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Juno plus Lolita equals "Flower," an indie drama about Erica (Zoey Deutch), a spunky-profane, sexually active, criminally ambitious 17-year old from the San Fernando Valley.  Directed and co-written by Max Winkler (son of actor Henry Winkler), the movie is a Frankenstein quilt of not-quite-there-ness. Almost nothing convinces—not the story, not the script's view of human nature, not the dialogue, not even Erica, a young woman who's at the center of every scene, and is presented as a force of nature who's as beguiling and funny as she is relentless, even though, very often, she's none of those things. The cast's heroic exertions fail to save "Flower" from its own worst tendencies.

"Flower" starts with Erica performing oral sex on a local police officer as part of an ongoing blackmail scheme that keeps her and her two best pals, Kala (Dylan Gelula) and Claudine (May Eshet), in shopping money while adding to a fund to bail Erica's absentee dad out of jail. Erica's mother Laurie (Kathryn Hahn) is dating a nice single dad named Bob (Tim Heidecker). Bob's teenage son, an overweight and painfully shy recovering drug addict named Luke (Joey Morgan), leaves rehab and moves in, prompting Erica to try to get to know him Erica-style, by making a lot of knowing wisecracks and then offering oral sex to chill him out.

She does this sort of thing a lot. "Flower" expends quite a bit of screen time...

In 2010, the equally amiable and amicable Matt Green walked across America, a total of more than 3,000 miles over more than 150 days. His latest project is smaller on a geographical scale, but even more ambitious—walking every street in New York, in all five boroughs, which he estimates to be 8,000 miles. His passion for this endeavor is captured in Jeremy Workman’s lovely documentary, “The World Before Your Feet,” which is as gently eye-opening as looking around while strolling down a new street. 

Given the scope of Green’s project, this documentary does not focus on its beginning or end. Its scope is more existential, about exploring what life is like when you take the time to see and learn about what’s around you, and the surprises one might experience along the way. Green becomes a type of host to this ideology with Workman’s cameras often filming him from behind, taking pit stops to point out old buildings or signs to us, especially if it’s a 9/11 memorial, or a barbershop that has a “Z” in the name. He doesn’t hesitate to take in a seemingly normal street. His enthusiasm quickly becomes ours. 

The film has a warming sociological aspect to it too, as it collects glimpses of random New York life: we see Matt explaining his mission to strangers, answering their curiosity. The responses earn a collective admiration from fellow New Yorkers, even if Matt has to break through some initial hostility using his knowledge,...

Fans of epic cinema will want to climb mountains with their bare hands after seeing “The Dawn Wall,” a documentary worthy of IMAX about two buddies free-climbing the side of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. In January 2015, Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson decided to climb the 3,000 foot rock face, using only their hands and tethers going from one designated hook to the next (called a “pitch”), after years of practice. They both speak about the experience with smiles on their faces, so we know that nothing horrible happens to them, but the footage of them climbing—captured over many years—is purely invigorating. As the most genuine of crowd-pleasers, it will have you rooting instantly for the two hardworking, charismatic athletes. You’ll start to root for the filmmaking, too. 

The adventure took weeks, sometimes with full days spent just hanging on the side of the rock as the world watched, and features dramatic turns. That’s before we learn about previous chapters in Caldwell’s life; a former kidnapping in Kyrgyzstan, a sliced finger (a horrific injury for climbers in particular). In a scale as small as friendship or as large as the rock itself, vivid ideas of endurance and overcoming obstacles make this doc a beauty, while “The Dawn Wall” offers incredible imagery of them climbing, as assembled with a strong editorial rhythm. It’s all coated with an undeniable good spirit, like an adrenaline shot with a lot of soul, too. 

“The Dawn...

My last few days of Austin’s SXSW Film Festival featured stories of parentless children in dangerous, violent worlds. Not only is that a theme of at least three of the flicks in this dispatch, but Andrew Haigh’s excellent “Lean on Pete.” Why are the artists coming to Austin with stories of a potentially lost generation? Looking at the headlines about the increasingly anxious, angry state of the world makes it pretty easy to see why that would be reflected in our independent cinema. Sadly, only one of these films is a true standout, although it’s a theme that’s sure to be explored more as the year progresses.

