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Sunday
Apr202014

Transcendence (2014)

Run-time Error

Describing Transcendence as a star-powered, mega-budget rip-off of The Lawnmower Man is easy. It's also inaccurate. While cinematographer Wally Pfister's directorial debut is awful, we are duty-bound as lovers of art to bash it on fair terms--or not at all.

For starters, in The Lawnmower Man, Jeff Fahey plays a simpleton who gains hyper intelligence and near-limitless power, after his consciousness is uploaded to a computer. In Transcendence, Johnny Depp plays Will Caster, a shy super-genius whose consciousness is uploaded to a computer, after his mortal body is killed by an anti-tech terrorist group. Both characters lack a fundamental understanding of people to begin with (i.e. the nuances of personality and spirit), but Caster is a downright Vulcan who appears to learn nothing on his journey from detached nerd to detached program--where Fahey's Job grows a Skynet-like disdain for those he sees as roadblocks on his "Look at me now" quest for power.

Granted, Transcendence is supposed to be less of a comic-book fantasy film, one that deals with The Big Questions and tosses out geek-catnip references to The Singularity. But for a movie with such high ideals and a rock-star-cast pedigree, Pfister, first-time feature screenwriter Jack Paglen, and especially editor David Rosenbloom* all seem at odds with one another--resulting in a pretty, flimsy, and ultimately nonsensical fiasco.

It's rare that a film feels simultaneously overwrought and rushed. We're given five minutes to meet Will and his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) before he's shot with a radioactive bullet that plunges Transcendence into Lifetime territory. Aside from some half-awake proclamations by Depp that man's ultimate goal is to create God, and something or other about keeping the government out of his research, the audience is given no sense of Will as a man. So when he becomes sick and suspicious (maybe?) of Evelyn's relationship with colleague, Max (Paul Bettany), we're left to wonder about the trio's back story--and, more importantly, how he even feels about it.

What does Will experience most in his last five weeks of life? Fear? Jealousy? Anger? Eagerness to move into an undiscovered phase of human evolution? It's impossible to know because Depp, beneath all the dripping, pale makeup and funky cybernetic corn rows, is merely a sleepy figure with a distant gaze--much like the viewer.

The problems Will poses as a character pale in comparison to Evelyn's. Again, because we spend no time with these people before watching them rush to catch Transcendence's runaway-train of a plot, we can only scratch our heads at this woman--this allegedly brilliant scientist who, at the prospect Will's death, is reduced to the role of simpering, illogical girl for the remaining ninety minutes. Had Transcendence taken place in a week or a month, Evelyn's complicity in helping her new computer-husband build a race of cybernetically enhanced super-men would have been hard to stomach. But the film spans half a decade, and paints half a dozen shiny, flashing "Exit" signs for our beleaguered, bubble-headed heroine. By the time she ignores the third one, I'd given up on her and the movie.

Worst of all is what Pfister and company do with Bettany's character. Forget Will and Evelyn: Max is our real window into this world. Brainy and incredulous, he mocks the idea of digitizing Will's brain, and poses some pretty terrific warnings about the consequences--warnings that scientists might heed. He's routinely brushed off in hilarious exchanges that go something like this:

WILL-BOT

Honey, can you please connect me to the Internet? I think accessing the collective Wall Street database will really help me, um, grow as a person...yeah.

EVELYN

Sure thing, baby!

MAX

Evelyn, does that sound like Will? Ten minutes after coming on-line, and he wants to control the stock market?

EVELYN

Shut up! It IS Will! It IS! SHUT UP! GET OUT! GET OUT! GOOOOO!

[MAX EXITS]

WILL-BOT

Where did Max go?

EVELYN

Oh, um, he had to run, sweetie. Which street did you want to look up? "Wall" something?

But even Max falls victim to this film's horrid writing. Kidnapped and imprisoned by the anti-tech techno terrorists, led by Kate Mara (who looks and acts like the lost triplet from The Matrix: Reloaded), Max must fight his way back to society and stop two factions of utter madness from destroying the world.

