Documentaries

F for Fake (1973) Dir. Orson Welles—the man who scared everyone with a fake Martian invasion profiles two notorious frauds:  Elmyr de Hory and Clifford Irving.

Gizmo (1977)  Dir. Howard Smith—a lighthearted and thoroughly entertaining look at inventions.

The Day After Trinity (1981) Dir. Jon Else—a haunting film about Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project.

Hoop Dreams (1994) Dir. Steve James—even if you’re not a basketball fan, you’ll love this film about two young men pursuing their dreams of playing with the  pros.

Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey (1994) Dir. Steven M. Martin—remember the electronic sounds in “Good Vibrations” and  The Day the Earth Stood Still?  This fascinating film is about the inventor of the instrument that made those sounds, Leon Theremin.

When We Were Kings (1996)  Dir. Leon Gast—I find boxing difficult to watch, but couldn’t tear myself away from this chronicle of the events leading up to and including the 1974 match between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali.

Buena Vista Social Club (1999) Dir. Wim Wenders—you’ll fall in love with these gentlemen and their music.

The Fog of War (2003) Dir. Errol Morris—Robert S. McNamara discusses his years as Secretary of Defense for the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and the tragic mistakes that were made.  With a score by Philip Glass.

Super Size Me (2004) Dir. Morgan Spurlock—a sobering look at what a diet of fast food can do to a person’s health.

March of the Penguins (2005) Dir. Luc Jacquet—I haven’t met anyone who didn’t say, “Awwwww” at least once during this beautiful film.

Sketches of Frank Gehry (American Masters: Season 20, Episode 7, Sept. 27, 2006) Dir. Sidney Pollack—an intimate view of a great artist and architect’s life and work habits by one of his close friends.  This was Pollack’s only documentary, and it is a gem.

Wordplay (2006) Dir. Patrick Creadon—the film for anyone who does the NY Times crossword puzzle first and reads the paper second.  Even better, my stepson, Derek, is playing drums on the soundtrack!

Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? (2006)  Dir. Harry Moses—this one is a hoot: truck driver Teri Horton buys a painting for $5. When she tries to sell it in a garage sale, a local art teacher suggests it might be worth a bit more than her asking price….

Man on Wire (2008) Dir. James Marsh—breathtaking film about Phillippe Petit’s 1974 high-wire feat at the World Trade Center.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) Dir. Banksy—in an unplanned move, the reclusive street artist, Banksy, turns the camera on an aspiring street artist and shopkeeper who locates and attempts to befriend him. Surprising and delightful.

*Shameless Family Plug

Environmental Themes

The following films range in style from poetic (Koyaanisqatsi), to frightening (An Inconvenient Truth).  Whether based on fact or fiction, all are cautionary tales.

Them! (1954) Dir. Gordon Douglas  Nuclear testing=giant ants.  A classic in the mutant bug genre.

On the Beach (1959) Dir. Stanley Kramer   Based on Nevil Shute’s novel, this is a devastating look at the effects of nuclear war.  A thoroughly depressing and important work.

Soylent Green (1973) Dir. Richard Fleischer   A dystopian future of pollution, overpopulation, the greenhouse effect and processed food….  Based on the novel, Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) Dir. Leonard Nimoy   Captain Kirk and his crew travel back to the 1980’s to save their 23rd century earth from a probe searching for extinct humpback whales.  A perfect blend of action, humor, and message.

Koyaanisqatsi (1982) Dir. Godfrey Reggio  Set to a score by Philip Glass, this is an exquisite montage of cities and landscapes using still and time-lapse photography.

Eight Legged Freaks (2002) Dir. Ellory Elkayem  Toxic waste=giant spiders.  A great satire of the mutant bug/arachnid genre.

An Inconvenient Truth (2006) Dir. Davis Guggenheim  Al Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary about climate change.

Politics

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) Dir. Frank Capra
What we wish for: integrity wins out.  Highlights?  Many.  My favorite?  Jimmy Stewart’s filibuster.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) Dir. John Frankenheimer  The Korean War, brainwashing, and secret plots.  Favorite character:  Angela Lansbury as the mother from Hell.

