Since I started this site I've been keeping myself to a bottom line of 4 out of 5 stars in order to review a film. It's a great way to determine whether a film is actually great (reviewing is time-consuming) or just plain old good. Still, there are always edge cases that are worth a look if you've nothing better planned. I'm going to list these films right here, providing a capsule review for each one of them.

Jug Face

date
May 31, 2016
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Jug Face poster

After an unusually big peak in the late '00s, the horror genre is collapsing on itself once more. Less horror films are being made, less money is given to new and upcoming directors and safe a few big shots who survived the somewhat sudden implosion (I'm looking at you James Wan), it has become difficult to build a name for yourself directing horror films. But there's also an upside to all this doom and gloom. With all the mainstream attention moving away from the horror scene, room is being made for people that want to take the genre in new directions. Rather than retell the same story with more gore or better special effects, new talent is experimenting with new ideas and approaches, which will ultimately lead us to the next horror renaissance.

Jug Face is one of those interesting new horror films that shows a lot of promise. When it was first released I let it pass by because it came with quite a lot of negative criticism, but over the pass few months I've come to realize that it's better to trust he recommendations of a select few than the opinion of the masses, especially when horror cinema is involved. And so I gave Chad Crawford Kinkle' first-born a fair chance. I'm pretty glad I did.

While Jug Face is a unique film that stands well on its own, the link with producer Lucky McKee's most infamous work is still a good indication of what to expect. Not that it begs for direct comparisons with The Woman, but it seems to reside in that same corner of the horror spectrum. It's not easily classifiable as one of the common horror subgenres, but if you like the occult, mixed with some redneck weirdness and some general unpleasantness than Jug Face is definitely worth a gamble.

The film revolves around a mysterious pit. Local folk believe that the pit has healing powers, as long as they keep sacrificing people to keep it happy. Not just any random sacrifice will do though. The community is guided by the jug maker, a somewhat backwards guy who produces jugs in the form of the pit's next sacrifice. It's a rather unlikely setup, ripe with backwater superstition, but Kinkle makes it work.

There's a little gore and some freaky, semi-demonic action, but that's not where the true horror resides. The creepiest facet of Jug Face is its little community, which has built its entire universe around the pit lore. Regardless of the true nature of the pit, the eagerness of succumbing to the gruesome, ghastly rituals that surround it is what got to me the most. As freaky and outlandish as these people may look, there's a sense of realness that transcends classic horror tropes, making it that much scarier.

Technical credits deserve a thumbs up too. While you shouldn't expect a slick Hollywood-looking film, the editing is sharp, the setting is used to good effect, the gore is convincing and the few special effects that are used never feel cheap or out of place. The soundtrack adds a lot to the film too. Slow, distorted guitars give the film a dark, vibrant and uncomfortable atmosphere. And even the acting is far better than expected, with Carter and Fessenden performing well above genre standards.

Jug Face may lack a bit of finish here and there, but seeing this is Kinkle's first film that's hardly a big issue. Kinkle sculpted a dark, powerful and unsettling little horror film that keeps the tension high throughout its entire running time. The pacing is rather slow and those expecting a simple genre flick might be disappointed by Kinkle's less defined take on the horror genre, but fans with a deeper love for horror cinema that reaches further than the comfort of simple genre clichés should definitely give Jug Face a chance. It's films like this that make sure the genre still has a future.

The Arti: The Adventure Begins

date
April 26, 2016
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The Arti: The Adventure Begins poster

The cool thing about cinema is that even though you may have seen 6000+ films, from time to time something completely unexpected will cross your path. The Arti: The Adventure Begins is such a film. I wasn't at all aware that there was a puppet animation scene in Taiwan, let alone that they had made a film that set out to blend traditional puppet animation with CG. The result is a little uneven, but the good bits royally outweigh the bad ones.

Arti reminded me a little of Klarulund's Strings, though it never quite reaches that same level of quality. Both films are very successful in creating an intriguing lore though, bringing to life a sprawling world that is fun and exciting to explore. The Arti follows Mo, Tong and their wooden robot, Arti-C. Arti-C is a parting gift of their late father, who was murdered for creating the robot. He used a mysterious power called Origin to construct it, which Mo and Tong are trying to locate in order to keep their robot alive and kicking.

