Archive for the disaster movies Category

Murder on Flight 502 (R.I.P. Hugh O’Brian)

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Movies, OBITS, Television with tags , , , , , on September 7, 2016 by travsd

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Hugh O’Brian died earlier this week at the age of 91. While Baby Boomers and older probably know him best as the title character in the smash tv series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955-1961), I came along later and have only had a glancing acquaintance with that show. My introduction to the tall, understated (former) leading man came when he had a sort of second (brief) hot period in the mid 1970s. Among the things I would have seen him at that time were The Shootist (1976), where he played one of three men out to shoot dying outlaw J.D. Books (John Wayne — O’Brian was fated to be the last actor Wayne ever “shot” on camera); AND the pilot episode of Fantasy Island (1977).

Now, the pilot of Fantasy Island was ripping television indeed. At least that’s how it seemed to me at the time as a tween — I’ll have to go back sometime soon and see how it measures up to my memories. In that two hour tv-movie, O’Brian played a guilty Great White Hunter who gets to experience life as the prey for a change. But I think it only fitting that I save my post about that show for another occasion — an occasion whose name ends in “Montalban“.

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Instead, today I thought I would give a bit of attention to the 1975 ABC TV movie Murder on Flight 502. You will be alarmed and dismayed to know that, to refresh my memory for this post, I watched this film for the fifth or sixth time last night. Because that’s not just how I roll, that’s how I taxi onto the runway. (Warning: I always include spoilers.)

Murder on Flight 502 debuted during the height of the disaster movie craze, and is an obvious knockoff of both Airport (1970) and Airport 1975 (which actually came out in 1974). And, surprisingly, its all-star cast compares favorably with those films and others of the era like The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Earthquake (1974) and Towering Inferno (1974).  We meet most of them prior to takeoff in a corner of Kennedy Airport I like to call the Exposition Lounge. Going roughly in order of appearance:

There’s Walter Pidgeon as a soporific octogenarian with three months to live, who gets seated next to Yiddish theatre legend Molly Picon. Do they bond? Do they talk? Oy, gevalt, that’s all they do — inserts of their mundane conversations must fill a third of the film. Pidgeon must say “You’re a very lucky woman” to her about 15  times.  Little of Picon’s reputed genius is in evidence here. Essentially she’s relegated to playing the yenta from central casting. To hammer that home, familiar character actor Steve Franken plays her son, who sees her off at the airport and says things like, “Mama, don’t get so excited! You’re on vacation yet! So enjoy!”

Sonny Bono plays a fading rock star desperate for a comeback. Ironically, believe it or not, Sonny was one of the hottest stars in the cast, fresh off four years of his hit variety show with Cher, who had just left him for Gregg Allman. (In reference to that, which was big news at the time, in one particularly bathetic moment, Bono’s character stares off into the distance and says, “And the beat goes on.”)

Also in the cast is The Partridge Family’s Danny Bonaduce, typecast as an obnoxious, pranking teenager. His foil, for awhile at least, is singer Polly Bergen as a sassy, brassy, hard drinking mystery writer in sunglasses. Later, she will exchange Bonaduce for Fernando Lamas, playing a famous burglar who “once got away with seven million dollars”.

Theodore Bikel is a mysterious foreigner with a goatee — he’s clearly up to no good. Ralph Bellamy is one of the country’s top doctors, on his way to London to treat a “world leader”. And Dane Clark and Laraine Day (both actors with some name recognition in the 40s and 50s) play a tense, bickering middle aged couple.

And let’s not forget the crew! Robert Stack is the ridiculously stoic and omniscient pilot, paving his way for his performance five years later in Airplane! The stewardesses are none other than Brooke Adams (the lovable, clumsy one) and Farrah Fawcett-Majors, not yet famous as the star of Charlie’s Angels, although that was right around the corner.

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And Hugh O’Brian? Why, he’s just an off-duty New York City police detective, that’s all. And that’s about to come in handy. Why?

Oops! We left out a celebrity. The airport security chief is played by George Maharis of Route 66 (not to be confused with George Chakiris of West Side Story). After diffusing a cake bomb left in the waiting area as a prank by Bonaduce (this was in the era when authorities just said to such scofflaws, “Alright now, you incorrigible rascal! Go ahead and get on the plane! We wouldn’t want you to miss your flight!), Maharis receives a letter informing him that there will be murders on Flight 502. (It’s not intended to warn him; he accidentally receives the letter early). In between complaints about a toothache (the screenwriters’ substitute for creating a character) Maharis begins investigating all the passengers to try to determine who the killer and his victim(s) might be.

And now is when it starts to get really silly. It turns out several people on board ARE planning murders against fellow passengers — separate, coincidental murders that aren’t even the ones promised in the letter. Bikel wants to kill Bellamy for skipping out on an operation that might have saved his wife’s life. Ironically at the very moment we learn that information, Bikel has a heart attack and Bellamy saves his life. Not only is Bikel now too incapacitated to kill him, he has to sit and listen to a lecture from him about how noble the medical profession is. (I hope he kills him later).

THEN Dane Clark tries to stab Sonny Bono with a knife! It turns out his teenage daughter OD’d while partying in Bono’s mansion. Instead of tying the man up, they make him listen to a conciliatory talk by Bono (“Kids today, they wanna be part of somethin’, Mr. Garwood. But ya oughta be proud. My roadie said she was a very special girl.” (I also hope HE gets killed later).

It isn’t until 2/3 of the way through the film that we get our first murder. A priest! Who turns out to be one of Fernando Lamas’s crime partners! Strangled and placed in a dumb waiter for maximum theatrical effect! And then stewardess Brooke Adams! Stabbed in the neck with a meat carving fork, because they used to serve real meals on planes!

