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Thursday, 12 January 2012

Forget the Oscars

Baker's Dozen of McGonigle’s
Best-Liked Films of 2011

By Michael McGonigle

CTS, Audio Visual Department/Film Lecturer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art
[Special to Writers Clearinghouse News Service]

The year turned out to be a pretty good; I saw more films I liked than disliked. For me, one major reason for inclusion on this list was the surprise factor. If a film snapped my attention and made me say “Wow!”, I gave it higher marks than others. So this is my personal list of 13 favorites in alphabetical order. I also listed the ones that are currently available on DVD.

1. The Adventures Of Tin Tin
I wanted to hate this movie, but just when you are about to write Steven Spielberg off, he comes up with a gem like The Adventures Of Tin Tin. Tin Tin is a pure, fast paced, action/adventure film that follows our boy hero (played by the wonderful Jamie Bell) as he tries to solve a mystery surrounding a hidden treasure. With Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as a couple of bumbling Scotland Yard detectives, Andy Serkis as an old drunken sea captain who may hold important clues to the mystery provided he can be maintained in an alcoholic fog and the big surprise, Daniel Craig as a deliciously hammy bad guy. This was one of the big surprises for me this year.

2. Brighton Rock
rongly vilified as not being up to the caliber of the 1947 film, let alone the 1938 novel, I’m one of the few people who think this version of Graham Greene’s novel about the doomed relationship between resort waitress Rose and sociopathic crook Pinkie Brown actually benefits by being updated from England between the wars to the beginning of the Mods and Rockers era of the 1960’s. While Sam Riley is a little old to play the teenage Pinkie, he still manages to be alternately frightening and pathetic. With an excellent supporting cast including Helen Mirren, Andy Serkis, John Hurt and Andrea Riseborough as Rose who learns the bitter truth about what the saying “be careful what you wish for” really means. Available on DVD.

3. The Devil’s Double
While this film is not accurate historically, it is still a riveting, often grotesquely hilarious portrait of Sadaam Hussein’s eldest son Uday, that psychopathic nitwit with bad teeth who was so unstable, even his father was frightened of him. In proper terms, the story concerns Latif, a decent Iraqi citizen who has the unfortunate luck to be a spitting image of Uday so he is drafted into the position of being Uday’s “fedai” or body double so when the assassins eventually come, it will be Latif who gets killed and not Uday. Well, we all know how well that worked for Uday. But the major reason to see The Devil’s Double is the dual performance by Dominic Cooper as both the dull, decent Latif and the wildly carnal and excitable Uday. Dominic Cooper, a serviceable actor (My Week With Marilyn, The History Boys and Mama Mia) goes full bore as Uday obviously aiming for the Al Pacino “Chew The Scenery” Award and that is not meant to be a criticism. Cooper’s portrayal of Uday is so operatic, that no matter what level of depravity he sinks to, you can’t help but watch in open-mouthed astonishment. The Devil’s Double shows why all the smart actors would rather play a villain than a hero, it’s just too much fun. Available on DVD.

4. The Illusionist
A delightful animated treasure from the man who brought you The Triplets Of Bellville. This film was based on a screenplay by the great Jacques Tati and believe me, if you don’t like Tati, this film will leave you cold. But if you love Jacques Tati like I do, then The Illusionist is like having Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot reincarnated. Telling the bittersweet tale of a once popular stage magician now unemployable by the shift of the general audience from vaudeville theaters to TV, The Illusionist runs right up to the edge of wistful sentimentality, but never becomes mawkish. The Illusionist contains the most hilarious rock band in history, a sublimely funny clown suicide sequence and the nastiest rabbit this side of Monty Python And The Holy Grail. Why people are fawning all over The Artist and ignoring The Illusionist is something I will never understand. Available on DVD.

