Talking Movies

December 9, 2018

At least we still have…: Part VI

The sixth in an occasional series in which I try to cheer myself up by reminding myself what still exists in the world and can never be capriciously taken away.

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June 15, 2018

By the time the screams for help were heard, they were no longer funny

After belatedly catching up with Jurassic World 2, which features the nastiest moment in all 5 movies, I felt compelled to finally flesh out some thoughts I’d been pushing around.

It’s rapidly approaching 15 years since the release of Kill Bill: Volume 1. I’ve been listening to Tomoyasu Hotei’s barnstorming instrumental ‘Battle without Honour or Humanity’, which successfully took on a life of its own unconnected to the movie; soundtracking everything on television sports for a while. I’m happy it did because I felt queasy in the Savoy all those years ago watching the ‘Showdown at the House of Blue Leaves’, and revisiting that sequence hasn’t made me like it any more now. 2003 in retrospect seems to have been huge anticipation repeatedly followed by huge disappointment – The Matrix Reloaded, Kill Bill: Volume 1, The Matrix Revolutions. Reloaded and Volume 1 both had epic fight scenes straining a muscle striving to be iconic. Reloaded’s Neo v Smiths didn’t work because of the overuse of farcically obvious CGI, and Volume 1’s Crazy 88 massacre didn’t work because of its incredibly excessive gore which wasn’t funny because of the screams of agony.

Like Reloaded there is a long build-up to the actual fight, with dialogue that wants to be quoted forevermore. Indeed the showy camerawork when the 88 arrive by motorcycle to surround the Bride is great. Unfortunately, like Reloaded, then the fight ensues. Shifting into black and white to placate the MPAA, and hide an embarrassing shortage of fake blood colouring, the choreography of the actual blade strokes is generally pretty obscured. What Tarantino wants you to focus on is the great fountains of blood every time the Bride lops off a limb. Tarantino clearly thinks these blood sprays are hilarious. Also he clearly thinks that people screaming in agony because they’ve just lost a limb and will be crippled for the rest of their life is hilarious. I don’t. And the moment where Sophie; who, mind, didn’t do anything to the Bride, she’s just friends with someone who did; has her arm cut off repelled me in the cinema and continues to repel me. It’s the sadism. She’s made to stand with her arm out for a long time, just waiting for the Bride to cut it off. And Tarantino lingers for a long time on her agony, because he finds it hilarious. Could it be funny like he thinks?

Edwyn Collins and Tarantino when given stick both brandished the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail to justify the intrinsic comedy of amputation. But if you cite that for Kill Bill Volume 1 you are deliberately overlooking the most salient point. The amputation is comic only because of the Black Knight’s complete indifference to it. There is no gushing fountain of blood, there is no rolling around on the ground grimacing and screaming in agony for a long time. The Black Knight barely seems aware he’s lost a limb, or four. It’s the nonchalance, the insouciance that makes it funny. The comedy is the total disjunct between reality and perception. This is not Anakin at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Volume 1 is meant to be funny because of the total disjunct between the reality of how much blood comes out when a limb is amputated and Tarantino’s perception of that. Hence the Studio 60 gag about how a great fountain of blood from the Thanksgiving turkey sells the Tarantino reference and is funny, but a realistic trickle of blood does not make the reference and is instead incredibly disturbing. I hold that the comedy Tarantino thought he was making was lost because of the lack of disjunct between the reality of the characters losing a limb and their perception of that traumatic life-altering reality.

And then you have JJ Abrams, who must have thought this was a good idea until some sensible person talked him out of it before this horrific little scene had made it all the way thru post-production. No doubt Abrams thought it was fan service for Chewbecca to rip Unkar Plutt’s arm out of its socket and throw it across a room because he dissed him. Not realising apparently that there’s a large difference between the comedy value of a scare story used on a droid, “Let the Wookie win!”, and the grisly horror of it being done for real against a not terrifically villainous alien who feels pain, screams in pain, and won’t be able to get that arm put back on like a droid would. Dear God Abrams… But even that qualifier, not terrifically villainous, troubles; and not just because of this sketch

 

Tarantino doubled down on his punishment of Sophie for someone else’s crime. In a horrific addendum to the Japanese version, that mercifully didn’t make it to the Irish version and which I consequently only came across a few weeks ago for the first time, the Bride cuts off Sophie’s other arm.

