Shakespeare in Film – Part 9 – Henry V – Branagh’s 1989 Version

Sunday, I wrote the review of Olivier’s Henry V.  I watched Branagh’s version that night.  I watched a while ago but I wanted to have it fresh in my mind especially because I would be contrasting it to Olivier’s film.

When Branagh’s movie came out in 1989 it made him a star.  He was a young dynamic character and the world wanted to believe in heroes again.  He was married at the time to Emma Thompson and she played Katherine to his Henry.  They were seen as an exciting couple in Hollywood circles and there was great interest in their films together.  Putting all that aside, people were ready to take a fresh look at Shakespeare.  Branagh adapted the play for the screen and directed himself in the lead.  Branagh was young enough and active enough to make King Harry believable.  The movie was a critical success.

Interestingly, Branagh’s Henry V left in some of the smaller incidents that Olivier omitted.  The three conspirators who planned to assassinate Henry on behalf of the French are duly exposed and condemned.  The hanging of Bardolph, one of Prince Harry’s former companions is a stark reminder that King Henry is a changed man.

But the major thrust of the film of course runs in the same vein as Olivier’s.  And yet there are clear differences in tone and emphasis.  Despite the theme of war Olivier’s play is the more light hearted and optimistic of the two by far.  A good point of comparison is the St Crispin’s Day speech.  When Olivier gives the speech, he exudes confidence and a controlled enthusiasm.  But when Branagh speaks he impresses on the audience the sense of passion and energy he feels.  It’s a rush of adrenaline that he captures in words.

And the action of the play mirrors this same difference.  Olivier’s cinema is typical of what the 1940s would do to portray the late middle ages.  It reminds you of how Hollywood would give us Robin Hood or Ivanhoe.  It was a sunlit world of grassy fields and picturesque castles with banners flapping in the breeze high above the fields.  Branagh gives us explosions, fire, battles in the dead of night and lots and lots of mud.  Mud on the ground, mud on the soldiers and mud on the King.  And he keeps some of the lines on the war that Olivier left out.  When the English besiege the city of Harfleur, Henry harangues the town elders with the horrors that resisting the besiegers would entail if they failed to surrender in advance.  He mentions rape, plunder and the vicious destruction of human life from the youngest infant to the oldest inhabitants.  So, we can see that Branagh has made the more accurate version of the play.  He’s left all the warts in plain sight.

Now in addition to the grittier nature of Branagh’s production it should be said that his handling of the romance between Henry and Katherine is also more naturalistic.  Branagh has an earthier, more openly comical approach to Henry attempting to woo Katherine in terribly halting French.  Olivier’s approach is calmer and more restrained.  So, all in all let’s call Olivier’s a more formal and austere approach to the story and Branagh’s a more naturalistic and emotional version.

How do they compare?  In my opinion they are both excellent films.  And they have different strengths.  I watch the Olivier version when I want to enjoy Olivier’s language.  He is the gold standard, in my book, for what Shakespeare’s dialog should sound like.  No one else makes the text sound real the way he does.

But if I want to see the story of the war, I will watch Branagh’s version.  Branagh and his excellent cast bring the war to life.  By the end of the battle of Agincourt you can feel the exhaustion that the English feel as they struggle to bury their dead.  Even the miraculous victory they’ve won is almost beyond their strength to grasp.  Branagh has done a very fine job of making a Henry V that is faithful to the text and conveys the reality of a King going to war in the Hundred Years War.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 8 – Henry V – Olivier’s 1944 Version

Another Olivier film in which he starred and directed.  He also was one of the producers and had a part in the screenplay.  Shakespeare’s plot revolves around young King Henry (or Harry to his friends) defending his claim to the throne of France.  His Norman ancestors shared lineage with the French kings and here Henry is demanding from the French king that he be named his successor.  But the Dauphin (the king’s son and heir) answers for his father by sending an insulting “gift” to substitute for Henry’s claim.  He sends him a box of tennis balls.  That starts the war.

