All posts by Gregory J. Smalley (366weirdmovies)

Originally an anonymous encyclopediast who closely guarded his secret identity to prevent his occult enemies from exposing him, a 2010 Freedom of Information Act request revealed that "366weirdmovies" is actually Greg Smalley, a freelance writer and licensed attorney from Louisville, KY. His orientation is listed as "hetero" and his relationship status as "single," but Mr. Smalley's "turn-ons" and "favorite Michael Bay movie" were redacted from the FOIA report. Mr. Smalley is a member of the Online Film Critics Society.

CAPSULE: MEDUSA (2021)

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Medusa is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

DIRECTED BY: Anita Rocha da Silveira

FEATURING: Mariana Oliveira, Lara Tremouroux

PLOT: A group of Brazilian girls involved in a fundamentalist Christian sect spend their nights as vigilantes attacking women they deem insufficiently modest; one becomes beset by doubts.

Still from Medusa (2021)

COMMENTS: Medusa begins with a closeup of an eyeball, with a spot of bright red light and a spot of bright green light clearly reflected to the right and left of the pupil. As Goblin-esque techno music swells, the camera pulls back and rotates to show its subject performing an abstract but provocative interpretive dance, bathed in competing green and red washes. It’s appropriate that the film begins with a moody dance scene, because Medusa is full of elaborately choreographed atmospheres, from the bubblegum pink neon pop performances of “Michele and the Treasures of the Lord” to synchronized fascist yoga to a masked rave in the woods. The audiovisual aspects are superb: doom-laden dollies establish an effective mode. The director cites Suspiria as a major influence (seen mainly in the bold lighting choices.)

But while the style is enthralling, Medusa‘s script struggles to keep up. Granted, a lot of thought goes into the film’s themes. The running monster motif is handled well. The film critiques the cult-like dynamics of the nameless evangelical Christian sect portrayed here by focusing on its overwhelming concern with policing surface appearances rather than fostering virtue. This leads to the occasional satirical hit: an influencer explains how to properly take a “Christian selfie.” It also allows for moments of pathos, as when the same YouTuber removes her makeup after abandoning a video tutorial to reveal an unglamorous underlying reality. The fact that the protagonist only begins to question the group’s ideology of superficiality when her physical perfection is temporarily compromised is meaningful. But these insights exist alongside more obvious anti-religion jabs that verge on the stereotypical, e.g. a pastor stops a spiritual counseling session in the middle to take a call from a wealthy donor.

That unevenness could be forgiven, but at the same time, the story is losing focus as it progresses. The film’s increasing disorientation tracks with Mariana’s growing disillusionment and the disintegration of her worldview; but the story also seems like it’s unsure how to conclude. Shaving twenty minutes or so off the running time would have helped. Medusa lingers a too long on dreamlike sequences that add little. And Mariana’s arc goes a bit flat in the third act: she drags her bestie into dipping their toes into hedonistic excess with no believable coaxing—just a touch of magical realism that doesn’t feel all that realistic. And, though cracks show, Mariana doesn’t firmly break from her religious fervor even at the end, when the girls all spontaneously erupt into what is meant to be an expression of raw, resentful female fury, but might be unfairly dismissed as a mass hysterical episode. The women express righteous catharsis, but it seems tacked-on rather than flowing from the plot (especially since it encompasses characters who’ve experienced none of Mariana’s character growth). Medusa has a great look and sound, a few memorable scenes, and a fine central performance by Mariana Oliveira to ground the chaos, but the whole feels less than the parts.

