Towers, Ghosts and Handmaids

Here’s what I’ve been reading and watching lately:

dark tower books all

I’ve been slowly but steadily making my way through Stephen King’s Dark Tower series over the last year or so, and finally finished the seventh book and the last in the main series (the eighth, The Wind in the Keyhole, is more of an addendum, a further adventure and untold story that I haven’t read yet–but plan to!).

I find Stephen King an interesting author, if only because he’s written books I have absolutely no interest in reading, while there are others I find, if not brilliant, then impressive and endlessly entertaining. This series is obviously in the latter, or I wouldn’t have continued to read thousands of pages of it. It’s hard to summarize such an epic tale, but it combines fantasy, western, science fiction (and a little bit of horror) to tell the story of Roland of Gilead, a gunslinger of Mid-World, who seeks to save the Dark Tower, which holds all the worlds of creation together. His main antagonists are the Man in Black, and the Crimson King, among many others. His allies are his ka-tet, who he’s “drawn” from other worlds and times: Eddie Dean, Odetta Walker (aka Susannah Dean), the boy Jake Chambers, and Oy, a kind of cross between a dog and a raccoon called a billy bumbler.

Each book, of course, presents its own conflict and goal on Roland’s long journey, weaving a complex, compelling tale that only King could manage. In it, he incorporates several characters from his other books (which in most cases I had not read, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story), and creates a kind of uber-story, gathering them all under the same cosmology. King even inserts himself into the story, which I found a little outrageous at first, but then, this is a story about stories, and he’s the ultimate storyteller. It all fits.

I hurtled through the last 100 pages of the last book, dying learn the mystery of the Dark Tower. And was I disappointed? Not exactly. I didn’t know what was at the top of that Tower, but when Roland opened the last door, after unimaginable trial and tragedy, what lay behind it was unexpected and shocking. That’s all I’ll say, except that, based on my new knowledge, I’m rethinking my opinion on the Dark Tower movie I reviewed a few months ago. I hated it. But I’d watched it before I finished the series, and I was missing some vital information. Now it makes some potential sense. But that’s another blog post.

woman in black daniel

My book club recently read The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill, in honor of the season–we love a good ghost story this time of year! We enjoyed the book and decided to watch the 2012 movie with Daniel Radcliffe.

The premise of both the book and the movie concerns Arthur Kipps, a clerk in a London law firm, who travels to the northern town of Crythin Gifford to settle the estate of an old widow, Mrs. Drablow, who’d recently died. Her estate, Eel Marsh House, is appropriately isolated and creepy at the mouth of a marshy estuary, a house which gets blocked off from the mainland by the tides several times a day. The townspeople are sullen and distrustful, and while at the house, Arthur encounters ghostly visitations by a terrifying woman in black. While sorting through Mrs. Drablow’s papers, he discovers a family tragedy that explains the haunting, but is unprepared to be so personally affected by the woman’s vengeful malevolence.

The  movie changes a few things and ratchets up the scare factor, giving the story a more traditional beginning, middle, and end format, with Arthur taking action to solve a problem rather than just letting things happen to him, like in the book. The ending is quite different, too, and I’m not sure I’m happy with it, but in the end, it’s a great Halloween movie to hide behind a pillow and watch.

man in the picture

We enjoyed Susan Hill so much, we also read The Man in the Picture, another ghost story, of sorts. This one deals with an old painting of Venice, with masked revelers and gondolas, in which several living people have been trapped as painted figures. It’s another story of a wronged woman gone berserk with hatred and vengeance, and who punishes not only those responsible for her misery, but innocent others who happen to come into contact with her story just for evil’s sake. It’s kind of a disturbing pattern, but definitely touches on female rage and its consequences. Hell hath no fury, and all that.

handmaid 3

I read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale many years ago, and though over time the details of the book faded, the disturbing essence of it remained with me. In the middle of watching the Hulu series, I re-read the book (brilliant; read it). The series, with Elizabeth Moss as Offred/June, is just as brilliant and intense, with only a few minor changes that make sense in light of a continuing series. The book was hard to read, but the show is even more difficult, as these characters and terrifying events come to life on the screen.

