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A genuinely terrifying fright flick

Posted : 1 year, 7 months ago on 10 January 2017 03:29 (A review of Lights Out)

"Well, if she's not a ghost then what is she?"

Another low-budget fright film from Australian producer James Wan, 2016's Lights Out is one of the superior horror offerings of the year, and that's not simply by default. This feature debut for filmmaker David F. Sandberg is a slick, taut, well-made thriller featuring likeable characters who don't act like complete idiots, and it doesn't insult audience intelligence, which is a minor miracle. Whereas Wan's recent The Conjuring 2 clocked in at over two hours, Lights Out runs a refreshingly lean 75 minutes, with very little in the way of narrative flab. It's a taut succession of genuinely frightening set-pieces bolstered by strong performances and focused direction, and the dramatics of the story are more effective than expected. For a minor $5 million production, it does its job extraordinarily well.

A twentysomething woman with severe intimacy issues, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) has distanced herself from troubled mother Sophie (Maria Bello), who has long battled mental illness. Off her meds, Sophie gets worse after the mysterious death of her second husband Paul (Billy Burke), staying up all night and communicating with a malevolent entity she calls Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), who can only materialise in darkness. Rebecca's brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) develops insomnia due to his fear of Diana and starts falling asleep at school, which forces Rebecca to get involved, taking her sibling back to her apartment to protect him. But simply going across town is not enough to deter the sharp-clawed wraith, and Rebecca becomes determined to uncover the mystery surrounding Diana.

A feature-length adaptation of Sandberg's 2013 short movie of the same name, Lights Out uses a unique premise which cleverly exploits humankind's innate fear of the darkness. Since Diana cannot attack whenever a functioning light source is available, many of the movie's most nail-biting moments involve characters struggling to turn on any sort of light to save their lives - not just lamps or overhead lights, but smart phones and car headlights are used as well. To Sandberg's credit, he establishes the rules surrounding Diana and strictly adheres to them, finding intense moments in exploring the often shallow border between light and dark. As with any horror film of this ilk, the protagonists set out to uncover the mystery surrounding Diana, but thankfully the reveal of her backstory in no way undermines her effectiveness as a monster. Furthermore, the familial dramatics serve to enhance the story, making this more than just a more run-of-the-mill horror offering.

Prior to making his directorial debut here, Sandberg had only helmed shorts, and repeatedly found himself unable to secure funding from the Swedish Film Institute. Yet, his inexperience with features is never evident at any point throughout Lights Out, which is endowed with staggering assurance and authority, especially with the layered, eye-catching cinematography by Marc Spicer (Furious 7). Sandberg may indulge in certain genre clichés and tropes, but such aspects are sold with genuine vigour to make them work. Take, for instance, Diana's first appearance in the opening sequence: an office worker turns off the lights for the night, only to see an intimidating figure silhouetted against the dim light of the next room. When the lights are flipped back on, Diana is gone. But with the lights off, the silhouette returns. The worker begins turning the lights on and off, until Diana is suddenly closer. It's a predictable moment, but on Sandberg's watch, it's terrifying nevertheless.

Lights Out doesn't muck around, working through a fast-paced routine of scary scenes intercut with character drama and investigation before spending its third act holed up inside Sophie's home, leading to a consistently riveting extended sequence as the characters find whatever they can to remain in some degree of light as Diana comes after them. More importantly, the tautly-edited climax is a immense fun, with scares and tension aplenty. Don't let the PG-13 rating fool you - Lights Out may not be bloody or gory, but Sandberg manages to frighten using unnerving sounds and images.

Performances are strong right down the line, led by Australian actress Palmer, who manages to sell fear and dread without breaking a sweat. It's a small cast, and thankfully all the actors help to maintain Sandberg's vivid illusion. The only real issue with Lights Out is its abrupt ending, which makes the resolution of the story almost feel too easy. It's not a deal-breaker, thankfully, and again the movie's tautness is a gift in an age of overcomplicated horrors, but the ending is a tad jarring nevertheless. Lights Out is a real keeper in spite of its shortcomings, signifying the exciting arrival of a new filmmaking talent, though it remains to be seen if it winds up sullied by endless sequels like most horror movies these days.


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Pushes the boundaries of what Star Wars can be

Posted : 1 year, 7 months ago on 25 December 2016 07:09 (A review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)

"The world is coming undone. Imperial flags reign across the galaxy."

A lot was riding on 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens since it restarted the live-action Star Wars saga, which is now controlled by the Walt Disney Corporation. But 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is equally important, as it kicks off Disney's master plan for endless Star Wars spinoffs which focus on more minor side stories. It's not the first franchise detour (the animated Clone Wars movie landed in 2008, and there were Ewok telemovies in the 1980s), but it is the most significant, enjoying an enormous scope and bolstered by first-rate technical specs. This is a wholly different Star Wars, retaining the same sights, sounds and general iconography of the universe but achieving a much grittier tone than ever before. Rogue One is an out-and-out war movie, and thankfully the approach pays off, though pacing issues do emerge as a result of the overly intricate story.

An Imperial scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), tries to escape the clutches of the Empire by living a peaceful farming life, but Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) eventually catches up to him, demanding that he return to work. Although Krennic takes Galen hostage and kills his wife, Galen's daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) manages to avoid capture, and is adopted by rogue extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Growing up, Jyn hides her true identity from the Empire as she spends time in Imperial captivity until she's broken free by Rebellion spies, led by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who intend to track down Galen. Jyn's father was instrumental in designing the Galactic Empire's new heavily-armed space station, the Death Star, and may hold the key to its destruction. Learning that the Death Star plans are stored at an Imperial outpost, Jyn and Cassian are joined by a rogue squadron of Rebels for their risky mission to steal the schematics, including android K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Imperial defector Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), blind monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), and warrior Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang).

