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A Deadly Adoption – “What’s the Point?”

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

A Deadly Adoption – You Take These Things Seriously?

So now we have A Deadly Adoption – “The Birth of Plan Gone Wrong,” as the tag line would have it, and since Kristen Wiig and Will Farrell are both apparently big Lifetime movie fans, why not? When you’re in the mood to turn off your mind, relax and float downstream, a Lifetime movie is just ticket; formulaic plots, luxurious sets, bad acting, clichéd dialogue, and a thin sheen that can only come from shooting a TV movie under skull cracking pressure on a minimal budget in a matter of weeks.

But as Brian Lowry rhetorically asked in Variety, “what on Earth was the point of that? Perhaps if Will Ferrell had successfully premiered A Deadly Adoption as a completely stealth project, it would have been surprising to see him and Kristen Wiig turn up in what feels like a straight-forward Lifetime movie. As is, the producers have essentially engaged in a college-type exercise, seeing if they can replicate the predictable touches that characterize this kind of movie, for an audience that doesn’t have much sense of humor, usually, about its ’stories.’ The result? A film with something for virtually no one.”

Director Rachel Goldenberg, working from a script by Andrew Steele – which, according to Lifetime’s official press release “is a high-stakes dramatic thriller about a successful couple (Ferrell and Wiig) who house and care for a pregnant woman (Jessica Lowndes, of 90210) during the final months of her pregnancy with the hopes of adopting her unborn child” has crafted a reasonable competent thriller, in which the opening scenes of domestic bliss will soon give way a much darker reality.

Of course, it’s always that way in a Lifetime movie. Ferrell is a hyper-successful financial guru who spits out bestsellers at a torrential pace, in order to support his wife in an enormous lakeside house, which judging from all appearances must have cost between ten and twelve million dollars – a typically overblown private residence for a Lifetime movie. But there’s tension in their marriage, and we soon find out why.

In the opening minutes of the film, Wiig falls off a rotting pier on their property while three months pregnant, losing the child as a result, and narrowly escaping death herself. And, of course, she’s unable to have any more children, but at least she has an adorable moppet of her own, Sully (Alyvia Alyn Lind), but somehow, their lives seem incomplete. Will mopes around the house, and even five years later, it seems that only the patter of new little feet will cheer him up.

Cue Jessica Lowndes, who turns up at their door six months pregnant with a social worker in tow, all sweetness and light, cooing over their lavishly appointed mansion, and declaring that there’s nothing she’d like more than to turn over her newborn to the couple, to give the child a shot at a “better life.” Within minutes, Wiig and Farrell are smitten with the young woman, and promptly move her into one of their many spare bedrooms for the final three months of her pregnancy, but of course, nothing is what it seems.

With typically sun-dappled cinematography, copious use of slow motion in the “noooooooo” sequences, a cozy small town atmosphere that reminds one of Cabot Cove on Murder, She Wrote, along with a sympathetic but somewhat clueless gay friend who tries to help the couple when things go wrong – which they naturally have to in a Lifetime movie – but pays dearly for his good intentions, A Deadly Adoption is two movies fighting against each other, with neither one fully winning out. Indeed, Farrell’s scenes almost seem to be from a different project altogether.

Wiig plays her role of the resolute wife and mother with conviction, and displays considerable skill as a straight dramatic actor; Ferrell, on the other hand, seems to sleepwalk through his role, and is off-screen for much the film’s running time. The other main character is Lowndes’ real boyfriend, the scummy sociopath Dwayne Tinsdale (Jake Weary), who also delivers a solid performance in an utterly one-dimensional role. You want violence, kidnapping, attempted murder, robbery – whatever – you got it.

All of this plays out with “ever increasing menace” in a predictable two-hour time frame, and none of it believable in the slightest. At time parodic, especially when Ferrell dominates his scenes, and at times pure camp melodrama, A Deadly Adoption in really neither funny enough, or compelling enough, to really command the viewer’s attention. But naturally, as a celebration of 25 years of Lifetime Movies, all 360 of them and counting, A Deadly Adoption is getting excellent ratings, and was actually screened back to back three times on the night of its premiere, June 20th, to encourage repeat binge viewing.

