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!

 

 

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.

 

Just believe: The Florida Project. (Non-review movie review!)

Last week, we went to the cheap seats (the iconic Tempe Pollack Cinemas) to see The Florida Project, a film about a young mother and her little girl who live in a run-down budget motel, and the motel manager’s conundrum of having to be an effective manager in difficult circumstances while also being the compassionate person that he is.

Theirs is one in a cluster of colorful, Disney-themed budget motels crouched on the outskirts of Disney World. The motels create a mini-village mostly populated by human beings living in poverty the likes of which most of us couldn’t imagine, while skipping distance away, tourists visit the Magic Kingdom.

 

 

In the Magic Kingdom’s shadow, the motels strung together with fantastical storefronts of various establishments – gift shops, corner markets, eateries – contain a precarious world concerned with survival… a world of have-nots and have-nothings. Worlds exist within other worlds, though. At the center of The Florida Project, the little girl, Moonee, explores her world and finds smaller ones, each of them magical. She knows where to find them.

Left largely to her own devices by her mother, who comes across as more sisterly than motherly, Moonee is like a little old person, wise in the ways of her universe yet oblivious to danger, to the fact that her mother is unstable in perhaps every sense of the word, and to the reality of living a hairsbreadth away from homelessness. It’s both a relief and a heartbreak to note that the difficulties of Moonee’s life haven’t deprived her of her childhood innocence.

Halley, Moonee’s mother, can’t seem to set examples of right and wrong, but she can exemplify elation and the ability to turn the mundane into wonder-provoking discoveries. In terms of parenthood, there’s fit and unfit, but can you be a thoroughly bad parent when you can show your child the incalculable value of joyful play in found moments?

Writer/director Sean Baker discovered Bria Vinaite on Instagram, and he cast her as Moonee’s mother. She is a treasure. Young Brooklynn Prince’s raw and unfettered performance as Moonee could make you believe that she’s not an actor, either, but a child who wandered onto the set. All of the children in the film are wonderful. And as the motel manager, Willem Dafoe – the only “named” actor in the film – gives a superb performance that eclipses any I’ve seen from him… after all these years, we finally get him in such a role!

 

 

I would describe The Florida Project as a dramedy, and I highly recommend it. Just believe.

Lingering: A Ghost Story. (Non-review movie review!)

A Ghost Story isn’t a horror film, but it’s haunting nonetheless. It’s haunted my thoughts since we first saw it last week.

 

 

Why do some spirits choose an afterlife of haunting?

A Ghost Story  raises a multitude of questions. I might as well start with that one.

As far as haunted house movies go, I’ve never been compelled to consider the fate of the ghost, or how lonely it must be for a ghost tethered to his place of haunting. But then, I’d never seen a haunted house movie from the perspective of the ghost.

It’s a despondent ghost who’s unable to leave his place until he gets his answer, or achieves his goal, whatever that may be. Time glides endlessly and the ghost goes along with it. It’s the only dimension he can traverse.

Watching this movie was a profound cinematic experience.

We begin with a married couple, but we never learn their names. I suppose this is because the humans in their physical bodies are more or less props, there to set in motion a possibly infinite journey. In the middle of the film, another nameless person passes through to hold forth at a social gathering. The scene ends and we never see him again, but we’re left thinking.

We fall deeper into introspection. What does it mean to be alive, to exist? What does it mean to be not-alive?

We witness the pain of grieving, but we feel the ghost’s pain more than the pain of the one still living. It’s the bereft ghost whose story we follow.

A Ghost Story is a ghost’s story, yet the ghost is not the protagonist. If the film has a protagonist, it’s the place to which the ghost is fixed. Or it’s the universe. Or it’s time.

If the ghost has a voice, it’s the sheet he wears, its movement, folds, and appearance; even the shape of its eye-holes as they seem to alter with his emotion. That’s the thing about this ghost: he’s emotional, even to the point of throwing the occasional tantrum. The ghost’s sheet is his voice, and Daniel Hart’s exquisite musical score – the most sorrowful voice in the film – makes it devastating.

Thus, the driving forces of A Ghost Story are inhuman. And yet, in this inhumanity, we perceive the timeless plight of humanity. This is brilliant writing. It’s poetry.

In my humble opinion, writer and director David Lowery succeeded with his experiment in mixing mediums to tell his story. Film as poem, or poem as film? When a work of art is effectively both, it doesn’t matter how you assign its primary medium.

Speaking of mediums, I’ll touch again on the expressiveness of the ghost’s sheet, because its authority is so striking in its simplicity. I was fascinated by the way the ghost stands or sits still and turns only his head to look to the side or back, so the folds of his sheet twist with the turn. The effect is dramatic, and that is the point. Facing forward, but looking elsewhere, the ghost’s sheet conveys that he inhabits temporal realms in a transcendence of future and past. We can perceive the enormity of this by merely looking at the drape of a sheet.

A Ghost Story is a highly visual film. It’s maybe 80% silent movie, if not more so. As the ghost lingers, there’s lingering in the silence; we linger on what there is to see. There’s lingering in the sustained notes of the musical score.

