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When I first saw John Woo’s Hard Boiled, at the age of 18, it served as an entry point into the world of highly-stylized Hong Kong action films and felt, to me at least, like a breath of fresh air. Seven or eight minutes into the film, having witnessed the toothpick-chewing cop ‘Tequila’ Yuen (Chow Yun-Fat) slide down a banister while firing two guns at an adversary in the middle of a chaotic gunfight, I was hooked. The frenetic action barely subsided in the following two hours, and as soon as it finished I wanted to find out more. I needed to see Woo’s earlier films, and to discover the other filmmakers from Hong Kong that were making similar work. Looking back today I guess it was just an adolescent phase of sorts, like listening to heavy metal or experimenting with acne. Most of us grow out of such teenage obsessions, eventually, although (perfectly understandably) they stay with some people for life.

Re-watching Hard Boiled today is an interesting and somewhat exhausting experience. My own tastes have changed considerably, and as a result the prospect of watching a film notable primarily for its action sequences doesn’t quite hold the same appeal in 2014 as it did in 1993. However it is interesting to consider the film once again but with the added context of Woo’s subsequent career in Hollywood and his influence over the action sequences of a great many US films from the early 1990s onwards. And, admittedly, those action sequences are still damn cool.

* In addition to Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino referenced Woo’s A Better Tomorrow II in his script for Tony Scott’s True Romance and also nodded to The Killer in Jackie Brown. Oliver Stone’s passion for Hong Kong cinema ensured that the influence of Woo could also be seen in the film of another Tarantino script, 1994’s Natural Born Killers.

Woo was already lauded by familiar western directors, including the freshly minted enfant terrible Quentin Tarantino, when Hard Boiled arrived with a fair amount of fanfare in the UK. His style and stories were already being copied by Tarantino, who appropriated some of Woo’s standard touches in his debut Reservoir Dogs*, a movie which also borrowed heavily from Ringo Lam’s Hong Kong crime thriller City On Fire. The reviews for Woo’s new film praised the director’s balletic, mesmeric action sequences, rightly claiming that they served to highlight a collective lack of imagination in the set pieces of the turgid Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Seagal vehicles churned out by Hollywood around the same time, and many critics waxed lyrical about the extremity of the movie’s violent imagery.

And that much remains as true today as it was in the early 1990s. The three main action sequences of Hard Boiled – set in a tea house, a warehouse and a hospital respectively – are as gripping as they are exciting, with Woo’s trademark double gun action featuring prominently as Tequila and undercover cop Tony (Tony Leung) attempt to bring down a Triad gang in the most unsubtle of ways. The director’s use of slow-mo and his preference for OTT blood capsule detonations recalls Sam Peckinpah, but there’s much more going on than just a series of bangs and broad strokes of claret flashing across the screen. Each scene is choreographed superbly, and the noise of the repetitive explosions and gunfire forms a symphonic homage to death and destruction that becomes something of a test of endurance, to see how long you can last without bursting into ecstatic, delirious laughter. Woo’s gunfights may appear to be chaotic but there is an underlying structure and planning that really is impressive given the frenetic pace at which these battles play out. Every move, every glance, every dying henchman in the background is as meticulously constructed and considered as any scene from any Terence Malick movie, for example.

Watching these sequences can be hard work, though. The body count is high and disbelief must certainly be suspended, especially when Tequila manages to hurdle a skidding motorbike that is heading for him while simultaneously blowing another bike up with a well-placed shotgun blast to the fuel tank, or when he fires off close to 100 bullets without reloading. It’s also difficult, if you are unable to understand Cantonese, to concentrate on the sheer amount of action and read the subtitles at the same time, although admittedly it’s not of paramount importance to follow the hackneyed dialogue; a good guy takes on some bad guys here, and that’s all you really need to know.

* Lesson: never be a cop’s partner. Be the cop partner of the dead partner cop (i.e. the partner cop who has a dead cop partner for a partner, not the partner to the dead cop’s partner) instead. The chances of survival are far superior.

It never used to matter to me, but what disappoints the most today is that the three main set pieces are all that’s worth celebrating about Hard Boiled. That may sound a little churlish given the quality of the shootouts on screen and I know the point about action films is that the action needs to be good, in the same way that comedy films stand or fall by the number of laughs they generate, but it must be said that the plot of Hard Boiled has its share of holes and the movie is jam packed full of cliché. The moments in between the big set pieces sag and contain way too many typical cop scenarios and stereotypes:  Tequila’s partner is killed*. His desire for revenge is so strong he is unable to follow the clear instructions laid out by his boss Superintendent Pang (Philip Chan), and is removed from the case as a result. Naturally that doesn’t stop Tequila from carrying on with his investigation. He drowns his sorrows in a local bar, where he can confide in the bartender, although he struggles to communicate with his kind-hearted girlfriend Teresa Chang (Teresa Mo). Meanwhile Tony, the lone wolf undercover cop, lives on a boat. And so on and so on. All that’s missing is the handing over of the badge and gun and a line or two from Tequila’s partner about his up-coming retirement before he bites the first of several bullets.

Perhaps more is expected of an action film today, and arguably it’s wrong to judge a movie made over 20 years ago by today’s standards, but the clichés of Hard Boiled are legion, and the appeal of a revenge / undercover sting tale was waning even in Woo’s early years. There is an inescapable whiff of cheese about the whole affair, particularly with regard to Tequila’s conversations with Teresa, and there are moments within the action scenes that will make even the staunchest defender of Hong Kong heroic bloodshed cinema cringe. Worst of all is the transparent attempt to heighten the emotional stakes with the introduction of a new-born baby amidst the hail of bullets in the hospital. In its defence the acting here is good, especially Chow Yun-Fat, and despite a lack of character development he delivers a credible performance of a cop under severe pressure (as indeed do Chan and Leung).

Sadly Woo had to tone down the gunplay and the arcs of blood in the years he worked in the US; the likes of Broken Arrow, Face/Off and The Replacement Killers are weak when directly compared to the veracity of Hard Boiled, and by the late 1990s the director’s schtick felt a little dated, partly because of the number of imitators that copped his style: Last Man Standing, The Mummy and – in particular – The Matrix owed debts to Woo and each has their respective merits, but they also served to distil the impact of his films. The sight of a slow-motion gunslinger flying through the air became so ubiquitous it even found its way into the James Bond and Alien franchises, both of which tended to rely on their own legacies for inspiration and generally avoided borrowing so brazenly and unimaginatively from elsewhere (Moonraker aside).

