Category Archives: Family Issues

SIFF 2019: Wild Rose (***1/2)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 18, 2019)

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Yes, it’s the oft-told tale of a ne’er-do-well Scottish single mom, fresh out of stir after serving time for possessing smack, who pursues her lifelong dream to become a country star and perform at The Grand Old Opry. How many times have we heard that one? This crowd-pleasing dramedy is a lot better than you’d expect, thanks to a winning lead performance from Jessie Buckley. Bonus…there’s a cameo by the BBC’s legendary “Whispering Bob” Harris!

(Plays May 24)

Desperate housewife: Criterion reissues Barbara Loden’s Wanda (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on March 23, 2019)

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Wanda Goronski: I don’t have anything. I never did have anything. Never will have anything.

 Norman Dennis: You’re stupid.

 Wanda Goronski: I’m stupid?

 Norman Dennis: If you don’t want anything, you won’t have anything, and if you don’t have anything, you’re nothing. You may as well be dead. You’re not even a citizen of the United States.

 Wanda Goronski: I guess I’m dead, then.

That remarkable exchange is from the 1970 character study/road movie/crime drama Wanda, an underseen indie gem written and directed by its star Barbara Loden. Previously hard-to-find, a restored edition of the film is newly available from Criterion.

Wanda (Loden) is an unemployed working-class housewife. It’s clear that her life is the pits…and not just figuratively. She’s recently left her husband and two infants and has been crashing at her sister’s house, which is within spitting distance of a yawning mining pit, nestled in the heart of Pennsylvania’s coal country. We don’t have an opportunity to get a sense of her home life, because as the film opens, she’s on her way to family court.

A protracted long shot of Wanda daintily traipsing through the bleak obsidian moonscape of the coal pit as she heads for court with hair in curlers, white tennis shoes, white stretch pants, white floral blouse and carrying a white purse is…not something you see every day. It’s also an indication you’re in for a narrative with deeply existential subtexts.

When the judge scolds her for being late, the oddly detached Wanda shrugs it off, telling His Honor that if her husband wants a divorce, that’s OK by her; adding their kids are probably “better off” being taken care of by their father. Shortly afterward, Wanda splits her sister’s house and hits the road (hair still in curlers), carrying no more than that white purse. This suggests that either a.) she’s a dim bulb, or b.) freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

The first third of the film is episodic; Wanda wanders aimlessly, stopping at a tavern for a drink. A traveling salesman with a Vista Cruiser buys her a beer, she sleeps with him at a cheap motel. She busts him trying to sneak out the next morning, and just makes it into his station wagon. When they stop for an ice cream cone, he peels out and abandons her.

Nonplussed, Wanda kicks around some dull burg and drifts into a movie theater for a matinee and a nap. When she awakens, the auditorium is empty, and she discovers someone has rifled through her purse and stolen what little money she had been carrying.

Now officially broke, Wanda heads for the nearest tavern. The suspiciously furtive man behind the bar is less than friendly; he tells her to beat it, they’re closed. Nonetheless, Wanda asks him for food and drink. Giving her an incredulous look, he serves her (sort of). Through all of this, Wanda either doesn’t notice or doesn’t give second thought to the sight of the unconscious, bound and gagged man lying on the floor by the cash register.

Her “bartender” is a petty criminal (Michael Dennis) who has just knocked over the joint. His name (as we come to learn) is Norman Dennis, and the ever-malleable Wanda is soon on the lam with “Mr. Dennis”. The couple become a sort of low-rent Bonnie and Clyde.

Wanda is Terrance Malick’s Badlands meets Barbara Kopple’s Harlan County, USA; like Malick’s film it was inspired by a true crime story and features a strangely passive female protagonist with no discernible identity of her own, and like Koppel’s documentary it offers a gritty portrait of rural working-class America using unadorned 16 mm photography.

