Movie Review ~ Sound of Metal

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A heavy-metal drummer’s life is thrown into freefall when he begins to lose his hearing.

Stars: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Lauren Ridloff, Mathieu Amalric

Director: Darius Marder

Rated: R

Running Length: 120 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  For years growing up I had that sweet Walkman with the fuzzy headphones that made listening to music great but let in a ton of outside noise.  At the time, it didn’t matter to me because this was years before noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds so I’d wrap that easily warped wire around my larger than average head and let the sound flow right into my ears.  I wanted it loud…loud enough to hear every word.  When I did get my first set of headphones that went inside the ear, I’d press them so far in they acted like an ear plug because…I wanted it loud.  I listened to the music in my car at max volume, the TV was cranked up, everything was loud loud loud…my poor parents, neighbors, and friends.  Then I went to a concert at a small club for a popular band and for some reason at this venue the sound reverberated in a way that just threw me for a loop.  I’d been to concerts before and heard seriously amplified sound…but nothing like this.  My ears rang for weeks after, blocking out voices and causing me to strain to hear anything.  I started to learn to get  good at reading lips because I was too embarrassed to admit to anyone that I couldn’t hear what they were saying.  Miraculously, over time, my hearing returned but that was officially it for my flirting with loss of hearing and ever since then I’ve been overly cautious about how sound affects my environment.

The opening moments of Sound of Metal (from Amazon Studios, now available to stream via Prime Video) gave me real anxiety as I watched Reuben, a punk-metal drummer for rising band Blackgammon keeping up with lead singer/girlfriend Lou as she scream-sings her way through one of their crowd-pleasing metal anthems.  The deafening music is nearly hypnotic, not in anything purposefully lyrical but in the way Reuben (Riz Ahmed, The Reluctant Fundamentalist) is following along and, eventually, in how we start to see small hints he’s noticing something slightly off in himself.  Director Darius Marder spends the next two hours following Reuben on his journey of self-discovery, beginning with a diagnosis that could limit and watching him navigate roadblocks of his own making.  Far from your typical ‘overcoming disability’ type feel-good film, Sound of Metal still has a tremendous amount of heart and deeply felt soul and its at its all-time best when no words are spoken at all.

When Reuben suddenly experiences a loss of hearing the morning after an intense Blackgammon gig, he leaves a note for Lou (Olivia Cooke, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) in the RV they’re traveling on tour in and finds a local doctor that can see him. Told he has done irreparable damage to his hearing with less than 30% remaining, without expensive cochlear implants he will soon be completely deaf.  Unable to make it through the next scheduled show, Reuben admits to Lou what’s going on and fearing her former-user boyfriend will relapse due to this debilitating news she helps him find a safe space to learn about being deaf in a controlled environment.  Originally hesitant to be away from the only person that’s truly loved him, Reuben’s hand is eventually forced into joining a community of deaf recovering addicts run by Joe, a Vietnam vet and former alcoholic.

Played by Paul Raci, Joe’s tough love approach may not be anything new by the standards of this type of filmmaking but in Raci’s hands (literally) and through the script by Darius Marder and his brother Abraham (who also composed the music with sounds-designer Nicolas Becker) the role becomes the key puzzle piece that was missing in getting Reuben’s life back on track.  Not just in terms of learning how to live as a member of the deaf community but in living a fuller life using his natural talents to bring out the good in others.  Joe sees that in Reuben, fosters it, encourages it, and asks him to join the movement in helping it continue to grow.  The crux of Sound of Metal is what Reuben chooses to do with this new world that waits for him and very much wants him to be a part of it.  Does he want this new life in his community, a community that feels they are whole as they are…or does he feel like he needs his hearing to be “fixed” and rejoin Lou who has done some soul-seeking of her own after returning to France to live with her father (Mathieu Amalric, Quantum of Solace)?

