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Marc Webb's
The Amazing Spider-Man
Opens Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Screenwriter: James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent, Steve Kloves; story by James Vanderbilt

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary, Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Irrfan Khan

Columbia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you’re old enough you remember everyone’s favorite comic strip, Little Orphan Annie. The title character’s favorite expression was “Leapin’ Lizards!” Nobody expected to take that expression as anything but metaphoric, but now along comes Marc Webb, who directs The Amazing Spiderman aka Spiderman 4, giving us an actual leaping lizard as Spiderman’s principal villain. Never mind the car thief and one killer: that’s like nothing for the Marvel comic book hero. But defeating a leaping lizard? That takes everything Spiderman has in his repertoire of skills: his ability to thrust out his hand to develop an instant web that can hold his entire weight as he exits from roofs; his strength, which, as we see in the first half of the movie leads to awkward situations including the breakage of his uncle and aunt’s front door; his ability, like Superman’s, to leap tall buildings in single bound.

But if you’re a teen expecting non-stop action from start to finish, you’ll have to wait for an hour while mushy stuff is taken care of. With James Vanderbilt and Alvin Sargent’s almost credible script, there’s enough development in the first hour to make everyone in the audience believe in Spiderman’s powers since, after all, they are not a product of evolution, but of the latest scientific developments in genetic engineering. And genetic engineering is the wave of the future, is it not? So settle back and you might even enjoy the pre-action segment more than the whizz-bang stuff.

The film stars Andrew Garfield, known to movie buffs from his major role as Tommy in the terrific Brit sci-fi movie Never Let Me Go. As a nerdy kid from the age of four, Peter Parker (played as a youth by Max Charles), is sent away by his father (Scott Campbell) and mother (Embeth Davtz) to live with his uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). Now attending a high school that specializes in science but whose students look as though they might have been left back five years or more, Peter Parker is a nerd, a dork, the sort of person that others bully and make fun of but who winds up succeeding beyond the dreams of the school’s handsome jocks.

When Peter sneaks into a New York’s Oscorp’s genetic research lab run by Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), where he is shown around by his classmate Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) (what a coincidence), he is bitten by a spider, beats up some thuggish folks on a New York subway train, and discovers that he can hang on the ceiling of the train (not yet ruled against the law by the Transit Authority). When his uncle is killed in a robbery, Peter makes a mask, intending to use his powers to find the killer—during which time he frustrates a car thief as well by pinning him to a wall in a web. The police under Captain Stacy (Denis Leary) consider Spiderman a vigilante despite the latter’s popularity with Gothamites and, ohmigosh, another coincidence: Captain Stacy is the father of Gwen!

When the city falls under attack by a giant lizard, created in the lab by Curt Connors who rules that people are weak and only people like him with super powers can form a new race, Spiderman has a job to do despite his vulnerabilities—unlike Superman, he can be beaten up, even killed by a well-placed bullet.

Action of a different kind occupies Peter and Gwen’s time: a romance that’s too PG-13 to be considered steamy but one involving Peter’s preference for visiting Gwen at her apartment by tapping at the window on the twentieth floor rather than going through the lobby. Their relationship leads to the best one-liner in the movie, a film that has to be seen to understand the context. When Peter arrives late to class promising that “it will never happen again,” the teacher responds, “Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” to which Peter whispers to Gwen in the seat in front, “Those are the best kind.” In motifs of the Frankenstein monster and Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, a hulk of a lizard of the kind we’ve seen in the 1950s sci-fi movies reminds us of the principal theme of those fifties dramas, “Maybe we were not meant to fool around with nature.” For an adult like me, the first half, which involves real people in family settings, is the better segment. It’s a pleasure to see Sally Field, whom the make-up team has aged so she does not look like the perky self she was in the Boniva commercials. For my money I’d have preferred to see Toby Maguire but his age, 37, must have been considered over the hill for the role. Then again, Andrew Garfield at 28 and Emma Stone at 24 don’t look quite like high-school students.

Rated PG-13. 136 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


 

 


Brian Crano's
A Bag of Hammers
Opens Friday, May 11, 2012

Screenwriter: Brian Crano, Jake Sandvig

Starring: Jason Ritter, Rebecca Hall, Jake Sandvig, Chandler Canterbury, Carrie Preston

MPI Media Group

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

This well-meaning but innocuous comedy-drama is a story about redemption and emotional growth. However the pace is sluggish, the situations absurd, and the actors go about their roles mechanically in an underwritten script.

Ben (Jason Ritter) and Alan (Jake Sandvig) have been buddies for years, living in the same California home adjacent to unemployed single mother Lynette (Carrie Preston) and Lynette’s 12-year-old son, Kelsey (Chandler Canterbury). Ben and Alan are scammers. They stand outside the local cemetery with a sign stating “free valet service,” but when the car keys are turned over, they flip the sign into the car, drive it to Marty (Todd Louiso), a fence who pays cash and who will “move” the car to another owner after making adjustments. Alan, who looks like a young Jim Carrey, is regularly counseled by his waitress sister Mel (Rebecca Hall), who wants him to give up a life of crime and get married. When Lynette commits suicide, Alan and Ben informally adopt Kelsey—who looks like Jodie Foster. Kelsey is thrilled to have someone finally care for him, saving him from the clutches of the authorities and from his busy-body 6th-grade Social Studies teacher, Wyatt (Gabriel Macht). The question is: will Kelsey, an adorable but needy kid, manage to redeem his temporary new parents, convincing them to give up their life of crime?

Carrie Preston is held back by the script, which has her going on job interviews, even cursing out the human relations counselor for asking whether she knows basic office machinery like Excel. To see Preston at her best, watch her in any of the five episodes of The Good Wife, which features her as a highly competent lawyer who is in need of Ritalin. She “makes” the episodes.

Some of the skits are milked for banal humor, such as the dialogue between Ben and his ex-girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried). Both Ben and Alan are criticized by Alan’s sister for their shallow emotions: they allegedly do not feel empathy for others, at least not before Kelsey enters their world. Ultimately, A Bag of Hammers would make decent TV viewing, but is a trivial movie about the emptiness of the lives of some twenty-somethings.

