Balkan stories. Films reviewed: You Won’t Be Alone, Întregalde, The White Fortress

Posted in Bosnia, Class, Fairytales, Folktale, Roma, Romance, Romania, Witches by CulturalMining.com on March 26, 2022

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Movie theatres are finally open again, for real. I mean munching-popcorn-and-seeing-silly-movies-on -the-big-screen real. I went to a preview of The Lost City, sort of a remake of the 80s hit Romancing the Stone, starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum. It’s totally goofy, but I really liked seeing a movie I could watch  and enjoy without my critical eye. It’s what I call a popcorn movie.

This week we’re escaping to the Balkans, for three stories set in Romania, Macedonia and Bosnia–Herzegovina. There are three do-gooders stuck in the mud, two teenagers falling in love, and one girl promised to an evil witch on her 16th birthday.

You Won’t Be Alone

Wri/Dir: Goran Stolevski

It’s 19th century Macedonia, a time when people still believed in witches and  folklore. In particular there’s a wolf-like witch who terrorizes a village by devouring their babies. One woman dares to talk back. She appeals to Old Maid Maria (Anamaria Marinca) a hideously ugly woman covered in scars, not to killer her infant. In exchange she can have her when she’s a young woman, someone to take care of her in her old age. The witch agrees, but first marks her and takes away her tongue. But the next 16 years are neither  childhood nor girlhood. Mother keeps her isolated in a deep dark cave, hoping the witch will never find her. But of course she does and takes her away. Says the witch — this world is a terrible place, peopled by liars and killers. So you must learn to kill. But the girl is overwhelmed by the beauty of blue skies and green fields. She loves living, from rabbits to fish, and cherishes them all. IN frustration the witch sets her free, vowing she will soon learn how awful people are. Turns out the watch is partly right — people can be cruel. And learn she does. Her long claws frighten them until she realizes she can change her appearance… but first she must find someone who just died, be they male or female, young or old, and put their beating heart into her chest. Thus begins her search for love in this hideous and wondrous world. 

You Won’t Be Alone is a highly impressionistic retelling of a classic folktale, filled with sex, nudity, violence. The characters rarely speak, rather a constant voiceover tells the girl’s thoughts using childlike stilted words. The camera drifts in and out, changing point of view from  human to witch to wolf. The film was shot in Serbia with an international cast, including the Swedish Noomi Rapace  (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, and Lamb), The French Carloto Cotta (Diamantino)  and many others. But don’t expect a traditional supernatural fairytale, cause it’s not. It’s more of a poetic, feminist art-piece about witchery, ignorance and nature. If you look at it that way, you’ll probably love it.

Întregalde

Co-Wri/Dir: Radu Muntean

(I previously interviewed Radu about One Floor Below).

It’s a food bank in big-city Romania where volunteers are happily putting together care packages for the needy. Three of them — Maria, Dan and Iliac (Maria Popistasu, Alex Bogdan, Ilona Brezoianu) are ready for an adventurous and rewarding day. But they’re not visiting poor families in the city; rather, they’re heading for a remote town deep in the woods, where relief is needed most. But where the paved roads end, trouble begins. They meet an old man named Kente (Luca Sabin) on the road and offer him a ride. He tells strange and disgusting stories about the local area (is he a visionary or merely demented?) But when their car gets stuck in the mud, frustration turns to anger and none of them car get the car back to the main road. When they get hungry they are forced to dig into the supplies meant for the poor. They finally decide to split up and look for help at a local wood mill. But it’s getting darker and colder as night-time approaches. Will they ever find their way out of this strange forest?

Întregalde — I’m guessing the title is a pun on Transylvania — is a social satire about how good intentions don’t always lead to good results. It’s told like a fairytale, set in a complex, polyglot world, but there are no vampires here. The only monsters are issues like elder abuse, homophobia, marital problems and anti-Roma prejudice. But don’t worry, it’s not a heavy-issues movie — although there are some shockingly realistic scenes — rather it’s a humorous look at our own preconceptions. 