I watched the first season, which chronicles the events of the book (and with Atwood’s involvement and blessing), but Season Two and Three continues Offred’s story beyond the book, out of Atwood’s territory. I’m on the fence about whether or not I want to continue watching; both the book and Season One ended with Offred possibly escaping her enslavement, leaving one with a feeling of hope. With the continuation of the series, it’s obvious Offred has to be caught and dragged back to Gilead, with more punishment and misery ahead of her. I’m not sure I can endure more of that, quite honestly.

So that’s what’s been keeping me busy lately. Have you read or watched any of these stories? What did you think? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!

 

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The Beguiled

the beguiled movie

I’ve been a fan of director Sophia Coppola since “Lost in Translation” , as well as “Marie Antoinette” and “The Virgin Suicides.” If you take her and add one of my favorite actresses (Nicole Kidman) and mix it with Civil War-era Southern Gothic, you’ve hooked me.

Kidman plays Miss Martha, who runs a finishing school for girls in the battle-ravaged South. In its heyday before the war, it might have turned out elegantly poised and intelligent young ladies, but during the war the handful of students (ranging in age from 9-17 or so) seem more like prisoners in their crumbling mansion, and the locked gate acts as an attempt to keep out the horrors that are happening all around them. Often, the sounds of battle can be heard nearby; otherwise, the buzzing cicadas are the only sound, deepening the eerie (and menacing) sense of their isolation.

One day one of the younger girls finds a wounded soldier (Colin Farrell) outside their gate–a Union soldier. Miss Martha decides to bring him inside and tend to his wounds out of Christian charity, with the admonition that once he heals, he must leave.

The younger girls are fluttery and excited at having an “enemy” in their midst. The older ones–17 year old Alicia (Elle Fanning), and Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), Miss Martha’s former student and helper, and even Miss Martha herself– are unsettled and disturbed at having a handsome, charming man among them.

farrell and dunst

And Corporal John McBurney does charm them–making friends with the young ones, and flirting with the older. He’s certainly come to understand the great fortune of his situation: if he can convince them to let him stay on after he heals, he can escape the nightmare that is the war. An understandable motive, but this stranger’s true character remains elusive. Is he truly a good man in a bad situation, or is he merely trying to serve his own ends in whatever way he can?

Soon, the sexual tension comes to a head, and violence erupts. Miss Martha and her charges must deal with their suddenly dangerous guest on their own, with no help from the outside world.

Kidman never fails to disappoint, bringing the nuances of Miss Martha’s predicament and mixed feelings to light, and Colin Farrell’s smoldering volatility serves his character well. It’s a quiet film in which the tension mounts incrementally; the explosion that follows shocks the characters into actions they perhaps never imagined they could do. This movie beguiled me, from start to finish.

 

 

 

Thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi

last jedi 2

This isn’t any kind of formal review of the movie, just some personal reactions to what’s been happening in a galaxy far, far away.

When I was ten years old and saw The Empire Strikes Back for the first time (I was a bit too young for the first movie, and had to back-track), I never thought I’d be watching new Star Wars films with gray in my hair. Of course, I never thought I’d have gray hair, or ever be over twenty years old, for that matter.

My point is, when I was a kid, Star Wars was magical. It could do no wrong (although, at the age of thirteen, I had some trouble taking the Ewoks seriously). It had taken a permanent place in my heart as something I held very dear, and always would. Return of the Jedi’s happy ending left me feeling satisfied and that all was well with the universe.

Except it wasn’t. There are no lasting happy endings, and as someone with a little gray in her hair, I understand that now.

Prequels and stand-alone movies never mattered to me. What mattered were the original characters I came to know and love, and what happened to them. So when I heard that Episodes seven, eight and nine were being made, I paid attention.

The Force Awakens, for the most part, pleased me, but you can go here and see how I reacted to Han Solo’s death. I whined and belly-ached that it wasn’t a worthy death. Of course it wasn’t, that was the whole point. It got me engaged, it made me angry and I wanted justice. I was invested on an emotional level, which is what any good story should do.

And The Last Jedi? I don’t know. Despite numerous space battles and personal skirmishes (and believe me, I was a bit battle-weary by the end of the movie), I wasn’t wowed. I understand that part of the appeal of Star Wars is exciting space battles, but maybe we’ve seen so much of it in so many movies lately that we’ve grown numb to it. I have, anyway. In the original films, there was maybe one big battle the story line was culminating to, or it began the film and there was fallout from it. Now we’re just bombarded with explosions and violence and it’s supposed to entertain us. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I need more than that.