The Candidate (1972) Dir. Michael Ritchie
Robert Redford as an honest guy who runs for a senate seat and becomes corrupted by the process.

Being There (1979) Dir. Hal Ashby
A chain of events thrusts a simple gardener into politics.  Favorite scene:  Peter Sellers, as Chance the gardener, walking on water.

Dave (1993) Dir. Ivan Reitman
Kevin Kline, the owner of a temp agency, is hired to impersonate a suddenly comatose president. Favorite Scene: Sigourney Weaver, as the President’s wife, walks in on Kevin Kline in the shower.

The American President (1995) Dir. Rob Reiner
A widowed president falls in love with a lobbyist. Favorite lines:  President Andrew Shepherd: She didn’t say anything about me?  A.J.: No, but I could always pass her a note before study hall.

Primary Colors  (1998) Dir. Mike Nichols
John Travolta as a charismatic presidential candidate who bears a striking resemblance to living, charismatic former president.

Bulworth  (1998) Dir. Warren Beatty
A senator puts out a contract on himself so that his family can collect on a large insurance policy. Best scene:  Warren Beatty rapping.

Election  (1999) Dir. Alexander Payne
A high school presidential race.  Reese Witherspoon is perfection as Tracy Flick, who’ll do anything do get elected.  This film is cynical, hilarious, and frightening.

Frights

The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Dir. James Whale (based on a novel by Mary Shelley)  I have only been able to watch this film twice.  What could be more terrifying than finding your creator has abandoned you? That every chance for friendship and companionship has been stripped away?  That you are too grotesque to be loved? And, that the one creature made especially for you cannot stand the sight of you?

Invaders from Mars (1953) Dir. William Cameron Menzies   The source of many childhood nightmares, this film taught me an important lesson: often the greatest dangers to our humanity and lives are hidden.  Oh, yes, and DON’T WALK ON SAND.

The Bad Seed (1956) Dir. Mervyn LeRoy (based on a play by Maxwell Anderson and novel by Wlliam March)  A devoted mother begins to suspect that her sweet, loving, angelic-looking daughter is a cold-blooded killer.   How can pure evil exist in such an exquisite skin?

“Side Show”  (1961)  Dir. Seymour Robbie   This was an episode in a  short-lived TV series entitled, Way Out, hosted by Roald Dahl.   Some of the episodes have been released on DVD, but, sadly, not this one about a man who becomes infatuated with a woman kept alive by electricity, “who was really very beautiful before she lost her head.”  What can I say? Love can be dangerous….

10 Rillington Place  (1971) Dir. Richard Fleischer  This fact-based film about the British serial killer, John Christie, kept me up for days.  Richard Attenborough is chillingly and deceptively meek as Christie, and John Hurt is sad and broken as Timothy Evans, the husband of one of Christie’s victims, who was falsely convicted and executed for his wife’s murder.  This film was terrifying on many levels, because Christie was able to lure some of his victims to his lair by promising them cures for various illnesses, or safe abortions.  How many of us, I wondered, if desperate enough, could become prey, too?  How many of us, if heartbroken and depleted enough, would confess to a crime we didn’t commit?

The Stepford Wives (1975) Dir. Bryan Forbes (based on a novel by Ira Levin)   Levin’s cautionary tale for feminists seems dated, but its fundamental awareness of the deep anger some men feel over a perceived loss of control, and their desire to get it back, remains relevant, and very scary.

The Vanishing (1988) Dir. by George Sluizer (based on a novella by Tim Krabbe)  A young man and woman, very much in love, are on trip.  She disappears, and years later he’s contacted by her abductor. The original version, in Dutch, violates both the young man’s and audience’s expectations with a truly horrific and unforgettable ending.

Topper  (1937)  Dir.  Norman Z. McLeod  Cary Grant Cary Grant Cary Grant….  Need I say more?

The Uninvited  (1944)  Dir.  Lewis Allen  A composer, a coastal house with a history, a beautiful girl, and “Stella by Starlight”   Sigh…

The Time of Their Lives  (1946)  Dir.  Charles Barton  Atypical Abbott and Costello comedy:  Lou Costello and Marjorie Reynolds are mistakenly branded as traitors during the Revolutionary War, and their spirits are bound to the estate where they were killed. Bud Abbott, a descendant of the man who cursed them, tries to help them. A perfect blend of laughs and chills.

The Ghost and Mrs. Muir  (1947)  Dir.  Joseph L. Mankiewicz  An impossible romance between a widow and the ghost of a sea captain, set to a score by the brilliant Bernard Herrmann

The Innocents  (1961)  Dir.  Jack Clayton  Still the best adaptation of Henry James’s  The Turn of the Screw, with a screenplay by William Archibald and Truman Capote.

The Haunting  (1963)  Dir. Robert Wise  Adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s  The Haunting of Hill House.   Despite changes to the nature of Eleanor’s awakening sexuality, this film is very close in spirit to the book. The mirrors alone are terrifying.

The Shining  (1980)  Dir. Stanley Kubrick  Adaptation of Stephen King’s  The Shining. A visual treat—an isolated, haunted hotel in the dead of winter, blood pouring out of an elevator, Jack Nicholson going insane, and that hedge maze….

The Others  (2001)  Alejandro Amenábar  Toward the end of World War II,  a mother of two children waits in a mansion for her husband to return from battle and begins to sense the arrival of a spectral presence. Imaginative story, sensitively realized.

The Devil’s Backbone  (2001)  Guillermo del Toro  Near the end of the Spanish Civil War, a ghost appears to a boy in a orphanage and makes a dire prediction. Frightening and sad.

Creaky Noir

Ask me how much I love these movies—the black and white cinematography, tales that begin in police department interrogation rooms, hard-boiled detectives, rotten scoundrels and conniving dames.  They reek of atmosphere, melodrama, and the kind of lines you just don’t hear anymore.  You can say we’ve become more sophisticated, that today’s noir has more depth, more intricacy, more realism.  But I can’t help my fondness for the beleaguered bad guys and gals of the past, their crackling metaphors, broad-shouldered suits and gowns, the cops who dog them, and those amazing hats they all wear.  And I simply can’t resist the endless shadows they cast in every scene….

Murder, My Sweet  (1944) Dir. Edward Dmytryk

Double Indemnity (1944) Dir. Billy Wilder

The Maltese Falcon (1941) Dir. John Huston

The Big Sleep (1946) Dir. Howard Hawks

The Third Man (1949) Dir. Carol Mann

I Wake Up Screaming (1941) Dir. H. Bruce Humberstone

A Woman’s Face  (1941)  Dir. George Cukor

The Glass Key (1942) Dir. Stuart Heisler

The Woman in the Window (1944) Dir. Fritz Lang

The Blue Dahlia (1946) Dir. George Marshall

The Dark Mirror  (1946) Dir. Robert Siodmak

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers  (1946) Dir. Lewis Milestone

Lady in the Lake (1947) Dir. Robert Montgomery

Out of the Past (1947) Dir. Jacques Tourneur

The Big Clock (1948) Dir. John Farrow

The Night Has a Thousand Eyes  (1948) Dir. John Farrow

Sorry, Wrong Number (1948) Dir. Anatole Litvak

Bio Pics

Looking for a bit of reality? A little history? And a little fiction? These bio pics might satisfy:

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) Dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer (Joan of Arc)

Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) Dir. Michael Curtiz (George M. Cohan)

With a Song in My Heart (1952) Dir. Walter Lang (Jane Froman)

Funny Girl (1968) Dir. William Wyler (Fanny Brice)

The Lion in Winter (1968) Dir. Anthony Harvey (King Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine)

Lenny (1974) Dir. Bob Fosse (Lenny Bruce)

Raging Bull (1980) Dir. Martin Scorsese (Jake LaMotta)

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) Dir. Paul Schrader (Yukio Mishima)

Tucker: The Man and His Dreams (1988) Dir. Francis Ford Coppola (Preston Tucker)

Gorillas in the Mist (1988) Dir. Michael Apted (Dian Fossey)

Chaplin (1992) Dir. Richard Attenborough (Charles Chaplin)

