Directorial Debuts: Part III (1960’s)

Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Bernardo Bertolucci, Sydney Pollack, Francis Ford Coppola, Norman Jewison, Brian De Palma, Werner Herzog…just a small handful of the legendary directors who made their screen debuts in the decade of turbulence — the 1960’s. Talents like this went on to helm some of the finest films of the 70’s, 80’s and even today. But did their first films make a dynamic splash in the cinematic waters? After posting my Top 5 directorial debuts of the 2000’s and the 1970’s, here are my Top 5 Directorial Debuts from the 1960’s. Of course, this is not a list of the best directors to come out of the decade…this list is based on the filmmakers’ very first films and the impact they had on the world of movies. Take a look — and let me know who you would put on the list!

5. Pier Paolo Pasolini (Accattone, 1961)

A feel good film, this ain’t — but it remains a startling debut from one of Italy’s finest directors.  A sort of second-wave of neorealism filmmaking, Pasolini’s focus here (as in almost all his works) is on peasant culture and the people who inhabit that world. As he always did, Pasolini hired non-actors from the area to play the roles, giving the film a genuine look and feel. Accattone (meaning “beggar”) revolves around a pimp who loses his income when his main prostitute is roughed up by rivals. Vittorio (Franco Citti) discovers a new girl and slowly lures her into her seedy new profession. The movie is beautifully shot and filled with such fascinating faces to examine. An ugly and unsettling experience, but poetic and a sure work of art. Controversial from the start, Pasolini would go on to explore the very real and very poor side of Italy’s streets in works such as the powerful Mamma Roma, Medea, and Salo.

4. Mel Brooks (The Producers, 1968)

I’m not really much of a Mel Brooks fan at all, but I do love this movie. Before it became a Broadway mega-hit years later, this wonderfully funny film went on to win Brooks an Oscar for Original Screenplay. Zero Mostel is pitch-perfect as Max Bialystock, the aging producer who woos older rich women for investment money and bullies poor Leo Bloom (Gene Wilder), a feeble accountant, to try and produce the biggest flop the Broadway stage has ever seen. What’s the project? Only a love letter to Hitler, featuring the now infamous song “Springtime for Hitler.” After selling 25,000 percent of the play to investors, hiring the world’s worst stage director, and casting a bunch of misfits, Bialystock’s plan ultimately backfires and the musical is a smash. A delightful comedy classic and an impressive debut, to say the least. I may not appreciate his movies as others do, but Brooks went on to direct some classic comedic films such as  Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles, and yes, Spaceballs.

3. George A. Romero (Night of the Living Dead, 1968)

The Godfather of all zombie movies and one of the most influential horror films ever made — Romero’s debut has since spawned five sequels and two remakes…but none would come close to this stunning debut.  Made on a shoestring budget (which adds to the crude and eerie feel on screen), Romero’s classic created prototype for other zombie films to follow, featuring the rural setting, young outsiders in a small group, and the political statements made in the form of allegory. The movie clearly critiques American society at the time, but it also creeps the fuck out of you. With this debut, Romero was able to define an entire genre of film — not the horror film per se, but the subgenre falling beneath it. 40+ years later, it is still gruesome, still terrifying, and still smart movie-making.

2. Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, 1969)

The quintessential biker flick, Easy Rider became a huge box-office success and quickly became famous for representing the 1960’s counterculture generation. Because of its enormous success, it also sparked a new wave of filmmaking that would lead well into the 1970’s. Hopper’s love letter to hippies was shot with barely any script at all, with most of the dialogue being ad-libbed.  The film follows bikers Wyatt (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Hopper) as they travel America’s South trying to make it to New Orleans in time for Mardi Gras. Characters are met along the way – most who look down on the long-haired bikers. When thrown in jail for parading without a permit, they are helped out by a local attorney (Jack Nicholson), who decides to join in their travels. The film marked the “coming out” for Nicholson who received an Oscar nom. The soundtrack here is filled with staples of some great 1960’s rock and folk artists including The Band and The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Hopper’s statement on America during that time — certainly a bleak and demoralizing one — is made all too clear. He would later direct Colors, which was a very good film and a handful of others — not so good. But this, his first film, goes down in history as helping to define a generation. A brave and sincere work.

1. Roman Polanski (Knife in the Water, 1962)

One of cinema’s most accomplished directors made a most extraordinary debut with this Polish drama consisting of only three actors. A young husband and wife drive to a lake so they can spend the day leisurely sailing together. On the way, they almost hit a young man — who is then invited to hop in and later, is even asked to join them on the boat. Not a great idea.  But really, when is a hitchhiker ever a good thing? Power struggles and sexual tension between the trip ensue and Polanski gets to play with some themes that he will examine in later films in more detail. This is a remarkably intense film and no surprise that the newbie director would go on to make some of the very best films over the course of the next 40+ years, including Repulsion, Macbeth, The Pianist, Chinatown, and Rosemary’s Baby. Looking at the entire decade, this choice was a no-brainer for me — and if you’re a film buff who hasn’t yet seen it, this is a must-see.

NEXT UP: ‘DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS PART IV’ will give us the Top 10 best debuts from the 1980’s and 90’s.

Click HERE to read DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS: PART I (2000’s)
Click HERE to read DIRECTORIAL DEBUTS: PART II (1970’s)

New ‘Great Gatsby’ Trailer: Looks Terrible!

Rather than waste my time by writing some fancy build-up to what the premise of this post is, I will just come right out and say it…this trailer sucks. I speak as an enthusiastic devotee of the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald novel and a fan of Jack Clayton’s 1974 screen version starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. The novel has always been one of my all-time favorites. Jay Gatsby always struck me as a remarkable tragic hero and perhaps no book epitomizes the decadence of the Roaring 20’s better than The Great Gatsby. The earlier film version (adapted for the screen by Francis Ford Coppola) captured this quite well – the jazz, the costumes (Theoni V. Aldredge won an Oscar for them), the décor…the decaying morals seep through the screen as we look on Nick Carraway and his friends in 1922 New York and the beauty and grandeur of Long Island’s North Shore.

So is it time to re-tool and reinvent this classic story? Perhaps. It was remade in 2000, but that was for television (and not so great). Is it a good idea to bring this magnificent story to a younger audience who are reading the SparkNotes to pass their 11th grade tests? For sure. But is Baz Luhrmann (Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge) the right man to helm this project? Going by the trailer just released by Warner Brothers, I remain extremely skeptical and yes, very worried.

