J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

NOLA Horror ’18: Framed


A group of friends think they are gathering for a going away party. Boy, is that the truth. Thanks to the internet, the goodbyes will be permanent in Marc Martínez’s Framed (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 NOLA Horror Film Fest.

In Spain, they are just starting to realize the internet can host of lot of twisted, dangerous stuff. Our latest luddite morality lesson revolves around the live-streaming platform “Framed.” It started out with cooking lessons and the like, but quickly gained infamy for the more extreme videos streamed there. However, nothing tops the violence instigated by the three nameless killers seen in the prologue driving a wronged wife to bludgeon her faithless husband. This time, they plan to get their hands dirty crashing the party thrown for poor, luckless Álex. He was hoping he would finally get somewhere with Bea, but that obviously will not be happening when she shows up with her NGO do-gooder boyfriend Maurice. Then the live-casting killers start to strike.

Frankly, it really feels like this film is late to the demonize-the-internet party. We have been down this road with the Unfriended movies before. By now, we understand our voyeurism is part of the problem. The whole live-casting angle really isn’t new. It’s even happened in real life, horrifyingly. So, that just leaves Framed as a rather routine slasher film, albeit with somewhat above average brutality.

Still, it has to be stipulated, Framed has considerably higher production values than most exploitative slashers. Cinematographer Yuse Riera really gives it a polished but ominous look. Joe Manjón and Claudia Pons are quite competent as Álex and his platonic roommate, the two primary rooting interests, but their characters are quite thinly sketched. Álex Maruny is also undeniably creepy as the lead home invader, but his two accomplices are such problematic stereotypes, it really gives you an icky feeling watching the film.

At least, Framed has the merit of brevity, clocking in at eighty minutes. Martínez does not dawdle with the gore either. It is a well-made film, but it is not nearly as edgy or topical as it thinks it is. Considering the strength of Spanish horror in general, Framed is rather a disappointment. It screens this Sunday night (9/23), as part of the NOLA Horror Film Fest.

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Kino Polska ’18: Zud


Nomads can’t bet the farm, but they have livestock. Unfortunately, young Sukhbat’s family lost their herd to a sudden snap of winter foulness. Now their only hope to avoid ruin is winning a regional horse race. Growing up is hard, but so is every other aspect of life in Marta Minorowicz’s Zud (trailer here), which screens during this year’s Kino Polska at the BAM Cinematek.

The characters and settings are pure Mongolian, but this is a Polish film. Likewise, it certainly has the look and feel of an unscripted observational documentary, but it is in fact a fictional narrative. However, the difficulties facing Mongolia’s nomadic herders is certainly true enough. Presumably, the cast of steppe-based nomads could relate. Indeed, there is probably a good deal of inadvertent method acting going on in this film.

Sukhbat’s father is deeply in debt and the note is already past-due. The lending authorities will not give him anymore time, despite the loss of his cattle. He therefore places all his hopes on a promising young wild stallion he has just broken. Sukhbat will be the jockey and serve as the horse’s primary training, or at least that is what he is told. Alas, nothing he does is ever good enough for his micromanaging father, who is clearly feeling the pressure of their precarious situation.

This is one tough coming of age story. Minorowicz’s portrayal of nomadic life clearly suggests families are not held together by love but by a survival imperative. It certainly feels true to life, since it was shot on remote locations, employing nonprofessional local actors, seemingly playing thinly fictionalized analogs of themselves. She also films with an anthropologist’s eye, investing considerable time in many of the regular tasks and everyday rituals that have defined her characters’ lives.

Frankly, Minorowicz could have easily passed Zud off as a legit documentary if she wanted to, so give her credit for being forthright. Presumably, she also made the film she set out to make, so she and Kenneth McBride should want all their due credit for their screenplay. Yet, it is hard to imagine how scripted many of these scenes could have been.

Regardless of all that, as his namesake, Sukhbat Batsaikhan is a highly compelling young protagonist. You would assume he is really just going about his chores, heedless of the camera. However, Batsaikhan Budee is an even more impressive actor, because all of his anxiety and stress looks alarmingly real.

Zud is a quiet, immersive film, but it packs an arsenic-laced punch in the final minutes. Despite being a narrative, it will not be sufficiently narrative-driven for conventional viewers, but it absolutely lets the audience place themselves in lives that are radically different from our own. Recommended more as an experience than a film per se, Zud screens Friday night (9/21), as part of Kino Polska at BAM.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Great Battle: The Siege of Ansi


Today, the ruins of ancient Ansi happen to be in China, but the local spirits can’t be too happy about that. During the mid-7th Century, it was squarely a part of the Goguryeo Empire, a forerunner to Korea. Unfortunately, its commander was not in good standing with the generals at court, so when the Tang emperor laid siege to the fort, they were on the own. The tenacious defense of Ansi comes to the big screen in a big way in Kim Kwang-sik’s The Great Battle (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

The Great Battle is not kidding around. It starts with a disastrous route of the Goguryeo forces that Samul, a young cadet commander just barely survives. Naturally, at such a time of crisis, his next assignment is to assassinate Yang Manchun, the slightly off-the-reservation commander of Ansi, who seems to think he knows better than his commanding officers, because he does.

Not so shockingly, Yang is onto Samul right from the start, but he still lets the long-absent Ansi-native back into the fortress city. Despite his orders, Samul is quickly won over by Yang’s close, protective relationship with his people. Soon, Samul is standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Yang’s lieutenants defending Ansi. They manage to foil most of Emperor Taizong’s siege devices, but things start to looking iffy when the Tang forces start getting creative. Things will get loud and bloody, but the film stays surprisingly close to the historical record.

There is some drama interspersed throughout Great Battle, but the warfighting scenes are what this film is all about. If you enjoyed movies like Braveheart, 300, and Red Cliff than Great Battle will be like catnip for you. It is often brutal, but the battle scenes are remarkably well-choreographed and crisply shot. This was a tough war to fight, but Kim certainly makes it quite a cinematic spectacle.

