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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

7 of the Most Overlooked Male Performances of 2014

This may be taboo, but I am just going to go ahead and say it: 2014 was the year of great male performances. I mean, even actors who I usually don't even care about blew me away (*cough* Steve Carrell *cough*). So I thought I'd honor a few of my favorites here, specifically the underdogs who you won't see on countless other year-end roundups:

Chris Meloni in WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD: Can we just take a moment to commend Meloni for bouncing back after his celebrated tenure on Law & Order: SVU? His career has literally been on fire since leaving the show a few years ago -- from roles on Veep, True Blood and this indie gem in which he plays a duplicitous father and husband harboring a frightening secret. It's time for him to headline a major project. Hollywood, let's go.

Noah Wiseman in THE BABADOOK: Many have mentioned Essie Davis's performance in this meaningful horror, but I continue to be drawn to young Wiseman's nuanced portrayal of an unruly child-turned-unlikely protector. Like many great coming-of-age stories, we see Samuel (Wiseman) mature as the story progresses. Wiseman is keenly aware of his character's reaction to his mother's downward spiral and, in his own little way, takes on the overwhelming task of trying to save them both -- without overstepping his position.

Arash Marandi in A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT: In my eyes, he's already a star. He's talented, handsome and full of charisma. I mean, why else would they call him "The Persian James Dean?" He is magnetic in this film, as desperate for a connection as our vampire heroine. Commanding the screen from the very beginning, Marandi's performance is as much vulnerable as it is strong.

Ben Affleck in GONE GIRL: Quick question: why aren't we talking about Affleck's performance in this movie? Like, at all. It's particularly perplexing to me because going into the film I just knew Affleck was perfect for this role. And he didn't disappoint. He portrays the preeminent doe-eyed/accidentally brilliant husband to a T.

James McAvoy in THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: THEM: Again, I wasn't in love with this film. But McAvoy is just one of those actors that is so darn dependable. You cast him in a role and he's going to be great. Only an actor like that can make you interested in a film that is otherwise so lifeless, so unmemorable (not bad but just not enough to make you want to revisit). McAvoy's performance is just so bare, without a barrier that you have to break through in order to figure him out. He lays it all out for you. How bold is that?

Nelsan Ellis in GET ON UP:  I know, this film is not great. But the performances are really good! Ellis (most known a Lafayette on True Blood) is so understated and remarkable in this role that really is the heart of the film. While Boseman, as impressive as he is in the lead, has the more showy performance (and has more agency in the film), it is Ellis's performance that is most intriguing, one that you are instantly drawn to. That is in part due to Ellis's ability as a supporting actor to not upstage but to absorb each scene and deliver a subtle performance that still resonates with the audience.

Chris Rock in TOP FIVE: This is one of those moments in cinema when you don't really know whether to laugh or weep, a reaction that is indicative of any smart comedian's work (whether is it on film or in stand-up). Rock essentially plays a warped version of himself -- blending caricature with personal and professional reflection in a way that doesn't undermine his real-life celebrity but highlight it so that it humanizes him.

MLK's Niece Calls SELMA "Historically Entertaining"

There's always at least one movie a year, usually one poised to receive major awards recognition, that becomes the subject of critical debate (often referred to as a "smear campaign" on social media). This year's it's SELMA. I admit, I've only been half paying attention to the online discussion that raises questions about the accuracy of the film, and how it makes former President Lyndon B. Johnson look, but I do find it fascinating how many use film as a teaching tool for history -- even though one of film's main objectives is to be entertaining (which often involves dramatization).

On a similar note, Dr. Alveda King, civil rights activist and niece of Martin Luther King Jr., recently watched SELMA and, while she praised the film overall, she did point out some of the film's historical inaccuracy and the scarceness in representation of other key members of the movement in Alabama -- including her own father, the late civil rights activist Reverend A.D. King. Read her full response below:

"An invitation to a pre-release screening of the movie SELMA brought mixed emotions to my heart, and tears to my eyes. As I sat in the theater, I was transported back to the time when my Uncle MLK, my Daddy AD King and so many civil rights icons were embroiled in the historical crosshairs that brought equity to the voting rights of Blacks in America. It was during that same season that Daddy's and Mother's church parsonage was bombed in Birmingham; and the little girls, one a classmate of mine were killed in the bombing of the church. It was also the season of my first civil rights march, a "Children's March" where Daddy and James Orange and others taught me the tenants of nonviolent protests.

Even though I wasn't on the team of consultants who worked with the producers, I'm glad the film is in the atmosphere. While SELMA is historically informative and entertaining, having lived through those days, I would have appreciated more historical accuracy. I know that everyone can't be included in such projects, but on a personal note, I was saddened to find no mention of my Dad, who not only marched in Selma, but was also felled (and recovered) along with not only John Lewis, but with many others, including Hosea Williams and my dearly departed friend James Orange.

So many people have contacted me regarding the overtones regarding references to Uncle ML's responses to the attacks on his personal life. I have only this to say. Like all of the Bible heroes, Uncle was a human being, an imperfect man who served a perfect God. He and Daddy are in Heaven now, in the company with David, Moses, Paul, Rahab, The Woman at the Well, The Woman caught in the act... Uncle ML was a devoted prophet and Man of God. Need I say more?

Overall I enjoyed the film, and I recommend the film for viewing."

Coincidentally, I was just talking about the film to a few friends (those who, like myself, aren't as in love with the film as many others are) and they too were disappointed with how little screen time such major icons of the civil rights movement (including Hosea Williams and all the women characters) have in the film. More specifically, how small their roles are in the story. As broad as the film presents itself to be, it's still quite miniature in scope.

Anyway, I'd love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments box. It seems like everyone has an opinion about it.

For more information on Dr. Alveda King, click here

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

DMX's Cameo in TOP FIVE is Ridiculously Hilarious

I hesitate to call this the funniest scene in the movie (just because there are so many to choose from), but I will say that rapper DMX's randomly hilarious cameo in Chris Rock's razoz-sharp new comedy, Top Five, is in a word: un-frickin-forgettable. He stars as himself in the film, poking a little fun at his celebrity persona, including his habitual arrests and mad dog appeal. What's most unexpected is that he has a heart-to-heart with Rock's character (a veteran comedian at a professional crossroads) while they're both behind bars. And...just watch the video. I honestly couldn't make this s**t up:

Top Five is now in theaters.