As A&E Networks senior VP of original movies Tanya Lopez and VP of original movies Arturo Interian told Dan Snierson in Entertainment Weekly, when asked simply “how did this happen?” Lopez replied that “I don’t know if we’ll ever know whether it was a bet from a group of friends or he really wanted to do it . . .We weren’t clear if it was going to be authentic, if it really was going to be this murder story. . . It’s not a comedy. And it’s well-done.”

Interian chimed in that “it’s not the Scary Movie parody of a Lifetime movie. He wanted to legitimately do a Lifetime sexual thriller . . . The initial plan was to put on the air with zero fanfare. Just sneak it on. You were going to see promos that were kind of oblique, it’s A Deadly Adoption. A thriller promo. You’re not sure who’s in it. It was interesting that the story leaked and that’s what threw us. We thought we had it under wraps.”

Well, it’s under wraps no more, and while it will certainly raise Wiig’s profile, and might even get her a shot in a more ambitious project, something like Monster perhaps – she actually has the skill set for it – it’s back to deadpan comedy for Will Farrell, who doesn’t seem to know how to play it straight. Even when you’re supposed to feel sympathy for his somewhat tortured if deeply privileged character, you don’t. He always seems just on the edge of cracking a smile, as if the whole project is beneath him in some sense.

Which of course, it is, but as the actor Christopher Lee observed shortly before his death, looking back on his long 250 plus film career, “every actor has to make terrible films from time to time, but the trick is never to be terrible in them.” It’s sound advice, and Wiig can pull it off, while Lowndes gives it everything she’s got from sweet to psycho, no matter how many costume changes and hairstyle revamps she goes through, but Farrell seems to know that he’s slumming.

And, of course, he’s right. But the way to get the most out of a script like this is to play it absolutely seriously, right down the line, and savor each exquisitely overripe moment, which is the essence of the Lifetime zeitgeist. I can’t say much more without giving some pivotal plot points away, although you’ll almost certainly see them coming from ten miles off – indeed, I was actually able to recite the dialogue for most of the film before it was even spoken, no kidding – but just like anything which verges on camp, you’re best off if you just jump in, and accept it on its own terms.

No matter how over-the-top Lifetime movies are – and indeed, they traffic in nothing less than deliriously wretched excess in nearly every department, from scripts to sets to wall-to-wall music scores, there’s a grain of truth in them which keeps them centered in some sort of alternative reality. As Lopez noted, “We did a movie called The Pregnancy Pact that scored a high rating. The idea was pregnancy was on the rise and they came to it in a voyeuristic way. But the issue was top of mind for women and for young girls, yet it wasn’t something that was being talked about . . .

We talk about that a lot: ‘Now we’re giving you the platform. What are you using it for?’ So that we’re not just saying, ‘Wow, a lot of girls got pregnant there.’ It was much more: ‘What is our call to action? Our call to action is awareness.’ And it’s not in an overt after-school special way. And that calls to how much smarter the movies have to be, so that people don’t feel they are being preached to, or that it is a clear social issue. Which is how I think movies in the past were developed.”

In short, in their own mad mind, at least, Lifetime movies have some sort of tenuous connection to a society which is also spinning utterly out on control, in which everyday the web churns up more bizarre scandal and sensation that even the trashiest pop novelist could ever conjure up in his or her wildest dreams. A Deadly Adoption thus seems to want it both ways – parody and straight-ahead melodrama – but only Wiig, Lowndes, and Weary have the conviction to pull it off. For Ferrell, the whole thing is a joke from start to finish, no matter how much he may like to relax with a Lifetime movie in his off hours.

It’s not a failure, it’s not a success, it’s just there, going through the motions, which makes the final product unsatisfying, and also rather unmemorable, but then again, there will be another Lifetime movie next week with totally unknown actors, eager for their break, and they’ll give it everything they’ve got, because as tabloid as it is, they’ll completely embrace the material. That movie might help someone’s career. It might have some real intensity. And that’s what it takes to make a real Lifetime movie.

