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‘We Are Your Friends’ : Bros before shows?

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We Are Your Friends (2015)

Directed by Max Joseph

6/10  R

If “Project X” had an alcohol-fueled late night hook-up with “The Wolf of Wall Street,” their baby might look something like “We Are Your Friends.” Caught between genuinely good and downright disgraceful, this 96-minute buzzing EDM track is like a turd covered in glitter. It’s hot and we-are-your-friends03stylish and glitzy and devoid of almost any real substance. Its cast is gorgeous and silly and energetic and largely without talent. You love it until you think about it for more than a few seconds. But first-time writer-director Max Joseph (co-host of MTV’s “Catfish”) had something worthwhile in his head, and “We Are Your Friends” does have an undeniably refreshing attitude. Unfortunately, even the best hype man can’t distract you from a shitty record. And that’s pretty much what “We Are Your Friends” is.

Seemingly stuck in San Fernando Valley, friends Cole (Zac Efron), Mason (Jonny Weston), Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez), and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer) spend their Thursday nights promoting shows for free drinks and spend most of WE ARE YOUR FRIENDStheir mornings nursing hangovers. Cole DJs for small crowds, but he doesn’t catch a break until he shares a smoke with veteran DJ James Reed (Wes Bentley), and the doors begin to open. But in the meantime, the friends snag a job in shady real estate from their mentor, Paige (Jon Bernthal). As Cole starts getting bigger gigs, and starts falling for Reed’s girlfriend Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), his friends don’t see their life’s progressing at the same pace. Cole will have to weigh his own priorities. As he slowly makes his way out of the valley, who will he bring up with him?

I have little appreciation for DJs or EDM or house music, as a rule. It all just gives me a pounding migraine. “We Are Your Friends” did little to change that. But it does have endearing qualities. It’s likable, on the surface. It has a trippy 80s so-bad-its-good comedy vibe. Efron fits the part, even if he doesn’t give it his best effort. Ratajkowski doesn’t have much life in her, but the model certainly leaves an impression. Bentley may have been the cast’s only real bright spot. His character is flimsy and one-dimensional, but he makes you forget about bad writing when he’s on screen. His charisma personifies the movie in general—fun to watch until you look a little deeper. “We Are Your Friends” tries at a couple moments to get deep, fast. Those diversions are WAYF_D21_TR_00309.CR2poorly thought out. All of the parts of a decent movie lie somewhere within “We Are Your Friends,” but nobody put in the effort to assemble them properly. The screenplay, for instance (from first-timer David Silverman) bounces around without sticking to a single theme. It tries, to be fair, by blurting out poignant life lessons like “Are we ever going to be better than this?” But it never decides which path to pursue, instead choosing to pursue all of them. The biggest problem, then, with “We Are Your Friends” is tone. It’s something so general, so big, and so hard to fix. But it’s also hard to define. The cast is alright, the script is alright, the music is alright. But the way it all fits together is not alright. It seems insincere. As hard as it tries to be more than a party flick, “We Are Your Friends” never finds its rhythm.

‘No Escape’ produces plenty of escapist thrills

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No Escape (2015)

Directed by John Erick Dowdle

6.5/10  R

Times Owen Wilson says his trademark “wow”: 1

Times Owen Wilson kills a man with a blunt object: 1

Hired, I assume, only for his unmistakable American identity, Wilson plays Jack Dwyer, a Texan transplanted to Southeast Asia (the script is purposefully non-descript on the exact country) to work at a water treatment facility. He took the job no-escape-image-4because he thought he would make a positive difference in the third world nation. Instead, he came at a terrible time. His new company has been accused of buying out the country’s labor force, essentially enslaving them. Just hours after arriving with his wife (Lake Bell) and two young daughters (Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare), Jack gets caught in the middle of a violent riot between police and protesters, who set out to find the American workers who work for the company (smells like Benghazi). Jack and his family, with the help of other Americans (including a brilliant Pierce Brosnan), will have to leave the city if they’ll want to survive. But doing so during a free-for-all coup is no easy task.

