J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

HIFF ’18: The Third Wife

It is one of the great scientific injustices throughout human history. Women, especially those married to Henry VIII, have been blamed for not producing a male heir, even though it is only the father who can supply that Y chromosome. May finds herself in a similar dilemma. As the junior-most wife of a wealthy Vietnamese plantation owner, her position depends on her ability to give birth to a boy. The dysfunctional family dynamics and her first stirrings of passion will also confuse May in Ash Mayfair’s The Third Wife (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Frankly, May looks even younger than her fourteen years, so the idea of her marrying anyone is rather disturbing. Nonetheless, she fulfills her wedding night duties well enough to soon be pregnant. She is probably rather fortunate, because the senior wives, Ha and Xuan are quite supportive and protective of her. She also makes fast friends with Xuan’s daughters, Lien who is not much younger then May and spirited eight-or-ten-year-old Nhan.

The passions simmering within May’s new extended family definitely match the hot and humid Vietnamese countryside. This is especially true of the patriarch’s unstable son, who has been secretly carrying on an illicit affair with Xuan that has made him problematically co-dependent. Inevitably, his Werther-like brooding will destabilize their hothouse environment.

The Vietnamese-born, US & UK-educated Mayfair has crafted a wonderfully lush and evocative film. You can just smell the wild flowers (and the deadly nightshade). It is also very steamy, in every sense of the word.

As May, Nguyen Phuong Tra My does indeed look distressingly young and vulnerable, but she also makes a convincing pivot when her character starts to make some cold, hard decisions. Tran Nu Yen Khe is also wonderfully forceful and charismatic as Ha. However, My Cat Vi steals nearly all of her scenes as the wide-eyed, yet surprisingly resourceful Nhan.

Visually, Third Wife is absolutely gorgeous. Cinematographer Chananun Chotrungroj drinks in the rain forest backdrop and luxuriates in the trappings of 19th Century, fin de siècle wealth and [male] privilege. It is hard to watch the tragedy as it inevitably transpires, but Mayfair holds the viewers in a vice-like grip. She makes you want to immerse yourself in this world, despite its social inequities. Highly recommended, The Third Wife screens tomorrow (11/15) and Saturday (11/17), as part of this year’s HIFF.

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Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah: Four Sisters

If there was a Nobel Prize for conducting interviews, the late Claude Lanzmann would have surely been a laureate. Through recorded oral histories, he documented the Holocaust in directly personal terms. The ten-hour Shoah felt distinctly radical in 1985 and it remains the single most important cinematic exploration of the National Socialist genocide. Lanzmann continued to revisit the Holocaust in subsequent films, employing the same sensitive but persistent interview style. Essentially, this is a collection of outtakes from Shoah, but they are decidedly weighty and compelling outtakes. Four women tell how they witnessed and survived the horrific in Lanzmann’s Shoah: Four Sisters (trailer here), which opens today in New York.

The “sisters” are both alike and different in significant ways. Ruth Elias was from a well-established, long-assimilated Czechoslovakian family, but she had the dubious misfortunate of finding herself pregnant at the worst possible time. Her condition would eventually bring her face-to-face with Josef Mengele. Needless to say, the title of her segment, “The Hippocratic Oath” is meant to be darkly ironic.

Ada Lichtman hailed from the Polish hamlet of Wieliczka, where all the men were executed en masse, very much like the Katyn Forest Massacre, except it really was perpetrated by the Germans, rather than the Soviets. She lived with the constant expectation of death, yet she survived, because she was one of only three women selected for a work detail in Sobibor. However, her job including the soul crushing duty of washing and repairing dolls confiscated from Jewish children.

Paula Biren explains the realities of life in the Lodz Ghetto, where issues of complicity start to arise. Her well-to-do family were fully aware of the brewing danger of National Socialism, but they remained in Poland, because they didn’t have any other place to go. For a while, she worked for the ghetto’s Jewish Women’s Police, but she was wracked with guilt over the grim fate of the black marketeers she arrested. Biren resolved to quit the Women’s Police, despite the dire consequences she would face, but her decision was superseded by greater historical forces, which was a mixed blessing for her.

Hanna Marton’s segment will be the most controversial, because she survived as one of the fortunate passengers on the so-called Kasztner transit. She is fully aware of the controversies surrounding Kasztner, but maybe not as forthright and contrite as slightly frustrated-sounding Lanzmann would prefer. Although he is as soft-spoken as ever, he still grills her on the moral implications of Kasztner’s rescue mission. However, attitudes have maybe softened towards the leader of the Hungarian rescue committee. He was definitely practicing lifeboat ethics, but that is rather understandable, given the nature of the times.

All four women have a lot to say, but their stories need sometime to properly unfold, which is presumably why Lanzmann had not used most of this footage previously. However, it is hard to get around the rather static nature of Lanzmann’s straight-forward, long-take interview format. At least the background scenery changes during Biren’s segment, because she insists on taking Lanzmann out for a walk on the beach.

As it happens, the Quad is screening Biren and Marton’s segments together and pairing up Elias and Lichtman for the other Four Sister program. Arguably, the first block has the most dramatic subject matter, whereas the second is the more emotionally draining. Regardless, it is good for the future of civil society to have this material more widely available. Highly recommended as either a warm-up or a chaser to Lanzmann’s indispensable Shoah (1985), Shoah: Four Sisters opens today (11/14) in New York, at the Quad Cinema.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Touched: The Things That Haunt Us

This is why we have to pay last month’s rent whenever we move into a new apartment. One of Gabriel Tillman’s tenants has disappeared under mysterious circumstances, but he just can’t let it go. Unfortunately, the socially stunted landlord is completely unsuited for amateur sleuthing in Karl R. Hearne’s Touched (trailer here), which opens this Friday in Toronto.

Tillman is not good with people, but it is not his fault. Apparently, he had a difficult childhood that he will probably never fully recover from. Nevertheless, he was able to plug along as a super, eventually inheriting the building when the owner died. Alas, he is afraid the missing Caitlyn has also shuffled off the mortal coil, but he failed to adequately investigate when he had a chance. Tillman already fears the worst when he starts to be haunted by visions, hallucinations, or the actual ghost of a young girl, who may in fact be Caitlyn, or rather a younger version of herself.

