TIME movies

In Child 44, Tom Hardy Slogs Through a Stalin-Era Procedural

CH44_D29-7688.CR2
Larry Horricks—Summit Entertainment Tom Hardy stars in Child 44

The ex-Bane and future Mad Max stars in a slow, slogging adaptation of Tom Rob Smith's Soviet-era thriller

Long before World War II, Josef Stalin orchestrated the starvation of millions of Ukrainians in the man-made famine known as the Holodomor. In popular culture, though, the crimes of Nazi Germany have inspired countless books, movies and TV dramas, while the sins of the U.S.S.R. in Stalin’s 28-year reign of terror get little attention. Not one in a hundred Americans for whom the word Holocaust stirs a gut chill, as it must, have even heard of the Holodomor, Ukraine’s “secret Holocaust.”

Give credit then to Child 44, the new movie made from the first of Tom Rob Smith’s trilogy of novels about Soviet-era detective Leo Davidov; it actually spends its first few minutes in 1933 Ukraine during Stalin’s man-made famine. Davidov is a boy, orphaned and starving, who gets his first glimpse of a killer he will confront 20 years later in the Russian woods outside Rostov. It is a depiction of how the dreadful events of youth can inform two lives: one heroic, the other sinister.

Child 44, from the Swedish director Daniel Espinosa and the American screenwriter Richard Price, is also a reminder of why we don’t see more English-language movies set in the old U.S.S.R. Shot in the Czech Republic, the film is brooding, dramatically impoverished and, at 2hr.14min., a significant slog. An attractive cast, led by Tom Hardy as Leo, trudges through its serial-killer scenario with little energy or purpose. And though most of the actors are either native English-speakers or — like Noomi Rapace, the Swedish star of the original Girl With the Dragon Tattoo films — perfectly adept in English as a second language, everyone speaks with a heavy Russian accent. This foolish trope ups the viewers’ degree of difficulty in following the story and reduces the level of their commitment.

In an Iwo Jima moment in Berlin 1945, Leo raises the red flag over the defeated Reichstag. Eight years later he is an honored member of the military police, serving in a unit with his best friend Alexei (Fares Fares) and the cowardly, sadistic Vasili (Joel Kinnaman). Leo gets sidetracked into pursuing what he believes is the murder of Alexei’s young son. That’s good for Leo’s conscience, bad for his career. To curb Leo’s subversive initiative, his boss, Major Kuzmin (Vincent Cassel), orders him to investigate a suspected traitor: his wife Raisa (Rapace).

When Leo defends Raisa, the two are exiled to distant Volsk, where she mops floors and he is demoted to the role of minor functionary under the suspicious eye of General Nesterov (Gary Oldman). The discovery of another boy killed in similar circumstances — sexually scarred and “drowned” miles from any river — prods Leo to find a man who may be the murderer of 44 children.

That is Vladimir Malevich (Paddy Considine), modeled on the real-life Butcher of Rostov, Andrei Chikatilo, who was sentenced to death in 1992 for 52 murders of young boys and girls between 1978 and 1990. The Child 44 book and movie transplant the case to the early postwar era, when the Party line insisted that crime was purely a capitalist disease — that, as the film mentions three or four times, “There’s no murder in Paradise.” You will also be intrigued by the assertion that some Russians in World War II were captured by the Nazis and that “German soldiers gave them pills that made them addicted to the blood of children.” No wonder the Child 44 killer is named Vladimir: he took medication to become the legendary Vlad the Impaler — Dracula as pedophile.

It’s all very evocative and illuminating. Too bad the filmmakers botched the job of turning Smith’s teeming tale into a coherent movie with an independent life. Price, a vintage specialist in the overlapping world of New York cops and criminals (The Wanderers, Sea of Love, Night and the City, Clockers), sufficiently synopsizes the plot but provides little juice to the dialogue other than the occasional F-bomb.

Espinosa, who directed Kinnaman in the first film of the Swedish-language Easy Money trilogy and emigrated suavely into the Hollywood orbit with the Denzel Washington CIA thriller Safe House, seems to be aiming for an art-film epic here in what we may call the classic Soviet style. That means dim, dark, depressing and lonnng. Some two-hour-plus movies are compact enough to resist cutting; Child 44 is a work that spectators could trim as they watch it, scene by scene. So extended are the pauses between sentences, so torpid the pace even of the chase scenes. You end up in the role of a film editor handed the very rough cut of what could be a decent movie.

In the spirit of detente, let’s acknowledge few good things. Actresses in minor roles — Agnieszka Grochowska as Alexei’s wife and Barbara Lukesová as a mother about to be killed by the swinish Vasili — get brief opportunities to shine. Jason Clarke brings emotional heft to another small role, as a treason suspect Leo is sent to hunt down. Cinematographer Oliver Wood gives Rapace’s high cheekbones a lovely, Rembrandty glow amid the dominant murk. A subplot involving Raisa and her Moscow friend Ivan (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) has a tart, poignant payoff. A fight in a train’s cattle car, between Leo and the thugs sent to kill him, is vigorously staged. And we can’t really fault Hardy, the one-time Bane and future Mad Max; he makes for a complex, quietly stalwart hero, whatever his cockamolotov accent.

But Espinosa botches the climax, with four of the principles rolling in the Rostov mud, and the bad guys given more strength and fighting skills than is remotely plausible. There are also more dramatic codas than in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, without all the nifty stuff that preceded it in the Peter Jackson movies.

The preceding two hours of Child 44 are drudge work, as if to prove that visiting the Soviet Union at the exhausted end of the Stalin era is no more exciting than living there.

TIME movies

REVIEW: While We’re Young: Can Ben Stiller Be a Happy 20-Something?

Ben Stiller, director Noah Baumbach and Adam Driver film "When We Were Young" in New York City, on September 24, 2013.
Steve Sands—Getty Images Ben Stiller, director Noah Baumbach and Adam Driver film "When We Were Young" in New York City, on September 24, 2013.

Middle age feels the urgent stirrings of hip youthfulness in Noah Baumbach's delightfully acerbic comedy

“He’s not evil,” 44-year-old Josh Shrebnik (Ben Stiller) says of 20-something Jamie Massey (Adam Driver). “He’s just young.” And “young,” to Josh in Noah Baumbach’s acutely acerbic new comedy While We’re Young, means vaguely alien, suspicious and threatening.

