Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Cinemanila 2010 (Dec. 1 to 5, at Robinsons Movieworld)



Schedule is as follows:

DECEMBER 1 - Wednesday

Cinema A (35mm) Jury & Press Screenings
12:00  Fourth Portrait | Chung Mong-Hong (Taiwan, 2009)
  *Available to Gold Pass holders only
2:05 And Peace On Earth | Matteo Botrugno & Daniele Coluccini (Italy, 2010) Jury Screening, Tickets Open to the Public 
3:55 Sketches of Kaitan City | Kazuyoshi Kumakiri 
(Japan, 2010) Jury Screening, Tickets Open to the Public
6:45 Thirst | Park Chan Wook (South Korea, 2009)
9:15 Camellia | Joon-Hwan Jang, Wisit Sasanatieng & Isao Yukisada (South Korea / Thailand / Japan, 2010)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm) Jury & Press Screenings
12:00  Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria | Remton Siega Zuasola (Philippines, 2010)
Jury Screening, Tickets Open to the Public
2:00 Passerby # 3 | Shin Su-won (South Korea, 2009)
3:45 Au Revoir, Taipei | Arvin Chen (USA / Taiwan, 2010) Jury Screening, Tickets Open to the Public
5:30 Breathless | Yang Ik-Joon (South Korea, 2009)
8:00 Reign of Assasins | Chao-bin Su, John Woo (China, 2010)

CINEMA 1 Opening Film
8:00 Pinoy Sunday | Wi Ding Ho  (Taiwan / Philippines, 2010)

DECEMBER 2 - Thursday

Cinema A (35mm)
12:00  Camellia | Joon-Hwan Jang, Wisit Sasanatieng &  Isao Yukisada (South Korea / Thailand / Japan, 2010)
2:00 Mother | Bong Joon-ho (South Korea, 2009)
4:30 The Sandwich Man | Hou Hsiao Hsien, Wan Jen &  Zhuang Xiang Zeng (Taiwan, 1983) 
*Available to Gold Pass holders only
6:30 Pinoy Sunday | Wi Ding Ho  (Taiwan / 
Philippines, 2010) (Intro, Q&A w/ director)
*Available to Gold Pass holders only
8:30 Secret Sunshine | Lee Chang-dong  (South Korea, 2007)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Pila Balde | Jeffrey Jeturian (Philippines, 1999)
1:55 Ang Ninanais | John Torres (Philippines, 2010)
4:15 Halaw | Sheron Dayoc (Philippines, 2010) 
6:00 Ang Panagtagbo sa Akong mga Apohan | Malaya Camporedondo (Philippines, 2010) + Eskrimadors |  Kerwin Go (Philippines, 2010)
8:15 Chassis | Adolf Alix Jr. (Philippines, 2010) (Intro Q&A)
10:00  And Peace On Earth | Matteo Botrugno & Daniele Coluccini (Italy, 2010)

ALLIANCE FRANCAISE DE MANILLE Side Screening
7:00 Philippine Premiere: Return to Manila: Filipino Cinema | Hubert Niogret (France / Philippines, 2010) 
AFM Screening room, co-hosted by Alliance Francaise

DECEMBER 3 - Friday

Cinema A (35mm)
12:00 Sunday Morning in Victoria Park | Lola Amaria (Indonesia, 2010) 
2:00 Taipei Exchanges | Hsiao Ya-chuan (Taiwan, 2010) 
*Available to Gold Pass holders only
3:45 Au Revoir, Taipei | Arvin Chen (USA / Taiwan, 2010)
5:20 Sketches of Kaitan City | Kazuyoshi Kumakiri (Japan, 2010) 
8:15  The Housemaid | Im Sang-soo (South Korea, 2010) (Intro and Q&A with director)
10:30 Eastern Plays | Kamen Kalev (Bulgaria / Sweden, 2009) (89 mins)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Diujung Jalan (The Road)  | Tony Trimarsanto (Indonesia, 2010)
1:30 Dekasegi  (The Migrants) | Rey Ventura (Director present) + Sunday School  | Joanna V. Arong (Philippines / China / Zambia, 2010)  (Director present)
4:00 Balangay | Sherad Anthony Sanchez and Robin Färdig (Philippines/Sweden, 2010) (Intro and Q&A)
6:00 ‘Di Natatapos Ang Gabi (The Night Infinite)  | Ato Bautista (Philippines, 2010) (Intro and Q&A)
8:00 Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World | Edgar Wright (USA / UK/ Canada, 2010) 
10:10 Primary! | Ivan Noel (Spain, 2010)

DECEMBER 4 - Saturday

Cinema A (35 mm)
12:00  Floating Lives | Nguyen Panh Quang Binh  (Vietnam, 2010)
2:10 The Piano in a Factory | Zhang Meng, Jae-young Kwak (China, 2010) 
4:35 The Door | Anno Saul (Germany, 2010)
6:00 The Housemaid | Im Sang-soo (South Korea, 2010)
8:05 Juliets | Yu-Hsun Chen, Hou Ji-Ran & Ko-shang Shen  (Taiwan, 2010) *Available to Gold Pass holders only
10:05  Thirst | Park Chan Wook (South Korea, 2009) 

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
11:30  Seminar: 3D Animation, featuring team behind RPG Metanoia | Luis Suarez (Philippines, 2010)
2:00 HIV (Si Heidi, Si Ivy at Si V) | Neal “Buboy” Tan (Philippines, 2010) (Q&A, Intro)
4:00 Kano | Monster Jimenez (Philippines / USA, 2010) 
6:05 Young Cinema Night: Shorts in Competition
7:30 The People I’ve Slept With | Quentin Lee (USA, 2009)
9:15 Animal Town | Kyu-hwan Jeon (South Korea / USA, 2009)

CINEMANILA SINE BARANGAY PRESENTS 
BARANGAY MOGWAI
7:00 Young Cinema Night: Shorts in Exhibitition
Cinemanila Awarding Ceremony

