Wednesday, June 14, 2006


Quick Pick: Nicholson in a Forgotten Gem

Thus far, Hollywood has not had much of a response to the ever-growing illegal immigration imbroglio. It is necessary to go back twenty years to Tony Richardson's The Border, a largely forgotten film starring Jack Nicholson, for an insightful look at the issue.
Nicholson plays Charlie Smith, an INS agent whose life and career have grown stagnant in Los Angeles (in the film's opening scene, he "raids" a sweatshop by telling the owner that he needs two illegals to fill his quota; the owner pulls a pair of young men off the line, tells them they have been selected for deportation but that he'll hold their jobs and pay them a better wage when they make their way back across the border). Spurred on by his vapid wife (Valerie Perrine), Charlie buys a house in El Paso and takes a job with his brother-in-law and new neighbor (Harvey Keitel) as a Border Patrolman.
He soon finds himself engaged in a war no more fulfilling or winnable than the one he left in Los Angeles--illegals are rounded up and deported only to return the next day, the arid borderland apparently unpoliceable. Charlie also becomes aware of a thriving immigrant-smuggling culture and eventually begins to dabble, unable to resist the lure of a quick buck.
This film is interesting because it addresses a far-reaching social concern, but also has an intimate eye for the small lives of its characters. Charlie becomes involved in the smuggling of illlegals because, initially, he can see no reason why not to: he is a tiny functionary in a massive beuracracy, his salary is meager, everyone else is doing it and the illegals want to be here, anyway.
He is a quiet, seemingly discontented fellow who doesn't perk up and spring to life until he gains a first-hand understanding of the dynamics of a border community, and sees how an invisible line can be used as a sinister bargaining chip, allowing the greedy few to manipulate the disenfranchised many.

Nicholson's performance is spot-on. His switchblade-grin and puckish persona are turned off here--his Charlie is a man grown tired of fumbling through an existence as vacant and aimless as the Texas prairie. And Perrine is his perfect counterpoint--consumed with creating the ideal suburban nest to please her man, she utterly embodies the well-intentioned but oblivious American consumer. Their interaction provides some of the film's best moments, and Richardson does an excellent job of creating a character-driven story within the framework of a larger issue.

The Border is not one of the great ones, and is certainly too old and obscure to have any bearing on today's affairs, but it is worth a look, not only for some excellent performances, but for an honest, human take on an issue many of us view only through the distant lens of our nightly news. A few paragraphs up, I said that this film has an eye for the small lives of its characters; it occurs to me that a life only seems small to one who is not living it, and this film is a good reminder of the danger of that kind of indifferent thinking.

Oh, and also--remember the girl from Predator ("The jungle, it came alive!")? She's in it, too.

Sunday, May 28, 2006


Memorial Day Special: Why Band of Brothers is better than Saving Private Ryan

Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan achieved almost instant seminal status upon its 1998 release, due largely to its raw, unprecedentedly graphic treatment of WWII combat. The opening sequence alone--a brutal depiction of the D-Day landing at Omaha Beach--was enough to knock the rose-colored glasses from America's wistful over-the-shoulder gazing at WWII and The Greatest Generation. Released after the imminent threat of the Cold War, Ryan had enough gravitas to hit home with an American public embroiled in the frivolity of the Monica Lewinsky affair but not yet blindsided by the very real drama of 9/11.
Of course, the Nazis were Indiana Jones' favorite villains, and Spielberg also gave us the war comedy 1941, as well as Empire of the Sun, about Britons in a Japanese internment camp, but Ryan was his first crack at a red-blooded, American WWII epic, and despite its foray into hard-hitting realism, the whole affair gleamed with a facilely applied, if not unexpected, sheen of Spielbergian schmaltz. A few years later he produced (along with Ryan star Tom Hanks) Band of Brothers, a ten-part miniseries for HBO, based on Stephen Ambrose's book, which hit all the marks that Ryan missed. Brothers had the paradoxical bad luck of looking, to the casual observer, like a retread of Ryan, not to mention its unfortunate release date, which came only two days before 9/11. All ten episodes of Brothers are available on DVD, and it seems to air regularly on The History Channel, as well. Unfortunately, Brothers will probably never enjoy the recognition or viewership that Ryan has, and though the comparison is somewhat unfair--Brothers has ten hours to tell its story, compared with Ryan's two and change--Brothers remains a more engaging and interesting look at WWII. Here is why:

1) Truth is more compelling than fiction

Ryan's plot is not without merit. Its cadre of wandering soldiers provide an existential conduit into the conflict-- sort of a Going After Cacciato for WWII--their trek across war-ravaged France acting as a first-person tour through the fog of war. But then, that sort of sounds like what the studio marketing people would like you to think. The problem is that after you have seen Ryan a couple of times and gotten over the initial gut-punch of the D-Day sequence, the rest of the story begins to reveal itself as forced. The script is not great, the dialogue is wooden, and the interaction between the soldiers is as stale as it was in WWII flicks twice as old. The search for Ryan eventually feels like exactly what it is: a device, bookended by two extraordinary set-pieces.

Brothers takes as its subject a real combat unit--"Easy" Company of the 506th regiment of the 101st Airborne Division--which parachuted behind enemy lines on D-Day, and was involved in major combat across Europe throughout the war, eventually liberating the Dachau concentration camp, capturing Hitler's abandoned mountain palace at Berchtesgaden, Austria and acting as an occupying army after Germany's surrender. Knowing that these events actually happened, and that the actors represent real people, makes Brothers' action that much more puissant, but equally effective use is made of its negative space. This miniseries is interested in depicting a broader spectrum of experience: the bonds that form between soldiers, the disagreements that arise between them, the adverse effects of combat, the drudgery of military life. Brothers has a huge cast (500 speaking parts; 10,000 extras), and an unforced, easy meter to it, so that the combat scenes squeeze poignancy out of the non-combat scenes and vice versa.

