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Reflections of the Third Eye
24 June 2013
Three Days Of The Condor revisited
Now Playing: High All The Time vol 1

Everyone loves THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1975). It's the kind of movie you could recommend to a co-worker who wants something un-seen that doesn't offend her. With 100% certainty she'll report back that it was 'really good' with a tone of slight surprise in her voice. And she'll be right.

Or will she? I loaded up the DVD last night for what I think is my fourth viewing of the 'Condor'. The storyline, which may have the viewer almost as puzzled as Robert Redford's protagonist on the first round, is completely familiar to me, as are a number of crucial scenes. What is not retained in my skull is the special mood of this movie, something we unfortunately can't retain in our cortical memory banks, but need to experience directly for full appreciation, much like the flavor of a favorite ice cream. I remember distinctly that the Condor hit a special mood which I suspect is the reason people like it, but since I cannot summon its presence at will, it is with a certain expectation that I press <Play> and lean back in the chair, lights dimmed and speakers hooked up.

The exposition deals with a rather substantial problem, which is to introduce us to a work-place and its employees in a way that makes the viewer respond properly to the shocking mass murder that occurs just a few minutes into the film. We know from the very start that something is going to happen due to classic thriller signals of people secretly staking out the building. Sydney Pollack uses Robert Redford's arrival to introduce us to all, literally, people who are soon to be hit by the murder squad. The mood inside is a pleasant mix of intellectual conservatism and high tech, into which 'Turner' (Redford) injects some friendly, ironic banter.

As glimpses are offered of their activities, the mystery of what work actually goes on in this office demands attention. Is it some kind of upscale book store? The faculty building for a nearby private college? Nothing seems quite to fit. This subtly but shrewdly presented riddle requires the viewer to activate yet another brain circuit, in addition to registering the threat from the outside and enjoying the relaxed, bookish atmosphere inside. Rather than giving away the answer, Pollack turns on the ignition of his thriller engine and sets its big wheels in motion by having 'Turner' leave the office to pick up lunch. The half-dozen murders that follow have an appropriately shocking effect in the realm of the peaceful office and likable staff, and Pollack rightly stages the sequence in much the same way as we see Hollywood killings today: striving for realism*, neither excessive nor polite.

The spectacular mass murder is also surprisingly void of information for either the victims or the viewer--no demands or requests are made, nothing is asked for, and the killers do not communicate anything except operational dialogue. We do catch a personal glimpse of their leader, whose almost considerate behavior towards one victim plants another enigma for the viewer. As 'Turner' returns to find his colleagues massacred, Redford and Pollack face another artistic challenge, as common sense dictates that Turner should search the entire 2-story office to look for survivors or even perpetrators, finding instead murdered friends over and over, with little variation. Pollack chose to shoot this 'verbatim', turning it into an acting challenge rather than an editing challenge, and while Redford begins the sequence well, he handles the rest mainly by underplaying it, which was probably the wisest move. I'm not sure even a 1970s model Robert De Niro could have pulled those scenes of repetetive horror off in a convincing manner.

Unfortunately, Redford does not offer the proper horrified reaction when finding his girlfriend killed, instead treating it with much the same detached disbelief as with his colleagues. If she really was his girlfriend, and it certainly seems that way, why doesn't the main character react more strongly to her death? The issue lingers during the movie as a question-mark, which is not straightened out when Redford later refers to her as a 'friend' with a sad voice. The murdered girlfriend (or not) may be a remnant from the novel the script is based on, and the main character's questionable response to this personal tragedy may not have appeared as a problem until after the editing. Rather than removing her completely (by making her simply another co-worker of Turner), or allowing Redford a scene or two of grief to properly balance the emotional see-saw, Pollack ends up in a problematic space in-between. It's not a major glitch, and Redford's convincing display of terrified confusion following the murders, along with the rich array of questions and the rapid tempo, help take the viewer's mind off it. But at the fourth screening it still bothers me.

Oddly, I found the rapidly blossoming love affair with Faye Dunaway's 'Katherine' fairly convincing. As you remember from Out Of Sight, Jennifer Lopez complains that the 'Condor' couple fall in love too fast, but I don't see it that way. A certain amount of time passes, and it is also clear from the beginning that 'Katherine' is not just an ordinary female kidnapping victim, but an unusual woman with something of a hidden darkness about her. As a role she reminds me a bit of Cybill Sheperd's 'Betsy' in Taxi Driver; another interesting female character who quickly emerges as more than just what the protagonist sees. There is also a 'Stockholm Syndrome' aspect to consider. Pollack does not offer any strong pointers towards this phenomena, which became famous shortly before the movie was made, but the interpretation could be made. In short, I do not agree with JLo, although I may object to the realism of some of 'Katherine's' spy games later in the movie.

Three Days Of The Condor is almost certainly the coziest mass-murder movie ever made. Its lingering mood is not one of paranoia, but almost the opposite. We see the killings, Hank Garrett's frightening henchman, Max von Sydow's calculating assassin, the power of the corrupt CIA, and so forth, but it does not register enough to upset the atmosphere that was instilled in the opening scenes. This is a curious, uncommon effect, and almost certainly the reason why so many people like it. The scenes with Redford and Dunaway in 'Katherine's' home are clearly vital to maintain the feeling of warmth and safety: not just for the fleeing 'Turner' but also for the introvert 'Katherine' who, one feels, has never met a man who understands her. She comes into their strange relationship with a different kind of baggage than Turner, yet both of them are looking for the same thing; his quest is of the moment and open to see, her quest is long-term and more abstract, but ultimately it turns out to be the same thing from different perspectives; safety, trust, warmth. The latter aspect is cleverly enforced by the script, which puts the couple wrapped tight in bed after they just met, as Turner needs to sleep and must keep her from calling the police. After some turns of the storyline they end up in bed a second time, now with the more familiar motivation. In another, very well-written scene, Turner describes Katherine's photos of November imagery in what sounds like negative terms, then ends his critique by stating simply that he 'likes them'. Katherine for her part describes how she sometimes takes accidental pictures that does not look like what she intended at all, and those are the ones she likes the most. These exchanges, which are reminiscent of some of Woody Allen's better moments, provide solid nutrition for the idea of their rapidly emerging relationship; it happens through strange circumstances and all via chance, but so do any number of successful real-life affairs.

The cozy feeling, the 'November mood' if you will, is carefully nurtured by Pollack throughout. Von Sydow's assassin is charming, polite, helpful, and just. The CIA director, played with marvellous authority by John Houseman, is educated, wise and thoughtful, while his underling (Cliff Robertson) is charming, straight-forward, concerned. In other words, three classic bad guy archetypes are loaded with positive attributes, and portrayed by actors whose simple presence will lend weight to these assets. The rogue CIA agents that emerge as the real bad guys are not given much in terms of personality at all, and they are cast using fairly unknown actors whose outward appearance confirm the idea of a corrupt government agent.

Pollack obviously wanted to create a realistic spy movie in which the natural paranoia was to be resolved and give way towards feelings of trust and safety, rather than the nihilism that we take almost for granted in political thrillers. It would seem a difficult task to turn the table on a genre which very essence is paranoia and cynicism, but Pollack demonstrates how it can be done with familiar, effective tools. The scenography (Turner's office, Katherine's apartment) and weather (rain showers recur and are discussed) and even the wardrobe are geared towards the cozy and familiar, as seen in John Houseman's gentlemanly bow tie and dinner jacket, or the extravagant furlined coat worn by Robertson in one scene. In addition, the fundamental raison d'etre for the whole plot, Turner's frightening theory of a CIA inside the CIA, is given so little attention that it becomes almost a McGuffin, and once this theory is accepted by Houseman's CIA director, the rogue group is effectively terminated.

The political message of Three Days Of The Condor is that the CIA is run by decent people who can basically be trusted to do the right thing, and will strike down on corruption or anti-democratic activity. This is not precisely the view we are used to see of the Agency (or NSA), whether in 2013 or 1975, and the benign nature of this message corresponds with the benign, cozy atmosphere of the entire movie. In fact, this encouraging picture of a government agency may have been an impetus for the idea of making a spy thriller where the lasting moods are safety and trust instead paranoia and nihilism, even when several innocent people are killed during the first few minutes. Pollack may also have sensed a need for positive vibes in the wake of Watergate. Either way, some minor quibbles** aside, he pulled it off. 8/10

 

 

 


*by realism I mean what a movie audience has come to consider a 'realistic' gunshot murder scene, not how it actually looks in the real world, which few people thankfully have seen 
**one might feel that Redford's protagonist is awfully adept at close-range fighting for a book-worm, as seen in the long and well-directed rumble with the 'Mailman'. However, to Pollack's credit, 'Turner' does lose the fight and is only saved at the last second by 'Katherine'.


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 11:32 PM MEST
Updated: 26 June 2013 12:10 AM MEST
14 June 2013
A critical look at Once Upon A Time In America

by Patrick Lundborg

There are many reasons to be grateful for the existence of Sergio Leone's epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984). Not only was it a suitably grand finale to a great director's career, but it also found the director leaping boldly into a genre and culture that he hadn't dealt with before. It was a bold enterprise, and it worked. Furthermore, it features one of the last truly committed performances by Robert De Niro who, as we know, could go a long way towards carrying a movie on his own. The script, which went through several overhauls, features an engaging storyline and sharp dialogue, while the scenography recreates a pre-Depression Jewish Lower East Side which looks near organic with its brickwalled mix of factories, tenement buildings and dozens of small corner shops. That the camera work, lighting and color palettes show a master in charge goes almost without saying, but even if it is expected from Leone it nevertheless is a visual delight, not least since the milieu differs so much from his grand Westerns. 