Rated PG-13. 87 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Peter Berg's
Battleship
Opens Friday, May 18, 2012

Screenwriter: Erich Hoeber, Jon Hoeber

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgård, Rihanna, Brooklyn Decker, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano

Universal Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Do you really get what you pay for? Two hundred million dollars was spent on Battleship, a Michael-Bay style Transformers ripoff that paid back every dollar that the production cost—and that’s just in Europe and South Korea! But what do you really receive for that money? A picture without soul, yet another way for the youthful, testosterone demographic to get its rocks off by watching aimless destruction by an enemy that appears to have no rational motivation to destroy. According to the plot—such as there is—the U.S. makes contact with a planet about the same distance from our sun as we, one that has life that looks almost human under an impressive uniform of steel. And what do these aliens do when they land in Hawaii? Their way of enjoying the beach is an odd one since without even a moment of negotiation, they begin to blast away at everything in their path. As one character states near the beginning in the only bit of dialogue that sounds probing, “They’re like Columbus and the Indians, but we’re the Indians.” Let’s hope that at least one segment of the audience understands the depth of that statement.

The naval film is anchored by a performance from Taylor Kitsch, a thirty-one year old Canadian-born hunk who starred as the title character in John Carter, but is perhaps even better known for his role as troubled football star Tim Riggins on NBC’s Friday Night Lights. Seen in the movie’s opener in the only minutes worth your thirteen dollars’ admission, Kitsch inhabits the role of Alex Hopper, a slacker whose idea of impressing a blond beauty, Samantha Shane (Brooklyn Decker) is breaking into a grocery store to get her the chicken burrito that she craves after the kitchen closes in the local bar. What’s amazing is that the impression is made: Shane, who is the daughter of an Admiral (Liam Neeson), becomes engaged to the layabout who, with his long hair and woozy character is hardly the sort to be impressed by the commander.

For the most part—after this fairly promising introduction—the missiles do the talking. Hopper is persuaded by his older brother, Stone (Alexander Skarsgård) to join him in the Navy, is promptly made lieutenant because of skills he allegedly has, and turns out into the only person able to save the world from a brutal attack by the aliens—who have already made toast of the skyscrapers of Hong Kong. When the folks from Planet G crash into the Pacific and get ready for action since they’re way ahead of us in computerized targeting, the movie turns full of sound and fury, signifying you-know-what.

There is one aspect that saves the movie from total senselessness, and that is the way director Peter Berg, whose Hancock dealt with a superhero who falls out of favor with the public, highlights several people who achieve more than would be expected of them. One is Lieutenant Colonel Mick Canales (Gregory D. Gadson), a real-life double amputee and Iraq-war hero, who changes from a defeated man getting physical therapy from Samantha Stone, into a renewed fighter who faces down one of the aliens. Another is Cal Zapara (Hamish Linklater), a dorky scientist working in Oahu and who serves as comic relief, who does likewise with an alien, at least temporarily putting the latter off guard. Best of all, Erich Hoeber and Jon Hoeber’s script elevates a group of septuagenarians, veterans of World War II, who take over the battleship Missouri, now seventy years old, allowing the big boat to do a job that the most modern destroyer is unable to perform.

This is not to say that the tech credits are less than awesome. If that’s what floats your boat, you just may have a good time watching Battleship.

Rated PG-13 .130 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Declan Donnellan and, Nick Ormerod's
Bel Ami
Opens Friday, June 8, 2012

Screenwriter: Rachel Bennette

Starring:: Robert Pattinson, Uma Thurman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Christina Ricci

Magnolia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Bel Ami, which means “good friend,” tells the story of a man who rises to the top by, well, rising to the top. An empty-headed fellow in the Paris of 1890 finds that his one and only attribute, his pretty-boy good looks, is the only skill he needs to acquire wealth and celebrity. He does so by manipulating a group of upper-middle-class women, each of whom reacts to him in a special way, but all of whom fall prey to his powers of seduction.

The story is based on a novel of the same name by Guy De Maupassant, written five years before the events unfold at a time that the author was succumbing to syphilis. The tale sheds light on the corrupt ways by which a mere clerk uses the intellectual powers of one woman and the emotional needs of others, while De Maupassant takes on the machinations of the media as well. You come away from the story realizing that the same tactics of both media and men are not out of style in present-day America as well. You also leave the theater with the impression that if a man has good looks or money, the women whose paths he crosses will virtually faint with desire or seethe with covetousness.

Robert Pattinson appears in virtually every frame of Bel Ami as Georges Duroy, a penniless clerk with experience in Algeria whose bravery is on exhibit for us only when he clobbers a roach in his hovel of a flat. Running into Charles Forestier (Philip Glenister), an old friend from the army who offers him entry into a politically hip newspaper, La Vie Français, he attends a dinner at the buddy’s house where he meets and charms the man’s wife, Madeleine (Uma Thurman), a coquettish Clotilde (Christina Ricci) whose husband is conveniently traveling, and the staid Virginie (Kristin Scott Thomas), wife of the newspaper’s editor, M. Rousset (Colm Meany).

Since women at the time did not hold society’s respect in the professions, Madeleine uses Duroy to get her opinions published, ghost-writing an article for him in much the way she had done the same for her husband—the latter being the laughing-stock of the employees who are aware of the setup. Since Madeleine insists that she would never be Georges’ mistress, he initiates an affair with Clotilde, the only woman he has come close to genuinely loving, begins an affair with Virginie who is married to the paper’s editor, then setting his sights on the editor’s young daughter, Suzanne (Holliday Grainger).

Robert Pattinson is appropriately cast as a vampire (this time figuratively) in Bel Ami, sucking the blood of women who seem unable to resist him, one and all, energized by the sustenance this intellectually malnourished clod derives from the fair sex. But Pattinson lacks the gravitas the role requires: he appears so completely empty, standing about and smiling often contemptuously, possessing no Shavian wit in his conversations with his cooperative victims, that one wonders how such a man (at least in current times) would land a second date.