5. Into The Abyss
A lot of the criticism against this film was based on what the film was not. Werner Herzog’s documentary looks at the fates of two men convicted for the same triple homicide, one who is about to be executed via lethal injection in a few days and the other who will be in jail for the next 40 years. The film is not a plea for fairness in court trials or verdicts. Nor is it a muckraking crime story about the pathetic robbery of a red car that cost three innocent people their lives. And while Herzog tells us in no uncertain terms that he is anti-capital punishment, Into The Abyss is not a “Michael Moore” like crusade film intended to sway an audience toward a particular viewpoint. No, Into The Abyss is much more unsettling. Both killers are interviewed while in jail and to hear them speak so calmly about their broken lives is disturbing. We also meet the family and friends of the victims and their stories are compelling too. We hear from a former Death Row prison guard who used to escort the convicts to the execution chamber and why this man is now completely against capital punishment. This is all done Herzog style with loopy questions voiced in his bland Teutonic accent, long camera takes and by leaving the camera running after a question has supposedly been answered which then reveals surprising human behavior uncluttered by narrative. The whole experience of watching Into The Abyss is like staring over the edge into a dark territory I did not want to visit, but I could not avert my eyes.

6. Kaboom
As this film started and I was immersed in a world of night time neon colors filled with androgynous boys and girls for whom sex in any combination is desired and all scored with a cool Indie/Alt soundtrack, I knew immediately I was in Gregg Araki territory. But when our lead character Smith (the excellent Thomas Becker) began to have real nightmare attacks by people in animal masks, along with weird messages on his computer that were just too realistic to be dream or drug induced, the film switched to a horror story about a dangerous religious cult bent on world destruction. I thought, wow, is Gregg Araki really going to go in this plot direction? Oh yeah, he was. And he went all the way with it; just look at the film’s title. Many people were dismayed by this change in the film’s tone, but I give Araki nothing but praise for making the gutsiest movie of the year and Kaboom becomes a further warning that people who believe in religious apocalypse should never be given access to nuclear weapons. Available on DVD.

7. The Man Who Fell To Earth
I know this film is celebrating its 40th anniversary, but it was re-released in 2011 in a new print and once again I was enraptured by the swirling imagery, convoluted plot, hypnotic music and general lunacy that is The Man Who Fell To Earth. No filmmaker today would even dare to make a film as visually overwrought as Nicholas Roeg did back in 1976 when things in the film industry were less corporate and genuine cinematic risks could be taken. David Bowie plays Thomas Jerome Newton, the technologically advanced space alien who comes to Earth with a plan to take our water back to his own drought stricken planet but in order to finance inter-planetary travel he has to interact with us Earthlings and before long, human foibles in the form of money, sadness, love, drink and jealousy rub off on him and ultimately derail his plans forever. Yes, Thomas Jerome Newton fell to Earth, only he didn’t bounce back up. With Rip Torn, Candy Clark, Bernie Casey and Buck Henry. Available on DVD.

8. Margin Call
This complex drama is everything Moneyball wasn’t. Yes, it is mostly made from scenes of people in rooms talking about abstruse numeric schemes that will “change everything” and both films are top-loaded with major actors; but the similarity ends there. Margin Call is highly cinematic, dangerous, deceiving and extremely gripping. This film has one of the most morally egregious sequences in film history when all the sales people begin selling off the firm’s toxic assets to save their company’s bottom line and to hell with the rest of the world. They justify this by invoking “Caveat Emptor”, but just because the buyer needs to beware, that does not mean you have a right to lie, cheat or otherwise misrepresent yourself in order to sell knowingly shoddy products. Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore (remember her) and Simon Baker head the cast and are all excellent, but it is Zachary Quinto as the low level risk assessment manager who shines as a linchpin in the films plot and Stanley Tucci as the just fired Cassandra who shows how it is possible to maintain your dignity while being callously “downsized”. Mark my words, when the financial “Nuremberg” trials finally happen and the financial tycoons justifications for their immoral accounting practices turn out to be variations of the “I only did it to save the company bottom line”, those explanations will ring as hollow as the Nazis who claimed innocence because they were “only following orders”. Available on DVD.