Revisiting the movie now, I enter with a vague memory of being dissatisfied from the last viewing, a notion which seems curious given the long list of accolades I rattle off above. And for the first hour or so, I have absolutely no idea how I could have had objections to Once Upon A Time In America; I am in fact spellbound by the beautifully balanced narrative and dozens of terrific little details. It's the kind of flawless moviemaking you only get from masters: it is precisely what makes them masters rather than 'good directors'. Leone was obviously inspired by Coppola's Godfather movies, the second one in particular, yet it is the cinematic skill that links the two classics, more than the actual contents. The editing process was infamously troubled as Leone had shot something like 6 hours of film from the script, and breaking it up into two parts was not an option at the time (Bertolucci's 1900 had faded away into box office loss despite an initial enthusiasm over the first part). The studio cut it down to about 2 hours, which reportedly made it near incomprehensible due to three different periods of time and the direct and implicit links between them. Furthermore, Leone left some key moments happening off-screen to be presented via dialogue instead, a choice which maintained the mature, reflective tone of the later eras, but also made scissor incisions problematic. Leone himself came up with a version which ran 3.5 hours, and this 'director's cut' is what most cineasts know, and what is discussed here.

The reason the editing and specific problems are brought up here is because I feel that Leone did not quite manage to present an ideally structured epic from his material. The first 90 minutes, circa, are flawless and every bit as good as the movie's reputation has it. As we meet the main characters in their adult appearances (DeNiro and James Woods replacing the excellent child actors), which is the middle of the three ‘arcs’ of time, I register a minor discomfort almost from the start. In musical terms it's not a false note as much as a lost theme. No sooner have we met the grown-up 'Noodles' and 'Max' than we find them engaged in a brutal massacre triggered only by greed. This sequence also introduces the movie's greatest misstep, which is the nymphomaniac blonde played by Tuesday Weld. The acting is fine, but what is the artistic motivation for her encouraging Noodles to rape her during a staged robbery, and for Noodles to go along? This is dark, troubling material, like from a David Lynch film, and there was of course nothing in the opening, adolescent timeframe that prefigured it. Weld returns again for an equally jarring scene which ends with her taking on three of the gangsters at once, an overly long and inexplicably sleazy segment which fills no function in the storyline. It may in fact derive from Bertolucci's aforementioned 1900, which had some very frank sex scenes--but these were integral to the story being told. Finally, this unfortunate thread in Leone's film makes another questionable move by having Max repeatedly display near-psychotic outbursts, none of which had been hinted of before. In order to drive this point home he reacts violently to any insinuation of him being 'crazy', a clichéd scene which is acted out three times without adding anything to the work.

Leone has always asked questions about 'good' and 'evil' and how these seemingly absolute terms are in fact strongly dependent on our relative position in the drama. Is a bounty hunter good or evil? Is a man who helps two rivalling gangster clans kill each other good or evil? The seemingly amoral Man With No Name is a brilliantly conceived canvas for the depiction of these complicated questions. Once Upon A Time In America continues with this examination of human nature, and it is perhaps deliberate in its emphasis on evil, by almost any standards, in the second narrative arc. Perhaps the error lies in one of Leone's relatively few vices as a director; a tendency for overstatement, for not knowing when to stop. In his earlier films this came forth as a burlesque element in an Italian stage tradition, where the bandits are so sneering and ugly and the women so voluptuous and erotic that their function becomes primarily symbolic.

After introducing us to four realistically portrayed adolescents and having us take part in their adventures in a way that evokes sympathy even as they're a bunch of street punks, there shouldn't be room for a move towards burlesque exaggeration, yet it seems to me that this is precisely what happens as the violence and sex of the second arc plays out. The careful investment in viewer sympathies is ignored and largely lost as the up and coming gangsters are portrayed as rapists, murderers, borderline psychos, but also liars, backstabbers, and misogynists. There is simply very little to like. Leone was presumably showing how the perception of good (or at least likable) and evil is a sliding scale and not a dichotomy, but the lack of subtlety in making his point strips the movie of a most vital asset, the viewer's faith which he had previously earned so brilliantly. The same point could have been made in an elegant, understated way that did not negate the tone of the opening narrative arc, but Leone apparently did not believe in a subtle solution, and so fell back on a cruder and unambiguous form of communication seen in his 60s Westerns.

For comparison, consider Scorsese's Goodfellas, which in certain ways is close to Leone's film. In it we see the protagonists commit various heinous crimes, yet as audience we accept them as 'heroes' (or antiheroes) of this particular saga, and we remain concerned about their fate until the end. Exactly how Scorsese achieves this is a different analysis, but largely it is a question of getting several context details just right, and knowing precisely when to push and when to hold back. This is something Leone did not master, and judging by the way he prioritized the second arc in his editing, he was not aware of the problem. After Noodles becomes a rapist (and the rape scene is very painful, very strongly directed, to make things worse) and Max becomes a vicious megalomaniac, it is very hard to care for the characters anymore. And this is a problem, for the movie still has 1.5 hours left to go.

James Woods is something of a cult actor, and has created some memorable characters in the edgy, restless, sarcastic style for which he is often type cast. This character has served him well in both drama (Salvador) and comedy (The Tough Way), yet it's hard to point to major roles displaying any wider register than the 'James Woods' archetype. His performance in Once Upon A Time In America is not bad in terms of presence and dialogue, but he fails to contribute anything to the movie. The adult Max does not seem like a convincing development of the adolescent Max, which is perhaps not Woods' fault, but the odd fact that the young Max comes across as emotionally richer and more nuanced indicates that there is a problem with both character and its portrayal.

It's a one-note performance where the note is engaging enough not to ruin its context, yet it is not hard to imagine a superior interpretation of the Max role, an upgrade which would also include rewriting it to link back to the first arc and (again) make Max less heartless. As it is, he goes from this devilish, selfserving but also loyal and boyishly likable teenager into an unpleasant psycho gangster with basically no redeeming qualities. When we see Max again during the third arc (set in 1968), his character has gone through yet another metamorphosis, and one gets the feeling that these are more like chess pieces in a moral play than character studies. Woods is allowed a more subtle performance here, but unfortunately the viewer stopped caring about this unsympathetic man and his fate long ago.

Woods’ character and performance is not the only problem with the second arc. It seems overlong and eats away screen time that the undernourished and fragmentary third arc could have put to better use. My impression is that Leone, having mastered the opening arc completely, was less sure of which the pivotal scenes and characters were as the script moved beyond the adolescent years. Faced with demands for substantial cuts he was forced into decisions that he wasn't entirely ready for, and unfortunately the surviving emphasis came to land on some of the weaker elements. Although strong in parts, this second arc emerges as the most clichéd and least psychologically interesting segment, showing Noodles and friends simply as successful, ruthless gangsters. As mentioned above, Leone has shown an understanding for the dependence on perspective when it comes to good and evil, but his interest seems to stop there. The crucial process of transition from one to the other, which Coppola displayed so brilliantly with Michael Corleone, is not explored by Leone. In Once Upon A Time In America the viewer is never shown the development (or downfall) of the street punks into mass-murdering gangsters; there is a ‘before’ and an ‘after’, but we are robbed of the how and why. 

The arrival of the adult Deborah, played by Elizabeth McGovern, is a mixed blessing for Leone’s movie. Something of a reverse positive to Woods' Max, she dominates the second arc alongside Max, and her character is as innocently wide-eyed as Max is unpleasant. As a viewer you wonder what happened with the street-smart and self-assured teenage Deborah from the first part, wonderfully portrayed by Jennifer Connelly. Again, it is not a credible development of the individual, but the parallels to Max extend further than that, as one could argue that Connelly (in her very first role) playing the girl does a better acting job than McGovern, playing the young adult. Rather than Woods' functional but flat performance, McGovern is uneven and seemingly lost, hitting the mark brilliantly in some scenes but being vague and defensive in others. Except for her striking looks, which have an air of Old Hollywood, her most memorable scene is the brutal rape by De Niro's Noodles, which as mentioned above is very effectively directed. The entire sequence leading up to the scene is the most powerful part of the second arc, which would have been much improved if the date-rape had become the organizing center and a lot of unoriginal 'gangster movie' subplots had been removed. Danny Aiello and Treat Williams are introduced with a lot of fanfare, then given almost nothing of value to do; presumably another example of the unsuccessful editing. Through this all De Niro's Noodles is a glue that holds everything together and makes the movie, on the first viewing, seem better and more genuinely epic than it in fact is.

The third story arc with middle-aged main characters is more interesting and original, and could have been a powerfully understated conclusion if Leone had awarded it another 10 minutes that were wasted on B-movie sex and violence in the preceding part. De Niro's confrontation with Woods is perhaps more anticlimactic than Leone intended, but various details (such as the terrific middle-age make-up) and good dialogue creates a sense of controlled artistry during the final scenes. But the afterglow of the viewing brings no real sense of closure, instead a number of questions and unresolved problems surface which slipped by at first, due to the strong direction and attractive melancholy of the third arc. An example is the reunion of Noodles and Deborah some 30 years after the date rape, where Leone's natural instinct for loaded scenes and the fine acting of De Niro and McGovern at first instills admiration in the viewer, but this impression is soon overtaken by questions as to the overall credibility of the characters' behavior. It is not made clear why Noodles wants to re-open this old wound, nor why Deborah chooses to see him. On one level it is all terrifically executed; on another level it doesn't quite make sense.