I am sure that the production design – the costumes, art direction, and such will be impeccable. Luhrmann’s films always have a grand and majestic look about them. Vulnerable and wide-eyed, Tobey Maguire looks like the right fit to play our humble narrator and protagonist, Nick Carraway. Joel Edgarton is a terrific acting force and I am sure, as Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan, he will be dynamic once again. Carey Mulligan, while no beauty (as the character should be), is a tremendous talent, and I am sure will pull off the flighty Daisy just fine. My problem here is the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio in the iconic role of Jay Gatsby. I’m not a DiCaprio hater at all…in fact I think he’s a pretty strong actor. But here? As Gatsby? I’m sorry…but no. Redford owned the screen when he played him. He was perfect for the part — dashing, soft-spoken, with just enough danger thrown in. Leo to me looks too juvenile and not yet ready to step in these shoes. If Gatsby had a son, he’d be great for it. But that isn’t the case here.

My other problems with this hideous trailer? Well, what is with the freaking music? For a novel that is a symbol for 1920’s high-life, are we really playing Kanye West and Jay-Z?! It looks like it will be a movie that will so obviously pander to a younger audience, rather than do justice to Fitzgerald’s monumental work. Guy Ritchie mauled and mangled the brilliant fiction of Sherlock Holmes so as to appeal to a young crowd. Did it work? Well, the films hit box office gold and I suppose when all is said and done, that’s the bottom line in Hollywood. But as a film, I found the first movie to be so insulting and appalling that I never bothered seeing the second. That is what I am afraid of here — Luhrmann making that same mistake.

The “look” of the film seems very impressive indeed. My gut feeling however is that we will be watching a lot of glitz and a lot of style – with very little substance. My expectations are low indeed. Give it a look right here – what do you think about it?

“Frozen Ground”: First Look Into Serial Killer Pic

Here’s one movie I now have on my radar. Scheduled for release in December of this year, Scott Walker makes his debut as writer and director of the serial killer thriller Frozen Ground. The film stars Nicolas Cage, Vanessa Hudgens, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson (who also serves as co-producer), and — most exciting, John Cusack, playing the serial killer Robert Hansen. I’m not at all a fan of Cage’s numerous action movies — but I don’t think this project will resemble any of those works at all. When Cage wants to, he has the ability to be pretty damn good in some great movies (Matchstick Men, Adaptation, Bringing out the Dead).

Based on real-life events, Frozen Ground follows the 1980’s Alaskan investigation of serial killer Robert Hansen, who stalked or killed between 17 and 21 young women. Cage plays an Alaskan detective who tries to bring down Hansen (Cusack) and finally gets his opportunity after a 17-year old (Hudgens) escapes from the killer and provides key information. Jackson has a supporting role as a pimp. But how wonderful is it that Cusack signed on to play this kind of role?

I think Cusack — who made his screen debut almost 30 years ago — is one of our most underrated actors working today. We usually associate him with being “the nice guy,” the romantic, the likable hero. But his resume suggests that he is much more than that and has played a wide variety of roles and character types. I admire the change of pace and like seeing him take on “the dark” — so it goes without saying that I personally cannot wait to see what he does playing a serial killer. Here, his character kidnaps women only to take them out in the vast Alaskan wilderness to set them free — and hunt them! Are there no deer in Alaska?! Just take a look at the production photo…he looks so creepy!

The photos seen here are first-look photos released by Voltage Pictures, the company that released Killer Joe, The Hurt Locker, and last year’s The Whistleblower. No trailer just yet, but I can’t wait to check it out. I hope it turns out to be an edgy and smart thriller for Walker and crew — and not simply a cliche-ridden story of the rogue detective who makes a singular case of his turn very personal. For now, I remain excited.

A Dreadful Lot of 2012 Films — So Far

It is May already…can you believe it? Four months of 2012 have passed us by and I ask you – what has Hollywood given us in the way of quality entertainment in that time? I look at the Top 20 grossing films of the year so far (always using the Box Office Mojo website for reference — thank you Box Office Mojo!!!), and I see one…yes only one movie that I wanted to actually go out of my way and see in the theater – the #1 grossing film so far, The Hunger Games. Everything else? Either a definite wait-for-DVD (Safe House, Chronicle) or nothing that gets me in the least bit excited. Of course, I have seen a small handful of independent films and documentaries, but those are few and far between and don’t even sniff the Top 20 top-grossing films of the year.

Underworld Awakening, Think Like A Man, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, The Vow? These are my options?! The very few times I have actually gone to the movies this year came early on when I was still catching up on films from the previous year. I look at the films released so far in 2012 and it’s no wonder I have seen so little – The Three Stooges, Joyful Noise, another friggin’ Ghost Rider flick? And I’m not a big summer blockbuster movie fan to begin with, so the immediate future doesn’t look so bright for me either. The Avengers? Meh, I’ll go see it – but I am not expecting much at all and I am not quivering in my boots with heightened expectations.

I understand that the early months of each year bring us the leftovers and duds, as the awards season is in full swing. But this year strikes me as unusually pitiful and insipid. My big choices this month? Battleship, MIB3, What to Expect When You’re Expecting??? Looks like I’ll be spending more and more of my time watching the NHL playoffs and baseball – and getting some new books to read. Got some recommendations?

Defending “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”

There is a moment one hour and forty-three minutes into Stephen Daldry’s film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close that I think turned many people off – critics and the public alike — to this well-intentioned, thoughtful, and engaging film. Young Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn) is playing the six voicemail messages his loving father (Tom Hanks) left for his family while trapped inside the World Trade Center on the tragic morning of September 11, 2001. Oskar has kept these messages for himself and hides them in his bedroom closet. It is all that he has left from what he calls “The worst day.” He plays Message #6. We hear the muffled and inhibited voice of Mr. Hanks repeat the question, “Are you there?” “Are you there?” The message then, abruptly cuts off. The camera, tight on Oskar, then immediately pans to a television showing the North Tower implode and fall to the ground. It is a heart-wrenching moment – and an image that has stuck with me since seeing the “Best Picture” nominee. And I’m sure exactly what Mr. Daldry’s intentions were for this carefully choreographed scene.

