Reviews

33 ReviewsOrdered By: Date
Adam (I) (2009)
6/10
A quirky romantic comedy
29 January 2009
You won't find traditional romantic comedies at Sundance. But quirky romantic comedies were in this year. And how much quirkier can you get than Adam, where the male lead (Hugh Dancy) has Asperger's Syndrome (like a mild, high-functional form of autism) and the female lead (Rose Byrne) is a hot and seemingly normal babe? And that's the movie—Adam is very nice but extremely weird, socially awkward, prone to erratic behavior and a societal misfit, and Beth is everything you'd want in a woman.

(This should provide a ray of hope for all the geeky guys fantasizing about a beautiful, charming and good-hearted woman falling in love with them one day. I can hear it now: "If Beth can fall for Adam, then why not me? After all, he has Asperger's and all I've got is this little hygiene problem, plus my two-room Star Wars collection.")

The movie opens with the death of Adam's father. We follow him to work, where he is writing microchip software for toys and fixated on creating interesting functionality while his boss simply wants to cut costs. He stays in the apartment he had shared with his dad, eating the same meals every day, sitting in the same chair, and following his established routines until Rose moves into the building. Adam falls in love, in his obsessive way. Rose is attracted to Adam, but naturally wary. And things proceed from there, as they work out their relationship while enduring painfully awkward physical contacts and even more pain and awkwardness meeting the friends and parents, and ultimately … well, you've got to see the film. But for my money, the ending was the best part.

Adam is a cute, mildly entertaining movie, with laughs and smiles despite a less than polished script. Both Dancy and Byrne give fine performances, and veteran actors Peter Gallagher and Amy Irving are quite good as Beth's parents. Written and directed by Max Mayer, it was picked up at Sundance by Fox Searchlight and will likely be released in 2009.
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Precious (II) (2009)
8/10
Powerfully emotive story filled with hope and optimism
25 January 2009
I'm not surprised that Push won both the Grand Jury and Audience Award at Sundance this year. Director Lee Daniels (Shadowboxer) has created a very powerful film that manages to entertain while evoking a broad spectrum of emotions, from anger and heartbreaking pity to optimism, joy and hope.

Clareece "Precious" Jones (Gabby Sidibe) is a fat 16-year-old illiterate black girl that lives in Harlem with her welfare-dependent, abusive mother (Mo'Nique). She has one autistic daughter (who lives with her grandmother) and is pregnant with another child, both from her mother's boyfriend, who is also Clareece's father. Her mother repeatedly tells her how stupid and worthless she is while other kids taunt her for her obesity. She has become hardened and heartless, lacking education and social skills. She spends her time cooking for her mother and fantasizing unrealistically about a glamorous life. She would be easy to dismiss. Based on a novel by Sapphire, this is some pretty bleak stuff.

But good things can happen in this world and Precious is blessed with an indomitable spirit that refuses to accept the negative reinforcement that bombards her. Through her efforts, and despite resistance from her mother, she finds an alternative school. It is staffed by Miss Rains, a caring teacher (Paula Patton) and classmates who, although anything but perfect, possess enough compassion to become supportive friends. It turn out that the world can be a pretty good place.

First-time actress Gabby Sidibe gives a powerful, emotive performance. Equally good is talented actresses Mo'Nique, who is almost frightening as Precious' mother, and Patton as the compassionate teacher. Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey also have minor roles, giving the film a little star power.

Daniels conveys a Harlem existence that is profane, hard-edged and brutal, but with rays of humanity and compassion that leave room for hope. It is at once both a message to the poor in spirit not to despair, and to the rest of us make the time and effort to reach out where we can. Push is an inspiring message that will fill you with optimism and joy.

Sundance Moment: When asked about her getting the role, Sidibe said that she had some acting experience--like a non-speaking role in a college production. Pretty funny! She said her friends encouraged her to audition because she "fit the profile." She also said she relied heavily on "Mr. Daniels" for direction. Daniels said there were parts of making the movie that were hard on him emotionally--like directing Precious to eat, or instructing her peers to bully her.
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4/10
Insert whatever excremental pun you can think of
22 January 2009
Anyone that has seen a movie by Mark and Michael Polish should come to expect something unusual. Their latest film, Manure, delivers in spades (yeah, that was a pun). Actually, this movie might best be seen under the influence of drugs. Being straight and sober, I'm not sure I appreciated it. Or understood it. Or perhaps I fell asleep and dreamt this.

Starring Billy Bob Thornton and Tea Leoni, the story is about a woman living in New York (Rosemary Rose) who inherits her father's manure company after his untimely passing. Thornton is the lead salesman (Patrick). Together they try to save the company from bankruptcy. That's the sane part.

Here's the silly stuff: Unfortunately, making Rose Manure profitable involves selling a lot of s___ (only one of maybe 200 excrement jokes and puns in the movie). And there's no better bulls____ than Patrick (trust me, they never stop).

No, no, that was the sane part. This is what's zany: Turns out there's new competition in the form of a chemical fertilizer company entering the market, actually by parachuting in countless crates of chemical fertilizers as well as black-suited salesmen who land carrying briefcases.

Hold it, that's still pretty tame compared to the psychedelic mushrooms they eat which causes them to vomit voluminously onto one another and hallucinate, or dressing up the Rose salesmen as Indians to burn at the stake, or the 48 Triple-D breasts one of the salesmen grows when he eats some fertilizer, or the vegetable masks. And there's plenty more where that came from.

The plot is as silly as you can imagine, and like all the acting (except Thornton), way over the top. The sets typically include backdrops, with everything (EVERYTHING) in various shades of brown. You could not conceive of a more ridiculous movie. Which would be perfect if you were in the right mood (know what I mean?). But passing joints is not allowed at Sundance screenings, so most of the crowd was left shaking their heads and wondering what it was they just witnessed.