The verité feel of the film (mostly shot using available light) was no accident; in a 1980 documentary by Katja Raganelli included on the Criterion Blu-ray/DVD, Loden explains why she ultimately decided on cinematographer/editor Nicholas T. Proferes (who had worked with documentary film maker D.A. Pennebaker). Of the various cinematographers’ work she had been looking at, Loden felt “[Proferes] really has some feelings for people, and he knows how to show ugly things without it appearing ugly…the ugly side of life.”

In that same interview, Loden also discusses how the project had been percolating for some time strictly as a script, and why she ended up deciding to direct it herself. “I sent it to some directors who liked it,” she recalls, “…they were all men, which wouldn’t necessarily make a difference, but they didn’t seem to understand what this woman was about. I would not take it to studios […] I wanted to make it my own way.” So…she did.

Although she could not have known it then, that decision has been since acknowledged as a groundbreaking move. The number of female auteurs in American film at that time could have been counted on one hand (Ida Lupino is the only one I can think of ).

Wanda also bridges an interesting cusp of second wave feminism’s effect on early-to-mid 70s American cinema. While its protagonist shares characteristics with Shirley Knight’s runaway housewife in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Rain People (1969), Ellen Burstyn’s widowed single mother in Martin Scorsese’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974), and (in a more tangential sense) the steadily unraveling suburban housewives played by Carrie Snodgrass in Frank Perry’s Diary of a Mad Housewife (1970) and Gena Rowlands in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1974), I could see how modern audiences might scratch their heads over how such a passive character who allows men to objectify her and generally treat her like shit could possibly qualify as a feminist heroine.

In a 2003 issue of Cahiers du Cinéma, Marguerite Duras interviewed director Elia Kazan about Loden’s legacy (Kazan was married to Loden from 1967 until her death from cancer at age 48 in 1980). Kazan offered some unique insight on her character in Wanda:

“In this movie she plays a character we have in America, and who I suppose exists in France and everywhere, that we call floating, a wanderer. A woman who floats on the surface of society, drifting here or there, with the currents. But in the story of this movie, for a few days the man she meets needs her; during these few days she has a direction […] Barbara Loden understood this character very, very well because when she was young she was a bit like that, she would go here and there. She once told me a very sad thing; she told me: ‘I have always needed a man to protect me.’ I will say that most women in our society are familiar with this, understand this, need this, but are not honest enough to say it. And she was saying it sadly”.

So perhaps the sense of empowerment emanates not from the protagonist, who simply “is who she is” (i.e. a character, portrayed by Loden the actor), but the act of creation itself by Loden the writer and director of the piece (and the very personal place it comes from).

In an essay included as a booklet with the disc, Amy Taubin offers this take:

I thought it remarkable [when Taubin saw it in 1972], in part for the very reason many in the audience dismissed it: Loden’s Wanda was anything but a feminist role model. Rather, she was a version of the characters Loden had been playing on and off Broadway, on television […] She had been typecast as the kind of all-American beauty who believes that male desire is the only measure of her value, and necessary to her survival. […] Responses to the film when it was first released were mixed, with two prominent critics (Pauline Kael and Rex Reed) referring to Wanda as a slut and expressing their annoyance at having to spend time on a movie with such a negligible protagonist. […] Thanks to the feminist energy that has continued to evolve as it has seeped into the culture in the decades since the film’s release, Wanda can now be appreciated as a portrait of a kind of woman who, being no man’s fantasy, had almost never been seen on the screen before.

Hopefully, this release will help give this fine film the wider appreciation that it deserves.

Arriba, abajo: Roma (***)

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By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on January 5, 2019)

Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (currently available on Netflix) is one of those contemporary arthouse flicks that has “A Compendium of Classic World Cinema” tattooed on its forehead (either that, or “I’ve Seen Too Many Goddamned Movies” is tattooed on mine).