I know many resented and were outraged by the fact that “Extremely Loud” was even nominated for the top Oscar prize. I’m not exactly sure why. I personally did not place the film in my own Top 10 of the year, but I did it give a strong 3-star rating. Did people feel that the movie manipulated our feelings? My answer to that is, “Well, doesn’t every film do just that?” I have heard from others that they felt that the novel by the very talented author Jonathan Safran Foer (which is the source material that the movie is based on) took a very tragic event and simply “cashed in” on the misery of others. I could not disagree more. I read the book. I enjoyed it very much. To me, it was just one small (and at times, magical) story to stem from one horrific event that affected thousands…millions of people in many ways. I don’t think Foer was trying to capitalize on anything and, in reading the novel, I never felt that the author was being disrespectful in any way.

My question is — Are people so touchy about 9/11 that any piece of art that is inspired by it (songs, books, photography, film, poetry, etc.) is frowned upon with utter contempt? I know numerous television specials and documentaries that have been aired about that fateful morning. I walk through Barnes and Noble and see dozens upon dozens of books on the subject. Are all of these authors just greedy and trying to exploit the feelings and lives of others who have suffered? I choose not to think that. In the same manner, I choose not to think that the U.K.-born Daldry – and everyone involved with the making of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close were taking advantage of America’s misfortunes. It’s a simple father-and-son story…gentle and unique and poignant. Everyone gets so outraged so easily and we’re all so politically correct…honestly, it’s quite nauseating. Perhaps Foer wrote this as his own homage to those affected by 9/11 and his intentions here were nothing but genuine. I choose to think that. I also choose to believe that Mr. Daldry sought to create a film that would move everyone who saw it in a positive and inspiring way. For those who are offended by the movie, I would simply say that there are so many other things in this world to be offended by….this movie is should be the least of your worries.

Soderbergh: Retiring from Movies?!

I just read on The Huffington Post yesterday that director Steven Soderbergh is seriously contemplating retiring from Hollywood to become a painter. The first thing that came to mind was (sadly) Brett Favre and all of the other famous athletes who have proclaimed a hasty “retirement” only to come back to their sacred ground before the new season even begins. So my feeling here is that although I’m sure Mr. Soderbergh is genuine in his feelings for wanting to explore new artistic ground, I’m sure that in due time the lure of money and familiarity of making movies will suck him back in. And this, for most movie buffs, is a good thing.

I vividly remember seeing Soderbergh’s feature-length debut Sex, Lies, and Videotape 22 years ago (Jeez, has it been that long?!). To this day, I think this is one of the strongest debuts of any director to come out in the last 50 years and remains one of his strongest efforts. To his credit, Soderbergh is one of the few filmmakers who dare to explore new ground and take artistic risks with new experiments. They may not all work or make for great movies (see Full Frontal or The Girlfriend Experience), but you tip your cap to a man seeking to push the boundaries and test new concepts. His style has a unique vision and “look” to it – the lighting in his films and use of color always stand out and immediately tells you that you are watching a Soderbergh film. Since Sex, Lies, and Videotape, the Oscar-winner has made some of the strongest films over the past two decades, including (the often-overlooked) Out of Sight, King of the Hill, Traffic, and Erin Brockovich – all mostly coming in his earlier years. The last decade – which includes the insulting Ocean’s Twelve and his poorly received Che – has not been nearly as impressive. I enjoyed Ocean’s Eleven thoroughly. It is a stylish, well-made film, but also a helluva lot of fun too with a terrific all-star cast. It wasn’t until the subsequent two sequels that I felt he perhaps “sold out” just a bit, and this is a shame because he still is one of America’s finest directors.

But I digress. Announcing your retirement from Hollywood? Is this not a wee bit dramatic? David Lynch manages to balance a number of artistic mediums. He makes a film every few years (and the rarity of it makes a new release of his seem more like an event), while still dedicating himself to his other artistic outlets such as painting, photography, and music. Lynch is a true artist – and can never be accused of being a sell-out by anyone. With three films currently in pre-production and his movie Contagion set for release, it will be interesting to see how Soderbergh segues into his new endeavor, if he does at all. The trailer for Contagion (see below) is very intriguing and personally, I can’t wait to see it. It has the look of being his best in years, but I won’t get ahead of myself.

I hope that Soderbergh proves to be more Michael Jordan (or Joaquin Phoenix, if you will) and less Barry Sanders when it comes to the act of retiring — because it would be a shame not to have his films to look forward to. I have a feeling this is all much ado about nothing — and coincidentally garnering much publicity at the very time his new film is set to be released. For fans of the director, I wouldn’t let this get to you and I wouldn’t be overly distressed. He’ll be back – -just cross your fingers that it isn’t for an Ocean’s 14.

On the Radar: George Clooney in ‘The Descendants’

Summer movie season is my least favorite time to go to the theater. The only good thing about it is when the summer starts to fade out and the excitement of the new Fall releases begins to percolate. These are usually the movies I want to see and this year looks no different. One film that I am especially excited about is The Descendants – and if you watch the trailer below, you’ll have a good idea as to why that is. First off, it is the first feature-length film written and directed by Alexander Payne since the amazing Sideways (2004), a film I thought belonged in the Top 10 movies of the decade. His short film, “14e Arrondissement” was, in my opinion, the very best to be included in Paris Je T-Aime. And now The Descendants, which looks like it has award nominations written all over it.

The movie looks like a tremendous vehicle for George Clooney. I have always liked Clooney, but have always felt that he fits ‘too easily’ in the roles that he takes on – even in those roles in which he has garnered much critical praise from. I am always thinking that, although quite convincing, he could have played these roles (Up in the Air, Three Kings, Out of Sight) in his sleep. From the looks of it, Matt King, the character he plays in The Descendants, gets him out of his comfort zone just a bit – and we, the audience, can perhaps have greater empathy for him this time around. Here, Clooney is trying to re-connect with his adolescent daughters after his wife suffers a terrible accident and falls into a coma. We can see that his relationship with his girls is strenuous at best – and when one of them breaks the news to him that their mom was having an affair, it shatters his world.

