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Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Review: The Peanut Butter Falcon

The Feel-Good Film of the Year

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: August 23, 2019 – U.S. • Rating: PG-13 • Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama • Running Time: 97 minutes • Directors: Tyler Nilson, Mike Schwartz • Writers: Tyler Nilson, Mike Schwartz • Cast: Zack Gottsagen, Shia LaBeouf, Dakota Johnson, John Hawkes, Thomas Haden Church, Bruce Dern, Jon Bernthal, Yelawolf, Jake Roberts, Mick Foley

"The Peanut Butter Falcon" is a story about hopes and dreams; about the bonds of brotherhood and choosing who becomes family; about living your own life and not letting other people decide for you what you can and can't do or who you can and can't be.

Zak (Zack Gottsagen) is a young man with Down Syndrome who has no family and lives in a nursing home for the elderly because there's nowhere else to send him. His best friend there is Carl (Bruce Dern), who is his roommate and several decades older. Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) works at the home and genuinely cares for Zak, despite the bureaucracy and negligence she puts up with from her boss, Glen (Lee Spencer).

Zak worships a professional wrestler known as The Salt Water Redneck (Thomas Haden Church) and constantly watches and re-watches a worn out VHS tape featuring old wrestling matches and an advertisement for The Salt Water Redneck's wrestling school. With Carl's help, using the old tried and true method of soaping your body to squeeze through heavy metal bars, Zak plots his escape from the home to chase his dream of becoming a professional wrestler.

Along the way, Zak hides in the boat of a crab fisherman, Tyler (Shia LaBeouf), who is on the run. Their relationship at first is uneasy, but it soon blossoms into friendship, and friendship soon blossoms into brotherhood.

Tyler is down on his luck, struggling to make ends meet, and grieving the loss of his older brother (played by Jon Bernthal). He is being chased by two bad guys, Duncan and Ratboy (John Hawkes and Yelawolf), who make even The Salt Water Redneck's most villainous opponents seem tame by comparison. On top of that, he has to figure out how to navigate both the waters and the unexpected stowaway on his boat, Zak, who knows where he wants to go – The Salt Water Redneck's wrestling school – but needs a little guidance to get there.

Do they make it to the wrestling school? Does a blind man – helpfully named Blind Jasper John (Wayne Dehart) – baptize them in a lake? If you answered yes to both questions, you'd be correct – sort of. All of that is beside the point anyway. The heart and soul of this movie is in the relationship formed between Zak and Tyler. The most powerful parts of the film aren't in the dialogue, action, or conflict; they're in the quiet unspoken moments – a look of pride or concern, a brotherly embrace – shared between them.

It's a hell of a feature film debut for Zack Gottsagen, who proves that the only limitations are the ones we create ourselves, and it's quite possibly Shia LaBeouf's finest hour as an actor. LaBeouf's immense talent has been underrated and underappreciated over the years, but make no mistake about it, he is extraordinarily exceptional at his craft – and he showcases it yet again in "The Peanut Butter Falcon."

Thomas Haden Church is the last person I would've ever thought to cast as a wrestler, but he pulls it off beautifully – perfectly embodying the persona of a grizzled veteran whose best years in the ring may be long in the past but a spark still exists inside him. Jake "The Snake" Roberts and Mick Foley, two bona fide wrestling legends who appear in the film, know more than a thing or two about that!

Dakota Johnson also shines in a very sweet and tender but determined performance as someone who fights ferociously for Zak's best interests but doesn't always necessarily know how.

"The Peanut Butter Falcon" is a profound joy to watch – even if you don't like peanut butter, falcons, or professional wrestling.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Review: Fighting with My Family

The Strange but Charming True Story of a Professional Wrestling Family from England

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: February 22, 2019 – U.S. • Rating: PG-13 • Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama • Running Time: 108 minutes • Director: Stephen Merchant • Writer: Stephen Merchant • Cast: Florence Pugh, Nick Frost, Lena Headey, Jack Lowden, Vince Vaughn, Dwayne Johnson

