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by Bill Gibron

26 Sep 2008

It’s not the soundest cinematic lineage - excellent foreign fright film to hackneyed American remake followed by one (or more) direct to DVD sequels. And when the main movie in question is the brilliant Japanese shocker Kairo, the pedigree becomes even more problematic. Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s amazing movie, about the end of the world as propagated by out of control technology and basic human indifference, resonated with the kind of power only questions of life and death can create. Its wonky Western conversion, the WB-friendly Pulse was a passable imitation at best. Thanks to the resulting influx of PG-13 demographic cash, Dimension Extreme has commissioned a continuing franchise. Pulse 2 shows some promise, but the stink of a calculated cash grab just can’t be avoided.

The world as we know it is dead. Spirits, desperate to reconnect with the life they long for, have used WiFi and cellphone signals to infiltrate reality. As a result, people have been dying, either by having their souls drained or via suicide. Married couple Stephen and Michelle have been separated for quite a while. She’s devastated after losing custody of their daughter Justine, and to make matters worse, her husband is now shacking up with the slutty Marta. When her child turns up missing, Michelle goes ballistic, searching for her baby. Stephen, equally concerned for Justine’s safety, enters the desolate, dangerous world of the abandoned big city. There, technology has destroyed everything, and his only hope is to find his little girl and take her to a safe zone. But as we soon learn, there really is no security from restless, relentless ghosts - or the vengeance of a mother scorned. 

If tone and atmosphere were all a horror film needed to succeed, Pulse 2 would be a certified classic. In the hands of producer turned writer/director Joel Soisson, this moody attempt at recapturing the first film’s modern world mayhem is a decent, often enjoyable attempt. But it’s not a complete success, mostly for reasons that have to do with characterization, narrative logistics, and the faintest whiffs of familiarity. No matter how hard it tries, Pulse 2 cannot escape the mandatory J-Horror clichés. All the ghosts come from the monochrome school of creeps, and their dead eyed ennui grows grating after a while. They don’t even attack, really. They merely walk up to their victims and suck the spectral F/X out of them. Like the metaphysical mumbo jumbo used to explain why this is happening (at least it’s clearer here than in the first film), Pulse 2 just feels overly familiar.

But Soisson deserves credit for employing some interesting stylistic choices to switch things up. There is lots of green screen work, clearly used to broaden the scope of the backdrops and give the locations an eerie, otherworldly vibe. We also get nice shots of society post-apocalypse, the random burning car and deserted streets reminding us of how fragile our existence and world order really is. As for the acting, the no name cast does a decent job, especially in light of the ludicrous character beats they must endure. Jamie Barber as Stephen is stuck in stoic hysterics mode, constantly calling out for his little girl - that is, when he isn’t trying to console her constant whining. As Justine, little Karley Scott Collins switches between sensible and responsive to whimpering and wanting her mommy. Even after she sees that her parent is a poltergeist, she still runs after her like a whelp to a warm teat.

As our female leads, both Georgina Rylance and Boti Bliss are stuck in what could best be described as a misogynist’s misguided fantasy. Michelle is portrayed as a Susan Smith psychopath, the pending divorce sending her straight down the murder/suicide path. Once we learn her secret (pssst…she’s DEAD! ), she’s nothing more than a plot point prop. Ms. Bliss has it worse. As the horndog home wrecker who seduced our hero, she’s hot to trot even during the end of the world. Later on, when she becomes another victim of the wireless plague, it’s nothing but nudity. That’s right; our professional actress is reduced to little more than a bit of fright flick titillation. It seems almost unfair, since Marta is so poorly defined to begin with.

As part of the DVD package, Soisson is joined by several members of the crew, and all spend a great deal of time explaining and praising their efforts. It’s not as self-congratulatory as it sounds, but there are moments when our narrators clearly forget they are talking about a direct-to-video sequel. The same applies for the two deleted scenes offered. One features a character catalyst nicknamed “The Man in Red” - clearly important to Part 3…which is already in the works - explaining the entire story to the audience (by way of an unimportant extra). The other has our harried father trying to comfort his child. Neither does more than the film itself, and suggests a story that always knew what it wanted to be from the very beginning.

