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Month: November 2015

20 Million Miles To Earth (1957)

20 Million Miles To Earth (1957)

“Why is it always, always, so costly for man to move from the present to the future?”

20 Million Miles Poster

Synopsis:
When a spaceship crashes into the Mediterranean, two fishermen (George Khoury and Don Orlando) and a boy (Bart Braverman) rescue two of the passengers, of whom only one (William Hopper) survives. While a beautiful doctor-in-training (Joan Taylor) treats Hopper’s wounds, Braverman secretly sells a Venusian specimen that washed ashore to Taylor’s zoologist-grandfather (Frank Puglia) — but once the creature hatches, it soon grows into an enormous monster that terrorizes Rome.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Primarily known for showcasing “the first of special-effects expert Ray Harryhausen’s Dynamation creatures”, this “lively film” features “an impressive monster — one that would serve as [a] model for future Harryhausen creations”. Unfortunately, beyond the admittedly impressive animation — including a lengthy finale in which the monster ravages Rome (chosen as the location because Harryhausen wanted to take a vacation there!) — the film itself lacks a narrative leg to stand on. It’s truly a “monster flick”, with a misunderstood creature vainly attempting to elude capture while the film’s handsome male and female protagonists inevitably fall in ’50s love (after hating each other first, naturally). The most interesting scene takes place right away, as a Sicilian fisherman (uncredited Khoury) bravely insists to his companion (cowardly Orlando, also uncredited) that they must enter the sinking spaceship to locate any survivors; why in the world is Khoury’s noble character immediately discarded and forgotten? But, as DVD Savant argues, “a monster movie with a good monster is a good monster movie”, and one (perhaps) shouldn’t take the movie “to task for its cinematic deficiencies.” Perhaps.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Effective “dynamation” by Ray Harryhausen
    20 Million Miles Dynamation Baby
  • Good use of Rome locales
    20 Million Miles Rome b&w

Must See?
No, though of course it’s recommended for Harryhausen fans.

Links:

Born to Dance (1936)

Born to Dance (1936)

“He’s got a smile like concentrated vodka!”

Born to Dance Poster

Synopsis:
A trio of Navy sailors — Ted (James Stewart), ‘Mush’ (Buddy Ebsen), and ‘Gunny’ (Sid Silvers) — romance three girls while on leave: Stewart falls for an aspiring dancer (Eleanor Powell), Ebsen flirts unsuccessfully with a singer named Peppy (Frances Langford), and Silvers attempts to reunite with the woman (Una Merkel) he married four years earlier after a marathon dance session, not knowing they have a child (Juanita Quigley) together. Stewart and Powell’s romance gets more complicated when the scheming publicist (Alan Dinehart) for a Broadway diva (Virginia Bruce) cooks up a plan to have her fall for Stewart, who rescued her beloved Pekingese dog while she was visiting the sailors’ ship and schmoozing with its adoring captain (Raymond Walburn).

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “carefree Depression Era musical” — directed by Roy Del Ruth and starring tap dancing legend Eleanor Powell — “is corny and campy, yet enjoyable”. He points out that the story is “silly” (see the synopsis above) and possesses an “unconvincing plot twist” (most definitely true!), but notes that “there’s some okay comedy”, a “fine, varied Cole Porter score” (including “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”), and “absolutely terrific… tap routines” by Powell. Unfortunately, while Powell is pretty and earnest, she isn’t the most nuanced of actors, and gravitates towards one facial expression (smiling, toothy mouth wide open) while dancing; Peary notes somewhat uncharitably that “when standing still” she “looks like she’d be a crummy Amateur Hour contestant”. But Stewart (apparently suggested for the part by Porter) is fine in one of his earliest roles, and gets to warble “Easy to Love”.

Note: Of interest is the brief but memorably loopy scene with a “switchboard operator” (Helen Troy) “who anticipated by thirty years Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine:”

[describing Jimmy Stewart] “Oh, say — guess who I seen at Club Continental last night? Lucy James with that sailor she met through a Pekingese. Believe me, he’s a sea-goin’ thrill if I ever seen one. What’s he like? Well, tall — sort of the answer to a maiden’s prayer on stilts. Honest, he must be six feet four, and that’s just two inches shorter than a totem pole. Oh, but he’s got a smile like concentrated vodka! Vodka? Oh, it’s a Japanese drink made out of panther blood, I think.”