For example, take the title, which recalls Fellini’s Roma (1972), his semi-autobiographical love letter to the city he lived in for years. Cuaron’s film is his semi-autobiographical love letter to the city he lived in for years; although in this case it refers not to Rome, Italy but to the eponymous neighborhood of Mexico City where he grew up.

The story centers on a young woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who is employed as a maid for an upper middle-class family living in politically turbulent Mexico City during the early 1970s. There is another maid in the household named Adela (Nancy Garcia), but Cleo looks to be the de facto nanny, showing a close and loving bond with the 4 children.

The father (Fernando Grediaga) is a physician, who travels frequently due to his work. Or so it seems; when he takes an extended trip to Quebec on “business”, the worst fears of his wife Sofia (Marina de Tavira) are confirmed when she learns he’s decided to play house for keeps with his mistress (World Cinema Rule #142…there’s always a mistress).

As Sofia struggles with how she is going to gently break the news to her kids that daddy has split town on them because he is a cheating bastard, the family dynamic is further complicated when Cleo finds herself struggling with how she’s going to gently break the news to her employer that she is with child by her short-term boyfriend Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) who splits town on her faster than you can say “I think I’m pregnant.”

If the narrative is beginning to sound not dissimilar to a tawdry telenovela, you are very perceptive. Cuaron’s cliché-ridden script is not the film’s strongest suit. That said, the man knows how to set up a shot, and his eye is keen (Cuaron pulled cinematography duty here as well). In fact, his B&W photography is stunning enough to forgive a flimsy story.

Where Curaon excels here is in giving the viewer an immersive sense of time and place. There are several memorable set-pieces; most notably a scene wherein the children’s grandmother helps a very pregnant Cleo shop for a crib. That everyday mundanity may not make for riveting cinema, but the situation percolating in the street right in front of the store, which suddenly escalates and engulfs the women in a horrifying manner…does.

I’ll admit being a little late to the party on this film, which has popped up on a surprising number of critics’ “10 best” lists for 2018. I say “surprising” because it has had limited theatrical engagements since late November and has only been streaming on Netflix since December 14th (I stumbled across it quite by accident while scrolling through the network’s maddeningly unsearchable programming menu).

It has also been nominated for 3 Golden Globes: Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, and Best Screenplay (as I have already discussed, I have to raise a Belushi eyebrow regarding that screenplay nom).

While many of my fellow critics have swooned mightily under its apparent spell, for me Roma is, alas, a mixed bag. Aparicio has a quietly charismatic screen presence and gives a fine, naturalistic performance as Cleo; although you wish she’d been given a little more to do with her substantial screen time beyond playing the quietly suffering, archetypal Noble Peasant.

Visually, it’s quite a beautiful film. And there is certainly nothing wrong with emulating and evoking the likes of Fellini, Kalatozov, Bertolucci, Antonioni, and other masters of world cinema. It’s just a bit of a disappointment from Curaon, who has given us some outstanding films like Y Tu Mama Tambien, Children of Men, and Gravity.

I hate my sister: Mirai no Mirai (***)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 22, 2018)

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If you seek a family-friendly film for the holidays that doesn’t involve Grinches or umbrella-powered English nannies, the Japanese anime Mirai no Mirai (“Mirai of theFuture”) may be the ticket. The latest effort from writer-director Mamoru Hosoda is a fantasy-drama that plays like a cross between Where the Wild Things Are and Labyrinth.

The story centers on 4-year-old Kun and his busy parents (Dad is an architect and Mom is an executive). Not unlike many 4-year-old boys he’s a wrecking ball, but he seems like a happy kid, doing happy kid things like cavorting with his dog, playing with his toy trains, and generally enjoying all those perks that come with being the Center of the Universe.

Sadly, poor Kun has little clue that the dynamic of this pretty sweet deal is about to shift.