DECEMBER 5 - Sunday

Cinema A (35 mm)
12:00  Beyond the Circle | Golam Rabbany Biplob (Bangladesh, 2009)
1:45 Red Eagle | Wisit Sasanatieng (Thailand, 2010) (Lead actor, Ananda Everingham, present for intro and Q&A)
4:15 The Cove | Louie Psihoyos (USA, 2009) 
6:15 Floating Lives | Nguyen Panh Quang Binh (Vietnam, 2010) 
8:30 Eastern Plays | Kamen Kalev (Bulgaria / Sweden, 2009)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Bontoc Eulogy | Marlon Fuentes  (USA / Philippines, 1995) + Fall of the I-Hotel | Curtis Choy (USA, 1983)
2:15 Inhalation | Edmund Yeo (Malaysia, 2010) (director present) (17 mins) + The Tiger Factory |  Woo Ming Jin (Japan / Malaysia, 2010) (producer present, intro and Q&A)
4:30 Happyland | Jim Libiran (Philippines, 2010) World Premiere
7:00 Machete Maidens Unleashed | Mark Hartley (Australia, 2010)
8:45 A Prophet | Jacques Audiard (France / Italy, 2009) 

Cinema 1:  Closing Film 
8:00 Amigo | John Sayles (USA, 2010) 

CINEMANILA EXTENSION

DECEMBER 6 - Monday

Cinema A (35 mm)
12:00  Kaleldo | Brillante Mendoza (Philippines, 2006)
1:45 Red Eagle | Wisit Sasanatieng (Thailand, 2010) 
4:15 Breathless | Yang Ik-Joon (South Korea, 2010)
7:00 Reign of Assasins | Chao-bin Su, John Woo (China, 2010)
9:30 Mother | Bong Joon-ho (South Korea, 2009)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Layang Bilanggo | Michael Dagnalan  (Philippines, 2010)
2:00 Limbunan | Teng Mangansakan (Philippines, 2010) 
4:00 Please Don’t Disturb | Moshen Abdolvahab  (Iran, 2010)
5:40 Memories of A Burning Tree | Sherman Ong  (Tanzania / Netherlands / Singapore / Malaysia, 2010)
7:20 Thorn in the Heart | Michel Gondry (France, 2009)
9:15 A Prophet | Jacques Audiard (France / Italy, 2009) 

DECEMBER 7 - Tuesday

Cinema A (35 mm)
12:00  Pila Balde | Jeffrey Jeturian (Philippines, 1999)
1:50 Riding The Stallion of The Dream | Girish Kasaravali (India, 2010)
3:50 Machete Maidens Unleashed | Mark Hartley (Australia, 2010)
5:30 The Cove | Louie Psihoyos (USA, 2009) 
7:25 The Piano in a Factory | Zhang Meng, Jae-young Kwak (China, 2010) (124 mins)
9:10 Secret Sunshine | Lee Chang-dong (South Korea, 2007)

Cinema B (Digital & 35mm)
12:00  Red Dragonflies | Liao Jiekai (Singapore, 2010)
2:00 Father is a Dog | Lee Sang Woo (South Korea, 2010)
4:00 Year Without A Summer | Tan Chui Mui (Malaysia, 2010)
5:45 Kano | Monster Jimenez (Philippines / USA, 2010) 
7:30 Directors in Focus: 10 Years of Ishmael Bernal (Cinemanila Awardees for Most Outstanding Young  Filipino Filmmaker) (200 mins)

DECEMBER 1 - 4

UP FILM CENTER - Diliman, QC
5:00  Mondomanila | Khavn dela Cruz (Philippines, 2010)
7:00  Mondomanila | Khavn dela Cruz (Philippines, 2010)

DECEMBER 8

Surprise Screening

WATCH OUT FOR SCREENING SCHEDULE OF (TBA)

Brod | Ray Gibraltar (Philippines, 2010)
Endo | Jade Castro (Philippines, 2007) Critics’ Picks (Phil Dy)
Wanted: Border | Ray Gibraltar (Philippines, 2009) Critics’ Picks (Oggs Cruz)
Ang Mundo sa Panahon ng Bato | Mes de Guzman  (Philippines, 2010) Critics’ Picks (Rolando Tolentino)
Ang Damgo ni Eleuteria | Remton Siega Zuasola (Philippines, 2010) Critics’ Picks (Richard Bolisay)
Sheika | Arnel Mardoquio (Philippines, 2010) Critics’ Picks (Nonoy Lauzon)

Note:  Schedule subject to change without prior notice. Customs, censors,  clearance delays or other unforseen circumstances may affect the screening times.


Monday, November 29, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (David Yates); Unstoppable (Tony Scott); Fair Game (Doug Liman); Giallo (Dario Argento)

Ralph Fiennes, nostrils flaring  as he plays He Who Shall Not Be Sniffed At

Deadly boring

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will be the seventh Potter movie I've seen, and the sixth I've pretty much had to tolerate, checking my watch and trying to guess when this endless marathon of a movie would end.

Not sure which Potter movies I prefer (or dislike less). The first two directed by Chris Columbus are bland kiddie pap, it's true, but the rest--increasingly darker in atmosphere and tone--aren't all that distinctive either. They possess the kind of grimness you find in most graphic novels or in Christopher Nolan's Batman movies--a lust for seriousness, to be taken (or mistaken) for adult fare. This, the filmmakers believe, means a solemn (read: funereal) tone, an escalation of violence, a near-complete absence of wit or humor or jokes.

Does the fault lie with the books themselves? I don't know; haven't read them. I do notice some kind of pattern running through the Potter adaptations: that whenever Potter or his friends come up against insurmountable odds, whenever they are faced with an irresistible opponent (usually He Who Cannot Be Named (but could use serious cosmetic surgery)), what usually happens is either Dumbledore or Hermione figure out some loophole or trinket or magical power tool that they wave around and--poof--everything comes out hunky-dory. This bit of cheating wasn't too offensive the first time around, but this seventh time it has gotten extremely tiresome, not to mention annoying. 

Which may be why filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron chose to do what he chose to do--namely, the third installment of the Potter franchise. The Prisoner of Azkaban felt different because (please skip the rest of this paragraph if you have not yet seen the film) its bit of deus ex machina came with its own built-in fascination: the spectacle of seeing one's story told a second time, with all the flaws and loopholes and inexplicable moments repaired, filled in, explained along the way. Azkaban could arguably be a meta-commentary on the typical Potter movie, a way of poking fun at Harry's tendency to make it through no matter what the odds, at minimum expense to himself and his loved ones (he uses a time-traveling device, silly!). I'd call it the most narratively complex of the Potter movies, and as such, the most promising for cinematic interpretation (which Cuaron did, brilliantly). Cuaron turned down the chance to do more Potter movies--possibly he knew exactly what he was doing when he did that. He just went on and did more good work, elsewhere.