Was Baumbach ever young? In Hollywood, most makers of comedy films keep searching for their inner horny teen; they skinny-dip in the Fountain of Arrested Development. Baumbach, who’s 45 and very much of the New York school (we might say yeshiva) of social comedy, has seemed older than his years ever since he made his first feature, Kicking and Screaming, at 25. Set in a college very like Vassar, which Baumbach attended, the film spritzes a mordant wit that is not so much precocious as prematurely middle-aged.

Kicking and Screaming is populated by recent graduates who can’t rouse themselves to leave school for real life, so they move into what is essentially an old folks’ home for 23-year-olds. One young man already lives deeply in the past: “I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory. And I didn’t have a good time.” Another fellow tenderly tells his girlfriend, who’s leaving to study in Prague, that he wishes they were “an old couple,” so he could reach over and kiss her and “you’d be delighted, probably.”

Baumbach’s wizened skepticism could be attributable to his being the son of two revered film critics, Georgia Brown and Jonathan Baumbach. Critics are supposed to stand outside the work they’re appraising; they are taught to make nice distinctions, harsh judgments and sidewise jokes about bad movies. Without buying totally into the parental-influence theory, we can still say that a Noah Baumbach movie male sees all of modern life as an Edward D. Wood Jr. film. In While We’re Young, oldish Josh says that young Jamie has a vast collection of old movie favorites, with Citizen Kane next to The Goonies, Steven Spielberg’s 1985 kids-in-a-cave caper. Hearing this, Josh’s friend Fletcher (Adam Horovitz) asks, “When did The Goonies become a good movie?”

Most critics agree that Baumbach makes good movies: portraits of psychological discomfort painted from the inside—but funny, kind of, like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” turned upside down into a laugh, or maybe a clown’s rictus. Mr. Jealousy, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg and Frances Ha all have their acolytes. And every 10 years Baumbach turns out a picture that the most discerning reviewer (yours truly) thinks is beyond terrific. 1995: Kicking and Screaming. 2005: The Squid and the Whale. 2015: While We’re Young, which expands this weekend into real movie theaters after two weeks in art-house showcases.

Even for mainstream audiences, who have rarely cottoned to the Baumbach oeuvre, While We’re Young is an easy sit, full of observations, home truths and characters worth both getting over and rooting for. Absent for the most part is the writer-director’s mean streak, which can curdle his satire into caricature and misanthropy. Baumbach, when pressed, acknowledges that this is “my most accessible” film, and “the happiest I get.

Josh, a documentary filmmaker who’s been working for a decade on a followup to his well-received Power Elite, might describe himself as non-miserable. He and his perkier wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), a doc producer, have navigated a long-term marriage without kids. Suddenly that seems not quite enough, when their co-40s friends Fletcher and Marina (Maria Dizzia) have their first child. Josh and Cornelia tried but failed; now they wonder if they made the best use of their time—if they swerved away from significant adventure and detoured into the rut of routine. Josh, a master at rationalizing failure, says of their stasis, “Maybe the point is, we have the freedom. What we do with it isn’t that important.”

In today’s hipster New York, Josh is an early-onset codger—a kind of Forrest Grump. He needs a dose of emotional Viagra, and finds it in the charms of Jamie, who crashes a class Josh teaches and says he loved Power Elite. Jamie makes little video docs; his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried) makes ice cream. What they’re best at is making friends, and the usually reclusive Josh is their latest catch. A lover of skateboarding, fedoras and schmoozing, Jamie radiates a nerdy good humor that Josh finds as stimulating as the young man’s professed admiration of Josh’s early work.

Voilà! Josh feels a youthful zest he probably missed back when he was actually young. He and Cornelia join Jamie and Darby at a weekend retreat where a guru invites them to drink a mystic Peruvian rum, ayahuasca, and vomit up their demons. (Which may not be so kooky: a study cited in this week’s Scientific American indicates that ayahuasca may cure depression.) And like a No. 1 fan aping his idol, Josh begins skateboarding and wearing a fedora. Does he look tremendously today or just ridiculous? Fletcher, whom Josh has been ignoring in his fascination with Jamie, picks B: “You’re an old man with a young man’s hat.”

In part, Josh and Cornelia are thrilled to be with people whose joie de jeunesse can be sweetly, perversely Luddite. Unable to recall the word for those sugar and almond treats sometimes served in the form of a pig (marzipan), Josh automatically reaches for his smartphone when Jamie says, “Let’s try to remember it.” A few moments later, when Josh asks if he can Google the word now, Jamie demurs: “Let’s just not know what it is.” The young couple also loves antique pop culture. As Cornelia says, “Their apartment is full of everything we once threw out”—vinyl albums and VHS movie tapes—”but it looks so good the way they have it.” Sure it does. Because they’re young.

Jamie and Darby could be the cool kids Josh and Cornelia never had. Or perhaps they’re the young lovers that middle-aged marrieds take to prove they’ve still got it. As Darby tells Josh, in one of the movie’s dangerous flirtations, “You’re like a hot dad. Without children.” And, no question, Josh is more than a little in love with Jamie and louche vitality he represents. When Jamie invites him to collaborate on his new documentary about a high-school friend who had a scarred life as a soldier in Afghanistan, Josh, who says he’s “been trained to hoard credit,” eagerly comes on as co-director.

As fascinating as Josh finds the golden couple he’s befriended, that’s how much he resents one man of an earlier generation: Leslie Breitbart (Charles Grodin), a cinéma vérité documentarian and Cornelia’s father. Gracious enough to help Josh find funding to finish his film, Leslie is also a fearless critic of the rough cut, saying, “You just showed me a six-and-a-half-hour film that feels like it’s seven hours too long.” (Leslie does, however, hit it off immediately with Jamie and become his patron.) What Josh shares with Leslie is an acute eye for the duplicities that can creep into documentaries—movies that are supposed to tell the truth. Doing his own research on Jamie’s Afghan-veteran doc, Josh finds that the story has been tweaked, and that he’s been conned by Jamie. He realizes too late that he should beware geeks bearing grifts.