61 (2001) Dir. Billy Crystal (Roger Maris & Mickey Mantle)

Frida (2002) Dir. Julie Taymor (Frida Kahlo)

Something the Lord Made (2004) Dir. Joseph Sargent (Alfred Blalock & Vivien Thomas)

De-Lovely (2004) Dir. Irwin Winkler (Cole Porter)

Cinderella Man (2005) Dir. Ron Howard (James Braddock)

The Soloist (2009) Dir. Joe Wright (Nathaniel Ayers & Steve Lopez)

42 (2013) Dir. Brian Helgeland (Jackie Robinson)

Worth Another Look



A Tale of Two Cities (1935) Dir. Jack Conway   Ronald Colman will break your heart as Sidney Carton, the man who sacrifices his life for the woman he loves.

Mr. Blandings Builds his Dream House (1948) Dir. H.C. Potter  adapted from the novel by Eric Hodgins.  Carg Grant and Myrna Loy decide to move out of their tiny apartment in the city, and build their dream home in the country.

Rope (1948) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock  A technically interesting retelling of the Leopold and Loeb case.

Elevator to the Gallows  (1958) Dir. Louis Malle A woman plots to kill her husband so she can be with her lover, but, oh boy, do things go awry….  Watch for the suspense, and listen for Miles Davis’s atmospheric soundtrack.


Duel  (1971) Dir. Steven Spielberg   Dennis Weaver is a motorist who is terrorized by a faceless truck driver.  This is every driver’s nightmare done to perfection.

The Man who would be King  (1975)  Dir. John Huston  Based on a short story by Rudyard Kipling.  Sean Connery and Michael Caine set off to rule the tiny country of Kafiristan.  I keep wishing this would be re-released in theaters.  It so deserves a big screen….

Diva (1981) Dir.  Jean-Jacques Beineix    An opera fan secretly tapes his favorite diva (the magnificent Wilhelmenia Fernandez) during a concert.  When his tape gets mixed up with another tying a police chief to the mob, the opera fan finds his life imperiled by those who’ll do anything to get the tape back.

House of Games (1987)  Dir. David Mamet  Lindsay Crouse plays a psychiatrist whose desire to help a patient leads her into the con artists’ world.

The Double Life of Veronique (1991) Dir. Krzysztof Keslowski  Irene Jacob has a dual role in this strange and haunting tale of two women, one in Poland, one in France, who have never met, yet share thoughts and dreams.

Run, Lola Run (1998) Dir. Tom Tykwer   Franka Potente as Lola, a woman who has to 20 minutes in which to get her hands on a $100,000 to save her boyfriend.  If you like nail-biting suspense with great twists, you’ll love this.

Vera Drake  (2004) Dir. Mike Leigh  Before Imelda Staunton abused the students at Hogwarts, she performed illegal abortions in this powerful and sad film.  Leigh is an expert at creating verisimilitude in his films, and this is one of his best.

The Lives of Others (2006) Dir. Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck A Stasi officer finds himself emotionally drawn into the lives of the people he is watching. A must-see for Ulrich Mühe’s nuanced, understated, thoroughly credible, and heart-wrenchingly human portrayal of the officer.

Comedies

It’s not easy to make people laugh.  Seriously.

Our ability to see the humor in a book or film depends not only on the writer’s skill, but also on our experiences, and our often fickle and unpredictable tastes. And, because the definitions for comedy are not as clear or identifiable as they are for tragedy, that pie in the face that makes a person howl one minute might make them groan in the next.

I find it nearly impossible to give anyone a foolproof recipe for how to make me laugh.  I could say that I don’t find bathroom humor funny, but there are variables even with that.  What I can say is that the films listed below had me laughing so hard at certain points that I couldn’t hear the actors….

A Night at the Opera  (1935)  Dir. Sam Wood  One of the Marx Brothers’ best.  Includes the stateroom scene, the “Sanity Clause,”  and an egotistical tenor.  Imagine!

Bringing Up Baby  (1938)  Dir. Howard Hawks  Classic screwball delight with Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant, a dinosaur bone, and a pet leopard named, Baby.