Investigating all of this throughout, in conjunction with Stack and Maharis, is O’Brian, who is even more subdued and laconic than usual in this picture. Is he supposed to be “world weary” here? Drunk? On downers? Just wallowing? It seems to take him an eternity to spit out his lines, a no-no for actors. But then the big twist: it turns out HE was the killer, it’s his idea of justice since the gang of robbers had gotten off scot-free. He gathers all of the celebrities together so he can have his big dramatic moment, and then he shoots Lamas, which triggers an electrical fire. Here, in the film’s final moments, do we get our “disaster”, although the fire is soon put out and the plane has a safe landing. A little anti-climatic, but not as anti-climactic as I imagine this new Sully movie is gonna be! (“They ditched in the Hudson and nobody even got wet!”)

When last we see O’Brian, London bobbies are leading him away in handcuffs while he mutters insanely like Tony Perkins at the end of Psycho. Looks like the tables have turned, eh, Wyatt Earp?

George Kennedy: The Disaster Movies

Posted in disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Movies, OBITS with tags , , , , , on February 29, 2016 by travsd

The word just came down that character actor George Kennedy has passed away. He was an amazingly busy actor, given that he started out as military advisor to the sit-com Sgt. Bilko. He was a career army man. But he also looked the type, and so he began to act on the show. Then he got cast in a zillion westerns in film and television. And many other sorts of movies. But the ones that will always matter the most to me are the disaster movies he anchored in the 1970s when he was at the peak of his career.

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The Flight of the Phoenix (1965)

I think of this quintessential “guy picture” as a bit of foreshadowing for the crop of disaster films that would follow in the ’70s. A sandstorm knocks down a cargo plane in the middle of the Sahara desert. The survivors are compelled to make tough choices in order to escape, and time is running out. Like any good disaster film, it has a familiar gaggle of A and B list stars (James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Dan Duryea, Ernest Borgnine, George Kennedy) made unrecognizable by the grime on their faces. Much like The Poseidon Adventure which was to follow years later, it depicts a group concentrated on a single task propagated by a very difficult and dubious person which may or may not be the salvation (in this case Hardy Kruger as a suspicious German engineer who devises a plan to rebuild their plane out of salvaged pieces).

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Airport (1970)

The first film in the Airport series, based on Arthur Hailey’s novel, is much different from what followed, although it establishes many elements of the template. Most of the film (over an hour really) is just a soap opera about the trials of running an airport. Really, really boring stuff….politics, administrative hassles….who the hell cares? It’s an HOUR of exposition. Thematic relevance includes marital troubles…airport manager Burt Lancaster has trouble with his wife because he works long hours, not because he’s unfaithful, although he’s beginning to look at his beautiful female colleague and hooks up with her at the end. Pilot Dean Martin is a serial philanderer…he has knocked up a stewardess. He too chooses a younger, prettier, newer woman. There is some degree of a natural disaster here: a blizzard, although it feels quotidian…that aspect could have been amped way up into something far more scary. The actual “disaster” of this film turns out to be a mad bomber (Van Heflin) who is going to blow up the plane so his wife will get insurance money. It takes forever for anyone to discover it. Having found about it, it takes forever for anyone to do anything about it. Finally, the guy blows his bomb up…luckily he’s at the back of the plane so damage is minimal. There are a few scary minutes. Then it becomes about the tension of landing the plane…at the same airport the plane departed from, on the horrible, partially snow-cleared landing strips that Lancaster and Martin had been arguing about in the  beginning of the film, with George Kennedy’s airport trouble-shooterJoe Patroni finally saving the day. Not as many celebrity passengers as in the later films. Helen Hayes as an elderly stowaway (she’s supposed to be comical, but she’s dreadfully unfunny for a so-called “First Lady of the American stage”.) Vaudeville vet Benny Rubin is an extra.

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Earthquake (1974)

This is one of my favorite movies. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen it. A dozen? I love everything about it. With each passing year it gains more charm as a product of its times. And it has the best, most all-encompassing disaster of the classic disaster film era, assisted by the technical innovation of Sensurround. It’s marred by some serious flaws, which only make me love it more. It’s way over-dependent on coincidence and implausible incident — ridiculously so. In a city of millions, the same ten or so characters keep bumping into each other.  Architect/ football player Charlton Heston cheats on wife Ava Gardner with Genevieve Bujold but is loyal to father-in-law Lorne Greene…meanwhile Blaxploitation/ Evel Knievel hybrid Richard Roundtree is trying to do his motorcycle jumps with his manager Gabe Dell, whose sister Victoria Principal is being harassed by grocery store/ national guard psycho Marjoe Gortner. And running through it all is LA beat cop George Kennedy (who would later play an identical role on tv as The Blue Knight). And Walter Matthau in a hilarious cameo role as a drunk. Then, the earthquake comes and shakes all these people out of these dramas like nuts out of the trees. And they keep encountering each other amidst unimaginable destruction and chaos.  Until Kennedy and Heston rescue a bunch of people trapped in a collapsed parking garage which is about to be engulfed in flood water. There’s more to be said on this film; rest assured I’ll be writing much more about it.

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Airport 1975

This one may be thought of as the archetypal Airport movie, though the 1970 original is considered the best of the series. Clearly the producers of 1975 set out to inject their franchise with a lot of dross borrowed from Earthquake and Towering Inferno. Heston reprises his Earthquake role as the middle aged philanderer. George Kennedy, also from Earthquake, returns in one of many increasingly implausible job promotions for his character Joe Patroni. The opening scenes of this movie are the best, as all the main characters are introduced and there is much hilarity revolving around the twin themes of sex and booze. Erik Estrada! Gloria Swanson! Myrna Loy! Sid Caesar! Jerry Stiller, Norman Fell and Conrad Janis! Helen Reddy as a singing nun! Larry Storch as a tv reporter!  Dana Andrews plays a guy who crashed into the airplane in his Piper Cub. That’s the bulk of the excitement. The balance of the movie is boring and insanely implausible. With the pilot Efrem Zimbalist Jr incapacitated, a stewardess with no flight experience (Karen Black) takes control of the plane. On a 747, with hundreds of passengers aboard, the odds are 100% that there would have been at least one person better qualified to take over: a professional or amateur pilot, a military veteran, a policeman, fireman or other rescue worker or anybody other than a weeping, apparently feeble-minded stewardess. Eventually they dangle Heston down on a rope from another jet and he climbs in a hole in the side of the plane to land it. Don’t laugh, it happens!