So, yes, the action is the thing, but there are still some nice performances, particularly Seol Hyun and Um Tae-goo as Beck-ha and Pa-so, two of Yang’s trusted warriors (and in her case, his sister too), who are also engaged in a tragic romance. Zo In-sung is truly commanding as Yang, in what could be his career best performance to date. Although Park Sung-woong has played plenty of bag guys before (including a different sort of emperor in For the Emperor), he is totally cold-blooded (and almost unrecognizable) chewing the scenery as the ruthless Taizong.

Obviously, a lot of stuff was built and destroyed for Great Battle. It is large in scope and packed with voluminous carnage. Kim’s previous films (including the thriller Tabloid Truth) were small-scale affairs in comparison, but with Battle he definitely proves he has epic chops. Recommended for anyone who enjoys action-packed bloody-flag-wavers, The Great Battle opens this Friday (9/21) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Siberia: Keanu Reeves Needs a Heavier Coat


It is an area famous for diamond mining and gulags. During the Soviet years, Siberia was a place of toil and misery, even if you were not a political prisoner. Development has not boomed since the technical fall of Communism, but the diamonds are still there. That is always where an ambiguously ethical American diamond dealer must go to find his missing partner and twelve fabulously expensive blue diamonds in Matthew Ross’s Siberia (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Lucas Hill plays it pretty fast and loose, but he has always managed to keep on the right side of the law. Unfortunately, when his partner Pyotr disappears along with the twelve stones Hill had promised to oligarch-gangster Boris Volkov, it puts him in a tricky spot. Hill’s only lead is Pyotr’s brother, who works in the Mir Mine, but he has also been out of contact for weeks.

However, all is not lost. While in Mirny, Hill meets Katya, an alluring tavern-keeper, who can immediately tell he is engaged in funny business, but doesn’t care. In fact, Hill might just be falling in love, even though he has a wife back home (but no passion). The sex might be great, but Hill will be in big trouble without those stones.

As a director-screenwriter tandem, Ross and Scott B. Smith do not inspire rapt anticipation, but there are worse pedigrees. Ross’s Frank & Lola is hardly a perfect film, but it has a distinctive vibe. Likewise, Smith’s original novel and screenplay adaptation of A Simple Plan had their gritty merit. However, their collaboration on Siberia is a crushing disappointment. The first act is deadly dull, the second act is uncomfortably mean-spirited, and the third act falls flat as a pancake. Perhaps most bafflingly, a film called Siberia has precious little to say about Russia’s Communist past or its Putinist present, aside from a few FSB agents, who show up late in the game to make everything worse.

This will no doubt be shocking to read, but Keanu Reeves is a rather stiff, inexpressive presence as Hill. To be fair, Ana Ularu (Romanian, but close enough) is spirited and seductive as Katya, but the rest of the Russians are just stock hicks or cliched gangsters, with no meaningful differentiation. It is also a crying shame to see the great German actress Veronica Ferres grossly underemployed as Raisa, the St. Petersburg hotel concierge.

Ularu deserves to get some attention for her work in Siberia, but everything else about the film is just a waste. It knows the FSB is a scary, lawless outfit, but that is all that it gets right. Not recommended, Siberia releases today on DVD.

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Monday, September 17, 2018

Goyo: The Boy General


Before they were hoping for Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s return, the Philippines tried to throw out his father, Gen. Arthur MacArthur, along with the rest of the American military. That was the job of Gen. Gregorio “Goyo” del Pilar and his fellow officers, but they were not up to the task. However, they were able to (allegedly) dispatch one of their own, General Antonio Luna. That makes Del Pilar a rather unlikely protagonist for the follow-up to Jerrold Tarog’s Heneral Luna, but he cut a dashing figure. Arguably, his flaws were costly to his own cause, but his youth adds an element of romantic tragedy to Tarog’s Goyo: The Boy General (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Del Pilar was twenty-four at the time of his final battle. Apparently, the revolutionary president Emilio Aguinaldo had a habit of appointing young generals—and del Pilar was one of the youngest. He was certainly well received at social functions, but he lacked the training and seasoning to be an effective field commander, at least judging by the results. Being complicit to some degree in the conspiracy against Luna did not help endear del Pilar to the late general’s men either. However, he made steady progress wooing Remedios Nable Jose.

That is basically the cynical portrait Tarog paints, perhaps stung by criticism that Heneral Luna helped pave the way for Duterte’s election by venerating a strong, willful leader. This time around, we get del Pilar the womanizer, whose poor judgement leads to military disaster. It is only during the Tirad Pass engagement that del Pilar is finally redeemed, even though the loose series of battles still ended with an American victory. Throughout both films, Aguinaldo (perhaps intended as the Duterte surrogate this time around) has been the real villain, but if you think he has been problematic so far, just wait until the Japanese occupation during WWII.

So, yes, the Americans had a better grounding in military tactics and strategy, as well as superior resources and a relatively high level of morale among their troops. Right, aside from all that, the Revolutionary Army had all the advantages. Frankly, Tarog hardly bothers to score any anti-American points this time around. Instead, he eviscerates the factionalism and paranoia Aguinaldo fostered. However, he stages some appropriately chaotic scenes of warfighting during the Tirad Pass sequences.

Frankly, Paulo Avelino does little humanize or otherwise rehabilitate del Pilar and little chemistry develops during the chilly scenes he shares with Gwen Zamora’s Nable Jose. On the other hand, Mon Confiado is perversely compelling, in a Mephistophelean way, as Aguinaldo. Veteran character actor Ronnie Lazaro also helps liven up the proceedings as Lt. Garcia, a Luna loyalist, who rallies del Pilar’s troops at Tirad.

If it were not for the shared cast and director, it would be difficult to believe Goyo and Luna are part of the same duology (projected to be part of a greater series of Filipino historical epics). Still, as a tandem, they definitely illustrate the complicated thorniness of the Philippines’ history with the United States as well as its own difficulties establishing and maintaining republican forms of government. It is fascinating as a cultural document that also happens to have some good battle scenes, but it doesn’t really pull viewers in as an absorbing historical drama. Perhaps interesting to some on that limited basis, Goyo: The Boy General opens this Friday (9/21) in New York, at the AMC Kips Bay.