Based on the documentary of the same name, "Fighting with My Family" tells the stranger-than-fiction true story of professional wrestling's "Knight" family. (Like almost everything else in wrestling, "Knight" isn't their real name – "Bevis" doesn't sound quite as catchy though.) They're a ragtag group of misfits that run a small independent wrestling organization in Norwich, England called World Association of Wrestling (WAW). It is literally a mom-and-pop shop. The parents, Ricky and Julia (Nick Frost and Lena Headey), are the promoters and wrestlers. Their son Zak (Jack Lowden) also wrestles. (Another son, Roy, is a wrestler too – but he's in prison for most of the film.) Saraya (Florence Pugh) joins the family business at the ridiculously young age of 13. She would eventually attain worldwide fame as Paige in WWE, but before that, she wrestled as a child under the name Britani Knight. To show just how deeply passionate – and obsessed – wrestlers can be, Saraya was actually named after her mum's in-ring character, Sweet Saraya. 

Eventually, both Saraya and Zak are invited to attend a WWE tryout. There, they memorably run into The Rock (Dwayne Johnson). Did this really happen? As The Rock might say, IT DOESN'T MATTER if it really happened! Whether the scene is factual or fabricated, it gives Johnson an excuse to cut a classic Rock promo. That's a good enough reason for me! (The Rock was instrumental in getting in this movie made and released.)

The tryout is coached by a former wrestler named Hutch (Vince Vaughn, playing a slightly gentler version of his drill sergeant character from "Hacksaw Ridge"). Hutch was created for the movie but serves as a stand-in for various real-life coaches and wrestlers. His backstory suspiciously resembles Mick Foley, who famously threw himself off the roof of the "Hell in a Cell" cage. However, unlike Hutch, Foley actually became a star. More likely, the Hutch character is meant to represent journeymen dreamers like Jimmy Jacobs and B.J. Whitmer – who almost killed themselves in an insane cage match at a show called "Supercard of Honor II" in front of a few hundred people (I was there, and it was one of the damnedest things I've ever seen) – and many others like them.

As wrestling fans already know, Saraya is chosen and Zak is not. This leads to resentment and a downward spiral for Zak, while Saraya deals with the culture shock of moving from England to America – specifically from drab, grey Norwich to bright, sunny Florida. At the WWE training camp, the newly christened Paige – named after her favorite character from the TV show "Charmed" – feels like a "freak" next to the other female trainees, all of whom are "Barbie doll" models and cheerleaders. While the women in the movie are fictionalized, they accurately represent WWE's hiring practices at the time. 

Even though some characters and elements are fictionalized, and some aspects of what actually happened are shifted around or combined to tell a cleaner story, "Fighting with My Family" is the rare biopic that is almost entirely factual. 

Florence Pugh is so good in her role that I often forgot I wasn't watching the real Paige. Jack Lowden excels at the difficult task of conveying Zak's disappointment, bitterness, and broken dreams. He's "the heavy" of the film in the way, and not always likable, but he never loses his humanity. Nick Frost and Lena Headey are precious as their parents, especially Frost, who talks about his character's prison time in such a casual, matter-of-fact way – as if it's no different or less ordinary than toasting bread for breakfast. Also look for writer-director Stephen Merchant in a small but priceless role (Julia Davis, who plays his wife, is also a standout). Thea Trinidad (WWE's Zelina Vega) plays AJ Lee in the film's climactic scene, and eagle-eyed wrestling fans will enjoy spotting other blink-and-you'll-miss-it wrestler cameos. Rest assured that no wrestling knowledge is required to enjoy this film. (After all, did you know anything about Jamaican bobsleds before or after watching "Cool Runnings"?) Silver Screen Sister, who doesn't know Hulk Hogan from the Incredible Hulk, absolutely adored watching this. So did I. Paige's journey is a great underdog story, period.

"Fighting with My Family" is funny, quirky, sweet, and heartfelt. It will end up being one of the year's best films.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The 91st Annual Academy Awards: Results and Reactions

Black, Green, Queen, or Queens?

By Chris Sabga

Without a host, will the Academy Awards finally be less than 4+ hours? 

Spoiler: Yes! (About 3 hours and 20 minutes.)

Before the Show 

What Didn't Go Wrong on the Road to the Red Carpet? 