Queen of Outer Space (1958)  Dir. Edward Bernds  This movie is so bad it’s hilarious.  A spaceship crashes on a planet ruled by women.  The evil queen is planning to destroy earth with a cardboard box containing a “beta disintegrator.”  Zsa Zsa Gabor (yes, Zsa Zsa Gabor) wants to stop her because she “hate[s] that queen.”  Grab the popcorn for this one.  Extra butter.

The Producers  (1968)  Dir. Mel Brooks   A has-been producer (Zero Mostel) and a mousy accountant (Gene Wilder) come up with a scheme to make a fortune: find the worst play ever written—a sure-fire flop, oversell shares to it, then produce it for the Broadway stage.   The film straddles the line between wit and vulgarity, but never slips because its characters are simply rotten at being villains.

Take the Money and Run  (1969) Dir. Woody Allen  Allen plays Virgil Starkwell, a thoroughly inept bank robber, and one-time cellist with a marching band.  Ask me how much I love that scene!

The Freshman  (1990) Dir. Andrew Bergman  Matthew Broderick plays a film student who needs money, and finds a job working for an uncomfortably familiar character:  Marlon Brando brilliantly satirizing himself as Don Corleone.

Arachnophobia  (1990) Dir. Frank Marshall   Great blend of horror and comedy.  Best:  John Goodman as an exterminator.

What About Bob?  (1991)  Dir. Frank Oz   Richard Dreyfuss plays a pompous psychiatrist who’s hounded by a needy yet charming patient.  Bill Murray plays the ultimate neurotic who makes Dreyfuss’s life hell.

Galaxy Quest  (1999) Dir. Dean Parisot   A parody of the series, Star Trek.  Inhabitants of a distant planet receive earthly television signals detailing the fictitious exploits of an heroic spaceship captain and his crew, and mistake them for historical records.  When the aliens face invasion, they come to earth to ask the captain and his crew for help.  Favorite send-up:  Sigourney Weaver as the crew member who’s famous for her cleavage and repeating everything the computer says.

Films with Unforgettable Scores

You know those moments when you’re watching a film and you feel yourself getting sucked in….  And as you succumb to the experience, you can’t define what it is that’s drawing you; it’s not just the story, the passion, the drama.  It’s something abstract, visceral: music.  Those rhythms and harmonies, spiraling sequences and unresolved dissonances cling to the nerve endings, ignite the emotions, quicken the pulse.  Don’t believe me?  Take a look at the list below. All of the films are impressive in the way their stories create and sustain tension, their scenes convey sweeping power or creeping dread.  But without their scores?  Turn down the volume as the shark speeds through water, or the knife is raised, and see….
Gone with the Wind (1939) Dir.  Victor Fleming Music by Max Steiner

Laura (1944) Dir. Otto Preminger Music by David Raksin

Psycho (1960) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock  Music  by Bernard Herrmann

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) Dir. Blake Edwards Music by Henry Mancini

8 & 1/2 (1963) Dir. Federico Fellini Music by Nino Rota

A Man and a Woman (1966) Dir. Claude Lelouch  Music by  Francis Lai

Romeo and Juliet (1968) Dir. Franco Zeffirelli  Music by Nino Rota

Jaws (1975) Dir.  Steven Spielberg  Music by John Williams

Taxi Driver (1976) Dir. Martin Scorsese Music by Bernard Herrmann

The Mission (1986) Dir.  Roland Joffe  Music by Ennio Morricone

Bagdad Cafe (1987)  Dir. Percy Adlon Music by Bob Telson

Cinema Paradiso (1988) Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore  Music by Ennio Morricone

The Firm (1993) Dir. Sydney Pollack Music by Dave Grusin

Memorial Day Viewing

I once asked my father, a decorated veteran of WWII, what he thought of the war films he’d seen.  He was quick to say that didn’t care for most of them, that they seemed either too fake, or too romantic.