In truth, there is nothing technically wrong with Pulse 2. It breezes by without bogging down in unnecessary macabre minutia, and the effective opening moments make up for a middle act overloaded with interpersonal inconsistencies. The ending may seem obvious, especially to anyone who’s been following the narrative nuances from the very beginning, and by reducing the story to a tale of four characters, Soisson avoids biting off more than he can creatively chew. Still, no one will mistake this movie for its far superior Eastern cousin. Heck, it can’t even compare to the lesser efforts from the Japanese genre. Still, Soisson and company should be commended for trying to instill something new and novel into what is usually a staid and stereotypical conceit. Pulse 2 can’t avoid its origins, but at least it doesn’t destroy its celluloid ancestry. 

by Bill Gibron

26 Sep 2008

Music is the most opened ended of mediums. Individuals can influence the reception of a song or a sonic cycle simply by using their own personal powers of interpretation. What may sound like a collection of purposeful pop hits to some becomes the primer for an entire wounded adolescence. In other instances, self-proclaimed works of art stagnate and slowly fade away. When critics first heard Lou Reed’s follow-up to his crackerjack mainstream monster Transformer, they were at a loss for words. The dark, dirge-like Berlin centered on a pair of desperate junkies, the lyrics exploring such non-commercial themes as suicide and physical abuse. For many, it was just too grim and self-aggrandizing. For painter turned director Julian Schnabel, the 1973 LP became the soundtrack to his troubled teen life.

Now, three and a half decades later, the filmmaker has found a way to celebrate his love of this difficult and dense masterpiece. Convincing Reed to do the au courant thing and play the entire album live, Schnabel set up a five night stint at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York. There, accompanied by an orchestra, a children’s choir, and a sensational back-up band, Reed revisited the story of Caroline, her mentally unsound boyfriend, and their battles with depression and drug addiction. With Schnabel adding a visual interpretation to the story (via filmed sequences created by his daughter Lola) and a locked in look at the onstage dynamic, we are swept away on waves of wounded imagery and tonal misfortune. While not a great cinematic statement, Berlin (now available on DVD from The Weinstein Company’s preeminent Miriam Collection) is still an unbelievably effective concert.

As an artist noted for his imaginative approach, Schnabel’s most shocking invention here is getting Reed to care again. Fans of the former Velvet Underground guide (this critic included) have often lamented the 66-year-old’s sometimes lax performance aesthetic. While never a strong singer, Reed tends to act like a downbeat Dylan, avoiding melody all together for a sloppier, more spoken croak. This frequently renders his outright poptones almost completely uninteresting. Reed got his start in the song factories of Manhattan (at Pickwick, to be specific) and he can’t deny his way with a catchy melody. But when he presents this material onstage, his inferred lack of caring destroys the music’s magic. Here, Reed is back in rare form, sensational with only occasional slippage back into his old, nonchalant ways.

The other startling aspect of Berlin is watching Reed’s reactions. When the audience explodes after a particularly powerful sequence, the man’s manic, weather-beaten smile says it all. Elsewhere, the living legend lets his guard down, flashing obvious signs of appreciation when guitarist Steve Hunter (who played on the original recordings) rips a particularly powerful lead. The best moment, however, is not part of the Berlin album proper. Instead, Reed indulges an encore by bringing UK torch singer Antony (of Antony and the Johnsons) up front. There, the pair perform the old Velvet’s classic “Candy Says” in such a stunning fashion that its creator is visibly shaken. It’s an amazing moment, as if Reed is finally realizing just how great his songwriting skill is, and how amazing it is to hear someone really run with and interpret his marvelous ideas.

This does not dampen the impact of the other offerings. Berlin remains a fascinating piece, a collection of simple sentiments expanded by an almost apocalyptic scope. Most of this came courtesy of producer Bob Ezrin, and the concert experience improves on the LP’s rather restrictive mixes. Live, the title track explodes across the stage, while “Lady Day” sounds as definitive as anything Reed has ever done. Both “Caroline Says I” and it’s far more famous follow-up showcased the combined effectiveness of their author’s words and music. By the time “Men of Good Fortune” rolls around, we are sold, and then Reed cements the deal with his readings of “The Bed” and “Sad Song”. Without the dimensions of such a show, Berlin can seem self-indulgent and insular. But in performance, it finds its focus and force.

