Monthly Archives: May 2013
What Maisie Knew (2013)
Did you know that What Maisie Knew is based on a novel by Henry James that was published in 1897? I sure didn’t, but then again my knowledge of Mr. James is somewhat limited. James’ tale of negligent parents passing off their daughter back and forth was controversial when the novel was first published. Updated to modern-day New York City, seven-year-old Maisie (Onata Aprile) is the pawn in her parents’ contentious divorce. Her father, Beale (Steve Coogan) is an art dealer who is constantly on his phone and making out-of-country trips. Her mother, Susanna (Julianne Moore), is an aging lead singer for a 90s alt rock band who also likes to party. Beale remarries Margo (Joanna Vanderham), a young woman who previously served as Maisie’s nanny. Not to be outdone, Susanna remarries Lincoln (Alexander Skarsgard), an affable bartender who’s somewhat clueless around kids. Everyone is trying to navigate the tricky new relationships and what they think is best for Maisie, though Lincoln and Margo seem to be the only ones who actually care.
When it comes to divorce dramas, the easy way is to go big, to ramp up the emotions of such an emotionally distraught experience, and to tip into the overwrought territory of melodrama. I can already imagine the animated shouting fests and crying fests. Then there’s the impulse to go the bitterness route, like 2005’s The Squid and the Whale, where the movie takes a cue from its feuding parents and infuses the film with a dark, overpowering sense of acrimony. I credit directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End, Bee Season) for making arguably one of the most subdued movies about divorce I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly not flippant in the slightest, treating the subject, and mainly the toxic effect on Maisie, with sincerity and good taste. But as far as overblown shouting matches, they’re kept to a minimum and mostly comprise the first fifteen minutes of the movie, establishing the inevitable divorce of Susanna and Beale. The movie ignores the sensational and focuses on the ordinary, little moments of complete believability that serve to build, like brick by brick, the overall reality of the story. You’ll watch the film and think to yourself that, even with parents with completely outlandishly rich professions, that everything in this movie could realistically happen. Weird to think that James wrote his tale over 100 years ago and yet how relatable his conflicts still are to this day. However, because of this subdued, naturalistic approach, What Maisie Knew can’t quite find a proper ending. The one presented seems a tad too pat and tidy for this movie. It almost approaches a“happy ending,” though not quite. Still, knowing how thick-skulled both Susanna and Beale are, it’s hard to think that they will ever come to their senses and do what’s in the best interest of Maisie.
This can be an uncomfortable movie to watch because Maisie’s mom and dad are so destructively neglectful and self-involved. There’s a perverse rubbernecking draw to seeing the antics of truly awful parenting. You’ll find yourself getting very mad at how terrible these people are at being human beings. Susanna and Beale interrogate their daughter for ammo they can use against the other, twisting and manipulating the kid that we wonder if either truly cares about. Dad’s always full of excuses and mom’s looking to flee from responsibility at a moment’s notice, dumping her daughter on her latest boyfriend. You’ll find yourself easily sympathizing with Lincoln and Margo, the two people who love Maisie most and would make the best parents for her. I began rooting that they just abduct Maisie and start a new life as a family in a different country. The unchecked narcissism of both Susanna and Beale could serve as a clinical study. It’s a wonder that Maisie seems like a bright, playful, and relatively normal kid. For now.
Another aspect of McGehee and Siegel’s joint direction that I really enjoyed was how the movie takes on the perspective of little Maisie; she is our eyes and ears, and often the camera framing will instinctively mirror her own point of view, cutting off adults. It’s an interesting visual approach but it also further tethers us to this girl, forcing us to think even deeper about Maisie’s perspective, and how she’s interpreting the angry words. I suppose there is a valid argument to be had that a seven-year-old child is going to be a rather limited perspective on such a contentious conflict. There’s also the nature of Maisie. She’s a relatively quiet child, given to poking her head around corners and staring with those big glassy eyes of hers. Given the fact that she’s a child, and processing a painful life experience, don’t expect her to divulge too much about her thoughts and feelings. She’s an opaque presence and I realize that that can get frustrating for some. She’s not the kind of kid that’s going to burst into tantrums. This girl is internalizing all the pain and confusion. Having a passive prism for your movie might be akin to telling a love story from the point of view of a potted fern. Literally anchoring the camerawork to Maisie (I don’t want to oversell this as if it’s a stylistic gimmick) forces us to constantly think of every action through its impact upon Maisie. It’s not exactly a coming of age or loss of innocence tale but more a combination of the two.
If you’re going to have a child be the star of your movie, you better choose wisely. I’ve found that as I grow older I have less tolerance for poor child actors. Perhaps it’s my inner Scrooge. Good thing that little Aprile (Yellow) is so effortlessly heartbreaking as she tries to find her way amidst her changing home life. One day she has a mom and dad, then she’s splitting time, then her daddy has a new mommy, who happens to be her old nanny, and then mommy has a new husband as well (Susanna admits she got remarried simply to improve her court standing). Aprile nicely underplays her character’s innate vulnerability while still reminding you of her youth. She’ll get scared and ask to go home, crying alone in her bed, and your heart will ache. I cannot say whether the strength of Aprile’s performance lies more with her legitimate skills as an actress, good direction, or the general reticence of the character, and thus the lesser demands for a child.
Moore (The Kids Are All Right) and Coogan (The Trip) give surprisingly textured performances, at least more so than the opening fifteen minutes would have you believe. They can both be monstrous and callously indifferent to their daughter’s well being, but as the movie concludes, each one of them has a small moment where they realize the damage they are inflicting upon their child, how poor a parent they have been (Susanna even lashes out at Lincoln’s encouragement to Maisie as “undermining her as a parent”). It’s much more than I was anticipating and both actors do good work at being unlikable without going overboard. Fans of TV’s True Blood might just swoon a little harder thanks to Skarsgard’s good-natured, humble, and mildly affecting performance as a man who becomes profoundly attached to Maisie. He may not know what he’s doing but isn’t that parenting as a whole? Skarsgard and the charming Vanderham make a great onscreen pair and their genuine affection for Maisie provide the most uplifting moments.