This is a film of endless gifts, starting with the performances offered by the three leads.  Ahmed’s work has consistently been strong but it’s at a totally different level, full of body and spirit.  Training for six months on the drums as well as learning ASL, it’s hard to fathom the movie was shot in just four weeks.  Even if her part is minor and acts as starkly contrasting bookends, Cooke too is an actor that never fails to bring something interesting to her appearances and whether she’s letting loose as a rock banshee or displaying a softer tone crooning en français with her dad, her energy is always vibrant and palpable.  The chemistry between the leads might be a tad off, reading more like good friends and bandmates that soulmates but several of their interactions feel like good examples of character improv done right.  The supporting players, a mixture of adults and children, are pulled from the deaf community and are impressively naturalistic in what is the screen debut of most.

Sound of Metal’s secret stealth weapon is Raci’s unforgettable performance as Joe.  At first, you aren’t sure how much he’ll factor into the story but once he’s locked in place you recognize just what he’ll come to mean in the grand scheme of what Marder is going for.  Raci delivers in each scene, showing a raw talent for off-the-cuff interaction that is refreshingly straightforward.  Raci gives Joe could have been a simple repeat of so many other performances it resembles but there’s a lived-in quality and world-weariness in Raci’s eyes that you can’t fake.  It’s almost as if Marder and the crew just happened to find the exact character they had written live in living color.  Count on this performance, as well as Ahmed’s, getting to the very final talks when those end of the year award nominations start coming out – both are well deserved nominees.

There’s a bit of a full circle feeling behind the scenes with Sound of Metal.  In 2012, Darius Marder had the original story idea for The Place Beyond the Pines and would go on to co-write the screenplay with the director of that film, Derek Cianfrance.  Years later, Cianfrance was working on the idea for Sound of Metal but wound up abandoning the movie, eventually passing it to Marder who would write and direct it.  From its incredible sound design (give Becker the Oscar right now, I mean, right now) to its unflinching way of showing the frustration and fear someone losing their hearing experiences, Sound of Metal excels in its sincerity and follows it through to the bitter (sweet) end.  One of the true highlights of film-watching in 2020.  Don’t you dare miss it.

Movie Review ~ Half Brothers

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: A successful Mexican aviation executive is shocked to discover he has an American half brother he never knew about. The half-brothers are forced on a road trip together. masterminded by their ailing father, tracing the path he took as an immigrant from Mexico to America.

Stars: Luis Gerardo Méndez, Connor Del Rio, Juan Pablo Espinosa, Pia Watson, Bianca Marroquin, Mike A. Salazar, Vincent Spano

Director: Luke Greenfield

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 96 minutes

TMMM Score: (7.5/10)

Review: In the days that have passed by since seeing Half Brothers I’ve been telling a lot of people how good it is and the response has universally been, “Really? It looks so silly.” and I can hardly blame them.  I mean, just look at that poster.  You gaze at that targeted piece of marketing and you think you know exactly who the Mexican American production is aiming for.  Here’s a hint, it’s not the Merchant-Ivory crowd.  With the wide-eyed expressions and the man holding the goat, it’s understandable how discerning viewers get a tremor of seasickness with the threat of boarding that slapstick comedy cruise line.  And that’s piteous considering the studio is selling the film, the stars, and, in the end, itself short because Half Brothers is far more interesting and full of heart than you’d guess if you’re making your choice only off of the advertising.

One of a growing number of movies that has fallen in my lap in 2020 that I knew zilch about before pressing Play aside from the basic premise, I hadn’t even watched the trailer so braced myself for anything.  I’ve found that it’s good for me to take this approach because there’s no expectation for what I’m about to find and that helps in the opening set-up of Luke Greenfield’s film, showing Flavio Murguía (Juan Pablo Espinosa) leaving his family in Mexico in search of a better life for them in America.  His young son Renato idolizes his dad and is changed forever when sometime later he finds out that Flavio has started a new life with an American family in the U.S.  Growing up to be a top executive in the aviation sector of Mexico, Renato (Luis Gerardo Méndez, Charlie’s Angels) channeled his experiences flying model airplanes with his father into making him a successful businessman.  He’s about to be married to a single mother (Pia Watson) with a humorously death-obsessed son when he receives a call that his father is dying and wants to see him one last time.