Notes from Sundance The cast was all present on opening night. Thornton and Leoni were sitting right in front of me. They were both very gracious with fans, allowing their photos to be taken and being great sports. After the movie, Thornton was very funny and clever. But the Q&A quickly fizzled. The audience was too shell-shocked to think of intelligent questions. And no one had the audacity to ask Mark and Michael Polish what was on everyone's mind: "What the heck were you guys thinking?!!!"
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6/10
A Classic Film Noir that's not quite a classic
19 January 2009
The last great film noir was A Touch of Evil, made 51 years ago. But the genre has never lost its allure and every now and then a filmmaker attempts a neo-noir, some succeeding famously (Chinatown, Body Heat) but most lacking the soul of the classic noirs from the 40's and 50's.

In The Missing Person, director Noah Buschel tries valiantly to recreate the original genre. First, the classic protagonist: Hot star Michael Shannon (Reservation Road) plays John Rosow, a chain-smoking, gin-soaked private detective living in a run-down apartment next to the Chicago L. Then the familiar set-up. A stranger calls and offers way too much money to do what sounds like a simple job. And finally, the twisted tale: Rosow, a former street-smart New York cop, smells something rotten, but is spurred by the money and the conviction that he will be able to outplay the other players.

Shannon makes an intriguing protagonist, grizzled and degenerate but with just enough heart and humanity to make him sympathetic. Unfortunately, the weight of the movie falls entirely on his shoulders. The plot winds its way, with a steady stream of surprises and revelations, but none of them particularly compelling. The secondary characters, especially the perfunctory love-interest, are underdeveloped. And so, despite Shannon's heroic efforts, the film stumbles, and ultimately is tripped up by incredulity and apathy.

Despite these criticisms, film noir lovers will still find enough to enjoy to make the movie worth watching. Just don't expect Orson Welles.
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9/10
A delightfully refreshing take on romantic comedy.
19 January 2009
What a delightful film. From the opening screen, which offers a very funny disclaimer, it is clear that 500 Days of Summer dares to be different. And as the opening sequence clearly states, it is not a love story. Except that's only a technicality. It really is. Sort of.

Writers Scott Neustadter and Michael Webber, along with director Marc Webber, have put together a charming, fresh and very funny romantic comedy. Summer (Zooey Deschanel) and Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) start an office romance when Summer comes to LA from Michigan for an internship at a greeting card company. Tom writes cards, although he quietly aspires to be an architect. Tom is a romantic idealist who has never found his soul mate. Summer is a disillusioned pragmatist who doesn't believe in love. But Summer immediately takes to Tom, Tom is smitten with Summer and their relationship proceeds as so many do in the movies.

Deschanel and Gordon-Levitt play their roles well, although it occurred to me more than once that they lacked chemistry. But remember, this is not a love story, which is what makes 500 Days of Summer more realistic and poignant than what we have come to expect from the movies. But it is a refreshing and thought-provoking take on what we often describe as being in love—about taking risks, dealing with disappointments, finding yourself and bumping into fate when you least expect it.

The film includes a couple of movie-making devices that some might find distracting. It uses a timeline to tell the story, but jumps forward and back, which still manages to effectively provide a narrative without feeling like a contrivance. In contrast, the film also pays homage to a number of classic movies, including several clips and snippets, which feels out of place and doesn't quite fit.

As currently constructed, 500 Days of Summer will get an R rating. If they can edit it to a PG-13, which would be quite easily done, it could do nicely at the box office.

Notes from Sundance: At opening night at the Eccles Center, Deschanel commented on how attracted she was to the script. Director Marc Webber made the point that he wanted to shoot on location in LA, but show a bit of the city's architectural heritage, which did very subtly separate 500 Days from typical Hollywood-Indie fare.
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Thrilla in Manila (2008 TV Movie)
7/10
Joe Frazier finally gets to tell his side of the story
19 January 2009
2009 Sundance Film Festival In 1975, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier staged their third and final battle in the capital of the Philippines. Ali, in his infamous promoting of himself and ticket sales, dubbed it "The Thriller in Manilla." They had split their first two fights, and by this time Ali was considered the heavy favorite, with many (including Ali's camp) believing Frazier was washed up. It turned out to be an epic contest, one of the greatest heavyweight bouts of all time. Ali won when Frazier's camp threw in the towel after the 14th round, although witnesses reveal that Ali was perhaps even less able to answer the bell for the 15th round.

Ali went on to become a mythic figure, the public believing his self-proclaimed title "The greatest fighter of all time." Later, stricken by Parkinson's disease, he became universally beloved, virtually worshiped across the globe. In contrast, Joe Frazier has been almost forgotten, the victim of Ali's public insults and degradations, as well as two-out-of-three losses against Ali. The Thriller in Manilla examines the fight and the events leading up to it from Smokin' Joe's perspective. It's a tale that has never really been told, but was commissioned by the BBC and is likely to show on HBO this year.

It's a fascinating story. Frazier at his prime was every bit the match for Ali, as the record shows. Further, the fight in Manilla was so close that it could easily have gone either way. Yet Ali is an icon and Frazier lives in an apartment above his old gym in the roughest section of North Philadelphia.

Director John Dower admitted to the Sundance crowd he approached the film with an agenda—a project sympathetic to Joe and willing to take a few politically incorrect shots at Ali (who , as expected, refused the offer to be involved). Gen X and Y moviegoers unfamiliar with the participants may find the subject matter lacks relevance. But for those of us old enough to remember, this was more than a boxing rivalry, and Thriller in Manilla provides a fascinating perspective into one of the most politically charged athletic events in American history. As the movie accurately depicts, Ali vs. Frazier was ideological warfare—the cocky anti-war Muslim who claimed to speak for Black America against (Ali's words) the ignorant negro Uncle Tom who looked like a gorilla and did the white man's bidding. And unfortunately for Mr. Frazier, Ali made the labels stick. Frazier has never forgiven Ali for that. And he has never recovered from it.
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The Greatest (2009)
8/10
Powerful story of family grief.
19 January 2009
Anyone that has ever lost a child has plumbed the depths of grief. And while numerous movies have tried to depict that paralyzing depression, most fall well short of the mark. (I recall In the Bedroom from Sundance 2001, starring Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson and Marissa Tomei—it was good, but couldn't fully expose the raw nerve laid bare with the passing of a child.)

