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Harbor (2018)
8/10
the choice
5 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. As youngsters, most of us enjoyed school field trips. Escaping the sterile classroom environment to get out and see the real world was always a welcome event. Of course, we never thought about the added stress and challenges faced by teachers and escorts on those trips. For us it was an adventure.

French writer-director Paul Marques Duarte channeled his personal experience with a Sudanese boy in the refugee camp of Calais and developed this impactful short film that has much to say about inherent humanity in both youngsters and adults. Originally titled "Find Harbor for a Day", the story was co-written by Blandine Jet.

A group of students is on the bus when the driver slams on the brakes to avoid hitting a 15 year old boy in the street. A teacher locks eyes with the boy as the bus proceeds to the port, where the class is to board a ferry for their trip from France to England. As the teachers round up the students for security checks, the youngster from the street reappears and tries to blend in with the group of students as they board the ferry. Teacher Adele quickly analyzes the situation and plops her own ball cap onto the boy's head. Through all the confusion, the boy is allowed on the ferry. No words are exchanged between the teacher and the boy.

The teacher is played by well-known and well-respected French actress Marie Bunel, and the boy by N'Tarila Kouka. Clearly he's a runaway migrant, so the pertinent question is ... are the actions of the teacher heroic or foolish? Her fellow escort confronts her for putting them all at risk. The students figure out quickly what she has done and their reactions tell us much.

Duarte's film has been very well received at film festivals, and although it's filled with tension and expertly filmed and acted, its greatest value may be pushing us to question our own thoughts and reactions. What would we do in this situation ... and why?
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7/10
the races are on
5 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. It would be easy to question why a family would choose to run a private ambulance service in a city where they may or may not get paid. It's only when we know one stunning statistic that their reasoning becomes clear. In Mexico City, the government operates only 45 ambulances for a population of nearly 9 million people. Director-cinematographer-editor-producer Luke Lorentzen takes us inside the ambulance with the Ochoas as they work the streets in the business they've run for almost 20 years ... it's a business that fills a necessary gap in emergency services.

Teenager Juan is the most talkative of the crew that includes his father, a younger brother and a friend of the family. We are never certain whether their service or vehicle is properly licensed, whether they are certified, or even if actual licenses and certifications exist. What we do know is that when a medical emergency occurs, a two-plus hour wait for a city ambulance makes the private services much more appealing ... and, quite frankly, necessary.

Mr. Lorentzen serves up some terrific camera work, focusing mostly on the family rather than the patients they are providing service for. In the blink of an eye, the Ochoa family goes from utter boredom to a life-and-death situation where response time is crucial. Timing is important not just for medical reasons, but for competitive ones as well. Often there are two races occurring - the race to reach the patient, and the race against another ambulance. What is clear is that once on the scene, the Ochoas are very professional and caring ... whether it's a gunshot wound, a child that's fallen four stories from a window, or a woman who has been physically assaulted by her boyfriend (and needs a hug, as well as an ambulance).

Corruption is everywhere in this cutthroat industry. From a government who refuses proper care for its citizens to a police force accepting bribes to private ambulance services on retainer from certain hospitals. For the Ochoas, the police scanner is as vital to their business as the medical supplies in the back where the youngest brother munches chips between calls. A loudspeaker is necessary as they race through the city streets admonishing cyclists and cab drivers to get out of the way for a medical emergency.

The Ochoas treat hundreds of patients each year, and when they aren't responding to calls, they are scrubbing the blood from the vehicle or resting up for another stressful night. We hear their philosophy in providing care for those who might not otherwise get to the hospital on time, and we understand this family does care very much about their chosen profession ... this in spite of the fact that so many refuse to pay them, or simply can't afford to. It's a constant hustle that keeps the family on the edge financially, although they can hold their head up high knowing they provide a valuable service. Lorentzen's camera work ensures we feel the intensity and stress of each and every call.
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Brotherhood (VII) (2018)
8/10
assumptions can be costly
4 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Two red-headed freckled face boys herding sheep in rural Tunisia is a visual we've not previously see on screen. Writer-director Meryam Joobeur stumbled on the brothers while exploring the country, and the encounter led her to write the script ... a story which also includes a younger brother.

Family dynamics and structure are the focus here as the father Mohamed tries to solve the slaughter of one of the sheep. It occurs the same day that the 'black sheep' son (the eldest) returns from war with a pregnant Syrian woman who is wearing a niquab. Mohamed is a proud man, and though his wife (Salha Nasraoui) acts as a peace-keeper, he cannot bring himself to accept the woman, or the son who brought her home.

Their land could kindly be described as hardscrabble, and with the conflict/war continuing, life has gotten tougher for these folks. Malek has returned from fighting in Syria, and with him comes a new form of suffering for the family. The father makes assumptions without speaking to his son, and it's an assumption that can tear apart this once close family.

This 24 minute gem has fared exceedingly well at film festivals, and filmmaker Joobeur is working on turning the three non-professional acting brothers into a feature film. This short features tension and conflict in most every scene. It's not the most comfortable viewing experience, but it's spellbinding to watch. A longer run time would allow for better character development and an understanding of the history, but this relentless tension would need some breaks.
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8/10
voice of his generation
2 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Quentin Tarantino has been praised as the cinematic "voice of his generation." His influence on other filmmakers is as obvious as those who have influenced him. This is a celebration of Tarantino the filmmaker, and also somewhat of a response to his critics. Tara Wood's documentary never hides that she's a fan, and to her credit, she hits head-on the 3 controversies associated with her subject: the use of the "N-word", Uma Thurman's stunt car accident while filming KILL BILL, and his friendship and business relationship with the despicable Harvey Weinstein.

Tarantino has publically stated that he will retire from filmmaking after directing his 10th film. Ms. Wood's film covers his first eight, from RESEVOIR DOGS in 1992 to THE HATEFUL EIGHT in 2015. Because this documentary was tied up and delayed in the Miramax quagmire, there is also a brief mention of Tarantino's 9th film ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD, released this year. The film kicks off with some background information from Producer Stacey Sher, mentions of his writing for TRUE ROMANCE and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, and a fascinating tidbit involving how QT used his pay from appearing as an Elvis impersonator on "The Golden Girls" to initially fund his career in filmmaking.

Ms. Wood then divides her film into three chapters, thereby categorizing and providing insight on each. "Chapter 1 - The Revolution" includes RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION, both ground-breakers in their own way and they announced "an astonishing new voice" in movies. The best behind-the-scenes bit comes courtesy of actor and Tarantino regular Michael Madsen who initially objected to being Mr. Blonde, complaining "I didn't want to get killed by Tim Roth." Of course, it was PULP FICTION that elevated Tarantino to a new stratosphere - oh, and it also allowed for the stunning comeback of John Travolta.

"Chapter 2 - Badass Women and Genre Play" covers JACKIE BROWN, KILL BILL and DEATH PROOF. The first of those films, each which featured very strong women, was an ode to the Blaxploitation era, the second was influenced by Hong Kong cinema, and the third is described by Zoe Bell as Tarantino's 'thank you' to industry stunt people. Perhaps the most important element of this chapter was that, despite the affirmations, he refused to serve up a repeat PULP FICTION ... yet another thing that set him apart from other filmmakers.

"Chapter 3 - Justice" finishes up the catalog with INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, DJANGO UNCHAINED, and THE HATEFUL EIGHT. 'Basterds' is renowned for what may be the most fascinating opening sequence in any movie, 'Django' shows his love of westerns (especially Italian), and 'Hateful 8' stands as a 'western RESERVOIR DOGS'. With his many references to earlier cinema, Tarantino shows no hesitancy in spinning or changing history to fit his story. While many disparaged the infamous Hitler scene in 'Basterds' (and subsequently the Manson killings in his latest), Tarantino firmly believes that viewers know they are watching a movie, and can easily separate this from real life and historical fact. It's noted that this is what story telling is all about ... asking 'What if?"

Many of Tarantino's collaborators offer insight and memories. Those appearing include: Samuel L Jackson, Christoph Waltz, Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Diane Kruger, Lucy Liu, Bruce Dern, Jamie Foxx, the late Robert Forster, Tim Roth, Eli Roth, and Lawrence Bender. Most obvious in their absence are Uma Thurman, Pam Grier, Leonardo DiCaprio, John Travolta, and Tarantino himself. There is also a nice segment included as a tribute to the late Sally Menke, Tarantino's long-time film editor.