When it comes to parenting, there are no magic instructions to insure a responsible, loving, thoughtful, and independent human being. It’s a leap of blind faith. However, it’s much easier to predict the events that can screw up an impressionable child (do not misconstrue this as my declaration that children of divorce are, at heart, broken somehow). The thought of collateral damage is fresh in our minds as we track little Maisie trying to survive the reach of her terrible parents. The terse arguments can be painful but even more painful is the overall negligence of her rich and mostly absent, self-involved parents. What Maisie Knew isn’t a downer of a movie and its subject matter is given proper seriousness and reflection. You’ll likely cringe at points, may even grumble under your breath, but in the end it ends on a hopeful note, the possibility that Maisie, under the right guidance, could turn out to be the bright kid we see glimpses of at her school. There’s something quite moving about the resiliency of a child. This is, of course, just one interpretation of the movie, but What Maisie Knew is an emotionally engaging, subdued, sincere, and poignant film that trades on naturalistic waves of human interaction rather than cartoonish bluster, all the while forgoing cheap sentimentality or unpleasant bitterness. For the performances, the deft handling of sensitive material, and the quality direction, give What Maisie Knew a chance when able.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Pitch Perfect (2012)
Take the plot of Bring it On, add remixes and mash-ups of popular music thrown through the Glee grinder, Rebel Wilson’s adlibbed one-liners, and shake, and you have Pitch Perfect, an a cappella singing comedy that was a sleeper hit last fall. My female friends raved about it. It’s from a 30 Rock writer. It’s from the director of the irreverent musical Avenue Q. I like Wilson and the movie’s star, Anna Kendrick (Up in the Air). I wanted to like it, and while I found most of it passably cute, I could not get too attached and the chief reason was Kendrick’s character. She’s so surly and standoffish and just plain bratty, and for no good reason. It gets really annoying. Her rote romance with a bland hunky guy is made even more incredulous because Kendrick, get this, hates movies. Not certain kinds of movies or movies with certain actors, just the entire medium. Who is like this? That’s like disliking all of music entirely. The overall comedic spirit of the movie is amiable with a few oddball touches that keep things interesting, notably one girl who talks very quietly and says outrageous confessions. Listen well. The performance segments are impressive in their own right enough so that I wish there were more of them. There’s also a level of reality to projectile vomit that I was not prepared for. Overall, Pitch Perfect is a fitfully amusing comedy that never really settles down a functional tone, and Kendrick’s bratty character drags the movie down. It’s far from perfect but depending upon your love of a cappella, it could be good enough.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Fast and Furious 6 (2013)
I’ll confess something upfront: I have no interest in cars whatsoever. Never have. I don’t care. Seeing sexy cars with their gleaming and purring engines, well it does nothing for me. Hearing people talk about American vs. import or different engine capabilities, well it puts me to sleep. I get no thrill from cars alone. What I do get thrills from are when the cars are utilized in exciting action sequences that are well developed. I enjoy the role the cars play rather than the mechanics of the cars themselves. I’ve never watched a full Fast and Furious movie until the 2009 sequel, the fifth, which added notable franchise-lifter The Rock. I was won over by the wow-factor of director Justin Lin’s bombastic action. This is not a franchise for me from the gearhead content; however, I have become a fan thanks to the talents of Lin, the inclusion of my man crush The Rock, and some truly spectacular action set pieces. Fast and Furious 6, or Furious 6 as the onscreen title declares, is pretty much everything I thought it would be: dumb, loud, physics-free, and boasting remarkable action sequences, and it delivers.
It’s years after Dom (Vin Diesel) and Brian (Paul Walker) and their crew pulled off their epic heist in Rio. Hobbs (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) recruits Dom’s team for help nabbing a really bad guy with his own really bad team. Owen Shaw (Luke Evans) is a military-trained Brit who is hijacking advanced weapon parts to put together a super weapon that can knock out the power grid for a country. Dom’s ready to turn down the offer, content to live it up in paradise, when Hobbs shares a photo of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), alive and well, and part of Shaw’s wrecking crew. Letty, Dom’s old squeeze, was thought dead, but it turns out she has amnesia, and Dom is determined to foil the bad guy and reclaim his girlfriend.
When I say Fast and the Furious 6 is a ridiculous movie in the extreme, I mean that as a compliment and a detriment. The movie never attempts to be anything outside of a loony, high-octane action thriller that gleefully ignores reality. Characters will fly off cars at great speeds, crashing into parked motor vehicles as “safe landings.” Brian will get himself thrown in the same prison as a notorious criminal, gather his needed intel, and escape all within a couple of days. The bad guy’s plan is also one of those only-in-the-movies super weapons. For goodness sake there’s even the hoariest of plot devices – amnesia. Really, Letty can’t remember anything. How prevalent is amnesia? Movies make it seem like it’s one Flintstones-style bump on the head away. Then there’s the massive amounts of wear and tear the heroes take on, their cars take on, and in general their superhuman status. But anyone expecting these films to adhere to a recognizable reality, especially after five movies, is adrift. Part of the appeal of the franchise is exactly its over-the-top lunacy with its action.
Having only really checked into the franchise one movie prior, I’m sure that there are plenty of moviegoers who are wrapped up in the ongoing saga of Dom and Brian and their motorin’ crew. I didn’t care about the characters; well, I generally liked most of them in an abstract way, but I was never that involved with them. I enjoyed The Rock’s character the most but that is also due to the innate magnetism of The Rock, someone Diesel could take some serious notes from. I say all this because there is a lot of time spent on the ongoing character relationships between Dom and his amnesiac love, Letty. He’s trying to pull her back, reminding her of the memories he thinks are tucked away, and they talk and drive and talk and I was bored. Perhaps if I had four movies worth of investment I would care more, but I don’t. Then again, we’re talking about a romance between Diesel and Rodriguez, both fine genetic specimens, but neither of them are what you would call gifted thespians outside of their defacto tough guy roles. The rest of Dom’s team are given throwaway bits, though even with those meager offerings Tyrese Gibson (Transformers) comes close to wearing out his welcome as a nagging naysayer. The multiracial cast is so large that it makes it hard for any of them to actually develop as characters. Plus, this movie provides a matching evil cast that doubles the number of characters.
