From the Archive — Casino Royale

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I’m running low on older material, so we’re likely in the last few weeks of the “From the Archive” feature. Hence, the recent ramping up of pre-production promo for the next James Bond film — led by casting announcements that include a recent Oscar winner as the villain — are cause enough to dust off old reviews of Daniel Craig’s initial turns in the famed 007 role. Today, it’s Casino Royale. This was originally published at my former online home.

There’s the whole subculture of film fandom desperately devoted to discussions of James Bond. They’ll debate Bond cars, Bond gadgets, Bond villains and Bond girls with adamant dedication to their own list of favorites, but it usually results in fetishizing the years that Sean Connery played the British spy. Seriously, I doubt there’s anyone out there stumping for Dr. Christmas Jones as the best Bond girl, and if you encounter this individual you should probably avoid talking movies with them. It’s got to be a pretty frustrating brand of movie junkiedom when you’re chasing the high of films from around forty years ago.

Despite the fact that the recent outings starring Pierce Brosnan have ranked among the strongest of the twenty official Bond films in terms of box office, the producers felt it was time to reinvent the franchise, tossing away the weathered tropes in favor of a grimmer, more realistic approach more in keeping with author Ian Fleming’s original conception of the character. Call it “Bond: Year One,” or, in movie parlance, Bond Begins. They’ve rebooted with Casino Royale, introducing us to Bond at the precise moment he earns his double-oh status and depicting his earliest days as a member of her majesty’s secret service.

To help make the new beginning all the more clear, they’ve recast the central role, giving us the sixth actor to take on Bond since the series launched in 1961. Daniel Craig plays 007 as an angry, impulsive figure, still working off whatever childhood issues sent him into this suicidal line of work and developing the mental and emotional callouses that will help him survive. He’s driven rather than suave. Thrillingly enough, when he seduces a beautiful woman early on it’s a means to gather information, not a retreat from the urgent matters at hand for a little Playboy-era canoodling. This Bond is focused. He’s got a job to do, and a bedroom romp is only as valuable as the distance it edges our man closer to his international security goals.

The serious approach is welcome, longed for even. But they may have erred too far on the side of subduing the spectacle. This Bond film is serious, alright. It’s also a little dull. Director Martin Campbell helmed Pierce Brosnan’s original go-round as Bond, and he returns to help introduce Craig. His work is solid enough, especially in the action sequences, but everything seems to just take a little too long, move a little too slowly. He lingers on the set-up when we’ve already figured out the payoff. It’s worthwhile to jettison the more ridiculous elements of the previous films, but it seems they’ve mistaken slack pacing for thoughtful filmmaking.

It’s all the more frustrating because the perfect medium between invisible cars and ice castles and a realistic (okay, quasi-realistic) depiction of spy work is contained right there in the first reel. Bond chases a scarred bomb-maker through a construction site, matching the man’s incredibly athletic leaps and bounds up unfinished elevator shifts and from girder to girder. The sequence plays out like a less cartoonish version of one of Jackie Chan’s marvelously inventive set pieces. It also benefits from actual stunt work: real humans instead of imperiled video game avatars. There’s undoubtedly some CGI-bolstering of the on-set heroics, but it’s still oddly refreshing to see the thrills built the old-fashioned way. For one satisfying stretch, we’re actually getting a taste of the Bond we deserve: one that’s grounded in the times but still capable of making the impossible seem just real enough to believe it.

From the Archive — The Queen

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On this Academy Awards weekend, I’ll reach back to the review I wrote about the film that earned Helen Mirren her Best Actress in a Leading Role trophy. This was first posted at my original online home.

Stephen Frears’ new film The Queen begins with a slightly awkward scene in which Queen Elizabeth II discusses the burgeoning popularity of Prime Minister candidate Tony Blair with a man painting her portrait. It if a brief scene which doesn’t so much introduce the Queen as establish the official relationship between the monarchy and the elected government. The film then shifts to a separate shot on which the camera pans up the Queen, dressed in all her royal finery, settling on a close-up of her face as she look directly at the viewer. The film’s title appears next to her head, and momentarily, it feels like the strangely straightforward opening to some new BBC sitcom about the Royal Family.