Friday, December 26, 2014

We Keep Talking About the Wrong Performances from Women This Year

Call me an "anti-feminist" all you want, but I'm kind of tired of hearing how "great" Reese Witherspoon is in Wild, and how "marvelous" Felicity Jones is in The Theory of Everything. Because you know what? They actually were, like, just ok. In fact, most of the women folks are hyping up this season are meh (save for Rosamund Pike and Patricia Arquette, who I can't stop raving about). Are we that desperate to find impressive female performances that we're scraping the bottom of the barrel this year?

We shouldn't even be that hard-pressed, though. It was in fact an awesome year for leading ladies, but the real kickass performances just aren't getting they're due. So, I've decided to offer a reminder of some of the great women who've gone under the radar this season -- those who we need to be talking about instead:

Andrea Suarez Paz in STAND CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS: I didn't write a full review on this, since I saw the film very recently --  months after its U.S. release. But Paz, who was only featured in one other film before this, is so captivating here as a desperate mother searching for her autistic son who's gone missing in New York City. Her quiet performance is neither frantic nor maudlin, yet incredibly visceral to watch as her character struggles to maintain her sanity while still working full time and raising two children on her own.

Laura Dern in WILD: I've said this before on social media and I'll say it again: Laura Dern delivers the best performance in this otherwise mediocre film. As a character who only appears in flashback scenes, Dern makes the most of her screen time by providing rich, tender moments when the story needed it most. She's quirky, charming, deeply heartbreaking -- a reminder to less seasoned actresses that you don't have to have an emotional breakdown on screen to strike a chord with the audience.

Eva Green in WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD: Eva Green has made a career out of being the character who you're never quite sure whether she wants to f**k or kill you, but in this film she uses that quality most effectively as a woman nearly catatonic in an unfulfilling marriage (to Chris Meloni, no less). She's gone throughout most of the film, but her presence is felt as we also see her in flashback sequences that reveal just how indifferent she feels toward her relationship, and how much it's affected her spiritually and emotionally.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in BELLE: I'm sure I sound like a broken record at this point, but I remain in awe of Mbatha-Raw's beautiful performance in this film. Though her character is seen as inferior, Mbatha-Raw carries her so royally, powerfully even. Mbatha-Raw's portrayal gave the title character agency we rarely see in stuffy British costume dramas that feature little to no talent of color. She deserves all the props.

Hilary Swank in THE HOMESMAN: I'm actually surprised people aren't hyping this up more. I mean, Swank is already an awards darling, and the film was co-written and directed by Tommy Lee Jones -- who's also a magnet for awards. So why are we ignoring this female-driven western that centers on a variety of female characters, each so fascinating to watch? Swank's leading performance is especially interesting to watch because her character, Mary Bee Cuddy, is both strong and vulnerable, and unafraid to show both sides. In the wrong hands, Mary Bee would have come off remote and inaccessible, but Swank humanizes her.

Sheila Vand in A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT: You know I couldn't waste another opportunity to talk about this film again. Vand's vampire, The Girl, is a young woman of a few words but they're all the right ones. It's a very thoughtful performance that plays with the idea of fear, romance and loneliness -- three things that aren't typically associated with the undead. In fact, Vand is able to combine so many seemingly random aspects of her personality together into one remarkable performance that years from now people will finally be talking about.

Jessica Chastain in INTERSTELLAR: This film has a lot to say about love, even in terms of scientific theory. But none of the actors involved in the story embody this message as beautifully or as fiercely as Chastain does. She's part socially awkward nerd, part dreamer and part superhero all rolled into one.

Elisabeth Moss in THE ONE I LOVE: I don't know how, but Moss managed to portray two very different characters in this quirky little romance with a twist. But aside from that (because that's so easy, right?), she doesn't slight either of them. Instead, she brings out a very human aspect in both them -- whether it is microaggression, desperation or perfection. She wonderfully plays with the idea of both the ideal woman and the real woman, allowing the audience to draw their own conclusions on which is which.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

'Into the Woods' and Over a Cliff

It's never a good sign when a super long movie ends, and you check your watch to see how many hours you've spent at the theater's only been two hours. TWO. HOURS. I thought that surely after watching Disney's INTO THE WOODS, at least three hours of my life had been taken from me unjustly. Not because it's a completely awful movie; it has its moments. But somewhere along each character's traipse through the foreboding forest, the story just loses its way.

As a Disney lover and fan of musicals, this is super disappointing for me to even write. But, if anything, the film brought us a Meryl Streep/Emily Blunt reunion and that's never a bad thing. In fact, these two are in some of my favorite scenes in the movie. But even Streep's badass blue/grey hair, divine singing pipes and Miranda Priestley-esque sass isn't enough to keep you fully immersed in the aimlessly intertwining plot. The film starts off promising enough, though with a big music intro that intersects each of the storylines: Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is notoriously dissed by her stepmother (the marvelous Christine Baranski) and her awful stepsisters (Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch); the ever amazing Tracey Ullman as the mother of Jack (as in "and the Beanstalk") fusses with her son (Daniel Huttlestone) as she smacks his little head in perfect step with the song (oh, musicals...); the Baker and his wife (James Corden and Blunt) are ambushed in their little shop by one sneaky Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford) who snatches up several warm baked goods as she dashes away to Granny's house; and the Witch (Streep) warns the Baker and his wife that they will be cursed with infertility forever if they don't do as she says. Each of these characters meets in the treacherous woods where all the sh*t goes down (and later where the film falls completely off its axis). Plus, Johnny Depp as the big bad Wolf, because of course.

This is a lot to give us within the first few minutes of the film, and we haven't even gotten to the Rapunzel storyline yet (but that's okay, because that just sorta dangles throughout the entire film, with no real place). Oh, and there's a randomly hilarious scene between Rapunzel and Cinderella's princes (Billy Magnussen and Chris Pine) that I suppose is there to reinforce the film's cheeky tone and how "oh look, I can make fun of myself" each character is. But it's really just a a music video within a music video (kinda like an intermission in a film that seems already far too long).

