Thursday, 30 November 2017

IN THEATRES: Ingrid Goes West & The Killing of a Sacred Deer

It has been a while since I did one of these, and for once both movies are great!

Ingrid Goes West
After her latest crush lands her a stay in pysch, Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza) becomes fixated on an Instagram celebrity living in California, Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen). With the money she inherited from her mother, Ingrid heads to the coast with dreams of becoming Taylor's best friend.

After stalking her and kidnapping her dog, Ingrid is able to worm her way into Taylor's life. Now it is just a matter of time until Ingrid's scheme goes down in flames...

This movie is like a knife with no handle - no matter how you hold it, you are going to get cut.

This movie could have been broader, with characters drawn in primary colours. But such a treatment would have created a distance between the character's antics and the viewer. The element that elevates Ingrid Goes West is that the minds behind it are not interested in sparing the viewer from their own obsession with social media.

Ingrid never comes across as a villain. She is a woman struggling to find emotional connections online that she is incapable of finding fulfilment online. She has constructed a version of herself that does not exist.

By refusing to categorise its characters as good or evil, the film emphasises the omnipresence that social media has had in the way everyone relates to each other. This is not a context specific to Ingrid and Taylor. The film is a skewering of our relationship with social media and the way it has distorted the ways in which we interconnect, and how the superficiality of these platforms has permeated the real world.
In a world grappling with the effects of cat-fishing, cyber-bullying, and a reality TV star is the US president (to say nothing of his Twitter account), Ingrid's scheme feels worryingly pedestrian. The ease with which she ensconces herself into Taylor's life is not so much a testament to her abilities as a manipulator, but a side effect of how easy we find it now to include strangers into our lives.

There are no easy ways out here. You can see the outcome coming from the beginning, and the filmmakers offer no cop-out plot twists or character shifts. Eventually, Ingrid recognises that Taylor is not the person she thought she was, and Taylor finds out what Ingrid has been up to. Their final confrontation does not lead to some kind of catharsis - their friendship is not restored, and neither is Ingrid ceded the moral high ground by the revelation of Taylor's superficial existence.

Ingrid does not gain some new appreciation for real friendship - instead, she records a video and then tries to kill herself. She fails and then has her confidence boosted when she sees that her video went viral. While the ending validates Ingrid's sense of self, the fact that she is still receiving validation through the vehicle that led to her decline remains disquieting.

Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen are great. Plaza has never been this empathetic or exposed in anything I've seen her in. It never feels like she is making fun of Ingrid's compulsions, and she is unafraid in pushing the character's tone-deafness and willingness to appease others. This movie is the cinematic equivalent of Schrodinger's Cat, and Plaza's performance embodies that ambiguity.

Likewise, Olsen manages to push Taylor's pretentiousness without making her a two-dimensional hipster. To do so would unbalance the movie and make Ingrid more sympathetic (thereby derailing the movie's point about the pervasiveness of social media). Taylor can be unlikeable, but it is never enough to justify her stalker's behaviour.

Following his work playing his own father in Straight Outta Compton, O'Shea Jackson Jr is hilarious as Ingrid's unsuspecting landlord-turned-boyfriend. Like the other characters, he is living a fantasy - obsessed with Batman, he has written a spec script for a Batman movie that he believes will be his ticket to fame and fortune. Even the focus of his fandom ties into the movie's treatment our obsession with fame as an equivalence for a better life: he is a big fan of Batman Forever, a film with a plot that echoes Ingrid's scheme - an isolated loner (the Riddler) seeks to become one with his hero and ends up trying to destroying him.

Hilarious, excruciating and painfully on-point, Ingrid Goes West is one of the most savage and uncompromising satires I have seen in years. Its commentary about our relationship with social media, especially the false sense of intimacy and kinship it can create is terrifying.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
After he kills a patient, Dr Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) finds his life literally plagued by the dead man's son (Barry Keoghan). As his family falls apart, he is forced to make a decision to save them before it is too late.

The latest joint from Yorgos Lanthimos, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a perversely understated
 nightmare. From the beginning, the viewer is off-balance - people react to tragedy with nonchalance,  intimidate each other with dinner invitations, and make small talk by revealling extremely personal information.

From the first image of an exposed heart beating in extreme close-up, the viewer is immersed in a world of life in all its messiness and an underlying sterility. This is a world of vapid people who consider a conversation about watch bands as a symbol of personal interaction. These people go through the motions of life, but at the end of the day they believe in nothing.

A better title for this movie might have been The Living Dead.

Farrell and Kidman's characters are the ultimate hypocrites, unwilling to recognise how little control they really have over their lives. And when confronted with a way off, albeit with a price, it does not take long for them to start quantifying the fallout and preparing for the future. The ultimate truth of this movie is that these people only care about themselves, and they are willing to rationalise their way out of any situation that requires them to confront their own feelings.

Ever since Colin Farrell stopped trying to be a movie star, he has become more relevant, vibrant and just fascinating to watch. Following his work on Lanthimos' The Lobster, Farrell is doing something very special here.

His character, a brilliant but arrogant surgeon, has the emotional range of a rock. Where his performance in The Lobster was based on the repression of empathy and emotion, in this film his character views the world through the same clinical frame as he does his patients. However, once confronted by a figure who embodies a chaos he cannot control. As a man who believes he knows everything, Farrell's performance is a struggle not so much to react to inexplicable events, but failing to know how to. It's an incredibly subtle and sophisticated performance that I am still trying to puzzle out. Anyway, he's great.

Nicole Kidman is just as good as his wife. Honestly, these two were so in sync and of a piece that I feel like I'll just be repeating what I said about Farrell's performance here. There is a difference - Kidman's character, Anna, is more aware of the emotional expectations around being a parent and a spouse, but once the situation escalates she reveals a cold-hearted pragmatism that matches her husband's. 

Playing the interloper who destroys the bourgeoisie family, Barry Keoghan is fantastically deadpan. Unblinkingly earnest, he never gives his victims or the viewer a break - there are no cracks in his blank facade or parting of the curtain. All you are left with is a dead face and a basilisk stare. His performance is so underplayed it feels like the set up to a joke, and we spend the entire running time waiting for a punchline that never comes.

Yorgos Lanthimos' direction is as poised and ambiguous as his antagonist. Every element of the film, from shot choice to blocking to sound design, is designed to keep the viewer off balance.

