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I Never Sang for My Father
The explosive performances by Melvyn Douglas and Gene Hackman in the starring roles take a 1970 drama called I Never Sang for My Father to a level it might not really achieve without them.

The film is based on a play by Robert Anderson that revolves around Gene Garrison (Hackman), a middle-aged widower who has spent most of his adult life playing caretaker to his parents. When his mother passes away, he finds himself consumed with trying to somehow connect with his 80-year old father, Tom (Douglas), whose love he's been seeking forever but has never really found it and thinks he hates the man.

Things get complicated when Gene's sister, Alice (Estelle Parsons) arrives for the funeral and forces Gene to look at his relationship with his father through more realistic eyes. Gene is also involved in a long distance relationship with a pretty doctor who lives in California, but he keeps putting the relationship on the back burner because something inside him just won't allow him to leave his father.

Anderson was allowed to adapt his own play into a screenplay, which is almost always a plus when adapting a play for the screen. Anderson doesn't put a lot of focus into opening up the story for the screen, but it didn't seem terribly important here. The heart of this story is this extremely complicated relationship between Tom and Gene which throughout the story takes two steps forward and one step back.

The Tom Garrison character will be all too familiar to anyone with an elderly relative. He's gregarious to point of never letting anyone else talk, loves to tell long boring stories that everyone has heard a million times, and most important of all, doesn't need any help taking care of himself. Loved the scene where Gene goes downstairs and finds his father asleep in front of the TV. Gene turns the TV off and Tom instantly awakens and claims that he was enthralled by the western he was watching.

It's so heartbreaking watching Gene trying to forge a relationship with his father and in complete denial about it never happening. Even when he's in bed with a woman, all he can talk about is his father. One of Hackman's best moments in the film is in the final act where he thinks he's finally connecting with Tom and Tom suddenly starts sobbing. Through Hackman's reaction, it's crystal clear that this is the first time Gene has ever seen his father cry.

Melvyn Douglas' moving performance as Tom earned him a lead actor nomination and Hackman received a supporting actor nomination as well. Anderson's screenplay also earned a nod. Parsons, reunited with Hackman for the first time since Bonnie and Clyde is very effective in an unsympathetic role. If I had one quibble, it would be with the musical score, which often seemed more appropriate for a horror film than a family drama, but it did not keep me from drinking in this warm and genuinely moving melodrama.



Lost in Yonkers
Neil Simon and director Martha Coolidge score a direct bullseye with the 1993 film version of Simon's play Lost in Yonkers, a warm and nostalgic comedy-drama that doesn't provide the rapid-paced one-liners we're accustomed to from Simon, but there are genuine laughs and drama provided from richly drawn characters brought to life by a winning cast.

It's the summer of 1942 when two young boys named Jay and Arty are sent to live with their iron-fisted grandmother (Irene Worth) and their simple-minded Aunt Bella (Oscar winner Mercedes Ruehl), when their father has to travel around the country for his job. Jay and Arty are immediately intimated by their grandmother and so are the rest of Yonkers. They are confused by their overly emotional Aunt Bella, who has begun a romance with a 40 year old movie usher named Johnny (David Strathairn), but is terrified to tell her mother about it. Then there's Uncle Louie (Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss), a wannabe wiseguy who temporarily returns home because he's on the run from the mob.

Simon's play opened on Broadway on February 21, 1991 and ran for almost two years with Ruehl and Worth creating the roles of Bella and Grandma and that's no coincidence because these two characters are the meat and potatoes of this family drama, even though the characters are presented through the eyes of the two boys. These characters are so richly drawn and completely believable that the viewer can't help but be drawn up in their conflict. The mental issues behind Bella aren't really explained and neither is grandmother's hostility toward everything and everybody. The first time we see Grandma strike Bella with a cane, Bella's reaction implies that constant beating with the cane might have something to do with her mental faculties. We do gain some insight into Grandma through stories that Bella and Uncle Louie share with the boys from their childhood, which have affected Bella and Louie very differently. Bella has found escape through the movies and Louie just escaped.

Director Martha Coolidge is to be applauded for the handsome attention to period detail here. The 1940's are vividly brought to life here with authentic settings, vehicles, and costumes. LOVED that candy store and the gas station where the boys and father stop for gas at the beginning of the film.