The puppet animation varies between somewhat flakey and downright impressive. Some of the shots, especially the ones where the puppets are running, look a little odd and awkward. But the fighting sequences and the more detailed close-ups are absolutely stunning and betray some superb craftsmanship. The use of CG is equally divisive. When used for backgrounds and smaller effects it's nice and effective, but the CG characters often clash with the traditional puppets. Those puppets are by far the main attraction of the film, meticulously sculpted and incredibly detailed, they are a joy to look at when brought to life.

The film faces some minor pacing issues, with certain scenes passing by a little too quickly. The soundtrack isn't quite up to par either, especially the Chinese pop songs can be a little unsettling considering the tone and setting of the film. On top of that, the dub could use some work too. Some voices are fine, others are a little too outspoken. It's the combination of these smaller issues that hold the film back just enough to keep it from being truly great.

But if the title is to be believed, this is only the beginning of a greater adventure. I for one would love to see a couple of sequels. I'm sure the team behind Arti learned a lot from shooting this film (just watch the end credits, it's pretty cool to see the behind the scenes footage), knowledge that can be put to good use to improve possible follow-ups. Even so, fans of puppet animation (or just people looking for something different) will have a blast with Arti. It's a great first effort with a lot going for it, it just lacks a little polish.

Darkness on the Edge of Town

date
February 01, 2016
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Darkness on the Edge of Town poster

The horror genre has been experiencing a small setback these past couple of years, but that doesn't mean there aren't any interesting films being made. Darkness on the Edge of Town is Patrick Ryan's first feature film and it shows a lot of promise. It's maybe a little too borderline horror for some, so hardcore gorehounds should probably think twice before sitting down for this one, but anyone with a soft spot for dark genre films would do well to at least give this film a chance.

The first five minutes are pretty indicative of what to expect, although things do get a little less abstract as the film progresses. There's no dialogue during those opening minutes, Ryan relies on seemingly disjointed images and dark, dreary soundscapes to paint a setting and then delves right into the core of the plot: a brutal murder in a public toilet. Ryan doesn't really care about the whodunit aspect of the story since he reveals the killer right away, instead he focuses on the relationship between the killer and the sister's victim.

Even though it wouldn't be wrong to categorize the film as horror, there's a hefty dose of drama running through Darkness on the Edge of Town. The close-knit relationship between the two girls, their hardships in life and their barren prospects fueled by a lack of possibilities in their home town make for ideal subjects to give the film a little extra depth. In that sense, Darkness on the Edge of Town reminded me of Ben Wheatley's take on horror. It's not so much about the supernatural, rather about the darkness within us.

Even though it's a small-scale project, the film packs a pretty decent audiovisual punch. Ryan makes excellent use of the Irish countryside, which is complemented by a grim and muddy color palette. The soundtrack is equally dark, with lots of gritty soundscapes and illbient sounds. And to top it off, the acting too is top notch. Usually this is a little less important for a horror flick, but because of the strong dramatic layer running underneath it's good to see some solid performances from the main characters.

I don't really have anything negative to say about Darkness on the Edge of Town, apart from the fact that it doesn't really excel at anything. It's good across the board, but it simply lacks something that makes it truly memorable. Since this is Ryan's first feature effort though, that's nothing to be ashamed of. If you're looking for a horror film with good performances, characteristic visuals and a little extra depth, you can't really go wrong with this one. Just know that it's not a full-blood horror feature and simply let the darkness wash over you.

The Visit

date
November 23, 2015
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The Visit poster

M. Night Shyamalan returns with a new film. Long ago that would've reason enough for considerable hype and pent-up anticipation. Nowadays his films are considered a success if they aren't tossed aside after their first week in theater (if they get there at all). The popular narrative is that it all went downhill after Unbreakable, each film worse than the one before. Personally I don't subscribe to that narrative, I like Shyamalan best when he's mixing horror and fantasy with some tongue in cheek thrown in for good measure. I consider Lady in the Water and The Happening to be his best films, so I was more than happy to see that The Visit was somewhat revisiting that territory.

