2023-02-07

HOW many times?

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The best book in this set, unquestionably, is The Postman Always Rings Twice which gets better every time I remember it. More Cain in my future, for sure. A couple of first novels of varying quality and, as per 2023's apparent rules, lots of comics.

And that's not even mentioning American's favorite kindergartner!

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008) Maddy Kettle Book: The Adventure of the Thimblewitch by Eric Orchard, finished January 24

This is a very cool-looking, charming little descendant of Wonderland. It came out eight years ago and has no sequel—and I hope that's intentional and not due to poor sales, but the ending is soooo far from feeling like an ending that I fear that may not be the case. I don't mind endings in media res, but this one was startling.

I am curious, though. I went to his Wikipedia page and it said he was currently working on this (again, eight-years-old) book. I fixed that, but his personal website is gone (or moved, rather; I fixed that too) and the page promoting this on the publisher's site is also gone.

It's weird. I randomly found this at my usual library and last week I saw it on display at another local library. What happened?

Apparently he's fine (he posted on Facebook an hour ago), but one can't help but to wonder if timely or ancestral reasons might have affected the trajectory of his career. Regardless, this is the only work of his listed under his author page on Amazon and that seems a shame.

two extremely noncontiguous days


009) Fantastic Frights: A Beginner's Guide to Scary Stories, finished January 24

A siamese cat is our guide through these progressively more frightening tales. It's comics. It's for kids. It's debatable whether the later ones are scarier than those in the middle, but it's a fun little book. Just right for just the right kid.

probably over a month
 

010) Ramona the Pest by Beverly Cleary, finished February 2

It's funny, reading this 1968 book with its 2020 illustrations that sometimes . . . do not quite match.

But what I really liked about this one was the last two chapters, as new kindergartner Ramona's life reaches new heights only to crash to the lowest of lows and then stay low. Redemption arrives of course but this is a true trough she falls into and so her eventual redemption has real value, real meaning.

about ten weeks with the kindergartner since we spent more time reading books she can read
 

011) Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, finished February 3

A student of mine that I taught all four years of high-school English to gave me copies of her two very favorite books on her last day with me, earlier this month. It was the perfect gift, really. The right sendoff.

Anyway, Eleanor Oliphant was a big hit half a decade ago and is one of the bestselling audiobooks of all time, so perhaps you already know about Eleanor and her separation from all of humanity and why and how she came to make friends and to let other people into her life.

The book is pitched as humorous and I did laugh, but it is also deeply sad. I totally get why it might be someone's comfort book, a book they read over and over. She's a character who undergoes enormous growth and whom we easily come to love. It's centered in a true place (Edinburgh) such that it feels like visiting. It was wonderful highs and lows.

I was caught entirely offguard by a late surprise that I wager surprises very few people. I'm not sure if I like the choice, that will take more mulling, but I understand the choice. I'm not opposed to it. I also appreciated the restraint Honeyman employs. Lots of opportunities to go big and flashy but she held off.

In short, thank you, I liked it.

couple weeks
 

012) The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain, finished February 4

So I knew it was a noir. I think I knew there was a femme fatale and perhaps the involvement of another man in her husband's murder? I figured one of those men might be the eponymous postman and, therefore, that we were probably in suburbia. I think I must've also figured the story's more or less over once we get a murder.

Wrong on most counts, as it ends up. I mean—I still don't know who the postman is. I'll do some searching after writing this, but what the heck does the title mean?

All that said, what a book! I loved it. I didn't realize Cain also wrote the source material for Double Indemnity (great movie; haven't seen Postman). The voice is impeccable and the most noir I've read. The setting, nowhere California in the Thirties, is alive and dangerous. The plotting was sharp and surprising. The characters are deeply attractive and deeply horrifying. Really, this novel is everything I could have wanted. And just over a hundred pages. More novels should be published at this length.

two days


013) Is that all there is? by Joost Swarte, finished February 6

Underground comix, Nederlands style.