I can’t wait for the release of this movie. It looks like the typical grand fare that we have come to expect from Payne (Election and About Schmidt) – a wonderful blend of the tragic and lighthearted; heartbreaking and quite funny – with a pitch-perfect script and wonderfully sculpted characters to surround Clooney. I’m sure the Fall movies will bring with it much competition for Payne’s latest work – but for right now, I am eager to see what this movie brings.

Another Needless Reboot? Oh Joy…

I know I’m a little late to the party on this one, but can someone please tell me what is the point of rebooting the Spiderman franchise? I know there can only be one answer, which is money (probably tons of it, which is sad in itself), but if you can give me a better explanation, I’d love to hear it. I thought Sam Raimi‘s first two Spidey films were pretty darn excellent — never mind the third one, which was an absolute disgrace. I understand they were making a fourth and that was cancelled. Now comes The Amazing Spider-Man, scheduled for release in the summer of 2012. I know I have asked this many times before on this very website, but…is Hollywood really that desperate and so lacking in the original scripts department? If so, I have a couple of treatments sitting right on my desk.

I can understand why Marc Webb would sign on to direct this. He was behind the wonderful (500) Days of Summer and a project like Spiderman could potentially put him on the Hollywood A-List for blockbuster films. I get that. Andrew Gardfield is a wonderful actor – I have enjoyed his work thus far and yes, he actually fits the part of Peter Parker quite well. They’ve also made sure to sign on a number of other very gifted Thespians to join in, including Martin Sheen, Campbell Scott, Sally Field, Denis Leary, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, and Julianne Nicholson (who I absolutely adore). Pretty nice cast. The trailer? It looks equally impressive — and if there were not three very recent Spiderman films, I would be super excited to see this.

My problem? Other than a few tweaks here and there…a new character introduced here, a different subplot there – what is point of all of this? I remember back in 2006 when I was duped into seeing Superman Returns with Brandon Routh and Kevin Spacey. It looked new. It looked nice. But I walked out asking, “What was the friggin’ point?!” It didn’t vary very much at all from the original 1978 film and quite frankly, wasn’t nearly as good. In essence, it was the same story of Clark Kent from beginning to end – just snazzier looking. I will not be duped again in July 2012.

In the end, it’s about the money. I understand that and I can appreciate the business that is Hollywood. But that doesn’t mean I have to fall for the trick. Each of us has the right to purchase a ticket to see a concert, a sporting event, a theatrical piece, and yes, a movie. We also have the right to stay away and not buy a ticket…to stand up and make the statement that we will not go to the multiplex to see anything you put on our plate. As an audience, we should be smarter than that and demand more. The upcoming Spiderman film bothers me. It is telling me that Hollywood execs think so low of us that we will buy  re-tread after re-tread. What bothers me even more — is that much of America probably will.

Remembering Amy Winehouse: by William Buhagiar

I can still remember, quite vividly, the first time I heard “Rehab” playing on the radio. For an hour or so after, I refused to allow it to vacate my memory. It stuck with me. Amidst all the generic, repetitive and ultra-manufactured pop music that tried so desperately to project nauseatingly boring bubble-gum perfection, here was a singer that so honestly, brutally, and beautifully sang of her flaws. It was a clever, catchy, wise-ass melody that was undoubtedly the most distinct tune I’ve ever heard on mainstream radio. Aside from being impressed with the lyrics, I can remember thinking: “My God, whose voice is that?”

For the following month or so, “Rehab” stayed amongst the Top 40 radio songs and I found myself constantly singing the chorus without noticing just how frequently I was doing it. Eventually I managed to catch the music video for “You Know I’m No Good,” and glimpsed the harbor for that divine, magnificent voice for the very first time. A comically enormous black beehive, frail arms covered in ink, long fingernails clicking along the rim of a glass of iced whiskey – it was Amy Winehouse, and anything but what I imagined her to be. Immediately, my level of intrigue skyrocketed. If “Rehab” ignited in me an insatiable level of curiosity, it was nothing compared to the effect “You Know I’m No Good” had. I was now familiar with only two songs from this sultry songstress, the first being a defiant anthem of her refusal to quit drinking get help and enter rehabilitation, and the second being a wildly unfiltered confession of her infidelity.

Soon she was on the cover of Rolling Stone and Spin, among others, accompanied by the subtitles “The Diva & Her Demons” and “The Dangerous New Queen of Soul,” respectively. And even though at the time I was only a fan of two songs of hers, I was nonetheless thrilled when she won five Grammy awards after her performance on February 10th, 2008 – at least somebody unique was getting praised for it.

A few months later, I was advised by a friend to listen to her first album, Frank, released in England in 2004. After hearing one song from the record, “You Sent Me Flying,” I needed no further convincing. The song was yet another brazenly honest re-telling of an incident that occurred during a crumbling relationship, with the lyrics: “And although my pride’s not easily disturbed, you sent me flying when you kicked me to the curb.” Immediately, I rushed home and hungrily downloaded every available Amy Winehouse song I could get my hands on, and instantly became passionately obsessed. Her gritty and modern lyrics were paired with classical, old-fashioned jazz instrumentals, essentially creating a musical dichotomy. The music sounded as if it was created decades earlier, but the songs would begin with “He left no time to regret, kept his dick wet with his same old, safe bet…” and “What kind of fuckery is this?” It was without a doubt the most unique ensemble of songs I had ever discovered, and I fell deeply in love with this no-bullshit, bad-ass British diva with the voice of an angel and the mouth of a truck driver who refused to make excuses for herself.

It began to irritate me that this remarkable talent was ferociously overshadowed by her well-publicized battles with drugs and alcohol, and every time I Googled her (which was a mandatory, daily ritual) I would always seem to be reading the most unflattering material. Because of how devoted I was to her music, it really was very easy for me to overlook it, and I convinced myself that it was simply tabloid fodder; that she would soon come out on top and promptly announce the release of a third album or impending tour dates. Whenever I would bring her up in conversation, I would constantly have to sift through the dismissals of her being a casualty of addiction to get to the reasons why I adored her: her music. Unfortunately, I still have to do this.

