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- Sean Connery as William Forrester in "Finding Forrester"

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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Oscar Review: Shakespeare in Love (1998)

The 71st Best Picture received 7 awards for its 13 nominations in 1998. Ranked as the #50 Passion by the American Film Institute, Shakespeare in Love is a charming tale of love and its power to inspire.

Will Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) is struggling to write his next master work. Viola de Lesseps (Gwyneth Paltrow) loves the theater but is arranged to be married to wealthy Lord Wessex (Colin Firth) and sent off to America. Because it is forbidden for women to act on stage, Viola dresses up as Thomas Kent in order to audition for the main role in Shakespeare's next play.

Upon discovering Thomas' true identity, Will and Viola embark on a passionate love affair. Their romance inspires Will to convert the scenes of their relationship into the beloved Romeo and Juliet - so named because "Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter" didn't quite role off the tongue.

Through many ups and downs with trying to find the right players - including Mercutio (Ben Affleck) - squabbles between Henslowe (Geoffrey Rush) and Fennyman (Tom Wilkinson) over money, and having the theaters shut down, Will and his "Romeo" try to make the most out of their limited time together before she is due to be married.

Upon viewing the opening performance of Shakespeare's new play, Queen Elizabeth (Judi Dench) declares that true love can be depicted on stage and declares Will the winner of his bet with Wessex just as Viola is about to head off to America.
Shakespeare in Love is a truly entertaining film that is easy to watch over and over again. Once you are able to suspend your powers of disbelief and get passed the fact that it's not trying to be historically accurate, I'm sure you will find to be as touching as it is humorous.

It's Oscars include Best Picture, Actress (Paltrow), Supporting Actress (Dench), Art Direction, Costume Design, Original Score, and Original Screenplay. I believe 1998's Saving Private Ryan was the better film overall, and I am pleased that Steven Spielberg walked away with the directing Oscar and 4 others of its 11 nominations. And I am equally glad to have seen Roberto Benigni's Life is Beautiful do so well.

1998 was a good year for movies.

Oscar Review: Titanic (1997)

Tied for the most nominations ever received by a single film with 14, and tied for the most wins with 11 James Cameron's Titanic is an ambitious film that takes us back to the tragic voyage of the doomed ocean liner and a love affair that could never be.

Searching among the wreckage of the sunken vessel, Brock Lovett (Bill Paxton) finds a drawing of a woman wearing a blue diamond once owned by Louis XVI and pleas for any information about the girl and the whereabouts of the necklace. An old woman (Gloria Stuart) contacts Lovett claiming to be the subject of that very drawing.

Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a poor boy who wins a pair of tickets aboard the Titanic moments before it is to set sail. Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet) is a young woman who is traveling to America to be forced into marrying Cal Hockley (Billy Zane). When Rose feels that committing suicide is her best option, Jack is right there to talk her down.

Following that fateful night, Jack and Rose continue to secretly see each other under the noses of Cal and Rose's controlling mother (Frances Fisher). On the evening of April 14, 1912 disaster strikes and the "unsinkable" Titanic begins to go down. Through the tragedy, Rose and Jack find each other and hold on as long as they can as the ship goes down and they drift along in the freezing waters of the Atlantic.
Well, I knew it was coming and here it is. I don't have a particular problem with Titanic, I just felt that it was hyped WAY too much. Even though Cameron did some great work with CGI and bringing the ship back to life I didn't think it quite lived up to the greatness it claimed.

Titanic won statuettes for Best Picture, Director (Cameron), Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Music (James Horner), Original Song ("My Heart Will Go On"), Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and Visual Effects.

Titanic made its way onto 4 of AFI's top 100 lists including:

Though I'm not sure which of the other Best Picture nominees I would say should've won - Good Will Hunting, As Good as it Gets, or one of the other two I haven't seen - I'm just not a huge fan of Titanic. Of course, if there's nothing else on, I'd probably watch it.

Oscar Review: The English Patient (1996)

Winner of 9 Academy Awards, The English Patient was a force to be reckoned with at the 69th ceremonies. Awarded the Oscars for Best Picture, Director (Anthony Minghella), Supporting Actress (Juliette Binoche), Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Original Score (Gabriel Yared), and Sound this film ranks a close second to Ben-Hur in the number of wins out of 12 nominations(Ben-Hur received 11).

The film traces the vivid memories of a dying man as he waits for the inevitable. While being cared for by a loyal nurse (Binoche) Count Laszlo de Almásy (Ralph Fiennes), a mapmaker for the Royal Geographic Society, recounts his time in North Africa during theturbulentt years of WWII.

Katharine Clifton (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her husband Geoffrey (Colin Firth) travel with Almásy as he hopes to map the Sahara. As the expedition moves on, Geoffrey is called away leaving Katherine in the mapmaker's care. They are immediately drawn toward each other leading to a long, secret love affair that will ultimately lead to their doom.

As Almásy tells his story through horrific burns, an old acquaintance named Caravaggio (Willem Dafoe) makes his way to the Italian villa for rest and to try to learn the truth about a crime from the past which left him disfigured and vengeful.
I must first admit that I've only watched The English Patient once and it's been a couple of months, so my take on its quality is seen through that lens.

It is a good love story of two people thrust together by circumstance and destined to end badly. Clocking in at 160min was perhaps a bit long for this epic tale. More accurately, it feels that long. It's not a killer to have a long movie but you definitely need to keep the audience's attention the whole time. The story needs to be compelling enough to make viewers want to see what's coming next and how it turns out. I just think it could've been tightened up a bit to be more user friendly. That said, I agree that it deserved to be named on AFI's list of the top 100 Passions (#56).

I felt that the makeup for Ralph Fiennes which caused him to look as though he did, in fact, get severely burned in a plane crash was tremendous and should've at least received a nomination if not a win. However, yet again, I must humbly disagree with the Academy in its choice for Best Picture. Though I would rate this as a good film and is worth watching, of the three other nominees of that year that I have seen - Jerry Maguire, Fargo, and Shine - I think Shine is a far better movie with much more depth and emotion. The characters in Shine deal with many more facets of the human experience than in The English Patient and, not just because it has a happier ending, Shine is far more inspirational and moving. I am glad, though, that Geoffrey Rush snagged the Best Actor honors for his performance rather than Fiennes - who is an excellent actor in his own right.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Oscar Review: Braveheart (1995)

Though filled with historical inaccuracies, Braveheart is nonetheless an epic tale of love, freedom, and the triumph of the human spirit against injustice and adversity.

