Who Dares To Give Star Wars: The Force Awakens A Negative Review?

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I’m not sure who will be more disappointed with negative Star Wars: The Force Awakens reviews: the passionately unhinged fans or the critics who have to write them. I imagine, as a writer, it will be hard to find comfort in your journalistic integrity when your work is greeted with death threats, rape threats, threats of physical violence, threats against your family, the belittling of your career, so on and so forth. Critics like Marshall Fine, Stephanie Zacharek, Amy Nicholson, and Katherine Timph, have dealt with such attacks in the past. Their crime: daring to post a negative review or make a mocking assessment of a film property with a rabid fan base.

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Thankfully none of the awful threats levied against them came to pass. However, do you think they were as quick to be so honest with their opinions the next time? I imagine the temptation arose to go a little easy on the next big superhero film that came around. Perhaps they softened their opinion and left out any sharp or biting criticism. I’m not saying they lied and called a film good when its wasn’t (thought I’m sure such a thing has happened) but could you blame them if they did?

Critics have to think about their safety just like the rest of us. As time goes on and fan bases grow more unstable I feel critics will find new ways to disagree while remaining perfectly (cloyingly) agreeable. They wont like the film, but they’ll go out of their way to make sure the reader is okay with their opinion. Their reasonings will become so completely sanitized and pandering that people wont be able to tell if they’re reading a review or having their tastes complemented. To some (immature people) that would seem like good manners, but to others who value honesty, such a tone would seem disrespectful to the art of film criticism. Here’s hoping that when The Force Awakens opens, those who don’t find the film to be God’s gift will have the courage to say so.

 

 

The Abandoned Film Career Of George Lucas

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“I think Star Wars, it’s a pity, because George Lucas was a very experimental crazy guy and he got lost in this big production and never got out of it.”

-Francis Ford Coppola

When I read about “The New Hollywood” I tend to see the certain names repeated again and again: Spielberg, Lucas, Milius, Bogdanovich, Scorsese, De Palma, Coppola, ect. As we assess and reassess that period in time, certain names gain more prominence while others tend to lose their stature. George Lucas falls into the latter category. Of course he’s has more money than all of “The New Hollywood” combined and for most that means he’s achieved ultimate success. However, fans of the cinema who care about more than dollars and cents find such from grace is a complete and utter tragedy. We weep for the man who once was.

When I think about the career of George Lucas, I’m reminded of a now defunct podcast called Watching The Directors. Each episode of the podcast would take a close look at the career of one single director. To this day, I’ve never forgotten what the host said about George Lucas when his episode came around:

“Had Star Wars have waited, what career would Lucas have had.”

Star Wars is such a huge enterprise that its hard to imagine a world without it. Some, in fact, may not want to imagine a world without it. I, thank God, am not one of those people. Taking my cue from Back To The Future 2, I’ve often imagined an alternate timeline for George Lucas the director: a timeline filled with diverse and provocative features directed by one of the most unique voices of “The New Hollywood”. If I may, please allow me to be Doc Brown to your Marty McFly and give you a brief tour this ever so promising alternate timeline.

(Believe it or not, most of my conjecture has some basis in factual accounts of projects Lucas either abandoned or gave to his friends. Still, I would hesitate before taking any of this as gospel)

Starting off, I like to imagine a young George Lucas, fresh from the success of THX-1138 with the whole world before him. He transitions from the sparse sci-fi universe of THX to the jungles of Vietnam and begins production on the film Apocalypse Now, written by his buddy and fellow writer/director John Milius. If legend proves correct, his version of Apocalyspe Now is a vastly different animal from Coppola’s

“He (Lucas) approached Apocalypse Now as a black comedy, and intended to shoot the film after making THX 1138, with principal photography to start in 1971. Lucas’ friend and producer Gary Kurtz traveled to the Philippines, scouting suitable locations. They intended to shoot the film in both the rice fields between Stockton and Sacramento, California and on-location in Vietnam, on a $2 million budget, cinéma vérité style, using 16 mm cameras, and real soldiers, while the war was still going on.”

