Friday, February 26, 2010

Black History Month 3: Big Bald Black Dudes

Every year at Pluck You, Too! during Black History Month, we celebrate the bad-assery of big bald black dudes. Prior award recipients include Ving Rhames and Keith David, Samuel L. Jackson and Bill Duke.
I don't know how I let the most awesome Lou Gossett, Jr. go this long without being recognized. Best known for his Oscar-winning role as the drill instructor in An Officer and a Gentleman, it was tragically unfortunate that he also starred in the abysmal Jaws 3-D that year. He's gone on to play bare knuckle fighters in Diggstown and of course, a pilot in Iron Eagle, and even an alien in Enemy Mine. He also played Black Bart in the TV pilot for a Blazing Saddles TV series- which thankfully never got made. He works a lot, and has a now iconic face that we recognize and attribute instant bad-assery toward. I most recently reviewed him in his buddy adventure movie with Chuck Norris, Firewalker (full review).
Woody Strode was a pioneering black actor who made his big splash as the hulking gladiator who fights Kirk Douglas in Spartacus. He was a pro football player and a dedicated martial artist in the art of kenpo as well as being a recognized character actor. He had a few starring roles such as the title character in John Ford's Sgt. Rutledge, but I'll always remember him as the silent, evil-looking gunman in the gripping first ten minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West among the three killers awaiting Charles Bronson's arrival by train; he's the one drinking rainwater off his hat! Also in The Professionals, he gets to shoot arrows with dynamite tied to them, and that's the earliest role I remember him in. To this day I want to shoot dynamite arrows at barrels of gunpowder and blow up a bad guy's compound, thanks to Mr. Strode.
Geoffrey Holder is best known as the 7-Up guy with the basso voice, "crisp and clean and no caffeine! ahahahaaa!!!" but he's played memorable heroes and villains. Most recently he narrated Burton's Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, but every girl who grew up in the '80s remembers him as Punjab, Daddy Warbuck's towering bodyguard. I think he was supposed to be Indian or Sikh since he wore a turban, but Hollywood wasn't very sensitive about that sort of thing back then. He's also a choreographer, which accounts for his physical grace that belies his 6'6" height. James Bond fans will remember him as the voodoo priest Baron Samedi, one of the many villains in Live and Let Die.

Prior Awards:

Big Bald Black Dudes 2008
Big Bald Black Dudes 2009

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Monday, February 22, 2010

mondo mini movie reviews!

This is what I've watched in the past week or so.

Black Dynamite
A hilarious homage to the blaxploitation flicks of the '70s, this one should not be missed. A dose of Dolemite with a dash of The Mack and Superfly, martial artist Michael Jai White plays the title character who's out to avenge his dead brother, who was working for the CIA when a mafia drug deal went sour. It begins with him kicking an old lady through a door, and ends with him kicking ass at the White House, as his battle leads him to The Man himself. It gets a little silly in the middle when we learn what the Sinister Plot is, just in time for a homage to Enter the Dragon, but the dialogue is so moronically clever that you'll be laughing the entire time. "If your momma was alive to see this, she'd be spinning in her grave!"

4 out of 5 fat muthafuckas wrestlin' over pork chops 'n greens

The Cove
If you ask the average person in Japan if they eat dolphin, they'd say no. So then why are thousands slaughtered every year in a secretive cove in Taiji? This documentary plays like a heist film as the man who trained Flipper, now turned activist, exposes the brutal and bloody secret of the dolphin industry, where hundreds are harvested for amusement parks and the rest are butchered for meat, and because the Japanese fishing industry thinks they eat too many fish. Yeah, really. This doc certainly has an agenda, but all good ones do; it takes great pains to show that the average Japanese has no idea this is going on, and this is no different than the corruption in America's cattle industry, which keeps us from testing every animal for Mad Cow disease. You'll never go to Sea World again after you watch this one.