The thing is, Mom and Dad haven’t just been busy at the office. One day, Mom comes home with a little surprise for Kun. It’s a baby sister. Initially, Kun appears excited about the family’s new addition, much in the same manner a 4-year-old gets excited about a shiny new toy before the novelty wears off. His excitement soon changes to consternation when it becomes obvious that the novelty of “Mirai” isn’t wearing off for Mom and Dad. 

In fact, this little Mirai character is starting to suck all the air out of the room. Why are his parents treating Kun like he’s persona non grata? He was here first! What’s so special about her, anyway? She can’t even form a sentence. All she does is eat, cry and sleep. For this, she gets a medal?! In a fit of pique, Kun takes one of his toy trains in hand and menacingly looms over her crib. Luckily Mom stops him, then gives him a scolding.

Confused and angry, Kun pitches a major tantrum. He flees into the garden, where he bumps into a man lurking in the trellises, who imperiously introduces himself as the “prince” of the house. Or at least he was…until Kun dethroned him simply by being born (long story). This kick-starts a reality-bending journey through the time-space continuum for Kun, who learns the importance of unconditional familial love and ancestral bonds along the way (whether a 4-year-old is capable of such an epiphany…is open for debate).

Mirai no Mirai is less complex than Hosoda’s previous films (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Summer Wars) Still, its heart is in the right place. Kids will identify with the child’s-eye perspective, and adults may be transported back to that period of the life cycle when worries are few and everything feels possible (before your mental carousel gets clogged up with excess baggage, if you catch my drift).

Blu-ray reissue: The Magnificent Ambersons ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on December 15, 2018)

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The Magnificent Ambersons – Criterion Collection Blu-ray

It’s sad that the late great Orson Welles has (unfairly) become the perennial poster boy for “squandered talent” in the film industry. Granted, he was a rapscallion who loved to push people’s buttons; unfortunately, some of those “people” were powerful producers and studio heads who didn’t get the joke back in those days when “maverick” and “genius” were dirty words in Hollywood.

But he was a maverick, and he was a genius…he just wanted to make the movies he wanted to make, precisely the way he wanted to make them. But alas, the “boy genius” became enslaved by his own legend soon after making Citizen Kane at age 25.

Welles’ disillusionment with the studio system began with the release of The Magnificent Ambersons in 1942, as what hit theaters was essentially a butchered version of how he had envisioned the film. Unfortunately, he had conceded final cut in a deal made with RKO (a decision he came to regret). Adding insult to the injury of the 50 excised minutes from Welles’ original rough cut, studio heads ordered that the negatives of that footage be destroyed as well. Regardless, the film is still heralded as one of Welles’ finest efforts.

Welles adapted the script from Booth Tarkington’s eponymous novel. It’s the story of a well-to-do family whose “magnificence” (as Welles’ stentorian voice-over narration informs us) “…began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their midland town spread and darken into a city.” This sets the tone for what ensues, which is the rotting of that “splendor” from the inside out; not only the decline of a family dynasty, but of a mannered, measured way of life whose destruction was assured by the onslaught of the Second Industrial Revolution (the price of Progress can be steep).

Criterion’s new 4K restoration is a real showcase for Stanley Cortez’s striking chiaroscuro photography, and a testament to Welles’ mastery of visual storytelling. Extras include two commentary tracks by film scholars and critics, new video essays by film historians and scholars, an excerpt from the 1925 silent adaptation of The Magnificent Ambersons, written essays, and more.

Where the wild things are: We the Animals (**½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on September 8, 2018)

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In my 2009 review of Lea Pool’s film Mommy is at the Hairdressers, I wrote:

It’s a perfect film about an imperfect family; but like the selective recollections of a carefree childhood, no matter what the harsh realities of the big world around you may have been, only the most pleasant parts will forever linger in your mind.

I could almost say the same thing about Jeremiah Zagar’s We the Animals. I say “almost”, because Zagar’s film falls short of “perfect” (more on that shortly). Still, it does succeed in conveying how those “selective” memories of childhood become increasingly ephemeral and abstract as we careen through adult life, slipping ever closer to the abyss.