Indie scuttlebutt, from Sam Adams on Criticwire and Richard Brody in The New Yorker, suggests that Jamie may bear a close resemblance to Joe Swanberg, a wildly prolific mumblecore auteur who made several films with Baumbach’s current partner, actress-director Greta Gerwig (LOL, Nights and Weekends, Hannah Takes the Stairs)—and whose wife Kris makes ice cream! Extend the reel-to-real analogy, and Cornelia might match up with Baumbach’s ex-wife Jennifer Jason Leigh, the daughter of actor Vic Morrow and screenwriter Barbara Turner (the biopics Pollock and Hemingway & Gellhorn). Leigh provided the story for Greenberg, which introduced Baumbach to Gerwig; and Gerwig cowrote Francs Ha and stars in his next film, Mistress America. Showbiz lives can be complicated.

Baumbach denies any connection between Jamie and Swanberg, and even if there is one, he’s welcome to build characters on people he knows. Still, it’s curious that — SPOILER ALERT — Jamie is revealed as unprincipled because he appropriates people and elements from other sources and applies them to his documentary. In the big showdown, he tells Josh, “If I hear a song I like, or a story, it’s mine to use.” Josh: “That’s not sharing, Jamie. That’s stealing.” Jamie: “That’s old-man talk.” Josh: “I am an old man.” The light bulb has finally switched on. Rather than worrying about growing old, Josh should maybe grow up first, reconcile with Cornelia and think about being somebody’s parent instead of Jamie’s senior playmate. That’s very mature. But the question remains whether Baumbach is bending Josh’s rule on the filmmaker’s code. Is he sharing Swanberg’s character or stealing it? END SPOILER ALERT.

Whether fiction of film à clef, While We’re Young has the symmetry of a Restoration comedy, in which characters are attracted to their opposites, enjoy a social or erotic escapade and then reassemble with their natural partners, wiser and of course older. Josh and Jamie have separate complimentary “humors”—foibles—brought to complex life by Stiller, as the most appealing in his extensive gallery of schlemiels, and Driver, who is as seductive to the movie audience as he is to Josh. In a movie that is less couples comedy than a bromance, Watts and Seyfried have less to do, but they do it well, standing by and occasionally standing up to their men. Horovitz, the ex-Beastie Boy, carries the burden of being the film’s crabby conscience—its Noah Baumbach.

A word to mall audiences: relax and enjoy While We’re Young. Baumbach’s “most accessible” movie is also his sharpest and most buoyant outing since The Squid and the Whale. We promise you’ll have a lovely time, smiling through Josh’s pain. At the end you can imagine him reaching over, like the young man who dreams of being old in Kicking and Screaming, and giving Cornelia a kiss. She’d be delighted, probably.

TIME movies

Ex Machina: Can Two Wily Men Outsmart a Gorgeous Robot?

EX MACHINA, Alicia Vikander, 2015. ©A24
A24 Films Alicia Vikander as Ava in Ex Machina

Alex Garland's high-IQ sci-fi thriller performs a devious experiment on its characters and the audience

Correction appended: April 10, 2015

After Eve: Ava. “She” is an advanced species of robot in female form, her flawless face encased in a Plexiglas skull, her arms and legs an efficient tangle of wires. Her creator, the Internet genius-entrepreneur Nathan (Oscar Isaac), has invited Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), one of his bright employees, to submit Ava (Alicia Vikander) to the Turing Test and determine if the android is self-aware. “If you’ve created a conscious machine,” Caleb marvels, “it’s not the history of man. It’s the history of gods.”

“Deus ex machina” is the phrase applied to the climactic moment in a classical Greek tragedy when gods would descend from the skies to resolve all knotty human problems. And god, or God, is the word that hovers over Ex Machina, Alex Garland’s pristinely creepy science-fiction film. Nathan could be the Old Testament God, who created man (Adam-Caleb) in His image, and woman (Eve-Ava) in man’s. So exactly do Ava’s flawless face, sensational figure and sweet demeanor match Caleb’s notion of the perfect woman that he can’t help wondering if Nathan, in designing the robot, “accessed my pornography profile.”

At 13, Nathan devised the code for Bluebook, “the world’s most popular Internet search engine.” Now he runs the company, and dreams up new cool things, from a remote aerie deep inside a forest about the size of the King ranch. Giant crevices form the walls of his home and lab, which the hairy genius lords over like some troll deity, dividing his spare time between working with weights and getting angrily drunk. Having formulated Ava by simultaneously hacking everyone’s personal computer, Nathan has summoned Caleb for a week’s worth of sessions with Ava, one each day. The young man will probe Ava’s mind while Nathan messes with his.

Garland wrote the novel The Beach, which Danny Boyle filmed in 2000 with Leonardo DiCaprio, and penned the original scripts for two other Boyle movies: 28 Days Later… (zombies) and Sunshine (space epic). He also adapted Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, a story about human clones starring Keira Knightley, Carey Mulligan and Andrew Garfield who think they’re human. This early work, and perhaps his parentage — his mother is a psychoanalyst, his father a political cartoonist — well prepared Garland for his first effort as writer-director, which carries the echo of many horror, sci-fi and adventure tales while speaking in its own distinct, quietly commanding voice.

A chamber piece about the first causes and ultimate effects of grand scientific experiments, Ex Machina may remind you of Duncan Jones’ Moon (a human stranded in a space station with his clone) or Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In (a brilliant plastic surgeon who imprisons a creature of almost unreal beauty). Ava could be a sister of sorts to three Scarlett Johansson entities: the OS voice in her, the alien in Under the Skin and the turbo-evolving heroine of Lucy. She surely qualifies as “more human than human,” like the androids in Blade Runner (which also had a kind of Turing Test). Look back just a month and find Neil Blomkamp’s Chappie, about the search for human identity of a robot not nearly as dishy as Ava.

The scenario of a ruthless man captivating people in a remote location for his science or sport recalls both H.G. Wells’ 1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau and Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” both of which spawned many movies. And before all these was Frankenstein, the Mary Shelley novel that celebrates its 200th anniversary in 2118, and whose theme of the scientist playing God can accommodate any number of updates, including this one. Nathan, drunk on his own brilliance, is the savant who would breathe a soul into his new machine. Caleb is the ambitious assistant who fancies he can free the lovely automaton from her creator. In this Olympian chess game, Ava also has a role: as pawn, queen or grandmaster.