Jurassic World took a lot of flak, and deservedly so, for Katie McGrath’s horrific death sequence. Prolonged, agonising, and random; because her character hadn’t done anything to deserve this punishment. And yet in Jurassic World 2 we have another prolonged and agonising death, but this time the writers have gone out of their way to justify it by giving the victim Trump sentiments.

December 22, 2017

O Holy Night

Filed under: Uncategorized — Fergal Casey @ 10:30 pm
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This is the way the year ends, not with a bang but a whimper.

Talking Movies will return in 2018.

December 23, 2016

O Holy Night

Filed under: Uncategorized — Fergal Casey @ 5:00 pm
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This is the way the year ends, not with a bang but a whimper…

Talking Movies will return in 2017.

December 21, 2015

O Holy Night

I’m putting the blog on ice for a bit while I cook a duck for Christmas dinner, finally get round to re-reading Brideshead Revisited after I finish reading Florian Illies’ 1913: The Year Before The Storm, and whoop up BBC2’s late night Hitchcock season.

Talking Movies proper will return in early January with a Top 10 Films of 2015, and previews of 2016′s best and worst films.

And for the season that it is revisit Sorkin Christmas: Part Two.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

September 17, 2014

Wish I Was Here

Zach Braff finally follows up Garden State, but his second film as director suggests he needed Kickstarter money for reasons other than control of casting…

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Braff plays Aidan Bloom, an actor who hasn’t worked for quite some time. His wife Sarah (Kate Hudson) supports his dream financially with her boring job, and his disappointed father Gabe (Mandy Patinkin) pays the tuition to send Aidan’s children Tucker (Pierce Gagnon) and Grace (Joey King) to a private school. The catch is it’s a Hebrew private school, leading to a religious divide between the three generations with Aidan and Sarah out in the non-kosher cold. When Gabe’s cancer returns Aidan is forced to attempt to simultaneously home-school his children to save money, reconcile his equally underachieving brother Noah (Josh Gad) with Gabe while there’s time, defend his wife against her sleazy co-worker Jerry (Michael Weston), defeat rival actor Paul (Jim Parsons) for a lucrative role, and deal with the infuriating Rabbis Twersky (Allan Rich) and Rosenberg (Alexander Chaplin)…

It’s been nine and a half years since Garden State was released here, but all those skills are still there. The indie musical cues, the deadpan comedy, the unexpected drama – all stand present and correct, but the novelty and charm are gone. Braff’s script with his brother Adam is terribly muddled. Wish I Was Here, despite an unlikely Othello gag, isn’t very funny, and some sequences (Braff pretending to be an old Hispanic…) are just uncomfortable, because, shockingly, Braff’s not very likeable. There’s a crudity to these Brothers Bloom, and even Noah’s crush Janine (an unrecognisable Ashley Greene), that is quite off-putting; and which makes the sub-plot with Jerry problematic, despite a delightfully unexpected touch, because it needs more context for us to understand why only his ribaldry is unacceptable. In fact everything feels like it needs more context, but the film already feels far longer than its 106 minutes; it is that unenviable paradox – both too short and too long. And it also rehashes scenes we’ve seen done better in Studio 60 (the unexpected positive result of a disinterested mitzvah) and Modern Family (the underprepared casual adult teacher being supplanted at the blackboard by his smarter driven student relative).