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Love, Gilda: The Life and Comedy of Gilda Radner


The guys in the band adored her. She married guitarist G.E. Smith and Paul Shaffer was canned from The Blues Brothers movie, because he loyally committed to work on her album. Yet, Gilda Radner is inseparably connected in our collective memory to her second husband, Gene Wilder, even though their three films together were considered a middling lot. The nostalgia is potent when Lisa Dapolito surveys Radner’s life and comedy in Love, Gilda (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Documentaries like this really put pop culture in perspective. These days, Saturday Night Live is squarely part of the establishment, but during the early years, it was some of the hippest, edgiest stuff you could find on television. Among the original cast members, Radner was one of the biggest breakouts, but she remained plagued by her insecurities.

Dapolito scored access to a trove of audio diaries, journal entries, and letters that all confirm the film’s armchair psychology. Through Radner’s words and voice, as well as readings by her contemporary admirers, viewers get a vivid sense of her long-term issues, many of which she started to work through when she met her second husband, Wilder.

That is all well and good, but the real power of Love, Gilda comes from journey back back to the era of her prime. It reminds us when Radner was really one of the biggest names in comedy, period. Arguably, the late Wilder (who logically gets a good deal of attention too) was even bigger. Critics like to make 1970s all about the “New Hollywood” auteurs, but which do you watch more frequently, Shampoo and The Deer Hunter, or Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein?

Even though it was sort of documented in Mike Nichols’ performance film Gilda Live, people not living in New York during 1979 might not remember she also had a Broadway show. In retrospect, it was a clear forerunner to shows staged by the likes of Billy Crystal and John Leguizamo. It seems like a production featuring ribald songs and her popular characters, including Roseanne Roseannadanna, should have run forever, but apparently, she tired of it after 52 performances and the out-of-town previews featured in the film (because onerous union rules made filming on Broadway untenable).

Strangely, Dapolito spends little time on Radner’s legacy, despite the prominence of Gilda’s Club, the cancer support group co-founded by Wilder, and the posthumous success of her memoir. However, she does give a fair amount of time to Hanky Panky and Haunted Honeymoon, two likable and unnecessarily maligned films they made together, largely due the off-screen drama that occurred simultaneously.

Despite the funny clips, Love, Gilda is a sad film, because we know how it will end. Dapolito and the editors, Anne Alvergue and David Cohen do a nice job of assembling all the archival material and recently discovered recordings. As a result, it feels much more intimate than most docu-treatments. Recommended for Radner fans and anyone holding fondly nostalgic memories of late 1970s and early-to-mid 1980s pop culture, Love Gilda opens this Friday (9/21) in New York, at the Quad Cinema and the Landmark 57.

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Sunday, September 16, 2018

Korean Cinema ’18: Microhabitat


Politicians like to pretend so-called “sin taxes” on booze and cigarettes are progressive, but they are really some of the most regressive taxes on the books. Just ask Miso, a free-spirit, who is not as young as she once was. She has three important budget items: rent, cigarettes, and a glass of good whiskey every few days. However, when the government doubles the cigarette tax, she decides she will have to sacrifice rent in director-screenwriter Jeon Go-woon’s Microhabitat (trailer here), which screens during the Honolulu Museum of Art’s annual Korean Cinema series.

Miso only makes forty dollars a week as a freelance house cleaner, but it is enough to cover her essentials. The most of her entertainment is provided by her beloved boyfriend Han-sol (and the blood they sometimes sell together). He dreams of becoming a webtoon artist, but for now, he lives in a company dormitory that does not allow women. So, when the price of smokes skyrockets, Miso gives up her tiny flat and starts reaching out to the members of her fondly remembered college band.

She accepts a few days hospitality from them, one by one, but she finds they have either hardened and sold out or they are so profoundly disappointed in life, they are much less happy than she is—but they are safer and have a more stable environment.

As Miso starts to run out of band members, we really start to worry for her. Yes, she is responsible for her own choices, but are cigarettes and the occasional good whiskey really too much to ask? Frankly, this is one of the supposed benefits of sin taxes: forcing people to quit unhealthy behavior, but what are the repercussions for those who can’t or won’t?

Of course, the warm, absolutely luminous presence of Esom (a.k.a. Lee Som) heightens and intensifies everything. As pretty and sweet as she is, we can see only too clearly how her shy reserve could cause to her to be overlooked and forgotten by society. Yet, there is also something heroic and even life-affirming about her dedication to her two vices. It is a quiet performance, but it suits the film pitch-perfectly.

Microhabitat is one of the most powerful and challenging films about homelessness you will see for quite some time, precisely because of the subtlety of Jeon’s approach. Arguably, Miso often seems like the healthiest person in each scene, but she is also the most at risk. As a result, Jeon and her star, Esom turn indie slacker dramedies on their ear and find a good deal of humor in adversity, while always keeping things really real. Very highly recommended, Microhabitat screens this Thursday (9/20) and Friday (9/21), as part of this year’s Korean Cinema at the Honolulu Museum of Art. It also screens next Sunday (9/23) during the 2018 LA Film Festival.

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Saturday, September 15, 2018

Lost Child: The Infernal Ozarks


The Ozarks have not had much luck in film and television. Generally, the mountainous plateau is portrayed as a place that combines the worst of the old world and contemporary society. There you will find all kinds of spooky old timey magic practiced, as well as meth. For a recently discharged veteran, it also happens to be home, but for her that is not a point in its favor. The land of Winter’s Bone gets a similar sort of treatment this time around, but there is more empathy than usual in Ramaa Mosley’s Lost Child (trailer here), which is now playing in New York.

Janella “Fern” Sreaves has come “home,” but she still carries part of the war with her. We can tell, because her aversion to guns is quite atypical for the region (and also for her former profession). She returns to the grim duty of her father’s funeral, but for her it is really a matter of paperwork. She would like to patch things up with her recidivist brother Billy, but he holds fast to his misplaced grievances.