9. Melancholia
What can I say, this film shows the end of the world in the first few minutes. However, this does not ruin the film and is a well-needed slap in the head to those people who pretentiously complain about “spoilers”. In Melancholia we know well in advance the world is doomed and so do the characters, so now we get to see how they handle it. From depression, to suicide to drunken wedding day revels, the characters of Melancholia never fail to surprise us with their anger, stubbornness and humanity. But this is a Lars von Trier film and if you are not into the story by the time the wedding sequence is off and rolling, forget about it, this film is not for you. But for those with more adventuresome tastes (and patience), Melancholia is sublime cinematic art and hilariously funny to boot. Kirsten Dunst won the Best Actress award at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival for her role in Melancholia and with a cast that includes Charlotte Gainsbourg, Kiefer Sutherland, John Hurt, Stellan Skarsgard, Jesper Christiansen, Brady Corbet, Udo Kier and the fantastic Charlotte Rampling, it’s amazing they were able to notice her among such a talented group.

10. Senna
I know nothing about Formula One racing. I have never watched a Formula One car race. I only knew about the death of race driver Ayrton Senna on May 1, 1994 because it was reported in all the papers. But Asif Kapadia’s documentary about Ayrton Senna was thoroughly gripping, full of surprises and vastly entertaining. Using only found footage and a few voice over interviews from people who knew the real Ayrton Senna, Kapadia paints a compelling picture of a young man who had an insatiable craving for speed and as natural an ability for driving as anyone can have. And let me tell you, from the sustained POV shots in Senna where you are literally behind the wheel of a car driving at 150 MPH well, let me say, race car driving is not for the faint of heart. Furthermore, Senna immersed me in the strange and fascinating world of Formula One which is filled with its own rules, customs and language and I was never once confused. That didn’t happen when I saw Avatar. Available on DVD.

11. Somewhere
Newly minted film star Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) has fame and money, but apparently no soul. He languishes in the Chateau Marmont Hotel when he’s not out driving his new Ferrari in wild circles in the desert or having girls up to his room to pole dance for him, with their portable poles. But when he is suddenly stuck with his eleven-year-old daughter (Elle Fanning) when his ex-wife has a breakdown, the responsibility of parenting begins to change his life. Somewhere is Sofia Coppola’s most accomplished film although its lento pace and seemingly long stretches of inaction might put off some viewers, but this inside look at the world of film celebrities is full of delicious little digs. Like the fact that Johnny Marco can’t stand the leading lady of his most recent film, yet at publicity shoots, they pretend to be good friends. Then there is the box the publicists make Johnny Marco stand on when he’s photographed with other people so he won’t look so short. But my favorite scene is where Marco has to get his face cast for some special effects on his next picture and after the effects technicians cover his head in gelatinate, they leave the room and there we are, stuck with the silent Marco for a very long time in a single shot. That took directorial guts. Available on DVD.

12. The Trip
I have been on long car trips with annoyingly chatty people who are clueless as to how annoying they are and I want to strangle them, so why did I love The Trip so much? That’s easy, the film stars Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon and was directed by Michael Winterbottom and is the come out of leftfield surprise of 2011. Steve Coogan, an excellent comic actor (Tropic Thunder, 24 Hour Party People) has been commissioned to drive around the English midlands to check out various restaurants and Bed & Breakfast Inns for a magazine story. But when his current girlfriend can’t go, he asks his actor friend Rob Brydon (Oliver Twist, Tristram Shandy) to accompany him on this week long road trip. That’s it. They drive, they eat lunch, they drive some more and then stop for the night at some quaint inn. Then they get up, have breakfast and repeat the same for several days. And all they do is talk and snipe and bitch and moan and complain and make wry observations about anything that comes into their heads and I nearly hemorrhaged from laughter. Many people disliked The Trip because it had no strong plot line, but sometimes, a plot can be an impediment. I read they are currently making a sequel where Steve and Rob drive through Italy . I can’t wait! Available on DVD.

13. Weekend
Sometimes, the most universal truths can be found in the most specific of stories. I imagine most members of the audience would think that the story of two young gay men who hook up for a one night stand, but end up spending a whole weekend together would not have any insight to offer about their own lives. But consider, most of us have experienced something like this, whether it was a gay, straight or bi hook up, we all know the feeling of being unexplainably attracted to someone else and that glorious moment when we realize the other person is attracted back. Then there is the delicate dance of finding out about the other person and the longing feeling you have that maybe, this time, this person is the “one”, but then again, maybe not. Weekend rises or falls on the charm of the two leads and Tom Cullen and Chris New are compelling fresh faces and they are both wonderful. With an insightful script by Andrew Haigh who also directed, be forewarned, Weekend has fairly graphic depictions of sex, so you have to use your own judgment about whether this is something you want to see.