The performances are superb, for the most part. Ruehl is just dazzling as Aunt Bella, an effervescent performance that should have earned her an Oscar nomination, matched note for note by Worth's steely grandma. Dreyfuss is a bit much as Uncle Louie, though I have to admit I kept imagining Kevin Spacey in the role, who played Louie on Broadway. Art direction/set direction and Elmer Bernstein's lovely music are the icing on this sentimental and richly entertaining cake.



Donny's Bar Mitzvah
A first time filmmaker named Jonathan Kaufmann actually knocks it out of the park with 2021's Donny's Bar Mitzvah that provides a look at the party following the barmitzvah of a boy named Donny Drucker that is crude, raunchy, outrageous, silly, brave, tasteless and effectively blends brassy senseless slapstick with unbelievable fantasy and breaking of the fourth wall unlike anything I've ever seen. This is a movie that could bore some people, offend some people, but had this reviewer doubled over with laughter.

This film opens with an almost reverence as we watch the camera move through a large video library and finally focus on a VHS tape on one of the shelves labeled "Donny's Party". We then hear a bunch of people arguing what's wrong with the tape as they keep trying to put the tape in the VCR and it keeps popping back out. When the tape finally decides to stay in the machine, we learn we are about to witness the party that followed the Bar Mitzvah of a 13 year old named Donny Drucker that took place in 1998.

Though I have utilized the phrase in my review of other films, this film absolutely throws out all of the rules of filmmaking, providing an up close and personal look at an obnoxious family and their equally obnoxious friends, utilizing the dawning of Donny Drucker's manhood as an excuse to drink shamelessly, get a breather from their own relationships, chase after people they've always lusted after, and even come out of the closet.

Not sure where to start here...among the several mini-dramas that unfold during the course of this film, we have Donny's sister Michelle in denial about the fact that her boyfriend David is gay, Donny's old brother Bobby who meets an attractive older woman at the party, has sex with her and fifteen minutes later she's pregnant, an uptight Asian couple who have completely different reactions to the going-on, a memorable game of "Never Have I Ever", a messed up delivery of souvenir hats, and an undercover agent (a hilarious cameo by Danny Trejo), who has been sent to the party to snuff out a party pooper.

There are lots of films that will pass through the viewers' mind as they watch this, but this film is not a direct rip-off of anything, but has an unabashed shock value that is something akin to the Borat films and is really not concerned with the viewer catching everything. It's impossible to keep track of the dozens of central characters and their relationship to the Druckers, and the action often moves outside the realm of an actual VHS tape, but we're so busy laughing that we don't care about any of that. Kaufmann clearly had a limited budget here but he makes the most of it. Loved Wendy Braun and Reagan Burns as Donny's parents, John de Luca as Bobby, and Connor Del Rio as Mike the Valet. Obviously, Jewish people might find a lot of what's going on here quite offensive, but I thought it was very funny and was totally on target with the underlying theme that the Bar Mitzvah is not about the kid at all, but how his parents can impress by throwing money at a pointless party. There are some genuine flashes of brilliance in this rookie effort from a new filmmaker.



The Sandpiper
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were teamed onscreen for the third time in The Sandpiper, a tedious and overheated soap opera that produces more unintentional giggles than genuine melodrama, but the chemistry between the star might make it worth a look.

The 1965 film follows the star-crossed romance between two people who were, of course, never meant to be together: Laura Reynolds is an artist and aging hippie with a young son who doesn't believe in conformity, rules, religion, or convention. Edward Hewitt is the headmaster at an Episcopalian boarding school for boys who meets Laura when it's determined that Laura's laxed home schooling of her son has made him a discipline problem and, of course, it's recommended that Laura's son be sent to Edward's school.

Other pertinent player in the drama include Edward's devoted wife, Claire (Eva Marie Saint), who is working tirelessly to help her husband raise funds for a new chapel. Ward Hendricks (Robert Webber) is on the church board and is an ex-lover of Laura's. Cos Erickson (Charles Bronson) is a wisecracking sculptor who has initiated a relationship with Laura by paying her to pose for him in the nude.