As I mentioned before, though, there are good moments in INTO THE WOODS. Like, pretty much every scene with Blunt, who's so delightful to watch and does the most with the off-the-rails script she's given. And you can just tell Streep is enjoying herself as the evil villain who can appreciate a great music break (wicked witches, they're just like us!). The younger cast is adorable and far clever in their interpretations of the characters than you'd expect. But, man, this film is just so hollow. The fact that the story (or stories, rather) is stretched so thin doesn't allow any breathing room for any of the characters. There are moments tacked on just for the sake of having them included in this fairy tale satire (?), which doesn't really have a lesson or a takeaway considering it's a family film. (And I never really thought I was the type to care much about that kind of thing, but this film needs something to cling. It's got nothing). A real shame, too, because director Rob Marshall hasn't had a real hit since Memoirs of a Geisha in 2005.

Besides how dolled up and theatrical the whole production is (in some ways appropriate, in other ways strange), can we talk about how downright silly it is? I'm not the only one who feels this way. Streep said it too, in her reaction statement to her clearly contractual Golden Globe nomination: "Into the Woods'? I thought that was just a Halloween party?" I mean, basically that is what it is. Can we even take this film seriously? Should we?

Rating: C- (** out of *****)

INTO THE WOODS is in theaters December 25th.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Ava Duvernay's SELMA is Timely and Well Acted, But Is It Timeless?

Full disclosure: I am fascinated by director Ava Duvernay. I love what she's done with AFFRM (African-American Film Festival Releasing Movement), promoting and developing films that almost exclusively feature talent of color, and helping to organize a global conversation about how we can better support films with diverse casts. For that, she is a somewhat of a superhero to me. But here's the thing: I don't love her films. I feel varying levels of appreciation for them, but nothing has really grabbed me. Yet.

And I've really spent the last few years trying to understand why because I have such respect for her. Then it finally came to me: In Duvernay's quest to create stories in which characters of color can be seen as humans and not merely symbols or, worse, stereotypes, her characters still come across peripherally. When she writes and directs her films (as in the case of both her debut, I Will Follow, and her sophomore effort, Middle of Nowhere), Duvernay often struggles to illuminate a good premise with strong writing that resonates. Further, she often relies more heavily on what she wants the film to represent as a general contribution to cinema (that, yes, black stories matter), and less on character development and what the particular story means to her--which would not only help her define herself as a filmmaker but draw a connection between herself and the audience. That said, her stories are often too distant to love.

In some ways, Duvernay's newest effort, SELMA, struggles with the same thing. But since the film features characters and a story we are already familiar with, there is an established commitment to the film even before having seen it, which takes the pressure off Duvernay to try to bring us into a story we're not yet attached to. What is perhaps most interesting about this story is how relevant it is in today's political and racial climate. So the question moves away from the inevitable Why make a film about Dr. Martin Luther King, again? to We need to remind folks that MLK's vision remains unrealized today. But does that make the film timely or timeless and something we can connect to for years to come? I'd say that it is reliant on the former, and is too undefined to be the latter.

Going into this film I was intrigued by the fact that Duvernay said she was most interested in presenting the stories of "the people on the ground in Selma." Boom, because I am far more intrigued to learn more about the underrepresented people within King's camp, than a reiteration of his diligent struggle to provide equal voting rights for black people and his significant civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama. Give me more about notable activists Diane Nash and Reverend Hosea Williams, and I'll be glued to my seat.

But we don't really get a closer perspective on either of these two figures. Rather, Duvernay and screenwriter Paul Webb provide a panoramic view of MLK's (David Oyelowo) story during these tumultuous weeks leading up to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Which is unfortunate because there is opportunity to illuminate the voices of these more seldom discussed people of the era, and give the film a more intimate, human connection. But while we are left with a somewhat familiar story of MLK, SELMA does manage to offer a glimpse of the man behind the legend. Who was MLK when he wasn't the icon, when he was behind closed doors with his wife, Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo), and when he was faced with the daunting challenge of living up to all he represented for so many different people (and sometimes failing)? The film unfortunately glazes over these questions just when it presents them to you without honing in on any distinct point, but Oyelowo's marvelous interpretation of the character is enough to almost make up for that. Almost.

As a whole, when SELMA is good, it's great. A few things about it deserve to be pointed out: 1) the way it was shot. Cinematographer Bradford Young continues to be magnificent and has a keen eye for putting a signature touch on each project of which he's a part. 2) the acting. Again, Oyelowo, an actor who's delivered solid performances for the last couple of years and has consistently flown under the radar, is spectacular here. From capturing the emotional impact of MLK's mission  (and its effect on his family) to his arresting interpretation of King's sermons, Oyelowo isn't just acting, he's embodying King. 3) Ruth E. Carter's fabulous costume design that wonderfully recreates the era, and 4)  The riveting soundtrack, featuring John Legend and Common's contribution, "Glory."

And while the other actors in the film -- an embarrassment of riches, really, with the likes of Giovanni Ribisi, Oprah Winfrey, Tessa Thompson, Wendell Pierce, Tom Wilkinson, Lorraine Toussaint and Colman Domingo -- don't get as much of a chance to stand out as Oyelowo, some of them have a few memorable scenes that are so compelling that even Oyelowo fades into the background. Specifically, Keith Stansfield as slain protester Jimmie Lee Jackson is very effective in the role, as is  Henry G. Sanders, whose heartbreaking performance as his grieving grandfather is absolute standout. Maybe because I'm less familiar with these two characters, but I found them both to be far more interesting to watch than Ejogo, who is generally excellent but far too wilted here for me.

But I'm still left with the same question I had going into this film: What does Duvernay want us to take away from SELMA? What is her point of view as a filmmaker? As Duvernay continues to grow as a director, I hope that she takes on more projects like this that challenge her, and continue to shape her voice as a filmmaker. So, is SELMA the film I wanted? No. Is is a good film? Yes, but it's not great.

Rating: B (*** out of *****)

SELMA hits select theaters December 25, and opens in wide release on January 9.