Then there's the sense of invincible entitlement Potter seems to wear about him all the time. It's prophesied or implied or at least suggested from the first picture onwards that Potter is fated to kill Voldemort and become a great wizard, perhaps the greatest; why, then, should Potter bother studying so hard? Why even show up for classes? Why should he--and we--worry about the encroaching darkness, the machinations of evil? Potter's going to kick their asses anyway--who cares?

It probably doesn't work out that way in the books; possibly it's made clearer that Potter doesn't control his future, that prophesies don't necessarily come true, and that Potter better dig into those books a little harder, because the tests are no cakewalk. In those books, and I'm only guessing here, you get a better sense of what happened in the intervening years, who hooks up with who, how relationships develop (and I don't mean just heavy petting). Humor and the sense that you've gotten to know these characters well are, or so I hear, the chief pleasures of reading the Potter books, and it's probably these elements that are cut out of the movie adaptations.

In Deathly Hallows 1, when the guests arrive at the wedding soon after their harrowing, near-fatal escape (why, I asked, do they throw a wedding after taking so much trouble trying to hide themselves? I know the question is raised and answered in the movie, but I'm not convinced--are you?), I stare frustratedly at one guest after another. Who was that? A pair of twins? I hear they make quite an impression in the books; in the movies I barely remember who they are, much less what kind of people they are. Having watched the last installment a year ago, it's all been a blur, and I'm not about to dip into the Sacred Texts to refresh my memory. Potter looks tired, the movie feels tired, I'm tired. And we have over two more hours of this to wade through? Voldemort help us.

Unwatchable
Tony Scott was interesting when he took up interesting material--Deja Vu and Enemy of the State come to mind. Now he's filming braindead stuff that better befits Michael Bay, a huge step backwards.

Scott's style is legendarily assaultive; you don't go to him for subtle, self-effacing filmmaking. When it came to creating an atmosphere of paranoia (Enemy of the People), however, or at least an unsettled time scheme (Deja Vu) that style fitted well. On the other hand a train, runaway or not, goes in only one direction--forward--and the way Scott's camera careens all over the place you aren't sure if the train has stopped or gone off the rails; you aren't even sure if the climax had arrived or if everyone was just taking a cigarette break (Scott films a man smoking in the same bombastic way he films two trains in a head-on collision; the effect is not just numbing, it's downright dull).

Go watch Runaway Train instead--saw it recently, just to see if it holds up, and it does, spectacularly. With a script by Akira Kurosawa, gritty direction by Andrey Konchalovskiy, and a flat-out ferocious performance by Jon Voight as a desperate escaped convict, the picture shows you what a real action film looks and feels like, with something to say about man's role in the world (especially if his position in that world is exceptionally low), and about redemption--the kind paid for in blood and suffering.

By film's end, Konchalovskiy throws a quote from Richard III on the screen: "No beast so fierce but knows some touch of pity. But I know none, therefore am no beast." It is Konchalovskiy's, Kurosawa's, and Voight's achievement that they do full justice to those startling words with this startling, hot-blooded film.


Lest we forget

There are complaints that Doug Liman's Fair Game is merely a rehash of headline news, that it preaches mainly to the converted, that events have long since passed, exceeded and rendered this story irrelevant. I don't quite agree. For one, the film also tells the more personal story behind the headline news, that of Valerie Plame and Joseph Wilson, and the consequences of what happened when Plame is exposed as an agent--not just career and work, but lives endangered, possibly killed, because an agent was suddenly and maliciously rendered inoperative.

More, the film outlines, in quick and economical strokes, the strain that is put on their marriage. Character is key to this film, and I like the fact--very true, I think--that character dictates someone's course of action, even when their world is falling down around them. Hence, if Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) has been defined all his life by his principled outspokenness, then he reacts by his principles, speaking out loud and clear. If Valerie (Naomi Watts) has been defined by her loyalty to the CIA, then she reacts accordingly. Scorpion and frog, acting according to their natures, in a fateful embrace. 

Liman directs, I believe, with great honesty; he tells the facts, dresses it with as little Hollywood hoo-ha and sensationalism as possible. This is about the quietest mainstream Hollywood drama I can remember, definitely quieter than most, and his actors despite their name brand take their cue from Liman's direction and deliver quietly felt, quietly intense performances.

As for relevance--funny, but I think the scene where Wilson delivers a talk pretty much sums it all: this has been their story, the reason why they did what they did, and the consequences of what they did to their own lives. Then Wilson turns it around and reminds his audience--reminds us, in fact, that now we know the smaller story, ther is a larger story, one that has been lost in the media firestorm that resulted from Plame's unmasking, and that we are victims as well. Nice to be reminded what it's all about, and why we fight the good fight--and still have to, especially today, post-elections.

 Killer good time

It's amazing the kind of negative reviews Dario Argento got for his latest work Giallo (2009). Most consistent complaints point to what they consider to be bad acting, a poor script (Argento didn't write it, though it was written with him in mind) and--worse of all--the largely uninspired killings that tend to cut away when the going gets interesting (read: when matters get bloody beyond belief).

True, true, true. And yet--there's something to be said about the film. Word has it that the producers interfered endlessly, but Argento here also seems to be reaching out for something different, something perhaps less explicit yet as stylish (and I submit this is as stylish as his other films, from the use of various locations around Turin to the subdued (for Argento, that is) yet modulated use of color to the subtly pleasing compositions and bits of editing, the kind found in the work of any real filmmaker). Perhaps Argento knows he cannot always compete with the Eli Roths and Saw filmmakers of this world (not just because of their larger budgets, but because of the law of diminishing returns) and decided to go for baroque (sorry) in terms of emotions, not violence.

And I think it's not just emotionally baroque, but unusually structured--both cop (Adrien Brody) and killer (Byron Diedra) have their flashbacks, both cop and killer have their parallel characteristics and actions (and as a matter of fact, both cop and killer (skip the rest of this paragraph if you plan to see the movie) are played by the same actor--the name of Byron Diedra, who plays Giallo, is an anagram of Adrien Brody.