This film came about during the early years of the Taylor/Burton relationship where they really weren't paying much attention to the quality of the material offered them, they just wanted to work together. If they had looked at Martin Ransohoff's screenplay a little more carefully, the might have noticed that Taylor was way too old to be convincing as the hippie artist who hangs out at the beach with friends half her age...the character of Laura often looks like she's been dropped into the middle of a Beach Party movie with Frankie and Annette and Burton seems to have a hard time forgetting that he's not playing Macbeth here.

Despite the chemistry between the stars, a lot of what goes on here is just laughable. One scene Laura is whining about how she's jealous of Edward's wife and wishes she could be her and, five minutes later, when she learns that Claire knows about their affair, she bursts into tears and screams at Edward for telling Claire about them. And the scene where Ward actually tries to rape Laura is just as funny.

The film does feature some gorgeous location filming in California's Big Sur, a lot of which seems to just pad running time. I wish the attention paid to the Big Sur could have been spent on Taylor's look, who looked frumpy and overweight in some really unattractive costume choices.

Vincente Minnelli, who has succeeded in the past with the melodrama genre (Some Came Running, The Cobweb) really misses the boat here with some seriously overheated direction and I think depends a little too much on the chemistry between the stars which only carries this silliness so far. Eva Marie Saint does make the most of her thankless role as Claire and Bronson is a lot of fun as Cos, but this is really for hardcore fans of Taylor and Burton only. The film's love theme, "The Shadow of Your Smile" won the Oscar for Best Song.



Let Him Go
Even with the superb performances by Kevin Costner and Diane Lane at the heart of it, 2020's Let Him Go, though creating genuine chunks of heart-stopping suspense during its running time, alternately falters due to sluggish direction and a meandering screenplay that takes too long to get where it's going.

Costner and Lane, who co-starred as Jonathan and Martha Kent in Man of Steel, take center stage here as George and Margaret Blackledge, a retired sheriff and his wife who are enjoying a quiet retirement on a ranch with their son James, his wife Lorna, and their grandson Jimmy. James is killed in a riding accident and a few years later, Lorna gets married again to one Donnie Weboy, who Margaret one day witnesses physically abusing Lorna and her grandson. Shortly after, Margaret learns that Donny, Lorna, and Jimmy have moved to North Dakota to Donnie's hometown and George and Margaret decide to travel to North Dakota to find their grandson and bring him home.

Thomas Bezucha's screenplay, based on a novel by Larry Watson, is wonderful at its roots and engages the viewer easily from the beginning. We love the fact that Margaret is prepared to embark on this mission with or without George but we are relieved when George agree to go. We're still intrigued when the Blackledges arrive in North Dakota and get no help in locating the Weboy family, but Bezucha begins to lose us when the Weboy clan turns out to be this creepy hillbilly type family who reminded me of those mountain men who violate Ned Beatty in Deliverance. We come closer to surrendering when Lorna's terror is revealed but she's afraid to leave and the Weboys appear to have the local sheriff in their pocket.

Bezucha's direction effectively establishes atmosphere. but it also makes the movie move at a snail's pace. The exposition setting up the story is fine, but the trip to North Dakota takes too long...we didn't four or five scenes of the Weboys being protected by their hometown. We knew we were in trouble when the Blackledges finally arrive at the Weboys for dinner and family matriarch Blanche, sort of a demented blend of Ma Kettle and Ma Barker, wants to talk about anything but little Jimmy. And the over the top finale is completely unsatisfying on so many levels.

On the positive side, the film is handsomely mounted and features Oscar-worthy cinematography, film editing, and I loved Michael Giacchino's music. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane provide a strong heart for the film, with standout work by Lane, providing her strongest performance since Unfaithful. Mention should also be made of the severely underrated Jeffrey Donavan as Bill Weboy and a flashy performance by Oscar nominee Lesley Manville (Phantom Thread) as the slightly maniacal Blanche, an eye opening performance that is nothing like her performance in the Paul Thomas Anderson drama. With tighter direction and writing, this could have been an almost Hitchcock-calibre nail-biter, but Costner and Lane make the viewer care enough to keep watching.



Meatballs
The star-making performance by Bill Murray in his first starring role is the only reason to watch a seriously dated semi-cult classic called Meatballs, which incredibly was the 14th top grossing film of 1979. Admittedly, the only reason I watched this is because during a recent round of channel surfing, I was subjected to a steaming pile of crap called Meatballs Part Two and I wanted to see what was so great about the first film that it merited a sequel.