There are shades of Stanley Kubrick to his style - the cold, objective wide frames and the extended tracking shots that isolate the characters from the viewer are the most overt examples - but the biggest similarity is thematic. Kubrick's films are based around characters caught in systems or a cosmic order that they cannot comprehend or control (his noirs of the fifties; 2001; The Shining; heck, even Spartacus fits the bill). 

Lanthimos appears to follow a similar idea - the movie is framed like a documentary, with the camera following these characters and their eventual demise with the clinical interest of an ethnographer. It is terrifying, surreal and hilarious, often within the same shot.

I feel like I have missed a million things. I'm probably going to have to watch a few more times and see how it works on re-watch.

One of the most terrifying films of the year. Check it out.

Monday, 27 November 2017

Everything, Everything (Stella Meghie, 2017)

Based on the novel by Nicola Yoon, Maddy (Amndla Stenberg) is a young woman confined to her air-tight home by SCID, a condition that means her immune system is too weak to handle the outside world. With only her mother Pauline (Anika Noni Rose) and nurse Carla (Ana de la Reguera) for company, Maddy yearns for a chance to experience the outside world.

When Olly (Nick Robinson) moves in next door, Maddy's desire to escape gains a newfound urgency. But will love trump genetics?

Growing up, I was voracious consumer of anything my parents were into - so when I wasn't watching Arnold Schwarzengger wiping out whole countries or reading Robert Louis Stevenson I'd spend time watching Audrey Hepburn movies with my mum and poaching whatever romance novel she was reading (Chocolat and Bridget Jones' Diary). I caught the bug. There is something about a romantic melodrama, particularly one with a contrived premise like this that always pulls me in. 

While I was totally game for this kind of potboiler, going in there was something I was worried was going to happen.

Every time one of these movies come out, where someone with an illness or disability (e.g. A Walk To Remember; last year's Me Before You) is involved in a romance, they are never the central character and their role is to act as a catalyst for their non-impaired paramour to learn something profound about life and loss and blah blah blah.

From the jump, this looked like another one of those stories. But to this movie's credit, it does not follow that template too closely. Whether it plays into the underlying ideology of those stories - well, we will get to that.  

First the good stuff. Number one is that this is a mainstream movie directed by and starring WOC, based on a book by a black female writer. It was also a hit, so hopefully we shall see some ripple effects for other YA movies featuring people of colour both in front of and behind the scenes. 

Stella Meghie's direction is really good, especially considering the limitations of the story: as well as the focus on single location, the central relationship is dependent on conversations via text message. Most of Maddy and Olly's early text interactions are dramatised as Maddy's fantasies of meeting Olly in the model environments (a diner, a library) that she builds for school.

These sequences are probably the best thing in the movie, as they allow the viewer to identify with the characters' growing attraction without having to wade through endless shots of text bubbles covering every line of dialogue. Because they are so dramatically satisfying - the actors have good chemistry - this stylistic choice never comes off as contrived.

Meghie is aided by DOP Igor Jodue-Lillo (The Kids Are All Right and Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), who gives the movie a warm, rich colour palette that leans into the movie's heightened sense of melodrama. It could have been overdone, but with a movie as earnest as this, it works.  

One of the key reasons why I liked this movie is that, despite her physical immobility, Maddy is the prime mover of the movie's plot. The movie is rooted in her POV, and she never allows herself to be defined by her disability. While looks play a part (duh), it is to see why Olly falls for her. She even calls him out when it looks like he is pitying her. 

Another thing I liked about this movie was the fact that the movie does not end with Maddy dying. I was afraid that was going to happen, and while I have some problems with the way it was done (see the next paragraph), the fact that we did not have that trope was  a plus.

But that is where we get the final twist - haunted by her husband and son's deaths, Pauline faked her daughter's condition to protect her from the world. While it feels like an extreme extension of Pauline's over-protectiveness, I did not know what that turn meant in terms of what the film was trying to say.

Maddy wants to experience the outside world, but I could not track any big difference in terms of how this twist reveals what her character really wants. All it does is give Maddy another reason to become independent, but she already wants that. While it is not as egregious as a few twists I could mention, it does not feel that natural - it just felt like a way to get the characters together in a traditional happy ending.

If the movie's focus had been on the relationship between Maddy and her mother, then the twist could have been used as a catalyst for Maddy's breaking away on her own. But the movie is more interested in the love story, and leaves this relationship to one side. Basically, the twist ends up feeling underwhelming, because it feels like it is the culmination of a different movie. Pauline ends up as a minor obstacle - one that is too easily overcome.

So in a way the movie does fall into the ableist trap - it's just instead of the message being 'life is too hard to live', it is ' good thing you are not sick so you can have a happy ending'. It is not a killer blow  but does strike a bit of a bum note.

As far as the acting goes, Anika Noni Rose steals the show. Even with the plot twist, she never comes off as a villain. Even when she is putting the kibosh on Maddy's dreams of romance, she remains incredibly empathetic - it never feels like Pauline is operating from a sense of malice. It is always from a place of love. 

The scenes where she talks to Maddy about her infatuation are great, as she navigates between motherly affection for this milestone in her daughter's life, and her own need to protect her from these attachments. The moment where she tells Maddy that Olly will never be 'hers', and that he will eventually move away and find someone else never feels cruel (at least not until the twist) - Pauline is just trying to protect her daughter from the heartbreak she knows is coming.  

When the movie is just about a woman trying to help her daughter navigate the world, while also shielding her from it, Everything Everything feels wonderfully complicated. When the twist comes, all those complicated feelings are thrown out in favour of a simple 'gas lighting' narrative.

As far as the lead performances go, Stenberg and Robinson and suitably winsome. The only thing I had seen Stenberg in was Colombiana - this is a far better vehicle for their talents. Stenberg gives Maddy a a sense of intelligence and self-possession that ensure that when the movie demands that she leave her house, Maddy never comes off as an innocent waif. She knows what things are, and the joy comes from watching her get to experience them in a visceral way (such as riding in a car, or swimming in the ocean). Hopefully this movie's success (it made about $60 million in the US, off a $10 million budget) gives Stenberg more leading roles.

Robinson is also good, but because the movie is anchored to Maddy's perspective, we do not get as much character development as the lead. Although that is a nice a change from most movies, where the female lead feels like an afterthought. 