Honorable Mentions:
The Adjustment Bureau, Arthur Christmas, Certified Copy, The Debt, Hugo, The Ides Of March, Le Havre, Midnight In Paris, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Project Nim, Rango, Tabloid, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part One, Win Win

Bakers Dozen of McGonigle’s Least-Liked Films Of 2011
When it comes to films I disliked, I generally ignore pedestrian efforts like Transformer’s I –VI, noisy super hero flicks or anything starring Adam Sandler. The movies that really annoy me are pretentious films where the distance between what the filmmaker wanted to achieve and what he/she actually did achieve is so obviously incongruent that they need to be called out on it. But please remember, this is strictly a personal list and these are my own opinions. Here are the films I liked the least in alphabetical order.

1. Another Earth
Ludicrous. And the science is completely wrong. But, even if I accept the premise that there is another Earth hovering in space as visible to us as the moon (with Earth’s albedo at 0.3 average, that’s debatable), I still can’t get past the repulsive morality of Another Earth. Since Earth II is an exact replica of our Earth (including all the people. . .huh?) and is just a short bit behind us in time, our heroine, who killed a family while driving intoxicated figures if she can go to Earth II and this time not drive drunk, and she won’t kill innocent people. Great message there. I mean, why take responsibility for your actions, suffer consequences and then make sincere amends when you can just fly to Earth II and have a do-over like a flunked mid-term. So, aside from uninteresting characters and a weak story, the only advantage I can see for the folks on Earth II is since they are behind us in time by like thirty minutes, they get to sleep later in the morning.

2. The Artist
I can’t understand the appeal of this film. The parts of the story that weren’t ripped off from Singin’ In The Rain, Sunset Blvd. and Citizen Kane are neither original or funny. I smiled once when Valentin pretended to shoot his dog and the playful pooch keeled over. But, the fifth or sixth time this happened, the joke was wearing pretty thin. I liked Jean Dujardin, but no one else stood out for me and gosh darn it, The Artist just doesn’t have the look or feel of an old silent film either, not that I am an expert. I think Mel Brooks’ 1976 silent movie parody called appropriately Silent Movie does this whole story much better and has the advantage of actually being funny. Yet, so many people I respect tell me this film is delightful, but I was bored senseless watching The Artist, or maybe I just haven’t drunk enough of the critical Kool-Aid to appreciate this one yet.

3. Biutiful
One of the films I really hated this year, yet ironically, I can’t name specific parts that annoyed me. It was the whole melancholic gestalt of Biutiful that did me in, as if great cinema comes from presenting a miserable story as miserably as you can. And this from a guy who can watch two Ingmar Bergman films back to back, along with a documentary about dolphin deaths and still finish a second helping of waffles. Biutiful should have been a 70 minute melodrama, but director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu extended the running time to a butt numbing two and half hours; what happened to the savvy filmmaker who made Amores Perros? Of course, it’s always nice to see Javier Bardem in a movie, but he seemed as dumbfounded by the script as I was. It says something about a film when the most lighthearted moment occurs when one of the main characters accidentally gasses several dozen immigrant workers to death. Biutiful is so hopelessly bleak, they won’t show it on airplanes for fear of walkouts.

4. The Descendents
Once again, I was cruelly disappointed by a film I had high hopes for and I’m a huge fan of Alexander Payne. I could not believe that the director who made Citizen Ruth, Election, Sideways and the “14e arrondissement” short in the great omnibus film Paris, je t’aime made this uninteresting film about a marriage gone sour in sweet Hawaii. The story has George Clooney being cuckolded by a nebbishy realtor (yeah, like that would ever happen) and afterwards his wife is injured in a jet skiing accident and spends the remainder of the film in a vegetative state. She’s the lucky one. The rest of us have to trudge along as Clooney and kids try to find the man who was her last paramour. Rainer Werner Fassbinder or Douglas Sirk would have known how to handle this melodramatic story, but Alexander Payne seems tone deaf to the genre. A shame, because I really like George Clooney and I especially liked Matthew Lillard as the real estate sharpie and part-time lothario who seduced Clooney’s wife. You’d be better off just listening to the classic tune Girlfriend In A Coma by The Smiths. Unlike The Descendents, that song is both funny and ironic.