The best of the bunch is A.J. Edwards’ striking “Friday’s Child,” starring Tye Sheridan, Imogen Poots, Caleb Landry Jones, and Jeffrey Wright. Edwards was the editor of “To the Wonder” and worked on “The New World,” and the influence of Terence Malick on his style was evident in his debut, “The Better Angels.” If that film owed more debt to Malick’s period pieces, “Friday’s Child” reflects the style we’ve seen in films like “Knight of Cups” and “Song to Song.” It has a lyrical, semi-improvised, poetic approach to storytelling, although there’s more of a traditional narrative to hold on to here than in some of Malick’s recent films. It’s a mesmerizing piece of work, featuring what is arguably Sheridan’s best performance to date,...

There are few things more critic-proof than a cute puppy. The opening moments of Brandon Camp’s “Benji” stand as irrefutable evidence of this principle, as a mother canine and her offspring are carted off by malevolent dog catchers. Out of the shadows, the face of a pint-sized pup emerges, cocking his head in confusion as he watches his family vanish into oblivion. If tears aren’t starting to form in your eyes by the time the title card materializes, then you are clearly not the target audience for this picture. Released today on Netflix, “Benji” stubbornly follows in the paw prints of the franchise it intends to reboot. It’s directed by the son of Joe Camp, whose initial 1974 vehicle for the four-legged star became a surprise hit, grossing $45 million on a $500,000 budget, while garnering an Oscar nomination for Euel and Betty E. Box’s catchy title tune, “I Feel Love.” The acting wasn’t polished and the script was nothing special, but there was still a charm about the movie that was unmistakably old-fashioned. When Frances Bavier (a.k.a. Aunt Bee on “The Andy Griffith Show”) made her final screen appearance in an amusing cameo, she seemed entirely at home in the quaint, small town setting created by Camp. 

Yet the key highlights of the “Benji” pictures have always been the stretches of wordless storytelling in which the audience is invited to take a dog’s eye view of the world, where average-sized...

Andrew Haigh is the rare filmmaker that's more interested in presenting viewers with fully-realized characters—who feel like they existed before they came into frame and will continue to do after they leave it—than any sort of high concept or twisting plot. Most writers treat their supporting characters especially like plot devices, only fleshing them out to the degree they impact their protagonist. Not Haigh. In his masterful “Lean on Pete,” we meet a dozen or so people whom we don’t spend much time with, but who feel real. There’s Steve Buscemi’s irascible race horse owner, Chloe Sevigny’s horse rider, Amy Seimetz cooking breakfast, Steve Zahn’s homeless alcoholic, and several others who cross paths with our hero, a boy named Charlie, played with heartfelt, poignant perfection by Charlie Plummer. Again and again, I marveled at the humanist depth of the world Haigh creates, one that can only be rendered by a truly great writer and director, working near the top of his game.

The man behind the Oscar-nominated “45 Years” shifts gears to the Pacific Northwest in “Lean on Pete,” where we meet a relatively average kid named Charlie. He’s 15; he runs in the morning; he struggles near poverty with his single father. In the opening scenes, he mentions to his dad’s new love interest (Seimetz) that the reason the cereal is in the fridge is because roaches can get to it more easily in the cabinet. It’s these subtle...

The latest must-binge original offering from Netflix comes in the shape of a six-part documentary series about a small religious movement (or cult, if you prefer) that moved into a small Oregon town in the 1980s. Under the wisdom of their then-silent Indian guru Bhagwan, a large swarm of Rajneeshees (made up seemingly of mostly white westerners, but with all of them dressed in bright red) turned a vacant ranch plot into their own utopia. It was a gobsmacking, full-functioning community that included rows of homes, a massive assembly hall, a pizza parlor, a dam and a private airstrip. But the construction of this self-made paradise proved to be just the beginning, as they clashed with the Oregonians who saw their size and growing influence as a threat, despite arriving in peace: biochemical warfare, assassination attempts, electoral chaos and much more ensued. 