Overall, while it does fall down a bit in the third act, and it ultimately does not deviate from Hollywood's penchant for ignoring/marginalising disabled characters, Everything Everything is a nice addition to the recent trend of YA romance movies, and is definitely worth a look. 

Sunday, 26 November 2017

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Tiger Raid (Simon Dixon, 2016)

According to Wikipedia, "a tiger kidnapping or tiger robbery involves two separate crimes. The first crime usually involves an abduction of any person or thing someone highly values. Instead of demanding money, the captors demand that a second crime be committed on their behalf."

In the middle of Iraq, two Irish mercenaries Joe (Brian Gleeson) and Paddy (Damien Molony) kidnap a young woman, Shadha (Sofia Boutella), and hold her ransom so that her father will help their boss 'Dave' commit another crime. As time ticks by, secrets are revealed and the pair quickly realise that their seemingly straightforward operation is far more complicated than they assumed...

The only reason I knew this movie existed was because it starred Sofia Boutella (Kingsman and Star Trek Beyond), and this time she would get to play an actual human being.

 Based on a play, Tiger Raid's structure is pretty familiar if you have seen The Disappearance of Alice Creed44 Inch Chest or any low-budget crime thriller in the last 20-something years - a group of professional criminals in a confined location. Cue double crosses and Mexican stand-offs. And to be honest, Tiger Raid does not really break that hard from the formula. One of the kidnappers is a loose cannon (Joe), while the other (Paddy) has more of a conscience. 

To its credit, Tiger Raid does throw in some nasty character reveals that destroy that easy dichotomy. Joe is more empathetic than the front he puts on, while Paddy's dedication to the woman he loves is revealed as something far more disturbing and obsessive.

It is a good thing that the development of these two characters goes in such interesting directions, because the movie does have some noticeable flaws - the pace flags in the middle, and the shifts in power between the characters start to feel repetitive as the movie heads into the home stretch.

The three main performances are all really good. I don't think I have seen Brian Gleeson in anything before, but he is the easy standout as the more extroverted of the two kidnappers. Molony is also good, but his role is less showy.

With a character that does not depend on her physical abilities, Boutella has a chance to just play a character. As the plot unfolds, and the nature of her role changes, Boutella manages to handle the transition from terrified hostage to (spoilers) scorned lover and victim well. The role is not that developed, but there was nothing wooden or superficial about her performance - this film is good evidence that she has potential in roles that do not require hours of prosthetics and high kicks.

Overall, I came away from Tiger Raid a little underwhelmed. It's not objectively terrible: the actors are good, and the production values are solid. Simon Dixon's direction is fine - he has a good feel for the material's nihilistic, paranoid tone - and Is Bell's cinematography lends the desert exteriors a sense of scope, but like the script, there is a certain visual and aural familiarity to the movie's style that prevents it standing out from similar films.

The movie does briefly touch on one of my favourite themes - the contradiction between a man's image of a woman and the woman herself - but it never feels specific to Paddy and Shadha's relationship. Because of the casting and location, there is a subtext of racism running through their particular power dynamic, but it feels embryonic, rather than full developed.

The movie's biggest flaw is a fundamental sense of familiarity - I feel like I have seen this premise before in multiple movies, and done with far more originality and thematic heft. The Iraqi context makes for an original location, but if you took it away, you could set this movie in New York or London and it would be the same movie. If more had been made of this backdrop, and infused into the movie's story and characterisation, Tiger Raid could have the makings of something great. As is, it is merely solid.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Hello Cupid (web series)

Whitney (Ashley Blaine Featherson) wants to know why she cannot find anyone on the dating website 'Hello Cupid'. As a bet, Whitney swaps her profile picture with one of her roommate Robyn (Hayley Marie Norman). The next day, she discovers hundreds of messages in her inbox. She starts talking to one of these prospective suitors, Cassius (Brandon Scott), and discovers they have a lot in common. 

Unwilling to break it off, she convinces Robyn to go on a date with Cassius and find out what he is like. And then things get REALLY complicated...

Series stars Robyn (Hayley Marie Norman) and Whitney (Ashley Blaine Featherson) 
I stumbled on this show via a circuitous route involving Roger Ebert's review for the teen comedy Fired Up!, the show Adam Ruins Everything, and finally Adam's podcast, where he interviewed Hello Cupid star Hayley Marie Norman. Since it was easy and free, I burned through the whole first season in an evening.

Created by Lena Waithe (Netflix's Master of None) and Featherson herself (currently starring on Netflix's Dear White People), this show is great. A lo-fi take on the rom com, Hello Cupid is elevated by strong writing, complex and likeable characters, and a strong understanding of how to best utilise their chosen medium.

While this show is based around finding romance, it is the foregrounding of the friendship between its lead characters that gives this show its spine and heart. It is so rare to see female friendship, warts and all, in a movie or a TV show. Despite the light tone, the relationship between Whitney and Robyn feels like a genuine relationship, and is interesting for the ways in which their predicament highlights both the strengths and weaknesses in their friendship. With no forced exposition, the writers and performers manage to build the dynamics of their relationship through the early episodes, so that by the time their 'date' shows his face in the fifth episode, the viewer is immersed in how they work as unit.

Throughout the series, I was amazed at how natural and real their interactions were. They feel attuned to each other's wants and needs, reacting in ways that feel believably empathetic (the girls' play-fighting over what to wear for a date) and petty (Robyn interrupting Whitney and Cassius's bonding moment with a casual saunter in her shorts).

The way the show takes advantage of its format really plays into this focus on character. I love the sense of scale - each episode is basically one scene. Freed from the constraints of TV, it allows the relationships and conversations to develop naturally, with their own rhythm. The show was partially improvised, which adds to the sense of verisimilitude in the characterisation and relationships.

In this respect, there are two examples of how the stand out: Episode 3, which is built around Whitney's first conversation with Cassius online. This scene reminded me of how hard it is to create a believable 'meet cute'. In terms of showing a connection develop without feeling contrived, it reminded me of the dinner table scene in Your Sister's Sister.