There’s more I could say about the significance of music in this film, on how it helps to speak for the ghost, and why, but I’ll hold back. In this aspect, though, A Ghost Story calls to mind The Piano. In The Piano, the instrument serves as voice for Ada, who can’t speak. Also silent, Ada expresses herself through her music.

Watching A Ghost Story, tears collected in my throat early on, and they stayed there until the end, the aforementioned musical score by Daniel Hart partially responsible, I’m sure.

Callaghan was mesmerized, too. When A Ghost Story was over, we looked at each other at the same time that we both said, “I want to see it again.” And we did see it again. I would see it yet again.

A Ghost Story is a beautiful film, a story to ponder and discuss. It’s an elegant study in the philosophical discipline of metaphysics, and it’s a poem. Maybe more than a moving picture, it’s a moving poem with pictures.

 

DUNkirk. (Non-review movie review!)

Last weekend, we went to see Dunkirk, an historical war drama written and directed by Christopher Nolan. As you may know, I enjoy historical war movies – the operative word being “historical.”

 

 

The film is named for the WWII event that took place in the town of Dunkirk (Dunkerque) on the shores of northern France: the rescue of allied forces hopelessly hemmed in by the Nazis.

I didn’t know anything about this event at the start of the movie; neither did I know much about it by the end. Dunkirk didn’t have a lot to teach. One thing I did learn is that I can gauge the appeal of a film by my degree of willingness to use the restroom in the middle of it. In the case of Dunkirk, the slightest urgency in my bladder had me rushing out of the theater.

Yes. I’d eagerly anticipated seeing Dunkirk, so it was with disappointment that I had no problem at all getting up to use the restroom about an hour in. I was disappointed because I feared missing… nothing. There was nothing worth the struggle of ignoring my bladder so I could sit through the remainder of the movie.

I wasn’t held in my seat by suspense (there was no suspense). I wasn’t invested in any character (there were no developed characters). I wasn’t afraid I’d miss out on great acting or brilliant writing going into the dialogue (there was very little in the way of dialogue).

Dunkirk starts out promising. There’s a scrappy kid on a mission to survive. He’s got his wits about him, and he seems resilient and resourceful. But the film’s human component fails to evolve beyond that. We never get to know the kid. What remains is a maelstrom of impersonal and chaotic drama that consumes the film, resulting in turbulence that had us fidgeting with annoyance and boredom.

I mean, we were utterly bored.

We yawned through scenes that seemed cut, altered, and pasted throughout the film. Did Nolan decide that after reaching the apotheosis of his vision in one scene, he could get away with making a few changes and then “saving as” so he could plug it in here and there? It was as if he re-worked the scenes repeatedly until he could use them to string the film together.

So yes… after an hour of this, I had no fear of missing anything in the 10 or so minutes I’d be out using the restroom.

Let me mention, too, the nuisance that is the film’s soundtrack. Dunkirk’s “music” is a ceaseless cacophony that plays too great of a part in that above-mentioned turbulence. The musical score could have used at least a measure or two of restraint, even a little bit of push-and-pull… not only to give us a break from the noise, but to employ the sound as a device of suspense-building.

Making it all worse was the fact that I later read about the event and found myself wondering whether the film was in fact historical or merely based on historical events. From what I read, it was more the latter. We saw fewer than 10 boats, fewer than five aircraft, and merely one or two hundred troops in peril. For all of its powerful, sweeping cinematography – the film’s great strength – we saw barely a fraction of the magnitude of the evacuation of Dunkirk. If Nolan’s strategy included condensing the event in order to give us a focal point representative of the event as a whole, he forgot to include in that strategy, as I said, an iota of character development to keep us engaged.

In summary, Dunkirk is inaccurate and repetitive. It’s somewhat difficult to follow as its perspective swings from land (specified as “mole”) , air, and sea, which made it often unclear as to where we were in time. The film has no human quality to speak of, which is why, perhaps, we felt no sense of profound triumph at the end of it. If you’re a fan of Nolan’s non-linear storytelling style and you wouldn’t mind seeing it applied to the telling of an historical event, then you may enjoy this movie.

We were drawn to Dunkirk by its trailer. We didn’t suspect that the merits of the film would stop there. We would have been better off leaving it at the trailer’s sweeping scenes, its enticing glimpses of sturm und drang and suggestions of gravitas promising an outcome of stirring heroism worthy of a film made more than 70 years later.

 

Wonder Woman: a superhero of a female bildungsroman. (Non-review movie review!)

We went to see Wonder Woman on Tuesday night.

 

 

When I say that this is not a real movie review, I really mean it. I’m in no way equipped to say everything that needs to be said about this excellent film. I could say that its writing, direction, casting, acting, film score, cinematography, costumes, et cetera are superb, and call it a day. It’s for the real film reviewers to elaborate on all of that, as I’m sure they have.

No, I’m only here to offer my personal reaction and observations, beginning with the women’s training, sparring, and battle scenes. (Those of you who know me are shocked, I’m sure!)