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Airport ’77

While every bit as implausible as the other Airport movies, this one at least has the Poseidon-esque virtue of focusing on a very few characters and stranding them. It also borrows from Poseidon the idea of putting them underwater, and entertaining us with a song (though, like the one in Towering Inferno and unlike the one in The Poseidon Adventure it did not become a hit). The song is unbelievably awful — a blind guy singing “Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder”. The premise is that it’s a special luxury plane featuring entire furnished rooms. It’s owned by millionaire Jimmy Stewart and is carrying many art treasures from his collection, along with Captain Jack Lemmon (trying his best to be macho), Darren McGaven, Christopher Lee, Lee Grant, Joseph Cotten, Olivia de Havilland etc . Bad guys try to steal the plane by putting everyone to sleep with gas but then they hit an oil derreck and crash into the sea and sink to the bottom…completely intact. They’re pretty much on their own (no radio contact) but George Kennedy’s Joe Patroni still manages to put his two cents in.

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The Concorde…Airport ’79

In this one, Kennedy’s Patroni character is elevated to the Captain of the endangered aircraft, putting him front and center for once instead of the periphery of the disaster. On the other hand…it’s the cheesiest of a very cheesy series. They try to generate interest by setting it on the trendy, relatively new supersonic plane, but that doeesn’t really add anything to the story. And the celebrities in this one are a new low….Charo! John Davidson! Jimmy “J.J.” Walker! Martha Raye! And what happens to them? Evil arms dealer Robert Wagner keeps trying to shoot the plane they’re on out of the sky with missiles, because reporter Susan Blakely is about to do an expose on his illegal arms sales. Ya know, like ya do.

At any rate, soon after this the Airplane! spoof movies made any more Airport movies impossible. But those were followed by the Naked Gun films …in which George Kennedy appeared.  Because there’s always a role for George Kennedy.

 

Hurricane (1974)

Posted in disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Movies, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , on October 23, 2015 by travsd

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As we speak, Hurricane Patricia is bearing down on Mexico. It also happens to be the birthday of character actor Frank Sutton (1923-1974). Are you thinking what I’m thinking? What? You’re not? Well, as Quick Draw McGraw, used to say, “I’ll do the thinking around here – -and don’t you forget it”.

"Move it, move it, move it!!!"

“Move it, move it, move it!!!”

Now I COULD devote a post about the situation comedy Gomer Pyle USMC on which Sutton appeared as the hypertense Sgt. Carter from 1964 through 1969. But that’s so easy. Been done. And besides, like I said — hurricane. And so we write about Sutton’s last screen role ever, as happy go-lucky party boy “Bert Pearson” in the 1974 ABC TV Movie of the Week Hurricane. (Not to be confused with John Ford’s BRILLIANT 1937 disaster movie The Hurricane, a post for another occasion).

The choice of Hurricane isn’t arbitrary. As I’ve written here many a time I was a huge aficionado of disaster movies as a child. The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was and is one of my favorite movies. And so I watched the television premiere of Hurricane when it aired in September, 1974.  A few months ago I purchased a DVD of the film, which I had not seen in (ulp!) four decades, for a little refresher. And it was quite an eye opener. I see with a very different pair of eyes now. For example, I would say roughly a third of the film is made up of blatant stock footage, obviously taken by tv news crews, the National Weather service and the like. The remainder of the film was likewise shot on a tv budget, so this is less about the special effects (and I think we were expecting special effects – – hello, disaster movie?) and much more about people having conversations. In one, Will Geer and Michael Learned (both taking time off of The Waltons) play a couple of bickering weather reporters, with different methods. In another, Martin Milner as “Major Hymie Stoddard” and his fellow air force pilots fly above the storm to observe it. In another, Larry Hagman and Jessica Walter are stranded on a boat whose motor has conked out. In another, Barry Sullivan waits too long to evacuate his cabin and then his pick-up truck won’t start.

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“Hey, c’mon…Whattaya so scared about?! Have a li’l drinkie!”

And, in the film’s most memorable story thread, Frank Sutton plays an obnoxious drunk who decides to wait the storm out and have a Hurricane party in his flimsy house. Here’s where all the tension is, for not only is it him and all his plastered friends carrying on like it’s New Year’s Eve, but there’s his wife and a couple of young neighbors (including a pregnant woman) who are both sober and increasingly nervous, and then terrified. But the guy keeps persuading and then pressuring them to stay. As a kid, this filled me with great anxiety, for a great many personal reasons. At any rate, I hope you don’t think this is a big spoiler when I say that Sutton gets his come-uppance, in a scene reminiscent of The Three Little Pigs. 

The fact that Sutton died prior to this film’s release, gave his death in this film a rather strange vibe (I can’t say a “poignant” one because his character is so abhorrent). And lest you think I’m being too jokey about a very serious subject, I now use the occasion to turn the post on its head. Frank Sutton’s character dies in this film because he is an IDIOT. Don’t be an IDIOT. If you live in the hurricane zone and are able to do so, EVACUATE.

On “The Towering Inferno”

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, disaster movies, Hollywood (History), OBITS with tags , , , on October 1, 2015 by travsd
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Literal Melodrama: Look at this poster! “The Wife”. “The Con Man”.

I just heard from the grapevine who shares my apartment that John Guillermin has passed away. Even if you don’t know the name, you know his work. He directed several films in the 1960s’ Tarzan franchise reboot (more about that here), and he directed Death on the Nile (1978) and Dino de Laurentis’s 1976 King Kong remake. And I just have to think he got the latter gig on the strength of his previous film, the subject of this blogpost. de Laurentis must have been like “Dis new Kong film is all about a skyscraper!  And dis guy Guillermin, he knows how to shoot a disaster on a skyscraper!)  And much like Ronald Neames, the director of The Poseidon Adventure (1972), Guillermin was a very solid British director, which is undoubtedly why Irwin Allen chose him for 1974’s The Towering Inferno. 

