Elvis directed by Baz Luhrmann, 2022

with Austin Butler and Tom Hanks

When I was a teen and began following pop music, Elvis was already a has been and in my eyes, someone who tried too hard when he performed. I was used to the cool swagger of Mick Jagger and the practiced harmonies of the Beatles. Elvis was not hip any more. No matter how much he swayed his hips. Elvis the movie allows us to look back, and understand the historical significance of his music. I realize what a snob I was to ignore his brilliant performance style.

The movie succeeds with the selection of his tunes, the influence of black music. The appeal of the singer, the quality of his songs and performances keeps you rooted to your seat. But then Tom Hanks shows up with his fake accent and puffed out visage and the movie loses its momentum. I can’t tell if Hanks is simply miscast, or if his performance is a colossal failure or a combination of both. Whatever it is, Luhrmann revels in it and sinks the movie.

What does work in the movie are the songs, the costumes, the sets, and production values, and especially the performances by black musicians.

Alton Masonas Little Richard
Big Mama Thornton, as cast in the movie, and in real life

What a pleasure it is to hear Little Richard sing the whole song, Tutti Frutti, in its entirety. To hear Big Mama Thornton sing Hound Dog, since it was written for her.

Elvis doesn’t get any of those chances. His songs are cut up and diced up and thrown around like a bunch of vegetables in the food processor as you are making gazpacho. I just don’t appreciate the higgledy piggledy style of Luhrmann’s editing.

The result of this chaos is a movie that is a bit too long. Momentum drags especially when the story centers on Colonel Parker, played by Hanks. It would have been nice if we had learned why Parker was such a nefarious character, but all we learn about are his experience as a carney, a conman, and an addicted gambler. These traits did not help Elvis, and I blame Parker for Presley’s disgraceful movie career which dragged down his reputation not just as a singer but as a bad judge of quality.

Colonel Parker needs his own movie

I guess I had forgotten the similar failure of The Great Gatsby, how Luhrmann’s style got in the way of telling a tragic story. Luhrmann just can’t do it. He’s a capable director in many ways– he knows why music elevates us to a higher plane, he did that beautifully in Moulin Rouge, and he knows villains– and can create complex characters, but when it comes to crafting a coherent story he just can’t do it. The story he wants to tell — that Parker is just as commanding a figure as Elvis– is not convincing. I grew tired of trying to follow along, and then restless for the exit.

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Hello, Bookstore, directed by A. B. Zax, 2021.

His daughter describes him as a man with generosity, patience, and kindness. Matthew Tannenbaum runs a small independent bookstore in Lenox Mass which is upended by the pandemic. Casual shoppers, used to browsing, cease to visit, and the website does not have a link to allow them to purchase online. It changes the whole experience of shopping, and for Tannenbaum, it grows his slightly delinquent accounts into a huge hole of debt.

The movie shows how Tannenbaum digs himself out of the hole, and how his bookstore simply called the bookstore (which explains the title, since it is how he answers the telephone, “Hello, Bookstore”, a delightful play on the way we are introduced to the whole experience of running the bookstore) survives the pandemic. There are a few telltale signs of the politics of the situation. Bernie Sanders’ posters are never far from sight, and toilet paper with Donald Trump’s face on it is at the front of the store.

We get to know the proprietor, who is a very good story teller. Story tellers tend to be good listeners, and Tannenbaum knows how to help his customers find the right books. It is not easy being a one man band, running the store largely on his own. There are other people who come and go, including his daughter, who is pregnant, and eventually the mother of a baby. It is not clear how many hours she puts in to ring up sales, but the focus is always on Tannenbaum himself.

He convinces his audience that the reason he was drawn to running the bookstore was his love of writing. He reads many passages from books, and the structure of the movie is supposed to go in chapters, but when Tannenbaum reads aloud, there is no indication of where the passage comes from, and the quickly hurtling titles at the closing credits do not give the audience a chance to savor Tannenbaum’s taste.