Still, in the early 1990s at least, I didn’t roll my eyes when I saw a bird flapping its wings in slow motion in a John Woo movie and Chow Yun-Fat was relatively unknown in the west, yet to cheapen himself by appearing in the likes of Bulletproof Monk and Pirates Of The Caribbean. Aficionados of Hong Kong action films may point to The Killer, A Better Tomorrow and A Better Tomorrow II as being superior examples of Woo’s contribution to the genre, but Hard Boiled retains a special place in my heart as it gave me my first taste of this talented director of high-octane action thrills. Time has not been all that kind, unfortunately, and ultimately I feel like I need more from a movie these days to keep on loving it, but the gunfights here remain absolutely captivating. Ultimately, it must be conceded that the movie delivers on its main aim - to supply thrills through its violence – but it does not attempt to reach greater heights, and that’s unfortunate; everything surrounding the action sequences seems stale and boring today.

The Basics:

Directed by: John Woo
Written by: John Woo, Gorden Chan, Barry Wong
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung, Teresa Mo
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 128 minutes
Year: 1992
Rating: 5.8

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Michael Cera first came to prominence as a result of his appearance in the mid-2000s TV sitcom Arrested Development, but since his breakthrough film roles in Superbad and Juno he has become somewhat typecast, and in recent years has been the go-to guy when an awkward, shy indie kid role needs to be filled. In this 2008 rom-com by Peter Sollett he plays aspiring musician Nick O’Leary, a quiet (straight) bass player from New Jersey in a queercore band who is recovering from a broken heart thanks to a chance meeting with kindred spirit Norah Silverberg (Kat Dennings, more recently seen in Marvel / Disney’s Thor blockbusters). Nick is one step removed from Juno‘s Paulie Bleeker, and bears more than a passing resemblance to Cera’s later starring roles in Scott Pilgrim vs The World and Youth In Revolt, but in his defence the likeable actor does seem a natural fit for these characters, and recently he has shown a willingness to branch out by appearing in Sebastián Silva’s Chilean drug odyssey Crystal Fairy & The Magical Cactus. Still, it will presumably take him a few years to shake off the tag of ‘wet-noodle heartthrob’, a title bestowed upon him by The New York Times.

* One of the most irritating aspects of this film is this distinct lack of variety in terms of the extras. Granted the story is based around a certain music scene, and music scenes do tend to come with a uniformity of clothes and haircuts, but at times Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist resembles an episode of Beverly Hills, 90210 which has for some reason been set in the Big Apple. It’s a few years since I’ve been to New York, but does Greenwich Village actually look like this now? And The Bowery? Someone call Travis Bickle: he needs to drive some of the scum back into Manhattan, and quickly.

Based on Rachel Cohn and David Levithan’s novel of the same name, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist aims to tap into the feeling of being young, free and single during an all-nighter in the city; in this case it’s a sanitized version of New York that has seemingly managed to expel all the crazies of all shapes and sizes and has replaced them with a uniform population of good looking, thin and utterly bland teenagers*. Nick has been dumped by his previous girlfriend, the vapid and mean Tris (Alexis Dziena), and he meets her acquaintance Norah after his band The Jerk-Offs play at Arlene’s Grocery on the Lower East Side. Though he still pines for Tris and sends her expertly-crafted mix CDs, Nick spends several hours in Norah’s company while they try and locate her tedious and drunk friend Caroline (Ari Graynor) and attempt to discover the location of a secret gig by a popular band called ‘Where’s Fluffy?’ At first he is oblivious to Norah’s clear attraction to him, but eventually he forgets about his previous (unsuitable) girlfriend and realises that the right girl has been with him all night yada yada and, it must be added, blah blah blah.

Unfortunately that’s it in terms of the romance contained within the plot. Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist is about as straightforward as it gets, a simple recycling of those tried-and-tested outsider John Hughes flicks that first appeared 25 years earlier, and while the two leads have a degree of chemistry it’s hard to care much when the eventual outcome is so obvious and the entire plot is guessable within the first five minutes of the movie. Both have unsympathetic, irritating exes too, should you doubt for one moment that they will end up together, and though Nick is timid and Kat is stand-offish it’s clear throughout that neither of these personality traits will get in the way of their eventual union. And on the subject of those exes, has New York suddenly shrunk or something? The idea of the pair repeatedly bumping into their old partners in the course of one evening given all the venues in the city they are free to visit is laughable.

But what of the comedy? Cera can be very funny, but neither he nor the bubbly Dennings are required to do much comic acting here, and the two protagonists play it straight while the supporting actors goof around, principally Graynor and Nick’s fellow band members (played by Aaron Yoo and Rafi Gavron). It’s not really the fault of the cast that there aren’t any substantial laughs – the problem stems from the script – and these three members in particular try their best with the limited material, to their credit. Yet when the best moments revolve around a piece of chewing gum that has been fished out of a toilet bowl, a joke that the American Pie writers would reject as being way too lame, it’s difficult to think of any great, established comic actors who would be able to raise a laugh or three. What hope do these rookies have?

Neither of the two lead actors are really taxed, but it must be stated that they do perform adequately, and without them this might well have been a lot worse. Try as they might, though, Cera and Dennings can’t rescue the film with charisma alone, and ultimately Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist feels far too safe and calculating, a movie that fishes for a young, hipster audience with its musical references and actors but is far too slight to offer them anything once they’re hooked on the line. It lacks the verve and (slight) unpredictability of the following year’s achingly cool (500) Days Of Summer and, ultimately, neither character here is as memorable as those played by Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in that superior hipster rom-com.

The attempts to be hip sometimes hit the mark, but cameos by the likes of singer-songwriter Devendra Banhart and the band Bishop Allen feel gimmicky. Still, there is a good soundtrack, mostly chosen by Sollett, editor Myron Kerstein and music supervisor Linda Cohen, which features Vampire Weekend, We Are Scientists and a few other New York-based acts as well as incidental music by Mark Mothersbaugh, formerly of Devo. Given the story and the locations used the music fits as well as you would expect.