2) Natural vs. forced reverence

Ryan contains enough gritty ambiguities to keep it from being a completely myopic paean, but there is no mistaking it ultimate aim: from the cheesy Private Ryan-as-an-old-man framing device to the final shot of Old Glory flapping in the breeze, this flick romanticizes the warriors of the Greatest Generation just as heartily as it debunks the bloodless valor of the combat they took part in. Ryan's story cannot be content with its own resonance; it needs the eldery Ryan to implore his wife, "Tell me I've lived a good life," and it needs her to answer that, of course, he has.
Brothers, by comparison, expends the bulk of its heavy-handed sentiment in the swelling strains that play over the opening credits. Make no mistake about it: Brothers does impart a great deal of reverence for its subjects, but this is achieved largely by their honest, human portrayal. Over the course of ten episodes, you will become familiar with many members of Easy Company, and the show makes no great effort to portray all of them as saints. WWII-era America was not riven with the conflict and doubt of the Vietnam or Iraq eras, and Brothers captures that zeitgeist without overdoing it. The show offers a more effective, more even-handed, warts-and-all look at military life than Ryan does. We are shown a despotic Captain (played brilliantly against type by David Schwimmer) whose stern stewardship foments dissension in the ranks; cowardly, incompetent officers and enlisted men; disagreement and in-fighting among the soldiers; ethically questionable behavior by American soldiers, including mistreatment of German soldiers and civilians. This is not a revisionist history; it simply has a wider eye for the experience of war, and the American soldiers it portrays seem even more heroic for its honesty.

3) Dialogue: less is more

Nothing can elevate or murder a film as quickly and effectively as its writing. Dialogue is the most accessible entry point into a film's humanity, and war movies, for all their bloodletting, inevitably speak to humanity. On the most basic level, a war movie relies on the camaraderie its soldiers share, and camaraderie, at least in the movies, involves banter. Even the least formulaic of war flicks need their depictions of soldierly kinship, in part because they're realistic, in part because the audience needs to care about the characters.
This is where Ryan gets fouled up.
In fitting with what seems to be developing into a Spielbergian trend, Ryan's robust visuals are often undercut by its Dead-On-Arrival dialogue. The rapport between the principals often feels forced, concocted in order to humanize the characters, but making them appear more like constructs instead. Take Matt Damon's big monologue before the final, climatic battle, in which he recalls the antics of his brothers back home. He recounts a story involving one of his brothers trying to sleep with an ugly girl in a barn and being surprised by another brother, at which point the ugly girl's dress flies over her head and she knocks herself unconscious trying to run away. The point, I suppose, is to humanize the Ryan character with a little locker-room bawdry, but the monologue ends up feeling forced, out of place, strangely misogynistic and downright cruel. I don't mean that it makes the Ryan character seem like a cad or a jerk--which might have been sort of interesting at the very least--the story itself comes off as a weird, mean-spirited misstep. It's not that the content is offensive; I can go have that conversation with any joe I know, probably already have today, and that is why the monologue fails. It feels lazy--whip up a quick anecdote involving sex and boyish shenanigans, and presto! Now we all care about Pvt. Ryan and whether he joins his brothers or not.
Or take Hanks' dying words, imparted to Ryan: "Earn this." Seems to make sense at first. A whole squad has gone out of its way and gotten all shot up just to save this one guy. Earn it. But wait, isn't that a lot of pressure to put on a guy who is up to his neck in the carnage of the ETO and has just learned that all three of his brothers have been killed? Does "earn this" make sense, or does it just sound nifty?
Brothers keeps its dialogue simple and economical. In keeping with the overall pace of the show, it never gets bogged down in heavy-handed sentimentalizing--Brothers has the luxury of its length in this regard--it does not need to squeeze a great deal of compassion for its characters out of its audience in a short period of time. In fact, you may find that you don't have time to care too much about many of the characters--apparent principles are often killed as quickly and unexpectedly as their real-life counterparts must have been. The camaraderie these soldiers share, and the bonds that form between them, seem that much more real for their muted quality; you never lose the feeling that there is something bigger and more important happening all around them, which, of course, there is.
In the later episodes of Brothers, after Germany's surrender, I wondered if there would be some sort of closure involving the battalion commander (the closest thing this show has to a star) addressing the troops, telling them what fine men they are, how well they have served, etc. There is, but it is typical of this show's ingenuity that this address comes in the form of an American soldier's translation of a German general's address to his surrendered troops.
This scene's touching simplicity easily outdoes the obvious intent of Damon's monologue, and the muddled sentiment of Hanks' final line.

4) Better actors = better story

Those of you who have consistently read this blog know that sooner or later, I'm going to get around to the acting.
It is top-rate in Brothers, one of the show's strongest attributes. War movies don't need to rely on nuanced performances as heavily as films with more traditional, dialogue-driven scripts do, and I found myself pleasantly surprised by the fine work, across the board, by Brothers' large ensemble. This show, in fact, first caused me to get lost in the maze of; there were so many strong performances by so many little-known actors, and I wanted to find out who these guys were. To my surprise, it turned out that several of them are actually British actors, which is an even greater credit to their performances, as their accent work is dead-on. Chief among the Brits is Damian Lewis, who plays Lt. Winters, a platoon leader who eventually ascends to batallion commander. Winters is the polar opposite of David Schwimmer's Capt. Sobel--he becomes a hero through his amazing competence in the field and his even-handed treatment of the men. Lewis' performance is superb; he finds the perfect tone of stolid determination with which to portray Winters. His is the kind of performance that guarantees continued work in Hollywood, as evidenced by his consistent appearance in movies since.
Ryan has some pretty good actors in its corner, as well--there are the usual character veterans, like Tom Sizemore, as well as the quality up-and-comers, like Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper and Jeremy Davies. Unfortunately, Ryan's cast also contains Vin Diesel, who is usually a liability. Ed Burns is there, too--never really known what to make of that guy.
Also, one thing that Ryan does, which a lot of war movies do (usually with much bigger stars, in fairness to Ryan), is throw a bunch of recognizble faces into smaller roles--here, it's Ted Danson, Dennis Farina, Paul Giamatti, and of course, Matt Damon. War and military life seem to be experiences that consist largely of fear, confusion, anonymity, conformity; when you see familiar faces pop up among the sea of olive drab, it hinders the suspension of disbelief.
Brothers has the advantage here, not needing major star power to beef up box-office receipts. Its ensemble has a great chemistry, finding the perfect balance between creating individual characters, and immersing themselves in the uniform concert of a wartime army. The DVD extras disclose the fact that the cast went through boot camp together before filming, and it shows. This is honestly some of the best ensemble work I've recently seen, and its talented cast can take a lot of the credit for making Band of Brothers the best film (or show or miniseries or whatever) about WWII ever made. Go rent it.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006


Original Gangster: Pacino in Scarface and Carlito's Way

You've got two crime flicks, released ten years apart, both centering around a Latino gangster's tragic fall, both helmed by a talented but ultimately second-tier director, and both starring the same venerable (though decidedly non-Latino) thespian whose explosive performance in each film has been the subject of praise as well as ridicule.