The action is divided between Henry’s prosecution of the war, scenes among the French leaders and several personal vignettes.  One set of vignettes involve Henry’s former companions; Ancient Pistol, Bardolph, Nim, Mistress Quickly and Sir John Falstaff.  In his youth Henry was an irresponsible wastrel that associated with these disreputable characters.  But these knaves were very popular from two earlier plays, Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, and here they are brought back for a final curtain call.  Their actions are for comic relief and as a contrast to the heroics of Henry and his warriors.  Then there are scenes with the three captains Fluellen, MacMorris, and Jamy from respectively Wales, Ireland, and Scotland.  These three men speak in heavily accented dialects reflecting their ethnicities.  They are also provided for comic relief with mockery of MacMorris being the primary focus.  And finally, there is the scene of Princess Katherine and her Duenna talking about King Harry in a scene where the Princess attempts to learn a few words of English seemingly in anticipation of meeting Henry.

The story’s climax is the momentous battle of Agincourt where according to Shakespeare’s reckoning an army of 12,000 Englishmen, mostly infantry and archers, defeated an army of 60,000 Frenchmen that included a large contingent of heavy cavalry.  After the English victory we have a scene where the French King agrees to make Henry his heir in exchange for Henry’s marriage to Princess Katherine.  And this is completed with Henry winning Katherine’s heart in a scene that is meant to signify his passionate and determined nature.

So how does Olivier handle this complicated and fragmented plot?  After all, some scenes take place in a palace, some in an inn but others are in the middle of a pitched battle and others in a bivouac.  In Shakespeare’s day, in his little circular theater, interior scene changes were hard enough but battle scenes could only be handled by suspension of disbelief and by heralds arriving to announce distant action.  Olivier pays homage to this by starting the play in the Globe Theater.  We see the actors behind the scene dressing and preparing to enter the stage.  Even Olivier as Henry is shown first as an actor about to enter his first scene.  The following scene at the inn between Ancient Pistol and company are also handled as scenes in the theater.

But once the action moves afield, we get exterior shots of the English and French countryside (actually Irish, this was shot right before D-Day and England was on a war footing while neutral Ireland was not).  And it’s outdoors that Olivier gets to give the rousing St. Crispin’s Day speech.  And the big battle includes an actual cavalry charge.  After the battle they use a strange combination of exterior shots with painted backgrounds that are sort of picturesque in conjuring up a theater.  And a theater is where the finale happens, right back in the Globe Theater where the Narrator closes the curtain on Henry and Katherine and reads the epilogue.

So, how did I like this mess?  Well, actually, quite a lot.  I can’t help but admire the way Olivier takes the conventions of a Shakespeare play like the exits and entrances of the cast and makes them part of an internal joke by showing the cast as actors going onto a stage.  He even takes the speech that explains his claim to the throne and makes it a comic scene with bishops and clergymen dropping and finally throwing ancient manuscripts at each other in their confusion at trying to prove Henry is the legitimate King of France.  To a modern audience the base and crude friends of ancient Pistol seem strange and exotic but Olivier has his Globe audience filled with Pistol’s spiritual kinsmen who cheer and catcall in approval of their low antics.

By modern standards the battle scenes are somewhat theatrical.  After you’ve seen elves and men mowing down orcs in one of the Lord of the Rings movies the knights on horseback can’t be very convincing.  And Olivier is no Errol Flynn swashbuckling with a sword.  But what Olivier has is the ability to take Shakespeare’s lines and turn them into dramatic speech.  I think the fact that Olivier had done Shakespeare on the stage with the best English actors of his generation was what gave him the ability to give the words the inflection and cadence that turns them from a museum piece into a dramatic scene.  I’ve seen the St. Crispin’s Day speech done by Branagh and Olivier.  Branagh gives it all the intensity and emotion he can.  Olivier is calmer and quieter but he infuses his speech with the storyteller’s charm of what it will be like to look back at a victory from the vantage point of many years.  Maybe my admiration of his skills is idiosyncratic to me.  But even though he is an actor from an earlier time I do not think our modern method actors can compare.  They always reach for emotional affect and seem to overdo it.

Henry V is a special play in Shakespeare’s list.  Everything but the epilogue is a reflection of the will and fortune of a fortunate king.  All his ventures succeed and his reign is fortunate.  Only the epilogue reminds us that the War of the Roses is yet to revive in his son’s time and erase all his glories and end the English sovereignty on the mainland.  But the play gives the audience a chance to hear of victory as a contrast to the tragedies that will follow.  Olivier made his production as a morale boost for the English who were about to join the Americans in the D-Day invasion of France.  The story of an earlier invasion of France by Henry was supposed to provide hope for the nation worn out by years of bombing raids and setbacks in the war.  And so, Olivier omitted the defeats from the epilogue.  Wise decision.