Routine is important for Tillman. Every Friday he visits the same bakery to buy a fresh-baked loaf of brown bread. Gumshoe snoopery could be unhealthy for him in more ways than one, but he still starts tracing her previous whereabouts. It turns out they might have abusive childhoods in common. Tillman could also be losing his grasp on reality, but even if he is, she still could very well be the victim of foul play.

“Haunting” is indeed the right word for Touched. It is a subtle and frequently ambiguous film, but its truths ring with crystal clarity. Frankly, it makes a strong case genre cinema is better equipped than straight, preachy melodrama to deal with some subject matter, because of the flexibility and latitude the [possible] fantastical elements provide.

Regardless, Hugh Thompson is absolutely riveting as Tillman, despite the quiet, low-key nature of his breakout performance. You can just feel the depth of his emotional pain and ill-ease. It really is some remarkably assured work. Chimwemwe Miller also nicely grounds the film with his humanistic portrayal of the unnamed bakery clerk, which sounds like a nothing-part, but is actually quite significant.

Touched is truly a delicately calibrated film. If it had been a few degrees off in any respect, it could have been a tonal train-wreck (or at least a big “so what?”), but Hearne gets the balance just right. As a result, the film really sticks in viewers’ heads, haunting them, so to speak. Very highly recommended, Touched opens this Friday (11/16) in Toronto, at the Carlton Cinema.

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The Marine 6: Close Quarters

Whitey Bulger is now pushing up daisies and nobody feels sorry for him. Even before this rather acceptable news, we could well understand why another Irish mob boss would want to avoid prison. His strategy has been hanging juries by targeting jurors’ family members. However, his plans will go up in smoke when not one, but two Marines stumble across his gang’s latest victim in James Nunn’s The Marine 6: Close Quarters (trailer here), which releases today on DVD.

Jake Carter, the EMT hero of the last three straight-to-DVD Marine movies, is accompanying his old comrade Luke Trapper as he pays a house call on an old homeless vet squatting in an enormous abandoned factory. Trapper works for the VA, but he refuses to ever visit a doctor, so you do the math on that one. Regardless, as Carter and Trapper make their way through the strangely empty squatters’ paradise, they stumble across Sarah Dillon, who is being held against her will by the gangster’s homicidal daughter Maddy Hayes and her disposable henchmen. Fighting ensues.

That is pretty much the long and the short of it, aside from several allusions to Last Year at Marienbad and a lengthy explanation of the sub-prime crisis. This is definitely a meat-and-potatoes, throwback action movie, but its unabashed patriotism and workman-like grit are rather refreshing.

Not to be spoilery, but Craig Walendziak’s screenplay has the guts to pull a third act surprise that will forever alter the course of the Marine franchise, but it should still keep chugging along regardless. Where else will you find this many pro wrestlers in dramatic roles. It is easy to see why Mike “The Miz” Mizanin’s comfortable screen presence as Carter has worn well with fans. Shawn Michaels cranks up the energy and the attitude and just generally brings the fun as Trapper. However, the real discovery for non-wrestling fans is Becky Lynch, who has real crossover action star potential, based on her scene-stealing and scenery-chewing work as the villainous Hayes.

Worry not, even if you are not familiar with the previous five Marines, you should be able to follow Close Quarters just fine. It doesn’t set its sites too high, but it hits its target. There is a complete lack of pretense here and we’re okay with that. Recommended for fans of the WWE and old school Michael Dudikoff movies, The Marine 6: Close Quarters is now available on DVD.

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Monday, November 12, 2018

RIDM ’18: Self-Portrait: Sphinx in 47 KM

They might make for demanding cinema, but those long takes do not lie. They unblinkingly show reality as it is and force viewers to acknowledge it. Ostensibly, the subject is Diaoyutai, the small village 47 kilometers from Suizhou, where documentarian Zhang Mengqi’s father and grandfather lived. Her latest doc is not just the eighth installment of her Self-Portrait series, but also part of the larger ethnographic Folk Memory Project. Memories can be painful for Zhang’s interview subjects, but they are critical for understanding how Diaoyutai particularly and China in general reached their current states. Zhang introduces viewers to several residents in Self-Portrait: Sphinx in 47 KM (trailer here), which screens during this year’s RIDM: the Montreal International Documentary Festival.

It looks like an abandoned farm house, but apparently an old woman lives there. An old slogan (presumably from the Cultural Revolution) adorns the outer wall, but it is interrupted by a structural gap, so it now reads: “only … ism can save China.” For the old woman, it is especially, painfully ironic.

Throughout the film, she will explain how her late son was repeatedly wronged by corruption and a staggeringly unjust legal system. The unfortunate Jinhu sounds very much like Yang Jia, whose long-suffering mother was the subject of Ying Liang’s When Night Falls. He was also pushed too far and then convicted and imprisoned by a system that protects exploiters instead of victims.  However, after Jinhu had already served several years of a life sentence, the state then retroactively applied the death penalty to his case.

Hearing Jinhu’s mother give her oral history is absolutely devastating. Arguably, Zhang’s aesthetic decision to film her in almost excessively wide shots lessens some of the emotional impact, but it also emphasizes how small and powerless she is in contemporary Chinese society.

There is no question her segments are the strongest parts of the film. However, Zhang periodically visits with other villagers. They are either very young or very old, because every working-age adult has left in search of employment elsewhere. We meet a young teen who is bright and a rather talented artist, but we can tell she is approaching the point when she too will have to leave, if she is to have any kind of future. Yes, there are also long, quiet, almost entirely still shots of village life.

Frankly, Sphinx (a reference to the act of asking questions) can be a challenging experience for viewers, but just by documenting the testimony of Jinhu’s mother, Zhang has made a valuable contribution to both cinema and history. RIDM also deserves a lot of credit for programming it, thereby keeping it in the public consciousness. Highly recommended for hardcore cineastes, Self-Portrait: Sphinx in 47 KM screens this Wednesday (11/14) and Saturday (11/17), as part of this year’s RIDM.