There were some character arcs that I found interesting. The whole Kylo Ren/Rey connection (even though orchestrated by Snoke [and where the heck did that guy come from, anyway?]) was illuminating. The internal struggle between Kylo Ren and Ben Solo has been made painfully clear, and it’s equally clear that the minimally-trained Rey is having problems controlling her emotions, namely anger, impatience, fear, and hatred. And we all know where those emotions lead, don’t we, kids? So while one still has a spark of light, and the other is vulnerable to the dark, they both still stubbornly hold to their courses. Still no clue as to who Rey’s parents might be, even though Kylo Ren asserted that they were nobody. I doubt it.

There were several new characters this time around, including Rose, a Resistance fighter who helps Finn on a mission to find a codebreaker to shut down a tracking device so….oh, never mind. I really thought they’d find Lando Calrissian in that gambling city, but they only found this weird guy played by Benicio del Toro, whose character name I don’t remember, if I ever caught it at all. A business man who doesn’t take sides, only the side of money. I’m assuming by the end of the trilogy, he’ll find his heart and do the right thing, like an erstwhile Han Solo.

In fact, I found too many echoes of the original here. I noticed them in The Force Awakens, but I was willing to forgive it in the first movie, as a means of making us feel we’re in familiar territory. Not now. The same exact themes are explored here, which in itself would not be unforgivable, but it is when it’s almost word for word. When Kylo Ren tempts Rey to turn to the dark side and join him to rule the universe, I just had this sinking feeling (I have a really bad feeling about this…). Come on, guys. You’re creative geniuses. You can do better than that.

I think my favorite secondary characters were the porgs and the crystal foxes. Way better than Ewoks. Just wanted to say that.

porgcrystal fox

Of course the most important character to me in this film is Luke. Or, as I like to call him, Dark Luke. Not the Dark Side, just dark. This is not the sunny, optimistic farmboy from A New Hope, or even the newly mature and sober Luke from Return of the Jedi. This is a weathered Luke who’s given up all hope, who’s given up, well, everything. Even the Force. His failure with Ben Solo has crushed him. He is heavy with regret and despair. He’s got a bit of gray in his hair.

I like him.

Mark Hamill himself has made comments on how he was a little disappointed in the way Luke is portrayed in this film. He felt that Luke, a Jedi, would never give up, that he’d be stronger than that. I suppose. But I find that I dig Dark Luke. He’s much more interesting than he’s ever been before. He’s realistic. He’s an older, wiser Luke who’s been battered by life. Just like the rest of us. He’s not a hero, he’s real. I also loved Yoda’s little cameo. I dug Dark Luke, but he did need a bit of scolding.

But naturally, he becomes a hero in the end. I liked that little trick he played on Kylo Ren. Luke’s death was a worthy death, a good death. I’m satisfied on that point.

dark luke

So, while there are certainly flaws in Episode 8, I’m still in. I want to know what will happen. I’m curious to see how Leia’s character will be dealt with considering the untimely death of Carrie Fisher. Episode 9 was supposed to be her showcase, but it wasn’t meant to be. At least we got to see her escape death in the film–even cold, dark space can’t kill our Princess!

 

Are you a fan? What did you think of The Last Jedi? Drop a line and we’ll talk about it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Recent Obsessions

Here’s what I can’t get enough of lately:

TV: Stranger Things, Seasons 1 & 2.

stranger things

They had me at 1983. I was 12 years old, just like the kids of Hawkins, Indiana. I wasn’t playing D&D (alas, I’m a girl), but I remember the music, the hair, that sense of being, well, a weirdo. I’d watch this show for the pure nostalgia (casting 80s icons Winona Ryder and Mathew Modine was a nice touch, and they’re great here), but it’s so much more than that.