Quentin Tarantino has been described as an overzealous geek with the talent to back it up. In reality, he's a walking and (fast) talking encyclopedia of movie knowledge, trivia and history. He is also described as creating an exuberant infection with cinema, and his frequent scenes of ultra-violence are interpreted by Christoph Waltz as "opera". It was October 5, 2017 when the Harvey Weinstein story broke, and immediately, since many films connect them, Tarantino was part of the story. It's a blight on his record, just as it is for countless other actors, celebrities and film industry types who knew and chose to stay silent. But when it comes to making movies, few have ever done it better. There is an on-set clip where Tarantino says "One more take. Why? Because we love making movies!" It's clear from the interviews here that QT reveres making movies. He also loves watching movies - so much so that he bought and renovated the New Beverly Cinema. He's a proud film geek. Ms. Wood's film is pure pleasure for QT fans and will explain a lot for those who aren't so sure about his work.
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The Irishman (2019)
9/10
a holiday gift for cinephiles
1 December 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. The Copacabana tracking shot in GOODFELLAS in etched not only in my brain, but in cinema lore. Filmmaker Martin Scorsese teases us with a similar shot as the opening sequence in his latest. The camera snakes through the dank halls and rooms of an assisted-living center before settling on the well-worn face of wheelchair-bound octogenarian Frank Sheeran (Robert DeNiro). Mr. Sheeran is the titular Irishman, and he narrates the story of his life, at least as he recalls it. His is a life story that connects the mob to history and politics in a no frills manner surely to provoke thought, skepticism, and a knot in the tummy.

Oscar winning writer Steve Zaillian (SCHINDLER'S LIST, also GANGS OF NEW YORK, THE FALCON AND THE SNOWMAN) adapted Charles Brandt's book "I Heard You Paint Houses" for the film. Mr. Brandt was Sheeran's attorney and worked with Sheeran on his memoir. The book title is highlighted by Scorsese at both the beginning and end of the film, as well as through a line of dialogue in the first phone conversation between Sheeran and Jimmy Hoffa. Mr. Sheeran was a WWII veteran turned truck driver turned mob hit man (and good soldier). He tells his story with little fanfare and in a way that we understand no glamour is associated with this lifestyle.

For those looking for the next GOODFELLAS or CASINO, you'll likely be disappointed. This one is not as flashy or stylish as those two classics, and instead is a 3 and a half hour introspective look at the men who are efficiency experts in power. Violence is merely one of the tools in their box. The presentation is contemplative, not action-centric. The hits are abrupt and jerky and realistic, not the stylistic choreography of shootouts in films like JOHN WICK. There is a skewed theme of friendship and male bonding ... even mentorship. It's unlike what we've seen before from mob movies.

After a chance meeting over a timing belt on a delivery truck, Sheeran is taken under the wing of Philadelphia mob boss Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci). This is Pesci's first onscreen appearance since 2010, and he is absolutely brilliant in his portrayal of "the quiet Don." His performance is 180 degrees from his comedy in LETHAL WEAPON (2.3.4) or HOME ALONE, and 180 degrees the opposite direction from his roles in GOODFELLAS and CASINO, where he was a bombastic man (not a clown) on the edge of violence at all times. Mr. Pesci has spent the last decade playing jazz under the name Joe Doggs. It's such a joy to have him back on screen, especially as the father figure-friend-ruthless businessman. His Russell is always calm and calculating, whether plotting the next kill or putting up with his wife's frequent smoke breaks on a road trip.

It's Russell who directs Sheeran to connect with Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino), President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. Pacino flashes his blustery best as Hoffa in a couple of scenes, but is also terrific while spewing one of his countless "c***suckers", or savoring one of his beloved ice cream sundaes - a simple pleasure in a complicated life. Sheeran and Hoffa develop an unusual friendship in their many years together, and Hoffa's real life unsolved disappearance in 1975 is the basis for Sheeran's recollections.

We learn that Sheeran's time in WWII taught him to kill ... there is a scene involving POW's digging their own grave while his rifle is pointed at them. In fact, most of the story is told in flashbacks that bounce between different eras. Scorsese, as has been reported ad nauseam, has utilized the de-aging process from Industrial Light & Magic to show DeNiro, Pesci, Pacino and others over the years. The effect is a bit distracting at first, but the story and these characters are so intriguing that we simply roll with after the initial jolt. It's also obvious how Scorsese worked to make DeNiro look like the hulking presence Sheeran was in real life (think Tom Cruise in the Jack Reacher movies). Camera angles, should pads, and shoe lifts are used to make us think DeNiro towers over the others the way Sheeran really did. DeNiro is excellent in portraying Sheeran as a good soldier, reserved in mannerisms - even flashing a slight stutter at times. He's a proud man who simply looks at the mob work as his job.

In addition to the three stars who each excel in their roles, Scorsese has assembled a huge and talented cast. Harvey Keitel is chilling in a couple of scenes as Angelo Bruno, Ray Romano plays mob lawyer Bill Bufalino, Bobby Cannavale is steak-loving Skinny Razor, Jesse Plemons is Hoffa's adopted son Chuckie O'Brien, Domenick Lombardozzi is Fat Tony Salerno, comedian Sebastian Maniscalco is "Crazy Joe" Gallo, Louis Cancelmi is bespectacled Sally Bugs, Jack Huston plays Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, and even Steven Van Zandt plays crooner Jerry Vale.

You are probably wondering, 'Where are the women?'. While there is no Lorraine Bracco (GOODFELLAS) or Sharon Stone (CASINO), Scorsese makes the point that with Sheeran, and these other mobsters, it's all business and real family relationships are non-existent. Stephanie Kurtzuba plays Irene Sheeran (Frank's second wife) and Katherine Narducci is Carrie Bufalino (Russell's cig-loving wife). They have some brief but entertaining moments on the road trip, and Marin Ireland has an effective scene late in the movie as Carrie, one of Frank's daughters, while Welker White plays Jo Hoffa. But it's Sheeran's daughter Peggy who is the quiet moral center of the story and his life. Played as a youngster by Lucy Gallina and later by Anna Paquin, Peggy is a mostly silent observer of her father, and whatever conscience he has, is impacted by her glances. Ms. Paquin is especially good with one question ... "Why?"

Worthy of special mention is Stephen Graham who plays Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano, a friend-turned-rival of Hoffa. Graham and Pacino share two standout scenes - one in prison, while Hoffa scoops his sundae, and a later meeting where Hoffa takes offense to Tony Pro's late arrival and attire. Both scenes are remarkable in that there is underlying humor balancing the surface anger. In fact, the film is filled with memorable scenes. Hoffa's guidance on self-defense in guns vs. knives, and most every scene between DeNiro's Sheeran and Pesci's Russell. DeNiro and Pesci have a chemistry few actors share. It dates back to RAGING BULL (1980), and I believe this is their 7th film together.

The film reminds me of the 1970's movies that fueled my movie obsession: THE GODFATHER I and II, THE CONVERSATION, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, CHINATOWN, and even THE LAST PICTURE SHOW. Sheeran may or may not be a reliable narrator, but these are real people - even if we don't know the specifics on every hit. Captions are periodically included to inform of us how a particular mobster met his maker - again providing some dark humor. What is a bit surprising is the male bonding, even friendship, between guys in such a brutal profession. And watching how the story weaves in and out of history with the Bay of Pigs, Cuba casinos, and the Kennedy assassination -"If they can whack a President ..." is a bit unsettling.

Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (SILENCE, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN) is a good fit for Scorsese's vision, and you can catch the varying camera styles for each character - and don't miss the stunning shot of the illicit guns in the river. Composer Robbie Robertson (The Band) delivers Scorsese trademark musical riffs, and 3-time Oscar winner Thelma Schoonmacker is in peak form editing this epic. This is the 8th film collaboration for Scorsese and DeNiro, but the first in 25 years (CASINO).

I'm a little concerned. In fact, I'm a little more than concerned. This feels like the end of an era. It's not the end of Scorsese films, but it's the final chapter of his mob films. No other filmmaker comes close in this genre. With the bookends of Sheeran reminiscing in the assisted-living home, this is quite the holiday gift for cinephiles ... and a last one (providing Netflix survives).
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Waves (I) (2019)
8/10
two for one
27 November 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Whether in sports or music or movies, watching talent blossom and grow is wondrous. For movie lovers, this describes young filmmaker Trey Edward Shults, whose first feature film KRISHA really grabbed me at a film festival in 2016. His follow-up was the critically acclaimed IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017), and now with only his third film, Mr. Shults has delivered an even more ambitious story with wide-reaching impact, yet he remains true to his intimate and personal approach. In fact, with WAVES, he basically delivers two brilliant films in one.

A terrific opening credits sequence takes us inside the life of a teenager. There is constant motion, laughter, the longing for independence, and signs of responsibility and structure. Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr, LUCE, 2019) is a high school student, talented athlete, pianist, son, brother, and boyfriend. He's living an upper-middle class life in a beautiful home with his dad (a powerhouse Sterling K Brown), stepmom (Renee Elise Goldsberry), and younger sister Emily (breakout star Taylor Russell). His dad owns a construction company, and is tough and demanding as a parent, incessantly pushing his son to do and be more. His fatherly advice comes in the form of telling Tyler that black men have to work harder than white ones ... never stopping to give praise or affection. He's the type of father who challenges his son to arm wrestle while in a restaurant and critiques his wrestling match victory by telling him the lesser opponent should have been dispatched much quicker. The pressure is relentless, though offered with the best intentions ... a college scholarship and a successful life.