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We, the Marines

It’s Veteran’s Day (observed)—do you know any veterans to thank? Do you know them well enough for it not to be awkward? For many, the answer is increasingly no. We are able to fight wars with an entirely volunteer military. In most respects, that is a good thing, but it means a steadily widening social chasm has opened up between veterans and military families on one side and civilians with no personal perspective on service across the divide. That is not healthy for our society. If you want at least a small taste of what it is like to train and deploy as a U.S. Marine, viewers can watch Greg MacGillivray’s short IMAX documentary, We, the Marines (trailer here), which screens at the National Museum of the Marine Corps and streams on Netflix.

Narrated by the great Gene Hackman (once a Marine, always a Marine, so don’t call him a “former” anything), We, the Marines follows the arrival of fresh recruits at Paris Island and new officer candidates at Quantico. Yes, it is tough, but anything less would be irresponsible. We get a taste of how arduous the physical training gets as well as a (most likely sanitized) selection from the motivation drill sergeants provide, but it has to be hard, considering we are training young people probably one-half or maybe even one-third your age to serve under warfighting conditions.

They do look young too. Watching We, the Marines should make viewers understand how much we demand of these men and women, mostly fresh out of high school or college. If they are not perfect 100 percent during their deployments, they will be crucified by the media and politicians eager to discredit their mission. When was the last time you were perfect in your job? Ever?

We, the Marines incorporates a little bit of actual combat footage, but it mostly focuses on boot camp and the process of physically delivering Marines to a theater of combat. There is plenty of good IMAX footage of modern military hardware that should interest Jane’s Defense readers, plus, there is also an extended sequence featuring dog-handling training, which is sure to be a crowd-pleaser.

At 38-minutes, MacGillivray’s film only scratches the surface of the Marine experience, but at least it is a start. It looks good and has respect, which is more than you can say for so many recent genre movie depictions of veterans. Recommended for general audiences, We, The Marines screens daily at the National Museum of the Marine Corps’ Medal of Honor Theater and it streams on Netflix.

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Sunday, November 11, 2018

DOC NYC ’18: Welcome to the Beyond

Hoyt Richards should have had more fun during the 1980s. He was considered one of the first male supermodels, on a similar level as Cindy Crawford and Stephanie Seymour, with whom he worked. Unfortunately, Richards was simultaneously a member of a New Agey cult with its own alien mythology. Richards explains how he fell prey to the cult and how he escaped in Brent Huff’s Welcome to the Beyond (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

A former Ivy League college athlete, Richards had a rugged New England kind of look that would have particularly suited Ralph Lauren, who did indeed use him in some of their campaigns. He was one of the only male models who had any fraction of the publicity devoted to his more famous women colleagues. Life should have been great for him, but he was under the sway of Frederick Von Mierers, the guru of the “Eternal Values” cult. According to his spiel, Von Mierers and his followers were really enlightened alien beings from the spiritual center of the universe, who had come to Earth to save it from our tacky, evil ways, but of course, he was the only one who retained his former memories.

Yes, it is crazy, but Von Mierers shrewdly planned his seduction of Richards. In fact, he played an instrumental role encouraging Richards’ early modeling career. Huff also clearly establishes how some of the dysfunctional dynamics in Richards’ family made him particularly susceptible to the tactics typically employed for cult recruitment. As a result, Richards was bankrolling Eternal Values and faithfully returning to Von Mierers’ Manhattan pad each night, instead of partying into the early morning hours.

The story of Richards’ cult ensnarement is pretty crazy stuff on its own, with the supermodel glamour giving it additional sex appeal. He is also remarkably candid in his interview segments, readily admitting how deeply he was sucked in and how badly it warped his perception. The film definitely makes its point: if someone who has as much going for him as Richards did could still be vulnerable to cult manipulation than the same is probably true for just about everyone else too.

Unfortunately, there is an inescapable scruffiness to the film, despite a surreal animated sequence illustrating the loopy Eternal Values creation myth. Partly, that is because so much of the footage was clearly shot on consumer-grade video, particularly that of Richards’ mother and Von Mierers, while they were still alive. There might be no way around that, but whether it is fair or not, the resulting film has a look and vibe that is probably better suited to television than theatrical screenings.

Ironically, Richards was envied by men and desired by women at a time when he was leading a double-life. There are important lessons to be drawn from his experiences, but the presentation still just isn’t very cinematic—a more distinctive score definitely would have helped (we’re always happen to recommend artists). Still recommended for its real-life drama and Richards’ often painful honesty, Welcome to the Beyond screens this Tuesday (11/13), as part of DOC NYC 2018.

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Saturday, November 10, 2018

DOC NYC ’18: A Little Wisdom

It is sort of like the Buddhist Garden of Eden, except it really exists. At least you can visit the Sacred Garden of Lumbini in Nepal, where Lord Buddha was born. Rather logically, the pilgrimage site is home to a number of monasteries, including this one dedicated to training young potential novice monks. Yuqi Kang follows five-year-old Hopakuli as he goes about his cloistered life in A Little Wisdom (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 DOC NYC.

The young children in this unidentified monastery are under no obligation to take their vows once they come of age. They are free to leave whenever they want, but where would they go? Most have been left in the monks’ care by desperately poor families, both to ease their financial burdens and so the young boys can enjoy better food and living conditions. In fact, most of the novices readily concede their lives are much easier in the monastery than they were back home.

Unfortunately, life is still tough for Hopakuli. Even though the boys are wearing robes, they still do all the rotten things you would expect from ordinary kids. In this case, they bully Hopakuli because he is the youngest. Frankly, his older brother Chorten is one of the worst offenders. In many ways, Vija is more of a brotherly figure to Hopakuli, but the fifteen-year-old is approaching a crossroads, when he will have to decide if he will stay or return to secular life.

Many viewers expecting something serene and meditative in the tradition of Walk with Me will be utterly shocked to find it is more of a cross between Kundun and Lee Hirsch’s Bully [Project], which, ever so awkwardly in retrospect, was distributed by the Weinstein Company. Poor Hopakuli is just a kid, who really is not that bratty for his age, so he really deserves a break.