I'd have appreciated more exposition on the political aspects of the story, which involves a secret plan by a "vampiric" France to take over Morocco to bleed the North African country of its resources. Directors Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod, were previous known for a fifteen-minute short (The Big Fish), while writer Rachelle Bennette, whose The Rendezvous was an adaptation of a Daphne du Maurier story for BBC, sticks closely to the novel—eliminating only the uncomfortable visit that Georges and Madeleine had made to the former’s peasant father.

Uma Thurman has never looked better, evoking a professionalism head-and-shoulders above that of Pattinson. Stefano Falieven photographed the movie in Budapest to stand in for Paris (sections of that beautiful Hungarian capital often substitutes for a Paris that no longer exists). Rachel Portman’s music blasts away to compensate for the lack of chemistry between Pattinson and his many women.

Rated R. 102 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Alice Rohrwacher’s
Corpo Celeste (Celestial Body)
Opens Friday, June 15, 2012

Written by Alice Rohrwacher.

Starring: Yile Vianello, Salvatore Cantalupo, Pasqualina Scuncia, Anita Caprioli, Renato Carpentieri.

In Italian with English subtitles

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2011 New York Film Festival

Marta (an appealing Yile Vianello) is “almost 13” and has just relocated to her place of birth, Calabria (right at the southern tip of Italy proper), after growing up in Switzerland. She is trying to (re-) assimilate into the impoverished and uber-Catholic culture but is finding it quite difficult since she’s a girl who likes to ask questions and she’s in a town that demands religious obedience and is intolerant of detractors.

Marta attends catechism classes in preparation for confirmation—the ceremony where a Catholic decides to confirm the choice their parents made at baptism. (Devout Catholics cannot marry without being confirmed.) In class, Marta is quite confused since she is naïve about a faith where the doctrine seems to ask blind acceptance to its sometimes-incomprehensible teachings.

Alice Rohrwacher has made a film that is more admirable than entertaining, more thought provoking than exciting.

The feel of Corpo Celeste is quite authentic as is the behavior and dialogue of the characters. (I happen to be Sicilian and Calabrese and have traveled to Italy numerous times). In addition, the movie captures the small southern Italian town remarkably well.

Rohrwacher does touch on some current issues the church is facing. In one scene a parishioner who is trying to understand why they aren’t lobbying youth to attend mass since it is currently only attended by ‘old ladies, small children and people who have nothing better to do.’

We also get a keen subplot portrait of a bored priest (a convincing Salvatore Cantalupo) who is ambitious to move to a bigger village with a larger congregation but ultimately knows it will probably never happen.

Rohrwacher has an interesting style and there are some haunting images: Jesus on the cross floating in the sea is one I won’t soon forget as well as young Marta’s caressing of Jesus’ body. Yet Rohrwacher’s treatment of Marta’s sexual awakening is a bit heavy-handed and the film’s ultimate metaphor, while admirable, is a bit too obvious.

Still, the journey of the two central characters, both so eager to escape their current situations, each on diverging paths--both spiritual and otherwise--is a worthwhile one.

 



Daryl Wein's
Lola Versus
Opens Friday, June 8, 2012

Screenwriter: Zoe Lister-Jones, Daryl Wein

Starring: Greta Gerwig, Joel Kinnaman, Zoe Lister-Jones, Hamish Linklater, Bill Pullman, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, Jay Pharoah, Debra Winger

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

If you’ve ever been dumped (meaning if you’re not a hermit living in a cave in Afghanistan) you already have a “hook” through which you can approach this romantic comedy. Filmed by Swedish cinematographer Jacob Ihre in various New York City neighborhoods including my own area of DUMBO, this urban story about people who are comfortably middle class and of artistic bent, could be mistaken for a Woody Allen project. What’s more, its star, the lovable Greta Gerwig, will appear in Mr. Allen’s upcoming movie To Rome With Love, opening June 22.

Ms. Gerwig, fresh from her role in Damsels in Distress (about a trio of girls determined to change the male-dominated ambiance of a leafy college), appears in virtually every scene, with emotions ranging from happy to content to tearfully depressed. At no point do we in the audience lose sympathy for her plight, notwithstanding the way she’s so into herself that she cannot think of anything but how to deal with being discarded by her fiancé three weeks before the wedding.

What do you do in such a case? There are two contradictory reactions. One is to spend your days crouched in a fetal position, resisting nutrition and sunlight. The other is to rebound, to look for guys to assure yourself that you’re still desirable. Since the first position is not too cinematic, Lola Versus opts for a merry-go-roundalay, with the emphasis on the last syllable.

The title character (Greta Gerwig) gets advice from her kooky friend, Alice (Zoe Lister-Jones, who also co-wrote), from her hippie parents Lenny (Bill Pullman whose thick mop of hair couldn’t be real, could it?) and Robin (Debra Winger, who has not aged in the last ten years). She takes counsel from her long-term platonic friend, Henry (Hamish Linklater), who seems available all hours of the day and who obviously has a crush on her which seems unrequited. She listens occasionally to the last person she should trust, her ex-fiancé, Luke (played by Swedish actor Joel Kinnaman), who turns up at odd times at parties, in a college courtyard where Lola is pursuing a doctorate. He has apparently re-thought his action and is now ready for commitment. She has a one-night stand with Nick (Ebon Moss-Bachrach), a “prison architect” with a fantastic apartment, who is in some ways ideal - man who actually likes to cook.

There is a difference between a typical Woody Allen pic and this one: Lola Versus indulges in the anomie of the young—and 29, however much mom thinks it’s time for her daughter to freeze her eggs, is young. Allen’s comedies and dramas cover a broad range of mostly mature people. Aside from the off-putting Alice, whose erratic actions make Lola’s seem grown-up, Lola Versus is filled with people you might want to share a beer within one of New York’s hip joints.