Tyler's stepmom is loving and supportive, and his sister Emily is very sweet and quiet, living in the shadows of big brother. Tyler and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) seem to have a good relationship and Tyler appears to be dealing with the pressures. But then, as is common with life at this age, things go sideways quickly. A shoulder injury, self-medication, and Alexis' late period bring this ideal world crashing down on Tyler. Just when it seems things can't get worse, they do.

Shults' film is really two love stories separated by a tragic line. Whereas the first half belongs to Tyler, the second half is owned by his sister Emily. Dealing with a situation and emotions that should be beyond her maturity level, Emily proves how strong she is, and how the heart can always respond to compassion and caring. She meets one of Tyler's ex-teammates Luke (yet another brilliant Lucas Hedges performance). Luke is socially clumsy and 180 degrees from being a smooth-talker, but he's smitten with Emily and offers her a lovely, if unlikely, companionship. First love is almost always awkward and watching these two navigate is quite charming and heart-warming. A road trip leads to bonding and a better understanding of each other.

As the film shifts in focus and tone, characters are pushed to emotional limits. The film offers snapshots of moments without disturbing the flow or Shults' commitment to rich texture. The photography from cinematographer Drew Daniels is creative and varied, and adds much to the presentation. Music is also vital here. The score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross adds the perfect touch, and the soundtrack contrasts the tastes of today's generation with what the parents relate to (Dinah Washington's "What a Difference a Day Makes"), even forming a surprising connection at one point. For other fans of Shults' film KRISHA, you will enjoy a quick scene with Krisha Fairchild as a high school teacher.

Proms, pregnancy, parties, pills, and parents are all common topics for films dealing with teens, but this one digs deeper than most. It's based in south Florida and is quite the stylish and heartfelt drama, slicing open the traits that make us human. A lifetime of good decisions builds a foundation, and one or two bad choices can topple all the good ones. When Tyler and his teammates are pumping up before a match with chants of "I cannot be taken down!", we all know that life can absolutely take you down. Tyler learns this lesson in the harshest of ways, while his sister Emily deals with the aftermath. Themes of acceptance and forgiveness give this the feeling of the work of a much more experienced filmmaker, but evidently Trey Edward Shults is just this talented.
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Knives Out (2019)
8/10
wheel of knives
26 November 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. "I suspect 'fow-uhl' play." So states the renowned and poetically named private detective, Benoit Blanc. Of course when mega-wealthy, best-selling author Harlan Thrombey supposedly commits suicide after his 85th birthday party by slashing his own throat with a knife, something more sinister (you know, like ... murder) must be considered. The violin playing over the opening shots of the palatial Thrombey manor teases us with thoughts of most any year from the past 75. These nostalgic thoughts fade quickly as we begin to meet the players.

Detective Elliott (LaKeith Stanfield) and Trooper Wagner (a quite funny Noah Segan) seem merely to be crossing their T's in the suicide investigation as they dutifully meet with each family member for a statement. It's this progression of questioning that introduces us to the year's most colorful ensemble cast. Patriarch Thrombey's (Christopher Plummer) scheming heirs-in-waiting include: his daughter Linda Drysdale (Jamie Lee Curtis), happy to remind you of her success as a self-made businessperson; Linda's smarmy husband Richard (Don Johnson); their renegade son Ransom (Chris Evans) who arrives a bit later; Harlan's son Walt Thrombey (Michael Shannon) who 'runs' the family publishing business; Harlan's ex-daughter-in-law Joni (Toni Collette), a self-help guru who has a secret side gig; grandkids Meg (Katherine Langford), preppy social media troll Jacob (Jaeden Martell), and Donna (Riki Lindhome of "Garfunkel and Oates"); and Harlan's mother Greatnana (Dallas' own K Callan). Two key non-family members are the housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) who finds Harlan's body, and nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan's friend and only real confidante.

Writer-director Rian Johnson has put together a diverse career with such films as indie breakout BRICK (2005), science fiction hit LOOPER (2012) and of course, STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII - THE LAST JEDI (2018). With this latest, he shows a real flair with a rare comedic whodunit, and manages to perfectly execute his twisted script of twisted personalities. Think of this as Agatha Christie meets CLUE via THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS. The overall mangled morality of this entitled family becomes crystal clear as we get to know each. Johnson presents many familiar elements for fans of the mystery genre (the dark mansion, the creepy line-up of hangers-on, the red-herring clues and missteps), and most impressively, he blends those with many creative and surprising moments ... some that will have you believing you have it figured out. But even if you do, the long and winding road is an utter blast.

Even with that deep and talented cast, it's Daniel Craig as Benoit Blanc and Ana de Armas as Marta who stand out. They have the most screen time and neither waste a moment. Mr. Craig's purposefully comedic southern drawl completes the film's most memorable character, in fact, one of the year's most memorable characters. Ms. de Armas finally finds a role to take advantage of her skill. Nurse Marta has a lie-detecting reflux gag that is not just valuable to the case, but also vital to the loudest audience reaction during the film. Mr. Craig and Ms. de Armas will also appear together in the upcoming Bond film NO TIME TO DIE.

During the reading of the will, director Johnson brings in STAR WARS stalwart Frank Oz (best known as Yoda) to play the family attorney, while another scene features one of the all-time great character actors (and Roger Ebert favorite) M. Emmet Walsh (BLOOD SIMPLE). Mr. Johnson also offers a unique spin on classism and the 1%, including a running gag about Marta's nation of origin.

Johnson's regular team is in top form here: Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, Film Editor Bob Ducsay, and composer Nathan Johnson (Rian's cousin). Another deserving of mention is Costume Designer Jenny Eagan, who matches threads with personality about as effectively as we've seen, and Production Designer David Crank who creates the ideal mansion of secrets. This film is wickedly clever and barrels of fun. There may not have been a more purely entertaining movie this year ... and it's been a terrific year for movies. Just remember: 'My house. My rules. My coffee."
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Tree #3 (2019)
7/10
Put on a show. It's who you are.
23 November 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Teachers can have a lasting impact on their students, and few teachers would knowingly prevent one of their students from achieving their goals or living their dreams. Teachers tend to have one key flaw. It's a flaw shared with many. They are human beings. Which means decisions are tainted with personal tastes and preferences, and those decisions can sometimes be hurtful and stifling. The film opens with an exuberant and slightly anxious young boy named Itai as he prepares for his audition for the school play.

Newcomer Lior Malka portrays Itai as an enthusiastic youngster, filled with dreams of being an actor. He goes all out in his audition, and after his teacher Ms. Crystal (Kelly Ryan) politely thanks him for his efforts, a mature-beyond-his-years and confounded Itai see through her façade and asks what he did wrong. Her non-answer fills him with disappointment ... a disappointment that reaches devastation the following day when he realizes he's been cast, yet again, as a background tree.

Itai's disappointment leads him to lie to his beloved grandmother when they FaceTime. She still lives in their homeland of Israel and fully believes her young grandson is living the American dream. As is often the case, Itai must fess up to his lie when his grandmother decides to fly around the globe to watch him "star" in the play. When confronted with the truth, she inspires him by telling him, "Put on a show. It's who you are." Her message, and the fact that he can't understand why the lead actors aren't excited about their roles - or even prepared - lead Itai to hatch a plan that requires the coordination of the other 'trees'.

Writer-director Omer Ben-Shachar co-wrote the story with Sydney Meadow, and they show us the power in staying true to ourselves, despite the closed-minds of others. Itai proclaims "I'm an actor", and we are reminded that "a tree is never just a tree." Sometimes the teacher provides the lesson, and sometimes the student provides the lesson.
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8/10
through a child's eyes
22 November 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. This easily could have been extended to 80 or 90 minutes of Father-Daughter road trip, but director Sandrine Brodeur-Desrosiers and writer Luis Molinie deliver the same story and evoke the same emotional response within a brisk 21 minute run time.

Newcomer Dalia Binzare stars as 8 year old Eva. She's super excited to be headed to the beach with her father (Florin Peltea), even though her mom is staying home. Eva's a bit surprised that they are making the trip in her father's big rig - a rumbling 18-wheeler, but her anticipation of frolicking on the beach allows her to roll with it.

Their trip runs from Montreal to Mexico, and only a quick glimpse of the border wall clues us (not Eva) in to the real purpose of the trip. Well that, and a general awareness that few men would leave their wife home and drag their daughter across two countries just so the kid could build a sandcastle or look for turtles.