Much of the actual plot development of Once Upon A Time In America centers around a mysterious bag with 1 million dollars in a safety deposit box; as clichéd a McGuffin as one can imagine. Had this been a DePalma or Coen brothers movie the viewer might realize and hopefully accept this as deliberate, meta-level playfulness. Unfortunately Leone is quite serious about this bag as a major plot device--it figures at key junctures in the movie, almost like Kubrick's monolith, and appears to be the main motivation for Noodles' actions in the third arc. He even states outright that this million dollar bag has been puzzling him during the decades he was away. It is somewhat disconcerting to find that what started as a brilliant piece of neo-realism about bonding, streetwise teenagers evolves into a simple con man hunt for a bag full of money. If Leone meant something more vital with his McGuffin (such as a symbol for lost trust) he shouldn't have his characters talk and behave as if the physical aspect of it was extremely important. The epic is inexplicably trivialized by a B-movie prop.

The director also makes it difficult for himself by inserting this apparently crucial object at sideways angle across the three period arcs. The bag in the box pops up here and there, sometimes full of money, sometimes not. Its trajectory across the complex narrative structure is confusing for the viewer, who is asked to keep track of a fourth story arc, a trivial one at that. It is still possible to stay on the beat with the unfolding multiple timeframes, but it's a frustrating task when there are so many other issues related to the gangster quartet that are only dealt with in passing. As an example, when the movie re-aquaints us with.the middle-aged Noodles after some 30 years, an obvious question is what he's been doing in the interim. Leone acknowledges the question by raising it in dialogue, then dismisses it by offering nothing but vague, flippant answers. As the movie ends, the viewer still hasn't been told what its main character did almost his entire adult life, the same character one learned to know and befriend with utmost care in the opening arc. Noodles is the heart of the movie, then suddenly his actions are of no importance, leaving one to ask what precisely is important, if this is not? Annoyingly, Leone could have made the gap acceptable by 1-2 minutes of poignant dialogue with enough hints about his long absence for the viewer to fill out the rest.

There is a similar gap between arc one and two, where Noodles goes to juvenile prison for so many years that he's a grown man when he comes out. What happened inside jail? How did that boy turn into this man? The curious absence of 'sufficient data' is less glaring in this earlier instance, probably because the timeframe is after all shorter, and also since we do know one vital thing of his whereabouts, i e: he was in jail. The 30-year jump from arc two to arc three does not offer even that minimum of information. Instead the viewer, and Noodles too, is made to concentrate on the case of the mysterious million dollar suitcase. This is somewhat ludicrous, and while it is tempting to view these gaps in the storyline as yet another facet of the forced editing, the improper development of the supposedly epic story really falls back on the script. Other gaps, big and small, are strewn about in the second and third arcs. These are not "plot holes" as much as white spots on the canvas of the movie. Things that would seem vital are placed off-screen and briefly recalled in dialogue or, as shown above, not recapped at all. It is hard to discern any logic behind the choice to display scene X while scene Y is replaced by two lines of dialogue. At times you feel that what is not shown -- Noodles in jail and his 30 years in exile, Max' development into a psychopath, the investigation and high-level corruption of the middle-aged Max, the artistic ups and downs for young Deborah, whose dancing was a significant element in the first arc, etc -- would have made a much more interesting movie than the dull gangster shenanigans of the second arc and the mournful reunions of the third arc. In some cases, this less than ideal balance between ‘show’ and ‘tell’ might be explained by the awkward editing process, but overall the script should clearly take most of the blame.

Finally, in a way that seems typical for Once Upon A Time In America’s pattern of unfortunate decisions, the two actors that complete Noodles' and Max' hoodlum quartet are not very impressive. There is no need to examine these performances in detail, but one will observe that due to Leone's preference for the gangster activities and lifestyle in the second arc, the two actors get a maximum amount of screen-time in relation to their limited significance to the storyline. Typically, they are entirely missing in the third arc, and no one seems to miss them. A rotund restaurateur who figures prominently in the first half of the movie seems equally expendable. These parts could either have been reduced in the script to liberate several valuable minutes, or used to deepen and explicate the character developments of Noodles, Max and Deborah, rebalancing the movie and make it psychologically credible, without losing the epic sweep of the three arcs. 6/10


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:31 AM MEST
Updated: 14 June 2013 1:19 PM MEST
22 May 2013
Black Rain (1989)
Now Playing: The Untouchables

It's easy to forget these days, but there was a long period, perhaps as long as 15 years, where Ridley Scott's standing as an A-list director was shakey at best. He did manage to pull one commercial and critical success out of the hat with Thelma & Louise, but this may have been a case of fortunate timing more than anything else. It certainly wasn't no Alien, anyway. Scott's return to the big league didn't really happen until the 2000s with Gladiator. In the vast doldrums between that movie and Blade Runner almost 20 years earlier floats a string of unmemorable films, some of which are not very good at all. The reason for this crisis of both creativity and productivity will have to be discussed elsewhere, but it's clearly an unusual trajectory that Scott's directing career has followed.

Revisiting BLACK RAIN now I am primarily reminded of how disappointed I was with it during its original run, not least since Scott's name still rang with a certain appeal at the time (1989). Conceptually it mixes two popular 1980s Hollywood themes; crooked cops on one hand, and Japan and the Japanese on the other. The story is unexceptional and full of clichés, making one wonder how Scott stomached working on what is B-movie material and nothing else. Some money was allocated for shooting in Japan, which offers a little eye candy, but Scott's occasional winks at magical Blade Runner visuals (light coming sideways or mixed with smoke, rainy inner city streets, foreign neon signs) seem almost offensive given the dreariness of the repetitive, predictable script and jargon-filled and at times silly dialogue.

Casting an overaged Michael Douglas as the archetypal loner renegade cop hunted by Internal Affairs was a bad idea which raises a new round of problems beside the writing. Douglas does not convince as a streetwise tough guy, and his voluminous mullet haircut looks pretty awful. The whole presentation is like a clumsy copy job of Mel Gibson's much better developed character in Lethal Weapon. Andy Garcia, who was a rising star at the time, plays his usual sincere and warmhearted Latino, leaving few footprints behind except for a spectacular death scene (the single thing I remembered from my first viewing of this movie). Some of the Japanese actors fare a little better and it's nice to see Kate Capshaw in one of relatively few Hollywood roles post-Spielberg, but none of this changes the fact that Black Rain is a highly unoriginal, surprisingly unintelligent, and at times quite irritating film. One of Ridley Scott's worst. 5/10


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:29 AM MEST
Updated: 22 May 2013 12:31 AM MEST
16 May 2013
Child's Play (1972)
Now Playing: Icehockey World Cup

One of the greats among post-WWII Hollywood directors, Sidney Lumet put his name on a very long list of movies with a half-dozen must-see peaks evenly distributed, from 12 Angry Men (1957) through Network (1976) all the way up to Before The Devil Knows You're Dead (2007) released just 2 years before his death.

CHILD'S PLAY from 1972 is undoubtedly one of his least known works, and as far as I can tell has never appeared on DVD*. The fact that the makers of the 1990s horror cult series about the evil Chucky doll didn't think twice about using the same title should indicate the earlier film's obscurity. The two works are completely unrelated, even if they share an occult theme and a creepy undertone.

Based on a Broadway play, Lumet's movie is set at a Catholic boarding school not unlike the one seen in Dead Poet's Society, and the viewer will observe a few, probably coincindental, similarities between the two. The exposition is both promising and effective and shows the presence of a skilled director. When the viewer is introduced to the new young gym teacher (Beau Bridges) it has already been made clear that something mysterious and unpleasant is going on at the school. Hints of evil forces affecting the young students are recurringly planted, as a parallel plot of a power struggle between two senior teachers (James Mason and Robert Preston) is unfolded in a somewhat over-stated manner. The two parallel stories seem to be linked, but the causal relationships remain hidden and disentangling it provokes a certain viewer involvement. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, the transition from play to movie script is far from seamless, creating a movie that works haltingly, in fits and starts, with overlong monologues giving way to moments of brilliance, followed by lots of shots of people running up and down stairs and banging doors. Interesting characters are introduced with fanfare, then given nothing to do. Most problematic is the way Beau Bridges' presumed main character almost disappears about half-way into the movie, only to recur as the final act is set into motion. Some may see this as an improvement as Bridges simply isn't a very good actor, and is given a couple of difficult, rhetoric scenes that he cannot handle well. As Bridges fades out, James Mason takes the center stage with a performance that is on a whole other level than Child's Play in general. In a fully committed effort Mason portrays a stern, traditional Latin teacher who insists on his classic values, both in teaching and in life in general, but is step by step driven towards a breakdown by the harassing 'forces' at the school; forces whose origin he seems to be alone to identify. Unfortunately his part is written too far into melodrama and overstays its welcome towards the end, but this is no fault of Mason's. The lesser known Robert Preston does a good job as a presumed straight-man to Mason's conservative eccentric.