Nathan has programmed Ava to be appealing, beseeching, vulnerable. “What will happen to me if I fail your test?” she asks Caleb in one of their early sessions. “Do you think I might be switched off?” We too come to think of Ava not as a rat in a maze, hoping only to survive and escape, but as the woman the lonely Caleb must desire. When her relation to her tester warms up, she dons a wig, a print dress and white stockings — to fully simulate human femininity — telling him, “This is what I’d wear on our date.” Nathan seems amused: “Can you blame her for getting a crush on you?”

We might ask: Can a robot fall in love? Could Caleb, or any young human male, resist her requests? By adding sexual attraction to the artificial-intelligence equation, Garland steers his movie into a caustic meditation on the power that men believe they have over women. Nathan has created Ava; Caleb thinks he can be her lord and mate. They should be mindful of Ava’s status: the deus ex machina who might emerge as a dea, a goddess from a machine.

Garland has distilled these big themes into a hyperbaric chamber piece — one location, three main characters, seven days — with a born auteur’s command of actors and atmosphere. Ominous electronic music (by Ben Salisbury, a composer of music for TV nature documentaries, and Geoff Barrow of the jazz-rock band Portishead) pulses through Mark Digby’s lab set — a suitably sterile habitat that is also a wonder of design. Garland is also bold enough to break the tensely contemplative mood with a frenetic dance that Nathan and Ava perform to Oliver Cheatham’s 1983 R&B hit “Get Down Saturday Night.”

Garland also had spectacular acuity or great luck in choosing his actors. Isaac contributes another portrayal in his gallery of overbearing outsiders, after Sucker Punch and Inside Llewyn Davis; his Nathan thinks that boorishness is an emblem of his superiority. Gleeson, who graduated from playing a lesser Weasley in the last two Harry Potter films (his actor father Brendan was Mad-Eye Moody) to starring as the time-traveling romantic in Richard Curtis’s About Time, is splendid as the questing naïf who gains a backbone to battle Nathan, in the hope he can be Theseus in the Minotaur’s cave.

But the miracle performance is from Vikander, the 26-year-od Swedish actress who starred in the Oscar-nominated Danish film A Royal Affair and made a beguiling international impression as Kitty in the Keira Knightley Anna Karenina. Trained as a dancer, Vikander lends Ava a grace and precision of movement that could be human or mechanical, earthly or ethereal. We can almost watch Ava’s mind work, not because of the see-through plastic casing but because of the actress’s command of each minute stage in her character’s evolution. As a spectral eminence yearning to be a woman beyond Nathan’s or Caleb’s dreams, A.V. makes a great Ava.

She is also the gleaming Exhibit A in the devious experiment that Garland is conducting on the scientist, his acolyte, his robot — and on the viewers. It’s not hard to feel grateful to be his lab rats. Ex Machina is the year’s most seductive high-IQ drama.

Read next: See the Most Iconic Examples of Artificial Intelligence in Film

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Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the plot of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go. It is a story about human clones.

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Is Ryan Gosling’s Lost River Crazy Brilliant or Just Plain Crazy?

The soulful actor’s directorial debut, set in a decayed Detroit, is a mad mashup of horror movie and Sundance attitudinizing

First came the boos, like an owl symphony, or a cattle crescendo. Then a smattering of defiant applause. Then the boos again. The antiphonal response could have gone on all afternoon, with catcalls winning in a landslide, but the critics at last year’s Cannes Film Festival had other movies to see. Suffice to say that Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut Lost River was the 2014 festival’s most enthusiastically derided entry. My longtime critical colleague and better half Mary Corliss, usually a temperate soul, jotted this observation in her notebook: “pretentious horseshit.”

Well, yes. But Lost River, which opens stateside April 10, merits a little sympathy. And Gosling, the Method-hunk star of such indie faves as Half Nelson, Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines, plus Hollywoodier fare like The Notebook, The Ides of March and Crazy, Stupid, Love, deserves some credit for this mad mashup of horror and social statement, crackpot fantasy and Sundance-style meandering. The movie wavers between the risible and the stupefying, between LOL and WTF.

To judge from the writer-director’s remarks, this collision of tones was premeditated. “I wanted to make this film because it’s a movie that I would want to see,” he wrote on his blog. “Like many children who grew up in the 1980s, I first approached the cinema through mainstream films. I was excited to shoot this kind of story, but with the language of filmmaker that I’ve acquired through the years.” His original title for the film was the very drive-in, midnight-movie How to Catch a Monster. Though he changed that to the more indie-sounding Lost River, the movie still goes for the feverish and lurid. It will appeal to people who would rather be outraged than bored.

In the fictional urban wasteland of Lost River — actually today’s Detroit, where the movie was shot — single mom Billy (Mad Men’s Christina Hendricks) is a part-time waitress raising her two sons, teenage Bones (Iain De Caestecker, the Scottish actor who plays Leo Fitz on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and a toddler. Bones likes the girl next door, Rat (Saoirse Ronan), so-called because her other closest friend is a large, amiable rat named Nick. This part of Lost River is ruled by a bully named Bully (ex-Dr. Who Matt Smith); he patrols the neighborhood in a convertible with an upholstered chair mounted on the back seat and shouts through a bullhorn, “Welcome to Bully Town.”

In another oddball Detroit movie, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, the city’s coolest inhabitants were a pair of married, millennia-old vampires. Lost River could be called Only Losers Left Alive. Virtually all of the old residents have skipped town, leaving a cratered sump hole and a few stragglers with no option but to stay. One elderly black man advises Bones to “Head South and don’t stop till you see the palm trees.” (Fun fact: If you head due south from Detroit, the first place you hit is actually Canada.)

This part isn’t fantasy. As Gosling has said of Detroit, which he first visited when shooting The Ides of March, he saw “forty miles of abandoned neighborhoods and, within pockets of those neighborhoods, there were parents trying to raise their children on streets where houses were being burned and torn down around them.” It’s a nightscape of decay and crime that every big city cradles and nobody outside wants to think about.