Nevertheless, Kang and her co-cinematographers, Amitabh Joshi and Paola Ochoa, vividly capture the hushed vibe and tranquil surrounding environment of Lumbini. Clearly, she developed a high degree of trust with the young novices, because they obliviously forget she was filming when they really start to let Hopakuli have it. Yet, there are hopefully moments too. To her credit, Kang has also been quite fair to the monks, especially in her publicity interviews. Seriously, if you think you can do a better job sustaining a monastery full of kids in a remote corner of Nepal than you’re welcome to try.

A Little Wisdom will definitely transport viewers to Lumbini, but it is not the transcendentally immersive experience many patrons will be hoping for. Yet, they will find a bit of that wisdom therein, if they look for it. Recommended for viewers intrigued by monasticism and exotic locales, especially on a full-sized theater screen, A Little Wisdom has its New York premiere today (11/10), as part of DOC NYC, ahead of its arrival on iTunes scheduled for 11/20.

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Friday, November 09, 2018

River Runs Red: The Judge Turns Jury and Executioner

If a conservative is a liberal who got mugged, what happens when a liberal judge’s son is killed by cops? Apparently, he turns vigilante. Frankly, we will be much better without cops who are this rock-stupid. Of course, they are racist too, or at least the really obnoxious, loud-mouthed one is. Alas, this movie is not so bright either. Any resemblance to logic or reality is purely a coincidence in Wes Miller’s River Runs Red (trailer here), which opens today in New Jersey.

C.J. Coleman, Jr was driving to his first day at the Police Academy, where he hoped to follow in the footsteps of his father, Judge Charles Coleman, a former cop, after having spent the last six months caring for lepers in Mother Theresa’s former Kolkata mission. Okay, we made the last part up. Regardless, it is pretty hard to believe two of the biggest meathead cops you ever laid eyes on could get away with planting a gun on the police cadet son of a sitting judge, after blowing him away in a hail of bullets during a completely gratuitous traffic stop, but that is what happens. In our world, they would be crucified by the media and politicians, but in Miller’s alternate universe, the city’s African American mayor circles the wagons around them.

Frustrated with the perfunctory investigation, Coleman turns to his former partner, Horace, a hardboiled undercover cop, who did a stint in Internal Affairs. He digs up the shooters’ dirty history, which leads the Judge to Javier Garcia, another grieving father. Initially, Coleman approaches him with a half-baked notion of suing the city, but they eventually agree on a more direct and Biblical course of action.

RRR is a strange mishmash of a film that seems carefully calibrated to alienate everyone and appeal to nobody. Black Lives Matter-style polemics sit uneasily side-by-side with cathartic payback in the tradition of Death Wish. Taye Diggs is actually rather intense and brooding as Judge Coleman, but he does not have five consecutive minutes of screen time in which his character’s behavior and decisions ring true. George Lopez looks alarmingly old and out of shape as Garcia, but at least he maybe deserves credit for De Niro-ing-up to play the schlubby, soul-sick father.

Surprisingly, the most interesting character is John Cusack’s Cassandra-like Horace, who powerlessly watches the all the tragedy go down. Arguably, it just might be Cusack’s best work since The Numbers Station, for whatever that dubious claim might be worth. In contrast, the two trigger cops are mirror image stereotypes: Luke Hemsworth portrays the guilt-ridden basket case, while Gianni Capaldi plays the abrasive, unrepentant racist.

Clearly, Miller desperately wants the right people to take RRR seriously, but he also tried to maintain its commercial appeal to mainstream, big-box-store-shopping consumers. That strategy is nearly always doomed to fail—and this is no exception. There are some nice performances in here that will make open-minded viewers root for the film to eventually pull its act together, but it just doesn’t happen. Not recommended, River Runs Red opens today (11/9) in the Tri-State Area, at the AMC Loews Jersey Gardens.

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Thursday, November 08, 2018

HIFF ’18: The Unity of Heroes

What Christopher Lee is to Dracula, Vincent Zhao Wenzhuo is to Wong Fei-hung. They were not the first to play the characters, nor are they the most iconic, but over the years, they kept getting pulled back into the part. Zhao took over from Jet Li portraying the late Qing era Foshan martial arts master in the last two Once Upon a Time in China films and the mid-1990s TV show. He now returns to dispense beatdowns, acupuncture, and stern warnings of the insidious influence of all things Western in Lin Zhenzhao’s The Unity of Heroes (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Hawaii International Film Festival.

Wong is a lot like Ip Man. He is not wealthy, but his skills are so much sharper than any of his rivals, he must be magnanimous to upstarts like the newly arrived Master Wu. He has more pressing business anyway. In addition to training the local militia, Wong must also look out for Lady 13, his thoroughly Westernized, medically trained in-law and possible romantic interest. On top of all that, Wong is determined to investigate a rash of kidnappings possibly connected to the rage-fueled madman Zhao subdued when after he trashed the dojo courtyard.

It turns out that was one of Dr. Vlad [Feelgood]’s test subjects. Supposedly, his Western-style clinic was founded to treat opium addiction, but he is really dosing patients with an ultra-concentrated opium extract, in hopes of creating some sort of super-soldier. Of course, naïve Lady 13 has gone and joined the staff there.

Zhao has massive chops and all kinds of steely badness, so it has always been rather baffling that he never seems to get the respect he deserves (fight scene-for-fight scene, Wu Dang remains one of our favorite under-heralded martial arts films of the decade). Twenty years after his last outing as Wong, Zho remains comfortable and confident in the role. Unfortunately, he cedes way too much screen time to his three goofball disciples and the ridiculously unintuitive Lady 13. Without question, there is way too much shticky humor in the cobbled together screenplay (credit to the battery of Gao Yuhao, Li Zhenyi, Niu Xinyao, and Ning Yang).

However, Wei Xiaohuan comes out of nowhere to basically steal the film out from under Zhao, as Captain Lu, Vlad’s morally conflicted chief henchperson. She has the moves and the screen presence to be an action star in her own right. Plus, Lu is by far the film’s richest, most intriguing character.