The movie progresses along its uneven trajectory, but does not quite succeed in connecting the mysterious evil that drives the pupils to outbursts of violence with the power struggle between the two teachers. Lumet seems more interested in the letter, and it's possible that Mason's outstanding performance caused a re-balancing of the narrative during the editing. Bridges protagonist is given so little of value to do that he becomes almost superfluous, and there is also a violation of the 'show-not-tell' principle as various side characters discuss the strange goings on. The children are reduced to spooky props, brought out every 20 minutes to enforce the theme of evil in different, sacrilegous ways. One might suggest that the movie had been much more effective if Bridges' character had been replaced with a new student in the class which stands at the center of the goings-on.

The final revelation is hardly a surprise to the viewer as the number of alternative scenarios were few, but thanks mainly to Robert Preston's consistent interpretation of his part, there is still a certain pay-off when the truth is laid bare. The final scenes show that Lumet understands what certain horror directors know to be true: groups of children without adults can be scary. But Child's Play could have made much better use of this asset, instead of sacrificing its initial tone of occult mystery for what is basically a power struggle between two academics. If it had been made the year after The Exorcist instead of the year before, it would probably have been re-written into a more interesting and truly supernatural story.

This was clearly not an important project for Sidney Lumet, who directs it by the numbers for the most part, and actually manages to botch a couple of dramatic scenes that could have been high-points. As often in his movies he seems most at ease in a clearly defined, recurring space, in this case the faculty quarters, where the camera moves elegantly among the tea trays and essays while the overly talky script is acted out. Neither an occult movie nor a particularly rewarding addition to the long line of boarding school dramas, Child's Play is of interest mainly for James Mason's terrific, soul-baring performance, which deserved a more ambitious and better constructed environment. 6/10


*Apparently it's been released on DVD recently.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 8:49 PM MEST
Updated: 19 May 2013 1:24 AM MEST
15 May 2013
Coming Home (1978)
Topic: C
I checked another item on my Hal Ashby score card by viewing COMING HOME (1978). Arriving timely with its post-Vietnam concerns and realistic tone, this used to be one of his most widely respected works, though I'm not sure what its standing is today. In any event it is appropriate that I didn't get to see this until now, as it's not a movie for a popcorn teenage mindset. My expectations were pretty high, and basically I thought it was a very good and engaging movie. It wasn't entirely successful however, and my main reservation is with Bruce Dern's part, which seemed poorly outlined compared to the two main characters (Jon Voight and Jane Fonda). Dern delivers his usual overly expressive, silent movie-like acting, which works in some films (like Black Sunday) but hardly so in the delicately balanced world of Hal Ashby.
 
A sensitive director like Ashby ought to have felt that Dern was the wrong actor to solve the problem with the poorly outlined character, and it's also a curious casting choice in terms of screen presence. The production team would have been wise to pick someone that looks like a marine officer, like Powers Boothe, or Scott Glenn, or Stacy Keach ,or someone like that. Bruce Dern looks like a liberal arts college teacher and lacks the efficient rationality that officers, especially ones with combat experience, would be assumed to display. This might all work better on a re-watch, but it felt to me like a certain magic seeped out the back door due to the Dern factor.
 
Jon Voight on the other hand is pretty awesome, a reminder of how good he was when his star was still rising. Much of his more recent work tends to have a certain laziness or lack of commitment to it. And it was a nice, possibly deliberate irony to cast 'Hanoi Jane' Fonda in a movie like this. The triangle Voight-Fonda-Dern is the engine of Coming Home, and as you would expect from Ashby, the scenes are painful and powerful with understated precision. The one scene that didn't convince me was where a supposedly psychotic Dern threatens his estranged wife Fonda while addressing her like a Vietnamese enemy. This looked very awkward and broke the spell, and I doubt any actor could have pulled that off. The movie ends on an effective note with a semi-improvised monologue by Voight about the horrors of war that must have looked dubious on paper, but works thanks to Voight's precise performane and the thematic backdrop that Ashby has created. There's also a terrific music score that includes two Buffalo Springfield songs. 7/10

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:20 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:46 AM MEST
King Of Marvin Gardens (1972)
Now Playing: High Tide "Sea Shanties"
Topic: K

One of the more extreme cases of the New Hollywood's downbeat 1970s realism, KING OF MARVIN GARDENS was the movie Bob Rafelson made after scoring big with Five Easy Pieces. Rafelson's running mate Jack Nicholson handles the main part in the movie, which is mostly set in the superbly desolate atmosphere of old, pre-Trump Atlantic City in the Winter. However, the movie (named after the Monopoly board game) fell far behind its predecessor in terms of success, and today a lot of people don't even know that it exists. In view of the similarities, an interesting question is why Marvin Gardens didn't communicate with the audience, while Five Easy Pieces did. The plot details have been changed so that we're on the East Coast instead of West Coast, the central relationship is brother and brother rather than father and son, and the protagonist is an introvert writer instead of an extrovert musician, but the fundamental Rafelson tone and pacing are easily recognizable.

Both movies are very much character studies with an eye for unusual settings, and in terms of plot one might argue that Marvin Gardens is actually superior, or at least clearer defined, than its predecessor. Nicholson helps his brother (Bruce Dern) with some legal trouble and in the process is brought on board for a holiday resort project on Hawaii, apparently with some local mafia involvement. The brothers and two girlfriends linger in Atlantic City while trying to lay their hands on a bundle of money that would help finance the Hawaii dream, and all the while their vastly different personalities are played off against one another. It's a fairly solid foundation for the type of quirky psychological drama that Rafelson had helped bring into vogue, and his direction skilfully offsets the storyline with incisive looks at the four main characters, both tracks leading forward in unpredictable starts and stops. Outside, the near-empty streets, boardwalks and hotels of old Atlantic City remain present to mirror the sense of homelessness, or lack of belonging in a deeper sense, that the protagonists project. The many exterior shots may stay in the viewer's memory longer than anything else in the movie, and represent a great documentary value in addition to the powerful atmosphere.

Most likely, what kept Marvin Gardens from becoming a classic resides in the handling of the two main characters. People loved, and still love, to watch Nicholson as the sarcastic yet obviously suffering Bobby Dupea in Five Easy Pieces; the combination of strength and resignation was new at the time, and it obviously hit a spot with the post-psychedelic generation. Of course, it was also an extraordinary acting achievement by Nicholson, still today one of the highlights of his career, even if he was just three years out of biker movies and AIP hippie-ploitation flicks. Now, Nicholson does a very good job in Marvin Gardens too, and he accepts the challenge of bringing his first-ever introvert, low-key character to the screen. He would continue to insert this 'other', cast-against-type face of Jack into his acting repertoire now and then, as seen in The Border and About Schmidt, for example.

The problem with Nicholson's role is that it doesn't offer much space to communicate with the viewer, whether to evoke sympathy or as a psychological riddle. He simply is there, impenetrable and closed for others; on one hand very believable, on the other hand not enough engaging. This is a given risk when putting an introvert, stone-faced character at the center of the work, and the opening up of some type of channel for closer familiarization can easily look like a cheap psychological shot. Rafelson and Nicholson put their trust in the credibility of the character to connect with a mature audience, but in my view it isn't quite enough.

Opposite Nicholson's silent enigma we have Bruce Dern's extrovert, eternally optimistic screw-up, a part that could very well have been handled by Nicholson (this reversal of casting may indeed have been deliberate). Unlike Coming Home a few years later (see review) Dern's jittery presence is appopriate to the part, and I believe this is one of his better performances. The casting of him as a presumed biological brother to the not very lookalike Nicholson is a bit awkward. The most important problem, however, is the same once more: his character does not evoke a useful response with the viewer. There are both lovable and despicable scoundrels, and neither script nor Dern go enough of a distance to make this a person whose fate one wants to care about. Given his failed business plans and interaction with mobsters the deck is stacked against Dern's protagonist from the start, and there isn't enough benevolence to compensate for it.

So ultimately, the King Of Marvin Gardens sets two very different and not overly likable brothers against each other, with the expected bursts of animosity, nostalgia and blood-tie responsibilities. We learn a little more about them from their interplay, but it's nothing that changes the fundamental impression given from early on. Nicholson remains a loner, Dern remains an irresponsible screw-up, and their ways will part again after this brief reunion. The female companions get plenty of screen-time to work as dialogue sparring partners for the two brothers. Ellen Burstyn, much in demand at the time, is solid as usual as a former beauty queen in a love/hate relationship with Dern's unreliable hustler. The couple have sort of adopted a young woman with a striking, slightly eerie presence which seems perfect for the movie and its setting. Apparently an amateur actress named Julia Anne Robinson, this casting gamble pays off, and the sub-plot showing the competition between the ageing, former beauty pageant girl and the younger, future one offers a variant on a mother/daughter conflict that is both inspired and touching; clearly one of the film's assets. Burstyn is also involved in a plot twist towards the end that should surprise any first-time viewer, and may seem to jar with the dominating tone of status quo.