Now, I often think of The Towering Inferno as “the only other time Irwin Allen got a disaster movie right (contrary to his reputation)”. The Poseidon Adventure happens to be one of my favorite films, but most of Allen’s other films are, well, disasters. But having first experienced this film at a young age, I can’t tell how much of my fondness for it is a case of my nostalgia and love of camp (definite factors here) overwhelming ALL of my better judgment. But I don’t think so. For I freely acknowledge the film has many serious, obvious flaws and am happy to talk about them, even though this is a film I have enjoyed watching repeatedly throughout the years.

If you’re too young to have seen the film or know the premise….a bunch of people are trapped at the top of a burning building (in contrast with Poseidon, in which a bunch of people are trapped at the bottom of a sinking boat). In recent years we have watched several real-life disasters of both types unfold before our eyes in real time and it’s horrible. I don’t know if young people find movies like this too disturbing now — certainly part of the population won’t be able to watch this sort of thing as entertainment any more. Actually for me, part of what makes this pair of movies WATCHABLE is that we care about these people, root for them, and hope they’ll make it out of their predicament. We are engaged with them emotionally, which is the opposite of becoming desensitized and callous. (Whereas I find Rolland Emmerich’s sensibility quite objectionable on these grounds). At any rate, I assure you that this film was regarded as implausible science fiction at the time. Reality has surpassed it in awful strangeness many times over.

Still The Towering Inferno has its implausibilities.  The (then) science fiction concept of a 130 story office tower is fine, but one hardly thinks they’d have built it in the San Francisco earthquake zone! (Then having done so, it’s a head-scratcher that they made the film about a fire rather than an earthquake — except for the fact that another disaster movie — called Earthquake — was being made at the very same time). I used to say that the screenplay’s reliance on an unlikely combination of faulty wiring, an absence of a sprinkler systems and other convenient snafus was a flaw in this film….but 9-11 was a kind of symphony of such Achilles’ Heels, and so was the sinking of the Titanic. It happens.

You know it's too many stars when they have to take the publicity still in Widescreen

You know it’s too many stars when they have to take the publicity still in Widescreen

As a show, The Towering Inferno is an Embarrassment of Riches. It is top loaded with much bigger stars (notably Paul Newman, Steve McQueen and Fay Dunaway) and flush with a much larger number of stars at the Poseidon level (former top stars and current cheesy ones) such as William Holden, Fred Astaire, Jennifer Jones, Robert Vaughn, Robert Wagner, Richard Chamberlain, and yes O.J. Simpson). It was made by the combined resources of two different studios (Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox – -the first time in history that had ever happened), and was adapted from two separate novels (The Tower, and The Glass Inferno), thus the rather silly, bombastic movie title. The film is twice too long, has too many gratuitous star turns, and contains too much romantic melodrama. It’s as though Irwin Allen, in attempting to replicate the success of The Poseidon Adventure, decided he’d have a bigger hit just by adding more of everything.

But he concentrated on the wrong elements. He’d have had a better picture (if a redundant one) if he’d used Poseidon’s formal template, i.e., concentrated on the journey of a few survivors as they tried to get back to the ground floor. (In fact, that would have been a kind of premonition of some of the folks’ actual experiences on 9-11). Unfortunately Allen noticed only the superficial ingredients of his hit: an all-star cast, special effects and a hit song, and he let his story sprawl all over the place. The film’s climax is ridiculous, a choice made for its value as spectacle but completely implausible — evacuation of everyone, one by one, in apparent real time, by helicopter. With 20/20 hindsight I can see that seen as a dry-run for the egregious The Night the Bridge Fell Down, and various other mis-steps in the film can retroactively be seen as the harbingers of big bungles he would make in his films of the late ’70s. But at the time…the audience ate it up, the spectacle is phenomenal and I always love this movie, warts and all). It’s a classic of its kind, and without a doubt the high point of both Mr. Guillermin’s career and Mr. Allen’s as a popular success.

Tomorrow on TCM: Irwin Allen’s “The Swarm” and “Beyond the Poseidon Adventure”

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS with tags , , , , on August 5, 2015 by travsd

Tomorrow is Michael Caine day on TCM, and they’re kicking it off in high style with two pictures he made in the late ’70s with Master of Disaster Irwin Allen. As I’ve written many times, I WORSHIP Irwin Allen…but then I worship many flawed figures. Despite his reputation, Allen only actually made actual cinematic magic happen in the disaster field on two occasions, with 1972’s The Poseidon Adventure and 1974’s The Towering Inferno (and I’ll concede that even these are leavened with hefty doses of unintentional camp, the latter much more than the former, however). After this, though, it’s strictly straight up camp, films so uproariously bad and preposterous that the couch in my house is in danger of shaking apart from my laughter. The two which TCM is showing tomorrow are of the latter type. Both share myriad misjudgments on the part of Allen the Producer…not the least of which was that on these films he also chose to play the role of Allen the Director.

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4:00am (EST) The Swarm (1978)

The Swarm can be categorized in a subgenre of the disaster movie, the “animals amok” subgenre — within which the “killer bee movie” is a sub-sub-genre of its own. It seems obvious here that Allen was tacking away from his established beat of tidal waves, floods, fires, avalanches and the like to account for the recent runaway success of Jaws, but the template was alien to him, he gets everything wrong. (There is a famous anecdote about Allen with regard to the latter film. He was reportedly nonplussed by its box office success. “But I don’t understand…it has no stars.”) Well, The Swarm has plenty of stars but that doesn’t stop it from being terrible, whereas Jaws is a masterpiece. Oh yeah, it’s supposed to be good.

“Don’t make me say these lines! Don’t make me say them!”