The fact that the evil Westerner is named Vlad is truly laughable. It is not exactly a stereotypically Western name, but maybe it signals a welcome return to the anti-Russian caricatures that were a hallmark of Chinese films in the early 1980s. Regardless, the anti-Western slant is clumsily didactic. Yet, fans should definitely enjoy the wildly over-the-top, high-flying martial arts action. The tone is often pretty silly, but Zhao and Wei still deserve credit for taking care of business. Easily watchable and nearly as forgettable, The Unity of Herpes screens this Saturday (11/10) and Monday (11/12), as part of this year’s HIFF.

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Shunji Iwai’s Last Letter

Paper letters seem old fashioned these days, but they have their advantages, like being hack-proof (but they do leave a literal paper trail). They certainly played a significant role in the lives of Yuan Zhihua and her recently deceased sister Zhinan. In fact, letters from the past might even provide some closure to her family in Shunji Iwai’s first Chinese language film, Last Letter (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Yuan Zhinan struggled with poor health, abuse, and depression throughout her life, so her sister and parents were not shocked by her suicide, but they still passed it off as the tragic result of an unspecified illness. Rather conveniently, it happened during the school break leading up to Chinese New Year, so Zhihua’s preteen daughter will temporarily move in with Zhinan’s teen daughter Mumu, while her little brother stays with her aunt and uncle.

As fate dictates, notice of a middle school reunion comes soon after the funeral. Zhihua attends with the intention of informing her former classmates of Zhinan’s death, but she panics when everyone mistakes her for her sister. Yin Chuan is especially eager to renew their acquaintance, making things incredibly awkward for her. He was her high school crush, while he carried a torch for her more popular sister. She even offered to deliver his love notes, but that did not go according to plan. However, Zhihua cannot resist sending him hard copy letters, sans return address, to prevent her tech savvy husband from discovering her correspondence.

You can think of Last Letters as a cross between Beaches and Cyrano de Bergerac, produced in Mandarin. Fortunately, it is a remarkably effective tear-jerker, since Iwai is apparently already at work on a Japanese language version. He and the first-class cast are not shy when it comes to manipulating our emotions and yanking on our heart strings. However, this film works so surprisingly well, because the characters are always quicker to figure out each deception than the would-be deceivers realize. Granted, these people are damaged, but they are not stupid.

It is a little odd to see the radiant Zhou Xun playing Zhihua, the ugly duckling sister, but she is terrific and deeply moving in the part. Qin Hao also brings a rumpled, sad sack dignity to the film as the older, disillusioned Yin. However, Zhang Zifeng is absolutely devastating two-times over as young Zhihua and her daughter Saran. She also develops a wonderful rapport with Enxi Deng, primarily in her scenes as Mumu, but also in flashbacks as young Zhinan—rather significantly, the adult Zhinan is never seen on-screen, as if she only exists for Zhihua and Yin as her high school ideal.

Arguably, Chinese cinema has a comparative advantage when it comes to tearjerkers and Iwai is no stranger to the genre himself, making this a shrewd choice for his first Mainland project. Last Letter will totally choke you up, but in a way that is ultimately rejuvenating. It is the kind of film that makes you feel good about people. Of course, the ridiculously attractive cast does not hurt in any way. Highly recommended for fans of sentimental romance and family dramas, Last Letter opens tomorrow (11/9) in New York, at the AMC Empire.

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Wednesday, November 07, 2018

DOC NYC ’18: It Must Schwing—The Blue Note Records Story

As record labels go, Blue Note almost had it all. They had the greatest artists, the best recording sound, the most striking covers, and the most legit street cred with fans and musicians alike—everything except money. Yet, that was okay with label co-founders Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, because they were only interested in thee music. The history of the label that has consistently brought us “the finest jazz since 1939” is finally done justice in Eric Friedler’s outstanding It Must Schwing: The Blue Note Records Story (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

Lion and Wolff were forged a life-long friendship in their native Germany, based on their mutual love of jazz. Swing was the style of the day, but their Blue Note recordings essentially codified the “Hard Bop” sound as we now know it. Yet, their sessions still had to swing, or “schwing,” as it sounded with Lion’s thick German accent. He was the first to arrive, with little prospects and hardly a penny to his name. Nevertheless, Lion started recording and issuing sessions in 1939, starting with the Boogie-woogie pianists, Meade Lux Lewis and Albert Ammons. Even today, they sound like a freight train coming at you.

Even hardcore aficionados might not understand how close Wolff cut things when he finally joined Lion in New York. According to Blue Note producer and archivist Michael Cuscuna, Wolff was on the last ship that left Hamburg without Gestapo inspection. Indeed, even those who think they know the Blue Note story pretty well might be stunned (and deeply moved) by some of the revelations regarding Wolff.

On the other hand, any jazz fan worth his salt peanuts will recognize Wolff’s arresting session photography. They are a major reason why vintage Blue Note LPs are so desirable as objects in their own right. Of course, what was in the grooves was even more important—and it always sounds wonderfully warm and clear, thanks to the techniques perfected by Blue Note’s regular engineer, the legendary late Rudy Van Gelder.

Frankly, Friedler made his documentary just in the nick of time, because it represents Van Gelder’s final interview. He pretty much gets everything else right too. Whereas Sophie Huber wastes a lot of time in Blue Note Records: Beyond the Notes flailing around, trying to make political statements, Friedler zeroes-in on Lion and Wolff and their relationship to musicians. We hear from nearly all the surviving greats, including Sonny Rollins, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, “Sweet Papa” Lou Donaldson, Kenny Burrell, Ron Carter, Sheila Jordan, and perhaps most memorably, Bennie Maupin (but not Dr. Lonnie Smith, which is odd, considering how photogenic he is).

Granted, Schwing is not perfect. Like Huber’s film, it largely overlooks Blue Note’s commitment to free jazz (or at least freer, more exploratory) artists, aside from a brief discussion of Jackie McLean. Friedler completely ignores the 1980s re-launch, but instead concentrates on Lion’s tenure with the label, up through the sale to Liberty Records and Wolff’s death in 1972. However, the narrower focus allows Friedler and his interview subjects (nearly all of whom knew Lion or Wolff personally) to do justice to that classic Hard Bop era.