Murray plays a counselor at a summer camp called Camp North Star, that charges $1000 per camper and has a long standing feud with neighboring Camp Mohawk. This alleged comedy of wacky summer camp hijinks features one really interesting storyline where Tripper, Murray's character, brings an introverted young camper named Rudy (Chris Makepiece) out of his shell.

This film features a lot of the hijinks a 12 year old would expect from the paper thin premise, unfortunately, most of them just aren't that funny. I'm totally scratching my head as to why this film was such a box office smash back in '79, because whenever Murray wasn't onscreen, this film comes to a screeching halt. Murray's supporting cast including counselors in training who were basically just walking hormones and the girls either chasing them or being chased by them were about as funny as paint drying.

It is Bill Murray's presence in the starring role that kept this movie from being a complete bore for me. Aided by director Ivan Reitman and screenwriters Len Blum andDan Goldberg, Murray gets laughs out of every moment he has onscreen here. The friendship of Tripper and young Rudy is the best part of the movie, but it's only about a third of the running time. The rest of the film is spent on moving counselor's beds, hot dog eating contests, a silly basketball, and a so-called Olympic competition between the two camps, which includes a cup and saucer carrying contest where one of the contestants is a guy named Spaz. Murray is the saving grace here though. He even makes the most out of a series of PA announcements like MASH, but his romance with a fellow counselor named Roxanne falls flat, the only time onscreen he is unable to salvage.

Even though the film launched Murray's career, it pretty much destroyed the careers of everyone else involved. An actor named Russ Banham who played Crockett, followed this movie with one part on a TV series and never made another movie. Only for hardcore Bill Murray fans. Murray, Reitman, Blum, and Goldberg would reunite and fare a little better with 1981's Stripes.



Body Brokers
For those who like to think that the war on drugs and addiction is one that can be won over with treatment might want to take a look at 2021's Body Brokers, a slick but deeply disturbing, fact-based drama that takes the bold and unabashed stance that the concept of treatment and rehabilitation in this country is becoming one big, ugly sting operation, leaving a lot of bodies in its wake.

Utah and Opal are a pair of heroine addicts who have been stealing and prostituting themselves for years to support their habit. They meet a slick talking stranger named Wood who convinces Utah that he wants to get clean and offers him a chance to change his life by getting him a bed at a rehab center in Los Angeles. Before he realizes it, Utah finds himself a mule in an elaborate hustle which includes paying so called recovered addicts for referring new clients and surgically implanting drugs inside junkies for insane amounts of money.

Do not confuse the above-referenced phrase, "fact-based". What I suspect that director and screenwriter John Schwab has done is construct a fictional story based on statistics and research on the subject of rehabilitation that cannot be explained away and the story presented here is Schwab's possible theory based on the research.

Anyone who has any experience with addiction and rehabilitation will see the subtle yet glaring clues that let the viewer know right away that the New Way Recovery Center is not what it purports to be...Utah's initial intake only takes a few minutes and the girl who does the intake also does his physical, which would never happen at a real rehab facility. Suspicion is also raised when the residential counselor (Oscar winner Melissa Leo) feigns concern about Utah leaving treatment after 30 days. Sadly, legitimate treatment ends when the addict's insurance ends, no matter where they are in treatment. But when we see Opal show up and Utah receive cash for the referral, the jig is definitely up. I also wasn't thrilled the way this story made Utah look dumb as a box of rocks. Addicts are a lot of things, but dumb is not one of them.

Not since the 2013 film Compliance have I experienced a film that aroused such anger in me. We've been told for years that treatment and rehabilitation are the answer to the war on addiction and the idea that treatment is just a big hustle offers little hope in this battle we continue to lose. The film's epilogue does remind the viewer that millions get sober through 12 step programs, which cost nothing, but this is the message that should have been center stage here. And can't deny that the ending just made my heart sink.

Schwab's in your face direction is a plus and there are solid performances by Jack Kilmer as Utah, Michael Kenneth Williams as Wood, and an especially slimy turn from Frank Grillo as the New Way CEO, which rivals his slimy bad guy in Black and Blue. Sadly, the subject matter here is so disturbing, that my anger for what is presented here made it hard to be objective regarding the film's entertainment value.