After this long litany about why and how King Of Marvin Gardens doesn't live up to Five Easy Pieces, I still have to say that I like this movie very much, and I believe those with a faiblesse for the radical '70s style of cinema will agree. There isn't enough rebellion and extroversion here to make a classic, but there is nevertheless a brilliant setting and an intriguing, original quartet of people. Bob Rafelson was one of the more adventurous directors of New Hollywood, and this neglected work offers up a rich catalog of aesthetic issues and cinematic questions that the post-Easy Riders era raised. To modern viewers with no particular interest or experience with this style the movie might look weird and possibly disjointed, but I do believe the Atlantic City milieu and Nicholson's understated performance will continue to fascinate. 7/10


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:17 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:45 AM MEST
14 May 2013
Full Metal Jacket's Gomer Pyle reconsidered
Now Playing: Paul Page "The Reef Is Calling"
Topic: F

This is it. After years of self-deception, I'm finally throwing in the towel. It just doesn't work, or doesn't make sense, no matter how  much I would like it to.

What am I talking about? Well, in short, this:

I have gone on record many times calling Full Metal Jacket one of my favorite movies from one of my favorite directors. Unlike most of Kubrick's works it is very realistic in tone and look, which is one reason I've rated it so highly. I was there when the Usenet Kubrick forum carved out the standard 101 analysis of the movie, chipping in with a thought or two but generally remaining on the sidelines while the expertise flowed back and forth. This high-brow group had earlier improved my understanding of The Shining in several useful ways.

For example: It is not true that Jack Nicholson makes a poor portrayal of a drunk in the bar scene with 'Lloyd', because he is not actually drunk; he is a man going insane who imitates a drunk, as part of the ghostly drama evolving inside and around him. In other words, Jack plays a nutcase pretending to be drunk. I admired the ingeniousness of this viewpoint, but after a while I realized that it was probably true. I had erred in not fully understanding the context of the scene, mistaken multilayered personas for weak acting.

Following this crash course in Kubrickiana, I became rather cautious in voicing any detailed opinions on his movies except on a general note of (usually) appreciation. The fact that these works seemed to get better with each repeat viewing confirmed the soundness of this approach. Applying this on Full Metal Jacket, I concluded that it was one of Kubrick's very best; flawlessly executed as always, but also gaining an edge from its strong anchoring in actual events, i e: US marines in Vietnam.

Now, every once in a while during the half-dozen times I've watched it, a little voice of dissent would clear its throat and question whether Vincent d'Onofrios characterization of Leonard aka 'Gomer Pyle' really needed to be so radically broad, given the realistic tone and look of the rest of the movie. But the lesson I had learned from debating Nicholson's performance in The Shining would bear down on this polite little dissident, and insist that d'Onofrio's performance was right on the money, it was simply a case of me failing to understand how the larger bolts of the narrative machine came together. Besides, with time the whole thing would surely look appropriate and maybe even prophetic. This was, after all, Kubrick.

So I went with this self-editing and professed my love for Full Metal Jacket and how its three parts were brilliantly juxtaposed etc etc & blah-blah. The case of Gomer Pyle was simply above suspicion, but there was always a nagging feeling that I wasn't done with the movie. So when recently Full Metal Jacket came on TV, I figured I'd take another round with it as I had nothing better to do. This improvised screening meant eschewing the ritual of selecting the DVD from the shelf and placing it in the player, which may have contributed to the more critical mindset I brought to this viewing. Or maybe the time had simply come for a new perspective.

Rather than sort of blanking out the scenes where it looked like d'Onofrio's performance was way off the wall, I watched them closely to try and figure out the motivation behind them. Because it's not Vincent d'Onofrio (a very good actor in my opinion) we are watching, but rather Stanley Kubrick's instructions to Vincent d'Onofrio. Any Kubrickian knows that the Master wouldn't commit a single shrug or nosepick to celluloid without thinking it through, and so whatever d'Onofrio had his character do, it was what the omniscient director wanted. And given my general respect/awe for Kubrick, I figured there was some justification or logic in there that I simply didn't understand, just like in The Shining. Right.

Except that this time, the rationalization didn't work. I saw nothing but an actor doing a decent job 90% of the time, then skid off the road during the remaining 10%. After being portrayed as a slightly dimwitted and undisciplined grunt among others not much superior, Leonard unexpectedly goes 'full retard' in a scene where Matthew Modine's 'Joker' shows him how to tie his shoelaces. Not only is the basic scene questionable, but the exaggerated look of childlike adoration on Leonard's face jars badly with the apathetic loser we've seen so far, and with the brutal world of adult men that is the world of Full Metal Jacket's first act. It's an embarrassing, cringeworthy scene, not so much because of the acting but because it doesn't make sense in the context of the movie. What does the movie gain from this? If anything, our sympathy for the underdog is diminished rather than heightened, and, most of all, the harsh naturalism that is one of the strongest assets is suddenly undermined.

Towards the end of the Parris Island sequence, we are told that Leonard aka Gomer Pyle 'can't hack it anymore'. It is an unnecessary piece of dialogue because d'Onofrio portrays Leonard's breakdown by going over the top in a way that leaves little room for misinterpretation. Instead of being Joker's starry-eyed protagonist he has turned into a psychotic war machine living in symbiosis with his rifle. As the freshly baked marines gather to receive their combat assignments, Leonard gives off a blank psycho gaze while his fellow soldiers cheer and laugh. What he shows is in fact the Kubrick Stare, familiar from earlier movies such as 2001, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. In the Kubrick Stare, the protagonist is looking straight into the camera from beneath a prominent forehead and eyebrows, giving off an arresting look of predatory concentration. If this was the peak of d'Onofrio's 'psychotic' interpretation of Leonard it would have been a fitting signal as well as a thought-provoking reference to Kubrick's earlier fims.

But of course, this is not the case, because the grand finale of Act 1 takes place in the Head (so branded with a sign on the door) and finds a Leonard more psychotic than anything psychotic you've ever seen before, except maybe in bad Psychotronic features. The Kubrick Stare has been augmented with a crazy smile to create a truly unsettling appearance which, unfortunately, looks quite incredulous and, once more, clashes badly with the realistic tone of the preceding scenes and indeed the entire work. Not only does he look like something from a comic book, but his voice has become completely altered as well, from mild-mannered sad-sack to a devilish sneer. The inevitable logic of the actual events that transpire in the Head needn't be dwelled upon, and the interesting question here is again: what does this scene, and the whole Parris Island segment, gain from the highly theatrical performance delivered by d'Onofrio during the climactic scenes? As pointed out above, there is nothing random or unplanned in a Kubrick movie: d'Onofrio portrays Leonard this way because Kubrick has encouraged him to do so. But why did the director want this?

25 years have passed since Full Metal Jacket premiered. The idea that time would reveal the meaning of elements that seemed dubious on early viewings may apply to some aspects of the work, but as far as I can tell, d'Onofrio's overacting still looks like overacting in 2013, and these scenes stick out like a handful of clumsy, inexplicable brush strokes on an otherwise beautifully realized painting.


This most recent viewing of Full Metal Jacket also helped clarify a couple of aspects to the middle act that have troubled me somewhat. Again, I was helped by the excellent critical 'walk-throughs' compiled by the Kubrick fans on the internet.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 8:46 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:45 AM MEST
30 April 2013
What are you doing, Dave?
Now Playing: Real Madrid-Dortmund
Topic: *Memorabilia & such

After three disappointing movies in a row, here's an original promo photo from a movie which rarely appears in the same sentence as 'disappointing'.


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 10:19 PM MEST
29 April 2013
Carnal Knowledge (1971)
Now Playing: Can "Monster Movie"
Topic: C

German-born director Mike Nichols saw an early break-through with The Graduate in 1967, a movie which may appear almost incomprehensible to teenagers today but was a huge critical and commercial success at its time. Only Nichols' second feature movie, it dealt with the woes of coming of age in an upper middle-class '60s far from the sociocultural street theatre of Merry Pranksters and Mario Savios alike. Four years later Nichols took on a work that was wholly adult in both subject and tone; you may have to be 25 just to understand the title.

Carnal Knowledge is a character study that follows two young college friends through their friendship, relationships, and the occasional intertwining of the two. It's talky, seemingly ad libbed at times, moderately psychological, depressing but sometimes fun, and would, in 10 years time, have been directed by Woody Allen rather than Mike Nichols. Allen had undoubtedly made much better use of the New York City setting than Nichols, who wastes his opportunities by using generic back projection shots instead of filming on location. This drawback, along with a near complete lack of extras and complex mise-en-scene* shots, contributes to the feeling of a theatre play adapted for TV. Written by noted (well, he was noted in the '60s) cartoonist/writer Jules Feiffer it had in fact started out as a stage project, and maybe it should have stayed that way too.

The first thing that may strike a modern viewer is how good an actor Art Garfunkel is. He goes up against a Jack Nicholson fresh out of Five Easy Pieces and holds his own ground, particularly in the opening half of the movie where his role is given most screen time. As the story and characters age, Nicholson's seemingly more troubled protagonist gradually takes over, and in a sense Carnal Knowledge betrays its initial promise of a chamber play and becomes another 'Jack' vehicle instead. And Nicholson is quite good, of course, particularly in the increasingly despairing scenes he shares with Ann-Margret, who does a very good acting job in addition to her Swedish bomb-shell looks. The talented couple basically hijack the last reel and turns Carnal Knowledge into a watchable relationship movie that finds Nichols revisiting the razorsharp domestic scenes of his debut Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

However, this household purgatory makes for a different movie than the one which began with two young college friends who secretly dated the same girl, an interesting premise that is never mentioned or referenced in the later parts of the film. It's unclear whether Nichols, and maybe Feiffer too, knew exactly what the point was with the storyline as it unfolds over some 20 years; a feeling you never get with Five Easy Pieces, as an example. The viewer may be tempted to think that director and producer observed that most of the substance of the third reel was in the domestic Woolf dialogue and Nicholson's performance, and let that take over while sacrificing the dual or even quadruple balance indicated in the exposition.