The Dowdle Brothers—writer Drew and writer-director John—are not known for particularly high-quality filmmaking. But as they’ve shown with “Quarantine,” “Devil,” and “As Above, So Below,” they do have the ability to create panic and suspense. “No Escape” is no different. More than any movie I’ve seen this year, “No Escape” had myno-escape heart thumping. The likable family was in mortal danger nearly the whole time. Without any weapons, knowledge of the area or the language, or relevant skills (unlike Liam Neeson, who always knows exactly what he’s doing), these civilians are playing out the fears every tourist has had at some point during a vacation. But this isn’t a vacation for the Dwyers. This is supposed to be their new home. It’s a smart concept, and the Dowdle Bros’ written dialogue is realistic and intense. The rest, however, is absurd. But you’ll quickly get over that.

Owen Wilson hasn’t had a non-comedic role since 2001’s “Behind Enemy Lines.” As far as I know, Lake Bell never has. So their casting in this action-packed thriller raised eyebrows. But “No Escape” never pretends to be “Silence of the Lambs.” no-escape (1)The dialogue is short and to-the-point; in “No Escape,” you get all you need from what you see. For that reason, even comedians Wilson and Bell can’t bring this thriller down. In fact, as a scared-shitless everyday American family, they’re rather convincing. These aren’t supposed to be hardened killers, so their innocence is an asset. Pierce Brosnan, in a smaller role, gives what might just be my favorite performance of his entire career—Bond included. His character, Hammond, is cool, smart, and great with a gun. Oh, how I missed the days of Pierce Brosnan in a convincing action role. Maybe he still has a great performance left in him.

Thanks to the nature of the plot, “No Escape” is a fast-paced thriller with the ability to get you on the edge of your seat. It’s definitely flawed, but you can’t help but enjoy something this exhilarating.

‘Hitman: Agent 47’ is all style and no substance

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Hitman: Agent 47 (2015)

Directed by Aleksander Bach

5.5/10  R

In what turns out to be another example of Hollywood’s knack for producing unwanted reboots, “Hitman: Agent 47” does very little to set itself apart of the inundation of terrible action movies released every month. With a script that’s fit for a paper shredder and a cast straight from the island of misfit toys (where has Zachary Quinto been?), this one never should Review-Hitman-Agent-47-3have made it to the screen.

After the “Agent” program was defunded, the last surviving agents, including Agent 47 (Rupert Friend, “Homeland”), scattered. But when an ambitious member of “the Syndicate” finds a clue to the whereabouts of the program’s founder, Litvenko (Ciaran Hinds), they track him down in hopes of resurrecting the program. But 47 knows the danger that lies in the hands of anyone with the Agent formula. So he finds the founder’s daughter (Hannah Ware), and together they avoid being killed by members of the Syndicate (including Quinto) in a race to find Letvenko.

Rupert Friend was a smart choice to play the anonymous, emotionless Agent 47. But the role is designed to be forgettable. That’s because a character without emotion is hardly a character at all. Quinto is stiff, almost comically so. Hitman-Agent-47-Zachary-Quinto-after-credits-sceneSince the last “Star Trek” installment two years ago, Quinto has been all but absent on the big screen. He’s out of practice, apparently. The story, written by action veteran Skip Woods (“The A-Team,” “A Good Day to Die Hard”), is bare bones and surface level, lacking any depth. It was a bore. So underwhelming was the script, and so routine was the movie in general, I nearly walked out of the theater around the half-way point. I felt as if there was nothing more that “Hitman: Agent 47” could give me that I couldn’t have written myself. I was right. Plus, aside from one scene of decent adrenaline, the movie lacked any real thrills at all. And without that, what’s even the point?

Is ‘The End of the Tour’ the beginning of a resurgence for Segel?