Monday, December 22, 2014

WWII Drama UNBROKEN Is As Generic As It Gets

As Angelina Jolie's UNBROKEN continues to percolate in my head, I start to feel like a fraud. Just a few weeks ago I was singing Jolie's praises, congratulating her for always providing a fresh eye on well-worn concepts (RE: In the Land of Blood and Honey). But then I saw UNBROKEN and...Guys, it is so painfully generic that one could probably copy the review of any derivative WWII film and paste it right here. What a shame.

That's not to say that UNBROKEN is bad. You've just seen it before, and that is bad coming from filmmaker who is usually able to put her own twist on stories. With this film, Jolie's direction just gets completely lost. She becomes typical. Though the opportunity for creativity is more limited given that the film is based on a true story (the life and agonizing journey of  Olympic runner and WWII airman Louis Zamperini), there just isn't anything about the film that stands out -- not the acting, not the story, not the writing and again, not the directing. It's one of those films I call harmless; it's not awful, it's not great. It's just there.

And you never want to be the film that simply exists, especially not something like this that has the potential to be a very personal, heartbreaking story. Instead, it becomes a Wikipedia entry of facts scrolling down a page that provokes no emotion. We see Jack O'Connell as Louis become an airman, get captured (along with fellow airman played by Domhnall Gleeson) by the Japanese and endure cruel torture until his eventual triumphant ending. But as horrifying as some of it was to witness (particularly the abuse scenes), there isn't really anything you don't expect. Which is the problem.

But this isn't just Jolie's failure (that's too simple and convenient a conclusion to come to). Rather, the film has four different screenwriters (including Joel and Ethan Coen, who are continuing their downward spiral these days), who do nothing to help her out. Usually in the case of multiple screenwriters, the film suffers from multiple personality disorder, but in this case there is literally no personality. It just drags on for a whopping 137 minutes, but ultimately has nothing really to say. Even something as subtle as a voice-over narration would have elevated the film, and given it a perspective it needs to keep the audience invested.

We talk a lot about female direction, and allowing our competitive women filmmakers a palate that doesn't merely include romantic comedies and "chick flicks," but goes beyond the typical. And I know folks are already predicting an Oscar nod for Jolie,but does she deserved one? No, not at all. She may receive one later in her career, but this is an unfortunate misstep for her.

While UNBROKEN is a nice handshake to the legacy of the now deceased Zamperini, it adds nothing to the genre, and doesn't boost Jolie's status as a director either. It's meant to be inspiring, but is too remote to encourage such a profound feeling. It's simply a disappointment

Rating: C (** 1/2 out of *****)

UNBROKEN is in theaters December 25th.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Sarah Michelle Gellar Stars As a Mental Patient In an Upcoming Drama Based On a Book By Paulo Coehlo

I'm not even 100% certain of what is even going on in this trailer. But I know Sarah Michelle Gellar is the star and that's enough to get me to pay attention. Judging by the trailer alone, VERONIKA DECIDES TO DIE doesn't seem to be as ironically clever as its title conveys, but I can only hope it's at least decent--for the sake of Buffy fans everywhere. The film is based on a novel by Paulo Coelho, who wrote The Alchemist (a book so many people I know swear by). Here's more about the movie in the synopsis:

After a frantic suicide attempt, Veronika awakens inside a mysterious mental asylum. Under the supervision of an unorthodox psychiatrist who specializes in controversial treatment, Veronika learns that she has only weeks to live.

Check out the trailer:

Has anyone read the book? I'm interested to hear your thoughts about it. VERONIKA DECIDES TO DIE is in select theaters and on demand January 20, 2015. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Trailer Watch: Rinko Kikuchi Is On the Hunt for Stolen Cash in a Quirky New Drama

I'll be honest, my interest in watching KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER begins and ends with its star, Rinko Kikuchi (Pacific Rim, Babel). But I do also like its quirkiness, its intriguing premise and, really, how unexpected it is that an Asian-American actress is headlining a Fargo-esque story. The synopsis:

In this darkly comedic odyssey, Academy Award nominee Rinko Kikuchi (Babel, Pacific Rim) stars as Kumiko, a frustrated Office Lady whose imagination transcends the confines of her mundane life. Kumiko becomes obsessed with a mysterious, battered VHS tape of a popular film she's mistaken for a documentary, fixating on a scene where a suitcase of stolen cash is buried in the desolate, frozen landscape of North Dakota. Believing this treasure to be real, she leaves behind Tokyo and her beloved rabbit Bunzo to recover it - and finds herself on a dangerous adventure unlike anything she's seen in the movies.

Watch a teaser:

Again, they had me at Rinko Kikuchi. I definitely want to see this. 

KUMIKO, THE TREASURE HUNTER is in select theaters on March 13th, 2015. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

7 More Interesting Films on the Sundance Slate

Something tells me I'm going to be stalking this year's Sundance films long after they've left the festival. Since the full lineup was recently announced, I've added a few more titles to my anticipation list that I wanted to share with you. This particular rundown tends to lean more towards the crime dramas and supernatural thrillers, so if that's your poison you'll definitely want to have a look-see:


Director: Nikole Beckwith
Writer: Nikole Beckwith
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Cynthia Nixon, Jason Isaacs, David Warshofsky
Description: A young woman is reunited with her parents, Marcy and Glen, after being abducted 17 years earlier. Raised in a suburban basement and renamed Leia by her kidnapper, Ben, she was told the outside world had come to an end, and now she must completely reconceive her perception of it. The bright 22-year-old is also forced to reconcile her new life with parents who are virtual strangers and her past life of captivity with Ben, on whom she was completely dependent. As Leia’s growing alienation leads to her longing for Ben, Marcy slowly implodes in her attempts to reclaim her child, and the notion of what it is to be free is called into question.


Director: Jennifer Phang
Writer: Jacqueline Kim, Jennifer Phang
Cast: Jacqueline Kim, James Urbaniak, Freya Adams, Ken Jeong, Jennifer Ehle, Samantha Kim
Description: In a metropolis in the near future, Gwen Koe, a beautiful woman full of poise and grace, works as the spokesperson for the Center for Advanced Health and Living, a company that offers a radical new technology allowing people to overcome their natural disadvantages and begin life anew. But when a shift in company priorities threatens her job and her family, will Gwen undergo the procedure herself?