That is all very frustrating for Sreaves, but par for the course. Things start to get weird for her when she finds a waifish boy shivering in the woods. Rather awkwardly, the local social worker happens to be her homecoming hook-up, Mike Rivers. Picking up on her own foster kid history, Rivers guilts Sreaves into sheltered the polite Cecil, at least temporarily. However, as soon as she welcomes him into the cabin, she starts feeling ill and her hair suddenly starts graying. Folks start whispering about Cecil and some even warn her outright. Surely, he must be the Tatterdemalion, a life-force-consuming demon that lives in the woods, until some naïf invites it into their home.

What is really creepy about Lost Child is not the is-he-or-isn’t-he question. It is the fact that so many people truly believe there are demons lurking in the woods, here in the present day. You do not even need demons when there are people burning trees to get the evil spirits out. Nevertheless, Mosley nicely maintains a sense of ambiguity and uncertainty regarding Cecil’s true nature—and perhaps the nature of our world as well. Without a doubt, Lost Child represents a quantum leap improvement over her previous film, the vacuous mishmash, The Brass Teapot. This is a gritty, emotionally intelligent film that has a strong sense of place, geographically and culturally.

Leven Rambin is terrific as Sreaves. If you want an example of “strong but vulnerable,” she delivers to a “T.” Fortunately, neither Rambin or Mosley overplay Sreaves’ PTSD, forgoing the typical twitching and night terrors. Instead, it is something more matter-of-fact that she will have to struggle to overcome. Rambin also develops some nice romantically ambiguous chemistry with Jim Parrack’s Rivers, who could be the manliest social worker ever seen in a serious drama.

Watching Lost Child brought to mind Robert Love Taylor’s yet-to-be-properly-appreciated novel Blind Singer Joe’s Blues. They both usher us into a world where “hants” and infernal ones have a palpable effect on people, regardless whether they are real or not. Recommended for fans of Southern Gothic at its most hardscrabble, Lost Child is now playing in New York, at the Cinema Village.

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Friday, September 14, 2018

Four Hands: Sisters in Vengeance


It is modern day Germany, not Dirty Harry’s 1970s San Francisco, but apparently the progressive judges and parole boards are just the same. Twenty years ago, Jessica and Sophie’s parents were murdered while they hid in terror. Now, the killers have been released from prison, because of rehabilitation or whatever. However, the dysfunctional sisters continued to feel the impact of the crimes every day of their lives. Sophie is finally ready to move on, but Jessica is not. In fact, she is determined to involve her sister in her bid for vengeance, even if she has to do it from beyond the grave in Oliver Kienle’s Four Hands (trailer here), which opens today in Los Angeles.

As the older sibling, Jessica shielded Sophie from the sight of the parents’ murder, but she saw it all. That helps explain her more aggressive and erratic behavior. When informed of the murderers’ release, she goes into a full manic cycle, pulling Sophie out of an important audition, so they can plan their attack. Wanting none of it, Sophie tries to flee, but their jostling leads to a fatal traffic accident. Sophie wakes up in the hospital, whereas Jessica went straight to the morgue.

At least Sophie should be able to live her own life now—but not so fast. Rather disturbingly, she starts blacking out, during which time she acts quite suspiciously. She threatens the nice doctor who helped her after the accident and clearly starts stalking the murderers. Then Sophie starts picking up the voice messages Jessica leaves for her.

Throughout most of the film, Kienle leaves plenty of interpretive room for viewers whether the vengeful Jessica is a supernatural or psychological phenomenon. Mostly, Four Hands is a rather intriguing thriller that never crosses over into horror, but should still appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of horror fans (although there are no one-to-one parallels, it certainly feels like Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers was an influence). Kienle (the creator and head writer of the terrific German television show Bad Banks) is definitely playing with sister/twin/doppelganger motifs, but the film also directly explores the long-term emotional and psychological impact of violent crime, in a serious and thoughtful way.

Friederike Becht is impressively fierce as Jessica, especially during the scenes in which she appears to physically take over Sophie’s body. Again, for most of the film, it is unclear whether this is an actual manifestation of the uncanny or an expressively symbolic strategy of Kienle. Conversely, Frida-Lovisa Hamann often seems problematically bland and passive as Sophie, but that is arguably required of a character who has been dominated so long by a strong but unstable personality like Jessica. Christopher Letkowski is also believably grounded and appropriately freaked out as Martin, the doctor who haltingly pursues a relationship with Sophie.

There are some terrific settings in Four Hands (like the sisters’ isolated manor and a modernist concert hall), but Kienle never uses them to imitate Hitchcock or the Giallo masters. This is his film not a shallow homage. Recommended with enthusiasm, Four Hands opens today (9/14) in LA, at the Laemmle Music Hall.

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Thursday, September 13, 2018

Don’t Leave Home: A Portrait of Irish Horror

Portraiture rarely turns out well in horror stories—just ask the model in Poe’s “Oval Portrait.” Religious experiences generally turn out badly as well. Little Siobhan Callahan has the misfortune of combining both. Her infamous disappearance inspires an American artist to take a pilgrimage to the scene of the “dark miracle” in Michael Tully’s Don’t Leave Home (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Brooklyn.

The title sounds like a gimmicky riff on American Express, but it is actually a moody, existential Irish horror movie, very much in the tradition of The Devil’s Doorway. In fact, the films share two principle cast members. As is usually the case with tales of mysterious evil forces, it began years ago. The Callahan family worked for the parish priest, Father Alastair Burke, a skilled amateur painter. One day, Burke painted Siobhan as she stood at an early Christian altar in the forest, where she seemed to become bathed in light. The she disappeared, both from the canvass and real life.

Years later, Melanie Thomas is trying to depict the incident in her work. She is a diorama artist, not unlike Toni Colette in Hereditary, but fortunately she doesn’t have a family of her own. After a getting an unfair critical drubbing, Thomas receives a call from Father Burke’s caretaker, Shelly. He read about her show and wants to see and most likely buy the Callahan piece for himself, so off she goes to Ireland. It turns out Burke is nice old gent, who clearly remains haunted by events from his past. On the other hand, Shelly seems to mass produce bad vibes. Their taciturn handyman-manservant Padraig is not particularly welcoming either.