Other than a radio sing-along, and a few familiar glances, there is very little actual communication between the two. Young Ms. Binzare really shines in the moment when she has to react to the situation, and the realization that her own father has broken a promise and used her for another purpose. The style of filming allows for the viewpoint of the child, the concern of the father, and the vastness of the trip. It's very well done.
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Frozen II (2019)
7/10
do you wanna build another snowman?
21 November 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Greetings again from the darkness. Let it go. Forget the sisterly issues of the Oscar winning original from 6 years ago. Arendelle is now doing just fine under "Ice" Queen Elsa and Princess Anna. Well, at least until Elsa is beckoned to the foggy, off-limits Enchanted Forest by an ethereal voice that only she can hear. We know this probably isn't good since the movie kicks off with a flashback to when the sisters were very young and their parents (voiced by Alfred Molina and Evan Rachel Wood) told them a historically significant story of the forest - a story with a vital missing piece.

Joining Elsa (voiced again by the wonderful Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) on this journey to the forest and a discovery of the past are more familiar faces from the first movie: woodsman Kristoff (Jonathan Groff, who also plays Holden Ford in the excellent TV series "Mindhunter"), Kristoff's loyal reindeer Sven, and everybody's favorite huggable, philosophizing snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad back for an expanded role that provides more laughs).

Co-directors and co-writers Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee return for the sequel and their script, co-written with Marc Smith, features the familiarity that we'd expect from such a successful original, but it adds pieces that will likely be too confusing for younger viewers. Trying to recapture the magic of their Oscar winning song "Let it Go", songwriters Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez seem to have a singing interlude approximately every 8 minutes or so. Olaf gets a cute song, and this time, even Kristoff has his musical moment with "Lost in the Woods" (Jonathan Groff is a Broadway veteran). Of course, it's Elsa/Idina Menzel who provides two impressive power vocals. It appears "Into the Unknown" is getting the PR push, but personally I preferred "Show Yourself".

Don't think it's all about the songs. There is an odd storyline that seems a bit preachy about making amends to past sins (politically and personally), and just how devastating it can be to discover that one's family tree has some rotten branches. Whether kids "get" that nature's balance must be restored, they will surely appreciate the two sisters: Anna's inner-strength and determination matching Elsa's magical powers. And all ages will enjoy Olaf's comical fast-talking recap of the first movie - a scene itself worthy of admission.

While the songs might fall short this time around, and the story might be a bit more convoluted, there is no arguing that this sequel looks fantastic. The enhanced animation is quite stunning at times. As opposed to the blue and white color scheme of the first movie, this sequel features a palette that draws from Martha Stewart's Thanksgiving table setting - the autumn colors are vibrant and gorgeous.

FROZEN II will have a bit more Oscar competition in the animated category than what its predecessor faced, as it will be going up against instant classic TOY STORY 4. The filmmakers are to be commended for bringing attention to natural elements of air, water, fire, and earth; however, a couple of the extended sequences will likely prove too intense for younger viewers. "Do the next right thing" may be the new Disney Golden Rule, but it's difficult to imagine a non-talking gecko or terrifying Earth Giants will emerge as a new favorite toy. Parents should know going in that by the end, Elsa sports a new dress and hairdo, conflicting with an early song "Some Things Never Change". And when parents realize a third "Frozen" movie is in the works, they should know that warm hugs help. Let's just hope the next one isn't called "Ice Cubed".
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8/10
feel the vroom!
20 November 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. 7000 RPM. Racing legend Carroll Shelby describes that as the moment of racing bliss in the opening of the film. We are reminded of early test pilots breaking the sound barrier, or explorers reaching the peak of Mt. Everest. What follows is two-and-a-half hours of history, rivalries, egos, and sport. The racing scenes are exhilarating, and the men are driven by testosterone and compelled to be the best. They are throwbacks to a different era. An era that wasn't about fairness and feelings, but of determination and focus that produced results - either success or failure. There were winners and losers, and the ceremonies awarded no participation ribbons.

Who are these men? They are Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles, Henry Ford II, and Enzo Ferrari. Director James Mangold (LOGAN, WALK THE LINE) takes the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans and turns it into a rivalry between car makers, a friendship between racing icons, a look at corporate buffoonery that still exists today, and an old-fashioned movie that is fun to watch ... regardless of whether you know the first thing about racing or cars.

Matt Damon plays Carroll Shelby, the war veteran race driver-turned-designer hired to push Ford racing into world class status. Shelby is an industry icon who won the 1959 Le Mans before retiring due to a heart condition. He then founded and ran Shelby-American for designing and improving cars. He wore cowboy hats that were only eclipsed in size by his bravura in most situations. Christian Bale plays legendary driver Ken Miles, another war veteran and bombastic friend of Shelby, who can best be described as a race car savant. Contrary to the film's title, the story belongs to these two men, and the film belongs to these two actors.

Co-writers Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, and Jason Keller take some liberties with the script and bend a few historical details to make the parts fit a Hollywood production ... but for the most part, the story is pretty accurate. Just a few years after the Edsel fiasco, Henry Ford II is agitated at the state of Ford Motor Company, and after a bitter and personally insulting failed buyout of Ferrari, Mr. Ford (played with proper arrogance by Tracy Letts) decides to engage in motor-measuring with the Italian company run by Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone). He hires Shelby to elevate Ford racing to elite status with one main goal - beating Ferrari at Le Mans. Shelby's cocksure approach manages to keep Miles onboard despite the internal battles with Ford executives, especially Leo Beebe (a smarmy Josh Lucas). Beebe doesn't see Miles as "a Ford man", and in what is all too common in corporate life, prefers style over substance.

The film could have easily been titled Corporate vs Cars. Although the Henry Ford vs Enzo Ferrari segment is quite entertaining, most of the time is spent with Shelby and Miles trying to reach their dream while negotiating corporate obstacles. These two men have a love for racing and each other - in an old school, manly-respect kind of way. They are simpatico in their quest for the perfect car, and as Miles explains to his son (Noah Jupe) in a terrific scene, the perfect lap.

Additional supporting roles include Jon Bernthal as young visionary Lee Iacocca (who died earlier this year), Caitriona Balfe as Miles' supportive wife, and Ray McKinnon as Phil Remington, the lead engineer on Shelby's team. Of course, Iacocca went on to become Chairman of Chrysler, where he brought in Shelby to consult on the Dodge Viper, among other models. Supposedly Le Mans racing legend and 6-time winner Jackie Ickx appears in a crowd shot, but I missed it.

There is a stark contrast between the Ferrari factory and the Ford assembly line, but the egos at the top are remarkably similar. A bruised ego lit the fuse for the rivalry, but it was the car guys who made it happen. The racing scenes are adrenaline-packed and the sound in the theatre, combined with Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (SIDEWAYS, NEBRASKA) close-ups inside the car, allow us to feel the rumble and vibration and speed sensation inside the Ford GT40. Damon and Bale are terrific. Damon struts with Shelby's confidence, and Bale (after a huge weight loss from his role as Dick Cheney in VICE) captures the cantankerous genius of Miles - plus seeing his yell at other drivers during races is hilarious. There is a comical rumble between Miles and Shelby that will remind no one of Batman and Jason Bourne, but as difficult as it is to make popping a clutch exciting on the big screen, Mangold's team comes through.
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The Report (I) (2019)
7/10
stomach-churning politics
10 November 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Does the end justify the means? Do two wrongs make a right? These are questions of ethics and morality, and when it comes to the government, they can also be questions of legal and illegal, or even life and death. Scott Z Burns offers up his feature film directorial debut, and he has been best known as a screenwriter for Steven Soderbergh films such as THE LAUNDROMAT, SIDE EFFECTS, and THE INFORMANT! Mr. Burns certainly didn't choose an easy route for his first time in the director chair, as this is a heavy, thought-provoking, stomach-churner.

Adam Driver plays Daniel Jones, a Senate staffer under Senator Dianne Feinstein. She charges him with leading the Senate investigation into the CIA's Enhanced Interrogation Technique (EIT) program after the 9/11 attack. It's easy to see why so many viewed this as a bad gig, but Jones became obsessed with uncovering the truth about what happened, who did what, and who knew what and when they knew it. This government procedural offers us an education on red tape, political boundaries, and the expertise in protecting fiefdoms in D.C. In other words, everything that we fear and despise about our own government officials is on display here.

That said, it is refreshing to see someone so focused on getting to the truth as Jones is/was ... despite the systematic obstacles (destruction of tapes, party divisions). Annette Bening shines as Senator Feinstein and is quite effective in portraying just how difficult it can be for politicians to juggle all sides and pressures when a topic is so "hot". The film covers a period between 2003 and 2012, and most of the run time is spent on Jones' research for the report. The supporting cast is deep and talented, and includes Jon Hamm as Obama Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Michael C Hall, Maura Tierney, Victor Slezak, Tim Blake Nelson, Ben McKenzie, Matthew Rhys, Corey Stoll, and Ted Levine (as CIA Director John Brennan). One of the more interesting aspects of the film involves the contractors behind the EIT program. Basically, they are academics with no real world case studies or experience - just two guys looking to cash in on a lucrative government deal at a time when a country was desperate for answers.

