Hacksaw Ridge

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Morphing from strained melodrama via disconcertingly comedic asides into one of the most stomach-churning, brutal depictions of combat ever seen on a big screen, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge (2016) is a strange but potent beast. Shortcomings may dog its early going, but there’s no doubt that the elaborate staging of the assault on and attempt to wrestle command of the titled Ridge is one of the most pulsating, stirring set-pieces in cinema history. It provides an assault on the senses whilst being uncomfortably entertaining throughout.

On the downside, there are some jarring moments in the character-establishing first third of the film which begins with the childhood of Desmond Doss (Darcy Bryce) on a day when his constant play-fighting with brother Hal takes a nasty turn. The resultant serious injury that Hal suffers truly opens Desmond’s eyes up to how easy aggression can lead to dire consequences in an instant. The boys’ parents, Tom (Hugo Weaving) and Bertha (Rachel Griffiths), seem to have strayed in from a million wartime and other domestic dramas. Tom’s a former soldier himself, haunted by the loss of the friends whose graves he regularly visits to pour salt into all his old wartime wounds. A stray drop or two of alcohol also plays a part into contorting his mind with a strain of poisoned bitterness. Bertha is a commendably salt-of-the-earth type, shapeless but decent, determined to hold the family together even as the odds against it grow more imposing.

We then fast-forward to the young adulthood of Desmond (now played by Andrew Garfield) and his embarrassingly schmaltzy courtship of pretty and preposterously unattached nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer). A series of scenes which are cringe-worthy for their triteness, simplicity and painful conventionality follow, before Doss almost immediately decides to follow his conscience and the lead of his brother, and enlist to become an army medic. Scenes of Doss’s time in training are treated with an equally jarring, weirdly comedic tone. The introduction of Vince Vaughn as hardnosed Sgt Howell begins a section of the film that will have you pondering a ludicrous fusion of R. Lee Ermey with Sgt. Bilko. Of course, it’s Doss’s reluctance to ever take arms that raises most controversy and almost sees him railroaded out of the army before he ever sees time on a battlefield. His religious convictions generate mistrust, anger and contempt from fellow soldiers and officers alike who are adamant that Doss will be detrimental to their cause.

But this story of Doss’s contribution to the saving of multiple lives on Hacksaw Ridge without ever firing a bullet in anger is one of remarkable heroism. The hand-to-hand warfare is portrayed with startling authenticity, initially hitting audiences like a thunderbolt of electricity and never letting up thereafter. It’s both increasingly difficult to watch or look away from as men on both sides are shot down like ducks in a shooting gallery. Gibson doesn’t shy away from showing the true horror and chaos of these insane, frenzied, fugue-like back and forths, the extreme physical effects of humans being torn apart like rag dolls shown with a horrifying clarity. But amidst the carnage, Doss reveals cunning and courage as his burrows far and wide to retrieve wounded soldiers who would otherwise have been abandoned to horrible fates, either dying in agony or delivered a fatal blow by Japanese survivors.

Rupert Gregson-Williams’s score – the best of his career – contributes another pulsating, stirring emotional subtext to what is a mesmerisingly uncomfortable snapshot of war’s paradoxical nature, bringing courage and camaraderie to the fore even as it grinds itself down to ever more unpalatable chunks of abject futility. Gibson, never a director to let an opportunity to examine the painful associations of a bloodletting influence his artistic ambitions, as Braveheart (1995), The Passion of the Christ (2004) and Apocalypto (2006) can attest to, has made a ferocious contribution to the sub-genre of war cinema. With a startling lead performance from Garfield as the moralistic but resolute warrior that Doss becomes, and strong work from an ensemble amongst the military ranks (especially young Australian Luke Bracey as Smitty Ryker), Gibson has forged a tale of humanistic endeavour amidst the most inhumane conditions imaginable and it’s almost impossible to remain unmoved by this boldly cinematic tale.