I think I like this guy...
Robyn's date with Cassius is another strong meet cute - once again, thanks to good writing, performances, and the lack of a set runtime their date is allowed to play out at its own pace, and by the end of the scene you believe that this guy could gel with either of the leads.
The most impactful beat in the episode is a visual callback to Whitney's talk in episode one about light-skinned girls. When Cassius describes what he likes about her features, the filmmakers cut to those features on Whitney's face. It's a quietly brutal moment that adds a sour note to the scene that prevents the viewer from committing to this 'relationship'.

Yes, you do
From a creative standpoint, this series has really inspired me -while Hollywood and mainstream TV stumbles vaguely toward some version of diversity in casting and production, this kind of small-scale (but long form) storytelling is the vehicle for all kinds of POVs and relationships to get better representation. Movies cannot do it - runtimes and the decline of the small to medium budget drama/comedies have put paid to that. But TV and online platforms can.

The casting is so on-point: the leading ladies feel like best friends, and Cassius, their shared object of attraction, actually lives up to the hype. He's a good guy with interesting habits and a sense of humour. You buy into the girls' ridiculous scheme because they - and he -are so believable
Because writing and directing are more important, casting can get overlooked, but the performances and the chemistry amongst the cast are pitched so perfectly, I had to bring it up. And if you want any idea of how strong the casting is, you have to look to Brandon Scott's performance as Cassius.    

I cannot emphasise how many movies screw up the shared love interest. They always base the plot on some bland-but-good-looking guy who both women lust over. It is never based on someone who might have something more to offer, like a personality or shared interests. It means the female character wind up feeling shallow and petty. Hello Cupid is the rare case where they make the ménage-trois believable. Scott manages to pitch himself on such a fine line that you can see the appeal for straight-laced Whitney and flower child Robyn.

Of course, the show would not work without its lead players.

Whitney (Ashley Blaine Featherson) could be hard to like - she is basically using her friend to get a man. Despite being a smart, considerate woman, she acts quite selfishly. But the way the story unfolds, and the way events spiral out of her control, is so naturalistic that I was never thrown out. Likewise, Robyn (Hayley Marie Norman) could have been a type - an airhead valley girl - but once again that type is just a launching pad for the show's analysis of the ways first impressions (particularly around notions of physical attractiveness and its intersection with race). That might sound a bit heavy, but the show handles its themes with a subtlety and deftness that prevents it from ever feeling didactic. 

This show is great. The premise might come off a little rote, but this is all about the execution.

The show spans two seasons, with 10 episodes each (the first is available on Youtube; the second season has a few episodes behind a pay wall). Don't worry, the first season feels like a complete story, so don't feel under any obligation to keep going. But - it's really good, so keep going!

There is also a third season and a short film, which feature new characters and different variations on the original's premise.

You can watch the first episode here.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Raw Deal (John Irvin, 1986)

Determined to bring down the mob that murdered his son, veteran FBI Agent Harry Shannon (Darren McGavin) enlists former agent Mark Kaminsky (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to go undercover as a hitman 'Joseph P. Brenner', infiltrate the mob and destroy it from the inside.

By itself, Raw Deal is not a good movie. It is not terrible, but it is pretty dull stuff considering whose name is above the title. However, as an example of the wrong casting, and how filmmakers can misjudge a star persona, it is fascinating.

If you ignore the Ah-nuld component, Raw Deal is a by-the-numbers narc thriller. Directed any John Irvin, a respectable British filmmaker (whose chief claim to fame is the original miniseries of Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy), Raw Deal does not look or sound like any other Arnie movie - in tone and style it feels more like a cop thriller from the seventies.

According to the trivia I could find online, the script was literally picked at random; Ah-nuld was under contract to Dino DeLaurentis (producer of the Conan movies and, uh, Red Sonja) and wanted out. And thus the star of Commando and the director of Tinker, Tailer OG were handed a script co-written by the Oscar-nominated writer of Serpicio and the writer of the buddy cop movie Running Scared (BTW, these guys' personal lives are WAY more interesting than any of their movies), and movie magic was made.

The High and Mighty podcast reviewed Raw Deal last year and the hosts compared watching the movie to watching a dog race where one of the greyhounds has been replaced with an Irish wolfhound; I would compare it to a really nice soup with a Big Mac dumped in it.

Every aspect in this movie is a respectable, down-to-earth thriller - every aspect except its hulking star, who lurches through every scene like the proverbial rhino in a china shop. The supporting cast all look like real cops and mobsters. The photography and editing are very conventional and understated. Even the film's set pieces are staged without any flair - no OTT explosions or epic shoot-outs. None of it looks like an Arnie movie.

Schwarzenegger tries his best, but the filmmakers make the mistake of treating him like another actor. They give this character so many lines of conflict, but Schwarzenegger can only play the surface of these beats - there is never a sense that the character is in over his head.

The rest of the acting is pretty good, but when juxtaposed with Arnie's familiar wooden delivery, it is the real actors who come off looking silly. To make matters worse, the script gives Schwarzenegger some overly-verbose one-liners which do not fit his accent or cadence at all. Watching him struggle to get through the romantic repartee with Kathryn Harrold is painful. 

It is worse when the script tries to give Arnie something in his wheelhouse:

"You're under arrest." 
"For what?" 
"Impersonating a human being."

But it goes beyond one liners and set pieces.

For an Arnie movie to work, he needs a character with no internal conflicts, and a clearly established  antagonist who can justify his OTT physique and presence. By contrast, watching the Austrian Oak wipe out middle-aged mobsters is no fun at all.

This movie never feels like an Arnie movie, but even with a better star, I do not think Raw Deal would be much better. It is so generic it would have taken a re-write and a completely different creative team to make it good. As is, it is just competent. 


Stallone v Schwarzenegger

Predator & The Running Man

Thursday, 16 November 2017

IN THEATRES: Justice League

Following the death of Superman,  Batman gathers a team of super-powered peeps to take on an interplanetary threat that could destroy the planet.

Here it is - the latest holding action in Warner Bros campaign to bring their DC properties to the screen.

This movie is not a masterpiece. This movie is not a disaster. This movie is a stopgap that tries to fix or ignore what happened in the movies that came before it. Just as BvS was a reaction to Man of Steel, and Suicide Squad was a reaction to BvS (and its own trailer), Justice League feels like a reaction to all of those movies (including Wonder Woman).  

Re-written, re-shot and re-colour-corrected, Justice League is a mixed bag. It's vaguely entertaining and possessed of a certain pace (it comes in at 121 minutes, which is nice), but there is not much else to it.