Watching the battle over the final release (or not) of "The Torture Report" (the word torture was redacted here) injects quite a bit of tension, and the inclusion of archival footage from the period is very effective. What's less effective is the overuse of shaky-cam in the first portion of the film, and the score is downright annoying at times as it attempts to ensure we are frustrated with the political wranglings. On the other hand, the dialogue is really crisp and there are some quietly-tense exchanges between folks that are well-written and well-acted. Adam Driver carries the bulk of the film and he is perfectly cast.

The obvious comparisons are to ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN and SPOTLIGHT, though this one never quite reaches that level. Still, it's thought-provoking to watch as Jones considers a New York Times reporter to be the most ethical character he can turn to in his efforts to get the truth out. The film doesn't really choose sides ... everyone who participated in a cover-up or illegal activities takes a shot, as does Kathryn Bigelow's ZERO DARK THIRTY. This was a dark time in U.S. history, and it reminds us how difficult it seems to be to do the right thing while in government. Perhaps that's the biggest takeaway.
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Honey Boy (2019)
7/10
Shia's childhood
10 November 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Most 12 year olds don't have a job. Perhaps their parents have assigned a few chores around the house to help them learn responsibility, but for the most part, they go to school and play ... the things that kids do. Shia LaBeouf had 2 jobs as a kid. He was a rising actor and he was employer/quasi-guardian of his father. Now in his 30's, LaBeouf has written a screenplay about his childhood and he stars as his father in an attempt to exorcise some personal demons. It also happens to make for compelling cinema.

The film opens with a montage of cuts between a 20-something LeBeouf (played by Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges) performing stunts on an action movie set (clearly meant to represent TRANSFORMERS) and a serious automobile wreck and subsequent DUI. The wreck caused major damage to his hand and resulted in court-mandated rehabilitation. While in rehab, his therapist (played by Laura San Giacomo) diagnoses him with PTSD ... not military war related, but rather broken family related.

In this film, LeBeouf has named the character based on himself Otis, and the character based on his own father James Lort. In addition to Hedges playing the early-20's version, another rising actor, Noah Jupe, plays Otis as a 12 year old. As rehabbing Otis puts his childhood memories to paper, we see flashbacks featuring the younger Otis and his father. They live in a dump of a motel, and ride to the TV show set (meant to be "Even Stevens") on dad's motorcycle. James Lort/dad is a former performing clown, recovering addict, and ex-con. He's the kind of guy who talks a big game and blames everyone else for keeping him from succeeding. To put it mildly ... he's a jerk. That's not to say he doesn't have his moments as a caring parent, but those moments are nullified by the bullying and threats of violence towards his young son. That son is desperate to please his dad, yet wise enough to know that he's not to be trusted.

Shia LeBeouf dives in head first to play the man who had such an impact on his early years. This, mind you, is the kind of man who offers cigarettes to his young son, makes fun of his pre-pubescent body, and is quite jealous of his budding career. LeBeouf is at his best in a difficult role that surely cuts very deep for him. Supporting roles are played by singer FKA Twigs as the shy neighbor girl who befriends Otis, plus Natasha Lyonne, Maika Monroe, Clifton Collins Jr, and Byron Bowers.

Director Alma Har'el structures her first narrative feature film (she has previously worked on videos and documentaries) with timelines showing Otis at the two ages. There are no fancy camera tricks. Instead she trusts these talented actors to bring it home ... and that they do very well. Lucas Hedges was Oscar nominated for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA, and he is in the beautiful upcoming film WAVES. Noah Jupe is a star in the making, having previously appeared in A QUIET PLACE, and in the exhilarating upcoming film FORD VS FERRARI. These are some top notch actors at their very best.

As viewers, we have to remove ourselves from feeling anger and disgust towards the James Lort character. That's easier said than done when he says things like "The only thing my father gave me of any value was pain." It's meant to sum up his reasoning for his own parenting approach. There is a truly brilliant, and well-coordinated scene that acts as a three-way phone conversation between father, son, and estranged wife/mother. The kid is put smack in the middle of the two people who are supposed to love and nurture and protect him. Instead, Otis comes across as the adult. We do get some comic relief with the 'world's first daredevil chicken', but this is just not a warm, cuddly father-son fairy tale. This was real life for Shia LeBeouf and he's brave to bring it out in the open, even if it's less confession and more therapeutic session. He deserves it after hearing, "I'm your cheerleader, Honey Boy", and "Trust me, I'm your father."
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Midway (2019)
5/10
dive bombers
8 November 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Greetings again from the darkness. Japan's World War II goal was to devastate the United States Navy fleet in the South Pacific, thereby securing the area as their own and crippling the U.S. military beyond hope. The December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor was the first step and the most infamous. Over the next few months, what followed were the Raid on Tokyo (April 1942), Battle of Coral Sea (May 1942) and the Battle of Midway (June 1942). Stating that these battles changed the war is not an understatement, as the Imperial Japanese Navy had previously been viewed as superior (especially after the destruction at Pearl Harbor). Director Roland Emmerich (THE PATRIOT, INDEPENDENCE DAY) has never met a war or explosion or special effect he didn't like, so we know going in that, given the subject matter and the filmmaker, the screen will be filled with action.

Emmerich co-wrote the script with Wes Tooke (his first feature script), and as with many WWII movies, it acts as a history lesson on a war that changed the world. This one focuses on naval strategy and particularly on the individuals who defined courage and heroism ... many names we recognize from history books. The contrast between Japanese military leaders and United States military leaders is on full display, and it's no surprise that the Japanese leaders are mostly portrayed as cold and calculating, while the U.S. leaders come across as more humanistic and resourceful. Pride is evident on both sides - it's just displayed differently.

The players are crucial to the story. Woody Harrelson plays Admiral Chester Nimitz, Dennis Quaid is Vice Admiral "Bull" Halsey (commander of aircraft carrier USS Enterprise), Patrick Wilson is Intelligence Officer Lieutenant Commander Edwin Layton, Jake Weber is Rear Admiral Raymond Spruance, Luke Evans is Lieutenant Commander Wade McClusky, Brennan Brown plays Joseph Rochefort (leader of the code breaker team), and Aaron Eckhart is Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, the extraordinary pilot who led the Raid on Tokyo in April 1942. On the Japanese side, Tadanabu Asano plays Rear Admiral Yamaguchi (commander of the aircraft carrier Hiryu), Jun Kunimura is Admiral Nagumo (he of questionable battle decisions), and Enushi Toyokawa plays Admiral Yamamoto, the most dignified and influential of the Japanese leaders.

Much of the story is told from the perspective of naval pilot Lieutenant Dick Best (Ed Skrein, DEADPOOL). While personal stories and challenges faced by individuals makes for a relatable story for viewers, there is something about this particular actor that comes across as awkward and difficult to bond with. There is no doubting the character and courage of Dick Best as a pilot; however, Skrein's performance is flat out annoying and distracting. The dive bombing missions are breathtaking and thrilling, but overall the liberal use of green screen for effects detracts from the realistic looks we've come to expect for war movies.

Mandy Moore as Anne Best, and Nick Jonas as a mechanic, are cast for relatability by viewers, but the value in the film comes from an easy-to-follow description of the contrasting strategies of the two militaries. It's also a reminder that the "big" story of WWII is comprised of many individual stories of people ... people who were brave and heroic in a time of need. So ignore the cheesy affects, unrealistic dialogue, and irritating performances, and instead take in the work and actions of those who saved the world.
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Frankie (I) (2019)
5/10
melancholy overload
8 November 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Sintra is a resort town in Portugal, not far from Lisbon. It is breathtakingly beautiful with mountains, beaches, cliffs, colorful gardens and a picturesque town filled with charming churches and majestic castles. Writer-director Ira Sach's film probably should have been bank-rolled by Sintra's tourism committee, because the town is surely to be on the must-see travel list of every person who sees this movie. Unfortunately, what works as a travel tease, offers little else as a cinematic or entertainment vehicle.

Beloved French actress Isabelle Huppert stars as beloved French actress Francois, better known as Frankie. She has organized a vacation gathering for her modern day family consisting of her second and current husband, Scotsman Jimmy (Brendan Gleeson), her first husband, gay man Michel (Pascal Gregory), teenage granddaughter Maya (Sennia Nanua) and Maya's two quarrelling parents Ian (Ariyon Bakare) and Sylvia (Vinette Robinson), and Frankie's self-centered and problematic son Paul (Jeremie Renier). Also invited is Ilene (Marisa Tomei), Frankie's long-time friend and hair stylist, who without telling Frankie, brought along a date, cinematographer Gary (Greg Kinnear). When someone complains about her inviting Ilene, Frankie replies, think of it as "Family Plus One."