Joost is an incredible draftsman and his stories are, on average, better entertainment than those of his America peers. The translation work was pretty great too, though I had no idea people like Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly and Kim Thompson could translate Dutch. 

Should I learn Dutch?

I liked the anecdotes from Chris Ware's intro, and I couldn't tell how much of the untoward material (esp. racist tropes) were intended to be shocking versus just Europeans stealing from Americans without realizing the baggage that comes along with it.

Anyway, historical research complete!

a few weeks


  014) Edge Case by YZ Chin, finished February 7

This is the last of 2021's B&N books and the first disappointment.

This is a first novel and I want to applaud the publisher for developing new talent. According to the acknowledgments, this book had "numerous early reincarnations" which sounds like working with an editor, but the flaws in Edge Case are so numerous and obvious that, if this is true, I am depressed about the state of editing in these united states.

Here's the thing. The book is loaded with great ideas. And Chin writes like she needs to make sure they're all in these pages, just in case this is it. The problem is that they don't all fit. And it results in her characters occasionally contradicting themselves in weird ways, in character traits or traditions appear for a moment then disappear because really it was just cool and it sorta fit so in it went.

What I think happened is that Chin wrote the book with a bunch of short notes and ideas that gradually coalesced around the plot. All those darlings were given homes, even when they worked against the book as a whole. Which made Edge Case a frustrating read. And disappointing. Because the characters were people I hadn't met before—a Malaysian couple working in the New York tech scene, hoping to score green cards. And that's just the set-up. There were so many ways this book should have worked! But then it does dumb things, like a late "surprise" that the entire novel is just a series of messages sent on a dating app. Why? What does that add? I can guess what it was supposed to add, but it did not. It did not.

I really wanted to like this book, but it's only adequate at best. Not a disaster, but surprising for a big publisher. Might make a cynic thing Harper Collins was just trying to prove how diverse their bullpen is. And the fact that the cover designer and all the blurbs are written by folks with the family names of Kim, Kitamura, Chang, Nguten, and Lin only gives such cynics more ammunition.

Not that those were wrong marketing decisions. Quite probably that's how books sell. Me, I learned blurb skepticism long ago, and I don't think I read these before buying the book. Instead, I read the front flap and the opening paragraphs and a few paragraphs from the middle of the book. I was intrigued by the promised tale and the voice it was told in.

I hope Chin gets another shot.

But the fact that it's still not in paperback doesn't fill me with confidence.

Editors of America, rise and do your jobs!*

*Publishers, pay for editing!

maybe a month?





 


final posts in this series from
  2007 = 2008 = 2009 = 2010 = 2011 = 2012 = 2013
2014 = 2015 = 2016 = 2017 = 2018 = 2019 = 2020 = 2021 = 2022

 
 
Earlier in 2023

001) The Dark Room by Gerry Duggan & Scott Buoncristiano, finished January four
002) The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander, finished January 6
003) Rose by Jeff Smith and Charles Vess, finished January 10
004) Acting Class by Nick Drnaso, finished January 10
005) Red Scare by Liam Francis Walsh, finished January 11

006) The Short Reign of Pippin IV by John Steinbeck, finished January 18
007) Filmish by Edward Ross, finished date

2023-01-31

2023 and love is in the air (and senseless violence)

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Happy January! Through the first fifteen days I had somehow watched sixteen movies and I was considering splitting this post up. Probably for the best I did not.

I haven't really figured out what Letterboxd is for when it comes to me personally, but I'm going to experiment with making monthly lists. Discover if that might be it.

Enjoy!

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HOME
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What's Up, Doc? (1972)

I've never properly seen this. I sorta saw it on my cousin's tv on a terrible signal but that was far from ideal. And I'm not sure why I watched it now, but it mayve been because of an excellent essay I recently read on It's a Wonderful Life which, among other sentences, said these: "Throughout their strange, bittersweet courtship, it is she who chases him, as much as Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, or Barbra Streisand in What’s Up, Doc? George, for his part, is as outraged, as protesting, as ultimately helpless as any of his counterparts. It is a screwball chump-chase transposed into the register of drama, with George playing the part of the chump."