Sollett’s repeated attempts to shoe-horn in locations like Katz’s Deli, the Electric Ladyland studios and the Mercury Lounge feel clunky, although when more widely-known places are used as a backdrop – Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, for example – it feels a lot more natural and there’s more of a sense of New York as a grimy, functioning hub, as opposed to a well-lit, clean and safe film set. Ultimately there’s none of the danger or the edge of a night on the tiles in the big, bad city to be found here, and eventually watching the teetotal pair drive around in the small hours from one venue to another becomes pretty boring. I’m no longer young enough to know what it’s like out there these days, but I don’t remember going out and being a teenage music fan ever being this dull. A nice couple of characters are the heart of this warm movie, but there’s nothing else to see here.

The Basics:

Directed by: Peter Sollett
Written by: Lorene Scafaria, Rachel Cohn, David Levithan
Starring: Michael Cera, Kat Dennings
Certificate: 12
Running Time: 90 minutes
Year: 2008
Rating: 3.5

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Director and actor Mathieu Kassovitz had a busy couple of years at the turn of the century. After the success of his breakthrough film, the angry black and white urban political drama La Haine (Hate), he went on to make Assassin(s), starred in Jean Pierre-Jenuet’s Amélie and also adapted Jean-Christophe Grangé’s best-selling novel Les Rivières Pourpres for the big screen.

The latter - a crime thriller - is riddled with cliché, but Kassovitz does manage to create a distinctive dark, haunting atmosphere, and it features a pair of good performances from its stars, Jean Reno and Vincent Cassel. Reno is Commissioner Niemans, a guarded detective from Paris who is sent to the small, rural university town of Guernon in the French Alps to help solve a particularly grisly murder: the body of a local librarian has been discovered with hands and eyes missing, found dangling off a mountain and tied in a foetal position. Cassel is local detective-on-the-rise Max Kerkerian, who is investigating a seemingly unrelated case involving local Nazi-supporting thugs and a desecrated grave.

The inquiry into the gruesome murder isn’t helped by a large dose of small-town suspicion, and proceedings are given a slightly fantastical spin by Kassovitz, whose adaptation incorporates a suspicious, ghostly hooded figure and much talk of the work of ‘demons’ by nuns at the local monastery. A fair amount of the film is shot at night, but by day the Alpine weather and light lend proceedings a decidedly bleak air; there are overhead shots at the beginning which even recall Stanley Kubrick’s opening scenes in The Shining.

The ‘urban cop in a rural environment’ premise has been examined more times than I care to remember, but there’s still something enjoyable about the way the university scholars and local police, mistrustful of Niemans and his Parisian ways, close ranks and refuse to pass on valuable information. Thankfully Niemans isn’t made out to be some kind of super-sleuth, and seems as perplexed as anyone else as to who is behind the murders. Both police officers struggle to make sense of the crimes they are trying to solve, but arrive independently at one suspect’s house, after which the facts begin to become clearer and a straightforward older cop / younger cop dynamic takes hold; this has also been done to death, but Cassel’s performance in particular is charismatic enough to make it just about bearable here.

Unfortunately Kassovitz fails to capitalise on the moody atmospherics of the first half of the film, which he builds up in an assured, measured way; it’s not quite as relentlessly miserable as Se7en but it’s certainly not a million miles away. Then, for reasons I can’t even guess at, the director includes a martial arts fight scene between Kerkerian and some skinheads that copies moves and dialogue from beat-em-up video games like Tekken. The joke is that’s exactly what the skinheads are playing when Kerkerian shows up at their club, but it falls somewhat flat, and is totally out of step with the tone of the film up to that point. A real shame, as the delicate mood is shattered, and the film fails to recover from that point on. Kassovitz attempts to create tension with that age old staple, lightning, which handily illuminates one room so that another eyeless dead body comes into view, but the sheer amount of it is difficult to accept from a film rooted in reality, and the attempts to recapture the dark mood are laughable.

The movie descends into farce by the end, with a straightforward ‘reveal’ and set-piece ending that really do beggar belief. Both of these key events are at odds with the rest of the film, and the film has a conventional ‘Hollywood-style’ ending, which is a shame as there is no sign of the ordinary in the early part of Les Rivières Pourpres. There is also some rushed talk of a secret society practicing eugenics, but the film fails to properly explain who is responsible, and there’s only a line or two explaining why this has been happening. Cassel has hinted at his displeasure regarding the exposition, stating ‘I can’t help explain the film because I didn’t understand it! We cut out everything in the film that was explanatory, therefore “boring” [according to the director]. You end up with a film that’s not boring but you don’t understand it [at] all’.

It feels like an oversight, too, that neither of these two policemen are given any kind of back story. We know Niemans is from Paris, but learn very little else about him. We learn less still about Kerkerian, so it’s difficult to really care much about the pair, even with the reasonably charismatic turns by the actors. We only learn a decent amount of information about one character in the film, and they end up being the prime suspect. Well, actually, the only suspect – a mountaineer named Fanny Ferreira (Nadia Farès).

Though it begins well with an intriguing case of murder and a dark, brooding atmosphere, Kassovitz’s movie ends up relying too heavily on the cinematography of Thierry Arbogast (who worked on Luc Besson’s hitman films Nikita and Léon) and the two performances of the leads, who all help it along as it limps to the finish line. There are many great shots of the mountains, but unfortunately they seem to be at the expense of the characterisation and the scenes in which the plot is explained to a sufficient degree. An attempt to inject a little romance into the final act is also botched. A shame. Still, it’s not a dud, and although the gritty first half is light on action, that first 50 minutes of Les Rivières Pourpres is enjoyable nonetheless.

The Basics:

Directed by: Mathieu Kassovitz
Written by: Jean-Christophe Grangé, Mathieu Kassovitz
Starring: Jean Reno, Vincent Cassel, Nadia Farès
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 106 minutes
Year: 2000
Rating: 5.5

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Robert Rodriguez’s sci-fi horror splatterfest Planet Terror is one half of Grindhouse, a joint project made with Quentin Tarantino that serves as an homage to the scuzzy, violent and cheap exploitation movies of the 1970s that used to be shown in ‘grindhouse’ cinemas. If you’d like to read my review of Tarantino’s half, Death Proof, please click here.