(If you want to see what Lucas’ version of Apocalypse Now would have been like, check out this clip from More American Graffiti). 

Going further down our alternate timeline we find a young George Lucas arrving home from the Philippines. He’s physically and emotionally exhausted. He wants to pursue a smaller project close to his heart that draws on his own personal history. His next film is American Graffiti. During production on Graffiti he starts fiddling around with another idea similarly steeped in Nostalgia. This time, however, it’s not nostalgia for his own personal history, but nostalgia for a culture that’s derived from the once-dominate entertainment medium of yesteryear. George Lucas’ next film is Radioland Murders. If we are to take Wikipedia as gospel, we understand that…

“Lucas conceived the story line of the film during the writing phase of American Graffiti, viewing it as a homage to the various Abbott and Costello films, primarily Who Done It (1942), in which Abbott and Costello star as two soda jerks solving a murder in a radio station.  When Universal Pictures accepted American Graffiti in 1972, Lucas also allowed the studio first look deals for both Radioland Murders and an untitled science fiction film (which eventually became the basis for Star Wars).

Lucas eventually negotiated a deal to produce Radioland Murders for Universal shortly after the successful release of American Graffiti in late 1973. Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz prepared a rough draft based on Lucas’s 1974 film treatment, and Universal was confident enough to announce pre-production soon after. Lucas was set to direct with Gary Kurtz producing.”

Oh, what could have been! Can you imagine: George Lucas fresh off the success of American Graffiti directs a madcap murder mystery screwball comedy starring Steve Martin and Cindy Williams (reports at the time had them attached as leads). Talk about movie lover heaven! (I also find it interesting that the mid 70’s found Spielberg, Scorsese and Lucas all developing projects dealing with nostalgia for yesteryear; 1941, New York, New York, and Radioland Murders).

Radioland Murders is released and is a modest hit (great with critics, not so much with audiences) Lucas decides its time to direct his “untitled science fiction film”. As a result, Star Wars is released May 1977 and the rest is history. The new found popularity is a bit much for Lucas so he decides to take a Hawaiian vacation with his friend Steven Spielberg. As the oft repeated story goes;

“While building a sand castle at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel, Spielberg expressed an interest in directing a James Bond film. Lucas convinced his friend Spielberg that he had conceived a character “better than James Bond” and explained the concept of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg loved it, calling it “a James Bond film without the hardware”

We know what happened next but remember, we’re not dealing with the traditional timeline. Here is where history changes: Spielberg decides to direct the first one, only if George will do the second (an unnamed director will tackle the third….perhaps Joe Johnston as a warm up for The Rocketeer). George and Steven begin pre-production on Raiders bringing in their friend Lawrence Kasdan to flesh out story ideas and write the script. Eventually, Lucas leaves pre-production on Raiders to undertake directorial duties on Empire Strikes Back. That’s right! The Irvin Kershner version of Empire is no more. We’re getting the full Lucas treatment. 

After Lucas releases his version of Empire to worldwide acclaim he decides he wants a change of pace before tackling the third Star Wars film and the second Indiana Jones movie. He wants to do something completely out of the ordinary. He decides to make an animated film. More than that, he wants to make an animated film in the tradition of experimental cinema. This comes as a shock, but those familiar with Lucas know that, deep down, he’s always been an experimental filmmaker. He directs his animated experiment, titled Twice Upon A Time, with co-director John Korty. We’re dealing in alternate timeline mechanics so we don’t know how it would have worked out, but this clip should give us a pretty good idea:

Now, with his experimental feature completed, its time to fulfill his part of the bargain and direct Indiana Jones And The Temple of Death (original title). Lucas begins production on Temple Of Death while Spielberg directs Revenge Of The Jedi (soon to be re-titled Return Of The Jedi) in Lucas’ stead……..and so on and so forth. Advancing the timeline to different logical conclusions, we’re able to foresee such Lucas directed features as….