(Read the rest of the article, but one thing it did is convince me this tweet is true.)

Anyway, it's good. Viewing It's a Wonderful Life as a screwball allows for new readings.

THIS movie is pretty great screwball. It never stops being funny. I will say that the terrific car chace (which might be better than Bullitt's at showcasing San Francisco?) did feel a tad long and dry to me simply because I was missing the linguistic and situational car chases that had been the movie to that point.

Streisand is great (though she never doesn't seem like a New Yorker) and Ryan O'Neal feels like a discovery (no, I have not seen Love Story or Paper Moon), kind of a cross between Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, and the supporting cast is kind of perfect. There are even a couple of borings in there so our eyes can occasionally rest.

Screwball. The greatest American genre?


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Peter Pan Goes Wrong (2016)

We've been fans of the show for . . . three years now? But we haven't watched any of the movies, which I think predate the show. But I'm not going to look it up.

In some ways, this is darker than average. Quite a few serious injuries as things go wrong during this production, but we all laughed and enjoyed ourselves and that's what matters, right? I do enjoy watching a company take on different roles. I wish there were more of that these days.



HOME
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You've Got Mail (1998)

Somehow I've never seen this movie. It came out just after I became a big Greg Kinnear fan (his performance in As Good as It Gets was one of a handful of times a performance restructured film for me), I dug Sleepless in Seattle, in 1999 I spent a grea deal of time in an aparment where they watched this film over and over again (and I had a crush on a girl from that apartment who modeled her look after Meg Ryan) (and I later married another girl from that apartment), yet something about it just made me disinterested.

Then I learned about Shop Around the Corner and so of course I had to see that first and la de da de da I bought that on dvd and finally watched it a decade later and here we are! Finally watching You've Got Mail!

My wife kept quoting the movie as we watched it and wondering just HOW many times she had watched it. And I must say—it seems eminently rewatchable. And I like that the romance incorporates the complicated unpleasantness from Shop. I also loved the scenes that were the same but I also appreciated the changes. I thought the longer scope of time was an improvement, and I loved the time capsule. 1998 is . . . kind of a long time ago, isn't it?

Anyway, it was great. I should have watched it long ago.


ELSEWHERE
library dvd
Batman: Gotham by Gaslight (2018)

The poster is deceptive. And so is the story's Mike Mignola heritage. The look of this film is, in fact, classic Bruce Timm. Which makes it feel more kid-appropriate than it is.

It's fun to watch the characters thrown hodgepodge into this Victorian setting. Barbara Gordon is married to James. Dickie, Jason, and Timmy are part of an Oliver Twisty streetgang called the Cockrobins. Ivy gets killed right off the bat.

The villain is Jack the Ripper who is doing his dirty in H. H. Holmes's playground. Gotham is Chicago here, not New York. Or, rather, it's both Chicago and New York. Who's the killer? Hugo Strange? Harvey Dent? I'll admit it kept be guessing and uncertain until the end. And I should also mention that this villain outmatches Batman pretty much throughout. It takes luck and a Houdini reference to get the Bat outta this one.

The movie is frequently dumb with some cheap plot tricks laid out in seconds, but that's what happens with a 78-minute runtime, I guess.

My favorite innovation was the relationship of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle. Maybe my favorite version. In this universe, I have to believe that they would form a strong working and marital relationship. I doubt those movies would get made (and, if they did, I doubt the filmmakers would have the courage to put a healthy marriage at the center of their movies), but one can imagine.


ELSEWHERE
library dvd
Batman Ninja (2018)

I hated this movie. Hated it. So I'm going to tell you what was good about it and then I'm going to complain until either I feel better or I just can't take thinking about it anymore.

So, first, it was visually wonderful. Once they get to Japan almost everything about it is cool. There are a handful of background and animation styles that are played with and almost all of them are great. This movie would be much better as a forty- to ninety-page book of concept art. That's its platonic form.