The Greatest provides a powerful glimpse into the depths of a family's grief. Writer-Director Shana Feste delivers a finely-honed script and very capable direction to give the actors plenty of room to deal with their emotional burdens while still keeping the story moving along. One reason is the deft interlacing of the backstory that led to 18-year-old Bennett Brewer's death—a violent collision while his car sat in the middle of the road and he spoke fervently to Rose (British actress Carey Mulligan). Bennett's parents, played by Pierce Brosnan and Susan Sarandon, find Rose thrust into their lives, and along with brother Sean (Miles Robbins—son of Sarandon and Tim Robbins) they all deal with their loss.

While the script is tight, the acting is even better. Brosnan gives the performance of his life as the mathematics professor who is emotionally devastated but can't let it out. And Sarandon is equally impressive as the obsessive mother whose grief is pushing the borders of her sanity. But the real find may be Mulligan, who has an Audrey Tautou (Amelie) innocent vibrancy that declares a star is born.

As one might expect, this is an emotionally wrenching movie, but not an entirely depressing one. There is a message of hope, even though it might come in a package too conveniently wrapped and delivered. And while its theme may be a problem at the box office, those that take it in will be rewarded for their investment.

Sundance Moment: Director Feste told the audience she wrote the script while she was a nanny. Sarandon said she didn't like seeing the movie, but never revealed why. Perhaps because it dealt so vividly with a painful subject. But maybe because the movie made her look old, haggard and an emotional wreck. Props to her for taking the role.
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8/10
Peralta's Latest Gem
29 January 2008
When I saw that Stacy Peralta had another documentary at this year's Sundance, I put it at the top of my list. Both Riding Giants (surfing) and Dogtown and Z-Boys (skateboarding) were extraordinary peeks into unique and fascinating American cultures. Made in America shifts it's focus to another less romantic section of Southern California, and promised a more somber experience, taking a penetrating look at the gangs of South Central Los Angeles, one of the most deadly areas in the United States.

Like his other docs, this one takes a historical perspective. How did these gangs start? What cultural forces propagated their beginnings and fueled their growth? Who are these people? What are they really like, and why do they do what they do? I think Peralta's gift is that he manages to really connect with his subjects and gain their trust, which turns out to be absolutely critical in the South Central neighborhoods. He also manages to tell a story with interest and compassion, but primarily through the perspective of those that have lived and shaped the experience.

Financed by South Central native and Golden State Warriors star Baron Davis, as well as an anonymous interested party in Hollywood, Made in America tells a story about a part of America we have chosen to ignore, despite the small-scale war that rages there every day. Seeing this movie will make you think a little differently about gang warfare, change your perspective, maybe add a little empathy to your world view. And for a filmmaker, that's perhaps the highest form of the art.

Sundance Moment: I saw this movie at the last day of Sundance down in Salt Lake City, far away from the glitz and glamor and stars in Park City. I heard Stacy Peralta was sick and probably wouldn't make it. But he did come, and not just for the introduction, but stayed for the Q&A as well, and talked with passion about how make this movie had changed him, and how important it is that we realize that teenagers are killing each other, something that would absolutely not be tolerated by society in any suburban area of our country, but goes virtually unnoticed in South Central.
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Red (2008)
7/10
Fresh take on an old theme
29 January 2008
Ten reasons why I like this movie:

1. IMDb lists 14 movies named "Red" in the past 30 years and this is the only one I've seen.

2. Productionwas bifurcated—shot by two different directors. But you could never tell, a credit more to the final director, Trygve Allister Diesen, than initial director Lucky McKee.

3. The Carmen Sandiego Factor: The movie is set in rural Oregon, and filmed in Maryland by a Norwegian director. Who would have guessed this could possibly turn out well?

4. Young TV actor Noel Fisher sneers with conviction as he plays Danny--the spoiled, insecure and mean-spirited rich bully--realistically enough to make you hate him.

5. Tom Sizemore plays Danny's dad, an even bigger jerk, and has a natural sneer, which might be drug-induced since the movie was shot before his 2007 prison sentence for another drug conviction.

6. Brian Cox (Bourne Supremacy) is really terrific as Avery Ludlow, the aged protagonist. He's old, fat, bald and has a flawed past. And he's the main man. He's like Mr. Miyagi for the 21st century, except he doesn't know karate.

7. Thankfully, Ludlow does not engage in gratuitous sex with anyone in the movie. While this certainly put the Sundance submission at risk, it was an act of good taste and gracious compassion to the audience.

8. Dogs and puppies make every movie better.

9. The story has all the earmarks of a Greek tragedy, but with a modern American twist. It definitely had a classical feel, including hubris as a fatal flaw, yet still managed to keep viewers fully engaged from beginning to end.

10. Snooty film critics might complain that the wrap-up was trite and contrived, but nevertheless, the ending satisfied the audience, which sure beats the alternative.
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6/10
Methinks thou dost not protest enough
27 January 2008
In 2006, rock 'n roll icons Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young played a "Freedom of Speech" tour to protest the war in Iraq. The band that wrote Ohio, one of the most famous protest songs of the Vietnam era, decided that the country needed a wake-up call, some of the same spirit of protest and activism that once shook national policy and changed our nation forever. CSNY Déjà Vu is a documentary based on this tour.

Being a rock star must be the ideal profession because you get all the girls when you're young and somehow you're never too old. David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash and Neil Young were an average of 62 years of age on the tour, but still audiences gave them license to "get down" on the stage, and generally applauded wildly with love and admiration. But don't expect the typical fawning fans of a concert movie. This is all about the tour, about why they hit the road, what they believe, and how fans, concertgoers and the American public reacted.