As part of the DVD release, there’s a five minute interview with Reed and Schnabel (taken from something called “Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…”) that explains some of the motivations behind the album and the movie. There are also six minutes of behind the scene material, clips of the musicians warming up, the crew creating the stage, and blocking being discussed. The only thing missing here is a commentary track from the director. Schnabel clearly relates to Berlin (he calls it a celebration of “love’s dark sisters: jealousy, rage, and loss”) and it would have been wonderful to hear how he interprets the material, especially in light of the comments about his past. Reed’s input would be wonderful as well, yet it’s clear that, as he’s aged, the man has gotten even more closed off and bitter. Sadly, neither man gets a chance for a deeper discussion.

Still, one has to compliment an artist who chooses to revisit a much maligned work. Until recently, it was rare when someone like Reed would play an entire album in concert. For some, going back to a song or sound that may have been part of a one-off or casual studio experiment must be mindboggling. Hits have a tendency to live on outside their creation. The filler and ancillary tracks remain locked forever in their making-of moment. For Lou Reed, Berlin must represent both the best of times and the worst of times. Cash had given him the freedom to create. Sadly, “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” and its accompanying LP removed much of his ability to experiment. The result was a lost gem, undiscovered until now. For Julian Schnabel, Berlin stands as a personal touchstone. Thankfully, he’s allowed the rest of us to rediscover its amazing magic as well.

by Bill Gibron

26 Sep 2008

Chemistry is the key to a good onscreen romance. Remove this vital cog, and the entire cinematic machine sputters and dies, right? Well, that’s only partially true. One assumes that a brilliantly directed script, acted with perfection by performers who can emulate attraction without actually evoking same, could be passable. It’s safe to say that many a mainstream pairing has benefited from such a “professionalism vs. passion” conceit. Nights at Rodanthe, the latest adaptation of a Nicholas Sparks sudser, doesn’t have to worry about ardor. It offers up confirmed compatibles Richard Gere and Diane Lane in their third onscreen pairing. Unfortunately, every other aspect of this pointless drama undermines our lead’s natural allure.

When her estranged husband returns after a seventh month absence and asks for forgiveness, Adrienne Willis is not quite sure what to do. Her kids definitely want their dad back, but she has a hard time accepting his casual adultery and newfound desperation. Retreating to a friend’s bed and breakfast along the North Carolina coast, she hopes to sort things out. There she meets Dr. Paul Flanner, himself plagued by personal doubts. Together, the lost and lonely couple battle a major hurricane and internal struggles, all in a last gasp attempt at happiness. Of course, in this kind of story, such joys are fleeting, and when he finally goes off to South America in search of his estranged son, Adrienne wonders if she’ll ever see Paul again.

Sometimes, source material says it all. A luminous cast and a worthy director will have a hard time making a cinematic silk purse out of a literary sow’s ear. It is clear from his prose that Sparks spent most of his developmental years memorizing the works of Robert James Waller. This Windstorms of North Carolina Counties is so overwrought and Harlequin-ed that only the most susceptible of spinsters or inexperienced poetry majors will fall for its faux passions. While Diane Lane and Richard Gere are a great onscreen couple, the set up stunts their appeal. There is so much hand wringing and heart sickness here, so many unexplained subplots and unclear character motives that by the time the death/denouement arrives, we’re too confused to care.

As with this summer’s monster menopausal hit, Mamma Mia, Nights in Rodanthe is helmed by a novice filmmaker lifted from the far more restrictive world of theater. While George C. Wolfe has done some decent work (most notably, the TV movie Lackawanna Blues), his cinematic capabilities are severely limited. The illogical seashore setting - a baroque B&B that, by all accounts, should have been swept into the ocean the first high tide - gets several scope defying long shots, the helicopter and or crane covering every inch of its dollhouse designs. Indeed, Nights often appears more concerned about art design and location than it does direct emotional connections - and even then, what’s maudlin is also mechanical and manipulative.