Everything else about this movie was intensely stupid. The plot is nonsense, its morality is incoherent, the voice acting (I listened to the English version) is grating. I mean—you have Tony Hale doing a Mark Hamill impersonation and the guy doing Batman (and who does a lot of Batman)? His direction seemed to be Kevin Conroy only if he really really really really meant it.

There aren't many female characters and mostly they just vamp. When Catwoman and Harley Quinn have their big final fight, Catwoman introduces it by telling us it's time for some girl-on-girl action. And Harley literally licks Selina. But hey—I like breasts too. So yay they were in the movie?

I had thought this was just some alternate Earth where Batman et al naturally lived in feudal Japan, but no. The gorilla built a time machine. And there are a couple explanations for how what happens next happens but it's all nonsense and I won't trouble you with it. But to give you a couple ideas, I'll say the following phrases: combining mecha castles, white savior, fulfilled prophecy, monkey made of monkeys—

I can't say more about that.

The movie doesn't worry one whit about time paradoxes (which might have been refreshing . . . if they had worried about ANYTHING), but perhaps we shouldn't be surprised since it eschews logic of all types, sorts, and varieties.

It is a big steaming pile of borderline-offensive nonsense.

But hey—at least it looked cool.


HOME
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Snoopy, Come Home (1972)

This is a curious thing. It has the brilliant use of colors and backgrounds and paint mediums that we associate with, say, A Boy Named Charlie Brown or the Halloween special. But the music is pure Sherman brothers—but the Sherman brothers are almost writing for The Monkees. And one of the songs reminds me of another Disney songwriter, George Bruns's love theme for Robin Hood. But regardless, there are songs in this movie that are part of my permanent jokebox—including one without words—even though I've only seen this movie maybe at most half a dozen times in my life. And they're a very different vibe than Vince Guaraldi.

It's also peculiar because it starts off with the gang all at each other's throats. When Snoopy leaves, it's totally reasonable to imagine he ain't coming back. There's a lot of harshness sprinkled throughout. And poor Woodstock has never flown worse.

But it is a good movie. It's sticky. My 6yrold daughter last saw it over a year ago and she remembered beats like you would not believe. Don't sleep on Snoopy, Come Home.


THEATER
Rialto Elmwood
The Fabelmans (2022)

I wish I hadn't known about the final cameo casting before watching the movie because it would have been even more delightful if I'd had to scramble to figure out who I was looking at. Still.

First, of course it's not a blockbuster. It's too long. Honestly, in 2022, that's a four- to six-part tv show. Although I get the irony in saying The Fabelmans should have been a tv show.

That said, I loved it. It was moving; it mixed media delightfully; it threw in maybe the most meta camera move I've ever seen to end the film; when it was funny, it was very funny.

One of the weirdest things for me though was how old Michelle Williams is. I mean—I know she's about my age, but I can imagine her even looking thirty, let alone as old as I, alas, am. One of the weirdest things for son #1, who saw it with me, was the Riddler being a nice guy. Weird.


HOME
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Escape from It's a Wonderful Life (1996)

Don't know if I should count this since I accidentally skipped the second act, but hey! This is a Winderful Life parody made by the Upright Citizens Brigade (so you see names like Jay Martel and Amy Poehler all over the credits).

The schtick is George Bailey is sick of playing the same movie in reruns year after year and wants wither a raise or new roles to play. He's got a killer idea for a science-fiction film where he plays an alien named Number Three.

It's moderately funny and not terribly long.


ELSEWHERE
our dvd
North by Northwest (1959)

It's been a long time since I've seen this. My memory was that it is one of Hitchcock's purest and most excellent entertainments, but not one of his strongest films artistically.

Now I'm not even sure about that first part. The screwball and the thriller seem, at times, to be working against each other, either slowing the other down. And the entendre is so far from needing doubling that one can only blink.