Thomas’s experiences on their secluded estate are all kinds of Gothic, channeling all the usual suspects, from Du Maurier to The Innocents to Hammer Films, but Tully has something rather fresh and original up his sleeve. He also has two terrific trump cards in Lalor Roddy and Helena Bereen (also recently seen together in The Devil’s Doorway), who are both terrific as Father Burke and Shelly. Here Roddy is refined and anguished but also unsettling, in the tradition of vintage Peter Cushing, while Bereen just has a knack for putting viewers immediately on edge.

Anna Margaret Hollyman also gives an unusually strong horror movie performance as the intuitive but insecure Thomas. Arguably, the cast is so good, they manage to not get completely up-staged by the creepy locations in and around Killadoon House in County Kildare. Cinematographer Wyatt Garfield really runs with the Gothic atmosphere, giving the film an eerie, perpetually overcast look. This is a smart, literate genre film that continues the mini-Irish horror renaissance represented by films like The Devil’s Doorway, The Lodgers, Cherry Tree, and The Canal. Recommended highly for neo-Gothic horror fans, Don’t Leave Home screens this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday (9/14-9/16) at the Brooklyn Alamo Drafthouse.

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TIFF ’18: Legend of the Demon Cat


Kûkai was like the Japanese Xuanzang (of Journey to the West immortality). He really did travel to China in search of Buddhist teachings. As amateur sleuths go, he inspires a good deal of confidence. That is not necessarily true of the great Tang poet Bai Juyi, but Kûkai needs somebody familiar with all of the capitol city’s brothels. Together, they will solve a mystery with supernatural implications in Chen Kaige’s Legend of the Demon Cat (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

Technically, it is not really a whodunit. The demonic cat did it—and he will do it a lot more. The question is why. Kûkai first finds traces of its nefarious activity when he is summoned to exorcise the emperor. Unfortunately, he arrives too late, but immediately suspects the furry demon. He also meets Bai Juyi, who is about to resign his post as the court recorder. It is from Bai that Kûkai hears gossip of a strange cat tormenting the household of the captain of the imperial guard. From there, they are off like Holmes and Watson on the trail of Captain Chen, which naturally runs through an elegant brothel.

In fact, it is fortunate they are there, so Kûkai can treat Chen’s former favorite, who is mysteriously afflicted with paranormal parasites. However, they really catch a break when they discover the diary of Nakamaro Abe, a Japanese expat, who watched the Emperor’s favorite concubine, Yang Guifei, meet her sad end. In an almost Shakespearean paradox, everybody at court loved her, especially including Abe, but she was doomed to die as a Marie Antoinette scapegoat. Of course, the cat is still rather ticked off about what happened, but to be fair, it did go down rather badly.

Frankly, it is hard to believe this is a Chen Kaige film, because it is relatively short on melodrama, but long on spectacle. It looks more like a Tsui Hark remake of Ghost Cat of Otama Pond. The fact that it is a Chinese-Japanese co-production is also a minor miracle. See, we can all get along after all. Regardless, it is a big film, with big sets, and big effects, and a weirdly idiosyncratic narrative based on Baki Yumemakura’s Japanese novel.

There are a lot of entertaining aspects to Demon Cat, starting with the laidback, unforced buddy chemistry that develops between Kûkai and Bai. Instead of bickering and bantering, they gently tease each other and eventually really start to open up and talk honestly. Shota Sometani is truly terrific as Kûkai, in a sly, understated kind of way. Huang Xuan plays off him nicely as Bai, but the character does not have the same heft and dimension.  Sad-eyed Hiroshi Abe radiates heartsickness as his morose namesake, while Sandrine Pinna is radiantly regal yet acutely tragic as Lady Yang.

Perhaps most importantly, Demon Cat vividly demonstrates how cool Buddhist monks can be. This is a messy, sprawling film, so it might be that sum of its parts is greater than its whole, but it would be a crying shame to miss those parts. There are at least half a dozen scenes viewers are sure to be talking about afterward. Highly recommended as a visually lavish jaunt into Tang-era intrigue and supernatural hijinks, Legend of the Demon Cat screens tonight (9/13) and Saturday (9/15) as part of this year’s TIFF.

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The Toybox: When Denise Richards Met Mischa Barton


Right, so the idea of taking a long road trip in a 1970s era RV does not sound miserable enough to you? Okay, lets make it haunted by the ghost of its former owner, a notorious serial killer. Now head out into the desert and kiss your butt goodbye. That is basically what happens in Tom Nagel’s The Toybox (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in Los Angeles.

After the death of his ex-wife, Charles gathers his family, two feuding sons, a daughter-in-law, and a young granddaughter for a tour of roadside attractions. It is supposed to be healing. He must have gotten a heck of a deal on the RV. Officially, it is not supposed to exist anymore. Out of respect for the victims’ family’s Robert Gunthry’s so-called “Toy Box” was slated for destruction, but obviously that did not happen.

So, for a while Charles is tooling down the highway, but he stops to pick up Samantha and her soon-to-die brother, whose car broke down along a lonely stretch of nowhere. Soon thereafter, the RV takes on a life of its own, speeding deep into the desert, where it promptly shuts down, leaving them stranded. At that point, Gunthry starts picking them off, either using the RV itself, or with his ghostly bare hands.

Frankly, Gunthry’s inconsistent nature would be annoying, if this film were worth caring about. Is he a proper ghost? Is he somehow embedded in the RV? If so, how does he take on corporeal form? We don’t know and we don’t care.

Arguably, Denise Richards peaked in the late 90s with films like Starship Troopers, while Mischa Barton’s O.C. prime was in the mid aughts, so there was probably never a time when having them together would have caused a lot of excitement. They both look great, but in 2018, this team-up screams direct-to-DVD. Unfortunately, they are both better than this material.

To give credit where its due, Richards convincingly portrays a justifiably worried mother, who almost makes us feel for her plight. Perhaps Greg Violand fares the best, managing to squeeze some tragic dignity out of Papa Bear Charles. Conversely, it gets painfully tiresome listening to the brothers bark at each other.