The Visit is not your run of the mill found footage horror (and not because it's actually a faux documentary, I'm not that pedantic). Sure enough, most (if not all) of the footage is coming from a handycam operated by a little documentary director to be, but it never actually feels like it wants to be part of that niche. It feels more like a traditional horror film, with some slight 80s influences (mostly because the film is told from the perspective of two teens) and a stronger focus on the mysterious, rather than going for some quick jump scares.

The film follows Becca (15) and Tyler (13), who're on their way to visit their grandparents. Their mother ran away from home before they were born and this marks the first time they're going to see their grandma and grandpa. Becca is handy with a camera and decides to turn the trip into a documentary, hoping to uncover what happened on that faithful day when her mom eloped (and ultimately, to bring the family back together). Meanwhile, mom goes on a welcome holiday with her newest lover.

While the trip starts off well, it soon dawns on Becca and Tyler that their grandparents are a little odd. Grandma walks around at night and suffers from sundown syndrome while grandpa turns out to be incontinent, hiding his "little accidents" in the shed. Things get increasingly weirder though and what started as a fun and exciting trip is quickly turning into a restless nightmare.

Shyamalan includes a few jump scares and a few classic horror build-ups, but ultimately aims at a different kind of horror. Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie shine as nana and pop pop, portraying two elderly people who are strange, a little creepy, but ultimately just old and alien-looking in the eyes of the two teens. This fear of ageing is what keeps the tension strong and lingering, even when Shyamalan throws around some goofy and quirky bits left and right (Jerry the police man being my favorite).

Yes, there is a little twist at the end and yes, it will make a second viewing a somewhat different experience, but in contrast to films like Signs, The Sixth Sense or Unbreakable, there is more to The Visit than just the twist. It's a strong mix of horror, tension and tongue in cheek fun. It's creepy when it needs to be, it's funny when it wants to be. The only point of critique I have is that the middle part is a little too slow due to some mediocre attempts at additional drama. Instead I would've preferred a little extra grandma and grandpa time.

The Visit is not a film that will appeal to the masses. It doesn't have the big twist, it's not laden with jump scares and there aren't any vampires or demons to spruce things up. On the other hand, it makes The Visit a unique experience that stands as one of the better, if not the best Shyamalan film I've seen so far. It's not an easy film to blindly recommend, but it's sure worth a try if you're in for a little gamble.

Circle

date
October 26, 2015
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Circle poster

I sat down for Circle, not really knowing what to expect. Based on the poster and a quick glance at the plot summary I hoped for a solid genre flick, but that's not exactly what I got. Circle is much more than a bag of slickly executed clichés, instead it sets out to turn things upside down, packing a few welcome surprises along the way.

You have to give the film a little time though, because the beginning makes it look like the umpteenth copy of Saw. A group of people waking up in a room, not knowing where they are or how they got there isn't exactly a novel concept, unless you've been ignoring horror cinema for the past 10 years. But that's where the comparison ends, Hann and Miscione have other things in store for Circle and once the initial setup is explained they quickly begin to shift their perspective.

Films like Saw have always been about overcoming oneself in order to survive. About solving puzzles and escaping perilous situations by crossing personal boundaries. Even though at first Circle seems to be going in that same direction, the captives quickly discover a more dire fate awaits them. 50 of them are lined up in a circle. Every two minutes someone dies and the next victim is always decided by vote. The interesting part is that there's no way to cheat the system, so rather than trying to beat the game, people are clinging on to an irrational hope that surviving the next two minutes might lead to some kind of solution.

Circle is equal parts mystery and thriller with a small slice of horror thrown in for good measure, but don't let that fool you. It's a very talkative film, shot in a single location and focusing on the group dynamic rather than introducing action elements. The key to the game is surviving in a group of 50 strangers, knowing every two minutes at least one person has to die. Hann and Miscione use this setup to explore how people make choices when they have little to no factual information to rely on, resulting in a film that shows more interest in the psychological aspect of the concept, rather than trying to arouse shock and tension through the killings.