Director Anita Rocha da Silveira was inspired by the rise of evangelical Christian groups in Brazil, and by reports of teenage girls physically assaulted by their peers for appearing too slutty on social media. On these inspirations she overlaid Ovid’s version of the myth of Medusa, where the gorgon is transformed into a monster by Athena as punishment for alleged promiscuity. De Silveira’s film played at Cannes and was picked up for U.S. distribution by Music Box Films (who are becoming a major player in distributing some of the weirder low-to-mid budget movies out there, having also released Strawberry Mansion and Please Baby Please in 2022).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Da Silveira has alluded to the disturbing social trends in her native Brazil that have informed her themes. Here she challenges them in a way that is satirical, amusing, stylish and strange; perhaps even controversial for her native audience.”–Demetreos Matheou, Screen Daily (festival review)

CHANNEL 366: GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S CABINET OF CURIOSITIES (2022)

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , , Catherine Hardwicke, , , Guillermo Navarro, , Keith Thomas

FEATURING: , F. Murray Abraham, Kate Micucci, Tim Blake Nelson, , , Ben Barnes, Rupert Grint, , , Eric André, Charlyne Yi, Andrew Lincoln

PLOT: Guillermo del Toro curates eight short tales of supernatural horror, mostly from young directors.

Still from Guillermo Del Toro's Cabinet of Curiosities (2022)

COMMENTS: At the start of each episode, Guillermo del Toro waddles in from a pool of darkness and stands before his prop cabinet, pulling out a small item relevant to the plot of the upcoming feature and a figurine representing the episode’s director. In heavily-accented, hard-to-understand English, he chokes out a few  stiff sentences about the story. Rod Serling or he is not; but fortunately, del Toro proves a much better curator than host.

Other than the esteemed Vincenzo Natali, del Toro and the producers choose mostly up-and-comers to script and direct the eight episodes. Although perhaps it shouldn’t, given del Toro’s Hollwyood pull, it comes as a small surprise that these short features are largely acting showcases. The series standout is Academy Award-winner F. Murray Abraham as a clever but understandably-weary coroner in “The Autopsy.” Tim Blake Nelson, lending an earthy believability and even a little sympathy to his bitter xenophobic caricature in “Lot 36,” is also worth a mention, while “The Outside” is entirely built around Kate Miccuci’s nerdy-but-secretly-sexy persona. Essie Davis, as a bereaved ornithologist, also carries “The Murmuring,” Jennifer Kent’s marital-drama-cum-ghost-story. Then, there are a couple of cameos to appeal to cult movie fans: Crispin Glover in “Pickman’s Model” and Peter Weller in “The Viewing.” The relative star power on display here lends respectability and brings in viewers from outside horror fandom: mainstream critics were particularly drawn to the “The Murmuring”‘s realistic depiction of a husband and wife tiptoeing around their issues while burying themselves in their studies of bird-flocking behaviors on a esque island.

When we first saw the names attached to direct, we were salivating over the inclusion of Ana Lily Amirpour and (especially) Panos Cosmatos (as well as the prospect of Crispin Glover in an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation). Those two directors do deliver both weirdness and quality, but the other episodes are all worth watching. Even the least of them have something to offer, usually in the acting department. The Glover episode is “Pickman’s Muse.” As previously mentioned, it’s a adaptation of the “man is driven mad by peering into the Beyond” variety that is eerie and atmospheric, but Continue reading CHANNEL 366: GUILLERMO DEL TORO’S CABINET OF CURIOSITIES (2022)

31*. DONKEY SKIN (1970)

Peau d’âne

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“…the confusion between the real and the marvelous… is the essence of enchantment.”–Jean-Louis Bory on Peau d’âne

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jacques Demy

FEATURING: , , , Jacques Perrin

PLOT: The Blue King lives happily in a fairy tale castle with his beautiful wife, his beautiful daughter, and his magic donkey who shits treasure. When the Queen dies, she makes the King swear that he will only marry a woman more beautiful than she is; unfortunately, the only woman meeting that description is his daughter. Seeking to escape a coerced marriage to her father, the Princess consults her fairy godmother, who advises her to put on the donkey’s skin and flee the kingdom to live as a scullery maid.