Billy, who’s pretty naïve for a woman who’s lived for ages in this garbage can, is behind on her mortgage, and sleazy banker Dave (Animal Kingdom’s Ben Mendelsohn) tells her she’ll be evicted unless she goes to work at a nightclub he also owns — an upmarket sado-Dada joint that could have been dreamed up by David Lynch in collaboration with Dario Argento. The star dancer, Cat (Eva Mendes), doesn’t strip; she sexily mimes bloody disfiguration. Billy’s act involves painting her face read until it looks as those the skin had been flayed off.

Now for the weird part. Bones has discovered a flooded, subterranean amusement park, whose logo is a giant dinosaur head. “That’s why the whole [town] feels like it’s under water,” he says. Bones’ adventures merge with his fever dreams, until… well, until everything burns down or blows up. Which is what might happen to Detroit/Lost River just by atrophy or entropy.

The cast is game to accommodate Gosling’s strange scenario — from De Caestecker, clearly a young Gosling surrogate but without the pinup looks and torso, to Mendes and Mendelsohn, whom the director appeared with in The Place Beyond the Pines. Gosling gives them all plenty of breathing space, but this indie effort is not really an actors’ exercise. It’s an oneiric hymn to destruction, an Armageddon anthem — a movie to see, if at all, under the influence.

Every once in a while, prominent actors of the crazy stripe can entice a producers to back a weirdo project that they direct. In 1971 Dennis Hopper, fresh off Easy Rider, made a modern Western called The Last Movie. In 1997 Johnny Depp came to Cannes with The Brave, a hallucinogenic anti-masterpiece about an American Indian who agrees to die in a snuff film for the pleasure of Marlon Brando. The movies were insane but never boring. If they failed, it was because their makers tried something on a broad canvas that was bigger than they could manage.

Gosling’s movie is in that funhouse ballpark. Sometimes it’s tonic for an actor to get a crazy movie idea out of his system, and maybe into ours.

TIME movies

The Movies’ Grandest Oldest Man: Manoel de Oliveira Dies at 106

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY LEVI FERNANDES "
Miguel Riopa—AFP/Getty Images Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira in 2008

In career that spanned 75 years and just kept getting better, this Portuguese supercentenarian left a legacy of magical minimalism and tales of obsessive love

On Dec. 11, 1908, when Manoel de Oliveira was born, Teddy Roosevelt was the U.S. President, Mark Twain was still working on his autobiography, and sliced bread hadn’t been invented. D.W. Griffith had just begun directing the one-reelers that would define the visual vocabulary of motion pictures. The Portuguese filmmaker’s life, which ended April 2 at the astonishing age of 106, spanned virtually all of movie history, of which he was an important and unique part.

Simply surviving to his supercentenarian years would be achievement enough, but Oliveira remained active and vital — more active, more vital — as his age increased. He hit his stride in his 60s, with the 1972 drama Past and Present, and directed some 30 fiction features, and more than a dozen shorts, through his late maturity. In his unflagging 90s, he birthed at least a film a year. (Something to think about, Woody Allen.) He had a new one at last year’s Venice Film Festival: O Velho de Restelo, in which Don Quixote and some of his eternal friends meet to muse on modern life. And the miracle of Oliveira’s career is that the quality of his movies outstripped their quantity.

A mainstay for decades at the Cannes and Venice film festivals, Oliveira produced a series of sere delights — from Francisca in 1981 to The Cannibals, I’m Going Home, Voyage to the Beginning of the World and his last major beguiler, The Strange Case of Angelica, in 2010 — often with such top international stars as Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Catherine Deneuve and John Malkovich. A major exponent of what might be called magical minimalism, Oliveira plumbed the mysteries of love, the miseries of aging and heartbreak, with the cinematic elegance of an old, old master.

Manoel Cândido Pinto de Oliveira was born in Porto, Portugal, to a family of landowners and industrialists; his father Francisco produced the country’s first electric light bulb. He worked on his first film project, never completed, in 1927, the year of The Jazz Singer. His directorial debut came in 1931 with Douro, Faina Fluvial (Working on the Douro River), a 20-min. poetic documentary panorama of dockside life in his home town. In 1942 he made his first fiction feature: the kid-gang drama Aniki Bobo, a kind of Mean Streets set in Porto.

The Salazar regime, which ruled Portugal from 1932 to 1968, was no fan of social realism. Following official criticism of the tough boys depicted in Aniki Bobo, Oliveira made no film of any length for another 14 years. His directorial ambitions on hold, he spent several decades managing the family business and running a vineyard owned by his wife. This disappointed but dogged bon-vivant was also an actor — appearing in the second Portuguese talking picture ever made — as well as a race-car driver who steered his Ford V8 Special to a win at the 1937 Estoril circuit rally.

Oliveira turned 60 the year Salazar fell from power, and began his filmmaking career in earnest with the 1972 Past and Present, a dark comedy about a serial widow who is faithful to all her dead husbands but tortures her current living spouse. He found international renown in 1982, when the obsessive love story Francisca charmed and wowed the Cannes crowds. His breakthrough film, if a director can have one of those when approaching 80, was The Cannibals in 1988. A gaily macabre epic in the style of fellow Iberian Luis Buñuel, the movie proceeds at a gentle lull for an hour, then explodes in a delicious orgy of artificial limbs, charred torsos and a family feast of roast viscount.

Oliveira’s films were never vivacious, exactly. He preferred a steady pace and gaze; the screen was not a window from a fast-moving train but a picture on a museum wall, suitable for extended contemplation. The average mall moviegoer might be baffled or sedated by his films’ tumid, dreamlike melancholy. Though nine of his films are available on Netflix, Oliveira’s work rarely reached U.S. theaters; it was too stately and refined (one might say “slow”) for general audiences. But given that measured pulse, alert audiences could find manifold treats and connections — like the scenes of Portuguese workmen, singing of the Douro River, that appear both in Oliveira’s first film and in The Secret Life of Angelica, 69 years later.