Director: Rania Attieh/Daniel Garcia
Writer: Rania Attieh/Daniel Garcia
Cast: Robin Bartlett, Rebecca Dayan, Will Janowitz, Julian Gamble, Roger Robinson
Description: In Troy, New York, two women, both named Helen, carry on seemingly complacent existences with their respective partners. Middle-aged Helen lives with husband Roy and finds comfort from a "reborn" baby doll. Meanwhile, successful young artist Helen is expecting a child with her noncommittal partner. Foreboding signs begin to appear: a meteor reportedly crashes nearby; people go missing; and inexplicable, life-altering changes spiral the Helens’ inert realities through a terrifying journey into unknown terrain.


Director: Rodney Ascher
Writer: Rodney Ascher
Cast: Documentary Subjects
Description: You are very tired. The pillow is soft. It’s late at night, and you start to drift off in your bed. Snap—your body locks up, totally frozen. But you are not asleep. You can see and hear everything. That’s when the shadow men come.


Director: J.M. Craviotot
Writer: Rock Shaink, Keith Kjornes
Cast; Tina Ivlev, Richard Tyson, Bianca Malinowski
Description: Chained by her ankle and locked away in the dismal basement of a sexual predator, Eve has been missing and presumed dead for some time. Lost to her family and friends, she wastes away in isolation between horrifying visits from her vile captor, who remains unaware that Eve has been maniacally planning her escape. With a carefully placed brick, she beats him senseless as he approaches and frees herself from his grasp at the outset of the film. But too quickly, she learns there are other girls in other houses facing sinister fates of their own. Making a deal with the devil, she vows to save them all, turning her torturer into her prisoner, one who will lead her to his prey one by one.


Director: David Robert Mitchell
Writer: David Robert Mitchell
Cast: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe
Description: As 19-year-old Jay’s summer—spent hanging with friends, lounging in a backyard pool—nears an end, her unperturbed suburban existence is about to be horrifyingly upended. After sleeping with a new boyfriend, she’s suddenly pursued, slowly but persistently, by a malevolent supernatural presence that takes the form of different people. Hoping to buy time and devise a plan, Jay and her friends escape to a beach house. But it’s coming.


Director: Charles Stone III
Writer: Patrick Gilfillan
Cast: Viola Davis, Jennifer Lopez, Shea Whigham, Julius Tennon, Ron Caldwell, Aml Ameen
Description: When teenage Stephon is killed in a drive-by shooting, his mother, Lila, slips into a paralyzing grief. She joins a support group for women who have lost children to crime and meets Eve, a woman whose little girl was killed the same night as Stephon. Lila and Eve form a friendship, and Lila begins to crawl out of her depression. She develops a burning desire to find justice for her son, and she presses the authorities for answers, but they are slow-moving and ineffective. It’s Eve who has the idea first—join together, find the drug dealers who shot Stephon dead, and bring them to justice themselves. 

The Sundance Film Festival takes place in Park City, Utah January 22-February 1, 2015. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Jonah Hill and James Franco Star in a Cat-and-Mouse Thriller, Seriously

I don't know about this one. While I continue to be fascinated by James Franco as a concept (though he's widly inconsistent), I feel like I'm the last soul on Earth who Jonah Hill hasn't hypnotized into believing he's a great actor. So, when I first heard about the two of them teaming up for the cat and mouse thriller, TRUE STORY, my first reaction was..."oh." That's really all I've got. 

But maybe you'll love it, so I figured I'd share it with you guys. It's based on the book written by the lead character (played by Hill). Here's a little more about it:

When disgraced New York Times reporter Michael Finkel (Jonah Hill) meets accused killer Christian Longo (James Franco) – who has taken on Finkel’s identity – his investigation morphs into an unforgettable game of cat-and-mouse. Based on actual events, Finkel’s relentless pursuit of Longo’s true story encompasses murder, love, deceit and redemption.

Yeah, I've got nothing. But here's something: one of the writers of TRUE STORY is David Kajganich, who is also helped pen the upcoming remake of Stephen King's It (directed by Cary Fukunaga). Also, Brad Pitt co-executive produced the project. Take from all of that what you will. I've still got, "oh." 

The trailer is set to drop later this week. For now, here are two more images from the film:

TRUE STORY comes to select theaters April 10, 2015. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL Continues to Rack Up Awards, Inexplicably

You know that feeling you get when you meet someone who hates a film that everyone else loves just as much as you? That's kinda how I felt the other day when I came across two people who felt as much confusion as I did over all the love for The Grand Budapest Hotel. Seriously, we talked about it for, like, 30 minutes (far longer than it's worth discussing). I can only imagine what they will say when I tell them that the film has won BEST PICTURE by the Online Film Critics Society. 

I'm sure the writing's on the wall as Wes Anderson's latest snoozefest is likely to receive more accolades as we dive deeper into awards season. I'm clearly in the minority about this, especially being a member of OFCS. Anyway, for now, let's just focus on all the deserving winners -- like Richard Linklater and Life Itself. Check out the full list below:

Best Picture: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Animated Feature: The Lego Movie
Best Film: Not in the English Language: Two Days, One Night
Best Documentary: Life Itself
Best Director: Richard Linklater - Boyhood
Best Actor: Michael Keaton - Birdman
Best Actress: Rosamund Pike - Gone Girl
Best Supporting Actor: Edward Norton - Birdman
Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette - Boyhood
Best Original Screenplay: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Best Adapted Screenplay: Gone Girl
Best Editing: Birdman
Best Cinematography: The Grand Budapest Hotel

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Urban Movie Channel Announces New Vampire Horror Film

Well, this should be interesting. The Urban Movie Channel (which I first wrote about here) has announced the next film they'll stream digitally later this month -- an original horror titled TEETH & BLOOD. As promised, the channel is focused less on marquee names and more on the underrated indie talent and films otherwise overlooked by mainstream audiences/studios. That said, this new genre film already has the appeal of being slightly mysterious yet intriguing. More about it after the jump.