Practically no element of The Swarm rings true on any level or is even the slightest bit coherent. Killer bees as a premise I can believe (it was perceived as a real threat at the time, the public was very much afraid of it), but not what transpires in this movie. This is film in which, due to a state of emergency, a BEE EXPERT (Michael Caine) is placed in charge of the U.S. military! Richard Widmark is a distrustful general who is relentlessly unpleasant, and Bradford Dillman (who was ubiquitous in the 1970s) is his lickspittle. The bees have killed everyone at a missile base in the desert. Katherine Ross is Caine’s love interest and the town doctor. Once she and Caine have become aware of the problem and they brief the town leaders (Mayor Fred MacMurray and school principle Olivia de Haviland) everyone proceeds to do…nothing. No precautions are taken. They proceed with their annual flower festival (!) and the schoolchildren are allowed to play outside, where they proceed to get murdered by bees. Other silly aspects…when people are stung they hallucinate giant bees! Crippled doctor Henry Fonda tries a dangerous venom antidote on himself, with no one around to save him if it goes wrong. It does. It escalates to epically silly proportions. The bees are taking over everything. In the end, the authorities evacuate the city of Houston, Texas and burn it down. Come, come now — surely we don’t require killer bees to inspire us to do that!

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6:00am (EST) Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979)

It’s pretty crazy, given the hallowed place The Poseidon Adventure holds in my heart that I never saw the sequel until a few weeks ago, but there it is. As I recall, it disappeared from theatres almost immediately after it was released, and it has always had a reputation for being bad, so I never made a huge effort to see it. Why be in a rush to see your idols smashed? Surprisingly, though, I found much to enjoy about the film, even as there is more than enough to ridicule. The world of the film is cool, though Allen violates everything that’s great about the first movie and reveals himself for the schlockmeister he truly is.

What’s interesting to me that Beyond (which gets everything very wrong) was actually in the works prior to Towering Inferno, which gets everything mostly right. Development on Beyond the Poseidon Adventure started in 1973. Allen got Poseidon author Paul Gallico to write another novel and they based the sequel off of that.

In the beginning we are just four character actors away from being

In the beginning we are just four character actors away from being “Gilligan’s Island” . Stick around — that quota will be met three times over!

Essentially, as in The Swarm, there is zero plausibility in this film. Allen is terrible with actors..they seem totally neglected. They frequently blow the the moments they are obviously intended to have in the script, or they have other moments, or the wrong moments. In this one, for some reason, cockney sailor Michael Caine is carrying cargo on his tugboat through the Mediterranean. With him are his single mate Karl Malden and his friend, comic relief Sally Field (then still in Smokey and the Bandit mode, not yet the respected figure she would become after Norma Rae). The sailors lose their cargo in the storm, then spot a helicopter, presumably carrying the six survivors from the previous movie. Then they spot the wreck of the upturned Poseidon. (Unlike the recent Costa Concordia disaster…where we saw a wreck surrounded by scores of helicopters and rescue boats, this major sea catastrophe, on ten times the scale, gets zero attention. The ship lies upside down alone and unmourned in the middle of the ocean. This rings false to the modern eye in a way Allen never could anticipated. Thus does the Information Age make for very tough movie audiences).

Caine decides he wants salvage rights to booty from the ship, and prepares to enter it. Then Telly Savalas and a bunch of henchmen show up. They claim to be “medics”, a privately funded rescue crew, but they look entirely too much like James Bond villains for that – a bad sign. They enter the ship…and then keep coming upon an increasingly preposterous number of uninjured celebrity survivors. Seeing previously unseen parts of the upturned ship (a gym, the pursor’s office,  a storage hold, etc) is the cool part of the film.

Sure! This guy is a

Sure! This guy is a “medic”. Just look at him! Anyone can see he is a well of compassion!

But in the original movie, the sea is always nipping at their heels. There is urgency, clearly the ship is filling up with water behind them. In this one, there are apparently permanent air pockets everywhere, even several decks below the water line. We scarcely ever see any water. We lose a bit of tension because of this – apparently we could hang out here on this ship playing cards forever. As in many bad films (notably Allen’s) the story then compensates for the lack of tension in the INITIAL premise, by adding a second, inorganic and completely UNNECESSARY premise. For another example see Allen’s The Night the Bridge Fell Down.  This is such a common foible, especially nowadays. Essentially, the film-maker doesn’t trust that the predicament of this disaster is sufficient – though it most assuredly is — so he throws guns and bad guys into it. Savalas and his henchmen are after some plutonium. Once they’ve gotten it they start shooting machine guns at our heroes. It’s like they’ve invaded this picture from another movie. Worst of all, (as a lapse in plausibility), one of the passengers they coincidentally happen to stumble across (the gorgeous Veronica Hammel) is Savalas’s ACCOMPLICE in his vague heist. What are the odds of THAT on a ship of this size?

“Will you sign my yearbook?”

The other characters are Peter Boyle as an army veteran who loves his daughter a little too much, Angela Cartwright (from Allen’s tv show Lost in Space) as the daughter, Mark Harmon as an elevator operator who rescued her and is her love interest), and Shirley Jones (wasted here as a shy nurse—this character seems based on one of the ones from Gallico’s original Poseidon Adventure novel. Jones kind of overplays it. But why I say she is wasted….can you imagine putting Shirley Jones in a movie and not having her sing a song? Furthermore, Allen’s best movies both HAVE songs. What the what?). But there’s more: Slim Pickens (who’s also in The Swarm) as a drunken wine steward masquerading as a Texas oil millionaire (he has to do some dramatic acting towards the end, and it is one of the most painful things I have ever seen — and not for the intended reason). Jack Warden is a blind guy in creepy Ronny Milsap sunglasses.

They eventually make it out of the ship with minimal loss of life. The wife of the blind guy, who has an injured shoulder, is washed away by waves. And Malden (who has some unspecified ailment) dies….and there is no emotional moment about it whatever, despite him being one of the main characters. That’s what I mean about Allen not getting the important things. Yet he does stop the film several times for dumb conversations including a romantic scene between Caine and Fields…in which the two don’t even kiss. It’s quite terrible.