This version is dated in terms of cinematography and stylized in some aspects of the acting but I recommend it to those who enjoy Shakespeare’s plays.

 

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Ex Machina – A Science Fiction Movie Review

This British production follows the story of Caleb Smith, a programmer working for Blue Book which is a Google-like company headed by a reclusive genius named Nathan Bateman.  Nathan has summoned Caleb to perform a Turing test on his female robot Ava.  A Turing test is the concept of an artificial intelligence passing itself off as human to an observer.  Ava has a human face, hands and feet attached to a body that is mostly mechanical.  Caleb quickly becomes emotionally attached to the robot and loses all objectivity for his job.  Nathan is a volatile, domineering personality who quickly bursts out into rage when anything goes against his plans.  Caleb slowly becomes convinced that Nathan is a kind of monster.

The story takes place in the claustrophobic “home” that Nathan has built in a remote mountain estate that can only be reached by helicopter.  We quickly see that nothing is at it seems.  Nathan is not trying to get Caleb’s opinion on Ava, he’s studying their interaction.  In this story we see that each of the corners of the triangle is manipulating the other two.  Caleb slowly finds out the dark details of Nathan’s project to produce artificial humans and I guess we’re supposed to sympathize with Ava and despise Nathan.  But it’s a funny thing.  By the end of the movie I feel the opposite.  Maybe it’s because I’m so tired of Alexa, my GPS and all the other annoying female artificial voices now filling our world.  I was rooting for Nathan.  I wanted him to shut down Ava and build a male robot that would just do its job and not complain.  After all, in the world we live in 99.999% of humanity are just wage slaves who toil away for the better part of our waking lives.

I was relieved to discover that there at least wouldn’t be any robot human sex scenes but there was some nudity involving an ancillary character.  Camera Girl chided me for watching robot sex movies.  Well this was worse than that.  It was sort of a robot revenge chick flick.  Female empowerment movies are really not my bag.  And female robot empowerment movies even less so.  I’m giving this thing a thumbs down.  If you are less sensitive about this sort of thing you might enjoy this movie but although some facets of the movie were interesting all in all I’d give it a pass.

 

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Kung Fu Hustle – A Movie Review

I’m not normally a martial arts movie afficionado but an old friend was staying at “The Compound” and he took advantage of a Netflix account to watch quite a few of them.  One of those films was a movie from 2004 called Kung Fu Hustle and because of the fantasy aspects of the film I decided I could stretch a definition and do a review here.

First of all, this movie is in Chinese with subtitles.  As far as a genre I guess you could call it a martial arts fantasy comedy.  So, if any of those categories aren’t for you then you should skip this movie.  Stephen Chow is the producer, director, writer and star.

It is 1930’s Shanghai.  Chow plays Sing, a young man who has become disillusioned with the world because of his attempt as a child to defend a poor mute girl named Fong from some bullies.  He tried  using the Buddhist Palm fighting style that he had learned by reading a pamphlet that he bought from a beggar.  But he was beaten badly and because of this experience when he grows up he decides to turn to a life of crime.  He attempts to shake down some poor people by telling them he is part of the dreaded Axe Gang that rules the city through violence and terror.  When the peasants beat him up instead, he signals for the real Axe Gang and an epic battle ensues between the scores of Axe gangsters and the poor people of Pig Sty Alley.  As it turns out three of the peasants are coincidentally kung fu masters.  Behind their leadership the peasants defeat the gang.

Now Sum, the leader of the gang captures Sing and promises to kill him after the gang war is completed for causing such a terrible rout of his men.  But by some mysterious skill Sing escapes.  Meanwhile Sum hires two magical harp players.  Apparently, their music generates flying knives and using these they kill the three kung fu masters.  Now we meet up with two of the comic characters of Pig Sty Alley, the Landlord and his shrewish wife.  They also turn out to be kung fu masters and they avenge the slain men and defeat the harpists.