Even though Circle is shot in a single location, the presentation is interesting enough (a bit Cube-like). Acting is decent and there are enough interesting angles to keep it engaging. Circle is really a perfect genre/author mash-up, save for that final minute. And it's not even the build-up that ruins it. Up until the last minute Hann and Miscione do everything perfect. The not-so final ending was absolute perfection too, but then they decided to stick on another minute that felt completely obsolete. It offers an explanation I could do very well without and it backtracks on the implied ending just seconds earlier. It's a shame they didn't just cut it off, but since it's there it's impossible to ignore. Not that it ruined the film for me, everything else is still very cool, but it's definitely a missed opportunity.

If you're looking for something a little different than Circle is a great little psychological thriller. It really messes with your expectations and serves you an impossible riddle with no solution. At least, if you're the type of film fan that doesn't freak out when the ending is more than a little disappointing. Here's to hoping Hann and Miscione get another chance to prove their worth.

Sinister 2

date
September 22, 2015
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Sinister 2 poster

In 2012 the first Sinister was one of the surprise horror hits of the year. While a decent enough film, I have to admit the positive buzz surrounding it surprised me a little. I felt the jump scares weren't really up to par, the bad guy was kinda lame and with a running time clocking in at 110 minutes, it royally overstayed its welcome. Normally I would simply watch the sequel because I'm one of those people who likes to finish what he starts, but when I heard Ciaran Foy (Citadel) was attached to the project, my interest was piqued.

In many ways Sinister 2 is a pretty typical horror sequel. The reveal of the bad guy happens a lot faster, there are more scares per minute, the film is shorter in length and lacks a famous lead to draw in the crowds. Sinister 2 was made to cash in on the name of the first film without spending too much money in the process. The result could've been pretty dire, if not for Foy's talent pulsating underneath the film's tangibly commercial setup. For all its faults and shortcomings though, I actually ended up liking Sinister 2 better than the first one.

For one, the scares are way more effective compared to the first film. From the very start Foy builds up the tension without ever dropping the pace. There's no long introduction, not too much character development and very few breathers in between, instead Sinister 2 jumps right into the action and keeps the rope tight. That saves about 15 minutes in the end, making for a much more economic running time.

The highlights of Sinister 2 are without a doubt the short found footage segments interspersed throughout the film. They are nasty, vile and gruelling without ever becoming too gory or in your face. The soundtrack is what truly sets them apart though. Heavily distorted, electronic-based soundscapes and music that at times overpowers even the visuals. The kitchen murder in particular is a bit of film that's best experienced in front of a really big screen with a very capable sound system. It's in these moments that Foy's influence is felt the most.

The acting is decent enough, the plot suffices. A bit too much time is spent on the custody case and the father of the kids could've used some extra acting lessons, but those are just small annoyances that aren't allowed enough time to spoil the rest of the film. The bad guy is also still a bit silly-looking, luckily he only plays a secondary role in this sequel.

Foy seems well aware of the film's strengths and weaknesses and tries to focus on what makes a good horror flick tick. That said, it's clear that Sinister 2 is more than just a Foy product and at times the call for commercial success clashes with its purer genre aspirations. It's a shame because the potential was there to make this even better, on the other hand it's always good to see a sequel improving on the first film and to see an upcoming director confirming his talent with his follow-up. I just hope Foy returns to original projects sooner than later.

Kotoba no Nai Fuyu

date
August 20, 2015
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Kotoba no Nai Fuyu poster

It's a bit weird to speak of "Japanese island films", when Japan itself is in fact one big island. But there's something unique about the movies filmed on Japan's smaller offspring. On the one hand you have the sunny, agreeable and relaxed films like Megane and Kikansha Sensei, on the other hand the icy winter setting featured in Kaza-hana, Hana-bi and Qianxi Manbo (usually round and about Yubari, home of one of Japan's most famous film festivals).

Kotoba no Nai Fuyu [Echo of Silence] falls in the latter category. Much of the film's atmosphere is drawn from the near-constant snowfall, the snow-covered surroundings and the icy walls next to the roads. It's the ideal setting for a subtle, slightly stoical drama, lit up by small touches of warmth and comfort. From afar Kotoba no Nai Fuyu may appear to be a depressing affair, up close it turned out to be a very sweet, soothing little film.