Be that as it may. Starting from there, here are my three main thoughts about Wonder Woman:

1). In making Wonder Woman, Patty Jenkins didn’t hold back. She directed the women to fight the way actual, trained women fight: brutally. Trained female fighters are fearless and capable of taking tons of pain and punishment, and Jenkins hands the general population this reality with no-big-deal nonchalance. How refreshing and unexpected it was to see these women training and sparring like they were actually trying to kill each other.

 

 

2). It’s with this same deftness that Jenkins merges the film’s worlds in time and dimension without skipping a beat, at the same time crossing Wonder Woman over multiple genres. With its tight, complex plot, this film has something for everyone. You want to watch a movie about ancient western mythology? Wonder Woman. You want to watch a superhero movie? Wonder Woman. You want to watch a Great War movie? Wonder Woman. You want to watch a drama with a little comedy thrown in? An action/adventure flick? How about a martial arts action flick? Wonder Woman.

(About that last: you want to watch real-life tough, highly trained, battle-scarred badass women warriors facing off in real-life action? Watch MMA.)

 

 

3). The film is really all of the above, but the way I see it, Wonder Woman is, at its core, a female bildungsroman presented in a superhero framework, a coming-of-age story ending with the protagonist fully realizing who she is. Literally. It’s maybe too easy in this regard, but it works. The result is breathtaking. First of all, the notion of a female bildungsroman disguised as a superhero movie is, in itself, brilliant.

Directed by anyone other than Patty Jenkins, Wonder Woman might have turned out to be another one-dimensional superhero flick. In Jenkins’ hands, Diana did not come out to be a sword-wielding piece of ass in a short skirt, and neither did the Amazons. Diana is the hero, contingent on nothing, peripheral to no one.

What there is to drool over here is a well-crafted film that’s already a classic.

Not to mention, the battle-scene fight sequence choreography is stunning.

Phoenix Forgotten. (Failed non-review movie review!) (+PTSD diagnosis story)

We went to watch Phoenix Forgotten, which brought back the year of 1997.

As I sat there, it occurred to me for the first time that the beginning of my PTSD coincided with the Phoenix Lights.

[NOTE: The link function to open the linked page in a new window is down at the moment, so you’ll have to back-arrow to get back here]

 

 

Probably many of us living here in Phoenix metro in 1997 remember the lights that moved over the Valley in March. For me, 1997 was also eventful because it involved numerous doctors throughout the year. 1997 was the year I was diagnosed with PTSD. Yes – six years post-main event.

I wasn’t in school in 1997. I was taking a year off, the year after college and before grad school. There were only two things on my agenda for 1997: write poems and train for my black belt in Tae Kwan Do. I was also working.

So I was doing all of that, just minding my own business, like you do, and then, one night, I went to bed feeling sick to my stomach. As soon as I closed my eyes, my heart jumped in and crashed the party, like, Hey! I’m here too! Whheeeeeee! Cannonball!!!… and I couldn’t breathe, and I thought I was going to die of a cardiac event.

Then I was waking up. It was morning. What the hell just happened?

It happened again the next night, and the next and the next. It got to a point where I was too gun-shy to go bed. Going to bed had become a horrifying prospect, so every night, I put it off until I was passing-out tired. I don’t know why I didn’t go to the doctor sooner.

Eventually, I did go to the doctor, because I had an episode that was different than the others, and that was the proverbial last straw.

In that episode, I was trapped in another dimension and I was going to die for sure. Somewhere between awake and sleep, something happened. If I was completely asleep, it would’ve been a nightmare. Whatever this was, it was psychedelic and real, like, 3D real… and that was on top of the physical Armageddon that was my new normal. After I survived that night, I finally went to the doctor.

*****

1997 became a year of medical mystery. I went back and forth between different internists and specialists, cardiology and gastroenterology and cardiology again, everyone referring me to everyone else. I was deemed healthy – good news! – but I was still having these ridiculous episodes.

Then my baffled first internist started asking me questions about my background. When it came out that I was a combat vet, she referred me to a shrink. The shrink explained that panic attacks mimic heart conditions and other physical issues, which was why no one thought of the PTSD possibility.

He explained that the first episode was a panic attack. After it recurred nightly for a period of time, it became a panic disorder (PTSD, in my case). And the next-level attacks, he said, were “night terrors.”

Why did it take so long for the PTSD to manifest? He said it wasn’t unusual for vets to come home fine and then experience a trigger years later. The trigger could be anything, he said. So what was my trigger? We’ll never know, and it doesn’t matter.

All we know is that my PTSD was triggered by something in the spring of 1997. Coincidentally, I’m sure, the Phoenix Lights also happened in the spring of 1997.

*****

I sat in the movie theater remembering and pondering all of this, and that is how my non-review movie review became a post about my PTSD diagnosis.

I can’t be objective about this movie, but I can say that in my opinion, it wasn’t bad.

Phoenix Forgotten begins on a robust note, then bleeds out into the Found Footage horror movie sub-genre. In my experience, Found Footage movies made after the first Blair Witch Project are doomed to the basement where Bad Horror Flicks live. I often really enjoy Bad Horror Flicks, but I can’t even say whether this movie was bad enough to qualify as that bad.