Instead of an opening crawl in the tradition of the series, Rogue One begins with a taut prologue which sets up the story more effectively than a block of text ever could. Co-written by Chris Weitz (2015's Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), this is a talky picture, running at over two hours and packing more than its fair share of exposition. Although director Gareth Edwards (2014's Godzilla) is able to maintain interest for the most part, the movie does hit its sluggish patches, lacking a thrilling sense of escalation. Put simply, the narrative should be brisker, as it's bogged down by subplots that don't seem necessary in the grand scheme of things. However, what's particularly laudable about Rogue One is the fact that this is a story about the minor cogs in the machine, as opposed to the big heroes who normally take centre stage in the Star Wars saga. Furthermore, Edwards touches upon the less glamorous aspects of the Rebel Alliance, as many of the soldiers are haunted by things they've done in the service of the Rebellion. This is one of several refreshing angles that Edwards manages to explore. Added to this, Rogue One perfectly ties into A New Hope, providing welcome new context for the events of the 1977 movie's iconic opening sequence. Fans can argue about the necessity of telling this story, but the deepening of the Star Wars mythology is fascinating nevertheless, making this feel like Episode III½.

Much like Edwards' Godzilla, there is a lot of build-up here, but it all pays off for an awe-inspiring finale that seriously delivers. Changing up the standard Star Wars backdrop to incorporate a tropical beach setting, the third act skirmish on the planet Scarif is gargantuan, involving shootouts as well as aerial combat, with loads of Stormtroopers, TIE Fighters and AT-ATs threatening the band of Rebels. The war scenes in the final act are far removed from what we've come to expect from a Star Wars movie (which is ironic, considering that "Wars" is in the title). Edwards draws upon Saving Private Ryan and a bit of Apocalypse Now to stage the hard-hitting battle scenes, which may be too brutal for young children. The outcome of the mission may be a foregone conclusion, but the specifics are not, and that's precisely why the climax is so engaging. The well-publicised reshoots did provoke concerns that Disney might dilute the movie, but the seams are never visible - Rogue One doesn't feel like a compromised vision. Instead, it's astonishingly cohesive throughout, sticking with a notably bleak tone all the way through to its powerful ending. It's certainly not as "safe" as some had feared.

As to be expected, Disney spared no expense bringing Rogue One to life, with the film carrying a rumoured $200 million price tag. The special effects are predictably impressive, and it helps that Edwards shoots for a heightened sense of immediacy. Commendably, Rogue One eschews the regular Star Wars aesthetics - it doesn't feature the standard transitions or an opening crawl, and it only makes infrequent use of recognisable soundtrack beats. Cinematography is darker than before, and it's mostly handheld, though this is not to the detriment of the movie since you can always comprehend what's happening during the action sequences. Furthermore, there is an impressive sense of tangibility to the fighter ships and Star Destroyers - it looks as if practical models were used as opposed to outright CGI, creating a more convincing illusion than digital effects ever could. However, the production does lack something in the way of visual panache, which comes from the decision to shoot the picture digitally, making it look less majestic than the celluloid photography of The Force Awakens. Interestingly, rumour has it that the original score was rejected for being too far removed from John Williams' iconic compositions, and composer Michael Giacchino had mere weeks to compose a new soundtrack. To his credit, the music is quite good on the whole, effectively accentuating the experience.

There is fan service throughout, with the movie even giving us a glimpse of Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) on-screen for the first time since 1983's Return of the Jedi, leading to arguably the movie's best scene. Unused pilot footage from the Death Star assault in A New Hope is even employed, while the frame is often packed with recognisable droids hiding in the background that you may not notice on first viewing. However, less successful is the use of shonky digital effects to resurrect one deceased actor and de-age another. The intentions are noble, but often the result looks like something from a Pixar movie, instantly taking you out of the movie. It's 2016, surely they can do better than this.

Unfortunately, Rogue One falls short in terms of characterisation, as there's not enough depth or humanity to the ensemble. Jones manages to impress despite her one-dimensional role which feels like a plot device, but Luna is less successful as Cassian; he's one of the most disposable heroes in recent memory. Faring far better is Krennic, an inspired creation played to perfection by Australian actor Mendelsohn. Krennic is far more engaging than the typical villain, and he's actually given more dimension than the heroes of the story. Mendelsohn undoubtedly delivers the finest performance in the film, surpassing his co-stars with ease. With that said, though, Tudyk is an utter scene-stealer playing the droid K-2SO through motion-capture. A reprogrammed Imperial droid who speaks his mind, K-2SO is a constant source of amusement, delivering an armada of one-liners and a string of uproarious comments. Droids are a staple of the Star Wars universe, making it all the more exciting that this new creation is arguably the saga's finest to date. Meanwhile, Whitaker almost suffocates the movie with his ludicrous overacting, though Yen manages to carve out a memorable character despite his limited screen-time.

Flaws notwithstanding, Rogue One pushes the boundaries of what a Star Wars film can be, and that's seriously exciting for a long-running franchise like this. (The subtitle A Star Wars Story is actually absent from the film proper.) It succeeds in trying something different, never falling victim to the bland writing or poor direction which ultimately sunk the prequel trilogy. Due to its unique aesthetic and narrative approach, Rogue One is certainly more intriguing than The Force Awakens, but it's not necessarily better - J.J. Abrams' film was zippier and featured better, more fleshed-out characters. The bleakness of this first spinoff does mean that its replay value might be less than the norm for Star Wars, but that's precisely why it lingers in one's memory after it's all over. It also makes for a perfect companion piece to A New Hope. There are fears that Disney is going to run Star Wars into the ground, but if all future movies are on the same level as Rogue One or The Force Awakens, the House of Mouse can keep them coming.


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Above-average horror sequel

Posted : 1 year, 8 months ago on 12 December 2016 06:06 (A review of The Conjuring 2)

"Ed, this is as close to hell as I ever want to get."