Still from Donkey Skin (1970)

BACKGROUND:

  • The story is based on a fairy tale by Charles Perrault, a Frenchman who collected and transcribed European folk tales a century before the Grimm Brothers embarked on their similar project. (An English translation of the original “Donkey Skin” can be found here.)
  • Previous French stage adaptations (and a silent film version) of the fairy tale rewrote the story to omit the incest theme entirely.
  • Jacques Demy had wanted to adapt the fairy tale as early as 1962, hoping to cast Brigitte Bardot and , but at the time he was not well-known enough to raise the budget he would have required.
  • This was the third musical Demy directed featuring Catherine Deneuve, following the massive international hits The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967). Although it received the least exposure of the three in the U.S., Peau d’âne was Demy’s biggest financial success in France.
  • The skin the Princess wears came from a real donkey, a fact Deneuve was unaware of during filming.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Divine Deneuve in donkey drag.

TWO WEIRD THINGS: Coughing frogs; fairy godmother in a helicopter

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Picking a fairy tale to adapt into an all-ages musical, Demy goes for the one with the incest-based plot.


Trailer for restoration of Peau d’âne (Donkey Skin) (in French)

COMMENTS: The musical was not a major force in French cinema Continue reading 31*. DONKEY SKIN (1970)

CAPSULE: PLEASE BABY PLEASE (2022)

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DIRECTED BY: Amanda Kramer

FEATURING: , Harry Melling, Karl Glusman

PLOT: A gender-bending leather gang awaken unfamiliar desires in a beatnik couple.

Still from Please Baby Please (2022)

COMMENTS: Please Baby Please is queer, defiantly so, in both the new and the old senses of the word. This movie is proud to be what it is—which is a perverted, experimental non-binary comedy/melodrama/musical, or something like that. This is a film that describes itself as featuring “bisexual lighting,” and that somehow makes perfect sense when you see it. It seems like the script was written to answer the question, what would happen if the leather daddies from Scorpio Rising took over the set of West Side Story?

That last connection is referenced explicitly in the movie’s opening scene, where a leather clad gang prowls the streets in finger-snapping rhythm. These aren’t the Sharks or the Jets, though, but the Young Gents, an ultra-macho bunch of reprobates with a dangerously non-hetero vibe. When happily (if platonically) married couple Suze and Arthur come across the gang standing over a couple of freshly beaten corpses on the street right outside their apartment, their libidos are separately ignited by the heart-pounding excitement. Please Baby Please doesn’t feature a lot of narrative; there is an arc to the couple’s journey, but most of it is revealed through oddball exposition (most of the characters in this movie talk like Dead End Kids enrolled in NYU’s Gender Studies masters’ program). Much of the rest comes in musical production numbers: Suze’s sexual awakenings are depicted in a series of musical fantasies, including one where the Young Gents take turns ironing her ass.  We’re also treated to interludes like a drag queen in a Bo Peep bonnet and flowery eyelids singing a love song in a phone booth. The fine musical accompaniment ranges from exotica to mellow acoustic bass jazz to poppy torch songs; the choreography is simple but effective, more dependent on the dancers’ outrageous wardrobes than on the moves they perform. True to the 1950s style, everything is repressed, and there’s little actual sex: we come upon two motorcycle dudes doing nothing more than hugging passionately in the men’s room. The characters do talk dirty, but in the context of gender roles rather than personal desires. Only the final scene breaks the no-onscreen sex rule.

Please Baby Please is obsessed with masculinity. Arthur has built his entire life philosophy around how doesn’t want to be a man, doesn’t want the pressure of always having to be a contestant in a toughness competition with other males. That doesn’t mean he’s not attracted to masculine surfaces, though; to the rippling abs, mesh-clad pecs, and leathery bulges of the Young Gents. The motorcycle gang stands for the masculine ideal in all its muscly, sneering, rough-mannered charm. In 1953, Marlon Brando in The Wild One evoked an outlaw desires for rebellion and domination in female audiences; Tom of Finland was simultaneously (and more lastingly) co-opting the same biker imagery for the gay subculture.  Please Baby Please is aware how ludicrous a caricature of manhood all this chrome and black leather is; that’s precisely why it’s fascinated with this iconography. This objectifying beefcake spectacle is especially weird because it’s shot through multiple lenses: a female director looking at men through the homosexual male gaze.

