First Reformed (2018)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views are My Game.

Ethan Hawke is the pastor of a small, upstate New York Church. He’s a veteran, a recovering alcoholic, and a man slowly dying of cancer. One day, he is asked by one of his parishioners, Amanda Seyfried, to counsel her husband, a radical environmental activist. The man is depressed, and she believes talking to a pastor would be good for him. Hawke agrees to do so, but finds himself unable to console the man, who believes that humanity’s damage to the Earth is irreversible, and that it’s not worth bringing life into an existence this shitty. Things only get worse when the man kills himself, and Hawke finds a suicide bomber’s vest in the former’s garage. Hawke slowly unravels from there, becoming radicalized into the dead man’s cause, and even planning to blow himself up and kill every member of his congregation in the process. Will he do so? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

First Reformed is a film I hadn’t heard of until my roommate mentioned it to me. Then, when I learned that it was written and directed by Paul Schrader, the writer of such classics as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, I knew I had to go see it. And, having seen it, I can tell you that this is a beautifully-acted, meticulously crafted, haunting, unnerving movie. Now, let me be clear, It’s not the kind of film that you watch to enjoy and feel good about yourself. It’s the kind of film that’s designed to provoke you, to make you uneasy. Which is no surprise, given that many of Schrader’s other movies, Taxi Driver, Last Temptation Of Christ, Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, were controversial at the time of their releases. And if you’re a person who doesn’t like the idea of watching a man of God suffer, act violently, and mentally and physically deteriorate, I can totally see why you’d hate this movie. As for me, I found the whole thing strangely hypnotic. It’s a very quiet movie–literally, there’s no score for most of the film–and there are several scenes of Hawke just living his life, and talking to the various members of his congregation. All of this makes both him, and the other characters in the movie, feel more real, and makes you empathize with him, even after he starts to deteriorate. The camerawork is also very interesting. Movement is used very effectively to emphasize both shifts in character, and key plot points. In the first half of the movie, shots are static, wide, and scenes play out in single, unbroken takes. As Hawke unravels, however, the camera begins to move, and not in the sense that it starts shaking, but in the sense that it’ll glide away from him, as if to mirror his sanity slowly leaving his body. All of this, coupled with truly excellent performances from Hawke, and all the supporting cast, definitely make First Reformed worth watching, regardless of its provocative subject matter.

Now, if I have any critiques of the film, apart from the fact that it will no doubt offend many people, it’s that it very much feels like a Paul Schrader joint. Almost all his films, Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, tell the stories of people falling from grace. In many cases, the characters will plan to murder others, as part of some grand political statement, only to chicken out at the last minute, and turn the gun (Taxi Driver) or knife (Mishima) on themselves. This film follows that formula to a T, with it even lifting shots from Schrader’s other movies. At one point , Hawke looks down into his glass as the liquid inside sloshes about (if you’ve seen Taxi Driver, you know what I’m getting at). Now, to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with a writer having certain quirks and recurring themes–mine include having the main character be Asian, and telling a story set in the past–but it does get to be a problem when the writer in question just recycles those quirks without trying to do anything new. And, the thing is, for the first half of the movie, it did feel like Schrader was trying to do something new. He was making a quiet drama about a pastor helping others, a refreshing change of pace from the dark and gritty crime-dramas he’s known for. But then, the second half rolls around, and I realized, “oh no. Schrader’s just doing what he always does.” And, because of that, I almost feel like some of the things that the film has to say about God, and the Environment, and the commercialization of spirituality, don’t really resonate anymore, because this is just another story about a crazy person who wants to kill people. And the thing is, the movie even knows this. When Hawke finds the suicide vest in the dead man’s garage, he tells Amanda Seyfried to not let anyone know about this, because, to use his own words, “His cause was just. Best not to sully it with disrepute.” It was like Schrader was trying to remind himself that if he went ahead and told the kind of stories he usually does, all the points he’s making would be rendered moot. Alas, he went ahead and told that story anyway.

But, if I’m being honest with myself, I still think this is a good movie. It’s very well-acted, and very well-crafted with regards to it’s cinematography and sound design. For that reason, I would recommend you all go see it. If it’s in your area, give it a look.