4.5 out of 5 senseless slaughters

A Serious Man
The Coens weave a darkly comic tale of Larry Gopnik, a physics teacher whose life takes on the story of Joband the puzzle of Schroedinger's Cat as his life begins to fall apart. I found it interesting, but at times deliberately difficult, and a little pretentious. It calls back to Barton Fink, and is enjoyable as a dark comedy if you don't want to wonder if Gopnik is destined to misery because he's angered God, is being tested, or has just made a serious of bad choices that like Schroedinger's Cat, he can't tell the result of without affecting it. It's a good discussion film, but not for everyone; if you hated Synecdoche, NY you'll probably find parts of this a little pretentious. I myself liked it, but felt some of it superfluous. The opening story of the dybbuk makes sense in retrospect, as it can be likened to Schroedinger's cat, and then the issue of a student who may or may not be trying to bribe Gopnik for a better grade, and so on. There's also the story of his son preparing for his bar mitzvah, which is both entertaining and nostalgic; did I mention it's all set in the Jewish neighborhood of Minneapolis suburbs in the late 60's? Nice touch. Much like the story of the dybbuk, it places it in the past and gives it all the feel of a parable.

4 out of 5 Larry Storches
The Hurt Locker
Wow. This is a war film, and the best depiction of the Iraq War I've seen, but first of all it is a character study. A study of the kind of adrenaline junkie operator who can handle the job of Explosive Ordnance Disposal- defusing bombs and IEDs in a war zone. Kathryn Bigelow has made a documentary-style masterpiece that takes the opening sequence of A Touch of Evil, where we see a bomb put in a car's trunk and follow it, knowing it must go off, and makes it into a gripping war thriller. The movie is over 2 hours long, but felt like 90 minutes. Like the heroes of a Michael Mann film, these are men who define themselves by what they do, and there is a paucity of dialogue. Sgt. James leads a small squad after their leader is killed; they're short timers who just want to go home, but he actually seems to love this job. And he's incredibly good at it. The story unfolds like a memoir, with little structure, jumping from a sniper battle in the desert to an Iraqi base rat kid who James takes under his wing, to his men wondering if he's going to get them killed. He's a mystery; but in the end, we see his heart, and what makes him tick. It's a brilliant character study of the kind of man it takes to do this insane job, disguised as a satisfying thriller. It is one of my favorites of the year, and it's a toss-up to me whether it or Up in the Air is the better picture. Both make great entertainment out of prescient issues we'd rather ignore.

5 out of 5 Best Director Oscars for Kathryn Bigelow, Dammit

The Ghost Writer
Fuck you, Polanski. Come let justice be served. Stop being Noah Cross. Have you made a great movie since then anyway? You're not getting my money until you pay your debt.

Temple Grandin
Excellent biopic of an autistic woman who revolutionized the beef industry by making slaughterhouses more humane. I read her story in the Star-Ledger years ago, and Claire Danes portrays her amazingly in what will surely be an Emmy-nominated performance. This is playing on HBO, and you should see it. It tries to give us the view of the world through her eyes, and while some of the direction is a bit indulgent and lazy- a montage set to guitar as she figures out how to get on a cattle lot that won't let women in for example- the story itself is compelling and touching. It's a TV movie for sure, but Danes performance, and David Strathairn as the teacher who understands her genius, make it worth your time.

3.5 out of 5 moo moo everywhere a moo moos

Dirty Ho
No, not porn! One of the better humorous kung fu flicks of the '70s. Pita-San and I watched this and One-Armed Boxer vs. the Master of the Flying Guillotine, which has some cool fights and great kraut-rock music by Neu!; Dirty Ho is a kung fu comedy from '79 starring Chiu hiu "Gordon" Liu, best known as Johnny Mo/Pai Mei from the Kill Bill movies. I'd recognize that bald noggin anywhere! He plays a prince with many brothers who're trying to kill each other off for Dad's inheritance, and he tricks a scheming thief named ... Dirty Ho... to help him. Let's face it, the name is what makes you watch this movie the first time, but it has great training sequences and fights, and plenty of laughs and slapstick. Plus a great scene where Gordon "fights" using his servant. An underappreciated classic, if you love kung fu flicks, you must find this one.

4 out of 5 dirty ho's

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

What I've Been Up To

I haven't posted a lot lately, I've been watching movies but had a lot on my mind. I'm now engaged to be married to the gal I call "Firecracker" here; her name is Sarah and she's made the past 3 years of my life the cornucopia of awesome that it's been. She's got a clever sense of humor, and her smile is like the sun. You know in Swamp Thing, how the sun healed him because he was like a plant-dude? Like that. And she likes steak. What a woman.