William Wallace (Mel Gibson) is a well-educated but simple man hoping to start a family and raise crops on his family's farm in 13th century Scotland. Taken to live with his uncle Argyle (Brian Cox) as a young boy after the death of his father and brother in battle, William becomes well-versed in language, swordsmanship, and is left with a deep sense of honor and justice.

In the intervening years, King Edward Longshanks (Patrick McGoohan) sets a number of decrees upon the Scottish people including a law that English lords had a "right" to sleep with any new bride on her wedding night in order to "breed them out." When William marries in secret, his wife (Catherine McCormack) is discovered by a soldier and is subsequently killed when she defends herself and attacks her captors.

Understandably, this sends William into a rage seeking vengeance for his murdered bride and, by extension, freedom for all of Scotland.

Not uncommon, the king forces his wimp of a son to marry Princess Isabelle (Sophie Marceau) of France for political reasons. She has never liked her father-in-law and sympathizes with the plight of the Scots and is instrumental in the success of their efforts.

All the while, the heir apparent to the Scottish throne, Robert the Bruce (Angus Macfadyen), is coming into his own and walking the delicate balance between uniting a country and making a place for himself should the English be victorious. It is up to William to rally the troops, bring the clans together, and enliven within them the spirit that will lead to a free Scotland, whatever the cost.
Winner of 5 Academy Awards - including Best Picture, Director (Gibson), Cinematography, Sound Effects, and Makeup - Braveheart is a tremendous film that has something for everyone. There's love, adventure, good vs. evil, passion, humor, and plenty of battle scenes.

While AFI passed on including it on its top 100 list, Braveheart is honored as the #91 thrill. It is filled with great depth and spans the entire spectrum of emotions from great sadness to great passion, from defeat to triumph, from betrayal to redemption. This film is entertaining, moving, and all in all a most enjoyable movie. Watch it.

Oscar Review: Forrest Gump (1994)

Our next entry on the list comes in at #71 on the list of the 100 greatest, settled between two other Best Picture winners - Ben-Hur (#72) and The French Connection (#70) - and spawned one of the most quoted lines from a modern movie: #40 - "Mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you're gonna get."

Forrest Gump is story of a lovable southern boy who overcomes every challenge thrown at him and goes on to do amazing things. With his mother's (Sally Field) pearls of wisdom ever at the ready, Forrest (Tom Hanks) goes from a boy with braces on his legs to a high school and college football star to a Vietnam War hero to a rich shrimp boat captain.

In his fantastic journey, Forrest encounters many historical figures and makes his way into pop culture without realizing the significance of the events. He's the one who taught Elvis how to really move. He met with presidents. He's the one who reported the Watergate break-in. And it is Forrest who inspired the yellow smiley face t-shirts and the ever popular "Shit Happens" bumper sticker.

All his honors and wealth do not compare with finally marrying the love of his life, Jenny (Robin Wright Penn). His friends, though often harsh, are true and provide him with support and encouragement throughout all of his trials. Of particular note is his former superior officer Lt. Dan (Gary Sinise) who is at first upset that Forrest wouldn't let him die but is then thankful for the life he has been able to lead.
Forrest Gump received 6 Oscars - for Best Picture, Actor (Hanks), Director (Robert Zemeckis), Editing, Visual Effects, and Adapted Screenplay - and another 7 nominations. It marked the first film for child star Haley Joel Osment. Though he only had a few minutes of screen time, Osment was immediately identified as a fresh talent leading to his current success as an actor.

While Forrest Gump is certainly an entertaining film, I wouldn't rank it as one of my all-time favorites or as one of the greats for its storyline. It is very inspirational in showing the capacity for greatness despite immense obstacles. And it is a testament to finding pleasure in the simple things in life and not letting fame or fortune get in the way of real happiness.

For me, one of the things that makes this movie worthy of Best Picture honors over the other nominees of the year is the advancements made in the art of filmmaking through chroma-keying (or "green/blue screens") and CG. Every scene where Forrest is meeting another president or when Lt. Dan appears with no legs, it is all thanks to keying and matching the actors with people who aren't even there. It is something we as an audience don't even think about anymore when we see live action and computer animations interacting with each other, but before Forrest Gump it had never been done quite so successfully. (Star Wars and others made use of blue screens but it wasn't as sophisticated as it was in Gump where you have Tom Hanks shaking hands with JFK.)

Though I don't find it as great as other films, Forrest Gump has certainly made a significant mark on American cinema and has become one of those films that you just have to see.

Sunday, February 26, 2006


I have been feeling a bit overwhelmed lately, with work, with loneliness, with all of the changes going on in the lives of those around me, and having the last couple of days without any agenda has felt really good. Needed.

I was watching the movie Life as a House this evening and was reminded of a great quote from it:

You know the great thing, though, is that change can be so constant that you don't even feel the difference until there is one. It can be so slow that you don't know that your life is better or worse until it is. Or it can just blow you away and make you something different in an instant. It happened to me.
-Kevin Kline as George Monroe

I'm not sure how, but I feel like there's some change happening. I can't put my finger on it, but it's there, just under the surface.

Oscar Review: Schindler's List (1993)

Dark. Gritty. Depressing. Painful. Real. Schindler's List is the true life story of one man's efforts to make a difference in the midst of one of the most terrible periods of world history.

In many ways, I think this film pretty much speaks for itself. I find it difficult to walk through the general storyline and do it justice. It chronicles such an emotionally charged subject as the Holocaust and is uncompromising in its depiction of the unthinkable horrors of life in WWII Europe for the Jewish population.

There is nothing about this film that doesn't serve the story. From the gruesome special effects, to the depths of emotion on the faces of every character, to the use of back and white all go towards not only pulling the audience into the story but helping them to really experience every moment.