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You Were Never Really Here (2018)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Joe is a veteran, and hired gun. He’s not a hit man, per se. But if you need a guy to beat someone up, or retrieve something or someone, he’s the one to do it. He doesn’t talk much, and is exceptionally brutal, preferring to use a hammer to accomplish his objectives. He is frequently haunted by nightmares from his time in combat, and can’t outrun the face of a young Asian woman, which often appears before him whenever he’s alone. Anyway, he is hired by a Senator to retrieve his daughter, who’s been kidnapped by a sex trafficking ring. Joe does so, only to learn that the Senator has committed suicide, and that there may be more to this story than meets the eye. No surprises there.

You Were NEver Really Here is a gritty, urban thriller in the tradition of movies like Taxi Driver, and Drive. Like the former, it tells the story of a veteran who uses violence to save an under-aged girl from life as a prostitute, and, like the latter, the main character is an unhinged, hammer-wielding maniac who barely speaks. Also like Drive, this film prefers to do most of its storytelling visually. There’s barely any dialogue, and what little there is is often mumbled, and incoherent. For some people, tired of films where characters literally explain the plot, that will be refreshing. For individuals like myself, who are visually impaired, and often rely on that expository dialogue to understand what’s going on, it’ll be frustrating. Because I was often left uncertain as to what was happening, why it was happening, and who it was even happening to. And a large part of this didn’t even have to do with the lack of dialogue. It had to do with how the film was shot. Very often, the director, Lynne Ramasy, will shoot scenes entirely in close-up, or with the camera focused on unconventional subjects, like a lamp, a mirror, or someone’s foot. In some scenes, like when Joe is assaulting people, these choices make sense, since they allow Ramsay to not show us all the depravity that is taking place. In other scenes, however, like when we’re getting flashbacks of Joe’s time in Afghanistan, or when we’re learning about his past with this Asian girl, whose identity we never actually uncover, it would be nice if, on occasion, we got a wide shot to see what the hell was happening. With the Afghanistan flashbacks, for instance, all we ever see is a barbed wire fence, a person’s shoe, and the barrel of a gun. What does that mean? Why do these particular items have such relevance to Joe? I don’t know, and that’s not good.

Now, in case it sounds like I hated this movie, I didn’t. My feelings are actually pretty mixed. On the one hand, the acting, particularly from Joaquin Phoenix as Joe, is superb, and the lack of dialogue allows Ramsay to visually develop her characters. Throughout the film, for instance, we see aspects of Joe’s personality manifest through actions; digging through a pile of jelly beans to find the green ones, getting off by strangling himself, etc. If Ramsay had just had Joe tell us, “I like green jelly beans,” or “I get off by strangling myself,” it wouldn’t have been as interesting, and his character wouldn’t have felt as defined. Anyone can say they are a certain way. It’s only when we see them do stuff that we know who they are. So, in that respect, the lack of dialogue actually improved the storytelling. On the other hand, the fact that I didn’t know what was going on, partly because no one bothered to explain what was going on, and because the cinematography was either too close, or focused on the wrong subjects, made the film kind of impenetrable. I’m not lying when I say that I actually had to go read the wikipedia page for this movie to get a full sense for what I’d just watched. That’s not good. A film’s story should be clear as soon as you watch it. You shouldn’t have to go and do a bunch of reading afterward. So, in the end, do I think you should go see this movie. It depends on who you are. If you like artsy movies, thrillers, are tired of big blockbusters, or just want to support female filmmakers, give it a watch. If you like clarity in your stories, though, and aren’t a fan of mumbled, incoherent dialogue, this movie’s not for you. Make of this what you will.

Red Sparrow (2018)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Jennifer Lawrence is a Russian ballerina, working to support her mother. When her career is cut short by an apparent accident, her uncle, a member of a KGB-esque spy organization, recruits her to help seduce a particular government official. Things go wrong, however, when the operation, which Lawrence was told would be a simple phone swap, turns out to be an assassination; an assassination that there aren’t supposed to be any witnesses to. So she is given a choice, die, or join an organization of “sparrows,” special operatives who are trained to use their bodies to seduce and gain intel. After a long, arduous training regimen, which includes several humiliating, degrading sex acts with strangers, Lawrence is sent to Hungary to find a mole. There, she encounters an American CIA operative, played by Joel Edgerton, who is also looking for the mole. Seeing in him an opportunity to find her target, Lawrence begins to seduce him. As the two get closer, however, she realizes that things may be a bit more complicated than previously thought.