  1. The George Lucas directed version of Howard The Duck (I think it would be an improvement) 
  2. An alternate version of Willow directed by George Lucas as an epic fantasy-adventure yarn instead of a special effects debacle. 
  3. The 1992 version of Red Tails directed by George Lucas starring Louis Gosset Jr, Lawrence Fishbourne, Denzel Washington, Gregory Hines, ect. 

A glimpse at such a future is enough to make a grown man cry. George Lucas could have been one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, but he traded it all away for the glory of the Empire. By the time he resumed directing with The Phantom Menace, his keen film-making instincts were all but gone (although, I believe Phantom Menace is underrated). He became a paint by numbers fantasy director, expanding the canvas of his created universe for no other reason than fan appeasement. He no longer cared about the art form of film or the possibilities of what cinema can do. It became all about the expansion of his never ending space opera.

Maybe one day, before it’s too late, he’ll start making personal films again. He’s said for years he wants to get back to that kind of film-making. If he ever does, I hope it’s a grand return to form for the once great auteur. Until then, I find myself sighing ever so slightly when I see the latest Star Wars trailer and wonder what could have been.

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Batman Vs. Superman Trailer Breakdown

The third trailer for Zach Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman premiered last night on Jimmy Kimmel Live. Here is our point by point review.

1. I hope the dialogue isn’t all superhero asides and cryptic speech about secret identities. In the trailer that seems like the only way Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent knew how to communicate.

“Maybe it’s the Gotham city in me. I just have a bad history with freaks dressed like clowns”.

Let’s keep dialogue like that to a minimum shall we. Why can’t they just speak like normal people and make small talk about the Warriors game the last night? Real People Dialogue > Fan Service Dialogue.

2. Everyone walking into a movie theater to see Batman vs Superman knows Lex Luthor is evil as sin. The job of the filmmakers is to make credible the belief that the hero’s aren’t aware (for a portion of the film) of the evil that lurks beneath the surface. From the looks of the trailer, they fail this job completely. Who, looking at Jessie Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor, can’t immediately discern his evil intentions?

Also, is anyone buying the hair piece. It looks faker than Stanwyck’s wig in Double Indemnity (at least the fakeness there had a point). If you’re going to do Lex Luthor than just make him bald from the get go and stop messing around.

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3. Ben Affleck…….his Batman looks decent but his Bruce Wayne seems lacking. As for Affleck’s gravely bat voice…is it too late in production to have Kevin Conroy re-dub all his dialogue.

4. A lot of the Dialogue from the trailer seems to come directly from the Batman vs. Superman pitch meeting at the studio:

“Bruce Wayne meets Clark Kent! Mmmm! I love it! I love bringing people together!”.

“The Greatest Gladiator match in the history of the world. Son of Krypton vs. Bat of Gotham”.

5. Overall, I think the Comic-Con trailer was superior to this one. It was about setting up the story and tone vs cramming the story and characters down our throat.

6. The scenes that look the most interesting are the courtroom scenes with Holly Hunter. I’m intrigued at what Superman could possibly say to explain his actions and clear his name.

7. I thought the biggest lie in America was about Devils coming from above, not power being an asset (at least I think Lex said asset). This is why trailer continuity is important.

8. In the trailer, around the 2:07 mark, there is a scene where a horde of large winged insect like creatures fly around in a battle scene. I hope this isn’t another nameless faceless alien army that the good guys have to face off with (“cough” Avengers and Avengers 2).

9. Batman vs Superman vs a CGI monstrosity.How is it that the CGI they used to make Ang Lee’s Hulk looks better than this?

10. Why did they make Doomsday (?) a big unrealistic behemoth? Couldn’t they just have gotten a big guy, like Dave Bautista in GOTG, and transformed him through the use of creature effects. As it is now, the reveal of Doomsday in the trailer looks so fake it’s ridiculous. It’s especially disappointing when you consider what they were able to achieve with actor Adewale Akinnuoye Agbaje as Killer Croc.