I've also changed my diet so there will be fewer entries in the best burger contest, but they won't disappear. I want to compete in an amateur grappling competition, so my training has amped up a bit, and I want to shed these last tenacious 30 pounds, so I can live my childhood dream of growing up to be the Hulk. I recently read Lou Ferrigno's autobiography My Incredible Life as the Hulk, and it inspired me. He overcame a lot to achieve his goals, and I'm going to apply that to mine- to get in shape to compete, and to begin writing one of the novels I've been tossing around in my head for the last few years.

I have a post put together reviewing the movies I've watched in the last few weeks and that will go up in a day or two, and then you'll be titillated with an entry in the Arnold Project, an '80s trash with Marty Feldman, and a tribute to the king of the modern ape chase movie. Stay tuned!

Oh, I also gave up beer for Lent. Boy, was that stupid.

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Johnny Rockets #12

Every once in a while you need to get a mediocre burger so the great ones stand out. The worst I've had was at the Hard Rock Cafe in Niagara Falls, where the "spicy" one meant they spilled a spice rack on it, minus any hot pepper, because in Canada & Minnesota, capsaicin is a registered deadly weapon. That ketchup there oughtta be spicy enough for ya, buddy. I'm not your buddy, pal...
Johnny Rockets isn't so bad. They are a bit better than fast food burgers, and their classic little hockey pucks of beef tend to be overcooked and seasoned with "fry sauce" according to their website, which adds 100 calories, so it's probably butter to give it flavor missing from the beef. They're tasty enough, but pretty forgettable. They are a good size for lunch, and at least you get to listen to '50s music while you eat them, in their retro diner decor. I'd recommend going to a real diner if you can, for a meatier and better burger. Their fries and onion rings are decent, and they make a passable milkshake.

If you're stuck in a mall, you could do worse- but you're probably better off finding a Chick-Fil-A, unless there's a Five Guys or a Smashburger in your mall. Those two chains have made Johnny Rockets mostly irrelevant.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Kathryn Bigelow: Kick-Ass Directoro

I bitch about the cinematic affectations of the early '90s a lot, so when I get a chance to extol the virtues of a movie from that period, I take it. Point Break, directed by Kathryn Bigelow: Kick-Ass Directoro, is up there with the original Lethal Weapon for best cop buddy action movie. Before Keanu Reeves lost the ability to express emotion, before Gary Busey began talking to pigeons, and before Patrick Swayze wore drag, they came together in this near-paragon of action movies, where a young FBI agent has to infiltrate a gang of bank robbers who never make mistakes, and wear masks of Carter, Reagan, Nixon and LBJ. And they're surfers.
So we get North Shore meets Heat, in a way. Johnny Utah- his real name, not a moniker for being some "young, dumb and full of cum" rookie from the Midwest joining the big leagues in L.A.- was a Rose Bowl quarterback who busted his knee, and joined the Feds. John C. McGinley (Dr. Cox from "Scrubs") is his boss who pegs him with the "young dumb" tag and it fits, because it's Keanu Reeves. It's a part he was born to play, and he gets to be a smart-ass throughout. He gets partnered with Pappas, the grizzled old agent who no one believes, because he has a crazy theory that the Ex-Presidents are surfers, and he's Gary Busey. Would you believe Gary Busey? I wouldn't.
But Keanu Reeves is just dumb enough to believe him, and we believe it, because he's Keanu Reeves. He learns to surf, with the help of Lori Petty (Tank Girl) and a few montages. Lori Petty plays Tyler, an athletic surfer who shows him the ropes. In the end, she plays the damsel in distress, but she brings a lot of life and a dash of reality to this story of monolithic men. She introduces Utah to her ex, Bodhi (Swayze), a Zen surfer warrior who seeks the perfect wave, and the greatest thrill. Johnny gets his respect after whooping him in a game of beach football, and it slowly becomes clear that Utah's new mentor just may be the ringleader of the ex-Presidents. Hmm.... could be!
The plot diverts attention to a bunch of white power douchebags and it's believable enough. Swayze playsthe part of Bodhi with such energy and charisma that like Utah, we don't want him to be a crook. We want to skydive with him, even when he might know we're a cop. There is a sense of honor among them, which is what brought the comparison to Michael Mann's Heat. The men respect each other, and after they know they are born enemies, they can't shoot each other in the back. It's like The Fox & the Hound in that respect, except you won't cry. The scene was famously eulogized in Hot Fuzz, when Johnny Utah fires into the air in anger because he can't shoot his friend. And as ridiculous as it looks, it works, in context.
The movie ends perfectly, with justice served but in a way that satisfies the story and its larger than life characters. Point Break works is an action thriller that plays to the formula of its genre, but transcends it, bringing the Zen mindset of the surfer to it. The FBI agent has to get his man, but he doesn't have to let him die in a prison cell. It may not be as stylish as Mann's thriller, but Bigelow paints her own canvas on the California shore with broad strokes, keeping us as exhilarated as if we were riding that perfect wave.