Directed by Zack Snyder and an un-credited Joss Whedon, the movie feels like someone started with one idea, and then was replaced by someone else with a different idea that kinda, sorta fit with the earlier idea, but not really. To be honest, I was seriously considering ignoring this movie, but with all the backstage hijinks and tinkering, morbid curiosity got the better of me. The spectacle of two diametrically opposed filmmakers being pulled together sounded like a dare: Would Snyder's over-saturated excess sync with Whedon's penchant for character dynamics over set pieces?

Watching the movie, I could not really tell. The tone is certainly more dynamic than Snyder's previous movies. But while the re-shoots probably helped, the story still feels clunky and the characters feel half-baked. There are beats that are clearly Whedon, but the character stuff never really gels in a way that feels cumulative.

As far as the catalyst for bringing our heroes together, Steppenwolf is one of the most uninteresting and generic villains to come around in a long time: he is just a generic CG god-ling, with no interesting motivation or characterisation to speak of. Ciaran Hinds is always good value (he's great in Tomb Raider 2), but Steppenwolf is such a colourless villain you could have cast anyone in the role. His design is not even that interesting - he looks like a minor character from a Ray Harryhausen movie. He never feels like a genuine threat for the team, and honestly he does not feel like the right villain for the medium: he feels more like the bad guy in a TV pilot - he's just there so the good guys have a reason to come together.

Our heroes are not much better.

Superman, such a non-entity in the previous movies, is here presented as a symbol of hope. It does not stick because the movie does nothing to make that feel believable. We get a neat flashback at the top (a child's iPhone interview with Superman) and an extended talking scene with Lois and Clark in a CG farm-scape. That's it: we're still stuck with two movies worth of backstory that boil down to four hours of filmmakers who do not know what to do with Superman. So when Batman talks about Superman being a beacon of hope, it rings hollow because he has never been shown to act like any kind of role model. When he makes his return in the third act, he may be acting more like Supes (i.e. giving a shit about people), but it never feels like a big catharsis for the group. It just feels like a plot point.

Batman's character is similarly hamstrung. He gets a good rapport with the Flash and a leaden flirtation with Diana (it might be a good idea, but not based on this chemistry).

One real bum note is Gal Gadot, who oscillates on an almost scene-by-scene basis from sparky and invested to wooden and amateurish (there's one confrontation with Bruce Wayne where she goes full-on soap opera). I chalk it up to the re-shoots and the lack of Patty Jenkins to help with the performance.

Because this is the first time most of the Justice bros have appeared onscreen, the movie has to stop dead to introduce them and their respective worlds. Of the new characters, the easy highlight is Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash. The scenes setting up his relationship with his dad, and his dynamics with the team all feel the most well-realised. It helps that aside from his powers, he is the most ordinary character in the movie (he even trips over at one point).

Jason Momoa's Aquaman will probably be great in his own movie. Here he is hamstrung by being only one of a group of surly bad asses. He is funny and charismatic, but he feels side-lined.
Ray Fisher's Cyborg needed so much more build-up. We are introduced to him too late in his evolution. He is already a CG-augmented character when we meet him, and it is difficult to feel the tragedy the filmmakers intend because we never get a sense of what his life was like before his accident. It does not help that his powers never really feel like a curse. This is a rare blockbuster that could have used more breathing room.

If you are looking for some cool action scenes to tide you over, you are out of luck. They are still airless collections of CGI poses. The lack of genuine scale and lack of tactile threats (and collateral damage) makes the movie feel really small. And because of the extended tinkering, there are a lot of really obvious green screen backdrops. And look out for Henry Cavill's CG lip - it is very weird and very obvious.

Overall, the movie is meh. It has some funny scenes, and has a better grasp of the characters' personas (character development, less so) than the previous DC movies, but it cannot help feeling like what it is: a studio mandate to have a superhero franchise. These characters do not belong together because they want or need to: it is because Warner Bros wants some of that Marvel money. It is a better movie than expected, but not much by much. If you are not a die hard fan, give it a miss till it comes out on home media. If you are in the mood for a big blockbuster, go see Thor: Ragnarok instead.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Runaway Train (Andrei Konchalovsky, 1985)

Manny (Jon Voight) is a popular inmate at Alaska's Stonehaven Maximum Security Prison. His popularity and repeated escape attempts have made him an enemy in Associate Warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), who tries to have him killed. After he survives a stabbing, Manny and fellow inmate Buck (Eric Roberts) make another escape attempt.

They manage to escape the prison and find their way onto a train. Freedom is within their grasp.

However, little do they know that the train they're on has no driver and no brakes. As it speeds up,   the inmates and locomotive engineer Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) have to find a way to get to the front of the train and slow it down.

This movie holds the dubious distinction of being the best movie Golan-Globus ever made. Israeli movie producers Menahem Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus had come to the United States in the late seventies intent on cracking Hollywood.

After buying the small company Cannon, they produced a series of genre pictures geared toward the American market: amongst their output were films starring Chucks Bronson (the Death Wish sequels) and Norris (Missing in Action; Invasion USA and The Delta Force), as well as ninja movies, the He-Man movie Masters of the Universe and the space vampire epic Lifeforce. While they could boast some strong casts and decent budgets, Cannon's movies were renowned for their emphasis on cheap exploitable elements (action, sex and violence) over things like comprehensible narratives and character development. Golan in particular was infamous for cutting budgets (read up on what they did to Superman IV), tossing in bizarre story beats (Ninja III) and editing action movies to emphasis the action over the story (Invasion USA, Cobra and almost every other movie they made).

The fact that this company made Runaway Train - and that it turned out the way it did is almost unbelievable.
Based on a script by Akira Kurosawa and directed by respected Russian director Andrei Konchalovsky (co-writer of Andrei Tarkovsky's Andrei Rublev), Runaway Train is an excellent action drama that also acts as a meditation on our understanding of freedom and control. Our protagonist, veteran convict Manny yearns for freedom and prides himself on his ability to survive and overcome any obstacle that he has to face. His foe is the prison warden Ranken (John P. Ryan), who is equally determined to impose his will upon all the inmates under his control. He sees Manny as a test for his ability to control the prison.