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11. In the trailer, after Clark and Bruce have been introduced, Lex jokingly says that Bruce “should not pick a fight with this person”. At that point they all should have turned and looked directly into the camera like a John Landis film.

12. Did Lex fail his World Religions class in college. “If man won’t kill god, then the devil will do it!”. Enough with the pseudo-religious speak already.

Anyway, his plan seems bullocks. “Hey, let’s just create a giant monster and let it fight Superman, Batman, and some mysterious woman who keeps showing up in these trailers but never speaks”. That’s the best Lex Luthor, perhaps the greatest criminal mastermind in the comics, can come up with. This makes me appreciate the evil real estate plots of the Donner and Singer films all the much more.

13. I like how Synder is handling the Superman as deity/savior motif. He taking it places Bryan Singer wouldn’t have dared. The footage of people worshiping Superman and bowing before him is very provocative.

14. It’s Zach Snyder so you know the movie will look fantastic. How the dialogue will turn out is another story. I’m of the mind that Batman Vs Superman would be an excellent silent flick. Just make it about the sounds and delete the dialogue. Somebody got Ben Burtt’s number.

 

My Top Ten Criterion Picks

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“Every month, we ask a friend—a filmmaker, a programmer, a writer, an actor, an artist—to select their ten favorite movies available from the Criterion Collection and jot down their thoughts about them. The entries (from people like Jane Campion, Jonathan Lethem, and Sonic Youth) are often surprising, and always entertaining.”

Anyone who’s seriously interested in film is aware by now of Criterion. The passionate and skilled workers at criterion have been behind some of the best and most high profile DVD remasters and re-releases of world, art house, and mainstream cinema since 1984. Serious Criterion fans make regular pilgrimages to their company website. Here is where many excellent essays on various Criterion films are found, as well as writings on popular film themes, and directors. It’s also where you find their famous collection of over 50 top ten lists curated by a diverse roster of artistic individuals from all walks of life. 

The top ten lists are a guilty pleasure for criterion fans. You roll your eyes at the different eccentrics who’ve provided their unique picks. You shake you head at the pretentious choices they highlight. You wince as you read the vague, meandering, and silly reasons they give for choosing each film. Then you sit back, breath a deep sigh, and silently wish that Criterion would call and ask you to provide your own personal list.

Rather than wait for Criterion to wise up and call me (seriously, what’s the hold up guys) I will provide for your viewing pleasure, my own personal Criterion top ten list. I figure it will be a fun way to fulfill a dream of mine while simultaneously giving newcomers to the site a precious window into my cinematic tastes. .

My Man Godfrey

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One of the first “old” movies I remember laughing out loud at. It was then I knew I was beginning to comprehend the rhythms of older comedic film styles (namely screwball). That’s something you have to learn since screen comedy has changed so much since the “golden age” of Hollywood. You become accustomed to the modern style and then have to learn a completely different style. I liken it to learning a foreign language. Thankfully I had wonderful teachers like William Powell and the wonderful Carole Lombard to guide me.

Carole Lombard….everything you’ve heard about her is true. She’s wonderful.  .

Badlands

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There’s not much to be said about Terrance Malick’s Badlands that hasn’t been said already. Go watch it. It’s brilliant. On the other hand, I feel not enough has been said about Sissy Spacek.

One flaw of classic Hollywood was its strictly maintained image. Only actors and actresses with a certain look could make it onto the screen. The 70’s changed all that. The classic model for how an actor looked was thrown away allowing for more interesting types to come forth. Enter Sissy Spacek. Sure, she’s gorgeous but it’s deeper than that. She’s ethereal. She’s comes the closest of any actress I’ve seen to achieving a kind of pureness on screen. In a way, she a visual muse to me.