And then there are the wasted elements, the performances and plot points that just don’t add up. James Franco, looking dirty and disheveled, plays Gere’s son like a photoshoot cipher. Since both he and his big screen papa aren’t given enough interpersonal backstory, their breakup seems silly and their reunion forced. Similarly, Viola Davis cuts an intriguing swath as the owner of the inn who apparently heads to Miami to answer an international booty call. Her personal explanations, steeped in ethnic history and the African American experience are reduced to a series of ‘spirit’ paintings and the kind of Civil War memories relegated to a Ken Burns outtake. In both cases, these characters play like structural leftovers, elements that had to be included less the fanbase froth over their omission.

At least the craggy face of Scott Glenn has a purpose, albeit an ultimately uninteresting one. As the husband of the woman who died on Gere’s operating table, he arrives with an accent so thick and a mug so wrinkled you’d swear he was a piece of human folk art. His confrontations with his costar are broad and banal, dipped in soap opera slop so sour that we wince at their forced sincerity. Much of Nights comes across as the outline for how not to create a five-handkerchief weeper, avoiding realism and any sense of authenticity to pour on the preplanned contrivances. Nothing here feels normal. Instead, we are witnessing every lonely lady’s greatest fantasy flash into a similarly styled breakdown.

With its numerous false endings, vacant self-importance, and drippy melodramatics, Nights in Rodanthe couldn’t be more unsatisfying. One keeps waiting for the movie to sizzle, to suggest something other than the standard guy/girl/grave strategies. This is the kind of dud which stirs imaginary scenarios where Gere and Lane wind up, inexplicably, in a classic romance that really delivers the tear drops. Again, there’s no doubting their chemistry and compatibility. In a perfect motion picture paradise, such connections would be enough. But our current cinematic state is uneven and often unresponsive. This describes Nights in Rodanthe fairly accurately. This should have been sentimental and sweet. Instead, it’s further proof that one confirmed filmic facet is just not enough.

by Bill Gibron

25 Sep 2008

Spike Lee has a big mouth. It’s a good thing he’s so talented, since he often loves to write confrontational checks that his filmmaking sometimes can’t cash. When Clint Eastwood offered his definitive takes on the Pacific Theater during WWII back in 2006, both Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima were considered classics. Lee’s response was to chide the American icon for not featuring more African Americans in the films. In his mind, the history of Hollywood moviemaking and the entire war genre has purposefully avoided the legacy of the Buffalo Soldier and the role played by blacks in all major military conflicts. Of course, he has a point. Oddly enough, Lee has decided to put up instead of shut up. And while many may see Miracle at St. Anna as a pointed response, the director is just as guilty as flaunting fact for the sake of an artistic statement.

On a calm day in the early ‘80s, postal worker Hector Negron pulled a German Lugar out from his counter desk and killed a man in cold blood. The police are baffled, especially when they find a rare Italian antiquity in Negron’s apartment. Young reporter Tim Boyle pursues the story, and turns up something shocking. In 1943, four black soldiers - 2nd Staff Sergeant Aubrey Stamps, Sergeant Bishop Cummings, Private First Class Sam Train and Negron - found themselves deep in enemy territory when a river raid went bad. Wandering around the Italian countryside, they befriend an injured boy named Angelo. He leads them to a small village where they are taken in by a local family. Soon, our ‘Buffalo’ soldiers are learning of the vast Nazi presence, the infighting among the resistance, the lack of US support, and the horrible atrocities surrounding the Sant’Anna di Stazzema massacre.

Miracle at St. Anna is a real revelation. It is also not a perfect film. It tries to do too many things instead of staying firmly centered on the inherently intriguing story of the Buffalo Soldiers. When it does trip around within its flights of fancy, it can be both adept and aggravating. In fact, Spike Lee’s translation of James McBrides novel is so grounded in the book’s literary fancy that it often fails to do its subjects justice. One imagines there were stronger stories available to champion the black man’s contribution to World War II (and the white man’s bigoted response), and when Lee stays with the issue of race, the movie literally sizzles. But with hints of magic realism, a made-up framing device, and lots of historical liberties, what should have been the retort to the director’s recent attacks on films such as Saving Private Ryan becomes just as dodgy and ethnically disingenuous.