A pandering Popular Movies category was introduced, only to be scrapped after massive backlash.

Four categories – Cinematography, Film Editing, Live Action Short, and Makeup and Hairstyling – were going to be taken off the live show and handed out during commercial breaks. This demeaning development was met with predictable disdain from both inside and outside the film industry.

There was a host – until there wasn't. Kevin Hart was set to do the honors before old homophobic comments from a "comedy" routine resurfaced. He stepped down after initial backlash, later tried to resume the mantle again (with the endorsement of LGBTQ+ icon Ellen DeGeneres, no less), and finally bowed out for good after his rambling half-apologies were met with even more criticism. 

Any Potential Surprises?

Rumor has it that Whoopi Goldberg will secretly be hosting tonight's ceremony. We'll find out.

Many predictions are citing "Roma" as the likeliest candidate for Best Picture. As much as I loved this quietly poignant and beautifully shot film about a year in the life of a maid and the family she works for in early-1970s Mexico, it doesn't feel like a sure thing to me. If it wins, it would the first foreign-language film ever to do so – and a major victory for Netflix and streaming services in general ("Roma's" theatrical distribution was limited – most viewers saw it through Netflix). 

"Green Book" is also being talked about as a strong voting contender, but there has been backlash from the family of Dr. Don Shirley (played by Mahershala Ali in the film) as well as controversies surrounding director Peter Farrelly and writer Nick Vallelonga (son of Tony "Lip" Vallengona, portrayed by Viggo Mortensen in the movie). Could that then pave the way for "BlacKkKlansman," "Black Panther," or even "The Favourite" pull ahead in the polls and win the big gold? "A Star is Born" – once thought of as a heavy favorite – is now considered a longshot. "Vice" winning seems about as likely as its subject matter ever becoming President. 

If "Roma" doesn't score the predicted Best Picture victory for whatever reason (voters might deem it too long, too slow, too foreign, too black and white, consider Netflix a threat to movie theaters, etc.), "BlacKkKlansman" is my outside-the-box guess. It hasn't been attacked from all sides like the divisive "Green Book" and doesn't carry a stigma with the snooty Academy of being a comic book movie like "Black Panther" – all while containing many of the same powerful themes and messages both of those films have been applauded for.

This is easily one of the most unpredictable Best Picture races in years. 

Glenn Close has become the front-runner for "The Wife" in the Best Actress category after a touching speech at the Golden Globes. She has six previous nominations and zero victories. Will this be lucky #7? Academy members may be rooting for her to finally win the big one. But could Olivia Colman emerge instead as the favorite for "The Favourite"? 

Full results are listed at the end.  

The Oscar Ceremony

The Host: The Whoopi rumor wasn't true after all. There really isn't a host.

Best Oscar Speeches: Regina King's speech after winning Best Supporting Actress for "If Beale Street Could Talk" was tearful and heartfelt. I don't know a single person who wasn't rooting for her.

Becky Neiman-Cobb of the animated short film "Bao" delivered a touching speech on making a movie about motherhood just as she was becoming a mother herself.

Rami Malek's speech was pure class. As someone who enjoyed his work and recognized his talent on the TV show "The War at Home" a decade before it seemed like anyone else knew who he was, I'm happy to see him go as far as he has. 

"The Favourite" Best Actress winner Olivia Colman was precious, blowing kisses at fellow nominee Lady Gaga.

Best Presenters: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Maya Rudolph kicked off the ceremony by skewering the lack of a host and other Oscar mishaps (see above) before presenting the award for Best Supporting Actress. 

Helen Mirren and Jason Momoa were funny talking about their "matching" pink outfits, which they swear they didn't discuss with each other beforehand.

Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry coming out in outrageous outfits while cracking about the subtlety of a good costume design was an amusing visual gag.

I liked what Michelle Yeoh and Pharrell Williams said about "putting away childish things" before pointing out that we don't have to thanks to these nominees for Best Animated Feature.

I love Awkwafina and John Mulaney. 

Best Moments: The "Wayne's World" reunion with Dana Carvey and Mike Myers was nice.

The sheer adoration "A Star is Born" actors Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga showed for each other during their musical performance was infectious. 