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The End of the Tour (2015)

Directed by James Ponsoldt

7.5/10  R

Too often, films described as “meaningful” or “deep” are also pretentious and fake. Intelligent characters normally seem like they’re above you. Not so with “The End of the Tour.” Shortly after novelist David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segel) penned the gargantuan “Infinite Jest,” Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) got permission to 1200x710xthe-end-of-the-tour.jpg.pagespeed.ic.lQuSyVMNROwrite a piece about the final leg of Wallace’s national book tour. As the men talked extensively, both in Wallace’s home and while travelling to Minneapolis, Wallace opened up about his writing process and other less relevant things, while remaining standoffish when Lipsky wanted to talk about anything personal. When Wallace finally began pulling back the curtains, Lipsky realized that Wallace was more complex than his story could ever begin to characterize.

As far as plot is concerned, that’s about it. “The End of the Tour” has no story arc and no major climax. It’s steadily good, but never exciting. It doesn’t need to be. If the purpose of a biopic is to instill humanity into its subject, I’m not sure I’ve seen one more effective than “The End of the Tour.” First-time screenwriter Donald Marguilies allows Segel to reveal Wallace’s deepest insecurities, to show him as more than just a celebrated writer. In the film, Wallace says that he believes his “regular guyness” is his most defining quality. I would argue it’s also Jason Segel’s. His towering performance vaults him from the C-list to a possible Oscar nomination. The recognition wouldn’t be undeserved. The emotive Segel charges his character with a passion that we rarely see on screen. Segel bleeds into the role in a way that renders him unrecognizable. Maybe it’s because his biggest movie roles have been in underperforming and frequently unfunny comedies. Now that he has the first powerful dramatic role under his belt, you can bet he’ll have another soon. By the-end-of-the-tour01comparison, Jesse Eisenberg lacks a certain punch. But by comparison, few wouldn’t. Segel’s performance commandeers “The End of the Tour” like few leading roles are able to do. He’s a show-stopper. But throughout, he remains true to the subject. Wallace lives in a humble, regular guy home in small-town Indiana and teaches at a college down the road. Segel never pretends that Wallace is something that he’s not. Wallace is a complicated character who can’t be defined in a single word, so Segel gives him dimension and humanity.

“The End of the Tour” is a focused biopic that lets its stars take the reins. Using what could be an Oscar-worthy screenplay, Segel and Eisenberg deliver a love letter to the complexities of human emotions. I think it would have made David Foster Wallace proud.

‘American Ultra’ is a new strain of action-comedy

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American Ultra (2015)

Directed by Nima Nourizadeh

7/10  R

For a decade or more, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart have bounced around from Oscar-winning films to terrible excuses for cinema and back again. But with the new stoner comedy “American Ultra,” it seems they’ve finally found their neurotic little niche.

When the CIA implemented a new program that altered the minds of frequent juvenile offenders in an attempt to make american-ultrathem efficient killers, it only worked on one man. Small-town convenience store clerk and stoner Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) hasn’t been activated yet, and any memories of his training have been erased. He lives a static existence with his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart) in West Virginia. But when the Ultra program’s new director (Topher Grace) decides to eliminate the potentially dangerous asset before he realizes his capabilities, the program’s former director (Connie Britton) does all she can to save him. After all, Howell doesn’t even know the dangerous killer inside him…but he will.

“American Ultra” has a weird factor that would quickly ruin a lesser movie. This time, it turns the stoner flick into a potential cult classic. The script is a potent blend of outrageously comedic and philosophical af. It’s also one of the most exciting action plots of the summer. Tarantino action, Evan Goldberg comedy, and an adorably realistic romance—“American Ultra” american-ultra07has it all. But it’s the leads that unlock the movie’s potential. Eisenberg epitomizes chillness as the pot-head turned CIA asset. He’s deadpan hilarious, but he can also kick major butt and make it look easy. Since her days starring in the “Twilight” saga, Kristen Stewart has grown into quite an asset in her own right. In her role in “Still Alice,” for one, Stewart showed incredible dramatic potential. Here, she’s something quite different. Her chill, dirty hippie look has always led her to this role. As Bella Swan, it was hard to take Stewart seriously. In “American Ultra,” nothing ever needs to be taken too seriously. That’s a good thing. For a casual end-of-summer escape, nothing else is quite as effective.