Ignoring all the dumb plot points and repetitious messages, when it comes time to unleash some top-draw action, that’s when Lin earns his mettle. The man has guided the franchise through four sequels ever since 2006’s Tokyo Drift, which dovetails with the timeline of this film in a surprising way (did you know these were prequels and not sequels?). I can forgive all the lapses in logic and physics when I get action sequences so good I don’t want to blink. The last two extended action set pieces in Fast and Furious 6 are stunners, massive, constantly evolving, and ridiculous in the best ways possible. The first is a freeway chase involving a tank and along a coastal Spanish highway high above cliffs. The phrase “freeway chase involving a tank” should immediately put a smile to your face. There is such over-the-top vehicular carnage, all along a trepidatious path, and the pacing just keeps things fully amped. The finale involves a giant military aircraft and a seemingly endless runway (seriously, this thing has to be like 80 miles long). Dom and his team are driving cars inside the plane, out of it, zipping around, snagging wings, being carried off with the plane; it’s a glorious sequence that involves multiple points of action, different team members, and develops organically while still escalating the awesome. Lin handles these sequences like a pro. I’m tempted to say that the greatness of these concluding action set pieces is reason enough to see Fast and Furious 6 in the theater on the big screen.
I’ve never really understood the appeal of Diesel (Babylon A.D.). I felt like I was asleep when it was decided that he had become a major action star. I don’t get it. The man grumbles just about every line of dialogue into an almost indecipherable growl. He also has the habit of getting very quiet when he’s supposed to be serious, thus making it even harder to understand what the guy is saying. I know at this point Diesel is a package deal with the franchise, but I wouldn’t mind if the far more charismatic Johnson (Pain and Gain) were to slide over and replace him as lead. Rodriguez (Battle: Los Angeles) seems to have a habit of dying in franchises and being resurrected (see: TV’s Lost, Resident Evil 5). The rest of the franchise players do their parts well enough with what little they have. Evans (Immortals) makes for a suitable sneering if forgettable villain. My favorite new actor is Gina Carano (Haywire), not necessarily because she’s a great actress, though she’s better than you’d think for an MMA-fighter-turned-actor, but because this woman is a born movie star. She’s got screen presence, a fierce look, and the lady does her own stunts. She is an impressive beast of an action star and hopefully somebody will get her the right project to make her break out big time (Haywire wasn’t it, folks).
While I prefer Fast Five, a more fun flick where the team play their parts in a convoluted but entertaining heist, Fast and Furious 6 is a highly enjoyable summer movie with some top-class action sequences. This franchise is the epitome of the popcorn thriller, its vaunting heights of ridiculousness also its most laudable quality. Six movies in, I imagine most moviegoers know what they’re getting with this franchise and they must like it because every sequel seems to outperform the last at the box-office. The formula of fast cars, sexy ladies, and hyperactive action make for a surefire, turn-off-your-brain summer spectacle. Lin has a real knack for directing large-scale destruction that’s easy to follow and easy to get caught up in. He has a strong tentpole mentality and I imagine he will be tapped to helm some other big-budget action picture. Whatever it is, his involvement guarantees my interest. I don’t know about Fast and Furious 7, scheduled to come out speedily next summer. Lin is being replaced by James Wan of horror fame, notably Saw and Insidious (his DePalma-esque work on 2007’s Death Sentence was actually striking). Considering Lin made one feature before jumping into Furious mode, a small indie crime drama, I won’t discount Wan’s potential, but I’ll miss Lin all the same. In the end, the director could be just as interchangeable as any other part of this franchise as long as it sticks to its tested formula and delivers the goods when it comes to ridiculous action.
Nate’s Grade: B
The Iceman (2013)
We’re fascinated by hired killers. Chalk it up to morbid curiosity or perhaps perverse, secret wish fulfillment, but we’re all titillated a tad by the murderous for hire. The Iceman is all about Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon), who worked as a contract killer for the mob from 1966 to 1988. He’s estimated to have killed over 100 people. A mob middleman (Ray Liotta) is impressed that Kuklinski shows no fear with a gun in his face, and so the guy gets hired to rack up the bodies. At the same time, Kuklinski has a wife (Winona Ryder) and two daughters, all of whom have no clue what daddy does for a living until he’s finally brought to justice.
The main issue at play with The Iceman is that it’s trying to draw out a character study for a rather impenetrable person. It’s hard to get a solid read on the character of Richard Kuklinski. The compartmentalizing of these two very distinct lives is a fascinating psychology to explore, one I wish the filmmakers had spent a majority of the screen time upon. The internal justifications, struggles and compromises would make for an excellent and insightful look into the psychology of killer rationalization. However, I don’t know if this movie would even be possible from this subject. Kuklinski is by all accounts a pretty detached guy. There just doesn’t seem like there’s a lot to him. His circumstances are interesting, beaten into an emotionless cipher by his father, brother to a fellow sociopath, and trying to make a reasonable life for himself while keeping his inner urges at bay. The sociopath-tries-to-make-good storyline is reminiscent to fans of TV’s Dexter, and there’s plenty of room to work there. It’s an intriguing contradiction, the man who cares for so little protecting his family. In the end, we don’t really get a sense of why beyond the illusion of the American Family that Kuklinski wants to hold onto, to make himself seem normal, to prove to his family he could break free from their influence. Even typing this I feel like I’m giving the film more depth than it actually illustrates. Even though he tries to play the part of devoted family man, we rarely see any evidence of devotion. He provides, yes, puts his kids in private school, but he puts his family at risk and doesn’t seem to have affection for them as much as propriety. They are his things and nobody will mess with them. Your guess is as good as mine if he genuinely loves any of them.
Too much of the film gets mired in standard mob clichés. This guy upsets that guy; this guy wants the other guy dead. It all becomes the focal point of the movie, Kuklinski getting caught up in, essentially, office politics. Even the true-life details of the grisly methods of death feel like wasted potential for a better story. He goes on a job, he botches a job, he gets let go, so to speak, he strikes up a new partnership with another contract killer, Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans in a bad wig). That last part could have been a movie unto itself, watching an odd couple of hitmen plan, execute, and then dispose of their targets. The Iceman nickname comes from their process, freezing the dismembered corpses for months so that coroners cannot get a read on when the bodies were slain. While Evans is entertaining, this entire portion of the movie could have been eliminated, its bearing on the plot minimal. Likewise, the movie has several small roles populated by recognizable actors, which become a series of one-scene distractions. Kuklinski goes out on a hit and it’s… James Franco. Then there’s Friends actor David Schwimmer as a sleazy, ponytailed, nebbish mob screw-up. Stephen Dorff has one moment as Kuklinski’s angry, desperate, murderous brother in prison. The actors are all fine, with the exception of Franco, but many of them are just another reminder of the film’s disjointed attention.
