Sound of My Voice is riveting and well-acted but has such a thin, vague plot that by the end you walk out feeling ripped off. I can honestly say I watched every single scene with rapt attention; the three main characters are consistently watchable and believable; the dialogue is weird and feels true. But if the director got the trees right — almost every scene feels properly creepy and emotionally fraught — the forest turns out to be a disaster.

Unlike last fall’s brilliant Martha Marcy May Marlene, which told a twisting tale about how a young woman became absorbed into a cult (and ultimately left it, and remained terrified by it), Sound of My Voice isn’t primarily interested in the scary psychological appeal of cults, the insidious means by which leaders draw their adherents in, or the fantastical raisons d’être offered by their charismatic leaders for the group’s existence and future. Rather, this film devolves to an “is she or isn’t she?” question. Whereas many small films opt for so much plot that you want to teach them that less is more, this film made me realize that sometimes, less is less.

Peter (Christopher Denham) and Lorna (Nicole Vicius) are would-be documentary filmmakers who have made their way into a secretive cult oriented around a mysterious woman, Maggie (Brit Marling). Indeed, the film opens with an eminently creepy sequence of shots, wherein they are bound and blindfolded, stuffed into a van, and driven out to the cult’s secret location — where they are stripped of their street clothes, asked to shower and scrub themselves thoroughly, and dressed in hospital gowns before meeting Maggie. All of this is filmed so economically, and with such a fascinating combination of moodiness and dreariness to the sets, that you find yourself holding your breath, anticipating … what? A terrifying leader? That Peter and Lorna will be uncovered as frauds?

Peter has hooked up a spy-cam to his glasses to film the proceedings — like when Maggie tells the new recruits her story about being a time traveler from the future. But as the film moves along, it focuses ever more intently on the question of whether Maggie really believes her own story or has ulterior motives. Those questions just aren’t good enough, nor are the plot twists unusual enough to keep us guessing.

Directed by Zal Batmanglij, who also co-wrote the script with actor Marling, this film sustains your attention even through scenes that seem either odd (like when the germaphobic shut-in Maggie, who eats only foods grown in her own hydroponic growhouse, nevertheless opens a window and lights up a cigarette) or stereotyped (when one of the cult’s henchwomen whisks Lorna off to a woodsy area to teach her how to fire a gun — a scene we’ve seen in what, three or four recent films?).

Not to mention my biggest disappointment: the filmmakers only used the “sound of my voice” theme sloppily, dropped in absent-mindedly, rather than plumbed for more. What is it about the voices of these cult leaders, their ability to put concepts together for their adherents, to insinuate themselves like earworms into the brains of eager followers? That’s interesting. This film doesn’t touch the topic, nor does it convince me that Maggie’s voice or sentences will haunt me later. If they could create a movie poster as vivid and enticing as this one, I argue, surely they could have spent more time on the script.

As you can see, I walked out feeling frustrated — partly because the overall vision for this quasi-sci-fi film was ultimately so muddled by its emphasis on style and creepy anticipation; and partly because the final big plot twist makes the entire film look more like a 45-minute long X-Files episode rather than a smart, well-plotted full-length feature. So as much as I’d like to see writer/actor Marling as part of a new wave of women filmmakers, I’m going to table my enthusiasm for now … and at the risk of sounding bossy, suggest that she throw herself more completely into articulating a vision for a film before racing into production.

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The coveted La Jefita statuette, based on genuine Bronze-age Cycladic art!

It’s about time, eh? Alert readers know that after posting Part 1 of these awards — awards dedicated to those women bosses of 2011 films — I got mired in a snit about the fact that I couldn’t get access to a couple of major films that were contenders for awards. Problem solved: if I couldn’t see your film, it’s been pushed into 2012 contention.

Too bad for those filmmakers, because look at the gorgeousness of these statuettes!

Just to bring you up to date, the first round of La Jefita statuettes went to a number of terrific films everyone can see:

  • Film of the year (and female-oriented!): Lee Chang-dong’s Poetry
  • Best actress: Joyce McKinney in Tabloid
  • Most feminist period drama that avoids anachronism: Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Jane Eyre
  • Sexiest scene in which a woman eats food: Sara Forestier in The Names of Love (Le nom des gens)
  • Most realistic portrayal of teen girls: Amanda Bauer and Claire Sloma in The Myth of the American Sleepover
  • Best uncelebrated supporting-supporting actress: Nina Arianda in Midnight in Paris
  • Most depressingly anti-feminist theme in female-oriented film: Fairy Tales

Be sure to check out the full post to find out more about honorable mentions, reasons for establishing these categories, and gorgeous images from the films.