Wish I Was Here attempts to deal with heavy themes, but Gabe’s terminal illness is terribly manipulative, to the point that you’d reject Aidan and Noah reconciling with him as a mere plot contrivance, because it doesn’t feel earned. Braff is no Michael Chabon when it comes to scrutinising American Jewish identity. The glibly sarcastic agnosticism of Braff and Hudson’s characters is largely the reason they’re acted off the screen by Patinkin and King. Braff seems unaware that proudly reminiscing to the sincere and kindly Rabbi Rosenberg about how he had a double bacon cheeseburger right after his Bar Miztvah is more likely to make us sympathise with Gabe’s disappointment than cheer on Aidan. Aidan and Sarah admit they have no identity, no advice, no metaphysical certainty; all Tucker has learnt is Aidan’s flip attitude. Gabe has bequeathed Grace the Jewish faith, language, and cultural identity. Aidan belatedly ripostes by reciting ‘Mending Wall’ by Robert Frost and ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ by TS Eliot… Joyce wanted applause for his Jewish hero in Ulysses, but his Bloom ate a pork kidney because Joyce, like Braff, lacked the imaginative empathy to create a hero who took his faith seriously.

Garden State was an unexpected gem, but Wish I Was Here suggests that Braff has actually emotionally regressed as a writer since even as his ambition has soared ahead.

2/5

October 30, 2013

Suggesting Several Screen Siblings

I’ve noticed a few actors who I think would make damn good pairings as siblings, so here’re some suggestions for their team-ups and the movies.

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Tom Hiddleston & Rooney Mara

Who can stand against the combined powers of Loki and Lisbeth Salander? Not many… The Avengers star Tom Hiddleston and Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s Rooney Mara are con artist siblings specialising in long-cons. They’re within months of pulling off the single greatest job of their career, shaking down a despotic Arabic dictator for a massive investment in a ‘revolutionary fuel research firm’, when Hiddleston falls head over heels in love with the despot’s new American liaison. Mara, however, truly despises Hiddleston’s charming new girlfriend and sets out to sabotage the romance in any way she can. Can Mara succeed in dynamiting her brother’s happiness while keeping him in the dark that she’s doing it? Can Hiddleston keep his focus long enough for the completion of the con? And is the liaison’s arrival as a massive distraction just a bit too perfectly timed to be coincidental? All will be revealed in this sophisticated Hitchcockian comedy-thriller.

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Kristen Wiig & Sarah Paulson

Studio 60 and American Horror Story star Sarah Paulson is a successful but cold marketing executive. Her fabulously wealthy grand-aunt always liked Paulson’s warm-hearted slacker sister better. The slacker sister is, of course, Bridesmaids’ Kristen Wiig. The great-aunt dies, leaving behind a video message for the reading of her bizarre will. Paulson and Wiig will both inherit 700 million dollars in twenty-four months, but … Paulson will only receive her share of the inheritance if she can successfully launch her sister into an independently sustainable career of Wiig’s choice (i.e. not marketing with Paulson’s firm) within twelve months. If Paulson can’t pull it off, her share goes to Wiig; making a whopping 1.4 billion dollars for Wiig and a round 0 for Paulson. Paulson can’t tell Wiig why she’s helping her, and will be trailed by a hunky male P.I. to ensure she doesn’t. It’s an all-female Brewster’s Millions meets My Fair Lady, hilarity ensues.

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Werner Herzog & Pete Townshend

Jack Reacher villain Werner Herzog buried his brother in East Germany in 1964. So it’s a shock when his daughter, trawling thru declassified archives, discovers that an empty coffin was buried. Herzog’s brother, Tommy performer Pete Townshend, was actually recruited by the Stasi, who faked his death, and, after extensive training, sent him to England as a sleeper agent. He’s been there ever since, stranded by the fall of the wall… The recently widowed Herzog travels to London with his daughter to meet Townshend’s retired but still consulting Foreign Office official. Townshend is afraid of being rumbled at the very end of his career; even as a spy without a spymaster. Gradually, however, the ice thaws as the widowed Townshend unlearns the English accented German he had perfected and prepares to tell his daughter his true identity. But has she already guessed the truth from witnessing the strange transference of identity between Townshend and Herzog?

November 27, 2012

An Arrow of a different colour

I root for shows to stay on the air, not least because so many shows I’ve loved (Cupid, Studio 60, Vengeance Unlimited) have been prematurely cancelled, but … I really hope Arrow gets scrapped soon.