While on the surface the movie repeats the 'one man bucks the system' theme of a lot of eighties action films, Runaway Train is more of a critique of the machismo behind these characters - it runs through the movie, from the way prisoners and guards bond over a shared love of magazine centrefolds; the misogynistic insults male characters throw at each other; and the casual abuse that Manny and fellow escapee Buck (Eric Roberts) subject train employee Sara (Rebecca De Mornay) to.

Because of the nature of their predicament, Manny is forced to recognise the limitations of his loner ethos. He may be a badass, but because of his posturing he has injured himself too badly to proceed alone. When he eggs Buck on to complete the mission (to the extent of refusing to let him back inside the train when he is stranded outside), Manny is forced to confront the pointlessness of his own philosophy - he is just as abhorrent as the man (Ranken) trying to take him back to prison.
Even the film's ending reinforces the movie's critique: As the train races toward a dead end, Manny chains Ranken to the engine and decouples it from the rest of the cars, saving Buck and Sara. 

At the end, he gets his freedom, but at what price?

Manny and Ranken are locked in a battle of wills that can only end with their deaths. Like the train they are trapped on, these men are headed towards their own destruction. Manny at least possesses the awareness to bring their conflict to an end.

As far as performances go, this is Voight's show. Violent, selfish and cunning, he is totally believable as a veteran convict. After his work in the seventies, Runaway Train was one of the few times in his career where he found a role showed off his chops.

Roberts was nominated for an Oscar for his role but he comes off as histrionic and self-conscious next to Voight's vibrant naturalistic performance. De Mornay is just flat; she is good at self-containment and emotional resonance (Risky Business; The Hand that Rocks the Cradle), but this role requires the opposite. Sara is meant to be an average joe in an unbelievable situation, but De Mornay never feels genuinely agitated.

Ranken (John P. Ryan)
The one performance that matches Voight's is John P. Ryan as Ranken - he brings an arrogant swagger to the warden that makes him easy to hate. His smooth demeanour is a great misdirect - when disrespected his response is a violent outburst, an emotional shift that is all the more disconcerting for how quickly it takes for him to revert back to his smug facade. His maniacal pursuit of Manny is so believable he actually helps make the film's final narrative contrivance (Ranken's showdown with Manny in the locomotive) work.

While the picture never feels like a Cannon picture, neither does it feel particularly locked down to the eighties. Because of how utilitarian the setting is, there are few elements which feel too contemporary. There are no pastels or familiar hairstyles - all the characters look worn down, scarred and dirty. The train itself is a marvellous piece of production design. Its exterior charred and smashed after a collusion with another train, it resembles a scarred beast, rocketing loose on the tracks.

Alan Hume's photography is unfussy, reinforcing the downbeat tone with a muted colour palette that makes the film feel more like a documentary. Since this was the eighties, the score is based on synths, it is incredibly spare and alien - in fact, there is no score for the entire first act, until the introduction of the train. In look and feel, it feels out of time.

On its release in December 1985, Runaway Train was a critical success, with Voight and Roberts received Oscar nominations for their performances. It was Cannon's crowning achievement. A series of big budget flops and in-fighting between Golan and Globus would see the company collapse within five years of Runaway Train's release.

If you have a chance, check out Runaway Train. It has a few narrative contrivances, and some of the acting is rote, but these elements are relatively minor. As much of a high concept thriller as a character drama, Runaway Train is one of the most underrated films of the eighties, and the jewel in Cannon's crown. 

More than that, it is just great movie. Check it out.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

RAMBLIN' RANT: In which a SEVENTH SON gets TULIP FEVER and loses his mind

These reviews are prime evidence that a good cast does not a good movie make. I became a big fan of Alicia Vikander after I saw A Royal Affair and Ex Machina. And as with all actors you like, eventually you run into some pot holes - and that is where I am now with Vikander. 

Let's get to the movie which is currently in theatres.

Tulip Fever (dir. Justin Chadwick)
Set in the Netherlands during the tulip craze of the 17th Century, a young artist (Dane DeHaan) finds love and inspiration in a young married woman (Alicia Vikander) who he is commissioned to paint. As their love grows, they come up with a plan to escape her wealthy husband (Christoph Waltz) and make a new life together... Whatever. 

The only good thing about this movie
This review is basically a public service announcement - if you saw the poster and thought it might be good, stay away. This movie is garbage. 

If you have seen any minor period movie since Shakespeare In Love, then you will have  a rough idea of what to expect with this. A young hot cast; based on a book; produced by the now-disgraced Harvey Weinstein. However, this movie feels like that trend reaching its endpoint.  

Right from the beginning, this movie is off. Like Rogue One, this movie speeds from character to character, and location to location so fast that nothing feels established. You don't know who the main character is you do not know what the plot is (for awhile), you do not know what the tone is, and by the end you do not know why you bothered watching this POS in the first place.

Watching this movie was like getting at a Ferris wheel. Everything is spinning and you cannot focus on anything.

The actors are stranded - I cannot tell if it is the script or the edit, but I could not get a handle on any of them. The movie is so chopped up and busy that I could not tell you who any of these people were. Vikander, DeHaan and Christoph Waltz all feel like they are in neutral. This is based on speculation but I feel like part of the reason I cannot describe these performances in more detail is because the movie never establishes any character for them to build off. Maybe there was a script or an edit where these performances were more developed. The supporting cast (Holly Grainger, Jack O'Connell and Judi Dench) are fine, but there is an abyss in the middle of this movie that dampens the impact of everyone's contributions. 

Ugh. Thinking about this movie makes me sick. Go see Thor: Ragnarok or Brigsby Bear instead. 

Seventh Son (dir. Sergei Bodrov, 2015)
The witch Queen Malkin (Julianne Moore) has escaped her prison just in time for the centennial blood moon. It falls to elderly witch hunter Gregory (Jeff Bridges) and his green apprentice Tom (Ben Barnes) to defeat Malkin and her army before the blood moon is full.

A throwback to eighties fantasy like Dragonslayer and Willow, it is easy to see why Seventh Son failed - a wooden protagonist; Jeff Bridges's strange accent; the rote story. It just lacks a little special something to stand out. However, on its own modest terms, Seven Son is fun.

The acting is a real mixed bag, and your mileage may vary as to how that affects your enjoyment.   Ben Barnes is a complete blank and Jeff Bridges buries himself in a fantasy version of his True Grit accent. It is absolute insanity. There is something kind of watchable about him, but not in the way the filmmakers intended.