It is just not a lot of fun watching people see their loved ones die before their eyes. Nagel never gives his characters any hope, so there isn’t any suspense. As if that were not sufficiently depressing, the audience also has to spend time with that tacky 70s era décor. Not recommended, The Toybox opens tomorrow (9/14) in LA, at the Laemmle NoHo 7.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Angel: The Spy Who Made Camp David Possible


Ashraf Marwan was a visionary and that forced him to become a spy. As early as the late 1960s, he realized Egypt and the rest of the Arab world had aligned themselves with the wrong super-power. The Soviet Union’s socialist economy would inevitably collapse, leaving Israel’s increasingly close ally America standing tall. He was more right than wrong. To avoid long-term disaster, Marwan became a one of the most highly placed intelligence sources in the Mossad’s history—or at least that is how history is interpreted in Ariel Vromen’s The Angel (trailer here), which premieres on Netflix this Friday.

Marwan was Nasser’s not-particularly-beloved son-in-law, but Sadat thought more highly of him (he also appreciated the close alliance between himself and his late predecessor’s family). As a result, Marwan served as his envoy to nearly every Arab leader requiring a little special handling (especially Gaddafi) and was privy to all of Sadat’s war plans. HowMost of those plans would cross the desk of Mossad chief Zvi Zamir, thanks to Marwan. However, it was still difficult building trust between him and his Mossad handler, Danny Ben Aroya—not without reason—on both sides.

So, can you guess which historical figure has now been portrayed by Robert Loggia, Louis Gossett Jr., and Sasson Gabai (currently on Broadway in the role he created in the original film version of The Band’s Visit)? That’s right, Anwar Sadat. In fact, the best part of The Angel is all the intrigue going on in Cairo, featuring the crafty but maybe more-progressive-than-he-lets-on Sadat and Sami Sharaf, Marwan’s seriously sinister former boss during the Nasser regime.

On the other hand, all the do-we-trust-him-or-not, what’s-with-you-guys-anyway back-and-forth between Marwan and the Mossad gets a little tiresome. Seriously, you would think Zamir would give a lot of rope to a source this highly placed. Still, the film does a nice job of squaring Marwan’s actions with his patriotic loyalty to Egypt. You would almost think screenwriter David Arata was trying to protect his subject, but the real-life Marwan died in 2007—under mysterious circumstances.

Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari carries the film quite well as Ashraf Marwan, even brooding charismatically. As usual, Gabai is a sly, intriguing presence as Sadat, while Slimane Dazi is so Mephistophelean as Sharaf, he practically makes viewers smell sulfur. Although Toby Kebbell is sufficiently earnest as Ben Aroya, none of the Israeli figures are as sharply drawn as their Egyptian counterparts.

The Israeli-born, LA-based Vromen keeps the clockwork tightly wound and does a nice job of conveying the tenor of the era. It is a nicely crafted period espionage drama, but it is not the definitive portrait of the Mossad’s heroic service we are all still waiting for. Recommended as an interesting take on a remarkable true story, The Angel starts streaming on Netflix this Friday (9/14).

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Final Score: Dave Bautista Makes an Action Movie for Trump


Yes, the former Soviet Union would be paradise if it were not for those violent independence activists. Awkwardly, that is the inadvertent message of Dave Bautista’s new throwdown. Hopefully, the former wrestler-turned-actor can keep all those troublesome potential breakaway autonomous republics in line. He will also have to rescue a British football (soccer) stadium full of fans in Scott Mann’s Final Score (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Blame the Belov Brothers. Dimitri was the parliamentarian, who inspired his people to rise up in defiance of their Russian oppressors, or wise stewards, or whatever. His brother Arkady was the general who made sure it was as bloody as possible. When Dimitri died, the revolution died with him. However, the can’t-see-the-forest-for-the-trees Arkady has learned his brother faked his death and has been living under an assumed identity in the UK. However, he will be in the stadium for an important match between West Ham and Russia.

Logically, Arkady decides to take control of the stadium, wire it up with a dumpster’s worth of C4, force the Brits to give away his brother (who will happily return with Arkady to reignite the carnage), and then let all the hostages blow up when the game clock hits ninety minutes (gee, what if there’s stoppage time?). Of course, he didn’t plan on having American mercenary Michael Knox in the stadium.

Wisely, screenwriters Jonathan Frank, David T. Lynch, and Keith Lynch refrain from calling him “Hard Knox.” He has no interest in FIFA-style football, but he has brought Danni, the daughter of a fallen colleague who now calls him “Uncle Mike.” She is a fan, but she is also inclined to knock off with her deadbeat friends, making it hard for Knox to keep tabs on her when things start to explode.

Okay, so this isn’t a spectacularly original premise. In fact, the whole Die Hard in a stadium thing has already been done at least once before. However, you have to give Final Score credit for a spectacularly brutal fight scene in the stadium kitchen, involving fry baskets.

Bautista is generally pleasant to spend time with and he certainly has the chops for all the fight sequences. (As a pedantic aside, he is way too huge for a climatic scene to make sense, but hey, whatever.) Ray Stevenson is also well in his element, snarling and chewing the scenery as Gen. Belov. The one-sheet doesn’t lie—Pierce Brosnan is in this movie too, but viewers will have to wait a while to see him in anything but crowd scenes. Ralph Brown and Julian Cheung add some attitude as Superintendent Steed and Agent Cho, but let’s be honest, even if it an homage, just using the name “Steed” really risks annoying all the Avengers fans out there.

As an old school action movie, Final Score has a good deal going for it. Politically, it is just a mess. Beyond its confused and not particularly helpful depiction of post-Soviet independence movements, it spends an excessive amount of time on Faisal Khan, an usher helping Knox, just to ram home the point not all Muslims or South Asians are terrorists. Evidently, the film wants viewers to think of them as annoying and ineffectual instead. Wow, what a victory for multiculturalism. Yet even with those frequent PSA interruptions, it has some meathead charm. Recommended accordingly, albeit with the afore mentioned reservations, Final Score opens this Friday (9/14) in New York, at the Village East.