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Powell’s dancing
    Born to Dance Powell1
    Born to Dance Powell2
    Born to Dance Powell3
  • Fine cinematography and Art Deco sets
    Born to Dance Cinematography
    Born to Dance Sets
    Born to Dance Sets2
  • A couple of fun comedic interludes
    Born to Dance Operator
  • Cole Porter’s score

Must See?
No, though it’s worth viewing simply as Powell’s iconic flick.

Links:

Day the Earth Stood Still, The (1951)

Day the Earth Stood Still, The (1951)

“I am fearful when I see people substituting fear for reason.”

Day Earth Stood Still Poster

Synopsis:
An alien named Klaatu (Michael Rennie) and his bodyguard-robot Gort (Lock Martin) land in Washington D.C. hoping to peacefully warn the Earth’s leaders that internecine violence will lead to the planet’s annihilation. When Rennie is immediately attacked, he goes undercover to learn more about the human race, befriending a widow (Patricia Neal) and her son (Billy Gray) as well as a brilliant scientist (Sam Jaffe) — but when Neal’s jealous fiance (Hugh Marlowe) learns Rennie’s true identity, he will stop at nothing to alert the authorities.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “extremely well-directed and -acted adult film” — Hollywood’s second alien invasion flick of the 1950s after Howard Hawks’ The Thing (From Another Planet) (1951) — features a “literate script” by Edmund H. North (“adapting a story by Harry Bates”), and an “excellent”, theremin-heavy “dramatic score by Bernard Herrman”. However, he says he would like to “exchange some of the moralizing for a couple more exciting scenes”, and notes that he doesn’t “know what to make of Klaatu’s peace plan”, given that it forces humans to “let robots like Gort patrol earth and keep the peace” as if we were grounded teenagers. He posits that the “most suspenseful scene” is the one in which “frightened Neal bravely [goes] to Gort with a message from Klaatu: ‘Klaatu barada nikto!'” — a line which remains one of the most famous in the annals of sci-fi cinema.

I’m ultimately a bigger fan of this cult flick than Peary: I like its intelligence, its deliberate pacing, and the crispness of Leo Tover’s atmospheric black-and-white cinematography (which is especially gorgeous in Blu-Ray). Unlike Anne Francis’s Altaira in Forbidden Planet (1956), Neal is a refreshingly savvy and nuanced female protagonist; and Rennie is perfectly cast as an ultra-rational yet compassionate alien attempting to understand humans’ “illogical” bent towards violence. The storyline may be a bit heavy in moralizing — with Rennie’s “Mr. Carpenter” clearly meant to symbolize a Jesus-like savior — but truthfully, we deserve it, given that our current world situation is nearly as dire now as during the Cold War. Thankfully, the film’s numerous “inconsistencies” — i.e., the fact that “Gort, a ten-foot metal Golem, scorches his way out of a solid block of plastic, marches across a major city, burns down the wall of a jail and carries kaput Klaatu back to the Mall – and nobody sees him!” — “only become obvious after repeated viewings”; see DVD Savant’s review for this example and others.

Note: This film was remade in 2008 with Keanu Reeves but I haven’t seen that version and probably won’t.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Michael Rennie as Klaatu
    Day Earth Stood Still Rennie4
  • Patricia Neal as Helen
    Day Earth Stood Still Neal
  • Fine, precise direction by Wise
    Day Earth Stood Still Rennie
  • Leo Tover’s excellent b&w cinematography
    Day Earth Stood Still Cinematography
  • Ray Harryhausen’s impressive special effects
    Day Earth Stood Still Effects
  • Good use of Washington D.C. locales
    Day Earth Stood Still Lincoln Memorial
  • Bernard Herrmann’s theremin-heavy score

Must See?
Yes, both for its historical value and as a classic of the genre.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbidden Planet (1956)

“The fool, the meddling idiot! As though his ape’s brain could contain the secrets of the Krell!”