Handsomely geeky Harry Melling ably handles his duties of playing a closeted homosexual in a rewarding but familiar way, but much of the praise for Please Baby Please comes for Andrea Riseborough, whose over-the-top vamping wins over even the film’s detractors. Her acting choices all seem to be formed by asking the question, “how would Nic Cage play this scene if he were a housewife caught in a sexless marriage?” She gyrates in a corset, howls at the moon, breaks into a spontaneous Bert Lahr impersonation, and acts crazier and crazier (and more and more like a man) as the movie progresses. This risky material could sag limply if not aroused by hyperbole, so it’s hard to imagine the movie succeeding without Riseborough’s committed insanity setting the tone.

‘s cameo was much-hyped, but underwhelming; the most significant thing is the vote of confidence she casts by lending her name to this esoteric project. We did notice an old friend showing up as co-writer: . Please Baby Please is currently in a limited run exclusively in theaters; we’ll update you when it becomes more widely available.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…the film’s over-the-top approach and awkward pacing prevent this defiantly bizarre concoction from resonating deeper than its surface fascination. “–Toff Jorgensen, Cinemalogue (contemporaneous)

APOCRYPHA CANDIDATE: ZEROGRAD (1989)

Gorod Zero, AKA Zero Town; City Zero

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Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Karen Shakhnazarov

FEATURING: Leonid Filatov, Vladimir Menshov, Aleksey Zharkov

PLOT: An engineer travels from Moscow to a tiny industrial town where he finds all the residents utterly bizarre, but is ordered to remain when he witnesses a suicide.

Still from ZEROGRAD (1989)

WHY IT MIGHT JOIN THE APOCRYPHA: In this ambiguous satire from the final days of the Soviet Union, engineer Varakin finds himself trapped in the purgatorial Zerograd, a not-so-wonderful Wonderland of nude secretaries, suicidal chefs, and rock n’ roll dance enthusiasts. Zerograd can be enjoyed as a weird crawl through an enclave of eccentrics, but it’s also a major historical artifact documenting the dour mood as the Soviet system tottered on the brink of collapse. The Russian identity crisis explored here continues to trouble the world to this day.

COMMENTS: Varasky enters the nowheresville of Zerograd hoping to lodge a simple request to resize panels in air conditioners manufactured in this backwater town. This routine assignment turns out to be a never-ending low-key ordeal when he becomes witness to a suicide (or is it a murder?), which the officials view as a matter of great importance to the State. Varasky’s first hint that something’s not quite right in town comes when he finds the factory’s receptionist typing and watering plants in the nude, a fact her preoccupied boss doesn’t even notice. That’s odd, and having hopefully sorted out the air-conditioner issue in a day, Varasky’s eager to leave town. But, at dinner that night, the cook insists on serving him a desert that he has repeatedly refused to order. It’s a lovingly-crafted cake—perfectly made in the shape of Varasky’s own head. When Varasky refuses to try even a bite, the chef shoots himself. And then Varasky’s troubles begin…

Zerograd funnels Varasky through a series of absurd situations, all of which the engineer accepts with a formal protest followed by a deadpan look of resignation as he realizes it’s pointless to try to swim against the tide of the town’s insanity. Among the adventures the hapless visitor endures are a trip to the town’s subterranean history museum, where elaborate dioramas of uncannily lifelike wax figurines demonstrate moments from history that absolutely did not happen: artifacts from Trojans, Romans and Huns all improbably found in Zerograd. On the wall, a poster proclaims “The Source of Our Strength Lies in Historic Truths.” The malleability of truth to fit the State’s official position becomes one of Zerograd‘s big themes: Varasky’s personal history even seems to be rewritten to connect him to the town. He finds himself unable to leave: trains go into Zerograd, but they don’t go out. And besides, the town’s authorities have more questions for him to answer. He seems doomed to take up a permanent exile in Zerograd.

