Saturday, 31 December 2016

Movie Review: Maid In Manhattan (2002)

A romantic comedy derived from Cinderella, Maid In Manhattan showcases the worst of the genre in a gag-inducing saccharine package.

Single mom Marisa Ventura (Jennifer Lopez) works as a maid at the swanky Beresford Hotel in New York City. Marisa looks after her young son Ty as best as she could, and harbours ambitions to apply for the management training program. One of the guests at the hotel is Chris Marshall (Ralph Fiennes), a third generation politician running for a Senate seat. Marshall's campaign manager is the highly strung Jerry Siegal (Stanley Tucci).

Chris bumps into Marisa just as she is surreptitiously trying on a designer Dolce & Gabbana suit belonging to Caroline Lane (Natasha Richardson), another guest at the hotel, and he is immediately smitten. They start an unlikely relationship, and Marisa keeps her identity as a maid a secret. Meanwhile Jerry recognizes that his candidate is inviting bad publicity, while Caroline has ambitions of her own to seduce the handsome Chris.

Directed by Wayne Wang, Maid In Manhattan is an inoffensive fairy tale with a predictable start, middle and end, fully dependent on coincidences and misunderstandings due to characters never saying what needs to be said when it needs to be said. There are maybe two sharp lines of dialogue delivered by Jennifer Lopez to underline issues of classicism, but otherwise the Kevin Wade screenplay is an exercise in vanilla bland dialogue set to a vanilla bland music soundtrack.

The tired ingredients are all here: the cute kid, the lovable dog, Marisa's sassy maid friends, the romantic competition in the form of the conniving Caroline Lane. Two elderly French sisters provide attempted comic relief as incompetent hotel burglars.

Lopez is not a horrible actress and spends long intervals in a deglamorized maid outfit, but she does tend to over emote at every opportunity. The supporting cast contains plenty of talent taking the day off, with Ralph Fiennes, Bob Hoskins (as the hotel's head butler), Natasha Richardson, Stanley Tucci and Frances Conroy slumming it in the overacting department for an easy paycheque. Fiennes never comes close to establishing chemistry with Lopez, and the comic moments are more silly than funny.

The only miracle of Maid In Manhattan is that it ever got made.

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Friday, 30 December 2016

Movie Review: Jackie (2016)

A drama focusing on the week after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, Jackie is the personal story of a wife and mother forced to grieve in front of the entire, shocked world.

A week after the assassination, Life reporter Theodore H. White (Billy Crudup) is summoned by Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman) to the Kennedy's Hyannis Port, Massachusetts estate for a private interview. In flashback, the events immediately before, during and after the harrowing assassination in Dallas are presented from her perspective.

Jackie has to contend with the sudden death of her husband, her young children losing their father, making funeral arrangements with the leaders of the world attending, and the incoming Johnson administration, all while adjusting to the end of her life as First Lady. She uses the interview to help shape President Kennedy's legacy as an idyllic Camelot-like brief but shining period in US history.

Directed by Pablo Larraín, Jackie focuses on the other victim of November 22, 1963. While the nation lost a leader, a woman lost her husband and her life as she had planned it came to an appalling end. The film intercuts interview scenes, with Jackie and Theodore sitting face to face and staring straight at the camera, with flashbacks to the events of the past week. Jackie's imperative to gather herself in a calculated manner while in the glare of the world's spotlight translates somewhat to the film, and a sense of theatre sometimes stands in the way of human warmth. The machinations behind Jackie planning JFK's funeral procession also receive inordinate attention.

The film is otherwise an intense personal experience, delving into the soul of a woman still processing a massive shock, forced to transition instantaneously from a world of elegance to cleaning the blood and brains of her husband from her face and pink Chanel suit. The interview scenes reveal a steely-eyed but still shaken former first lady intent on framing her husband's tenure in the best possible light. Theodore takes the brunt of her decompressing attitude, as she unloads her emotions with a mixture of haughtiness and raw anger at the injustice befalling her family.

The flashbacks look slightly to the side of world-shaping events, Jackie the unwilling secondary character in a tragedy that kills her husband, his bloodied head in her lap, and forces her to witness a change in administration and the inevitable pressure to move out of her White House all while maintaining poise in front of her children and the world.

Natalie Portman is excellent in a controlled performance, and is ably supported by Crudup as White and Peter Sarsgaard as Bobby Kennedy. John Hurt appears as a pragmatic priest comforting Jackie as she processes her losses.

Larraín uses Jackie's redecoration of the White House, as featured in a groundbreaking February 1962 television documentary special, as a framing device to emphasize her passion for history and understanding of the continuum represented by successive Presidents. Misconstrued as a vanity project, Jackie wanted to bring to life the real men behind the legends who occupied the people's building.

Now she has to hurriedly add her husband, prematurely, to the ranks of leaders who contributed to nation building. His youth, enthusiasm, love for the arts and sense of idealistic optimism leads Jackie to the Camelot metaphor, ironically helping to create a legend out of a short-lived presidency. As one former first lady departs centre stage, the power of the media to shape a national narrative emerges from the margins, in readiness for more turmoil in the decades ahead.

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Thursday, 29 December 2016

Movie Review: Octopussy (1983)

A tired paint-by-numbers entry in the Bond series, Octopussy rehashes familiar elements and delivers a tepid experience.

The death of Agent 009 in East Berlin and the sudden emergence of an ancient precious Fabergé egg trigger a new mission for James Bond (Roger Moore): find out who is suddenly cashing in on the sale of rare gems. At a London auction he quickly identifies exiled Afghan prince Kamal Khan (Louis Jourdan) as a middle man in the international conspiracy, along with his beautiful assistant Magda (Kristina Wayborn) and vicious henchman Gobinda (Kabir Bedi).

Bond travels to India in pursuit of Khan, and uncovers a plot whereby Khan and local all-woman cult and circus leader Octopussy (Maud Adams) are enabling the sale of jewels to finance the private warmongering efforts of Soviet General Orlov (Steven Berkoff). It does not take long for Bond to seduce both Magda and Octopussy, but putting a stop to Orlov's plan will require a manic race against time.