AFI ranks Schindler's List at #9 and is the only film in the top 20 that was made after the late 1970s. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) is noted as the #13 greatest film hero, while Amon Goeth, the evil Nazi commander played by Ralph Fiennes, comes in as the #15 villain.

Schindler's List dominated the '93 Academy Awards winning 7 Oscars out of 12 nominations - winning for Best Picture, Director (Steven Spielberg - his first), Cinematography (Janusz Kaminski), Art Direction, Editing, Adapted Screenplay (Steven Zaillian), and Original Score - earning John Williams his 5th statuette (he ranks 2nd in total music scoring wins with 5 and nominations with 38).

A truly great film.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Oscar Review: Unforgiven (1992)

William Munny (Clint Eastwood), a sorry, broken down, old thief who can barely shoot a can off a stump or mount a horse convinces his old partner, Ned (Morgan Freeman), to join him in going after a bounty on the heads of two cowboys who cut up a local prostitute.

When a hired gun, English Bob (Richard Harris), heads into town to find the two boys, the sheriff, Little Bill (Gene Hackman), beats him for breaking the ordinance against carrying fire arms to send a message that he will not tolerate lawless killing in his jurisdiction.

Will, Ned, and their partner, the nearsighted Schofield Kid, find the women - get a few advances on their payment - and begin their search for the cowboys. While in the bar, Will meets up with Little Bill and gets his first look at just how brutal the "keeper of the peace" actually is.

After killing the first man, Ned comes to realize that he's no longer the killer he once was and heads for home. Along the way, he's picked up by the ranchers and brought to Little Bill who shows no mercy when questioning him.

After taking care of the second offender, Will finds out that his best friend and partner has been killed. Not about to let the violent sheriff get away with murder, Will heads into town to settle the score.
Winner of 4 Oscars including Best Picture, Director (Eastwood), Supporting Actor (Hackman), and Editing (Joel Cox, who edits most of Eastwood's films), Unforgiven is a modern story of the Old West that ranks at #98 on AFI's list.

Once again, I found this film to be enjoyable but not quite up to the level of a "Best Picture." Likewise, as talented as Gene Hackman is as an actor, I felt that Jack Nicholson's role as Col. Nathan R. Jessep in A Few Good Men was far more compelling.

To me, a Best Picture should exemplify the art of storytelling. There should be tremendous depth in the characters, a solid plot, and a certain amount of significance in the subject matter. Yes, Little Bill was a hard man but he was enforcing the law while 3 men were out to kill for money. For me, it just didn't add up. Again, my vote would've gone to A Few Good Men for it's writing, it's acting, and for its examination of the question "is the one who gives the order just as guilty as the one who executes it?"Far more interesting and important than a poor, reformed killer looking for a pay off. But that's just me.

Oscar Review: The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Our next film of the winners of the 1990s is one of the most acclaimed films ever made. One of only three films to ever sweep the 5 major categories, The Silence of the Lambs boasts as being the first and, so far, only horror/thriller to win the Best Picture statuette.

As a young FBI trainee, Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is assigned to question an imprisoned serial killer, Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lector (Anthony Hopkins), as part of an investigation into a background of a second serial killer named Buffalo Bill.

Getting past her initial fears of going up against the greatest criminal mind, Clarice is able to gain access to Lector's expertise and move forward in their search. Pulled out of her training and directly into the heart of the investigation, Clarice begins to work hand in hand with other agents and her superior, Jack Crawford (Scott Glenn).

After gaining a transfer in exchange for his assistance in providing a psychological profile, Dr. Lector negotiates his escape from a less secure facility, but not before analyzing Clarice and providing her with the truth about Buffalo Bill.
A chilling film, The Silence of the Lambs is a brilliantly written psycho-thriller that has not been matched by any of its sequels. Garnering Oscars for Foster, Hopkins, Director Jonathan Demme and Ted Tally's adapted screenplay of Thomas Harris' novel, this movie keeps the audience at the edge of their seats.

It is no wonder that the dark, cold, calculating eyes of Hopkins' Hannibal earned him the designation as the #1 film villain of all time to Foster's claim at the #6 hero slot. Not only is this one of the best thrillers (coming in at #5) but AFI ranks The Silence of the Lambs as the #65 greatest movie ever made.

Other than Dr. Lector's famous headgear and cool gaze, perhaps one of the most memorable moments of this film comes through one of his lines during his first encounter with Clarice, "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti." (#21)

Friday, February 24, 2006

Oscar Review: Dances With Wolves (1990)

Our next look at Best Picture winning films comes in at #75 on AFI's list of the Top 100 Films of All Time. Winning in 7 of the 12 categories for which it was nominated - including Best Picture, Director (Kevin Costner), Cinematography, Editing, Original Score (John Barry), Sound, and Adapted Screenplay - Dances with Wolves is a fine piece of American cinema.

We first meet Lt. John J. Dunbar (Costner) as a wounded Union soldier about to lose his leg during the Civil War. He steals a horse and rides across the battlefield; maybe to commit suicide, maybe to just draw the fire of the Confederate troops, but without a doubt he becomes a hero and gains the admiration of the general and his choice of postings.

Wanting to see the frontier before it's gone, Lt. Dunbar opts for Fort Sedgwick, a remote post in the Great Plains, where he will serve alone. Making the most out of the rundown fort, the lieutenant sets up a work schedule, rations his supplies, and makes do with his new home.

Not entirely alone, Lt. Dunbar makes friends with a shy wolf, "Two Socks," and the horse he rode on that fateful day. After months without word of relief, the lieutenant is startled from his bathing to find a lone Sioux (Graham Greene) snooping around the fort. After scaring the man away, Lt. Dunbar decides that he should make friends with his neighbors and begins the journey to their village. Along the way, he comes across a woman, Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell), who is mourning the loss of her husband and ritually cutting herself.

These chance encounters spark a series of events that lead to mutual understanding and friendship between the two stranger cultures. Lt. Dunbar leaves his old self behind as he adopts the Lakota lifestyle and name: Dances with Wolves.
A strikingly beautiful film, Dances with Wolves is a fantastic tale of a man and his journey from duty to self discovery.