Naturally, Schwing sounds terrific, thanks to the extensive Blue Note recordings heard throughout (including classics, like Coltrane’s “Blue Trane,” Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father,” and Sidney Bechet’s still staggering rendition of “Summertime”). It is also unusually dynamic visually, thanks to Tetyana Chernyavska and Rainer Ludwigs’ black-and-white animated sequences, recreating pivotal moment in the label’s history. Again, Friedler and company just get it right. It is a pleasure to spend time with the film and it will send you out of the theater eager to revisit all these classic recordings that really ought to be in your collection. Very highly recommended, It Must Schwing: The Blue Note Records Story screens this Saturday (11/10) at the SVA Theatre, as part of DOC NYC 2018.

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Tuesday, November 06, 2018

DOC NYC ’18: China Love

They are the wedding pictures before the wedding pictures. In China, “pre-wedding photos” are often so elaborate and ostentatious, they must be compensating for something—as indeed they are. The lingering horror of the Cultural Revolution, the social disruption caused by the One Child Policy, rigid gender roles, and the crushing demands of filial piety—take your pick, because they all apply. Olivia Martin McGuire finds a unique window into the Chinese national soul in China Love (trailer here), which screens during this year’s DOC NYC.

Allen Shi is the Bill Gates of pre-wedding photography. His company can realize just about any fantasy for the hundreds of thousands of fabulously wealthy couples that still lack passports and must therefore rely the Jiahao Group to create the illusion of Paris by night. He has already expanded throughout Asia and has his sights set on the American market next.

Initially, China Love starts out as an exercise in gawking at nouveau riche excess, but it soon evolves into something deeper and more significant. McGuire quickly positions the pre-wed-phenom as a pendulum swing back from the austerity of the Cultural Revolution, when marriages were often arranged by cadres and your only photo was a black and white snapshot, barely bigger than a passport photo that often doubled as the marriage certificate.

McGuire also thoroughly explores the pressures placed on a single, loan son to continue the family legacy during the period in which the full impact of the One Child Policy is still being felt. We also see emotions roiled up when a bride is expected to essentially switch her primary familial loyalties to the in-laws. In this context, if they want to take pictures walking on a fake moon drinking Dom Perignon, why begrudge them?

Frankly, it is amazing how deeply McGuire delves into the Chinese psyche. There are also some surprisingly poignant moments, particularly the scenes of older couples who survived the Cultural Revolution, who are finally able to get decked out and take some proper wedding photos (or rather post-pre-wedding photos), thanks to a new non-profit. Yet, McGuire manages to have her documentary cake and eat it too, because there is still plenty gaudy spectacle to gape at.

China Love had the questionable fortune to come along at the perfect time for every group-thinking critic to compare it to Crazy Rich Asians, but there is so much more to McGuire’s film than that. It is actually quite engrossing to watch McGuire take this eccentric looking industry and trace its roots back to some very serious social and historical causes. This is simply terrific filmmaking. Very highly recommended, China Love screens this Friday (11/9), as part of this year’s DOC NYC.

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Death House: The Cast is Killer, but the Movie is Dead

Abandon all hope, because you are in for some half-baked Nietzschean platitudes. It is not the Nazi and Satanist mass murderers who are the real bad guys in this subterranean super-max prison. It is the lab coats who want to move humanity beyond good and evil. Alas, this film makes you wish you could materialize Nietzsche out of thin air to tell the filmmakers what a hash they have made of his philosophy, like Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall. For some reason, a who’s who of horror also parades through B. Harrison Smith’s enormously problematic Death House (trailer here), which releases today on VOD.

Toria Boon and Jae Novak are FBI special agents who have just apprehended two of the most notorious terrorists at-large (foreign in his case, but she collared Sieg, a home-grown Neo-National Socialist), or so they have been told. However, they quickly start to suspect they have experienced Death House’s brain-scrambling technology first-hand before. They both committed horrible crimes to accomplish their objectives, but Doctors Eileen Fletcher and Karen Redmane assure them they shouldn’t concern themselves over the eggs they had to break to cook up a tasty law & order omelet.

It turns out Boon and Novak chose the wrong day to get brainwashed at Death House, because a full-scale escape attempt will trigger a complete lock-down. Unfortunately, it is not nearly as locked down as it should be. This puts the bargain-basement Mulder and Sculley in an awkward position, but instead of making a break for the surface, they head towards the “Five Evils” housed in the bottom-most level.

So, basically, Harrison builds towards a climax wherein the Rudolf Hess-like Giger, the Elizabeth Bathory clone, Balthoria, and Crau, a freak who looks like Michael Berryman from The Hills Have Eyes, because he is played by Michael Berryman, help regulate the world, because you can’t good without their borderline supernatural manifestations of evil. Blah, blah, blah, whatever.

Indeed, Death House is so well-stocked with horror-specializing character actors, it is trying to get other people to call it the Expendables of horror. However, the film scandalously squanders much of their talents. Dee Wallace and Barbara Crampton have some moments as Fletcher and Redmane. Sid Haig chews plenty of scenery as the Icicle Killer, but his character conveniently disappears after his big scene. There is also Tony Todd playing a serial killing farmer in utterly baffling, completely unrelated wrap-around segments.

Frankly, Tiffany Shepis and Debbie Rochon have such inconsequential cameos, the film’s marketing does not even bother to mention them. On the other hand, prominent use is made of Adrienne Barbeau’s name, yet her only participation is narrating a training video Boon and Novak watch. At least the great Kane Hodder tries to give fans their money’s worth as Sieg.

For what its worth, Cortney Palm and Cody Longo are reliably bland as Boon and Novak. This film just craters so thoroughly, not even Hodder can save it. It is all just rather messy and eh. Not recommended, Death House releases today (11/6) on VOD.