5. Drive
I have rarely seen a film go from excellent to “what the heck” as fast as Drive. After a brilliant opening sequence with Ryan Gosling driving a couple of thieves to safety by NOT running red lights or screeching tires around corners all under the watchful eyes of the police, we then move into a silly story with Gosling as a stunt car driver by day, but escape artist by night? Is this like Flashdance, you know, she’s a welder by day but an exotic pole dancer at night. Drive is almost as ridiculous. And what a waste of Ryan Gosling. One of the most intelligent, articulate and witty actors to come along in years, and he spends most of the film simply grimacing and saying little. Yes, Albert Brooks was good as the bad guy, but overall, Drive left me cold. And another thing, why use an ersatz Tangerine Dream-esque music score when the real Tangerine Dream is still around?

6. The Future
There is nothing but unrelieved tedium in this mediocre paean to remaining a petulant child despite the on-set of physical adulthood. That’s not a bad story idea; a variation of it was used quite effectively in The Tin Drum, but The Future is no Tin Drum. It is however, woozy, mushy sentiment with no bite, no perceivable style and a slow-witted pace that drags every scene out to the point of excruciation. Hey, I like films where people can stop time at will and get answers from the moon as much as anybody, but having this film narrated by an injured cat named Paw Paw on the eve of being put down is not quite in the same league as having William Holden narrate Sunset Blvd. while floating dead in a Hollywood pool. The only good spot was Hamish Linklater as Miranda July’s decent husband because he’s the only one in the film who acts even remotely like an adult when he gets angry at July for cheating on him. I did not laugh once in this supposedly droll comedy, except of course, when Paw Paw finally got euthanized. That was hilarious, which ought to tell you exactly how bad the rest of The Future was.

7. J. Edgar
Does Clint Eastwood even read the scripts for the films he directs? There is no other reason I can come up with to explain the cognitive dissonance Eastwood displays here between his film and Dustin Lance Black’s excellent screenplay. Eastwood treads very lightly about whether J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI chief honcho was a closeted homosexual or not, and that’s fine because there are so many other people around J. Edgar who are absolutely, positively, happy/gay! How else can you explain the scene where J. Edgar (Leonardo Di Caprio) explains to his BFF Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), how the FBI Crime Lab will eventually look. Says J. Edgar, “we’ll show the criminals that the FBI has got something they haven’t got.” “Decorating sense?” comes the perky reply from Tolson. Or the scene where J. Edgar and Tolson get into a fist fight and after a tortured bloody kiss is exchanged, with their eyes swollen with tears and their lips smeared with red, they both look like Faye Dunaway in Mommie Dearest. I’m not sure Eastwood meant for us to laugh at this film, but I sure did, out loud! So I humbly apologize to those people in the theater who were trying to take this film seriously, but really, that was a hopeless task.

8. Life In A Day
Here was a case of a film that promised much and did not deliver. Culled from home videos made by people all over the world, all filmed on July 24, 2010, this compilation film was to provide a snapshot of all that happens on planet Earth on any given day, which is quite a lot. Organized into rough chapters about birth, sleep, work, eating etc, if it weren’t for the occasional stunningly beautiful shot taken by some amateur, somewhere in the world, this film would be a guaranteed cure for insomnia. Still, the idea was ripped off from the LIFE Magazine series of coffee table books titled A Day In The Life Of . . .The USA or Canada or The Soviet Union, Africa , Hawaii etc. and this film fails because it set out to do a task that probably can’t be done. I hate to bust on people who at least TRY to do something different and worthwhile, but the end result here is a dull, plot-less, mish-mash of great images, but no narrative coherence. It’s the cinematic equivalent of thumbing through a bunch of picture postcards.