After his ill-advised detour into blockbuster action with 2015's farcically cartoonish Furious 7, filmmaker James Wan returns to his usual stomping ground for The Conjuring 2, demonstrating yet again that his deft touch with contemporary horror is unparalleled. The follow-up to Wan's 2013 hit The Conjuring, which was one of the best horrors in some time, here we have another intricately-produced scary movie which is just as interested in character development as it is in concocting scares. Even though it's perhaps a bit too overblown for its own good (it does clock in at a hefty 130 minutes), The Conjuring 2 succeeds where it counts: it's a frightening, engaging horror backed by top-flight production values. And considering the usual standard for horror sequels, the mere fact that this follow-up isn't awful is a big deal.

Just as the first film was based on a (supposedly) real-life case, The Conjuring 2 sets its sights on the more well-known Enfield Poltergeist haunting in London, which has already been the subject of documentaries and dramatisations. In London, pre-teen girl Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe) is being terrorised by the spirit of elderly man Bill Wilkins (Bob Adrian), who died in the council house some years ago and declares ownership from beyond the grave. The haunting terrifies the family, leaving single mother Peggy (Frances O'Connor) and her four children desperately seeking help. Meanwhile, paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) opt to take a sabbatical from their work after Lorraine is plagued by visions of a malevolent demon nun, and of Ed's violent death. However, the church implores the Warrens to take a look at the Enfield case for them, to determine whether or not it's a hoax.

Although The Conjuring 2 is tagged as being based on a true story, one should always take such statements with a grain of salt; the screenplay (by returning scribes Carey and Chad Hayes) is heavily fictionalised for cinematic purposes, not to mention it introduces a Catholic nun demon that's personally tied to the Warrens. For window dressing, The Conjuring 2 concerns itself with the infamous Amityville haunting in its opening moments, as Lorraine conducts a séance inside the house where Ronald DeFeo Jr. mass-murdered his family. The Amityville case has, of course, served as the basis for multiple feature films, so the sequence here is short and sweet, intended only to reintroduce the Warrens and deepen their backstory. While a full-length Wan-directed treatment of the Amityville horror would certainly be enticing, this truncated approach was perhaps the wisest in the grand scheme of things. (Another long-delayed Amityville movie is set to land in 2017.)

Whereas the original Conjuring was designed as a PG-13 horror movie but received an R rating from the MPAA simply because it was deemed too scary, The Conjuring 2 was built from the ground upwards as an R-rated horror, though this doesn't mean Wan revels in gory indulgence. On the contrary, the Australian horror luminary still relies on suspense and tension, but he has more freedom when creating disturbing images and loud set-pieces. Wan and cinematographer Don Burgess have their craft down to a tee - timing and camerawork are magnificent here, and the big scary sequences are genuinely unsettling, backed by a tremendously creepy score by Joseph Bishara. One particularly hair-raising scene sees Lorraine being stalked in her home by a demonic nun whose painted likeness hangs on the wall, and there's a recurring motif involving a gangly-limbed nursery rhyme figure known as The Crooked Man. Although Wan doesn't create anything comparable to the unbearably tense game of hide and seek in the first Conjuring, his efforts are consistently focused here, and it's clear he didn't simply operate on autopilot. However, the climax is undeniably overkill, with a digital demon and a fair bit of destruction that's simply not necessary in the grand scheme of things. It's not a total bust, but it's not overly scary either; it's just too big and not tight enough.

The Conjuring 2 is certainly longer than the usual horror fare at over two hours, incorporating a number of scenes that have drawn criticism, including a bizarre moment involving Ed singing Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling In Love." Be that as it may, Wan wisely uses the runtime to carve out identifiable characters, performed by a strong ensemble. Wilson and Farmiga pick up where they left off as the Warrens, coming across as warm and likeable. More notable here is young Madison Wolfe, who's a superb find. Espousing a convincing British accent (Wolfe is an American), she manages to convey fear and vulnerability without ever coming across as forced or unconvincing. It would be a tricky role even for seasoned adult actors, but Wolfe makes it look easy. Strong support is also provided by Frances O'Connor, while Simon McBurney makes a positive impression as Maurice, another paranormal investigator who's interested in the case.

With The Conjuring 2, Wan is now responsible for three horror franchises, not counting those he simply produced (Lights Out and Annabelle are getting sequels). Further Conjuring sequels are reportedly in development (beyond the spinoffs), and this is not a necessarily unwelcome prospect. Considering the quality of other modern horror franchises, we could certainly use more scary movies of this calibre. Fingers crossed, though, that Wan sticks around to direct the next one. All things considered, The Conjuring 2 is effective and entertaining enough to avoid becoming just another disposable sequel.


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Still Bad, still hilarious!

Posted : 1 year, 8 months ago on 9 December 2016 04:44 (A review of Bad Santa 2 (2016))

"Spare some change. Think about somebody besides your fucking self."

2003's Bad Santa was bona fide lightning in a bottle; a superior black comedy that managed to be roll-on-the-ground hilarious and even touching, not to mention it was the ideal antithesis of the usual Hollywood Christmas movie. It was a minor hit that developed a solid cult following, so now thirteen years later, we finally have a sequel, albeit one with a wholly different creative team at the helm. Bad Santa 2 may not be as quirky or as clever as its predecessor, but it still delivers in the laughs department in a big bad way. Frequently side-splitting, it's a sequel which thankfully retains the uncompromisingly dark spirit of its predecessor. Nevertheless, this is the type of motion picture which will divide viewers depending on their expectations, especially since the world has grown more politically-correct and averse to this brand of dark comedy.

Picking up over a decade after the original movie, Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) still hasn't made anything of his life. A depressed, raging alcoholic, Willie is left only working menial jobs, none of which he can actually hang onto for very long, and his only friend is the staggeringly naïve, goofy Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly). But Willie is thrown a lifeline when he's contacted by his old partner Marcus (Tony Cox) with a proposition. Marcus plans to rob a Chicago-based charity to the tune of $2 million, and needs Willie's deft safecracking touch to get the job done. The money is too tempting for Willie to pass up, though he becomes even more reluctant to go through with the job after being confronted with his unsavoury mother Sunny (Kathy Bates), who's also in on the heist. It's a precarious trio, as Willie finds it impossible to trust his associates, and he gets easily distracted by the charity's attractive co-founder, Diana (Christina Hendricks).