Check it out, that is, when you’re DONE reading the following. Because these awards are specially designed for the discerning, frustrated viewer who just wants to see more lady action onscreen — lady action, that is, in all its beautiful and interesting and nubbly diversity.

And now on to the last round of 2011 winners!

Most Feminist Film:

Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground. I was so impressed and touched by this film about a woman’s life as a Christian that I’m still vexed I didn’t take the time to write about it extensively. Farmiga isn’t a showy director, letting instead the story take center stage. She stars as Corinne, a young woman whose faith grows stronger as she and her husband build their family and become part of a hippie-ish community of strong Christians during the 1970s and 80s, including the earthy Annika (Dagmara Dominczyk, below) with whom Corinne has a rich and happy friendship. For many of these years, her faith gives her a deep sense of self and identity.

What makes this the most feminist film of the year is not just its portrayal of how Corinne’s faith infuses everything about her life and enriches her friendships, but how hard it is when she begins to lose that faith and her previous closeness to God. Instead, she begins to notice all the inequities in her life — the minister’s wife who wants to correct her behavior or dress; her husband’s insistence on wifely submission; her lack of other things that might fill the gap left by God and give her life meaning; the emptiness of her community’s anodyne promises of glory in exchange for obedience. At last: a film about Christianity that can be feminist, too.

Honorable mentions: of course David Fincher’s Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, despite some misgivings about teensy plot points (see here for my extended conversation about the film with blogger JustMeMike) and Maryam Kashavarz’s Circumstance.

Best Female-Directed Film: A tie! 

Our winners are Clio Barnard’s The Arbor and Claire Denis’ White Material, two films that have haunted my dreams ever since seeing them.

The Arbor by Clio Barnard, is the extraordinary story of British playwright Andrea Dunbar. Dunbar grew up in a miserable housing estate/project in West Yorkshire, and somehow developed an uncanny gift for taking her family’s and neighbors’ conversations and transforming them into a comment on family dysfunction, racism, and poverty. At the age of 15 she won a playwriting contest for her play The Arbor (written by hand, in green ink, as the director remembers), a play so impressive it was performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre and later in New York. After writing two more plays and producing a film, and bearing three children by three different men, she died at age 29 after a young adulthood she dedicated to alcohol in the same way her father had before her.

This film uses Dunbar’s own method: Barnard has actors re-enact parts of The Arbor and, even more effectively and intimately, lip-sync recorded interviews with Dunbar’s family, especially her damaged, mixed-race daughter Lorraine. In the end The Arbor is exactly the right film about Dunbar’s life, using her gifts and her legacy, both the good and the very, very bad. No manual on mothering, this; it’s grim but clear-eyed in its portraits of the long shadow of addiction and bad choices to the poor. It’s remarkable — no matter how little you feel like watching a grueling tale like I’ve described, you’ll be amazed and impressed with Barnard’s terrific film. It’s not often you see theater transferred to film so gorgeously.

I wasn’t sure at first what to make of Claire Denis’ White Material (another film JustMeMike and I discussed at length) but after that long conversation and in the intervening months the memory of it has gotten into my central nervous system in the same way The Arbor did — to the point that I put all the rest of Denis’ films on my to-see list. I won’t go into detail again about the film, since you can read our two-part analysis; but just keep in mind how much it grows on you over time.

Honorable Mention: In a Better World by Suzanne Bier. I also want to give a shout-out to two first-time directors, by Dee Rees (for Pariah) and Maryam Keshavarz (for Circumstance), both of whom we’ll be seeing more from — I hope — in the years to come.

Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep: A tie!

Catherine Deneuve in Potiche and Glenn Close in Albert Nobbs.