You wouldn’t think it would be possible for a film to be both shockingly lurid, and ass-numbingly boring at the same time. But, by god, Francis Lawrence, the director of this movie, found a way to do just that. Because, at it’s heart, Red Sparrow is a Cold-War thriller about trying to find a mole. That’s it. It’s just a story about two spies trying to find someone.  That’s about as run-of-the-mill a narrative as you can get for these types of movies. The only thing that sets this flick apart from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and a million other movies about trying to find moles is the explicit sexuality. And the insane thing is, for all the time we spend in the beginning, watching Lawrence get used and abused, and hardened into a sexual weapon, that element really doesn’t have anything to do with the main plot. When she finds out who the mole is, it isn’t through her training. The person in question just comes up and tells her. I’m not exaggerating when I say that if you took the very long, very uncomfortable first half out of the movie, the main plot, the quest to find the mole, would be effected in no way whatsoever. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that the first half, wherein we see Lawrence training, is brutal. People in my theater actually got up and left after certain sequences. I did as well after the second, yes, second, rape scene. It’s very, very hard to watch. And seeing as how it has almost nothing to do with the main story, it just comes off as needlessly cruel and exploitative.

Now I do want to be fair and list some of this film’s positive qualities. The music, composed by James Newton Howard, is beautiful, and it really helps elevate certain moments that would otherwise just be kind of dull. The cinematography is gorgeous, and the costumes and sets are very, very impressive. In many ways, this film is similar to Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, which I reviewed here on this blog. That film was also an erotic spy thriller with good acting, good camerawork, good costumes and good sets, but a less than compelling narrative, and some very uncomfortable sex scenes. The biggest difference between this film and that one, though, is the fact that Lust, Caution actually took the time to develop it’s characters before it dove into the sex. You saw these peoples lives before the main plot, and you saw them struggling with inner turmoil. As I said in my review for that film, it’s not until about 2 hours in that we get any sex at all. In this picture, not only is the narrative uninspired, and the sexual politics questionable, but you don’t really know anything about the main character. The film almost builds a wall around her identity, with her motivations in certain sequences being rather unclear. And even when her motivations are clear, there aren’t always repercussions for the things she does as a result of those motives. In one scene, for instance, she finds out that her old dance partner was sleeping with her replacement, and that the two of them might have been the cause of her accident. So, in a blind rage, she goes an attacks them, seemingly beating them to death. Now, you’d think this would be a major event in her life, since it’s before she gets recruited by the government, and, as far as we can tell, she’s never hurt anyone like that, but no. It never comes back into play at all. And when you realize that, you begin to wonder why it was in the movie. And the film is littered with moments like that, moments where logic is just thrown out the window.

So, in the end, I can’t really recommend this movie to you all. If you’re a fan of Jennifer Lawrence, or Cold War Thrillers, which I’m not even sure this is, since characters in the film say “the Cold war is over” and they use technology that wouldn’t have existed back then, maybe you’ll like it. If, on the other hand, you can’t stand to see rape in movies, want plots that are a little more inspired, and Russian accents that actually sound convincing , maybe look elsewhere.

The Commuter (2018)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Michael McCauley is a former cop, struggling to get by. He’s got a wife, a son about to start college, two mortgages, and a less than well-paying job as an insurance salesman. Everyday, he commutes to the city, getting to know the passengers and conductors who ride with him. One day, however, after being unceremoniously fired from his job, a mysterious woman called Joanna sits down across from him, and starts up a conversation. She claims to be a psychoanalyst, studying how different people react to different circumstances. She gives Michael the chance to prove what kind of a man he is by posing him a question. If he were told that there was $25,000 hidden on the train, and that, if he found a passenger who didn’t belong, a passenger who’d stolen something, he’d get that money, what would he do? Michael is skeptical, until he finds the aforementioned money in the bathroom, and realizes that he’s just gotten pulled into something much bigger, and more dangerous, than previously thought.