The ending of the original Bad Santa did not leave many logical directions for a sequel to take. Indeed, Thornton stated that finding the right story was one of the reasons why it took so long for Bad Santa 2 to come to fruition (talks started as early as 2010). The plot is admittedly on the contrived side, but it works well enough to reunite the characters and provide an excuse for a barrage of gags and one-liners. A number of recent comedy sequels have suffered from overly dense plotting, making the more simplistic narrative of Bad Santa 2 rather refreshing - and it's agreeably brisk at 90 minutes. The screenplay (credited to newcomers Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross) runs with the same shtick which characterised the first movie. Thus, some might say that it's more of the same, but what else would you want from Bad Santa 2? Although not especially witty, there are more hits than misses in the laughs department here. The movie goes for broke; it's offensive, crude and vulgar, and almost every line is peppered with profanity. Luckily, the movie doesn't take the easy way out with a copout ending; rather, the conclusion is reminiscent of the original movie in terms of tone. Don't expect to see everybody hugging each other or learning about the real meaning of Christmas.

Steering the ship this time is director Mark Waters (Mean Girls), who acquits himself with the material quite admirably, displaying a firm grasp of comedic timing and always maintaining a rapid-fire pace. Not to mention the whole enterprise is, of course, backed by an array of seasonal songs. Bad Santa 2 is an excessively dark movie, even mean-spirited at times, which will prove to be polarising, and not all of the tonal changes are negotiated successfully. Produced for an understandably scant $26 million, the movie unfortunately carries the look of a Netflix production or a direct-to-video flick, rather than a big screen feature film. Whereas the original Bad Santa was shot on 35mm film stock and carried some honest-to-goodness cinematic style, this follow-up was lensed digitally, and looks exceedingly basic from a visual standpoint. (Let's not forget that the Coen Brothers were executive producers on the first movie.) On top of this, there's a fair bit of obvious, egregious product placement throughout.

Despite looking a bit gaunt and frail, Thornton slips back into the role of Willie as if no time has passed. This is one of the characters that Thornton was born to play, and he's fearless in his delivery of the profane material, reaching to offend as many people as possible. Also returning is Cox who's equally enthusiastic, while Kelly is all grown up as Thurman Merman. But Bates is the movie's secret weapon, and she absolutely goes for broke playing such a foul-mouthed character. As Willie's mother, it's clear the apple didn't fall far from the tree - Bates is always seen drinking, smoking, swearing, and even exclaims, "I don't speak politically correct!" Also new to the cast is Hendricks, whose interactions with Thornton are a frequent source of amusement.

At the end of the day, I simply cannot deny that Bad Santa 2 worked for me, because it did. I laughed until I cried. It's a rapid-fire succession of vulgar one-liners, swearing, colourful insults, and trashy sex scenes, and it's laudable that the filmmakers had the guts to create something so flagrantly offensive. Plus, for all of its base sensibilities, there are some scenes here that attempt to tug at the heartstrings and continue Willie's redemptive arc established in the original movie. The fact that Bad Santa 2 is actually funny is a big deal, especially after the tedious Zoolander 2 and the studiously mediocre Anchorman 2. Everybody else can watch It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street on Christmas Eve - I'll be over here doing a Bad Santa double feature with a bottle of bourbon.


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Gripping, emotive war film

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 10 November 2016 11:26 (A review of Hacksaw Ridge (2016))

"With the world so set on tearing itself apart, don't seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together."

With Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto under his directorial belt, Mel Gibson's track record as a filmmaker is second to none, and thankfully his staggering winning streak is confidently maintained with 2016's Hacksaw Ridge. Even though a decade has elapsed since Gibson's Apocalypto, he makes his return behind the camera without missing a beat, showing yet again why he seriously needs the opportunity to direct more movies. A stunningly vivid World War II picture, Hacksaw Ridge dramatises the heroic story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who determinedly set out to serve his country without ever picking up a weapon. Almost impossibly, Gibson transforms what could have been a preachy religious fable into a frequently gripping and emotive war film.

As a young boy, Desmond learned a valuable lesson about the true impact of violence when he nearly killed his brother, and, as a consequence, grows up to be a deeply religious, God-fearing man. Managing to court endearing nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), Desmond chooses to enlist in the United States Army with his brother Harold (Nathaniel Buzolic), much to the dismay of their alcoholic father Tom (Hugo Weaving), who lost all of his friends in battle during WWI. Sent to basic training, Desmond proves to be an excellent recruit, but refuses to participate in rifle training as he sticks to his religious and moral beliefs, aspiring to serve only as a combat medic. This frustrates his platoon staff, with Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) hoping to break Desmond, while fellow recruits perceive him as a liability who might get them all killed. But Desmond's resolve cannot be broken, and after his training he's sent to battle in the Pacific theatre with the rest of his company. Desmond is really put to the test during the vicious battle of Hacksaw Ridge, where he remains determined to save as many men as he possibly can.

The screenplay, which was originally penned by Braveheart scribe Randall Wallace, has ample backstory to work through, and it's critical to note that this is more of a biography of Desmond as opposed to a more simplistic war movie. Despite a hefty 130-minute runtime, not a single frame feels superfluous here - if anything, the movie could've been longer. Every scene serves a purpose, developing Desmond's character, his romance with Dorothy and his home life, on top of depicting his experiences in the military. And miraculously, thanks to smart pacing and focused filmmaking, none of the build-up feels like homework. Additionally, whereas most dramas these days are grim and dour, Hacksaw Ridge is imbued with glorious gallows humour which feels entirely organic to the story and characters. Real-life soldiers do constantly crack jokes due to the nature of their job, after all, and Gibson recognises this. To be sure, not much dimension is given to the Japanese side, but such an angle is simply not necessary - it would have added too much narrative flab, and above all taken away from the story's central focus. The movie does observe Desmond being kind to the wounded Japanese, which is sufficient in this aspect.