Potiche means “trophy wife” and that’s what Deneuve is in this campy comedy set in a provincial factory town during the 1970s. Her husband is a boor of a factory owner whose philandering and health problems combine to get him into the hospital for a stretch, at which point Deneuve takes over the umbrella factory, charms an old one-night stand (Gérard Depardieu), and  fixes everything. It’s not the best film I’ve ever seen, but Deneuve is a delight.

It’s harder to watch Glenn Close as Albert Nobbs, a cross-dressing woman in the late 19th century who has risen to the position of head butler in an Irish hotel. Nobbs’ prevailing motivation is to be emotionally closed off enough to keep his secret and amass enough money to establish a little shop of his own. But when he meets another trans man, Hubert Page (Janet McTeer, whom I’d marry this minute), Nobbs begins to imagine that he needn’t be so lonely.

Albert Nobbs received mixed reviews — unfairly, I think, for I found this film moving and believable and quite radical, despite Nobbs’ limited emotional range. Close is terrific and McTeer should win oodles of prizes for her portrayal of Page. (Tell you what, Janet: you win a La Jefita! Just get in touch, come join me in western Massachusetts, and I’ll present your statuette in person — and in the meantime I’ll figure out what category it is!)

Let me repeat that after reading about Vanessa Redgrave in Coriolanus (thanks again, Tam) I’m quite certain that this particular prize was Redgrave’s to lose. Too bad the film never made it within 120 miles of me. Vanessa, you’ll have to wait till next year.

Honorable mentions: Isabelle Huppert in White Material and Yun Jeong-hie in Poetry. (Let’s also pause to remember last year’s winner: Another Korean actress, Kim Hye-ja from the amazing film Mother [Madeo]. What a terrific acting job that was.)

Best Fight Scene in which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass:

If you’re looking for the sheer gorgeousness of male ass-kicking, go for Gina Carano in Haywire. It was a tricky choice. But the scene I remember as being so memorable was in Hanna, when our weirdly angelic fairy tale princess (Saoirse Ronan) finds herself on a date with a boy, thanks to her new teenage friend Sophie (Jessica Barden, who’s fantastic). Listening to some flamenco guitar music and sitting in front of a flickering fire, Hanna sits next to this boy while Sophie makes out with one of her own until eventually the boy decides the time is right to make a move. We’ve seen this a million times in film — and considering that Hanna has enjoyed all manner of other awakenings with Sophie, we fully expect some kind of never-been-kissed magical scenario here.

Except Hanna has no never-been-kissed set of tropes to work from, like the rest of us did in that situation. So she takes him down. It was one of those movie moments when I was completely surprised and totally delighted by the unexpected shift in a story — thus, even though Hanna was far more impressive in other fights during the film, and even though Gina Carano is an MME goddess, this scene won my heart. Congratulations, Ronan!

Best Breakthrough Performance by an Unknown Actress:

Adepero Oduye in Pariah. You’d never guess that Oduye is actually 33 years old, because in every way she inhabits the awkward, embarrassed, itchy skin of a 17-year-old in this beautiful film. My only complaint about this film was its title, as it’s a weirdly hysterical and misleading concept for this subtle film. Alike, or Lee as she prefers (Oduye) isn’t a pariah at all — she actually has a surprising degree of interior strength as well as outside support. She’s an A student with an unholy gift for poetry and has a growing group of gay friends who, like she, identify as masculine. So even though she has to hide her butch clothes from her mother (Kim Wayans), she has already gone far toward exploring and appearing as mannish and openly lesbian.

That’s not to say it’s easy. Her mother is quietly furious about it (and about other stuff, too), and still insists on buying Lee those awful pink/purple sweaters that mothers buy even when they should know better. (Ah, flashbacks to my teenage years, when my mom bought my tomboy sister shirts with Peter Pan collars to the point that it became a family joke.) But by the time Lee knows she needs to leave this world — and that she needs to choose, not run — we just feel overwhelmed by the self-possession, the determination, of this new human. I can hardly wait to see more of Oduye.

Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Other Stuff:

Kim Wayans in Pariah. I watched every single episode of In Living Color (1990-94) back in the days when the Wayans family ruled comedy, but I had no idea Kim could push herself to such an explosive, angry performance. In Pariah she’s Audrey, the mother of a 17-year-old struggling to come out (and to be herself); but Audrey is also a miserable wife, made even more unhappy by her class pretensions and a scary penchant for isolating herself from others. She’s almost as upset by the class status of her daughter’s “undesirable,” dish-washing friend Laura as she worries that Laura’s obvious dyke identity is leading Alike (Adepero Oduye) to a lesbian life. But there’s a scene at the hospital, where Audrey works, during which her fellow nurses give her dirty looks and avoid speaking to her — and we know that she has dug herself a very deep well of unhappiness she’ll never get out of.