Like Tarantino’s movie, an extended version of Planet Terror was released internationally as a standalone film. Unlike Death Proof, however, it doesn’t suffer too much from the extra padding required to take it over the 90 minute mark, and though it’s hardly the most demanding watch, it’s an enjoyable monster movie that achieves a nice tongue-in-cheek tone.

Rose McGowan stars as Cherry Darling, a go-go dancer down on her luck in rural Texas. She quits her job and then runs into ex-boyfriend El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez) at the Bone Shack, a BBQ restaurant owned by JT Hague (Jeff Fahey) and his sheriff brother (Michael Biehn). They quickly realise that something afoot is happening nearby as half of the town’s residents have rapidly turned into zombie-like flesh-eaters who will quite happily feast on legs, guts and even brains. They have been infected by a biochemical agent, vast amounts of which were released into the air following a clash between scientist Abby (Naveen Andrews) and the demented Lt. Muldoon (Bruce Willis).

Local doctor William Block (Josh Brolin) struggles to keep a handle on the outbreak, and he must also contend with his bisexual anaesthetist wife Dakota (Marley Shelton), who is having an affair with another woman and planning to skip town. As the infection spreads from one person to the next El Wray and Cherry must rely on their wits, speed and a prosthetic machine gun for survival.

As with Death Proof, Rodriguez recreates the look of grindhouse films of the 1970s by including damaged film, cheap stock footage and deliberately poor soundtrack synching and editing throughout Planet Terror. A fake trailer for another grindhouse film called Machete, starring Danny Trejo, is shown at the beginning (which of course actually became a movie in its own right a few years later, along with a sequel called Machete Kills). A sex scene between Cherry and El Wray is amusingly replaced with a notice that explains that the reel has gone missing, with apologies from the theatre. The colouring is way off what we expect to see today, but the strong primary colours enhance all the blood and guts flying around the screen. Some audience members hated these cheap-looking effects, or found them gimmicky, but I love them.

Rodriguez has been here before, of course. Planet Terror is as highly-stylized as his previous movie, 2005’s Sin City, although its tone most closely resembles his camp late-90s vampire romp From Dusk Til Dawn. It shares that earlier film’s humour, well-choreographed action scenes and knowing performances. (Bruce Willis’s first appearance here, for example, in which he announces his Bruce Willisness with a kind of “Hey, it really is me” smirk toward the camera, is priceless.)

Like From Dusk Til Dawn, Planet Terror builds toward the inevitable big fight at the end, but unfortunately it’s slightly disappointing given the excellent few scenes of carnage at the hospital that precede it. The movie’s iconic image is of Cherry with a machine gun fixed to the stump of her right leg, which is chewed off earlier by angry locals, but even that first isn’t enough to save it from being a damp squib of an ending. The film also could have done without yet another Tarantino cameo, although given that he directed quite a lot of it (as did Rodriguez with Death Proof, apparently) it’s hard to begrudge him his moment in the sun as, er… ‘Rapist #1’.

* Whenever I see Michael Biehn on screen it feels like a long-lost brother has returned home after going missing in the late 1980s. Welcome back Mike!

With its violent disembowlings, mutated faces and exploding pus-filled heads, Planet Terror really isn’t setting out to be anything other than a collection of gory and titillating scenes slapped together between a ridiculous start and a ridiculous ending, but its utterly basic sub-plots actually turn it into quite a charming film. The one involving Dakota’s infidelity enables Brolin and Shelton to act out a hilariously-tense soap opera-lite scene, when Dr Block confronts his cheating wife with the mobile phone belonging to her lover Tammy (Stacey Ferguson, aka Fergie from pop group The Black Eyed Peas), and I also enjoyed the repeated attempts by Michael Biehn’s* sheriff to get hold of the BBQ sauce recipe held by his brother JT.

The actors here are all camping it up to ridiculous levels – Brolin wins that particular contest hands down – but I did actually enjoy the two lead performances of McGowan and Rodriguez, who both manage to recall the heroic male and female pairings of the late 70s and early 80s classic horror period. It’s a pair of undemanding roles, granted, but they look good together and both really go for it with the action sequences. McGowan in particular seems to relish delivering some of the film’s cheesiest lines.

There are plenty of gruesome deaths, but Rodriguez doesn’t really go in for the misogyny that plagued Death Proof, and the addition of a few scantily clad women near the end to help fight the infected residents feels more like a spoofing of 70s sexism than anything overly sleazy; it feels much easier to watch when compared with the other half of Grindhouse, as to me it seems as though Tarantino used the project as an excuse to see exactly how much he could get away with. Still, I’m not suggesting Germaine Greer would dig it; Planet Terror is rooted in the exploitation cinema of the 1970s and as such the lead female character works in a strip club, the female cops wear hot pants, the camera leers over Fergie’s breasts whenever she’s on screen, and so on and so on.

Ultimately, I like Planet Terror because although it’s a throwaway pile of nonsense, it’s a fun throwaway pile of nonsense. It’s cheesy, violent, witty, both predictable and unpredictable, and Rodriguez certainly achieves the goal of creating a complete and utter schlockfest. Most importantly, it’s fast-paced, and that helps to smooth over all the deficiencies (even if most of them are actually deliberate). Of the two movies that made up the Grindhouse double bill it’s the one that adheres most to the history of B-movies, and if the idea of a fun Troma-style take on zombie splatter movies like Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead and Raimi’s The Evil Dead appeals, you could do worse.

The Basics:

Directed by: Robert Rodriguez
Written by: Robert Rodriguez
Starring: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Josh Brolin, Bruce Willis, Marley Shelton, Naveen Andrews, Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 109 minutes
Year: 2007
Rating: 6.9

Death Proof

* Lots of people walked out after the first picture, according to reports, and didn’t stick around for the second (Death Proof). Seriously, are there people that don’t bother to read up about movies beforehand these days, considering the cost of admission into a cinema? It really isn’t difficult to grasp the concept behind the phrase ‘a double bill’, is it?

Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino’s 2007 homage to the low-budget 1970s slasher films that used to be shown in American ‘grindhouse’ theatres, was originally released in the US as one half of the double bill Grindhouse, screened alongside Robert Rodriguez’s sci-fi zombie flick Planet Terror. Due to some audience confusion* both movies were re-cut, extended and released separately in most other countries, although that decision was made partly because the tradition of the grindhouse theatre, and of double bills generally, is specific to the US. It’s a shame this split happened, as it ruined the package as a whole and also meant that Tarantino’s movie appeared in an unnecessarily flabby state, but at least fans are able to watch these fun exercises in nostalgia back to back at home. Which I did earlier this week; a review of Planet Terror will follow.

To help achieve the look and feel of classic grindhouse cinema the acting in Death Proof is deliberately bad, though not terrible, and Tarantino digitally added a variety of visual effects. There are lots of scratches and dust, for example, in order to recall the days when film prints were passed from one theatre to another and would accumulate damage and defects over time. Additionally, an old title card reveals that the film was originally called Thunder Bolt, a nod to the fact that movies would often get re-titled to hide the fact they had been on the receiving end of terrible reviews. The editing is jumpy, the soundtrack occasionally doesn’t sync properly, the colours are often washed out and – all told – it looks sufficiently cheap and nasty. Despite never having been to a grindhouse theatre in my life, I still buy vinyl over mp3s because of all those crackles and hisses, and as a confirmed Luddite I love the retro style adopted here.

In keeping with the grindhouse vibe, the plot is simple. Three friends – Arlene (Vanessa Ferlito), Shanna (Jordan Ladd) and radio DJ ‘Jungle’ Julia (Sydney Tamiia Poitier) – go on a bar crawl in Austin, Texas to celebrate Julia’s birthday. They get drunk in a few different dives, play songs on the jukebox and knock back shots, and along the way they meet stalker and psychopath Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russell), who drives a black 1971 Chevy Nova rigged with a ‘death proof’ safety cage in the interior. Another bar patron named Pam (Rose McGowan) accepts a lift from Stuntman Mike, who promptly uses his car to kill her before setting off after the other girls, terrorizing them on the open road.

Fast forward fourteen months and the sadistic Mike is at it again, showing up in Lebanon, Tennessee in a 1969 Dodge Charger. His targets this time are Abernathy (Rosario Dawson), Kim (Tracie Thoms), Lee (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and stuntwoman Zoë (Zoë Bell playing herself). Mike tries to kill with his car once again, but this time the tables are turned, and Tarantino delights in telling a tale of revenge once more.

With two clear parts it’s obvious where the original version of Death Proof, the one intended for use in Grindhouse, ends. Both parts of the international release sit well next to each other, although annoyingly all those scratches, crackles, jump cuts, dialogue issues and so forth are not continued in the second half. There is a bizarre ten minute period filmed in black and white, a witty suggestion that the director ran out of colour film stock and had to use whatever was available, but aside from that the second half of Death Proof only captures the grindhouse in tone and spirit, and fails to fully capture the look (although the skimpy costumes, car chase and cars still recall the era and the genre).

* Tarantino felt that there hadn’t been any good car chases on screen since Terminator 2: Judgement Day and, amazingly, Final Destination 2. There’s no way I’d tell him he’s wrong to his face, but I can’t let this pass without mentioning Ronin, which features several excellent car chases. Still, the chase scene in the second half of his film is excellent.

As an avowed champion and connoisseur of exploitation flicks, Tarantino is well-versed in the various themes and typical flourishes required for such an homage. Thus in his film the girls are all young and sexy, the violence is schlocky and the action is pretty exhilarating; the car chases here are excellent* and the movie’s famous crash scene really is startling. And yet, above all else, it’s clearly a Tarantino film. Typically cool, typically enjoyable, and typically throwaway (not meant as an insult; Tarantino movies are like the very best pop records). Sadly – despite his continuing capacity to surprise – it feels at times as if the director is on the verge of self-parody. There are interminably long dialogue scenes during which the characters shoot the shit about nothing in particular, but they lack the spark of similar scenes in his other films, and I wonder whether the director actually cares for any of these characters much (with the exception of Stuntman Mike). The geeky references to long-forgotten and largely unloved pop culture of yore seems to be nothing more than an exercise in box ticking and I began to wish for just one character in a Tarantino film that doesn’t talk like they’re a character in a Tarantino film.

That’s not to say Death Proof isn’t deliriously fun. The first half is Tarantino at his loosest, not giving a fuck, and he packs in a succession of sassy and snippy lines interspersed with fetishistic shots of women’s feet, backsides and needles hitting records (which are superbly chosen once more). He references his earlier films – the diner scene of Reservoir Dogs, a mention for Big Kahuna Burger, etc. etc. – playing up to geekery and fandom in a fun and conspiratorial way. The plot – such as it is – is patently ridiculous, and the director makes absolutely no attempt to cover this up; instead he lets the threat of Mike simmer away in the background while the camera fixes on the drinking, the jukebox, the hot pants and the lapdancing.

It is misogynistic at times. While it’s hard to watch the treatment of the female characters in the first half of this film, it must be remembered that a certain ‘way of the grindhouse’ is being adhered to, and the director would presumably answer any allegations with the counter-point that the movie ends with four women beating the living crap out of the male antagonist. When greeted by protesting feminists in the UK upon the film’s release, Tarantino maintained that he had received praise elsewhere for writing strong female roles, but truthfully it’s false empowerment in Death Proof. You have to be suspicious of any director who extolls the virtues and champions the strengths of his leading female characters – and there have been a few – on the one hand, but on the other resorts to filling the movie with lingering shots of their legs and backsides. More than anything else the extreme sexualisation of the women in Death Proof makes me pity Tarantino.