Frankie has arranged this trip under the guise of 'a final goodbye'. Her cancer has returned, and it's likely to take her life very soon. Despite that, it really appears Frankie is acting as a matchmaker for her jerky son Paul, by thinking he and the delightful Ilene might be a good fit ... you know, since she lives in New York and he's moving there. This speaks to the blindness of parents towards their own kids, but also the never-ending hope for their happiness. During this trip, we witness one of the most awkward proposals ever, plus a re-telling of a family secret at a most inopportune time. The latter is likely the most interesting segment of the movie.

Ira Sachs and his writing partner Mauricio Zacharias are known for NYC-based stories like LITTLE MEN (2016) and LOVE IS STRANGE (2014), so this idyllic setting is a bit outside their wheelhouse. We listen in on many awkward conversations, and the film involves mostly walking and talking ... with a high percentage of it being Frankie hiking on trails while wearing heels. There is an effective cloud of sadness over most every moment, and the overload of melancholy represents the struggles of this group getting through a single day. Somehow even the beautiful final shot doesn't deliver any more emotional impact than the rest of the film. There just isn't much here other than what most of us regularly experience in life ... well, other than Sintra as a setting.
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Parasite (2019)
8/10
brilliant cinema
8 November 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. At least once per year, a movie really hits a sweet spot ... something that is fun to watch and not really like anything we've previously seen. Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho's latest film is this year's cinematic surprise. It's filled with interesting characters, social commentary, a unique setting, a creative and twisty story, and enough tension that we are left stunned as the end credits roll. There have already been a few excellent movies this year, and this is surely to be a memorable addition to the best of 2019.

We first meet the Kims, a family in poverty living in near-squalor in a basement level apartment with one small window. That window is at street level and allows a bit of natural light to leak in, and also provides a too-clear view of drunks targeting the window as they relieve themselves. The family keeps the window open for free fumigation as the city sprayers drive past, in hopes that it will get rid of the pesky stink bug infestation (yes, there is symmetry to this later in the story). The Kim family consists of Dad (Kang-ho Song), Mother (Hye-jin Jang), teenage son Kevin/Ki-woo (Woo-sik Choi) and 20-something daughter Jessica/Ki-jung (So-dam Park), and they react strongly when they lose "free hi-fi" access from a neighbor's system. The family seems to make just enough money for their next meal despite somehow underperforming at their family job of folding pizza boxes for a local vendor.

Fortunes begin to change for the Kims when one of Kevin's friends ask him to take over tutoring a teenage girl for a wealthy family in town. This sets off an ingenious and sometimes quite funny chain of events that result in all four Kim family members working in some capacity for the Parks, the aforementioned wealthy family. The Park's home was designed by a famous architect and it is a stunning modern hillside home with lush garden and a window that stands in stark contrast to that little window in the Kim's city apartment. Mr. Park (Sun-kyun Lee) is a 1% tech titan married to a high-strung woman who is an eternally anxious and over-matched mom (a fantastic Yeo-jeong Jo). Their two kids are lustful teenage daughter Da-hye (Ji-so Jung) and hyperactive young son Da-song (Hyun-jun Jung).

It's fascinating to watch how this family of schemers infiltrates this gullible and vulnerable upper class home, and how they so are easily trusted thanks to photoshop skills, Google, and a street-wise understanding of how to read people. The script, co-written by the director and Han Jin Won, explores the co-dependency as the rich depend on the poor for service work, and the poor depend on the rich for jobs and a living wage. Given the film's title, we soon realize that a "host" may have more than one parasite at any time ... something that plays out in what has to be the wildest film twist of the year, thanks to an all-out performance from Jeong-eun Lee as the Park's long-time housekeeper.

The social and class commentaries are spread throughout, and in addition to the window comparisons, you'll also notice that the walk is uphill to the Parks' home and downhill (and flood-risky) to the Kim's apartment. There are multiple layers within the stories and within the individual characters. What begins as a devastating social satire morphs into a wild and crazy time of violence ... without losing its general theme. A comedy of familial con artists bursts into a violent class thriller - the price to pay for unearned comfort. The film is not just unpredictable, it smacks us with a jarring twist.

Bong Joon Ho has become a well-respected filmmaker for his previous work: THE HOST 2006, MOTHER 2009, SNOWPIERCER 2013, and OKJA 2017. This latest elevates him to a whole new level. The film is darkly humorous and unpredictable, with excellent performances throughout. It's also quite something to look at. Cinematographer Kyung-pyo Hong works his magic, and it should be noted that the Park's home is a complete set built solely for the film. I challenge you to notice this - I sure couldn't tell. The film won the 2019 Palme d'Or at Cannes Film Festival, and it is likely headed for many more accolades.
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Little Hands (2017)
8/10
bad decision
4 November 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Staging a kidnapping is one of the quickest ways to create cinematic tension. When that kidnapping involves a toddler, the emotions and tensions fly off the charts. With only his third film, writer-director Remi Allier won France's Cesar Award for Best Short Film. Mr. Allier co-wrote the film with Julien Guetta and Gilles Monnat, and their film will have you on the edge of your seat for the full 15 minute run time.

We first see emotions erupting during labor negotiations between the workers' Union and the shareholders of a factory that is being shut down. The negotiations are raucous, and the factory manager's wife (on site for some inexplicable reason) decides its best if she takes their toddler son Leo home. In the blink of an eye, a mother's poor decision leads to an even worse spontaneous decision by Bruno, one of the frantic workers.

Screen vet Jan Hammenecker plays Bruno, and Emile Moulron Lejeune is little Leo. Much of what happens next is shown from the toddler's point of view, and it's the faces of Leo and Bruno that tell the story ... very little dialogue is heard after the opening sequence.

Director Allier's film displays class disparity and how emotions can lead to decisions so bad that lives are forever altered. Some of the camera work here is excellent, and the tension as a viewer is at maximum capacity.
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Badland (I) (2019)
6/10
Be still, young man
1 November 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Westerns are always a risky proposition for a filmmaker, but some are drawn to the genre and seem to thrive on the intricacies that fans have come to expect. Justin Lee is one such filmmaker. He wrote and directed this film and follows the familiar tropes: a quiet, proud protagonist; the strong, lonely woman; the corrupt gunslinger - maybe wearing a badge, maybe not; and of course, the battle of good versus evil.

Kevin Makely stars as Matthias Breecher, a Civil War veteran and now Pinkerton detective carrying out the orders of Senator Benjamin Burke (Tony Todd, CANDY MAN, 1992). Senator Burke has pledged to track down war criminals and hold them accountable by administering justice. Breecher is the Senator's hired hand who travels from town to town, serving warrants and dealing with those who refuse to abide

Mr. Lee's film is divided into four chapters. Chapter 1, "The General", finds Breecher face-to-face with tough-talking General Corbin Dandridge (Trace Adkins). It's here where Breecher first flashes his impressive gun skills, and it's soon after where he crosses paths with Harlow (recent honorary Oscar recipient Wes Studi), a competitor in the "bounty-hunter" game. Chapter 2, "The Cooke's" has Breecher tracking down Reginald Cooke (played for all it's worth by a finger-wagging Bruce Dern), a sickly old man dying slowly from pneumonia and living with his daughter Sarah (Oscar winner Mira Sorvino). Local bad guy Fred Quaid (James Russo) is trying to seize the Cooke's land (apparently this is the possessive apostrophe in the chapter title). During this segment we get a nasty fist fight, an ugly shootout, and Breecher falling for Sarah and actually shushing his horse. Chapter 3, "The Sheriff", brings us to the terrifically named town of "Knife's Edge" where equally terrifically named evil guy Huxley Wainwright (Jeff Fahey) wears a badge and rules the town with a reign of terror, and with Old West waterboarding. There is even a double-tap grave side shootout. It's an old mining town and the citizens live in fear - especially the good-hearted barkeep Alice (Amanda Wyss). The segment ends with a 'high noon' duel in the dusty street.

Chapter 4, "Breecher", acts as a finale for our hero, a man we are told was "born to violence." His dreams of owning land may have faded, and soul-searching has him reckoning with the man he's become. Mr. Makely reminds of actor Anson Mount in his ability to hold a scene, and we can't help but think that in his younger years, Mr. Fahey could have easily played the Breecher role. Despite the out-of-place linguistic stylings, director Lee proves the lessons of the old west never get old, and it leaves us with the message ... 'Be still, young man."
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Jojo Rabbit (2019)
8/10
wacky with feeling
1 November 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Welcome to the most divisive movie of the year. Some will scoff at the idea and deride the filmmaker without ever even seeing the movie. Some will relay disgust after seeing the movie. A few won't appreciate the style or structure, and will fail to find the humor. Ah yes, but some of us will embrace Taika Waititi's wacky adaptation of Christine Leunens' 2018 novel "Caging Skies" as one of the funniest and most heart-warming films of the year ... fully acknowledging that many won't see it our way.