I don't particularly care about the 'message' or 'politics' of a movie as these things are subjective between different persons and also bound to change over time, but Carnal Knowledge, despite its seemingly liberated and self-assured female characters, has a rather unpleasant tone of patriarchal smugness about it. All the women, and ultimately Garfunkel's loyal friend, are reduced to mirrors for Nicholson's increasingly pathetic womanizer. The script tries to work around its inability to show his falling apart by invoking a theme of impotency, a cliché as tired as there is, and one which also brings sympathy to the character and reduces the chances for credible psychological demasking even more. It's all rather clumsily done, and I suspect the editing made it worse.

Nichols seems influenced by the gritty realism of the New Hollywood yet misses two vital ingredients from the style, which is a sense of memorable cinema (not filmed theatre) in images and sets, and a striving towards originality and unpredictability in the storyline. The end result is simply a pretty dull affair, a mediocre made-for-TV drama with an unpleasant aftertaste, memorable mostly for a performance from Jack Nicholson which oddly both improves and damages the movie.

The guys over at Cinefiles referred to Mike Nichols as a director who made a couple of good movies long ago which carried his entire career. Seeing Carnal Knowledge in 2013 seems to validate the remark. 5/10


*'Mise en scene', as used here at the Reflections, refers specifically to complex, choreographed shots that involve several people, a heterogenous setting (such as a plaza), and movements. The term is notoriously vague, but this narrow definition is how I was taught it long ago, and I find it useful.

 


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 9:33 PM MEST
Updated: 7 October 2013 10:11 PM MEST
Across The Universe (2007)
Now Playing: tinnitus
Topic: A

I do my best to keep track of all movies related some way or other to psychedelic culture, but it may be a while before I get around to actually watching them. I recall Across The Universe getting some enthusiastic support in mainstream media, but as often with recent films, I have a hard time seeing where that praise is coming from, unless cute charm and good music satisfies your cineast demands.

As the very familiar storyline took yet another predictable turn, I found myself thinking "this is pretty lame but I bet the original stage version was enjoyable". Uh-huh. Except that there is no "original stage version"! Of course, this adds more weight to my brooding over why someone felt this Broadway musical material could and should be turned into a movie.

 Across The Universe presents a by-the-numbers version of "the sixties" that is completely shallow and lacking in critical perspective. The most important event of the decade, the Moon Landing, isn't even mentioned. Instead it's the same tired baby-boomer nostalgia cliches found in another sanitized no-depth retro view, Forrest Gump, except missing the one thing in Gump that felt like it actually meant something, Gary Sinise's character. Across The Universe offers something else, which is the great music of the Beatles. Some 30 Beatles songs (licenced for the bizarre sum of $10 million) are heard and seen, sung by the actors and choreographed in a very Broadway way by the director.

The unoriginal love and friendship story has been augmented with various subplots in order to justify the insertion of various Beatles songs. Turning "I Want To Hold Your Hand" into a song about secret lesbian love is inspired, as were a couple other numbers that brought out novel meanings from very familiar lyrics. Others are too obvious, a few are misguided or meaningless (Eddie Izzard's atonal Mr Kite routine probably survived in the cutting room simply because a lot of masks and props had gone into it).

The "psychedelic" scenes, then, are wildly uneven. It kicks off with a Kool-Aid party in NYC (oddly for a "sixties" film, there is nothing west coast) where a drug ringleader called Dr Robert takes command. After forcing myself to accept that this character for some reason looks like Lemmy in Motorhead, I progress head first into a brick wall for which there is no accepting. Dr Robert is Bono. It's fucking Bono pretending to be a Merry Prankster looking like Lemmy. But Bono isn't psychedelic, he's like the antidote to LSD. No one likes Bono except maybe Jann Wenner. Where did this idiot casting idea come from?

The obligatory "trip" sequence that follows is cheaply done, mainly by inverting and fiddling with colors, just like Bob Rafelson did in Head... 40 years ago. This goes on for a few minutes and at least we are spared any moralizing. An utterly silly scene has Prankster Bono (aargh!) trying to visit "Professor Geary" at a Millbrook-like place but getting rejected--restating Tom Wolfe's old Baby-boomer myth. That this never happened, that Kesey and Leary hung out, and that there are photos of Leary aboard the Further bus, apparently wasn't known to the writers. Of course, since we never see Leary or Geary the whole scene is meaningless and could have been cut, saving us 20 seconds of Bono. Better yet, the editorial scissors could have made a long jump forward and removed the aforementioned Mr Kite scene, which comes right after. That would have brought us quick to the one stoned scene that works, a beautiful montage of bodies entwined in a pasture, where "Because" is heard while the wind runs back and forth in the tallgrass.

And so ends the psychedelic part of Across The Universe, and the rest of it is some more shit about SDS demonstrations and betrayed idealism right out of Forrest Gump, and also a sub-plot about Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix in the same band... or something. Don't watch this if you're interested in the 1960s. Watch this if you loved Mama Mia, the musical made from ABBA songs. 5/10


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 2:16 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:43 AM MEST
25 April 2013
The Boat That Rocked (2009) capsule
Now Playing: New Expression "Good Clean Rock'n'Roll"
Topic: B

Hard to imagine how the producters decided to go with this one, unless they relied on director Richard Curtis to create something out of almost nothing, as he arguably did with Notting Hill. Some highly respected actors lent their services to what is essentially a feel good-movie set in the swinging '60s. Not exactly an original concept, and The Boat That Rocked (aka Pirate Radio) stacks the deck further in its disfavor by having no meaningful storyline whatsoever--unless the recurring threats from politicians to shut the pirate radio boat down is supposed to be the main plot.

The ensemble is a bewildering mix of Oscar winners and near-unknowns, but they line up fairly well for Curtis' patented English coziness (even if he's a Kiwi). Unfortunately, once we know them all, and know that political forces are conspiring, and that rock music is a valuable form of rebellion, the movie discovers it has nothing more to say. The third reel is just a drawn-out closure that goes on for half an hour instead of ten minutes, and the moderate suspense inserted removes most of the viewer's direct connection to the various characters, which had been the work's primary strength. The movie means well and is unlikely to be hated by anyone; what it leaves behind is mainly the question why someone approved a script thinner than an LP record to go into production.

Speaking of LP records, fans of '60s music are likely to get some mileage out of The Boat That Rocked, which has a nice attention to period (c1968) detail, several shocking scenes of rare originals (second Love, second Incredible String Band, first Grateful Dead) falling victim to the cold Nordic Sea, and a good but not great soundtrack that uses Kinks and Small Faces tunes (no Creation or Tomorrow) for good effect but unfortunately can't keep its hands away from "Whiter Shade Of Pale", despite it popping up in dozens of movies over the years. 5/10


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 10:01 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:43 AM MEST
22 April 2013
Snake Eyes (1998)
Now Playing: Creedence
Topic: S

Popcorn quiz: Brian De Palma made Snake Eyes because he (A) Wanted to do a single-take sequence that surpassed the one Scorsese had in Goodfellas; (B) Was curious about how Carla Gugino would look in tight silk clothes; (C) Figured he could use some of Nicholas Cage's hyper intense cocaine buzz presence while the guy was still A-list material?

These are all valid reasons for making a movie, especially if you've paid your dues three times over like BDP had. Whatever his intentions, the end result is wholly and uniquely identifiable as his creation, which means that I enjoy it. In fact, I enjoyed it more on the second viewing than the first, and this is not due to some dubious theoretical insight like the intellectualized film student snobbery frequently hung around the director's neck.

Au contraire, ma freres, I actually took greater note of the storyline and characterization this time. Not that it's particularly outstanding, but it's there for the viewer's attention, and I believe the dazzling single-take exposition offsets the balance of the entire movie on the first viewing. This extremely complex and magically realized tracking shot will probably be the only aspect of Snake Eyes to linger in the cinema annals, even if De Palma allowed himself a few loopholes (four or five camouflaged cuts during the 20-minute sequence) to make his mad enterprise work.

Film students and movie-lovers alike enjoy the virtuosity and sheer fun of this grand opening, and unlike some of BDP's earlier showcases it is both appropriate to the theme and context of the movie (a big night with lots of tension in the air) and a very effective exposition which introduces the major characters and a number of details relevant to the mystery conspiracy that is the main plot element. The only problem, then, is that the viewer may still be digesting De Palma's tour de force and maybe hope for even more, while the storyline is rapidly evolving into new intricacies.

The movie carries its comic book exaggerations with pride, and the sense of aesthetic playfulness is brought home by a dazzling use of bright colors in basically every shot, until the appropriately dark and murky ending. More movies should look like this, a true feast for the eyes on a level of pure, non-intellectual perception that makes it almost psychedelic, in the sense that hallucinogens can make each color look a little brighter than usual. Equally appropriate is the obvious use of studio sets for the entire movie, making everything look shiny new and slightly unreal. The casino where the action takes place is basically one gigantic set piece, and it's easy to imagine the fun De Palma and his assicoates had in designing the sets in combination with the fluid camera-work.