Someone who needed to go for broke is Julianne Moore. One of the best actresses working today, she is weirdly off-game here, never finding the right take for her OTT villain.

Thankfully for this review the standout performance - and character -is Alicia Vikander as young half-witch Alice. She leans into the character's duality, giving Alice a small measure of ambiguity that makes her far more interesting than the role probably was on the page. Clearly an early gig (this movie was shot in 2012), she is utterly captivating in her few scenes.

This movie has three editors, and it has clearly been cut down to the nub. The film moves quickly through the key plot points to the ending, which improves its watchability but it means the movie lacks its own character. With Barnes in the lead, the character dynamics are leaden as hell. 

It is a pity because the movie is built on some interesting ideas about the nature of good and evil. Both Bridges and Moore are presented as cut from the same cloth - they are both willing to use the same methods to achieve their goals, with no concern for anyone who gets in the way. Their love - hate relationship is mirrored in the romance between Barnes and Vikander.  It is a potentially meaty subtext, but the movie is so anxious to move the plot forward that it never builds to anything interesting.

If you are in the mood for an amiable time-waster you could do worse than Seventh Son.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

IN THEATRES: Brigsby Bear

Okay, this one's a bit complicated. DEEP BREATH.

Unknowingly kidnapped as a baby, James (Kyle Mooney) has grown up knowing only two things: the underground bunker where he lives with his 'parents' (Mark Hamill and Jane Adams), and the TV show Brigsby Bear, which is delivered to the bunker every week on old VHS tapes. Little does he know that Brigsby Bear has been created by his 'parents' as a way to manage his curiosity and imagination.

Rescued by the police and re-united with his real family, James struggles to adapt to the real world, a place which is much bigger than he is used to, and filled with things like parties, sex and movies on huge screens. The only thing that is missing is the next episode of Brigsby Bear.

Determined to know how the series ends, James realises there is only one thing he must do: finish the story of Brigsby Bear himself.

This movie is my favourite of the year so far.

There are so many elements of this story which, if portrayed in the wrong way, or with too much emphasis, could have tipped it over into simply disturbing. But the filmmakers manage to walk a tightrope, crafting an uplifting fable that never dips into overt sentiment or mawkishness. There is a melancholy to James's love for Brigsby Bear - it is both a connection to a life he cannot give up, and marks a deeper desire for self-expression that provide James with a bridge to his new life. 

The best part of James's (Kyle Mooney) trajectory is that it is entirely based on his own initiative and agency. Brigsby Bear is both the framework for his imprisonment, but it has also given James the tools he needs to break out of that framework.

At a subtextual level, the movie is an interesting examination of our relationship with cultural products. Despite its origins, Brigsby Bear is a typical children's educational programme, one which is designed with the purpose to stimulate young minds according to a specific intellectual and moral framework. What this movie emphasises is our ability to re-read and repurpose cultural products according to our own desires and beliefs (look at the po-mo resurrection of eighties action star Chuck Norris; for a more negative example, look at Pepe the frog). Despite the creators' intentions, the way an audience engages with a cultural product is never fixed. James' captors use Brigsby Bear as a vehicle for James's education and entertainment - they never consider it as a vehicle for James's own freedom of thought.

Kyle Mooney is brilliant as James. With a character as sheltered as this, it would be easy to  play him as a caricature or a joke, but Mooney roots James's awkwardness in the character's desire to learn. James is smart and caring - the tools he uses to express himself are just different from everyone around him. The movie's greatest success is that his emotional maturity is ultimately an outgrowth of his own personality. You get the sense that his resolution of Brigsby Bear is not the resolution of his own emotional journey, but an indicator that James is capable of finding his own way.

James's earnest belief in his goals is matched by his empathy and interest in other people. As someone who has grown up knowing only his 'parents', James is always open to new people and experiences. And what I loved about his characterisation is that his drive is based on a sense of empathy, a desire to connect with people. These qualities end up being the catalysts which enable his family and friends to rally around his dream of bringing Brigsby Bear to a conclusion. 

The whole cast are terrific. The great thing about all the performances is that they are all keyed into the movie's delicate handling of tone. Because the premise is based such a dark, complex issue, every component of the movie has to cater both to the hope underlying the central theme, and the complex emotional negotiations that James and his family have to go through in order to form some kind of bond.

There is an honesty about the performances of James's family (Matt Walsh, Michaela Watkins and Ryan Simpkins) which provides the movie with a sense of real weight. Their roles are not showy, but they ground the movie in a sense of genuine grief and confusion that ensures that viewer is always aware of what this family has gone through. This juxtaposition between the family's tragedy with James's flights of fancy could have been an exercise in poor taste if this context were ignored or lampooned - but the filmmakers give this backstory the space it needs, and allow it to feed into the story in believable and nuanced ways (which I will not spoil).

James's collaborators are also terrific, and their interactions make for some of the movie's most deft pieces of character revelation. Jorge Leneborg Jr. is extremely likeable and believable as James's new friend Spencer, a budding young filmmaker who sees the potential in James's scheme. Alexia Demie is also good as Meredith, a young woman who brings James into the realm of adult sexuality - they share two significant scenes, and these scenes in particular exemplify the dramatic sleight of hand the script delivers.

A few random thoughts on the rest of the supporting players:

It's great to see Mark Hamill doing something this different - in addition to playing Terry, James's 'dad', he also gets to make use of his vocal talents, voicing all of the characters in Brigsby Bear. His characterisation for the show's villain bears a striking resemblance to his most famous animated role.

Greg Kinnear gets a small but scene-stealing role as Detective Vogel, a friendly cop involved with James's rescue. Beneath his bland exterior, Vogel has a secret regret: he wanted to be an actor. His re-discovery of his inner thespian is emblematic of how the movie portrays James's effect on other people: James shows an interest in his dream - with no ulterior motive - and unintentionally provides a platform for Kinnear's character to try achieving it. 

By the end of this movie, I actually wished I was the kind of person who cried at movies. This movie really hit me on a visceral level. Not only is it a study of overcoming trauma, Brigsby Bear is a tribute to the power of imagination and curiosity to enrich one's life and relationships. It is a love letter to creativity. And it is not the creativity of a single mind, but creativity as a shared, communal experience. 