Oh, wait, that doesn't happen. Max joins the revolution, thanks solely to plot contrivance and sloppy editing. At least he's not alone: as Transcendence zips further into the future, leap-frogging over really important events and conversations, every person we were introduced to in the first twenty minutes--who is not named Will or Evelyn--joins the underground movement. This includes the Casters' trusted computer-whiz friend (Morgan Freeman); the skeptical FBI agent (Cillian Murphy, cementing Transcendence's trifecta of a Nolanverse Batman reunion); and a team of faceless paramilitary goons, led by Cole Hauser.

The climactic battle takes place at the Casters' multi-billion-dollar research facility--which they developed in utter secrecy, within two years. That's right, kids, no one noticed the Umbrella Corporation buying up land and installing thousands of solar panels in the middle of the desert. I guess because Will owns the Internet, not one government official swung by to ask for permits on the super-secret tech lab being constructed five miles below the Earth's surface. The kicker: this ultra-sensitive masterwork of engineering has a single point of entry that's monitored by a single camera--not that one needs to protect a door whose lock appears to be permanently out of order.

And I use the term "climactic battle" loosely. Sorry if I implied that there were stakes involved, or an outcome that might make sense. Throughout the film, characters wonder aloud if the mega computer is actually Will, the sentient computer his program was based on, or a combination of both. The filmmakers tease us relentlessly, but never commit to any one answer--meaning that Will is either the world's most inept cyber villain or its most wishy-washy do-gooder. In the end, Evelyn joins the resistance (of course), and allows herself to be injected with a virus--which gets uploaded to Will-bot.

Will is okay with this, of course, because he is an utterly disaffected non-character. Despite the fact that he claims to want to help people, he effectively takes his Internet and goes home, leaving the entire world without power or communication. Pfister and company glibly assume the worst that will happen is people having to live without Hulu Plus and on-line banking--never mentioning a horrific landscape of crashing planes, flat-lining patients, and God knows what else.

If you're and Edgar Wright fan, you've caught on by now that Transcendence is really a rip-off of The World's End--complete with hive-mind flesh-bots and a zany mid-film genre flip. Unfortunately, Pfister opens with the post-tech-apocalypse (which looks more like an extended black-out than the end of the world), meaning we already know where all this is going. I don't mind such "spoilers" in movies, as long as the journey to the end is engaging and mysterious. There are a lot of problematic, unanswered questions here,** which the filmmakers clearly forgot to transcend early on.

*It's almost always impossible to know how much control an editor has over the finished film--versus how much influence a director may have had during the process. For the sake of argument, let's assume both men are culpable here.

**Such as, "Why, if doctors found traces of radioactive toxin around Will's bullet wound during an operation, did they allow him to leave the hospital--and not mention it?" And, "Is Rebecca Hall drawn to scripts where she plays doomed scientists whose nanotechnology gets the better of them?"

Friday
Apr182014

Only Lovers Left Alive (2014)

"You get what anyone gets--you get a lifetime."

--Death, The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes

Eternity, and What to Do with It

For decades, comic book fans have clamored for a big-screen adaptation of Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. I'm happy to announce that they can focus their energies elsewhere: Jim Jarmusch has delivered the best possible (yet unofficial) Morpheus tale in his new film, Only Lovers Left Alive. Packed with literary references; offbeat historical figures popping up in supporting roles; and protagonists whose nigh invulnerability makes them tragic, keen observers of the human condition, the movie perfectly encapsulates the cerebral, spiritual, and visual splendor that makes Gaiman's world so special.

Tom Hiddleston stars as Adam, a vampire who's been kicking around for at least four hundred years. Currently, he lives on the outskirts of a devastated Detroit, where he spends his nights leaking cutting-edge music to the local scene via clueless agent Ian (Anton Yelchin). Adam frequently talks to his wife, Eve (Tilda Swinton), through a video chat that plays on an ancient television. He's a tinkerer, you see, and his lavish apartment is a mishmash of technology old, new, and wholly invented by himself--during a power outage, he heads to the back yard to fix an underground dynamo that generates free, green energy.

Meanwhile, in Tangiers, Eve kills time reading every book (in every language) that she can get her hands on, and chatting with her oldest vampire friend, Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt).* When she sees that Adam is even more bummed out than usual, she rushes to the States on a mission to cheer him up. This entails lovemaking, listening to great music, and drinking purified hospital blood that Adam scammed off an easily hypnotized technician (Jeffrey Wright).

