etc.)

It seems like a long time has passed since my last posting date on Thursday, but that’s just because I’ve spent most of the intervening days out of town. We went to the Bay Area for a friend’s wedding. It was a French wedding attended by lots of (mostly) French people speaking (mostly) French. It took place on Bastille Day and the day before France won the World Cup, so it was a very French affair.

We made our hotel reservation months in advance. Unbeknownst to us, the Anime Comic Con would be going on in the hotel at the same time. Surprise!

Spoils from Anime Comic Con 2018:

 

Marvel Black Panther bag and Sen. John McCain action figure

 

[Sidenote 1: I got to chatting with the cool guy who sold me the Marvel Black Panther bag. Turns out he’s a musician. He’s a member of Dirty Rotten Imbeciles (aka D.R.I.). He said they’re coming to my town at the end of October to play a gig. We’re going, Callaghan and me.]

[Sidenote 2: I thought it was hilarious that they were selling Sen. John McCain action figures at Anime Comic Con in California. I couldn’t resist. McCain’s been my senator since I moved to Arizona in 1991. I don’t have to agree with all of his political positions (and I certainly do not) to say in all honesty that he’s one of my heroes.]

Next:

New glasses, part I-don’t-even-know-what.

 

[Sidenote: These pics were taken late last week during a time of hot dusty winds, when the AZ monsoon skies were a haze of golden brown. Even the indoor pic on the left looks dusty.]

You may be wondering how many new pairs of glasses a person needs in a year. I am, too. Hopefully the saga ends here. It should, provided that a). my prescription doesn’t change again, b). I don’t step on my new glasses, and c). in the event that I do, my replacement frames don’t come from overseas on a slow boat that either hits an iceberg or gets lost in the Bermuda Triangle. Those are the three things that have happened in the last 12 months. Luckily, the debacle cost only $25.00 to fix – it was $25.00 to replace the broken frames, and when they never showed up, the glasses lady let me pick new frames for a complete re-make (fresh lenses included) and trade the new glasses for the replacement ones.

I’m enjoying my new granny specs. I’ve worn dark, plastic/acrylic frames for as long as I can remember; these super thin gold-toned ones are a change I’m loving. They seem treacherously light and delicate, but the glasses lady assured me that they’re very strong (titanium) and difficult to break.

Returning to the weekend! We got back yesterday in a dramatic climatic shift. On a summer morning in San Francisco, middle of July, I wore jeans and a t-shirt, as usual, but also a sweatshirt over the t-shirt, and a pleather motorcycle jacket over the sweatshirt… and I was still cold. San Francisco in the summer is antithetical. I boarded the plane dressed for a Phoenix winter, landed in Phoenix 1.5 hours later, and stripped myself back down to summer while still on the plane. I walked into Sky Harbor airport in just the jeans and t-shirt again.

And that, my friends, is one reason why I’ll never move back.

The day before, though, we spent a balmy and beautiful afternoon strolling through Todos Santos Plaza in Concord. We had a great time, but I was glad to come home, as usual. There’ll just never be anything like the steady hum of creative energy in our quiet house in our quiet neighborhood in our quiet desert – it always seems quiet, even when it’s not – with the wide-open space all around, the huge sky overhead, and the sound of our Arcosanti bells speaking for the monsoon breeze out front.

OH! We went to see Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom while in Concord. I thought it was good enough for entertainment, but not good enough for a “monthly favorites” list.

The movie-makers told a familiar story this time, didn’t they? An ark with all the different species, a clashing of good and greed-driven evil, and the not-subtle suggestion that Owen and Claire are Adam and Eve in their neo-Jurassic world. Even the movie’s title (Fallen Kingdom) sounds biblical.

I found myself emotionally wrought at the beginning when the brachiosaurus got left behind on the island, watching everyone sailing away to safety. I cried. Callaghan assured me, “No brachiosaurus was harmed in the making of the movie,” but it didn’t help. I spent most of the movie thinking the poor dinosaurs. Gah. I’m always upset to tears when I see horrible things happening to animals, and I guess CGI dinosaurs are no exception.

 

And now we’re raining. (June Favorites!)

Just like that, we’re monsooning here in the Land of AZ. I don’t know what happened, but this time of year arrived quickly. I’m into it. I shouldn’t blink. Summer storms in the desert are magical, and our monsoon seasons seem to be getting shorter and less… just less. It’s been years since I’ve seen dumpsters rolling across the street, I’ll put it that way.

Just as quick, here’s my “favorite little things” list for June. Yes, that June. That weird and wonderful black hole of a month.

 

1). Hereditary (horror film)

 

 

2). Thor: Ragnarok AND Avengers: Infinity War (superhero films)

 

 

 

3). Goliath (Amazon Prime drama series)

 

 

Three words about this excellent original Amazon Prime dramatic series: Billy Bob Thornton. Also, William Hurt as Billy Bob’s nemesis. If you love a good legal/suspense drama and you’ve been looking for an excuse to sign up for a Prime free trial, this is it.