Encouraged by his fiancé to take this opportunity for closure and also as a way to learn to be a more open and caring example for his new stepson, Renato flies to the U.S. but the long history of pain prevents him from fully engaging with his dad.  That hurt is compounded when he learns he has a half-brother, the free-spirited and free loading Asher (Connor Del Rio) who he hates on sight, partly because he doesn’t know him but mostly because he’s had their father all to himself for over two decades.  They’ll have to learn to tolerate one another because soon the two find themselves on a cross-country road-trip that compels them to work together on a sort of scavenger hunt meant to act as an explanation from their father on a number of unanswered questions and unspoken truths.

I went into Half Brothers expecting something far more ribald and raunchier and was impressed that Greenfield keeps things so light and fast-moving throughout.  While it tends to breeze past some of the more nefarious points of the dirty business of immigration trafficking, it also doesn’t shy away from exploring hard choices that are made in the course of doing what’s right.  I can see the problematic core of the film which glorifies a type of hero worship onto a character that might not deserve it but dang if I didn’t lose the battle in my fight against some salty teardrops toward the film’s conclusion.  While they’re not exactly Laurel and Hardy, Méndez and Del Rio bounce off each other nicely and while we can see the end of the journey so well we practically can see their parking space, it doesn’t diminish the small pleasures of their discoveries about each other along the way.  Though we may know how it will wind up, I found the film unpredictable in the best ways and genuinely funny, not obnoxiously so.

Thinking back, I’m not sure exactly how to pitch this film in a way that doesn’t highlight some of the more crazed antics experienced by the men along the way but Half Brothers is as much about the heart as it is about revolving around the comedy.  Yes, the scene on the poster is a fun moment of frivolity but its wild shifts in tone keep viewers on their toes and not in that bad way where you have a sense screenwriters Eduardo Cisneros and Jason Shuman didn’t know what they were doing.  The often bi-lingual film has a breathless quality to it, rarely stopping to take a rest for its breakneck speed.  I think audiences will appreciate that quick pace and observance of time…and I also believe Half Brothers is destined to be one of those underrated comedies that thrives on word of mouth over time.  Truth be told, as we get to the end of the year I feel drawn to movies like Half Brothers and Superintelligence, films that have a good natured spirit at their core and let the comedy often be the second item on the menu.  The ending wouldn’t have gotten me like it did if I wasn’t invested with these characters and I was very much along for this family road trip.

Movie Review ~ Wander

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Hired to investigate a suspicious death in the town of Wander, a paranoid private eye with a troubled past becomes convinced the case is linked to the same conspiracy and cover-up that caused the death of his daughter.

Stars: Aaron Eckhart, Katheryn Winnick, Tommy Lee Jones, Heather Graham, Raymond Cruz, Brendan Fehr, Nicole Steinwedell

Director: April Mullen

Rated: R

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  What I’m loving more these days is not just revisiting old film noir classics from back in the day but watching new filmmakers try their hand at creating the “neo noir” and seeing just how hard it is to get that right tone and style. You get the sense at the skill it took directors six decades ago with far less of the technical resources to craft an atmosphere using just the camera, the script, and the actors. It was hard to pull one over on audiences who had recently been through wars; just because they had opted for a night out of escapist entertainment didn’t mean they lacked understanding of quality.  Like how we all knew that those B-movie monster pics about creatures mutated by nuclear exposure had more than a little hidden message, noir had underlying themes that often bubbled close to the surface.

These films also attracted top name talent and that’s still true now.  Take the latest effort, the gritty Wander which trades the breezy Eastern coastline noir tends to favor for a more Southern setting closer to the parched border in New Mexico.  Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones (Hope Springs) stars (well, more like shows up) with headliner Aaron Eckhart (Erin Brockovich) as a pair of investigative podcasters drawn to the titular town by a mystery caller presenting a curious case of her missing daughter.  Appealing to his guilty frustration at the disappearance and death of his own child, Eckhart’s character Arthur Bretnik finds similarities between this case and the one that hit too close to his own home.  What’s more, his often-doubtful co-host feels its worth investigating as well…so off to Wander they go.