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Patient Zero: Finally Opening


It was once on the so-called “Black List” survey of unproduced scripts well-regarded by industry insiders. Well, so much for that. It is about to have a miniscule opening, one month after it released on VOD. These was the same circumstances faced by Kevin Spacey’s most recent film, Billionaire Boys Club, which the trades trumpeted far and wide as the death knell of the disgraced actor’s career. So, are they going to say the same thing about Black List scripts, because fair is fair isn’t it? Actually, there is nothing fair about stupid stories that cherry-pick low opening grosses for films that are primarily seeking VOD business. It would be particularly easy to beat up on this unfortunate genre picture, because it was dropped by a major distributor, but there are worse films hitting theaters this week than Stefan Ruzowitzky’s Patient Zero (trailer here), which opens in a few theaters somewhere this Friday.

Don’t call them zombies. The “Infected” just happen to have a case of super-mega-ultra rabies, leaving them rage fueled berserkers—all except Morgan, that is. He was infected, but he did not turn, to use a zombie term. As a result, he can talk to the Infected, much to their surprise. Under the supervision of Dr. Gina Rose, he interrogates captured Infecteds, hoping to find the original source: “Patient Zero.”

Rose is okay. In fact, Morgan is definitely attracted to her, creating a lot of awkward guilt for the “Infected Talker,” since his wife Janet is one of the Infected they are transfusing, in the hope they can eventually be cured. Of course, they have heightened hearing, so she knows. In contrast, it is the jerkweed martinet in charge of bunker security who really chafes Morgan, but his nemesis will be “The Professor,” a leader the Infected, who does not seem to follow any of the rules Morgan and Rose thought they had figured out.

In fact, those rules are somewhat interesting and probably give is a sense of what the original Black List script read like. The Infected can’t process music, so Morgan, a former record store owner, uses classic rock and soul as part of the interrogation process. They also lost their ability to deceive—or did they? Unfortunately, just when the rules are fully established, they are thrown out and the film loses its distinctive vibe, becoming predictable and cliched.

As you might expect, it is a good deal of fun to watch Stanley Tucci act all sinister as “The Professor” (but Mary Ann remains unaccounted for). Matt Smith also fully commits as the brainy but prickly Morgan, using a lot of his old Doctor Who acting muscles. Natalie Dormer is fine as Dr. Rose, but it too bad Agyness Deyn doesn’t get more screen time as Janet, the Infected, because her portrayal is really quite complex and emotionally engaging.

Yes, Patient Zero clearly owes debts to Day of the Dead, 28 Days and Weeks Later, as well as scores of other zombie and pandemic movies, but Ruzowitzky keeps it moving along nicely. His output has been a little uneven since The Counterfeiters won the Academy Award, but his films usually have intriguing elements, especially the intense psycho-thriller, Cold Hell. Sure, it craters during the third act, but isn’t that always the way? In any event, it is far better than any reports of its minimal opening might suggest. Recommended as a VOD distraction for fans of apocalyptic horror, Patient Zero opens somewhere this Friday (9/14).

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Monday, September 10, 2018

CIFF ’18: Putin’s Witnesses


It was a scene worthy of the third Omen movie. Late in the evening on New Year’s Eve, 1999, Boris Yeltsin announced his resignation as president of Russia and the elevation of his successor Vladimir Putin—the new “strong hand” for a new millennium. Neither Russia nor the rest of the world realized what his elevation and subsequent election meant at the time, but maybe we shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly. Vitaly Mansky only had an inkling of how bad things could get, even though repeatedly filmed Putin up close and personal for a series of documentaries broadcast on Russian state television. Mansky still had all his raw footage, so he was able to reassemble it into an eerie chronicle of Putin’s solidification of power. Hindsight is disconcertingly spooky in Mansky’s Putin’s Witnesses (trailer here), which screens as part of a mini-Mansky retrospective at the 2018 Camden International Film Festival.

Mansky is no stranger to controversy. He rather ticked off two oppressive regimes when he turned the Russian financed puff piece he was supposed to be shooting in the DPRK into Under the Sun, an expose of the pariah nation’s propaganda techniques. He now resides in Latvia. Putin’s Witnesses will make it even more difficult for him to return to his homeland for the foreseeable future.

At times, the fly-on-the-wall footage Mansky captured is just jaw-dropping. We see in no uncertain terms how Putin’s campaign team staged events for the benefit of the complaint state media, like the supposedly spontaneous visit to his beloved grey-hair elementary teacher (actually, that was Mansky’s idea). It also clearly contradicts the notion that Putin was too busy with affairs of state to engage in a traditional campaign.

Simultaneously, Mansky was also working on profiles of Yeltsin, so he has ample footage of the late president and his family reacting to his hand-picked successor electoral victory and the early months of his first full term. As you might expect, their initial elation gives way to pronounced disappointment. Yet, easily the most telling sequence in the film occurs during election night at the Putin campaign war room, allowing Mansky to explain how nearly the entire inner circle have now joined the opposition or died under mysterious circumstances.

Arguably, the most important (and under-reported in Western media) events Mansky documents involve Putin’s re-embrace of Soviet anthems, banners, and iconography. It is pretty surreal to watch Nikita Mikhalkov, the director of Burnt by the Sun, and his composer father de-Communizing an old Soviet marching dirge, but Mansky has the footage to prove it happened. Frankly, every conservative drinking Trump’s Russian Kool-Aid needs to see this film. Remember Reagan and the Cold War? The Gipper would recognize Putin for exactly what he is: a tyrant and a dangerous enemy of the Free World.

Like Under the Sun, Putin’s Witnesses is a pretty gutsy work of documentary filmmaking. What really distinguishes the latter from other Putin docs is the way Mansky ruthlessly judges his own culpability. He had misgivings about the former KGB agent right from the start, but he still participated in Putin’s PR campaign. Yet, if someone else had done it, the world would most likely never have the chance to see this footage. Editor Gunta Ikere also deserves enormous credit for helping shape Mansky’s footage into such an urgent and compelling narrative. We see, slowly but surely, how democracy is undermined and freedom is lost. Very highly recommended, Putin’s Witnesses screens Friday evening (9/14), as part of this year’s CIFF.