Easily one of the craziest documentaries I’ve ever seen, Chapman and Maclain Way’s six-part series “Wild Wild Country” boasts a profound narrative with intricate human beings, an amass of intellectual themes and more twists than you can count. Told chronologically and using 250+ hours of footage and extensive new interviews, it places you into the contrasting experiences of people in this bizarre saga, leaving you to wonder in part how such a story could have been so forgotten by American history. And after the six-plus hours of “Wild Wild Country” flies by, you won't want an approach to this story any different or shorter than...

"Love, Simon" is a mainstream-styled teenage rom-com that uses every cliche in the book. There's the nerdy Vice Principal, the bacchanalian high school party, supportive yet somewhat clueless parents, witty voiceover from the protagonist, public declarations of love in front of the whole school, all held together by a stream of catchy pop tunes. But "Love, Simon"'s use of these cliches represents a huge first, because it is the story of a young closeted gay kid's difficult and often humorous march towards coming out. Director Greg Berlanti, who has helmed a string of hit television shows as producer and writer, uses the familiar teenage romance genre to tell an LGBTQ story, and in so doing makes these tropes feel fresh, fun, entertaining. Based on Becky Albertalli's YA novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, "Love, Simon" is a radically inclusive act.

As Simon (Nick Robinson) tells us in his opening voiceover, he lives a normal life "just like you." He lives in a nice house, has two supportive parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and a young sister obsessed with "Top Chef" (Talitha Eliana Bateman). He's a good student and participates in the Drama Club. His best friends are Leah (Katherine Langford), Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) and Abby (Alexandra Shipp). Nothing is wrong, except, as Simon says in voiceover, "I have a huge-ass secret." His secret is he is gay. He is pretty sure his parents would be fine...

In June 1976, a group of self-proclaimed revolutionaries hijacked an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris, boarding the plane during a stop in Athens. They forced the crew to fly the nearly 250 passengers to Libya for refueling before heading to their ultimate destination of Entebbe, Uganda, where they held the frightened travelers for a week in an abandoned airport terminal before an elite team of Israeli commandos rescued them in a nighttime raid.

It was a daring operation, one that captured the world’s attention and inspired several movies, including 1977’s “Operation Thunderbolt.” But you’d never know how thrilling this mission truly was from its latest big-screen incarnation, the weirdly sluggish and dull “7 Days in Entebbe.”

Brazilian director Jose Padilha has made his name with action pictures, including the “Elite Squad” series, and the film’s later bursts of intensity are indeed its highlights. But working from a script by Gregory Burke, Padilha employs a back-and-forth narrative structure that frustratingly keeps the movie from attaining its potential momentum. 

“7 Days in Entebbe” actually opens on a spare stage with a semi-circle of chairs as members of the Batsheva Dance Company work through their performance of Ohad Naharin’s “Echad Mi Yodea,” with its bold percussion and rousing melody providing a driving rhythm. Padilha comes back to it over and over again—including some insistent parallel editing during the climactic rescue—and it just never works. Whatever he might be trying to say about...

An intelligent, meticulously crafted drama about British soldiers in the trenches of World War I, “Journey’s End” is the latest cinematic rendition of a play by a war veteran, R.C. Sheriff, which premiered in England in 1928 with Laurence Olivier in a lead role. While the play was a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic, and has proved an admirably durable theatrical staple (I saw the hit Broadway revival of 2007), one might wonder why it would be made into a movie in the present day.

An obvious one-word answer: “Dunkirk.” Although they concern different wars, the two movies plumb the innate drama, tedium and terror of soldiers on foreign soil bracing for an onslaught by overwhelming enemy forces. Intimate and verbal, though, Saul Dibb’s film provides a satisfying antithesis to Christopher Nolan’s macrocosmic, hyper-sensory view of war: it gives close and sustained attention to a handful of soldiers facing both an implacable foe and their own mortality.

Since its debut, Sheriff’s play has been praised for its precise, flavorful realism and avoidance of cliches and rhetoric. Unlike many literary and cinematic treatments that would come later, it’s neither staunchly “patriotic” nor polemically “anti-war.” Leaving aside the war’s political causes (aside from one character’s statement that it should never have happened), it focuses squarely on the certain individuals and their ways of dealing with a situation of impending catastrophe.

Simon Reade’s script for the film preserves...