“American Ultra” is high-intensity, high-octane, and also just high. It’s a trippy and entertaining tinder box of excitement.

Kristen Wiig’s ‘Welcome to Me’ never finds footing

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Welcome to Me (2015)

Directed by Shira Piven

5.5/10  R

“Welcome to Me” seems like unfinished work. When Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig), a lonely and unstable Oprah-addict, wins the California state lottery, she buys airtime on a small station in the 10 a.m. slot (against the advice of her therapist, played by Tim Robbins). “Welcome to Me,” as Klieg calls it, is a show all about her. Whatever she wants to talk about, she talks about—including her personal and sexual history, with the aid of reenactments. And, since she’s signing checks for millions of Welcome to Medollars, the station—including infomercial host Gabe (Wes Bentley), his older brother Rich (James Marsden), and producer Dawn (Joan Cusack)—allows her shenanigans to unfold without much interference. What seems like the start of a potentially worthwhile movie ends abruptly there. After the story is set up, it meanders on for another hour (it’s only 87 minutes in total) without really saying anything.

“Welcome to Me” might as well have been called the Kristen Wiig Show. As one of the film’s producers (a list which also includes Will Ferrell and Adam McKay), Wiig gives herself a lot of freedom to act absurd. It’s a role she clearly relishes. Alice Krieg looks something like one of Wiig’s “SNL” characters, but instead of five minutes we get her for almost an hour and a half. That’s a bit too much. Wiig tested the waters of drama in last year’s “Skeleton Twins,” which (while far from perfect) was a much better effort than this. Here, Wiig’s costars don’t provide the help they could have, at least based on their past credentials. Not even Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack could save this.

Dry, dark, deadpan humor only goes so far in “Welcome to Me.” Then, you start to wonder whether or not it’s just bad welcome-to-me-kristen-wiig-888x456writing. Unfortunately, it just might be. The jokes, for the most part, fall flat. “Welcome to Me” has a straight-face humor. Your cheek muscles don’t get a workout. But worse than that, the story never finds its footing. It takes no time at all to vault right into the thick of it…which never gets very thick. It’s a thin, weak premise—just skin and bones.

“Welcome to Me” is a dark new step in Kristen Wiig’s post-“SNL” career. But this one we could have done without.

‘The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’ is a reminder of spy movies of old

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The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

Directed by Guy Ritchie

7.5/10  PG-13

Cold War-era spy movies always follow the same formula. At the end of a bad spy movie, this might irritate you. At the end of a good one, you simply don’t care. “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a good one. It’s the most consistently entertaining action movie of the summer blockbuster season (since, technically, “Mad Max: Fury Road” released in the spring). It’s The-Man-from-UNCLEnot wholly original, but “UNCLE” strives only to be a fun escape, heavy on plot twists and cheeky monologues and other things that would make Maxwell Smart proud.

In 1963, in the midst of a historically hostile US/USSR relationship, the CIA and the KGB decide it’d be wise to team up their best men—suave American Napoleon Solo (played by British actor Henry Cavill) and short-tempered Russian giant Illya Kuryakin (American actor Armie Hammer)—to help the German daughter (Swedish model Alicia Vikander…) of a nuclear physicist. This highly-intelligent physicist is helping some common enemies bring about the third world war—whether under the threat of force or under his own free will, they’re not sure. Of course, this doesn’t go smoothly. But as the trio combines their unique spy tactics—stealth, strength, or secrecy—they find they can get a lot more XXX MAN UNCLE MOV JY 1187 .JPG A ENTaccomplished together than apart. That doesn’t mean, of course, that they won’t still act stubborn about it.