Wayans is more impressive than both Jessica Chastain in The Help and Bérénice Bejo in The Artist, and should have received a Supporting Actress nomination. Oh, I forgot: The Help was Hollywood’s token Black movie this year; how presumptuous of me to think they might have a second! Much less a black and gay film!

Most Realistic Dialogue that Women Might Actually Say and Which Passes the Bechdel Test:

Martha Marcy May Marlene. I feel a teensy bit wicked in pronouncing this my winner, because the film insists on Martha (Elizabeth Olsen, left below) being a cypher, especially to her sister Lucy (Sarah Paulson, right). Martha has escaped from a cult in upstate New York, and her experience there was so life-altering, so all-encompassing, that she cannot say very much at all that doesn’t sound as if it comes straight from the charismatic mouth of cult leader Patrick (John Hawkes). Lucy is mystified by her strange behavior and her strange utterances. “I wish you’d feel more comfortable talking to me,” Lucy says. “I do!” Martha responds. Except, when you get down to it, for Lucy “there’s nothing to talk about.” Their exchanges are almost as creepy as those with Patrick.

I have a lot of complaints about this year’s Oscar ballot (who doesn’t?) but I truly think it’s a crime that Martha was overlooked for two major categories — film editing and original screenplay — that highlight how tightly the dialogue strings together Martha’s past and present. When she angrily tells Lucy “I am a teacher, and a leader!” and the film cuts back to a past day when Patrick pronounced that very identity for her, and we see how much she absorbed into her soul every word from his mouth, just as she accepted being renamed Marcy May. It’s an amazing piece of writing and editing.

Most Surprisingly Radical Trend in Independent Filmmaking: Trans/Queer Cinema featuring female stars.

This has been an amazing year for films featuring female-oriented stories about trans or queer individuals. There was a point about 30 minutes into Albert Nobbs when I realized the director had created possibly the queerest movie I’d ever seen. It’s not just that Glenn Close and Janet McTeer were women disguised as men; every single relationship appeared queer in some way, from the feminine beauty of Joe (Aaron Johnson) to the 60-something hotel owner’s lascivious flirtations with men to the perverse Viscount Yarrell (Jonathan Rhys Meyers, a feminine man if I ever saw one) and his queer troupe of hangers-on. Given that culture, McTeer’s portrayal of Hubert Page (below) seems pretty straightforwardly masculine. (Oh, also: Janet gives us a gander at her magnificent 50-yr-old breasts with the same straightforwardness. I’m prepared to become a stalker now.)

The best thing about the film is its relative subtlety. When Albert fantasizes about finding a love of his own, he doesn’t want to cease dressing as a man or take a man as a lover. He identifies so absolutely as a man that he indulges in dreams of the little hotel maid Helen (Mia Wasikowska) sitting by his fire and darning his socks — oddly retrograde fantasies, considering that Helen’s not going to be anyone’s little wifey, but queer ones nevertheless. But the film takes its audience so seriously that it doesn’t feel the need to explain. Neither does Pariah need to explain why Lee is both gay and masculine-appearing, or why she wants to wear a strap-on dildo to the lesbian bar. These films let us do that work on our own.

And then there’s Tomboy, Céline Sciamma’s film about a girl passing as a boy during her summer vacation in a place far from home, where she can claim to be Mikael, not Laure. What all these films amount to is a sneaking new attention to — and filmic acceptance of — the experiences of queer and trans individuals, which feels especially radical to me because otherwise our culture is willing to acknowledge the LG but not the BTQ.

So there you have it, friends — my La Jefitas for 2011! Be sure to send along thoughts, criticisms, and of course your ideas about where the La Jefitas should go for 2012. I don’t know about you, but I’m watching the theaters carefully.