One wouldn't be off base in asking why a successful filmmaker would tackle such a risky project: a coming-of-age comedy-drama-fantasy about a 10 year old Nazi fanatic who has as his imaginary friend, not a 6 foot rabbit, but the Fuhrer himself, Adolph Hitler. After all, writer-director Waititi is coming off a couple of brilliant indies (2014's WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and 2016's HUNT FOR THE WILDERPEOPLE) and a major score with Marvel money on THOR: RAGNAROK (2017), arguably the most entertaining superhero movie of the past few years. He certainly could have continued to cash in with 'safer' choices; however, Mr. Waititi sees the world differently than most of us. He finds humor in the drudgery, and humanity in malevolence. He's also a bit goofy.

Playing over the opening credits is the German version of "I Want to Hold Your Hand", as we see old clips of German citizens cheering for Adolph Hitler in a similar manner to how fans used to scream for The Beatles. World War II is nearing the end as we meet 10 year old Jojo Betzler (newcomer Roman Griffin Davis). Jojo is fervent in his fanaticism towards the Nazi way, and buys into the belief that Jews are monsters with horns on their head. He's such a believer that his imaginary friend is actually Hitler, well at least a bumbling boisterous version played by the filmmaker himself - enacted to extreme comedy effect (recalling a bit of Chaplin in THE GREAT DICTATOR). Mel Brooks managed to play Hitler to a laughable extreme in "Springtime for Hitler" in THE PRODUCERS, but the only thing missing her from Waititi's costume is an old timey dunce cap.

Jojo lives at home with his mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), while dad is off fighting on the front line. Ms. Johansson's performance is terrific (despite limited screen time) as she creates a believably warm bond with her son during horrific times. Soon, Jojo is off to a Nazi camp designed to teach the boys how to fight (and burn books), as the girls learn the virtues of having babies. The camp leaders are Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), who is a bit of a joke on the surface, but more interesting the deeper we dig; Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) who boasts of having 18 Aryan babies; and Finkel (Alfie Allen) a violent psychopath. At camp with Jojo is his best friend Yorki (newcomer and scene-stealer Archie Yates), and the two show what a genuine friendship can be as the movie progresses.

Things change quickly for Jojo when, by happenstance, he discovers a Jewish girl living in the walls of his home. Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie, LEAVE NO TRACE) shows none of the characteristics that Jojo has been brainwashed into believing all Jews possess. She has no horns, flashes a good sense of humor, and is actually very nice and knowledgeable. In other words, she's no monster. As they get to know each other, Jojo realizes this "nice" Jewish girl contrasts starkly with his lunatic hero Adolph.

Waititi's film is ingenious satire, and it likely won't sit well with those who think not enough time has passed to justify making fun of Nazi atrocities. It's funny and heavy, and deals with some thought-provoking matter in an unusual way. The "Heil Hitler" count approaches the 'F-word' frequency of most Tarantino movies, and there is a German Shepherd gag that caught the audience off-guard. Stephen Merchant's Gestapo search of Jojo's house is comedy at its weirdest. The movie messes with your head as it's some odd blend of SCHINDLER'S LIST, "The Diary of Anne Frank", and an extended Monty Python skit.

It's rare for a film that borders on slapstick at times to have so many touching and emotional moments. The actors are really strong here, especially Ms. Johansson and Ms. McKenzie, who as gutsy Elsa, proves again she is quickly becoming a powerhouse young actor. Roman Griffin Davis carries a significant weight in the story despite being a first time actor, and I can't emphasize enough how young Archie Yates will steal your heart while he's stealing his scenes. Michael Giacchino's score and Mihai Malaimaire Jr's terrific cinematography work well with Waititi's vision ... a satirical vision that would never work outside of his unique filmmaking talent. The story is basically proof of the adage, 'Kill 'em with kindness', when what we are really killing is hatred. At its core, this is a story of humanity and human nature, and how we grab hold of the wrong thing until the truth becomes evident. Now, please pass the unicorn.
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6/10
a worthy throwback
31 October 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Gumshoe film noir from the 1940's and 1950's is probably my favorite genre after suspense thrillers. Classics like THE MALTESE FALCON, KISS ME DEADLY, A LONELY PLACE, LAURA, and DOUBLE INDEMNITY draw me in with style, mood, and character flaws. Tough guys and clever women combined with secrets, empty clues, and false bunny trails can mesmerize me for hours. Evidently Edward Norton shares my affection for this genre, as he purposefully shifted the time frame of Jonathan Lethem's novel from 1999 to 1957 for the big screen adaptation.

Norton dons 4 hats for his passion project that's been brewing for almost a decade. He writes, directs (his second time at the helm), produces, and stars as Lionel Essog, the assistant to Private Investigator Frank Minna (played by Bruce Willis). Lionel, often referred to as "Brooklyn" or "Freak Show" suffers from Tourette's syndrome, causing him many uncomfortable moments of awkward verbal outbursts and physical tics, while also blessing him with a photographic memory and world class attention to detail. The concern here was that Norton the actor would turn the character into a gumshoe "Rain Man", but that never happens, as his affliction rarely overshadows a scene or the story.

One of the first things we notice is that the film looks beautiful. The costumes (Amy Roth) and set design (Beth Mickle, Kara Zeigon) and cinematography (2-time Oscar nominee Dick Pope) are all spot on and top notch. The classic cars are especially impressive, despite my pet peeve of each being perfectly washed and waxed in every scene. Daniel Pemberton's retro score perfectly captures the neo-noir moments.

This era in New York included jazz clubs, corrupt politicians and power struggles for profiteering from the growth. Norton's film delivers The King's Rooster jazz club with the great Michael Kenneth Williams as the featured trumpet player ... he looks like a natural on stage in the smoky club. We also, of course, have plenty of big time corruption and scheming. The main culprit being City Planner Moses Randolph, the epitome of corruption and racism. Alec Baldwin could play this role in his sleep, and he performs admirably in the not-so-subtle riff on the real life Robert Moses.

The film's opening sequence leaves Lionel committed to solving the murder of Minna, his mentor and (only) friend. His co-workers played by Dallas Roberts, Bobby Cannavale, and Ethan Suplee come in and out of the story, contributing very little. Things are most interesting when Lionel crosses paths with brilliant city engineer Paul (Willem Dafoe in a less salty role than in THE LIGHTHOUSE) and activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), in a role that would have benefitted from some beefing up in the script. Other supporting roles are filled by Leslie Mann, Fisher Stevens, Cherry Jones, and Josh Pais.

The story follows a path not dissimilar to the all-time classic CHINATOWN, and it's in that comparison where the weaknesses in Norton's film are most evident. The dialogue never quite clicks like it should, and at times it comes across like the actors are simply playing dress up 1950's-style, rather than actually experiencing the struggles of the story. Everything just seems too 'clean' for this genre, even the moments of violence. It's the details that make the difference in this genre, and even Norton's voiceover is mishandled. As narrator, his voice is low and gruff which is customary for noir; however, while in character, the voice is high-pitched and sporadic. Both voices are as they should be, but since it's the same character, the contrast takes us out of the moment when the narrator chimes in. The Tourette's Association of America gave its stamp of approval to the film, and we do walk away with sage advice: "Never lie to a woman who is smarter than you."
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Harriet (I) (2019)
6/10
Harriet was due
31 October 2019
Warning: Spoilers
Greetings again from the darkness. As far as I can tell, there has never before been a feature film profiling Harriet Tubman. Given her remarkable accomplishments and historic standing as an iconic American hero, we should all agree that it's high time. The film plays as a passion project for writer-director Kasi Lemmons (EVE'S BAYOU, 1997) and her co-writer Gregory Allen Howard (REMEMBER THE TITANS, 2000). Cinematically speaking, it's a fairly formulaic biopic; however, from a historical perspective, HARRIET is story that was due to be told.

Cynthia Erivo (WIDOWS, BAD TIMES AT THE EL ROYALE) stars as Araminta Ross, known as Minty. She was born into slavery, and the film picks up in 1849 Maryland when she is being sold 'down south' by her heartless owner Gideon Brodess (an understated Joe Alwyn, THE FAVOURITE). Rather than be separated from her family, Minty runs (she does a lot of running). She runs until cornered, and then leaps from a bridge into rushing water. It's only after her treacherous 100 mile walk to Pennsylvania that she becomes a free woman and changes her name to Harriet Tubman - in honor of her mother and husband.

She receives help along the way. Reverend Samuel Green (Vondie Curtis Hall) plays a recurring role in her escape and later rescues. Once in Pennsylvania, she meets abolitionist William Still (Leslie Odom Jr, MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, 2017), who runs the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society and introduces her to fellow abolitionist Marie Buchanon (Janelle Monae). Ms. Buchanan is a free black woman, as elegant in her manner as she is dedicated to the cause ... and she's worthy of her own story.