Meanwhile Sum decides that Sing can be a valuable tool because of his abilities as an escape artist.  He hires him to free a man called the Beast from an insane asylum.  He does this and, of course, the Beast is a kung fu master and a dangerous lunatic.  He attacks the Landlord and Landlady and fights them to a draw.  Sum orders Sing to help the Beast kill the husband and wife but Sing has a change of heart and attacks the Beast.  The Beast pummels the young man to a pulp and the Landlord flees with his wife and Sing’s unconscious body.

Somehow the tremendous beating triggers some kind of magical transformation in Sing and he not only completely regenerates but acquires the skills of, you guessed it, a Buddhist Palm kung fu master!  He squares off against the entire Axe Gang and the Beast.  After a titanic battle that involves flying through the sky and invisible forces that can knock down buildings, he defeats the Beast who then begs to be allowed to be Sing’s pupil.  Finally, in the last scene Sing meets up with Fong who is now an ice cream seller and I guess they live happily ever after.

You’ll probably say this is a ridiculous plot and it is.  But the action scenes are very well done, the comedy is funny and the story keeps your attention.  The martial arts scenes are somewhat reminiscent of the choreographed fight scenes in the Matrix.  If you aren’t completely opposed to a movie in this genre then I’d highly recommend you give this one a look.

Looper – A Science Fiction Movie Review

Looper is a 2012 time-travel film noir starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis both as a character named Joe.  The premise of the movie is that in the year 2074, time travel has been invented but it is illegal.  It is used by criminals to dispose of people by sending them thirty years into the past where killers called loopers execute them in exchange for bars of silver.  The kicker is that thirty years later the loopers are sent back into the past to be executed by their younger selves.  This is called closing the loop and once the looper kills his older-self he is retired with a golden payday and heads off to enjoy his money in peace for thirty years.  I know, this is a seriously goofy plot device.

Young Joe is a lost soul with a drug habit and little else.  At one point he attempts to help his friend Seth, a fellow looper, whose older-self escapes killing.  He hides Seth in his apartment.  But when their boss Abe, played by Jeff Daniels, tells Joe that the choice is betraying Seth or losing half of his silver stash, Joe gives up Seth who is killed in a fiendishly painful way.

And of course, a similar thing happens to Joe.  His older-self shows up to be killed but eludes Joe and thus it becomes a three-way search with Young Joe looking for his older-self and the gang looking for both of them.  Into the middle of this is thrown a young woman named Sara, played by Emily Blunt, and her young son Cid.  Young Joe shows up at her farmhouse because he has information that Old Joe is planning to kill the boy.  Old Joe has information that leads him to believe that the boy will grow up to be a ruthless killer that will lead to the death of Old Joe’s wife.  I won’t give away the ending because it’s well done and if you decide to see the movie it would spoil it.

From the point of view of science fiction, the plot has got more holes in it than swiss cheese.  Using time travel to get rid of bodies?  That’s the best use they could come up with?  This story is really a character driven noir.  Joe, in both of his manifestations, is a damaged human being who late in the game discovers his humanity.  The improbable plot allows his characters to exhibit the best and worst traits in their personalities and his interaction with Sara and Cid allows him to finally look beyond his harried, meaningless existence and do something right.

By the illogic of the scenario, this movie may not appeal to somescience fiction fans with higher expectations for time travel story consistency.  But as a story it has merits.  Gordon-Levitt is his usual sympathetic persona.  Interestingly they used makeup  to try to make him look a little bit more like Bruce Willis.  It is a little distracting, but not much.  Bruce Willis is, of course, Bruce Willis and is most himself when he is pouring automatic weapons fire into his surroundings which he does with great abandon.  But he does okay.  The supporting cast is good and the few special effects are good enough.  I’ll recommend this movie.  It’s not great but it’s good.

The Professionals – A Movie Review

Here’s a western made in 1966 that reflected the later anti-hero story line that Clint Eastwood mined so successfully in his spaghetti westerns.  The big names are Burt Lancaster and Lee Marvin.  They are former mercenaries who have ridden with Pancho Villa but now are selling their services to a Texan (played by Ralph Bellamy) whose wife has been kidnapped by an old bandit ally of theirs.  This bandit, Jesus Raza, played by Jack Palance is over the border in Mexico with a small army of followers in a heavily defended camp.  Marvin adds two more men to his crew with Robert Ryan and Woody Strode.  Together they devise a scheme to disrupt the camp, rescue the woman and outwit and outfight Raza’s army.  Claudia Cardinale plays the kidnapped wife and in addition to being a capable actress she shows why she is remembered as one of the most attractive actresses of her time.  She is a fine-looking babe.