There’s an amazing scene in Sean Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011): the titular character (Elizabeth Olsen) has reappeared at her sister’s house after being gone for two years — and although she won’t talk about where she’s been or why she’s scared, her strange actions speak volumes. One night as Lucy (Sarah Paulson) and her husband have sex in bed, Martha walks in and curls up on one side. She’s so quiet it even takes them a moment to notice her there. They explode with a sense of violation — screaming at her about privacy and such behavior being abnormal. Once they’ve calmed down, Lucy asks Martha whether she understands why they were so upset. “Because it’s private,” Martha parrots back, again with that placid look on her face. “And it’s not normal.” We know with absolute certainty that she’s learned to repeat whatever truisms she’s told, because when she does, she’s rewarded with love — or is it because when she doesn’t comply, there are scary consequences?

This isn’t just a post about two excellent films, nor is it a typical review. I want to suggest that what those films portray — two different versions of a woman having her sanity challenged by a controlling, ostensibly loving male authority — can be seen not just as specific, individual cases, but a broader cultural phenomenon. It’s similar to the way I treated Black Swan last year — film as a jumping-off point to talk about culture.

Perhaps you suspect me of having jumped the shark with such a point. Most of us are not escaping from cultlike, charismatic leaders like John Hawkes in Martha Marcy May Marlene. Neither are most of us gaslighted, describing what Lauren over at Feministe calls “a repeat, systematic series of lies that are designed to make the victim doubt her reality. It’s not one lie or two lies, it’s part of a pattern of abuse meant to make the victim more compliant to minimize the effects of abuse, accept blame, and accept the abuser’s version of events that are contrary to her ownIn other words, it’s death by a thousand cuts.”

“Death by a thousand cuts.” C’mon, everyone: this is not just an individual phenomenon.

Perhaps you haven’t seen Gaslight recently (I’m talking about the 1944 US remake of the 1940 British film), but you should. It’s surprisingly creepy even now, begging you to wonder how easy it would be to be persuaded you’re crazy. He (Charles Boyer) starts with little things: he hides his wife’s (Ingrid Bergman) brooch, or a framed picture on the wall, and then persuades her that she hid them and doesn’t remember.

When she’s alone in a room he stomps around in the unused attic and fiddles with the gas lights, then laughs at her when she claims there’s something wrong with the lights or that she hears footsteps. He isolates her from other people, claiming it’s for her own sake. He starts to threaten her with institutionalization. He tells her that her madness is genetic, and that her own mother was insane.

Now let’s think about how the denials of Herman Cain’s sexual harassment prompted a surprising number of GOP mouthpieces to deny the very existence of sexual harassment charges earlier this month. It’s not just that Cain is innocent, they said. It’s that women are scheming liars. Women misunderstand jokes. Women try to move ahead by inventing stories about men. Women might believe they were harassed, but they’ve just got overactive imaginations. Women are stupid pawns, easily manipulated in men’s political games. Women who claim they’ve been raped are likewise presumed to be sluts who are lying: thus the GOP wants to redefine rape so that only evidence of the most extreme violence can be used as proof. (Be assured, friends, that effort is still underway.)

“It’s no longer just a Republican war on women. It’s a war on the idea that any woman might ever tell the truth,” as Dalia Lithwick concludes in her excellent Slate piece.

That scene I described above from Martha Marcy May Marlene is indicative of a pattern: she’s learned to repeat, and perhaps even to believe, whatever she’s told — no matter what the circumstances. When she’s subjected to a horrific act that her fellow cult members call “the cleansing,” they soothe her afterward by telling her how wonderful it is, how much they wish they could go through the process again for the first time. Soon Martha is laughing, as if her entire experience of violation has been rewritten as a mystical and transformative.

Surely we can believe that if a misogynistic, horrific idea is repeated long enough, it can start to seem normal. Let’s take the idea that has been building since 1973 into its current incarnation: that abortion is always, always bad. I was a teenager in the 80s in a small evangelical town and even I knew that if I got pregnant I’d get an abortion. If I were growing up now, would I believe what they’re saying: that abortion causes cancer, that it causes permanent emotional trauma, that abortion doctors are butchers, that even if I’d been raped or if childbirth would kill me I’d need to bring that baby to term? I don’t know — but young people today disapprove of abortion in far larger numbers than they did during the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Can we deny that this onslaught of misinformation, making women doubt their own opinions or needs, is to blame?