My adoration remained steadfast, and I hunted feverishly for more of her music. I scaled the most obscure corners of the internet and found underground, unreleased original songs, b-sides, covers and studio sessions – anything to hear more of that voice I came to worship. Her unreleased material was equally as satisfying as her albums. I found myself falling in love with not just her music, but the jazz, soul and R&B genre as a whole; in fact, many artists I regularly listen to now are the product of my interest in Amy Winehouse. I memorized her entire discography – each of her songs, an eloquent expression of her turmoil, all of them blazingly honest, and I couldn’t help but be captivated by the painful and undeniably beautiful humanity presented in all of her gorgeous melodies. Some of them were witty and very funny, such as “Addicted,” a jazzy tune all about her annoyance at a friend’s man smoking all of her weed; others were downtrodden and defeated, such as “Back to Black,” in which her grief is so severe she croons she “died a hundred times.” The Los Angeles Times very accurately labeled her “The Beautiful Voice of Despair.” Amy Winehouse had on me that bold, profound effect musicians have on every person who connects with their music, the connection that inspires the listener to think: “I get it.” I cannot think of a higher compliment to pay an artist, especially the artist who so magnetically utilized the word “fuckery.” Two years ago, in July of 2009, I decided to make my fanatical love for Amy Winehouse a permanent fixture, getting a caricature-like portrait of her tattooed on my left arm.

One week ago, while at work, I received 22 text messages and 8 missed calls within fifteen minutes – each either informing me of her death or curious as to how I was coping with it. I’m well aware of how perfectly ridiculous it seems to be bereaved to this level of extremity over somebody I’ve never met before, but I cannot stress how genuine it is. I remember the televised grief of Michael Jackson’s fans after his passing and my complete lack of empathy towards them, certain that I was incapable of mourning a stranger to that degree. The loss of Amy Winehouse is my first acquaintance with the death of a beloved artist; I will never see her in concert, and I will never get the chance to meet her and show her that her work profoundly impacted me so much that the only reasonable way of expressing it was permanently inking her into my arm. She joins Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Brian Jones, Kurt Cobain and Jim Morrison in “The 27 Club,” as she, like all of them, passed away at the age of 27. The only positive factor I can seem to apply to this is that she will always be remembered as a musical legend, as she deserves to be.

Amy Winehouse, to me, was never first and foremost an addict, an alcoholic, or the self-destructive nut-job the tabloids so frequently illustrated her as. She was a breathtaking talent, a musical genius, the most unique artist in years – a girl from the suburbs of London gifted with a voice that was blissful beyond comprehension. Unfortunately, she had her demons – but it was her demons that made her Amy Winehouse, and it was her demons that she embedded into her songs and so aptly translated into musical beauty.

It’s been reported that a dozen or so new and unreleased material has been discovered since her passing, one of which will be used for the next “James Bond” film. I pray that I will be hearing these new tracks soon, as I have been patiently waiting for new Amy Winehouse songs for years. Many fellow musicians and celebrities have also expressed their sadness over the loss of such an incredible talent; some, such as Adele and Lady Gaga, thanking her and crediting her with being a musical pioneer, paving the way and making it easier for the more unconventional artist to establish a career. Her groundbreaking, phenomenal second album, Back to Black, is now #1 on iTunes and has sold hundreds of thousands of copies since her tragic passing. I can only hope that now her music will be properly appreciated and her struggles with drugs and alcohol no longer the dominant aspect of her persona.

Of course, I never did get the privilege of meeting her, but judging by the copious amounts of interviews and footage I have seen, she was a charming, witty and hilarious woman. Backstage after one of her performances, a reporter asked her: “What did you think of your performance this evening?” to which she quickly replied, “It was a piece of shit. You look fit, though.” and walked away. During another interview, when asked if she considered herself a sex symbol, she instantly replied, “Only to gays.” Amy made no excuses for herself, never once tried to fit the mold of a proper pop artist, and always maintained a no-bullshit philosophy I cannot help but deeply admire and respect.

Since her death, naturally I’ve been replaying her songs constantly. If possible, my devotion to the soulful jazz singer has only increased. I’ll no longer enter her name in the Google search bar, hoping for news of an album release or tour dates. My worst fears regarding Amy Winehouse have been realized and she passed away at much too young an age. Now, my only hope for her is that wherever she is, she is still singing, and she is still maintaining that charismatic sense of making no excuses and tolerating no bullshit…or, as she so eloquently sang it: fuckery.

~~ by contributing writer, William Buhagiar

Rent It or Skip It? 5 Flicks on DVD!

I do love the summertime, but I can’t stand summertime movie-going. With all of the inane sequels and remakes, on top of the annual big blockbuster “action” flicks being released, there are so few films playing in theaters that I actually want to go out and see. My solution? I am stuck at home renting more films than usual and staying away from wasting my money at the multiplex on schlock like The Green Lantern, Captain America, and yes…The Smurfs. So I thought I would do another quick recap of what I’ve been watching and letting you know whether you should RENT IT! or SKIP IT! These are not film reviews – just very brief thoughts on some of the movies you may have missed in theaters that I’ve been playing on the ‘ol DVD.

Miral (dir. Julian Schnabel)

Surely, one of the year’s very best so far and Schnabel continues to prove what a visionary he truly is. Other than David Lynch, Schnabel is the only other director I can think of who directs a film as if it were a painting on a canvas, with each shot just as visually striking as the next. Based on a true story (and on Rula Jebreal’s autobiographical book), Miral begins in Jerusalem in 1948 during the Arab-Israeli War, when Hind Hussein (a wonderful Hiam Abbass) comes across a number of children left orphaned in the street due to a bombing. She takes them in. Within months, her Dar Al-Tifel Institute was helping to educate thousands of children who otherwise would have been left for dead. Young Miral (Freida Pinto) is brought to the Institute in 1978 and most of the movie follows her growing up and trying to balance the love she has for Mother Hind and her father — and fighting for the love of her country she sees suffering at the hands of the Israeli army. Yes, this is a political film, but Schnabel really doesn’t show any bias towards the Israelis or the Palestines. In fact, he received cooperation from both countries before shooting. I held off watching this for a while, but Miral is a moving, inspiring, and  gorgeously photographed film. The musical score shines, the performances are strong, the direction is sublime, and the story is nothing short of moving.
VERDICT: RENT IT!

