Tim Robbins

Short Cuts (1993, Robert Altman)

Short Cuts is about a weekend in Los Angeles. It’s a Robert Altman ensemble piece with twenty-two principle characters (though at least six of them are questionable–it really has three stories and then some tangents). It’s “based on the ‘writings’ of Raymond Carver” (emphasis mine), but I’m pretty sure it’s just an adaptation of his seminal work, If You Don’t Take Your Husband As is, He’ll Just Have to Rape and Murder a Young Woman and It Will Be Your Fault. Oh, wait, Altman actually strips the humanity out of Carver and leaves these dry husks and mixes them all up to make nine separate works fit into one three hour movie.

The first and third hours of Short Cuts have this Altman zooming in and cutting to a related image thing going. The first hour it’s mostly for fun–Altman likes to cynically mock the mundanity of his characters. Sisters Madeleine Stowe and Julianne Moore are both eating the same peanut butter in between cuts, for example. It’s cute, though when they have a scene together later and apparently aren’t even close enough to have talked about their sex lives since Stowe got married. Altman and co-screenwriter Frank Barhydt do this thing where about half the dialogue is pure exposition. Frankly, as an adaptation of Carver–and I know I jumped topics but I want to be done talking about the writing and the adapting and just deal with the result. So I’ll get it out of my system. Short Cuts feels like Robert Altman discovered Raymond Carver in The New Yorker; you don’t get to be performatively trite with Raymond Carver.

Now then. The three stories.

Lily Tomlin hits little kid, little kid goes to the hospital. Little kid’s parents are Andie MacDowell and Bruce Davison. Little kid is asleep for most of the Short Cuts weekend. Like, unconscious, hospitalized. Cue drama for MacDowell and Davison. Jack Lemmon shows up as Davison’s dad. Tom Waits is Tomlin’s husband. Oh, and Tomlin gets away with it. Throw in Lyle Lovett pointlessly shit-calling MacDowell over the little kid’s missed birthday cake order.

MacDowell has absolutely nothing to do until the end of the movie when she gets her big moment and it’s bad. She’s not good, but you feel kind of bad for her because Altman gives her absolutely nothing to do. She’s supposed to smile and occasionally be sad and confused. She might have Short Cuts’s worst part. Terrified, grieving mother is apparently less interesting than Davison and Lemmon’s hospital reunion.

Davison is kind of weak until Lemmon shows up and when Lemmon’s trying to gaslight Davison about the past–performative gas lighting, in the way only Lemmon can do when he’s playing skeevy. Altman knows how to use some of these actors, just not enough of them. Anyway. Davison has no dialogue but he listens to the whole thing and you can just see the thoughts. It’s amazing. And makes up for the story monologue itself being poorly written. Lemmon’s performance has its ups and downs, but the downs are when Altman pushes too hard. Lemmon and MacDowell is going to fall apart because of their weak parts, but Lemmon on his own for thirty seconds, talking to background players? It’s awesome. MacDowell doesn’t actually get as much to do in the film as Lemmon and he’s only in it for the second hour. He appears out of nowhere and literally walks off into the sunset when he leaves.

As for Tomlin and Waits… she’s a waitress, he’s a drunken limo driver. They’re married. After she hits the kid apparently they have a fight worse than most of their fights and he leaves. They’re sort of a subplot of Story One. Then it turns out Tomlin’s daughter–who Waits only assaulted once, we’re reassured–is Lili Taylor, who’s in the sub-story. Because the thing about Short Cuts and its size is it’s too big. It’s padded. It’d be a lot better if it were an hour shorter.

Story Two. Tim Robbins is a cop with a wife, Stowe, and three kids. He’s having an affair and is generally a shit. Robbins is having the affair with Frances McDormand, who’s got a son with ex-husband Peter Gallagher; Gallagher is kind of stalking McDormand because she’s sexually active post-divorce. He’s not concerned about the kid, which is sort of refreshingly cynical, just kind of terrorizing McDormand for having sex. Stowe doesn’t get anything to do in her part of the story except know about Robbins’s affair and tell sister Moore about it.

Robbins is bad. He’s this nice guy pretending to be mean. I mean, he’s just supposed to be sort of harmless. Short Cuts is so trite. It’s so trite. It pretends to be mean but it’s so shallow. In the last third, those Altman zoom ins and cuts aren’t for cynical humor, they’re to cut away from moments of emotional tragedy. Altman’s narrative distance in this thing is a joke. He exploits the characters, he exploits the actors, he exploits the audience.

Stowe’s great. McDormand’s great. Gallagher’s good but maybe a scene away from greatness. He and McDormand have very little to do in the film except orbit Robbins and provide filler. Short Cuts’s L.A. is real small.

Story Three is Moore and husband Matthew Modine. Modine’s also background in Story One, but he doesn’t get a lot to do until the end of the second hour so he needs to be somewhere else. Moore’s a successful painter. Emotive nudes. Modine’s a doctor. He’s a jerk and frigid. She’s discontent but enthusiastic. They meet another couple–Anne Archer and Fred Ward–and want to get together. Or something. The first hour is so dripping in Altman’s condescending cynicism towards the characters he sometimes makes too much of a narrative slip and covers it with goop. Some casual racism, for example. Altman uses casual racism throughout Short Cuts to change up a moment. He tries it with class stuff, but usually he just likes the casual racism.

It’s so painfully cheap.