I mentioned in Pain and Gain the notion of portraying true-life criminals as sympathetic figures, and the queasy nature of this complicit interpretation. The Iceman never really tries to make Kuklinski sympathetic or some form of an antihero, and I think the movie is better for it. One of the earliest moments in the film is Kuklinski slitting the throat of a guy who harassed him and defamed his lady. This is BEFORE the guy is even hired as a contract killer too. It seems like when the guy can’t murder he becomes a worse family man. Even in the end, he’s testing a new batch of cyanide on the neighborhood cat. The movie presents Kuklinski as he is, though you’ll be forgiven for feeling some initial pings of sympathy when you seem him try and protect his family. Granted his family could also very well use protection from him.
Shannon’s (Premium Rush) performance is what keeps you watching. There are few actors who are as intense as this guy, though I’m used to seeing him play unhinged psychos bouncing off the walls. Kuklinski is just as troubled as his other roles but he’s all reserve, steely nerves, and anger that eventually bubbles over into violent rage. Shannon is still such a good actor that even with a thin character, or at least thin characterization, he can be completely compelling to watch onscreen. One of the more peculiar, inconsistent elements of the film is Shannon’s constantly-changing facial hair. I think I lost count at about nine or ten different facial topiary variations. There were times where it will be different in consecutive scenes. I guess that’s a tipoff of a time jump, but his morphing, period-appropriate facial hair also became a point of amusement.
What makes The Iceman so disappointing in retrospect is how much potential it seems to squander. There’s a great story to be had with a contract killer by night and a family man by day. That contradiction, the struggle, the psychology is all rich material to work with. It’s just that Kuklinski is not necessarily that guy; he’s not too deep, at least not in this version, and his killer work problems are just not that compelling. If this is what the filmmakers were going to do with their real-life subject, then they might as well have just used Kuklinski as inspiration. Take the best parts and then compose a different lead character, someone more emotionally transparent or relatable or just plain old interesting. Just because it’s a real story doesn’t mean you’re indebted to telling every true facet of it, especially when a better story is within sight. Shannon is a terrific actor and does his best to make the film worth watching, but from distracted plotting to unmet analysis and emotional exploration, it’s hard to walk away from The Iceman and not feel a bit chilly.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
J.J. Abrams’ return to the final frontier had me extremely excited for what the sequel to 2009’s smash Star Trek would be. It’s a different sort of Trek, a more rough-and-tumble, popcorn entertainment with the recognizable flavor of that other famous space opera that Abrams is steering into theaters come 2015. Having seen Star Trek Into Darkness twice, certain things became very clear to me. First, this is about everything you could ask for in a summer popcorn action movie. The set pieces are thrilling (my fave may be a human bullet shoot through a field of debris), there’s something new and dangerous going on just about every fifteen minutes, the stakes are constantly changing, and there are a bevy of well plotted character arcs for a deep and well acted ensemble. It’s about everything you’d want in a Star Trek movie… if you were a big fan of the 2009 film. If you’re a lifelong fan, you may have some reservations, notably the inclusion of a famous villain that shouldn’t be too hard to guess. The second half references to Trek cannon, especially Star Trek 2, feel weird for a film that broke away into a parallel universe so that it could chart its own course rather than relive the old stories. There’s homage and then there’s just subservience. Still, there are plenty of resonant themes, like friendship, sacrifice, and family, that are given adequate attention, amidst all the big-budget escapist thrills. There are even some surprisingly poignant moments that the actors ace. Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s Sherlock) is incredible as the villain, a terrorist with a menacing, velvety voice that I could listen to all day. The vast majority of Into Darkness is tremendously entertaining, with a great pulse and sense of scene construction. The Abrams team knows how to make blockbusters in the old Spielberg variety, spectacle with humanity and humor and sweep. If this is what he can do with the Trek universe, just wait until Episode VII people.
Nate’s Grade: A-
House at the End of the Street (2012)
As readers will attest, I am a fan of actress Jennifer Lawrence. Some of my pals might say limiting the word to “fan” is being too modest on my part, but I don’t want to alarm anyone. I think she’s a terrifically talented actress and her Best Actress Oscar was well deserved for a film I unabashedly adore. With all of this being said, good actors can still make really bad movies, and that’s what we have with the stillborn horror flick, House at the End of the Street, referred to by marketing by the Twitter-friendly acronym HATES. That seemed like a tip-off, didn’t it? The problem is that for a good hour this movie is more of a drama than a horror movie, and everyone in town seems to be jerks to this guy in town whose sister murdered his family. Apparently him still residing in town lowers their property values… for some reason. I think it wants to be a psychological thriller, but even giving it that much credit assumes there’s some degree of competent execution. It’s not scary, the twists should be easily telegraphed to anyone with a modicum of sense, and Lawrence’s presence is just downright questionable. Why did she agree to do this? What about this clunky script, with its obvious padding to its “shocking” revelation, appealed to this woman? I suppose with her fast ascent to the top of Hollywood, Lawrence now has the clout to never again star in something as drecky as this would-be thriller. Then again, if she does, it’ll be by choice. Or a fat paycheck.
Nate’s Grade: C-
The Great Gatsby (2013)
It seemed like some sort of educational mandate that every child in the United States was forced to read F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, when they were in high school. In my highly unscientific number crunching, it appears that those who actually enjoyed the book are in the minority. I recall loathing it, but then again, when you’re fifteen, you sort of loath everything. Enter Australian director Baz Luhrmann, the showman who exploded the screen in razzle-dazzle run amok with Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge!. Not exactly the kind of filmmaker one would fathom helming an adaptation of a classic of American literature, but the man’s style of excess seems like a suitable match for Fitzgerald’s tale of high-class overindulgence.