 

 

 

The Neon Demon

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‘Beauty eats itself’ might be the overarching maxim of Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest, an easily consumable, surreal, dreamlike but overly-mannered film sorely lacking in soul, insight or anything approximating skilled storytelling. A pretty young wannabe model Jesse (Elle Fanning) enters the fray, hoping to break-in to the fashion scene in what appears to be an eerily-empty, hollowed out version of L.A. Her youth and inexperience are soon overlooked in favour of her striking looks. She becomes the flavour of the month but in what is a brutally competitive field full of vindictive vixens looking to climb the ladder to fame and success – blood on their hands be damned – Jesse will have to watch her back is she hopes to maintain her place in the pecking order.

It’s almost impossible to believe this Refn screenplay was penned in collaborations with two playwrights – Mary Laws and Polly Stenham – whose currency, you’d imagine, is skilled verbal interaction. Yet there’s precious little evidence of subtlety or perceptiveness here. Hell, even a moment in the film not marred by stilted, usually absurd dialogue would have been appreciated. Certainly on a metaphorical level you can extract some socially relevant commentary about the cruelly disposable, interchangeable nature of beauty, but the message is hollow and futile when saturated by mediocre, sub-Argento stylings that leave you cold.

Refn is, and will always be a favourite director, but his two films since the masterful Drive (2011) have formed what may be the start of a regrettable, inevitable devolution, where his ever-expanding obsession with style curation has utterly stifled any possibility of simultaneously creating something of real substance. The film is, of course, glorious to behold from a visual standpoint, as any Refn film is, thanks on this occasion to a first-time collaborator, cinematographer Natasha Braier. Aesthetically intoxicating, there are moments of brilliance in the off-putting, disorienting way he distorts, eliminates, extracts or plays with colour and light, whilst Cliff Martinez’s amped-up retro score works to brilliant effect in certain scenes, often obscuring their vacuousness.

Fanning is far and away the best thing about The Neon Demon (2016). Jesse’s vulnerabilities and naivety are laid bare early on, exposing her to all sorts of exploitation. Yet her assimilation into this world and transformation into a hardened competitor in the fashion stakes is entirely credible despite being surrounded by increasingly weird goings-on and some truly putrid acting. Australian contributors Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee as Jesse’s combatants Gigi and Sarah are just diabolically awful – two of the most wooden, dire performances of recent times. Dexter alumni Desmond Harrington also has a couple of hilariously awful scenes as a farcically intense, almost non-verbal hotshot photographer. Marlon Brando, he’s not. Even the usually reliable Jena Malone as the make-up artist of dubious intent who takes Jesse under her wing feels weirdly out-of-sync in nearly every scene she’s in, including the film’s most embarrassingly awful in which she spends time alone with a corpse.

An overwhelming sense of extraneousness is what ultimately sinks The Neon Demon. Ah, the agony of sitting through so many poorly written, utterly pointless scenes, including every one featuring Keanu Reeves, for starters. This disjointed film sorely lacks cohesion, whilst individual scenes never feel part of a narrative flow, making it a frustrating viewing experience. Those imagining a shrewd illumination of the film’s themes at the end of proceedings will be sorely disappointed. If anything, the final few scenes only exemplify the film’s ill-discipline and asinine, juvenile approach to narrative and, especially, to horror. Subverting social commentary beneath shimmering layer after layer of dizzying, rancid obliqueness does not render it in any way profound. In this case, the notion of creative depth is the very last one to come to mind. The Neon Demon, forgetting its most obvious shortcomings, has enough moments of flickering visual brilliance to make it semi-watchable, but this is, depressingly, but a miniscule step up from Refn’s career low, Only God Forgives.

 

On a side note, here is a film worth seeing in conjunction with this or any other Refn film:

Directed by his wife Liv Corfixen, My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn (2014) offers a fascinating insight into the creative processes of the director and the mental anguish that seemingly plagues him with some regularity. It’s basically a behind-the-scenes documentary shot during the production of Only God Forgives (2013) and shows Refn often overly burdened and struggling to come to terms with his day-to-day ordeals. His evaluation of the film ebbs and flows to dangerous degrees as he drifts, often, way too close to the heart of his screenplay, thus eliminating all objectivity in a search for solutions throughout the shoot. In post-production he basically deems the finished product worthless, something nearly every creative person must live with upon completion of a piece. A self-indulgent yet fascinating film; ultimately an acquired taste but essential viewing for Refn aficionados.