Zerograd emanates from the Soviet Union’s brief Glasnost period of 1986-1991, when filmmakers and other artists had an unprecedented (if not complete) freedom to follow their muses without fear of reprisal. That promise of freedom notwithstanding, Zerograd is still loathe to criticize the Soviet system directly: instead of savaging its conformity, bureaucracy  and rewriting of history, it attacks its targets obliquely, cloaking criticisms in obscure, absurdist jokes. Simultaneously, Zerograd expresses anxiety about encroaching Westernization, symbolized by the ridiculous rock ‘n roll dancing fever sweeping the town’s citizenry, which may be as crazy as the enforced propriety of the old order. A crucial speech by a Communist official at the film’s midpoint describes the difference between the Russian spirit and Western capitalism: the “irrational” willingness of Soviet citizens to subsume their personal interests for something greater than themselves, versus what he views as Europe’s “pragmatic” every-man-for-himself ethos. Despite Varasky’s travails at the hands of the bureaucracy, the official’s plea has some appeal, and the analysis of the Soviet dilemma emerges as ambiguous. Zerograd is a portrait of a society at a crossroads: ready to abandon the past, but unsure of what the future might bring. The film ends with Varakin in an oarless rowboat, floating away in no particular direction; his chance of escaping this limbo and returning to the humble-but-familiar comforts of the Moscow he left behind are laughably remote.

Zerograd had not previously been available on home video in the U.S. Deaf Crocodile comes to the rescue with a Blu-ray release from a restored print from Mosfilm, containing a new interview with director/co-writer Karen Shakhnazarov and a commentary track from film historian Samm Deighan. The disc is available directly from partner Vinegar Syndrome starting today (October 25); it lands with other retailers on November 29.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Nothing makes sense for Varakin here — or, unfortunately, for us. We’re baffled but not interested. Possibly, this is because the director’s sense of the surreal is so obvious and commonplace.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by “Saule.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: MASKING THRESHOLD (2021)

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Masking Threshold is currently available for VOD rental or purchase.

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Johannes Grenzfurthner

FEATURING: Voice of Ethan Haslam

PLOT: A man performs experiments in an attempt to find the source of the tinnitus that is driving him mad.

Still from Masking Threshold (2021)

COMMENTS: It’s no surprise that Masking Threshold isn’t getting a big theatrical release; it’s more of a miracle that it was able to play in a few theaters at all. This has nothing to do with the film’s quality and everything to do with its style: this is a film that is (almost) entirely narrated by the protagonist, while the camera focuses (almost) exclusively on closeups of objects for the entire runtime. A movie that plays like a paranoid podcast illustrated with a succession of moving slides—sort of a contemporary feature-length version of La Jetée—is a hard sell in any climate, but particularly at a time when movie theaters are struggling to put butts in seats.

Fortunately, the scaled-back nature of the project means it will play well on small screens (although it would be nice to hear that crucial sound mix emanating from Dolby surround-sound speakers). Despite the fact that it may only be a MacGuffin for the protagonist’s deeper psychological issues, sound—the rustle of fabric, turning of pages, test tones the protagonist generates for his own reference—-provides the texture of the film. The movie quietly ushers us into the protagonist’s mind, as we hear none of his background tinnitus in the early going, but the hum slowly and subtly creeps into the soundtrack, scarcely noticed, until by the end we hear these subtones too. These minute variations in drones, unidentifiable rustlings and buzzings, and oscillations have tremendous significance to the protagonist, but to us they remain esoteric. The movie’s production values are low, so visuals cleverly rely on extreme closeups of carbon dioxide bubbles, slices of bread, algae, ants, and mouse corpses, supplemented by various charts, graphs, alchemical prints, blinking diodes, repurposed memes, and so on. The protagonist’s face is never clearly visible. The movie is presented as a YouTube diary by one of those “independent researchers” whose peculiar-to-insane preoccupations fail to strike a chord with a mass audience; his impassioned Reddit posts leave him the subject of trolling and lols.