As befit his status, Oliveira made his share of old-man movies. In the 2001 I’m Going Home, Piccoli played an aging actor who has trouble summoning the energy for mediocre roles after his wife’s death, until he finally announces his retirement in the words of the film’s title. The 1997 Voyage to the Beginning of the World follows Marcello Mastroianni as a veteran director (also named Manoel) visiting his childhood home. In this simple fable about old age reconciling itself to memory and destiny, Mastroianni wore the wizened smile of a man who knows he is visiting his youth for the last time. This was indeed the grand Marcello’s last film — he died at 72 — but Oliveira went onto make dozens more.

Even his young-man movies showed an old man’s natural preoccupation with what comes next and what lies beyond. The protagonist of The Secret Life of Angelica, shown in Cannes when the director was 101, is a photographer named Isaac (played by Oliveira’s grandson Ricardo Trêpa), hired to take pictures of Angelica, a lovely, recently deceased blonde whom he finds her propped in a graceful pose on a chaise. As he snaps his photos, he thinks he sees Angelica smile at him. Developing the photos in his rented room, he sees her image move and smile again. She appears on his balcony and takes him for a flight through the night sky. Isaac’s landlady and her other boarders, noticing the photographer’s distracted, zombiefied air, don’t recognize the symptoms of an Oliveira protagonist: a man who needs to be unified with his immortal love, whatever the cost.

However dark or doom-laden his movies, Oliveira was a youthful, tonic presence at film festivals. In 2008, a few months shy of his 100th birthday, Oliveira showed up at Cannes for a screening of his 1931 Douro film. On hand were other directors, including 77-year-old Clint Eastwood, who was a year old when Douro premiered in Lisbon. Oliveira strode onstage brandishing a cane, but he used it less for support than as a jaunty prop — twirling it, pointing it at the cheering audience — as if he might break into a song-and-dance routine. Michel Piccoli was there to present an honorary Palme d’Or to the director who had never won the award in competition. “Finally,” Oliveira playfully exclaimed as he kissed the award, “I got one!”

His admirers on several continents would be forgiven for assuming he’d be around forever to challenge and amaze us with his annual new movie. (He may have left one for posterity, perhaps to be shown this year at Cannes.) They marveled at the vigor of an artist who remained a dapper gent and a star attraction — an ageless hero-auteur.

And on his arm was the filmmaker’s perennial leading lady: his wife, Maria Isabel Brandão de Meneses de Almeida Carvalhais, who survives him at 97. This Dec. 4 they would have celebrated their 75th wedding anniversary.

TIME movies

Helen Mirren in Woman in Gold: The Queen Stands Alone

WOMAN IN GOLD
Robert Viglasky—The Weinstein Co. Helen Mirren and Ryan Reynolds star in Woman in Gold

In a timid, clumsy biopic with a Holocaust shadow, Dame Helen gives another regal performance

Icy and earthy, Helen Mirren is a rare regal presence in a movie age that values the plebeian over the patrician, and mass over class. Lauded with an Oscar and an Emmy for playing both Queen Elizabeths, Mirren has matched her cool aristocracy with a boldness of performance and display. She leaves the gentler, more recessive emotions to other actresses; a Mirren woman is someone you don’t mess with.

So powerful is Mirren’s screen impact that all other actors and factors shrivel in her shadow. That’s the case with Woman in Gold, a fact-based drama that would have been released late last year if anyone at the Weinstein Co. thought it had a decent shot at Oscar nominations. Directed by Simon Curtis (My Week With Marilyn) and written by Alexi Kaye Campbell, the movie would strand Mirren in its familiar mediocrity if she weren’t determined to invest her strengths in its flinty, haunted heroine.

In the late 1990s, Maria Altmann (Mirren) runs a dress shop in Los Angeles. Sixty years earlier she fled her native Austria to escape Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. Now in her 80s, and upon the death of her sister, she hopes to wrest some of her family’s treasured paintings — including Gustav Klimt’s 1907 Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, also known as “Woman in Gold” — from the Austrian government, which holds the works and won’t relinquish them. The Austrians revere the painting as “the Mona Lisa of Austria,” but to Maria it is a picture of the beautiful aunt she loved and lost. She retains a young lawyer, Randol Schoenberg (Ryan Reynolds), in the seemingly chimerical pursuit of recovering her family trove. If they succeed, any number of other masterpieces might legally be returned to the heirs of their rightful owners.

A reviewer of Woman in Gold, or of any ripped-from-yesteryear’s-headlines biopic, has to decide how much to reveal about a historical event whose particulars — plot, background, characters and resolution — can be found in 10 seconds on Wikipedia. But the film is so clumsy in its attempts at suspense, in forcing Maria and Randy to make so many despairing speeches at their long odds, that the triumphant outcome is never in doubt. (If it were, why make the movie?) A picture like this has to find life not in its big scheme but in the tension between its characters and their times, past and present.

The past is well-enough sketched. The Bloch-Bauer home in Vienna may be a refined stereotype of good feeling, but that is how Maria remembers it from her youth: a family album etched in gold. It hardly matters whether her recollections are more fantastic than accurate. This is the world she was ripped from yet kept living in. In a lovely coda, Maria wanders through the old apartment, mingling with her parents, her sister, her aunt — being revived by communing with the dead.

It’s the one supple element in a movie whose stern judgments outrace its skill. The central message is that Austrians don’t have to be Nazis to be grasping nasties. Their imperial logic: the Third Reich stole these paintings in 1938, and we get to keep them in 1998. Statute of limitations and all. Except for a journalist (Daniel Brühl) who helps Maria and Randy in Vienna, the Austrian curators and bureaucrats have sneering demeanors and piggy faces. This arrant editorializing also swallows up a host of distinguished actors, including Jonathan Pryce and Charles Dance, who have little to do in a movie that is essentially a two-hander. Problem is, Reynolds is the second hand.

Randy Schoenberg came from impressive lineage, as the grandson of composers Arnold Schönberg and Erich Zeisl, and became a prominent crusader in recovering art appropriated by the Nazis. Yet Reynolds (who took the role when the much more plausible Andrew Garfield backed out) plays him at first as a young oaf, a high-school hunk pretending to a three-figure IQ. The one-time Green Lantern is perhaps the most Canadian actor of his generation, and not in a good way. When Randy tells his wife (Katie Holmes), “It’s Austria — something happened out there, and I don’t know why but I can’t let it go,” Reynolds misses the obsession and settles for callow bafflement.