 

Ouija: Origin of Evil

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A prequel to a profitable but – in these parts – little seen film from two years ago directed by Stiles White, Ouija: Origin of Evil is the work of director and co-writer Mike Flanagan, an up-and-coming genre filmmaker having a prolific year and possibly best known for his minor hit Oculus in 2013. Set in 1967, Origin of Evil proves to be, against all expectations, one of the finest and creepiest horror films of recent times. A struggling single mother, Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) uses her persuasive skills and a few tricks of the trade to earn a living on the side as a spiritualist. She views her job not as a means of ripping off paying customers but providing them with comfort in the knowledge of deceased relatives finding solace in the next life. Her oldest daughter Lina (Annalise Basso) contributes to the special effects but views her mother’s work with increasing cynicism.

The soon after introduction of a Ouija board brings all sorts of wearying associations with it besides the whiff of surely B-grade fright-filled theatrics to come. But that’s far from being the case here as the film has a tone and feel that feels unique even if the narrative promises anything but originality. Neither does it work overtime to bombard us with shock moments that don’t feel earned or warranted until the stakes are truly raised in the predictably heated end showdown. Flanagan’s pacing is superb, as is his handling of the young actors, particularly the cast’s youngest member Lulu Wilson as Doris, the person able to channel forces from the next world with a dexterity and unnerving calm that surprises even her mother, especially in the painful wake of the recent loss of the girls’ father Roger (Michael Weaver).

A couple of scenes cleverly pay homage to genre classics, especially The Exorcist (1973), but despite the obvious influences, there’s something surprisingly fresh about Origin of Evil and it only gets better as intrigue grows and the tension is ramped up by Flanagan and his co-writer Jeff Howard. There’s no over-reliance of CGI effects, whilst some of the creepiest little moments are subtly crafted and often kept at edges of the frame for maximum impact. The acting is credibly grounded, even authentically awkward at times. Screen debutant Wilson is a remarkable screen presence, able to transition from cuteness to creepiness as she becomes a manifestation of the evil summoned through the portal of the Ouija board. Even Henry Thomas, former E.T (1982) child star, gives a fine performance as the local school’s priest and principal, dragged into the drama at his own behest.

This is another work from Jason Blum’s Blumhouse Productions, known for generating ridiculous profits from very low-budget genre films in recent years with franchises like Paranormal Activity, Insidious and The Purge, and excellent one-off efforts like Unfriended (2014) and M.Night Shyamalan’s only decent film of recent memory, The Visit (2015). Many of these films are clichéd but highly competent examples of modern horror. Ouija: Origin of Evil is now definitely a personal favourite, for me, and a great leap forward in the career of Flanagan whose next film, likely a Stephen King adaptation, is highly anticipated.

Inferno

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The general preposterousness of nearly every scene – every twist, escape, rendezvous and revelation of duplicitousness – doesn’t necessarily render Ron Howard’s third flirtation with Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code bestsellers unentertaining. Inferno (2016), taken with a grain of salt, has a wonderfully disorienting opening quarter of an hour. Here, Howard and his cinematographer Salvatore Totino, working from an adaptation by the experienced David Koepp, get to indulge a perhaps latent fascination with surrealist horror as the notion of Dante’s circles of hell, with appropriately grotesque, abstract imagery included, is heavily layered into the narrative.

There are other merits beyond the opening stanza to speak of, however, like a semi-manageable plot pitched along with decent forward momentum. And…………..what else? A barely cognisant – for a while at least, and that could be a good or bad thing – Tom Hanks as the much-travelled, much hunted symbologist Robert Langdon, awaking in hospital only to be saved from a hail of bullets and intellectually seduced by a bland medico, Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones), with a suspiciously broad grasp of the literary subject matter at hand.