Undercurrent
Moody direction by Vincente Minnelli and effective performances by the stars somewhat cast against type make a slightly overheated melodrama from 1946 called Undercurrent worth a look.

The film stars Katharine Hepburn as Ann Hamilton, the daughter of a science professor, who is on the cusp of spinsterhood. After continually turning down marriage proposals from one of her father's colleagues, Ann does have a whirlwind romance with a wealthy industrialist named Alan Garroway (Robert Taylor) who she impulsively marries. It's not long before Ann learns that her new husband has a lot of issues involving his younger brother, Michael (Robert Mitchum), who Alan paints as a dangerous psychopath, but it's not long before Ann realizes that Alan is the real psychopath.

Edward Chodorov's screenplay is a little cliched and a little predictable. The way Alan or anyone who knows or works for Alan bristles every time someone mentions Michael's name
seems to draw the audience into the direction they want the viewer to go. Unfortunately, it's so obvious that by the halfway point of the film where we meet Michael, the effect of the plot twist has lost a lot of its power. This is also another story where, in order for the story to work, the heroine's brain is removed and replaced for several parts of the story. The smart and strong-willed Ann Hamilton we meet at the beginning of the film turns into a naive and insecure waif after she marries Alan.

What I did like about this film is Minnelli's direction, which turns out to be the driving force behind the story...I loved the way whenever Ann mentions Michael's name to Alan, the screen would turn dark and the camera would close in on Alan's burning eyes. It was also fun seeing the usually strong and outspoken Hepburn playing a damsel in distress, normal romantic lead Robert Taylor playing the psychopath, and well known cinema psychopath Mitchum playing the misunderstood brother.

Hepburn's luminous performance as Ann is really the heart of the film and makes us care about what's going on and Taylor works very hard at being a domineering psychopath. Mitchum also surprises in one of his most sensitive performances as misunderstood Michael. Edmund Gwenn, who would in an Oscar the following year for Miracle on 34th Street, is lovely as Ann's father and Clinton Sundberg was surprisingly creepy as Alan's underling. A must for Hepburn and Minnelli fans.



Happily
BenDavid Grabinski is the director and screenwriter of a bizarre 2021 black comedy called Happily which displays endless style and imagination as a director but his writing skills definitely leave something to be a desired, providing a story you can't walk two feet through without falling in a plothole.

Tom and Janet have been blissfully married for 14 years. They are so happy that their small circle of friends are jealous of them and want to un-invite them for a weekend at an air B&B. The night before they are to leave for the B&B, they are visited by a mysterious stranger who announces to them that are too happy and produces a briefcase with two large syringes stating that he is going to inject them with whatever is in the syringes and it will make them normal again. In an effort to get away from the stranger, he ends up dead and, of course, as soon as they arrive at their weekend getaway, they start seeing the dead stranger everywhere.

And that's just the beginning of this oddball comedy that actually plays more like an extended episode of The Twilight Zone. Grabinski sets up the entire story as some sort of nightmare from which we are not allowed to awaken then once we arrive at the B&B, we seem to be moving into a revolving beds sex farce where it's revealed none of the guests at this party are really happy, and when we think it's all about to wrap up in a neat bow, we learn that the mysterious stranger is the owner of the B&B and traps them in the house. Eventually we just decide to wake for an "And then I woke up" scene that will explain everything up to this point, but that never really happens.

The story might make little or no sense, but Grabinski does show enormous skill in how a film should look. The production values are first rate, featuring some inventive camerawork (including expert use of slow motion and the tracking shot), beautiful cinematography, and breathtaking art direction/set direction (the B&B is stunning). Unfortunately, when you look past the detail that went into production, the story just contains too many questions that never get answered, most importantly, who is this mysterious stranger and why is he judging all these people and forcing them to air all of their dirty laundry.

Joel McHale finally gets chance at leading man status and makes the most of it and Kerry Bische is a charmer as Janet. Natalie Zea is fun as sexpot Karen as is Stephen Root as the mysterious stranger, but this film just left me scratching my head.



Bullitt
The 1968 classic is a crackerjack action thriller that is best known for featuring the best car chase ever featured in a film, but it has so much more going for it than that.