In 1922, young Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to the hustle and bustle of New York City, living close to his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her rich husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). He’s also the neighbor to the mysterious and newly rich Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a reclusive man who opens his mansion up to prolific bacchanals. Rumors persist in who he is and how he accrued his enormous fortune. He’s an old flame of Daisy’s and is secretly hoping she’ll attend one of his raucous soirees. He enlists Nick to help arrange a reunion for them, and soon enough Gatsby is already planning their happy future together again. Trouble is, Tom isn’t willing to lose his wife without a fight.
Luhrmann’s helming of The Great Gatsby gave me exactly what I desired and expected. The movie is convulsing with energy and the first hour just moves; be it the camerawork or people onscreen, for long stretches there always seems to be some degree of onscreen movement. Luhrmann’s signature theatrical visual atmosphere is vibrant, joyous, and a perfect translator of the lavish lifestyles of the noveau rich in the Roaring ‘20s. The man brings to startling life the sensations of being young, privileged, and carefree, and the use of anachronistic music, while not nearly as textured and thematically relevant as Moulin Rouge!, adds to the fun. I quite enjoyed a low-key, jazzy rendition of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love.” Luhrmann’s style treks in excess but it’s a much more pleasant, dreamy, and altogether beguiling form of artistic indulgence than, say, Michael Bay or Tony Scott and their respective macho visual fetishes. Luhrmann’s campy sense of style doesn’t come across as overly suffocating or distracting, at least to my eyes, and instead the man injects his movies with tremendous energy, immersing you into a new world of old and modern. This is what Luhrmann was meant for. While other canonical classics of American literature may not survive a glitzy Lurhmann treatment, it’s a good match for the extravagant excess of Fitzgerald’s setting. Lurhmann’s visuals are glorious, and the 1920s era is brought to glamorous life. You get the sense it was one giant party without any lasting consequences (if you were rich enough).
The second half of the movie slows down considerably after the amped-up introduction. We’re caught up in the characters at this point, as we should be, and the Gatsby/Daisy reunion dominates the plot. I suppose there are only so many Busby Berkeley numbers and confetti explosions one can encounter before the plot has to set in. Lurhmann and company stick pretty faithfully to Fitzgerald’s plot (rest easy, lazy high school students of today and tomorrow). Interestingly, they are far more explicit about Gatsby’s securities fraud, knowingly making a fortune off junk bonds, all in the name to impress Daisy. There’s a genuine sense of respect for the source material even with Luhrmann’s visual flourishes; at several points, Fitzgerald’s text floats onscreen. The problem is that Luhrmann’s Gatsby is almost entirely focused on the romantic coupling of its title figure and Daisy. Gone is the class criticism, the indictment of the follies of the rich, the examination of the dark side of the American Dream, and the subtext. You’ll get plenty of shots of that famous green light, 20th century literature’s most famous and unsophisticated symbol (pay attention kids: green means go), but there’s little time for complexity. It’s not a screen romance worth this much attention, which is kind of the point, but when the movie clocks at over 2 hours and 20 minutes, drawing out a lackluster romance can become rather grating.
If I were top cite one major fault in Luhrmann’s incarnation, it’s that it adopts Nick’s fawning perspective and treats Gatsby as this tragic romantic figure. I acknowledge with every adaption there is a degree of interpretation, and romantic hero is certainly one facet of Gatsby, certainly how he sees himself, but by the end of Fitzgerald’s novel, Gatsby is really more a naïve man who really only sees Daisy as trophy, a prize for his reinvention and jumping up to the storied moneyed class. Daisy herself is certainly weak-willed but her emptiness (she says there’s nothing better than for a girl to be a “beautiful, young fool”) is part of the appeal to Gatsby because he can remake her however he wants. He’s not interested insomuch as her as a person. I don’t think that the Gatsby/Daisy escapades fall into the ranks of Great Tragic Couples of Literature, but that’s how Luhrmann interprets the novel, transforming Gatsby into a revered, honorable, and heartbreaking romantic we’re meant to shed a tear for. I suppose since we’re reliving the story through Nick’s perspective that events could be colored differently. Beyond just a simplistic analysis, it also misses the greater and more futile tragedy of a man trying to escape his past by obsessively recreating it.
The acting is fairly good all around, though the standout is certainly not whom you’d expect. DiCaprio (Django Unchained) is a good fit for the handsome social-climber, but the movie only asks him to play a limited range of emotions, rarely breaking free to show glimpses of the darker, less polished side of Gatsby’s carefully crafted image. He doesn’t exactly exude the charisma you would think necessary for the man, plus his use of “old sport” is so overly abundant it approaches farce. Maguire (Brothers) is a bit too earnest even for his role. It becomes readily clear within minutes that Maguire does not possess a voice for narration. The man is also a bit too old, at 37, to play the naïve, stars-in-his-eyes Nick Carraway. Mulligan (Shame) is given the least to work with since Daisy is meant to be rather opaque but she brings an extra amount of sympathy for a character trapped by her indecision and the demands of men. Easily the best actor in the bunch is Edgerton (Warrior). It would be easy for the guy to simply be the brutish heavy, the angry husband and easy to hate antagonist. Edgerton showcases a surprising depth, and you may find yourself feeling some smidge of sympathy for the lout.
Much like Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!, it’s an easy prediction that his Great Gatsby will be equally divisive. There will probably be as many critics decrying Luhrmann’s blitzkrieg of confetti and style as a campy cannibalization of an American classic as there will be celebrating the mad energy and obsequious reverence exhibited in a handsomely mounted, big-budget adaptation. The movie is even being presented in 3D, and did you ever think you’d hear the phrase “The Great Gatsby in 3D” in your life? I enjoyed Luhrmann’s gaudiness and indulgences, painting the screen with his vivid imagination. The impressive production design, costumes, visual effects, and overall visual aesthetic of the movie are a feast for the eyes. Now there are plenty of indulgences and excesses in the movie, particularly the emphasis on grand romance, but Gatsby entertains with few lags. Having read the book once and disliked it heartily in my youth, I can readily say that here is an example of where the movie is better than the book. Now if someone could go about making an improved version of The Lord of the Flies and A Tale of Two Cities, whatever you have to do, my teenage self will thank you kindly.