Only Lovers Left Alive may be utterly plot-free, but that doesn't make it devoid of meaning. Jarmusch teases us with non-starter clichés from other vampire movies, which he abruptly turns on their heads by simply not following through:

When Eve's rowdy "little sister", Ava (Mia Wasikowska) turns up, it's impossible not to recall Kirsten Dunst's character from Interview with the Vampire. We assume she's arrived to kick the lax film into high gear with wicked deeds that must be stopped by her disinterested elders. That doesn't happen.

When another character is attacked later on, we horror-movie connoisseurs assume they will be resurrected as a bloodsucker and draw unwanted attention to the reclusive vamps. Nope.

Okay, then--what about the hospital technician? He's bound to get wise to the fact that he's been supplying expensive stuff to "vegan"** vampires, and enlist a modern-day Van Helsing-type to root out his sleepy town's nest, right? Wrong.

As in real life, sometimes drama hits hard, and sometimes it merely flashes on the horizon. Jarmusch captures this beautifully here, by showing us the un-glamorous side of living forever. Long ago, Adam and Eve may have relished the power that comes with enhanced strength, speed, and the ability to recall a hard drive's worth of trivia in the blink of an eye. But they've been around for centuries, and have now succumbed to billionaire syndrome: the malaise that sets in when there's nothing left to achieve and no one left to impress.

This existential boredom leads Adam to contemplate the unthinkable (and maybe the impossible). Early on, he pays Ian to commission a single wooden bullet--made from the strongest tree on Earth. In what might be called desperation, if there were any passion behind it, Adam decides that not even his wife's love is enough to make him stick around. He's gone full-on somber, and it's here that Only Lovers Left Alive most closely recalls The Sandman--specifically, the wildly popular story, "The Sound of Her Wings" from issue eight.

Recently freed from centuries of imprisonment, the eternal god of dreams, Morpheus, has exacted revenge on those that wronged him. He is now purposeless, and winds up feeding pigeons on a park bench, wondering why he should bother going on. His sister, the Goth-by-way-of-sprite, Death, pops up to talk some sense into him. In the end, their undying love for one another, which they see reflected back in the goofy, fragile mortality of the people around them, rekindles their appreciation for the inherent potential of mere existence.

I don't mean to imply that  you need to have read a comic book in order to understand or appreciate Only Lovers Left Alive; as creators, Jarmusch and Gaiman surf wavelengths with messages both consistent and, I believe, coincidental. But in its lofty ideas, stunningly immersive and imaginative set design, costumes, and framing, Jarmusch's film reminded me of the best that graphic literature has to offer.

The movie won't be for everyone. Even my mind wandered a bit during the frequent musical interludes--but I consider that a deliberate meta effect than a sign of poor filmmaking: given the time prison that Adam and Eve find themselves locked in to varying degrees, music is often their portal to timelessness. The reprieve from routine opens up the subconscious and brings the characters (and the audience) into harmony with loftier concerns than whatever the clock dictates they should be focused on.

For that matter, Jarmusch challenges us with the film's biggest question: What do we do with the time that we have? Sure, the life of an immortal is loaded with potential--but so is ours, should we choose to harness it. Neither Adam nor Eve have time (figuratively) for television, fast food, or the other myriad distractions that both consume and shorten the lives of us mere mortals. So what would happen if we acted like beings of infinite curiosity and ability? What if we could shape our relatively limited years on this planet to be whatever we wanted them to be? What if the big secret to life was the fact that there's nothing stopping us?

Only Lovers Left Alive is one of my favorite films of the year. If there's any justice in the universe, Hiddleston and Swinton will be remembered as one of cinema's great romantic couples. Their chemistry, comedy, and heart are truly special, and they sell these mythical creatures as relatable ids that live deep within us all. Just when you thought there was nothing left to say in the vampire genre, Jim Jarmusch drops this deeply personal fantasy bomb in our laps and dares us to embrace the explosion.

*And, yes, it's that Christopher Marlowe--the contemporary of William Shakespeare who some believe may have been the Bard himself.

**Regular human blood has been so contaminated by disease, drugs--pharmaceutical and not--and toxins from processed food, that only high-end stuff will suffice.

Wednesday
Apr162014

Hide Your Smiling Faces (2014)

Stand By Tree

In an alternate universe, Terrence Malick directed Stand By Me and called it Hide Your Smiling Faces. For some, that's the decade's sexiest elevator pitch. For others, like me, it's more like a dare.