In accordance with the title there is a strong focus on eyes, in various symbolic and physical representations. Gary Sinise's sinister military officer turns the metaphorical 'snake eyes' of the title into an actual facial aspect, becoming less human and more cold and deviously reptile as the movie progresses. Perhaps this ocular theme justified use of POV flashback sequences (some which are actually 'false') that occur three times, but they are largely unsuccessful and distracts the viewer by inserting new dimensions to little effect. In typical BDP fashion the inspired creativity goes one step too far, but its more of an annoyance than truly damaging.

Nicholas Cage was at the peak of his career around this time, and his hyper-active police detective seems determined to outdo the egocentric cocaine excesses seen in Face/Off. Unfortunately we are never told why his character behaves like a race horse on steroids. One might argue that Cage's performance is in line with the general larger-than-life tone of the movie, but it fails to add or expand on that tone, and makes for an awkward transition to the weary, disenchanted person he becomes towards the end. Gary Sinise on the other hand acts like he understands the movie completely, and while his performance also becomes weighed down by the exaggerated demands of the script towards the final scenes, the convincing military persona and gradually demasked 'snake' of the title is a major asset. Carla Gugino is very comic book-like as a reluctant heroine, actually more comic book-like than in Sin City, and while charming in presence her character isn't given enough respect by script or direction. The rest of the cast isn't bad but strangely forgettable, in view of how De Palma on occasion loads his movies with good casting and quirky minor parts.

If you've only seen Snake Eyes once, see it again. I'm not so sure how it would hold up for a third viewing, though. 7/10


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 2:08 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:42 AM MEST
20 April 2013

Topic: *Memorabilia & such

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 10:02 PM MEST
Spartacus (1960)
Now Playing: late night ambience
Topic: S

This is not a full-blown review of Spartacus, which you are likely to have seen and certainly owns no shortage of critique, from Kubrickians and others. Rather, I figured I'd post some random thoughts from my most recent viewing.

The background you know; Kirk Douglas commanded the project and fired the original director after shooting had begun, in his place Douglas recruited the up and coming Stanley Kubrick, who had impressed the Hollywood star when the two collaborated on the much-respected Paths Of Glory (1957). Both Douglas and Kubrick embarked on the Spartacus rescue mission with their own private agendas, which didn't prevent the film from becoming a commercial and critical success.

The first thing to observe is that the movie has aged fairly well. It looks and feels "old" in the sense of a classic Hollywood production, but only rarely does it seem dated. This era saw a number of ancient epics such as Ben-Hur, The Ten Commandments, El Cid et al. Of these, Spartacus is clearly the most relevant experience for a modern viewer. This is not due to some particularly brilliant directing from Kubrick, who does a skilful but fairly traditional job on the massive Cecil B DeMille type sequences, and lets the actors dominate the smaller scenes. One could say that if Kubrick's objective was to add a successful A-list movie to his resume', he did it just right. Thanks to the strength of the story, the frequently terrific acting, and a shrewd use of classic plot devices, the movie ages with dignity, like an old Bentley.

But it takes a few particular actors and scenes to make Spartacus a living experience rather than just a grand exhibition piece. Top honors must go to Charles Laughton who plays his scheming, powerful yet goodhearted Roman senator as though it had been custom-made for him. It is a wonderful display of a kind of larger than life performance that would fall out of fashion a few years later, and has never really returned. Laughton turns his Gracchus into a vividly alive and generous Falstaff kind of man, while on another level he is a survivor among the backstabbers in Rome and undoubtedly one with blood on his hands.

Yet this exquisite package isn't all that the viewer perceives, because Laughton's presence carries just enough of a hint of irony, like a quick wink of the eye, to remind you and the crew and probably himself too, that this is all theatre. This meta-comment is effective for several reasons, the simplest one being that it is true, it is all theatre and the audience is granted the intelligence to share this consensual hallucination with Laughton and Olivier and the other great actors.

Furthermore, the setting of the senate in Rome resembles a stage where political monologues and dialogues determine the nation's future, and the scenes in this milieu, strongly dominated by Laughton, emerge as a kind of play-within-play in Shakespeare's manner. This observation suggests another undercurrent to Laughton's multilayered presence; the enormous tradition of stage productions set in the classic Rome of Spartacus, leading by way of Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar all the way back to the playwrights and rhetoric masters of the ancient high culture. In addition to bringing to life his admirably vivacious Gracchus, Laughton's subtle meta-performance reminds us of the extraordinary context, even in a commercial Hollywood movie, of a Roman stage.

Of course, Laurence Olivier and Peter Ustinov hold their own ground as thespians; Olivier's complex, ambivalent Crassus bringing much of the same Shakespearean nutrition to the table as Laughton, while the younger Ustinov represents a slightly more naturalistic and less formalized kind of acting. The scenes between Laughton and Ustinov are not only wondrously entertaining, but also make for a passing of the torch, to some extent.

The American actors can't help but suffering in the Anglofied tone of the movie, and there is an awkward clash between traditions at times, such as Olivier and his brother in law (Broadway actor John Dall) who seem to be in separate movies. Kirk Douglas, whose movie it after all is, does a good job in emphasizing the physical aspects of his Spartacus; a commanding example of the hero in his most visceral incarnation. With this choice comes a natural lack of insight behind the righteous warrior mask of Spartacus, whose entire emotional life is distilled down to his love for Varinia (a very beautiful Jean Simmons). The hero archetype rests comfortably on Douglas' broad shoulders, but it also shifts the thematic bias away from the notion of the 'rebel' to that of the 'warrior', and turns Spartacus into more of a war movie than it maybe should have been. Compared with Ridley Scott's Gladiator, Spartacus finds a presumed rebel becoming a field general, while Gladiator finds a field general becoming a rebel. The later movie gains in emotional pull from this characterization of the hero role.

Kubrick may not have left too strong a mark on this movie, except for its general excellence, but the memorable final scene stands out enough that it hints of the unique ideation of the great director. As the crucificed hero suffers on the cross, his wife and new-born child stand by and silently weep, unable to reveal their identity. It's a heavy, archetypal scene, if not outright psychedelic then certainly Jungian, and it is a fitting apex to a closing reel that also saw Olivier and Douglas finally meet in a scene which brilliantly contrasts two types of power--that of the office and law, with that of nature and the common man. While the overall bias towards a gung-ho war movie reduces the movie of its potential multi-layered quality, there are enough moments of depth and ambivalence to satisfy the psychedelic mind, and the closing scene in particular is almost Dali-esque.

A final thought: Kubrick does well in exploting the studio resources and huge number of extras at his hands, and creates a movie that truly looks expensive, even today. At the same time, many of the sets still look like studio back-lot creations in a manner typical of older Hollywood movies, and it's unfortunate that not more filming took place in actual outdoors settings. This effect is compounded by a curious presentation of Southern Italy as about the same size as your local neighborhood, so that slaves on the run keep bumping into one another in the most unlikely fashion. These two drawbacks are perhaps the strongest reminders that the movie belongs to a much earlier era and different audience attitude than Scott's Gladiator.

NOTE: the reinstated scenes featuring a subtle (or not so subtle) homosexual undertone between Olivier and young Tony Curtis are quite worthwhile and contribute to the modern and more ambiguous aspect of Spartacus. The sequence is slightly inferior technically and you can tell where it begins and ends, but it nevertheless is a vital addition to the film. Anthony Hopkins was apparently hired to imitate Olivier's voice as the original soundtrack had been lost, while Curtis was still around and redid himself.


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 12:49 AM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:41 AM MEST
14 April 2013
Two-Minute Warning (1976)
Now Playing: Spirit "Family That Plays Together"
Topic: T

I actually picked this one up by accident as I was looking for Peter Bogdanovich's debut movie The Sniper, and the two movies have very similar titles when translated into our local language. That the actors didn't match up or that the year was off by 8 years apparently didn't register with me, but that's what late-night binge-shopping on the internet is all about.

As luck had it, Two-Minute Warning turned out to be highly enjoyable and I would surely have seen it sooner or later anyway. I have no memories of its original run back in 1976-77, but it clearly belongs to the genre of 'disaster movies' that were in vogue in the mid-70s, sometimes involving Mother Nature, sometimes terrorists, and sometimes both. Those familiar with John Frankenheimer's Black Sunday will recognize certain elements instantly, the most obvious being an assault taking place during a football game. However, Two-Minute Warning is the earlier of the two and holds its own ground well. I was particularly impressed with the pacing and scene transitions, and the editing received a well-earned Oscar nomination.

Director Larry Peerce is not a major Hollywood name, and at the time of this movie he was a veteran of mainly TV work, and in the later part of his career he did more TV and a number of low-profile romantic dramas for the silver screen. Though unfamiliar with his oeuvre I suspect that Two-Minute Warning may be the best thing he put his name on. It's not a 'New Hollywood' movie per se, but like Don Siegel and Sam Peckinpah there is a natural affinity with the grim realism that the new generation favored. Based on a novel the script is tightly written as it unfolds, minute by minute, the desperate hunt for a crazy sniper whose next move no one can predict. Charlton Heston is a less than ideal choice for the main part, and John Cassavetes seems overly intellectual for a SWAT team leader, but the two get a fairly enjoyable tougher-than-thou chemistry going. It's interesting to speculate what a truly progressive casting job, such as in Dog Day Afternoon, might have brought out from this movie. But this is not really an actor showpiece or a character study, but a straightforward action thriller, and should be judged as such. I do sense a bit of Don Siegel as general inspiration, and the surprisingly bleak plot twists towards the end recall the chilly moods of the first two Dirty Harry movies, as an example, as does the sniper theme and the extensive use of real, outdoor locations rather than studio sets.