“Come on, give us a kiss, luv! Don’t cost nuffink! Give old Alfie a wittle peck. You birds is all alike, you is, you is! “

And a major problem for me — the star of the picture Caine is a guy whose entire mission is to pick jewels and other valuables off the dead. Not only is RESCUE not first on his agenda, it doesn’t appear to be on his agenda at all. Along the way of course he redeems himself a little by performing the odd selfless rescue. But it’s too little too late. I know it was the 70s, but even so, I can’t deal with a skeevy hero. But I guess that’s unavoidable with Michael Caine in the lead role!

The Myriad Faults of “San Andreas”

Posted in BUNKUM, disaster movies, Movies, Movies (Contemporary) with tags , , , , , , , on June 9, 2015 by travsd

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Unlike probably nearly every other critic, I did not attend San Andreas predisposed to hate it, or scoff at it, or rag on it. The disaster movie is one of my favorite film genres, although producers and directors seldom seem up to the task of putting together the right magic ingredients. Aside from several examples in the 1930s and a couple in the 1970s, producers almost never get it right. But somehow I’ve managed not to become jaded and I keep hoping.

I am a sucker for the spectacle of course. (Does it surprise you that I am a fan of apocalyptic destruction? “Destroy them all”, that’s my motto). I’ve watched even the bad examples of the genre dozens of times on the strength of special effects alone. And, as I anticipated, San Andreas will be another I’ll have to file in that category.

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Let me be clear: my praise for this element is not faint. The film has grossed $287 million at the box office to date for a reason and that reason is the ride. First Hoover Dam breaks and then both Los Angeles and San Francisco are destroyed, not once but several times. And then, after every single building has fallen down, a 300 ft tsumani puts the coup de grace to San Francisco. Director Brad Peyton (and his special effects people) are to be commended — highly commended — for the technical achievement. These astounding events look real. I can provide you with a very long list of films in which such spectacles look phony (or at least like a video game).

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But there are even more positive things to say about Peyton’s direction (in fact I have nothing negative to say about Peyton’s direction at all.) He got really good performances out of the cast. This is not to be shrugged at. In fact, the acting in most disaster movies is generally blown off, mostly, I assume, because the scripts are so terrible, or because the director doesn’t think the acting is the most important element, or important at all. In Roland Emmerich’s films, for example, we are clearly never meant to take any of it seriously. But I assure you, actors, when the script is terrible that is when we need you the most.

Peyton seems to get this, and I know it’s he who’s responsible because I saw several really good performances by actors who were investing their cardboard parts with serious emotions, enough to involve me despite the many flaws we’ll soon get to. I am in particular awe of Paul Giamatti. I am ANYWAY, but nothing I have ever seen him do — Sideways, American Splendor, John Adams — impressed me as much as how much he gives to his role in this film as a Cal Tech seismology professor. Truly, he could have just shown up and mouthed his words, as so many do, but he goes all out, he affects you, he gives appropriate reactions to unprecedented events — he imagines what those might be and he goes there. Most actors in similar roles underplay it to an absurd degree. And, at the other end of the talent scale, I found myself really impressed with The Rock a.k.a Dwayne Johnson, and I’m not being arch or ironic. I had no idea he could do what he does in this movie, but right before your eyes, he does it. He’s giving a real performance, a moving, convincing performance. Are we grading on a scale? Maybe, but that doesn’t matter. It is a positive take-away from this movie. He’s a former professional wrestler, okay? And he does a really good job of acting in this movie.

So, it’s very well directed, very well acted…but?

There’s a little thing called a story and a little thing called a script. Back in the day when novelists and playwrights used to undertake such tasks (granted, under supervision of producers), the movies made by Hollywood weren’t so utterly idiotic. It’s really to the credit of Peyton and the cast that they carried me along despite the idiocies of the script. Actually, they’re not just idiocies. They were idiocies when they were first committed many decades ago. Now they are repeated idiocies, copies of idiocies, and to be so functionally bankrupt as to commit them you either have to be completely cynical (I believe that) or completely illiterate and retarded (I also believe that). Now when I say “novelists” and “playwrights” I’m not suggesting we do Chekhov here, okay? Hollywood people always jump immediately to this conclusion. The thing still is what it is. I am not suggesting that people run around spouting Shakespeare. But I am suggesting that they at least be people. Or that the producers don’t advertise it as a “movie”. Just call it what it is, a “3-D thrill ride”. That’s totally okay. That’s essentially what this is. Not only would I not dislike that, I would fully embrace it with enthusiasm — if it were 5 to 15 minutes long and in an amusement park.

DeMille makes a few waves of his own

DeMille makes a few waves of his own

But this a feature. This is a point I keep trying to make in the field of comedy. Feature length films were invented for a specific reason — you don’t actually have to make them. Many’s the time it would be preferable for a film to be vastly shorter (e.g., most comedies of the sillier sort). Why stretch out something that ought to be 20 minutes or a half hour to four times that length? Initially features were devised by guys like Cecil B. DeMille and D.W. Griffith to prove that movies could be a medium for grown-ups…naturally, so they could sell tickets to grown-ups, in addition to the children and uneducated adults who had previously made up most of the movie going audience at nickelodeons. Length and prestige were related. It was thought that greater length would be appreciated if it were justified — by having some of the weight and authority of a play or novel. Now, obviously, pretty quickly B movies and the like came along not long after that, though I hasten to observe that most of those don’t run much over an hour, and were marketed as what they were, essentially children’s entertainment. But I’m not entirely sure we even make grown-ups even more, so maybe there’s no point in articulating what I’m attempting to say.

If the destruction is enough for you, read no further. You’re a psychopath, we have nothing in common, go away. I won’t deny that I am attracted by the spectacle of the destruction, but I also want to feel something. Something quite normal. I want to be involved in some people’s stories. If something good happens to them, I’ll feel happy. If something bad happens to them, I’ll feel sad. If you’re the kind of person who loves the stabbings in slasher movies instead of hoping the hero can thwart them and avoid them, take your sickness far, far away from me.  I agree with certain time-honored theorists of the drama that anything that conditions us to empathy is good; anything that conditions us to callousness is bad. So we need human characters who bear some relation (SOME relation) to the ones we encounter outside the theatre.