There’s been a Smallville-sized gap in my world for a year now, and so Arrow you’d imagine would be right up my street. But it’s not, it’s really not; for many reasons, mostly to do with other programmes. Arrow is a show that seems to have been created by putting other hits in a blender, and then just running with whatever derivative gloop emerged. It would appear that the producers noticed that Revenge was popular last season and so figured they also could surf the zeitgeist and take down 99%ers every week, complete with Green Arrow drawing a line thru the name of the fat cat he’d successfully ruined; just like Emily’s crossing an X thru the face of the person in the group photo she’d destroyed at the end of early episodes of Revenge. Every time I see the Queen mansion in Arrow all I can think of is Lex Luthor’s mansion in Smallville. If it’s not actually the same exterior then it sure looks like it, and it’s just a bit distracting. Furthermore while Arrow fails to match the charm of early Smallville, it’s overdosing on the angst that soon blighted that show. 5 episodes in and Laurel Dinah Lance has already stated, for not particularly clear reasons, that she and Oliver Queen can never be together. Even though their character names make it blindingly obvious they will be, eventually. And so Clark and Lana nonsense begins anew…

But these aren’t even the most aggravating or troubling derivative elements of Arrow. The constant flashbacks, to Oliver Queen’s 5 years on a remote island where he became Green Arrow, complete with meaningful life lessons from a cryptically wise Chinese Arrow screamed LOST and that was before The Others showed up… It was bad enough having to endure a flashback vignette every week that related to the main story, but now there are well-organised and well-resourced military personnel on an island where shipwrecked survivors are hunting animals for food. These Others are led by a man with staring eyes, just like Ben Linus, who is the Big Bad of the show, not least because he has sadistic torturer Deathstroke at his disposal. And then for the final kicker it’s revealed that the Mandarin name for the island means … Purgatory. Just, no… we don’t need more LOST meanderings, six years of pointless nonsense was enough. And then there’s the Nolan riffing. In the first episode Oliver was seen at a grinder getting his weapons sharp, in a scene shot farcically like its model in Batman Begins where Bruce makes his first throwing Bats. But then a shadowed Oliver goes on to growl to Laurel about he can give her leverage for a case, just like Batman growled as he gave his lawyer love interest Rachel leverage on Judge Faden. That’d be okay if perhaps Arrow appreciated why Nolan’s Batman worked…

But Arrow doesn’t seem to have a clue as to how comic-book superheroes operate. When in the pilot Oliver Queen, out of costume, caught a criminal who’d kidnapped him and then broke his neck shouting “No one can know my secret!” it was an enormous shock, because it was such a stunning mis-step, and anti-Nolan to the nth degree despite all the borrowings from Nolan elsewhere. It was a return to the ethics or lack thereof of Tim Burton’s Batman who very deliberately murdered the Joker as well as carelessly offing God knows how many goons along the way. Green Arrow’s subsequent shooting of a corrupt tycoon with an arrow thru the hand was far nastier than Batman dropping Sal Maroni to break his ankles, because Nolan’s Batman was being forced to extremes by the Joker’s madness whereas that’s just how this Green Arrow rolls… And for all Green Arrow’s homicidal antics by the end of episode 4 he’s been arrested by the police for being Green Arrow. So his first murder was in vain… Only things get even better. You see, like The Joker, Loki and Silva – he planned on getting caught! He wanted them to lock him up in the MCU Skybase Churchill Bunker Queen mansion. Because, like The Dark Knight Rises, the important thing is not that Oliver Queen is Green Arrow but that there will always be a Green Arrow, no matter who’s under the hood…

Except, why should we care who is under the hood if he’s just a cold-blooded killer? Nolan’s Batman famously only has one rule – don’t kill people. Maim the hell out of them, by all means, but don’t kill them. Arrow seems to think it can lift huge chunks from Nolan’s Bat-verse and then also appropriate the industrial slaughter of Maggie Q’s Nikita, but Nikita comes from a dark place – that’s the character. She’s a drug addict who killed people before she got forced by the government to join a secret government agency and kill people before she went rogue and embarked on a new mission to kill bad people. Killing is an essential part of Nikita as a character, but not killing has always been an equally essential part of DC Comics’ superheroes as characters. David S Goyer noted that they very deliberately had Batman throw Joker off a building and then save him in The Dark Knight as a riposte to the end of Burton’s Batman because both he and Christopher Nolan felt that Batman killing Joker had been a terrible tonal mistake. And it was a mistake, just witness the brilliance of the scene that Batman then shares with the Joker dangling from a rope. There’s a mystical connection between those two characters that doesn’t allow for simple killing. Superman can’t simply knock off Lex Luthor, and it goes beyond the morality of the characters to a sense of epic grandeur. This isn’t just comic-book bilge incidentally, look at Albert Camus’ description in The Rebel of Spartacus seeking out his opposing number Crassus to die in single combat against him and him alone.