Still, it’s an interesting experiment, demonstrating how just how formulaic the genre is.

A Deadly Adoption – Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig’s Lifetime Movie

Friday, June 12th, 2015

Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig are both big Lifetime movie fans – so now, they’ve made one of their own.

Lifetime movies live in a world all their own; predictable scripts, constant peril and deception, people living in enormous houses that are way beyond the means of most of us, and most noticeably, they trade in truly outrageous melodrama.

Ferrell and Wigg have long been fans of the genre, and now they’ve taken the next logical – or illogical – step, and created a Lifetime movie all their own, which despite the over-the-top premise they’re going to play straight – a rather remarkable coup for Lifetime, whose films are usually populated by unknowns and fading stars.

As Lifetime’s website for the film notes, “inspired by a true story [but of course!] A Deadly Adoption is a high-stakes dramatic thriller about a successful couple (Ferrell and Wiig) who house and care for a pregnant woman (Jessica Lowndes, “90210″) during the final months of her pregnancy with the hopes of adopting her unborn child” – but as you can see from the brief teaser trailer by clicking here, or on the image above, things don’t go too smoothly along the way.

As Wikipedia notes of the film’s somewhat unusual production process, “on April 1, 2015, it was revealed that Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, and Jessica Lowndes were set to star in the film as a parody to the genre of Lifetime films, with Rachel Lee Goldenberg directing and Andrew Steele writing the screenplay.

The next day, Ferrell issued a statement regarding the film saying ‘We are deeply disappointed that our planned top-secret project was made public, Kristen and I have decided it is in the best interest for everyone to forgo the project entirely, and we thank Lifetime and all the people who were ready to help us make this film,’ [thus] shooting down the prospect of the film being released.

However, on June 2015, a billboard for the film was spotted with a release date of June 20, 2015. On June 12, 2015, a teaser trailer was released. The premiere of the film coincides with the 25th anniversary of Lifetime’s movie franchise.”

The billboard announces that the film will be released on “Sunday, June 20th.” June 20th is a Saturday.

The NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

Lester Holt should anchor the NBC Nightly News permanently.

He’s more than paid his dues, and he’s a complete professional, putting the news first, delivering it with authority and clarity. And as Jordan Charlton reports in The Wrap, Holt’s killing it in the ratings, beating out the ABC Nightly News with David Muir for the past two weeks. Notes Charlton, “Lester Holt has now won back-to-back weeks in total viewers [for the NBC Nightly News] over ABC’s World News Tonight with David Muir after ABC had won for a month straight.

For the week of May 4, Holt attracted 7,569,000 viewers compared to WNT’s  7,468,000. CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley ranked third with 6,535,000 viewers. David Muir’s ABC broadcast won the ad-coveted 25-54 demo, 1,773,000 viewers vs. 1,732,000 viewers for NBC Nightly News.

Holt’s second victory in a row following a month-long losing streak comes at an important time for NBC as advertising upfronts were held Monday. Those advertisers care more about the 25-54 demo, which Muir has been victorious in eight of the last nine weeks. But NBC leading in total viewers while being within striking distance in the demo week-to-week is a stabilizing image the network will want advertisers to see.”

Exactly – Holt deserves the gig, and he’s delivering audiences.

Andrew Wallenstein on The New Video Ecosystem

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

Our viewing habits have changed dramatically, as Andrew Wallenstein notes in Variety.

As he writes, “watching TV used to be so simple, or at least it seems that way in retrospect. First there were just a handful of networks. Then broadcast TV gave way to cable. But even as the number of channels multiplied exponentially, it was all still easy to understand, not to mention incredibly profitable: The combination of advertising and affiliate fees delivered approximately $90 billion annually to a small group of content companies.

That was then, this is now: Advertising revenues and multichannel subscriptions are endangered by significant ratings declines across the cable TV landscape as audiences — particularly younger viewers — get bombarded by a dizzying array of cheaper programming choices delivered over the Internet. Some, like Netflix, charge viewers a monthly fee; others, like many of the ventures pitching advertisers at this week’s NewFronts presentations in New York, are as free as broadcast television.