Rated R. 87 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Steven Soderbergh’s
Magic Mike
Opens Friday, June 30, 2012

Written by Reid Carolin.

Starring: Channing Tatum, Alex Pettyfer, Matthew McConaughey, Matt Bomer, Cody Horn, Olvia Munn, Riley Keough, Joe Manganiello, Kevin Nash, Adam Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias.

Warner Brothers

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Within the first minute of Steven Soderbergh’s exhilaratingly subversive new film, Magic Mike, naked ass walks halfway across the screen and then away from the camera. More ass will follow. A lot more ass. Actually more male ass than I think has ever been filmed in a mainstream Hollywood movie—although there is little truly mainstream about Magic Mike—except for the fact that WB had the balls to back it.

The ass on display in those first few seconds belongs to Channing Tatum—an actor who showed quite a lot of promise (and ass) in his early work—A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints and Stop-Loss only to get stuck in a bit of a chickflicky rut with Dear John and The Vow. Magic Mike will probably be viewed as a chickflick to many who don’t bother to see it. And, don’t get me wrong, the chicks will love it as will the gays, but so will audiences who simply love good films.

Tatum gave an excellent performance is Soderbergh’s massively underrated Haywire earlier in the year, but here he is simply revelatory—proving he is much more than just a pretty face and ass. The boy can act—even in material that apparently hits quite close to home.

Tatum worked as a stripper for almost a year when he was in his late teens and pitched the idea of a film that explored that world to Soderbergh who loved it and, along with screenwriter Reid Carolin, developed the kernel wanting to capture “the atmosphere and energy” of the stripper milieu rather than tell his own story outright.

The result is a highly effective motion picture that tries to avoid each and every cliché even though they appear like potholes in a Manhattan street. And how could they not when the story involves drugs, sex and money.

Realize this is no camp level Burlesque, Showgirls or Rock of Ages. I would reckon to call it Soderbergh’s Boogie Nights, although that Paul Thomas Anderson film is brilliant on almost every level whereas Magic Mike is a rousing success but could have been a masterpiece had the makers decided to truly explore the darker and grittier world at play, but to do that, the still-taboo yet very real notion of sex with both males and females would have been necessary and, alas, we are just not there yet.

Still, we get a compelling portrait of a group of men and the camaraderie involved in a business people still see as akin to prostitution. We also get a glimpse of the greed that can befall those who never had and instantly get.

The basic plot involves nineteen-year-old Adam (a hot and brooding Alex Pettyfer) who is mentored by established stripper Mike (Tatum) to perform in a club run by the Peter Pan meets Willy Wonka meets Emcee from Cabaret meets Every Creepy Dude, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey). Adam has an older sister Brooke (Dody Horn) who Mike takes an instant liking to.

The other men at the club barely have roles to play—which is a shame considering the caliber of actors here (scorching Matt Bomer and Joe Manganiello among others). They’re simply called on to gyrate and shed their clothes—which they do very well, thank you. As a matter of fact the production numbers are all fabulous.

No one is necessarily ashamed of what they do, as much as they want to do it in a larger, more lucrative venue. The quest for a bigger, better piece of the pie is just one of the ways Soderbergh explores that aspect of the American dream that is still alive, tarnished beyond recognition of late, but pulsing nonetheless.

And setting the film Florida is a stroke of genius. Soderbergh films Tampa all orange-yellowy-filthy yet golden as if it were the seediest, most disgusting yet alluring place on earth. Alluring for the promise of a more lucrative life…the promise of sex…

And that’s what these men provide—that glimmer of ass…that women (and men) can take home with them that gives them a reason to believe they’ll be able to find some sort of fulfillment—as fleeting as it may be.

Soderbergh works miracles with his camera throughout. The film literally dazzles and--there is a shot from the point-of-view of a very hung-over Pettyfer laying in the backseat of a car looking up at his sister driving—that is just mind-blowing and had me enraptured as did the beach and roof shots.

But most mesmerizing of all—the asses…I mean, the actors. And the asses.

This film should put to rest any reservations about Channing Tatum’s talent.

And Matthew McConaughey is shockingly effective here (as he is in the upcoming Killer Joe). Another actor who showed great promise early in his career that I had nearly written off-- proving that with the right script and direction, he is damn electrifying. McConaughey hints at his character having oddball sexual proclivities. He is more than a father figure, more than a mentor…in a more daring film (and real life) he would have been bedding down some of the boys. And as unclear as that is in the script, his performance is just unnerving enough to more than hint at a deranged, sexually-sadistic, bisexual side.

And, then, of course, there’s his perfectly waxed ass…


 



Barry Sonnenfeld's
Men in BlackIII

Opens Friday, May 25, 202

Screenwriter: Lowell Cunningham (comic), David Koepp (screenplay)

Starring: Will Smith, Tim Burton, Alice Eve, Josh Brolin, Justin Bieber, Tommy Lee Jones, Emma Thompson, Bill Hader, Lady Gaga

Columbia Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Opens: May 25, 2012

There are those who say that if a movie projects inspired special effects, the story matters little. As Boris the Animal (Jermaine Clement) states five or six times, “We’ll have to agree to disagree.” Whatever the ambitions of a film, without a story together cum dialogue to die for, a film—like a play or a book—lacks soul. Take for example what I consider the best time-travel story of our own century, Stephen King’s 11/23/63: A Novel. When a teacher reads a riveting story by one of his students about how fifty years ago his father killed his mother, his brother and his sister, he is determined to go back in time to rewrite history, and while he’s at it he will opt to prevent Lee Harvey Oswald from killing President Kennedy. The novel has romance, sci-fi, suspense, melodrama, all of a high order and, yes, there are special effects in the book except that the CG comes not from the writer but from the imagination of the readers. Compared to Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black 3 which admitted has bold computer graphics, the King novel is the superior medium, the better choice.