If you’re intrigued by the Phoenix Lights and/or you’re a fan of Found Footage horror movies, you may dig this one.

 

 

The Mysterious Case of the White-sheeted Ghost (in the Shell)

We went out to see a movie last weekend. The usual assortment of trailers rolled before our eyes ahead of the featured film. One trailer stood out. It caught me off guard. Then my surprise turned to annoyance and dismay, and I wanted to stop it there, but it kept returning to my thoughts, and now I’m just fed up.

Here’s the thing…

  • There’s a popular manga series (Japanese comics) called Ghost in the Shell.
  • Ghost in the Shell has been adapted to the big screen in a live-action production.
  • The Japanese story is set in Tokyo, Japan.
  • The protagonist is Major Motoko Kusanagi, and she is played by… wait for it… Scarlett Johansson.

Scarlett Johansson isn’t Japanese? No problem! We have CGI (digital special effects), and we can use it to make her look Asian! Because the actress doesn’t have to BE Asian. She just has to LOOK Asian. “Asian” is all about how you look, after all. Japanese are actually bananas… yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Use CGI to turn Scarlett Johansson yellow! Also, we have clever make-up artists. We can do stuff to make Scarlett Johansson look Asian, so there’s no need to cast an actual Asian woman for the lead role. Thank heavens. There’s a billion dollars to be made from this picture, and we need Scarlett Johansson in order to make it.

Except the CGI and make-up didn’t work. It just looks like the crew tried to make Scarlett Johansson look Asian.

 

The many faces of Scarlett JAPANsson

 

Scarlett Johansson thinks she’s turning Japanese/I (don’t) really think so. (If you watched MTV in the 80’s, you can name that song.)

And if you were to insist that the ethnicity of the main character in a manga/anime movie is open to interpretation (to which manga and anime fans would say perish the thought), then at least don’t keep the character’s name “Motoko Kusanagi” when you cast Scarlett Johansson, for crying out loud. Keeping the name “Motoko Kusanagi” obliterates any argument that the character shouldn’t necessarily be of Japanese ethnicity. The old “anime characters’ features are made to look more western, anyway” argument doesn’t work, either. The characters are still Japanese. Major Motoko Kusanagi is Japanese. If artistic liberties had been taken with the character’s ethnicity, then no effort would have been expended to make Scarlett Johansson look the part.

When asked about it, Scarlett Johansson allegedly said that she didn’t mind taking a role that could have been given to an Asian actress because the role “empowers all women.” I’m not kidding.

We need to talk about Hollywood’s apparent problem with ethnic representation and how they’re going to reconcile it with their pride in being the paradigm of societal righteousness. Casting a Caucasian actor to portray an Asian character isn’t new in Hollywood, and Asians aren’t the only ethnic minority group of artists being passed over. Whitewashing is an on-going insult, a symptom of the institutional racism embedded in Hollywood. That racism doesn’t look to be going anywhere. No (privileged white) actor has the right to make sanctimonious speeches about the superiority of diversity and inclusiveness in Hollywood. The hypocrisy here is staggering.

Frankly, it makes my skin crawl, this idea of casting a white actor and then using CGI and/or make-up to adjust the features to match the character’s ethnicity when you could simply cast an actor of that ethnicity.

Ghost in the shell, indeed. One thing’s for sure: they nailed the invisibility part.

“La La Land” in a flash of whitening.

We went to see La La Land to catch up with the hype it’s been generating. Then, on Facebook the other day, I joked about writing “La La Land annoys me and I’m not sorry.” This was met with interest, and I do appreciate your interest! Here we go.

La La Land, a film widely beloved as a throw-back to Old Hollywood, has a core cast about as diverse as a pile of snowballs in a blizzard. We were both surprised by the extent of its whiteness.

Also, in a bizarre twist on the familiar trope, the story peaks when the knight in shining armor races up on his steed to rescue a damsel’s career in distress.

And there are no gay characters in La La Land, which I found to be an odd omission.

What is happening? At the Golden Globes, a highly acclaimed veteran actress extolls Hollywood’s diversity and then contrasts it with football and MMA. Football is indeed decidedly all-American. MMA, though, is an international sport that’s arguably more diverse than Hollywood… her example a blunder she makes due to her preconceived notions (effectively reinforcing conservatives’ view that liberals are elitist and hypocritical). Ironically, the notably nondiverse La La Land sweeps the same awards ceremony. Now the Oscar nominations have been released, and La La Land again leads the way. 14 nominations!

(This is not a commentary on those who enjoyed La La Land. If I had a penchant for romance films and musicals, I’d find it dazzling, too.)

La La Land is a boy meets girl story.

 

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The two artists collide and collide again and then again and then finally get together in rapturous love, but the missed-connections shenanigans continue. One aspect of the plot I appreciate – and it’s a major aspect – is the sincere concern each has regarding the other’s faithfulness to their art.

They don’t end up together, but they get what they want, professionally: at the end, he’s opened his jazz club, and she’s reached stardom.