Many of these ventures are backed by the biggest companies in the tech sector. Which isn’t to say the incumbent entertainment conglomerates are simply sitting on the sidelines while the challengers eat their lunch. To the contrary, Hollywood’s participation in the likes of Sling TV and HBO Now is something akin to baby Kal-El launching out of planet Krypton in Superman: A culture facing the threat of extinction is seeking to find life for itself elsewhere in the solar system.”

A fascinating article, with superb graphics and excellent detail – click here, or above to read it all.

How We Watch TV Today, According to Nielsen

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Neilsen is out with a new report on how we watch TV and web programming today.

While this study concentrates on viewers in New Zealand, as is readily apparent, Nielsen extrapolates the results on a world wide basis. As Tony Boyte, Research Director at Nielsen, the ratings company, writes, “our viewing patterns are shifting and can now watch where we want, when we want. The explosion of devices has given us more access to content and brands than ever before. While the television is still the screen of choice for viewing video content, device proliferation and social-media interaction is shifting the power from the provider to the people.

Two-in-five New Zealanders (40%) say video programs are an important part of their lives, but when it comes to the way we like to watch video programming, size does matter. Over half of respondents (51%) think bigger is better when it comes to screen size, but they also appreciate the convenience and portability of mobile devices. Nearly four-in-10 respondents (37%) think watching video programming on their mobile device is convenient. In addition, the same number (37%) say a tablet is just as good as a PC or laptop computer for watching programming.

Real-time conversations on social media are replacing physical gatherings around the water cooler to talk about our favorite TV show. Live TV has become a social event that goes way beyond the confines of our living rooms. Nearly a third of [New Zealand viewers] (30%) said they like to keep up with shows so they can join the conversation on social media, and a fifth (21%) say they watch live video programming more if it has a social media tie in. Thirty percent of respondents say they engage with social media while watching video programming. And nearly half of respondents (47%) say they browse the Internet while watching video programming.

Social media can increase program awareness, make the experience more enjoyable and keep viewers engaged. Second-screen strategies should include an interactive component that allows users to take part – making them feel involved and deepening their connection to the program. But the content needs to be fresh to maximize time spent and to drive repeat visitation. Designers can not focus on one screen, they need to ensure accessibility wherever users are and that the user experience is enjoyable across all devices.

Whether it is watching a sporting event, news show, documentary or movie, TV remains at the center of video consumption. It is the most frequently cited device for watching nearly all types of programming genres included in the survey—by a wide margin. The exception: short-form video (typically less than 10 minutes long), which is cited as more commonly viewed on computers, mobile phones and tablets.

A computer is the second-most commonly mentioned viewing device for nearly all genres, and it tops the list of devices used to watch short-form content. A smaller, but notable, proportion of consumers watch video content on a mobile phone or tablet, while viewing on e-readers and/or gaming consoles has not yet gained traction.”

You can read the rest of this fascinating article by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Colbert Report Signs Off

Friday, December 19th, 2014

The Colbert Report signed off with a star-studded finale that no other comic of this generation could match.

On the last show, a mammoth sing along to the tune of We’ll Meet Again featured everyone from Randy Newman to Henry Kissinger to Willie Nelson to James Franco to Gloria Steinem to Charlie Rose and every imaginable stop in-between – a fitting end to what was arguably the greatest late night satirical talk show in television history.

As Richard Corliss wrote in Time Magazine, “I’m blue. After nine years and two months, The Colbert Report is off the air. I’ve seen each of the 1446 episodes leading to tonight’s sign-off, and cherished almost all of them. The show’s conclusion will leave a void in my life and in my writing, since I’ve shoehorned Colbert references into reviews of Superbad, Prince of Persia, Pompeii, Jackass 3D, Nightcrawler and Julie Taymor’s The Tempest, and into essays about Richard Nixon, Ingmar Bergman, Derek Jeter, makeup artist Dick Smith and the 2012 Super Bowl.