Technologically, there is nothing wrong with MIB 3. We watch as Agent J (Will Smith) drops from a New York skyscraper, flicking the switch on a portable time gadget just in time to prevent his demise and to propel him back to 1969, a time in which, as one character notes, “things were not so great for your people.” Even a cop who stops Agent J for speeding in a stolen Cadillac asks how somebody “of your ethnic persuasion” can afford a $6,000 car and an expensive black suit. Take the way that Boris the Animal can stop his enemies by extending his hand: a clever and scary spider-like creature which is obviously computer generated attaches itself to your body but can also rescue you if you’re the right bad guy by chewing apart the chains that bind you in your cell.

Kudos to the extensive and expensive tech team who quickly throw 3D objects at us while we sit in our seats with the glasses, particularly awkward for those who have to put them over our own specs with the added feature of making everything seem dark.

This time Tommy Lee Jones takes a back seat, given maybe fifteen minutes of screen time while his 1969 self as Agent K is played by Josh Brolin, whose assistant is the fetching Alice Eve as Agent O complete with the teased hair which was de rigueur at the time. The words appear to come from Brolin’s mouth but the voice seems that of Jones, a neat effect but, again, not something that would make the story much more riveting. Moving at a rapid pace, the movie features Agent J’s backward ride to 1969 to prevent Agent K from being killed by Boris the Animal. Smith and Brolin do just fine as a team, not too many hostile wisecracks to shoot at each other, though for a while the two must agree to disagree on the best way to stop the murder and deal with Boris with extreme prejudice.

What we have here is a sci-fi buddy movie with no romance and with scripter David Koepp’s mechanical screenplay taken from Lowell Cunnigham’s Malibu/Marvel comic book. Barry Sonnenfeld was on board as director of the 1997 and 2002 versions, the latter poorly received by critics. How the public receives a movie is something else. This feature will do well at the box office, leading the inevitable MIB 4.

Rated PG-13. 106 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Ridley Scott
Prometheus
Opens Friday, June 8, 2012

Screenwriter: John Spaihts, Damon Lindelof

Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Idris Elba, Logan Marshall-Green

20th Century Fox

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

During one of the golden ages of sci-fi pictures, the 1950s, the principal theme often spoken by scientists at the conclusion was “Maybe we were not meant to tamper with nature.” You’ll find this theme in such (sometimes laughable) pics as The Thing, The War of the Worlds, Neanderthal Man, Target Earth, and a few gems from Abbott and Costello. Precisely that theme overrides in Prometheus, budgeted at $120 million—which could have made four years’ worth of 1950’s movies—and which has more eye candy than anyone from that repressed era could have imagined. Whether eye candy is enough is up to those who pay their money and take their choice at the box office is up to them. For me, I like a story with my sci-fi, one that is not filled with gaping plot holes and the lack of effective forward momentum. John Spaihts, Damon Lindelof, basing their screenplay on elements created by Dan O’Bannon, Ronald Shusett and design elements by H.R. Giger, have not provided much of a narrative. Without an effective narrative, you’re watching cinematic treasure, all right, but one that lacks soul.

The film is edited by Pietro Scalia with scenes that abruptly change without reason, such as one near the opening that finds a strange fellow swallowing something that causes him excruciating pain, leading to another that locates Patrick Wilson’s character explaining to his daughter that people have different ideas about what happens to us when we die, and then morphing into some cool shots exposing some of the wonders of the universe.

Prometheus, which takes place from 2089 to 2094, gets its name from the space ship bearing a crew of seventeen determined to find who created us human beings, upsetting centuries of Darwinian certainty while presumably annoying people who accept traditional religious beliefs. What these space people do not realize is that their voyage will provoke reversals among our creators that will make them change their minds, causing them to wish for our planet’s destruction. Having opened a can of worms, some aboard the ship, particularly its captain (Idris Elba), want to redeem themselves by destroying the aliens, while others, like corporate employee Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), wish to return home post haste and take their chances that the earth will survive the predicted onslaught.

The chief roles belong to Michael Fassbender as David who, as a robot is not nearly as horny as he was in the role of Brandon Sullivan in Shame and Noomi Rapace as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, who looks more human than she did as the Lisbeth Sander, the title woman with the dragon tattoo in Niels Arden Oplev’s film. David, who is handsome and helpful, is hiding an agenda unbeknownst to the crew and perhaps the movie audience while Dr. Shaw, who undergoes a Caesarian section desperately wanting to “get this thing out of me,” is most effective at showing fear and pain. The two shine while other performers seem earthbound.

The first half of Prometheus ranks with 2001, a Space Odyssey as a movie during which not much happens. All hell breaks loose in the second segment, but the creatures that are provoked into hostile life by the crew are no different from the weirdoes we’re familiar with from Alien such as Predator, Face Hugger, Chest Buster, and hybrids. There are sudden comings-to-life of these Frankenstein monsters, but without periods of silence that could define real menace. Prosthetic splatters are just so much last decade or more. There is a rare minute of so that demonstrates real acting, that of Peter O’Toole, but he is unfortunately not part of this cast but exists only as a segment of Lawrence of Arabia that David watches as a model of how to behave.

Prometheus, both the name of the ship and the incarnation of a Greek mythological figure who stole from Zeus and as punishment is chained to a rock, an eagle digging out his liver which grows back for the next day’s meal, was filmed in England, Iceland, Spain and Scotland, all with the use of 3D cameras. In this case, the use of the third dimension is justified.

Rated R. 123 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Seth MacFarlane's
Ted
Opens Friday, June 29, 2012


Writer: Seth MacFarlane

Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Joel McHale, Giovanni Ribisi, Seth MacFarlane

Universal Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

The incredibly talented writer-director-actor Seth MacFarlane goes where no comedy has ever gone before. Mixing CG with human characters, MacFarlane--whose TV series Family Guy puts together a pair of teens, a cynical dog who is smarter than anyone else, and an evil baby plotting the eradication of his mother--brings a Teddy bear to life, one whose pre-life message “I love you” is virtually blown away by his foul mouth. Ted (voice of MacFarlen) may not be Harvey, the six-foot rabbit created for Mary Chase and who is currently playing on Broadway, but at about a foot and one-half he issues a barrage of words that make him a toy that few moms would give to their eight-year-olds. And unlike Harvey, he can pack a mean punch that would send the taller rabbit reeling.