From the kickass opening chase scene to the satisfying sequel set-up (yessssss), “UNCLE” never ceases to be full of fun. I can’t give it many points for its plot, which is a conglomeration of dozens of similar spy stories involving nuclear bombs and unlikely partners. But “UNCLE” never gets muddled down in momentousness. The whole time, its script keeps the tone light, making you laugh so often you’ll forget you’re watching a Cold War movie. It has an air of nonchalance with a cast that’s clearly on board. Cavill is a brilliant Bond in the making. He’s a serious action superstar with a charm that never lets you take him too seriously. He’s the source of many of the film’s most delicious dramatic monologues, which always ended with the theater in uproarious laughter. Through a steady but thin Russian accent, Armie Hammer also gives his share of sarcastic one-liners, mostly spoken under his breath.Film The Man From U.N.C.L.E Like the whole cast, it’s impossible to hate Hammer. He’s just too likable. In a surprisingly goofy and thoroughly enjoyable performance, Vikander sheds the motion capture suit she wore as Ava in this year’s “Ex Machina” to play Gaby Teller, the fake fiancé of one of our leading men. She seems to have a ball, and her vibrant enthusiasm is contagious.

“UNCLE” is always faithful to its roots—not only the mid-‘60s TV show the film is based on, but “Get Smart,” “I Spy,” and a whole host of other silly spy serials. “UNCLE” is every bit the cheeky spy film I hoped it would be. I hope you’ll agree.

‘Ricki and the Flash’ gives me the blues

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Ricki and the Flash (2015)

Directed by Jonathan Demme

6/10  PG-13

Screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno,” “Jennifer’s Body”) used to be known for being in tune with today’s youth culture. But with her newest effort, “Ricki and the Flash,” she seems to distance herself from it. By writing mostly older characters who are ricki-and-the-flash-gummer-streep-klineconservative and out of touch, and by using stereotypes instead of characterization (most notably when dealing with characters who are gay or suicidal), Cody offers up an insincere and uncomfortably familiar story that is a disappointment on many levels.

Years after leaving her family to pursue a career in rock n roll with her band The Flash, Ricki (Meryl Streep) gets a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline), telling her that their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) is depressed after her cheating husband left her. Ricki flies back from California to Indiana, hoping to be a helpful presence. But she’s confronted with the harsh reality that the abandonment of her kids made a bigger impact than she thought. As she tries to get her life together, including figuring things out with her band’s lead guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield), Ricki will try to mend the relationships she left fractured all those years ago.

Cody’s script is unfunny, unoriginal, and uninspired. It’s a bunch of un. What it’s not is a bunch of fun. In fact, none of the rick-springfield-ricki-and-the-flashcharacters are especially likable. Only Ricki has any character arc, and even she doesn’t come across as someone I would want to have a margarita with. She’s poorly written, and the other characters are worse. But Cody isn’t the only Oscar winner to share the blame. Director Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs”), plus Kline (“A Fish Called Wanda”), and Streep (with 3 Oscars of her own) have nearly foolproof track records. I said nearly. But with “Ricki,” not even this dream team can pull off a win. The hard, rude, conservative Ricki is an unnatural character for Streep, who often shines in Hollywood as the picture of grace, charm, and liberalism. Streep’s gravelly singing voice is the only bright spot in her performance, which fortunately includes quite a few songs. This is where rocker Springfield (we all know the lyrics to “Jessie’s Girl,” right?) helps out, too. He’s every bit the rocker he used to be, and the barroom band’s rock covers (plus one original song) are enjoyable and refreshing. But when Springfield has his attempt at ricki-flash-mamiedramatic dialogue, he slips back into his “General Hospital” days and becomes preachy and sappy. Kevin Kline is a little better, giving his best performance in years (which doesn’t say much, given the low-brow roles he’s taken recently). And in a smaller role as Pete’s new wife, Emmy nominee Audra McDonald gives what could be the movie’s best performance.

“Ricki and the Flash” isn’t disappointing only because of its unnaturally high expectations—it’s just plain bad. One has to wonder whether the 37-year-old Cody is already feeling 40, because her apparent disgust with “today” doesn’t seem like the counter-cultural, ultra-liberal former-stripper I thought I knew.