Gibson is no stranger to war movies, but this is the filmmaker's first time tackling more modern warfare, with guns and canons rather than the swords and sandals of Braveheart. Frankly, it's a match made in cinematic heaven, leaving us to wonder why the hell it took so long for him to tackle this sort of thing. The combat sequences are a perfect fit for Gibson's ultraviolent tendencies, and he absolutely goes for broke here. Working with the freedom of an R rating, the notoriously bloody Battle of Okinawa is done justice on-screen, with the viscerally exciting bloodshed even topping the genre's granddaddy, 1998's Saving Private Ryan, in terms of sheer realism. Gibson underscores the fragility of human life on the battlefield, showing bodies being obliterated by explosions and bullets, yet it's executed with enough tact to prevent the movie from feeling like tasteless gore porn. Gibson does play up aspects of the fighting for dramatic effect, and there is some use of slow motion to underscore the gore and brutality, but it all works in the context of this story, and above all makes for thoroughly riveting viewing. Gibson thankfully relies more on practical effects, which creates a tangible aesthetic. It's apparent that some digital effects were used for blood, but it's never distracting or phoney. Hacksaw Ridge looks like a big-budget, $100 million blockbuster with its rich period detail and slick technical presentation, yet it was achieved for a scant $40 million.

Even though shooting on celluloid usually generates a richer cinematic texture for period films of this ilk, Simon Duggan's digital photography here is stunning nevertheless, and impeccably complemented by the exceptional original score by Rupert Gregson-Williams. The battle sequences are captured with gorgeous finesse and steady camerawork, demonstrating that shaky-cam is not always needed in flicks like this, and allowing us to take in what's happening on-screen without getting a migraine. Contrary to what some of the foolish critics have decried, the graphic bloodshed is wholly necessary here, solidifying the story's core anti-war message, and above all emphasising Doss' sheer bravery on the battlefield. Indeed, watering down the violence would only dilute the movie's impact. Hacksaw Ridge is an unforgettable experience, inspecting Desmond's faith and love for God through his actions in battle, with nothing in the way of tedious sermonising.

Garfield was an awful Spider-Man, but he's superb as Desmond Doss, showing that his capable performances in 99 Homes and The Social Network were not just flukes. Espousing a thick but nevertheless convincing Southern accent, Garfield fully encompasses the role and never loses focus. Alongside him, Australian actress Palmer is endearing as Desmond's love interest, and it really works in the film's favour that the central romance is both believable and easy to become invested in. Meanwhile, Worthington makes for a believable military captain despite his inconsistent accent, and Vaughn steals his every scene as a dedicated sergeant. Vaughn has never had much luck in dramatic roles (True Detective, Psycho), but his character here is gifted with an arsenal of one-liners, and his towering figure lends him further credibility. Also worth mentioning is Weaving, who turns in a remarkable performance as Thomas Doss, essaying a pained alcoholic with impressive assurance. There's nary a weak link on the acting front, despite the distinct shortage of American thespians.

Affecting and powerful, Hacksaw Ridge is the movie of the year. It may be early into Oscar season, but there's no chance it will not be beaten - it's the greatest motion picture of 2016, and one of the best movies of the decade. The story of Desmond Doss absolutely needed to be told, and it's satisfying to behold such a phenomenal motion picture after many decades of attempts to get it made. Hacksaw Ridge may be corny at times, but Gibson commits to the material with utmost sincerity. The movie even closes with archival footage and interviews of the real people of this story, which serves as an effective footnote. Hacksaw Ridge is Gibson's best movie to date, and that's a big call.


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A glorious action fiesta - but not without issues

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 31 October 2016 02:46 (A review of Hardcore Henry (2015))

"Like my father always said, a grenade a day keeps the enemy at bay."

The narrative thrust of 2016's Hardcore Henry is nothing out of the ordinary, but the "hook" is that it's a first-person action movie, shown entirely from the point of view of the titular cyborg. Russian filmmaker Ilya Naishuller makes his directorial debut here after making quite a splash online by testing the first-person technique in action-packed music videos which raised demand for a feature-length motion picture in the same vein. The result is fundamentally a 95-minute POV chase, with Naishuller staging as much first-person carnage as possible, from fisticuffs to shootouts to car chases. It should be an easy home run, but the experience is ultimately let down by an uninteresting story and too many tedious lulls between the action sequences.

Informed that he has been saved from certain death, Henry (played by several stuntmen) wakes up in mysterious high-tech facility with missing limbs and absolutely no memory of who he is. Coming into view is Estelle (Haley Bennett), who claims to be Henry's wife, and who finishes his rehabilitative operation by fitting him with robotic limbs. When the facility is attacked and Estelle is taken prisoner by telekinetic supervillain Akan (Danila Kozlovsky), Henry goes on the run, pursued by dozens of Akan's heavily armed soldiers who seek to capture the special individual. The only person willing to help Henry is the rather strange Jimmy (Sharlto Copley), who's capable of regenerating into countless different bodies and personalities, never remaining deceased for too long.

The big downfall of Hardcore Henry is the convoluted story, which puts a damper on the sense of fun throughout. It's often tricky to unravel the narrative, and more explanation would have been beneficial in the grand scheme of things. It's worth nothing that Henry cannot talk and his face is never properly seen, thus no actor actually portrays the character - instead, he was brought to life by a team of crazy stuntmen. (Writer-director Naishuller even plays Henry in some scenes.) Commendably, though, it's still possible to empathise with Henry and want to see him succeed in his mission. The big acting standout is Copley, who also executive produced the film. Copley assumes many different personas throughout (some more effective than others), allowing him to ham it up when the occasion calls for it, and he even performs a fun doppelgänger-filled musical performance of Frank Sinatra's "I've Got You Under My Skin." Meanwhile, Bennett does well as Estelle, and Kozlovsky (a Russian heartthrob superstar) makes for a sinister villain. Tim Roth even shows up in a minor role as Henry's father.