The result is a furiously-paced, joke-filled, splendidly acted and written comedy that should make the public laugh their sides off and cause many a mom to bolt from the theater with kid in tow upon realizing that this is not a G-rated trip down memory lane from when they themselves enjoyed a roomful of stuffed toys.

Structured like South Park with the added benefit of a large number of attractive human beings, Ted is a movie that opens in Boston about twenty-five years back on a group of kids who celebrate Christmas by pummeling the local Jewish kid. John Bennett (Bretton Manley) may be a fellow Christian, but he has no friends, which is why this unhappy lad is granted a wish on a special night that his stuffed Teddy could come to life and be with him forever.

Even in a city as sophisticated as Boston, a talking, walking Teddy bear becomes a celeb, even appearing on the Johnny Carson show (terrific editing places the animal in a chair chatting with Carson). But after his elongated fifteen minutes of fame, everyone moves on to the next novelty. Like a dog interfering with its human companion’s love life, Ted wants to be everywhere, affecting private moments between the 35-year-old John (Mark Wahlberg) and his long-term girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis).

MacFarlane peppers the story with Saturday Night Live-type sketches, including a look at a party finding John cloning John Travolta in a Saturday Night Fever disco dance; a meeting with Sam Jones, who starred in the 1980 film Flash Gordon and who soon smashes through a wall into a Chinese restaurant; a party showing Ted’s ability to attract a group of hookers, one of whom leaves a poop on the floor; another party featuring a contest of downing shots; a romantic song by Norah Jones, who brings John up to the stage to sing , badly, of his love for Lori—who by now is ready to break things off as she cannot compete with Ted for John’s attentions. Lori would have no problem with men, as witness the long-term attempts by her rich boss, Rex (Joel McHale) to score with her.

Take a look at the chief poster used to market the movie and you’ll surmise that John and Ted, both laughing and drinking, have great rapport, able to find friendship out of their banter—both sporting pronounced New England accents in their speech. Giovanni Ribisi as Donny plays the villain, a man who cannot deny his rotund son (Aedin Mincks) anything, even going to the extreme of kidnapping and physically abusing Ted, principally after a furious car chase into Fenway Park.

This is one solid comedy.

Rated R. 106 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online




Rupert Sanders's
Snow White And The Huntsman
Opens Friday, June 1, 2012

Screenwriter: Evan Daugherty, John Lee Hancock

Starring: Charlize Theron, Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Sam Claflin, Sam Spruell, Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone

Universal Pictures

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

When Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm penned their fairy tales, they did so because of their interest in keeping Germanic mythology alive with all of its violence. When they discovered the popularity of their stories among youths, they felt a need to tone down the mayhem. Maybe kids in the 19th century were full of sweetness, light and innocence, but given the tough nature of our current crop of America’s future, we should be happy that director Rupert Sanders, using Evan Daugherty and John Lee Hancock’s screenplay, is not a sissy like the Grimm brothers. He has the cojones to play up the filth, hatred, and warfare of the Snow White legend, a revisionist treatment with action in an alternative, medieval universe (actually filmed in the UK’s Pembrokeshire near the village of Marloes). The castle is computer generated, set on nearby Gateholm island.

“Snow White and the Huntsman” is anchored by an all-too-serious performance from Charlize Theron as the evil Queen Ravenna, who not only kills the king during their first night in bed but keeps the princess and legitimate heir to the throne, Snow White (Kristen Stewart The Twilight Saga) imprisoned until she overcomes the queen’s loyal brother and escapes. What’s more, like Count Dracula, Ravenna feeds on the blood of her congregation not because her stomach is growling but because this is the way she keeps her youth. Could this be the filmmakers’ snide commentary about plastic surgery? The female members of the queen’s followers, a Dickensian lumpenproletariat, have all inflicted gashes on their face to avoid being fair maidens and fodder for the queen’s habit of eating hearts.

The famous mirror is no wimpy decoration in the plush castle but when asked by the queen “who is the fairest of them all” oozes viscous, black liquid and turns into an almost human shape with a resonant voice proclaiming what was true as of that moment. The mirror later demurs and states that the Princess Snow White is now the fairest (as for me, I’ll borrow Boris the Animal’s opinion in MIB3, who said “Let’s agree to disagree”).

Rupert Sanders, who comes out of the world of commercials and X-Box games, throws in both romance and action with emphasis on the latter, providing the all-too-common fast editing when the men in armor meet their foes. There’s the usual use of bows and arrows, but nothing beats the queen’s imaginative powers in employing the use of hundreds of crows in a Hitchcockian attempt to defeat the enemy but also an assortment of nails that turn into almost human form.

Symbols that are in the Grimm tales—the white snow representing the princess’ purity and the drops of blood to stand in for her coming of age—are utilized but not made much of, though in the land of the fairies a couple of refugees from Lord of the Rings spring up, a white horse just waiting for the princess ro ride, and a stag with more branches coming out of his head then a Redwood tree.

Thor, er Eric the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), starts off as an ally of the queen but is quickly turned around by the princess, whom he tutors in the Art of War—so much so that the lessons save her life. Top performance from Hemsworth.

The chief problem with the picture is its total lack of humor, the queen’s giving a wholly non-campy performance (director fault, not that of Ms. Theron). The queen speaks in only two registers, high and low. The eight dwarves, largely famous actors whittled down to size by good ol’ CG, including Bob Hoskins, Eddie Marsan, Ray Winstone.

See the movie for the fantasy: the makeup, the effects, the production design, all first-rate with solid, pounding music to rev up the tension.