Forbidden Planet Poster

Synopsis:
In the 23rd century, the crew leader (Leslie Nielsen) of an interplanetary cruiser is surprised to find that a scientist (Walter Pidgeon), his daughter (Anne Francis), and their robot Robby are the sole inhabitants on the planet Altair-IV. While falling in love with Francis, Nielsen learns that Pidgeon has tapped into the brain-boosting equipment left behind by the planet’s extinct Krell population, and has unwittingly created a monster of lethal proportions.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that while “several science fiction film of the fifties are more intelligent, clever, suspenseful, economical, original, [and] witty” than this “first SF film… made in glorious color and Cinemascope”, none was “more influential”, given that it was “the only SF movie of the period to succeed in giving the genre a long-denied tag of respectability within the industry”, and “represented the first time a major studio (MGM) released an SF film that was meant to be a top-of-the-line production”. He points out, however, that while the “picture certainly has an interesting, intelligent premise”, the script itself (by Cyril Hume) is “very trite [and] juvenile”, the “direction by Fred Wilcox lacks excitement, the acting is stiff, and the crew-cutted, always snickering, obedient, white, WASPish soldiers are more fitting for the dull Eisenhower Era than the 23rd century”. He further argues that the film’s worst mistake may be “having [the robot] Robby (who has amazing power) relegated to comic relief” rather than, for instance, joining in “during the climactic Id vs. Morbius scene”.

While I’m annoyed by Robby — his interactions with a tippling cook (Earl Holliman) are especially groan-worthy — I actually believe the film’s worst error is its lack of (strong) female characters. Forbidden Planet immediately and unambiguously fails the Bechdel Test, given that there is only one female character (Francis) who is thus unable to talk to another female about anything, let alone a topic other than men. Indeed, nearly all of Francis’s dialogue centers ON men — from her growing understanding of what this “sexual attraction” thing is all about, to which man she will (inevitably) end up attached to, to how she can dress in a way that will make the men more comfortable, etc. She’s ultimately little more than skimpily dressed eye candy.

Of minor interest is the fact that Forbidden Planet‘s storyline is loosely based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest — though we never fully understand why Morbius is so protective of his daughter, given that the “Freudian-incestuous elements are toned down.” Once the narrative centers on Nielsen’s exploration of Altair-IV and his growing understanding of Pidgeon’s history on the planet, however, we immediately become drawn in — thanks in large part to the truly “marvelous design of Altair-IV and the Krell underground chambers”, as well as some nifty special effects. Also wonderfully innovative is the “electronic music by Louis and Bebe Barron”. Regardless of its flaws, film fanatics will likely want to check this one out at least once, given its popularity and historical importance.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine futuristic sets
    Forbidden Planet Sets
    Forbidden Planet Sets2
  • Impressive special effects
    Forbidden Planet Special Effects
  • Good use of widescreen Technicolor cinematography
    Forbidden Technicolor
  • Walter Pidgeon as Morbius
    Forbidden Planet Pidgeon
  • Louis and Bebe Barron’s electronic soundtrack

Must See?
Yes, for its cult and historical status.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

This Island Earth (1955)

This Island Earth (1955)

“It is indeed typical that you Earth people refuse to believe in the superiority of any world but your own.”

This Island Earth Poster

Synopsis:
A scientist (Rex Reason) puts together a device made from highly advanced electronic parts and soon finds himself communicating with a high-foreheaded man named Exeter (Jeff Morrow), who brings him to a mansion in Georgia where other scientists — including beautiful Dr. Adams (Faith Domergue) — are working together. Soon Reason and Domergue are transported to the planet of Metaluna, where they learn the real reason behind Exeter’s visit to Earth.

Genres:

As I was in the middle of writing this review, I clicked on The New York Times’ daily headlines and saw this news of Rex Reason’s passing. RIP, Rex.