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

In honor of Black History month...

I ate this choucroutes de Royale at Les Halles. That's blood sausage, it's always excellent. Their frankfurter is blah- for shame, Tony. I hope Hiram's Roadstand smacks some sense into you. The salami and smoked bacon are good, the beer-cooked sauerkraut was good. It should have come with house-made mustard, you crumb-bum!

Your restaurant does so well with many things, but it never hits the ball out of the park. The brie & honey appetizer is great, but the crawfish Creole pastry was too peppery and lacked much depth. I was hoping the bacon would be tastier. How do you make bacon boring? I don't care if that's how brasseries have done it for ages, boiled bacon is not palatable. Next time I'll stick to what you do very well: sausages, mussels, burgers and frites, and the grilled meats. The beef bourgogne was well received, but skimpy. You've been a go-to place for me way downtown, but I'm thinking the cab ride to DBGB may be worth it.

Don't let your restaurants fizzle now that you're a TV celebrity.

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Friday, February 5, 2010

God gave rock 'n roll to everyone

Many years ago, a friend argued that Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey was better than the first movie. Now, other than The Godfather, it's generally accepted that sequels are never better, but we've seen that rule broken many times since. And Bill & Ted did it in 1991, which is especially surprising for an early '90s movie to beat an '80s one. Having watched the two movies again, I must concede that the sequel is better than Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure.
The original film was huge; it affected teen slang, it inspired Wayne's World, and it catapulted Keanu Reeves's career- which began memorably with River's Edge- into super-stardom. If you watch closely, you can see him act in this one; it's long before he became the great stone face with the great gravelly voice. The first movie is a blast, with the amusing premise that these two Spicoli-esque dolts who can't play guitar will create a rock band that will spread harmony throughout the world. It all starts when we learn they have to pass History or be expelled, and a trench-coated time traveler played by none other than George Carlin shows up in a phone booth- a cute nod to "Doctor Who"- to tell them he has to help them, so they can save the world. Sure, the time travel is as convoluted as the Terminator (full review) and not as well-planned as Back to the Future, but boy do they have fun with it. By the end of the movie, they'll be saying "hey, if we go back in time and put the key to the jail in this flowerpot..." and it will magically appear. They end up kidnapping everyone from So-crates to Napoleon to Dr. Sigmund Frood.
It's all very cartoonish, with their air guitar gestures making music on the soundtrack, but it's infectious because they are good-hearted doofuses who seriously believe that all we need to do is "Be Excellent to One Another, and Party On." They aren't cocky smart-asses like Ferris, too cool for their own good, so we want them to stumble into greatness. And they do. But the sequel manages this same mood and ups the ante with a ridiculous time travel plot where George Carlin's old gym teacher- Galactic Sit-Up Champion and all-around pismire De Nomolos- creates Evil Robot Bill & Ted's to kill the originals, ruin the band Wyld Stallyns, and rob Earth of its peaceful, most excellent future.
The robots trick the boys by pretending to be their future selves- which worked in the first picture- and drag them to the desert crag where the "Star Trek" episode where Kirk fights some lizard dude was filmed. I know this because they watch it on TV before it happens, and it's hilarious when you recognize the same location. Amazingly, the infectious joy and idiocy of Bill & Ted, so perfectly played by Keanu and Alex Winters, doesn't just hold up for a second film, but even works better. Because they are in fact, dead. And they goof around as ghosts, find out that Hell is exactly like their heavy metal album covers despite their denials, and best of all, the beat Death in a marathon game of Battleship, Clue, and Twister. Because like, they don't know how to play chess, dude.
William Sadler- one of our best character actors- plays Death and steals every damn scene, even when he's in the background. Along with Joss Ackland as De Nomolos- he was the bad guy from Lethal Weapon 2 claiming "diplomatic immunity!" after he shoots Riggs- and George Carlin as the restrained Rufus, the small roles really support these goofballs. That, and the writing is just plain clever; hell is truly hellish, and damn funny. You spend eternity trapped in your least favorite moment, which for Ted is having to kiss his warty grandmother, while Bill is pursued by a damn creepy Easter bunny. And Death is even funnier if you've seen The Seventh Seal, because here he cheats at Clue! If you went in expecting merely lowbrow humor, air guitar with musical effects, and cries of "bogus!" you get many surprises.