Rated PG-13. 127 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online



Woody Allen's
To Rome With Love
Opens Friday, June 22, 2012

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Alison Pill, Flavio Parenti , Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi, Fabio Armiliato and Antonio Albanese

Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed for New York Cool by Harvey Karten

Adultery is easy; comedy is hard. This adage is aptly demonstrated in Woody’s Allen’s billet-doux to Rome, formerly titled The Bop Decameron. In putting across an expensive production beautifully shot by Darius Khondji amid Rome’s cobblestone streets, the Trevi Fountain, the Colosseum, and the Spanish Steps, Mr. Allen is in top form showing how delicious is the violation of the Seventh Commandment. As a movie to tickle audience funny-bones, the film succeeds sporadically, but when it does, To Rome with Love rises to the top.

Allen cut the story into four vignettes, Alisa Lepselter’s editing merging them seamlessly despite the characters’ failing to meet one another in the concluding scenes as they would in a Robert Altman picture. He did so because, as the writer-director states in the production notes, “If you stop a hundred Romans, they’ll tell you: I could give you a million stories.” Well, at least one hundred as you know if you read Giovanni Boccaccio’s 14th century allegory, The Decameron. Through the film, Allen satirizes celebrity, psychoanalysis, fear of flying, the approach-avoidance concept of adultery, the overly-idealized nature of love. While none of the characters perambulating about Rome acts out a story while escaping from the Black Death of 1348 as Boccaccio’s characters did, each is carefully individualized with all of his or her neurosis, and with the shticklach (emotional problems) of Allen’s character obviously the most pronounced.

If you tire of Woody Allen’s own fears and tics, you’re tired of life. As Jerry, he’s terrific as a passenger on the Alitalia heading for The Eternal City, leaning for emotional support on his wife, Phyllis (the always amazing, cutting Judy Davis). He doesn’t like turbulence. He’s afraid of morticians and communists. His self-deprecatory humor emerges best when he observes “another character,” noting that many people have tried psychoanalysis: all have failed. Jerry and Phyllis are not merely into sightseeing but heading for Rome to meet their daughter, Hayley (Alison Pill), who had met sexy local Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), fallen in love, and gotten engaged.

Meanwhile, Allen’s kaleidoscope spins off the story of John (Alec Baldwin), a successful architect who has traveled to Italy to relive the best days of his life—thirty years back. Running into Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), a young architectural student living with his girlfriend, Sally (Greta Gerwig), he gets a chance to see what he was like himself three decades earlier. When Jack contacts the funny, sexy Monica (Ellen Page), he falls in love (after all, we’re in Rome). As their relationship progresses, John appears as Jack’s mentor, invisible to all others, cynically advising Jack that Monica’s pretentions are b.s.

With all these interesting people walking the cobblestones, Woody Allen has a soft spot in his heart for the boring ones—and yes indeed, there are some Italians who are not funny, handsome, sexy and smart. Leopoldo Pisanello (Roberto Benigni) is thrown into a fantasy world not unlike that of Gil Pender in the director’s Midnight in Paris. Though a mere clerk, he is suddenly surrounded by scores of paparazzi, snapping furiously, asking him such insightful questions as “What did you have for breakfast?” (Toast, butter and jam), and “What kind of underwear do you have?” (White boxer shorts.) The satire is trenchant if somewhat overstated.

Meet Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi), hoping to impress conservative relatives with his wife Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi). Through a mixup, he is hooked up with a, well, hooker, Anna (Penélope) who jokes that he was probably a virgin when they married, and that she will “teach you something about love.” While Antonio falls under Anna’s spell, his wife Milly is likewise set up for adultery with a movie star, Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese).

Of the four vignettes, the best belongs to Mr. Allen’s, whose character is self-described as a retired, avant-garde producer of operas, his work having included Rigoletto with all the people dressed as white mice. Hearing the voice of his daughter’s future father-in-law, Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) singing arias from I Pagliacci in the shower, he sets up an audition for the reluctant tenor who discovers that he can sing best only when in the shower. A full-blown staged presentation of the opera, every seat in the house taken, allows Jerry to find the fulfillment he believes he never received—quite the contrary of Leopoldo’s experience in garnering far more attention than he deserves.

With the sounds of “Volare” on the soundtrack, the ruins and current life in Rome smashingly shot, a collection of top performers finding comedy and drama, romance and excitement through their contacts with one another, we’d have to conclude that not only has it been too long since Woody Allen appeared in his own movies but also that visiting Mr. Allen’s world for a precious one hundred twelve minutes is worth far more than three coins in the fountain.

Rated R. 112 minutes © 2012 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online


Woody Allen's
To Rome With Love
Opens Friday, June 22, 2012

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Starring: Woody Allen, Alec Baldwin, Roberto Benigni, Penélope Cruz, Judy Davis, Jesse Eisenberg, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Page, Alison Pill, Flavio Parenti , Alessandro Tiberi, Alessandra Mastronardi, Fabio Armiliato and Antonio Albanese

Sony Pictures Classics

Reviewed for New York Cool by Frank J. Avella

Woody Allen’s great love for the eternal city shines through in his latest European travelogue film, To Rome with Love.

This witty and whimsical omnibus-esque confection stumbles on occasion but has many terrific moments and has quite a few interesting things to say about Italian culture and the media. And audiences can simply delight in the gorgeously shot (by Darius Khondji) backdrop that is one of the most glorious cities in Europe.

Woody, once again, delivers a splendid film—even though certain critics will grouse that it isn’t deep or important enough.

The problem with being one of the greatest living American filmmakers AND being so prolific is that with each new release (usually each year) comes a new reason to want to knock the filmmaker for not making another masterpiece.

Everyone has a favorite Woody—most have several. Some go back to Annie Hall which was followed by Interiors—a Bergman-eque meditation on life and death that received mixed notices at best. Today it is considered one of his masterpieces. Manhattan begat Stardust Memories--a film that critics took as a personal attack--seen today, it’s a fascinating tribute to Fellini and quite a deft satire. The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters and Radio Days were followed by September and Another Woman. Husbands and Wives preceded Manhattan Murder Mystery…are you getting where I’m going here? And post-Deconstructing Harry in 1997, film writers had pretty much dismissed Allen as finished. Done. But in 2005, the master made Match Point in London and, lo and behold, it didn’t feel like the same old/same old. Woody was back and seemed to matter again. A year later, Scoop. Oy. It goes on and on. He’s written off. He’s back. Truth to be told, many of the films that were written off deserve to be reevaluated since one of the reasons they were written off was simply because they weren’t the previous film!