The script is tight and the dialog is apt with each of the main characters given the words that fit the part.  Marvin is the cool efficient tactician and leader.  Lancaster is the fearless daredevil who lightheartedly plunks dynamite at his enemies while firing off jokes and insults at everyone around him.  Ryan and Strode ably fulfill their parts but with less dialog.  And at the end of the main action Lancaster and Palance get to discuss life and love as they prepare for their strange duel.

The plot has a surprising twist and plenty of action and is in my opinion, one of the better westerns from its era.  Marvin and Lancaster have good chemistry and have been placed in a production that uses their particular talents to excellent effect.  If you’re a fan of the western genre this movie delivers the goods.  Highly recommended.

Ready Player One – A Science Fiction Movie Review

Lately I’ve been at a loss to find any sci-fi movies that I might like.  After some searches I saw a trailer for this 2018 Spielberg film and decided to give it a viewing.  The scenario is a dystopian future where because of (you guessed it) global warming and the exhaustion of all fossil fuels everybody lives in trailer homes stacked on top of each other in piles.  And because life is so miserable, everybody spends all their time inside a virtual reality program called the Oasis.  This program was invented by an uber-geek named James Donovan Halliday who when he died revealed to the world that hidden in Oasis was an Easter Egg and clues to finding it.  Whoever found it would inherit his ownership of Oasis which was worth around a trillion dollars.

This is the story of how a teen age geek named Wade Owen Watts (in game name; Parzival) with the help of his friends Aech, Art3mis, Daito and Shoto find the Easter Egg and save the gaming world from the evil IOI (Innovative Online Industries) corporation that wanted to win the contest and turn Oasis into a boring commercial wasteland.  Nolan Sorrento, the head of IOI, detects Wade’s success at finding the clues and uses real world violence to try and sideline Wade and his friends.  And in fact, Wade’s aunt and many people living in his trailer stack are killed in a drone attack meant for Wade.  But eventually good prevails and Wade and his friends find the egg and live happily ever after.  Now for my review.

This is a Spielberg film.  And it is like every other Spielberg film.  The hero is introduced and we watch him struggle, fail, learn and grow.  The good people are hip and watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the Breakfast Club when they were young and the bad people are corporate types that wear three-piece suits.  And because this is today one of the characters is a black lesbian because diversity.  And like in all Spielberg films, when the climactic scene where everything will either fail or succeed is reached, there is the annoying back and forth fumbling which is supposed to produce nervous tension.  In this one the on-line character is trying to get a key into a keyhole while his real-life body is standing in the back of a speeding mail truck that is being slammed into by hostile vehicles.  So, for several minutes we have to watch him miss the keyhole.  This sort of thing was annoying in the Indiana Jones movies and in Saving Private Ryan.  It’s still annoying today.

It’s not a terrible movie.  The special effects in the movie are extremely good.  But the characters in Oasis and in the real world are not particularly likable or realistic.  And the plot is very predictable with the usual strawman for the villain.  I suppose someone who is a big fan of gaming might enjoy the in-jokes and references to classic games.  I thought it was trite and very self-indulgent.  Probably good for Spielberg fans.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 7 – Hamlet – Branagh’s 1996 Version

I saw this in the theater when it came out.  There are a few things that should be said about it to start with.  It’s fully four hours long!  It has everyone in Hollywood (and outside of it) in the cast.  Richard Attenborough, Brian Blessed, Julie Christie, Billy Crystal, Judi Dench, Gérard Depardieu, John Gielgud, Charlton Heston, Derek Jacobi, Jack Lemmon, Kate Winslet and so help me even Robin Williams.  And the cinematography is full of pomp and circumstance and beautiful settings.  But it is unwatchable.

Branagh runs around doing his crazy act and shouting out his lines at a dizzying rate but the whole thing is annoying and after even a half hour becomes too tedious to endure.  Some of the performances I did enjoy.  Richard Briers as Polonius I thought was good.  I liked Derek Jacobi as Claudius.  Jack Lemmon as one of the watchmen I found unconvincing.