Directed by John Glen (his second of five Bond efforts) and featuring the penultimate outing for Roger Moore, now 56 years old, in the role, Octopussy is the oh-so-familiar mix of dry quips, chases, gadgets, stunts and travel to locations that would have been exotic 20 years prior. With the stuntmen and second unit getting the lions share of screen time, Moore mails in a lacklustre performance, unconvincing as an agent and less convincing as a lover. In the same year a rival, almost equally geriatric Bond in the form of Never Say Never Again was released, and neither set the world on fire.

The few good moments in Octopussy feature a Mercedes-on-rails chasing a train, while former real-life tennis star Vijay Amritraj shows up as an MI6 agent in India and uses a tennis racket to swat away some bad guys in yet another perfunctory chase. Kristina Wayborn and fellow Swede Maud Adams, both about 20 years younger than Moore, pretend to be interested and add decent doses of sensuality.

But otherwise this Bond goes through the motions almost in slow motion. India is condescendingly represented with wall-to-wall stereotypes of snake charmers and sword eaters. The villain Orlov is ineffective to the point of being dispatched early in the final reverse order elimination of bad guys. With both Magda and Octopussy at least partially rehabilitated from their evil ways after the sex-with Bond treatment, Octopussy somehow designates the smarmy Kamal Khan, a middle man, as culprit-in-Chief.

The climactic race against a ticking bomb features Bond in a full-blown clown suit, and rarely has a film so perfectly captured the sad decline of a once dangerous secret agent.

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Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Movie Review: 9½ Weeks (1986)

A romantic drama drenched in eroticism, 9½ Weeks hints at a serious exploration of an emotionally perilous sex-obsessed relationship. But the film too often betrays its subject matter with an over-glamorized aesthetic.

In New York, divorced art gallery employee Elizabeth McGraw (Kim Basinger) meets and starts a relationship with handsome, mysterious and very rich Wall Street trader John Gray (Mickey Rourke). John expresses full devotion to Elizabeth, but also pressures her into kinky sex, including playing with blindfolds, food, cross dressing, sex in public, increasing levels of submission / domination scenarios, and threesomes.

Elizabeth is worried but also enthralled and plays along, captivated by the attention and the new experiences. Gradually she finds her limits, and has to decide how far she can tolerate John's proclivities.

Directed by Adrian Lyne and based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Elizabeth McNeill (a pseudonym for Ingeborg Day), 9½ Weeks pushed into new territory for mainstream films in its on-screen portrayal of raw human sexuality. Riding a bumpy wave of controversy, the film initially bombed in the United States but found an audience in Europe. The movie is sometimes erotic, often boring and always frustrating.

A serious and worthwhile story of a vulnerable woman falling under the spell of a charismatic all-powerful man and yielding to a sexual arrangement both thrilling and uncomfortable is hidden under layers of style emphasizing eroticism at the expense of compelling emotional drama. Lyne creates a combination of style-drenched music video and soft-core pornography, celebrating a minimalistic script, little dialogue, and plenty of silhouettes, rain spray, and gyrations to thumping music. The sets are sleek, with the SoHo art galley and John's bachelor pad representing streamlined ideals.

The character development takes a back seat, and for a film with only the two principals, Elizabeth and John are short changed and reduced to sketches. They do exchange the most rudimentary of backstories, but these are written in shorthand and in John's case arrive way too late to resonate. Instead of investing in the characters and taking substantive risks 9½ Weeks defaults to plenty of creatively filmed animal magnetism set to sensual music, with Joe Crocker's You Can Leave Your Hat On, the soundtrack to Elizabeth's private striptease for John (no, she's not wearing a hat), best signifying the film's intentions.

Mickey Rourke does not help matters by gliding through the film on a wave of handsome visual appeal and nothing else: his perpetual smirk gets annoying after the first 10 minutes, yet never departs his face. Kim Basinger, in one of her best roles, does all the heavy lifting to convey a woman torn between the potential for genuine romance and sexual pleasure dancing on the edge of degradation and danger.

25 years later British writer E.L.James would import her own version of wealthy businessman Mr. John Gray into the Twilight young adult series, borrowing many of the themes from 9½ Weeks to create Fifty Shades Of Grey. The world of 2011 was more ready to embrace a story of a woman's fantasy bumping up against a powerful but damaged man's kinky sexual demands. Back in 1986, Elizabeth and John were the pioneers for exploring chic displays of twisted pleasure, winning points for artistic merit if not much else.

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Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Movie Review: Test Pilot (1938)

An aviation drama, Test Pilot in an excellent combination of airborne thrills and complex on-the-ground emotional turmoil.

Jim Lane (Clark Gable) is a dashing test pilot tasked with the dangerous job of flying and testing the speed and altitude limits of new and experimental aircraft. His sidekick and mechanic Gunner (Spencer Tracy) is a lifelong companion, and the two men have a deep friendship. Lane gets his assignments from the US military through businessman Drake (Lionel Barrymore).

On a cross-country flight to set a new speed record, Lane encounters trouble and lands in a Kansas field, where he meets feisty farm girl Ann Barton (Myrna Loy). The two hit it off immediately and get married within a day. After Jim and Drake have a falling out, Anne is properly exposed to Jim's world of risk taking, hard drinking and the constant danger of death. Gunner perceives Ann as a distraction and a threat to the friendship between the two men. Although Jim does his best to make the marriage work, the spectre of tragedy hovers over the couple and takes an emotional toll.

Directed by Victor Fleming, Test Pilot is a perfect mix of adventurism and human drama. The airborne photography celebrates the burgeoning birth of the aviation era for both military and civilian uses, but the film also soars on the ground: this is a story of love, friendship, and the compromises needed to make life happen.

A love triangle with a difference, Test Pilot gains most of its momentum from Jim Lane as the irresistible centre of attention for both Gunner and Ann. The destiny of the two men is inexorably linked, and Gunner is Lane's guardian as much as Lane is Gunner's reason to live. When Ann marries Lane on a whim, the careful equilibrium between the two men is disrupted. Fleming and his team of script writers (including Howard Hawks) handle the ripple effects of the unexpected marriage with a clever sensitivity, with Gunner carrying the paradoxical burden of wanting Lane to be happy but realizing that Ann does not know what she signed up for. Spice is added through the hint of attraction that Gunner also senses towards Ann.