Is Al Pacino the savior or the ruin of both Scarface and Carlito's Way?

Well, his performances as Tony Montana and Carlito Brigante have both been derided as hammy and ostentatious, and he has been criticized for mangling each character's respective accent (Montana was a Cuban, Brigante a Puerto Rican-American).
As far as accents go, I must admit that I have never actually met anyone from Cuba, but to my untrained ear his accent in Scarface sounded pretty good, if a bit overwrought and prone to the occasional falter. As for Carlito's Way, I do know many Nuyoricans here in NYC, and I have to say that Carlito Brigante doesn't sound much like any of them. Pacino's accent here seems closer to the botched Southern one he employed in Scent Of a Woman, and on the few occasions that he actually speaks Spanish, his accent is poor to the point of being laughable. However, I suspect that Al Pacino is still more compelling when doing an accent poorly than most actors are when nailing theirs spot-on.
I know that among fellow young actors and the type of hip, post-modern film geeks who may or may not be reading this blog, it is sometimes considered cool to disparage Pacino, DeNiro, Nicholson and other actors who have arguably receded into overblown caricatures of themselves. Never mind the fact that all of these actors have reached the age at which personality traits are more or less immutable; all of these actors have also shown enough zest, originality and talent to have earned the right to cut loose. Watching actors such as these work is like reading Hemingway or listening to The Beatles--these are primary sources, the ones who set trends in motion. Robert DeNiro doesn't do Robert DeNiro; he is Robert DeNiro! Al Pacino at his Saturday Night Live parody worst can still do more with a scene just by walking into the room than Keanu Reeves can with a page of exquisitely written dialogue. So is Pacino the savior or the ruin of Scarface and Carlito's Way? What do you think? Hoo-Wah!

In the twenty-three years since its release, Scarface has become the ultimate cult classic, especially within hip-hop circles, where Tony Montana's monstrous version of the American Dream has become a brightly colored thread running through the fabric of that sub-culture. To some degree, it is hard to understand why: Scarface is, if anything, a morality play which takes as its subject a man consumed and undone by avarice, violence and treachery. But then, Scarface is a morality play in the same way that a film like Batman is--yes, those elements are present, but we go to see these movies for the fun stuff; the action, the over-the-top dialogue, the kinetic pace of the direction and, of course, the outlandish performances. Pacino is to Tony Montana what Jack Nicholson was to The Joker--proof that it sometimes takes a great actor to ham up a role perfectly.
Of course, after hearing Scarface's story invoked in countless rap songs, not to mention hearing the line "Say hello to my little friend!" quoted approximately 600 times every year, it is a bit hard to objectively critique Pacino's performance. It occurred to me that this film, is, in fact, the source material for a lot of stale, chotchy behavior--when you ask the dude in front of you in the keg line to hurry up and he says,"Hey--joo got a prah-lem, wit me, mane?" he is actually referencing Scarface and probably doesn't even know he's doing it. That's how deep this film's absurd cultural influence runs.
I do think Tony Montana (a performance in which Pacino was supposed to start out as a young punk, despite being over 40 in reality) marks the beginning of a transition from the eccentric, quietly electric Al Pacino of The Godfather, Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico, to the gravel-voiced bluster of our latter-day Michael Corleone. Pacino's work in the former titles stands as a masterful example of how a great actor channels both bombast and subtlety, understatement and showmanship, into an honest and expertly crafted performance. In Scarface, a lot of the subtlety and understatement are lacking, which is less Pacino's fault than that of director Brian DePalma. DePalma has never been a very intimate director--I find that his films often have a bubbly, cartoonish quality, and that he is more interested in representational rather than naturalistic narrative. And that's okay--sometimes you want folk music, and sometimes you want heavy metal. Pacino's demonic performance fits nicely within DePalma's larger framework, and I could imagine that, had this film had been directed by a Scorcese or a Coppola, he could have given the same performance and been just as effective, although the film itself might have been very different.
Pacino's work as Tony Montana in fact bears at least one hallmark of a truly great performance: he so thoroughly carries the film that you might not even realize what a piece of crap it could have been in the hands of a lesser actor (see Terrence Howard in last year's Hustle & Flow). Oliver Stone's dialogue is often overwrought, and his script takes easy liberties by constantly cutting and jumping forward ("Three Months Later"). And sequences such as the inspirational rock-scored montage depicting Tony and Manny's rise to power really show their seams twenty years later.
Though Scarface does suggest the manic Rottweiler persona that has come to typify his later work, one needn't look any further than the opening scene, in which the young Tony Montana is questioned by the INS, for proof of Pacino's unquestionable prowess. He has a razor-blade gleam in his eye and a shark's hungry grin. The way he deals with his two offscreen interrogators is like an Acting 101 class.
That gleam--the unquantifiable thing called charisma--is the elusive quality that elevates some performers over others, and it remains with Pacino ten years later in Carlito's Way, Scarface's spiritual descendant.
Introspective, cautious Carlito Brigante is a reformed version of Scarface's heedless, remorseless Tony Montana. Montana has a void for a soul that no amount of money or power can fill; Brigante spends the better part of Carlito's Way trying to reclaim the soul that his criminal lifestyle has corrupted.
Where Scarface shows us Tony Montana's rise from dish-scrubbing refugee to Florida cocaine czar, Carlito's Way begins on the other side of this trajectory with Brigante, a major Heroin mover, winning an appeal, being released from a lengthy prison term, and consequently vowing to go straight for good. His courtroom vow to stay out of trouble in the film's opening scene sounds forced and foolish, and at first blush, you might think Pacino has let his Pacino-ness get the better of him before the film has even started. But watch the judge's skeptical reaction: it takes a moment, perhaps even a second viewing, to realize that Carlito Brigante may be righteous, but he is also a knucklehead whose inability to stay out of trouble is his eventual undoing. One of the most telling moments in Scarface occurs when Elvira (Michelle Pfeiffer) tells Tony: "Look at us. We're not winners. We're losers." Carlito Brigante can almost be read as the realization of her diagnosis, ten years down the road.
Unfortunately, Brigante falls just short of searing himself into memory the way a truly great character does. He is tormented, sure, but also comes off as such a swell guy that you almost can't imagine him ever being a cold-hearted gangster. The sinister characters who inhabit his world push and pull at him from every angle, and he ends up seeming a helpless dupe more than a former predator fighting to reign in his bloodthirsty instincts. Also, Penelope Ann Miller, as Pacino's love interest, throws off the balance of a story otherwise propelled by outstanding performances. She is not bad, just entirely too fresh-faced and guileless to be believable as a tough-edged stripper. Michelle Pfeiffer didn't have a whole lot to do in Scarface, but her doped-out ice princess made a nice foil for Pacino's hot-blooded megalomaniac.
That said, no supporting performance in Scarface can even come close to Sean Penn's weasely turn as David Kleinfeld, Carlito's defense attorney. His descent from run-of-the-mill shyster to coked-out wannabe tough guy is superb, well worth the Oscar nod it didn't get. Carlito's Way, despite occasional character-film spasms, is a movie that paints in broad strokes, and it requires actors who are up to the task. Penn and Pacino both manage to inject a degree of humanity into their larger-than-life characters.
In fact--and maybe I'm going out on a limb here, maybe it's because Carlito's Way is the more immediate film for a person my age, but I'm going to go ahead and say I think Carlito's Way is a better film than Scarface. Carlito's Way is comfortable being more of a straight-up thriller; Scarface often vacillates between being a snappy crime flick and a clunky character study. Carlito's Way also populates its world with a flashier, more memorable gallery of characters--look out for Viggo Mortensen, who pops up in a scene that rivals the best of Goodfellas--and moves at a steadier, more even clip. I thought Scarface began to drag during its final act, whereas Carlito's Way culminates in a brilliantly staged chase sequence. For what it's worth, Carlito's Way also lets most of its Hispanic characters be played by actual Hispanics, unlike Scarface, in which Steven Bauer was the only key player of actual Cuban heritage.