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Monday, November 05, 2018

Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird

Does instrumentation necessarily imply destiny? Maybe so in the case of the Kita Uji High School Concert Band. Mizore Yoroizuka plays oboe, so it is hardly surprising she is shy and unsure of herself. On the other hand, the popular Nozomi Kasaki plays flute, the instrument of Jean-Pierre Rampal, James Galway, and Herbie Mann. Yet, Yoroizuka is the more talented player. Of course, she does not see it that way. Their deep but strained friendship will find parallels in the Heidi-like children’s fable that inspires their senior competition suite in Naoko Yamada’s Liz and the Blue Bird (trailer here), which opens this Friday in most cities (screening Saturday and Tuesday in New York).

The band room and many of the supporting characters found within will be familiar to fans of the anime series Sound! Euphonium, but this is an entirely self-contained stand-alone story, with enough emotional resonance to justify itself to viewers coming cold. It might sound like a Yuri story, but it is really too chaste and too subtle for such a heavy label. Instead, it is really about the inequalities of friendship and the misunderstandings that often come as a result.

Yoroizuka and Kasaki joined the band together as freshmen, but the latter dropped out her sophomore year, moving on to other activities. Yoroizuka stayed, taking refuge in its familiarity, while hoping for Kasaki to return, which she does at the beginning of senior year. Their big competition number will be based on Kasaki’s favorite children’s book, Liz and the Blue Bird, about a blonde German teen, who befriends a blue bird mysteriously transformed into a young girl her age, only to inevitably lose her when the seasons finally turned. Yoroizuka sees this tale as an analog of her relationship with Kasaki, but she will eventually find even more analogous significance buried within it.

Yamada treats these themes with the respect they deserve. Although Liz is not quite as masterful as her previous film, A Silent Voice, it is still a serious examination of young friendship and the surrounding pressures of high school life. Frankly, these kids seem to have it a little easier, especially since social networking is largely absent from the film (whatever their parents are doing, they should keep it up), but they are still forced to make decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.

Despite an occasional lapse into melodrama, Reiko Yoshida’s screenplay is quite smart when it comes to teens and their attitudes. She and Yamada also take great care to prevent their main characters from falling into shy girl-popular girl caricatures. They are much more complicated than outsiders realize and therefore also more apt to be misunderstood. Kensuke Ushio’s delicate but catchy score perfectly captures the nostalgic mood, but ironically, the big suite inspired by Liz and the Blue Bird is the least distinctive music heard during the film.

There is no question Yamada is poised to become a breakout international brand name, on the level of Miyazaki. She is that good. Throughout Liz, Yamada displays a keen visual sense. Her style evokes pastels, with the sequences featuring the titular Liz and said Blue Bird getting a slightly Old World stylization. It looks great, but more fundamentally, it really is a gift to see high school students rendered with such sensitivity and maturity. Recommended for fans of animation and teen dramas, Liz and the Blue Bird screens this coming Saturday (11/10) and Tuesday (11/13) in New York, at the Village East and it is currently playing at the Laemmle Playhouse in Pasadena (find other cities and showtimes on Eleven Arts’ website here).

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HIFF ’18: Little Pyongyang (short)

New Malden is part of a London swing district that has periodically changed hands from the Conservatives to the Liberal Dems (but interestingly, Labour has not been in the mix). It also happens to be home to approximately 600 freedom-seeking North Korean immigrants, making it the largest concentration of North Koreans outside of the Korean Peninsula. Joong-wha Choi is a leader of their small community and an outspoken human rights advocate. Frankly, we fear for his safety, given the methods employed by the Kim Dynasty for dealing with its detractors, but the better-known he becomes, the harder it will be for him to disappear. Yet, Choi seems untroubled by these concerns. Instead, he is plagued by persistent survivor’s guilt, as he explains in plain-spoken terms throughout Roxy Rezvany’s intimate short documentary, Little Pyongyang, which screens during the 2018 Hawaii International Film Festival.

There are about six hundred people who can truly appreciate how Choi feels, but his children are not part of that sub-set. He tries to explain how bad things were, but they just do not get it. Choi misses many things from his homeland, but conditions got so dire in the 1990s, he had no choice but to leave. A few years later, he was reunited with his mother for a matter of months, but that maybe made their ultimate parting even harder. Not surprisingly, Choi’s emotions are mixed regarding his new suburban London home, but he remains unflaggingly critical of the appalling living conditions and utter lack of individual freedom in his native North Korea.

Choi does not just talk the talk—but merely speaking out against a petulant tyrant like Kim Jong-un takes guts. However, he also volunteers a great deal of his time to help new arrivals from North Korea acclimate to life in England. Honestly, it is tough to watch Choi beat himself up, because he is clearly a good man.

This is also a very good film. It is part of a batch of short docs presented under the banner of The Guardian newspaper, but it stands head-and-shoulders above the rest of the field. That almost sounds like a case of damning with faint praise, but it is important to understand Rezvany’s film is deeply humanistic, displaying none of the extremism viewers would expect from the Guardian imprimatur. It is also boasts some unusually well-crafted visuals for a short doc, which is a nice added bonus.

Frankly, Little Pyongyang will make viewers want to get involved (Liberty in North Korea is a good resource to start with), which was probably one of the main goals. Very highly recommended, Little Pyongyang screens this Friday (11/9), as part of the Mind the Gap shorts program at this year’s HIFF.

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DOC NYC ’18: Quincy

A while back, I went to hear the great Harold Mabern at Smoke. As is sometimes the case, he was in the mood to talk, but this night his subject was Quincy Jones. Mabern was particularly delighted Jones had just been awarded a fresh honor (perhaps this was around the time of the Kennedy Center Honors, but it also cold have been a dozen awards since then). While going through a list of Jones’ accomplishments, Mabern stressed “and he did all his arrangements in ink! Do you know what that means?” I happened to say sotto voce: “no mistakes,” but it wasn’t sotto voce enough. Mabern’s jazz ears picked it up and he loved it. “That’s right, no mistakes,” he said with glee.