Up in the air, Test Pilot offers plenty of thrills and action, with regular interludes of flying, racing, and mid-air mishaps. The special effects team members earn their salaries through some terrific model work, with more than one airplane encountering serious trouble and landing with spectacular inelegance.

The perfectly cast trio of Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Myrna Loy infuse Test Pilot with potent star power. Gable as Jim Lane is all about dashing charisma. a man who laughs in the face of death and drowns the reality of his absurd risk-taking in large volumes of alcohol. Tracy is much more cerebral as Gunner, the mechanic on the sidelines of Lane's life and therefore in a better position to assess Lane's trajectory.

Loy has the most difficult role as Ann Barton, and is exceptional in first finding infatuation with a man who literally drops from the sky to scoop here away from a boring farm life, then coming to terms with what it means to marry a man who fences with death as a career. Lionel Barrymore adds depth as businessman Drake, and Test Pilot is an early look at the world of industry comfortably holding hands with the military to advance weapons of war.

Test Pilot soars when the machines are in the sky and is just as enthralling when the stars are on the ground.

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Sunday, 18 December 2016

Movie Review: The Prince And The Showgirl (1957)

A romantic comedy that fails on both counts, The Prince And The Showgirl is a monumentally dull waste of talent.

It's 1911 in London, and members of the royal family of Carpathia, a fictional Balkan country, arrive to witness the inauguration of a new British monarch. Charles (Laurence Olivier), the Prince Regent of Carpathia, is ruling the strategically important nation until his 16 year old son King Nicolas (Jeremy Spenser) achieves adulthood. The Dowager Queen (Sybil Thorndike), Charles mother-in-law, is the other key member of the delegation. British civil servant Northbrook (Richard Wattis) is assigned to satisfy Charles' every demand. The Prince goes looking for female companionship for the night, and picks unknown American stage actress Elsie Marina (Marilyn Monroe) to join him for a private dinner and romance at the Embassy.

Elsie resists the Prince's stiff and insensitive romantic advances, but nevertheless gradually starts to develop an affection for him. Meantime, she also gets wind of political turmoil back in Carpathia, with King Nicolas seemingly involved in a plot to overthrow his father. As the day of the inauguration arrives, Elsie believes she has survived her interactions with the royals, but she soon finds herself in the company of the Dowager Queen attending the grand ceremony, and then playing peacemaker between the Prince and the young King-to-be.

Produced and directed by Olivier, The Prince And The Showgirl is an adaptation of the 1953 play The Sleeping Prince. The film effectively locks itself into the Embassy of Carpathia for 115 endless minutes, with characters swinging in and out of rooms for no particular reason other than to introduce some camera movement. There are a few touristy scenes related  to the inauguration event, and these could have been lifted from any British travel advertorial.

Fundamentally, the film never comes close to a convincing romance between Charles and Elsie. He is a boorish lout looking for a one-night floozy, she is suddenly much savvier than a ditzy showgirl. Elsie only starts to express some feeling for the Prince when he overloads her with alcohol, and at no time does he actually do anything to deserve any sympathy. What remains is a stiff Olivier performance playing a cartoonish villain, and a game Monroe doing all she can to match her co-star in the acting department, but it is all for naught. Not even a hint of a spark breaks through the listless Terence Rattigan screenplay.

The subplots related to the political turmoil in Carpathia and the family intrigue swirling between the Prince, the King and the Queen are neither properly developed nor remotely successful as comedy.

The Prince And The Showgirl incessantly attempts to milk a single joke about how to properly address the various members of the Carpathian royal family. The simple answer is to summarily send them all back to Carpathia, unaddressed.

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Friday, 16 December 2016

Movie Review: Waterloo Bridge (1940)

A romantic wartime drama, Waterloo Bridge is a classic tale of love found and lost under exceptionally strenuous social circumstances.

It's the start of World War Two in London, and army colonel Roy Cronin (Robert Taylor) is about to travel to France. He pauses on the Waterloo Bridge to recall his romance with Myra Lester (Vivien Leigh), back from his younger days as a Captain in World War One. Roy and Myra met on the bridge during a German bombing raid, and made a dash together to an underground shelter. She was a ballet dancer, he was on a brief leave from the front. After a whirlwind couple of days, they commit to each other, but he is shipped back to the trenches before they can get married.

With Roy gone, Myra and her friend Kitty (Virginia Field) fall on hard times, after quitting the ballet school and their domineering dance teacher Madame Olga Kirowa (Maria Ouspenskaya). An introductory meeting between Myra and Roy's mother Lady Margaret Cronin (Lucile Watson) goes horribly wrong when Myra is shaken to her core by a mistaken newspaper report that Roy has been killed in action. Myra and Kitty do what they must to survive, before Myra's world is rocked again by Roy's return.

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, Waterloo Bridge adapts the Robert E. Sherwood play with emphasis on the mystical qualities of a love meant to be, and the broader forces of both unintended and deliberate interference. With practiced poignancy, the film tackles issues of separation, perceived and real snobbery, class divides, the grim prospects of women left with no support during war, prostitution (without quite mentioning the profession) and the clash between foundational lies and seemingly indestructible love.

In crisp black and white, LeRoy creates a fragile but tender bond between the dashing army man and the innocent and orphaned ballet dancer. While all looks ideal, the first part of the story hints at problems dormant below the surface. Roy is from a family of upper Scottish nobility, while Myra has already been buffeted by life and carries a surprisingly fatalistic outlook. Their love is true, but his commitment to the army and her lack of a family are fissures in the foundation.

The second half allows the cracks to spread and undermine the magic of romance. The chasm between tainted ex-ballerina and blue blood aristocracy is not an easy one to straddle, and before much is known about Myra, most of Roy's circle of family and friends are gossiping that she is not worthy, even as she dances among them. Myra does have allies in the form of Lady Margaret and The Duke (C. Aubrey Smith), but ultimately the most perilous threat comes from internal demons, always lurking and given a boost by war's cruelty.