9. Martha Marcie May Marlene
A surprise hit amongst critics and the general public and I don’t know why. Just because the filmmakers looked at the difficult subject of women in cults does not mean they treated this subject with the intelligence or cinematic skill it deserved. I applaud the filmmakers for making the attempt, but it’s like throwing a broken life preserver to a drowning man; you mean well, but in fact, you have not helped the situation at all. This is simply a bad film about the subjugation of women in cults. And the cult leader Patrick, played by the very good John Hawkes is without a doubt the worst cult leader in history. He should take lessons from Charles Manson, Jim Jones or Reverend Sun Yung Moon. It seems that Patrick’s main tool for female coercion is playing his guitar, but he’s not killing them softly with his song, he’s boring them to death.

10. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
What a great cast; Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Ciaran Hinds, John Hurt, Tom Hardy, Benedict Cumberbatch and Mark Strong! What a great story to be had in John Le Carre’s seminal spy thriller! Where did it all go wrong? This film is the very definition of tedious. It’s a spy thriller with no thrills. It’s a complex narrative about how George Smiley (Gary Oldman) manages to work behind the scenes to expose a Soviet mole in the upper levels of MI6, Britain ’s CIA. But even at the finale when the mole is revealed, I challenge you to explain to me how Smiley figured it out. Also the film is dull and dingy to look at, full of rainy, foggy weather as if it were illegal for the sun to shine in London before 1979. The only real surprise this film offers will be finding the odd audience member who’s still awake when the final credits roll.

11. The Tree Of Life
It pains me to include this film on my least favorite films of the year list, but for me this was my single biggest disappointment. While the center section detailing the life of young Sean Penn growing up in 1950’s Texas with his borderline abusive father played by Brad Pitt was involving, I soon began to tire of the rapid cutting and short takes. Director Terrence Malick (Days Of Heaven, The Thin Red Line) used to make films with luxuriant tracking and Steadi-Cam shots, but now he seems to have been afflicted with the same Attention Deficit Disorder that makes Michael Bay ’s films nearly unwatchable. I can’t even begin to explain the latter scenes with the adult Sean Penn walking in a wasteland and I truly don’t know how this all connects with the scenes that take place in the primordial world of dinosaurs who apparently learn how to be compassionate creatures by not eating each other. I have been told by many that I have simply missed the point of The Tree Of Life, but I have also noticed that when I ask them directly “what is the point of The Tree Of Life”, they can only stare at me blankly. I rest my case.

12. War Horse
In this film there is a horse in almost every scene and in some large scale battle scenes, many horses. Yet, try as I might I did not see one bit of horse dung anywhere. A sterling tribute to the AD’s and PA’s who kept the locations clean. However, in terms of story, you won’t find a film as full of horse s**t as this sanctimonious, manipulative and over sentimentalized film. That’s a tribute to director Steven Spielberg who has never seen a pious cliché that he didn’t want to beat an audience over the head with. It’s not enough that Joey the Horse has to plow a rocky field, it has to be the rockiest (and most geologically suspect) field in all of England . . .and he has to do it in the rain! Still, when it comes to directorial talent, Steven Spielberg is not an Emperor with no clothes, The Adventures Of Tin Tin proves that, the real question is why he continues to let his inner child consistently over rule his adult smarts.

13. The Way Back
Before seeing this film, it was pure dumb luck that I had just finished reading Anne Applebaum’s Gulag, A History (Gulag is a Russian acronym for Glavnoye upravlyeniye lagyeryey, or Administration of Corrective Labor Camps). Because after reading about the real horrors of these camps, seeing them turned into Hollywood action film tropes seemed almost disrespectful in a way. It’s amazing how knowing the truth about a subject can ruin a fictional portrayal of it. Inspired by a “true” escape story (of dubious verity), the excellent director Peter Weir (Picnic At Hanging Rock, Witness, The Truman Show) errs by trying to include every kind of misery the Gulags offered and in doing so, he waters down the whole horrible experience. And the group that tries to escape from this Siberian camp ends up comprised of the same clichéd characters you would find in an old WWII movie. So, with a cast as varied as Ed Harris, Jim Sturgess, Saoirse Ronan, Colin Farrell and Mark Strong, it’s a shame the film is such a long drawn out affair and by the end of the movie, I felt like I too had been in a Gulag for 20 years. Once again, good intentions do not a good film make.

Dishonorable Mentions:
Blackthorn, Incendies, Jane Eyre, Kill The Irishman, Moneyball, Shame, Third Star, Twelve Thirty, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, Young Goethe In Love