The cast is wide enough to look almost like a multi-story ensemble piece, but all the cords are tied together towards the end in an effective manner. Beau Bridges appears as a blue collar family man who suspects something's wrong, while Gena Rowlands has an unexpected but funny part as an ageing Southern belle. We're also treated to TV heroes David Janssen (The Fugitive) and Jack Klugman (The Odd Couple). Martin Balsam's presence brought Pelham 1-2-3 to mind, another quality disaster movie from the time. I deserve a moderate pat on the back for spotting Robert Ginty (of early video rental B-movie classic The Exterminator fame) in a 1-line part.

As a final note in praise of the direction, Two-Minute Warning features some of the best 'crowd hysteria' scenes I have seen in a movie this old. This is a very challenging task where just one extra not giving his all as the panic ensues can ruin a whole shot. But the scenes feel very real, near-documentary at their best. 7/10


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 8:35 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:40 AM MEST
8 April 2013
Chew
Topic: *Memorabilia & such

"I just do eyes"


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 9:14 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:40 AM MEST
Thor vs Lucky Number Slevin - 100 mcg capsule reviews
Now Playing: Parameter "Galactic Ramble"
Topic: L

A couple of quick takes on things recently watched....

THOR (2011) turned out to be surprisingly enjoyable and amplifies the impression that Hollywood may have figured out, finally, how to handle these Marvel comic heroes. Iron Man was the first step in the right direction, Avengers was eminently entertaining, and Thor pretty much so too. I get the feeling that someone in charge realized that these movies should be a concern for a much wider audience than nostalgic ex-teenyboppers, and so they lost the lame, Disneyfying strain that made almost all the earlier instalments shallow and impersonal. Choosing Kenneth Branagh to direct certainly indicates a motion away from the by-the-numbers instalments in the Spiderman and X-Men series. That's not to say that Thor is a particularly brilliant movie, but you don't need to care one iota for the old comic book (which I always found silly) or even know that it exists in order to enjoy this dynamic, expressive and surprisingly funny popcorn movie. The main character comes across as a surfer more than a jock, and the casting is pretty solid (Loki is bulls-eye; Anthony Hopkins as Odin perhaps less so). A straightforward yet arresting storyline, an evil-looking enemy clan led by a superbly menacing Colm Feore, and tons of beautiful CGI panoramas. If there is a sequel I look forward to it. 7/10

LUCKY NUMBER SLEVIN (2006) is something different altogether, basically a late addition to the very long -- perhaps too long -- lineage that goes back to the two-fisted mid-'90s impact of Pulp Fiction and Trainspotting. British director McGuigan did the very violent and slightly disturbing Gangster No 1 prior to this, but the uncompromising tone of that flick isn't really on display here, until towards the end. Prior to that it bounces along nicely as an unfazed Josh Hartnett gets dragged into a gangster rivalry with the typical near-parody style of early Tarantino. However, the script pulls out an increasing flow of twists that should surprise even one familiar with the genre, and the resolution near the end is quite effective, not just for its intrinsic logic, but because it goes hand in hand with a sharpening of the overall tone of the movie. And just as you enjoyed that closure, another twist comes along. Credibility is stretched, of course, but the rules of the aesthetic universe are never violated, and so it works. The oft-maligned Hartnett is unusually well-cast in a role that looks back to his break-through as a cool, self-serving slacker in The Faculty, while Bruce Willis does one of the colder hit-men you've seen. Oddly, grand elders Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley are less successful, the former just going through his usual black patriarch motions, the latter seemingly at odds with his lines of dialogue. The producers could have saved a lot of money by hiring lesser name actors who would have brought more energy to these characters. Lucy Liu is as pretty as ever and gets a part with direct involvement in the plot, rather than just a love interest. Not a perfect movie or even a great one, but in this crowded genre a highly competent addition. 7/10


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 8:59 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:39 AM MEST
7 April 2013
The Ninth Gate (1999)
Now Playing: Flashback vol 6 (Antar)
Topic: N
Roman Polanski making an occult movie seemed fairly intriguing to me, and for the first half or so I really enjoyed The Ninth Gate. The concept of the devil's engravings was spot on for the genre, and the use of various European locations added to the atmosphere. Unfortunately - like others have remarked - the last 10 minutes didn't really work, and this affected the impression of the entire movie which sort of fell apart in retrospect.

On the plus side, there were some striking images - like Frank Langella's fire scene, or the wheelchair/fire scene - that only a first-rate filmmaker like Polanski could come up with. Like other viewers I thought about Eyes Wide Shut during some scenes, but that was a much more serious and developed movie. I liked Johnny Depp's performance, though his character was unsympathetic and he didn't seem as focused as in Donnie Brasco for instance. Those who like me have dabbled in rare book or rare record dealing may take a special interest in The Ninth Gate as Polanski in passing gives a sardonic but believable peek into the mechanics of that trade.

Someone called this a 'lazy' movie by Polanski, and I guess that's a good description. You can see the talent and the fun he had, but there was no real commitment. 6.5 / 10.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 9:22 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:38 AM MEST
3 April 2013
Mission To Mars (1998)
Now Playing: Real Madrid-Galatasaray
Topic: M

I am not sure why Brian De Palma's Mission To Mars has provoked so much dislike. Most of the supposed flaws - the stiff, mannered 1950s style acting, the highly dramatic music score, the plot clichés - should be regarded as deliberate references to the cinematic history of science fiction, which is exactly what one would expect from an unrepentant film student like De Palma. My guess would be that the audience failed to understand the intentions behind this movie, not least those who were expecting another one-dimensional Armageddon-type blockbuster. Misapprehension has been a familiar refrain through much of De Palma's career and seems particularly unfortunate here, as this is a movie that is easy to like if you let it. Most importantly, it carries a generous portion of the key ingredient that sci-fi genre fans refer to as 'Sense of wonder'. At the same time, this is no 2001, as a closer scrutiny reveals.

On the minus side, the exposition is very weak, especially by De Palma standards (recall the dazzling openings of Bonfires Of The Vanities or Snake Eyes). Furthermore, the stereotyped acting of Gary Sinise and Tim Robbins in particular, though humorous and appropriate from a genre history viewpoint, can't help but diminish the dramatic impact of the movie, especially as De Palma simultaneously asks us to care for these characters. The sets are uneven, with the makeshift Martian base failing to convince.

On the plus side is an interesting plot idea, presented in a backward fashion and revealed towards the end in a much more elegant way than the highly similar plot element in Prometheus; some stunning visual effects and camera-work that are trademark De Palma, several intense and dramatic scenes also typical of his self-confident direction, and the aforementioned 'sense of wonder' (not unlike Contact) which is something that cannot be nailed down but needs to be experienced. The logic-defying and sometimes ludicrous plot-twists and character inconsistencies that have been the largest recurring problem in De Palma's movies are almost (almost) entirely absent here; the story moves along on a steady, even keel, much like the old Hollywood movies it resembles.

To my mind this movie's merits by far outweighs it flaws, and it is unfortunate for Brian de Palma that he again had to suffer from the audience's misconceptions and ideas about genre movies, rather than being judged as the talented, serious filmmaker that he is. I loved this movie, and rate it among his best. 8/10


Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 10:05 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:38 AM MEST
Single sentence review of Prometheus (2012)
Topic: P
Finally watched Ridley Scott's Prometheus after hearing very mixed opinions to it and, uh, it was that sinking experience where things start out looking really cool, and then there is something, after 10 minutes or so, just some little bit of poor acting or illogical behavior, that makes you go "hmm?", and then you keep watching hoping for it to pick up the trajectory towards the great movie it should be, but then there is another wrong detail, maybe a little bigger, and then comes something really fucked up that belongs in a B-movie, and you begin to realize that this isn't a great movie or even a pretty good movie but in fact a failure, a hack job, a grand gesture full of sloppy wrinkles* and when it's over you're in a strange mood because you still recall the great, imaginative, thought-provoking movie you thought it might be, and patiently waited for while irritation built steadily for two hours.

*I wrote the one-sentence review about two months ago, and have since found that images and scenes from the movie keep popping up in my head, so clearly it worked on some level. I can't think of any other movie with such a gap between the visual style (brilliantly memorable) and the story (poorly written, poorly handled). Finding Ridley Scott in the same fold as Dario Argento and Brian de Palma** is a bit surprising, but he actually outdoes these loose cannon-auteurs in both good and bad ways. Does this mean Prometheus will become a cult movie? Or will the cringeworthy idiocies of the script linger as its tombstone?
**Speaking of de Palma, Prometheus borrows several key ideas from de Palma's Mission To Mars, an underrated work which despite its modest resources is superior as a total film in my view.

Posted by Patrick at Lysergia at 5:02 PM MEST
Updated: 10 August 2013 12:37 AM MEST

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