This is a strange movie, in that the first-person monologue script would work just as well as a short story; in a way, Masking Threshold is nothing but multimedia-enhanced prose. But that makes it a triumph; a movie literally constructed from objects found around the house or bought at Home Depot, Best Buy, and Petco, is inspirational. The protagonist is erudite (the movie is full of fascinating trivia) and arrogant; his inner monologue is profound when discussing the philosophy of science, and myopic when interpreting the results of his own experience. His narrative voice put me in mind of the antihero of ‘s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” while the madness resulting from his investigation onto cosmic phenomena evokes any number of victims. (It’s noteworthy that both authors get a “thanks” in the credits). Not to say that Grenzfurthner’s script (co-written with Samantha Lienhard) lives up to those classic influences—but it does update that psychological horror template with timely references to Internet culture, Q-Anon, and “doing your own research.”  Masking Threshold is a successful, immersive, and credible experiment in diving into one man’s particular rabbit hole universe.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…his paranoid, obsessive quest digs its own rabbit hole of increasingly unhinged weirdness, escalating from the unhygienic ick of growing algae and such to… well, if you suspect a narrative like this must inevitably lead to homicidal violence, you’d be right.”–Dennis Harvey, 48 Hills

 

366 UNDERGROUND: MANBABY (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Tim Lightell

FEATURING: Asa Fager, Sidney Jayne Hunt, Anya Maria Johnson, Cherilynn Brooks, Alice Bridgforth, Tom Stewart

PLOT: A comedian whose gimmick is dressing up like a baby pretends a magic potion has turned him into a real infant to try to ignite his wife’s motherhood instincts.

Still from Manbaby (2022)

COMMENTS: The adult baby diaper lover (ABDL) community may be one of the most misunderstood and maligned group of fetishists in existence today. At a surface glance, to many outsiders, the idea of adults role-playing while dressing up in diapers and baby bonnets hews uncomfortably close to pedophilia. Diaper devotees vigorously deny the connection, arguing their passion is instead about a desire to regress to an infantile state to escape adult responsibility (although there is frequently, if not inevitably, a sexual component to the experience). Clinical practitioners agree that there is no significant crossover between ABDL behavior and pedophilia, but most people’s instinctual response to this lifestyle is discomfort, if not outright disgust.

For better or worse, Manbaby isn’t the Glen or Glenda? of the adult diaper lover community. You will find no impassioned pleas for tolerance here, no omniscient Hungarian narrators demanding to “pull the string!” In fact, if you were unaware of this fetish community altogether, you might think Manbaby is just a weirdly conceived switcheroo comedy, an age-based variant on gender-swap movies like Switch. The sexual elements of the lifestyle are referenced as obliquely as possible. Sal, our paunchy, bearded, and tattooed hero, just happens to find himself frequently wearing diapers for reasons totally unrelated to personal gratification: first, as a job, and then as part of a harebrained scheme to trick his wife into having a baby. The result is an innocent, conventionally structured relationship comedy that could at times almost play like a Disney film, but with odd, paraphiliac preoccupations poking their little heads through the straight-laced fabric. For example, a line like “babies don’t poop on walls, they poop in diapers” is not the snatch of conversation you’d expect to overhear at a bar on Friday night. The opportunities baby Sal takes to conspicuously play with the barefoot feet of his mom and babystitter raise an eyebrow. Someone spray-paints the word “CUCK” on a Manbaby promotional poster, at a time Sal’s wife is considering infidelity. There are also a lot of lesbians in the film, many dressing like greasers in leather jackets; at one point a gang of them mugs our hero. The attempt to pursue a mainstream narrative, while a stream of polymorphous perversity gurgles quietly through the narrative, makes for an uneven comedy that is nevertheless quite watchable.

And after all of this, the film takes one final left turn in the third act, abandoning comedy entirely and flash-forwarding into a melancholy future coda of old age and dementia. The final words are a bitterly whispered “it’s a farce”: referring, it seems, to the fact that people are privileged to wear diapers at the very beginning and the very end of life, but it’s taboo to enjoy them in your prime. A strange moral for a movie that, however hard it tries to present its characters as harmless and normal, simply can’t help but follow its own freakiness all the way to the end.

Unfortunately, the movie is currently only available for rental on Vimeo on Demand for $8.99 for 48 hours, a venue and price point that will keep casual viewers away. As a bonus, the rental includes 20 minutes of Kickstarter promos (filmed over 8 years!), which are actually parodies of Kickstarter promos, and which are at least as funny and arguably more clever than the finished feature.