Nate’s Grade: B
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Third movies in superhero franchises always seem to be a precarious proposition; X-Men 3, Spider-Man 3, Superman 3, all graveyards of rushed productions, artistic compromises, and general complacency. Usually the third movie is when the hero has what he or she (but mostly he) has built up stripped down. It’s the same case with Iron Man 3, which short of a noisy finale has a surprisingly small amount of actual Iron Man, much like the scant amount of Batman in last year’s The Dark Knight Rises. That’s fine with me because the appeal of this franchise has been Tony Stark the character, not the mechanical heroics. Iron Man 3 is co-written and directed by super Hollywood scribe Shane Black, the man who gave us Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and the 2005 gem that resuscitated Robert Downey Jr.’s career, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. It was this fact alone, especially after how disappointing Iron Man 2 was, that got me jazzed about a third outing. Black’s characteristic sense of humor, genre blending, and mass appeal thrills helps to make Iron Man 3 an enjoyable if flawed movie-going experience and a suitable kickoff to the summer movie season.
Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) is having trouble sleeping, haunted by the near world-ending events in New York City from his time with the Avengers. Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), head of Stark Industries and Tony’s main squeeze, wants her man to take a mental health break. He’s spending as much time as possible in his lab, concocting a whole army of different Iron Man suits. His latest invention allows him to control a suit prototype with his body, compelling pieces of his amour to his person with a wave of his arms. He’ll need the help because the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a fearful terrorist leader, is staging a series of bombings around the United States, leaving behind videos taunting his foes. After an attack that hits close to home, Stark challenges the Mandarin and the bad guy brings the fight to the man of iron, decimating his home and forcing Stark to flee. In Tennessee, Stark unravels the mystery behind the Mandarin, which involves a brilliant scientist (Rebecca Hall), a nefarious biotechnology businessman (Guy Pearce), and even the president of the United States himself.
The best part of the first film was watching a brilliant guy become Iron Man; sure the superhero stuff was fun but it wasn’t what made the movie special. Downey Jr. as a charismatic, egotistical, self-involved but ultimately redeemable middle-aged playboy is what made the movie special. With Iron Man 3, he has to rely on his wits for large portions, which are still considerable. It’s a clever way to make a billionaire playboy with out-of-this-world technology empathetic. He’s never going to be an everyman but that doesn’t mean we can’t empathize. With that said, I still find his whole PTSD ordeal after events from The Avengers to be shaky. He’s already had near death experiences before so unless we get a bigger explanation (proof of alien existence and superiority? Knowing a return is inevitable?) I find it hard to fathom that a guy as outwardly unflappable as Tony Stark would be hobbled by his super team-up activities. Also, now that we exist in a post-Avengers universe, wouldn’t the ongoing attacks by the Mandarin warrant some sort of S.H.I.E.L.D. response or monitoring?
Likewise, I really appreciated how Black developed his action sequences, routinely giving Stark limitations. The concept of a suit that can assemble by itself and fly hundreds of miles is silly, sure, but it also opens up fun possibilities and questions of identity. At one point, Stark has one arm and one leg of his suit, allowing him to fight back but having to get creative with his moves. A fight while he’s handcuffed also provides enjoyable thrills. During the home attack, Stark’s suit is a prototype and will not allow him to fly, so he has to get inventive, literally shooting a grand piano at a helicopter. The best action scene is when Iron Man has to save a dozen people from plummeting to their deaths after being sucked out of Air Force One in midair. I wish the solution hadn’t been so quick but it’s a thrilling sequence with terrific aerial photography.
Until the finale, which is all-robot action, you could accuse the film of being too shrift in its action sequences, rarely lasting longer than a few brief minutes. They’re still quite entertaining, and well directed, with Black nicely drawing out organic complications and making good use of geography. We know that Black can write a glorious action sequence, but unless you were one of the lucky souls who saw Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, it’s a surprise that the man can direct one so well. There’s a nice sense of style on display but it never becomes overpowering, and thankfully it’s presented in a manner that you can, shocker, tell what is happening onscreen. Black definitely has a good eye for visuals and scene compositions but he also knows how to deliver great crowd-pleasing moments that we want in our summer movies. The climax is pretty busy with lots of keen Iron Man suits that you just know are there to be purchasable toys first and foremost. The sustained action is pretty involving, and Black is an expert at establishing mini-goals and developing naturally. Even as it starts to devolve into a hectic video game-like frenzy, there are enough changing goals and reversals to keep you satisfied for the long haul.
The movie’s villains are somewhat nebulous and employ an Evil Plot that is too convoluted by half. The Mandarin is an intriguing figure but undergoes some changes that will surely leave fans of the comic steaming mad. I accept that movies are an adaptation from the source material, and have no real personal affinity for Iron Man or his rogues’ gallery, so I wasn’t bothered by the notable change. It fits the tone of the movie as well as becomes another plot point in a convoluted Evil Plot. I will agree with detractors on this point: after the invasion in The Avengers, alien technology, the source of the Mandarin’s powers in the comic, is credible. I don’t really understand the political commentary at play with the Mandarin either. More so, and I’m trying to be delicate with spoilers, Iron Man 3 is really a movie about Tony Stark versus… lava people. Sure they have superhuman brains that provide regeneration and superior human ability. It just seems that all these super humans decide to do is… heat things up. They glow red, melt through walls, and are essentially lava creatures. Apparently Tony Stark needs to take some cues from that old U.S. Marines ad where the guy fights a giant lava monster (“Have you been attacked by a lava monster recently? No? You’re welcome – signed, the Marines”). The villains, while weak, are still probably the best in the series. It’s been a fairly weak franchise for antagonists.
Coming from Black, you’d expect an increase in the implementation of comedy, though Iron Man 3 probably walks just up to the line. It almost gets too jokey but pulls back enough. Adam Pally’s (TV’s criminally underseen Happy Endings) small bit as an obsessed fan of Stark is probably the testing point. Tony Stark has issues sure, especially if Disney will ever let the movies explore his history with alcoholism, but the man is never going to challenge Bruce Wayne for the brooding loner throne. Stark is a quipper, a loudmouth who uses humor as a weapon and a shield, and brought to vivid life by Downey Jr., the man will always be a comedian. That’s not to say that the drama lacks proper seriousness. However, Black pushes a lot more comedy into the film than we’ve seen in the earlier installments. Most of it is welcome and even when the movie goes into mass appeal mode, especially in Act Two when a plucky kid aids Stark, Black covers the familiar without losing his edge. You’ll likely recognize the buddy cop patter from Black’s other movies but it still works. There are several setups that look like we’re getting Big Hero Moments, and then Black decides to undercut them for a good laugh. Iron Man 3’s consistent sense of humor makes the movie feel even faster paced.