 

4). La Casa de Papel, aka Money Heist (Netflix crime thriller series)

 

 

5). Fresh Off the Boat (comedy series)

 

 

Blackish being on hiatus had us antsy for a good comedy. We love Ali Wong and knew of her creative involvement with Fresh Off the Boat, so we thought we’d check it out. It’s now our second-favorite comedy series. We watch it on Hulu.

 

6). Karl the Fog (twitter account)

 

 

San Francisco isn’t one of my favorite cities, but I’ve always loved the fog in the Bay Area. It turns out that the fog is witty and he has a name and a Twitter account.

 

7). Trader Joe’s Vegan Kale, Cashew and Basil pesto.

 

Trader Joe’s

 

8). Trader Joe’s Green Goddess Salad Dressing.

 

Trader Joe’s

 

9). Peaches, nectarines, plums.

 

Summer fruit

 

10). e.l.f. Velvet Touch Eyeshadow Palette (Island Breeze) – CRUELTY FREE AND VEGAN.

 

e.l.f.

 

I’m enjoying this e.l.f. eyeshadow. You swipe it on with your finger… no brush necessary! It’s more like a cream than a powder, and I love the colors in the Island Breeze version.

 

That takes care of it for June… sorry to be a little late this time!

Pay attention: It’s Hereditary. (Non-review movie review!)

My partner-in-crime Caroline and I anticipated Hereditary for months, so you can believe that we were in that theater on the morning of opening day. I do have something to say about this film, but it constitutes even less of a “non-review movie review” than usual. This is not a review of the movie. It’s a mere commentary on my reaction to it.

 

 

First, I found the ending to be disappointing, which affected my immediate opinion of the whole movie. I don’t know what I was expecting the ending to involve. I guess I wasn’t expecting it to involve what it did. It wasn’t the ending that I wanted.

Well, that was my problem, because the movie turned out to be an overwhelming success for me as a person who loves to get scared by horror movies, and who very rarely gets scared by them. Hereditary got to me. I just didn’t realize it until later that day. And that night. And the next day. And that was the beauty of it: the delayed reaction.

[Sidenote: It made no sense that I left the theater with such a dominant feeling of dislike for the ending, because while I was complaining about the ending, I was also marveling at the excellence of the production as a whole… not to mention Toni Collette’s stunning performance.]

I didn’t think that Hereditary had any effect on me, but then the day drew to a close, the sun went down, and I started to look around the house apprehensively. Hours later, I got ready for bed feeling more than a little creeped out. I thought back to the movie and couldn’t pinpoint a single scene or instance to blame.

Hereditary wound itself into the back of my mind, and then its creep-factor unraveled forward and stayed with me for a good two days.

That night, I couldn’t bring myself to turn off the dim lamp in the dining room when departing with my glass of water. For the first time, I was so spooked by a movie that I didn’t want to turn out the light. I’m not afraid of the dark.

I went to bed with my heart thumping in my chest.

Tired as I was, I stayed awake. Then I had to pee, but I was loathe to get out of bed, so I held it. How old was I the last time that happened, if ever? Five?

A shuffling sound moved quietly across the space by the closet. I couldn’t breathe. Callaghan didn’t move. When it happened a second time, Callaghan murmured that it was the fan blowing his cup off the nightstand, which didn’t make sense because the small fan was sitting on the floor, and the cup was up above and full of water. He reached down to turn off the fan. I didn’t hear the sound again.

The next day, I went around with many questions in mind. I couldn’t stop thinking about the movie. Caroline and I discussed it in a flurry of messages. She said that when she woke up at 2:44am to get a drink of water, she was “kind of freaked out and heard noises” as she walked around in the dark.

“I felt like there was something on the ceiling… following me as I walked to the kitchen,” she said. “And I heard a bump… and the hairs on my neck stood up and I gingerly looked up… but there was nothing there. ghghhghg.”

I would say that this sums up our joint reaction in terms of scariness on a scale of 1-10: ghghhghg.

I’ll be going to see Hereditary again… with Callaghan. This time, it’s his reaction that I’m anticipating.

 

May Favorites!

I’m not sure how to sum up the month of May. Mental health real talk: May was the white serial killer van creeping slowly down the street in front of your office window; you’re mesmerized by a combination of horror and morbid fascination as you wonder when it’s going to stop, and what you’ll see when it does. The van doesn’t stop, though. It keeps going, slowly, and when it disappears from view, you’re relieved, but you wish you’d seen more. Then June rolls around in the form of another serial killer van, and now you’re wondering whether you should ask for an adjustment to your depression medication cocktail.

In other words, ugh. This is what “Little Things” are for, right? Here are some of the Little Things that I enjoyed in May:

 

1). Ali Wong: Hard Knock Wife (Netflix)

 

 

Some hilarity was in order. We got it by watching this. BEWARE if you have delicate sensibilities. Ali does not hold back!

 

2). A Quiet Place (film)

 

 

We finally made it out to a movie, and we picked a good one. It’s immensely gratifying when a horror film turns out to be good and not cheesy at all, like this one, though I love cheesy horror flicks, too.