For a true devotee of Shakespeare who is determined to watch it, I suggest watching it in a scene by scene fashion.  Probably twenty or thirty minutes is the sub-lethal dose.  So taking it in eight to twelve bite sized chunks you could get through without losing your ability to appreciate the lines.

It’s a pity.  Branagh was given a budget and an array of talent that is impressive.  And a lot of the visual presentation is beautiful.  But his vision for the title role falls far short of even such popular versions as Franco Zeffirelli’s 1990 version with Mel Gibson.

So let me not go on beating it up.  Let me just say I cannot recommend this version for an enjoyable experience of the play.  Watch Olivier or Gibson.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 3 – Much Ado About Nothing (1993)

Back in 1989 Kenneth Branagh made a splash in the title role of Henry V and because of it became a movie star and was allowed to produce several of Shakespeare’s plays paid for by major studios!  One of the fruits of this strange marriage of Hollywood and Branagh was “Much Ado About Nothing,” one of the comedies.  The cast combines English stage and screen actors with American movie stars such as Denzel Washington, Michael Keaton, Kate Beckinsale and Keanu Reeves.  And because at the time she was Mrs. Branagh, Emma Thompson co-starred.

Up front I will say that this film is a bizarre mix of good, bad, indifferent and unbearable acting.  The subplot that involves the thwarting of a marriage by a wrongful accusation against the bride is so emotionally overwrought and pathetic that I am tempted to fast forward through it.  On the other hand, the antagonistic love/hate relationship between Branagh and Thompson’s characters is at times very amusing.  But the stand out part in the play is Michael Keaton as the chief night constable Dogberry.  His bizarre appearance and mannerisms are very funny.  His malapropisms and nonsensical instructions to his men sound like they come from someone hallucinating.  My favorite exchange occurs when Dogberry tries to explain to the lord of the castle what he has discovered during his night watch.  When he speaks at length without making any sense the lord tells Dogberry that he is tedious.  Dogberry mistakes this for a compliment and promises that if he himself were as rich as a king he would willingly bestow all his tediousness on the lord.

Aside from the young love interests the worst acting of the play is provided by Keanu Reeves.  He plays the villain of the story Don John.  Never before or since have Shakespeare’s words been spoken so woodenly and so bereft of any skill.  Luckily he was able to move on and use this skill where it belonged, in John Wick 2.  Don John’s brother in the movie is Denzel Washington’s Don Pedro.  I must confess I couldn’t see the family resemblance but Don Pedro did acquit himself much more ably Keanu.  He was amusing and amiable.

For fans of the tv show House, the actor who played Wilson on that show, Robert Sean Leonard, plays the young love interest opposite Kate Beckinsale.  His emotional scenes which involved frequent tears are so embarrassing it’s a wonder he ever acted again.

So what can I say about this movie?  Anyone I haven’t scared away with my descriptions should give it a viewing.  It is most definitely a mixed bag.  But for someone who enjoys Shakespeare there are some fine scenes interspersed amongst the awful.  It’s your call.

Shakespeare in Film – Part 1 – Introduction

I enjoy a cross section of Shakespeare’s work, comedy, tragedy, history.  I enjoy reading the works, live performances and film versions.  On the other hand, I haven’t studied Shakespeare or even theater in any formal way.  I just like what I like and dislike what I don’t.  For that reason I don’t have a technical vocabulary to make my critiques sound authoritative or learned.  So I’ll use the same style that I use for all my other reviews.  I hope Shakespeare doesn’t mind sharing the stage I’ve populated previously with the Twilight Zone, Captain Kirk and Plan 9 from Outer Space.

And just to go a little further with my preferences for these plays on film, I prefer the traditional presentation of the plays in the garb and surroundings that match the story that Shakespeare provided.  Also I prefer the male characters to be played by men and the girls to be girls.  So I’m probably not going to be interested in seeing Dame Judy Dench playing King Lear or a man prancing around as Titania.  I’ve seen a production of Richard III set in WWII era London.  It wasn’t terrible but I didn’t see the point.   So this should be fun, for me.  Hopefully some people will be interested.