What essentially unifies Scarface and Carlito's Way is what unifies nearly all gangster flicks: the depiction of an outsider's desperate struggle, wrongheaded and criminal though it may be, to realize the American Dream. We enjoy gangster sagas because of their surprising familiarity--the Corleones and the Sopranos intrigue us because they offer a slightly skewed, darker depiction of our own American hungers. Pacino's success, and his overall brilliance as a performer, owes a lot to the fact that he seems to have never lost the energy and verve of a hungry young actor.

Friday, May 05, 2006


The Passion of United 93

We all remember the strange mixture of fear, horror, rage and impotent uncertainty that pervaded the country in the wake of the September 11th attacks. However, I seem to recall a slightly different strain of outrage taking hold here in New York. Of course, the tragedy had taken place in our own backyard, but there was something more, something owing to the city's character, which made that day's events all the more horrifying and incomprehensible: New York is a place famous for its toughness, its solidarity, its grandeur--New York is a place that abhors victims.
In this city, it seems that everyone, regardless of the usual limitations (class, race, gender, sexual orientation, etc.), is entitled to scrap for their piece of the pie, and everyone else is entitled to allow them their pursuit. Why visit the tragedy of September 11th on a place that embodies so much of what's good and tolerant about America? This is a place where you can believe what you want to believe, hate who you want to hate--be it America, Capitalism, the Western World in general--just let me believe what I want to believe, hate who I want to hate, and don't crowd the sidewalk while you're at it!
I will never forget the clammy, fearful confusion that touched me in the fall of 2001--why did this happen? How did this happen? What does it mean? Who is to blame? What will happen next?
I will also never forget--and am embarrassed to admit, but can't deny--the perverse thrill it all gave me, too. 9/11 was, after all, the first event of true historical significance to which I bore first-hand witness.
And it seems to me that film, or any art form that seeks to comment on actual events--be it memoir, historical novel, TV show or other--makes a concession to the exciting allure of epic events, no matter how repugnant or tragic they may have originally been. The French director Francois Truffaut famously posited that no war movie can truly be anti-war, because war movies inevitably make war look exhilirating--fun, even. Certain movies have arguably discredited this theory, and, if you consider the events of 9/11 to have been acts of war, United 93--which debuted at New York's Tribeca Film Festival--is undoubtedly one of them.
On 9/11 much of the country was held prisoner by inaction; U93 shows what may have been the only group of Americans to take decisive, visceral action that day, and it does so without much in the way of romanticization, hyperbole, or unneccessary aggrandizement. This film is a slug to the gut; a powerful revisiting of emotional territory many of us are glad to have buried under five years of hearings, wars, elections and protests. Ultimately, however, it is up to the moviegoer to decide whether he or she wishes to spend $10 for a slug to the gut and little else.
U93's director, Paul Greengrass, came onto the radar screen a few years ago with Bloody Sunday, about a peaceful protest turned infamously violent in 1972 Northern Ireland. Like Bloody Sunday, U93 is a quasi-documentary, done with complete and utter, flat-as-a-board realism. There are no name actors present, and nothing in the way of backstory or character development--we see passengers waiting to board a flight from Boston to California, nothing out of the ordinary there (except, maybe, for the 4 or 5 nervous-looking Arab men among them), Air Traffic Controllers go through the tense rigors of their work, as do the military folks at NORAD command center. And what happens, tragically, happens.
Greengrass's observational, real-time naturalism is merciless--watching, with the benefit of hindsight, as the FAA, U.S. Military, and the public-at-large (including the passsengers on Flight 93) struggle to put together the meaning behind the calamity unfolding around them is absolutely harrowing. I felt edgy, physically unwell throughout much of this film, and I noticed two people get up and leave the theater before its conclusion. Being called 'harrowing' may be a satisfactorily positive qualifier for some films--though I think U93 was done with enough skill to defy such an easy characterization, not to mention the fact that it's almost off-putting to call a film like this "good." I certainly don't think the film was bad; I just don't think I ever want to see it again, and quite frankly, if you see this as a multiple-viewing kind of movie, you might want to consider some sort of therapy. I think U93 is a far better film than The Passion of the Christ (reviewed below), but its action is often riveting in the same way that the depiction of Christ's scourging was in that movie: realistic and relentless to the point of revulsion. Of course, Passion was stilted where U93 shows little-to-no partisanship (which has the disquieting effect of making us all feel like sitting ducks), and it is U93's flat objectivity which ultimately imbues it with a wrenching poignancy.
Still, I don't think I can sign off on an exclusively positive review of a film whose most strongly felt impression is a hope to avoid ever seeing it again. It seems to me that a piece of art, no matter how gripping or intense, should at least allow for the possibility of re-exploration. I'm sure my opinion is somehwat prejudiced, and maybe I'm more lilly-livered than the average moviegoer, but I'd be content to let this one lie.
A lot has been said about the appropriateness of making this film so soon after 9/11, but I, for one, don't really consider it to be much of an issue--we live in an age of instant transmission and synthesis of information, an age in which you can watch a war unfold on TV, then watch Stephen Bocchco's T.V. dramatization of it, then go play a video game about it; an internet age in which Jihadists can turn a beheading done in a dank cellar into a public execution; an age, for that matter, (as U93 illustrates) in which CNN seemed to be the only entity that knew what the hell was going on on September 11th. Movies are going to be made with progressive quickness and abundance after calamitous events; that's just the way it is (and maybe this is not such a new phenomenon--go check out the plethora of WWII movies made while that war was still being fought).
In fact, the underlying logic behind movies like U93 is probably that they need to be made, and I tend to agree. The human trait of self-examination is necessary for our endurance; it is our ability to revisit pain and seek out catharsis that allows us to get up and face another day. I remember a scene in The Blair Witch Project (NOT REAL) in which one of the characters, enjoying a cigarette in the face of impending horror, says, "I must still be alive, 'cause I'm smoking." I suppose our ability to create tiny pleasures, even self-destructive ones--our ability to do, simply because we can--sometimes affirms our vitality. A film like U93, if nothing else, allows us to say, "We must still be alive, 'cause we're making movies."