If memory serves, this film was the first Best Picture winner that I had seen in the theater. I was immediately taken in by John Barry's score - I even have the soundtrack - and the rolling hills of the Midwest - shot near where my mom grew up.

It is an ambitious film. Clocking in at 3 hours, even longer in the extended edition, at first glance one might think it unwise to make a movie run so long. But the story carries itself with a balance between moments of humor, passion, adventure, drama, and self-realization.

Dances with Wolves takes a thoughtful look at the life of one man and how love and understanding can be found across all barriers and how who you are can change if you have the courage to take the step into the unknown.

Oscar Review: Rain Man (1988)

Rain Man is a classic. Winning 4 Academy Awards for Picture, Directing (Barry Levinson), Acting (Dustin Hoffman), and Original Screenplay, this film ranks up there as one of the most touching stories of transformation and personal growth.

Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) is a selfish, high-end car dealer with hopes of making it big. While on his way to a romantic vacation with his girlfriend Susanna (Valeria Golino), Charlie gets a call that his wealthy, estranged father has died. After the funeral, Charlie sits down with the lawyer for the reading of the will and finds that all he is left is the car he once took without permission as a teenager and his father's prize rose bushes while the balance of the family fortune is left in trust for an unnamed trustee.

Charlie soon finds that he has a brother (Hoffman) he never knew about who is now living in an institution for people with mental disabilities. In an attempt to get what he feels is rightly his, Charlie kidnaps Raymond and they embark on a cross-country roadtrip that will change their lives forever.

Confused, frustrated and in need of someone to take the brunt of his anger, Charlie grows more and more upset with his autistic savant brother for being himself. Charlie is the one who took Raymond out of is normal life and he, in turn, treats Raymond as the one who is the inconvenience.

One night on the road, Raymond reacts to the hot bath that Charlie is drawing which brings them both back to a time when they were just children and the Rain Man came to save young Charlie from getting burned. In that moment, Raymond is no longer the source of his inheritance, he has become Charlie's brother.

As they make their way back to L.A., the brothers stop in Las Vegas to take advantage of Raymond's unique abilities, making all the money that soon to be bankrupt Charlie needs to stay afloat. Upon arriving home, Charlie has grown to love his older brother and wants Raymond to live with him, not for the money, but to regain the relationship that they had been denied. All this leads to a battle between the hospital that knows what's best for Raymond and the brother that loves him.
Rain Man is one of those films that never grows old. Sure the 80's music and wardrobe have certainly gone out of style, but the story at the heart of this movie is one we can all learn from. It's about looking past the outward appearances and into the real person inside. It's about getting into your own heart and transforming yourself into the person you really are.

Hoffman and Cruise have a dynamic in this film that has been unmatched since. Often imitated but only perfected in his portrayal of Raymond, Dustin Hoffman proves himself to be one of film's greatest actors.

Maybe Raymond grows in his love for Charlie and begins to break free from his autism. Maybe through Charlie's transformation we, too, begin to look beyond our own fears, prejudices, and selfishness and allow ourselves to be taken in by this wonderful relationship.

It's funny. It's heart warming. Rain Man is just plain good.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Oscar Review: Platoon (1986)

Oliver Stone's Oscar winning look at the chaos and mental breakdown of war is a powerful, tragic look at his own experiences in Vietnam.

In Platoon, Private Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) starts off as a fresh in from the world volunteer for the war. Thrown right into duty, with little or no help from the others who have more experience, Taylor does a lot of growing up and gains more experience than he hoped.

With a not so hidden rivalry between SSgt. Barnes (Tom Berenger) and Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) - both nominated for Best Supporting Actor - Taylor and the rest of the platoon are forced to take sides between the hardened, battle-worn Barnes or capable, if not somewhat reluctant, Elias even as they face the enemy with an inept lieutenant (Mark Moses).

Things quickly get out of control - even more than they already are in a war - when Barnes and his allies take matters into their own hands in a small village, thus intensifying the already hate-filled relationship with Elias.

After a prolonged fire-fight in the jungle, Elias is left alone as the rest of the platoon falls back. Barnes ensures that the men make it out as he goes back to "look" for Elias. It is then that Taylor sees the treachery his superior is capable of, and he must be stopped.
With supporting roles by such great actors as Forest Whitaker, John C. McGinley, Keith David, Johnny Depp, and Dale Dye Platoon has arguably become one of, if not the quintessential Vietnam War film ever made.

Winning Oscars for Best Picture, Director (Stone), Editing, and Sound - along with nominations for Defoe, Berenger, Cinematography, and another for Stone's original screenplay - Platoon received more nominations than any other film that year. Honored by AFI as the #72 thrill and the #83 film overall, this movie is a chilling take on the realities of war and its capacity to bring out sides of people that should never come out.

The haunting theme by Samuel Barber adds a subtle counterpoint to the intensity and violence of the film, making it a memorable, thought-provoking addition to the lineup of Best Picture winners.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Oscar Review: Out of Africa (1985)

1985 brought with it many great films like Witness, Mask, Back to the Future, and Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins - and other greats that I haven't seen. But the one that walked away with the Oscar for Best Picture, along with 6 others, has been named the #13 Passion of all time.

Out of Africa is true story of a woman who starts over in early 20th century Kenya, causing her life to change forever. Karen Christence Dinesen Blixen (Meryl Streep) marries her best friend, Baron Bror Blixen (Klaus Maria Brandauer), for title and the opportunity to introduce some adventure into her life.

Upon her arrival in Africa, she soon learns of her new husband's many relationships and chooses to keep up appearances and do her best to remember that it was a marriage of convenience. Karen then shifts her attractions to a local trader, Berkeley Cole (Michael Kitchen), who actually only desires friendship from the Baroness.

During a visit to her plantation Berkeley and his friend, hunter and man of the earth, Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford) join Karen for dinner and one of her stories. As she transforms her words into adventures of the mind, Denys falls in love and begins to see his whole life differently. Though he quietly seeks her reciprocation, it isn't until New Years 1919 that she realizes his advances and gives in to her desires for love.