Produced for pocket change, Hardcore Henry was primary lensed using consumer-grade GoPro Hero 3 digital cameras, making for a rough-around-the-edges experience. With a team of eager stuntmen at his disposal, Naishuller orchestrates an over-the-top orgy of ultraviolence, pitting Henry against an endless supply of faceless goons who are beaten up, shot, and blown apart. Hardcore Henry is at its best during the fast-paced scenes of carnage, and Naishuller manages to vary the action sequences to sustain the picture's new car smell - on top of a standout sniper sequence and an insane car chase, there's even a set-piece involving a freaking tank, while helicopters and horses make appearances. Indeed, the movie is consistently creative in the action department, and Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" is even used during the climax. Editing is often choppy and fast, with plenty of cuts as opposed to a more seamless experience, but this does not significantly detract from the consistently impressive action scenes.

Hardcore Henry is definitely a film for a certain niche. It's excessive and ridiculously violent, and there's nothing in the way of subtlety on display, but it does its job well enough and emerges as something unique in a very crowded contemporary blockbuster marketplace. In spite of its story issues, there are enough violent highlights to render the movie worth watching, especially for action junkies seeking a fix.


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Uplifting and emotionally powerful

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 31 October 2016 02:40 (A review of Pete's Dragon)

"You don't have to run anymore, Pete. You can stay with us."

2016's Pete's Dragon is a Disney movie through and through. It's a formulaic endeavour from a narrative perspective, and the characters are predominantly standard-order, including some antagonistic archetypes. In addition, it's a remake of a motion picture from 1977, and remakes are rarely necessary. But hell, I'll be damned if it doesn't work. Another step in Disney's grand plan to transform their animated catalogue into live-action movies (the original Pete's Dragon was only partially animated, mind you), this reimagining does away with all the singing, dancing and mugging in favour of a more dramatic, heartfelt feature. Pete's Dragon is simply enchanting; an incredibly poignant and engrossing family film with shades of E.T. that was clearly assembled by a passionate team of filmmakers who set out to do more than just cash in a paycheque.

Orphaned as a young boy after a car crash left him stranded deep in the wilderness, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is befriended by a furry, kind-hearted dragon who seeks to protect the boy. Naming the dragon Elliot, Pete manages to make a home for himself away from civilisation, but the forest becomes threatened by a logging company overseen by the steely Gavin (Karl Urban). While running around one day, Pete is discovered by friendly local forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who seeks to take the young lad home to her daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) and fiancée Jack (Wes Bentley). Pete is suddenly ripped away from his beloved friend, with nobody believing that Elliot actually exists, except for Grace's father Meacham (Robert Redford), who has long spoken about a brief encounter with big green dragon. As Pete bonds with Grace and her family, Gavin grows determined to capture Elliot for all the world to see.

Whereas any number of remakes are arguably unnecessary, Pete's Dragon is a premise ripe for reinterpretation, and it is in good hands under co-writer/director David Lowery, who has spent many years as a writer, director and editor of small-time indie features and shorts. It was a bold move on Disney's part to give Lowery a shot over a more experienced filmmaker, but the gamble pays off - the movie bursts with genuine passion, feeling like far more than just another paint-by-numbers visual effects blockbuster. It's a dramatic and meditative film, even opening with a heartbreaking sequence depicting the tragic car wreck that strands Pete in the wilderness where he meets Elliot. Even though it's a familiar story, Pete's Dragon works because it's an extremely competent version of an age-old tale of a boy and his wondrous companion.

Shot in idyllic New Zealand locations, the film looks magnificent, bolstered by Bojan Bazelli's eye-catching cinematography and Daniel Hart's touching original score. Fortunately, the adults are not portrayed as unfeeling or negligent, and the child characters aren't cloying, making this a rare family movie which respects its audience. Performances across the board are strong, with young Fegley in particular making a positive impression as Pete, sharing wonderful chemistry with Laurence. Howard is amiable as Grace, but Redford is even better, espousing endless charm and warmth. Urban's role is a bit too cliché, but the actor acquits himself well enough. As for Elliot, the dragon is brought to vivid life by way of marvellous digital effects, and it helps that the design of the creature is agreeably unique - you won't mistake Elliot for Smaug or one of the dragons from Game of Thrones.

With Pete's Dragon, The BFG and Kubo and the Two Strings, it seems that 2016 is the year of heartfelt family movies that nobody bothered to see. Whatever flaws exist in the screenplay are compensated for in the top-flight execution, and it's wonderful to see a Disney film that manages to be uplifting and emotionally powerful, devoid of cheap theatrics and computer-generated artifice.


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Old-fashioned cowboy flick

Posted : 1 year, 10 months ago on 16 October 2016 10:19 (A review of The Magnificent Seven (2016))

"I seek righteousness. But I'll take revenge."

2016’s The Magnificent Seven is the very definition of "pretty good." It's not perfect, and it doesn't transcend or reinvent the Western genre, but it's a confident old-fashioned cowboy flick bolstered by competent filmmaking and an enormously likeable ensemble cast. A remake of the iconic 1960 western of the same name, The Magnificent Seven reunites director Antoine Fuqua with Training Day actors Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, and though there isn't much in the way of depth or subtext, the resulting flick is easy to enjoy. Not to mention, it's arguably a few notches above the last classic Western remake (2010's True Grit).

Set in the late 19th Century, the remote town of Rose Creek is being bled dry by the ruthless, iron-fisted industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who seeks to continue amassing riches by setting up a gold-mining operation. When Bogue begins killing the residents of Rose Creek to scare them into moving, the recently widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) sets out to find help, and happens upon skilled warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Washington). Convincing the stranger to help repel Bogue, Chisolm assembles a team for the fight ahead, including wise-cracking rapscallion Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), skilled tracker Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio) as well as former soldier Goodnight Robicheaux (Hawke) and his Oriental partner Billy (Byung-hun Lee). Clearing the area of Bogue’s enforcers, the squad begin preparing for all-out war, and work to train the remaining townspeople to fight for their town.