‘Shaun the Sheep’ brings claymation baaack

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Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015)

Directed by Mark Burton & Richard Starzak

6.5/10  PG

Since 2007, seven-minute episodes of the claymation series “Shaun the Sheep” have been airing on BBC and Disney Channel in between full-length shows. And since 2007, I have loved it. Its silent slapstick humor is refreshing in an age when scripted children’s shows have become so bland. Naturally, news of a full-length movie adaptation was exciting. The result, however, wasn’t exactly what I anticipated. It turns out “Shaun the Sheep” is better in moderation. Seven-minute sprints are great, but this 85-minute marathon soon becomes tiring.image

Shaun is the rambunctious young leader of his herd, corralled daily by The Farmer and the sheepdog, Blitzer. But one day, Shaun decides he’s had enough of this day-in, day-out business. He wants to be free. During his attempt to escape, a series of comical mishaps leads to the sheep, the dog, and The Farmer making their way to the Big City, with its hustle and bustle and power-hungry animal control agents. And even worse, the sheep are separated from their protectors. The unlikely farm crew will have to put their heads together to get them all out of the city and back home.

Claymation is a beautiful art, and the animators of “Wallace and Gromit” and “Chicken Run” (yes, they’re the same people who created “Shaun the Sheep”) seem to be some of only a few people who still do it…or do it well. The claymation in “Shaun the Sheep” is beautifully intricate, a strong asset to the silent events happening on screen. When the story becomes Shaun-the-Sheep-Moviecumbersome, you’ll be glad you have something to look at. It makes you wish more animators would take the road less travelled.

“Shaun the Sheep” communicates its plot well without speaking a single word. Instead, grunts and nods give us all we need to know. The story, and the roadblocks the sheep face along the way, are clever…but for the first half, “Shaun the Sheep” lacks anything especially compelling. It’s hard to stay awake when the only intelligible sounds are a few songs that play during montages. By the end, though, you’ll want to know what happens to Shaun and his pals. It’s a cute story with a satisfactory (if childlike) conclusion. It’s certainly unlike every other PG movie this year. And for the most part, that’s a good thing.

‘The Gift’ is never what it seems

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The Gift (2015)

Directed by Joel Edgerton

6.5/10  R

“The Gift” is the gift that keeps on giving…granted, these gifts come in the form of nervous glances over your shoulder while you’re sitting on your couch writing a review of “The Gift.” But still, something so disturbing isn’t easily left in the theater.

thegift-mv-4Joel Edgerton, in his directing debut, plays Gordo Mosely, a socially awkward handyman who never moved away from his California hometown. When Gordo’s old high school friend Simon (Jason Bateman) moves back to the area with his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) and their dog, Gordo reaches out. But successful sales rep Simon isn’t too keen on this new friendship, or Gordo’s apparent fascination with Robyn. But when Simon honestly confronts Gordo—a friendly breakup—Gordo’s true intentions finally begin to reveal themselves.

Like most thrillers, “The Gift” begins slowly. Gordo is uncomfortable, at most. But by the end, “The Gift” leaves your stomach twisted. It’s beyond disturbing—it’s chilling. I shudder just thinking about it. Edgerton gets a lot of the credit, but not just for his role—besides directing, he also wrote the f*cked-up script. Still, Gordo is an enigmatic foil to Simon and Robyn. Bateman showed in the massively underrated “Disconnected” that he’s more than capable of realistic drama. When the tensions rise, Bateman shines. He plays normal well, but Simon isn’t all that he seems. Rebecca Hall (“The Town”) is the voice of reason in a film that might thegift-mv-11have gotten out of hand without it. And Allison Tolman (excellent in the first season of “Fargo”) provides much needed minor support as Robyn’s friendly neighbor Lucy.

Robert Louis Stevenson once said, “A friend is a gift you give yourself.” For Simon and Robyn, Gordo is one gift they could have done without. Thankfully for us, Gordo made sure that wasn’t the case. “The Gift” makes you think it’s a relationship thriller in the vein of “Fatal Attraction,” but eventually you realize you couldn’t be more wrong.