The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between Liam Neeson and Spanish director Juame Collet-Serra, who previously teamed up on Unknown, Non-Stop, and Run All Night. Now, if you’ve seen any of those movies, or perhaps the directors other flicks, like The Shallows, you know what to expect here. You can expect good acting, good camerawork, and enough visceral thrills to keep you invested, despite a preposterous, and, in many cases, predictable, storyline. In other words, you can expect a good, but somewhat forgettable, time at the movies. And that’s what I had with The Commuter; a good time.

It’s thoroughly predictable, with me being able to guess who the mystery passenger and the main bad guy were about halfway through, and the dialogue is very on the nose. There’s a conversation between Liam Neeson and his former partner, played by Patrick Wilson, in a bar, where they literally just spell out each other’s backstories to the audience. And yet, the cast, which includes so many amazing character actors, like Jonathan Banks, Vera Farmiga, and Sam Neil,  is so good, the camerawork is so slick, and the pace is so quick that you wind up not caring. This is genre filmmaking at it’s best. The plot is by-the-numbers, and the characters are stock, but the actors playing them are all so talented, the action sequences are so gripping, and the overall production values are so good, that you can just sit back, and enjoy the ride. I certainly did. Will I remember this flick in a few weeks? Probably not. But, for a movie that’s just trying to tell a fun, fast-paced story, with good actors, it more than delivers. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

The Foreigner (2017)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My game.

When his daughter is killed in a terror attack, Chinese immigrant Ngoc Minh Quan (Jackie Chan) sets out to find the culprits. His search leads him to the doorstep of Liam Hennesey (Pierce Brosnan), a British politician and former IRA member. Quan asks Hennesey to tell him the names of the bombers, but Hennesey claims not to know who’s behind the attack. Quan, correctly, assumes that this is bullshit, and begins tormenting Hennesey, blowing up his bathroom, attacking his staff, and more or less making his life a living hell. This, naturally, places a great deal of stress on the former terrorist, who decides to do some research on Quan, and discovers some disturbing facts about him. What are those facts? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.

Guys, I’m not lying when I say that The Foreigner was one of my most anticipated movies of this year; right up there with Logan and Wonder Woman. I’ve loved Jackie Chan literally my whole life, and the idea of seeing him in a darker, more dramatic role was beyond appealing. I also thought it’d be fun to finally hear Pierce Brosnan, an Irishman from County Louth, use his native accent in a film. So i’m not lying when I say that, when I sat down in the theater last night, I was pumped. I was ready to be blown away. And now, having seen the movie, I can safely say, it’s not as good as I thought it would be, but it’s still a damn fine film.

Starting off with the positives; the performances are all superb. Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan are both given the chance to play against type here, with Brosnan playing a smarmy, cowardly weasel, and Chan playing a subdued, slightly unhinged man, and both of them really deliver. But I would be remiss if I overlooked the supporting cast, all of whom do terrific jobs. Even people who are only in one or two scenes, like Chan’s daughter, played by Cho Chang herself, Katie Leung, really shine here. So if you’re looking for one reason to see this movie, you’ve got the performances. Another reason to watch this film is the action. It’s brutal, visceral, and beautifully shot. There’s one sequence in the woods, where Chan is attacking Brosnan’s guards, that had the audience in my theater wincing, and going “ooh!” It’s really impressive that, even now, in his 60s, Chan can still punch, kick, and flip with the best of them. Another thing I liked about the movie were the characters. They were well-rounded, believable, and, for the most part, I could understand where they were coming from. I didn’t necessarily condone their actions, but I could understand. Each of them, even those characters who, in other movies, would just be throwaway victims or henchmen, like Brosnan’s wife and nephew, were given a bit more depth and backstory. And I really appreciated that, since it made the whole thing feel more realistic. So, from a technical standpoint–the acting, the cinematography, the sound design–the film is expertly crafted. Why then am I not totally in love with it?