Peep World (dir. Barry W. Blaustein)

This one is a nice, small indie comedy written by Peter Himmelstein and features a nice ensemble cast. A dysfunctional family is getting ready to celebrate their wealthy father’s (Ron Rifkin, perfectly cast) 70th birthday. Tensions are at their peak since the youngest son Nathan (a spoiled and uncouth Ben Schwartz) has written a tell-all book exposing the family’s dark secrets. The book is an amazing success and even being made into a motion picture. His three siblings, of course, are not at all pleased – and it all comes to a head at daddy’s birthday dinner. Rifkin is terrific in his pomposity. Rainn Wilson, Michael C. Hall (TV’s Dexter), and Sarah Silverman play Nathan’s siblings. The very funny Lewis Black narrates the story. I thought the film was funny at times, and it kept me engaged. As the family’s dark sheep, Wilson turns in a restrained and moving performance. There is a moment near the end of the film where he opens up to Nathan and it is a very touching scene. In the end, I just felt that with the intriguing premise and impressive cast assembled, that the film didn’t go far enough – it could have dug much deeper and done much more. Despite this, I would recommend it – the script is crisp and quirky and the cast is fun to watch.
VERDICT: RENT IT!

Sucker Punch (dir. Zack Snyder)

After Snyder’s Watchmen, I was super excited to see this one. I know most don’t agree with me, but I thought Watchmen was one of the Top 10 films of 2009 and one of the best superhero flicks (if not the most unique) I have ever seen. The trailer to Sucker Punch looked equally as stimulating – especially how visually arresting it is. But alas, Snyder’s latest effort is shockingly, well…a bore. Yes, all of the visual aspects are captivating. But aside from watching all of the eye candy here, there is very little as far as story goes and the plot gets a bit repetitious after some time. Young “Babydoll” (a sexy, doe-eyed Emily Browning) is committed to an asylum for the mentally insane by her sexually abusive stepfather. She becomes the ringleader to a pack of beauties who are being mistreated at the institution — and, following her lead, they plan their massive escape to freedom. Throughout, the film alternates between the real world and the fantasy world that Babydoll slips into. The movie plays out like you’re watching a 100-minute video game and poor Scott Glenn…what the hell was he thinking signing up to be a part of this mess? As many have suggested, I didn’t find the film to be misogynistic. If anything, I do believe that Snyder is on the side of the ladies and has attempted to showcase the empowerment of women over their oppressive male counterparts, but really…20 minutes into this, I just didn’t care. Here is hoping to a much better effort from Mr. Snyder the next time around!
VERDICT: SKIP IT!

Insidious (dir. James Wan)

I don’t believe that a horror film needs a significant amount of violence or gore to be scary. Hell, some of the scariest films are ones that don’t show the viewer anything at all, but give the viewer the expectation of what might creep up from behind the curtains. But Insidious really didn’t scare me at all. Perhaps the PG-13 rating hurt it a bit and kept the filmmakers somewhat restrained, but this film really fell a bit flat to me. The first half is actually pretty good and sets us up quite nicely. Renai and Josh (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) have just moved into their new home with their three young children. Young Dalton has took a fall in the attic after seeing something (offscreen) that scares him half to death. The next morning, dad cannot wake him up as he has fallen into a coma that baffles everyone. Weird things take place in the new home and Renai convinces Josh to pick up and move again – but the strange supernatural events take place there too. It turns out, that the house is not haunted at all…it is their son. The second half of the movie falls short and does not live up to the lofty expectations that the first portion sets up for us. Lin Shaye is exceptionally good here as the older woman who works in paranormal activities and comes in to help the couple and their child. Patrick Wilson is a terrific actor, but isn’t given all that much to do here. Insidious is like taking a ride on the kiddie roller coaster at the amusement park instead of stepping into the daunting one where the delightful screams can be heard in the distance. It has its small thrills and is adequate for the faint of heart, but leaves you wanting much more.
VERDICT: SKIP IT!

I Saw the Devil (dir. Kim Jee-Woon)

What Insidious fails to do, this flick does in spades – it scares the crap out of you! I can’t believe how much I enjoyed this – and how impressed I was in the visual aspects of this film. Kim and cinematographer Lee Mo-gae make this grisly and gory film so engaging and so beautiful to watch from the opening scene to its final credits. And do not fool yourself either – this is one of the more disturbing films you will see, with enough graphic violence to please the most hungry horror buff. But it’s not really a horror flick…more of a revenge thriller – with elements of horror thrown in. It opens on a chilly winter’s night and pretty Joo-yun (Oh San-ha) is stuck with a flat tire. The psychotic Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) pulls up in a small children’s bus and offers to help. He kidnaps her and brutally murders the poor girl, chopping her up in pieces. Her fiancée, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun) is an agent on the police force and of course, he wants his revenge. The rest of the movie is a brilliant cat-and-mouse game, with Soo-hyun doing everything in his power to torture the sadistic killer who can’t seem to stop himself. Choi Min-sik is absolutely superb in this movie – he is haunting, menacing, and evil incarnate. Kim Jee-woon has crafted a magnificent and absorbing work with visual elements that are nothing short of breathtaking. The script, by Park Hoon-jung, goes places that you would not expect, keeping you on your toes throughout. If you have the stomach for it, and you are into revenge movies – do yourself a favor and watch this film. It is easily one of the year’s very best.
VERDICT: RENT IT! — if you dare

OTHER MOVIES OUT ON DVD/BLUE-RAY:

Rango  (* * ½)  — RENT IT!
The Lincoln Lawyer (* *) — SKIP IT!
Kill the Irishman (* * *) — RENT IT!
Happythankyoumoreplease (* * *) — RENT IT!

10 Critics’ Thoughts on 10 Coen Brothers Films

Master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are the subject of a summer-long retrospective at AFI (now through September 5th) featuring many of their greatest works. The film family over at Brightest Young Things (myself included) thought this provided a great reason to write briefly about our most favorite Coen Brothers films. I had to get the jump on Barton Fink. But 9 other great BYT film writers posted their own personal thoughts about other films in the great Coen Oeuvre. I made sure to add a link to that below, complete with a listing of writers and the films chosen. Hope you enjoy — and feel free to comment and tell us what YOUR favorite Coen Brothers movie is!