The clues are uncovered quickly, effortlessly almost; the manhunt, I suspect, isn't Argento's (or the film's, anyway) true priority. This is more of a character study, an examination of a man's life--how obsession can fill that life, take it over, warp it, color it a specific color. Brody, far from chewing scenery here, I submit, is very fine--he's trying to maintain the tricky balancing act of winning your sympathy the same time he gives you the unsettling felling that all is not quite right in the man's life. If the critics don't fully appreciate what Argento's trying to do here, I might suggest that the expectations raised by the director's past work colors their view of his intentions here, perhaps a bit unfairly.

The whole exercise leads up to and climaxes with a single shot: the camera following Brody's officer as he walks away, a woman behind him flinging devastating accusations. The film might be good--perhaps great even, in a cruel way--if it ended there, but it doesn't; for some reason Argento (the producers?) softens the blow with a brief coda, revealing a crucial character's fate. Too bad; the film, like its eponymous villain, lurches on its unhappy way, seeking appreciation from a largely unreceptive public.


.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mary and Max (Adam Elliot, 2009)


Happy together

Adam Elliot's Mary and Max (2009) is, along with Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey's Secret of Kells (same year) arguably the best English-language animated feature I've seen in years--in several years. And yes, I've seen that latest Pixar movie, the third one about the talking toys.

A huge part of the film's appeal is that it's so relentlessly retro. The film is stop-motion animation and unlike other animators who resort to CGI to render their effects, Elliot sticks to stop-motion all the way--flames leap and dance by crinkling red cellophane; a rainstorm pours down by agitating fishing wire; a toilet flushes by photographing KY Jelly spiraling down its drain. Cityscapes are not 3-D digital constructs; they are elaborate models, extending from one side of the screen to another. Every object has been especially built, down to the fully functional Underwood typewriter that took nine weeks to design and build (A typewriter! Remember those fossilized creatures?). Sensibilities are remarkably retro too--the two (Mary from Melbourne and Max from New York) live at a time before email was even possible, and correspond through the traditional written letter; they wait for days (at one point, even months) for the other's reply, creating a suspense we don't really experience anymore, not in this age of chat forums and instant messaging and Twitter. Plus, there is this idea--old-fashioned, possibly dangerous, entirely unwholesome and definitely inappropriate for children (thank goodness): that watching animation can be an adult activity, focusing on adult manners, even when children are involved in the story.

Maybe the film's most remarkable quality is this: though Elliot is Australian, grew up in Australia, and remains based there, it's the New York sequences that are the most vividly realized. Elliot cuts to a long shot of the city and you want to drink in all the densely textured skyscrapers, especially the Chrysler building with its outstretched eagle heads (every time the film cuts to New York I keep looking for those marvelous eagle heads). Everything, every detail seems of the city, and not just of the city, of a specific period in the city's life, from the cat with the missing eye to the air-conditioner that falls out of its moorings to the half-blind neighbor with the gigantic spectacles, to all the prepackaged versions of traditional kosher food (I couldn't find the exact labels, but I could find similar examples in the frozen section of my local supermarket).

And Max--you could imagine Philip Roth or Bernard Malamud creating him (as a matter of fact he's based on someone Elliot corresponded with for twenty years). As voiced by Philip Seymour Hoffman, he's a remarkably truthful character, as accurate a portrait of Asperger's Syndrome as you can find on the big screen, down to the anal-retentive obsessiveness with details and the little booklet of facial expressions (to help Max identify what emotion a specific facial expression is supposed to express). More, he's unrepentantly true to himself--when at one point he has a stroke of good fortune and finally has the means to fulfill all of his and Mary's fantasies, he doesn't follow the feel-good formula and give us what we expect of him--he just goes along his stubborn path, in his ingrown, introverted way.

And it isn't as if Mary (voiced by Bethany Whitmore as a child, Toni Collette as an adult) were your run-of-the-mill protagonist--she's cute at first, but somewhere along the line she betrays the onset of a burgeoning sexuality, to which Max reacts by having an anxiety attack (he stands in a corner stool and sways back and forth, his pants cords swinging like a light bulb on a wire). Mary has needs, and they're messy needs, more than Max can handle; to Mary's credit, when it's Max turn to make demands Mary performs the needed sacrifice, no matter what the cost, and in this film when something costs the price is more than just an arm or a leg--it's deep depression, possible alcoholism, even the destruction of a marriage.

Isn't exactly your average Pixar movie, or Pixar's idea of a poignant movie. The first ten minutes of, say, Up (2009) is oft cited when listing the multi-billion-dollar-grossing studio's achievements, but that is a saccharine attempt at poignancy, one that pulls back the moment the viewers feel the slightest twinge of pain. Elliot does not pull back, not in the bite of his sarcasm, not in the emotional force of his images. He follows each character to their respective bittersweet fates with an unrelenting focus that can be exhausting, if it wasn't so mordantly funny--fact of the matter is, there's something autistic about his unflinching manner of storytelling (a reviewer called the film "heartwarming," which in my book would be accurate only if you think of a piece of cardiac muscle being grilled over coals). If I find this film more visually distinctive, more texturally fascinating (every object handcrafted, visibly shaped by human fingers), more laugh-out-loud funny, more emotionally complex, more--and this above all else--honest than anything Pixar has ever done, I beg your pardon; that's how I feel about the matter. Highly, highly recommended. 

first published in Businessworld 11.25.10


Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Edgar Wright 2010)



Game on

Not a big fan of video games. The last game I took even halfway seriously was Missile Command, back in the '80s--there was something somehow addictive about the imperative to keep all those relentlessly approaching nuclear missiles from wiping out everything you know and love, something somehow traumatic about the big flashing "THE END" that eventually signaled you had failed. That, plus the cool trackball spinning in one hand, sending the crosshairs skittering across the screen--what's not to like?