The White Fortress 

Wri/Dir: Igor Drljaca

(I previously interviewed Igor about KrivinaIn Her Place,  and reviewed his film The Stone Speakers.)

Faruk (Pavle Cemerikic) is a teenaged boy with pale blue eyes in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzogovina. He has no memory of his dad, and his mom — a concert pianist — died when he was young. He lives with his grandmother in a housing block. He earns pocket money working with his uncle selling scrap metal for a few bucks. But he wants more. So he takes on small jobs for a local crime boss. He wants Faruk to find a girl and trick her into working as a prostitute. He builds up his courage and approaches a stranger in shopping mall and gives her his telephone number. And to both their surprise, she actually calls him back.

Mona (Sumeja Dardagan) is a young woman from a privileged family, the only daughter of a corrupt politician. She studies English but can’t stand what her parents represent. They are still strangers, but they soon fall in love, together exploring the hidden spaces of Sarajevo. But how long can it last? Mona’s parents plan to send her off to Toronto. The crime boss has cruel intentions, while her family is even more dangerous. Is their love destined for failure? Or like a fairytale will they both live happily ever after?

The White Fortress is a coming of age drama about young lovers from different planets and the obstacles they face. Its beautiful cinematography caresses Sarajevo’s cityscapes and lingers on Faruk and Mona’s eyes, faces and bodies. Pavle Cemerikic is outstanding as Faruk; we really see inside his soul. The White Fortress is a lovely but melancholy romance.

The White Fortress is now available at the digital TIFF Bell Lightbox; Întregalde opens in Toronto at the beautiful Paradise Cinema on March 29th; and You Won’t Be Alone starts theatrically on April 1st; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Daniel Garber talks with Jeff Harris about Oscars 22!

Posted in Academy Awards, Acting, Hollywood, Movies by CulturalMining.com on March 26, 2022

Oscar interview

(Interview continued)

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Photo of Jeff Harris by Jeff Harris.

Yes, it’s Oscar time again, but are you ready for more pomp circumstance, the swimming pools and movie stars, the red carpets and fancy clothes?

Or are you just going to give it a miss?

Either way, you’ll hear all about after this year’s awards this weekend, on Sunday, March 27th.

Did you notice anything different this year? Have you seen any of the movies yet? Do you want to see them? How many could be considered Oscar Bait?

Well to answer some of these questions, to look at the nominations, and to give you a taste of what’s to come, I’m going to join today’s guest in a discussion about the Oscars. Jeff Harris is a Toronto-based photographer, former photo editor at Maclean’s, and is continuing a twenty five year art project of self portraits taken each day. You may also know him for taking the pics that accompany my interviews each year at Hot Docs and TIFF (which he has been covering since 2002).

Jeff Harris is back again for the fifth year as resident cinephile to add his voice to our annual  Oscar rundown.

I spoke with Jeff via Zoom.

The Oscars air on March 27, 2022.

Crime. Films reviewed: The Noise of Engines, The Last Mark, The Outfit

Posted in Canada, Chicago, Crime, Iceland, Mystery, Organized Crime, Satire, Sex, Thriller, TIFF, UK by CulturalMining.com on March 19, 2022

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

This week, I’m looking at three new movies — one from the UK and two premiering at this year’s Canadian Film Fest — that look at ordinary people pulled into the world of crime. There’s a customs official accused of sexual misconduct; a dominatrix targeted by a deranged hitman; and a mild-mannered English tailor pulled into the Chicago mob.

The Noise of Engines (Le Bruit des Moteurs)

Dir: Philippe Grégoire

Alex (Robert Naylor) is a young man from a small Quebec town near the US border. It’s a village with a mothball factory a formula 1 race track, and not much else. In this post-9/11 world, the government wants formerly boring customs officers to become ruthless killers in the war on terrorism. So  to get away from his town, he takes a job as a firearms instructor at an isolated Canada Customs training school. But when he is caught in flagrante delicto with a large breasted employee he is dragged before the directrice for an interrogation. Though their sex was consensual, his co-worker had a heart attack from  a lack of oxygen due to the anti-covid face shield she was wearing (he ended up saving her life.) And when the much older Directrice’s invites him to sleep with her and her husband, he turns her down. She is furious and exiles him back to his village for punishment. But his troubles don’t stop there. The local police, in a series of Kafka-esque events, label Alex as a sexual deviant, and accuse him of increasingly absurd crimes, such as leaving lascivious drawings on post-it notes in the local church. However life isn’t all bad. At least he has one friend in the village, an Icelandic drag-racer (Tanja Björk) who wants to practice her  French and see the local sites. Can Alex survive a two week leave in small-town Quebec? Will the police ever leave him alone? And what will  become of his relationship with new Icelandic friend?