Best Dressed: You're on the wrong site for that, but here's a quote from Silver Screen Sister: "Even if Regina King doesn't win (I think she might), her dress already has!" And Gemma Chan's dress "looks like an upside down hot pink cupcake, but she pulls it off. She's so delicate looking." Okay, then...

Biggest Surprise: Olivia Colman winning Best Actress instead of Glenn Close wasn't entirely unexpected – I did suggest the possibility above – but it still qualifies as a major surprise and massive upset.

"Green Book" was at least somewhat of a surprise for "Best Picture." It's a very nice movie. I liked it and I can understand why it would be a sentimental favorite, but I personally would've voted for "Roma" or "BlacKkKlansman" instead.

Overall: While this wasn't the most dynamic ceremony over, I can forgive that because it moved along at a (relatively) speedy pace. If losing the host means shortening the length of the Oscars, I hope the show never has a host again. In future years, the Academy can focus on making the ceremony less dry. For now, I consider this a success. 

Full Results

Best Picture: "Green Book" 

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Rami Malek, "Bohemian Rhapsody" 

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Olivia Colman, "The Favourite"

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Mahershala Ali, "Green Book"

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Regina King, "If Beale Street Could Talk"

Best Director: Alfonso Cuarón, "Roma"

Best Animated Feature: "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"

Best Adapted Screenplay: "BlacKkKlansman"

Best Original Screenplay: "Green Book"

Best Foreign Language Film: "Roma" (Mexico)

Best Documentary Feature: "Free Solo"

Best Original Song: "A Star is Born"

Best Original Score: "Black Panther"

Best Cinematography: Alfonso Cuarón, "Roma"

Film Editing: "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Costume Design: "Black Panther"

Makeup and Hairstyling: "Vice"

Production Design: "Black Panther"

Sound Editing: "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Sound Mixing: "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Visual Effects: "First Man"

Best Documentary Short: "Period. End of Sentence."

Best Animated Short: "Bao"

Best Live Action Short: "Skin"

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

The 91st Annual Academy Awards: Nominations, Surprises, Snubs

Crazy Rich Snubs

By Chris Sabga

As I've done for the past several years, I will go through the nominees and then analyze what I feel are the "Silver Screen Surprises" for each of the main categories.

Which nominations – and snubs – surprised me? 

And the Oscar goes to...

Best Picture

"Black Panther"
"Bohemian Rhapsody"
"The Favourite"
"Green Book"
"A Star Is Born"

Surprises: I expected "Crazy Rich Asians" to be nominated for Best Picture, but not only did it fail to make an appearance in this category, it was completely shut out of the Oscars in general. What happened?

There was minor intrigue about whether "Black Panther" would actually get a Best Picture nomination after a "Most Popular Movie" Oscar was briefly considered – seemingly for this movie – only to be scrapped after massive backlash.

Will this be a three-way contest between "Black Panther," "BlacKkKlansman," and "Green Book" – or will "Roma" sweep in and spoil their chances?

"Roma's" inclusion is a huge victory for Netflix – and streaming in general – as the film received only a tiny theatrical release and was seen by most viewers at home. Theater owners have reason to be worried.

Lead Actor

Christian Bale, "Vice"
Bradley Cooper, "A Star Is Born"
Willem Dafoe, "At Eternity's Gate"
Rami Malek, "Bohemian Rhapsody"
Viggo Mortensen, "Green Book"

Surprises: This is possibly the least surprising of all the categories, but the actual winner might be a surprise in what is sure to be a tightly-contested race.

There was no chance in hell of Steve Carell scoring a nomination for "Welcome to Marwen" – a movie disliked by both viewers and critics (except me) – but he did the impossible and turned a very strange character into a sympathetic one. I think history will judge his performance kindly.

Lead Actress

Yalitza Aparicio, "Roma"
Glenn Close, "The Wife"
Lady Gaga, "A Star Is Born"
Olivia Colman, "The Favourite"
Melissa McCarthy, "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

Surprises: Not that I expected it, but Elsie Fisher was superb in "Eighth Grade" and more than deserved a nomination. Then again, I can understand the hang-up about not wanting to ruin a child actor's life by giving her too much too soon. That would be even worse than middle school.

Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali, "Green Book"
Adam Driver, "BlackKKlansman"
Sam Elliott, "A Star Is Born"
Richard E. Grant, "Can You Ever Forgive Me"
Sam Rockwell, "Vice"

Surprises: Sam Elliott wasn't expecting to be nominated, so I wasn't expecting it either.

Supporting Actress

Amy Adams, "Vice"
Marina de Tavira, "Roma"
Regina King, "If Beale Street Could Talk"
Emma Stone, "The Favourite"
Rachel Weisz, "The Favourite"

Surprises: Meryl Streep wasn't nominated for "Mary Poppins Returns." She's always nominated. Okay, I'm only kidding – somewhat!

As I mentioned above, "Crazy Rich Asians" is nowhere to be found this year. At the very least, Michelle Yeoh should have had this category sewn up.


Spike Lee, "BlacKkKlansman"
Pawel Pawlikowski, "Cold War"
Yorgos Lanthimos, "The Favourite"
Alfonso Cuarón, "Roma"
Adam McKay, "Vice"

Surprises: Bradley Cooper was widely expected to be among the nominees in this category for "A Star is Born," but I guess a star wasn't born in this case.

Animated Feature

"Incredibles 2"
"Isle of Dogs"
"Ralph Breaks the Internet"
"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"

Surprises: Don't be surprised when "Spider-Man" wins.

I'm not sure "Welcome to Marwen" would even be eligible for this category considering that it has live action sequences too, but I personally found the animation impressive.

Original Screenplay

"First Reformed"
"Green Book"
"The Favourite"

Surprises: Bo Burnham was robbed – I guess the writing in "Eighth Grade" wasn't "flashy" enough for the Academy?

Best Documentary Feature

"Free Solo"
"Hale County This Morning, This Evening"
"Minding the Gap"
"Of Fathers and Sons"

Surprises: It's not a good day in the neighborhood, as the Mr. Rogers documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" was surprisingly snubbed.

Other thoughts: Kevin Hart was originally scheduled to host the ceremony, until he stepped down after old homophobic jokes of his surfaced. No one replaced him. Why? Probably because it's a thankless job with very little upside, especially with the way ratings have steadily declined over the years. The show is a slog to watch at the best of times, so how will it work without a host to break up the monotony? Kevin Hart would have done a good job, but he botched his "apology" tour with a series of clumsy foot-in-mouth non-apologies and justifications. Not even Ellen's endorsement could save him. The question now becomes, who will save us from four-and-a-half hours of self-congratulatory mind-numbing boredom.

The rest of the categories and nominees are: 

Adapted Screenplay

"The Ballad of Buster Scruggs"
"Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
"If Beale Street Could Talk"
"A Star Is Born"

Animated Short

"Animal Behaviour"
"Late Afternoon"
"One Small Step"


"Cold War"
"The Favourite"
"Never Look Away"
"A Star Is Born"

Best Documentary Short Subject

"Black Sheep"
"End Game"
"A Night at the Garden"
"Period. End of Sentence."

Best Live Action Short Film


Best Foreign Language Film

"Cold War"
"Never Look Away"

Film Editing

"Bohemian Rhapsody"
"Green Book"
"The Favourite"

Sound Editing

"A Quiet Place"
"Black Panther"
"Bohemian Rhapsody"
"First Man"

Sound Mixing

"Black Panther"
"Bohemian Rhapsody"
"First Man"
"A Star Is Born"

Production Design

"Black Panther"
"The Favourite"
"First Man"
"Mary Poppins Returns"

Original Score

"Black Panther"
"If Beale Street Could Talk"
"Isle of Dogs"
"Mary Poppins Returns"

Original Song

"All The Stars" from "Black Panther"
"I'll Fight" from "RBG"
"Shallow" from "A Star Is Born
"The Place Where Lost Things Go" from "Mary Poppins Returns"
"When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings" from "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs"

Makeup and Hair

"Mary Queen of Scots"

Costume Design

"The Ballad of Buster Scruggs"
"Black Panther"
"The Favourite"
"Mary Poppins Returns"
"Mary Queen of Scots"