Fresh off her world wide stardom as Scarlett O'Hara Vivien Leigh is luminous as Myra, and brings an unusual depth to the role. Behind the eyes of the innocent young dancer is a gathering darkness, and Leigh perfectly captures the dilemma of a woman falling into a love that must be impossible. Robert Taylor is steady as Roy Cronin, finding the bulletproof confidence and pushiness of a soldier eager to fast-forward life.

A time of war shuffles the social deck. Myra and Roy only met on Waterloo Bridge because of the chaos of an air raid. But the same conflict will mean their happiness is threatened, and two lovers will need to battle against overwhelming odds to maintain what they found on the bridge.

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Wednesday, 14 December 2016

Movie Review: United 93 (2006)

A recreation of September 11, 2001, United 93 focuses on the passengers who fought back that fateful day, but also captures, almost in real time, the mounting horror and confusion among air traffic controllers as the seminal events unfolded.

It's the morning of September 11, 2001, and travelers at Newark airport make their way to United Airlines Flight 93 to San Francisco. The passengers include four Al-Qaeda terrorists sitting in the First Class cabin. Meanwhile air traffic controllers lose touch with American Airlines Flight 11, and soon realize it has been hijacked. When the World Trade Centre is struck by an airplane, officials at the Federal Aviation Authority and at Norad headquarters are stunned, and a garbled transmission suggests that terrorists have control of more planes. Soon, a second plane crashes into the WTC, and amid the confusion there is a growing understanding that the country is under attack and every flight is considered suspect.

On board United 93 the terrorists make their move, take control of the plane, killing the pilot, co-pilot and one of the flight attendants, and steer towards Washington DC. The passengers are at first frazzled but then start using airphones to call their family members. News filters in about the attacks in New York and the most recent explosion at the Pentagon. A group of passengers realize that United 93 is now on a suicide mission, and decide to take matters into their own hands to try and retake control of the plane.

Directed by Paul Greengrass and featuring unknown actors and a few amateurs playing themselves, United 93 is poignant look back at infamous events. Greengrass wrote the film with the cooperation of the United 93 victims' families, and portrays what happened on board the flight using the best available information. Greengrass is careful not to create anything resembling theatrics, overt heroism, or individualism. This is a surprisingly low key drama about a group of passengers and flight attendants who come face to face with unspeakable evil in the sky, and decide to take collective, spur-of-the-moment action.

Almost none of the characters are referred to by name, the film emphasizing the reality of people who are strangers to each other being thrust into history's maelstrom.

Filmed with handheld cameras, natural dialogue and delivered in a silent witness style, United 93 also recounts events on the ground in the different control rooms intended to guard the safety of airspace over the eastern seaboard. Greengrass captures normalcy giving way to terror, as a day that starts as any other gradually unravels, a sense of disbelief slowly creeping over the workers at their control stations as events cascade. Confusion soon sweeps through, resulting in mismanagement, wasted time and resources, and abject frustration, and a nation comes face to face with its lack of readiness to confront a devious enemy.

The four terrorists are mostly peripheral characters until the final act, and Greengrass portrays them as determined, devout yet also unsure of their influence over the passengers and in their own way fighting off panic. The dynamic of a small group of madmen facing off against a larger group of victims, neither quite in control of what comes next, perfectly captures the essence of the day.

United 93 derives enormous power precisely by recalling how ordinary life appeared to be before everything changed. Just as many lives were lost with shocking suddenness, so was the innocence of a nation.

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Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Movie Review: The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

An epic disaster-at-sea story, The Poseidon Adventure helped to ignite the 1970s catastrophe movie cycle and is one of the best examples of the genre.

It's New Year's Eve, and the ocean liner S.S. Poseidon is on a journey from New York to Athens. The passengers include fiery Reverend Frank Scott (Gene Hackman), who has a frayed relationship with the Church and encourages individuals to strongly believe in themselves first. Just after midnight an underwater earthquake in the Mediterranean unleashes a massive wave, and despite the best efforts of Captain Harrison (Leslie Nielsen), the Poseidon is struck and turned upside down, still barely afloat. The surviving passengers in the grand dining room are split on whether to stay put and wait for help, or make their way upwards nearer the surface.

Scott argues strongly that a perilous climb up towards the hull is the only path to salvation, but he convinces only a small group of passengers to follow his lead. His followers include ex-cop Mike Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) and his ex-prostitute wife Linda (Stella Stevens), teenager Susan (Pamela Sue Martin) and her bratty but knowledgeable younger brother Robin (Eric Shea), band singer Nonnie (Carol Lynley), elderly single man James Martin (Red Buttons), older married Jewish couple Manny and Belle Rosen (Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters), and crew member Acres (Roddy McDowall). They start their ascent and are barely able to stay ahead of the rising waters, while frequent explosions rock their perilous surroundings. Scott and Rogo repeatedly clash, and not all the group members will make it to the hull and the chance at a rescue.

Directed by Ronald Neame, The Poseidon Adventure was producer Irwin Allen's first big-screen success. An adaptation of the Paul Gallico book, the film closely adheres to the now familiar formula of a small group of survivors navigating their way out of a disaster zone, with many candidates lined up to win sympathy and then summarily die. The Poseidon Adventure expertly delivers the requisite mix of thrills and human drama, and invests plenty of time in rounding out its characters into relatively interesting people with distinct personalities. Reverend Scott's small flock is a surprisingly memorable group, and they add immeasurably to the film's enjoyment.

The special effects and sets are excellent for the era. Using models, camera tricks and specialty sets, Neame and his production team create a disaster zone for the ages, tipping over a massive ship, creating numerous sets filled with fires, destruction and dead bodies, plus some surreal environments just for good measure: a mammoth blue Christmas tree becomes an essential climbing structure; an upside barbershop and an upside men's bathroom add nothing to the story but are unforgettable touches. Elsewhere, the film offers up a maze of inverted hallways, shafts, staircases, catwalks and submerged rooms for the survivors to try and navigate.