Thursday, April 27, 2006


DOH! A few Days late!

Disclaimer: I started this piece over a week ago, but I was busy and had to put off finishing it. Now the film in question has stopped its run at Film Forum--let this be a lesson in procrastination for all of you. In order to approximate the effect of seeing Days Of Heaven in a theater, I suggest the following: go buy the biggest screen TV available, a really top-flight sound system, pop some poppin' corn, put in the DVD and turn out the lights. Barring that, I don't know what to say, except: sorry. I'll do better next time.

Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven is a piece of visual poetry--beautiful, sumptuous and worth experiencing--though, like a heady poem, it can sometimes be a bit of a drag to get through. It is now playing at Film Forum on Houston Street (sorry non-NYC readers!), and if you have only seen this flick on DVD or video and have an interest in seeing it in its purest form (or are old enough to have seen it the first time around and want to refresh your impressions of it), get on over to Film Forum and check it out--it's worth the price of admission, which is more than I can say for a lot of movies these days (And I guess it's too bad that the cost of going to the movies is so exorbitant as to play a determining role in a film's overall quality, but what can you do?).
I know some film wonks consider DOH to be the most beautiful film ever shot, and it would be hard, even with my limited knowledge, to throw up much in the way of protest. After seeing The New World (reviewed in March archives) and now Days of Heaven on the big screen in the past month, I can definitely say that Terrence Malick is not really messing around when it comes to creating pretty pictures.
DOH, acccording to lore, was shot exclusively during the "magic hour" (which actually refers to two different hours--the one just after dawn, and the one just before dusk, respectively) and almost every scene is soaked in the gauzy, ethereal glow of a day's waning and waking moments. As always, Malick spends a good deal of time lingering over the beauty of the natural landscape--in this case, the vast plains and wheat fields of Texas, alternately depicted as a desolate moonscape and a golden, teeming paradise. This duality of character is a perfect corollary to the film's story, which quietly observes the way in which human emotions can transmute and turn, how the stark beauty of daytime can fade into the uncertain glow of twilight.
Richard Gere and Brooke Adams play a pair of ragamuffin lovers who, along with Gere's young sister, flee WWI-era Chicago after Gere attacks and kills his smelting-plant foreman. They find itinerant work harvesting wheat on a prosperous widower's (Sam Shepherd) sprawling Texas farm, and, at the outset, Adams and Gere decide to pass themselves off as brother and sister. Later, when Gere catches wind of Shepherd's affliction with a terminal illness, he orchestrates a courtship and eventual marriage between Adams and him, the idea being that when the farmer kicks off, Gere's hardscrabble trio will inherit his land and wealth. I have to say, this seemed like a pretty boneheaded idea from the get-go, and its eventual payoff doesn't do much to dispel that instinct. Things are good at first--the group's ascension from abject poverty to a life of leisure encompasses the title's "days of heaven," but Shepherd stubbornly refuses to die, and, to make matters worse, Adams soon finds herself falling for him: he is gentle, kind, deeply in love with her, and he does happen to be Sam Shepherd, which means he's a pretty cool mofo, to boot. He has suspicions about Adams and Gere's relationship, however, things begin to sour, and Gere eventually gains the good sense to hit the road, leaving his sister, Adams and Shepherd behind to form some approximation of a normal family. This is not the last we see of Gere, however: his final return sets off a cataclysmic chain of events, leading to a final, quiet closure that could almost be described as a happy ending.
DOH, like The New World and The Thin Red Line (and maybe Badlands--never seen it), is largely guided by voice-over narration, provided here by Gere's spunky young sister. The film closes on a note of hope as far as she is concerned--a note that, in some ways, changes the entire context of the preceding movie. She is the film's narrator, but it wasn't until the last shot that I decided that DOH, more than being Adams' or Gere's or Shepherd's, is really her story instead. Sometimes a child's world is only as big as the larger human beings who surround them, and if the action of the three principles often seems distant, caught in fleeting, fractured glimpses, it may be a matter of perspective.
Of course, presenting a diffuse, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree narrative is a hallmark of Terrence Malick's work; in DOH, as in The New World and The Thin Red Line, we can never be sure if we are seeing the story through the eyes of one of its characters or through the eyes of some hovering, unnamed presence--God himself, perhaps. His execution is as virtuosic as ever, but the final result is still somewhat difficult to contend with.
And this, I think, is why:
The basic joy I derive from watching movies, more than anything else, is watching the actors, and--when there's a good script involved--observing the way the acting and the writing begin to dance.
And, to some extent, a film like DOH stymies me.
Its cast is first rate, and good performances are given throughout, but you almost feel as though the performers themselves are incidental.
I have grown up on the hyper-locquacious films of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater, et al., in which dialogue is the brush that paints each story's action. But Malick works from a very different palate, creating a vast tableau, absent the sort of verbal repartee that forces you to laser in on every scene. The constant progression of life is a truth that seems to underlie Malick's work, and his most basic message, as I have taken it in the three films that I have seen, is this: the world is a big place. A lot of things are happening in it, many of them beautiful, many of them sinister and cruel; I will show you some of them, and I will do it in a deft and interesting manner.
It is done interestingly, and with unassailable technical skill--in this regard, Malick seems a sage old man next to the snappy, youthful earnestness of any of the directors mentioned above--and, to be honest, exposure to this level of mastery is not a whole lot more than I can ask from a movie.
This film also predates the video and DVD era, and demands to inhabit the grandeur of a real-life movie theater. It is not a Swiss Army Movie that can function as theatrical experience as well as home entertainment--it does not apologize for being what it is any more than a live play should desire to be digitally recorded, slapped on to DVD and shipped en masse to Blockbuster. If nothing else, that's something of an anomlay in our everything-in-one, Blackberry, IPod, Camera Phone culture.
See what just happened?
That's why Terrence Malick is good.
Without even meaning to, here I am, using his film as a springboard into philosophical musings about the technological asphyxiation of American culure.
But, speaking of American culture, I'll tell you something else--DOH, while not perfect, and guilty of a sort of washed-out mooniness, is, at its heart, a movie about America. And being a freedom-lover, I like things about America.
If you have ever been to DOH's Texas locale, you know that it is a place whose vast, empty sky can illuminate as well as oppress--and that Texas nights can take on a fearful, crystalline stillness in which the chemistry of love and hate seems to float like a strange pollen. America is a place whose legacy is connected to the land, the soil itself, and DOH does capture the way a place can insinuate itself into your heart, and maybe, if only briefly, feel like heaven.