There are so many little touches, like Ben Franklin and Alfred Einstein playing charades in heaven; the boys falling down so deep a hole to hell that they play 20 questions (are you a tank!?) and once again, having strange things be afoot at the Circle K again. Another thing- any time they turn their heads, there's a little "whip" noise, which gets funnier as the movie goes on. I think what I like most is that like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the movie remembers that people we consider "cool" now, like Spicoli, were not popular in high school, but outcasts. As much as I like Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the more I watch it, the more I side with his sister, and want him to fail. But I'm always on Bill & Ted's side, no matter how stupid they are, because they hate gym and aren't cruel to anybody, except maybe the Grim Reaper. They melvin him, after all.
They were wise to never dip into the well a third time, but Mike Myers and Dana Carvey sort of ruined any chances of that with their "Wayne's World" skits on Saturday Night Live, which were never anything but shallow ripoffs, with Wayne making snide asides. I laughed too, but it always felt like Myer's reliving high school with wish fulfillment. Bill & Ted don't believe that they're great, but Wayne secretly wishes he could save humanity with the power of rock 'n roll, doesn't he? Not to slam on them too much, they were amusing enough, and they show how much influence these movies really had. And amazingly enough, if you go back to rewatch them, you'll find that Bogus Journey has staying power, and the first movie is still fun, but in the end, it was just a launching pad for the great sequel. How often does that happen?

Thursday, February 4, 2010

I may be dead, but at least I'm not in macrame class

The Lovely Bones

Another disappointment from Jackson, which can either make The Hobbit not come fast enough, or make me worry about it being made at all. At least Guillermo del Toro is on board, exponentially increasing their chunky bearded nerd power. Maybe they'll smash together like Station! from Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey and make one giant supernerd. The lovely Bones has a lot going for it- excellent performances by Stanley Tucci as the creepy serial murderer, and Saoirse Ronan as Suzie Salmon, his young victim, and our narrator. She's the one to watch here; she was stunning as young Briony in Atonement, and wows yet again as the believable, freckled '70s teen who watches her family deal with her disappearance from the afterlife.
The concept is intriguing, but the film lacks focus and was rather shockingly marketed to a young audience- which freaked the shit out of Roger Ebert- and rightly so. But I'm not going to be as harsh as he was. The film's crime is its length and meandering. Suzie's ghost brushes a young goth girl as she passes to the other side, and she can sense her, but very little happens with it. Her family is in anguish, except for Susan Sarandon as drinky grandma who seems totally out of place in this story, despite giving an amusing performance. We know Suzie is murdered, so as her last day drags on, we aren't in suspense, but dread. As her murder goes unsolved, it simmers into angst, and as she peers down as a vengeful ghost wishing death upon the monster who murdered her, we are given some very mixed cues. Her father- Mark Wahlberg- becomes obsessed with solving her disappearance, but it's made almost comical. Wrong tone. Her younger, bratty sister matures and catches the eye of her neighbor, while Suzie dances through CG heaven with his other victims.
In the end, it just feels wrong. Like Ebert, my first feeling was "boy, I wanna be raped and murdered by a creepy pedophile, so I can go to Where Dreams May Come!" It's a grave mistake for a story where the brutal lack of justice in the world puts us so on edge that the lack of satisfaction might make us take up torches and pitchforks, and look up our neighborhood sex offenders, or worse yet give youths the idea that the afterlife is a bitchin' place to be. Personally I like the Sumerian concept of the afterlife, where you stumble around with a mouthful of dirt; nothing like a clod of soil on your tongue to make you appreciate life, eh?