The supporting players are a mixed bag. The always watchable Ben Foster is sadly underutilised as Betrand Zobrist, a billionaire with a God complex and the creator of a virus that threatens human existence. His personal fate is exposed early on but he continues to make fleeting flashback appearances. Of course it’s hard to openly root for such a morally destitute villain, but there’s no denying he’s a slightly magnificent bastard. What’s more, he exhibits ‘marginally’ more charisma than a hellfire-seared roundtable of his co-participants combined, particularly the horribly cast French actor Omar Sy, still somehow getting work after 2010 Gallic mega-hit The Intouchables, and here seen impersonating the impersonation of a dodgy World Health Organisation worker. We mostly view Sy in pursuit of both Zobrist and Langdon though his motivations are as murky as his co-workers, many of whom have slinked off to form another faction being led by Sidse Babett Knudsen’s stock-standard Elizabeth Sinskey.

From an even more culturally diverse pack of players – including Irrfan Khan as head of a security firm and Ana Ularu as a Terminator-like member of the Carabinieri – Langdon is again forced to ponder, during infinitesimally brief moments of reverie, just who is chasing him and why. And more tantalisingly, are the chasers allies or are they foes? Who gets the girl? Did Steve Austin teach you, Robert, to visually scan a very detailed painting like that? And just how much red dye is in that endless body of water or is it all goddamn CGI?

Vacillating between mortal terror, rapid-fire puzzling solving and passports-not-required globe-trotting, Inferno, to damn it with faint praise (something, perhaps, any Ron Howard film deserves), proves to be better than both its predecessors. It’s but an incremental advancement in quality, however, barely noticeable and twice as easily forgettable. If or when a fourth installment comes along, we’ll deny everything of course. Da Vinci Code? Angels and Demons? Inferno? Nope, never saw ’em. Don’t know what you’re talking about.

 

The Girl on the Train

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Though it ultimately unravels in a predictable ways, resorting to standard thriller tropes to sustain its narrative, The Girl on the Train remains compelling throughout. Though it oscillates in time and between various strands, the main focus is Rachel (Emily Blunt), a single woman who travels by rail to New York every day for work. It just so happens that her train line passes by her old street where she’s afforded expansive views of her former home and her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) who now lives with Anna (Rebecca Ferguson).

Just a couple of doors along, there’s the couple’s babysitter Megan (Haley Bennett) whose seemingly idyllic existence is the rabid focus of Rachel’s daydreams of a return to happier days. Then one day she notices Megan on the balcony of her house in the embrace a man other than her husband Scott (Luke Evans) just before she goes missing.

Rachel, battling alcoholism amongst other internal demons is sucked into a whirlpool of confusion as she attempts to insert herself into the drama. Simultaneously, she can’t be sure of anyone’s reality, especially her own, not with fractured memories rising to the surface to haunt her. But are these memories genuine or just a concoction of her troubled, slowly disintegrating mind? Her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and events are presented in such a way as to make them as ambiguous as possible, deepening the mystery of Megan’s vanishing and who exactly has played a role in proceedings.

Certainly, you can pick the film to pieces for its diminishing credibility, fall back on clichéd thriller elements and hackneyed plot deviations, however two things greatly distinguish it. Firstly, there’s Emily Blunt’s simply astonishing performance. We witness her channeling an array of bleak emotional colours in her riveting portrayal of Rachel; the woman’s psychological disarray is captured with genuinely unnerving intensity at times. Tate Taylor’s direction is excellent too; he’s acutely aware this isn’t a dazzlingly original or profound screenplay but he take interesting chances visually, directing the film with an impressive assuredness and invention. Wisely, he makes the most of Blunt’s gifts by very frequently allowing us distressingly close-up coverage of her expressive face and Rachel’s damaged psyche.

Based on Paula Hawkins’s stupendously best-selling novel, The Girl on the Train obviously has a guaranteed built-in audience curious to see if this latest breakout crime thriller has been as successfully adapted for the big screen as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl which landed in the hands of director David Fincher in 2014. It has resonant themes placed in palatable contexts, like those dangerous perversions that flourish behind the curtains in middle-class suburbia. And even if none of the other performers can come close to matching Blunt’s formidable range, this is definitely a commute worth undertaking.