MY THOUGHTS ON BARTON FINK (1991)

Though it may be their least accessible film for a mainstream audience, Barton Fink remains my favorite Coen Brothers film to date. Not only do I never get tired watching their 4th feature film, but I manage to capture something new or add a new piece to the puzzle with each viewing. Set in 1941, the film stars John Turturro (one of our most underrated actors) as the title character — a Clifford Odets-like playwright who writes for “the common man” and is now the toast of Broadway. The lure of Hollywood success reels him in and Barton now finds himself in the surreal and forsaken Hotel Earle, a hellish west coast hotel where he must begin work on a screenplay for a Wallace Beery wrestling picture. But things don’t go so smoothly for Barton as he suddenly experiences a horrible case of writer’s block. On top of this, he must deal with constant visits from Charlie Meadows (John Goodman in a towering performance), his chatty and ominous neighbor.

Feeling the pressure to produce, Barton seeks producer Ben Geisler (a hilarious Tony Shalhoub) for advice and is instructed to seek the counsel from a fellow writer. Barton obeys and meets with famed novelist (and drunk) W.P. “Bill” Mayhew (John Mahoney), a character mirrored after William Faulkner who Barton initially has tremendous admiration for. Barton later calls on Mayhew’s secretary (Judy Davis) and asks her to visit him at the hotel for more help. When he wakes up the following morning to the ubiquitous sound of the room’s mosquito, Barton finds the woman dead in his bed. And so the fun begins.

The Coen Brothers are masters at ambiguity. They rarely serve up all the answers to their viewers on a silver platter, which is one of the reasons why I admire their work so much. They constantly challenge their audiences and let you put the pieces together for yourself. No strangers to period pieces, the Coens beautifully capture the look and feel of 1941 here. The exquisite art direction (especially in the contrast of the Hotel Earle and the luxurious surroundings of the Hollywood elite) by Dennis Gassner is stunning to take in and Carter Burwell’s haunting score adds to the foreboding mood. And as we have come to expect (now 20 years after the release of Barton Fink), the cinematography by the masterful Roger Deakins is splendid. Barton Fink is a haunting and yes, oftentimes funny film filled with quirky characters and picth-perfect dialogue that have become standard fare in most of the Coen Brothers works. Turturro is mesmerizing as the troubled intellectual writer and his chemistry with Goodman is ever-engaging. Their scenes together are a pleasure to watch and absorb. The supporting cast is no less impressive – they are fittingly cast and a marvel to watch. The film takes a strong look at the culture of Hollywood and entertainment as well as the process of writing. It is also laden with symbolism throughout (though the Coens have always denied most of it).

I vividly recall seeing this movie in the theater when it was first released in 1991 when I was a student at New York University. I went with two close friends who lived in Long Island at the time. They took the train in to see it with me, as we were already huge fans of the Coen Brothers and couldn’t wait to see their new flick. I distinctly remember the overall feeling of disappointment upon leaving the theater, with my friend Chris saying what a tremendous waste of a train trip it was — that we had just witnessed pretentious garbage. I didn’t love it, I must admit. But i was certainly intrigued by it and I told my film-loving friend, “We missed something…we didn’t get it.” Barton Fink is certainly not the film for those who don’t embrace and appreciate the voice of the Coens’ to be sure. It isn’t the film I would inaugurate someone unfamiliar with their impressive canon of work. It may not be their strongest work, but after that initial screening, it quickly became my most favorite. At the risk of hyperbole, I think the Coen Brothers are without a doubt the finest American filmmakers working today, creating one remarkable film after the next with astonishing continuity. If you’re a fan — and you have yet to see this early work, get ready to be challenged and watch this perplexing, rioutous, dark, and fascinating film.

Click HERE to see the full article by the film staff at Brightest Young Things. Each writer gives his/her personal thoughts on a Coen Brothers film of their choosing.

The 10 Movies Chosen Are:

The Big Lebowski by Logan Donaldson
Fargo by Erin Holmes
The Hudsucker Proxy by Svetlana Legetic
Intolerable Cruelty by Alan Zilberman
Miller’s Crossing by Peter Heyneman
O’ Brother Where Art Thou? by Andrew Bucket
Raising Arizona by John Foster
A Serious Man by Zach Goldbaum
“Tuileries” by William Albeque
Barton Fink by moi

‘Harry Potter Retrospective’: Final Cast Breakdown

Well, this is it…the final posting of our in-depth look at the tremendous ensemble cast of the Harry Potter series. This also marks the end of The Lantern’s special “Harry Potter Retrospective” which has been tackled quite impressively (if I may say so) by William Buhagiar, film buff and self-proclaimed Potter nerd. I hope all of you Harry Potter fans will read these articles and, of course, share your own opinions on how the films honored (or dishonored) Rowling’s books. Of course, the final film is set for release on July 15th — and once again, I would like to remind you that Buhagiar’s movie review will be posted here that weekend. I am still hoping to be caught up by then (as I have just recently started watching the films). Thank you for reading — and thank you, William…for an amazingly thorough job! — P.E.

Bellatrix Lestrange

Played by: Helena Bonham Carter
Performance: A+
Screen Treatment: A

I find Bellatrix Lestrange to be one of the most fascinating characters Jo Rowling created, as she is the only witch in the series who is almost as obscenely evil as her beloved master, the Dark Lord. Rowling sums her up accurately in the seventh book as “a witch with prodigious skill and no conscience,” when she ravenously takes down four men with a stroke of her wand. She is, to put it mildly, an absolute lunatic; a bloodthirsty sadist and a woman who commits horrifying crimes, such as the torture and permanent incapacitation of Neville Longbottom’s parents, Frank and Alice. After the first downfall of Lord Voldemort, Bellatrix, ever the fanatic servant, set out to find her master and suspected the Longbottoms knew of his whereabouts. She tortured them so brutally and severely that they lost their minds permanently, and remained at St. Mungo’s Hospital for Magical Maladies and Injuries for the rest of their lives – forgetting that they even had a son together. Bellatrix is one of the very few Death Eaters that are among Voldemort’s ranks purely out of devotion to his cause, and throughout the series built a reprehensible body count, torturing and killing many characters that we had grown to love.

Although I had never seen her in a film prior to this series, when Helen McCrory was cast as Bellatrix prior to the release of Order of the Phoenix, I was thrilled, simply because she resembled Rowling’s description of Bellatrix so well. She dropped out soon after due to pregnancy and for a few weeks I waited patiently to see who would replace her. Despite the fact that she is a repugnant character, she certainly ranks among my favorites. When Helena Bonham Carter, my absolute favorite actress, accepted the part, I was beside myself with excitement. Although I knew her role in Order of the Phoenix would be minimal, I couldn’t wait to see her portrayal of the psychotic Death Eater.