Truth be told, Miracle at St. Anna is more about the crimes committed by the Nazis in the name of Hitler’s military schemes than a real look at the African American experience circa 1943. We see more Italians killed than brave black soldiers, and with the narrow focus on four particular types (the smart aleck player, the no nonsense officer, the innocent homunculus, and the audience surrogate) we don’t really get the scope suggested. Lee is painting his canvas with too big a stylistic brush. He indulges in some rather odd touches, overcranking the camera during close-ups and slowing down the motion as someone spills their coffee. Miracle at St. Anna may be a movie about symbols (water, the crucifix), but to make them so obvious hints at a filmmaker unsure of his narrative focus. And at two hours and forty minutes, it’s definitely too long.

Still, for all its flaws and frequent miscalculations, the acting and environment lend Miracle at St. Anna the necessary entertainment credence. All of the leads are fantastic, with Omar Benson Miller simply great as the larger than life Train, and Derek Luke equally dynamic as the wide-eyed and socially optimistic Stamps. Both have stand out moments, especially when addressing the abject bias surrounding them. And when dealing with the frantic decisions that often come with warfare, all bring a remarkable level of authenticity. Yet sometimes, Lee just gets in the way. Make no mistake about it, Miracle is a preachy film. The director frequently stops the action so that his actors can run off a litany of intolerant ills. Some of these speeches are so affected that one wonders if McBride (who is solely credited with the screenplay) actually wrote them. No one is suggesting that such discrimination didn’t exist, but when you’re hoping to champion someone’s bravery under fire, turning them sanctimonious isn’t the best strategy.

Lee is also the recipient of some excessively lofty ambitions. By scattering his story, piecemeal, over a disjointed three hour narrative, we are left wondering where certain segments fit, if at all. While he has answers for most, a couple linger. For example, there are several sore thumb cameos - John Turturro as a conscientious cop, John Leguizamo as an art dealer handling Nazi treasures abroad - and yet neither nostalgic shout out really works. They play like what they appear to be - stunts. Similarly, the company lothario Bishop chases Mediterranean babe Renata around for most of the movie. Their eventual love scene is one of the film’s weakest, most pointless moments. Again, such sequences foster thoughts of how a different, more realistic movie would have handled these men’s plight. Such musings shouldn’t occupy an audience’s attention.

And yet because of the history that exists both with the Buffalo Soldiers and America’s disgraceful history of segregation, we accept and support most of Miracle at St. Anna. Lee may be the first director to benefit from a situation in which strong outside influences actually save a movie. There are definitely concepts in this movie - the Tinto Brass like propaganda queen taunting the troops, the level headed and humane Nazi officer - that we’re not used to seeing, and Lee does love his sledgehammer metaphors and prostylatizing. But since the story here is so important, a forgotten facet of a conflict that seems picked over and populated by hundreds of Discovery Channel documentaries, we go with the flow. Miracle at St. Anna won’t be winning any Oscars come next year, but if it inspires more films about the Buffalo brigade, it will surely have served its purpose. And so will Lee. 

by Bill Gibron

23 Sep 2008

You’d figure such an announcement would stir geek nation to its very core. After all, the battle for respectable treatment for all superheroes has been trailblazed since a certain Caped Crusader “boffed” and “zipped” his way through a ‘60s pop art landscape. Granted, the Green Hornet had less commercial cache than Bruce Wayne’s alter ego, but the character still suffered from a similarly styled disrespect during the Peace Decade - Bruce Lee or no Bruce Lee. Ever since his less than successful media cross over, the emerald icon has been sitting in that most sullied of cinematic spaces - development Hell. Everyone from Kevin Smith to Michel Gondry has been attached to a big screen adaptation, with leads ranging from Jake Gyllenhaal and George Clooney to Jason Scott Lee and Jet Li.

But when Seth Rogen was announced as the new creative force behind the franchise, the fanbase became a tad apoplectic. After all, with Batman Begins revitalizing the genre with its combination of scope and psychological serious, someone best known for his superb slacker comedy inspired little confidence. Even with The Pineapple Express showing some action scene scripting panache, Rogen remains a question mark. Oddly enough, when his co-star and director was announced last week, the arguments all but faded away. Yet it would seem that Stephen Chow should inspire even more unease. Though he truly is a Hong Kong legend, his output as a filmmaker suggests a return to the more jokey, cartoonish qualities of the past.