For my wife Mary Corliss and me, Colbert has been destination viewing. Even in the early years, we never took the show’s excellence for granted, agreeing that some day we’d look back on the double whammy of The Daily Show and The Colbert Report as the golden age of TV’s singeing singing satire.

That age ends now. Colbert is gone from TV until September, when he takes over David Letterman’s CBS 11:35 slot and, at 51, becomes the oldest man to debut as the host of a late-night network talk show. He’ll be off the air for nine months — a long time for admirers like me to go cold, or Colbert, turkey. And when he finally starts on CBS, he’ll just be Stephen Colbert. Not ‘Stephen Colbert,’ the greatest fake newsman in TV history, and one of the richest fictional characters in any popular art form of the past decade.”

So until September, it’s cold turkey for Colbert fans – when we’ll meet again.

Mad Men Half-Season Finale; Returns in 2015

Monday, May 26th, 2014

It’s been frustrating watching Mad Men this season, particularly with the final season split into two parts.

But last night’s episode was uncharacteristically optimistic – thank God! After one episode after another of down, down, down into the abyss of despair, to see Roger Sterling (John Slattery) come in and rescue the agency with a merger, and then Bertram Cooper (Robert Morse) take his final bow with a musical number reminiscent of his long stint in Broadway musicals, was more than refreshing – it was absolutely necessary. Here’s what Morse had to say about his song and dance sendoff:

“Matthew Weiner came to me and said, ‘Bobby, I want to talk to you… You’re going to pass away in this episode. I’m sorry.’ I said, ‘I perfectly understand.’ And he said, ‘By the way, I’ve always wanted to have you sing. That’s what I remember you from, all your Broadway and theater days. When I hired you, always, in the back of my mind, I wanted you to sing a song, but there was never a place to do it.’ And then he came up with this idea. He said, ‘I am going to make you come back in the last shot in the picture and sing a song to Don.’ [Morse sings] ‘The moon belongs to everyone. The best things in life are free.’

They had this wonderful choreographer, Mary Ann Kellogg, whom I knew very well, and hired four or five beautiful dancers who would play secretaries . . . I dance with them and also sing to Don, and it’s a whole production. I went and learned the song, and I went into the studio and we recorded it with a huge orchestra. Then we rehearsed it on the set for a couple of days, away from everybody else. Nobody knew what was going on . . . It was just a lovely way, a sweet way, for dear Matt to send me off.”

Now we just have to wait until 2015 – perhaps as late as April, 2015 – to see how this epic series ends.

Just the Facts, Man: the Complicated Genesis of Television’s Dragnet

Sunday, November 25th, 2012

I have a new piece out in Film International on the genesis of the classic 1950s television series Dragnet.

Here’s the part of what I have to say on the subject: The 1950s version of Dragnet was in many ways an “outlier” in the contemporary televisual landscape; easily burlesqued and imitated, there was still nothing else like it in terms of hard-nosed stylization, grimly procedural story lines, and, for the period, grimy authenticity. Just a look at some of the plot lines demonstrates just how out of sync Dragnet was in a world populated by the likes of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, Leave It to Beaver, and other enormously popular, family-oriented series of the era. Dragnet, in contrast, concentrated almost entirely on the downside of 1950s American existence; the misfits, psychos, drifters, conmen, and ne’er do wells who collectively comprised the series’ world. Dragnet’s world was the netherworld of American society; and every episode made it clear that only the LAPD was holding back the tide of scum that threatened to engulf Los Angeles, and by extension, the entire nation.

In “The Big Death” (January 17, 1952), an unsuspecting husband hires Joe Friday as a hit man to kill his wife; in “The Big Mother” (January 31, 1952), a newborn infant is abducted from a hospital by an unstable young woman, who is unable to have children herself; in “The Big Speech” (February 28, 1952), Friday delivers a lecture warning on the evils of drug addiction at his former high school, even as he tracks down a teenage hoodlum, who, seeking his next fix, beats up and robs a friendly druggist; in “The Big Blast” (April 10, 1952), which Webb both wrote and directed, a young mother is killed in her bed by a shotgun blast, as her infant son slumbers next to her; in “The Big September Man” (May 8, 1952), an unbalanced sociopath feels divinely inspired to kill “a sinner,” and his former fiancée is his most recent victim; in the justly infamous “.22 Rifle for Christmas” (December 18, 1952, Dragnet’s first “Christmas episode”), co-written by [James] Moser and Webb, a young boy prematurely opens a Christmas gift – a .22 rifle – and accidentally kills one of his friends while playing with the rifle, subsequently hiding the young victim’s body in the brush on Christmas Eve.