The Noise of Engines is an absurdist drama about the stultifying effect corrupt bureaucrats and policemen have in small-town Quebec. Aesthetically beautiful — from its stark scenery and retro settings to its modernistic music and elegant titles — this debut feature is a pleasure to watch. The while film is almost dreamlike (and sometimes nightmarish) to the point where you’re never quite sure whether anything is real or if it’s all in Alex’s imagination. Shot both in Quebec and in Iceland it swerves between comedy and horror, settling somewhere in between. I like this movie.

The Last Mark

Dir: Reem Morsi 

Peyton (Alexia Fast) is an escort and a professional dominatrix. One night, in a seedy motel room with a client she hears unexpected intruders entering the room. Hidden under the bed she witnesses two professional killers shoot the man she was just having sex with.  She escapes but not before they see her. It’s up to the killers to silence the unfortunate witness. Keele (Shawn Doyle) volunteers to catch and kill the witness. He is an older professional reaching the end of his career, while Palmer (Bryce Hodgson) is his new replacement, a psychotic murderer who chops off his victims heads just for the fun of it. But there’s a twist. Peyton left her ID behind, and Keele recognizes her last name — the same as a woman he had a fling with decades earlier. Is it possible that she’s his daughter? He asks Eli (Jonas Chernick)  his longtime fixer to do a bit of research — is she related to him, or just another target? In the meantime, Keele kidnaps her and locks her in an isolated cabin, far from the eyes of his head-chopping partner. Can the two if them learn to get along? Do they have anything in common? Can they trust one another? And will he save her or kill her? 

The Last Mark is a classic typical, crime dramady, about an odd couple pulled together by coincidence. This is the director, Reem Morsi’s first full-length feature, and it holds together well. The cast is good all-around, even the smaller roles, especially Bryce Hodgson as a psycho-killer. This is a Canadian production and cast, but the story is set somewhere vaguely outside of Detroit (though it was shot in Sudbury). It’s violent but not gory, and even moving at times. It’s never slow or boring, and the characters are just quirky enough to keep you interested but still believable. This movie’s pretty good.

The Outfit

Co-Wri/Dir: Graham Moore

It’s the mid-1950s in Chicago. Leonard (Mark Rylance) is a bespoke tailor, originally from London. He apprenticed on Saville Row before opening his own shop. Now in Chicago he works with his assistant Mable (Zoey Deutsch), an ambitious ginger-haired young woman from the neighbourhood. She collects exotic snow globes with the idea of someday living in the cities in her glass souvenirs. And she’s dating Richie (Dylan O’Brien) a brash young gangster, on the sly. And that’s trouble. You see, the whole neighbourhood is under the thumb of Richie’s dad, a local kingpin, who is also Leonard’s best customer.  He doesn’t want Richie to mess things up. As a favour, he lets them use his shop as a safe house, leaving important messages in an innocuous wooden drop box at the back. But one day, a recorded cassette mysteriously appears in an envelope. Apparently it was recorded by the Feds… but how did it get there? Was it a secret plant in the FBI? A rival gang? Or the Outfit (a syndicate for organized crime groups) And how did they record it — is there a rat within their own ranks? Francis (John Flynn) first lieutenant in the gang, is sent in to investigate, soon followed by the kingpin himself, along with his bodyguard. As suspicion grows, and bullets start to fly, it’s up to Leonard to try to smooth the waters… but is he too late? And who is the rat? The kingpin, his son Richie, his lieutenant, or possibly even Mable or Leonard himself?