And so I'm no longer as sure of what I would have happily said a week ago (and did, in fact, earlier today) that North by Northwest may be the best entry to Hitchcock. I just don't know. It's fun and smart and it has the greatest suit in film history and by no means do I want to be perceived as knocking it, but . . . it's second-tier Hitchcock for me. And sure, second-tier Hitchcock is still above many directors' best work, but it seems to me to have more in common with the Bond films it inspired than the best films ever made.


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Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)

I only picked up with this movie after the Nazis arrive so maybe I shouldn't count it, but I'm agonna anyway. Because I love it. And, apparently, so does Daniel Craig, who appeared with Angela Lansbury in her final film.

Son#1's been wanting to show it to the youngest for a long time. It's one of my few childhood favorites that I passed onto my kids such that it became one of theirs as well. He finally started showing it to her last night while Lady Steed and I were off watching North by Northwest, then they finished it after school. And I came it a bit after that.

And so my comments are largely about the final scenes.

1. The effects still hold up. Very few changes need to be made for it to be 2023-caliber. 2. The WWI veterans—are they actually from earlier wars? Because they're about the right age not at WWII but at the time the movie was made. The fellow who signs up to fight the Nazis at the very end is about the age of a WWI vet. 3. I really love all three kids. I know they didn't act more, but I hope they had great lives. I wonder if they're still with us?


HOME
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Where'd You Go, Bernadette (2019)

Lady Steed wonders if the movie would work if you had not read the book. I can't speak to that. I will say it was not as funny (though funny!), and not quite as complex or layered, and the organization of the plot was occasionally clunky, but still: I enjoyed it. I thought it was fun and moving. Cate Blanchett was excellent and so was the kid. Billy Crudup was fine but he was so prefectly cast in The Morning Show, it is now difficult to see him as anyone else.

I would call it a successful adaptation, but I know it wasn't received great. And if I'd seen it when I came out and the book was fresher in my mind—or if I'd never read it at all—perhaps I would have liked it less. Who can say.


HOME
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What's Up, Doc? (1972)

Since the youngest boy was so sad to have to leave the previous viewing (see above) halfway through, I didn't want to return this dvd until we could watch it again. And that also gave another brother and the sister a chance to watch it as well. Which was great! because this is an all-ages romp.

I noticed this time that one of Judy's first actions is grabbing some carrots, establishing her as Bugs Bunny even before she says, "What's up, doc?"

There is one important difference between Judy and Bugs however, and that is that Bugs never brings the chaos before someone wrongs him but Judy doesn't wait for that. But she does have a simple want and this really is best viewed as a live-action cartoon. Even though most of the direct references are to Warner Bros. films of the nonanimated variety.

Anyway, I hope things work out for them.


HOME
library dvd
What's So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968)

Don't remember exactly when I first heard about this. During the pandemic. Perhaps still when we were locked down? Maybe I heard the This American Life episode. Maybe I saw the trailer on YouTube. Regardless of what was first, the movie wasn't streaming.

But a couple weeks ago I was at the library and happened to see two (two!) copies sitting next to each other. So I took one.

It's a fascinating movie to watch in covid times. I suppose any pandemic movie would be, but this is a pandemic copy and it does a bunch of things I would not have expected. I knew there would be people wearing masks, but I didn't expect to see a type of mask I'd never seen before 2020. I expected some weird correlations with our time but I didn't expect jokes on politics and medicine that are just as fresh today. I expected somethings to be weirdly long-ago, but I didn't expect it to give me pro-diversity and anti-women's-lib in equal measure. And it's hilarious to see music cues that make no sense in a post-punk era. And that's without mentioning fun choices like the opening narrations and the bird's mind.

In short, it's a trip. And it's still funny. Even the teenagers likes it.

My mind is percolating with pedagogical uses....


ELSEWHERE
Tubi
Joe (1970)

First, I get why Peter Boyle was both surprised and upset when people see his title character as a hero. He's not a hero. He's all kinds of racist, his morality is suspect, he takes glee in violence, etc etc. The movie's also weirdly classist and anticlassist simultaneously. In other words, he's the sort of character I thought was extinct pre-2015 (pre-Trump) and now know is depressingly common. Even though there are some cool filmmaking aspects to this movie (the opening credits are worth checking out), anyone who tells you it's a favorite should be immediately suspect.