The titles below do not romanticize war.  They depict what a soldier feels on the battlefield—the loss of time, of hours blurring into days and weeks, of bodily functions running amok under fire, of nerves being so frayed, and reflexes so charged that friend can be mistaken for foe.  They show all the gritty, horrifying, and claustrophobic angles of it, and  they show the struggles of those who return, as well as the ultimate sacrifices of those who do not.   My father saw some of these films before he  died, and appreciated them for their honesty and artfulness.   Those titles are starred.   The links will take you to IMDB, where you can read more.

Glory (1989) Dir. Edward Zwick   (Civil War)   *

Gettysburg (1993) Dir. Ronald F. Maxwell (Civil War)

Paths of Glory (1957) Dir. Stanley Kubrick  (WWI)  *

Gallipoli (1981)  Dir.  Peter Weir  (WWI)

Das Boot (1981) Dir.  Wolfgang Peterson  (WWII)   *

A Midnight Clear (1992) Dir.  Keith Gordon (WWII)

Coming Home (1978) Dir. Hal Ashby  (Vietnam)   *

Full Metal Jacket (1987) Dir. Stanley Kubrick (Vietnam)   *

The Hurt Locker (2008) Dir.  Kathryn Bigelow   (Iraq)

Borrowed Material

Have you ever watched a film and thought, “This story seems really familiar”?  If so, chances are good that the familiar material has been borrowed from another source and cleverly refashioned.  The films below represent various degrees of borrowing.  Some have obscured the original material completely, with only occasional nods to it, while others simply modernize it.  All are worth a look….

Rick (Rigoletto, opera by Giuseppe Verdi) 2003 Dir. Curtiss Clayton

Scotland, Pa (Macbeth, play by William Shakespeare) 2001 Dir. Billy Morrissette

Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy (Smiles of a Summer Night,  film by Ingmar Bergman, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream,  play by William Shakespeare)  1982 Dir. Woody Allen

Ever After: A Cinderella Story (Cinderella, story by Charles Perrault)  1998 Dir. Andy Tennant

After Hours (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, novel by Lewis Carroll) 1985 Dir. Martin Scorcese

Brazil (1984, novel by George Orwell) 1985 Dir. Terry Gilliam

O Brother, Where art Thou?  (The Odyssey, epic poem by Homer) 2000 Dir. By Joel and Ethan Coen

Apocalypse Now (Heart of Darkness, novella by Joseph Conrad) 1979 Dir. Francis Ford Coppola

Zero Effect  (“A Scandal in Bohemia” story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) 1998 Dir. Jake Kasdan

Clueless (Emma, novel by Jane Austen)  1985 Dir. by Amy Heckerling

Roxanne (Cyrano de Bergerac, play by Edmond Rostand) 1987 Dir. by Fred Schepisi

Double Features: Films with related material

Oh, how I recall the double-feature—hunkering down in the theater with a tub of buttered popcorn, giant soda, and box of ice cream bonbons which felt way too big for my mouth, froze my tongue, and took forever to melt.  Going to a double feature was a Saturday or Sunday afternoon event, a kind of silent celebration in the dark, the perfect escape from excessive heat or cold, which, in our family, was almost always followed by a trip to our favorite Italian restaurant for pizza.

Since the double feature has gone the way of the drive-in movie, I thought I’d offer some suggestions for Saturday or Sunday afternoon viewing, along with links to the Internet Movie Database.  So, get your favorite snacks ready, and have the pizza delivered!

Forbidden Planet (1956) Dir. Fred M. Wilcox  and Tempest (1982) Dir. Paul Mazursky

All About Eve (1950) Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz and  Being Julia (2004) Dir. Istvan Szabo

East of Eden (1955) Dir. Elia Kazan and Amadeus (1984) Milos Forman

The Red Shoes (1948) Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and Black Swan (2010) Darren Aronofsky

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969) Dir. Ronald Neame  and An Education (2009) Dir. Lone Scherfig

Strangers on a Train (1951) Dir. Alfred Hitchcock  and Throw Momma from the Train (1987) Dir. Danny DeVito

Wings of Desire (1987) Dir. Wim Wenders and Death Takes a Holiday (1934) Dir. Mitchel Leisen

The Horse’s Mouth (1958) Dir. Ronald Neame and Pollock (2000) Dir. Ed Harris

 

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