Now, this being a twisty curlicue of a script from writer Tim Doiron, nothing in Wander the film or Wander the town is quite as black and white as it initially appears to be.  For instance, an opening prologue on a desolate highway charts an escape of some sort that turns deadly, suggesting the presence of an efficient force capable of ruthless killings.  Yet Doiron and frequent collaborator April Mullen never take the time to explore the true depths of this most intriguing faction, stopping short at bringing in the mysterious Elsa Viceroy (a fine Katheryn Winnick, interesting enough but doing her best to convince us Jessica Chastain wasn’t the first choice for the role) who baselines out at an enigma for much of the film. Snazzy name aside, Viceroy is just a shadow presence we’re curious to know more about…but only because the film frustratingly holds back pieces of info deliberately as a way to extend whatever shroud of mystery it is clinging to.

Instead, we follow sad-sack Eckhart as he mopes around Wander looking for clues not just for the missing girl but for connections to his own daughter, connections he maybe wants to believe are there but really aren’t.  As he talks with his concerned sister (Heather Graham, The Hangover Part III, solid for the first time in a while but sadly underused) back home, it feels like we’re watching Eckhart put together a puzzle inside the frame from a different set entirely.  This mystery that is available to us isn’t nearly as intriguing as the one Eckhart (or Eckhart’s character at least) is selling so after a while it all starts to feel like time and talent wasted. The twists and turns arrive like clockwork and when they do they serve only to confuse the plot further rather than untangle a growing knot of sinewy information.  By the time we do get to the end, it’s a bit of a hazy mess and I don’t think I could honestly say for sure what the real truth was.  It’s fine to leave the audience with their own puzzle to take home and decode but it’s another thing entirely to go out with the equivalent of a headshake, eye roll, and an exasperated, ‘Whatever’.

The usually dependable Eckhart gets a little wild here and it’s not the best place for the actor to work.  It’s strange because of all the actors working today, he’d be likely a good candidate to tackle  a man with as many hang-ups as Arthur.  In that way, Mullen has a ringer at the top of her call sheet but Eckhart either got as lost in the script as the viewer does or something didn’t translate in the performance because it’s a weird, rare off-key showing.  I was actually surprised to see Jones appearing here and to be so involved in a number of scenes.  The grumpy aura the actor gives off gels with the been-there-done-that general feel of the character but he’s not as present as the advertising would have you believe.  I still miss the Jones that didn’t rely so much on a general annoyance as his main motivation for line readings, but at least this time that was kind of the point.

Slow on developments, even at a relatively short 94 minutes, I’d say Wander meanders more than anything.  These kind of paranoid mysteries with layers of deception are the bread and butter that noir lovers feed off of but it’s been delivered as a paltry single slice cheese sandwich on day-old bread.  It’s not satisfying when you’re watching it and before it has pulled a second rug out from under you you’ve thought of a dozen other films that can outshine it in substance and sophistication of execution.

Movie Review ~ Ammonite

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The Facts
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Synopsis: Acclaimed paleontologist Mary Anning works alone selling common fossils to tourists to support her ailing mother, but a chance job offer changes her life when a visitor hires her to care for his wife.

Stars: Kate Winslet, Saoirse Ronan, Gemma Jones, James McArdle, Alec Secăreanu, Fiona Shaw

Director: Francis Lee

Rated: R

Running Length: 117 minutes

TMMM Score: (4/10)

Review:  In the realm of the blockbuster comic book franchise films, it was front page news when Batman did battle with Superman and the buzz was booming when top acting star Bradley Cooper joined forces with mega-watt recording artist Lady Gaga for their remake of A Star is Born.  Yet when two of the most respected actresses working today joined forces on a film for the first time it barely created a ripple effect in the film industry at the outset.  I mean, this should have been some kind of cause for cheers.  Look through most lists of best actresses (or just view the Oscar nominees from the last decade) and you’ll see the names Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan pop up often and there’s a reason for that.  Both are highly charged performers that invite audiences into the worlds they create, crafting blood and bone people who feel as if they could leap off the screen.