Harriet decides she must go back and rescue her family. She is told the trip is foolish and too risky - which doesn't stop her from making 13 trips and saving 70 slaves. We learn of her work with the Underground Railroad - not a train, but rather a secretive organization committed to helping slaves escape to freedom. After the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, Harriet's work becomes even more difficult, as she must guide the slaves all the way to Canada. Omar J Dorsey plays Bigger Long, an expert slave hunter - yes, that's an actual occupation - hired by Harriet's owner to capture her. When Harriet converts Walter the scout (Henry Hunter Hall), the colorful character becomes a valuable ally and strong believer.

As a young girl, Minty/Harriet had her skull cracked by a slave owner whilst standing in the wrong place at the wrong time. After that, she experienced episodes, "spells" that she claimed were visions from God. The film captures quite a few of these and treats Harriet as someone "touched". Was this the prophecy or was Harriet an extraordinarily resourceful and tenacious woman? The message of God is present throughout, and it's difficult to not view this as unintentionally taking a chip out of what Harriet accomplished.

Slave owners were baffled by the rescues conducted by this mythic figure they named "Moses". Of course, they assumed it was a man, and once Harriet's identity was exposed, her former owner was held accountable by other slave owners. It's at that point where Gideon Brodess' mother Eliza makes one of the most cold-hearted, racist speeches we've seen on film. Eliza is played by Jennifer Nettles, the singer for C&W band Sugarland. In 1858, Harriet crosses paths with abolitionists John Brown and Frederick Douglas, and delivers an impassioned speech of her own in the presence of Senator William Seward (one of Booth's targets in the Lincoln assassination). Harriet assisted Brown with recruitment for his raid on Harpers Ferry. In 1863, Harriet led the Comahee River Raid, which resulted in 750 slaves being set free.

The film might be a bit slick, but the acting is top notch, and Harriet's story is remarkable. Director Lemmons forgoes the brutality of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, and tries to cover Harriet's time as a slave, her first escape off the bridge, and her continued work freeing other slaves. Harriet went on to become a Civil War spy for the Union, and later a respected elder who worked for women's voting rights and to make latter life a bit easier for former slaves. It's possible a movie was not the best format to tell Harriet's story ... a story that continued to develop until her death in 1913 at age 91 (or thereabouts). But it's important to have her story documented in some way other than the textbooks kids likely won't read. A film that tackles such a towering historical figure deserves a little slack.
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Debris (II) (2017)
7/10
daily fear
31 October 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Living in constant fear. Never able to relax. The unrelenting fear of being discovered. These are the challenges faced daily by illegal immigrants.

This is the fourth short film from award winning writer-director Julio O Ramos, and the script was co-written with Lucas Mireles. Armando is the site supervisor over a crew working to renovate a home. When one of the workers falls from the roof and is seriously injured, the contrasting reactions are stunning. Armando is worried about the man's condition and how to get him treatment, while the other workers are more concerned with how this might affect their own situations.

When the big boss shows up and calls his "personal" doctor to attend to the injured worker, things go sideways quickly and Armando's well-intentioned approach is exposed as naivety. Tenoch Huerta (SIN NOMBRE) plays Armando, and Karran Karagulian (TANGERINE) plays the big boss. This little 14 minute film drives home the constant fear faced by illegal immigrants, and the extreme situation that often sustains an entire industry. As these folks strive to remain "invisible" to the world, one man doing the right thing can expose something that is very wrong.
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8/10
the other person's music
30 October 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Young Molly is a bundle of nerves. Her mom smiles, and tries to be reassuring and a calming influence. When they arrive at their destination, the stately mansion is intimidating and only increases Molly's anxiety.

The young girl is here to sing for John, a retired Opera legend, in hopes that he will provide a glowing scholarship report/letter of recommendation. Offering up one final pep talk is Angie, John's wife of 50 years, herself a former dancer. Life lessons come at Molly pretty quickly here, as her initial disappointment turns into surprise, and a glimpse at what accompanies old age. Angie is working hard to protect her lifelong love from the slow descent caused by dementia, while Molly learns one of life's harsh realities - we don't always know what others are going through.

This is writer-director Beth Moran's first film, and it's a 15 minute emotional powerhouse. Ms. Moran was the youngest female pilot to fly with the (USAF) Thunderbirds, and her next project is the just released documentary EVERYBODY FLIES; a film that examines the air we breathe on airplanes. The cast here is exceptional. Ian McElhinney plays John. Mr. McElhinney has an almost 40 year screen career, appearing in such 'minor' projects as ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY, and "Game of Thrones." Elaine Page plays John's wife Angie, and Ms. Page is best known for her musical stage work. Newcomer Darcy Jacobs plays Molly, and shows some nice range for a young actor.

Ms. Moran's short film played before some screenings of the DOWNTON ABBEY movie in the U.K., so it's already had better exposure than most shorts ever get. The film's message of how dementia impacts more than just the afflicted person is quite a gut-punch and lesson for us all.
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Sylvia (V) (2018)
8/10
Please, tell her goodbye
30 October 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Sure, we like to "name" our cars. And yes, we have memories of our first car - some fond, some a bit less so. But deep emotional attachments to a car are somewhat rare. After all, it's just hunks of metal, rubber, and plastic all assembled into a form of transportation ... a vehicle to get us from one place to the next, and hopefully back home again.

We join in what looks to be a typical family road trip. Mother, grandmother and two young girls are buckled in as the miles roll on. Mom scolds the kids for making a mess, and the grandmother eases tension by passing out candy. A roadside stop for ice cream is always a popular idea. What we learn is that the mother is having financial difficulties and the purpose of the trip is to sell the car she has named "Sylvia", after the classic song from Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show.

Richard Prendergast's first film is 'based on a true story', and it is absolutely brilliant in its presentation - both visually and emotionally. Jolie Lennon, known best for her stunt work, is terrific as Mandy, the mom who must sell the car. It's clear that she is carrying a weight on the trip, and the stunning third act brings it all into focus. This is an extraordinary short film, and it's one I would have gladly paid 40 cents more for the next 3 minutes.
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5/10
Rivalry needs to be charged
25 October 2019
Greetings again from the darkness. Electricity. Bringing light and power to the world. Other than dependable food sources and clean water and air, nothing is more vital to our way of life today. However, going back in time only 125 years finds the sun and candlelight as the only forms of illumination. Oh, but behind the doors of laboratories for Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, skilled engineers were working diligently to discover the breakthrough that would deliver light to the dark world.

Normally the making of a movie is not a story worth telling. The final work should speak for itself. But the story of this film's road to the screen is not normal. This was the film Harvey Weinstein was working on when his sex abuse scandal broke. Weinstein went ahead with the screening of the film at the 2017 Toronto Film Festival despite pleas from the director that the film was not ready to be shown. Once the scandal hit, director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (the excellent ME AND EARL AND THE DYING GIRL, 2015) was helpless - he couldn't access the film for reshoots and final edit. Now, after two years of legal wranglings, he is finally able to present his finished project.

On one hand, it's a feel good story for the director. On the other hand, the film falls short of being a top notch historical drama ... despite it being a real life drama that changed the world. Most would agree there isn't much entertainment value in watching the daily trial and error of engineers in a lab, so it makes perfect sense that director Gomez-Rejon and writer Michael Mitnick would turn their focus on the personal and professional rivalry between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse, as well as a portion of the story involving Serbian immigrant Nikola Tesla - perhaps the most brilliant of them all.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Edison, a true celebrity and renowned inventor. We see how Edison's family life with wife Mary (Tuppence Middleton) takes a back seat to his work at his Menlo Park lab; a trait that becomes more extreme after a personal tragedy. Michael Shannon plays George Westinghouse, developer of railway air brakes, in a stoic and focused manner, and with a close relationship with his wife Marguerite (Katherine Waterston). Nicholas Hoult portrays Nikola Tesla, he of brilliant mind contrasted with quirky and fastidious ways. The other two key players here are Matthew Macfayden as JP Morgan, the banker who finances much of the work, and Tom Holland as Samuel Insull, Edison's loyal assistant.

While difficult to imagine now, the big debate boiled down to what form of electricity was most practical for the masses. Edison believed it was direct current (DC), while Westinghouse and Tesla were all in for alternating current (AC), which they believed to be cheaper and more powerful. Edison, ever the media manipulator, created questions of public safety in regards to AC by pulling dramatic public stunts. An interesting note here is that despite Edison's pledge to never invent military weapons or anything designed to take a life, it was his work that led to the use of the electric chair as a replacement for hangings in death penalty cases.

This rivalry between two titans of industry never seems to click, and sadly, Tesla's story comes across as an add-on to the movie - though his work is worthy of its own movie. Westinghouse deals with his Civil War flashbacks, and Edison's coarse nature is dulled somewhat here in an effort to make him a bit more appealing as a character. The 1893 Chicago World's Fair provides the "finish line" for this competition, with the winner lighting up the Fair and setting the stage for the rest of the country. There are flickers of a great movie here, and the performances reach the expected levels for such a strong cast, but overall the movie comes across a bit disjointed and trying much too hard to be regarded as a prestigious film.
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