Still, the movie gives an overall feeling of community coming together to keep an important enterprise alive. It is not a perfect movie, this story of one man’s passion, and how he keeps it going. For those customers who bailed Tannenbaum out, this film will be a tonic. When the subject veers to one of my favorite bookstores ever, the Gotham Book Mart, I grew nostalgic for that hangout. I would regularly see the author of the Gashleycrumb Tinies, Edward Gorey, there. This movie made me want to run out and buy a book from my favorite book store in lower Manhattan, (besides the Strand) Three Lives.

Bravo Tannenbaum. Even through the pandemic, independent bookstores thrived because they know what their customers want and they sell it to them.

Here are some in New York City I urge you to patronize:

Three Lives 154 West 10th Street

Housing Works Bookstore 126 Crosby Street

McNally Jackson 52 Prince Street and three other locations

Yu & Me 44 Mulberry Street

Book Culture 536 West 112th Street

The Corner Bookstore 1313 Madison Avenue

The Mysterious Bookshop. 58 Warren Street– specializing in mysteries

Books of Wonder 42 West 17th Street– specializing in children’s books

The Strand 828 Broadway and several other locations

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The Rose Maker (La Fine Fleur) directed by Pierre Pinaud, 2020. In French.

Seen in a theater!

with Catherine Frot, Melan Omertà, Vincent Dedienne

How do you film a rose grower, whose plants take months to cultivate under deep scrutiny, with sufficient drama to fill a feature length movie? It helps to include a heist of the hybrids the rose grower desires.

Eve (Catherine Frot) is a master at her art of growing roses. Every year at an important competition in the heart of Paris where the most brilliant rose is granted an award, and its owner the business that goes along with it, Eve lacks the breakthrough she craves to succeed. Her main competitor, Lamarzelle, (Vincent Dedienne) gloats, scorns her hybrids for being too bland (they are pale and creamy) and has more of a range of new hybrids with bright colors. Eve sees her chance when she is provided with some new employees recently released from prison, one of whom is a master thief.

To rescue her failing business from bankruptcy, she employs Fred (Manel Foudoc) to penetrate the inner chambers of Lamarzelle’s highly secure greenhouse. This provides the movie with suspense. Besides the important caper, which results in some sweet revenge against her competitor, the movie demonstrates how relationships form when people need each other.

The three new hires need employment, and Eve provides them with skills to move on. The young man who assists in the purloining of the important roses has a nose that will take him far. In the world of perfume, which thrives in France, this means a solid career.

If you are a gardener, and love roses, this movie is heaven. The cinematography of the greenhouses, of the fields full of different varieties of roses, and of the workers making sure that the gardens are well tended, are all inspiring. As a business tale, I am not sure how believable it is, but one of my favorite scenes demonstrates how you can increase sales if you play the right music.

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Coda directed by Sian Heder, 2021.

with Emilia Jones, Troy Kotsur, Marlee Matlin, Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Daniel Durant

How I watched: on Apple Plus TV

The appeal of the movie largely rests on the shoulders of the actress, Emilia Jones, who plays Ruby, a 17 year old child of deaf adults, the CODA of the title. As the only hearing, speaking member of her family, Ruby takes on the responsibilities of interpreting for them what they need to know from the speaking hearing world, and articulating back what her deaf parents need to say to those who cannot understand ASL.

This means since her father and brother fish for a living, she works on the boat off of Gloucester Mass. In the process she must deal with business men who reduce the prices paid for their catch.

Ruby works the fishing boat with her father and brother

It means that when her father has an infection in his nether region, she must explain to the doctor what he is saying and then explain to her father the remedy for his ailment. It is extremely embarrassing and funny, thanks to the acting of Troy Kotsur as her father, Fran Rossi, and the script written by the director, Sian Heder..

Eugenio Derbez plays Bernardo Vellalobox, the choir director who draws out Ruby’s talent as a singer.

Ruby with her parents at the doctor’s office
Eugenio Derbez

The movie opens with shots of the Rossi family working from their boat, pulling in flounder, and an occasional shoe, from the waters off of Gloucester. The locations give a sense of place, and of the kind of work the family is engaged in. Ruby is singing her heart out with ear buds in her ears, someone who obviously loves to sing, because she finds release from her troubles.