Adapted by the director and Dan Kitrosser from Justin Torres’ novel, the film is a lyrical slice of life about a working-class Puerto Rican family living in central New York State. The narrative primarily unfolds through a 9-year-old’s point-of-view. His name is Jonah (Evan Rosado). He and older siblings Joel (Josiah Gabriel) and Manny (Isiah Kristian) are de facto latchkey kids, because their young parents (Shelia Vand and Raul Castillo) are often too preoccupied with the drama that generates from their tempestuous marriage.

As a survival mechanism, the brothers have created an idiosyncratic sub-family unit a la Lord of the Flies, with their own set of rules, hierarchy and ritualistic behaviors. Joel and Manny are already displaying signs that they may be inheriting their father’s prideful machismo, whereas Jonah shares his mother’s empathic sensitivity and emotional frailty.

Jonah’s internalized dialog throughout implies he is sharing these sense memories with some benefit of hindsight from an indeterminate point in the future. Oddly, unlike the adult Sean Penn character reassembling bits and pieces of his lost childhood in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (a film that feels like a looming influence, to put it politely), it’s Jonah’s 9-year-old “self” who is doubling here as our omniscient narrator (far out, man).

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with emulating Malick; after all, as Woody Allen retorts in Manhattan after someone derisively tells him he has a God complex, “I gotta model myself after someone.” I’m willing to grade on a curve, especially given this is Zagar’s first narrative feature (his previous films have been documentaries).

On the plus side: Zagar coaxes naturalistic performances from the first-time child actors, Zak Mulligan’s “magic hour” cinematography is striking, and Nick Zammuto’s soundtrack nicely complements (I strongly suspect his favorite album is “Dark Side of the Moon”).

On the down side: there’s nothing wrong with an art film, but this one leans toward being a little too self-consciously arty for its own good. I think Zagar is a talent to keep an eye on; I’m just hoping that his future narrative features will feature a little more…narrative.

Nursery crimes: Three Identical Strangers (***½)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on July 28, 2018)

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From whence it follows, that one thing cannot have two beginnings of existence, nor two things one beginning; it being impossible for two things of the same kind to be or exist in the same instant, in the very same place; or one or the same thing in different places.

-John Locke, from An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

It’s a well-known secret that Elvis Presley had a stillborn twin brother. As biographers have noted, Jesse Garon Presley nonetheless remained “with” Elvis until his own death 42 years later. Family and friends recounted that during times of stress or bouts of depression, it was not unusual for him to have long conversations with his “missing half.”

There is one inarguable bond between multiple birth siblings. First and foremost, there is an empirically evident biological closeness, particularly with identical siblings, who literally come from the same zygote and thereby share 100% of its genetic material.

However, once you push beyond obvious similarities like physical resemblance and shared mannerisms, you quickly enter the realm of the theoretical. For example, do some (like Elvis) have a kind of unbreakable “psychic” connection from the womb until death? Are some “pre-programmed” by nature to share the same likes, dislikes, aesthetic taste, etc.-even after they’ve left the nest and gone their separate ways to live their adult lives?

Consider the long strange trip undertaken by Robert Shafran, Edward Galland, and David Kellman, three young men who grew up in separate families within the same 100-mile radius yet were blissfully unaware up until the age of 19 that they were identical triplets.

As recalled by one of the brothers in British filmmaker Tim Wardle’s mind-blowing documentary Three Identical Strangers, it was initially a case of random chance back in 1980 that led him to discover that he had a twin brother. However, the “twins” would not be such for very long; once the media picked up on this irresistible human-interest story, it was but days before kismet put the cap on a perfect hat trick: for then there were three.