Actually, let’s talk about what I find even more upsetting, yet widespread: the anti-abortion message that women are incapable of making good choices, so the state needs to make choices on their behalf. I think this is a campaign designed to sidestep popular support for the notion of “choice” — no one wants to be seen as “anti-choice.” Instead, anti-abortionists have changed the terms of the debate — they’re not against choice, it’s just that women make selfish and bad choices they will regret. Women who have abortions are bad. Women who think it’s more important to feed the children they already have than add another child to the family are bad. Women who want to finish college rather than have a baby are bad. Therefore, anti-abortionists file out in front of clinics and torment the women walking inside. In its effort to criminalize abortion, the anti-abortion movement has even gone so far as to  seek to make every miscarriage a potential crime scene and call into question every single aspect of a pregnant woman’s lifestyle. The Mississippi “personhood amendment,” which every single GOP presidential candidate supported, redefined life as starting with conception — potentially outlawing the Pill.

What we need are more cultlike, charismatic male authority figures to watch us. Obviously!

The effect of that shift in thinking is a scary breaking down of the notion that a woman’s body might be her own. In Martha Marcy May Marlene, she learns that in exchange for giving up all privacy, all rights to her body, she receives love and comfort from her fellow cult members. (One of the fascinating things the film shows us is how lonely, isolated, and inarticulate she becomes without the cult: it’s terrifying to sleep alone, to return to a world where even one’s sister only offers up a teensy amount of physical affection.)

But let’s return in the end to the great, amazing climactic scene from Gaslight — a climax notably lacking in Martha Marcy May Marlene, I might add. We have no idea how crazy he’s made Ingrid Bergman by this time; she doubts all her own memories. She trusts her husband implicitly. She’s so weak emotionally that she can barely understand it when an inspector finally arrests her husband for a murder many years ago — that’s the secret he sought to keep — and ties him up in a chair. The film ends with her alone in the room with her bound husband, with him trying to manipulate her one more time: to help him escape.

It’s terrifying, because she seems to be manipulable. He tells her to withdraw a knife he’s hidden from a drawer and cut him free. She moves, robotlike, to the drawer and fishes around for a while, telling him there’s nothing there.

Yet when she turns back to him, she has the knife in her hand, gripped in an odd backhanded grip (and what a great acting choice Bergman made with that grip). We realize that she has stopped listening to her husband, and that now she’s doing the talking. She denies that there is a knife — and then tosses the knife off into a corner.

“I’m always losing things and hiding things and I can never find them — I don’t know where I put them. That was a knife, wasn’t it? and I have lost it. I must look for it, mustn’t I, and if I don’t find it you will put me in the madhouse. Where could it be now? Perhaps it’s behind this picture — yes, it must be here. No — where shall I look now? Perhaps I put it over here.”

By now we’re feeling a little bit better — after all, she’s not going to let Boyer escape — but the film doesn’t let us off the hook. It takes us to another kind of terror: that she has been manipulated so terribly that she will kill him. Then we get to the most amazing series of lines:

“If I were not mad I could have helped you. Whatever you had done I could have pitied and protected you. But because I am mad I hate you. Because I am mad I have betrayed you and because I am mad I’m rejoicing in my heart without a shred of pity, without a shred of regret, watching you go with glory in my heart!”

We’re all being gaslighted, friends. How much more before we, too, are mad? How much more before we aren’t sure what’s “normal,” what’s “private,” and what isn’t?

Whew! busy week. I’m behind on everything. And — ahem — I’m slightly peeved that NO ONE is writing in to tell me what to make of the ending to Take Shelter, which still swims all over my imagination.

In the same vein as that eminently scary film, I’m looking forward to Martha Marcy May Marlene, which is what sounds like a riveting and creepy film about a young woman who becomes drawn in to a cult — and what it means to be seduced in that way. I can hardly wait.

I’ve got a lot on my mind in the wake of the Herman Cain and Jerry Sandusky scandals. Apparently a coach at Syracuse University has now been accused of inappropriately touching two boys. Oh, we all get soooo upset about boys being touched, but all those piles of rape charges against athletes get dropped or written off as “lies” or settled quietly. But more on that soon.

And I have more to say about period dramas, as promised! Oooh, this is going to be good.