Writer and ringleader Neil Young deserves tremendous credit for being candid and revealing. He quotes the glowing press reports of course, but also the negative ones and even the stinging mockery. He also shows both sides of the audience reaction, with the most antagonistic occurring in the southern (red) states, where many fans walked out of the concerts in disgust, coming for the music without realizing they were in for incessant politicizing, including a song entitled "Let's Impeach the President." And he even shows Stephen Stills falling off the stage, looking every bit like the fat old man that he has become. (Only Graham Nash really looks good. David Crosby looks like your uncle. And Neil Young just looks a little craggy, until he takes his hat off. Then he looks like his age as well.) It is fun and nostalgic to see the old footage interspersed, and to follow the band as they meet people, and introduce those that affected or were affected by the experience. CSNY Deja Vu is not a great movie by any means. There's not enough music to make it a concert film, and not enough action to pick up the slack. But there is nevertheless something admirable, even touching, about their breed of 60's style activism, their belief that people are dying needlessly, and their genuine heartfelt desire to make a difference. As they repeatedly demonstrated, they have profound respect for the servicemen overseas, but don't see continuing the war as the best answer. Agree or not, it strikes me as the sincerest form of patriotism.

Sundance Moment Someone in the Q&A said that he had lost a brother in Iraq, and told Neil Young that "you have no idea what you're talking about." It was a tense moment in the very liberal Sundance crowd. I'm guessing that Young has dealt with this kind of thing dozens of times on the tour, and he chose to handle it by, essentially, backing down. "I think you're right," he said. "We're just trying to get people to talk about it." Well, that might be an easy answer, but I'm not sure it's honest. A song like "Let's Impeach the President" is something more than an invitation for dialogue, it's a political statement of the strongest kind. I respect the band's sincerity, but was disappointed they were something less than forthright when challenged.
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8/10
Odd Birds. Good Eggs.
26 January 2008
You might be getting a little tired of movies about dysfunctional families. I know I am. I think I've seen at least three at Sundance this year. But Birds of America manages to break the mold and feel fresh and alive from the outset, delivering a warm, funny, zany, tender and compassionate film that left the audience smiling and satisfied.

Morrie (Matthew Perry) is an uptight university professor anxiously seeking tenure, which requires the approval of his department head, who lives next door. Morrie and his wife Betty (Lauren Graham—Gilmore Girls) live in a house he inherited at 18 years old after his mother died and his father committed suicide. As a result, Morrie raised his brother Jay (Ben Foster) and sister Ida (Ginnifer Goodwin), both of which grew into their problems. Ida is substance-abusing and promiscuous, and Jay a deeply gentle and sensitive soul whose actions are almost completely unfettered by advanced thought. They reunite in the family home when Jay gets run over by a car (he was laying in the road) and Morrie, who still feels more parent than brother, asks him to move in for a while. Without asking permission, Jay invites Ida to join them, stressing Morrie and Betty's relationship and jeopardizing his career with their outrageous behavior.

Matthew Perry is surprisingly good in his deadpan portrayal of an overwrought brother who cares deeply for his siblings, often at his own expense. Goodwin is a pleasure as well, as the addictive personality with the carefree spirit. But Ben Foster (3:10 to Yuma) is great, and despite having such a naturally funny role, manages to never play Jay for laughs, creating an endearing and memorable character. Growing up without parents, these three have formed an unbreakable bond, with unconditional love and acceptance, and a tenderness and compassion unlike any I can remember in movies. Elyse Friedman has crafted a remarkable script, and Sundance veteran director Craig Lucas (Secret Lives of Dentists, The Dying Gaul) brings it to life with a funny but light-hearted and gentle touch.
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The Visitor (I) (2007)
9/10
Another Gem from Tom McCarthy
24 January 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I absolutely loved The Station Agent in Sundance 2003, so I put Tom McCarthy's newest movie, The Visitor, at the top of my list. Boy was that a good call. This is a lovely, gentle and touching film that works on many levels. Richard Jenkins gives a perfectly understated performance. A veteran character actor (I counted 75 roles since 1985, that's about five per year!), it's the first time I've seen him as a lead. And the rest of the cast is terrific as well, including Hiam Abbass, Haaz Sleiman and Danai Jekesai Gurira.

Walter Vale (Jenkins) is a widower who teaches economics at a Connecticut university. No longer motivated by his work, he lives alone, struggling to find passion and meaning in his life. In New York to present a paper at a conference, he goes to the apartment that he has kept since his wife was alive (but hasn't visited for some time) only to discover a young couple living there, having been duped by an acquaintance who "rented" it to them. Despite their great cultural difference, Walter befriends Tarek (Sleiman), a Syrian citizen and drummer, and gradually builds a friendship with Esi (Gurira), his girlfriend from Senegal. One day, when returning from Central Park with Walter, Tarek gets arrested for jumping a stuck subway turnstile, despite the fact that he had paid. The police discover he does not have legal papers and transfer him to an immigrant detention center in Queens. Feeling responsible for and connected to Tarek, Walter stays in New York to help and support him. Not hearing from her son, Tarek's mother arrives from Michigan to find out why, and she and Walter support one another while they attempt to free Tarek.

The movie is a painful illustration of the inhumanity of the post-9/11 immigration policies and procedures. At the same time, it beautifully illuminates the wonders of friendship, kindness, reaching out, exploring life and finding meaning in a challenging world. Despite it's gentle pace, the story glides by, establishing characters that we care deeply about. The Visitor has a lot of heart. The audience reaction was effusive, and gave McCarthy the longest standing ovation I have heard at Sundance in some time. Scheduled to be released April 11 in New York, definitely put this one on your list.

Sundance Moment: McCarthy talked about Participant Media, which helped fund the production (and also Syriana, Charlie Wilson's War, An Inconvenient Truth and other cause-related movies). Visit their website at www.takepart.com to explore meaningful causes and how you can become informed and get involved. McCarthy also said that he wrote the screenplay with Jenkins and Abbass in mind, tailoring their roles to the two of them.
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The Deal (I) (2008)
7/10
Funny Movie on a Movie
23 January 2008
The Deal is a wacky and frenetic Hollywood insider movie about a movie, in the spirit of Altman's The Player or Mamet's State and Main. Written by and starring the extremely talented William H. Macy and directed by his long-time friend and veteran TV movie director Steven Schachter, The Deal is part vanity piece, part industry insider self-indulgence and wholly funny.