That leaves Mirren, who might have phoned the role in but instead dials up every fiber of anxiety and resolve. In successive shots she can look 80 or a lustrous 20-something, not through makeup or CGI but through an expert employment of her craft and sorcery. Unaided by her colleagues, at times nearly sabotaged by them, Dame Helen could be giving a Master Class in acting surrounded by 6-year-olds. The Queen stands alone.

TIME movies

Review: In Furious 7, Gravity Is for Wimps

Film Title: Furious 7
Scott Garfield—Universal Tyrese Gibson, Michelle Rodriguez, Paul Walker and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges star in Furious 7

In another sensational episode of the motor-movie series, Vin Diesel and his gang bring improbable buoyancy to the serious work of elegizing a lost friend

The rainbow coalition of hard drivers, grease monkeys and ultimate fighting women that make up the Fast and the Furious universe are charged with capturing a device from multinational miscreants bent on conquering the world. First, though, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) has to arrange a rendezvous with his current nemesis Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). They meet under an L.A. highway — Dom’s beloved ’69 Dodge R/T Charger growling at Deckard’s Aston Martin DB9 — and steer their vehicles into a high-speed head-on collision. Boom! It looks like mutually assured destruction, but nobody’s seriously hurt. It’s really just a workout for a couple of testosteronic gearheads, doing what manly men do best — crashing the cars they love.

The Fast and Furious movies — those odes to torn asphalt, crunching car-nage, auto-eroticism and, as the characters kept insisting, family values — have often shown a cavalier attitude toward death. Moviegoers in the theater must pretend that they are cocooned by film fantasy: that this universe is one that courts fatal impact without ever making good on the threat that may await audience members from some highway maniac on the drive home.

That blithe belief endured a toxic hit on Nov. 30, 2013. Paul Walker, who had played undercover cop Brian O’Conner since the original 2001 The Fast and the Furious, died when the Porsche Carrera GT driven by Walker’s friend Roger Rodas, a financial planner and amateur racer, crashed into a Valencia, Calif., light pole at a reported 80 to 90 m.p.h., igniting the car and killing both men. The star’s sudden death at 40 put a halt to the Furious 7 shoot and left series screenwriter Chris Morgan with two dreadful dilemmas: how to work Walker’s footage into a revamped movie and how to keep romanticizing the series’ theme — speed thrills — when it was also painfully evident that speed kills.

Furious 7, opening nine months after the initial July 2014 release date, proves how splendidly, if preposterously, movie fiction can trump human tragedy. Without stinting on the greatest hits of the earlier films, it underlines the first law of cinema: that movies — and the people, stories and machines in them — have to move, collide, combust. Secure in this knowledge, 7 meets the demanding standards of the two previous entries, the crazy-great Fast Five (2011) and its amped-up, purified sequel Furious 6 (2013), while providing a tender onscreen farewell for the fallen Walker. It’s an enormous, steroidal blast, and as much ingenious fun as a blockbuster can be.

James Wan, the Saw and Conjuring magician who succeeded Justin Lin, director of the previous four entries, says he chose the Furious 7 title as a reference to Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 martial epic The Seven Samurai. Here, as there, rugged souls do humanity’s dirty work for the satisfaction and the fun. But in the Furious cosmos, these seven include two women. Brian has gone domestic with the foxy Mia (Jordana Brewster), and Dom is reunited with his lost love Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), still stricken with a telenovela case of amnesia. Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges), the computer whiz, and Roman Pearce (Tyrese Gibson), the resident motormouth, are joined by federal agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), who enlisted back in Fast Five and infused the skein with his cartoon gravitas.

As if to challenge the audience’s stomach for stark violence in a PG-13 film, Furious 7 begins with the fiery, almost Walker-like death of one of the series’ regulars (Sung Kang’s Han) and the totaling of Brian’s and Mia’s home. The villainous Deckard is supposed to be avenging the incapacitation of his brother Owen (Luke Evans), the prime bad guy from Furious 6, yet as he leaves Owen’s hospital he blows up his bro and the building that houses him. But this is just a crash test for sensitive viewers. The series long ago expanded from a drag-strip Götterdämmerung to a globe-circling showcase for spectacular stunts in exotic locales.

The plot: a CIA shadow who calls himself Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) wants the gang to corral some computer MacGuffin guarded by an IT genius named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel, Game of Thrones’ Missandei) who’s been kidnapped by Deckard and pan-African warlord Jakande (Djimon Hounsou). Honestly, though, who cares? Ramsey is just the excuse for the group to infiltrate an Azerbaijan forest redoubt and recover the van that holds her. This sensational second-act chase, ramping up to Walker’s Brian in a literal cliffhanger, would be the climax of any other action picture, but it’s just a why-not escapade to keep you from going for popcorn during the movie’s two-hour-plus nonstop assault.

On we fly, to Abu Dhabi, where Dom and Brian hijack a sheik’s W Motors LykN Hypersport, vroom it out of the 50th floor of an Etihad Tower skyscraper and into the adjacent high-rise — and then again into a third building, before our heroes land somehow intact. “Cars can’t fly!” Brian keeps saying, but Furious 7 refutes all aeronautic logic with its next stunt, which one-ups the skydiving Elvises from the old movie (and the Broadway musical) Honeymoon in Vegas by dropping five members of the team and their cars 10,000 feet from a C-130 military transport. (Auto coordinator Dennis McCarthy, who deployed about 250 vehicles for the movie, insists that this was no illusion: the cars truly did float to earth, most of them safely.) By the end of the movie, back in L.A., you’re not surprised when a car can serve as surface-to-bad-guy-in-helicopter missile. In such a buoyant enterprise as this, gravity is for wimps.

Retaining one sweetly anachronistic element of the series, the cast goes not just fender-to-fender but fist on fist, bulk on bulk, hulk on hulk. Tough-guy franchise mavens Statham and Johnson mix it up in a fracas that leaves Hooks incapacitated for half of the movie — until he rises from his sick bed, cracks open his arm cast and mutters, “Time to go to work.” Rodriguez tangles with MMA Medusa Ronda Rousey, and Walker (or his stunt-double team) staves off a wondrously savage attack from Tony Jaa, the Muy Thai Warrior. As much as Furious 7 flirts with scenarios from The Avengers, in its heart, it still wants to be Fight Club.