Any remake is met with a certain amount of public outcry on principal alone, though some have been able to overlook this in the case of The Magnificent Seven since the original John Sturges-directed film was itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai. Here's the thing: The Magnificent Seven isn't exactly sacred like, say, the Dollars trilogy or Rio Bravo, and even though the 1960 picture is a terrific, crowd-pleasing Western, there is certainly room to reinterpret the malleable premise. Naturally, with the film carrying a reported $90 million price tag, it looks impressive from top to bottom, with meticulous production design and lavish 35mm cinematography giving vivid life to the Old West. (Even though lighting is a touch too dark at times, and some of the digital effects shots are obvious.) This is the last score to be written by the late James Horner, and it's a real standout, carrying many of the composer's trademark flourishes, including a rousing reprisal of the original movie's iconic theme.

Fuqua continues to show that he's one of the better guys in Hollywood when it comes to making unadulterated guy movies aimed at an adult audience, standing alongside the likes of Joe Carnahan and David Ayer. There are various skirmishes scattered throughout the movie, but the climax is something else; the story culminates with a spectacularly explosive extended action sequence, finding Fuqua in his element, directing the hell out of the carnage. Carrying a PG-13 rating, the film certainly has its brutal moments, but Fuqua doesn't dwell on the gruesome details as much as he usually does. A full-blooded R-rated version might have been interesting, but The Magnificent Seven simply doesn't need extreme levels of blood, especially since classic cowboy pictures were mostly bloodless. And even though this remake plays out with an action blockbuster sensibility, Fuqua refuses to show sentimentality towards the characters, even the leads. Nobody is invincible, even though bad guys go down after a single bullet or arrow while the heroes can keep going after getting shot multiple times.

The Magnificent Seven could have been a simple, pared-down 80-minute actioner, but it runs a hefty 130 minutes, displaying adequate patience in the build-up to the climactic shootout. Penned by Richard Wenk (The Equalizer) and Nic Pizzolatto (TV's True Detective), it's possible to grow to care about the characters, and appreciate them for their respective limitations and qualities. There's plenty of clever interplay and bantering, too, which further humanises the titular seven. Above all, there are real stakes here; it's easy to become invested in the story. Nevertheless, the film lacks the underlying themes of the original movie, which explored the hollowness of life as a gun for hire. There's nothing much going on beneath the surface here beyond its black-and-white views on villainy and morality. Perhaps this was a deliberate move to make for a more refreshing, easily-digestible action flick, but the film nevertheless feels hollow on the whole.

It almost goes without saying, but the cast here doesn't match the pure badassery of the original film, which had Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen and Robert Vaughn - just to name a few - but the new selection of actors are effective nevertheless. Although it seems as if the producers were consciously working through an ethnicity checklist for maximum international box office appeal, the diversity actually allows each of the characters to stand out with their own distinctive characteristics and skills. Leading the pack is Washington, who's confident and charismatic as a highly-trained gunslinger, while Hawke gets more dramatic material to chew on as a disillusioned soldier who's haunted by the horrors of the Civil War. Meanwhile, it seems as if Pratt has been practicing his whole life to play a cowboy, and he relishes the opportunity, delivering an agreeably idiosyncratic performance. The other members of the titular team hit their marks respectively, and they all share a believable chemistry. As for Sarsgaard, he sinks his teeth into this villainous role, with a hamminess reminiscent of Western antagonists from old Hollywood pictures. Out of the Rose Creek residents, Bennett makes the biggest impression as the fiery widow, while the rest of the townsfolk are expendable.

For those seeking an entertaining latter-year blockbuster, The Magnificent Seven should scratch your itch. Although not an instant classic able to sit alongside Unforgiven or Open Range, it is a thrilling ride nevertheless, more in line with recent endeavours like 2015's Bone Tomahawk or the insanely underrated The Salvation. It's also nowhere near as good as Seven Samurai, but who the hell expected it to be in the first place? Flaws and all, The Magnificent Seven is primo entertainment.


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Powerful human drama

Posted : 2 years ago on 30 July 2016 03:37 (A review of 99 Homes)

"Don't be soft. Do you think America give a flying rats ass about you or me? America doesn't bail out the losers. America was built by bailing out winners. By rigging a nation of the winners, for the winners, by the winners."

In the same vein as writer-director Ramin Bahrani's previous motion pictures (Chop Shop, Man Push Cart), 99 Homes is a hard-hitting drama which comments on the difficulties of surviving in today's economically unstable world. More specifically, 99 Homes is about the events which took place during the recent housing crisis in the United States, when many helpless families were evicted from their residences. It's fertile territory, serving as something of a companion piece to the likes of 2011's Margin Call and Adam McKay's 2015 Oscar contender The Big Short. But while it's concerned with lofty subject matter, 99 Homes does not play out like a stuffy lecture - rather, it's a powerful human drama with things to say about contemporary capitalism, showing how good people can be swallowed up by greed.

A construction worker in Florida, Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) struggles to find stable work and cover his debts, trying his hardest to retain his family home where he lives with son Connor (Noah Lomax) and mother Lynn (Laura Dern). Despite Nash's best efforts, the bank forecloses on his home, and he faces the cold-blooded wrath of opportunistic real estate agent Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), who makes a lot of money from collecting properties. Heartbroken, Nash takes his family to live in a dingy motel to join others in similar circumstances, hoping to one day win back his former home. Desperate for work, Nash receives an unexpected job offer from Carver, who's in need of people to do manual labour on foreclosed homes. The deal is too good to pass up, with Nash earning stacks of money by evicting helpless families and exploiting the government system, but his conscience begins to trouble him as he's drawn deeper in Carver's dark empire built out of other people's misfortune.

What ensues is very reminiscent of Oliver Stone's Wall Street, with Nash being drawn into an immoral world for the sake of riches, questioning his integrity at every step. The key difference between the two films, however, is that Nash operates for survival, rather than pure greed. The brilliance of Bahrani's approach to the story is that he examines both sides of the coin, shining a light on the plight of the hardworking individuals struggling to keep a roof over their heads, as well as Carver, the numbed real estate agent who warns against the perils of debt. 99 Homes is most fascinating when it concentrates on Carver in action and shows his process, but the movie is less successful when it's about specific individuals. Bahrani keeps the movie afloat with his focused storytelling, but a climactic standoff is a bit much, and sometimes the script feels a bit too pat for a subject matter as utterly dense as this.