I haven’t seen many movies – grindhouse or otherwise – that manage to objectify women quite as much as Death Proof. The seven or eight main female characters here are all variations on a theme; they’re the embodiment of Tarantino’s childish notion of a perfect girlfriend. They wear cheerleader outfits, smoke pot and pound shots. They have the kind of jobs the teenage QT would probably have wanted: DJ, actor, stunt driver. They claim Dave, Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Tich are better than The Who and they know which car was used in Vanishing Point. It’s a shame the writer-director appears to be stuck creating this type of character as he approaches the middle of his career, because he got it right the first time when he penned True Romance. I know it’s pointless to expect great characterization and fair treatment of young women in a modern take on a 1970s slasher film, but it’s frustrating to see the man who created Jackie Brown revert to a film full of Alabama Worley-lites, regardless of the genre.

* I’ve thought long and hard about that statement, and the phrase ‘no other mainstream director’, and I’m sticking with it. Few would think to end a film like Tarantino does here, and even fewer would dare to actually do it.

The thing I enjoy about Tarantino more than anything else, though, is that I can sit there thinking ‘it’s wrong it’s wrong it’s wrong’ while still remaining utterly transfixed, waiting to see what the next abrupt turn or surprise brings. Feminists: I’m sorry. Although I’ve pointed out various recurring themes and clichés above that we now expect from every single one of his movies, his willingness to take risks and his ultra-cine literacy ensures that he still retains a power to surprise that no other mainstream director can match*, and I can certainly put up with the moments of self-parody as a result. When Tarantino cuts loose – as with much of the first half and the car chase in the second half here – it’s difficult to resist. It keeps me coming back over and over again, and despite the problems I do have with one or two of his movies, I remain an avowed fan. (The cameos have surely got to stop, though – he plays a bartender here and it really is a dismal performance.)

Tarantino has admitted that Death Proof is his weakest film to date, and I think that’s both true and honest. The conversations are often too long, the second part is slow and ponderous (at least until we get to the car chase), there’s too much padding and it’s a shame he didn’t apply the same visual effects to both halves for consistency. But it still has enough lines and moments to make it wildly enjoyable, the soundtrack is one of his best, and Kurt Russell is great fun as the vicious, vindictive Johnny Cash-alike Mike. Everything that’s bad and everything that’s great about the director is here in fairly equal measure, and the exercise works: you get a real sense of Tarantino’s love for this kind of cinema.

The Basics:

Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Tracey Thoms, Sydney Poitier, Zoe Bell, Rose McGowan
Certificate: 18
Running Time: 114 minutes
Year: 2007
Rating: 6.1

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* Lazy stereotypes? On this blog? Eat it, bespectacled Millhouses!

A Torinói Ló (The Turin Horse) is the first film I’ve seen by Hungarian miserablist Béla Tarr – purportedly the last he will make – and my interest was piqued by the praise the film has received from earnest chin-strokers in roll-neck sweaters who will happily spend a bum-numbing three hours gawping at long, heavy black and white European art house, conveniently ignoring the fact they do not have a Scooby Doo as to what it all actually means*. The director is spoken of in the same hushed, reverent tones as Fassbender and Tarkovsky, and his films have a reputation of being sombre, bleak and fairly long. The Turin Horse is actually short at around 150 minutes when compared with the equally highly-praised Sátántangó, which clocks in at a marathon seven hours, but it maintains a deliberate, slow pace with a series of long, unbroken shots – just thirty in total.

The premise is simple: while residing in Turin, in January 1889 Friedrich Nietzsche reportedly saw a cabman struggling with his horse, which refused to budge. The cabman beat the horse repeatedly, at which point Nietzsche stopped the man, threw his arms around the horse’s neck, and began to weep uncontrollably. Nietzsche lay motionless for two days afterwards, uttered his last words on the third, and then lived for ten years silent and demented. As Tarr’s stark title sequence points out in deadpan style using no-frills Times New Roman: ‘We do not know what happened to the horse’. The film, written by screenwriter and novelist László Krasznahorkai, examines what appears to be the six subsequent days in the life of the cabman (Olsdorfer, played by János Derzsi), his daughter (Erika Bók) and the horse itself, concentrating mainly on the two humans.

It opens with a frankly stunning scene of the horse and the wildly-bearded cabman as they struggle through bad weather and return home. The camera moves along looking upwards toward man and beast, alternating between close proximity to the horse’s neck and a slightly more distant, parallel view. You can almost feel the wind and the struggle they have against the weather, and the camera is never again as mobile as it is in this scene. Upon arrival we see that the cabman and his daughter live in a simple, small stone house with an adjacent stable, and their life is tough; the wind is ever-present, howling across their plain, and begins after a while to take on musical qualities, complementing the repetitive Philip Glass-like dirge made by long-time Tarr collaborator Mihály Víg.

* A type of fruit brandy.

Olsdorfer and his daughter live off the land, and their only source of income is the cart and the horse. The pair are so completely governed by their daily routine they barely feel the need to communicate with each other: she doesn’t speak until the 20th minute of the film, he doesn’t say anything until the 25th, and there isn’t too much dialogue between them in the two hours that follow. We see six days in which they repeat certain actions wordlessly: dressing, firing the oven in the morning, gathering buckets of water from the well outside, drinking palinka*, trying to move the stubborn horse, eating boiled potatoes and sleeping. If that sounds like a depressing existence consider too that their leisure time consists of staring mournfully out of the window at the wind-swept plain. As the days progress they are visited by a neighbor (Mihály Kormos) who complains that the world is going to hell in a handcart (his rantings are dismissed out of hand by the cabman) and a band of travelling gypsies, who are chased off the land.

Even the most committed and patient cinephile would have to admit that this sounds like an utterly tedious and miserable viewing experience, and no doubt such a bland-sounding synopsis will put a lot of people off watching The Turin Horse. Not that IMDB’s comments should ever be taken too seriously, but it’s interesting to note that the message boards for this film feature many furious posters complaining about the fact they felt they had wasted over two hours of their lives watching a couple of people eating potatoes, time which presumably could have been better spent devolving or watching Jason Statham kick people in the face. There’s no doubting that this kind of material requires a leap of faith from the uninitiated or the skeptical, but it’s worth it: Tarr’s film is completely mesmerising in the way it depicts this hard and basic existence, with a surprising amount of interest in the daily routine created as a result of the director’s decision to film each day using slightly different camera angles. He occasionally leaves some elements out of the routine and occasionally includes others, in an impressionistic fashion, so by the fourth and fifth days your mind wonders about the diversions from the routine, even if they are just slight. The differences begin to grow in significance.