Ryder plays Joyce Byers, whose sensitive son Will has gone missing, literally out of this world. Will’s crew of faithful, geeky friends are determined to find him; they meet a mysterious girl named Eleven who seems to have supernatural powers, and perhaps knows where Will is. Meanwhile, the town’s police chief Jim Hopper (the wonderful David Harbour), investigates, and climbs deeper into the strange happenings centering around the secretive lab nearby. Strange indeed, but addicting, replete with monsters, a parallel universe, and a surprising amount of heart.

(And because I couldn’t get enough, I watched “Beyond Stranger Things”, a series of short interviews with the cast and creators the Duffer Brothers, which was fun to watch, too).

Movies: Pride & Prejudice & Zombies.

PPzombies

How can I not love this? It blends two of my favorite things: Jane Austen and The Walking Dead (disclaimer: I haven’t watched the last two seasons of WD–I just couldn’t deal with the never-ending heartache). There are Austen purists who sniff at any tampering with their beloved author’s work (and I know some who dismiss any movie version outside of the Firth-Ehle pairing), but I’m not one of them. Let’s face it, adding a little blood and gore to Regency England’s genteel society is just great fun.

Lizzie Bennet’s weapon has always been her words, but here she wields a sword to add to her considerable arsenal. Austen’s story plays out with the usual, well-know scenes: the country dance where Lizzie and Darcy meet, the Netherfield ball, Mr. Collins’ unwanted proposal, the visit to Rosings, Wickham’s deception. But here England has been invaded by a terrible plague that turns people into zombies; everyone must train in the martial arts to defend themselves from the scourge. Darcy is a colonel in the army; the Bennet girls strap knives to their thighs under their dresses and carry swords and guns.

My favorite scene is Darcy’s botched proposal to Lizzie–while they verbally spar, they engage in a physical fight, throwing each other around the room and attacking with pokers and letter openers. I never knew I wanted Lizzie to kick Darcy’s ass in this scene until I saw it! The plot devolves into a weird zombie scheme involving Wickham, but rest assured, the lovers come to each other’s rescue and overcome their pride and prejudice to wed in the end.

Books: Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series.

dark tower

I’ve been in a King kind of mood lately, just having read Sleeping Beauties (click here for a mini-review). With the movie The Dark Tower recently in theaters, my interest was piqued. I didn’t get around to the movie, so I thought I’d check out the first book of his epic fantasy series, The Gunslinger.

Here’s the premise: Roland, the last Gunslinger in an alternate world, pursues the Man in Black across a desert wasteland in his quest to find the Dark Tower. That’s about all we know. What’s a Gunslinger? What happened to this decaying world that has “moved on”? Who is the Man in Black? What is the significance of the Dark Tower? Answers come slowly and incompletely. King’s writing style here is different than what most of us are used to, dense and perhaps a bit pretentious, as King admits to in his forward. He came up with the idea very early on in his career, fresh out of writing seminars that dictated language over story. But he knew he wanted to combine the quest story (like Lord of the Rings) with a spaghetti western-style protagonist and landscape.

Despite some initial impatience, I kept on reading the book, and found myself drawn in. I’m well into the second book, The Drawing of the Three, which employs the King voice and style we’re all familiar with, and know I’ll continue with the other books (7 or 8 in all), though probably over time, interspersed with other books. Now that I’ve started, I have to know what happens. I have to penetrate the mystery of the Dark Tower.

 

What’s obsessing you lately? Interested in any of these entertainments? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!

 

 

Book and Movie Recap

Time for my periodic summary of what I’ve been reading and watching the past few months. Because I know you’re dying to know.

Books:

The Changeling, by Victor LaValle.

changeling

This is a wonderfully updated version of the changeling myth: a creature (in this case, a troll) steals an infant and leaves in its place a nearly identical facsimile. That this story is written from an African American point of view adds to its freshness. Apollo and his wife Emma have welcomed a new baby boy to their family, but soon Emma begins acting strangely, perhaps with post-partum depression. But when she commits a horrendous act and disappears, Apollo is left reeling. Soon he begins a quest to find his wife and son, but what he finds is beyond anything he had ever imagined.

My Cousin Rachel, by Daphne du Maurier.

cousin rachel

Daphne du Maurier wrote dozens of books, and somehow I’d only read Rebecca, her most famous book. With the release of the movie version of My Cousin Rachel (which I haven’t seen yet, but will soon), my attention was brought to this wonderful book. Young Englishman Philip suspects that his cousin and guardian Ambrose has been murdered by his wife, Rachel. He hates her before he even meets her, but when she arrives at his home, he begins to fall in love with her. Will history repeat itself? The mystery behind Rachel is the driving force of this addicting novel.

Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins.

into the water

I loved Hawkin’s previous book, The Girl on the Train, and wasn’t disappointed with her latest. Into the Water takes place in a small town called Beckford, where the Drowning Pool has seen its fair share of women victims, through suicide or otherwise. Two women have drowned in the river within two months when the novel begins: Katie, a fifteen year old girl who drowned herself, and Nel, a woman who had been writing a book on the river and its victims, whose death is being investigated as a possible murder. Hawkins is deliciously good at drawing the reader in with multiple points of view, imperfect characters with secrets, and agonizing suspense. Excellent.

Natalie Goldberg: Long Quiet Highway, Thunder and Lightning, The Great Failure, The Great Spring. I’ve been on a Goldberg bender for awhile, catching up on all of her books I hadn’t yet read. Long Quiet Highway is her first memoir from way back in 1993. Thunder and Lightning is a writing book I had read years ago and wanted to read again. The Great Failure is a memoir exploring the two father figures in her life: her real father and her beloved Zen teacher, Katagiri Roshi. The Great Spring is her latest memoir, a collection of essays gathered together exploring her two great loves: writing and Zen.

Movies:

The Light Between the Oceans.

oceans movie

Finally watched the movie version of the book I read several months ago. Excellent performances from Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, and Rachel Weisz. The script stays fairly close to the book, about a couple in 1920 Australia who finds a baby in a boat (along with a dead man) washed up on shore of their lighthouse island. After having endured several devastating miscarriages, they decide to keep the child to raise as their own. Predictably, this leads to heartbreak and anguish.

Her.

her movie

This has to be the strangest, most wonderful movie I’ve seen in a long time. The always stellar Joaquin Phoenix is Theodore, a man who falls in love with a computer program named Samantha, a kind of AI that can learn and evolve over time. It sounds weird, but Samantha has a real personality–she just doesn’t have a body. It’s a great exploration of what it means to be in love, what is real, and letting go.

Manchester by the Sea.

manchester sea

Holy cow. Does anyone say Holy Cow anymore? Let me reiterate: Holy cow! This movie is amazing. I didn’t even know Ben Affleck had a younger brother who acted, but here’s Casey Affleck out of nowhere (at least to me) winning an Oscar for his role of Lee Chandler, who’s been appointed guardian of his 16-year old nephew after his brother dies. But Lee is haunted by tragedy, and he struggles with his newfound role to the nephew he loves. Emotionally wrecking, but worth every two hours and fifteen minutes of it.

Have you read any of these books or seen any of these movies? What did you think? Drop me a line and we’ll talk about it!

By the way, this is also my 200th post on My Writing Journey. Go me!

 

 

Costume Drama

Once I smartened up and changed my Netflix plan from streaming to DVD, I finally got to watch a couple of movies I’ve had my eye on for awhile: Love and Friendship, and A Quit Passion.

love and friendship

Love and Friendship is based on early, little-known novella of Jane Austen’s, called Lady Susan. The story’s namesake is not the typical Austen heroine we’ve come to know and love–in other words, she’s not a young, unmarried woman looking for love with a suitably rich husband, a delightful, spirited woman who nonetheless conforms to her society’s norms and conventions.

Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) is not that woman. She’s a still-attractive older widow who schemes relentlessly to score a rich husband, for herself and also for her 17-year old daughter, Federica. She doesn’t care a fig about love, at least not when it comes to husbands. Husbands are a means to an end: financial security. She does, however, carry on an adulterous affair with the married Lord Manwing.

Unlike Lizzie, Emma, Catherine, and the Dashwood sisters, Lady Susan is not likable. Her outward charm masks a cunning ruthlessness that one nonetheless has no choice but to admire. Why? Because, despite being a woman in a staunchly patriarchal society, like any true Austen heroine she gets what she wants–not by some fairy-tale luck (having the good fortune to fall in love with and to secure a conveniently rich man). She knows intimately well the system she’s working within, and pulls all of the strings to her advantage. In the end, she scores a rich husband, who is stupid enough to believe the baby she carries is his own; her daughter fits the more typical Austen heroine in that she falls in love with a suitably rich man and blissfully marries him, but she is not the star of the show.