Here is a working class girl whose duty to her parents and family will inform her choices, She is a senior in high school, that time when you decide which if any college you will attend.

Ruby’s brother and mother

The one day she choses not to go on the boat with her deaf father and brother in order to spend time with her crush, with whom she must sing a tender duet, there are monitors and coast guard tracking them which they can’t hear. She has always gone and interpreted for them, and now in the moment of truth they are in a big jam.

This is one of the conflicts the director, Sian Heder, has written for the family to act out. There is also a fight between the fishermen and middlemen selling their catch. Ruby has a battle with her self confidence when it comes to singing. Girls in her school have always teased her for the weird way she talked as a child. Money is a big problem. This movie has been called a throwback to the old fashioned stories we used to enjoy on screen before the Marvel Universe took over. A family works its way through familiar problems. A deaf family with singular need to be heard adds complexity. I have to admit I enjoyed every minute of it except perhaps the role given to Marlee Matlin as an unlikeable mother.

I read that the movie will be adapted to a musical theater piece and I can see why.

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King Richard directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green 2021

with Will Smith, Aunjunae Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Jon Bernthal.

The story of how Venus and Serena Williams came up in the highly competitive, deeply segregated world of pro tennis, begins with their driven father, Richard, who trains the girls at an early age to play the game.

Compton is a black neighborhood in Los Angeles where the Williams sisters and family live– a total of five sisters living under one roof with their mother. There are not a lot of tennis courts to chose from. And Richard brings a push broom to remove the leaf litter and other things from the court before the girls begin practice. He is a tough task master, sometimes having the girls practice in the rain. He claims his 87 page plan for them includes their becoming the greatest players ever– a bit of bombast that just turns out to be true.

The screenplay succeeds in showing how the characters admire, respect but are frustrated by the man determined to pave the way for his beloved daughters. Their mother holds her tongue until she can’t any more, and then lets Richard have a righteous bit of her indignation.

Will Smith convinces with his somewhat fake street accent, his fathering techniques of being strict, but loving, his brushing off a lucrative offer when he suspects racist patronage at its core.

The acting of the rest of the cast follows suit. Aunjunae Ellis as Oracene Williams masters the art of the side eye and steaming spouse. Bernthal as coach Macci is the only one who can stand up to Richard in a way that works, by convincing him that he can earn more money.

Aunjunae Ellis

The production design includes well selected streets and outdoor courts, and a beloved VW van that contrast with the white privilege in evidence at the country clubs where most female tennis stars get their start.

I love watching tennis– the back and forth, so easy to follow– but if you find that boring you might not enjoy the movie. The coaching scenes pack a punch as Bernthal as Macci gives advice, know how and spirit with every shot. The back and forth of a match at the end is sort of disappointing, but that is how sports can be sometimes, and so it is realistic.

Jon Bernthal as an important coach to the Williams sisters

How difficult it must be for young girls to begin their careers and have to face adult decisions like when to play pro and whether to sign a $3 million contract. Having a father who wards off criminal gangs threatening your ability to play, taking punches, packing a gun when necessary, really did help the Williams become the legends they are. This movie is a testament to that tough love both parents gave their children.

Even though their mother is not the focus of the movie, she is credited with teaching Serena how to serve–which is rather important wouldn’t you say?
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Belfast, written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, 2021.

with Jude Hill, Caitrona Balfe, Ciaran Hinds, Judi Dench, Lara McDonnell

In the Guardian, Ryan Gilbey has an article about the effect of opening credits on a viewer’s understanding of film. The best ones pull you in from the beginning, make you forget that you haven’t learned who the director is yet, etc., and if they appear forty minutes in, so be it. Drive My Car was like that. Not that it had a lot of action. A movie about acting and thinking about your place in the world after enormous grief does not have to.

The opening credits of Belfast could be a tourist reel for the town in its title. The mood is nostalgic, with loving shots of the piers in the port, overheads of the ships, the sea, the colors and sweeping nature of the eastern coast of Ireland.  Music by Van Morrison is elegiac and wistful at the lost era of innocence. All is at peace. When the action of the story begins, the photography shifts to black and white that limns the stark nature of the divisions causing bloodshed.  