The triplets were given up at birth in 1961 by their single mother. Separated immediately, they were placed with three families through the auspices of a New York City adoption agency. While it is not unusual for the identity of the biological parents to be withheld, it was somewhat unusual in this case that (for reasons unveiled as the film unfolds) even the three sets of adoptive parents were not told that their respective adoptees had siblings.

Interestingly, the families the three were placed with were socioeconomically disparate to a fault: one blue collar, one middle class, and the other well-moneyed. Even more remarkable then that the 19-year-old triplets not only bonded so quickly but discovered that they had grown up sharing many of the same predilections; ranging from a love of wrestling, smoking Marlboro cigarettes, and even being attracted to the same type of woman.

Blessed with strapping good looks and exuding enough positive, goofy energy to power a small city whenever they were in the same room together, it’s hardly surprising that they became instant media darlings (archival footage demonstrates them working their charm offensive on Tom Brokaw, Phil Donahue and Paula Zahn).

They were not shy about cashing in on their celebrity; they moved into a N.Y.C. apartment together, eventually opened a SoHo restaurant (“Triplets”) and were feted by the likes of Madonna (who landed them a cameo in Susan Seidelman’s 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan). Each bro found the love of his life, adding “happily married” to their collective fairy tale.

Their story could’ve (should’ve?) ended there; a perennial feel-good 6 o’clock news kicker if you ever heard one. But that would be assuming that we don’t live in a cruel, unfeeling universe that can randomly taketh away…as casually as it can randomly giveth.

Here’s where my review potentially becomes…complicated. I could tell you what happens next, but then, I’d have to kill you. And I don’t even have your address. Besides, I am a man of peace and don’t own a firearm, so it’s an ineffectual, existential threat…at best.

Here’s what l’ll do for you. If you have no plans to see this film, just go ahead and Google the story (it’s a doozey). But, if you do plan to, and you enjoy documentaries that unfold like the best riveting conspiracy thrillers do, chock full of unexpected twists and turns, I’d recommend that (like me) you go in completely “cold”. Granted, some of those deeper questions vis a vis “psychic connections” and such between identical siblings are not answered, but Wardle’s film does have a lot to say about “nature vs. nurture”, scientific ethics, celebrity culture, and the unshakable bonds of familial love.

SIFF 2018: Little Tito and the Aliens ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted at Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 2, 2018)

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I avoid using phrases like “heartwarming family dramedy”, but in the case of Paola Randi’s, erm, heartwarming family dramedy…it can’t be helped. An eccentric Italian scientist, a widower living alone in a shipping container near Area 51 (long story), suddenly finds himself guardian to his teenage niece and young nephew after his brother dies. Blending family melodrama with a touch of magical realism, it’s a sweet and gentle tale about second chances-and following your bliss.

SIFF 2018: The Drummer and the Keeper ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 26, 2018)

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Irish singer-songwriter Nick Kelly’s debut feature is a touching drama about an “odd-couple” friendship that develops between a troubled young drummer with bi-polar disorder and another young man with Asperger’s Syndrome. While it initially borrows liberally from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Rainman, the film eventually establishes its own unique voice, and thankfully avoids the cloying sentimentality of, say, I Am Sam. An infusion of that dark, dry Irish humor helps as well.

SIFF 2018: Happy Birthday ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on May 19, 2018)

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Remember that generation-gap comedy, The Impossible Years? The one where David Niven plays a Professor of Psychology who has to deal with with the embarrassment caused by his free-willed hippie daughter’s shenanigans? Writer-director Christos Georgiou’s family melodrama reminded me of that 1968 film…except here Niven is a Greek cop, and his teenage daughter is a wannabe anarchist. After Dad spots his daughter hurling projectiles at him and fellow officers during a demonstration, tension at home comes to full boil. Mom intervenes; insisting the pair take a time out for a weekend at the family’s country home-where they can hopefully reconcile. What ensues is a kind of family therapy session, which becomes analogous to the sociopolitical turmoil plaguing modern Greece. The film is slow to start, but it becomes quite affecting.