 

3). The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, S2)

 

 

I probably noted the first time around that the phenomenal The Handmaid’s Tale is visually stunning, and that you could hit “pause” anywhere and it’s like you’re looking at a Vermeer painting. Season 2 follows suit.

 

4). Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist (Netflix)

 

 

Netflix’ real-life crime drama docuseries game is strong.

 

5). Cobra Kai (YouTube Red)

 

 

Cobra Kai is a current day “where are they now” blast that puts you back in the 80’s because the main character is stuck there.

 

6). The Americans (FX) Series Finale (S6)

 

 

The Americans series finale couldn’t have been better, in our opinion. We’re sad that it’s over, but it had to end at some point, I suppose.

 

 

Philip and Elizabeth in the final scene of the very last episode of The Americans.

 

7). Sumo/Natsu Basho (May 2018 Grand Sumo Tournament) and Tochinoshin’s promotion to Ozeki.

 

Tochinoshin (actual name: Levan Gorgadze)

 

We’re big Tochinoshin fans, as you may recall if you’ve been here for a while, so we were thrilled to witness Tochinoshin’s historic promotion to Ozeki (Sumo’s 2nd-highest rank) at the end of his spectacular May tournament.

 

 

The wonderful tribute video above doesn’t include Tochinoshin’s most notable victory of the May Basho (for reasons of respect, I would guess), so I’m posting another video showing that match. This is his win over the formidable Yokozuna Hakuho. Yokozuna is Sumo’s highest rank. A Yokozuna is basically like a god in Japan.

 

 

8). Cherry season.

Cherry season is when Dad drives 1.5 hours to the cherry orchards in Brentwood (CA) and picks pounds and pounds of cherries and sends a big box of them to me, and then I know that we’re on the verge of summer, because I can taste it. Cherries are my favorite fruit. Callaghan doesn’t like them, so these were all for me.

 

Rainier cherries and another type whose name I can’t remember. The deep red-black Bing cherries come later in the season.

 

9). Popcorn with nuts.

 

popcorn and nuts

 

I started dumping roasted, salted mixed nuts on top of my popcorn, and it’s so very satisfying.

 

Alas, I could only come up with nine Things this time. They were outstanding. They were more than enough.

Life lessons. (About learning the ukulele…)

I went to a ukulele lesson last week.

In the following days, I admitted to myself that the ukulele isn’t what I should be learning. The lesson was fun, the teacher was excellent, but I was a student who wasn’t a fan of the ukulele – the instrument itself, or the sound that it makes, or the music commonly played on it. I realized that I was in the wrong place, and it wasn’t fair to the teacher or to a potential student who could fill my time slot.

Passion fuels perseverance over a learning curve. I was happy to be at my lesson; I left feeling determined to practice, but once at home, it was a different story. I had no desire to practice, and when I sat down to do it, anyway, I found that practicing with a lack of interest is difficult. I’d had this idea that I wanted to learn the ukulele, but that wasn’t enough. Sometimes, an idea isn’t enough.

I don’t love the ukulele.

If not passion, navigating a learning curve requires necessity, I think… necessity as in you have to learn it because it’s a job requirement, or for some other practical reason, or your life depends on it, like someone’s holding a knife to your throat saying learn it or else.

There has to be a compelling reason to allocate time to the effort. Rather than passion or necessity, my reasons for starting ukulele lessons came down to sentimentality and a desire to do music again… emotional, general reasons that had nothing to do with the ukulele.

I hate to let anyone down. Some people had great expectations of me. For instance, I have a friend who’s going to be extremely disappointed that I won’t be bringing my ukulele to the gym to play “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” during Body Pump in place of the workout tracklist, as he’d expressed his eager anticipation of my obliging.

Callaghan couldn’t appreciate this “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” gym scenario when I told him about it, because he didn’t know the song, he said. I went to YouTube to find it for him. I then learned that “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” was featured in the horror movie Insidious, which I thought was fitting because I know if I heard Tiny Tim singing “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in my house in the middle of the night, I’d be horrified, too. I can see how a demon would choose “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” as his entrance song through the gates of hell, or whatever it was going on there…

 

 

[Aside: I would love to see a boxer or an MMA fighter walking out to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”]

I don’t really remember Insidious, by the way. The story didn’t stick with me, and I didn’t think it was scary. It’s safe to say that going to bed with “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” in my head that night was scarier than Insidious.  

But I digress.

I’m sorry that there will be no tiptoeing through the tulips during Body Pump or anywhere else. I didn’t intend for my endeavor to be a mere dalliance, though I did go in with a “try it out and see” attitude.

My instructor was awesome, though! If any of you locals are looking for a teacher of string instruments, let me know, and I’ll gladly share his contact info.

I will say that this experience intensified my desire to do music again. Any learning curve would be a fun challenge if I were passionate about the instrument. I know exactly which instrument that would be, but it’s not worth mentioning here, because it’s unlikely that I’ll get one.

All of this said, I still have great affection for my ukulele. Mom gave it to me; it was hers. It gives me joy just being here. I’m keeping it.

 

The ukulele that came home with us.