It turns out heaven is a lot like a default Windows background.

Firecracker didn't like it much either, and she's read the book. Is the movie worth seeing? I'd at most catch a matinee or better yet, rent it. You'll miss some of the beautiful visuals, but to be honest, Where Dreams May Come was more memorable in that regard. That movie had problems too, but its unforgettable images of heaven and hell will outlast even Tucci's lauded performance, which seems more like a reward for tackling so unpleasant a role.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 dead kids

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

I got 25 problems but a Burger ain't one

My Friend Brian the Friendly Irish Giant saw this joint and told me about it- so I found a cool hiking spot nearby, drove down with Firecracker and Milky, and burned some calories before devouring one of their 25 varieties of burger. We hiked at the Sourland preserve, climbing up to some rocky perches, then hurtled down before sundown to grab some good eats.
25 Burgers has a large menu, and they also sell hot dogs. I'll try one of those next time, perhaps- the burgers are pretty good. The selling point here is the array of toppings, and their good-sized (8oz) juicy burgers, which while average in flavor, are a notch above Red Robin or chain restaurants like TGIFriday's. They don't smother the burger with their toppings, and they have thought out their combos well. They have plenty of grilled chicken sandwiches, turkey burgers, buffalo and a veggie burger for all tastes, and you can get any patty on any combo.
I had the Six Alarm Burger (oddly, #7) which registered as perhaps a 2 alarm fire in my mouth (where I don't normally allow firemen, even if they're cute). It has fresh salsa on it, jalapenos, pepper jack and habanero sauce. I wasn't impressed with the heat, and to be honest, I'd have preferred my go-to burger at Five Guys with fresh jalapenos, but this wasn't a bad burger. It wasn't overcooked or dried out. Firecracker liked her Chili Chili (#11) much better, and their smoky, Texas Weiner-style sweet chili amped up the beef flavor of the burger. Their cheese fries- made with queso- are a winner.
Milky went for #19, the Cholula Buffalo burger marinated in chipotle. He loved it. I didn't get a bite, but it looked good and juicy, with a nice sear on it. They have a selection of 3 buns- multigrain, Miami Onion, and plain- and all 3 were pretty good. The onion rings were good quality and well battered, and fresh. The sweet potato fries got Milky's endorsement as well.
So, while I wouldn't go out of my way for 25 Burgers, they are worth stopping at if you get the craving. Service is fast, the food is good and fresh, and the walls are spackled with Star Trek and movie memorabilia, making for a friendly atmosphere. When we return to the Sourlands or hike Black River, we'll be back for a hot dog and maybe a custom burger with pineapple and jalapenos!

Most of the 25 burgers

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Raging Bullshit

My picks for the Oscars this year. Who I want to win, not who I think will win; the Academy never fails to disappoint. I'm choosing a couple films I haven't seen yet, because I think most of the Academy lies about that too.

Best Picture:
Up in the Air

Best Director:
Kathryn Bigelow

Best Actor:
Jeff Bridges

Best Actress:
Carey Mulligan

Best Supporting Actor:
Christoph Waltz

Best Supporting Actress:

Best Original Screenplay:
Inglourious Basterds

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Up in the Air

Best Special Effects:

Best Editing:
District 9

Best Cinematography:
Inglourious Basterds

Best Animated Feature:
The Fantastic Mr. Fox

Best Original Score:

Best Documentary:
The Cove

Best Art Direction:
The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Best Foreign Film:
The White Ribbon

Best Animated Short:
Wallace & Gromit in A Matter of Loaf and Death

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

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