This tiniest of stumbles is the only thing at all problematic about The Queen. Frears has made a marvelous film.

In focusing on a single, meaningful week, the film captures all the dilemmas of a modern monarchy. Tony Blair has just been elected Prime Minister when word comes from France that Princess Diana has been killed in a car crash. Blair instinctively, astutely determines that this will be cause for national mourning and responds accordingly. The Royals do not, choosing to remain silent and detached, their decision fueled dually by an animosity towards the woman whose aversion to their ways helped end her marriage into the family and an adherence to the legendary British emotional reserve they feel it is their place to exemplify.

This situation, rich, famed and painfully recent, provides the perfect window into the conflicts of a ruling class whose power is now strictly ceremonial. They are so utterly removed from their subjects, indeed from the ways of the entire world, that they have no sense whatsoever of how to proceed. Helen Mirren plays the Queen with an expected regal composure and confidence. She also excels at finding the hidden moments of vulnerability in the women, the fleeting times when she will allow some vulnerability to show, while openly considering her fading popularity or gazing at the beauty of nature. Her performance is equalled by that of Michael Sheen as Prime Minister Blair. It is he who privately rails against the Royal, but also reaches out to them, trying to gently coax them towards the right political decisions out of devotion to the country he has been chosen to govern.

The smart script by Peter Morgan (who’s also a credited writer on the far less successful The Last King of Scotland) never stoops to pushing this situations into melodramatic excess. The drama emerges from the reality of the situations, not from manufactured, overwrought battles. The conflicts are finally so simple and yet so effective: the Royals chatting aimlessly about daily plans as they watch other world leaders extoll the virtues of Diana on the evening news, utterly oblivious to their need to do the same. There is even rich contrast in the plainly captured images of the Queen and Tony Blair talking on the telephone, each in their own home library, the Queen’s a large, tasteful collection of old tomes, and Blair’s a batch of novels and paperbacks shoved into shelves with toys and knickknacks. It’s just set dressing, but Frears has the confidence to let these background details tell the story.

Not that the film is a strict polemic against the Royal Family. It often has sympathy for them. They may have been oblivious to the changing world around them, but it allows for the suggestion that their devotion to tradition might have some nobility to it. And, in the wake of the global grief over Diana’s death, the film does allow Prince Phillip to make one the most pertinent, pointed observations: “Sleeping in the streets and pulling out their hair for someone they never knew. And they think we’re mad!”

From the Archive — Marie Antoinette

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This was originally written for and posted at my former online home. 

There was a lot of suspicious murmuring when the teaser trailer for Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette hit. It looked like a period piece, but what was that New Order song doing there? Coppola was announcing that she was going to make a period piece, but she was going to make it her way. If that meant incorporating early 1980s pop songs, so be it. After all, it’s not necessarily more anachronistic that incorporating late 90’s art pop into a film set in the mid 1970’s, or automatically adding an orchestral score to any movie set in any time, for that matter. And if that proved to be the first indicator of a pervasive personal stamp on her film, all the better. If only.

The shortcomings of Coppola’s film are handily illustrated in the lead performance by Kirsten Dunst. Unlike some, I have no immediate problem with Dunst in the role. In fact, if the only Oscar ballot sent in annually was from me, she’d have two nominations by now. In this film, Dunst is quite good in the early going, when the queen-to-be she is portraying is surveying the world she has been ushered into with a childlike hesitancy and confusion. As the history progresses and the role requires greater depth and commitment, Dunst has nothing to give. She’s lost, reciting lines rather than conveying a life. It may not be her fault, as it seems like Coppola herself loses interest when her privileged girl becomes a woman and a ruler. The verve and observation of the earlier scenes slips away and a hopelessly familiar period drama fills the screen.

Coppola does use her pop songs — Gang of Four, The Cure and Adam Ant are among those who’ve had their back catalog raided — but does sparingly. The only stretch in which they feel like an integral part of the film is during a relatively brief wallow in Marie Antoinette’s legendary decadence. Sometimes it truly enriches the film, giving it a rules-free post-modern kick as in the scene in which the dancers at an 18th century French ball spin around as “Hong Kong Garden” from Siouxsie and the Banshees fills the soundtrack, the gothic indulgence and romantic flourishes of the music unexpectedly serving as perfect accompaniment. Other times Coppola undermines her own boldness with woefully literal usage of the songs. The last thing any film needs is shots of stockpiled sweets set to the pounding rhythms of Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy.”