With his ponderous coming-of-age story, writer/director Daniel Patrick Carbone ticks off the two top boxes on my Cinematic Pet Peeves list: unoriginality and pretentiousness. Film is a wide-ranging art form, of course, and there's room for ideas both well-worn and lofty--but rarely at the same time, and never this nakedly cribbed and bubble-headed.

Stop me if you've heard this before:

Two boys live in a small town that's marked by lush greenery, run-down houses, and an utter lack of anything to do except get into trouble. The adults are either disaffected or dangerous. There's a mysterious death that shakes the main characters to their core. And a gun comes into play early on, which symbolizes...something or other.

Bonus points for thinking of last year's drama, Mud, as well.

Strike that. The three films I've mentioned so far exist on the evolutionary (or de-evolutionary) chart of heartfelt narrative resonance. On one end of the spectrum, you have Rob Reiner's adaptation of a beloved Stephen King story, which boasts powerful and varied performances; a rich, twisty storyline; and a keen understanding of nostalgia's role in becoming a well-rounded adult. In the middle, you have the Southern-fried Matthew McConaughey non-thriller with the lush photography and murky narrative, which is more a showcase for a cool performance than resonance.

Then there's Hide Your Smiling Faces, which substitutes Stand By Me's deeply personal pre-teen angst for broad moments of bogus intensity (Will the main character's best friend kill himself or come out as gay? Will the kid brother character use the aforementioned gun to exact revenge on the father of his dead pal--whose death is shrouded in ambiguity?) There are zero payoffs in this movie--only setups that fade away like sun in the summer twilight, 'cause it's all about the trees and the feelings and just, y'know, like, being, maaaan--or, y'know, not, or whatever.

The film's flaws rest squarely on Carbone's shoulders. He was gifted with a pretty terrific cast in Nathan Varnson (as Eric, the stoic older brother) and Ryan Jones (as kid sibling Tommy). In truth, I like these actors better than the leads in Mud. Their naturalism is unquestionably strong, and I can't wait to see where they pop up next. Hide Your Smiling Faces also looks great. Director of photography Nick Bentgen lenses a truly great-looking ode to nature and aimlessness here--but he's stuck painting a Mona Lisa cover on a Curious George book.

I can recommend the film only as a curiosity, and as a visual experience--like one of those looping nature blu-rays of fish tanks, the cosmos, or trains passing by. Now that spring is upon us, there'll be no shortage of rainy days, when laundry needs folding and nature's a tad too miserable to enjoy. In those cases, Hide Your Smiling Faces is perfect as visual white noise. But you'll get more satisfaction from scrubbing the bathtub than watching Carbone's film: at least that chore makes sense, and the result serves a greater emotional purpose.

Friday
Apr112014

Under the Skin (2014)

Cosmo Girl

I admit, the Calum Marsh pull-quote that pops up in Under the Skin's trailer got under my skin:

"We may finally have an heir to Kubrick"?

Please.

Granted, my reaction was shaded by frustration: after spending two minutes watching trippy clips cut to trippier music, and featuring Scarlett Johansson in a European hooker's outfit, I still had no idea what the movie was about. It wasn't until I read a synopsis that I realized she was playing an alien, and not the disaffected president of the Björk Fan Club.

Sometimes annoyance is a more powerful motivator than curiosity, and I'm glad I saw Jonathan Glazer's film in a theatre with high-quality projection and sound. Under the Skin is a senses-shattering work of profundity, the kind of emotionally and intellectually sticky experience that simply won't let go. I'm no longer mad at Marsh; in fact, he should have been more declarative in his praise.

Many filmmakers who claim Kubrick as a hero embrace his films' weirdness and ambiguity as a creative crutch: imagery, their work argues, doesn't have to mean anything; it simply has to convery the illusion of meaning. Kubrick's eye for and attention to details made the audience believe he had a point of view regarding every aspect of his stories. I still don't get the significance of 2001's star child, and would be hard-pressed to fully explain Eyes Wide Shut, but I believe Kubrick had an explanation for everything--by virtue of the confidence with which he presented his imagery.