Well, it all comes down to the fact that, for a movie that advertises itself as a Jackie Chan revenge flick, The Foreigner doesn’t actually have that much Jackie Chan. Oh, he’s in it, and he does do a fair bit of stuff. But a great deal more screen time is devoted to Pierce Brosnan’s love life, and IRA infighting. I’m not joking when I say that there’s a good 20 minutes, about halfway through, where Chan just disappears. Which is disappointing. Jackie Chan is the main reason I went to go see this movie, and I’m certain it’s why most other people will as well. Now, granted, when we do see Jackie kicking ass and blowing stuff up, it’s very satisfying. But, the truth is, we have to wade through a ton of baggage to get there. This movie has an extremely convoluted storyline, with so many subplots, from Pierce Brosnan’s affair with a younger woman, to his wife’s affair with his nephew, to how and why the IRA did this attack,that it gets a little boring at times. Now, as I said before, whenever the film does get boring, something usually happens to get you invested again, like Jackie Chan strapping on a bomb, or digging a bullet out of his chest with a knife. But still. A film with this basic of a premise shouldn’t be so complicated. We don’t need to see all this backdoor stuff with the IRA. We don’t care who masterminded the attack. What we do care about is whether or not Jackie Chan will get revenge for his daughter’s death. That’s it. I honestly think that if Martin Campbell, the director, had cut out all the political stuff, and just made this a straight forward revenge film, the movie would have been tighter, cleaner, and considerably more enjoyable. But, then again, Campbell got his big break directing Edge Of Darkness, a 6-hour-long BBC Miniseries about political corruption and conspiracy, so, what do you expect?

Guys, all I can say about The Foreigner is this. If you’re looking for a darker, more serious Jackie Chan, you will get that in this movie. And you’ll probably enjoy the film as a whole. But go in knowing that there’s a lot of added baggage. And sometimes the pacing can get a bit slow.

Collateral (2004)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views AreMyGame.

Max is a cab driver, saving up to start his own company. He knows LA like the back of his hand, and even though his job is fairly thankless, he takes pride in his work. One night, he picks up a gray-haired man named Vincent, who tells him, “I’ve got five stops to make. You get me to all of them on time, I’ll pay you $600.” Max agrees, and brings Vincent to his first stop. Everything seems fine, until a dead body falls on the cab, smashing the windshield to bits. Things get worse when Vincent returns, and reveals that not only did he kill the man, but he’s an assassin who’s been hired to take out 4 more targets. Now, if Max wants to survive, he’ll have to help Vincent evade capture, and finish his jobs, which means contributing to the deaths of four more people. Can he do it? Will he make it through the night? Well, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out

Collateral is the definition of a well-made thriller. It’s suspenseful, superbly -acted (seriously, Jamie Foxx earned an Oscar nomination for his performance as Max) and very well-written. I’d actually like to take a minute to talk about the writing, because it is really, really good. Not only does every character have a distinct voice and backstory, the dialogue is really witty, and oddly thought-provoking. There are so many exchanges in this film that are funny, frightening and philosophical all at the same time that I’m honestly kind of surprised that Stuart Beattie, whom penned the script, didn’t get an Oscar nod. Like, in the scene right after Max learns that Vincent is a hit man, he’s freaking out, and Vincent starts talking about Rwanda. He tells Max how more people were killed at once there than in the past 50 years, and yet, he, Max, didn’t get upset when he heard about the genocide. He didn’t join the peace corps. He didn’t contribute to any charities. But now, when one fat guy dies in front of him, he turns into a bleeding heart? How hypocritical. That’s a brilliant exchange right there. It not only shows us how Vincent views morality, but it also gets us, the spectators, to think. It calls us out on our own hypocrisies, like how we care about some lives, but not about others. And the movie is full of awesome moments like that, where characters are talking about their pasts, or their morals, and it’s super engaging and funny. In one scene, Max asks Vincent, “You killed him?” to which Vincent responds, “No. I shot him. The bullets and the fall killed him.” And in another scene, Vincent has a gun pressed up against Max’s head, and forces him to tell his boss to “shove this yellow cab up your fat ass.” It’s wonderful.