Belfast tells the story of a boy growing up in Northern Ireland in a tightly knit community of Belfast, who witnesses the Troubles first hand.  Protestants and Catholics are forced to take sides even when they feel kinship with each other because of the community they share. In addition to the violence of the rioters who attack any house occupied by a Catholic, there is a gangster going after the boy’s father, for reasons unknown, except that he has failed to take sides. That is not done. You must take sides.  You cannot be muddled, or have loyalty to more than one religion, more than one family, more than one gang.  

Buddy learns how to navigate what was once a safe haven for him, his home.  A garbage can lid that he used to pretend he was fighting dragons and beasts becomes a shield for his mother to defend her children from bombs, and fire, and rocks being thrown deliberately at the neighbors.

Lara McDonnell is especially good as Buddy’s cousin, Moira

His loving parents, his aunt and cousin, and his grandparents live nearby.  The movie makes you consider what makes home home.  Just as humans are reaching the moon, and magic cars fly in movies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, if someone calls Buddy’s name, everyone knows who that is, and tries to shepherd him back where he belongs.  Everyone is looking out for each other.

His father works in England, commuting back and forth, and facing some money troubles, it appears, as a result of his gambling habits.  When he is offered a better job in England, with a house, and enough to pay his debsts, the family must decide what to do.

Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds play Buddy’s grandparents

Buddy is coerced into joining a gang by his cousin, Moira (Lara McDonnell),  who challenges him to break the law and declare his allegiance more than once to a shady gang we never see.  The actor, Jude Hill, all of ten years old, has the eyes and furtive gestures of one who knows what is going on by often hiding behind the scenes, but listening with perked up ears.   The movie is seen from his point of view.

Because Buddy’s family does not completely commit to their religion, he can’t see what the Troubles are about, which leads to some humorous scenes about an eight year old’s view of confession, the one redeeming feature of Catholicism. If the movie accurately captures Branagh’s childhood, you can see why he became an actor, with his steady diet of western films and dramatic stage plays.  The boy’s eyes light up when Alan Ladd or Gary Cooper’s character must face down his enemy at high noon.    

One weakness of the screenplay: every now and then Branagh tries to show how the young parents still have a hankering for each other, especially on the dance floor. Something about that treatment feels superficial, glued on, in order to show off the young woman’s sexiness. Overall, the boy is the center, the point of view, the person who is telling the story. Jude Hill holds the movie together with his performance.

Jamie Dornan, Ciaran Hinds, Jude Hill, Judi Dench
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The Worst Person in the World, directed by Joachim Trier, 2021.

with Renate Reinsve, Anders Danielsen Lie, Herbert Nordrum.

in Norwegian with subtitles

The title phrase is spoken by Eivind (Herbert Nordrum), who feels guilty at leaving his girlfriend for Julie, the central character in the movie. Even though there is a lot of fooling around, and sexual escapades in the movie, an underlying sense of honor kicks in when needed.

Eivind and Julie the night they first meet

Julie, whose flitting between medicine, photography, and writing, seems to have as her overall ambition to retain her freedom. She does not want to become a mother, or get saddled with the responsibility of a family. Perhaps her own failed parents, especially her father, who lies about why he won’t visit her, are the reason. This movie might be the flip side of the Lost Daughter in its treatment of women’s inner lives as they consider the responsibility of motherhood versus their own desires and life goals.

The movie is driven by the luminous presence/performance of Reinsven. She has the lithe body of a teenage athlete, and confident movement that make her occasional sprints into action beautiful.

It is refreshing to see a story about a young woman who casts about looking for the direction she wants to take, capable of experimenting with careers and lovers, without being stereotyped as a shallow know nothing or slut. She has no need to apologize for anything– so the title of the movie serves to undermine the grace of the main character, especially in the first half of the movie when the tone is light and the pace lopes along.