Evan Rachel Wood has a predatory tiger in her tank as a teasing, twisted and tortured cleaning lady on the prowl in “Allure.” From the first scene, when a doughy dude enters her darkened bedroom, dons a blindfold and stumbles into her clutches, Wood’s androgynous Laura takes charge. Attempting to arouse her prey, she impatiently snaps, “You’re no good to me if you can’t get hard.” But when she stoops to violence and nearly smothers him with her hands while straddling his body during sex, he angrily flees.

The encounter clearly has left her hunger unabated. In the morning, she goes to a new client’s house. Going about her chores, she encounters Eva (Julia Sarah Stone), a waifish 16-year-old who cheerlessly practices classical music on a piano. There is a “For Sale” on the front lawn and it turns out Eva’s distant and demanding mother (Maxim Roy) plans on them moving in with her latest boyfriend—a decision that dismays her daughter. After checking her lipstick in the bathroom mirror she has just wiped down, Laura ambles into Eva’s room, smiles and compliments her on a Nirvana poster on her wall. The teen lights up from the attention, and soon she and the 30-ish hired hand are knocking back screwdrivers in Laura’s nondescript living room. Eva sleeps over on a basement couch and soon matters grow a great deal more complicated from there as the plot meanders into “Misery”-like kidnapping territory....

“There’s all sorts of stories. Happy ones. Sad ones. Pathetic ones. Mine.” The speaker as this movie opens is Hank, played by Dylan McDermott, and he’s not a happy camper to say the least. Unshaven, unconvincing in a cowboy hat, t-shirt very gray but clearly not store-bought in that color. He lives in a housing development where he’s fenced in his own garden space with camo fabric. Therein he spends time with his pals, a couple of turtles for whom he’s concocted a miniature desert landscape. Every now and then he’s visited by a vision of an angry guy in an orange jumpsuit. His human neighbors aren’t quite sure what to make of him.

Hank works as a parking monitor at a local high school, and the punk kids, including the wide-eyed freak Gator (Daeg Faerch) and the relatively more clean-cut Marcus (Jack Kilmer) give him holy hell, referring to him as “Spank” and pulling gross-out pranks on him. 

Into this already hot mess struts the title character, a gorgeous high-school transplant with translucent blue eyes, an array of cryptic tattoos on her arms, and a winning manner. For some reason she’s got her own apartment in Hank’s development, and on the afternoon that she arrives, she gets the older man to help her out with the boxes. 

In the twinkling of those translucent blue eyes, Josie is lounging by the development’s swimming pool, decked out in a bathing suit that...

Filmed over three years in the U.S. and China, Miao Wang’s “Maineland” follows two Chinese teens, Stella Zhu and Harry He, as they study and live at a college preparatory boarding school in a tiny Maine town. At the end of their experience, the bubbly, personable Stella effuses that she has made her best friends at the school.

There’s just one thing: from what viewers can see, all of her closest friends are Chinese. What does Stella think about this? What do non-Chinese students think? What do the school’s teachers and administrators think? If there’s a kind of self-segregation at work among the Chinese students, is this inevitable, incidental or something that needs to be addressed? Does it jibe with the school’s educational mission, or cut against it?

That’s just a small sampling of the many intriguing questions that go unasked in “Maineland,” a documentary that offers some fascinating if glancing insights into a rich and timely subject but ends up being more frustrating than enlightening. That’s largely because the filmmaker has elected the fashionable path of adapting a mainly-verite style that largely eschews the kind of talking-heads interviews that might have provided important, clarifying information.

Fryeburg Academy, the school depicted here, resembles many private U.S. schools in having reacted to financial challenges by seeking out foreign students able to pay its substantial tuition for a boarding-school (and English-language) education. Beginning around the turn of the millennium, Japanese kids started to enroll in...

The just-shy-of-great teen comedy "Dear Dictator" is the rare high-concept coming-of-age story with enough warmth and smart-ass charm to (hopefully!) make it accessible for a fairly wide cross-section of moviegoers. Co-writer/director duo Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse run farther than you might expect with a simple concept: what if Michael Caine, playing a Fidel Castro-looking dictator, befriended a teen girl ("Goosebumps" star Odeya Rush)? 