The Wailing

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From its scenes of villagers inflicted with a madness compelling them to commit unspeakable crimes to its chilling sequences of a shaman attempting to flush an evil presence from inhabiting the body of a young girl, Hong-jin Na’s long-awaited third film extracts genre thrills from the complex narrative of a humble policeman racked by visions as a series of murders poisons his town. The Wailing, like Na’s previous two films, serial-killer drama The Chaser (2008) and border-crossing thriller The Yellow Sea (2010), has wonderfully executed set-pieces that evolve organically from his long-winded but never less than compelling storytelling.

And like those earlier films, The Wailing (2016) is a bloated beast, clocking in at over two and a half hours. It appears, if you were to read the synopsis, a slowly evolving mystery thriller, but make no bones about it – The Wailing is a full-blooded horror film marked by scenes of demonic possession, blood-soaked savagery and a holy man attempting an elaborate exorcism of sorts.

Jong-Doo (Do-Won Kwak) is the officer whose troubling dreams coincide with a series of inexplicable crimes and the appearance of a mysterious Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) whose presence is seen as a harbinger of doom. Jong-Doo is hilariously portrayed as a philanderer and a wimp whose first inclination is to whimper and scream like a girl in the face of mortal danger. Simultaneously he represents yet another uncomfortable reinforcement of the idea of general police incompetence in South Korea as first posed by Na in The Chaser.

When Jong-Doo’s daughter Hyo-jin (Kim Hwan-hee) becomes inflicted and seemingly possessed, he’s advised to bring in a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) to consult with and provide direction. The ritualistic rites performed by the shaman are magnificently staged by Na with a riveting, relentless fervour. With the overwhelming sound of overheated gongs and drums beating like a trillion racing hearts, the shaman attempts to flush out the spirits plagued Hyo-jin, though by the end of this thrilling, elongated sequence, little progress seems to have been made.

Na’s deliberately paced screenplay allows for a fascinating and highly credible transformation in Jong-Doo. His earlier docility and emasculating instincts slowly dissolve as the affliction takes a very personal turn. He’s galvanised into action and the changes in him coincide with Na’s ratcheting up of the film’s intensity. Requisite twists and revelations are used cannily whilst a genuinely unsettling, eerie tone of impending doom begins to settle like a pall over proceedings, leading to a classic good versus evil confrontation that doesn’t play out exactly as you might imagine.

The film pulls no punches as the final scenes draw near. The bleakness remains resolute until the very end, and the admirable conviction of Na’s final twists will be troubling to some, but heartily embraced for their lack of compromise by others. With The Wailing, Na has completed a trifecta of distinct, energetically fashioned films; all three might be said to be excessively long – a criticism not without merit, however the level of this fine director’s craft is undeniable and hopefully the wait for his fourth feature will be a much shorter one.

 

Pay the Ghost

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The curious creative devolution of Nicolas Cage continues unabated, it seems, with this supernatural tale of other dimensional forces abducting the young son, Charlie (Jack Fulton), of a literature professor Mike Lawford (Cage) from a street parade on Halloween night. The opening scene, a 45 second piece set in a distant century, is supposed to act as a framing device and clue to uncovering the eventual ‘solution’ – if that’s the right word for a showdown that sees the aggrieved father entering a portal in hopes of retrieving his boy.

A few prosperous years back Cage must have been barely able to suppress his mirth at the thought of actors, well and truly,on the slippery slide to straight-to-video obscurity, signing up for C-grade stuff like this. Now here he is putting his own signature upon the dotted line sometimes 4 or 5 times in a year for films that – let’s be frank – haven’t got a snowball’s chance in hell of ever making it to the big screen. There are the aberrations, of course – and welcome ones at that, such as Cage’s brilliant Adam West-like contribution as the insanely devoted Big Daddy to Chloe Grace Moretz’s Hit-Girl in Matthew Vaughn’s magnificent Kick-Ass (2010). Even just a couple of years ago, David Gordon Green gave him a juicy role in Joe (2013) as an intense, compelling loner set on a path to inevitable self-destruction.