Response to Peary’s Review:
As Peary writes, this “colorful, imaginative, gadget-laden sci-fi” flick — based on a “novel by Raymond F. Jones” — features “many fine special effects and some impressive art design of the alien planet”. It’s hokey and pulpy in many ways — starting with hunky “Rex Reason” (his real name) playing a chisel-jawed pilot/scientist with a velvety baritone voice, and continuing with the laughably high-foreheaded aliens (trying to pass as humans??) and even more laughably huge-brained mutant monsters, which “are around for a few moments of suspense [and] laughs”. But everyone plays their roles straight, and we can’t help getting caught up in the interstellar drama of it all. According to IMDb, this film has been referenced countless times (including a snippet shown in E.T.), and DVD Savant notes that it “has the distinction of being the first 50s Sci Fi picture to be given a thorough genre analysis, courtesy of Raymond Durgnat in his 1967 book Films and Feelings.”

Note: This Island Earth is perhaps best known by modern audiences as the basis for Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (1996), which I haven’t yet seen.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine special effects and art design
    This Island Earth Special Effects1
    Special Effects3
    Special Effects2
    Special Effects4

Must See?
Yes. While not a certified classic, this remains a colorful and unique early sci-fi outing.

Categories

Links:

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956)

“When an armed and threatening power lands uninvited in our capitol, we don’t meet it with tea and cookies.”

Earth vs Flying Saucers

Synopsis:
While returning from their honeymoon, a scientist (Hugh Marlowe) and his new wife (Joan Taylor) spot a flying saucer and soon learn that a fleet of aliens are intending to take over the Earth.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “enjoyable, flashy science fiction” film features “some spectacular special effects by Ray Harryhausen”, particularly during the “film’s climax” in which “alien rays shatter some of D.C.’s best-known buildings”. There’s not much complexity to the plot (the primary goal is “to come up with a weapon that will stop” the aliens) or the characters (Taylor’s role as Marlowe’s adoring new wife feels especially dated), but as Richard Scheib notes, the script (written in part by Curt Siodmak):

… comes packed with all sorts of novel inventions and devices – forcefields, room-sized computers, a device that indexes all the information inside a human head, the aliens in their blank metal suits with helmets that are revealed to operate by amplifying the senses, rayguns and flashing Van Der Graaf accelerators, [and] even a muddled suggestion of relativity theory at one point.

Most enjoyable, though, are Harryhausen’s surprisingly “realistic” flying saucers — they’re the primary reason to check this one out.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Harryhausen’s impressive special effects
    Earth Vs Saucers Effects
  • Effective cinematography
    Earth Vs Saucers Cinematography

Must See?
Yes, as an iconic alien invasion flick from the 1950s.

Categories

Links:

Asphalt Jungle, The (1950)

Asphalt Jungle, The (1950)

“If you want fresh air, don’t look for it in this town!”

Asphalt Jungle Poster

Synopsis:
A criminal mastermind (Sam Jaffe) enlists the help of a bookie (Marc Lawrence) in pulling together a crew for a major heist, including a no-nonsense driver (James Whitmore); a safecracker (Louis Ciavelli) with a wife (Teresa Celli) and baby; a “hooligan” (Sterling Hayden) whose would-be girlfriend (Jean Hagen) longs for more commitment; and a supposedly-wealthy financier (Louis Hayward) with a bed-ridden wife (Dorothy Tree), a sexy young mistress (Marilyn Monroe), and an ambitious private investigator (Brad Dexter). But things quickly go wrong during the heist, as loyalties shift, a crooked cop (Barry Kelley) is put under pressure, and the team must decide how to escape detection.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary is surprisingly unenthusiastic about this “seminal heist film” by writer-director John Huston, co-scripted by Ben Maddow and based on a pulp novel by W.R. Burnett. He argues that the film’s “reputation… has diminished somewhat”, and that “because Huston strove for realism, he deglamorized the characters” to the point where “we find [them] and their story interesting but don’t feel empathy for any of them”. He writes (I disagree) that “the success of the heist is of paramount importance only to the most respectable participant, Calhern, the piece’s villain — so we don’t particularly care if the heist fails as we do in a film like The Killing, where all the thieves (whom we have sympathy for) desperately need money to have a chance for a happy life”. Peary writes that “we care only for the women who suffer because of their men’s foolish endeavors”, but I once again disagree and actually feel the opposite. Finally, he notes that while the “picture builds a convincing case for there being pervasive corruption on every level of society, including the police”, this is spoiled when, “in the worst scene, police chief John McIntire lectures the press about how 99% of cops are honest”. Peary does at least concede that the acting in the film is “uniformly excellent”.

While Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956) is certainly a masterpiece in its own right, The Asphalt Jungle remains a different brand of classic. The male characters in …Jungle represent a nuanced gamut of archetypes, all striving to assert or maintain their masculinity through various means: efficiency at work while providing for one’s family (Ciavelli); unwavering loyalty (Whitmore); raw ambition (Dexter); faux machismo (Lawrence); desire for an idyllic return to the country (Hayden); calm, cool business savvy along with prurient if shielded lust (Jaffe); sociopathic corruption (Kelley); and virility, financial prowess, and public esteem (Hayward). All these characters, naturally, find themselves challenged in unique ways, as their ability to prove themselves and/or achieve their goals steadily dwindles. Crime most certainly doesn’t pay for anyone in this crew. Nobody but the women (and a few “good” men) are left standing by the end of this bleakest of heist flicks, which remains a consistently gripping, atmospheric, well-acted, tightly scripted noir. It’s definitely must-see viewing.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A truly fine ensemble cast
    Asphalt Jungle Hayden
    Asphalt Jungle Jaffe
    Asphalt Jungle Whitmore
    Asphalt Jungle Ciavelli
    Asphalt Jungle Lawrence
    Asphalt Jungle Hagen
  • Huston’s direction
    Asphalt Jungle Direction
    Asphalt Jungle Direction2
  • Harold Rossen’s cinematography
    Asphalt Jungle Cinematography3
    Asphalt Jungle Cinematography2
    Asphalt Jungle Cinematography
  • The exciting heist sequence
    Asphalt Jungle Heist
  • Ben Maddow and Huston’s script: “Crime is simply a left-handed form of human endeavor.”

Must See?
Yes, as a genuine noir classic by a master director.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Black Sunday (1960)

Black Sunday (1960)

“In her you will live again, speak again — smile as she does!”

Black Sunday Poster

Synopsis:
A vampire-witch named Asa (Barbara Steele) and her lover Javuto (Arturo Dominici) are burned at the stake in 1630 Moldavia, but return to life when a visiting doctor (Andrea Checchi) accidentally spills some blood on Asa’s corpse. Checchi and his assistant (John Richardson) meet a young princess named Katia (Steele) who looks remarkably like Asa, and are soon involved in a quest to prevent Asa from inhabiting Katia’s body.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary writes that this “extremely effective film… remains the best Italian horror film” and “among the most atmospheric of [all] horror films because former cameraman [Mario] Bava conveys everything visually (which makes us forget dubbing”. In an eloquent, lengthy description (modified from his Cult Movies essay), Peary notes that:

“Bava’s malefic world consists of dark mountains set against a gray sky; mist-shrouded forests where tree limbs seem to reach out to grab those passing through; two-hundred-year-old graveyards where the soil is too cursed for anything to grow; ancient crypts where bats fly about in the darkness, spiders spin their webs, and decaying walls crumble; and shadowy, ice-cold castles full of creepy passageways and enormous hidden chambers. It’s a world where light fights a losing battle against oppressive darkness and even the pure (virgins, priests) wear black. With art director Giorgio Giovannini, Bava creates an atmosphere where the living and dead co-exist, unharmoniously.”