99 Homes may be 110 minutes, but it moves at an exceptionally brisk speed, thanks in no small part to the raw handheld cinematography, expert framing, and the pounding original soundtrack by Antony Partos and Matteo Zingales. The craftsmanship on display is simply superb, doing justice to this thematically dense drama. Of particular note is the truly bravura scene of Dennis and his family being evicted by Carver and his hired police officers, who are cold to their pleas of mercy. It's a heart-wrenching, riveting sequence which effectively conveys the shame, horror and emotion of an eviction, and it generates a real sense of loss as the powerless residents are forced to vacate their long-time home.

At the centre of this story is an exceptional cast, with Bahrani extracting focused performances from the entire ensemble. Coming off his limited run as Spider-Man, Garfield shows himself to be a talented thespian worthy of Oscar consideration, placing forth his most nuanced work to date as Nash. It's a tricky role to play, but Garfield does it justice, managing to keep us on his side despite what he's forced to do, showing that he has a conscience and simply wants to keep his family afloat. Powerful moments abound, including a number of heartbreaking scenes in which Nash is forced to evict helpless people but finds himself dangerously unconfident. But it's Shannon who walks away with the entire movie as the emotionless Rick Carver, who puts aside all sentimentality as he carries out his dire duty. Shannon is commanding and enthralling, but never showy, managing to carve out a villainous character that's not just one-note. Superb support is also provided by Dern, who plays very well alongside Garfield.

Smartly, Bahrani does not concern himself with the convoluted intricacies of the stock market or real estate loans, which would have more than likely murdered the strong pacing. 99 Homes instead concentrates on how the end result affects families while certain individuals continue to get rich, making for a fascinating examination of a world that we rarely get to see in motion pictures. Even though it does fall short of perfection, it's a timely and important fictional drama with real-life underpinnings, and it absolutely must be seen.


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Delivers the freaky goods with confidence

Posted : 2 years ago on 19 July 2016 05:42 (A review of Krampus (2015))

"His name is Krampus. He and his helpers did not come to give, but to take. He is the shadow of Saint Nicholas."

Filmmaker Michael Dougherty made quite an impact with his anthology horror movie Trick 'r' Treat all the way back in 2007, but the writer-director seemingly disappeared after the release of that cult gem, despite showing tremendous genre talents. 2015's Krampus is Dougherty's long overdue follow-up endeavour, and it combines the dysfunctional family antics of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation with the horror film sensibilities of Joe Dante's Gremlins and the Euro eccentricity of Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale. Comparisons to Gremlins are inevitable, as Dougherty establishes a distinct throwback vibe, relying on practical effects as much as possible, making smart use of the modest budget at his disposal. Krampus may be PG-13, but don't let the docile rating fool you - Dougherty delivers the freaky goods with reassuring confidence.

December 25 is approaching in suburbia, and pre-teen Max (Emjay Anthony) is finding it hard to maintain his Christmas spirit. His father Tom (Adam Scott) is a workaholic, while his mother Sarah (Toni Collette) is anal retentive as she prepares for the arrival of their extended family. Stomping into the house are Linda (Allison Tolman), her husband Howard (David Koechner), and their bratty kids, on top of the horrendously rude Aunt Dorothy (Conchata Ferrell). When Max's cousins find his good-hearted letter to Santa Claus and openly mock him for it, Max rips up the note in a moment of frustration and tosses it out into the snowy night. However, this act inadvertently summons Krampus, a demonic figure of Alpine folklore whom Max's immigrant grandmother Omi (Krista Stadler) is all too familiar with. As a colossal blizzard moves in, the family become trapped inside the house as they're gradually picked off by Krampus and his ghoulish minions.

Instantly announcing itself as the antithesis of standard Hollywood Christmas movies, Krampus opens with an inspired montage showing the madness that occurs when holiday shoppers rush into department stores on Black Friday. Unfolding entirely in slow motion, Dougherty focuses on the frantic customers who get into fights with one another and trample on the fallen, driven by rampant consumerism. It's a brilliantly provocative opening scene, even playing out to the tune of Andy Williams' "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," and it underscores that Christmas cheer is perhaps not quite what it used to be once upon a time. If there's a flaw with Dougherty's storytelling, it's that the movie does drag during its opening act, with the material involving the extended family never quite gaining much comedic traction. And when Krampus does come out to play, the moments of respite are overly hit and miss, with uneven pacing. 

In its second half, Krampus transitions into a home invasion tale, and the ensuing attack scenes are consistently thrilling, establishing a Gremlins-esque tone of comedic mayhem. There's an underlying streak of dark humour which saves the flick from abject bleakness, and - much like with Trick 'r' Treat - Dougherty exhibits firm command of the screen, aided to no small degree by cinematographer Jules O'Loughlin. Krampus embraces practical effects as well, giving vivid life to the hair-raising creatures through elaborate costumes and puppetry, affording an '80s horror flick feel and adding a sense of tangibility to the nightmare. The digital gingerbread men aren't quite convincing, and do look slightly out of place, but the rest of the titular demon's minions are thankfully more tactile. And just to reinforce the throwback feel, there's a flashback sequence told using Rankin and Bass-style stop-motion animation in which Omi reveals her childhood experience with Krampus in Germany. It's a nice touch indeed. Krampus is more unnerving than outright terrifying, but it's a skilful ride all the same.

Performances are suitably convincing right down the line, especially with the likes of Scott and Collette who are watchable in anything, while Koechner makes a positive impression playing a redneck stereotype. The chaos eventually culminates for a shrewd ending that rejects many of the more obvious story resolutions, and even leaves things open for interpretation. Not everything works in Krampus, but it does breathe fresh cinematic life into a creepy Christmas legend. It might become a new annual film-watching tradition at Christmas for the same folks who enjoy the more unorthodox holiday movies like Bad Santa and Die Hard.


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