The mainstream will clearly never forget Cage, but for the most part, his stocks have fallen alarmingly and combined with a relentless desire to continually get on the merry-go-round, thus spreading himself thinly across a swath of incoming projects, means that a swan dive into future bargain bins will likely uncover an ocean of washed-up cinematic corpses as his career further devolves. But then there’s the fact that Cage will soon be seen in the next films of Oliver Stone and Paul Schrader as well as Larry Charles’s new comedy, Army of One, as “an American civilian” who “sets out on his own to find Osama Bin Laden.” A man who has been living in a bunker for a while without internet access or a copy of Zero Dark Thirty?

It’s fascinating to see how various careers converge in these too-easy-to-castigate productions. To say that the trajectory of director Uli Edel has taken some dramatic upward and downward turns, not unlike Cage, would be an understatement. Christiane F. (1981), his early Hubert Selby Jr. adaptation Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989) and his recent triumphant return to Germany for The Baader Meinhof Complex (2008) have all placed him in a positive light. At the other end of the scale, notorious Madonna vehicle Body of Evidence (1993) and lame family ‘comedy’ Little Vampire (2000) are credits that any director might want to erase from their back catalogue. And yet, like Cage, here he is, roped into Pay the Ghost, which admittedly holds dearest, at its core, the concept of desperate, eternal parental love for a missing child – the kind of familiar theme that strikes a chord in the lives of all. And who doesn’t love a good ghost story?

From that angle too, there’s a certain level of enjoyment to be had from this film which isn’t expressly awful. In fact a relatively eerie tone is established early on and there are a couple of genuine chills achieved as Mike strives, in the wake of his break-up from wife (Sarah Wayne Callies) to trudge through life whilst continuing forlornly to find clues to his son’s disappearance. The Halloween connection is crucial and as, a year later, the date closes in again, Mike enlists the help of an attractive colleague (Veronica Ferres) with a skill for computer research to inch closer to a resolution which he naturally believes will see him somehow reunited with Charlie.

Cage is undoubtedly giving it a fair shake here. He goes with the flow, contorting his face with grief, with anger, with despair, exactly when it’s called for. He’s not terrible, you see. Nor is Callies, an actress whose TV work on Prison Break and The Walking Dead has given her much broader appeal. But it’s just that Cage’s craft – as well as his ability to judiciously choose projects – has mostly abandoned him. We may ridicule them for being unable to reach past heights, but we forgive actors a lot too – especially one whose been in so many great to very good, often iconic, films. Cage’s CV is stacked with many that I’d consider absolute personal favourites.

How to forget Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck (1987), David Lynch’s Wild at Heart (1990), Andrew Bergman’s Honeymoon in Vegas (1992), Red Rock West (1993), his Oscar winner Leaving Las Vegas (1995), Brain De Palma’s Snake Eyes (1998), Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead (1999), and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation (2002). All staggering films in their own ways. And do I dare mention Joel Schumacher’s 8MM (1999) or Brett Ratner’s The Family Man (2000) as weird kinds of guilty pleasures? No, no I don’t. Then there’s that extraordinary action triumvirate of Michael Bay’s The Rock (1996), Simon West’s Con-Air (1997) and John Woo’s operatic Face/Off (1997). And do you really think you can live through Drive Angry (2007) and not be scarred for the rest of your life?

And so Cage, more than most, deserves to be cut a little slack. Would I realistically recommend Pay the Ghost? Not to the serious minded, certainly, but there’s no denying that we’ve all plugged, semi-enjoyably, through legions of films of this ilk without actively hating them for existing and even secretly – very secretly – imagining that they weren’t, by a long shot, the worst thing we’ve ever seen. This is just another film, one of hundreds each year laboured and sweated over as if, through the intervention of a benign divinity, they may be end up being a significant contribution to the art form; before finally, depressingly, dissolving like butter on a summer sidewalk, forgotten and abandoned by you and I to a world screaming past, a blur impossible to decipher to a stationary dot on a map. So before we part, let’s take a moment, here and now, while there’s still time, while there’s still a modicum of motivation and a tiny morsel of generosity still nestled in our hearts, to record its near-silent passing. Pay the Ghost is yours to own, revisit or ignore on a shelf forever, on DVD. Right now.