Directed by Al Franklin and Pamela J. Richardson, TEETH & BLOOD stars Danielle Vega (Hulu’s “East Los High”), Glenn Plummer (Saw II), King Kedar (Preacher’s Kid) and Michelle Van Der Water (VH1’s “Single Ladies”). The film will also be available on DVD on March 10, 2015.

A beautiful diva is murdered on the set of horror director Vincent Augustine’s latest film “Chapel Blood.” Somewhere between the crime scene and the coroner’s van, the body mysteriously disappears. Meanwhile, the city’s supply of donated blood is being dangerously depleted. Suspecting a connection between the events, detectives Mike Hung and Sasha Colfax go undercover at the studio to investigate. Their attempt to crack the case quickly turns into a desperate battle for survival when they uncover an age-old war between rival vampire covens that threatens to consume humanity in a final, grisly assault of Teeth & Blood!

Not gonna lie, I am super curious about this one. It sounds like it could be disastrously cheesy, or pleasantly surprising. What say you?

TEETH & BLOOD will be exclusively available for digital streaming on the Urban Movie Channel December 30th. 

The Golden Globes Make History, Completely Ignore Gugu Mbatha-Raw's Performance in BELLE

Whose bright idea was it to cram all the awards nominations announcements together like this? Seriously, we film dorks have had to reiterate the same arguments and adoration 2-3 times in the past week. Anyway, today's celebrity self-gratification comes in the form of the Golden Globe awards, which always has a few, er, interesting choices among their nominees. But the biggest news Thursday morning was that Selma director Ava Duvernay has become the first black female filmmaker to ever be nominated for a Golden Globe. *cue applause* (My full review of Selma will be posted soon)

Truthfully, I'm a little conflicted on this, only because -- like many firsts -- many, many great talents have preceded her who definitely should have been recognized. But perhaps the Globes are turning over a new leaf. I can only hope this starts a trend with other diverse talent who will be honored in years to come. Speaking of the Globes finally joining us in the new century, Latina actress Gina Rodriguez was also nominated for her hugely popular show, Jane the Virgin (a show I reluctantly gave up watching after a few episodes because, despite how great Rodriguez is on it, its soapiness became unbearable for me).

But back to the film end of things for a bit: am I the only one who thinks this year's lead actress frontrunners are hugely underwhelming? You already know how I feel about Reese Witherspoon in Wild, but Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything) and...Jennifer Aniston (Cake)? Surely we're just reaching at this point. While I have not seen Cake yet, I can tell you that Jones's performance in Theory isn't really anything to write home about. She has one great scene, and then many more wallpaper scenes. In my dream world, Boyhood's Patricia Arquette (who's inexplicably in the supporting actress category) and Belle's Gugu Mbatha-Raw could easily replace ANY of the nominated leads (except Rosamund Pike, who is seriously the bee's knees in Gone Girl). The rest can go. Oh also, if we're looking at Wild for performances, Laura Dern is the best in show and no one is even talking about her.

Let' circle back to Belle for a second. Is it not weird to anyone else that the Golden Globes, who love any and all things British costume drama, have joined their predecessors in ignoring Mbatha-Raw's performance? Would it have been too much to give Mbatha-Raw some love, especially in the already underwhelming category of lead actress? Come ON.

And don't even get me started on the fact that Grand Budapest Hotel is seriously one of the most astonishingly overrated movies this year. Oh, and was it a comedy? I didn't realize that...You know what could have easily taken its slot? Obvious Child. Now THAT is a comedy. Budapest is...I don't even know what that is. Just not good. Also, I really need these awards to get off their high horses and stop ignoring the greatness that is, um, was (*teardrop*) Sons of Anarchy. Creator Kurt Sutter has a nearly perfect final season, with amazing performances throughout. Actually, just thinking about this makes me really upset (that and the fact that The Walking Dead continues to get snubbed like it doesn't even exist).

But let me end this on a good note: I love that Gillian Flynn is recognized for her ah-mazing adaptation of her own novel, Gone Girl. Also, original songs "Glory" (Selma) and "Yellow Flicker Beat" (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1) are fantastic choices (and will hopefully welcome back the more traditional movie soundtracks in the near future). And Ruth Wilson, whose fascinating performance in Showtime's The Affair I feared would go completely ignored, is honored here, along with her equally dazzling co-star Dominic West. Also, I am ecstatic to see David Oyelowo's name among the lead actor nominees (a super competitive category this year). Whether he wins or loses, his performance is spectacular in Selma. And let me not forget Mark Ruffalo, whose smaller yet vital performance in Foxcatcher provides the heart of the film. Glad to see him recognized as well.

Anyway, let me quit rambling so you can check out the full list of nominees here. Share your comments below.

The 72nd Annual Golden Globe® Awards will air on Sunday, January 11, 2015, LIVE coast-to-coast on NBC from 5:00-8:00 p.m. (PST)/8:00-11:00 p.m. (EST).

Thursday, December 11, 2014

I'm Actually Not Mad at This Year's NAACP Image Award Nominations

I was all prepared to throw shade at the 46th annual NAACP Image Awards nominations, but after looking at the list there isn't really anything notable at which I can take aim (and I looked really hard too). I mean, I can't really fault a committee that has chosen to honor amazing (and often ignored) talent like Chadwick Boseman, Gugu Mbatha-Raw , Don Cheadle and Uzo Aduba.

But I'll try anyway. 

I am still a little confused about the criteria here (as I am every year). Are people like Sufe Bradshaw (Veep) and Nimrat Kaur (Homeland) not eligible? Because I looked twice for their names, and...they're not here. That's a travesty. Also, I have never seen a single episode of NCIS: LA, so I have to rely on you guys on this: is LL Cool J really that great on the show? Like, seriously? Because I don't even like him hosting that silly Grammy nomination special (does that still happen?). 

Anyway, you can read the full list of nominations here. You're in for a treat. 

The NAACP Image Awards will air live on February 6 at 9pm EST/8pm CST on TV One. 

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Jennifer Aniston Somehow Managed to Sneak Her Name Onto the Screen Actors Guild Awards Nominations List

This is about that time in the pre-Oscar award season when we basically see the same 5-6 films get nominated for every award from now until February 22. This morning's announcement of the Screen Actors Guild Awards nominees was no different, so I won't even bother to reiterate my remarks (most of which can be found in my Independent Spirit Awards post). But I will say this: Are we really going to ride this Jennifer Aniston train all the way to the Oscars? Like, for serious? Please tell me it's not just because she's not wearing any makeup in Cake. PLEASE, let it be more than that.

Oh also, I am here for all things Rosamund Pike. So let's get that discussion going. And while we're on the subject of Gone Girl, can Ben Affleck get some love? Do I have to remind folks again how perfect he was for that role? I'm just saying.

Lastly, I remain perplexed by the amount of awards adoration for TV movie A Trip to the Bountiful (adapted from the most recent Broadway show starring Cicely Tyson). As I've said before, that sh*t is awful, despite the legendary Tyson. And let me not get into the obvious snubs from both the TV and film side:

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Belle
Emmy Rossum on Shameless
Gina Rodriguez on Jane the Virgin
Anthony Anderson on Black-ish
Tracee Ellis Ross on Black-ish
Mandy Pantinkin on Homeland
Rupert Friend on Homeland
Nimrat Kaur on Homeland
Melissa McBride on The Walking Dead
Sheila Vand in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Essie Davis in The Babadook

And those are just the few off the top of my head. I hope to see some of these names in the next few months. Check out the complete list of nominees here

The 2015 SAG Awards will be held on January 25 and broadcast live on TNT and TBS.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Watch a New Featurette on the Making of BOYHOOD

I've been pretty vocal for months that BOYHOOD remains my favorite film of the year so far (though I have a few more I'd like to see). Based on how these pre-season awards are going, it looks like I'm not the only one. So I am happy to share this awesome featurette on the making of the film, which spans twelve years. Before I do, here's a little more about the film, in case you still haven't seen it (but seriously, you need to see it):

Filmed over 12 years with the same cast, Richard Linklater's BOYHOOD is a feature-length film about growing up as seen through the eyes of a boy named Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane), who literally grows up on screen before our eyes. Starring Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Mason's parents and Lorelei Linklater as his sister Samantha, BOYHOOD charts the rocky terrain of childhood, parenting and growing up. Snapshots of adolescence from road trips and family dinners to birthdays and graduations - and all the moments in between - are set to a soundtrack spanning the years with music from Coldplay, Paul McCartney and Arcade Fire.

New Nina Simone Documentary Will Have Its World Premiere at Sundance

As we continue to wait for the big screen biopic on Nina Simone starring Zoe Saldana (if it hasn't crumbled under the pressure of an already disappointed audience), Netflix and RadicalMedia (in association with Moxie Firecracker) have decided to release their own version of the iconic jazz singer's story, in the form of a documentary titled WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? It was announced Monday that the film will receive its world premiere on opening night at next month's Sundance Film Festival. *cue applause*

Funnily enough, a friend and I were just talking about how when it comes to the true life story of musicians, documentaries tend to strike the best chord (with few exceptions, of course). So I am kinda excited to see what Netflix will deliver with this film. Here's more about it from the press release:

WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE?, the new film from Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus (The Farm: Angola, USA and Bobby Fischer Against the World), will receive its world premiere as a Day One (opening night) film at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, January 22 to February 1, 2015. Produced by Netflix and RadicalMedia, the documentary will premiere exclusively in all territories where Netflix is available in 2015.

Classically trained pianist, dive-bar chanteuse, black power icon and legendary recording artist, Nina Simone lived a life of brutal honesty, musical genius, and tortured melancholy. In this epic documentary, director Liz Garbus interweaves never-before-heard recordings and rare archival footage together with Nina's most memorable songs, to create an unforgettable portrait of one of the least understood, yet most beloved, artists of our time.

The film uses recently unearthed audio tapes, recorded over the course of three decades, of Nina telling her life story to various interviewers and would-be biographers. From over 100 hours of these recordings, WHAT HAPPENED, MISS SIMONE? weaves together Nina's narrative, told largely in her own words. Rare concert footage and archival interviews, along with diaries, letters, interviews with Nina's daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, friends and collaborators, along with other exclusive materials, make this the most authentic, personal, and unflinching telling of the extraordinary life of one of the 20th century's greatest recording artists.

I'm not very familiar with Garbus's work, but I am really interested in this project. I feel like I haven't seen enough footage of Simone talking about her songs, inspiration and intimate details about her life, so I'm definitely going to mark this one down. What say you?

The 2015 Sundance Film Festival will take place January 22 to February 1, 2015 in Park City, Utah. 

Monday, December 8, 2014

On Imperfect Single Mothers, Meaningful Horror and THE BABADOOK

During our latest Cinema in Noir Twitter chat on Sunday, we talked about THE BABADOOK, the new horror film written and directed by Jennifer Kent that has a different meaning for everyone who watches it. Which is a great thing to say about a film in a genre that these days too often succumbs to okey doke storytelling.

If you're unfamiliar, the film follows a widowed mother (Essie Davis) who, still reeling from the death of her husband, struggles to deal with her unruly son Samuel alone (Noah Wiseman) as a sinister indiscernible force from a children's book threatens to break the two of them apart. But the film is far more complex than its eerie boogeyman appeal (which, to its credit, legitimately scares you to the core). It portrays a deeper layer of single parenthood that we don't see enough on the big screen. While many films portray single parents as overcompensating, paranoid about having social lives and on a constant search for perfection (or, on the opposite spectrum, as uncaring, oblivious and abusive), THE BABADOOK has that healthy realistic middle ground in the sense that Amelia (Davis) sincerely loves her child, but, yes, he often gets on her last nerve. And you can feel her aggravation, her visceral annoyance over Samuel just failing to listen, failing to just "be normal" like other kids, for a change. It is that familiar claustrophobic feeling that sometimes comes with parenthood. It's uncomfortable to watch on screen because we don't often see this played out in film. But it doesn't make her a villain; it makes her human.

In fact, as I watched THE BABADOOK I thought of the time when my mother cried over spilled milk one day. Literally, not figuratively. I was around 6 years old or so, wreaking havoc around our small apartment. I think I made as much noise as possible with every toy I owned (I was an only child, and constantly tried to pretend our two-person home was filled with other people by creating an elaborate mess using many sounds). I was swinging one of my favorite noisemakers around the kitchen when I knocked an entire carton of milk onto the floor, spilling all its contents. Before I could truly react to what I did, she whipped around and yelled "What are you doing to me?!" I froze, terrified. I was prepared for my punishment, or a cold reprimanding, but this was different. This somehow reflected back on to her personally, and I couldn't comprehend at the time how that was possible and how I could fix it. I felt horrible and helpless. But I never felt unloved. Later that day when my mother apologized and made it clear that her outburst was not a reflection of me, I then realized how vital our relationship was, more importantly how symbiotic it was. I learned that just as much as my mother protected me, I was to protect her, no matter what.

Likewise, there is a scene in THE BABADOOK in which Amelia is so overtaken by the force that she becomes unrecognizable, a genuine threat to her son. But instead of fleeing from her or feeling any less love for her, Samuel assures her that he will not leave her side and he will do whatever he can to protect her. Because that is often how it is as single mother and her child -- it's frustrating and unbearable at times, yes, but filled with so much mutual love and security. Nestled deep within this teeny Australian thriller packs a simple yet profound message about what it often feels like to be a single parent, and even what it feels like to be the child of that parent. Kent gives both characters equal agency, delivering a balanced story that is never overwhelming. We need more of these original stories, if only so that they aren't seen as enigmatic or strange. They deserve to be told.

Rating: B+ (**** out of *****)

THE BABADOOK is now playing. Watch the trailer:

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Writer/Director Ana Lily Amirpour On Vampires, Hipsters and A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT

I know she's said in several interviews that she doesn't want to branch out of the indie film industry, but damn it Ana Lily Amirpour deserves to be a superstar. I saw A GIRL WALKS HOME ALONE AT NIGHT weeks ago and I still can't get it out of my head. If I could, I would post something about the film here every day until I got each of you to see it.

But I won't do that, because I'm sure you'd begin to hate me for it. I will, however, share two new behind the scenes videos of Amirpour discussing with Elijah Wood (one of the film's producers) the origins of her breakthrough film, her first full-length narrative that is now both a Gotham Award and Independent Film Award nominee. She talks about the eclectic soundtrack (which I am desperate to get my hands on), the graphic novel, choosing her awesome actors (Sheila Vand and Dominic Rains are both featured in the video), and why she chose to set the film in Iran. "I just wanted to make a movie that every second of what I see and hear people say is sh*t that I love," she said.

I find it interesting that so many people apparently have asked her that last question, especially since I completely forgot the film is actually in another language. It's so immersive that I feel it transmits its diverse audience right into the story. Amirpour also chats about her fascination with vampires and loneliness ("I make films to make friends"), and how important it was to share her unique voice. She says, "I was attracted to the idea of misfits having a stand." In both clips it's impossible not to fall in love with her passion, unpredictable sense of humor, and the idea behind the project and lead character, who she calls "the ultimate emo hipster on steroids."

Watch the videos:


Saturday, December 6, 2014

BEYOND THE LIGHTS Writer/Dir​ector Gina Prince-Byt​hewood: "There is a Perception that Black People Don't Love Each Other"

While I may not have been the biggest fan of BEYOND THE LIGHTS, written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood, I still appreciate the fact that it is an unapologetic love story starring two leads of color that doesn't cater to lazy stereotypes too often found in other films. From my conversations on Twitter and beyond, the film has struck a chord with people from all walks of life who have been hungry to see this image on the screen.

In a new open letter (distributed by the American Black Film Festival), Bythewood writes about what inspired BEYOND THE LIGHTS, the feedback she's received and how difficult it is to get support for films featuring black characters as "real people." Check it out:

Beyond The Lights reflects us as human beings
After the first preview audience screening of "Love & Basketball" a 17 year old Black boy said, "The movie taught me how to love." Fourteen years later, after the first preview audience screening of "beyond the lights," a 17 year old Black boy said, "I didn't really believe in hope and love before but this movie changed me." That is why I make movies. Movies have power. Power to impact society and the choices we make. I want to entertain, but I also want to say something to the world.

I love movies. And I dig a great love story; the kind that wrecks me, then builds me back up and leaves me inspired. I write what I want to see. I wanted to make a love story with two people of color in the lead. Not a romantic comedy. A love story. "beyond the lights" took incredible fight to get made. Four years of writing, and two years of overcoming "no." Every studio balked. Twice. But I kept fighting. What gave me the courage was "Love & Basketball." Every studio turned down that film, too. But I never gave up because I believed in it with my whole heart and soul. I had the same passion for this story. People ask me all the time if I feel discriminated against as a black female director and I actually don't. I get offered a ton of stuff. But I like to direct what I've written. I feel what's discriminated against are my choices, which is to focus on people of color as real people. Those are the films that rarely get made and those are the films that take a lot more fight. But I'm up for the fight, because if we don't fight for this we stay invisible. I want us to look up on the screen and see ourselves reflected beautifully. I want us to look up on screen and learn how to love the right way. I want us to look up on screen and see a black man who is strong, sexy, complicated, and real. I want us to look up on screen and see a black woman fighting to find her voice, find her authentic self and be brave enough to live an authentic life. I want us to look up on screen and be inspired to want more for ourselves, to want to love, and to love ourselves. 

There is a perception within our community and the world that black people don't love each other. That we don't fight for each other. That perception is so dangerous. We need positive images to counter the negative portrayals we see every day. And positive doesn't mean perfect. Perfect is boring. I want real. 

But more than anything, "beyond the lights" is a really good movie experience. It is the kind of movie that should be shared. That collective explosive reaction to character, story, and music is fun. The advanced screenings have been like revivals. Audiences break into applause during the movie. Phenomenal performances. Insane chemistry between Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker. Dope music. Beautifully complex mother/daughter and father/son relationships that are rarely explored with people of color. 

You will laugh. You may cry. You will feel. And you may be changed. It is time to be inspired. It is a time to fight.

-Gina Prince-Bythewood

She makes some great points here, especially when it comes to the portrayal of black humanity on the big screen. Your thoughts?

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