That was it between video games and I--unless you count a brief infatuation with Myst, with its otherwordly music, beautiful alien settings (I especially liked Channelwood, a forest world spiderwebbed with rope-and-plank bridges) and sense of unknowability (I got as far as getting lost in the Selenitic Age underground maze before giving up), plus a purely mindless affair with Fallout (the lust to acquire objects from stimpaks to plasma rifles to the Holy Hand Grenade proved both irrational and irresistible). Anyway, I've never had a healthy relationship with video games--felt I was investing too much time trying to master them and the results were less than impressive, the satisfaction rather anemic. It was too much like devouring a pounder bag of potato chips deep fried in lard--you felt good at first, then all the salts and cholesterol started backing up and blocking the blood flow to your brain.

But if I have a love-hate relationship with video games (the hate dominating the love by a factor of three), that's nothing to the dismay I feel watching video game movies. The Resident Evil series are a case in point: basically chop-socky flicks with guns and zombies that like the undead seem to last forever (though those directed by Paul Anderson seem more than usually stylish). I love Milla Jovovich, I know she can both act and kick ass, but one Resident Evil movie was one too much, let alone three. Cinematographer turned director Andrzej Bartkowiak's Doom at one point successfully replicates the one-corridor-after-another-of-demonic-monsters feel of the original, and as with the original game I felt a similar urge to stand up and walk away.

Which is why Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is such a surprise. Here I am, a less-than-ardent fan of video games, sitting down, getting ready to hate this picture. The first few minutes of storytelling confirmed my worst fears--plenty of voiceover narration, swish-pans, pop music samples, snarky dialogue, cute sound effects (I thought I was looking at a louder, more obnoxious, big-screen version of Ned's Declassified School Survival Guide).

But it just went on. And on. And on. Some of the digital effects are genuinely funny--the scene where Scott (Michael Cera) goes to the men's room and you see a 'pee bar' on his upper right, emptying; the unbelievably corny little pink hearts floating away when Scott and his dream girl Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) kiss; the lighting bolts that shoot out when Scott's band The Sex Bob-ombs play at a concert. But what won me over (besides digital effects that actually showed a trace of wit in their design) was the sense I got watching that stripped of its effects this was a funny little tale of a geeky-looking boy trying to come to terms with his too-popular girl's past life--namely her former boyfriends, or as she puts it her 'seven evil exes.' Hot girl; complex past; hostile exes; unhappily ambivalent relationship--you can actually relate to, or even empathize with, his dilemma.

Figures that it had to be Edgar Wright, an accomplished comic filmmaker, that would make the first--and, for all I know, only--successfully entertaining videogame movie. Hot Fuzz may have been disappointing, I don't know what failed--either British law enforcement is so inherently unfunny no parody is passable or British law enforcement is so inherently funny no parody is possible--but Shaun of the Dead took the idea of the zombie apocalypse and demonstrated that things wouldn't be all that different, not for the first few days (when everyone has yet to wake up to the idea of living with the walking dead) and not after a year (when everyone has settled down to the idea of living with the walking dead). Brilliant conceit.

Scott Pilgrim requires an entirely different mindset, not satiric observation but pure and absolute conviction--that Scott is a hero, that Ramona is worth fighting for, that all seven evil exes are rotten to the core and should be taken down. God--or entertainment, at least--is in the details, and Wright largely gets it right: just enough technogeek to give us the flavor of a gamer's enthusiasm, just enough realspeak to give us recognizably human characters to care for (thanks in no small part to Cera, Winstead, Kieran Culkin as Scott's unflappably gay roommate, and even Jason Schwartzmann as a game-show host slash dance club lord slash arch villain). Scott Pilgrim is ultimately disposable, but you can say that of ninety-nine percent of what's showing in the multiplexes; difference is, Wright manages to make this ephemeral quality part of the movie's charm. You may not remember much of the movie once you leave the theater, but you may remember the glow you felt watching it.

First published in Businessworld, 11.18.10

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Let Me In (Matt Reeves, 2010)

(Lina Leandersson as Eli--accept no substitutes)

Does not suck

Matt Reeves' Let Me In (2010), his remake of Tomas Alfredson's remarkable Lat den ratte komma in (Let the Right One In, 2008) doesn't push its gore effects in your face; keeps most of the digital effects in the realm of the plausible (or at least halfway acceptable); finds a voice distinct from the original while still being recognizably from that original--not necessarily a good thing, but at least intentions are honorable. In other words, director Reeves (for whom this was a sophomore effort, after the fairly interesting monster-mockumentary (monstermentary?) movie Cloverfield (2008)) is obviously not out to cash in on a much-admired cult hit--he felt he had something to bring to the party, so he did it.

Reeves' picture revolves around Owen (Kodi Smit-Mcphee), a young boy living in a small New Mexico town who meets Abby (Chloe Moretz), his next-door neighbor. Abby's a vampire, something Owen doesn't realize at first; he's too preoccupied by the gang of older boys who bully him in school. "You have to hit back," Abby advises him; "I can't, there's three of them," Owen replies. "Then you have to hit back even harder."

Way to go, Abby, setting him up for eventual success. The heart of Reeves' picture can be found in this portrait of American middle-school life: the impersonal educational-institution setting; the predatory youths; the oft unheeding adults. Alfredson's picture does include bullies who (along with his protagonist and most of his cast) seemed to have been chosen more for physical variety and the memorably odd visual contrast than for mere prettiness, but for Reeves school is the source of much of the picture's horror and pathos, the bullies here more vividly if conventionally drawn (cast for larger size and intimidating presence), Owen more clearly a target of their cruelty.

Reeves' treatment of Owen and Abby is more openly emotional, more unabashedly romantic. When Owen asks Abby "Do you want to go steady?" it's an "aw shucks!" moment--you badly want to pinch their cheeks and pet their heads. Reeves gets deep under Owens' skin: the first time he meets Abby, the thrill of her touch, the dawning awareness that she is lying next to him wearing nothing, the despair when she appears to be leaving him--all this Reeves plays at a distinctly higher pitch, with Owen's face trembling in response to each situation like a tautly drawn drumskin (you can see the tension, the fragility). You even see Reeve's intentions in his lighting scheme, which makes greater use of sodium lamps that give off a warm amber glow (Alfredson's lighting, in comparison, seems to emanate more from the snow than from anything else--talk about winter light, it's as if the very camera lenses were made out of crystallized ice).