Renate Reinsve

When things grow dark, Julie’s character gains depth. Aksel, her first love, becomes very ill, and it is clear that he was the lover who mattered most to her, as he accepted her in all of her imperfections. Anders Danielsen Lie as Aksel has a soulful face and when he argues he is convincing and compelling and engaging to watch. All the more reason to wonder how Julie would leave him for the cipher that is Eivind. Something about his dominance as an older man who knows his place in the world versus Julie still casting about for what her purpose is. Aksel is so sure of himself it wears her down.

Aksel played by Anders Danielsen Lie

While the ending hastens to tie everything together, it is not completely believable. Julie searches for meaning and continues to pursue her career as a photographer. There are clues as to how that will turn out, but no clear answers. When I left the theater, the movie itself didn’t stay with me so much as the performance of Reinsve. She is worth the price of the ticket.

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Drive My Car

directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 2021.

With Hidetoshi Nishijima, Toko Miura, Reika Krishima, Masaki Okada

A blurry opening scene shows a nude woman telling a story to a man in bed beside her. The story plays out, slowly. The woman, Oto, is a screenwriter, and her husband, Yusuke Kofuku, is an actor. The stories that Oto tells to Yusuke become the basis of screenplays.

Yusuke is preparing to play the role of Uncle Vanya. When he discovers Oto having sex with a young actor, he does not confront them, but bows out, and does not interfere. By watching the couple attend a memorial service, we learn that they had a child who died. Credits roll forty minutes into the movie– strangely — in the middle– at an important turn in the story, which continues two years later. Now Yusuke is to direct Uncle Vanya, and must first chose the cast from a wide array of talent from around the world. The action has moved from Tokyo to Hiroshima.

The car should get credit as a member of the cast. Yusuke drives his red Saab in and out of garage spots, and at one point has a minor crash, resulting in his learning that he may have glaucoma in one eye. The doctor advises against driving, though it is clear that the man loves to drive. There are many shots of the Saab making its way between cities, over bridges, between skyscrapers, on highways, and then finally, nesting in its own spot in the garage of the apartment building where the couple live. Driving gives Yusuke time to think, to rehearse his lines, to be in the world, yet outside of it.

There is something very literary about the movie. Besides being based on a short story by Murakami, the casting of Uncle Vanya includes many line readings from the play, and we have the opportunity to think deeply about how life changes as we grow older. It is Chekhovian in that the driver in it determines the fate of the character. “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off,” Chekhov wrote. 

The mood and tone are thoughtful and slow as we wait for the story to reveal the characters’ inner loneliness and how they cope with it, how they feel guilty for the loss of their loved ones when they die too soon. The movie sent me back to the play by Chekhov and to the story by Murakami. I am grateful to this filmed adaptation of a book that makes me appreciate the written word.

Park Yurim

Acting is excellent throughout. The casting of a mute woman (who speaks Korean sign language) as Sonya (Park Yurim) in Uncle Vanya in an otherwise speaking ensemble seems daring. The actress is dazzling. Since some of the other actors do not speak the same language, there are subtitles throughout. I watched the movie with subtitles, happily, greedily, eating up all of the words. Not that there isn’t enough motion and sound and tension between scenes that make movies such a pleasure to watch. Toward the end, there are several important reveals worth waiting for. While the movie veers toward melodrama, and has a coy yet pat ending, I was enthralled throughout, because it is not often you get to see human sensibilities laid bare on the screen. In a Marvel Universe world, I hunger for it.

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The Tragedy of Macbeth, directed by Joel Coen, 2021.

with Denzel Washington, Frances McDormand, Kathryn Hunter.

A king's head lies on top of a bloody sword.

This movie made me think, what are the consequences of deep ambition that puts life on a lower plane than your title and status? If you start out decent, honest, trustworthy, how do you grow into a conniving, evil tyrant?

The work of Joel Cohen in The Tragedy of Macbeth merits high praise: his use of black and white photography, the lighting and sets extremely stylized to accentuate a struggle for power, the casting of a mixed race ensemble who refer to each other as kin. Visually the movie is a work of art.