3 Women

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So naturally I raided her filmography to find other films of note. Enter 3 Women. This was my first Altman film….which means absolutely nothing. What I’ve learned about Altman is that his is a filmography of snowflakes: no two films are alike. 3 Women sees him explore the myth of individuality through the prism of his dreams. It’s an odd film: sort of an Invasion of the Body Snatchers with the snatching occurring at a spiritual rather than biological level. Along with the resplendent Spacek we’re treated to another gift from the 70’s cinema: Shelly Duvall. Watching Spacek and Duvall interact and play off each other is equal parts hilarious, awkward, and  unsettling. They would have been great together regardless, but the sandbox Altman gave them to play in (his very own mind) is completely original and inspired.

Brief Encounter

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For most filmmakers (in that time period), such a serious subject (marital infidelity) would leave no room for cinematic or narrative daring. The story would handled with kid gloves: shot straightforwardly with lots of tearful closeups and long monologues. Thankfully David Lean was no ordinary director. The high class material (based on a play by Noel Coward) seems to have invigorated him. From the bold use of Rachmaninoff, to the daring decision have having the story unfold in flashback, you’ll find Brief Encounter is a film  very much alive despite it straight-laced source material.

Might I also add that Celia Johnson’s narration puts Morgan Freeman to shame. 

Hobson’s Choice

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Give me David Lean of the small and intimate (This Happy Breed, In Which We Serve, Great Expectations, Summertime, Brief Encounter, Hobson’s Choice) over David Lean of the spectacle (Bridge Over The River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago). In the early part of his career he found the lives and struggles of regular people already had enough larger than life drama; no CinemaScope necessary.

Pygmalion

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About as much like My Fair Lady as Do The Right Thing is like Song Of The South. Strip away the Lerner and Lowe and you’re left with one of the most scathing observations of male female relationships put on film. Along with that we get a keen exploration of the idiotic and easily manipulated class differences that exist in society. Charles Laughton is always regarded with a big “what if” when it came to his directing career. I think Leslie Howard (co-director on this film)had just as much unrealized directorial potential as Laughton did.

Anatomy Of A Murder

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Leave it to Preminger to make one of the most involving, non-boring courtroom dramas ever. How? By making the key court case in the film act as sort of verbal peep show. It also didn’t hurt having Duke Ellington provide the greatest jazz score ever put to film. It took a couple of viewings to realize Jimmy Stewart isn’t the hero in this story. Also, Lee Remick……wow.

Sullivan’s Travels

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Is Sullivan’s Travels the greatest film made about making movies? Perhaps. I personally believe it to be the supreme argument for why escapism (one of the chief virtues of cinema) is necessary.

White Dog

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Fuller was a true original wasn’t he? I recently became aware of him and I can say with confidence that he’s one of the few filmmakers that comes closet to true originality. Who can you compare a filmmaker to that makes movies like The Naked Kiss, Pickup On South Street, Shock Corridor, Steel Helmet, and House of Bamboo to name a few.

His longevity was more than admirable. Time could not dull his primal film-making instincts. Pick Up On South Street was made in 1953. White Dog was made in 1982. Almost 30 years between the two films and the man was still sharp as a tack. His camera was still vibrant. His casting was still spot on (Kristy McNichol is a revelation), and his ideas are as shocking as they’ve ever been. You’ve probably seen have seen thousands of films about racism but you’ve never seen one quite like this.

Rushmore

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I was still fairly young and just beginning my personal film re-education when I saw Rushmore. I went to my local public library and deliberately chose this film because of how pretentious and important it looked. “If I’m going to be a director”, I thought, “I’ve got to start watching more boring indie flicks”. One would normally say never judge a book by its cover but it’s not a strong enough statement for my experience with this film. .