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TIFF ’18: The Sweet Requiem

They are the refugees that aren’t featured in music videos or fund-raising concerts. Although China has occupied Tibet for nearly fifty years, there is still steady stream of Tibetan refugees, braving the elements and Chinese border patrols to seek asylum in India. Those border guards will fire at will, as they did in September 2006, when they gunned down a seventeen-year-old nun. That incident was the seed that eventually germinated in the second narrative feature from the filmmaker tandem responsible for Dancing at Lhasa. Survivor’s guilt remains a potent force in Dolkar’s life, but even when they reach Northern India, Tibetan refugees like her are not safe from Chinese moles and spies in Ritu Sarin & Tenzing Sonam’s The Sweet Requiem, which screens during the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.

With the Chinese encroaching on their traditional nomadic grasslands, Dolkar’s father decided he had to take her to India if she was to have any sort of future. She survived the trip, but he did not. Technically, he was shot by the Chinese, but she blames Gompo, the guide who abandoned their traveling party. Twenty years later (give or take), she is a poor but independent woman living in India. She is popular with the Tibetan expat community, but she has not seen her mother and sister since she left. It is a relatively simple life, but it is upended by the arrival of a supposed Tibetan activist, who happens to be a dead ringer for Gompo.

Dolkar starts following Dolkar out of anger and suspicion. As a result, she will witness the visit he receives from two thuggish agents of the Mainland government. However, there will be more to the story of the man who is probably Gompo than she realizes.

Sweet Requiem is one of the rare films that works equally well as a thriller, a tragedy, and an advocacy film. An enormous amount of credit goes to Tenzin Dolker, who is absolutely extraordinary as Dolkar. She lights up the screen, but she is also arrestingly vulnerable and messily complicated, in an acutely human kind of way.

Veteran Tibetan actor Jampa Kalsang Tamang is really just as haunting as Gompo in flashbacks and the guilt-wracked shell of a man Dolker intends to confront. It is not a flashy performance, but it connects on a gut level. Shavo Dorjee also helps keep the film grounded in reality as his namesake, a Tibetan refugee activist, who carries a torch for Dolkar.

Sweet Requiem is a story of human tragedy and suffering that incorporates some weighty Buddhist themes, but it also provides a wake-up call regarding China’s harassment of dissidents abroad. Clearly, the two spies (played chillingly by actors credited as Lhakpa Tsering) believe they can operate with impunity in India, because it is obviously true. Sarin & Sonam (the son of Tibetan refugees) also use the heartbreaking cases of Tibetan self-immolations to underscore the atmosphere of desperation, but they remain scrupulously sensitive (and never exploitative) in the way they address the phenomenon. Ultimately, the cumulative impact is deeply moving. Very highly recommended, The Sweet Requiem screens again tomorrow (9/11) and Saturday (9/15), as part of this year’s TIFF.

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Museo: The Great Mexico City Art Heist

Frankly, it is not hard to fathom how a couple of amateur thieves managed to walk off with a spectacular haul of Pre-Columbian art from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The alarm had been broken for three years and the guards also happened to be drunk. Alonso Ruizpalacios largely lets the museum staff off the hook in his free interpretation of the 1985 Christmas Eve heist. He also choses to skip over the thieves’ connection to narcotics traffickers. However, the perps really were slacker veterinary students—that much is true in Ruizpalacios’s fabulistic Museo (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Museo is the sort of film that warns us through voice-overs right from the start that what we are about to witness will be filtered through the narrators’ lies and biases—and it will revisit that theme again just before the moment of truth. For the time being, we watch Juan Nuñez get the germ of the idea while working a crummy summer job at the museum and subsequently refine his scheme while he and his best pal Benjamin Wilson are aimlessly scuffling.

Due to an accelerated renovation schedule, Nuñez and the reluctant Wilson must carry out their plans on Christmas Eve, but that turns into a blessing in disguise. However, it forces Wilson to leave his ailing father during what will presumably be his final Christmas, introducing a continuing source of tension that threatens to divide the friends during their misadventures. Ironically, stealing the priceless artifacts turns out to be the easier part. Fencing the hotter than hot goods is far trickier. However, Nuñez knows a guy in Palenque who knows a guy in Acapulco. Along the way, Nuñez will also meet his great movie lust, Sherezada, an analog for Mexican sex symbol-starlet Princesa Yamal, who was implicated in the 1985 robbery.

Usually, when films alter history it is for the sake of punching up the drama, but Ruizpalacios and co-screenwriter Manuel Alcala do the opposite, covering up all the really seedy and lurid parts (full story here). The absence of the drug and antiquity trafficking ring the real-life Carlos Percher Trevino became associated with is a conspicuous white-washing of history.

On the other hand, Ruizpalacios builds considerably more tension during the big heist sequence than probably the case for Percher and his accomplice, Ramon Sardina Garcia. In place of the wider criminal conspiracies, Ruizpalacios gives us a mediation on th Mexican national character and a rebuke of the prejudice often leveled at indigenous Mexican descendants, such as Wilson.

Gael Garcia Bernal is sufficiently petulant as the entitled Nuñez, but it is Leonardo Ortizgris who really connects as the loyal but conflicted Wilson. It is also great fun to watch Simon Russell Beale steal his scenes as the dodgy art collector, Frank Graves. However, the Museum is the real attraction in all its modernist glory. This was the first time the museum granted limited access, which Ruizpalacios shows it off nicely, from the plundered statues of Aztec gods to grand courtyard. The design team also seamlessly recreated the museum interiors for the extended heist sequence.

Even though it is a rather embarrassing incident for the museum to revisit, the film should spur an increase in tourist traffic. Museo starts out quite compellingly, but it gets lost in its own head for a while once it leaves Mexico City and its Satellite suburb. Ruizpalacios never promises us the truth, we get it, but there is still enough capery stuff to hold most viewers interest. Recommended on balance as an art-house art heist film, Museo opens this Friday (9/14) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center and the Landmark 57 West.

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