She reached stardom because she wrote a play at his encouragement, and when that led to a call for her possible big break, he heroically raced across a state line to collect her and get her there.

The one black character in the film plays a pivotal, yet behind-the-scenes role. Interestingly, the white lead character envisions a livelihood in an old-school jazz club, and the black background character convinces him that the way to go is to make money playing keys with a touring pop band.

So I have questions, beginning with: Stone and Gosling? Why? They’re excellent actors, but they’re clearly not singers and dancers. And why is Hollywood enamored with La La Land to the point of 14 Oscar nominations? With its nostalgic, retro tone, the film seems intent on recapturing the magic of a Hollywood moment that took place in the 50’s/60’s, an exceptionally racist moment in Hollywood history… and not a good moment for women in the industry, either.

From the standpoint of craft, the film is undeniably glorious. But in this time of political fervor driving Hollywood even more to give impassioned speeches for inclusiveness and equality, the favoritism toward La La Land is off-key.

Hell or High Water. (Non-review movie review! NO SPOILERS.)

You may have noticed that my non-review movie reviews are almost all positive. That would be because I prefer to “review” movies I like. Generally, if I don’t care for a film, I won’t write about it. I’ve seen fewer than 10 movies this year, and only two of them were disappointments. (I’m looking at you, Captain America: Civil War and Suicide Squad.)

This brings me to the part where I declare, for what little it’s worth, that Hell or High Water is easily the best film I’ve seen this year. It is brilliant.

The story, which takes place in Texas, though the movie was filmed entirely in New Mexico, is about relationships. Two parallel, family relationships.

 

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Complicated dynamics relationships. Love shown in funny ways relationships. Beer as an olive branch relationships.

Big talk, slick talk, real talk, risk-taking relationships. Loyalty to the bone relationships.

Stoic guy, desperate guy relationships.

Hell or High Water is a testosterone-driven story, so don’t go in looking for strong female characters. The few women in the mix are peripheral. We never get to meet the most important woman in the film, because she’s dead. Central to the plot, but dead.

Thankfully, no one saw the need to throw in a love interest, because that would water down the beautiful disaster that is the protagonists’ predicament.

With the action fueled by family hardship, the events amount to a test of emotional stamina in the context of moral limits. Pacing is critical. We’re fortunate in the hands of director David Mackenzie (Starred Up); we trust that he can calibrate the hell out of a story, and he doesn’t fall short. Hell or High Water demonstrates how restraint can heighten the tension in a film and effectively build its suspense. Here, we see it masterfully done. I was hardly aware that I was holding my breath.

Not to mention, it was fantastic to sit down in a theater and find myself before a fine piece of writing. Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) wrote an intelligent film of considerable depth. I loved the unconventionality of the plot arc barely descending after the climax. The film leaves you hanging on the other side, but near the top, right where you want to be and don’t want to be.

Again, restraint.

 

 

As a result, we walked out on a variety of cliff-hanger that demands no sequel.

I highly recommend this film, if you don’t mind a little gunfire. It’s really, as I said, about relationships.

 

Don’t Breathe. (Non-review movie review! NO SPOILERS.)

Don’t Breathe is a thriller/drama, otherwise known as a thrillama. (Adorable, right? If that term didn’t already exist, it does now.) It’s categorized as a horror film because there’s no other way to describe the shit that goes down.

 

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Don’t Breathe is an anomaly of a horror film. There’s no hint of the supernatural. No monsters or creatures of lore. No deranged killer wearing a mask while hunting people. No scheming lunatic masquerading as an ordinary person in unsuspecting victims’ lives. No lethal super-virus trampling international borders. No evil aliens or UFOs. No colossal, razor-toothed fish torpedoing out of the ocean. No natural disaster threatening humankind with the apocalypse in a planetary meltdown. No serial killers. No creepy dolls. No clowns stalking children in the Carolinas. (Oh, wait… that’s not a movie. That’s really happening). (It’s not a movie yet, that is.)

There’s just a guy.

And he’s both a victim and a victimizer.

He has reason to do the things he’s doing, as he is being provoked. In his own home.

He does have an obsession, shall we say… but by the time it rears its head, the reveal is powerless to overtake the action and suspense already blurred in full throttle. We’re brought back to the central terror, albeit minus any sympathy we may have had for the guy.

Likewise, a reveal in the backstory of another character serves in the reverse: it seeks to help us feel sympathy for her, lest we’re feeling 100% like “she’s getting what she deserves”… though some of that sentiment may remain. It did for me. There can be no justification for her actions, but at least we’re given some kind of device with which to understand her emotional motives.

Don’t Breathe is smart, unlike a great percentage of its ilk. I enjoy a stupid, campy horror flick as much as the next devoted fan of the genre, but Don’t Breathe is a pleasurable breath of fresh air, as they say. Director Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead) crafted it into an exhilarating and tight ride.

I think I’ve said all I want to say that I can say without spoiling it for you, if you haven’t seen it. This aptly-titled film is worth the price of its ticket. (An alternate title could be Why Everyone Should Know How to Hot-wire a Car.) I recommend this film highly if you enjoy horror and/or thrillamas, if you don’t mind a bit of gore… and a lot of breath-holding.