The story revolves around Fusako, a young girl stuck in a small, rural town. Instead of turning this into a typical "I want to leave this place" drama, she's actually quite content with her life. She takes care of her single dad, her sister flies in from Tokyo from time to time and she has a job she doesn't hate. It's not a glamorous life, but it's a happy one. The only thing lacking is a boyfriend. People in town urge Fusako to get married, but unless she can find a good match she's just not interested. All that is about to change when she runs into a mute technician who shelters her from a rampant snow storm.

Kotoba no Nai Fuyu is a very typical Japanese drama. It's a little slow and uneventful, characters aren't very vocal about their emotions and there isn't a big, emotional pay-off in the end. It's also good at not showing important, defining events in the lives of its characters, instead it prefers to focus on the aftermath directly. Not everyone is going to like that, but for me personally it's something that draws me to these films. And I must say, Atsuro Watabe did a pretty good job with it.

The only reason why I didn't give it a higher score is the lack of engaging visuals. It shouldn't be too hard to make an attractive looking film in a setting like this, but the image quality is a little too grainy and the camera work simply too rough for my taste. People like Hiroshi Ishikawa have shown that this style can work for Japanese dramas, but Kotoba no Nai Fuyu ended up looking just a bit too plain and boring.

That said, there's still a great little drama hidden away underneath its homely façade. The acting is great, the characters are loveable and emotions aren't spoon-fed. Sadly this is the only film Watabe ever directed, but since he's still quite active as an actor one can only hope he takes up the directing glove once more in the near future. There's a lot of potential here, some truly great moments to experience, so if he could just package it a little better there is nothing stopping his films from becoming true gems.

Keizoku/eiga

date
August 10, 2015
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Keizoku/eiga poster

Keizoku/eiga [Keizoku: Unsolved Mysteries - Beautiful Dreamer] is an extension of a popular Japanese TV drama. Usually these kind of films tend to be a little lame. Easy cash-in on an established brand, dragging out a regular TV episode to full feature length. While this may still be the case with Keizoku/eiga (I never watched the original series), I think that would make the TV drama one of the more interesting productions ever to have aired on TV.

Helming the film is director Yukihiko Tsutsumi, who enjoyed moderate international success when he entered a directing contest with Ryuhei Kitamura and produced 2LDK as a result. Tsutsumi is a rather hard to coin director, continuously on the lookout for new challenges. He isn't really bound to a genre or medium, the only constant is that he's always busy. Keizoku/eiga is one of his earlier projects and it bears all the markings of a young director.

The film follows the adventures of a police squad trying to unravel unsolved mysteries. Perfect material for a TV series of course, with a new case ready every episode. If that sounds a little stale, not to worry, Tsutsumi turned Keizoku/eiga into a surreal and sometimes even absurd mystery. A clash of styles, blending comedy, police thriller and arthouse all into one restless package. The result may not be very subtle or sensible, it sure as hell is amusing.

The color palette is a little dire, with lots of murky greens and blues, but there's quite a lot of visual experimentation to keep things appealing. The plot is convoluted and quite effective, but ultimately the film itself seems to lose interest in the mystery to solve. The big reveal is made almost 30 minutes before the actual ending, with the crazy post-finale eclipsing the entire mystery that was set up before. I'm sure not everyone will appreciate that, but if you're still expecting this to be a basic police flick 90 minutes in, you've probably been dozing off more than a few times.

Tsutsumi never fully manages to bring all the different elements together elegantly, with the comedy and arthouse bits clashing violently from time to time. Like I said before, Keizoku/eiga isn't the most accomplished film, but it's never boring and has plenty of surprises packed to keep you engaged throughout its entire running time. Warmly recommended if you like weirdness and can bare some unevenness in the process, if you want a more solid experience it's better to look elsewhere.

Um Fa

date
August 06, 2015
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The Longest Nite poster

Tat-Chi Yau. Who is he, where did he come from and where did he go? That's what I've been wondering after seeing two films of him last week. I've seen quite a few Hong Kong films the past couple of years, but somehow Tat-Chi Yau never appeared on my radar. That's more than just a little odd, considering the talent he worked with (Tony Leung Chiu Wai, Simon Yam, Eric Tsang, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Ching Wan Lau, Francis Ng). And that's just for a total of 4 feature films, directed between 1997 and 2001.