Brigsby Bear is as weird and funny as you think it is, but it is also an extremely intelligent and empathetic portrayal of a man discovering the joys of human companionship. Just wonderful.

Friday, 3 November 2017

NZIFF 2017: Thrillers

Here is Part 3 of the Midnight Ramble's reviews from the New Zealand International Film Festival.

Six Days (dir. Toa Fraser)
From 30 April to 5 May, 1980, a group of Iranian Arab gunmen held a group hostages at the Iranian Embassy in London. Members of an ethnic minority, their ultimate aim was to gain sovereignty for the Arab-majority province of Khuzestan. After the Thatcher government refused to negotiate with the gunmen, the Special Air Service staged a raid on the Embassy building and killed the hostage-takers. The event signalled a major shift in the way governments dealt with hostage situations, and established the SAS in the public consciousness.

A dramatisation of the  siege, 6 Days is the new film from New Zealand filmmaker Toa Fraser.

Since his debut, No. 2, a decade ago, I have been fascinated by the breadth of his filmography: you have a family drama, a period piece with a dash of magical realism; The Deadlands, a straight-up action flick; and now this movie. It is great to see a local filmmaker avoid the usual paths of new filmmakers: A lucky few, like Peter Jackson and Roger Donaldson, get to go to Hollywood (which is no guarantee  of success in itself - see Lee Tamahori and Geoff Murphy). Others have carved out a career in TV (like Crush director Alison Maclean). Others fade into obscurity.

6 Days is not the first attempt to dramatize the siege. The action movie Who Dares Wins was released in 1982 starring Lewis Collins (from the TV series The Professionals). Basically a home-grown version of a Cannon film, it stirred up a bit of controversy for its jingoism, but is basically forgotten today.

Unlike the filmmakers behind Who Dares Wins, Fraser plays the events straight. He frames the story from several different perspectives - the leader of the SAS team (Jamie Bell); the police negotiator (Mark Strong); the leader of the terrorists (Ben Turner); the BBC reporter on scene for the final assault (Abbie Cornish); and the politicians attempting to work out the overall plan. These shifting perspectives prevent the movie from establishing an easy good - evil binary. This is not an action movie; it is meant as a docu-drama of the events and people involved.

Acting by most of the cast is good; particular standouts are Jamie Bell and Mark Strong.

Bell is fantastic as Rusty Firmin, the leader of the SAS team. He plays the role with no histrionics or machismo - he carries himself with the quiet confidence of a professional, not an action hero, and it adds to the movie's verisimilitude. It is a testament to Bell's abilities that this restrained, professional character remains highly compelling. But Rusty is not the most interesting character in the movie.

That character is Mark Strong's negotiator Max Vernon. Vernon is a man stuck between placating the hostage-takers and jumping through the various hoops the government keeps throwing in his way. While the preparations for the raid are propulsive and more 'cinematic', the negotiator's section of the movie is the most resonant aspect of the movie.

While the movie's fidelity to the real events is laudable, it works against the movie dramatically.

With all of these different perspectives, the movie lacks an overall sense of focus. The most dramatic plot lines are the SAS raid, and the police negotiator's relationship with the hostage-takers, yet these dramatic lines are watered down by cutaways to Cornish's Kate Adie  and the political machinations behind the scenes. While both of these subplots feed into the overall story, they feel padded out, and should have been cut down. Aside from her arrival at the finale, Adie's subplot is pointless - her role is just to wait outside and narrate what is going on.

Before the screening, Adie herself introduced the movie and related a tid-bit of information which was missing from the movie: Apparently she was not supposed to be at the embassy on the final day, but the senior correspondent left early because of a dinner party. This story, with its inference of casual sexism, could have given her character more of an arc, but the movie never references this twist of fate.

Ultimately 6 Days is a decent movie, but it is not as good as it could be.

Malglutit (AKA Searchers, dir. Zachariah Kunnik)
When his wife and daughter are kidnapped, a father and his surviving son head out into the unforgiving cold to get them back.

Throughout this movie, I was wondering what a Hollywood take on this would look like. That lack of an outside perspective is one of the most interesting aspects of this film. What I liked about this movie was the lack of ethnographic exposition about the characters' culture and lifestyle. Had this story been framed through an outsider's lens, I'm sure this would have been foregrounded in an unnatural way. Writer-director Zachariah Kunnik handles the story with an emphasis on functionality and narrative economy. He trusts the audience to figure out what is going.

With its laser focus on characters trying to survive in a tough environment, this movie feels like a distant cousin of Mad Max: Fury Road. While the heroes are defined by their communal spirit, the villains are defined by their selfishness, which in this environment is incredibly destructive.

Like Fury Road, at its most basic level Malglutit is a western. The story was inspired by John Ford's The Searchers, only without that film's racial dynamics. Instead, the moral delineations are based on the characters' relationship with notions of survival.

The western influence is most overt at a visual level. Alternating between roving handheld close-ups and still wide shots, the film evokes the iconography of the western, but instead of the POV being that of white colonists entering alien territory, it is indigenous characters making their way through an environment that they understand and have a relationship with.

On a purely aesthetic level, there are several shots in the film which are genuinely jaw-dropping: marvellous vistas in which our heroes are tiny figures dwarfed by white plains and jagged mountain ranges. One of the most striking examples of this visual style (and one of the most thematically resonant) is the final showdown, which is framed an extreme long shot with hero and villain positioned in the corner of the frame. Humanity's struggles are more incidental to the environment they live in.

As far as the characterisation and acting goes, it is very spare. As the protagonist Kuanana, Benjamin Kunuk manages to feel like an ordinary guy, rather than some kind of one-note vigilante. My personal favourite was Karen Ivalu as Kuanana's wife Tagaq. Though she is a prisoner, she is always trying to escape. Her best moment is also one of the film's funniest sequences - her kidnapper demands a cup of tea and she splashes him in the face with it. Great stuff.

The other notable aspect of the film is the score, by Tanya Tagaq and Chris Crilly. A mix of synth textures and a variety of human vocalisations, it acts another layer that removes the film from a western frame, while functioning in a similar way.

It takes a little bit of time to get going, but once the chase begins this movie becomes extremely accomplished thriller. Pleasingly stripped-down, the film does not try to elaborate on its central premise and is all the better for it.

A strong example of a different perspective on a familiar idea, Maliglutit is worth checking out.

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