The film stars the personification of 1960's movie cool Steve McQueen as Frank Bullitt, a San Francisco police detective who is approached by a politician named Chalmers (Robert Vaughn) to guard a small time wiseguy named Johnny Ross, who has been put up in a cheap hotel because he has agreed to turn state's evidence against the mob. Less than 24 hours after taking the assignment, Bullitt finds himself in hot water when Ross and one of Bullitt's partners both end up in the hospital suffering from gun shot wounds.

To reveal anymore of what happens here would be wrong, but let me say that this film is a triumph for director Peter Yates, making only his fourth film as a director. Yates creates an atmospheric crime thriller that actually begins during the opening credits and forces complete attention from the viewer because the screenplay, based on a novel by Robert L. Fish, is an effective combination of dialogue and action that requires complete attention from the viewer as a lot of what is going on here is never really explained to the viewer but keeps the viewer interested in exactly what Bullitt has gotten himself into and how widespread the alleged conspiracy goes. There's a whole lot of characters on both sides of the law involved in what's going on here and the viewer is never really sure exactly who the black hats are here, which is a lot of the reason why this film is so much fun.

There were a couple of minor plot holes revolving around the shooting that I didn't really understand. The primary one being when Johnny Ross and Bullitt's partner are shot early on in the film, the assassin definitely wants Ross dead but, for some reason, only shoots Bullitt's partner in the leg. If this was intentional, didn't really understand why the guy would want to leave a witness. I was initially confused as to why Ross left the chain off the door before the shooting, but that gets clarified for the viewer paying attention.

As for that car chase, it definitely did not disappoint. The camerawork actually made me dizzy and I'm pretty sure that this chase was the only reason the film was set in San Francisco, whose hills made a perfect canvas for this awesome car chase, which started with the bad guys chasing Bullitt, but that was quickly reversed. Also loved the fact that the car chase featured minimal collateral damages...hardly ay property and only one injury of a guy on a motorcycle. The most surprising thing was it didn't take place at the end of the film. The finale at a crowded airport didn't disappoint either.

McQueen never breaks a sweat as the title character and Robert Vaughn is appropriately slimy as Chalmers. Jacqueline Bisset received third billing for her role as McQueen's girlfriend, even though she has less than ten minutes screen time. Some other familiar faces pop up along the way including Simon Oakland, Georg Stanford Brown, Norman Fell, Ed Peck, Vic Tayback and Robert Duvall, but this film is all about the McQueen cool and the masterful direction by Peter Yates, who really put himself on the map here.



The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)
A wicked story that goes nowhere we expect it to and the white hot chemistry between the stars are the primary ingredients that make The Postman Always Rings Twice the classic it is that still remains riveting after 75 years.

This steamy melodrama stars John Garfield as Frank Chambers, a drifter who gets hired as a handyman at a California seaside diner owned by Nick Smith (Cecil Kellaway) who finds himself instantly attracted to Nick's young sexpot of a wife, Cora, played by a drop dead gorgeous Lana Turner. Cora fights her attraction to Frank as long as she can, but eventually drifts into a passionate affair with the man right under her husband's nose. They decide to run off together, but Cora doesn't want to leave penniless or without the diner, so she convinces Frank to murder Nick.

Based on a novel by James M. Cain, the screenplay takes its time in setting up the story by presenting Frank and Cora star-crossed lovers that the viewer demands to be together by setting up the seductive dance between the two of them that begins the film...love after their first kiss, which Frank initiates, Cora counters by wiping the kiss thoroughly off of her lips. We think it's going to be smooth sailing for Frank and Cora when they finally put their plan in motion, but when their plan backfires, we are surprised to see them torn apart and their passion destroyed.

But what really makes this film work is the chemistry between Turner and Garfield. Turner is sex on legs here, giving probably the strongest performance of her career in a tailor made role and Garfield is perfect as the sensitive beast who brings out the passion in the woman. Kellaway is rather silly as Nick and is early exit from the story is welcome, but Leon Ames is excellent as the DA and so is Hume Cronyn as Cora's attorney. There's also a brief appearance from Alan Reed as a detective. Reed, of course, would make a name for himself about as the voice of Fred Flintstone. A classic melodrama with a deliciously ironic finale we don't see coming. The film was remade in 1981 with Jack Nicholson as Frank and Jessica Lange as Cora, but it doesn't a hold a candle to this.