That Austen wrote such a scandalous main character–and have it all end well for her–is just another reason I find Jane Austen endlessly fascinating. She was a proto-feminist that knew Lady Susan could never be published in her time. It only took 200 years for this character to see the light of day, and though we may cringe at her methods, we must concede her brilliance and determination. Lady Susan forged a life on her own terms in a world that afforded her very little choice.

quiet passion 2

A Quiet Passion is a biopic of Emily Dickinson that I’ve been very eager to see. Cynthia Nixon (of Sex and the City fame) plays the enigmatic Dickinson, and she does so brilliantly here. Nixon recites her poems in a voice-over throughout the scenes of the film, and one gets a sense of Dickinson’s brilliance, her sensitivity, her spiritual struggle, her fierce intelligence.

She was extremely close to her family (her parents, brother Austin and sister Vinnie), and was content to live with them forever. She feared being parted from friends and family, either through death or marriage. She quite probably fell in love with both men and women–including a married pastor–but her loves were always fervently spiritual and intellectual in nature, and never consummated physically.

Inevitably, her parents died. Her good friend, the outspoken Vryling Buffam, married (and therefore relented to convention) and was no longer hers. Her married brother Austin commenced an affair with a married woman, and his infidelity enraged her.

“Why does life have to be so ugly?” she beseeches her sister Vinnie (Jennifer Ehle) at one point.

Near the end of her life she became embittered, and her fear of loss and death caused her to withdraw from life and society, never leaving her home, or even her room, for that matter. She pushed people away with cutting words. She continued to write, however, always struggling with the state of her soul, with the question of whether God existed, what awaited us after death. She was a brilliant, complicated woman who suffered and died from Bright’s disease at the age of 55.

I enjoyed the film, but had a problem with much of the dialogue. I expect witty banter from intelligent people, but these people talked in a way that raised it to ridiculous heights. Did people really converse in this manner? Their conversations didn’t feel at all natural; rather, they seemed artificially constructed, as if they were reading from well-thought out orations or speeches. It wasn’t believable, and actually got a little annoying. The only time it felt real was when characters lost their tempers and screamed at each other (in a very articulate manner, of course). Finally, real human beings!

Have you seen these movies? What did you think? Leave a comment and we’ll talk about it!

 

 

Cinematic Scribes

I love movies. I love writing and writers. So of course I love movies about writing and writers. There are countless movies out there about writers, but here are a few of my favorites:

The Wonder Boys. Michael Douglas in a shabby pink bathrobe and Toby Maguire tucked under the covers with Robert Downey, Jr. is enough to get me on board here. Douglas is a writing teacher who hasn’t had anything published since his award-winning novel seven years prior, and can’t seem to get his life together; Maguire is one of his students, a gifted writer in need of guidance.

wonder boys

Stranger Than Fiction. Will Ferrel is an IRS auditor who suddenly begins to hear a voice in his head, narrating his life. Emma Thompson is the writer who is writing his story. To break her writer’s block, she decides she has to kill off her main character. Her character takes exception to this, and trippy madcappery ensues.

stranger than fiction

Sideways. Paul Giammati is Miles, a struggling writer and wine enthusiast who takes his friend Jack (Thomas Haden Church) on a trip into wine country before Jack’s upcoming wedding. Miles looks forward to enjoying the wine, but Jack wants one last fling before his nuptials. His shenanigans throws the trip into disarray and jeopardizes Miles’ budding relationship with a woman he meets and connects with (Virginia Madsen).

sideways

And of course, there are the crazy writer/crazy fan movies from Stephen King: The Shining, Misery, and Secret Window, which are enough to make you rethink writing as a life choice.

shiningcmiserysecret window

 

I also love biopics and tributes: The Hours (Virginia Woolf), Iris (Iris Murdoch), Shakespeare in Love, Shadowlands (C.S. Lewis). Many, many others I’ve seen and haven’t seen.

Writers are an odd bunch, and it’s fun to watch a slice of their lives on film, from quirky to creepy.

Do you have a favorite writer movie?