Susan Sarandon doesn't get much to do in her film debut, but her eyes are HUGE and one imagines she would be lovely if she weren't doped up.

I found this movie because a student is reading Tarantino's new book and wanted to know if I'd seen it. I hadn't.

And now I have. Though I watched it on doublespeed, which would be my recommendation if you must.


HOME
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Woman of the Year (1942)

You've Got Mail had a little special feature about some of the classic Hollywood matchups (with the thesis that Hanks/Ryan are a rare modern example) and, of all the films they clipped, for some reason this is the one I out on hold at the library. Perhaps it was the only one that attracted my eye that wasn't streaming somewhere convenient and thus didn't get added to some watchlist on Prime or Kanopy or something. Anyway, it arrived and we watched it.

And I have very mixed feelings about it. It does a lot of interesting things with the reversing of gender roles and such, but the ending I did not love. Spencer Tracy's character simplifies into simple pettiness for the final act and Katherine Hepburn's risks becoming nonsensical in the last ten minutes.

We leared from the Criterion edition that this was not the original ending, written or filmed. That ending's now lost (though the scripts exists) and it sounds like a better ending. The reason it was axed is uncertain but it likely was either women in test audiences wanted Hepburn to fail more spectacularly or that the studio heads were uncomfortable with her character's power. Take your pick. 1942, amirite?

In terms of plot, it starts off romantic comedy and turns comedic melodrama. (It has to, since they're married by the end of act one.) There was one point, halfway through, where he gives her a phrase as she's writing (they are both newspaper columnists), and I hoped they would come to be involved in each other's work, now that they are married. That's what the lost ending would have given us. I would have liked that better.

But this hasn't scared me away from more Hepburn/Tracy movies. I'm ready for more.

ADDENDUM: I couldn't stop thinking about this film after I went to bed, and why it I found it both terrific and terrible, and I wanted to add one other moment to the they-will-write-together-seeming moment mentioned above: their wedding night. Which devolves into international and domestic chaos but seems to end with them reaching an accord, with their presumed consummation and symbolic evidence.

The movie kept giving me more believable moments of Finally! they understand one another! than the final one, which follows Tracy's act-long pettiness (that he does not repent for) and Hepburn making some poorly defined compromises (that seem unlikely to last).

But what I think is happening is that the last 80 years have shifted the culture away from this movie in a manner that makes it more foreign than many other movies of its era. But I dunno. If you're a fan, I really want to hear your take.


HOME
library dvd
What's So Bad About Feeling Good? (1968)

We watched it again with the commentary by a couple of film historians. They did say some interesting things about the movie, but mostly they talked about the historical context. They would go off on long tangents about an actors entire career while the movie played on. Which isn't what I want from a commentary.

I should mention that 90% of the talking was the second guy. The first guy hardly got a word in once he'd introduced the second. I wonder if he regreted it.

Fascinating that a movie can completely disappear for over 50 years like that, then reappear and actually be pretty good. Must be some lesson in that.


ELSEWHERE
Kanopy
Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Interesting to imagine what these Italians were thinking as they made the films of this era. They'd seen so much brutality in life and so much propoganda pasted over it. No coincidence, I imagine, that the father in this film is paid to pate posters onto the walls. It's appropriate.

His happiness and his relief at getting that job is so palpable. But, boy. That's not what life has in mind.

I love the title. And it's an excellent movie. And I'm not surprised it has such acclaim. And it's says so much about family and fate and economics that I would like to show it to my kids. But how eager am I to see it again, I wonder?


=HOME
our dvd
Babe (1995)

This movie is literally the greatest. I mean—what other movie makes you cry for joy? George Miller is a freaking genius, James Cromwell deserved the Oscar (I don't you wish he won instead of Kevin Spacey?). He and Magda Szubanski are one of the great screen couples. The joeks are funny, the relationships are rich. It has some of the best use of chapters and narration.

Everything is perfect.






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