Macy plays Charlie Berns, a one-hit wonder Hollywood producer with no money and no prospects and on the verge of suicide. Interrupting his plans is his nephew Lionel (Jason Ritter), who knocks on his door at the propitious moment, carrying his script about Benjamin Disraeli and looking for Uncle Charlie's help in Hollywood. Ignoring the script, Charlie returns to his morbid task, only to spot an article about a blockbuster action-hero movie star (L.L. Cool J) who has recently converted to Judaism and is looking for a Jewish film for his next project. Seeing a glimmer of hope, Charlie hatches an outrageous seat-of-your-pants scheme to coerce a studio into approving this preposterous pairing. Assigned to the project is Diedre Hearn, a second-tier studio exec (played by Meg Ryan, still trying to transition from her girl-next-door pedigree). Charlie is smitten, and resurrected, "Ben Disraeli – Freedom Fighter" gets green-lighted and the fun begins. There's even a role for Elliott Gould, playing a rabbi who serves as a technical adviser and "Assistant Producer" to the film! I guess Macy decided that at 57 if he was ever going to play a leading man, he was going to have to personally drive the project. And he has written himself a plum role—a multi-dimensional character with a lot of funny lines and Meg Ryan as a love interest! Charlie Berns has suffered all the indignities that Hollywood can dish out. But he's learned enough tricks, and developed enough chutzpah that with a little luck he can really work the system. Macy plays the role with unflappable charm and impeccable comic timing.

The script bounces around a bit, and probably bounces a couple of times too many. The "resolution" feels a little like an add-on, and perhaps could have been left out. So while I doubt this movie will do great things at the box office, it certainly entertained the Sundance crowd.

Sundance Moment: Macy told the long story of how difficult it was to get the project funded, which is a recurring Sundance (and Hollywood) theme. They passed out red yarmulkas to the crowd, and many wore them while watching the movie.
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8/10
Alan Alda has not been this funny since Hawkeye Pierce
21 January 2008
Maybe Diminished Capacity isn't "all that and a bag of chips," as a friend of mine is fond of saying. But I'll tell you what, it's pretty funny. I think I heard more laughing than anything I've seen at Sundance since Napoleon Dynamite and Little Miss Sunshine. That bodes well for the box office prospects of this film.

Alan Alda gives a terrific performance as Rollie Zerb, a small-town Missouri old-timer with Alzheimer's, who lives with his sister (and some hilarious but unidentified guy named Wendell in a trailer by the house). They are visited by Cooper (Matthew Broderick), who arrives at his mother's request to help talk Uncle Rollie into a nursing home. Cooper has mental problems of his own, due to a recent concussion. While back in town, he runs into Charlotte (Virginia Madsen), his high school sweetheart who is recently divorced from the town mayor. And somehow Rollie, Cooper, Charlotte and her son wind up heading to Chicago, where they are going to try to sell Uncle Rollie's rare baseball card of Frank Schulte, from the 1908 Chicago Cubs (the last Cubbies team to win the World Series!).

Broderick is solid, in his awkward, understated way. Madsen is the straight woman. But Alan Alda makes the movie as Uncle Rollie, and dominates the screen in almost every scene. And yes, if you squint you'll see shades of Hawkeye Pierce, but his Rollie character is a complete departure from anything he has done in the past, and probably his best comedic performance since MASH.

The script is very well-written, if a bit awkward at parts, and under the direction of veteran actor Terry Kinney, the action moves along briskly. There is probably more tension than there needs to be, which doesn't really fit. But when you're not wincing, you're generally laughing. There are some hilarious lines, and a plenty of feel-good vibe. Everyone will like this movie.

Sundance Moment: Broderick was much better on stage than I would have expected. He was there with his wife, Sarah Jessica Parker, whose movie Smart People had premiered at Sundance the night before. Alan Alda was charming as well. Bobby Canavale was in two movies playing at Sundance this year, the other being The Merry Gentleman.
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7/10
Faith in Sundance?
21 January 2008
Saw this tonight at Sundance and was torn between two notions: Notion 1: This is a classic Sundance movie. Starring Luke Wilson (now tell me that doesn't just ooze Sundanceness! Dialogue driven. No special effects. Low budget.

Notion 2: This is a real departure for Sundance. Gee, it seems to be religious, albeit in a weird sort of way. There are all these undertones of faith and hope and the priest doesn't come across as an idiot. When was the last time you saw that at Sundance? And I guess I agree with both. Henry Poole (Luke Wilson) is depressed, and for good reason. So he buys a house to get away. But a perceived image of Christ in a stain on the side of his house soon attracts the attention of a neighbor, who quickly invades his life. And then there's his other neighbor, a cute little girl with an even cuter (and divorced) mom (Rhada Mitchell) and he can't seem to get any peace, although that's probably good for him.

This is a very deliberately-paced drama with an occasional laugh and more than a little tension. Wilson seems to enjoy his role, and the quiet, loner type fits well within his standard range. Mitchell (Melinda and Melinda, Mozart and the Whale) is wonderful and lovely, as always, and George Lopez takes a little role as a Catholic priest. But veteran Mexican actress Adriana Barraza steals the show as the deeply religious and well-intentioned neighbor, Esperanza (meaning "hope" in Spanish, which is only slightly more subtle than the grocery checkout girl whose name is Patience, or the Rhada Mitchell character named Dawn).

If you don't mind slow movies, Henry Poole will reward you with a story that celebrates simple virtues, and suggests that there is plenty of room in this world for kindness and charity and faith and hope. Not bad for Sundance.

Sundance Moment: This looks like the first thing screenwriter Albert Torres has done in movies, and he seemed thrilled to be at Sundance. And while Luke Wilson was very quiet, George Lopez was a clown. Lopez said he and Wilson became friends on the shoot and recently joined with Samuel L. Jackson to win a pro-am golf tournament.
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Transsiberian (2008)
10/10
Wow! Like a Hitchcock Classic!
19 January 2008
2008 Sundance Film Festival ★ ★ ★ ★ (out of four)

My favorite movie from the first day of Sundance 2008. Roy (a very young-looking Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer) are a young Iowa couple, returning from a church humanitarian mission in China via the Transsiberian Express, where they encounter the much more adventurous Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara). Boarding mid-way is Ben Kingsley, who we have learned from the opening scene is a Moscow police detective.