During a trip to see the raw and beautiful landscapes of Tsavo before it is taken over by modernity, these two opposites come together and do their best to form a future.
Honored with Best Picture, Art Direction, Cinematography, Director (Sydney Pollack), Sound, Adapted Screenplay, and Original Score (John Barry), Out of Africa is a wonderful piece that captures the beauty of a distant land and the power of the human spirit. Though, the actors were not awarded Oscars, and perhaps rightly so, I am glad that the most memorable elements of the film were given their due praise: the cinematography and the music. Though certainly not as vivid as it is when seen with your own eyes or with more modern cameras, David Watkin is able to transport the audience to Africa and bring out the breathtaking panoramas of Kenya.

Supplementing the location's natural beauty is John Barry's musical contribution. Scoring 11 James Bond films and composing for such films as Somewhere in Time, Dances with Wolves, and Midnight Cowboy Barry has won 5 Academy Awards for his work and earning a spot at #15 on AFI's list of the most memorable film scores for Out of Africa. As I watched the film again this evening, I was struck by the expansive melodies that stretched out as far as the savannahs of Tsavo. Though there are only hints of themes that he uses in Dances with Wolves, I find it interesting how similar the music is in style for these two films. The storylines are not that dissimilar, I suppose: each about a courageous soul starting a new life in the wide open spaces, encountering an unfamiliar people, and finding the beauty in what is natural and at risk of destruction.

Out of Africa is a wonderful film that is worth watching for the love story, the music, and the scenery. Though Meryl Streep's Dutch accent is somewhat distracting - in her narration especially - you are able to watch as she transforms from a well-to-do social climber into a strong, independent woman who won't let misfortune get in her way.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Oscar Review: Amadeus (1984)

It is a tale of the tormented mind of Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), court composer to Emperor Joseph II of Austria (Jeffrey Jones), as his life parallels that of musical genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Tom Hulce).

We find Salieri as an old man locked in his room screaming the name of Mozart into the night as he attempts suicide. Thrown into a mental institution and visited by a young priest to hear his confession, Salieri recounts his days as a younger man serving in the court.

As a boy, Salieri prayed that he would live a pure life if only God would allow him the talent for composition. He would create music to praise God if only God would allow him to be the instrument. However, upon meeting the boisterous child prodigy, Salieri becomes enraged that God would place such a gift in such a vessel and he vows to destroy the young master.

While putting on a front and pretending to be Mozart's greatest defender with the emperor, Salieri plots the mind games to be used against his rival. Using Mozart's fear of his father against him, Salieri drives the man insane and, ultimately, to his death.
Amadeus won 8 of its 11 nominations for Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Actor (Abraham), Adapted Screenplay (Peter Shaffer), Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, and Sound and it ranks at #53 on AFI's top 100.

With the theaters almost unchanged since the 1700s, the opera sets and costumes designed from sketches of the originals, and moments taken from the actual life of the great composer, Amadeus is an excellent attempt to transport the audience into what it may have actually been like in the days of Mozart.

It is a dark film, filled with wonderful performances, particularly those of Hulce and Abraham as they work with and against each other to propel the story along with its many moments of joy and brilliance and its many more moments of mental anguish and despair. The delicate dance between admiration and hatred is just fabulous.

A fine film indeed.

Oscar Review: Terms of Endearment (1983)

An all-star cast composed of Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Danny DeVito, Jeff Daniels, and John Lithgow brought Terms of Endearment 5 Oscars out of 11 nominations for Best Actress (MacLaine), Supporting Actor (Nicholson), Director, Adapted Screenplay and Picture (James L. Brooks).

Spanning many years in their tumultuous love/hate relationship, mother Aurora and daughter Emma struggle to express and receive the love they have for each other and maneuver through the landmines they have set up around themselves. It's an honest look at the complexities of family interactions and the difficulties of life that come along.
I don't think Terms of Endearment is a bad movie, I just don't think it is a great one. The actors play their roles quite well and deserve their honors. However, having seen other contenders for 1983's Best Picture statuette such as The Big Chill and The Right Stuff I think each of those films are far more enjoyable and, in the case of The Right Stuff, tell a more important story.

This film certainly has its moments but, in the end, it's just not one that does much for me.

Oscar Review: Gandhi (1982)

Winner of 8 Academy Awards - including Best Actor (Ben Kingsley), Best Picture, Best Director (Richard Attenborough), Best Cinematography, Costume Design, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Film Editing, and Original Screenplay - and nominated for 3 others, Gandhi is one of the finest biographical films ever made, earning the title character the honor of being the #21 greatest film hero of all time.

Tracing the life of the incomparable Mohondas K. Gandhi from his time as a lawyer traveling in South Africa to his rise to influence in the Indian Independence Movement as the Mahatma, or "Great Soul." We first meet Gandhi on January 30, 1948 upon his assassination, setting the stage for the courage and vision seen in the scenes to follow.

As a young man arriving in South Africa, and seen as a "colored," Gandhi is ejected from the train when he refuses to transfer to a third-class car from his third class compartment. This singular event sparks the idealistic lawyer into action against injustices and inequalities that have run rampant.

It follows that Gandhi inspires real change in government and returns to live among his fellow Indians in his homeland. There, too, he is propelled to act for justice and peace against the tyranny faced by every Indian. He marches, writes, is arrested many times, fasts against riots, and lights the fire of independence in the heart of each person he touches. His inspiration spreads to every corner of the world and, under Gandhi's leadership, India finds its freedom.
Gandhi is an ambitious film. Trying to distill the life of such a great human being into 3 short hours is a difficult, if not impossible, task indeed. Somehow, though, this cinematic triumph reaches into the heart of Gandhi's life and is able to present the depth of his example.

Without offering much commentary on the life of the man - as there are many others more well versed in his personal history and contributions - I will say that he was an example of how to live with our neighbors and to make meaningful progress a reality through non-violence and reason. It is far to easy for hearts to be filled with anger and hatred rather than to follow the ways of peace. Gandhi and those like him across history are to be our guide in the spirit with which to face struggles with courage and humility.

I think the film speaks for itself as a testament to the greatness that is possible within the human spirit as expressed in the life of this one man.

I will close with a few words by Gandhi that speak to me where I am, that I hope will help guide me in a way that leads to peace and greater understanding...

  • "Where there is love, there is life; hatred leads to destruction."
  • "Love is the strongest force the world possesses, and yet it is the humblest imaginable."
  • "You must be the change you wish to see in the world. "
  • "Though we may know Him by a thousand names, He is one and the same to us all. "
  • "All the religions of the world, while they may differ in other respects, unitedly proclaim that nothing lives in this world but Truth."
  • "Each one prays to God according to his own light. "
  • "I believe in the fundamental truth of all great religions of the world. "
  • "The essence of all religions is one. Only their approaches are different."
  • "I am but a poor struggling soul yearning to be wholly good, wholly truthful and wholly non-violent in thought, word and deed, but ever failing to reach the ideal which I know to be true. "

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Optical Illusions

If you click here you will see some interesting ideas for your next redecorating project.

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Once again I got this fun little survey from Beth. What you do is click on Johari or Nohari and follow the instructions to choose the words that you would use to describe me and then click here and here for the results.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Oscar Review: Ordinary People (1980)

They don't make movies like our next film anymore. Winner of 4 Academy Awards and nominated for 2 others, Ordinary People is a phenomenal piece.

We meet young Conrad Jarrett (Timothy Hutton) soon after his return to school after spending time in a psychiatric hospital. Slowly getting back into the swing of things with school, friends, the swim team, and life at home Conrad struggles to find his place.

Conrad's father (Donald Sutherland) tries to treat him like a normal teenager, while his mother (Mary Tyler Moore) tries to pretend like nothing ever happened. He realizes more and more how far removed he is from his former life and how his friends aren't as understanding as he needs them to be.

After visiting a new doctor (Judd Hirsch), Conrad begins to grapple with the death of his brother, his subsequent suicide attempt, and how he will move forward in a meaningful way. When he quits the swim team and doesn't want to do many of the things he used to, his mother only becomes more detached from Conrad and hostile about her family's fortune over the past year.

As his life begins to come back together, Conrad tries to rekindle the bonds with his parents and he steps out of his shell enough to forge a relationship with Jeannine (Elizabeth McGovern). After a number of cold encounters with his mother and a major breakthrough with his doctor, Conrad finally turns a corner, though nothing will ever be the same.
His directorial debut, Ordinary People earned Robert Redford his only competitive Oscar. Timothy Hutton's role as tormented teen Conrad Jarrett won him a statuette as well and made him the youngest actor ever to win a Best Supporting Actor honor at the age of 20.

This is one of those films that I can watch over and over and is one of my all time favorites. Though I can't identify with the specific situations faced by Conrad - suicidal thoughts, loss of a brother, distant parents, etc. - I have always been able to find a little bit of myself in his struggles to find himself and to make sense of the world around him.

Ordinary People is of an older style of filmmaking that takes things at a slower pace and allows the characters to really drive the story. Interactions between Conrad and his mother, for example, seem to take a long time in order to make the viewer feel the tension in their relationship. Deeper than that, I think, is the fact that taking such large steps and finally developing a meaningful existence takes time and we are asked to walk alongside Conrad as he tries to figure it all out.

It's a great film and I think if you allow yourself to really engage the story you will be drawn in and fall in love with it as I did. Enjoy!

Oscar Review: Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)

Winning 5 of its 9 nominations - including Best Picture, Best Director (Robert Benton), Best Actor (Dustin Hoffman), Best Supporting Actress (Meryl Streep), and Best Adapted Screenplay - Kramer vs. Kramer is a moving film that pulls at the heart strings.

Struggling to find herself, Joanna Kramer (Streep) files for divorce from her workaholic husband Ted (Hoffman) leaving their young son Billy (Justin Henry) in his chaotic, inexperienced hands. Through many trials as both Ted and Billy learn to cope with their new situation. Ted learns how to cook and clean and handle all of hurdles that come with single parenthood.

After putting his son before his career, when for so long it had been the other way around, Ted is forced to get work elsewhere and finds himself making less money, though with more flexibility to care for Billy. Just when the pair are beginning to live into a meaningful, fulfilling routine together, Joanna returns to their lives.

Hoping to pick things up with Billy where she left them off, Joanna informs Ted that she wants to take their son to live with her. Thinking that it is better to keep Billy in a consistent home environment where he feels loved rather than sending him away with a mother who left him, Ted fights to retain custody and continue building the relationship he has with his son.
Kramer vs. Kramer is a wonderful film with a great deal of heart and depth. There are moments of humor and pain, passion and anxiety all leading to the overall beauty of this movie.

Justin Henry, who played young Billy, was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar and became the youngest actor ever nominated for a competitive Academy Award at the age of 8 years, 276 days.

Overlooked by AFI's lists, Kramer vs. Kramer is all in all a fine piece of cinema that deserves every credit that comes its way. Tackling tough subjects like divorce, custody, family vs. career, and what it means to be a parent, this film takes us along with the struggles of every character and forces us to examine our own lives and look to what lengths we would go for our own families.

A great film.

Oscar Review: The Deer Hunter (1978)

1978's addition to the lineup of Best Pictures is one of those films that sheds some light on the horrors of war. The Deer Hunter won 5 of its 9 Oscar nods including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Walken), Best Director (Michael Cimino), Best Editing, and Best Sound and earned a spot at #79 on AFI's Top 100.

A haunting tale of the lives of 3 friends from a Pennsylvania factory town who are drafted to fight in Vietnam. We enter the scene with Michael (Robert DeNiro) and Nick (Walken) at the wedding of their friend Steven (John Savage). The raucous reception doubles as the boys' big send-off before heading off to war. As a last hurrah Michael, Nick, and Steven are joined by their friends Stosh (John Cazale) and John (George Dzundza) on one last hunting trip.

Propelled forward in time, we find the three friends deeply entrenched in the war and soon captured by the Vietcong. Barely escaping the twisted game of Russian roulette forced upon them by their captors, Michael, Nick, and Steven make their way to a military hospital with hopes of returning home. Though Michael is able to return to his life in PA, Steven feels like his life is over after losing a leg, and Nick is still in Vietnam in an underground roulette ring.
Ranked as the #30 thriller, The Deer Hunter is a sobering look at the effect of war on relationships and on the minds of those participating in it first-hand. The Russian roulette scene is so full of suspense and is what Roger Ebert rightly describes as "one of the most horrifying sequences ever created in fiction." It is truly a sobering few moments that only grow more terrible as the friends are forced to face each other.

John Cazale, who briefly appears as hunting buddy "Stosh," was engaged to co-star Meryl Streep (Nick and Michael's love interest, Linda) until he died of bone cancer shortly after filming was complete. If you include flashback scenes in The Godfather: Part III, Cazale only appears in 6 feature films, four of which were nominated for Best Picture, with 3 wins. It is a record few, if any, could match.

The Deer Hunter is a powerful film. A lot of time is spent developing the characters which only serves to make the tragedies of the plot all the more difficult for the friends to bear. It is a tough examination of what can happen when people are placed in extraordinary circumstances and their attempts to reclaim the lives they left behind.

I have never understood war and I often enjoy watching war movies, in part, because of a desire to make some sense out of it. The Deer Hunter is just such a film that shines a sliver of light on what happens to a soldier even after the fighting is over and the immediate dangers are gone. It's certainly worth a watch.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Oscar Review: Annie Hall (1977)

Woody Allen's most acclaimed film, Annie Hall, is a comic love story that is counted among the greatest movies of all time and is a timely Valentine's Day addition to our survey of the Oscars.

The film follows the lives of neurotic comedian Alvy Singer (Allen) and his lively girlfriend Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). After breaking up, Alvy tries to figure out what caused the demise of their once-happy relationship.

Often jumping around to different periods of time within their love affair, Alvy will occasionally break in and out of his own flashbacks, while they are going on, to offer commentary or even to have independent conversations with the other characters in the scene.

From growing up under a rollercoaster, to public conversations about their relationship, to saving Annie from a spider in her bathroom in the middle of the night, Alvy paints such a vivid picture of the life they shared. Alvy describes his relationship problems quite well: "I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member." And, "A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark."
Annie Hall - winner of 4 of its 5 nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay - is Woody Allen at his finest. AFI ranks it on 5 of its lists:

  • #31 greatest film
  • #4 greatest laugh
  • #11 greatest passion
  • #90 greatest song ("Seems Like Old Times" performed by Diane Keaton, Music/Lyrics by Carmen Lombardo/John Jacob Loeb
  • #55 movie quote: "La-dee-da, la-dee-da."

With small appearances by Christopher Walken, Coleen Dewhurst, Paul Simon, Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, and a line by Jeff Goldblum, Annie Hall is a delightful look at life, love and the consciousness of the most self-deprecating of men.

Woody Allen films are an acquired taste for many and it does take a little work to get used to his subtle humor and commentary. However, once you become accustomed to the external expressions of Allen's internal rants I'm sure that you, too, will love Annie Hall and its thoughtful analysis of the struggle to add meaning and love to your life.

My Candy Heart

My friend Beth posted her result today in honor of Valentine's Day and I thought I'd give it a whirl too. It's pretty accurate, though I'd hardly say I'm "fearless" - though committment isn't a scary word for me, with the right person.

Your Candy Heart Says "Hug Me"

A total sweetheart, you always have a lot of love to give out.
Your heart is open to where ever love takes you!

Your ideal Valentine's Day date: a surprise romantic evening that you've planned out

Your flirting style: lots of listening and talking

What turns you off: fighting and conflict

Why you're hot: you're fearless about falling in love

Oscar Review: Rocky (1976)

Fitting for Valentine's Day, our next Best Picture features the love story of a poor boxer and a shy pet store clerk. Ranking #78 of all time, #52 greatest thrill, and the title character is ranked #7 greatest film hero, Rocky is a classic.

Set in Philadelphia on the eve of the Bicentennial, we find Rocky Balboa (Best Original Screenplay and Best Actor nominee Sylvester Stallone) fighting both in and out of the ring as he struggles to make ends meet as an enforcer for a local bookie. Every morning and every afternoon as he works out at Mickey's (Burgess Meredith) across the street, Rocky stops into the local petshop to get food for his turtles - Cuff and Link - to play with the dog Butkus, and to tell Adrian (Talia Shire) a new joke despite the discouraging words of her brother Paulie (Burt Young).

When a fighter drops out of the bout ahead of the July 4th extravaganza, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) draws on the "Italian Stallion," a nobody from Philly, to live out the dream and have a shot at the title.

With his time short on training, the growing anxiety about going up against the best, and doubt that he has a chance at all Rocky knows that he can't win. But can he go the distance?
A great film regardless of whether or not you are a fan of boxing, Rocky is a triumphant look at one man's journey from the shadows of the old neighborhood into the spotlight of the American sporting world. Packed with tremendous heart and great writing by then-freshman screenwriter Stallone, one simple line stands out as the identifying mark of this great film: "Yo, Adrian!" (#80)

Winning only 3 of it's 10 nominations that year, Rocky turned Sylvester Stallone into a serious star. Though none of the sequels quite matched the depth and power of the original (they rarely do) The Rocky Series has a place in American cinema for its portrayal of the ultimate underdog's rise and the undying love affair of Rocky and Adrian.

It's just plain good!

Monday, February 13, 2006

Oscar Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

The film that swept the major categories at the 48th Academy Awards (5 of its 9 nominations) is also AFI's 20th greatest film and launched the careers of actors from Danny DeVito to Christopher Lloyd. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a funny and tragic look at life in a mental ward run by a psychotic head nurse and the "patient" that disturbs the status quo.

When R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is admitted to a mental institution in an attempt to avoid continued physical labor at a prison work camp. He pretends to act wild and out of control thinking it will make freedom come to him more quickly. Thinking it would be smooth sailing, McMurphy isn't prepared when he meets the icy Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) - the #5 movie villain of all time.

To keep himself occupied when not in group therapy, McMurphy befriends the other patients, organizes a "field trip" to go fishing, and reaches out to a deaf/mute that no one else pays much attention to.

In her attempts to maintain order and provide counseling to the patients, we come to see Nurse Ratched's darker side. She leads group discussions to point out, and even further, the patient's psychoses. She plays eerily relaxing music, plays to everyone's weaknesses and lays on guilt, and enjoys quelling the hopes of everyone around her. But worse than that, much more devious and evil, is the way she punishes McMurphy for his behavior. By forcing him to submit to electric shock treatment and medicating him she turns a sane man insane.
I've thouroughly enjoyed One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest each time I've seen it. Wonderfully written and acted by the entire cast, this film garnered Oscars for Best Picture (Saul Zaentz and Michael Douglas), Best Actor (Nicholson), Best Actress (Fletcher), Best Director (Milos Forman) and Best Adapted Screenplay. It was the first film to take home all the top honors since It Happened One Night, which held the honor for 40 years. The only other film to do so The Silence of the Lambs in 1991.

It's a dark movie once you get beneath the entertaining performance of Nicholson's McMurphy. Haunting in the examination of how soberly controled Nurse Ratched wields her power and how coolly she attacks the already fragile minds of the other patients. It's just a great movie.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Another Avuncular Relationship

I know I've been lacking in my blogging this past week and I promise I'll have more Oscar Reviews in the next few days.

However, I do have some exciting news. I learned today that I am going to be an uncle for the second time!!! My brother and sister-in-law, who already have a 3.5yo, just announced that they are going to be having another baby due sometime in early October.

Congratulations to the growing family!

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Oscar Review: The Godfather: Part II (1974)

Ranked #32 on AFI's top 100 list, the first of only two movie sequels to ever win the Oscar for Best Picture - the other being The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King - along with 5 others out of their 11 nominations, The Godfather: Part II has been argued to be better than the original and claims its rightful place in film history as one of the greats.

Picking up where the original left off, Part II follows the Corleone family after their move to Las Vegas. Intercut with flashbacks contained in the original novel, we also see the becoming of Vito (played by Robert De Niro who, with Marlon Brando, became to the first two people to win Academy Awards for playing the same character and one of 4 actors to ever win an Oscar for a role primarily spoken in a language other than English) from his childhood to his rise to prominence in the New York City underworld.

Placed in the context of history, the we find Michael setting up shop in Havana on the eve of Castro's revolution and in the midst of Senate hearings on organized crime. By now Michael has grown in power and influence and only more diabolical in his dealings and in search for revenge. The coldness of his character is revealed as he discovers who has been betraying the family. We find that Michael is clearly no longer the college boy war hero that he was as a young man. No one will stand in his way and he will not be beaten, no matter what the cost.
There's something about The Godfather that makes it one of my favorite movies. That said, however, I certainly agree with many that Part II is perhaps the better film. The scope of the story, the darkness of the plot, and the more complex relationships make this film worthy of all its honors.

Reserving its place in American cinematic history, The Godfather: Part II was the last film printed in the US using Technocolor. Al Pacino's Oscar nominated reprisal of his role as Michael Corleone won him a spot as the #11 film villain of all time. Like the original, Part II made it onto the list of greatest movie quotes with #58: "Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer."

One of the great moments on film takes place during a flashback sequence when Vito (de Niro) is following Don Fanucci on the rooftop during a festival. Tired of Fanucci's role in bringing down the neighborhood, Vito vows to kill him. As Fanucci makes his way through the crowds on the street, we see Vito alone overhead. It's just brilliant.

All in all, Part II is a wonderful piece. Being more psychological drama than simply a violent "shoot-em-up" movie makes this film all the more compelling. And worth watching.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Oscar Review: The Sting (1973)

The Best Picture of 1973 is classic Redford and Newman. The Sting, which won in 7 of 10 categories at the Oscars, making Julia Phillips the first woman producer to win the Best Picture statuette.

The Sting, set in 1930's Chicago, follows the lives of two con-men - Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) and Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) - as they plan one of their biggest scores ever. When Hooker and his mentor, Luther, unknowingly steal from a courier for Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw), a numbers racketeer, Luther get's killed and Hooker is on the run in search of Luther's old partner (Gondorff).

Finding Gondorff as a washed up drunk, Hooker convinces him to get back into the game for one last con against Lonnegan as payback for Luther's murder. They gather up a gang of the best grifters in town with an elaborate series of twists and turns that are sure to part the rich man from his money.

From buying into Lonnegan's moving poker game with money picked from his own pocket to setting up a dummy off-track betting parlor, Hooker and Gondorff play every angle possible to win big, all the while trying to steer clear of an abitious detective played by Charles Durning.
I've only seen The Sting twice and both times I've enjoyed the playfulness of the characters and the ingenuity of the various grifts the team pulls off. Though Marvin Hamlish won for best music based on Scott Joplin's ragtime piano pieces - being the first to ever win the Oscar for all three music categories at the same awards - and though it certainly fits with the time period of the film, the music more often than not, for my taste, makes the transitions and more active sequences seem a little silly. It takes a little something away rather than adding to the mood.

All in all, though, The Sting is well-grounded in the first-rate performances of Redford and Newman and their chemistry on the screen. It's lively, it's fun, and it's definitely worth a watch.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

The Portrush Letter

For Titanic history enthusiasts, The Portrush Letter may be an interesting look at some of the senior officers of the doomed ocean liner. And it was written by my great-grandfather, John Smith, to his brother Hugh. Encyclopedia Titanica writer Senan Molony recently updated his entry on this letter with additional information and photographs provided by my dad (who is quoted at the bottom).

Originally, no one knew the first name of the writer of this somewhat famous letter, just that he was a man named Smth writing to his brother Hugh who lived on Main St. in Portrush, Northern Ireland - where I went on my vacation last March - until my dad made contact with Molony. John Smith was a chief steward at a club that serviced all of the officers and many other crew from the Titanic which gave him opportunity to become well acquainted with all of them in the year or so leading up to the tragedy.