Friday, April 21, 2006


Two For One: "Trapped in the Closet" and "The Constant Gardener"

I have had complaints about my verbosity, which I'll admit, can sometimes run a little wild. In an effort to be more economical, today I am offering two DVD critiques for the price-- and space--of one.

[Lengthy parenthetical aside deleted HERE]

The two DVDs share almost no similarities, other than the fact that I happened to watch them both this week. Actually, the first of the two, R. Kelly's Trapped in the Closet, is such a rarity that I couldn't imagine where to find a point of reference by which to define it. It's not really a movie, not really a music video. Not a musical, not a straight film, either. More than anything, it's really freakin' weird. And I mean that in a good way.

R. Kelly has had a long, very successful and progressively eccentric career as an R&B singer. He is the Terrell Owens of his field--not as brash or abrasive as Owens, but every bit as exquisite a flake (Owens stages elaborate touchdown celebrations during games, Kelly has been known to stage sexual encounters with female fans during concerts, not to mention the infamous and decidedly unstaged home video that was hilariously parodied--several times--by Dave Chapelle). Indeed, Closet almost gives the impression of a madman's imaginings as translated to DVD. That sounds like a description of a horror movie, which Closet certainly isn't--its tone is never dark or invasive, but cartoonish instead, ebullient and silly--it's just hard to say exactly what it is. It is not a movie--there is not much character development, no real plot, and what's more, no dialogue--every line is sung. And not by the actors, but by Kelly himself. The actors lip synch their lines to correspond with Kelly's singing.
This might make it sound like a musical, but it's not that, either. Mainly because there is only one song performed throughout. No kidding--one song with the same melody and backing is used to narrate the entire story.
Closet most closely resembles a feature length music video, and I believe it has been released in serial form as both song and video (the DVD being reviewed here is, in fact, touted as "Chapters 1-12") This approach is novel and interesting, but to call Closet overwrought, or just plain silly, would be a profound understatement. The narrative follows a group of unfaithful lovers, and without giving away any details, let me assure you that just about every second of this story bursts with absurdity. You will hit the rewind button, and not only to replay a plethora of unintentionally hilarious scenes, but because so much of Closet is just so bizarre that you will have to see it a second (or third or fourth) time to believe it.
I would not exactly call this work groundbreaking, but it does manage to expand on a lot of music video conventions, and the bottom line is that Kelly can sing. In the hands of a less unique talent, Closet would be ridiculously unwatchable; in Kelly's hands it is ridiculous, but in an endearing way, far from unwatchable.
Also, aside from playing one of the leads, Kelly acts as ringmaster, prowling the periphery, stogie in hand, like a cross between Rod Serling and the Cheshire Cat. His confident, unaplogetic earnestness is what ultimately makes Closet enjoyable--this is a trifle, but a light-hearted and humorous one that conveys some semblance of a story--and Kelly's longevity seems a testament to the value of sticking to one's own bizzarro sensibilities.