There is a certain wit that flashes in Coppola’s construction, especially as she walks us through the smothering attention Marie Antoinette receives. It’s more convincing when Coppola remains committed to the time and place of the film, refraining from drawing modern parallels such as the unfortunate moment when the notorious comment “Let them eat cake,” is used to set up a clumsy indictment of tabloid culture. Like a lot of period pieces, this film allows ample opportunity to get visually drunk on the art design (we’re convinced of the indulgent nature of this monarchy by the densely designed wallpaper alone) and Coppola as well-served by cinematographer Lance Acord here as she was with Lost in Translation. It’s always pretty to look at, even when Coppola fails to make it interesting to think about.

The film is based on Antonia Fraser’s biography Marie Antoinette: A Journey, but the journey is precisely what’s missing from Coppola’s film. We get the signposts, but little else of this woman’s life experience. There’s no resonance, just those pop songs echoing fruitlessly in our heads.

From the Archive — Superman Returns

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Officially, director Bryan Singer has a new movie out this weekend. The reality is a little more complicated, but it’s a reasonable enough prompt to dig out this old review, especially since it’s looking like there might be a sizable stretch before the next attempt at a live action Superman film

Let’s start with Lois Lane.

When it was announced that Kate Bosworth would play the intrepid reporter that holds Superman’s heart in the long-gestating attempt to restart the film franchise of the first superhero, it seemed like a dangerous bit of miscasting. Certainly, it’s not the most egregiously wrongheaded choice in the annals of comic book movies, but it still represented a move that could torpedo the whole film. Maybe there’s a gem of a performance buried in some neglected nook of her modest filmography, something that demonstrated her ability to hold the screen with some command, some presence, some inner spirit that would make her believable as a star reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper, much less a women who could captivate the most powerful being on the planet.

I’m not trying to protect the sanctity of the original character with this recounted observation. I have no real sense of who the character is in her four-color adventures, though there’s ample evidence of the character being especially mired in the silliest of the silliness in the history of the medium. My concern lies with what will be effective in this one place, this one film, and Bosworth didn’t inspire a lot of confidence that we’d get much more than pretty accessory in the leading female role.

Truth is, Bosworth is fine. It’s the film that lets her down in a way that’s representative of the problems that run throughout. There are moments in Superman Returns where you get a fleeting look at what a compelling character Lois could be. We see tenacity, stubbornness, self-regard, assurance, and intensity. At times, she comes across as a more glamorous version of Jane Craig from Broadcast News, complete with the distracted intelligence and anxious impatience. There’s an all-too-brief montage of Lois actually being a reporter. She works the phones, sometimes pleading with the person on the other end, sometimes charming them, making notes and scrawling on maps as she goes. There’s something oddly riveting about the scene, watching someone in command of a realistic situation in this fantastical world, and Bosworth works hard to try and tell us who Lois is in these fragmented moments. (There’s another nice detail when Lois is sneaking on to villain Lex Luthor’s yacht with her young, precocious son in tow. He asks if they’re trespassing, and Lois promptly answers “no,” and then instantly revises her answer to tell him “yes.” You learn a lot about her in that quick exchange.) Unfortunately, all these complimentary words don’t accurately assess the character as a whole as depicted in the film. Who Lois is changes throughout the film, veering wildly depending on the needs of the story at any given moment.