The whole point of this anecdote is to demonstrate how much fun it is to go to a Harold Mabern gig, because you never know what might happen. The corollary is if a musician of Mabern’s caliber thinks so highly of Jones, you’d damn well better show some respect too. If Mabern isn’t enough to convince you, we could have problems you and I, but perhaps Rashida Jones’ loving documentary profile of her father will do the trick. Co-directed by Alan Hicks, who helmed Keep On Keepin’ On, a chronicle of the final years of Jones’ longtime friend and band-mate Clark Terry, Jones’ simply-titled Quincy (trailer here),  screens as part of the “short list” section during this year’s DOC NYC.

In addition to Terry, Jones played with, arranged for, and/or produced just about all of the jazz greats, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Milt Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, and Count Basie. Jones had a particular knack for arranging for Basie and his big band, which caught the ear of Frank Sinatra. Arguably, Jones’ charts for Sinatra’s sessions with the Basie band really established the mature Sinatra sound that immediately comes to mind. Jones also gives Sinatra credit for essentially single-handedly reversing the backwards discriminatory policies of the major Vegas hotels.

You might be thinking, wasn’t there an earlier doc on Jones? Yes, there was and it was pretty good: Ellen Weissbrod’s Listen Up: The Lives of Quincy Jones. Both films do a solid job covering Jones’s classical studies in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, his film scores (In the Heat of the Night, The Pawnbroker, and The Deadly Affair still sound fantastic), his work producing Michael Jackson into the “King of Pop,” his growing interest in hip-hop, and his deeply problematic relationship with his mother.

Of course, there have been eighteen years since Weissbrod’s film, during which time Jones produced Fresh Prince and Mad TV. He also reached a whole new audience when his “Soul Bossa Nova” became the Austin Powers theme. Yet, filmmakers Jones & Hicks gloss over these years, largely presenting them as a blur of awards and concerts, punctuated by two of his more recent health scares. The film climaxes with the gala opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which Jones produced. Obviously, that was a big event, but they could have slipped in one of his appearances at the Jazz Foundation’s A Great Night in Harlem benefits, like the night in 2004 when Clark Terry presented him with an award for his philanthropic work.

Obviously, Rashida Jones had access most documentarians would kill for. She covers plenty of the “valleys,” including his mother’s mental health issues and his several divorces. However, it leaves Weissbrod in an awkward spot, since her film covered most of this material two decades earlier. It also lacks the drama of Hicks previous documentary, in which the ailing Terry tries to hold on long enough to see his final protégé, young, blind Justin Kauflin establish a toe-hold in the music business. Kauflin is also seen performing briefly in Quincy as an official “Quincy Jones Artist,” so we can at least rest easy on that score. It is a good film with good stuff in it, but the final twenty minutes could have been tightened up considerably. Recommended for fans of Jones and the dozens of legends he worked with, Quincy screens this Thursday (11/8) and Saturday during DOC NYC and currently streams on Netflix.

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Sunday, November 04, 2018

Buffalo Dreams Fantastic ’18: Eullenia

Marcus Hammond is the Monte Hall or Howie Mandell of serial killers, but he always offers his victims the same deal: their life willingly exchanged for a desperately needed sum to be provided to their loved one. Admittedly, he is not a very sporting serial killer. He’s no Count Zaroff, that’s for sure. He preys on hopelessness, but karma might just come back around for him in Paul Spurrier’s Eullenia (trailer here), which screens during the 2018 Buffalo Dreams Fantastic Film Festival.

Hammond notices the little people. That is a great trait to find in a micro-finance tycoon, but not so hot for serial killer. He happens to be both. As the chairman and guru-in-chief of the Eullenia Group, he has enough money and clout to buy as many corrupt cops and public officials as he might need in Thailand, but his manservant-accomplice Boo (sort of an evil Alfred Pennyworth) is still scrupulously careful. Nam is the first victim we see dispatched in the film, but it is clear there were many more before her. Her death follows step-by-step according to Hammond’s plan, except perhaps for the note she leaves for her beloved sister—the one who needs money for chemotherapy.

In the second act, poor Em does not fully realize what she is dealing with, but Boo will make the terms crystal clear. However, there is something very different about Lek. She seems to be stalking Hammond more than he is stalking her. Viewers will probably guess her motives (no surprise, it involves revenge), but she and Spurrier still have some twists in store for the audience.

Apparently, Eullenia was originally produced as a six-episode limited series, mostly in English to cater to the foreign market. Presumably, many of the edits to accommodate this 129-minute feature-festival cut came from Em’s storyline. Regardless, the version that will screen in Buffalo (or rather Williamsville right outside) is quite grabby, thanks in large measure to the terrific cast.

Vithaya Pansringarm has become the international face of Thai cinema, with good reason. This could very well be his best work in an unambiguously villainous role (that of Boo), precisely because it is so subtly turned. As Hammond, Alec Newman manages to create a whole new variation on the monstrous serial killer: the benevolent philanthropist who takes his life-altering power to dark extremes. You could just as easily compare him to Warren Buffet (and his weird obsession with over-population) as any other movie serial killer.

Newcomer Aomkham Kamonrattanan is also dynamite as Lek. She keeps us guessing and makes us care. Likewise, Apicha Suyanandana is absolutely heartbreaking as Nam. Krittima Chockchal’s appearances as Em do indeed feel abbreviated, but thesp-director Manasanun Phanlerdwongsakul has a very effective cameo as a financial journalist who brings out Hammond’s craziness.

Spurrier is now an expat filmmaker based in Thailand, but he was once a child actor, best known for playing Richard Harris’s son in The Wild Geese. There is a bit of irony that he would introduce to the world the ultimate predatory expat, but his sympathies are always with the marginalized and his skepticism obviously falls on their supposed benefactors. Yet, the film cuts deeper than mere class warfare. After all, Hammond was once a striving lower middle class kid who made good. There is something fundamentally broken in him that has been accentuated and exacerbated by all his laudatory press as a Lord Bountiful. It is a pretty twisted film, but it is definitely compelling stuff. Enthusiastically recommended for fans of serial killer thrillers (slightly horror-ish, but light on blood and gore), Eullenia screens this Thursday (11/8), as part of this year’s Buffalo Dreams Fantastic.

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