The Constant Gardener, based on John LeCarre's novel, attempts a dialogue with much larger concerns, though its storyline also involves a magnetic personality, possessed of a headstrong vision, who refuses to change for anyone. Here, however, the results are tragic, rather than amusing.
Rachel Weisz turns in an excellent (and Oscar-winning) peformance as Tessa, an idealistic British healthcare activist who follows her fuddy-duddy diplomat husband Justin (Ralph Fiennes) to Africa, where he plays a functionary role as attache to a pharmaceutical company developing an AIDS medication. We learn, in the film's opening passages, that she has been murdered, and the narrative dances in and out of establishing her relationship with Justin, her immersion in a myopic, life-endangering level of activism, and Justin's subsequent pursuit of the truth behind her death. Because TCG is based on a John LeCarre novel, and because an institutional villain like Big Pharmaceuticals is present, we can be certain that sinister motives lurk behind Tessa's murder, but this is, by no means, a standard corporate conspiracy flick.
As directed by Fernando Mereilles (he of the savage and beautiful City of God), TCG is a tender examining of the vulnerability and hurtfulness that exists on the underside of a relationship, as well as an outraged elegy sung for a part of the world edging ever nearer to collective death. It largely transcends genre cliches in its illustration of a systemized malfeasance by which no one is guilty but everyone has blood on their hands.
Justin and Tessa have a fairly standard meet-cute--he is a substitue professor teaching a graduate-level class on diplomacy, she is the fiesty upstart whose altruistic rantings bore her classmates but fascinate her teacher. Pretty soon, they are falling in love, and Mereilles touches these scenes with a diaphanous beauty, though our foreknowledge of Tessa's fate adds another, sadder dimension. Love can inspire vulnerability and fear as well as joy: having found your counterpart, the far-off terror of their harm also materializes, and I like the way Mereilles uses the darker implications of Justin and Tessa's relationship as a way into the larger story.
It turns out that maybe the two don't know each other so well after all--he is content with a life of domesticity, tending his garden and maintaining an intellectual, if cursory interest in the plight of the Third World. But Tessa is no arm-chair activist: she has grander, shrouded designs that alienate her from her husband and call her motives into question.
Weisz is perfectly cast as Tessa: both luminously beautiful and witheringly shrewd, she manipulates her male compatriots for what seem like altruistic ends, though the narrative's diffuse nature often leaves us unsure as to whether she is the heroine or the villain.
The ever-excellent Ralph Fiennes also hits the right notes as a typically prim and stoic Englishman whose buttoned-down demeanor hides reserves of tenacity. He does not, however, morph into an avenging Superman, as he might have done in a sillier film. As Justin pieces together the truth behind his wife's murder, his resolve to do the right thing becomes a slow, cool certainty.
TCG's weight owes a lot to the talents of its two stars. There is something special about watching really good British actors. They seem to have a comfort (perhaps owing to their 1,000-year headstart) with the language that American actors lack; British actors don't seem to retreat into themselves and apologize for saying their lines the way American actors sometimes do.
TCG also populates its world with fine supporting players who bring balance to their characters, and though it eventually becomes a little hard to keep track of roles and plot threads, this is a well-told story, and germane to the pressing concerns of a global economy.
I guess the only nagging hang-up I have is that it is yet another story about impoverished people of color that needs be seen through the eyes of prosperous whites. Only after the white, Western protagonist of this film suffers a personal tragedy does he begin to understand a part of the world that exists in an almost perpetually tragic state. But then, I guess that's sort of the point.

Sunday, April 16, 2006


Easter Special: Gibson's Passion For Blood

I can't--and shouldn't-- really comment as to what extent movies act as a reflection of American culture at large, but it seems fitting that The Passion Of The Christ was the biggest movie of 2004, a year in which the Democratic Party, and liberalism in general, received one of its swiftest ass-kickings in recent memory.
It was a tough year, what with Bush's re-election, its implicit validation of the Christian fundamentalist fringe, the deepened cultural rift between "red" and "blue" America.
But liberals, take heart: if movies DO indicate which way our cultural winds are blowing, 2005 was a big step forward: it was, of course, the year of Brokeback Mountain (reviewed below). Bush may still be in office, the war in Iraq may still be slogging along, certain school districts in this country may have mandated the teaching of "intelligent design," but now we've got gay cowboys, and we're not afraid to use 'em.
Don't worry--I have no intention of comparing these two movies, except to say that I approached both with the same degree of skepticism and apprehension. When a movie is incessantly hyped, I usually bestow the burden of proof upon it--I will admit that oftentimes, I want to dislike the big, talked-about movies, and oftentimes, happily, I find that these movies oblige me by sucking horribly, as in the case of Crash (reviewed in March archives).
Brokeback Mountain, on the other hand, had the opposite effect on me: as much as I wanted to see through it, I was defied by the beauty and skill with which it was executed. This was an extremely well-told story; well-directed, well-written, and well-acted, which, in the end, is what I think makes a good movie. I enjoy seeing a movie whose structural elements all perform their duties with skill and intelligence; I have said repeatedly that a movie's "message" doesn't matter a bit to me if its delivery does not, primarily, break down to interesting scenes, the same way a novel's ostensible theme becomes irrelevant if the individual sentences are poorly written.
This is why I disliked Crash, and why, for the most part, I didn't like The Passion Of The Christ. I say, "for the most part," because I think this flick plays a little trick on the viewer that makes it impossible to completely disengage oneself.
As you have probably heard, this is an incredibly bloody and violent film and I must give it credit, at least, for pulling no punches as far as its title is concerned--in its archaic form, "passion" refers to the various abuses and degradations Christ was forced to suffer en route to his eventual crucifixion: his condemnation at the hands of Pontius Pilate, scourging by way of cat o’ nine tails, being made to wear the crown of thorns, carrying the cross, etc. In Catholic doctrine, these are referred to as the Stations of the Cross, each Station having an accompanying prayer or meditation. This film is essentially a literal and very graphic enactment of the Stations of the Cross. It reaches its gory crescendo during the crucifixion scene, but I’d like to come back to that later. Rest assured that there is plenty of violent imagery during the lead-up--we are shown Jesus (Jim Caviezel) being beaten mercilessly, whipped until he is practically hamburger meat, staggering beneath the weight of the massive cross, and on and on and on, all of it depicted in excruciating, agonizing detail.
As such, it is impossible not to feel some emotional pull during this film. I was reminded of my friend Dan’s austere but incisive assessment of Passion when it came out two years ago: "You’re basically just watching this guy take a freakin’ beating for two hours." (Imagine this statement as delivered by a strapping Boston guy with thick accent, and it’s even funnier) To a degree, this statement sums up the film, and unless you are a psychopath, you will feel certain emotions evoked, but I’ll wager that they will share the same general tenor: revulsion, horror, shock, pity. Valid emotions, all, but they do not a complete story make.