The script is co-written by Stirling Silliphant and Wendell Mayes, and provides plenty of bonus fun in the form of obvious religious parallelisms with the Pilgrim's Progress. Scott is a troubled but passionate reverend, and he works hard to convince a group of strangers, a combination of saints and sinners, to become his followers before leading them up to the light. Scott even gets to drag that Christmas tree over his shoulder in a symbolic nod to the cross. On the way to the top Scott's congregation stumbles across another larger group in an almost catatonic state, following a man of science (the ship's doctor) in the wrong direction.

The cast get into the spirit and deliver wide-eyed and loud performances, suitably amplified to compete with the surreal surroundings. Ernest Borgnine goes furthest to the extremes of boorishness as ex-cop Rogo, and he gets competition from Shelley Winters as the overweight ex-swimmer trudging along with the group, waiting for her moment of divinity to float to the surface. Gene Hackman is the only bona fide current star in the group, and he keeps a straight face and intense tone as a man who finds his mission in the bowels of an upside ocean liner.

The Poseidon Adventure is irresistible Hollywood entertainment: plenty of has-beens, overturned, on fire, in the water, but always looking up.

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Monday, 12 December 2016

Movie Review: Sweet Charity (1969)

An overblown musical, Sweet Charity emits occasional sparks but never ignites.

In New York City, Charity Hope Valentine (Shirley MacLaine) is a dance hostess in a sleazy joint along with her friends Nickie (Chita Rivera) and Helene (Paula Kelly). Charity still dreams of finding true love, and after her latest no-good boyfriend literally dumps her into the park lake, she stumbles into a dreamy one-off evening with movie star Vittorio Vitale (Ricardo Montalban). Charity tries and fails to land a respectable office job, but instead finds an unlikely romance with insurance risk assessor Oscar Lindquist (John McMartin) after the pair are stuck together in an elevator. But finding long-term love and happiness will not be an easy quest.

The first film directed by Bob Fosse, Sweet Charity is an adaptation of the 1966 stage musical. What works on stage for the most part stumbles on the screen, with the story spread way too thin to occupy the 2 hours and 30 minutes of running time, the songs resoundingly average, and only the better dance numbers providing an occasional lift. The Neil Simon story offers some moments of comedy, but the general sense is of rampant overacting in a bloated production incapable of trimming the fat.

The highlights are few but sharp: the dancing girls sing and dance to the seductive (Hey) Big Spender; the entire Rich Man's Frug dance sequence at the Pompeii Club is spectacular; Charity belts out If They Could See Me Now and dances up a storm in Vittorio's pad; then along with Nickie and Helene she performs There's Got To Be Something Better Than This, longing to escape a life of dancing with disgusting neanderthals. But for every good musical interlude there is an equivalent dud, including Sammy Davis Jr. performing a mess of a sing as a pseudo preacher, and the owner of the nightclub singing the quite dreadful I Love To Cry At Weddings.

Fosse's direction never stops pointing to itself. His favourite childish tricks include zooming into an unfocused shot and zooming out again into a different scene, and the ever handy freeze-frame. The film simply does not carry enough weight or drama to justify stylistic antics, with Charity's fairy tale pursuit of true love beyond juvenile in its simplicity.

Shirley MacLaine is game and through sheer energy bulldozes her way through the film, unapologetic in her theatricality and willing Charity along in her naïve quest for any better job and the love of any man. The supporting cast alternates between bland and irritating, John McMartin contributing plenty of nothing to the role of blank insurance risk assessor Oscar. Montalban and Davis cash their cheques for effectively playing themselves.

Sweet Charity is a mediocre mix of admirable glitzy dancing, average music, and a mundane, unnecessarily protracted story.

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Saturday, 10 December 2016

Movie Review: The Killers (1946)

A film noir with plenty of panache, The Killers is a gritty crime story told with often mesmerizing style.

In a small town, two killers track down and shoot dead the surprisingly docile ex-convict Swede Anderson (Burt Lancaster), living incognito as gas station attendant Peter Lund. Swede left behind a small amount of life insurance money to an obscure beneficiary, prompting insurance company investigator Jim Reardon (Edmond O'Brien) to delve into Swede's backstory by interviewing his associates. Reardon eventually connects with police Lieutenant Sam Lubinsky (Sam Levene), who explains that Anderson had to abandon a career as a promising boxer due to a hand injury.

Smitten by beautiful gangster's moll Kitty Collins (Ava Gardner), Anderson drops his girlfriend Lilly (Virginia Christine) and turns to a life of crime. He eventually falls in with the gang of crime lord  "Big Jim" Colfax (Albert Dekker), including Kitty (now Big Jim's girl) and two-bit criminals "Dum Dum" Clarke and "Blinky" Franklin, and they plot an audacious big-money company payroll heist. But not everyone is playing it straight, and with bullets flying Reardon will need to piece together a complicated story of double cross to uncover the truth.

Directed by Robert Siodmak as an adaptation of an Ernest Hemingway short story, The Killers is a taut and highly enjoyable crime thriller but not quite as perfect as its reputation would suggest. Although the plot is gripping and the stylistic elements are textbook noir, the film suffers from a few but significant shortcomings.

The first is the gaping emotional hole in the middle of the story. Siodmak and a team of three scriptwriters (including John Huston) settle on good-guy insurance investigator Jim Reardon as the most central character, and he is simply not interesting enough to hold the film together. This is a problem brilliantly solved in the 1964 remake by moving the killers themselves much closer to the core of the story. Here in the 1946 version the killers are faceless and peripheral characters, while their victim Anderson is a patchy presence, reasonably effective when on screen but all too frequently reduced to a fleeting secondary character.

The second weakness is the relationship between Anderson and Kitty Collins. His infatuation with her charms is essential to his demise, but here she is marginalized to a sultry presence on the edge of relevance, almost devoid of dialogue. Anderson stands at a distance agog at her mere existence. There is simply not enough dangerous attraction or connivance between the two, and the lack of genuine sensuality undermines the drama.

But otherwise The Killers is a feast for the eyes and the mind. Siodmak constructs almost every frame to celebrate harsh light and dark shadows, often using background light to bathe the film in silhouettes and obscure characters and faces engaged in the shadowy world of crime. The story is rich, convoluted and satisfying, a classic tale of multiple betrayals and ingenious dishonour among thieves.