The amorality of the lead character who should be a straight arrow, as it were, is only one part of the problem though. Oliver Queen in Smallville was transparently a Batman substitute, but Justin Hartley’s performance as Oliver Queen/Green Arrow had a nonchalance entirely absent from Stephen Amell’s wooden earnestness in Arrow. Some of this may be due to the different functions of the character, Hartley was there for sparring with earnest Clark Kent whereas Amell as lead character to some degree is earnest Clark Kent. But Hartley’s Green Arrow had the same formative traumas in his past, and it didn’t swamp the character’s traditional sardonic nature, while Amell’s inert demeanour never allows him to convince as the party animal that makes Oliver Queen such close kin to Bruce Wayne. Nolan allowed us to see that public Bruce Wayne, private Bruce Wayne and Batman were three distinct personalities; and that private Bruce Wayne was a good man. But Arrow has failed to make private Oliver Queen much more likeable than public Oliver Queen. And this points to a bigger problem.

Thor and John Carter placed alongside Arrow seem to indicate that we are in the middle of a bona fide scriptwriting crisis. There’s a distinction between a rogue and a dick that appears to have been lost. Taylor Kitsch’s John Carter was deeply unlikeable as a hero, and the film was reduced to not only bafflingly introducing Bryan Cranston as a metaphorical cat to be saved, but then introducing an actual dog to be saved as well later, in a vain effort to get us to like Carter.  Thor meanwhile was entirely upended by the fact that Thor was a thoroughly unlikeable jerk who only became bearable in the last act of the film, which enabled the suave Tom Hiddleston as Loki to steal the entire movie as the cleverer brother forever cleaning up the messes of his petulant blowhard sibling. A classic rogue, like Han Solo, or even Ian Somerhalder’s Damon Salvatore in The Vampire Diaries, is cocky, likeable, and from the perspective of the other characters entirely unreliable, even though the audience always has a sneaking suspicion that the bad boy will come through in the end no matter how many times he weasels out on doing the right thing along the way to serve his own agenda. But Thor, John Carter, and Arrow are sunk by heroes who aren’t remotely likeable. Arrow has dropped the Green to emphasise its edginess but it’s dropped its character’s resonance too…

I’m sticking with Arrow for now to see Seth Gabel aka Jeremy Darling from Dirty Sexy Money as Vertigo, but once Gabel leaves the show I won’t be far behind.

April 10, 2012

The Cabin in the Woods

Five American teenagers travel to a remote cabin in the woods in the South for a debauched weekend; terrible things ensue, and by gad sir is it hysterically funny…

Alpha male Curt (Chris Hemsworth) invites his loose girlfriend Jules (Anna Hutchison) and her sober friend Dana (Kristen Connolly) to join his bookish friend Holden (Jesse Williams) and their mutual stoner friend Marty (Fran Kranz) at his cousin’s vacant cabin in the woods. Once there they unwittingly unleash forces of evil that pick them off by one. The set-up and execution is the stuff of parodic cliché. But then, it is parodic cliché, because the script is by Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard; with the great Goddard making his directorial debut. The sinister blood-stained opening credits are interrupted by coffee-making, and then the mundane office drones sequence that launched is interrupted by the inappropriately sound-tracked title card. This is by far the funniest film I’ve seen in quite some time…

Bradley Whitford and Richard Jenkins play the office drones in the control room of a giant military-industrial operation that Goddard uses to undercut all the horror clichés. They have tremendous comedic chemistry and make this move terrific fun as they organise office gambling pools, snarl at video monitors, indulge in an unbelievably funny speakerphone prank sequence, and humiliate Whedon regulars Amy Acker and Tom Lenk; a harassed chemist and intern respectively. It’s a privilege to see Studio 60’s Whitford again rampaging thru great comedic dialogue, his delivery of lines like “I think, mostly, that I just want this moment to end now” guaranteed to bring the house down. Great lines like “Yeah, I kind of dismembered that guy with a trowel” abound and Kranz, despite his irritating vocal delivery, grabs a lot of them. The true acting revelation though is just how likeable Hemsworth is when he’s not playing Thor.