Most American fans know the 46 year old superstar as the genius behind Shaolin Soccer and the universally beloved Kung Fu Hustle. While his last effort, the ET-inspired family comedy CJ7 failed to resonate outside his native land, DVD has allowed the icon’s better known films (God of Cookery, King of Comedy) to finally get some exposure. Still, Chow is not some manner of guarantee. He’s been part of China’s cinema since the late ‘80s, and it took him nearly 20 years to develop into an international name. And the scariest part is, he’s done it through a devotion to all things slapstick and hyper-stylized. While Soccer and Hustle were wonderful, some fear there will be too much Looney Tunes in his Hornet

Of course, many are completely unaware of the character’s true origins. He wasn’t born out of pen and ink, but wireless waves and Saturday matinees. Clearly inspired by Bob Kane’s celebrated crimefighter, George W. Trendle and Fran Striker created the concept for ‘30s radio. During the ‘40s, celluloid stepped in and serialized the man. Soon, comic books and other marketing moves kept the story of newspaper publisher turned masked vigilante Britt Reid and his Asian manservant Kato in the public eye. Yet after the aborted ‘60s series featuring Van Williams and Bruce Lee, the Hornet fell out of the cultural conversation. While linked properties including the Lone Ranger (who is actually a blood relative) saw a cinematic send up, Reid and his butt kicking butler remained in entertainment exile.

The Green Hornet does seem to have a limited appeal. He’s not a man of inordinate powers or otherworldly abilities. He is very much cut from the ‘playboy as punisher’ dynamic. Though he’s considered quite skilled at hand to hand combat, Kato tended to take up most of the martial artistry. This was especially true of the TV series, which saw Lee extending his influence over the genre by turning the sidekick into the center of action attention. There was never a hint of humor in the Hornet’s story, no satiric slant or sense of inferred irony. Instead, we have Batman minus the winged obsession, most of the heroic heavy lifting done by a technologically advanced vehicle known as The Black Beauty.

As in the case of most movies, initial casting should cause concern - or at the very least, send out warning signs. Rogen is great at slovenly self deprecation, but can he manage a more mature role? Even playing the cop in Superbad, his proposed authority was countermanded by a mutton-chopped mimicry. His ability to fill Reid’s shoes seems questionable, especially when you consider his well honed persona is based solely on the silly. The biggest hurdle The Green Hornet faces however will be finding a proper balance between competing cinematic types. On the one hand, fans aren’t anxious to see their established stars swaying too far from what’s familiar. Rare is the instance where someone known for humor - say a Michael Keaton - manages to make the transition to champion of choice.

Chow is another story all together. His limited exposure as part of mainstream moviemaking suggests someone with an equal number of potential strikes. For all the brilliance he brought to Kung Fu Hustle, CJ7 suggested a man equally adept at feigned emotions and abject manipulation. He owes as much to the Golden Age of Hollywood as he does his Hong Kong brethren, with the biggest debt claimed by such classic silent comedians as Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. Again, this fails to inspire much Christopher Nolan like knowledge of the superhero’s story needs. Chow may be able to concoct a great fight scene, or bring his unbridled imagination to the entire core concept, but he’s not a warranty against failure.

Sure, the same could be said for Mr. Dark Knight, or the man first pegged to put a new spin on the growing graphic novel influence - one Tim Burton. But Chow has less of a track record, at least when it comes to handing Hollywood a pure popcorn experience. And remember, we are now looking at the genre through a necessary new wave wariness. Iron Man proved that acting is just as important as F/X in selling such outsized ideas and yet even someone as skilled as Edward Norton couldn’t completely salvage The Incredible Hulk. In fact, it seems Rogen and Chow are facing odds so monumental that if they succeed, it will certainly say something about both men’s ability and talent. But what if it tanks, or merely underperforms?

We’ve got a couple of years to wait, since The Green Hornet is not scheduled to appear at your local Cineplex until 2010. By then, we will have seen the way Watchmen redefines everything, while Marvel will be offering their takes on Thor as well as another journey into Tony Stark territory. A few years ago, a substandard superhero film like Daredevil or Ghost Rider could find a supportive audience. But thanks to the Summer of 2008, the entire paradigm has shifted. While one has to hope that Rogen and Chow know what they’re up against, the suits who supported their signing typically inspire little faith. For the time being geek nation is settled and sympathetic. If they stay that way, everything should be fine. If not…

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