Two Days, One Night: Film Review

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This movie barely skims the surface. It refuses to delve any deeper than general emotions and grandiose displays of acting prowess. As entertaining as these things may be they are a poor substitute for actual depth. The story of Two Days, One Night follows Sandra, a young Belgian mother, who discovers that her workmates have opted for a significant pay bonus in exchange for her dismissal. She has only one weekend to convince her colleagues to give up their bonuses so that she can keep her job. After some begging and pleading her former superiors will allow for another vote to be taken to decide if Sandra can receive her job back. The catch is that if they vote for her to be rehired, they will lose the substantial raises they gained from her absence. Sandra had missed a substantial amount of time away from work for depression related illness. Now, she must fight through her depression and anxiety to ask her colleagues to vote for her to receive her job back. Therein lies the first problem in the film: her mental illness. Kudos to Marion Cotillard for a brilliant portrayal of a woman under the influence. Her performance never hits a false note. Sadly, her particular instrument wasn’t needed in the orchestra. The story of the film is so potent and relatable, considering the harsh economic realities so many struggle with, that the added disease subplot seems superfluous. Isn’t it enough that she has to ask hard working men and women to forfeit their raises on her behalf? Do we need to see her struggle through her anxiety in scene after scene after scene? It garners a sort of cheap sentiment from the audience and makes the whole thing seem less honest.

All this could be forgiven if any significant insights were garnered from Sandra’s encounters with her co-workers. She goes all over town, crossing many class, gender, and racial barriers to ask for their vote. The Dardenne’s don’t exploit these social differences to give us any understanding of the different moral and spiritual identities people wrestle with as they try to distinguish what is right and wrong. Instead, people tend to respond the same way to her plea, basically doing a variation on the same basic concessions: “Things are tough”, I’m barely getting by”, and  “I need the money too”. The same answer is given over and over again: sometimes angrily, sometimes with tears, and sometimes with fists. Yes, people need money to live and survive. It’s a common truth that even children understand. Couldn’t the Dardenne’s have dug a little deeper into why people feel the way they do about money? Do their politics contribute to their decision? What about religion? The only time we’re given any insight into why one co-workers will vote one way or the other, is when Sandra visits a fellow worker of African descent who (of course) has a little bit of religion.

“You know I’d like to vote for you tomorrow. It’s what God tells me to do. I have to help my neighbor.”

Regrettably this isn’t elaborated on in any meaningful way. The conversation quickly shifts to the issue of peer pressure. Her co-worker goes on to say that he’s afraid of what others might think if he votes in her favor. Even though he ultimately decides to vote for her rehiring it’s not due to his faith in God. It’s more of a statement of his independence; for once he will not be influenced by groupthink. A pleasant revelation for him but not the audience. At the very least I would have settled for a discussion of racial inequality. Perhaps her black co-worker finds it hard to believe that she, a white woman, could ever be more hard up than him. Yet even a point as obvious as this goes unexplored. He needs the money and she needs the money. She wants his help and he decides he will help her. End of story.

In any case (in a move that feels completely anti-climatic) the vote at work is a stalemate and Sandra is fired (The Dardennes instinct seems to be off on in this instance as well. All along it seems they were setting up some of her coworkers to be phonies – crying in her face because of her plight but then voting against her when the time came. Nothing came of this potentially dark insight into human nature. The people who said they would vote in her favor did. Ultimately, this comes across as a cheat to the audience) As she is leaving work her boss calls her into his office. Despite her failure, he’s pleased with her tenacity in getting so many of her co-workers to  to change their minds. He offers her the job back and will allow the employees to keep their bonuses as well. Of course the ‘new’ catch is that one of the temp workers won’t have their contract renewed to make room for her. Sandra denies the agreement not wanting to inconvenience her fellow co-worker and leaves to seek other employment. The bright side is that the fight for her job seems to have partially cured her depression. She’s smiling now with a new lease on life and seems optimistic about what lay ahead. Good for her.

While containing some fine performances (Sandra’s husband Manu played by Fabrizio Roguione is fantastic) and a strong story, the film’s potential ultimately goes unrealized. If the Dardennes had cared to delve a bit deeper into why money is or isn’t so important to people instead of focusing on something so banal as the universal fear of lack, they might have had something. My final advice, in keeping with the spirit of the film, is to save your money and wait for a tv viewing of Two Days, One Night instead of wasting money on a rental. You might need the extra dough for bills or something.