Downey Jr. (The Avengers) is still the MVP of the modern Marvel-verse in my eyes, and even two years removed from 50, he’s still got enough energy to power a small army. He’s still pulling the same schtick so to speak, which may wear thin for others after four starring appearances as Tony Stark, but I still find him naturally appealing. Paltrow (Contagion) gets a chance to do more than the standard damsel in distress that the women function in these movies. I regret that after being given a tantalizing new direction the movie reverts her back to standard damsel sidekick so speedily. Ho hum. Kingsley (Hugo) just seemed wrong for the part from the start, never mind the nebulous ethnicity issues. His vocal fluctuations and strange emphasis proved too distracting for me. However, he proves to be a better match after the Mandarin’s twist. Pearce (Lawless) is a pretty solid, smarmy bad guy and man has he got an impressive physique going on. It’s just nice to see great character actors from Hall (The Town) to Miguel Ferrer (Traffic) to Dale Dickey (Winter’s Bone) in a high-profile mega blockbuster. Even little Ty Simpkins (Insidious) is pretty good as the kid who helps out Stark. My tolerance for child acting has gone downhill as I have gotten older, but the kid is genuinely good without falling into the common trappings of being cloying or overly precocious.
Iron Man 3 is a definite improvement over the overstuffed, undernourished 2010 sequel. It ends on a moment that feels like something close to closure, but you know, as the credits helpfully indicate, that Tony Stark will appear again, at least in 2015’s Avengers 2. The bigger question is can this franchise exist without the participation of Downey Jr.? I’m sure we’ll all find out eventually considering the character is too profitable to simply retire once Downey Jr. decides he’s had enough. We’ve had five Batmans after all, not counting Adam West. However, never has a character seemed so intrinsically linked with an actor before. Downey Jr. just is Tony Stark, and while some capable young male lead out there in Hollywood will put up a valiant effort, it will never be the same. Iron Man 3 is further proof that the appeal of the franchise is not the explosions and action set pieces, which it does a fine job with; it’s the man inside the suit and the formidable actor that gives this franchise its juice. Spending more time with Stark is a bonus, and Black’s zippy sense of comedy and acute knowledge of the architecture of popcorn thrills allows the movie to fly by with ease. While the first film reigns supreme, Iron Man 3 is a fitting and pleasurable enough blockbuster that reminds you why we still love this guy.
Nate’s Grade: B
Pain & Gain (2013)
I think the audience for Pain and Gain is going to know exactly who they are, and I count myself amongst that number. The latest from director Michael Bay, often treated tantamount to Satan in many critical circles, has the based-on-a-true-story hook but really it’s the big stars, stylish violence, peculiar criminal antics, and overall overflowing machismo of the picture that will draw its audience. I knew after one watch of the trailer that I wanted to see it, though I was somewhat ashamed of the level of my interest (don’t want to taint your critical credentials with too much sympathy for the devil, after all). Pain and Gain is a trashy and entertaining jaunt, just as I hoped it would be, but it overstays its welcome and may leave you fatigued and possibly dejected (so… a typical Michael Bay movie? Still got it).
In 1995, three Miami, Florida goons enacted one of the most bizarre and sordid criminal schemes, a story that could supply a tabloid with enough juicy exposes for a year. Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) and his co-worker Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) are personal trainers at Sun Gym. Their days consist of pumping iron and hitting on ladies. One of Lugo’s clients is Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a wealthy businessman with a nasty temper. Lugo and Doorbal, with the help of an ex-con and ex-junkie (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), kidnap Kershaw, hold him hostage for weeks, torture him, and eventually get him to sign over his assets to them. Afterwards they try to stage his “accidental” death, though like most things, it does not go according to plan. Penniless and broken, Kershaw seeks out help from a retired private eye, ED DuBois (Ed Harris), to provide validation for his case. The Miami police are laughing off his claims. Kershaw is concerned that the Sun Gym gang will strike again when their lavish lifestyle dips, and he’s right. Lugo and company get into even more trouble and the body count rises.
The results on screen are often entertaining in an over-the-top fashion, sustaining a rubbernecking captivation much like a horrendous car wreck. You just have to see how much crazier this thing gets, all the while muttering to yourself, “This was a true story?” It even gets to the point where the movie will remind you, via onscreen text as a man barbecues a batch of severed hands, that yes this is still a true story. Naturally there have been fictional inventions, character composites, and some details have been dropped to fit into the confines of a film narrative, but online research shows me that most of the larger plot beats are accurate, thus making the film even more compelling and disturbing. When the film is on, it feels manically alive with intrigue and absurdity. The problem is that it cannot keep this manic tone alive forever especially when actual innocent bodies start piling up (more on that later). There’s a certain uncomfortable tonal incongruity as the film develops and the comedy picks up a distasteful resonance. I love a well-executed dark comedy but just because something is macabre or unexpected does not automatically make it funny. Still, the movie has enough high-energy antisocial antics to keep you planted in your seat, laughing through bafflement.
Pain and Gain isn’t subtle in the slightest and yet it’s easily the most nuanced film of Bay’s career. Of course there are still the sleek cars, sexy babes, emphasis on style, and wanton destruction that are hallmarks of the man’s career, but the perspective is given a satirical prism, dropping us into the deluded, sub-American Psycho perspective of Lugo, a man with a very cracked view of the American Dream. The moral message reminds me of Marge Gunderson’s concluding musing in Fargo, telling a captured criminal, “There’s more to life than a little money, you know.” There’s some slight social commentary on wealth and the dirty tricks of capitalism, but really it’s the narcissistic delusions of a jacked-up criminal who believes he can succeed because he’s “seen a lot of movies.” You may even find yourself sympathizing with some of these knuckleheads, that is, until things get way out of hand. The screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Captain America: The First Avenger) is briskly paced and packed with bizarre details and even jumps into six different characters for voice over (Wahlberg, Johnson, Mackie, Shalhoub, Harris, and Bar Paly). For some characters it works as a great insight into their twisted logic but for others it’s just an easy set up for ridicule. The juvenile humor (did we really need a visual pubic hair joke?), candy-coated film palate, and sugar-rush, roid-rage plotting feel like a suitable match for the talents of the bombastic Bay.