No series with the worldwide box-office horsepower of this one — $2.4 billion so far, with a bonanza awaiting the release of Furious 7 — wants to imagine its own demise. So in its closing credits, each of the recent episodes has introduced a new villain for the next installment. Diesel, a Furious producer and guiding light, has said he sees 7 as the first in a third trilogy. (In strict chronology, the series is a kind of terrestrial Star Wars, in that the fourth through sixth films were one long flashback beginning at the end of the 2006 Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift; Han’s death at Deckard’s hands brings the story back to the present.) Russell’s presence as Mr. Nobody may point toward future chapters, but 7 has no end-of-film tease. It must send its dead co-star on a verklempt trip to Valhalla.

In the series’ multiracial retinue of toughs, Walker’s Brian was the one WASP solid citizen. If the dark, glowering Diesel was the franchise’s engine, the blond Walker provided the ethical brakes — yin to Vin’s yang. Though the early films emphasized the near romantic charisma of this complementary couple, in Fast Five and Furious 6, Walker was really a supporting character, ornamental but not essential to the series’ grand grit. Yet Brian’s mulishness and recklessness sometimes hinted at a desperation in completing his mission. In the first film, when Dom doesn’t yet know that Brian is an undercover cop, Walker tells an FBI agent, “I just need some more time.” The agent snaps, “If you want Time, buy the magazine.”

Finally Walker ran out of it. But not Brian. Making judicious use of outtakes, CGI work and model-doubling from his younger brothers Caleb and Cody, the 7 filmmakers fully integrated the actor into the film. Their improvisatory skill and their feeling for their friend give his final moment a sleek, poignant, unforced grace. In a series that consistently elevates B-movie car crashes and smashes to state-of-the-art epiphanies, it’s only appropriate that a departed star should be able to cruise off to placid immortality.

 

TIME movies

How Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper Went Both Bad and Sad in Serena

Jennifer and Bradley together again. Sounds great — but not in this drama made in 2012, now getting a release that's really an autopsy

Bad movies: they can be tatty classics of crazed ineptitude, like Edward D. Wood’s Glen or Glenda and Plan 9 from Outer Space, or big-budget misfires like the 1987 Ishtar, a would-be comedy that sent Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman on a Hope-Crosby Road to Dystopia. Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, a “bad movie” that practically torpedoed its sponsoring studio, United Artists, is actually often a great one — anyway, much of it errs on that side — but in “gate” notoriety it’s up there with Richard Nixon’s Water-, Bill Clinton’s Monica- and Chris Christie’s Bridge-.

Connoisseurs of bad movies are looking for bold wrongness: the urgency of a child screaming its lungs out with what may be madness or a hint of genius. But another type of certifiably awful movie just sits in a corner muttering about issues that neither it nor any spectator can care about. Such a one is Serena, Danish director Susanne Bier’s DOA adaptation of Ron Rash’s 2008 bestseller. Filmed in 2012 and finally limping into theaters after a few weeks on VOD, Serena fails in ways that are fun neither to sit through nor to write about.

The picture would barely be worth an obit except for its leading actors, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence. They made ideal wounded sparring partners (and ballroom dancers) in Silver Linings Playbook. They flirted with malicious intent in American Hustle. They’re big stars, frequent Oscar nominees and, from available evidence, decent people for whom one wishes the best. And somehow they stumbled into a muted kind of worst: the story of a North Carolina lumberman and his Colorado bride, in an effort that has star wattage up the wazoo but zero emotional voltage.

George Pemberton (Cooper) is a powerful rogue employing any means necessary to battle government regulations in the first years of the Great Depression. He must also cope with his new wife’s knowledge that, before they met, he fathered a child with a local girl (Ana Ularu). Serena (Lawrence) says that nothing in the past matters; but that’s just the cooing lie of a femme fatale — the type that Barbara Stanwyck brought to seductive life and death in Hollywood’s Golden and Noir ages.

Iconographically, Lawrence looks just right for the period. Platinum blonde, she instantly evokes such early-talkies actresses as Mae West. Toby Wing and Jean Harlow. Too bad she gets no help from Bier, who won a Foreign Film Oscar in 2011 for the Danish In a Better World after a calamitous foray into Hollywood drama with the 2006 Things We Lost in the Fire.

Foreign-born directors, from Billy Wilder to Alejandro González Iñárritu, can be the most acute observers of American ways and mores, but Bier lacks either the empathy or the simple competence to establish a forboding tone and bring the Serena story to pulsing, plausible life. The movie was shot in Prague, not in the American South, but distance is no excuse for disaster. The Anglo-Italian Anthony Minghella filmed a dark Carolina love story, the 2003 Cold Mountain, in Romania and still managed to extract plenty of Tar Heel kick from his Civil War epic.

In Serena, stuff happens, then nastier stuff, without ever engaging the viewer’s rooting interest or sick fear. Sometimes it’s a question of sloppiness on the set or in the editing room. In one intense scene with Cooper, Lawrence provides the money shot of a tear coursing down her cheek. In the next closeup, her face is dry, suggesting that no one noticed or nobody cared.

Behind this inert movie is the shadow of a better, or at least creepier, one. Serena was originally to star Angelina Jolie and be directed by Darren Aronofsky immediately after he made Black Swan — a movie that reveled in the display of a sympathetic woman going toxically bonkers. Black Swan shared some of those excesses, but its vigor gave it a liveliness he might have applied to the Serena project. Bier’s directorial timidity spells doom.

It’s like some fateful old Broadway tryout that should have closed in New Haven. In fact, Serena opened last Oct. at the London Film Festival. Lawrence graciously showed up, beckoning the audience to embrace the movie. “And if you don’t,” she added, “just don’t tweet about it.”

The more appropriate social medium would have been Grumblr, the Tumblr spinoff that, like Serena, suffered an early death in 2012. This weekend’s theatrical premiere marks only the sighting of a glamorous zombie — a movie that is a poignant subspecies of bad: just plain sad.

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