The Outfit is a clever suspense drama about loyalty, suspicion and lies within a crime gang and how it effects the people all around it. Mark Rylance is terrific as the stiff-upper-lip “cutter” (he doesn’t want to be a called a tailor)  and his behind-the-scenes machinations. Like a stage play, the whole film is set within the three rooms of his shop over the course of a single day, but doesn’t feel claustrophobic, just precisely made, like the hundreds of pieces of cloth Leonard sews together to make a single suit. Graham Moore who wrote The Imitation Game also directed this excellent period drama. No spoilers here, but this film has more twists and turns than you can shake a stick at. It’s more clever than emotional, which makes for a fun — though at times violent — mystery/drama. I like this one, too.

The Outfit opens this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. The Noise of Engines has its Toronto premiere on March 23rd and The Last Mark its Canadian premier on April 1st, both at the Canadian Film Festival.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

Advances in Technology. Films reviewed: The Automat, Dope is Death, After Yang

Posted in 1920s, 1970s, Addiction, Adoption, Androids, Canada, documentary, drugs, Eating, Family, New York City, Science Fiction by CulturalMining.com on March 12, 2022

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Technology, whether we find it good or bad, always affects our lives. This week, I’m looking at three movies — two documentaries and a science fiction drama — that look at advances in technology. There’s a new type of restaurant a hundred years ago that sells hot food out of metal and glass dispensers; a clinic 50 years ago that uses acupuncture to detox heroin addicts; and a future world where androids serve as siblings.

The Automat

Dir: Lisa Hurwitz

It’s the 1920s in New York and the city is booming. 300,000 women work as stenographers and they — along with everyone else — all need to eat lunch. And one modern restaurant chain, Horn & Hardart’s Automat, is serving them all. Art Deco palaces welcome anyone with a nickel to buy a slice of pie or a cup of steaming French-press coffee expelled through shiny brass dolphin heads. Customers share marble topped tables with whoever sits down beside them.  And behind stacks and rows of pristine glass and metal drawers, a nickel or two dropped in a slot opens the door to a single servings of macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, baked beans, or Salisbury steak all made at a central commissary and shipped out that very same day. At its peak they served 800,000 diners each day in NY and Philadelphia (where the chain was founded). But what goes up must come down. I wandered into an automat just once as a teenager and never went back. It was disgusting, the food looked unpalatable and aside from the novelty of buying a stale, egg salad sandwiches behind a little glass door, I couldn’t see why anyone would go there. But its fans from earlier generations remember it well, swearing by their specialties like strawberry rhubarb pies. 

The Automat is a fun and breezy look at this fabled restaurant chain, and its rise and fall. It interviews former owners, staff and customers, including celebrities like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. And although the doc was shot pretty recently, many of the featured interviewees — like Ruth Bader Ginzburg and Colin Powell — have sadly passed away. This is an interesting doc about an almost forgotten phenomenon.

Dope is Death

Wri/Dir: Mia Donovan (Inside Lara Roxx)

It’s the early 1970s in the South Bronx, NY and heroin use is rampant. Nixon has declared a war on drugs, devoting money to incarceration and maintenance programs (like methadone), but nothing for detoxification and ending addiction. So black, brown and white activists in groups like the Black Panthers and the Young Lords decided to take action. They occupied Lincoln Hospital and managed to open a detox clinic there. The program was led by Dr Mutulu Shakur, (that’s Tupac Shakur’s step-father, and a separatist activist in the Republic of New Afrika movement.) who tried something new — acupuncture! A half dozen medics went up to Montreal and returned a couple years later as medically-trained acupuncturists, staffing the new clinic, specifically to relieve drug addicts from their need for heroin.

Dope is Death is a brilliant, politically-informed historical documentary that looks at all the people involved in this movement— interviewing former addicts, acupuncturists and political activists. Sadly many were jailed or went underground following a brutal FBI crackdown. This film includes pristine colour footage from the era, along with period posters, photos, and audio  and video interviews. Although most of the film is set in NY city, the story takes us exotic locales from Montreal to Beijing. Sadly this fascinating doc was released during covid, but it’s finally showing on the big screen one day next week in Toronto.