The last thirty minutes of the movie will test your sensibilities of good taste. I’m all for having unlikable central characters just as long as the writer makes them interesting (what good is likeable but boring, the “friend zone” of characterization?). Some of movie history’s most fascinating characters have been scumbags and psychos. However, with that being said, I need my unlikeable characters to at least progress. When I’m stuck with a bad dude who keeps making the same bad mistakes, it can grow tiresome, and that’s where Pain and Gain ultimately lost me. Bay can’t quite keep up the charade of ironic bemusement forever, and a saggy second half starts to tread water, forcing the characters to act even more outlandish and inept. Did we need The Rock losing his big toe and then inexplicably giving it to a dog? It feels like the movie is filling time until the accidental murders come into being, raising the stakes. For a movie that’s 130 minutes, there should not be any need to fill time. During that long sad stretch, you start to feel disquiet, like the movie has lost its sense of perspective and the jokes have gotten too mean, too ugly, too outlandish. It doesn’t feel funny any more, and maybe that’s ultimately the point, but by the end Pain and Gain has soured. It overstays its welcome and then some.
Its tone and connection to the real world raises an interesting and thorny question over whether something like this is appropriate. Should a story that involved the murders of innocent people end up becoming an over-the-top, stylized, lavishly glamorized Hollywood crime comedy? It has been over 15 years since the events of the Sun Gym gang, but is there a statue of limitations on good taste? Are we eventually destined for a vulgar film tackling the poor lives of the victims of 9/11? The answer is almost certain. What is off limits, or more pressingly, should anything be off limits to a comedic narrative? Is anyone really furious with Trey Parker and Matt Stone over their first film, Cannibal the Musical, transforming nineteenth century murder into song and dance? I doubt it, and yet there was something very off-putting about 2011’s 30 Minutes or Less, an unfunny comedy based around the true story of a pizza guy strapped with a bomb and ordered to rob a bank. The guy was blown to bits in real life (ha ha?). I guess I, as well as audiences, would have been more forgiving if the movie had been funny. I’m sure there would be fewer objections if Bay’s film had been more of a sober, contemplative drama on the sad acts of a bunch of desperate criminals, but with all the hyperbolic elements, machismo, and so-crazy-it-must-be-true plot turns, how could you turn this story into a serious drama? Not from the perspective of the nitwit criminals, at least. I don’t think the movie is ever positioning these guys as anti-heroes or excuses their excess.
Wahlberg (Ted) broke out as an actor thanks to a similar role as a wannabe star whose ambitions exceeded his grasp, and the man does dumb as good as just about anyone in Hollywood. It’s a specific kind of dumb, the angry, arrogant, pissy, self-involved kind of dumb that makes it acceptable to ridicule his character to no end. Johnson (G.I. Joe: Retaliation) gets to explore some interesting range as an actor, pacing around the demons of his character before just going hog-wild with the excess. Mackie (Gangster Squad) is arguable the most sympathetic of the group but also with the most to lose. Compared to his peers, he’s practically mild-mannered even though he takes injections into his penis. Shalhoub (TV’s Monk) is amusingly apoplectic and just enough of a jerk that you excuse his misfortune, at least for a little while. Ken Jeong (The Hangover) and Israeli model-turned-actor Bar Paly give the exact performances you would expect them to deliver. The best actor in the whole movie, though truth be told there isn’t a stinker in the bunch, is Emily Rutherford (Elizabethtown, TV’s The New Adventures of Old Christine) who plays Dubois’ wife. She has this calming, down-to-earth presence that seems to bring a small sense of peace to the madcap antics. She doesn’t have a lot of screen time but you’ll wish she had lots more.
Perhaps I’m being unfair to a movie that clearly isn’t intending to be anything but naughty, tacky, and gleefully excessive. In a way Pain and Gain reminds me of Tony Scott’s Domino, loosely based upon a true story but crushed to death by narrative kabuki and Scott’s characteristic excess. If I wanted to defend the much maligned Michael Bay, I’d argue what the real difference is between his excess and the excess of the more critically lauded Scott? Bay doesn’t have a slate of movies to his credit the likes of Top Gun, Crimson Tide, or True Romance. But isn’t flashy, artistic excess all the same when in the name of empty storytelling? Domino is also an apt comparison because it’s ultimately tiresome and far overstays its welcome, losing its audience with an endless array of odd sidesteps and moronic, deviant characters. While Pain and Gain has enough quirk and style to justify consideration, you may not respect yourself once it’s over.
Nate’s Grade: C+
If you aren’t familiar with writer/director Jeff Nichols, do yourself a favor and get acquainted and fast because this guy is headed for indie stardom. Nichols’ last movie, the somber and unbearably tense thriller Take Shelter, was my top film of 2011. Mud, in contrast, is a harder sell, something akin to a modern-day Mark Twain fable about romantic outsiders, fugitives, friendship, and boys coming of age. Matthew McConaughey plays the titular character, a wanted man hiding out on a small island along the Mississippi River. He befriends two teens that help him rebuild a boat so that Mud can escape with his lady (Reese Witherspoon) and evade a team of dangerous bounty hunters seeking vengeance. Nichols is truly gifted at his ability to craft wholly believable characters regardless of circumstance. There is a great sense of setting here, without nary a judgment to the lower class moorings and difficulties, just as Nichols expertly showcased rural Midwestern life and day-to-day anxieties in Take Shelter. His new film is admittedly slow and takes a while to rev up, but the performances are just so good and richly delivered, from top to bottom, that you’re happy to go along with the somewhat loping ride. It’s such a pleasure to witness McConaughey fully engaged with a role, pushing him to utilize new and exciting acting muscles. Nichols also doesn’t soft-pedal the hardships of his characters. While it’s poignant and satisfying how the various plot threads come together for a thrilling conclusion, Mud also has the grace to leave several storylines absent tidy bows. There’s real heartbreak, real disappointment, and recognizable people of all walks trying to do good and find their place in this complicated world. If Mud is playing near you, it should shoot to the top of your must-see list.
Nate’s Grade: A-
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