This is not a scary movie. There’s gore aplenty at the end, but it’s so ridiculous that one setting in particular seems like it was a bet with Piranha 3-D auteur Alexandre Aja on who could use more fake blood. Having read Buffy season 8 I’m inclined to praise Goddard for everything that’s great, especially all the hilarious nonsense with Whitford, Jenkins & Co, and blame Whedon for everything that doesn’t work, namely the final act’s descent into VFX overload and lame mythology. The collision of military science and magic screams Whedon’s disastrous Initiative in Buffy season 4 and the increasingly silly mythic tone is pure Season 8. Goddard meanwhile has always specialised in joyous (and undercutting) comedy preceding incredibly bleak shocks. Here his comedy soars before unveiling the most fitting character death you could hope for.

Sure the ending is deeply unsatisfactory and the whole third act is increasingly preposterous, but this so damn funny that it must be judged an excellent film overall.

4/5

February 17, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance 3-D

The lunatics behind the Crank movies shake up the comic book genre visually but can’t quite match the previous high standard of fun nonsense they’ve set themselves.

Ghost Rider 2 assumes that you’ve never seen Ghost Rider 1 and so gives you an animated introduction to your hero Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage), stunt motorcyclist who made a deal with Roarke aka the Devil, and is now cursed to spend his nights as a fiery skeleton roaring around the world sucking the souls out of guilty people. Guilty of anything at all, even illegal downloading, and sssshlurp there goes your soul… Hiding out in Eastern Europe he’s contacted by bibulous priest Moreau (Idris Elba) who promises to lift the curse if Blaze finds Nadya (Violante Placido) and protects her son Danny (Fergus Riordan), who just happens to be the Anti-Christ; and who Roarke needs for a solstice ceremony to walk the earth in a purpose-conceived mortal vessel capable of containing his immortal powers.

Johnny Whitworth, a Talking Movies favourite, is Blaze’s adversary Carrigan, Nadya’s ex and an associate of Roarke who counters the Rider’s supernatural powers with ever more ludicrously high-powered weaponry until a slumming Ciaran Hinds as Roarke decides he’s being inefficient and grants him the power of decay. Finally a supervillain, a showdown beckons even as Blaze holds Moreau to his promise to rid him of his supernatural powers. The final act is a ramble thru old favourites like Hellboy and Superman II but while a loveably drawling Whitworth has some fun you’ll be riveted by Cage’s self-parodic performance. All I could think of was Studio 60’s “Welcome TO the Nicolas Cage SHOW!” during an interrogation scene which should become comedy legend as Cage bulges his eyes, twitches his head, laughs maniacally, and sings his lines to suppress the emerging Rider.

Directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor make set-pieces such as an assault on a cameoing Anthony Head’s monastery vividly immediate, and their insistence on hand-held in-close camera-work elevates this genre nonsense above its scripting. Their flair for nonsense is also proudly displayed in absurdist moments like Moreau hanging upside down in a tree to the strains of the Marsellaise, and Blaze explaining how relieving himself when possessed by the Rider gives him a flamethrower to add to his usual weaponry of chains. But despite encouraging Nicolas Cage to let it all hang out there this is no Crank, and it falls a bit short of the gleeful knowingness of Drive Angry; despite its pounding ‘Led Zeppelin jamming’ soundtrack. An unusually reflective moment when Elba gives Blaze Holy Communion and the origin of the Rider are the only original elements of the script.

This is good silly fun, but unless you have a taste for nonsense or Nicolas Cage going mad, and those two categories are practically one category, it’s not essential viewing.

3/5

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