Visual Effects

"Avengers: Infinity War"
"Christopher Robin"
"First Man"
"Ready Player One"
"Solo: A Star Wars Story"

Monday, January 7, 2019

Review: Welcome to Marwen

The (Second) Life and Art of Mark Hogencamp

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: December 21st, 2018 – U.S. • Rating: PG-13 • Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama • Running Time: 116 minutes • Director: Robert Zemeckis • Writers: Robert Zemeckis, Caroline Thompson • Cast: Steve Carell, Merritt Wever, Leslie Mann, Falk Hentschel, Matt O'Leary, Patrick Roccas, Alexander Lowe, Eiza González, Leslie Zemeckis, Gwendoline Christie, Stefanie von Pfetten, Janelle Monáe, Neil Jackson

"I decided I'm not going to lie in my second life. I always tell the truth and tell people who I am, because why should I be afraid to tell you who I am?"

– Mark Hogencamp (from his book Welcome to Marwencol)

"Welcome to Marwen" is a weird movie. Not just original (which it certainly is) and not just unique (although it also is), but weird. But then, art is often weird, and so too are artists. 

Mark Hogencamp was a cross-dressing alcoholic nearly killed outside a bar for talking about wearing women's shoes and left brain-damaged and amnesiac after the attack. It's a role that could possibly have only been played by Steve Carell. In almost any other actor's hands, Hogencamp's odd/unique/weird/fill-in-the-blank personality traits would have dominated the performance – but Carell focuses on the humanity and sweetness inherent in the real-life Hogencamp. 

As the movie begins, the viewer is thrust into the middle of a World War II dogfight. However, it quickly becomes apparent that something is amiss. It's clearly Carell flying the plane, but he looks like a doll! And the aircraft looks like something from a model kit. The background seems kind of artificial as well. 

Welcome to Marwen.

Marwen is a fictional WWII-era town in Belgium comprised solely of dolls and the miniature locations built to host them. It's the brainchild of artist and photographer Mark Hogencamp and the home of the heroic Hogie – the doll that serves as his alter-ego. Also residing there are several Nazi soldiers who are repeatedly killed and come back to life like characters respawning in a video game, the Women of Marwen who oppose them every step of the way, and the enigmatic Deja Thoris – the Belgian Witch of Marwen.

Are you still reading this?

Yeah, it's easy to see why "Welcome to Marwen" sharply divided critics and didn't light up the box office, but certain viewers will certainly find a lot to like here. I was one of them, for reasons I'll get into later in this review.

In actuality, Hogencamp's visual art and storytelling are conveyed through stunning still photographs of the dolls he customizes and the models and sets he painstakingly builds. In the film, they're brought to life through a series of ambitious animated sequences. Interspersed throughout are scenes of Hogencamp's bleaker reality, where it becomes clear that every character in Marwen is based on someone he knows (Janelle Monáe of "Hidden Figures" appears in one such dual role, and his real-life attackers take the form of Nazi officers in Marwen).

Roberta (Merritt Wever) is the owner of the hobby shop in town Mark uses to build Marwen. She has clearly taken an interest in him, but the feeling is either not noticed or mutual. Then a new neighbor moves across the street – Nicol "without the e" (Leslie Mann) – who Hogencamp is instantly smitten with. It isn't long before she becomes Marwen's newest resident.

Readers of the book Welcome to Marwencol and viewers of the documentary "Marwencol" will notice several major changes typical of a "based on a true story" Hollywood production, but I was able experience "Welcome to Marwen" on its own terms because I saw the film first and read the book after.

Director Robert Zemeckis (probably best known for "Back to the Future" and "Forrest Gump") does an outstanding job of portraying Mark Hogencamp's fictional world through animation, just as Hogencamp himself does through his artistic photography. Creative types will tell you that there's a whole world living inside their heads – which only comes out through their writing, drawing, painting, photography, or whatever their preferred art form happens to be. "Welcome to Marwen" brings that process to life. It's not a perfect movie or one I could ever blindly recommend, but if you consider yourself a creative person, "Marwen" will probably speak to you.