The movie was a disgrace, but her performance was spectacular. It was wild, explosive and very unpredictable. In Half-Blood Prince, she was given a significant amount of additional screen time, and totally topped her Phoenix appearance. She very artfully tore through the castle, blasting away windows in the Great Hall, setting Hagrid’s cabin ablaze and savagely screaming as she released the Dark Mark into the sky. I thought it impossible for her to deliver anything new in Deathly Hallows: Part I but alas, I was quite mistaken. In the fifth and sixth movies, she was insane in an almost comical way – her anarchy and cackling lacked any real menace, but in the seventh, she introduced us to a completely different side of Bellatrix that we had not yet seen in the films, and added a new (and very disturbing) layer to the character’s insanity.

Overall, I find Helena Bonham Carter to be the most enjoyable part of the movies, and this might be a biased opinion. Her performance as Bellatrix Lestrange is wickedly intoxicating, and it is truly impossible to take your eyes off her while she is on screen. Her role in Deathly Hallows: Part II will be her most prominent out of any of the movies, and I am beyond amped to see what she comes up with next.

Draco Malfoy

Played by: Tom Felton
Performance: A
Screen Treatment: C+

Tom Felton is probably the best of the younger actors in the series. He seems to have a very good understanding of the character and always aces the scenes he is in. In Half-Blood Prince, his role is more prominent than in any of the other installments, and his performance was admirably parallel to the behavior of the book’s Draco Malfoy.

Sadly, Draco’s treatment in the films is watered-down and disappointing. Jo Rowling’s Draco Malfoy cannot only be irritating, but also vile and cruel at times. Whenever Malfoy was on the page, readers were infuriated by his bigotry, his cruelty and his constant tormenting of Harry, Ron and Hermione. In the films, however, Draco is nothing more than an irksome bully, occasionally inconveniencing our heroes with a snide remark and providing comic relief whenever his cowardice is showcased.

Draco’s storyline in the seventh film, though very rarely on screen, is properly established, as his family is now being degraded and humiliated by Lord Voldemort. This will ultimately serve the viewers in Deathly Hallows: Part II with (hopefully) one of the most satisfying character arcs in the series, as Draco’s newfound reluctance to take part in the Dark Lord’s new regime is a fantastic route for the misguided youngster to take.

Remus Lupin

Played by: David Thewlis
Performance: B
Screen Treatment: C-

Lupin, though a frequent and bold presence in the books, is sadly nothing to rave about in the films. He is given much leg room in Prisoner of Azkaban, during the many Patronus charm lessons he gives Harry, and his general role in that particular entry was the most prominent out of the seven. After the third film, however, he is pretty much nowhere to be found, popping up in the occasional scene maybe to provide a little exposition, remind us he’s a werewolf, and that’s about it.

Thewlis’s performance as Harry’s third year Defense Against the Dark Arts professor in Azkaban was certainly adequate, and though he didn’t resemble the Lupin I pictured, that does not give me license to complain about the casting choice; if the filmmakers were to satisfy every fan’s mental image of the characters, then the films would obviously be impossible to make.

As previously stated, Lupin’s presence in the books is certainly more frequent, which is frustrating considering he is the subject of major events that unfold in Deathly Hallows: Part II, and in the previous film he has barely any screen time. I’m hoping that the filmmakers will find a method of compensating for Lupin’s very heavily-sacrificed prominence in the films by somehow inserting a Lupin-related something in the beginning of the finale. This will most likely not be the case, as there’s already so much back-tracking and revisiting that must be done in order for the audience to have a vague comprehension of the main plot alone – therefore I assume that poor Lupin’s story will be left unattended to.

The Trio (Harry, Ron & Hermione)

Played by: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson
Performance: B, A- and A
Screen Treatment: A (for all)

Now that they have played the parts in each of the eight films, it’s difficult for us to picture any other actors playing the parts of Harry, Ron and Hermione. Each of the three beat out thousands of others for the parts and were all plucked from obscurity to play the central heroes of the Harry Potter series.

I feel there is not much to be said for each of them. They have played their parts to the best of their abilities, and very little was sacrificed to bring them to the screen. Hermione (Watson) was a dream come true for the screenwriters, as she was constantly utilized to explain every bit of exposition required for the stories. Rupert Grint served us well as the permanent source of comic relief, and whenever the films aimed to get the audience giggling, Ron was always there with a goofy remark. Daniel Radcliffe was, at times, a bit dry in his portrayal of the Boy Who Lived, but his dramatic improvement was heavily evident as the films progressed, and his last performance in film seven was his best yet.

I must admit, I’m glad that the three actors were featured in each film. I’ve had my issues with their performances at times, but considering their age, I’d say they did an adequate job and certainly improved gradually with each movie. If there were ever any problems with the characters, it was more in the writing and less a product of the actors. Ron’s goofy sidekick quirks were sometimes misplaced and inappropriate, Hermione seemed less a character at times and more a secret weapon for the writers to get information across, and Daniel Radcliffe, given the daunting task of carrying all seven films, was an occasional bore.

To execute each role to absolute perfection for eight films would undoubtedly be impossible, and these three have done their best to respect their characters. They’ve brought Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger to life over the course of a solid decade, and like I said, suggesting anyone else for the roles would not only be difficult, but impossible.

Other Supporting Cast Members:

Molly Weasley (Julie Walters)

Performance: A+
Screen Treatment: A+

Professor Trelawney (Emma Thompson)

Performance: A-
Screen Treatment: B-

Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody (Brendan Gleeson)

Performance: A
Screen Treatment: B-

Mr. Ollivander (John Hurt)

Performance: A+
Screen Treatment: A

Peter Pettigrew (Timothy Spall)

Performance: A+
Screen Treatment: A-

Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent)

Performance: C
Screen Treatment: C-

Luna Lovegood (Evanna Lynch)

Performance: A-
Screen Treatment: C+

Fred & George Weasley (James & Oliver Phelps)

Performances: B
Screen Treatment: C+

Neville Longbottom (Matthew Lewis)

Performance: B+
Screen Treatment: C-

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