Not bad at all--compared with the Twilight movies, this is vampirism with visual intelligence and an authentic emotional core. But where Reeve's picture is basically a sad story about a vampire girl who seeks a friend, Alfredson's film is a far more understated, far more chilling creature. Oskar (Kare Hedebrant) isn't the frightened victim that Owen is; in fact, he's a little creepy--when whipped in the cheek he gives off a soft exhalation, as if sexually aroused; when taking out his pocket knife and threatening a tree, you get the sense that he's not just acting out of frustration and a desire for vengeance, but out of lust, a desire to usurp the bullies' physical power, and use--or abuse--it accordingly. Watching him you sense that, given a chance, he may prove to be even more of a sadist than his tormentors.

Reeves loses the neighbors found in Alfredson's film, and as a result we lose sense of the tiny apartment community that the vampire Eli (Lina Leandersson) quietly infiltrates, and victimizes. More, we lose the crucial figure of Virginia, one of Eli's victims, who is given a choice: death or living death. Her decision stands in stark contrast to Eli's and gives the film a touch more moral complexity, as well as one of the film's most starkly beautiful, most horrifying moments (a bonfire that literally lights up the center of the screen).

Actually, Reeves loses many of Alfredson's beautifully horrifying moments (not an oxymoron in my book--in fact I believe the very best in horror contains not a little beauty). The original's first attack, done from high up and in a single shot, underlines our helplessness as Eli wraps herself around her victim; Reeves, while taking his time and using a commendable silence for his aural background, prefers to come in closer (apparently in Hollywood horror filmmaking consists mainly of pushing the gore effects in your face--or, in Reeves' case, pushing it from a point about five feet away, compared to Alfredson's forty). The final swimming pool scene, so oddly serene and weightless in Alfredson's film (I think key to its unsettling power is that serenity), is dutifully replicated in Reeves, with the usually Hollywood additions of just a touch more noise, just a touch more gore, just a touch more effects.

But that's just details--incidental consequences, basically, adorning Alfredson's thesis: that Eli is not just a sad-eyed little girl with supernatural powers but also a seductive manipulator, scheming to sink her hooks into the tender flesh of a budding serial killer. And yet she is, at the same time, still that sad-eyed little girl yearning to befriend Oskar--the ambiguity, the possibility that they are one or the other or even both--is what gives the film its unsettled, and unsettling, subtext. By all means, see Reeves' film--it's a decent adaptation, made with care and skill and talent; but be aware that Alfredson's is the superior version, and you're best off seeing that first.

First published in Businessworld, 11.11.10

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Little Norse Prince (Isao Takahata, 1968)

The mysterious Hilda in Little Norse Prince

Not a Pixar pic

Isao Takahata's very first animated feature Taiyou no ouji Horusu no daibouken (Little Norse Prince, 1968) is I would say a masterpiece--a real achievement, considering that Toei had intended to do yet another of its quickie kiddie features, and interfered with production almost continuously (the script was reportedly based on an Anui legend, which Toei insisted should be transposed to Norway to exploit the popularity of European mythology (confusing, especially if you happen to be Danish)). The studio was unhappy with the finished product, refused to provide the money to finish animating two major action sequences (you see them here in a series of stills), cut out half an hour from the running time, ran the resulting mess in commercial theaters for only ten days before pulling it out, despite glowing reviews from critics. Needless to say, Takahata was demoted, and never allowed to direct another picture in Toei again.

From the opening sequence onwards you can see how different the picture was, and still is, from most other animated features--no music, no bright and cheerful dialogue or noise, just the desperate gasps and scuffles of a boy fighting for his life against a pack of snarling wolves. The boy--Hols, he's called here, though the original Japanese title names him Horus (no apparent connection with the Egyptian god of the sky and sun)--wields what seems to be an axehead, or at least a heavy throwing axe with a short handle, a vicious weapon that can stun or kill with a single swing of the arm (we see felled wolves, though Takahata softpedals any explicit depiction of spilled blood). 

Hols pulls a sword out of the shoulder of a stone giant (inspiration for a similar creature in Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy 2: The Golden Army?), who prophesizes that Hols will be the Prince of the Sun; he  is told by his dying father to return to their homeland and take revenge on Grunwald, the evil sorcerer who destroyed their village and forced father and son into exile. Later, Hols finds himself near the edge of a cliff, hanging on to a slender line which Grunwald happens to be holding; the villain offers the boy a chance to join him (in the Japanese original it was an offer to make Hols his brother). Hols refuses; Grunwald promptly lets go of the line.


Ten-year-old boy dropped down a cliff by a powerful sorcerer; not the kind of plot twist Pixar is fond of using--but there's more. Hols comes upon a fishing village terrorized by a giant pike and tries to win them over by fighting the monster (it's a titanic battle, masterfully animated, with one gruesome little detail--a fishing spear waving like a chopstick from the pike's eye socket, where Hols had stabbed him). When Hols announces the pike's death, the villagers don't quite believe him (where's the body, then?); one village child whose father was killed by the fish is actually angry--he wanted to grow up and kill the pike himself.

Little details like that, little touches of psychological realism, distinguish Takahata's storytelling. The colors may be bright, the  characters round-eyed and faintly Disney-ish, the sidekicks cute small animals, but their words, actions, thoughts, feelings, are not all adorable. Hols has a complicated relationship with these villagers--the trust they give him is provisional, on the apparent death of the fish, but his success has also won him enemies among the villagers, enemies that conspire to turn the people against him, force him back into exile.  
 
Arguably the most striking sequence in the picture is when Hols discovers an empty village, eerie with silence. Among the deserted huts he encounters the mysterious Hilda, an apparent survivor of whatever devastation has emptied the little town. Hols takes her back with him, and her singing enchants the townspeople, who find themselves stopping work to listen. 

If Hols relationship with the village is knotty, Hilda's is well nigh hopeless--she often finds herself looking upon the villagers as grotesque in their simplicity, despite their kindness. Hilda's character actually makes more sense if you see her as the traumatized survivor of some unknown holocaust--the inability to open up to people, the tendency to be willful and perverse, the obsession with death and destruction (she suffers from survivor's guilt and exhibits suicidal tendencies). Likewise the villagers' response to her--an uneasy mix of incomprehension and mute fascination--is more understandable if you keep in mind the chasm in experience between them and the girl, how strange yet alluring it can be. Yes they have suffered (the pike's recent reign of terror comes to mind), but they simply cannot understand the effects total destruction can have on a young mind, the kind of nihilistic philosophy it can create, even in a lovely girl with a beautiful voice.