Lights Out. (Non-review movie review! No spoilers.)

We went to see Lights Out two Fridays ago, which happened to be the night of our first major monsoon storm of the season.

It was daylight when we went in, and darkness with rain, booming thunder, and flashing light when we went out. The movie had been darkness and flashing light, too. All kinds of light. Flickering light, steady light, florescent light, candlelight, black light, light bulbs, headlights, stage lights, overhead lights, lamp lights, cell phone light, you name it.

 

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Lights Out is an old-school horror film that benefits from its uncomplicated plot, one part jump scares and one part jittery suspense. (In another dimension, one part atmosphere, one part sound design, both exquisitely crafted.) (In yet another dimension that’s irrelevant, no part award-winning acting.)

We didn’t care about the acting, and we didn’t care much about plot, although the plot in this film isn’t badly lacking. We just cared about being spooked by the monster as we sat ensconced in the dark theater.

See, in this movie, you don’t know when the lights will go out, and the first thing you learn is that when the lights go out, scary things happen. Lights Out preys on – or resurrects – our fear of the dark. It’s a simple premise, and that’s why it works.

Rather than wasting time and effort trying to impress us with plot complexity, character development, and CGI effects, the film teaches us how to react. It lends a coat of paranoia to each interior scene, each room, confining tension within the walls. The attention paid to the integrity of each scene maintains the mood, and I appreciated this consistency. There we were in a house that seemed real, with lighting that seemed real (not forced, as props as central motif can seem), holding our breath the whole time. Lights Out is back-to-basics, monster-under-the-bed horror, enjoyable and making no apologies for its lack of embellishments.

I found the monster in Lights Out to be satisfying, too. It’s scary because it’s elemental. It’s unencumbered by CGI overload, devoid of the cheesiness that often ruins the spook potential of contemporary horror movie evil entities.

To make my conclusion as simple as the movie itself: Lights Out is an entertaining horror movie.

 

Ghostastic Crazy: Ghostbusters 2016 (Non-review movie review! No spoilers.)

I went to see Ghostbusters 2016 with Callaghan, my partner in all kinds of crime.

 

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We’d both seen the original Ghostbusters  in the 80’s. He loved it. I don’t remember much about it; while I liked it, it didn’t make such an impression on me that I got caught up in the enduring excitement over it. So there we were at the theater, an original Ghostbusters fan and an original Ghostbusters mildly interested viewer, going in to see 2016’s version.

We found Ghostbusters 2016 to be wondrous. It’s daffy. It’s unapologetic. It’s funny, even hilarious at times. Yes, we laughed, often glancing at each other to find that we were reacting the same way. We also did a lot of leaning in and whispering to each other.

(One of many benefits of those glorious wide, puffy recliner seats in movie theaters is that you can whisper to each other without disturbing others.)

Our whispers mostly went as follows…

Callaghan: Holy sh*t this is funny!

Me: It totally is!

And…

Callaghan: I think this is better than the first one!!

Me: So do I!!

And…

Callaghan: Hell yeah!

Me: This is awesome!

And…

Callaghan: Hahaha Ozzy!!!

Me (at the same time): Ozzy!!

And then…

Callaghan: Is that Sharon? Where is Sharon? That must have been Sharon (Osbourne).

Me: I don’t think that was Sharon.

Callaghan: It kind of looked like Sharon.

And…

Callaghan: I love this!

Me: This is great!

You get the idea.

I don’t know what we were expecting, but we both loved it, and we both said we’d see it again.

We consciously opened our minds before we went in. This was necessary because the movie has generated a brou-ha-ha in the existing Ghostbusters fandom, some kind of kerfuffle that I swear has been the second-most pervasive topic on my FB newsfeed lately, the first being, shall we say, general furor of a political nature.

In fact, the outrage over politics only slightly overshadowed the outrage and scorn over Ghostbusters for a while as people engaged in flame-wars on Ghostbusters-related posts. I don’t know if this is still going on, because I’ve stopped paying attention.

The truth is, I haven’t clicked on any of the articles or blog posts. I just skimmed the titles, snippets, and comments as I scrolled past, because I knew I was going to see the movie, and I didn’t want my head all lit up with the acrimony and disdain flung about on the Internets.

From what I can gather, though, people are mad because the new movie called “Ghostbusters” features female ghostbusters… of all things.

Oh, and they’re mad because Melissa McCarthy is the Grinch who stole Ghostbusters.

And to think that all this time, I’ve been oblivious, blithely unaware that ghost-busting was a male-dominated field in the first place. I guess there are a few remaining men-only jobs, including catching ghosts. As it happens, at least one of the ghostbusters in 2016’s movie does sweat the machismo. She just happens to be a woman. And no, I’m not talking about Melissa McCarthy. I’m talking about Kate McKinnon.