Peary further notes that Steele — whose “beauty is mysterious and unique” — was “the ideal choice” for the dual role as evil Asa and sweet Katia. In Cult Movies, Peary refers to Steele as “the most fascinating actress ever to appear in horror films with regularity”, and writes that “it is because of Steele, probably even more than Bava, that Black Sunday, in which her screen persona was established, remains a cult favorite”. Regardless, all film fanatics should certainly watch and enjoy this ultra-atmospheric classic horror film, which was banned in England for eight years (but likely won’t shock modern audiences who are used to much more gruesome imagery).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Barbara Steel(e) as Asa and Katia
    Black Sunday Steel
  • Truly atmospheric cinematography, sets, and direction
    Black Sunday Cinematography
    Black Sunday Cinematography1
    Black Sunday Cinematography2
    Black Sunday Cinematography3
    Black Sunday Sets
    Black Sunday Sets3

Must See?
Yes, as a justifiable cult favorite.

Categories

(Listed in 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)

Links:

Stuff, The (1985)

Stuff, The (1985)

“It’s gonna kill you… It’s gonna kill you all!”

Stuff Poster

Synopsis:
An industrial spy (Michael Moriarty) joins forces with an advertising executive (Andrea Marcovicci) and a skeptical young boy (Scott Bloom) to investigate the proliferation of a mysterious new dessert called The Stuff that is taking over people’s diets and bodies.

Genres:

Response to Peary’s Review:
Peary notes that “writer-director Larry Cohen’s horror spoof satirizes (among many, many things) how Americans automatically become hooked on all trendy… products”, and points out that this “odd film has interesting non-hero types as heroes, good offbeat performances, some genuinely funny scenes, and a premise that works”. However, he argues that it would “be so much stronger if the production values were better”, given that it “looks sloppy and choppy… and after a while it’s hard to tell what’s going on”. I disagree with his final point (the narrative seems continuously clear to me), but agree that this film’s low-budget is ultimately either its undoing or its saving grace as a laughingly “bad movie”. While the “offbeat performances” (particularly by droll Moriarty) are certainly unusual, they occasionally come across as first takes, as though the entire film was made in a hurry. Meanwhile, the Stuff itself is impressively gushy and foamy, but many of the special effects often show clear green-screening and/or obvious animation.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Silly special effects
    Stuff Still1
    Stuff Still2

Must See?
No, though it’s worth a look for its cult status.

Links:

Baron Blood (1972)

Baron Blood (1972)

“I would not play with the occult if I were you. One’s obsession with it can be the real danger.”

Baron Blood Poster

Synopsis:
A young nobleman (Antonio Cantafora) visiting his uncle (Massimo Girotti) enlists the help of a plucky architecture student (Elke Sommer) in bringing his infamous ancestor “Baron Blood” — who was cursed by a witch (Rada Rassimov) — back to life. A rash of hideous killings soon erupts, and Cantafora and Sommer try to reverse their error while warning the mysterious wheelchair-bound millionaire (Joseph Cotten) who has purchased the baron’s castle.

Genres:

Review:
Mario Bava was lured to Vienna to make this Gothic horror flick, which the New York Times referred to in its review as “spectral schlock”. As noted in Cathode Ray Tube’s detailed review, Bava draws upon many of his own previous works — as well as other horror favorites — in his imagery, which is consistently atmospheric and creative (see stills below). Unfortunately, the storyline leaves much to be desired: beginning with the two reckless would-be lovers stupidly messing with black magic time and again, we can’t help feeling like the entire narrative is simply an excuse to show off gory violence and impressive sets (most of the film was shot on location in the spooky Austrian castle Burg Kreuzenstein). Meanwhile, it’s a bit painful watching Cotten — third choice for the role after Vincent Price turned it down and Ray Milland was unavailable — mouth lines like: “Now you shall taste the pain — the exquisite agony!”, especially knowing that he for some reason omitted this title from the filmography in his autobiography.

Note: In his Cult Movies book, Peary refers to Baron Blood simply as “terrible”, lamenting the fact that Bava never made another film half as good as Black Sunday (1960).

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Fine location shooting at Castle Kreuzenstein in Austria
    Baron Blood Sets
  • Atmospheric cinematography and direction
    Baron Blood Cinematography
    Baron Blood Cinematography2
    Baron Blood Cinematography3
    Baron Blood Cinematography4

Must See?
No; this one is only must-see for Bava fans, though the imagery is consistently haunting.

Links: