[Early Review] Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021)

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
Cast: Simu Liu, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Florian Munteanu, Benedict Wong, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Leung
Screenplay: Dave Callaham, Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham
132 mins. Rated PG-13 for sequences of violence and action, and language.

There’s been a level of uncertainty surrounding the MCU following the finale of the Infinity Saga. As Avengers: Endgame came to rest, fans everywhere were overjoyed by this conclusion to the story, and a few of us were left wondering, “Where do we go from here?” It’s a fair question, of course. No cinematic universe has been more ambitious or successful as the MCU, but even so, how could they top that ending? As solid as Spider-Man: Far From Home was, it was seen as an epilogue to the story, instead of being a jump-start to the next film. Then, 2020 and COVID gave us the first year since 2009 without an MCU installment. Even 2021’s Black Widow was set during Phase 3 and acted more as a sendoff to a beloved character than a true starting point for what was next. We were fools, of course, not to trust Marvel, a studio that has consistently triumphed in spectacle and action and also seems to be consistently gaining speed in the general artistry of their epics. The newest installment, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, feels like a breath of fresh air and a reminder that this world is far from stale, and it’s indeed the best origin story the MCU has had in years.

Shaun (Simu Liu, Women Is Losers, TV’s Kim’s Convenience) and his friend Katy (Awkwafina, Ocean’s Eight, TV’s Awkwafina is Nora From Queens) are virtually inseparable. They both work together as valets during the day and spend their evenings hanging out, living in the moment, and trying to make ends meet, and it doesn’t seem like this cycle will break anytime soon. That is, until a group of trained killers board their bus, looking for Shaun and a necklace he’s wearing. After dispatching the foes with a blend of incredible martial artistry, Shaun is forced to reveal that his real name is Shang-Chi, and he’s a trained master of martial arts and son to a criminal mastermind, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung, In the Mood for Love, Europe Raiders), known as The Mandarin. Now, Shang-Chi and Katy are on a mission to reunite with his long-lost sister and foil his father’s dangerous plan. In doing so, Shang-Chi will be forced to confront a past he ran away from and a legacy he has tried to hide.

I’m very unfamiliar with Shang-Chi, the local bookstore where I would hunt down old comic books never had any back issues as far as I knew, but I knew just bits and pieces and hoped for the best here, and I was blown away by this film. It’s a classic action epic fantasy more so than any singular superhero tale, dealing with strange new environments, lots of mythology and mysticism, and spectacular creature design. If you removed the MCU connections, this movie could very much stand on its own and be just as entertaining, but know that Shang-Chi is stepping into a larger world only makes me more excited for where this character is headed, and all of that stems from an incredibly strong lead performance from Simu Liu. This is the first time I can recall seeing Liu perform, and I was enamored with his ability to flip between the serious emotional family drama on display and the playful Marvel tone so easily. He never stumbles, and none of the drama or comedy feels forced into the situation. When I’d heard that Marvel had cast the guy that tweeted them for the role, I was very uncertain, but Liu’s ability to hold his own against Tony Leung and Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Boss Level) confirms to me that he has a long career ahead of him.

Another aspect of the film that concerned me on the outset was the decision to revamp the character of the Mandarin. I am a huge fan of Iron Man 3 and I actually loved how they pulled the rug out from under viewers, revealing that the Mandarin was really Trevor Slattery, a cheesy character actor playing up to the more stereotypical aspects of the villain, and he was used as a front for Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian. The Mandarin is a tricky character in the comics, a very stereotyped character that plays to the offensive fairly often, so I found the Slattery reveal to be a high point of the Shane Black sequel, and when I heard that this film would retcon the Mandarin, I was pretty frustrated, but the combination of Tony Leung’s performance and the way he is incorporated into the already laid-out mythology of the MCU’s Mandarin is so classy and interesting without a hint of disrespect to what came before. In fact, they honor the previously-established mythology so well that I giggled with glee throughout most of Leung’s scenes. I’m a big fan of Leung’s work already, and I already knew he was going to knock his performance out of the park, but Xu Wenwu will likely go down as one of the stronger MCU villains, showing that the studio is again willing to learn from its villain problem and create a nuanced character antagonist. Part of that stems from the collaboration between director Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12, Just Mercy) and Leung in crafting the character, with Leung given more control than most to create the villain, and he’s a sympathetic, but never weak, villain that you can understand even if his actions cannot be condoned.

It also cannot be overstated how much Awkwafina adds to this movie. Almost more egregious than their villain problem is Marvel’s way of dealing with the romantic leads in their films, and though I wouldn’t state that Katy is a romantic lead even though there’s an obvious hint at something under the surface, she’s dealt with significantly better than Thor’s Natalie Portman or Doctor Strange’s Rachel McAdams, to name a few. For starters, Katy is given way more to do in the film, and there are several sequences, particularly in the film’s third act, where she is given the spotlight and it all works just as well. Her character arc still runs alongside Shang-Chi’s, but she consistently plays a part in the narrative and is never discarded or forgotten in the story, playing an integral role in the story, as well as a healthy dose of comedic relief and some of the best chemistry of all the MCU in her scenes with Liu.

I saw Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings after only catching the first trailer (one of the benefits of closed theaters for all of 2020 was not getting beaten over the head repeatedly with spoilery trailers), and I think it’s best to avoid ruining some of the many surprises in store for viewers, so I don’t want to give away too much, but I’ll say that the fight scenes are intense and beautifully shot, there are battle sequences that feel on par with other fantasy epics, and the creatures in the film vary from cute and cuddly to horrifying and monstrous, and I was never bored at all throughout the film. There’s always a worry when a filmmaker steps up to the blockbuster plate after being so successful at indies (while many are able to accomplish this feat, not all of them are able to), so I’m pleased that Cretton takes the independent film sensibilities he’s used all his career and applies it to a big budget studio tentpole, creating one of the most unique tones and experiences of the entire MCU. This one stands on its own two feet but leads to some interesting places for where the character and series can go from here.

I grew up watching a lot of movies that featured people that looked like me, and as I get older, I tend to find the more interesting stories tend to be the ones surrounding people who don’t look like me. Shang-Chi features a lot of amazing mythology that feels like a window into another world, and it’s also really important that the MCU, 25 films deep at this point, finally has an Asian Leading Superhero. Shang-Chi had many failed attempts to get to the screen stretching all the way back to the 1980s with an adaptation in the works that would’ve features Brandon Lee, and there was an attempt back in 2001 as well with numerous directors entering and exiting the project. It took a long time, but at least the film we’ve been waiting decades for is pretty much the best case scenario, a movie that expands on that classic Marvel storytelling formula but goes in some completely unexpected directions. I had loads of fun with this character and this world, and I’m so excited to go back to the theater when this opens to see it again. Much like DC’s The Suicide Squad, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings showcases a bright future for the MCU, and this film comes with my highest recommendation.

5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

  • For my review of Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger, click here.
  • For my review of Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel, click here.
  • For my review of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man, click here.
  • For my review of Jon Favreau’s Iron Man 2, click here.
  • For my review of Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, click here.
  • For my review of Leythum’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer, click here.
  • For my review of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier, click here.
  • For my review of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, click here.
  • For my review of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, click here.
  • For my review of Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, click here.
  • For my review of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Captain America: Civil War, click here.
  • For my review of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, click here.
  • For my review of Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, click here.
  • For my review of Taika Waititi’s Thor: Ragnarok, click here.
  • For my review of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers: Infinity War, click here.
  • For my review of Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers: Endgame, click here.
  • For my review of Jon Watts’s Spider-Man: Far From Home, click here.

[Early Review] The Suicide Squad (2021)

Director: James Gunn
Cast: Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, Jai Courtney, Peter Capaldi, David Dastmalchian, Daniela Melchior, Michael Rooker, Alice Braga, Pete Davidson, Nathan Fillion, Sean Gunn, Flula Borg, Mayling Ng, Sylvester Stallone, Viola Davis
Screenplay: James Gunn
132 mins. Rated R for strong violence and gore, language throughout, some sexual references, drug use and brief graphic nudity.

A follow-up to 2016’s Suicide Squad has gone through a great many permutations since the original film opened to less-than-stellar reviews and reports of serious studio meddling on the part of Warner Bros. At various times, filmmakers like David Ayer, Mel Gibson, Gavin O’Connor, and Jaume Collet-Serra, were connected to the project before James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy, Super) stepped on board as a writer and director. Gunn, fresh off the controversy with Disney that led to his firing, put a lot of himself into this new film, and it seems he was given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. I was very excited to see this film, and I was able to catch a press screening of the film last week. I’m happy to say that The Suicide Squad might be the best installment of the DCEU yet.

Amanda Waller (Viola Davis, Fences, Widows) has reassembled Task Force X with some new and familiar faces in an effort to destroy Jötunheim, an experimental laboratory on Corto Maltese. As before, each of these thirteen inmates of Belle Reve have an explosive device in their skulls and, if they survive, they get time removed from their prison sentences. Under the leadership of Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman, RoboCop, Edge of Winter), Task Force X begins their mission in bloody fashion, but they’ll soon find that Jötunheim is a much more protected stronghold than they’ve faced before, and it contains some secrets that perhaps should not be found.

There are simply too many characters in this film to spend time on each of them, and don’t assume that, because I didn’t talk about someone, they die earlier or aren’t worth it. I’m going to focus on the particular characters that stood out most to me, and I’ll just say that I enjoyed every single character in this movie. Gunn found a way to give each of them a POP that made them memorable in the film. Perhaps the film’s greatest fault is more of a strength in that I enjoyed all of these characters so much that I didn’t want them to die, but knowing this is a Suicide Squad movie, some of them need to die. Gunn reminds us throughout his screenplay that the odds are heavily stacked against Task Force X, and that makes for a more exciting movie experience because of it.

I would argue that this film doesn’t ignore the original Suicide Squad (or Birds of Prey) as much as interviews and reports have led us to believe. It doesn’t out-and-out reference these previous films, but it certainly isn’t trying to hide them away either. In fact, Gunn does a great job at incorporating some of the legacy characters of Suicide Squad. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street, I, Tonya) is perhaps the best she’s ever been in the DCEU, and part of that comes from a mutual understanding of the character for Gunn and Robbie. Her character arc in this film sensibly builds on what she did in her first two appearances, and there’s the idea of Quinn as a catalyst of chaos, much like her former beau, that works quite well because the film isn’t resting on her shoulders. Even Rick Flag and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney, Terminator Genisys, Jolt) feel like natural progressions of their characters, while Amanda Waller is the same hard-ass from the previous film, but I like the added lack of emotion she feels here when members of the Squad suffer or die. She had that in the previous film, but it’s further expanded upon here.

Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation, Concrete Cowboy) is quite spectacular here as Bloodsport, a new addition to the universe who has such a pessimism for the mission but is forced into by Waller. Having seen Elba as an action superstar in other movies, it’s nice to see him play around with the idea that he has no faith in the mission and a complete understanding of his odds. He also has great interplay with the others in the Task Force X team.

Other notable introductions here include David Dastmalchian (Prisoners, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back) as Polka-Dot Man, a character with a memorable screen presence and an interesting ability and Sean Gunn (The Belko Experiment, Ordinary World) as Weasel, a kind-of anti-Rocket Racoon, a clumsy and disturbing humanoid creature without any truly special abilities, but if I’m being fair, it is John Cena (Bumblebee, F9: The Fast Saga) who steals the show as Peacemaker, a criminal who sees himself as a hero, a protector of peace, no matter who he has to kill to make it happen.

Therein lies James Gunn’s greatest strength as a director: his ability to pull the best performances from his actors. He made Dave Bautista a better actor through their collaboration, and here again he has found a way to further develop Cena’s talents to make Peacemaker the standout character of the entire film. I never thought I’d be saying that, but it’s impossible to deny.

Gunn has a remarkable directing style that stands out even in studio pictures, and The Suicide Squad feels like a James Gunn movie with a big-ass budget. He’s in his realm, making the kinds of movies he’s always made, but now he has the money to stand behind his vision. As a screenwriter, he’s always been able to embrace the insanity in a way many others have tried and failed. Here, he has a ragtag group of villains that we shouldn’t be rooting for as they do reprehensible things to survive an unsurvivable mission, facing off against some of the weirdest antagonists in the comic book realm, and yet, he accomplished just about everything he sets out to do here. Having seen the film already, I just cannot wait to see it again.

If I’m looking for a flaw, and there are so few, I would have to say the only frustrating part of the film is a nitpick. I really like how the film presents its title cards almost like chapter headings, but a few of them were tough to read in the style they chose. I know, it doesn’t seem like a big deal because it isn’t, but it’s truly the only problem I had with this movie. Perhaps a tightening up of a few minutes in that transition from Act II to Act III, but again, nothing that I feel is ultimately a large problem for this film.

I had loads of fun with The Suicide Squad, and while I’m not ready to call it the best film in the entire DCEU yet (I’m still torn between this one and Shazam!), I have nothing but praise for this movie and the terrific work of its cast and crew. It’s batshit crazy in all the right ways, producing one of the most unique cinema experiences I have had in a long time, especially for a film fitting within a larger cinematic framework. The Suicide Squad is the kind of movie that the DCEU, the superhero genre, and the theater needs right now, and it’s unlike anything the DCEU or the MCU have done yet. See this one as soon as you can (because there will be spoilers abound on release weekend), and if possible, go to the theater to see it, because the big screen experience matches the big bombastic movie that James Gunn has crafted here.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe


  • For my review of Patty Jenkins’s Wonder Woman, click here.
  • For my review of Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, click here.
  • For my review of Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, click here.
  • For my review of David Ayer’s Suicide Squad, click here.
  • For my review of Zack Snyder’s Justice League (Theatrical Cut), click here.
  • For my review of David F. Sandberg’s Shazam!, click here.
  • For my review of Cathy Yan’s Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn), click here.
  • For my review of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy, click here.
  • For my review of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, click here.

[Early Review] Stillwater (2021)

Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Matt Damon, Camille Cottin, Abigail Breslin
Screenplay: Tom McCarthy, Marcus Hinchey, Thomas Bidegain, Noé Debré
140 mins. Rated R for language.

I’ve been waiting on a follow-up to Spotlight for some time now. Tom McCarthy (The Cobbler) exploded as a director with his film about the Boston Globe uncovering the Catholic Church’s history of child molestation cover-ups. I’ve heard mostly solid things from my colleagues on McCarthy’s newest film, Stillwater, but I had no real intel on the film, and I didn’t know much going into it save for Matt Damon (Good Will Hunting, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot) being oddly cast as an oil rig worker. Surprisingly, Damon is among the better performances in this film that mostly succeeds even with a more muddled climax.

Bill Baker (Damon) has been back and forth between his small town of Stillwater and Marseille to visit his incarcerated daughter Alison (Abigail Breslin, Little Miss Sunshine, Zombieland: Double Tap), who is in prison for murder. When new information surfaces but the lawyers refuse to look into it, Bill takes it upon himself to investigate the info, and he gets the help of Virginie (Camille Cottin, Allied, TVs Call My Agent!) to assist him with navigating the legal system and the language barriers that exist with the differing cultures.

It’s hard to play a character that doesn’t seem to talk throughout the entire run time of the film, and yet Matt Damon tackles the role of Bill Baker in a surprisingly honest way. He doesn’t speak long emotional monologues, but he speaks in every gesture, displaying the wide array of emotions through a quiet and more subdued performance of visual tics and believable character building, and while I don’t agree with his choices throughout parts of the narrative, I can understand his reasoning, however flawed it can be. I can’t deny that even as I watch Bill lie to his daughter in the opening moments of the film, anger fueling me at the sheer stupidity of his false hope, I can still totally see why he would act that way.

There’s significant chemistry between Bill and his newfound friendship with Virginie as they play two entirely opposite people that have little in common other than the common decency of select humans. I was unaware of actress Camille Cottin before seeing here in Stillwater, and I was quite impressed with her turn as the actress aspiring to make ends meet for her child. The child, Maya, played by Lilou Siauvaud, is another standout performance here, specifically her scenes with Damon as he discovers a change to be a better father figure to her than he was with Alison.

Something else that struck me as quite powerful in Stillwater was the examination of culture, specifically in how it married the Oklahoman Bill Baker, full of Americana, burger-eating, and country-music-listening, to Marseille and the world that exists beyond our shores. The ways that McCarthy’s film examines the similarities and contrasts of the two worlds was quite effective and made for an interesting experience in viewing Stillwater.

Where the film falters is in its run time and its ending. For starters, this film is far too long, and to be fair, there’s a lot of film packed in here, but there’s simply no need for this movie to run 140 minutes. There’s an important plot adjustment in Act II that puts the film in a meandering state, where I felt that the character journeys took center stage at the detriment of plot. The character arcs are all quite interesting, but I was left wondering when we were getting back to what this movie was about. In fact, I had almost started wondering if the story would return at all before it did in a grand way. Unfortunately, the film’s main climax left me with too many questions about how events unfolded, what happened to certain characters, and the overall reality of the plot progression. I wouldn’t say any of this ruined the finished film, but my level of confusion and questioning caused me to try and make plot points fit together on the ride home from the theater. I’m not sure if some of this connections were in the script but excised in the editing bay or if they were never written in the film to begin with, but they pulled me out of the film.

With shades of Sean Penn’s The Pledge, Stillwater is full of pain, reckoning, and the forced acceptance of mistakes, and thankfully McCarthy injects a tiny bit of comedy in places where he can, or the film would be a drag of depression throughout. I really liked Matt Damon’s performance, and the think his character arc and the story are challenging and captivating, even if the ending drops off a bit. Stillwater is an interesting story, one we’ve seen before, but the infusion of cultural parallelism and a flawed but intriguing lead character make for an engaging film that I recommend.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] The Sparks Brothers (2021)

Director: Edgar Wright
Cast: Ron Mael, Russell Mael
135 mins. Rated R.

When I first heard that Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Baby Driver) had directed a documentary, I remember taking a moment to ponder the idea. How would an Edgar Wright documentary actually work? What topic would Wright choose to document? Where would his signature style best be utilized? After the moment ended, I said, “Well, it would have to be a music doc, right?” Yes, as a matter of fact, it was.

The Sparks Brothers is the story of…well, the Sparks Brothers, or perhaps, the band Sparks and the two brothers who have continued to make music for about 50 years, having created 25 albums, and basically being the most underground of musicians, loved by many but never discussed in the pantheon of great artists. As musician Beck eloquently puts it at the beginning, if you get a bunch of musicians together for a conversation, by the end of the night, they’ll end up talking about Sparks (he put it better than I did, but I don’t have the quote in front of me). But who exactly are Ron and Russell Mael? Are they really Americans? How have they persisted, decade after decade, as the culture has evolved? And why does no one talk about them the way they deserve? These are the questions Edgar Wright, fan of the band, puts forward, as we hear from former members of the band and fans like Patton Oswalt, Weird Al, and Mike Myers, as well as the titular brother themselves. The film is a narrative odyssey of a band I never knew.

As stated above, I was familiar with one Sparks song, and I’d only heard that one song one time, and I can’t even remember where, so don’t take this next statement lightly: in less than 2 1/2 hours, Edgar Wright turned me into a Sparks die-hard fanboy. I caught the film last night at an early screening, and all day today, I’ve been listening to their music nonstop. At lunch, I stopped by a record store to see if I could find any old albums. I’ve been humming the music even when it’s not playing. I’m obsessed, and there lies the brilliance of this Edgar Wright documentary. It’s not the style (though the style is great), it’s that he chose a topic that is so universally unrecognized, and he gave a crash course for viewers like me. In a way, this is a sister (or perhaps brother) doc to Searching for Sugar Man, another brilliant doc from several years back chronicling a musician that the public seems to have missed.

We spend a lot of time with the brothers, Ron and Russell, throughout the film, and their onstage charisma works just as well when they’re sitting on some stools being asked questions and walking us through their careers and lives. From the noble beginnings as Half Nelson to all their successes and failures (though I would only refer to these as commercial failures because the music throughout is never less than astonishingly funny, catchy, entertaining, and deeper than expected), we see a band led by two artists in a constant state of rebirth. Sparks is like a butterfly that gets out of the cocoon and then says, no, let me try that again, before jumping back in.

It was also interesting to see the wide berth of fans that the band has accumulated in their time. There are some interesting personalities I wouldn’t have guessed to appear here, like Neil Gaiman and Flea. Hearing how each of them fell in love with the band is just as much fun as hearing the songs themselves.

On that note, Wright makes the strong choice of dissecting the band from their very beginning, understanding that many of the people who watch this documentary will likely not have known much about them. I didn’t, and the doc is at its best when it recognizes this feat. Perhaps the only flaw (if there has to be one) is that the finished film is pretty long, but I’m not even sure what I would cut. I think it takes a bit before it really gets going. I wanted to hear the music of the band, so perhaps waiting on the backstory and childhoods of the brothers in order to anoint viewers with the band as adults might actually have helped, but again, I don’t think I’d cut anything. The film is working to its strengths as it guides us through, album by album, year by year, like a stylistic and frenetic VH1 Behind the Music episode.

I cannot recommend The Sparks Brothers highly enough. Seek this film out, and (dare I say) see it in a theater if you can. I know, you’re probably balking, “But it’s just a documentary!” To that, I would argue that this doc feels, at times, like a concert film and a comedy and a love letter to music, artistry, and pop culture. Edgar Wright’s masterful directing keeps the narrative flow at an accessible level, even for those of us who knew nothing about Sparks going in. It will make a fan out of you, one song at a time.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

For my review of Edgar Wright’s The World’s End, click here.
For my review of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, click here.
For the Why I Love…Cinema episode on Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead, click here.

[Early Review] In the Heights (2021)

Director: Jon M. Chu
Cast: Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Gregory Diaz IV, Jimmy Smits, Lin-Manuel Miranda
Screenplay: Quiara Alegría Hudes
143 mins. Rated PG-13.

We are starting to return to a level of normalcy. Projects that I’ve been excited about for many months are actually coming out, and they are coming to theaters (and, in some cases, HBO Max at the same time). Last week was the first official time I’ve been in a theater since March 2020. I went to see Spiral (From the Book of Saw). A few days later, I attended my first Early Screening for another anticipated film, In the Heights, which we’ll be discussing today. In the Heights is an exciting movie for me in many ways. Following up on Crazy Rich Asians, I was very excited to see what director Jon M. Chu (Now You See Me 2) would direct next. I’ve also become a fan of Lin-Manuel Miranda (even though, I’ll say it, I haven’t seen Hamilton yet), and I’ve enjoyed the music and elements he has added to productions like The Force Awakens and Moana. I’ve also been following the trajectory of Corey Hawkins (BlacKkKLansman, Iron Man 3), who has consistently impressed me. The trailers also continued to raise my interest in the project (I love a stylish new musical), and thankfully, upon seeing the finished product, I have to consider it (mostly) successful.

Set on the streets of Washington Heights, New York, we follow several intersecting stories in the days leading up to a massive blackout in the hot summer. Usnavi (Anthony Ramos, A Star is Born, Hamilton) strives for identity as he searches for a way out of Washington Heights, all the while working up the courage to utter just a few words to Vanessa (Melissa Barrera, L for Leisure, Two Times You), a frequent customer in his bodega. Benny (Hawkins), a taxi dispatcher, finds his situation further complicated when his ex, Nina (Leslie Grace), returns home from Stanford unexpectedly. Nina’s father Kevin (Jimmy Smits, The Tax Collector, TV’s NYPD Blue) has been scraping and surviving to help pay her college, but in doing so, he is losing a portion of himself. As the days get hotter and we head toward that inevitable power outage, the residents of Washington Heights are all in search of their passions and worth in a society that seems so often to forget them.

A film adaptation for In the Heights has been in development since 2008, and several directors have stepped in to attempt to get the project off the ground, and off the success of Miranda’s Hamilton, the project finally saw some movement, and director Chu at the helm was the perfect choice to capably adapt the musical for theater audiences. There’s an understanding from Chu that adaptation is not perfect translation (a stage musical is very much not the same thing as a film), and he adds stylistic flair to the film, especially during the many musical numbers, that showcase that this is indeed a throwback to classic Hollywood musicals and their occasional excessive grandeur. Specifically, I really liked the added animation as our cast of characters head toward the pool, and I wish the film did this more often. Chu has a notable gloss to his visuals, sometimes to his detriment, but in a film like In the Heights (and his glamorous predecessor Crazy Rich Asians), it provides a joyful and entertaining bit of movie-making that’s just beautiful to look at. The cinematography, in conjunction with the impressive dance choreography, is stunningly on display here.

The musical numbers may not work for everyone who doesn’t like the speed of rapid-fire rap dialogue, but I rather enjoyed them, even if I admit to have missed a lot of information being relayed in each song. The film’s simultaneous release on HBO Max may actually work to its benefit (the experience is best in theaters, but I’m excited for a free second viewing on my HBO Max account on release day just to put subtitles on and re-experience the music this way). Most musicals require a second viewing for a full appreciation (or at least some repeat YouTube plays for some of the more memorable numbers) and In the Heights is no exception, but at least you have the option of that second viewing at home. I’m particularly looking forward to revisiting “96,000” (seriously, knowing nothing of the film, I wondered how a song with that title could be enjoyable, and I admit defeat in this arena).

It’s obvious that the director took inspiration from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing in presenting Washington Heights in the hot summer sun. Whereas Lee’s film showed the heat heading to a boiling point, Chu’s less-stressful film instead allows the resiliency of his characters to be whittled away amid the heat. Keeping all the action on these streets and using the ticking time-bomb of the blackout, similarly to Tarantino’s countdown to the Manson murders of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, is very effective and consistently reminds the audience that we are heading to a collision, uncertain of what exactly will transpire when the lights go out on Washington Heights.

Let’s talk about the characters, starting with Usnavi. Screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes (who wrote the theatrical production as well) captures something very exciting about Usnavi, and her creation of the character alongside Anthony Ramos’s earnest portrayal gives a larger-than-life character that still feels so human and relatable. I foresee a solid future for Ramos, who stayed memorable with limited screen time in A Star is Born and truly shines here. The framing device works even if it is something we’ve seen before and know where it’s heading the whole time.

Corey Hawkins and Jimmy Smits both consistently turn in exemplary work, no matter the project, and here again is no exception. Hawkins takes the musical stylings he learned while working on Straight Outta Compton and turns Benny into a likable albeit flawed man who oversteps his bounds when his heart is checked, and I liked the back-and-forth with Smits’s Kevin Rosario, who mines the tension from their working relationship and the complication of his daughter Nina. Smits is never not putting forth the effort and elevating the work around him.

For me, the absolute surprise breakout of In the Heights has to be Melissa Barrera as Vanessa. I’m unfamiliar with anything she’s done previously, but I was unable to take my eyes off her throughout most of her screen time. Hers is an honest and passionate portrayal of someone who feels the unflinching hands of time working against her and life goals, and I felt for the confusion she is facing as multiple major life decisions come upon her. She never once feels overplayed or cliché, even in a film that has more than a few plot conveniences.

I can’t think of a single performance in In the Heights that was underwhelming, and the biggest flaw with the film is not the performances of the characters but perhaps a bit too much focus on too many secondary characters. In the Heights is overly long, and it feels lagging after the major blackout begins. The night of the blackout is full of interesting plot movement, but the days following the blackout up until when the electricity finally returns to Washington Heights feel unnecessary, seeking to service too many characters that don’t have the impact of our leads. I kept wondering why the film continued, and it wasn’t until the final time jump following the blackout that the film finally reeled me back in. In the Heights does not need to be over two hours, and while some of the secondary characters perhaps had more purpose in the theatrical production, I just didn’t need to see an ending for some of the secondary characters like Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega, Wild Things, Sex and the City), and it didn’t really grab me until we returned focus back to Usnavi, Benny, Nina, and Vanessa. I like the vignette-style of the film, but I didn’t feel the need to keep checking in on certain characters. Look at the Piragua Guy (played by Lin-Manuel Miranda). His character shows up a few times, gives some lightheartedness and musical delight, and then recedes. I needed nothing more from his character, and the film didn’t necessitate an arc for him. That same mentality could have been given to Daniela and the salon girls. They provided some great character beats early in the film, but the meandering post-blackout story for both them and other secondary characters gave me nothing of interest to grasp onto.

In the Heights was a breath of fresh air, and it seems like the perfect film for this time. Not only is the Midwest experiencing an epic heat wave (power, don’t fail me now), but as we continue our return to normal life and, for many of us, return to the cinema for the first time in months, In the Heights is a joyful welcome back, full of captivating characters, an accessible and relatable story, and a significant reflection on the immigrant experience in America. I don’t have to tell you that, as a straight white male in society, I am represented to an overwhelming extent within the entertainment industry, but I love seeing the full representation of other races that movies like In the Heights and Crazy Rich Asians brings to cinemas. Though the finished film drags a bit, In the Heights was the enjoyable experience I needed as life returns to some semblance of pre-COVID normalcy, and I think you’ll find something to love here too.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Land (2021)

Director: Robin Wright
Cast: Robin Wright, Demián Bichir
Screenplay: Jesse Chatham, Erin Dignam
89 mins. Rated PG-13.

The story behind Robin Wright’s directing of Land, her feature directorial debut, came about by a mere scheduling conflict. Wright, who had previously helmed several episodes of House of Cards as well as the short film The Dark of Night, was asked to direct the film when all the pieces had come into play but there was no director, and the film had to be completed with production in 29 days. The entirety of Land was shot in those 29 days with Wright, who appears in every scene, behind the camera as well as in front.

Land is the story of Edee (Wright), a grieving woman who has purchased a plot of land deep in the Wyoming forest. She doesn’t seem particularly skilled at living off the grid, minus a phone and any technology, and when she nearly dies in a snowstorm, she is luckily rescued and brought back to health by Miguel (Demián Bichir, The Hateful Eight, Chaos Walking), who also lives in the wilderness nearby and has passed her house several times. Edee would much rather be alone, but she’s in no condition to push Miguel away. Miguel instead offers to teach her to successfully hunt, fish, and care for herself in the wild. Edee takes him up on his offer, and she begins to see all the ways that they are more similar than she expected.

Land is a solid debut for Robin Wright as a feature director, but it is not without its faults. The pacing of the narrative holds mostly well for 89 minutes, but this is a case where even 89 minutes feels a little too long. I don’t think the extended periods of Wright all alone on screen consistently maintained my interest. I held this criticism for the Robert Redford film All is Lost, another movie with even less dialogue than Land, but both struggled to keep my focus on the narrative with the lack of visual action onscreen. I never had flat-out signs of boredom, but I found myself checking the time more than once.

The film’s cinematography makes up a lot of ground, though, thanks to some truly striking imagery of the beauty in Wyoming (well, the film was shot in Canada, but we are meant to see Wyoming). The shot composition did a lot to position me in the world with Edee. I felt cold watching the snowy environment and I could almost smell the morning dew on the blades of grass. It’s a wholly arresting bit of scenery that evokes every sense.

I also found Wright’s performance to be quite strong as Edee. I would have liked to peel back the layers of her character earlier on in the narrative. We get a big emotional information dump at the end of the film that would have been more interesting had it shown up earlier than the final ten minutes. We get bits and pieces of her backstory as the film moves along, but we never really get the ability to reconcile with her past and her pain because the movie ends as soon as we get the story that Edee’s been struggling to bury at the very end and therefore the reckoning that we’ve been waiting on never really occurs, though we are meant to believe it has.

Wright plays off of Bichir very well. In fact, so often, Demián Bichir is the secret weapon of any film, as he can do so much with so little. He’s easily the best part of the underwhelming The Grudge from last year, and he even stand out among The Hateful Eight with limited dialogue and screen time. Bichir and Wright have such solid chemistry and they each come at their roles differently, Wright with stoic sadness and Bichir with a limited sense of hope and happiness. The scenes with the two of them onscreen are electrifying.

The only element of the film that flat-out doesn’t work is the invasive and, dare I say, annoying score that invades every scene like an unwelcome intruder. It grates on the ear drums and, though I can sense what it’s trying to do, it never seems to add anything to the film but irritation.

Land has more strengths than weaknesses, and the strong acting from Wright and Bichir as well as an arresting bit of visual delight save an otherwise more forgettable movie. There’s just a lot here that has been done before, and better, but I wouldn’t say that Wright’s feature directorial debut is a bust. It’s a solid little movie for an afternoon matinee, and I would still give it a slight recommendation, if you can handle the score.

3/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] The Mauritanian (2021)

Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Jodie Foster, Tahar Rahim, Shailene Woodley, Benedict Cumberbatch
Screenplay: Michael Bronner, Sohrab Noshirvani
129 mins. Rated R.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that most people haven’t heard about Guantanamo Diary or Mohamedou Ould Slahi. I had only heard bits and pieces in passing and had never taken the chance to look into the story of Slahi and his incarceration at Guantanamo Bay, but that’s where film can help to cohesively relate the story of a man without freedom in the aftermath of 9/11. Of course, we can’t always rely on film to “teach” us anything; that’s not its most important purpose. We are merely here to be taken away, to experience the world in a different light, and through that lens, The Mauritanian has a lot to show us.

After an opening sequence just months after the terror attacks of 2001, we jump to 2005 and meet Nancy Hollander (Jodie Foster, The Silence of the Lambs, Contact), a defense attorney who is brought in to help with Mohamedou Ould Slahi (Tahar Rahim, A Prophet, The Kindness of Strangers) and his case, or non-case really. Slahi has been held at Guantanamo Bay for years. He hasn’t been charged with a crime, and yet, he is interrogated for 18 hours a day and treated like a prisoner. He is not allowed contact with his family, and he’s run out of ways to say that he doesn’t have any credible answers to the questions he’s being asked. Now, Hollander has to prove that the United States has no legal rights to hold him, but her quest becomes more complicated as various agencies are unwilling to part with, what they call, classified evidence.

I’m not alone amongst viewers of this film that recognize The Mauritanian’s problematic pacing issue. I don’t think it ruins the film by any stretch, but the film flip-flops between a fast and pulse-pounding movement and an agonizingly slow plotting that damages the second act. In a way, this pacing helps to underline the frustration that Nancy feels in trying to peel back the layers of this mystery, but after a time, it just started losing me. If not for the captivating finale, I don’t know if I would have been as engaged with the film to the extent that I was.

And make no mistake, I think The Mauritanian is quite good. It’s cast is captained by the always-excellent Jodie Foster, a uniquely-talented performer who turns in another impressive role in a way that only she can. There’s a subtlety and nuance to the way Foster acts; she isn’t bombastic or explosive, but there’s a simmering to the way she acts that showcases a lot of storm beneath the calm that she exudes, and her take on Nancy is no exception. The scenes she shares with Rahim are layered and powerful.

Rahim is also getting a lot of attention as Slahi, and though I can’t really recall being aware of him before, he definitely leaves his mark on the character and the film. Rahim has the toughest role in the film. To those of us who don’t know how this story played out in real life, we can’t be honestly certain of his guilt; perhaps he has a dark secret, perhaps he is truly innocent, and a good amount of tension is mined from that question throughout the narrative. Rahim has to play Slahi with a level of humanity that makes us uncertain to trust him as much as he has uncertainty to trust Nancy, and then his performance must make the audience question why they do or do not trust him, and he capably holds his own with a powerhouse like Foster.

Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, 1917) appears in the film as Stuart Couch, the military prosecutor for Slahi’s eventual trial, and yet again, he confirms that he can do just about any role. His screen time is short, but he provides an interesting antagonistic approach to essentially the same task as Hollander. He’s looking through mountains of evidence, trying to find something that can be linked to Slahi, and he’s doing it with a timer ticking down to a forced trial date.

If there’s a weak link in the main cast, it’s Shailene Woodley (Divergent, Endings, Beginnings), who plays Teri Duncan, associate of Hollander’s who finds that her connection to the case is creating more problems at home. I can’t fault Woodley for her performance, but more because she really isn’t given anything to do that allows her to actually perform, and the one interesting facet about her character is given surface-level screen time and nothing really gets fleshed out. It’s not that her performance, it’s merely that doesn’t need to be there.

The Mauritanian also struggles with its narrative timeline. Director Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, Life in a Day 2020) plays with some aspect ratios to highlight the jumping-around-in-time narrative structure, but each time we flashed back, it took me a minute to ascertain where I was in the timeline. This is far too dense a story to make this leaping from time period to time period really work the way Macdonald envisioned it. It also underplayed Rahim’s impressive work by jarring me out of the film for every flashback, most of them surrounding Slahi’s incarceration.

The Mauritanian doesn’t get everything right, but its shining performances make up for a plodding execution and a screenplay that seems, at times, unfocused. With Foster and Rahim at the head, though, we get some truly memorable work from a giant of the business and a rising star. It also has a third act that left me emotionally drained. It’s not the feel-good movie of the year (in fact, its at-times bleak outlook may prove too much for 2021 audiences), but I still think it’s well-worth your time.

4/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] [Dark Star Festival] Climate of the Hunter (2019)

Director: Mickey Reece
Cast: Mary Buss, Ginger Gilmartin, Ben Hall
Screenplay: Mickey Reece, John Selvidge
82 mins. Not Rated.

Recently, I was able to virtually attend the Dark Star Festival, where I was treated to several new and upcoming releases. While I was not fortunate enough to catch all the films that played, I was able to see Climate of the Hunter, a low-budget horror film with a lot of style and a unique filmmaker behind the camera. Today, let’s take a look at this “vampire” film and see if it’s worth hunting down.

Climate of the Hunter is a small story, mainly concerned with two sisters, Elizabeth (Mary Buss, Lord Finn, Camp Cold Brook) and Alma (Ginger Gilmartin, Fingerprints, Hosea) as they meet up at a cabin to reunite with an old friend they’ve not seen for twenty years, Wesley (Ben Hall, Gosnell: The Trial of America’s Biggest Serial Killer, Adventures of Rufus: The Fantastic Pet). As Elizabeth and Alma each try to gain the romantic interest of Wesley, Alma begins to suspect that he is a vampire.

There’s little new in terms of story for Climate of the Hunter (it almost feels like a mumblecore vampire film in the simplest terms), but the real impact of the film is in its director, Mickey Reece (Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart, Arrows of Outrageous Fortune) and his uncanny ability to present a simple and easily accessible story within the confines of a gorgeously atmospheric dreamscape of a film. Reece has crafted a visually arresting world here that is unlike much of what I’ve seen before, even though the film’s cinematography evokes elements of 1970s horror cinema in its execution. There’s also bits of Napoleon Dynamite-like meal platters and bits of dialogue that seemingly misdirect viewers in the narrative. It’s almost like a hangout movie mixed with gothic horror to great appeal, but it never feels like it’s trying to be smarter than its audience. Though full of dreamlike, striking imagery, it isn’t attempting to go over your head, at least for the most part.

Where the film ultimately stumbles for me is in its climax and closing moments, for I was quite enthralled by most of the story up until that point. I felt like the narrative was driving us somewhere captivating and unusual for its finale, I ended up being quite let down by an easily guessable, underwhelming end that left a sour taste in my mouth, and not in any way that works. It’s an ending that we’ve seen before, and it never seems to work for me. It’s also an ending that leans away from the atmosphere that the whole film has been building to. It’s just all-around a disappointing way to complete a journey like this one. I won’t go as far as to say that it is a bad ending or that it ruined the film. It just lessened the impact of the movie drastically.

Climate of the Hunter works until it doesn’t. Thankfully, it works for the first 90%, and the swift run time allows for a less-than-stellar ending to not fully detract from the overall experience of the film. It also gets my recommendation. It’s a weird, wild, surreal, and memorable movie that makes a hell of a case for its crew. Mickey Reece is a director to keep an eye out for, and Climate of the Hunter is a strong outing, for the most part.

3.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Songbird (2020)

Director: Adam Mason
Cast: KJ Apa, Sofia Carson, Craig Robinson, Bradley Whitford, Peter Stormare, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Walter Hauser, Demi Moore
Screenplay: Adam Mason, Simon Boyes
90 mins. Rated PG-13.

Songbird is a film I didn’t know anything about before I started my screening. All I really had going for me was a very Quiet Place-y looking poster and the notion that it was written, filmed, and edited during the 2020 pandemic. I didn’t know what the plot was but the cast list was pretty respectable. Also, Michael Bay produced it, so I wasn’t sure how he could put explosions into a movie that was made during a pandemic, but I was curious to find out. I always have a laugh when Michael Bay produces a movie that uses his name in the marketing because he isn’t a great director, so the name doesn’t help, but Songbird is a film that couldn’t be any worse than if Bay himself had helmed. I can make it pretty clear for you: this movie sucks.

Set in 2024, Songbird tells the story of the world of COVID-23, a much more deadly version of the coronavirus that has a higher mortality rate, as it ravages the world. We are given several interconnected stories mostly set in the LA area, mostly centered around Nico (KJ Apa, I Still Believe, TV’s Riverdale), an immune delivery boy who wishes to get an illegal immunity bracelet for his girlfriend in order to free her from lockdown in her apartment. We also get a look at a budding friendship between artist and streamer May (Alexandra Daddario, Baywatch, 1 Night in San Diego) and one of her followers, Dozer (Paul Walter Hauser, I, Tonya, Da 5 Bloods), as she struggles with a relationship with someone who promises to help her career but seems to only want one thing from her.