After Yang

Dir: Kogonada

It’s the near future somewhere in the world. Kyra and Jake (Jodie Turner-Smith, Colin Farrell) are a happily married couple with a daughter named Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja). To help Mika cope with differences (Mika is Black and English, Jake white and Irish, and she was adopted as an infant from mainland China)  they purchase an android named Yang. He is programmed to help Mika discover fun facts about her heritage and learn to speak Chinese. Yang  (Justin H Min) is like a gentle adult brother, there to explain and comfort her while her parents are away (mom works in an office, while dad sells tea leaves   — his obsession — out of a small shop). But when Yang malfunctions and stops working altogether,  that is, he dies, little Kyra is devastated, sending the family on a downward spiral. It’s up to Jake to try to bring them back together by preserving Yang’s thoughts and memories. But in trying to save him, Jake discovers new things about their lives, and Yang’s, things he knew nothing about.

After Yang is an unusual science fiction movie, without space ships, laser beams, or violence of any kind. In this future world people (or at least this family) live in stunning glass and wooden houses and dress in colourful hand-sewn clothing. They hilariously compete as a family in online dancing competitions (this has to be seen to be believed). Jake’s investigations uncover Yang’s hidden past lives, before he lived with them, including a woman he was in love with. This is a very low-key and visually-pleasing look at a future just like our present but prettier… and where artificial intelligence plays a crucial  part in our lives. It also deals with privacy, death, technology and everyday middle class problems. The director incorporates experimental film techniques in the movie, things like multiple repetitions of some of the lines to convey the way we — or an android — might remember things. Characters rarely show strong emotions; everything is repressed.  And to tell you the truth, not much happens. So while not completely satisfying, After Yang is still a pleasure to watch.

After Yang opens this weekend in Toronto; check your local listings. And Hot Docs Cinema is featuring special screenings of The Automat and Dope is Death next week, with the directors present for Q&As; go to hotdocs.ca for details.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com.

Daniel Garber talks with Agam Darshi about her new film Donkeyhead

Posted in Canada, comedy, Coming of Age, Death, Denial, Drama, Family, LGBT, Punjab, Religion, Saskatchewan, Sikh by CulturalMining.com on March 12, 2022

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Mona is a youngish woman in Regina, Saskatchewan who is living the life of Reilly. She lives rent free in a big old house, received a whopping advance on her first novel, she’s dating a successful lawyer, and  she sees her dad regularly. So why is she such a mess? Because she still lives in her crumbling, childhood home, her lover is married with kids, she has perpetual writer’s block and never wrote the book,  she spends all her time taking care of her bed-ridden, cancerous father downstairs, and they seem to hate each other’s guts. But when his health takes a turn for the worse she realizes she has to call her siblings to come see him before he dies. But a happy reunion it ain’t.

Donkeyhead is the name of a great new tragicomic movie about a dysfunctional Sikh-Canadian family reunited around their dying father’s bed. It’s funny, it’s moving and always surprising. It’s written, directed and produced by Agam Darshi who also performs in the lead role of Mona. Agam is a successful actress and also the co-founder of the Vancouver South Asian Film Festival, but as a director Donkeyhead is her first feature. It deals with family issues, childhood grudges, assimilation vs tradition, and impending death, all set within Regina’s Punjabi Sikh community.

Donkeyhead opened theatrically this weekend in Regina, Saskatoon and Toronto.

I spoke with Agam Darshi from Toronto via ZOOM.

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Career change. Films reviewed: Nightride, Jockey

Posted in Animals, Crime, Drama, drugs, Horses, Movies, Northern Ireland by CulturalMining.com on March 6, 2022

Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.