It's difficult to synopsize Under the Skin, which features no named characters. Glazer worked with Walter Campbell to adapt Michel Faber's novel (which I haven't read), and I'm curious as to whether the film's anonymity was a staple of the book, as well. It's fitting, because two of the film's themes are isolation and man's willingness to trust others--despite instinct or flat-out warning signs. One could also argue that McDonald's patrons don't name their Big Macs, and Johansson's character is essentially on an interstellar foodie mission.

We first meet her naked, in a glowing white room. Another alien, disguised as a motorcyclist, has just presented her with the lifeless body of a transient girl. Johansson takes her clothes and sets out in a white van to pick up random men in the streets of Scotland. She lures them in with promises of helping an attractive, confused woman find her way to some destination or other. Those gullible enough to join her are led to various empty apartment buildings, which are transformed into identical black lairs of seduction.

Clothes come off. The lustful, slow-motion pursuit begins. Then, nothing. Johansson emerges unfazed, as her prey become submerged in something resembling water.

At first, these scenes come off as artful posturing, as if the victim is imagining the whole bizarre affair. Through repetition, we learn that the room is quite real, and the world beneath the "water" is bone-chillingly strange. Johansson has come to eat, but she has very particular tastes: the men must be willing, single, in decent shape, and not missed by anyone. Early on, she has no trouble finding horny idiots for her feast, but as she spends more time on Earth, she begins to understand that humans are slightly more complex than entrées.

For most of the film, however, she maintains an eerie detachment, breaking out into a flirty British accent only when the men need an extra push to give in (the alien equivalent, I suppose, of, "Heeeere, kitty, kitty!"). This commitment to observation without intervention pays off in one truly devastating scene where a family finds itself imperilled at a beach. Glazer and cinematographer Daniel Landin keep the camera at a distance, allowing a perfectly choreographed, horrifying display of nature, actions, and consequences to unfold. There's no on-the-nose score here, no dramatic close-ups or agonzied speeches. I kept waiting for Johansson to help somehow, but then I asked myself when the last time was that I stopped to rescue a cluster of ants struggling on the sidewalk.*

I won't spoil the rest of the film, except to say that we do get to see what Johansson looks like underneath. The effect is haunting and rather sad, given the circumstances, but the actress's performance really sells a moment that might have just been an effects showcase in lesser hands. Between this film and Her (in which she is all body and no body, respectively), Johansson digs deep and puts to rest any concerns that she's just an attractive comic-book-movie heroine. I was affected by the full spectrum of her performance here, by the nuance she brought to simple looks of disinterest--which evolved into something more over the course of the story.

The film's third star (behind Glazer and Johansson) is composer Mica Levi. His score is so eerie that a friend sent me a YouTube clip of one of the tracks, and I had to cut it short. In general, Under the Skin is a delicious sound experience, from the muffled opening bits where Johansson's alien is apparently learning how to speak, to the claustrophobic drowning sounds of the world deep beneath the black room, the complete audio package may just drive you mad (in the best way).

Some might tire of the relatively aimless plot, which is eroded by artistic flourishes. There are no easy answers here, and Glazer and company relish keeping the full story at arm's length. I never got the feeling they were spit-balling, though, or messing around--or making references to things that I should have known about before going in. This is one of those great films where the truth comes out later, in discussion, reflection, and, likely, multiple viewings. Glazer captures the conflicting emotions and existential crises of the human condition so perfectly here that critics should begin concerning themselves with who will be his heir.

*Actually, I asked myself this in retrospect. In the moment, I just wanted to leave and make the unpleasantness stop.

Friday
Apr112014

Oculus (2014)

Shard Attack

Oculus' tag line is "You see what it wants you to see." We'll, I'd hoped to watch a decent horror movie, but apparently Mike Flanagan's haunted-mirror flick had other plans. Scary stuff, indeed.

In truth, the only reason I was half-way excited for Flanagan's big-budget, big-screen debut was because of the terrifically creepy and imaginative indie film, Absentia. The trailers for Oculus are dishearteningly generic, from the Shining-inspired slow-motion bleeding mirror, to the ho-hum imagery of a zombified Katee Sackhoff looking down and then looking into the camera with glowing, reflective eyes. But I held out hope, thinking, "This is just marketing doing their job--getting asses in seats. The movie itself will be intense and inventive, just like Absentia!"