In “The Big Lay Out” (April 16, 1953), a high school honor student becomes strung out on heroin; in “The Big Hands” (May 21, 1953), a young woman is found strangled to death in a cheap hotel room; in “The Big Nazi” (November 25, 1958), Friday uncovers a high school neo-Nazi ring; and on and on it goes, a parade of beatings, stabbings, murders, rapes, robberies, and wanton brutality that seems to have no end in sight, an unstoppable tidal wave of human greed, violence, and corruption. Compared to the 1960s version of the series, which kicked off with an unintentionally risible episode on the dangers of LSD – the “Blue Boy” episode, actually titled “The LSD Story,” first broadcast on January 12, 1967 – the 1950s version of Dragnet bristles with menace, energy, and simmering social disruption; no one even thinks of “Mirandizing” suspects, because, of course, no such law existed.

You can read the entire essay by clicking here, or on the image above.

Conelrad: All Things Atomic

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Here’s a fascinating site which explores the Cold War era in 1950s America.

The site has been around since 1999, and contains text, audio clips, video clips, and other Cold War ephemera, and is a truly one-stop source for anyone interested in what was like to live in America in the dawn of the Atomic Era. As the site’s editors put it, “CONELRAD is the creation of writers who grew up in the shadow of the bomb and all its attendant pop culture fallout. We wish to share our collected interest, experience and obsession with this strange era and thereby provide as much information as possible to the public. This is not to say we’re living in the past! The Day After Trinity is now and forever more and we will reflect that reality here. From apocalyptic dirty bomb scenarios to the Russians and Chinese reigniting the space race, CONELRAD is always on the Eve of Destruction. Watch our Alert ticker on the top of our main page to stay informed of the latest CONELRAD activity. In addition to our own writing on all things atomic, we aim to provide a comprehensive clearinghouse of atomic links. There is a lot of material out there and we will continue to update this section frequently. Furthermore, we extend an open invitation to those of you out there who share our passion for Atomania to send us your suggestions and submissions.”

Amazingly comprehensive, and absolutely worth a look.

Frame by Frame Video: Product Placement

Thursday, April 26th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to the see the video, with subtitles.

There’s a new video in the Frame by Frame series, directed and edited by Curt Bright, which talks about product placement in films. Here’s a transcript of my brief overview of this subject:

“Hi. I’m Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and this is Frame By Frame, and I’d like to talk right now about product placement. Product placement is something that’s becoming more and more common in movies, as movies cost more and more to make. You have to remember that movies in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s cost maybe … a big-budget in the 1980s would cost $12 million… $13 million. Today, a movie costs $100 million to make, and that’s for a small comedy, or something like that. So how are you going to make up this kind of money? Product placement.

I was at a studio this summer, talking to some executives, and they were saying that they aggressively go after product placement to put cars, soft drinks, food items… For example, Reese’s Pieces in E.T. suddenly took off like crazy. But the forerunner in all of this, oddly enough, is a film by Howard Hawks called Red Line 7000, which was considered at the time scandalously the most-sponsored film in history.

Product placements are something which adds additional revenue not just to movies but to TV shows, and there’s varying degrees of product placements. If you have something prominently in the foreground, you pay more. If it’s something in the background, you pay less. If you see just the side of the product, you pay even less than that. And if you don’t pay at all, the product vanishes out of the scheme. Merchandising has therefore become a kind of inescapable part of the movie process, particularly in the 21st century… not so much in the 30s and 40s and 50s… But now that the movies have become more of a business than an art form, product placement has become an art form in itself.”

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/