Like a Hitchcock classic, we are grabbed from the start with a feeling that things are not all as they seem, and don't lose that uneasy feeling that something very bad is going to happen until bad things really start happening. The tension is eerie and relentless, with telling glances and social conversation that suggest the relationships between these four are going to take a disturbing turn. Written by Director Brad Anderson (The Machinist), and inspired by a Transibberian trip he once took, the script is inspired and very tight, the characters infused with extraordinary depth and interest, the Russian state a harrowing umbrella and the dialog consistently powerful and compelling. (My favorite line, from Ben Kingsley, goes something like this: "We have a saying in Russia: You can always go forward with a lie, but you can never go back.")

As Anderson said in the Q&A, the confined spaces of trains make for heightened drama. Shot in Lithuania, the cinematography is haunting, capturing the mysterious, bleak and unsettled state of post-Soviet Russia, which makes for a marvelous backdrop to the action.

This movie should do well in national release. Maybe very well.

Sundance Moments: Brad Anderson and all the principals of the cast were at the Sundance premiere. More so than usual, they all praised Anderson as an extraordinary and meticulous director, one of the greats. Ben Kingsley noted that what attracted him to the movie, besides the Russian sub-story, was that the characters were archetypes and not caricatures, which is quite true. Anderson talked about how bitterly cold it was shooting in Lithuania.
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6/10
Fun (but a little cheesy) Time Travel Movie
19 January 2008
While introducing the movie, director Nacho Vigalondo said that he thought this was the first ever Spanish time-travel movie. More accurately, this was the first Spanish bigger-budget variation of Sundance 2005's Primer.

Hector appears to be living a happy and contented life in their new house with his pretty and affectionate wife Clara, when one day he spies through his binoculars a woman in the woods in the act of undressing. When Clara leaves, Hector goes off to investigate. And there the fun begins, as Hector's quest thrusts him into an adventure that includes the discovery of a time machine, and a dogged quest to unravel its effects.

If you like mind game movies like Memento, Proof or the even harder to follow Primer, then Time Crimes will have some appeal. And while the movie does have some time-twisting inconsistencies, it generally ties the loose ends into a knotty, if not absurd conclusion. The story moves along briskly, requiring intellectual energy to keep up and a forgiving attitude to a few ridiculous devices. Fortunately, there is an occasional and welcome infusion of humor that makes some of the cheesier elements a little easier to swallow. But somehow, the whole thing felt more like a Twilight Zone episode stretched into a feature-length film. Fortunately, like most Twilight Zone episodes, this one had a great ending. I just loved the final shot, which is quaintly ironic, although it will leave some viewers unsatisfied, I am sure.

Sundance Moment: In the post-movie Q&A, Vigalondo said that after shooting his film, he realized what it really was—a love triangle story. My reaction was "Huh? Did I watch the right movie?"
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7/10
Moving story set in rural Louisiana
19 January 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I'm always a little apprehensive about ex-con redemption films. They are generally predictable, and the emotional puppeteering is all too easy and familiar. And I must acknowledge that in The Yellow Handkerchief, there is more than a little of all that. But I don't think that's at the core of the movie. Rather, this is a story about three individuals, all lost and lonely, led by fate into a beat-up convertible, and finding themselves unexpectedly on a little road trip in post-Katrina rural Louisiana.

Award-winning German producer Arthur Cohn put together this project, and Indian director Udayan Prasad made some great casting calls. William Hurt is at the center as Brett, a just-released ex-con battling his demons (which are gradually revealed throughout the movie) and tenuously reentering the outside world. It's a role that comes naturally to Hurt, more like his classics The Big Chill, The Doctor and The Accidental Tourist than his arresting departure in The History of Violence. The inescapably sexy Maria Bello shows up mostly in flashbacks, as the love of his pre-prison life. Eddy Redmayne (Gordy) and Kristen Stewart (Matine) steal the show as the youngsters who meet in a store, and find themselves moments later asking Brett to make them an unlikely threesome.

Prasad does a great job of sharing with the audience the unadorned emotions at play as these three feel each other out, and gradually get comfortable together. There is natural tension, as Brett is older, obviously hardened, and something of mystery, and even more so when they find out he is an ex-con. But also anger, fear and disgust, before the softening. The strengths and weaknesses of each character are slowly exposed as their journey leads them in search of acceptance, hope and love. And talented cinematographer Chris Berges brings an eerie sadness to the Louisiana bayou country, not nearly recovered from the ravages of Katrina.

The Yellow Handkerchief may move too slowly for broad public acceptance. But the story never lagged, holding the audience throughout, and rewarding them at the end. One might accuse the ending of being a little hackneyed (and one would be right) but that hardly dulls the shine of a movie that leaves you feeling positive and optimistic.

Sundance Moment: Prasad, Cohn, Hurt, Bello, Redmayne and Stewart were all at the premiere. Best line was from Cohn, who said some people told him this was a "little movie." "There are no little movies or big movies," he repeated twice. Sundance philosophy in a nutshell.
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6/10
Jennifer Anniston and ... Friends
28 February 2006
2006 Sundance Film Festival I don't know if Jennifer Anniston can give a bad performance. Coming off of Friends I never would have guessed it, but she has such charming vulnerability, almost a Mary Tyler Moore or a Meg Ryan for our generation, that every character she portrays I find interesting.

Friends with Money is a study in contradictions. It's a comedy with moments of uncomfortable intensity. It's a social commentary that feels vaguely insightful while flaunting political correctness (the wealthy couple turns out to be the happiest and most well-adjusted). It's an ensemble piece that clearly features Anniston in another successful and intriguing role.

This is a well-respected cast, mainly four couples linked by the friendship of the women, including Joan Cusack, Greg Germann, Catherine Keener, Francis McDormand and Simon McBurney. Cusack departs from her more usual comedic role, leaving the plum scenes to Anniston, who is so deadpan, and so pathetic, that she becomes completely endearing.

There are plenty of reasons to reject this film. It's dialog driven, with barely enough plot to move from scene to scene. It feels like it's written for women, and maybe inaccessible to some men. And we never really get to know the characters well enough, only through intimate introduction to some of their problems.

But if you watch it like a conversation between friends you will likely find something familiar here. Along with the grins, and Jennifer Anniston, that makes Friends with Money worth the trip.
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Quinceañera (2006)
6/10
Everyone Needs an Uncle Tomas
28 February 2006
2006 Sundance Film Festival Quinceanera, for the Hispanically challenged, is a traditional ceremony and celebration of a girl's 15th birthday, her transition from childhood to maturity. In this movie, the event centers on Magdalena, an otherwise role model of a girl and daughter of a part-time preacher who gets pregnant before her 15th birthday, despite her claims to have never had intercourse. To manage the conflict at home, she moves in with her Great Uncle Tomas, who also houses Carlos, her tattooed and tough-guy cousin who is also estranged from his parents, mainly because he is gay.

By all accounts, this movie ought to be panned. The script, while evenly paced, never rings true. Most of the characters are flat. The acting lacks inspiration or enthusiasm. But still, I was moved, because at the heart of the story is the impact of Uncle Tomas, who with the wisdom of the aged is able to look beneath the surface of these two young cousins and see only goodness. He is filled with kindness and compassion, although the movie never let's itself get nearly as schmaltzy or overly sentimental as my description of it.

I suppose this idea of accepting the differences in people—Hispanics, gang-bangers, gays and pregnant teenagers—is tired and hackneyed in its political correctness. But there's something about a glimmer of truth that is warm and enlightening. So, that said, I dug the movie.

Side note from the writer/directors: Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland are gay and live in Los Angeles. Wash is British. And it so happens that two of the main characters in the movie are gay lovers, living in Echo Park in Los Angeles, one of whom is a Brit. So naturally, someone in the Sundance audience asked them if these characters were, you know, autobiographical at all. And naturally, they said no, it was just a coincidence. And I guess I believe them because they had the guts to write these characters as not entirely likable. In fact, if Pat Buchanan had written he script, someone would have accused him of being homophobic. Strange but true.
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6/10
Lucy! You Got Some 'Splaining to Do!
29 January 2006
Warning: Spoilers
2006 Sundance Film Festival Come Early Morning opens with Lucy (Ashley Judd) waking up in the morning at a hotel in bed with a guy whose name she does not know. We soon learn this is normal for her. Lucy lives in a small town in the south, does a fine job helping oversee construction projects, drives an old pick-up truck, shares a small house with a roommate (Laura Prepon, from That 70's Show), dutifully takes care of her aging relatives, is estranged from her father, regularly visits the one bar in town, drinks a lot and gets sloppy drunk and sleeps with strangers.

The plot is a little predictable—Lucy meets a guy and he hopes to help her out of this cycle and that proves to be rough on both of them and the relationship almost falls apart but then just before the credits roll they reconcile and I think everyone lives happily ever after.

Written and directed by Joey Lauren Adams (the memorable Alyssa from Chasing Amy), Come Early Morning is a reflection of her Southern Baptist upbringing and was shot in locations that were personal to her. Ashley Judd is excellent in the film and the supporting cast includes such veteran talents as Tim Blake Nelson, Stacy Keach and Diane Ladd, not to mention another southern boy, Ray McKinnon, who plays a local Holy Roller preacher.

While not a great film, it was a warm, entertaining and well-produced movie that told a genuine story about a complex character caught in an ugly rut. It also has a wonderful soundtrack, although it's not clear how much of that will survive when they have to pay for the rights for national release.

Tidbits from the Sundance Q&A: Joey Lauren Adams was frank and refreshing. She said she did the movie because she wasn't getting any good acting opportunities and realized she needed to do something in her life besides hang out. The bar that's featured in the movie is the same one she goes to when she visits her home town, and one of the houses featured is owned by her grandparents, I think.
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Steel City (2006)
6/10
The Characters Grow on You
28 January 2006
Steel City is one of those low-budget movies that makes for satisfying Sundance fare despite lacking the necessary ingredients for broader box-office success. It's the story of a dysfunctional family in a small town in Illinois, centering around 20-year-old PJ (Tom Guiry), who is trying to hold his life together as his father goes to prison for his role in a fatal car accident. PJ is angry, bitter and confused. He can't hold a job or his temper. He resents his older brother Ben (Clayne Clawford), whose life is also unraveling from alcohol, selfishness and philandering. He's feeling alienated from his mother, who has moved in with a black cop and his son. And he tries desperately to be supportive to his father (John Heard), for reasons that gradually emerge in the movie. Finally he is connected to his Uncle Vic (Raymond J. Barry), who helps him get a job and attempts to mentor him.

All this may sound vaguely familiar, but director Brian Jun manages to develop the characters with honesty and compassion. By the end of the movie each character has worked out his redemption, and in the process created bonds of love and concern within the family.

These Steel City characters feel like real people. The writing is crisp, hard and direct. The casting is terrific and each performance believable. This family will grow on you, and you will find yourself rooting for them to do well, to make good decisions, and to find happiness.
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Fun to Watch, But Misses the Big Picture
27 January 2006
Warning: Spoilers
The audience at the Sundance premiere loved This Film is Not Yet Rated. Of course, director Kirby Dick perfectly played the role of iconoclastic documentarian who is fearlessly stickin' it to the man (in this case, the MPAA). And in fact, the movie was plenty of fun.

Kirby makes frequent use of controversial footage (mostly sex-related) from films, as well as interviews with directors. But the highlight is the work of a private investigator who is tasked to identify the secret panel of reviewers who assign the ratings. The fact that the PI is a rather dowdy, middle-aged lesbian that is accompanied by her partner's teenage daughter is such a departure from the Sam Spade mythology that you're rooting for her from the beginning. This was a genius move on Dick's part! There is also plenty of footage of former MPAA president Jack Valenti, often pontificating in the silver-tongued (and silver-haired) glory he made famous.

I like documentaries, but I'm troubled that audiences are so easily swayed by these typically one-sided arguments designed more to enrage and entertain than to uncover the truth. So in that spirit, let me make a few comments on the MPAA rating system and the movie. Kirby drives home the following points:

1. The ratings board seems to have a greater tolerance for violence than for sex. I can see why filmmakers might feel that way, but honestly, how on earth can you compare the two? Is one decapitation equivalent to the fondling of a breast? I'm just not sure how anyone could successfully argue this claim. Frankly, I see an awful lot of explicit sex and graphic violence in movies.

2. The MPAA is harder on Independent movies than from the studios because it's studio-driven organization. This is probably true, but the documentary gives the flimsiest of evidence to support it. Kevin Smith gives an example from how the MPAA dealt with him on two movies, one indie and one studio, but they were five years apart and may have simply reflected different people, policy changes, etc.

3. The MPAA treats homosexual sex more stringently than heterosexual sex. Uh … yea. And so does network TV, cable, print and the Internet. This is not news. I'm not defending it, but I think it reflects the public's squirm factor.

4. The MPAA reviewers are supposed to be parents of teens or younger, but often their kids were grown. Hmmmm. Who cares? The whole parent thing is a silly PR ploy anyway. These reviewers probably jaywalk as well, and maybe lead with their dessert fork.

5. The fallacy of comparisons. Dick wants a world where a filmmaker can find examples of similar scenes that have been allowed in the past to get their scenes approved. My teenagers have tried to use the same approach to systematically eliminate restrictions. Open that door a crack and the wall comes crashing down.

6. The MPAA doesn't publish its standards, which is unfair to filmmakers. Unfortunately, Kirby never asks why. And there's the rub. The MPAA secrets its standards because they would be highly controversial and the public (as well as Washington) would use it against the industry. Everyone snickers about today's PG'13's being yesterday's R's, but what if it was laid out in black and white? What if the press reported when the MPAA chooses to make a new word acceptable in PG-13's that was previously restricted? This is fuel for those that attempt to censor Hollywood and the result would be exactly the kind of regulation the MPAA has lobbied against for years. The evolution of these standards over time would not suffer scrutiny well. Filmmakers can live in an ideal world, but Jack Valenti knew exactly what he was doing, which was protecting the economic interests of the movie industry.

I could go on. Personally, I think the MPAA ratings system is an abomination. At the same time, I think filmmakers ought to rejoice that an organization run by their own industry is allowed to police itself with secret standards and the worst punishment being not a restriction but rather an ill-defined ratings label. The industry should come not to bury Jack Valenti, but to praise him.
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4/10
Comedy Not Fit to Survive
27 January 2006
This was a movie I was really looking forward to at Sundance. We're all familiar with the Darwin Awards, a website started by Stanford molecular biologist Wendy Northcutt to humorously recognize extremely stupid acts that lead to self-inflicted, accidental death. Northcutt's notion is that the human gene pool improves when these tragi-comic figures, who are presumably plagued by genetic stupidity, are removed from the population. Hence the Darwin Awards (www.darwinawards.com).

It sounds like a terrific premise for an outrageous comedy and like the rest of the audience I was licking my chops. Unfortunately, this movie was about as funny as Origin of the Species. Director Finn Taylor has made a couple of refreshingly oddball films (Dreams with the Fishes, Cherish) but The Darwin Awards fails on almost every level.

The concept was probably doomed from the outset by the decision to incorporate a bunch of award-winning events into a linear storyline, including madcap crime investigations and a little love interest. Casting Joseph Fiennes and Wynona Ryder as the leads was the second mistake, as neither of them was right for their parts (and despite their efforts, came off very flat). Follow that with writing that is simply not very clever and you have a disappointing movie.

The vignettes do include some great casting choices, including Chris Penn, Tim Blake Nelson, David Arquette and Metallica. But unfortunately, they are lost in the woeful script, and give us only the occasional funny moment.

As many have heard, actor Chris Penn was found dead at his Santa Monica home the day of the Sundance premiere. Finn Taylor had some nice words to say about Chris prior to the screening. And afterwards Winona Ryder, who had known Chris for 15 years, spoke at length about him. "He wasn't just Sean's younger brother," she said. It was a genuinely nice tribute.
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6/10
What If?
27 January 2006
The 9-11 experience has given new relevancy to movies about terrorist attacks. In Right at Your Door, writer and first-time director Chris Gorak shows the impact of a sudden attack in Los Angeles. Similar to Spielberg's War of the Worlds, Gorak chooses to focus exclusively on the impact of the events on one couple—Lexi, a professional woman who works downtown (Mary McCormack) and her husband Brad (Rory Cochrane), an out-of-work musician.

Right at Your Door adeptly explores the human implications of a scenario that seems all too plausible in today's world. At the onset of the attack there is fear, panic, despair, disorientation and poor judgment. However, as the reality of the situation settles in, a survival instinct emerges, a certain calculating rationality. And finally, Brad and Lexi must face the many moral conflicts that can plague us in times of limited resources, dangerous conditions and life and death decisions. Layered on all of this are further apprehensions and uncertainties that must be dissected: Who can you trust? What does the government know? Whose advice do you listen to? What do we tell our friends and family? It is these issues that make viewing Right at Your Door a powerful and troubling experience. We see a little bit of ourselves in these characters, and it is easy to wonder how we would react in the face of these tragic circumstances. This movie will come back to you in moments of quiet contemplation.

Gorak has made a very good movie, especially given his very limited budget and complete lack of directing experience (he been a production assistant on another movie, but has never directed anything before). I particularly like his decision not to provide any information about where the attacks came from. It's probably not all that realistic, as surely the media would be engage in non-stop speculation, but it served to focus the emotions on those things that really mattered to the characters.

Interesting tidbit from the Sundance Q&A: Some of the scenes of smoke rising over the skyline used actual footage from the bombing in Iraq.
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