The filmmakers haven’t taken a group of characters, established their identities and built the plot and picture around them. Instead, they’ve assembled actors, assigned them famous names from nearly seventy years of comic book adventures and cooked up a big adventure, tweaking and twisting personalities so that there’s little consistency to the roles as the movie unspools. Sometimes Superman’s chief nemesis Lex Luthor is a cool, controlled force of malevolent calculation, and sometimes he’s a sputtering, raving, grandiose preacher of backwards justice. Kevin Spacey does just fine with each version of the character. Imagine what he could have done if he could have concentrated on just playing one of them. Poor Parker Posey, forever trapped in a big studio miasma of utter bafflement over how to utilize her rare gifts, may fare the worst in this regard. Her character, a nondescript moll and criminal partner to Lex, begins with some flashes of the sardonic wit that is usually Posey’s stock-in-trade, progresses to a sort of empty-headed state of constant reaction, and spends the final third of the movie doing little more than quivering in teary-eyed confusion at the nefarious machinations playing out before her. We see little of this character and yet the transformation from her first scene to her last scene is so drastic that it may be advisable to scan the Deleted Scenes section of the eventual triple disc Super Edition DVD to find the exact moment when Posey’s character undergoes invasive brain surgery.

After the tight control of the first two X-Men films, director Bryan Singer has returned to the disjointed confusion of 1998’s disastrous Apt Pupil, his last film before plunging into perpetual employment filming superheroics. It’s as if Singer approached this outing equally intimidated and excited by the iconic nature of the lead character. For all the fealty he shows to the storied history, recreating famous comic images and verbally and visually quoting from the prior films, he never manages to personally discover or convey what makes the character inspiring. The scenes of Superman in action largely feel cursory, obligatory — achievements in special effects rather than in staging. There’s a hint of how the stirring emotion that character can inspire when the filmmakers cook up a way to have Superman’s first act of heroism after a long absence conclude in front of a stadium full of cheering people. When the only way you can make the man seem truly super is by having 30,000 people scream in soaring gratitude at his appearance, there’s something missing.

We started with Lois, so let’s end with the man of steel himself. Despite the fact that the character has some freshly established inner conflicts in this film, Brandon Routh is given a weakly-drawn character. By the design of the character and the construction of the film, duplicating the work of Christopher Reeve seems to be the main goal of the assembled filmmakers, another example of devotion to preceding efforts undermining the fresh direction necessary to reignite the film franchise. Clark Kent is so under-realized in the film that there’s nothing much to be said, but Routh does bring something a little different to Superman. There’s a newfound gentle nature and a politeness to the character that seems very Midwestern. It seems that by casting Iowa native Routh they’ve stumbled upon some facets that seem wholly appropriate for a superhero bred in Kansas. It’s a small achievement, to be sure, but in the underwhelming Superman Returns you take the good elements where you can get them.

From the Archive — The Last King of Scotland

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I don’t have much to add about this review, originally written for my former online home. I’m a little surprised it’s as long as it is, given this is a film I’ve barely spared a thought for in the years since, even if it was responsible for Forest Whitaker winning an Academy Award.

I would argue that film has a greater capability than any other medium to forcefully depict the unthinkable acts perpetrated by humanity against itself. The shock of visually seeing something awful can transcend even the most intricate descriptions of the same act, and the immersive quality of film — that settling into a theater seat and allowing the images to create an overwhelming experience — can lock out distractions that would otherwise blunt the impact. Whether in a documentary or a fictional depiction of actual events, filmmakers can make the desperate horrors of the world more real to those of us removed from them than they would be otherwise.

Idi Amin was took power in Uganda in 1971 and remained the president until deposed in 1979. During that span, as many as 500,000 were murdered under his regime. In the new film The Last King of Scotland, those deaths are reduced to a few photographs scattered onto a table in front of the the protagonist. The movie is about Idi Amin and his rule, but the missed opportunity to make us feel the damage of his rule, perhaps even the abdicated responsibility to bring us the emotions and fear and terrors of that time and place, suitably encapsulate everything that is wrong with the film.

Strangely enough, director Kevin Macdonald’s previous film, the reenactment-aided documentary Touching the Void, was all about recreating and conveying the emotions of the story he depicted. That film related the tragic consequences of a duo’s mountain climbing adventure in the Andes, and every agonizing bit of their dilemma is there on the screen. With more freedom in Last King, Macdonald counter-intuitively winds up with a final product that is far less impactful.

The film is based on an award-winning 1998 novel by Giles Foden. The story centers on a fictional Scottish doctor who impulsively journeys to Uganda for relief works, and finds himself drawn into Amin’s circle as a personal physician and political confidant. Not only does this follow in the sorry filmmaking tradition of examining the history of Africa through the eyes of white lead characters, but it ostensibly provides a conduit to reasonably accessing any facets of Amin’s rule that the film wishes to examine. If the character is completely invented and established as close to Amin, he can get anywhere, see anything the filmmakers want him to see. He is also, theoretically anyway, always in danger. The film decisively establishes Amin’s volatility, but there’s little tension. Moments that should be harrowing are instead distant. James McAvoy does a passable job with the role of the doctor, but he’s given little to do beyond pine after married women and spiral into guilty despair over the history he’s witnessed. His character is there to build some contrived conflict into the film (a largely unnecessary conceit given that the region itself is already rife with conflict) and spiral into guilty despair when a third act is needed.

Forest Whitaker is admittedly a powerful presence as Idi Amin. Whitaker captures the swagger in Amin’s self-composure, the boldness in his public pronouncements of dedication to the people. Without every compromising the undercurrent of madness in the dictator, Whitaker manages to demonstrate how he could be a compelling figure. He shows why Ugandans would initially cheer for this man. He digs as deeply into the character as the film and the script will allow, but when he largely disappears for significant stretches — at one point doing little more than play the accordion during a crucial stretch in the middle of the film — it’s hard to buy into the enveloping quality the man had, and harder still to understand him as a full-blooded character. It’s nice work by Whitaker, to be sure. It’s just a shame that the film builds in so many buffers to keep us from feeling the performance and the horrible touch of the man he portrays.

From the Archive — Friends with Money

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On the occasion of Nicole Holofcener’s latest film making its debut in theaters and on Netflix this weekend, I’ll reach back to the review I wrote of her third feature. Friends with Money is arguably the writer-director’s weakest film, and it still has a lot to like in it. Others can hop onto their soapboxes and offer anguished diatribes about the harms inflicted by the Netflix model on art house theaters. They’re not entirely wrong. But as far as I’m concerned, if the streaming service has an approach that allows creators like Holofcener to keep plying their trade at an increasingly inhospitable time for smaller films in the theatrical marketplace, there is heroism at play. 

I don’t think Friends with Money is actually about having friends with money. While the film is largely designed as an ensemble, Jennifer Aniston is pretty clearly the lead. She plays a thirtysomething woman who is working as a maid to make ends meet after quitting her job as a prep school teacher, perhaps in part because of the wounded pride that comes from toiling away for teenagers driving cars that are worth more than an educator’s yearly salary. On top of it all, her financial struggles aren’t reflected in the lives of her three closest friends, all of whom are successful enough to do things like erect a pricey addition on the top of their house or openly debate which charity is most deserving of that extra two million that’s lying around the house. The set-up definitely feels like it’s leading up to film in which schisms created between people with vastly different bank statements are a central driving theme; class warfare on a personal level.

But that movie never really emerges. There are some nicely drawn scenes scattered throughout, such as when Aniston talks to one of her friends about the investment required to take classes that could lead to a new career path, but it rarely feels like the film is digging as deeply as it could. Maybe that’s because Aniston’s character usually comes across as little more than directionless: there’s no weight to her problems, no sense of the day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck struggles that come from working on the front lines of the service industry. She cleans strangers’ homes for money and that’s enough to make us feel her pain, or so it seems. Maybe it’s because there’s so much other ground to cover, so many other corners of the film’s various stories to dig into. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener creates compelling, deeply considered characters, and it must be tempting to follow them wherever they lead, whether or not it adheres to the overarching idea that’s being conveyed.

Holofcener’s previous film was 2001’s smart Lovely and Amazing, which may have skewed expectations for how effectively this new film would cohere. While packed with characters, Lovely managed to continually return to female self-image, particularly body image. It may have seemed a little aimless at times, but every element actually enhanced and enlivened Holofcener’s points, and she demonstrated a dramatist’s skill to keep the proceedings from turning into an awkward op-ed piece on celluloid.

To be fair, I admired Lovely and Amazing far more in retrospect than I did right after walking out of the theater. Holofcener’s lack of bombast or arty inclinations can dull that initial impression, but the intellect of her writing proves more resonant. Maybe that will happen with this film, as well. There certainly is plenty to like. Giving meaty roles to Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack merits applause right off the bat, and Holofcener’s dialogue remains as sharp as razor-wire (here she shows a special skill for constructing the escating pettiness of an argument). Yet, while praising the script, it’s worth noting that her writing suffers from a newfound flaw of concocting endings that are too cutesy and pat.

So, what is the film about? Whether or not it’s Holofcener’s intent, it seems to be about the judgments people casually make about other people, the speculation about everything from marital stability to personal hygiene choices. In Holofcener’s view, no one forgoes this unseemly guesswork. It’s the same if you’re driving away from a friendly dinner in a battered old Honda or a big, new, top-of-the-line S.U.V. In that respect, it doesn’t really matter whether or not your friends have money.

From the Archive — All the King’s Men

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As we are about to slip from the boom-boom-boom of the summer movie season into a fall stocked with awards hopefuls, allow me to offer a gentle reminder that sometimes even sterling source material, a skilled filmmaker, a cast stocked with tremendous actors, and the best of intentions can add up to a dreadful couple hours of cinema. This review was original written for and posted at my former online home.

The new film version of All The King’s Men is a bad movie. Whenever a movie aspires to something more than just the latest piece of junk off the Hollywood assembly line, the temptation is to celebrate it despite its shortcomings. Writer-director Steve Zaillian is clearly trying to craft something deep, meaningful and resonant here, and while that is more admirable than, oh say, filming a bunch of dolts performing idiotic stunts and assembling the wreckage, it doesn’t automatically means the end result will be worthy. Indeed, it is that very sense of heavy importance, the telegraphed value of what’s been created, that most damages the film. It smothers itself in self-veneration.

Based on a novel by Robert Penn Warren (which was made into a film once before), the film follows a Louisiana politician named Willie Stark as he climbs from discarded local office holder to the most powerful man in the state, a governor who breeds enemies as he employs the nastiest back-room tactics to do the people’s work. Warren’s story means to convey the ways in which the American political system corrupts even the most honest of men. His Willie Stark is a self-described hick, a simple man who drags himself upwards through the system motivated by a persistent need to refute the power-brokers who underestimated him and others like him. As Stark reaches higher office, his morals become just a slippery as those of his predecessors. This doesn’t really come through in Zaillian’s film version.

Part of it may be that, in playing the lead role, Sean Penn seems disconnected from the smaller life of Willie Stark. It’s almost as if he’s biding his time, simply waiting until he can tear into the big stump speech monologues and glowering duplicity that will come. He’s not alone on the list of misfiring actors. Across the ticket, a strong cast is wasted or wandering. Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Mark Ruffalo barely make impressions with their pivotal characters. Patricia Clarkson tries to wring some life out of the role of political consultant Sadie Burke (although, I’m not sure you’d really be able to even define the character’s role with only this film as reference), which was juicy enough in the 1949 film version to earn Mercedes McCambridge an Oscar in her film debut. We get only glancing exposure to the character and there’s little recognizable from scene to scene; Clarkson may as well have been cast in multiple different roles, given how much consistency is built into the character. And then there’s Anthony Hopkins. Around the time of 1998’s dread-inducing Meet Joe Black, Anthony Hopkins announced that he was quitting acting. You could present his performance here as evidence that he followed through on that pledge; he simply didn’t stop appearing in films.

Zaillian’s screenplay and film show little commitment to developing the characters. There are there and the plot moves around them, but there’s little personal impact, there never seems to be anything at stake for any of the people onscreen. Instead, Zaillian lathers James Horner’s typically bludgeoning music score over repetitive scenes of contrived import. He re-uses footage to a tiresome degree, perhaps believing that the audience needs extra reinforcement of certain points, perhaps wanting to remind us of the elegance of the filmmaking. Regardless of the reasoning, I’d trade the redundant glimpses of a lazy lakefront conversation or clenched jaw plotting in a parked car for some different moments that actually enriched the movie.

Everything about the way the film is put together gives the impression that the filmmakers were deeply respectful of the gravity of their material. All of that leaden seriousness only serves to show us that really, sadly they have nothing to say.