If I have one complaint about Collateral, it’s the camerawork. It’s almost all hand-held, so the images are very shaky, and the shots are super noisy. If you don’t know what that last part means, “noise” is a film term for elements in cinematography that ruin an image, like lens flares, blurry lines, or pixels. Collateral’s director, Michael Mann, is infamous for not minding “noise” in his films. As such, a lot of his movies, even if they’re big-budget period pieces, like Public Enemies, feel like they’re shot on home video. Now, as annoying as I find shaky cam and lens flares, both actually kind of work for this movie. You’re telling a story that’s very gritty and real, and the sloppy-looking camerawork does kind of contribute to a sense of realism. Kind of. But in case you can’t get over the cinematography, the film’s gorgeous color palette more than makes up for it. Every image is black, contrasted with neon blues, greens or pinks; i.e. the color of LA at night. If, like me, you love films with saturated color schemes, which help create mood and atmosphere, you’re gonna love this movie. It is a feast for the eyes.

Guys, what can I say that hasn’t already been said? Collateral is a fast-paced, superbly acted, brilliantly-written thriller. I love it, and I’m sure you would to if you saw it. Don’t hesitate to give it a look.

Seven (1995)

Greetings Loved Ones! Liu Is The Name, And Views Are My Game.

Somerset is an apathetic detective, a week away from retirement. Mills is his idealistic partner, and brand new in town. They’ve got nothing in common, and they don’t particularly like each other. But for one week, Somerset’s last week on the job, they must work together. And it’s going to be the longest week of their lives, because there’s a killer on the loose, committing murders based on the Seven Deadly Sins, and he’s got his eye trained on them.

Seven is a film I’ve heard about for literally my entire life. It came out in 1995, the same year I was born, and in the two decades since then, it’s basically become a shorthand for anything super messed up and gross. And yet, as notorious as its reputation is, Seven is also considered to be quite a good flick. It’s strong performances, atmospheric cinematography, well-constructed story, and especially its ending, have all been lauded by critics over the years. This one film resurrected its director, David Fincher’s, career, and helped to cement the reputation of its stars, Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman. For this reason, and the fact that I’ll take a well-made thriller over an Oscar-winning drama any day, I decided to give Seven a look. And good lord!

Let me start off by saying that Seven is unquestionably a well-made movie. Everything about it, from the mirky cinematography, to the eerie soundtrack, to the believable performances, shows great talent and professionalism. This is a prime example of genre filmmaking at its best. On top of this, the story is considerably better written than most other thrillers, with there being a greater emphasis on character development, and lots of smaller, quiet moments. I also liked the fact that, even though the movie is about a serial killer who murders people in ultra gruesome ways, there’s very little onscreen violence. All the scares, all the suspense, come about through the power of suggestion. Which is good. This has got to be one of the few times where I’m actually glad a thriller was made in Hollywood, and not South Korea. Because even though I think that Korea produces much better thrillers overall, the films they make tend to be extremely violent. All we see in Seven are dead bodies. We don’t have to watch anyone get tortured or mutilated.

All that said, this is a hard movie to watch. If you have a weak constitution, or like stories to have happy endings, avoid this film like the plague. Even I, a person who loves books with unhappy endings, like Shanghai Girls and 19 Minutes, found this film hard to get through. And not just because of the subject matter. Seven is a movie that you can really only watch once. A large part of what keeps you engaged is the uncertainty; the fear that comes from not knowing what will happen in the next scene. Once you’ve seen this film, however, and you know everything that’s in store, the movie loses some of its power, and the story as a whole becomes a little bit of a slog to get through. Some mystery films, like Mother, Zodiac, and Broken Flowers, end ambiguously, and you can watch them over and over again to try to find clues. Seven isn’t like that. It ends quite definitively, and once you see that ending, you’re kind of numb to the rest of the story. The movie also has a weird opening credits sequence, which didn’t sit with me very well. It felt a little too much like something from television, and made the movie feel less like a gripping 2 hour thriller, and more like a 40 minute episode of Law & Order.

Nevertheless, Seven‘s smart script, strong performances, and brilliant atmosphere more than make up for its flaws, and cement its status as one of the all-time great thriller films. Watch it when you can.