Hot on the heels of his Oscar’d Midnight in Paris, he’s given us a new film. I wonder if he had made The Purple Rose of Rome, would critics have trounced it anyway? Probably.

What I find infuriating is how bloggers cannot simply accept each new Woody Allen film on its own merits. It must be compared to his last triumph. He isn’t saying anything new. He isn’t as funny. He isn’t as dramatic. He’s lazy. He’s...Woody. And he keeps on making movies. And, with one exception as far as I’m concerned (the Cursed one starring Helen Hunt) he has never made a film that doesn’t have something interesting to say—even if it’s been said before.

To Rome with Love features four separate stories that weave in and out of one another but have nothing necessarily to do with each other. Two take place in a day or less. Two seem to take place over the course of a few weeks. Woody’s non-linear filmmaking style and out of the box editing shows he’s still interested in challenging his audience.

Of the four, the Jesse Eisenberg/Ellen Page/Greta Gerwig triangle plot is the least involving—despite a terrifically funny turn by Alec Baldwin. It’s fairly predictable, standard stuff and not nearly as interesting as the others—which are more specific to Italian culture and mores.

The funniest involves Allen himself as a lambasted Opera director who concocts a final stab at greatness by using his daughter’s soon-to-be father-in-law (Fabio Armiliato) who can sing magnificently—but only when he’s in the shower. The incomparable Judy Davis appears in this sequence and reminds everyone that Allen needs to write another part for her with the depth of her character in Husbands and Wives (originally intended for Jane Fonda).

Woody delves into the notions of what constitutes artistic innovation. Can the absurd ever be sublime? And isn’t it always subjective? And if an audience member likes something, why is it that more often than not, negative reviews force them to reevaluate their own initial impression?

Roberto Benigni (not one of my favorites) is actually uncharacteristically subdued and quite good in a very insightful sequence involving an ordinary man who wakes up one day and finds himself famous—for no apparent reason. As he did in the much nastier and underrated Celebrity, Allen has fun messing with the lunacy of the media, meditations on fame in the new millennium as well as how ridiculous the notion of celebrity is worldwide. Italy is the perfect setting since nowhere is the media currently more outrageous (even Britain is tamer thanks to the Murdoch scandal known as “Hackgate.”)

The fourth story focuses on a newlywed Italian couple (Alessandro Tiberi & Alessandra Mastronardi) who become accidentally estranged and have their own separate, oddball adventures. Penelope Cruz brings great passion and verve to this segment (as she did in her Oscar-winning turn in Vicky Cristina Barcelona) playing a proud prostitute who appears to have slept with most of the Roman political hierarchy. Woody has a field day poking fun at the real shenanigans currently going on in the Italian government.

My only real complaint is that I wanted these stories to converge—even slightly. But then I realized that Allen is not Altman and isn’t going for some type of synchronicitousness. He’s simply sharing vignettes in the same way Italian films of the 60s and 70s did—not necessarily tying any of them together—but presenting a few different yet wholly entertaining slices of Roman life that only really have the eternal city in common.

In the end, it’s the charm of To Rome with Love that swept me off my feet--that and the reminder of just how bedazzling Rome is. I’ll be visiting this wondrous city again very soon.




Lynn Shelton’s
Your Sister’s Sister
Opens Friday, June 15, 2012

Screenwriter: Lynn Shelton.

Starring: Emily Blunt, Rosemarie Dewitt, Mark Duplass, Mike Birbiglia.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Lynn Shelton’s somewhat improvisational new comedy, Your Sister’s Sister is a refreshing indie gem that should put a wide 90-minute smile on your face.

The bare-bones plot surrounds Jack (Mark Duplass) who lost his brother, Tom, a year ago, but is still an emotional wreck. His best friend, Iris (Emily Blunt)—who also happens to be Tom’s ex--suggests he bike over to her remote family cabin (on an island in Washington state) to sort himself out.

Jack reluctantly agrees and upon his arrival, meets Iris’ half sister, Hannah (Rosemarie Dewitt), who has just ended a seven-year relationship with a woman and has gone to the cabin to lick her wounds. After a near catastrophic beginning, Jack and Hannah booze-up, bond and Jack—thinking it’s safe—flirts with her. The two end up having an awkward sexual encounter. The next morning Iris arrives on the scene and Jack begs Hannah to not tell Iris about their liaison. We soon learn that Jack and Iris are both hiding something. And so is Hannah.

Shelton has crafted a smart and incisive narrative where secrets are revealed and it isn’t the surprise that matters as much as the way the characters react. It’s also bracing to see a depiction of sisters who truly love one another despite their differences.

Shelton allows her scenes to breathe and that allows the audience to really get to know all three characters based on what they’re saying and, often, what they’re not saying. As a matter of fact the film is made up of very few scenes and limited cuts. How daring for a filmmaker working today and knowing attention spans are at an all time low…oh, what was I typing? Sorry I had to answer a text…you get my meaning!

The trio of actors is what makes the film so extraordinary--always engaging, fascinating to watch--showing us little glimpses into their thoughts and feelings usually via a subtle facial expression. Duplass walks the fine schlub line without ever veering into done-to-death-annoying Seth Rogen territory. His Jack is in pain and Duplass isn’t afraid to show it. Dewitt is a wonder. Her face registers so much, often showing us a host of contradictory emotions. She is one of indie film’s top talents and this performance should be remembered at year’s end. Blunt, as always, is an absolute delight and matches her scene partners effortlessly.

According to the press notes, Mark Duplass came up with the story idea and the script was collaborative with “vast swaths of the film, completely improvised.” All I can say is kudos to Shelton for casting her film to perfection and directing with confidence and generosity.

Your Sister’s Sister is one of 2012’s best films to date and has most satisfying ending of any film since The Descendants.

 


 


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