If you know a thing or two about Hong Kong cinema, you may look at the dates and think "Oh, but that's a pretty dire period for Hong Kong films". Fair enough, but apparently Yau's films didn't suffer from the industry's local depression. The two films I've seen so far (that's 50% of is his feature film oeuvre) are well above average, even signalling Hong Kong's return to form during the early '00s. So why didn't Tat-Chi Yau's career take off? Well, your guess is as good as mine, the fact of the matter is that he made at least two worthy films, one of which is Um Fa [The Longest Nite].

Um Fa feels almost like a stepping stone to Johnnie To's '00 successes. That's not even all that far-fetched if you consider To produced Yau's first feature film only one year earlier. At its core, Um Fa is a pretty simple Triad film, resulting in a game of cat and mouse between the police and a killer hired by the Triads. Tony Leung Chiu Wai takes on the role of stone cold cop, Ching Wan Lau is the ruthless killer.

Leung and Lau are excellent, but it's Yau's deliberate direction that stands out. A remarkable soundtrack and lots of visual prowess complement Yau's flair and make Um Fa a film to remember. All of this comes together in a kick-ass finale, where the stand-off between Leung and Lau reaches a more than satisfactory conclusion. It would take To a couple years longer to reach the quality of Um Fa's finale, which is saying something.

Tat-Chi Yau is one of the mysteries of Hong Kong cinema. If you're a fan of Johnnie To's 21st century films then I can wholeheartedly recommend Yau's films, Um Fa in particular. I'm not sure why his films haven't garnered a greater following or how I could've missed his films for so long, but I'm glad that wrong has been righted once and for all.

Insidious: Chapter 3

date
July 30, 2015
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Insidious: Chapter 3 poster

It's was just five years ago that the first Insidious film saw its release. Reading back my original review, I clearly didn't give Wan enough credit for what accomplished with Insidious, as it would go on to reinvigorate an entire subgenre of films. The past five years a series of brooding, dark movies about demonic hauntings (Annabelle, The Conjuring, Oculus, Sinister) has found its way into theaters, pretty much copying Wan's Insidious success formula over and over again.

With Insidious: Chapter 3, Wan leaves the directing chair behind and hands over the reigns to co-writer and close friend Leigh Whannell. It's always a little tricky when an original director leaves a film series behind, but Whannell proves a worthy successor. His involvement in the first two films clearly made the transfer a lot easier, and with Wan still attached as producer the series was left in capable hands.

That doesn't mean Insidious 3 is everybody's cup of tea. It might be a pretty popular horror series, but its strong reliance on jump scares (a tense build-up harshly disrupted by a sudden image of horror, often accompanied by a loud sound) has alienated a large part of its audience, casual viewers and horror aficionados alike. Much like handheld camera work, slo-mos and voice overs, jump scares are often scoffed at, regardless of the actual quality of execution.

If you don't mind a good jump scare though, the Insidious series is by far your best option. Whannell paid close attention to Wan's direction, even one-upping him a couple of times during the first part of the film. Production values are impressive, the camera work is smart (showing exactly enough to keep the mystery going) and Whannell's timing is impeccable. Just throwing in some random loud noises is easy enough, but if you want to actually fool the audience nowadays you need to do a lot better. I'd even go as far to say the build-up to the film's big finale is one of the better ones I've seen.

Sadly the actual pay-off isn't quite up to par. The reveal of the demon is a little disappointing, especially when you compare it to marvelous ending of the first Insidious film. It's all a bit barren and lifeless, lacking any real impact. Fans of the series can warm themselves on the return of Lin Shaye and the origin story of the ghost hunting team, but that isn't enough to fully redeem the somewhat disappointing finale.

That said, Insidious: Chapter 3 is a worthy successor. It's a little better than the second film, a little worse than the first one. So if you're not fed up with the Insidious series and you don't mind a few well-executed jump scares, you really can't go wrong with this one.