It's scary because it's true

It’s scary because it’s true

Important to assert right here and now that this is not to dismiss fantasy, in fact quite the opposite. All the best stories are a potent mix of both realism and fantasy. Realism without fantasy, outside of the hands of a rare few geniuses, is boring. But so, to a lesser degree, is fantasy without realism. Why is The Exorcist one of the scariest horror films?  The special effects are mighty cool but they are especially effective because great care was taken first to establish the world that was to be disrupted. The Mad Marchioness and I watched the 2004 prequel recently Exorcist: The Beginning. Rubbish from beginning to end. Because there was not a single moment to sink your teeth into.

The realism of the disaster in San Andreas is terrific, and I will undoubtedly watch the film many times on this score. I know Peyton is drawing from reality for the visuals, because you can see it on screen. He’s incorporating stuff we have learned from awful real disasters – I saw images in the film that were clearly inspired by 9-11, the 2004 tsunami, Katrina and every earthquake since the invention of the motion picture camera.

2004 Asian Tsunami

2004 Asian Tsunami

As I wrote in my piece about the Poseidon remake, most Hollywood films in recent decades (let alone most disaster films) reflect what I’m beginning to call the Fascist Imperative. The heroes are not ordinary and “called”, like Luke Skywalker, or Roy Scheider in Jaws or Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. They are impervious, invulnerable aristocrats, demi-gods and superheroes. Instead of rooting for people like us to make it out alive, we are asked to root for the powerful to remain powerful, while we perversely look on in gratitude. If you’re sucker enough to do that, more power to you.

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Make no mistake about it: in the world of San Andreas, we would be among the millions of dead. But I sure am glad this LAFD helicopter rescue pilot (Johnson) used his special skills (and public equipment) to rescue his own family! Indeed this may be the most unself-consciously selfish “heroism” movie to date. First Johnson uses his copter to rescue his wife (Carla Gugino) and ONLY his wife from the roof of a crumbling skyscraper. Then later, he uses a boat to rescue his daughter (Alexandria Daddario) and her two friends (Hugo JohnstoneBurt and Art Parkinson) from a flooded building. The moral at the end of the film is quite literally, “Too bad everyone else is dead, but I sure am glad our own family is alive and together!”

Blatant moral bankruptcy permeates the film. In one scene, Johnson and Gugino join some looters in taking what they need from a mall. I guess it’s supposed to be okay because they’re the heroes? In another scene, Daddario takes some supplies out of a fire truck, since she has some insider knowledge about what’s stored there. Uh…mightn’t the FIREFIGHTERS need that stuff while they’re doing their jobs? Do you people not get that it’s not okay just to TAKE stuff because you think you need it? Everyone else needs it, too. What do you plan to do? Fight them for it, like an animal? That happens to be the logical real-world outcome.

To its credit, the film makes one populist gesture in the direction of egalitarianism in the person of a predictably villainous real estate developer (Ioan Gruffudd), who like Richard Chamberlain in Towering Inferno or like Martin Ferrero (“the bloodsucking lawyer”) in Jurassic Park “gets his”. He is punished for looking after his own skin…right before the hero of the film saves his own family and no one else (except a couple of people who happen to be standing next to his family).

But whether the heroes are selfish are not, why are they WHO they are? I wrote about this in my Poseidon piece, but I reiterate: Why are the heroes in these fucking movies professional rescuers, television personalities and the world’s foremost seismology experts? This is the true expression of fascism. For me, the existence of this disaster itself is more than enough fantasy. This thing happens. Why can’t it happen to some PEOPLE, some ordinary, bewildered humans who must try against all odds to figure out how to survive? An accountant, a deli owner, a student, a boy and his dog? Instead of following what happens to the BEST EQUIPPED people to survive on planet earth? Ya know what? I’M NOT WORRIED ABOUT THOSE PEOPLE. In fact, those are the EXACT FOUR PEOPLE I am NOT worried about. Why are we following the exploits of the people we are NOT worried about?

And in this case, one of them isn’t even a man: he’s a SUPERHERO.

Gives a pretty good performance for someone who's not a Man

Gives a pretty good performance for someone who’s not a Man

You know how I know we don’t need to worry about our very short list of main characters? Because NONE OF THEM DIE during this crazy disaster, where every building in California collapses. Okay, one of them dies. An international seismology expert (Will Yun Lee) dies as a consequence of his spectacular, almost superhuman rescue of a small child. And by implication, several million other people die. But we don’t see them, we don’t meet them. This too seems like an expression of narcissicism. It’s collateral damage. It’s peripheral to our objective. I’ll bet you anything the studio marketing department gets audience response cards that tells them the audience doesn’t like it when the main characters die. The lesson? It’s okay when strangers die; as long as nothing bad must ever happen to US.  Oh, wait! One of the characters dies. The Rock’s daughter drowns, but then the Rock brings her back to life. What a shock that was! Whew!

Which brings us from the crimes against morality to the crimes against the brains God gave us. I knew what we were in for from the film’s very first frames when we got a title that read:

San Fernando Valley (18 miles north of Los Angeles)

This is one of those movies that assumes we don’t have a brain in our heads and that we know nothing. Or perhaps it merely hopes that we don’t. Otherwise we’d notice things. It’s the kind of a movie where a team of seismologists discover a new process for predicting earthquakes…at the very INSTANT an unprecedentedly large earthquake is about to strike. And then it strikes while the seismologists are standing on the very vulnerable Hoover Dam. And then TV reporter Archie Panjabi (Bend It Like Beckham) is with The Rock in his helicopter when he performs a spectacular rescue and is THEN with Paul Giamatti throughout the entire earthquake experience.

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Bend It Like Beckham, Indeed

And THEN The Rock just happens to be flying over in a helicopter when his wife is standing at the top of a building. And then he and his wife travel to the destroyed San Francisco to save the daughter (“Let’s go bring back our daughter” they say about five times) and not only do they actually FIND HER, they actually find her at the exact moment her life needs to be saved, and then they actually SAVE her, because well, The Rock just happens to be a professional life saver. If you buy this bullshit you must have a brain the size of a pea.