Kate McKinnon’s character, Jillian Holtzmann, is weird, bad-ass, and wildly exaggerated. She’s a caricature. She’s brash, in-your-face, and unpredictable. She reminds me a lot of Lori Petty’s Becca in Tank Girl (1995), another rollicking, campy action/comedy/sci-fi flick (which happens to be one of my favorite movies of all time). Tank Girl isn’t highly rated. Neither is Ghostbusters 2016. But there are cases of lower-rated movies that are fantastic, fun jaunts with cult movie potential, and these two are great examples. Ratings are irrelevant because we’re just there to have a good time. We’re not afraid of no bad reviews.

 

Becca in Tank Girl on the left. Dr. Jillian Holtzmann in Ghostbusters 2016 on the right. NOT UNLIKE.

Becca in Tank Girl on the left. Dr. Jillian Holtzmann in Ghostbusters 2016 on the right. NOT UNLIKE.

 

The entire cast performed well, starting with Kristin Wiig’s character (Dr. Erin Gilbert) getting livid at Melissa McCarthy’s character (Dr. Abby Yates) and subsequently heading over to confront her. The two former best friends end up working together again, but not without the shade of their rift as the invisible third person in their duo. Leslie Jones’ character (Patty Tolan) brings the reality factor, and she does it with comedic aplomb. The dynamics between these four distinct personalities are amusing to watch.

Chris Hemsworth as the dumb blond secretary (Kevin Beckman) is hilarious, too, and also well-cast.

In our opinion, Ghostbusters 2016 is well-written with well-timed dashes of comedy. We loved the cameos and the setting of the digital world we now inhabit (Erin gets mad at Abby because of something she saw online). If the makers utilized CGI in the cheesiest way possible, they pulled it off as an effort that serves the movie well. This movie is supposed to be zany, not realistic.

Let’s be real. This is art, so it’s subjective. Not everyone will like this movie. But to go in already not liking it because the cast is female is unfair. Callaghan pointed out that women (especially as portrayed in movies) tend to be more attuned to the supernatural, which is true, from what I understand… so it makes sense that the ghostbusters are women. If The Conjuring’s paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren were to check out the haunted sites in the Ghostbusters movies, it would be Lorraine who’d experience most of the ghostastic crazy, and the craziest of it all, at that.

Callaghan can’t see the reason for the big deal because this new Ghostbusters plot barely resembles that of the first one, he says. As far as he can tell, this new one isn’t even a remake… it’s a different movie altogether. I have to trust him on this since I don’t remember much of the original’s story.

Ghostbusters 2016’s plot nods and winks at the old one more than copies it, and the nods and winks are as funny as hell.

Oh, and I’m a fan of Fall Out Boy’s cover of the theme song, too (featuring Missy Elliott).

 

The Nice Guys (Another informal review that’s not a review.)

The Nice Guys. The Nice Guys are Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, and from the title you know that their characters are either a). literally nice guys, or b). guys with nice-guy hearts buried somewhere deep in a flailing chaos of beating people up and sometimes killing them.

Of the movie’s various brands of humor, at least one will make someone in the audience laugh at least once. In my book, this signifies a successful comedy: make everyone in the audience bust up laughing at least once. When we went to see it, everyone laughed more than once, including us.

What the Nice Guys lack in aplomb, they make up for with dumb luck, and it is hilarious. The last time a dubious (yet strangely compatible) pair of investigators made us laugh like that was in Rush Hour. If Rush Hour had a grittier, hard-boiled cousin, it would be The Nice Guys.

 

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The writing is smart and crisp, the acting is effortless, and the fight scenes are interesting, with plenty of elbows thrown. Refreshingly, there were more elbow strikes than punches, fight scene choreography reflecting our growing public enthusiasm for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). I’m not sure if this counts as an anachronism, but I certainly enjoyed it. It’s about time Hollywood realizes that elbows are more practical weapons than fists in street fights.

If you’re a fan of Russell Crowe, Ryan Gosling, Rush Hour, comedies, action flicks, or 70’s-ass suits and ‘staches, you might find it worth your while to catch The Nice Guys while you can.

10 Cloverfield Lane (Informal non-review review.)

You go into a sci-fi horror film prepared for some gore, and eventually, you get… just a little, if it’s 10 Cloverfield Lane. You might even be taken aback when it happens. You probably also go in anticipating campy sci-fi horror film fare, and you might get a tiny morsel of that, too. The smidgen of camp may even come with a light dressing of irony, which would make 10 Cloverfield Lane a clever specimen of its genre.

10 Cloverfield Lane doesn’t insult the intelligence of its viewers. Its writers reveal what’s necessary to piece together the backstory from which horror arises. As important as that backstory may be, no one spells it out for us, and this restraint helps to make up for its lack of depth.

10 Cloverfield Lane is billed with the tagline “Monsters come in many forms.” This is apt, so you could say that it’s a monster movie as well as a horror movie, a thriller, a sci-fi movie, a sci-fi horror movie, and a drama… yet 10 Cloverfield Lane is in no danger of an identity crisis. It works just fine switching its hats. Horror seeps in as the mystery unfolds, and the Great Unknown serves as a character in and of itself.