I was ready to give "Dear Dictator" at least two stars for that premise alone, especially if Caine kept his Castro beard on for at least 30 minutes (spoiler alert: he does). But Addario and Syracuse give serious consideration to the conventions of this type of "Mary Poppins"-esque comedy, where an unlikely mentor helps a child--or in this case, young adult--decide whether she wants to be an unhappy contrarian, or a well-loved eccentric. Unfortunately, "Dear Dictator" eventually becomes the type of film its creators gently mock. But for the most part, Addario and Syracuse's comedy is a well-balanced mix of teen angst and adult humor. There are jokes here to satisfy everybody, from admirers of great mother/daughter comedies like "Gilmore Girl" and "Bunheads" to fans of bratty '80s slacker dude comedies like "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and "Repo Man." 

A good part of this film's success depends on how seriously Addario and Syracuse take the emotional rollercoaster that is high school. Teenage misfit Tatiana (Rush) is so bored with her life, defined as it is by thong-wearing, smartphone-addicted rivals, and lousy mentors like desperate-to-please social studies teacher Mr. Spines (Jason Biggs) and manic mom Darlene (Katie Holmes). Tatiana especially resents Daralene because of her pathetic romantic attachment to man-boy dentist...

Zak Bagans, host of the Travel Channel series “Ghost Adventures,” is in the ghost-believing business—his livelihood depends on viewers thinking that the supernatural exists, somehow. He takes that passion to the film world with the documentary “Demon House,” in which he thinks he has the Big Kahuna of ghost story opportunities: a crumbling house in Gary, Indiana that has been written about in various outlets for its demonic activity, and might even have a portal to hell in the basement. Purchasing the house right before he brings a crew to Indiana, Bagans essentially hopes the estate will help prove that ghosts are real, a goal that “Demon House” assuredly falls short of, and then some. 

So that you don’t have the same nagging curiosity that I did while first watching it, I can verify that this is a documentary by form and not just a post-“The Blair Witch Project” found footage con. The truth to the supernatural events in Gary is still nonetheless difficult to pin down, however much sensationalized journalism they inspired, but Bagans knows who he can use to corroborate his adventure: a woman like Latoya Ammons, whose children expressed different episodes of being possessed, a superstitious police officer, a priest who does exorcisms, etc. Experts are not consulted, nor are any party-pooping skeptics invited. It's telling that "Demon House" features a real-life exorcism ceremony, but it feels more superficial than supernatural. 

“Demon House” in part has Bagans collecting previous accounts about the house's goings-on, complementing them with goofy reenactments...

Based on the 2013 video game, and featuring Alicia Vikander as the latest incarnation of a game character who's been around for 22 years, "Tomb Raider" surprisingly plays like a throwback to the classic late-'80s/early '90s era of action filmmaking, represented by the likes of "Cliffhanger," "The Last of the Mohicans," the first couple of Indiana Jones films, and Jackie Chan's "Armour of God" series. From the animated prologue, wherein the title character's archeologist father, Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West), tells of an ancient, cursed tomb supposedly containing the all-powerful, weaponizable remains of the Japanese shaman queen Himiko, through its gracefully executed series of chases and emotional moments, to its finale set on a Pacific island riddled with booby-trapped ruins, "Tomb Raider" is much better and more original than anyone could have expected. 

Although it borrows from the game (and, partially, its sequel) for structure and most of its key action sequences, "Tomb Raider" never feels like a pointless companion piece to a work that was created for a different medium. I've never played the game this film is adapting, but I had a great time watching the movie it inspired, thanks mainly to the direction; the stunt choreography, which leans on real performers and props whenever it makes sense to; the emphasis on problem-solving one's way out of tight situations; and most of all, the actors, who flesh out archetypal characters who might have seemed cliched or merely flat on the page, and make them as real as they can, considering what sort...