Lancaster makes the most of his screen time to jump from retired circus acrobat to movie stardom. His take on Swede Anderson brings out the pathos of a strong man who could have been a contender but is now reduced to pursuing a life of crime, ensnared by men and women way more sophisticated at the game of treachery. Ava Gardner is underused but still intermittently captivating, while the rest of the cast members are generally entrenched in relatively stock portrayals.

Despite some stumbles, The Killers is a fascinating story of many flawed men and one scheming woman, enhanced by a visually stunning package.

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Movie Review: Midnight Express (1978)

A brutal prison drama, Midnight Express is a grim descent into the nightmare of foreign land captivity at its worst.

Billy Hayes (Brad Davis), a young American tourist in Istanbul, attempts to smuggle some hashish out of the country to sell to his friends back home. He is caught at the airport, and receives no help from mysterious American agent Tex (Bo Hopkins). The Turkish authorities are eager to make an example of him: he is tried and sentenced to spend years in a decrepit, overcrowded prison. The head prison guard is the brutal Hamidou (Paul L. Smith), and Billy survives by making friends with fellow foreign prisoners, including the excitable Jimmy (Randy Quaid), the laid back and friendly Erich (Norbert Weisser) and the elderly Max (John Hurt).

Despite the interventions of his father (Mike Kellin) and a sweaty local lawyer, all attempts to secure Billy's freedom fail. Worse is to come, when after years in captivity his release date is shockingly pushed back. Billy and the fellow prisoners start plotting escape plans, but life in prison will take every bad turn possible. At Billy's lowest point, a visit from his girlfriend Susan (Irene Miracle) proves to be a turning point.

Directed by Alan Parker and based on Hayes' real-life experiences, Midnight Express makes for harrowing viewing. Billy's adventure is not for the faint hearted. This is a story of overzealous local authorities sending a message to the international drug smuggling community by throwing the book at a young man, and what follows in terms of physical and emotional torture is difficult to take.

The film's trajectory is linear and unrelenting. Once Billy falls into the hands of the Turkish authorities there is no escaping the cascading horrific events that follow. There are frequent physical beatings, humiliation and isolation, all in a filthy environment controlled by sadistic guards. The layered cruelty coupled with hopelessness inevitably lead to a slow descent into madness, and Parker never flinches from placing all elements of the agonizing journey on the screen.

Oliver Stone wrote the script (adapting Hayes' book), and takes all possible liberties to make Billy as sympathetic as possible, in the process turning the entire Turkish nation into a cesspool of villainy. The valid criticism of the film is the sharp definition between the foreign prisoners as all worthy of empathy and the portrayal of every Turkish character, from judges and lawyers to guards and prisoners, as corrupt, mean, barbarous, conniving and backstabbing rapists. In addition to prison head guard Hamidou, local prisoner Rifki (Paolo Bonacelli) is a despicable weasel inside the walls, and embodies the worst of what Stone wants to portray about Turkey.

Brad Davis does well in the central role of Billy Hayes, finding the right amounts of determination, intensity and rage. The supporting cast is fragmented, although John Hurt leaves a mark as the seemingly perpetually doped prisoner Max.

Almost physically painful to watch, Midnight Express is an uncompromising cautionary tale delivered with unblinking fervour.

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Monday, 5 December 2016

Movie Review: Flipped (2010)

A coming-of-age tentative romance, Flipped is a tender story of first crush told with warmth and heart but without straying too far from the familiar path.

It's the early 1960s, and grade eight student Bryce Loski (Callan McAuliffe) cannot shake the attentions of his classmate and across-the-street neighbour Juli Baker (Madeline Carroll). The young but precocious Juli had first set eyes on Bryce six years earlier when the Loskis moved into the community, and she made it her mission in life to win his affection. Always less mature and uncertain how to behave, Bryce had rebuffed her at every opportunity. Now at 14 years old, Juli is beginning to blossom into a young adult, and gains local prominence by trying to protect a beautiful neighbourhood tree from the chainsaw.

The Bakers are a relatively poor family, with Juli's free spirited artist father Richard (Aidan Quinn) dedicated to funding the expensive private health care of his retarded brother. Bryce's grandfather Chet (John Mahoney) moves in with the Loskis and acts as a catalyst and counterweight to Bryce's boorish father Steven (Anthony Edwards). After Bryce manages to unwittingly insult Juli in an incident involving eggs and backyard chickens, Chet sets about building bridges with Juli, her unique spirit reminding him of his recently deceased wife. With both Juli and Bryce learning hard truths about their families, their potential friendship hangs in the balance.

Flipped is pleasantly sweet, sometimes poignant and with its heart firmly throbbing towards nostalgia. But there is also no denying that the film is not much more than three back-to-back episodes of The Wonder Years television show. Flipped introduces he said, she said narration of the same incidents to contrast Bryce and Juli's perspectives, but otherwise the film ploughs very familiar territory: coming of age in the 1960s, the exaggerated traumas of life in junior high school, and early experiences in understanding the greater world.

Director and co-writer Rob Reiner is a safe pair of hands. The decision to relocate Wendelin Van Draanen's young adult novel from the early 1990s to the early 1960s opens up the film's appeal to a wider audience, the wistful pull of the early 1960s still holding strong resonance. The actual events that drive Juli and Bryce towards various points of conflict are the types of episodes that build early personal adulthood memories. The beautiful neighbourhood tree is threatened; Juli cares deeply, Bryce not so much. Juli wins a science fair competition, much to Bryce's chagrin. She reaches out to the entire neighbourhood with fresh egg donations; Bryce's family haughtily reject the gesture, disgusted by the Bakers' backyard.

It is left to wise old head Chet to cut past the social barriers and spot in Juli the emergence of a remarkable young woman. Bryce's mom Patsy (Rebecca De Mornay) follows up with an invitation to dinner that is another turning point in the growing up process, exposing Bryce for the fist time to his father's true colours. And gradually Reiner builds his way to a respectful resolution, as Bryce clumsily but doggedly seeks the inflection point between child and adult.