Professions don’t necessarily last forever. Some people retire early or change jobs. This week, I’m looking at two new movies — a realistic drama and a thriller — about men leaving their longtime professions. There’s a jockey in Phoenix pondering his final ride, and a drug dealer in Belfast trying to complete his last deal

Nightride
Dir: Stephen Fingleton

Budge (Moe Dunford) is a small-time drug-runner in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who wants to change his life. He has a Ukrainian girlfriend and a teenaged daughter, both of whom he loves dearly. He plans to get out of the drug trade entirely but needs a bit of cash — 60 thousand quid, to be exact — to start a new business. He and a friend are signing the lease in the morning to open a new body shop. He got his share from a loan shark, and the borrowed balance has to be returned by midnight. Before that, he just has to pick up 50 kilos in a white van, and drop them off with the buyer. He’s done it dozens of times, and nothing ever went wrong before, so he’s not really worried.

Famous last words…

Something does go wrong — he’s being tailed by someone, probably a cop. He has to pass the pickup to an underling so he won’t get caught with the evidence. But the loan shark’s thug is on his back, the buyer is getting cold feet, and his teenaged daughter is seeks real-time advice about her date. And then the worst possible outcome — the van with the drugs goes missing. The cops are circling, and loaded guns enter the picture. Are his future plans ruined? Will he live or will he die? And has he unwittingly pulled his daughter, best friend and the love of his life into a dangerous world he’s always kept separate?

Nightride is not-bad thriller, with a bunch of twists and turns that keep you interested. It’s a single-shot movie, with no cuts and and recorded by a single camera. And I like Moe Dunford as the main character. Good thing, because he’s basically the only one in the movie! Why? you may ask. Because the whole thing was shot during a Covid lockdown, so all we see — aside from a few crucial scenes —  is him driving his car around while talking on his phone to various invisible voices. I know, we have to pull together in these troubled times, blah, blah, blah, but this doesn’t make for a good movie. I’ve seen a number of these lockdown films: Jake Gyllenhaal as a 911 cop in the bad The Guilty; Naomi Watts as a jogger-mom in the awful Lakewood; and KJ Apa as a bike courier in the atrociously laughable Songbird. So in that company, Nightride is fantastic by comparison. But in the wider world of action thrillers, a movie about a guy driving a car while on the phone… just doesn’t do it.

Jockey
Dir: Clint Bentley

Jackson (Clifton Collins Jr) is an ordinary man in Phoenix, Arizona. He likes fishing, playing poker and waking up early in the morning. What’s special about him is his skill as a jockey — he has ridden many prize-winning racehorses to victory. He may be a bit long in the tooth now, but he’s still legendary at the race tracks. He works alongside Ruth (Molly Parker) a horse trainer. She raises the animals and handles relations with the owners, — Jackson has little time for those dilletantes. And the two of them are like white on rice. They never keep secrets.

Their relationship changes when Ruth becomes an owner herself. She’s raising a filly that’s perfect for Jackson to ride, and could be a real prize-winner. He feels the same way, and would love to take her all the way to the top.

But he is keeping one secret: his spine is severely damaged from years of accidents at the racetracks. The only doctor he’s seen about it is a veterinarian. And a twitch he first noticed on one side starting with his fingers is getting worse. And there’s a second problem. A young jockey named Gabriel (Moises Arias) seems to be following him around. What does the kid want? Is he trying to take over? He confronts him, and Gabriel blurts that Jackson is his father the result of a fling he had with his mom 20 years ago. Is he telling the truth? Will Jackson retire after riding his last great horse? Can he pass his secrets to his new-found son? Or will his back injury cut everything short?

Jockey is a beautifully-made film about a legendary jockey in his declining years. The storyline is fictional, and the three main characters are played by actors, but it’s shot semi-documentary-style in the midst of a real world we rarely see. And it’s a rough life. Actual jockeys share their battle scars and injuries with their chums, and the dangers they face each day. Cameras are placed right under the horses as they speed away at the start of a race. And most scenes are shot right at dawn, capturing the vast glowing Arizona skies. Clifton Collins Jr gives a subtly perfect performance as Jackson; if I didn’t know he was an actor I’d have thought they found a jockey and made a film about him.

This is a great picture that deserves to be seen on a big screen.

Nightride is now available on VOD, and Jockey opens theatrically in Toronto this weekend at the TIFF Bell Lightbox; check your local listings.

This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Saturday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com

 

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