However there is an airlessness to the enterprise — a feeling of lifelessness. Mostly the lighting is in half darkness, that bland shadow that indicates neither day nor night but just fog, or clouds. The sound also seems to take place in a void. No room is inhabited, no speech within a group, just soliloquies, one after the other, as if no one is talking to another human, just to the camera. Even though dinner is mentioned several times, we don’t get to see anyone eat.

As a result, when a letter is lit on fire and rises into the sky, it is exceedingly thrilling. When the three witches appear and cast their spell of doom on the title character, the magical realism lifts the movie up, helps it take flight. The use of birds flying in circles at the opening, and then transforming into the three witches is powerful and necessary. Later, when Banquo is murdered, one of the few action scenes, before the end, when everyone who needs to get killed is killed, the change in tone is startling. There is so much lifelessness in the rest of the movie, its sterile scene setting, its careful depiction of speeches, the importance of words.

When Macduff (Corey Hawkins) learns about what happens to his family and says those tragic words, “All? All my pretty ones?” I felt the tragedy of the melodrama. It was the only time. The rest of the time, I was admiring a work of art, but not feeling particularly moved by it. Macbeth is one of those Shakespeare plays that has gorgeous poetry in it, but a cast of characters it is hard to relate to (unless you are twelve, and completely relate to Banquo’s son Fleance).

Corey Hawkins plays MacDuff

The acting is fine. McDormand performs her magic. Washington is magisterial, and when called on, stark raving mad. Most important are the three sisters, performed by Kathryn Hunter.

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Don’t Look Up, directed by Adam McKay, 2021.

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with Jennifer Lawrence, Leonardo diCaprio, Rob Morgan, Mark Rylance, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill

The most contemporary movie I’ve seen lately, Don’t Look Up features rap stars in the middle of a break up, how social media scores matter more than genuine accomplishments, presidential rallies, the president being advised by his ignorant child, a complete mistrust of facts, especially if based in science, and a man running a very successful technology empire having complete access to the White House.

Kate Dibiasky is a graduate astronomy student in Michigan minding her own business one night when she can’t help but notice a very large comet aimed at what seems like earth. Check the math, the physics, the coordinates. Yes, aimed at earth. Estimated arrival: 6 months. Enough time to prepare and prevent, right? Well, that depends on who is in charge of earth. If it is run by morons, and greed infested business men, maybe not enough time.

The president of the United States happens to be a moron named Orlean

The more I watched the comet approach earth, the more I was reminded of Dr. Strangelove, the Kubrick movie. In that movie, a madman has decided to unleash a nuclear attack sure to bring on a major war from which humanity might not recover. The madman’s beef: Russians have been fluoridating water, resulting in the pollution of his bodily fluids. We watch the countdown of the attack even though better minds try to prevail. In the end, a determined military fool, played by Slim Pickens, when faced with a stuck door on the plane carrying the bomb, rides the bomb to earth hollering all the way. Other more privileged military personnel bunker underground.

With satire, it’s helpful to insert humor at key moments. Here is Slim Pickens riding the bomb in Dr. Strangelove

In Don’t Look Up, there is a genuine catastrophe heading our way, caused by we know not what. The suspense is looser, and at the end, the disaster lacks punch.

Jennifer Lawrence’s bangs and nose ring seem to signal someone younger–such efforts distract from her character in a way Leonard diCaprio and his simple garb and beard do not. Since she is the scientist for whom the comet is named, it seems as if she deserves more serious styling.

Rylance as always disappears into his character, with a soothing calm voice

Gentle-voiced Mark Rylance plays the tech guru, Peter Isherwell, president of Bash Enterprises, who promises that there are trillions to be made from this disaster if they can just direct some blobs of metal at the comet, and harvest the precious minerals dwelling there.

The intention of the director is clear: warnings of our dire situation are being ignored at our peril. The futures of the human race and planet earth are in the wrong hands. The uneven tone and awkward visual details emphasize the seriousness of the subject and how hard it is to make fun of it. McKay lacks Kubrick’s sharper wit, but he is building a body of work that is admirable in its attack on the dangers of our sloppy present.

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