 

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I just wanted to share these few thoughts with you, should viewer opinions interest you. Sci-fi horror (or sci-fi anything) is readily passed over by those not endeared to such films and their ilk. I guess what I’m trying to say is that if you’re not a sci-fi fan, you may yet find something to enjoy in 10 Cloverfield Lane, as its appeal goes beyond the constraints of its genre.

SPOOKTASTIC: The Boy (movie review – NO spoilers)

There’s a scene toward the end of horror movie Dead Silence (2007) where the protagonist removes a cloth covering a mysterious shape. “Is that a doll?” asks the detective as he studies the revealed marionette. “It’s not a doll,” says the protagonist. “It’s a boy.”

This captures the central question in The Boy,  William Brent Bell’s new horror movie. Is it a doll, or is it a boy?

 

(from "Dead Silence")

(from “Dead Silence”)

 

I love good possessed-doll horror movies. And bad ones, for that matter.

To write a horror movie review without spoilers is almost to write no review at all. The challenge leaves me, an amateur film critic, with little more to say than, “I liked this movie,” or “I didn’t care for this movie.” But I do want to say a little bit about The Boy.

After the obvious Dead Silence, the next film that comes to mind is Poltergeist (1982). Poltergeist matters because it was my first spooky horror movie, so it set a standard of comparison. (I say “spooky horror” as opposed to “psycho slasher horror,” “serial killer horror,” “sci-fi horror,” “psychological horror,” “mystery horror,” etc.)

Poltergeist made an impression on me partly because I was 14 and new to the genre, but more because it was just a great film. Looking back on it now, after 33 years and countless more horror movies, I can appreciate the restraint and effective use of fright tactics in Poltergeist. The 2015 Poltergeist remake, on the other hand, did nothing but bore me. I couldn’t help but set it against the original in my mind. I rolled my eyes when the family moved into the house and the kid almost immediately discovered a whole box filled with clown dolls. I didn’t finish the movie.

The Poltergeist remake failed me because I wasn’t spooked by a pile of clown dolls in a box. I was spooked by one clown  illuminated in the night at the convergence of built-up of tension and weather, as in the original Poltergeist. That’s pacing. And nuance. And Steven Spielberg. Probably many of us Gen-X’ers derived our fear of clowns from that movie. I know for me, it was that clown that hooked me on the shiver of dread I’ve sought in spooky horror movies ever since. I don’t know that The Boy would inspire any such lasting impression on those who see it as their first spooky horror film, but it’s a solid example of nicely done metaphysical terror. Where spooky horror is concerned, “less is more” works for me.

The Boy has this focus in common with the original Poltergeist. There’s only one “boy” in The Boy.  If a remake of The Boy is ever done and it features triplets instead of a single child, I would roll my eyes and walk away, like I did during the Poltergeist remake. The clown doll in Poltergeist was little more than a prop, but it was the most memorable prop for many of us, and the creators of the remake knew it. That’s why they figured they’d capitalize on its impact by filling a box with clowns and shoving it at us at the beginning of the movie. “You got a major rush from that one scary clown in the first Poltergeist? Here, have a whole bunch of clowns!”

Granted, that box of clowns might be terribly scary to a child who sees the movie, but as an adult who saw the original decades ago and has henceforth proceeded in life with an instilled dread of clowns, that box of clowns was ridiculous.

For a more literal comparison, you could align The Boy with other “possessed doll as main character” films such as Child’s Play or Annabelle. Unlike Chucky and Annabelle, though, Brahms (the titular character in The Boy) isn’t made to look creepy. At the opposite end of the spectrum, I think of “Amelia,” a tale in Karen Black’s Trilogy of Terror (1975). The possessed doll in “Amelia” is so over-the-top in its vicious appearance, it safely clears the level of “trying too hard” and goes straight to campy gore. It’s one of my favorites.

Brahms in The Boy is not a possessed doll-turned-slasher. Brahms is a normal-looking porcelain doll who sits calmly and does basically nothing. Brahms resembles the eight-year-old male child shown in a painting hanging above the stairs in the darkly atmospheric English country manse that provides the setting for the movie.  If the Brahms doll is animate, it’s animate by suggestion only. We do not see it move. It is quiet. It doesn’t go tearing around the house with an upraised dagger. It doesn’t go ripping out people’s tongues. It’s this element of absence that spooks me more than the obvious, albeit entertaining, antics of the possessed dolls in other movies.

 

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The Boy features its share of horror movie tropes such as jump-scares and phones that suddenly don’t work and terrifying scenes that turn out to be nightmares, but these tropes are used judiciously and kept to a minimum so the story can evolve of its own accord. It’s a rare horror movie that doesn’t depend solely on cheap tricks to get reactions.

The Boy impressed us with its fresh take on the possessed-doll horror theme. I don’t know what else I could say without spoiling the film, so I’ll stop here. I do recommend this film if you’re a fan of the horror genre, or if you’re just curious.

Oh, and by the way… the clown in Dead Silence is, to date, my favorite of all the scary movie clowns, and that includes the one in Poltergeist. To me, it’s the scariest.

Scarier, even, than the one in Saw.