Let's go bring back our daughter...in our HELECOPTER. Ya know, like ya do

Let’s go bring back our daughter…in our HELECOPTER. Ya know, like ya do

And worse, they build in all this family redemption horseshit. I don’t know which film school teaches them all that you have to have this, but it has now led several generations of producers and screenwriters up a garden path that leads all the way up their assholes. So not only all that stuff above, but The Rock and his wife are about to be divorced because he is totally wrapped up in his work and too emotionally distant because of THE PREVIOUS DAUGHTER HE WAS UNABLE TO SAVE WHEN SHE DROWNED. But good thing everything west of Nevada was destroyed in an earthquake TO BRING THIS ONE FAMILY TOGETHER. That’s really what happens in this movie!

And then some self-congratulatory propaganda when American soldiers and rescue workers do terrific mop up afterwards. Heckuva job, Brownie!

Haha, and in the last scene, the family stands on this high hill surveying a completely devastated San Francisco, sort of mildly bummed, and one of them goes, “Look at that.” And THEN! I swear I mouthed the next dialogue even as it happened! :

“What now?”

“We rebuild”.

So…I can’t say enough bad things about the script. But I’ll undoubtedly watch the film again and again to see California fall into the ocean…especially the part of California containing the screenwriters of this movie.

Don’t worry too much about earthquakes, people. What you need to worry about is earthquake movies.

Forgive me, if I seem to have rocked the boat

Forgive me, if I seem to have rocked the boat

Tonight on TCM: Tales of Leaky Boats

Posted in CRITICISM/ REVIEWS, disaster movies, Hollywood (History), Movies, PLUGS with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 21, 2015 by travsd

Tonight on TCM: a program of films from one of my favorite cinematic subgenres: the sinking ship flick.

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8:oopm (EST) The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

The first movie I ever saw in a cinema and my second favorite movie of all time. I’ve already written my thoughts about it here. I’ve probably seen it 20 times, most recently about a month ago, so I’ll likely skip the honor tonight. However, I most certainly will watch —

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10:15pm (EST) Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979)

Believe it or not, I’ve NEVER seen this one (apart from a few minutes on television)! It tanked (pun intended) upon release and seldom gets shown. A brilliant producer, Irwin  Allen was a terrible director, and this was during his period of hubris when he was doing both. (Have you seen The Swarm? It’s almost totally incoherent). At any rate the plot of this one has the crew of a tugboat jumping aboard the doomed ship to claim salvage rights, and a bunch of Greek medics (secretly looters) jumping aboard to “save lives”.  Along the way they meet surviving crew and passengers of The Poseidon we never met in the first film: The cast includes Michael Caine, Telly Savalas, Sally Field, Karl Malden, Shirley Jones, Peter Boyle, Mark Harmon and Slim Pickens as a Texas millionaire!  Wild seahorses couldn’t drag me away.

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12:15am (EST) Juggernaut (1974)

This one doesn’t fit in the program at all — it’s not so much a ship disaster movie as a bomb disposal and defusing suspense thriller, and like most ticking time bomb movies, it’s a whopping bore. Richard Harris is the bomb expert, Anthony Hopkins a detective whose family just happens to be on board the ship, Omar Sharif the ship’s captain, and Ian Holm is the guy who runs the shipping company. All they do is sweat a lot and look real nervous for two hours. And I suppose this amounts to a spoiler, right? Because if the bombs sink the ship the movie wouldn’t be…a whopping bore, right?

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2:15am (EST) A Night to Remember (1958)

This British film is the least best known of all the Titanic films nowadays, yet happens to be one of the best in quality, for it is quite true to Walter Lord’s incredible book of the same name. Naturally everyone knows James Cameron’s 1997 love story. Before that, the one Americans knew best (I think) was the 1953 film of the same name with Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb. At least that was one I knew best until then.

I never got to see A Night to Remember until about two years ago, when they screened it at Loew’s Jersey City on a double bill with The Poseidon Adventure. And it is indeed incredible. It’s told pretty much from the point of view of Second Officer Lightoller (Kenneth More), the most senior officer to survive the disaster. One bit I recall loving in the film, is a recurring shot of an old man sitting in a chair reading a book all through the ship’s last moments. His identity and the identity of the book are enigmatic. It’s just how he is choosing to spend his last minutes. Not with craziness, but with calm. You can be sure I’ll watch this one again. As I will this one:

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4:30am (EST) The Last Voyage (1960)

This is an amazing movie! I had never heard of it til I saw it on TCM in 2010. It seems seminal to me, solving a lot of the technical and special effects problems that would later come into play in The Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno and Earthquake. Furthermore it was shot on a real ocean liner so it actually looks more realistic than the The Poseidon Adventure.  (Yes, I know parts of TPA were shot on the Queen Mary, but the rest was done on Hollywood sound stages. ALL of this one was shot on a real ship)

The predicament: a fire breaks out on an ocean liner. The stubborn and foolish captain (George Sanders) scoffs at certain safety measures (like stopping so the crew can see to some things). Meanwhile some safety valves have fused shut, causing a boiler explosion that rips through several floors and puts a fatal hole in the hull. A woman (Dorothy Malone) is trapped under wreckage. Much of the film concerns the efforts of her husband Robert Stack to free her, aided by stoker Woody Strode, and later an engineer played by Edmund O’Brien (who spends most of the film trying to save the ship itself.) Malone and Stack’s daughter is a creepy-devil child…very strange casting.

Student film-makers! This movie teaches an interesting cinematic lesson. Sometimes realism is NOT the best solution. A case in point: Whereas, yes, in real life an explosion only takes a second, in a film, it has to be stretched out into several shots and take a little bit of time, otherwise it lacks drama. In this film the explosion only takes a second and thus seems underwhelming though the plot informs us that it’s really catastrophic. But otherwise there are so many amazing scenes in the film done right on the ship. It bears repeated viewing.

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