“Together again
Gee, it’s good to be together again
I just can’t imagine that you’ve ever been gone
It’s not starting over, it’s just going on”

These lyrics, written by Jeff Moss, are also the first words sung in “The Muppets Take Manhattan,” the endearing 1984 musical comedy that marked the solo feature directorial debut of Frank Oz. There’s no question that the same words could’ve easily opened Oz’s twelfth solo feature-directing effort, “Muppet Guys Talking,” a documentary that plays like a burst of pure euphoria. No admirer of Jim Henson and his collaborators can afford to miss the conversation that unfolds in this picture between Oz (Miss Piggy, Grover, Fozzie Bear) and four of his fellow Muppeteers: Dave Goelz (The Great Gonzo), Fran Brill (Prairie Dawn), Bill Barretta (Pepé the King Prawn) and the late Jerry Nelson (Count von Count). With a running time clocking in just over an hour, the picture delves deep into the process of puppeteering and the painstaking effort that must be expended in order to achieve the most fleeting yet crucial nuance. It’s fascinating to watch the performers break down the origins of their iconic characters, and how they were inspired by aspects of their own lives. Goelz reveals that Gonzo was spawned from a flaw he discovered in himself, which he proceeded to amplify and make lovable, a process that he found to be resoundingly therapeutic.

Yet what makes “Muppet...

The Death of Stalin” is a savagely funny film about what happened when the leader of Russia died unexpectedly and the people around him had to battle to be his successor in a way that would not get them sent to the gulag or shot if they failed. Director and co-writer Armando Iannucci spoke to about which scene was most difficult to write, finding the comedy in dire circumstances, and what makes this story set in 1953 so timely.

The settings in the film combine that faded grandeur of the post-Tsarist Soviet Union with the chilliness of the Soviet era. They’re drab enough to convey the suffocating bureaucracy but vivid enough to be arresting on screen.

I love it when Russians say to me, “Where in Moscow did you film it?” and I say, “London!” I wanted it to be as accurate as possible so we looked around the Kremlin and Stalin’s dacha, his bunker, which I didn’t know existed, forty floors below Moscow, and the apartment, because I wanted to get it right. I knew we were going to be doing comedy but there would also be these horror stories going on and the only way that would work is if they both arise out of the truth, not just the events, but the details. Russian press and Russians who have seen it have said that within five or six minutes they are back in the Soviet...

Largely by virtue of the budget level that SXSW filmmakers often reach, and the cinematic heroes who came from this part of the world, many of the films here in Austin could politely be called “talky.” A lot of them are dialogue-driven looks at, as they say, “people coming to terms with things.” However, there are always a few surprises, a few movies that feel less inspired by Richard Linklater and more inspired by something unexpected, and such is the case with a pair of flicks from this year's fest that owe more to European horror from the ‘60s and ‘70s than anything from the modern independent scene.

The better of the two is Sebastian Gutierrez’s riff on Bluebeard, the stylish “Elizabeth Harvest,” starring Abbey Lee (“The Neon Demon”), Ciaran Hinds and Carla Gugino. The set up for “EH” is almost straight out of the classic tale in that a man (Hinds) brings his new wife home (Lee). He’s clearly wealthy and powerful; she’s beautiful and happy. What could go wrong? “The only off-limits room is this one,” he tells her about a mysterious chamber. And then he leaves her. Boredom and curiosity get the best of her, and, well, she finds something truly terrifying.

“Elizabeth Harvest” has drawn comparisons to Alex Garland’s “Ex Machina,” mostly because of plot points and less so because of form but it reminded me of Dario Argento...

If you want to see two performances guaranteed to rank among the year’s very best, look no further than “Allure,” the debut feature of Canadian photographers Carlos and Jason Sanchez. Evan Rachel Wood stars as Laura, a lonely woman harboring severe psychological wounds. During her day job as a house cleaner, she finds herself drawn to her client’s daughter, Eva (Julia Sarah Stone), a teenager yearning to flee the clutches of her controlling mother. When Laura suggests that Eva run away from home to live with her, the girl finds this sudden proposition irresistible. Yet what initially appears to be a doorway to freedom quickly morphs into a nightmarish “sunken place.” Wood commands the screen with her ferocious intensity, while Stone brings an aching vulnerability to her character’s cruel awakening. Apart from being a master class in acting, the film is also one of the most haunting and provocative portrayals of abuse in recent memory. 

Two weeks prior to “Allure”’s theatrical release in the states, Wood delivered a courageous testimony before Congress, detailing her own experiences of abuse while advocating for the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act, which she believes must be passed in all fifty states. “Sometimes we are pushed down, not just by our attackers, but held there by the knowledge that there may be no safe place to go,” said Wood, illuminating the experiences of countless women who, like Eva, find themselves trapped even...