Long before the movies and Mel Gibson, Passion Plays performed by traveling troupes were the big theatrical draw of the entertainment-starved Middle Ages. However, this particular Passion Play seems to have its roots in the early 20th century, specifically drawing from Artaud's Theater of Cruelty. I found myself wondering: "What did I do to deserve to be subjected to this horror?" I was also reminded of certain images I once saw on the news showing Catholic zealots in the Phillipines literally crucifying themselves as part of their Good Friday worship. Didn’t Christ go through this so that we don’t have to? And who is Mel Gibson, he of countless vapid, mindlessly violent films, to foist this bloodbath on me and tell me it is somehow more important than all the stupid bloodletting in say, the Lethal Weapon franchise?
I guess, though I don’t really know why, it is worth saying that I am a baptized Christian, albeit one who used to hide under his bed when his mother would come get him for Sunday School. And my enthusiasm for church, and religion in general, hasn’t improved much since. An artist’s--or arts enthusiast’s--temple is the stage or the cinema, the studio or the writing desk. The closest thing to a religious experience that I am apt to have is in the reading of a brilliant novel, or seeing an actor pull off an excellent performance. In a piece of art, we want to see a story, because the telling of a story is one of the most sacred and primal of human undertakings. A truthful story is as luminous and reverent as a hymn.
And the Bible, like it or not, tells one heck of a story.
I think the story of Christ’s Passion is actually quite brilliant, and one of this film’s biggest failings is that it fails to translate the story’s astonishing and transcendent universality.
In the intervening 2000 years or so since Christ’s death, countless humans have been subjected to equal and greater bouts of humiliation and torture. In the past week alone, I’m sure such brutality has occurred over and again in places like Iraq and Darfur. Like almost every story in the Bible, the Passion’s brilliance lies in its astounding allegorical weight: He was made man. He was crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried. On the third day, he rose again. This is how much God loves us. It is the Rosetta Stone for every story about sacrifice, suffering, redemption and love we have. Gibson takes this beautiful parable and turns it into a bloodbath, and I wonder: what is it all meant to accomplish? Forget the fact that the better part of the world is familiar with this story--obviously Gibson felt it necessary to depict the nature of Christ’s suffering in a real and visceral manner. But I wonder, would you like to see a film about 9/11 that showcases, in graphic detail, the victims being burned alive, plummeting to their deaths, being suffocated beneath piles of rubble? Would that honor anyone? Or, for a closer analogy: take Immette St. Guillen, the young woman atrociously kidnapped, sexually assaulted and murdered here in New York a few weeks ago. Would she be honored or memorialized by a film that offers a literal depiction of those events?

I cannot stress enough how exacting and brutal this film is. However, I grew up on Stallone, Schwarzenegger AND GIBSON, and consider myself to be more or less inured to violence in the movies. It is not only the blood itself (though there is plenty of that) which repulses, but the way the film seems to revel in its shedding. In my notes about the crucifixion scene, I wrote, "Gibson should be ashamed of himself." A bit grandmotherly, I’ll admit, but notice the perverse patience he exhibits in drawing the scene out, lingering over every gruesome second, heaping one horror on top of the next--the stilted, voyueristic detail with which the act is rendered borders on the pornographic. Gibson would probably argue that the film is meant to be excruciating in the same way that my Sunday School teacher used to tell me that kneeling is supposed to be uncomfortable: it is an act of contrition. However, Mel Gibson is neither priest nor savior, he is a Hollywood flake and I don’t need him to be exacting a penance from me. If you wanted to teach me something, Mel, why did the Last Supper, and the teachings of love Jesus imaprted there, take such a distant backseat to all the boring Hollywood brutality?
Passion reminded me of an ultra-violent version of one of those Biblical movies you may have seen if you've ever stumbled onto one of those Christian channels at the upper reaches of the cable spectrum (or maybe not–maybe I’m the only one who does weird stuff like that). Its utter partisanship is what keeps it from being interesting. Note the dramatic slo-mo shot of Caiaphas tossing Judas the pouch containing his 30 pieces of silver. It’s like a parody of something worked out during a producers' meeting at The Ivy.
There were allegations of anti-Semitism bandied about when Passion was released, and I can see why they existed. The Pharisees (the high Jewish priests who condemned Jesus), as presented here, are vindictive and blood-hungry, however I would say that their depiction is less anti-Semitic than anti-intellectual. They stand around pointing fingers and snarling for blood, never developing beyond rote plot constructs. If there is anti-Semitism present, it is in Gibson's presentation of the Romans as the Pharisees’ fair and equanimous opposites. Caiaphas scuttles around with the other Pharisees calling for crucifixion, but we see poor Pontius Pilate, tormented, in consult with his wife about how to deal with the young upstart everyone wants to execute.
In the end, I don’t think there was a great deal of anti-Semitism present here; Passion's over-riding offense (other than its relentless gore) is its lack of interest in creating an interesting story. Have you ever seen a movie remade (perhaps this summer’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?) and thought, "Okay, that was pretty good, but why’d they need to remake it? It didn’t re-invent or expand upon the original." That’s sort of how I felt about Passion. And of course, I was unable to avoid thinking of Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ, an earlier, though similarly maligned and controversial film.
I wish Temptation were more immediate in my memory, so I could draw some real parallels between the two films. I am sure that it is the superior film, not only because it featured Willem Dafoe and Harvey Kietel, two of the best actors we have, or because Martin Scorcese could sneeze a better film on his worst day than Mel Gibson could direct on his best. I think Temptation was better because Scorcese, a Catholic who considered the seminary before becoming a director (not to mention Nikos Kazantakis, the book’s author), is interested in exploring the story of Jesus at ground level. In Temptation, Jesus is a mortal man who is often racked by fear and an inability to understand why he carries such a special burden. He is also a religious radical, leading a fringe rabble. He is loving but mercurial, and his adjustment to power is often awkward. When he is finally crucified and beseeches God, "Father, why have you forsaken me?" we are given a lengthy interlude showing Jesus leading a normal, mortal life, happily married to Mary Magdalene (this also featured the absurdly decried scene of Jesus and Mary Magdalene in bed together, which was brief, discreet and uterly innocuous). Only later do we understand that this vison is the titular final temptation, sent by Satan to provoke Jesus into renouncing God. He does not, and he ascends to heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of the Father.
In Passion, Jesus asks God the same question...nothing happens...a few seconds pass...he says, "It is accomplished. I commend myself unto you." Isn’t Jesus’ fleeting notion that God has abandoned him rather crucial to his endurance and eventual triumph over doubt and fear? Passion doesn’t ask these questions. Instead, the heavens move, and we see the Pharisees’ temple crumbling, in a scene that reminded me of the climactic end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I almost expected to see Harrison Ford come sprinting out of there with the Holy Grail in his hand.
I suppose it is a sad but predictable irony that The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson's nobly intended labor of love, ends up resembling nothing so much as another violent, mindless Hollywood machine.
Jesus, as you probably know, referred to himself as "the good shepherd," and Gibson, who probably had a nearly limitless budget in making this film, is guided by no counsel other than his own predilictions as a filmmaker and man of faith. Unfortunately, when it comes to being told a story, I, for one, prefer to be guided by a shepherd rather than a sheep.

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