I’m not sure if there’s a message to Songbird. In fact, I hope there isn’t one, because this movie is riddled with issues, most notably the main character, someone we should want to root for, is breaking the law to free his girlfriend, a potential carrier of a deadly virus. Why should we feel for them? Why should we want them to win? Then, there’s the narrative that people go to the “Q Zone” when quarantined but they don’t come back. Now, I get that the virus of the film is not COVID-19, but naming your virus COVID-23 creates the sense you are trying to connect the two. It’s clear that director Adam Mason (Blood River, Alice in Chains: Black Antenna) doesn’t understand how COVID-19 works, and he just decided to make COVID-23 do whatever is interesting for his narrative, unaware of the perception he is creating for viewers.

None of the stories in the film are entertaining, and none of the characters ever get out of a place of stock character tropes and plot points seen before in more interesting stories. The screenplay, co-written by Mason, just kind of has a lot of things happening, none of the very interesting. The idea, from the very beginning, that anyone would want to watch a pandemic horror movie about COVID is fundamentally flawed, and his storytelling showcases a lack of respect for the current situation of the country, where we are right now, where we were just months ago, and where we may be in a year. I’m not sure what the plan was for this narrative, for these characters, and for this movie, but it feels like this respectable cast owed a favor to a member of the production staff.

Even from a technical perspective, nothing in the film is very engaging. The cinematography is simple (the production crew needs a lesson in lighting), the editing boring, and the sound design rather dull. I could get past all of this in the grand scheme of things (filmmaking with a small crew and social distance guidelines) if the story wasn’t just so dull. As it comes down to it, the technical aspects of the film are the least of their problems. Hell, I’m not even sure what Songbird means as a title. Did I miss something?

Songbird is a bad movie on every level. There’s nothing that works here, from the inception of the story to the completion of the final product. Beyond that, this is just a tone-deaf piece of cinema that is clearly missing the mark in every way. This is a pandemic horror-thriller that should stay quarantined from viewers. I wouldn’t be so mad if this film didn’t try to make a mockery of the pandemic we’re currently in, but that’s exactly what it does. Seriously, this is one of the worst movies ever made. Ever.

1/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[Early Review] Uncle Frank (2020)

Director: Alan Ball
Cast: Paul Bettany, Sophia Lillis, Peter Macdissi, Judy Greer, Steve Zahn, Lois Smith, Margo Martindale, Stephen Root
Screenplay: Alan Ball
95 mins. Rated R for language, some sexual references and drug use.

On first look, the poster for Uncle Frank didn’t really win me over. It wasn’t until I saw the cast list and realized that it was written and directed by Alan Ball (Towelhead). Now, that got me interested. I’ve been a big fan of Ball’s work in the television field with shows like Six Feet Under and True Blood, and I really enjoyed his screenplay for American Beauty, but I hadn’t heard of Uncle Frank at all until seeing this poster, usually a bad sign. I was hesitant but intrigued as I prepared for this screening (thank you to Amazon for letting me stream the film in advance from my home), but I’m pleased to say that Uncle Frank is one of the best movies of the year.

Told from the perspective of young college-bound Beth Bledsoe (Sophia Lillis, It, TV’s I Am Not Okay with This), the film is a recounting of the events of 1973, in which she traveled back home to attend her grandfather’s funeral with her uncle Frank (Paul Bettany, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, Solo: A Star Wars Story). Frank is heading toward the reunion with trepidation. He’s a homosexual, and he’s been keeping his secret for years. His family doesn’t know, and his deceased father hated him. Frank’s journey is further complicated when he is join by his partner Wally (Peter Macdissi, The Losers, TV’s Six Feet Under). As Beth attempts to understand her uncle in this new way, she sees him heading for a confrontation with his past.

I love a good family drama with enough dry wit to keep the tone bubbling, and that’s something that Alan Ball excels with. Uncle Frank is like the best of the family dinner episodes of Six Feet Under, where awkwardness and drama hold hands at the table and force everyone to air their dirty laundry. His writing is witty, his emotional beats pack a punch, and his direction is very character-focused. Ball’s camera is laser-focused on the character interactions and he lets them drive his story, and while that story has been told before, it’s done so here with a sense of joy that these types of stories don’t often get. You can critique the occasional schmaltz of the narrative, but I really needed that, and the catharsis is both interesting and relatable, proving that it isn’t the story you tell, but how you tell it, that matters.

Paul Bettany has always had the ability to disappear in the role by mixing elements of the written character with his own natural charisma, but as Frank, he plays it so well that you forget he’s even acting. It’s hard to even call his work a performance because it’s so real that I couldn’t find the theatricality behind it. Perhaps that’s because he is so well-paired with the overly-theatrical Peter Macdissi as Wally, Frank’s secret partner. The two have such tremendous chemistry, and Macdissi is much less hard-edged than I’ve seen him in other work, that the dramedy mined from their relationship just feels lived-in.

I was also impressed with Sophia Lillis, who burst onto the scene back in 2017 with It and the 2019 sequel. Oftentimes, you wonder if these younger actors have the experience to flourish as they select new projects, but Lillis proved to be capable in commanding the screen with more well-known performers. The rest of the supporting cast is filled with veteran performers all giving solid supporting work, from the always underrated Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes, Tall Girl), as Frank’s brother Mike, to the sharp-tongued Margo Martindale (August: Osage County, The Kitchen) as Frank’s mother.

Uncle Frank does not reinvent the wheel. This story has been told many times, and yet, under the strong screenwriting hand of Alan Ball, and with his keen attention to character, this story is a lovely and sometimes joyful but always poignant story that deserves being told again. While I wished we got to see more of the journey to the funeral (it sells itself as a road movie but spends a lot less time in transit), I was still entranced from beginning to end. See this movie. It just might be one of my favorites of the year.

4.5/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

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