Although some snippets of the crystallizing adult world, including Juli's retarded uncle, are dealt with in just the right amount, Reiner leaves many other sub-plots in frustratingly poor condition. Bryce's father Steven casts a long shadow over the family, but the film only pokes at his repressed frustrations and then leaves him suffering. Grandpa Chet is a key catalyst, but drops out unceremoniously. And both Bryce and Juli have interesting siblings who deserved bigger roles.

Madeline Carroll is excellent as Juli, demonstrating a good emotional range and nailing the traumas of adolescence. Callan McAuliffe as Bryce has less to do and comes across as more wooden. Aidan Quinn, Rebecca De Mornay, John Mahoney, Penelope Ann Miller and Anthony Edwards provide the supporting case with a welcome gloss.

Flipped is gentle and pleasingly engaging, but leaves no lasting impact.

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Sunday, 4 December 2016

Movie Review: Sunday In New York (1963)

A romantic comedy exploring the changing rules of sex and relationships, Sunday In New York has enough courage to tackle its subject matter with a good degree of frankness, and a cast in fine form to tease out effective moments of comedy.

Eileen (Jane Fonda) comes to New York to visit her brother Adam (Cliff Robertson), a dashing airline pilot enjoying the bachelor life. Eileen has just broken up with her long-time boyfriend Russ (Robert Culp), because she refused his advances to have sex before marriage. She is now wondering if her old-fashioned attitudes need an overhaul. Adam goes out on a date with Mona (Jo Morrow), one of his girlfriends, while Eileen has a chance encounter on a Fifth Avenue bus with the handsome Mike (Rod Taylor). Their first attempt at a chat over coffee is a disaster.

But fate brings Eileen and Mike together again, and a rainstorm means that they end up soaking wet back at Adam's apartment. Eileen decides this is her opportunity to finally lose her virginity, but her plans will meet an unexpected hurdle. Meanwhile, Adam and Mona face troubles of their own, with his on-call pilot duty severely disrupting their romantic pursuits. The day in New York gets much wilder when the oblivious Russ shows up, wanting to win his girl back.

Directed by Peter Tewksbury and written by Norman Krasna (adapting his play), Sunday In New York reflects its era: an airline pilot as a magnet for women, a tide of sexual liberation challenging long-held attitudes, and feminism taking hold and allowing women to ask previously unthinkable questions about relationship rules. The film now appears quaint in leaning towards lauding more conservative views, but it earns points for airing out conversations rarely discussed on film.

Tewksbury does well in breaking out the story from its stage confines, and finds reasons for his characters to go out and about in a vibrant New York. Despite the generally sharp dialogue, some scenes are talky and go on longer than necessary. But for the most part the film achieves the requisite balance between idealized romance and screwball comedy.

And the laughs do register. Once Russ shows up in New York to reclaim Eileen's affections and propose to her, an intentional mess of mistaken identities sparks the film into some excellent comic moments. Cliff Robertson, Rod Taylor and Robert Culp create a watchable trio of men uncomfortably pushed outside their normal boundaries. The side story of the airline pilot Adam and his would-be lover-of-the-day Mona contriving to always end up apart - far apart - also creates some good manic moments.

The romance also works well within the confines of the genre, and the two leads quickly find the requisite chemistry. Jane Fonda shines in an early role, and succeeds in portraying a confident yet searching 22 year old charting a new course on the fly. What Eileen needs most is a navigator for a brave new world filled with untested rules for relationships between men and women, and Rod Taylor creates in Mike the ideal man, handsome, assured, vaguely available, world-wise but still chivalrous.

Sunday In New York is a day to relax, laugh and try to disentangle the increasingly convoluted guidelines for romance.

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Movie Review: Volver (2006)

A story about working class women and their generations-spanning struggles to clean up after their men, Volver is a cleverly constructed drama with plenty of earthy humour.

In a working class Madrid suburb, Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) is grinding out a living to raise her 14 year old daughter Paula (Yohana Cobo). The family finances get worse when Raimunda's partner Paco loses his job. Raimunda and her sister Sole (Lola Dueñas) are orphans after their mother Irene and their father died in a fire a few years prior. The sisters travel to their ancestral village to visit elderly Aunt Paula (Chus Lampreave) and find her in the late stages of dementia babbling as if her sister Irene was still around. The village is rife with rumours that the ghost of Irene is indeed hovering. Aunt Paula's neighbour Augustina (Blanca Portillo) keeps an eye on the old lady, but Augustina has troubles of her own: her mother has disappeared and not been seen for years.

Tragedy strikes when Paco attempts to rape Raimunda's daughter Paula, claiming that he is not her father. The young girl fights back and stabs Paco to death. Raimunda conceals the body in the freezer of a nearby closed-for-business restaurant. When an unexpected opportunity arises for Raimunda to operate the restaurant and make some money, things appear to be looking up despite the body stuffed in the freezer. But then back in the village Aunt Paula finally expires, and an unlikely visitor moves in with Sole.

Directed and written by Pedro Almodóvar, Volver ("to go back" in Spanish) tap dances on the edge where black comedy meets the drama of life. The film is sneaky funny, creating situations that should be more tragedy than comedy but nevertheless trigger reminders that life can be absurd in any context. And Volver is almost exclusively about the rollercoaster of life as experienced by women, three generations bracketed by name from the young Paula to her elderly great Aunt Paula.

The theme of women as the guardians of society is the film's most powerful current. The story starts with women cleaning the graveyards of their family members, and the comment that around these parts, women outlive men. And indeed, the male characters are mainly notable by their absence: the restaurant owner takes off early; Raimunda's father is a dead presence best not discussed; and the useless Paco meets a bloody end.

It is left to the women to hold together society's threads, and this they do with a startling matter of factness. Both the ghost of Irene and Augustina look after Aunt Paula. Raimunda looks after her daughter Paula and the restaurant. Paula looks after herself. Both Raimunda and Sole, who runs an illegal salon, do what is needed to survive and carry on, well outside the confines of the law. Almodóvar squarely hits the target of his women-as-society's-cleansing-agents thesis: with Paco's lifeless bloody bleeding in the middle of Raimunda's kitchen, she expertly soaks up his blood with a domestic mop and bucket.