Perhaps Takahata's finest and least appreciated effect would be the sense of roundedness, of solid familiarity, he gives the villagers. Viewers looking for easy entertainment might find the scenes of singing and festival-dancing and everyday living dull, but the scenes go hand-in-hand with Takahata's idea that the real protagonist of the film isn't Hols, but the community as a whole--this in turn going hand-in-hand with Takahata's view of the complex relationship between individuals and the various communities that inhabit his films.

Thus: in Only Yesterday, the heroine Taeko's easy efforts to immerse herself in a small farming community is contrasted with her childhood struggles to integrate herself into her own family; in My Neighbor the Yamadas the focus is on one family and, to some extent, the neighborhood they live in. Pom Poko is possibly the fullest and most complex expression of this idea of community-as-protagonist--yes they are raccoon dogs, yes they are mythological figures, but the way these dogs debate, squabble, compromise, celebrate, and make love reminds one of the interactions and struggles found in any community, particularly one faced with the possibility of extinction. And tragic Pom Poko may ultimately be (a conflict between animals and men can only end one way), it is relatively optimistic in its view of community relations compared to what may be Takahata's finest film, the great Grave of the Fireflies. There a young boy and his little sister struggling to survive the waning years of World War Two begin a gradual and complete rejection of their community--a rejection that will result in consequences the film shows us with simple, unflinching honesty.  

Consider the film political, as well--the scenes of Hols' enemies turning the villagers against him can be read as reactionary forces employing propaganda to re-interpret events their way (the way, say, certain news outlets might be said to 'put a spin' on current events). Call this Takahata's test, his challenge to the villagers' sense of comfort, their complacency; when they decide to rise up and take action it's not at all Hols' triumph but theirs, an expression of the collective will (Takahata has always displayed leftist tendencies in his films, and in fact there was an ongoing labor dispute during this feature's production). To animate this, Takahata employs every element in his considerable animation palette--steel, sunlight, fire, ice--to express brilliant righteousness driving darkness and ignorance into a corner.

It's dark, subtle, complex stuff--and to think it was all done in 1968! Takahata's debut feature was hugely influential in lifting Japanese animation out of the pit of kiddie fare and dealing with more sophisticated stuff--from Mori Masaki's historical retelling of the Hiroshima bombing (Barefoot Gen) to Hayao Miyazaki's ecological epics (Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind; Princess Mononoke) to the political, philosophical and metaphysical conundrums of Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell 1, 2 & SAC; The Sky Crawlers). Pixar movies move viewers to tears? Fine and good, but Japanese anime transcended tears decades ago, to deal with politics, history, psychological complexity--and all thanks to Takahata's great, early film. 


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Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Girl who Played with Fire (Daniel Alfredson, 2009)



Golden girl

Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy--three novels, featuring the memorable leather-clad, bike-riding, computer-hacking Lisbeth Salander--are a worldwide phenomenon, having sold forty million copies to date; the film adaptation of the first book The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, directed by Niels Arden Oplev, was made for a mere thirteen million dollars, and has to date earned over a hundred million worldwide (the sequel was made for four million, and grossed sixty-five million worldwide).

One can see the appeal. Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) is the angry young punk who uses her brains and on occasion her taser (she also swings a mean golf club and ax when necessary) on the various Swedish authority figures that have abused her in the past; magazine journalist Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) is her front man (he does the interviews and makes the phone calls) and Boy Friday, and at least in Dragon Tattoo is the functioning Dude in Distress depending on Lisbeth to swoop in at the last minute and save the day.

I like a lot of it; I like it that Larsson is an outspoken feminist, having had a personal traumatic experience in his youth (at fourteen he'd been witnessed to a gang rape he failed to stop, of a girl named Lisbeth), and in his heroine he's created a kind of avenging angle complete with nose ring, laptop, and in one fist a few hundred thousand volts of crackling electric arc. Niels Arden Oplev, who previously directed dramas, seems mostly interested in serving the emotional intensity of the material; he tells the story mainly through the coolly intellectual Blomkvist's eyes, and for the picture's tone takes his cue from the journalist's professionally objective manner (Blomkvist doesn't even seem all that upset when he's jailed for three months--from his expression you would have thought he had won a Mediterranean cruise vacation). All the better then, when that gaze falls on Lisbeth, as lithe and vivid and oversized a presence as the dragon tattooed to her back. Rapace is not conventionally pretty, but she has an intense reptilian look (glare is more like it) that seems to challenge anyone and everyone it meets; more, as she plays Lisbeth (and as Oplev directs her) she has a physical quickwittedness that makes one sit up in one's theater seat. "This girl will go places," you think as you feel your eyebrows climb up your forehead, "if she lives long enough."

She could be better served by the narrative. My biggest problem with Dragon Tattoo is the brokeback structure, with perhaps the most momentous sequence in the picture coming too early: Lisbeth has acquired a new probationary guardian named Bjurman (Paul Andersson), who turns out to be a sadist with designs on the wary Lisbeth. Their scenes together--Bjurman with Lisbeth and Lisbeth's vigorous reply--are clearly the film's centerpiece, and possibly the reason why many of the people agreed to do this project. I say: well and good, and hooray for the strong and unglamorous depiction of sexual assault, but in storytelling terms it pulls the reader's attention away from the thrust of the main narrative when a minor character is this despicable. When Lisbeth and Blomkvist finally face the real bad guy (an ex-Nazi, as it turns out, with a longstanding career in sexual sadism), you feel that the picture has already fired most of its dramatic ammo; this confrontation can only come across as something of an anticlimax.

The Girl Who Played With Fire, this time directed by Daniel Alfredson (he was second unit director for Dragon Tattoo, though he had also directed a few features previously), corrects this by coming up with a singular villain, one more worthy of Lisbeth. The mysterious Zala--a former GRU operative who fled to Sweden from Russia after killing a man--has engineered the death of two reporters investigating sex trafficking in the country, the project being spearheaded by Blomkvist's Millennium Magazine (and which Lisbeth, watching quietly from her all-seeing laptop, secretly approves of and supports). Right from the start Blomkvist and Lisbeth are collaborating (if only indirectly, through the internet); right from the start the pair are faced with an opponent that isn't confined to a soundproofed basement, waiting for them to root him out, but an active intelligence with a network of information and resources. Acting as Zala's manservant and foot soldier is a giant named Niedermann (Mikael Spreitz) who has boxer's training, blonde hair, and a touch of congenital analgesia (he's basically impervious to pain). To complicate matters for Lisbeth, included among the corpses is the body of her old friend Bjurman, her lawyer and probationary guardian; she has just become suspect number one in his murder.

Alfredson isn't necessarily a superior filmmaker compared to Oplev. The action sequences aren't particularly memorable (neither are Oplev's, actually) but they do avoid the cliché of handheld shaky-cams and chop-suey editing; especially good is one fight sequence, where the giant squares off with a championship boxer named Paolo (Paolo Roberto). Alfredson gives us a good sense of their differing fighting styles, how the giant is slower yet still dangerous, and how the boxer is faster, more skilled, yet hugely outmatched.

If Larsson meant to condemn man's cruelty to women, I'd say he does a better if less visceral job in Played with Fire--Zala is a far more formidable foe, and when confronted with Lisbeth their undisguised contempt for each other is just about peerless. If we're talking of institutional authorities, of abusive patriarchs, of men who symbolize ruthless power and unflinching abuse of women--a former Nazi and serial killer (as was found in Dragon Tattoo) may seem ugly and grotesque, but he's basically an isolated case, with few widespread consequences. A professional still involved and functioning and in some ways actually serving society--now that's a whole other proposition. The symbolic baggage sitting on Zala's head has a heft and weight not dissimilar to that of a figure in Greek Tragedy. He is an archetype looming over our heroine, watching her every move with baleful malevolence.

First published in Businessworld, 11.4.10

Sunday, November 07, 2010

The Social Network (David Fincher, 2010)

Brenda Song, giving her boyfriend notice in The Social Network 


Connect the dots

David Fincher's The Social Network (2010) is based on a clever script by Aaron Sorkin which is based, in turn, on what is said to be a factually unreliable book by Ben Mezrich (The Accidental Billionaires) which is based (loosely or accurately, depending on who you talk to) on the life of the world's youngest billionaire, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.

I'll say this much about the question of Fincher's film's accuracy: I don't much care. I'd call it the imaginative retelling of a man's life and leave it at that (in one interview Sorkin calls it 'nonfiction,' Fincher calls it 'fiction'). The tale has been considerably polished, and there's nothing basically wrong with that--Shakespeare did it to Richard III (hunchbacked sociopath, anyone?). The real question would be: are the results compelling enough to justify the embellishment?

I'd say yes. Fincher's film begins with a crackerjack scene: Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) is dumped by his girlfriend Erica Albright (Rooney Mara); drunk and bitter, he goes home to his computer and starts hacking various women's dormitory online databases for their pictures, cobbling together a site called "Facemash" where you can compare and choose who is the prettier coed. Jump to a scene of Mark attending a deposition reading for a lawsuit being filed against him by Eduardo Severin (Andrew Garfield), his former partner, for control of Facebook. Then jump to Mark attending yet another deposition reading, this time for a lawsuit being filed by the Winklevoss twins, who are accusing him of stealing their idea for Facebook.

It's a tad confusing, if fast-paced; what makes this sequence interesting is how Fincher (working on Sorkin's script) manages to dribble precise amounts of information--a casual mention here, a quick aside there, a crucial exchange to follow--so that you gradually realize the shape of the film's narrative. Much like Facebook itself, the film takes disparate stories, characters, points of view, and in linking them creates an overarching, kaleidoscopic whole; a network--a social network, in effect.

Not an easy concept to dramatize--there are no swooping shots that follow cable modems from user to user, nothing cheesy like what Fincher used to pull (see Panic Room); here he relies on editing, match cuts, timed reactions to various events to give us a sense of many things happening simultaneously (or, if not simultaneously, with a kind of imposed, symbolic synchronicity). When a lawyer brings up an event, for example, the picture turns back to the date mentioned and dramatizes the event in detail; sometimes the film first dramatizes the event, then fast-forwards to the deposition scene to enlarge upon the event's implications and consequences. Difficult act to keep coherent, much less entertaining, but Fincher manages to keep Sorkin's many balls arcing through the air in a precise juggle.

But the juggling is the least impressive of Fincher's effects; pulling the twists out of the narrative and cutting out all the scenes of near-naked girls snorting coke, the film is really about Zuckerberg's insurmountable loneliness. "You're...thinking that girls don't like you because you're a nerd," Erica explains to him; not so. "It'll be because you're an asshole." Zuckerberg joins Fincher's gallery of autistically focused loners who make sense of their lives through their various unholy quests, from John Doe in Se7en to the many investigators who tried and failed to find the killer in Zodiac. Fincher is the poet of lonely obsessions, and he turns Sorkin's script into a bleakly lyrical ode to the joys and agonies of a man who again and again fails to connect.

Perhaps Fincher and Sorkin's most interesting achievement is to create so much excitement--the picture is two hours long with nary an explicitly nude scene or gasoline explosion--out of a group of people spouting technogeek. Facebook when you come to think about it is really much ado about very little; when Betty White found herself hosting Saturday Night Live (thanks, ironically, to her many fans on the website) she confessed to having visited Facebook and declaring "I must say it sounds like a huge waste of time."

Hooray for Betty! Yet it's the biggest social phenomenon since, oh, the cellphone. For all its insubstantiality ("friend" me; "comment" on my "status;" join me in playing "Farmville"), Facebook is huge--its half a billion members' near-addicted commitment to the website give it enduring power, and its creator near-unimaginable wealth. A film about a man who grew rich on a program designed to answer the question "are you having sex or aren't you?" shouldn't be so complex, or so evocative, or so representative of its age (as some critics claim it is), yet somehow this film is; that's it's real accomplishment. Then again, perhaps Facebook represents this age so well because it (the age, I mean) doesn't mean much of anything either--a precise match. Whichever it is--Facebook being deceptively substantial or the age it represents being deceptively insubstantial--the film embodies this sensibility perfectly.

First published in Businessworld, 10.28.07
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