By all accounts, the joining of these two talents on Ammonite should have been big news and for a while, it was.  Here was a period drama featuring Winslet as real-life English fossil collector and paleontologist Mary Anning living in the chilly coastal Lyme Regis, Dorset, England and Ronan as Charlotte, a young wife who accompanies her amateur fossil-hunter husband to meet Mary and winds up staying behind.  A fictionalized account of their friendship and eventual romance by writer/director Francis Lee, Ammonite should have been a slam dunk of a film for all involved.  However, it has the misfortune of coming on the heels of two other movies, one directed by Lee himself, that have many of the same themes, and both play them with a richer sound.

There’s not much more to Ammonite than what I just laid out for you and what is etched out briefly in the synopsis…so you’re in for 117 minutes of rocks and frocks with little in the way of joy.  I’d have expected more from everyone, especially considering this is a completely fabricated work that takes the life of a neglected woman from history and basically gives her the opportunity to be seen for the first time by a larger audience outside of the scientific community.  Though Dickens supposedly wrote about her and rumor has it her dedication to excavating along the ocean line inspired the tongue-twister “She sells seashells by the seashore”, Mary Anning is mostly an unknown to the layperson.  So why would Lee take us into her small piece of the world in Dorset and make it so gloomy gus?

Perhaps it was a desire from Ronan to slough off some of the porcelain veneer she’s achieved these last years as the catch-all for every kind of inspired ingenue through the ages. Between receiving Best Actress Oscar nominations for the headstrong Jo in Greta Gerwig’s remake of Little Women, as an Irish immigrant bravely making a go of it on her own in mid-century NYC in Brooklyn, or as a determined and misunderstood high school senior in Lady Bird, she hasn’t had much of a chance to find the cracks and crevices in female characters that simply don’t have the answers to function on their own. In that way, Ammonite succeeds in providing an outlet for Ronan to stretch and expose herself in spirt and, in several graphic sex scenes, body.

On the other hand, Winslet struggles with going through the motions of another troubled woman held back by or judged more harshly on the norms of society.  Similar to Iris, Jude, Little Children, and her Oscar-winning role in The Reader, Winslet knows how to work these sharp angles of women on the fringe that don’t care what people think but secretly are pained by their stares.  We know she’s a loner from the jump and that Ronan will find a way to break down her walls, but in Lee’s telling we never quite see why, aside from the attention being paid to her from the young beauty.  While Winslet and Ronan have an easy rapport, I never quite bought into their physical attraction to each other, though they do their best to help us get to some kind of acceptance by the film’s late in the game eye-opener of a bedroom encounter.  Let’s just say this…if you’re watching Ammonite with someone else make sure you’re comfortable enough with them to withstand some extreme awkwardness.  One of the best scenes in the film isn’t even between the two stars, it’s with Winslet and Fiona Shaw (Kindred) who makes a brief cameo in a role that is on one hand something new and different for Shaw to be seen in while at the same time playing in to her ability to give every character a nice little secret.

In 2017, Lee wrote and directed God’s Own Country, a superior film following the unlikely relationship that forms between two men and the contrast between that movie and Ammonite can’t be written off.  Both feature someone living a hard-scrabble life without much in the way of availability to express their true feelings of physical love and a chance encounter with a passing stranger that affords some kind of passion to enter their hemisphere.  Though the consequences in each film are different, knowing Lee is behind both suggests the filmmaker has more than a passing interest in telling stories of romance that blooms off the beaten path.  Ammonite also parallels 2019’s rightfully-lauded Portrait of a Lady on Fire – you can almost draw arrows between both plots/characters that point to one another.  The problem with this is that for both Portrait of a Lady on Fire and God’s Own Country, Ammonite is always seen as the lesser of the two so you find yourself watching a new movie and wishing it were as good as an older one.

It’s sad that this pairing has yielded such bland fruit as Ammonite.  I like both actresses and I quite like Gemma Jones (Rocketman) appearing here as Winslet’s long-suffering mother who has a porcelain figurine for each of the eight children she’s lost over the years.  Watching her clean the tiny curios daily as her only bit of happiness is devastating, the rare bit of true unique emotion Lee has for audiences exploring this dramatized tale he’s imagined.  I’d almost rather have seen a fuller version of Anning’s life that detailed how she came to find a passion for what she did, how she was originally rejected by members of the scientific community, and how her work provided the basis for a number of advancements over time.  There’s romance in science as well.