Penelope Cruz as Raimunda, Lola Dueñas as Sole, Blanca Portillo as Augustina, Carmen Maura as Irene and Yohana Cobo as the younger Paula bring the women to life, and they deliver stellar performances filled with the clear-eyed determination of blue collar pragmatism. But as hard as she tries to convey a working class ethos, Cruz's lusciously glamorous looks can't help but undermine her credentials as a woman mired near the poverty line.

As Almodóvar unspools his story, the ghosts of the past begins to find an echo in the present, with Raimunda not really surprised to find herself in the middle of recurring tragic comedies involving revenge, death and retribution. Even bad men need to find peace either through life or death, and of course it will be the watchful women, ghosts or not, who will go back as necessary to help them find a final resting place -- and then keep it clean.

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Movie Review: Payback (1999)

A tongue-in-cheek neo-noir film with a throwback 1970s edge, Payback is a rollicking fun time, filled with sharp dialogue, a smooth anti-hero and jarring violence.

A career criminal known only as Porter (Mel Gibson) has been double crossed, shot and left for dead. With his wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger) and partner in crime Val Resnick (Gregg Henry), Porter had just stolen $140,000 from a Chinese gang. But Lynn and Val conspire to relieve Porter of his $70,000 share, with Lynn shooting Porter in the back for good measure, upset that he was having an affair with call girl Rosie (Maria Bello). Val uses most of the money to buy his way back into a powerful criminal organization known as The Outfit, run by Carter (William Devane) and Fairfax (an uncredited James Coburn).

Porter recovers and sets about plotting his revenge with violent methods, demanding the return of his $70,000. Lynn overdoses on heroin, and Porter tracks down Val through drug dealer Stegman (David Paymer). But his exploits attract a crowd, and soon the Chinese gang, including S+M dominatrix Pearl (Lucy Liu) are on his tail, as well as two crooked cops. The closer Porter gets to Val, the more he tangles with the leadership of The Outfit, all the way up to kingpin Bronson (Kris Kristofferson).

Porter, narrating: Crooked cops. Do they come in any other way? If I'd been just a little dumber, I could have joined the force myself.

Directed and co-written by Brian Helgeland, Payback is a gritty, aggressive thriller. With a bad-guy hero carrying a kick-ass, dead-already attitude and Mel Gibson at his absolute cool peak, the film oozes danger with extreme prejudice. The story understandably stretches Porter's capabilities beyond rationality, but otherwise the mix of sardonic humour, punchy action and unconstrained ballsiness among bad guys and worse guys is triumphant.

Carter: There's an old expression that's served me well: "Do not shit where you eat."

A big part of the film's appeal is the investment made in Porter as a character. He is humanized both in his sense of honour among thieves, and through his relationship with Rosie, two flawed sinners drifting sideways until they meet each other. The oily Val Resnick is also provided with plenty of latitude to come to life as the antithesis of Porter, a criminal without scruples just looking for his version of the good life.

Carter, to Resnick: Do you understand your value to the organization, Resnick?...You're a sadist. You lack compunction. That comes in handy.

The everything-including-the-kitchen-sink elements work surprisingly well. Lucy Liu has a blast as the dominatrix turned on by violence; her depraved arousal in bed next to Resnick as he is being threatened by Porter summarizes the film's unconstrained wickedness, culminating in Porter's classic let her work quip. The gun-toting Chinese gang, the crooked cops, and the ever mounting layers of sleaze up the ladder of The Outfit all add to Payback's enjoyable insanity. Veterans William Devane, James Coburn and Kris Kristofferson glide in with mounting levels of evil smarminess.

Pearl, seductively: I've got a few minutes.
Porter: So go boil an egg.

The film's colour palette is a mixture of bleached greys, blacks and browns, appropriate for an underworld rife with backstabbing. Payback goes into the sordid corners of criminality, and lands on a pile of misanthropic revelry.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Movie Review: A Walk Among The Tombstones (2014)

A brooding crime thriller, A Walk Among The Tombstones creates a promising ambiance of mounting dread, but fails to develop its characters and stagnates into an unconvincing kidnapping procedural.

It's 1991 in New York, and police detective Matt Scudder (Liam Neeson) is partially drunk when he gets involved in a wild shootout and takes down three armed robbers. He leaves the force, quits drinking and starts a new career as an unlicensed private detective. Eight years later, Scudder is approached by drug dealer Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens), who wants Scudder to find out who kidnapped and then viciously murdered and dismembered his wife. Her remains were stuffed into the trunk of a car despite Kristo coughing up a $400,000 ransom.

Scudder starts to investigate and uncovers a string of similar kidnapping, ransom and murder crimes, including a case where the remains of another dismembered woman were left strewn all over a graveyard. The perpetrators are a couple of monstrous men kidnapping family members of drug lords. Their latest target is the daughter of Russian mobster Yuri (Sebastian Roché), and Scudder inserts himself into the case to try and save the young girl's life.

Directed by Scott Frank as an adaptation of the Lawrence Block novel, A Walk Among The Tombstones offers an intriguing protagonist in Matt Scudder, with Liam Neeson at his best in creating a modern day Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe (the script is filled with references to the classic pulp detectives). Scudder is suitably tortured, a loner more comfortable when surrounded by sleaze, and in a constant fight against his internal demons. He is presented with a case well suited to his agony, criminals targeting criminals, murderers all but with sufficient distinctions in the grey zone of brutality for Scudder to get involved.

With an aesthetic dominated by washed-out greys and browns, for the first 30 minutes Tombstones promises to be a worthy addition to the list of notable, cynical and dark detective thrillers.

But then Frank starts to seep momentum, and the film loses its way. The irrelevant introduction of scrappy street kid (Brian "Astro" Bradley) as an annoying sidekick backfires. The murderous kidnappers remain opaque barbarians with no backstory, and the victimized and almost interchangeable drug lords fare no better. In a case of ill-defined scum threatened by unexplained scum, it gets increasingly difficult to care who lives, who dies and why. Worse of all, the women who die are never more than abstract names, with a couple of superfluous scenes of implied torture thrown in.

Neeson's commitment to the cause and Scudder's ice cold, dead-inside confidence occasionally threaten to save the day, but ultimately the film just lays to rest with a tired whimper.

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