A task as simple-sounding as gathering water from the well becomes a mammoth and tense operation in Tarr’s hands; as the door is opened and the daughter faces the swirling wind each day it feels like a key scene from a biblical epic, and watching this happen over and over again is more involving than you would assume. The long takes lend the on screen ‘action’ (for want of a better word) extra significance. As the gypsies approach the house in a horse-drawn cart, for example, they begin as a speck on the horizon and gradually get bigger as they wind down a hill path, ominously and noisily moving closer to the property. When the cabman or his daughter stare out of the window the refusal to cut away gives those scenes a surprising intensity and ensures the spartan images resonate and stay with you long after the film has ended. Tarr makes shots of a man tearing at the skin of a hot potato with his hands, or drinking a glass of firewater, among the most memorable you will likely ever see.

* Americans! Let this be a warning to you. As long as you continue to foist Michael Bay, McG and Zack Snyder on us, we Europeans will counter-strike with the likes of Tarr, Herzog and … erm … Paul WS Anderson.

So what does it all mean? Tarr has confirmed that the film is concerned with mortality and the inevitability of death.* The characters here struggle to find any meaning for their existence, and life is boiled down to naught but a futile, hand-to-mouth struggle. By the sixth day the horse has given up completely, the wind carries on howling, and the house becomes shrouded in darkness, with the pair completely silent and immobile as they sit opposite each other. Are they dead? Given that their life appears to be a kind of starkly-lit purgatory anyway, does it even matter? Is there any difference? It is hard not to equate the impending death hanging over the film with Tarr’s own decision to stop making films, apparently having said everything he feels he needs to by the age of 56; the exhortations of the gypsies to the daughter – ‘Come with us to America!’ – may also be a reference to the director’s chosen career path.

The critic Jonathan Rosenbaum states ’For me the abiding mystery isn’t what the film means but how and why we watch it. “Try not to be too sophisticated” was Tarr’s suggestion the first time he introduced it at the New Horizons International Film Festival in Wrocław, Poland.’ Rosenbaum explains that he watched the film three times on three separate days because he was fascinated by the way a film in which nothing much happens can be so powerful and beautiful.

In a world consisting of raving, ranting IMDBers on the one extreme and pretentious arthouse fans wearing difficult viewing experiences as if they were medals on the other, it seems pointless for me to say whether this is or this isn’t worth your time. I’m sure you’ll know the answer yourself. Personally, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that watching The Turin Horse does not require a feat of endurance as I expected, although I admit my concentration waned by the ninth and tenth potatoes, and I took to Twitter briefly. At that point, feeling guilty, I wished I was in a dark cinema, with all its attendant rules and social conventions.

I’m glad I’ve had my first taste of Tarr’s genius. The Turin Horse may be bleak, unrelenting, monotonous and glacial, and it is one of the most downbeat films I have ever seen, but it’s also utterly gripping, and there’s something fascinating, beautiful and lasting about the way it is filmed, the way it sounds, and the way in which it is edited. I look forward to experiencing more by the director, in time.

The Basics:

Directed by: Béla Tarr
Written by: László Krasznahorkai, Béla Tarr
Starring: János Derzsi, Erika Bók, Mihály Kormos
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 155 minutes
Year: 2011
Rating: 8.5

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David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is – at times – an interesting take on an otherwise standard romantic comedy plot. The ‘hook’, if you want to call it that, is that the two main characters who are gradually falling in love with each other in this film both suffer from mental health issues. A tentative, testy and friction-heavy courtship develops between the pair which echoes the awkward relationships they have with their immediate close families. Yet, somewhat disappointingly, it follows a straightforward romcom pattern in which the relationship slowly builds, then appears to be teetering on the brink of collapse, before – hallelujah! – it all works out with a kiss in the street late at night.

The two characters at the centre of this Philadelphia-based love story are Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) and Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence). Pat suffers from bipolar disorder, and at the beginning of the film we witness his release from a mental health facility into the care of his mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) and father Pat Sr (Robert De Niro), an illegal bookmaker trying to raise funds in order to open his own restaurant. Pat’s eight-month hospitalisation was enforced as a result of a brutal attack on a man he caught in the shower with his wife Nikki (Brea Bee). Though he is prescribed medication to manage his condition, he doesn’t believe he needs to take it, and tells his therapist Dr. Patel (Anupam Kher) that he has a new outlook on life – summarised by the word ‘excelsior’ – in which he attempts to see the good, or silver lining, in any challenging situation. Despite the presence of a restraining order Pat intends to show Nikki that he can control his temper and that they can both return to the life they knew before. Tiffany, meanwhile, is struggling to cope with her own neuroses and grief following the recent death of her husband, and bonds with Pat when she meets him at the house of her sister Veronica (Julia Stiles), whose husband Ronnie (John Ortiz) is friends with Pat. Pat and Tiffany enter a local dancing competition, but will Pat forget about Nikki long enough to notice how much he has in common with his dance partner? Answers on a postcard marked clearly ‘Of course he will – such is the Hollywoodification of life’ to the usual address please.

* This infantilazation of Pat is subtly complemented by his own decision to read the same books in his bedroom that are studied by the pupils of grade school teacher Nikki.

Both Tiffany and Pat endure complicated, tense relationships with their siblings and parents. Tiffany – perhaps through a degree of unchecked jealousy – quickly loses her temper when she is in her older sister’s presence, although Veronica’s blunt way of speaking doesn’t help matters at all. Pat’s brother Jake (Shea Wigham) is equally insensitive, and the two men have grown distant over time. Tiffany lives in a converted garage next to her parents’ house, while Pat’s circumstances mean that he has taken up temporary residence in his childhood bedroom*; in both cases their concerned parents are watchful, although Tiffany’s only appear briefly in one scene, sadly.

Russell’s film concentrates more on Pat’s relationship with his parents (and, principally, Pat’s relationship with Pat Sr). The implication is that Pat Sr’s personality hasn’t exactly helped his son’s fragile mental state over the years, and when the superstitious father blames Pat for losses by the Philadelphia Eagles he is quick to chastise him with phrases like ‘You’re useless!’ (There is also, obviously, the implication that a genetic link accounts for Pat Jr’s illness.)