What can I say? I'm an idiot.

The film's setup is inspired: Kaylie Russell (Karen Gillan) has just purchased an ornate, centuries-old mirror at auction, with the intent of exorcising whatever demons compelled her father (Rory Cochrane) to attack his family ten years earlier. Little brother Tim (Brenton Thwaites) wound up institutionalized after shooting the old man to death, and has been released just in time for Kaylie to rope him into helping. We flash backward--visiting the Russells as they excitedly settle into a new house in the early 2000s; and forward--where the grown-up children battle self-doubt and twisted illusions, which the mirror springs upon them as a method of self-defense.

Sadly, the fun ends early. Kaylie's endless speeches about the mirror's history and the elaborate recounting of all the booby traps and alarms she's devised have all the self-serious, monotone charm of a grumpy Geek Squad employee trying to up-sell a service package. Also, her plan doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense. For example, what's so helpful about a table with five identical, unlabelled alarm clocks on it, when they're all set to go off at different times--as reminders to perform different tasks? Especially when it's been established that the mirror can reshape reality to its own ends?

Much like A Nightmare on Elm Street (which featured a similar-in-concept/classier-in-execution trap-building montage--complete with alarms, phone calls from outside parties, and a spring-loaded weapon perched above an entry way), Oculus relies heavily on "What is real?" tricks to push its story along. These are very choppy waters to play in, because if a filmmaker includes one too many such switcheroos, they risk the audience shutting down completely; if everything's an illusion, then nothing is of consequence.

Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard (who based the feature off Flanagan and Jeff Seidman's similarly titled 2007 short film) zoom right past the edge and into silly territory, focusing more on "gotcha" moments than character development, big ideas, or hard-earned scares. In doing so, they bring all of their disjointed cinematic reference points to the surface, making Oculus little more than a "greatest hits" collection of horror movies past.

This shouldn't be surprising, I guess, considering the film was produced by Jason Blum, the king of the (comparatively) low-budget blockbuster. With series like Insidious, Paranormal Activity, and The Purge under his belt, he's famous for assembling teams of horror-fiend Rumplestiltskins, who spin a few million dollars into global, multi-billion-dollar franchises. Oculus may be the laziest cash-in of the bunch, with just about every genre staple thrown at the screen--minus any effort to make these things actually scary. We leap, for instance, from mom not feeling too well and dad acting a little strange to mom chained to a wall in the master bedroom, barking like a rabid dog, and dad stalking the house with a huge-ass gun. I'm sure the filmmakers had intended to explain this jerkiness with their nifty time-hopping structure, but I wasn't the only one laughing incredulously at my screening.

Worst of all, Oculus doesn't even pass the Laundry Room Test. My creepy downstairs laundry room takes on a life of its own whenever I watch a scary movie. I run in, switch on the lights, do my business, and scram--never looking into the far, dark corners of the room, for fear of something looking back. After I finish this review, I'm going to wash my darks, and will likely stroll right to the washer and take my time measuring detergent to the line; if I hear any suspicious thumps behind me, it won't be a stretch to conjure up an image of Rory Cochrane doing his best cabin-fever-Nicholson impression and let loose a hearty giggle.

In fairness, Cochrane is fine--as are the rest of the cast. Sackhoff sticks out a bit, playing less a horror-movie mom than a Lifetime Movie battered spouse--that, I'd wager, comes down to direction. The child versions of Kaylie and Tim (Annalise Basso and Garrett Ryan, respectively) are also okay, but something about the way their characters are inserted into the story feels more like a Goonies homage than a successor to The Shining. It's just a shame to see so many likable actors playing out weird scenes of varying energy, in service of a screenplay that doesn't know what to do with them.

Oculus features a lot of talking, but that doesn't make it a smart movie; Flanagan and company simply take too long in reaching a destination that isn't worth the trip. Visually, yes, I'm sure some folks will freak out at the ghosts with mirrored eyeballs--but that crowd won't include those of us who survived the Phantasm sequels. Perhaps because we've finally made it out of the found-footage horror boom (I think), audiences and critics are losing their minds over any movie that boasts steadicams and a score. But movies like Oculus and The Conjuring, as retro-minded as they might be, are mediocre at best; at worst, they're poor reflections of a genre that succeeds only when playing it safe is out of the question.