Movie Review ~ Backwoods (2020)

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The Facts
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Synopsis: A high-school cheerleader comes face-to-face with the town urban legend: The Hangman, a deformed zealot said to lynch male trespassers and keep the women as “brides”.

Stars: Jeremy Sande, Isabella Alberti, Tahj Vaughans, Michael Anthony Bagozz

Director: Thomas Smith

Rated: NR

Running Length: 70 minutes

TMMM Score: (3/10)

Review: Without indie cinema, we wouldn’t have many of the great directors we have today and we certainly wouldn’t be where we are with horror films without landmark grassroots efforts like George Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead and John Carpenter’s low-budget Halloween from 1978. A number of these films might have lacked in budget but made up for it with an ingenuity that the latest studio product couldn’t match no matter how much money was thrown at it.  That’s why I’m always interested in those teeny-tiny horror films that might look rough and ragged in their marketing as it’s often a sign they’ve wisely spent their bucks on more important things.  On the other hand, my spidey-senses ping high whenever the poster for the movie looks like it cost more than the entire production.

Maybe it was the post-Thanksgiving haze I was in, but I was clearly off my game when I fired up Backwoods, a no-budget slasher film with a bland title befitting the overall effect of watching the movie.  Despite a semi-promising beginning and narrative structure that uses Memento-ish flashbacks to help us piece together an internal mystery on top of typical slice and dice tropes, the movie caves in on itself via a black hole of lousy performances and bad filmmaking.  That’s too bad, too, because while I’m no fan of plagiarism there’s flashes of ingenuity in the script from husband-and-wife duo Thomas Smith and Erin Lilley that someone out to recycle into something better.

Wasting no time (the film is barely an hour long), Backwoods starts with high-school cheerleader Molly (Kelly Osborne look-alike Isabella Alberti) trapped in a trunk, the victim of a kidnapping by an assailant presumed to be a local legend come to life.  Through a series of flashbacks and subsequent flash forwards, we get an idea of what led Molly and several of her friends to be in their current predicament running for their lives in the woods and how the real evil may not be exactly what we originally thought.  Mixed in it all is a post-game house party for the football players and their friends in the middle of nowhere occupied by a flock of amateur actors desperately trying to look like high schoolers while also attempting to not look into the camera by staring straight into it.  There’s also some backstory on the lore of The Hangman who has snatched poor Molly, but the poor guy is given short shrift in the development of plot but ample time obviously was devoted on the make-up work. When we get a look at the rude dude up close, the effect is decent but only when it stays in the shadows.  After too much light shines on it you’ll get state fair haunted house vibes.

Also serving as the director, Smith stumbles with his own screenplay by keeping in some lame bits of dialogue that start out cringe-y and wind up feeling like bee stings when delivered without inflection (and sometimes proper amplification) by the weak cast.  Oh the pain of watching two guys talking about hot chicks while drinking two cold brewskies in front of a bare lightbulb…and the point is…?  Even co-screenwriter Lilley makes it a full family affair by playing Feral Woman (and trying to avoid the spotlight by being credited under the name, wait for it, Feral Woman) as a series of grunts and nasal huffs.  Isabella Alberti (one of two Alberti girls in the film) is actually a rather plucky heroine, if only she weren’t deluged with such ding-dong dialogue and playing second fiddle to guts and gore which are rendered well, if too sparingly.

A proper ending takes a backseat in Backwoods and I actually rewound the screening link twice to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  The movie basically just ends, showing that either the screenwriters deliberately wanted to make their finale obtuse or they didn’t know how to go out with a bang so they opted to just cut things off mid last gasp.  Cheap production values that feel like a too-long student film and a school bus full of of terrible performances (i.e. most of the supporting players) bury this one deep…which is where Backwoods will end up in the annals of horror categories you browse on your streaming services.  Extremely skippable and you’re advised to do so.