De Niro plays Pat Sr as an old rogue, albeit an old rogue with a quick temper, and it’s entirely possible that the character may have a milder form of bipolar disease himself. His Philadelphia Eagles obsession and betting-related woes endeared him to me, although that kind of thing could easily put other viewers off the character. The veteran actor really gets into the part despite the fact most of his scenes take place in the same couple of rooms and go over the same few topics; it is without doubt De Niro’s best performance for something like 15 years. Dolores – by contrast – seems more and more like a doormat as the movie progresses, though she has apparently managed the behaviour of Pat Sr for many years and does not seem daunted by Pat Jr’s condition. As the only woman in a house that once contained three men she has clearly had to sound off on occasion, but the volume of her voice may well have dimmed over time. While the character isn’t exactly a timid mouse, it’s hard to feel anything but sympathy as she rolls her eyes and protests to no avail while Pat Sr makes one outlandish, risky bet after another. Jacki Weaver equals De Niro’s turn with her own terrific performance, and they are an entirely believable couple.

* Lawrence’s 2013 Oscar win for her role was well-deserved, as were the nominations for Weaver, Cooper and De Niro. I also thought Julia Stiles was good in her few scenes.

It is interesting to watch the Pat / Tiffany relationship develop during the movie. The characters are equally combustible and unpredictable, and Cooper and Lawrence are both suited to this kind of role; their best scenes involve snarling aggression and sharp tongued assassinations, and both appear to bring the best out of De Niro when he joins them in front of the cameras. I can’t really attest to the accuracy of Cooper’s portrayal of a man with bipolar disorder, but to these uneducated eyes it seemed believable. As good as the two leads are*, having watched this after seeing Russell’s highly enjoyable American Hustle, I do wonder whether the director has veered toward Unhinged Brad and Bellicose Jen just a little too readily in these past two films. Handily it gives his films a little turbo boost every now and then, but both actors are more than capable of incorporating a wider, more subtle range of emotion into their performances, if required.

There is a clear link between Silver Linings Playbook and the dysfunctional family and struggling marriage of Russell’s earlier film, The Fighter, and perhaps it’s worth noting – without wishing to come over all TMZ here – that both these films have appeared in the wake of the director’s separation from his first wife in 2007. It is far less serious than The Fighter, though, and the comic tone here actually recalls that of Russell’s earlier movies Three Kings, Flirting With Disaster and *shudder* I Heart Huckabees. The moments of humour in Silver Linings Playbook are judged well; there is never a danger of the director mining mental health issues for cheap laughs, and instead the amusing moments are shown simply as ‘part of life’, even when they occur as a direct result of the respective personality disorders. The screwball final act, however, does feel out of step with what has gone before, but aside from that the humour is worked into the film very well indeed.

Given the strength of the acting and the screenplay (by Russell, adapted from Matthew Quick’s novel The Silver Linings Playbook), this stands above a great many romantic comedies, but infuriatingly it still adheres to the genre’s tried and tested (and boring) conventions. There is an attempt to disguise a wholly predictable ending with a series of relationship ups and downs (as soon as I get a sniff of the ‘will-they-won’t-they-we’re-gonna-keep-you-guessing schtick I know exactly how it’s going to pan out), and this formulaic structure results in a nagging sense that the film is something of a missed opportunity; from a director as brave and as willing to fuck around with normal genre exercises as Russell it’s disappointing. Certain interesting themes – such as Tiffany sleeping with half the town in the wake of her husband’s death – are ditched for the final act, as if they don’t quite fit the romcom mould neatly enough. Maybe it’s to avoid confusing people who simply want to feel happy when two leading characters get together and are able to move on from their respective traumas at the same time (as if that would actually happen in tandem in real life). Yeah, it’s the crowd-pleasing volte-face that grates here. What’s annoying is that for two thirds of the movie I felt like I wasn’t watching the same-old same-old romcom that ties itself up neatly at the end, but it turns out I was, after all. Russell’s ending is distinctly underwhelming: it’s the suggestion that a kiss is the end to all the characters’ problems that I dislike, because before the final act the director has seemingly gone to great lengths to create characters with complex psychological problems who display completely unpredictable (and often irrational) behaviour. Are we supposed to believe that love heals everything? What’s with the ‘happy families’ final scene? I’m not sure how I’d feel about this, exactly, if I suffered from depression myself.

That said, there’s a good chance that the film’s structure and shift in tone is a deliberate reflection of aspects of Pat’s condition. I couldn’t possibly say for sure, and ordinarily I’d dismiss such a thought as being overly generous toward the director in question, but with Russell in the chair I definitely think it’s worth entertaining the notion. After all, American Hustle was a film about forgery and deception that is itself a meticulous forgery of the work of Martin Scorsese. I think Russell is someone who thinks long and hard about the framework for his stories and how the film as a whole is able to reflect the themes of the plot. And yet maybe it’s just a shitty third act that sits awkwardly next to the rest of the film.

* The presence of one or two ‘sore thumb’ pop acts – Jessie J, for example – amidst all the classic rock (Dylan, Zeppelin, Rare Earth) and jazz (Nina Simone, The Dave Brubeck Quartet) smacks of record company product placement, too.

Silver Linings Playbook is at times an enjoyable romantic comedy, though it also manages to disappoint and could have been so much better. The acting is of a high standard (even Chris Tucker tones down his usual overacting as Pat’s fellow patient Danny), the camerawork is occasionally interesting, it’s sharply-scripted and Danny Elfman’s score is typically moving, but it’s also predictable, the ending ties things up far too neatly and some of the soundtrack choices – principally Led Zeppelin’s What Is And What Should Never Be and The White Stripes’ Hello Operator – are misjudged. Still, the related themes of gambling in life / gambling on football are thankfully not linked together in too heavy-handed a manner and Russell’s handling of bittersweet comedy is again impressive.

The Basics:

Directed by: David O. Russell
Written by: David O. Russell, Matthew Quick
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver
Certificate: 15
Running Time: 122 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 6.7

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