Anyway. Moore’s good, not great. She does get a better monologue than most and Altman wants to go for some nudity symbolism with her–lots of not sexy-time nudity in Short Cuts, but nothing compared to Moore’s monologue scene. He’s guilting the audience in wanting the scene to succeed for Moore’s sake. The scene doesn’t succeed. Maybe because Moore’s playing off a wooden Matthew Modine. Because Modine’s doctor is the biggest jerk in the known universe. But, you know, Moore still should be a better wife to him. Because he suspects she’s cheated on him. Sort of. Not really though. He’s a dick from the opening titles, which run twelve minutes, and Altman and his editors use to sort of ashcan the film. It’s an introduction; a manipulative one.

Meanwhile, Archer and Ward have some kind of bliss. She’s a professional clown, he’s out of work though they still live comfortably. Except their cars. His unemployment isn’t an issue until hour three and the car thing only comes up directly then. Before it’s just a detail in the scene where Robbins pulls her over and tries to pick her up and apparently steals her driver’s license.

Because, again, Shorts Cuts is way too big. Okay. Almost done. The sub-stories. Lori Singer and Annie Ross. They live next door to Story One but Ross doesn’t even know there’s a little kid there. Singer is a cellist who spends the rest of her time playing basketball with a multicultural group of young men. They play basketball at her house, this gaggle of men, yet serve no purpose other than to provide background and imply depth. Implied depth should be Short Cuts’s subtitle. Singer’s dad killed himself, Ross is her mom. Ross is a drunk jazz singer who performs at the bar where a handful of the characters show up. Exploitative sadness, melodrama, and nudity take place.

Ross is kind of great for hours one and two then weak in hour three. It’s the part as written but still. Short Cuts’s characters are so obnoxious, you have a limit. Lemmon gets off easy, for instance. Though Stowe gets through most of it. Only because she gets almost nothing to do in hour three.

The second sub-story, and the biggest one, is the one with Taylor. She’s married to Robert Downey Jr. and their best friends are Jennifer Jason Leigh and Chris Penn. Leigh and Penn are married. Everyone’s got to be married in Short Cuts because otherwise Altman’s points wouldn’t be so stunning. They’re housesitting–Taylor and Downey–and they’re potheads and there’s an implication Downey’s either cheating on Taylor or he’s trying to do so at every opportunity. Leigh is a phone sex worker. Penn is a pool cleaner (to MacDowell, in fact). Even though she’s probably making a lot more money than him, her work is bothering him and he’s reaching his breaking point. This emasculation cannot stand.

Taylor’s weak. It’s a lame part, but she’s weak. Downey’s weak. Lame part, but he’s still weak. Leigh’s capable in a lame part but she’s not exactly good. Altman and Barhydt require logic to last as long as the scene and not in-between them. Altman acts like bad exposition cancels out weak acting just because it “says” something. Penn’s good in the first couple scenes but once he becomes a crazed sex fiend, he’s pretty lame. Again, Altman’s not there for him. He’s not there for any of these actors. He’s at least there for Singer and Ross. Not these ones though.

Sub-story three is Fred Ward, Buck Henry, and Huey Lewis go fishing. Ward’s going to bring the fish to dinner at the Modine and Moore party he and Archer have planned. Look at how it all comes together. Like a glove. They go to the fishing spot, they find a dead body, they spend a day fishing around the body. Gives Altman a lot of opportunity to fetishize the submerged nude female corpse; he’s making a point about nudity, after all. It’s all so provocative.

Henry’s creepier than hell, which doesn’t seem to be the intention, but he’s playing it like a serial killer. Lewis just seems amused to actually have gotten cast in a Robert Altman movie. This story ties back into Story Three when Archer finds out about it, but it’s inconsequential except as filler. Oh, and so Altman can make the queen mother of false equivalences with a scene between Taylor and Henry regarding the objectification of dead bodies. It’s all so provocative.

Altman’s contention the viewer needs to decide the relevance is once thing, but when he ceases to provide the content needed to decide that relevance–or even bother to consider it–the ball is back in Altman’s court. If you want to do the Raymond Carver Extended Universe, you need to be doing something amazing. And Short Cuts isn’t doing anything amazing. I mean, I guess it’s making a Mark Isham score seem positively hip in comparison, but it’s not doing anything else amazing. Walt Lloyd’s Panavision photography is fine. It’s kind of dull, but not offensively. Geraldine Peroni’s editing is a little on the nose. Altman relies heavily on it to try to get through narrative rough patches, but Peroni can’t save it.

Because Short Cuts can’t need saving. Altman and Barhydt’s script gets shockingly cheap in the third hour. Shockingly. And Lemmon’s monologue is pretty cheap too–I mean, Lemmon’s delivery and Davison’s reaction save it, but it’s not uncheap. It’s just beautifully acted cheap. The third hour is just cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap, cheap. It’s the cheaper chicken.

You can’t save that level of cheapness. Nothing can. And even as the third hour drags, Altman still finds new ways to get even cheaper.

He’s pretty good at being cheap, but not for three hours.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Altman and Frank Barhydt, based on short stories by Raymond Carver; director of photography, Walt Lloyd; edited by Geraldine Peroni; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Stephen Altman; produced by Cary Brokaw; released by Fine Line Features.

Starring Andie MacDowell (Ann Finnigan), Bruce Davison (Howard Finnigan), Jack Lemmon (Paul Finnigan), Madeleine Stowe (Sherri Shepard), Tim Robbins (Gene Shepard), Julianne Moore (Marian Wyman), Matthew Modine (Dr. Ralph Wyman), Anne Archer (Claire Kane), Fred Ward (Stuart Kane), Jennifer Jason Leigh (Lois Kaiser), Chris Penn (Jerry Kaiser), Robert Downey Jr. (Bill Bush), Lili Taylor (Honey Bush), Lily Tomlin (Doreen Piggot), Tom Waits (Earl Piggot), Frances McDormand (Betty Weathers), Peter Gallagher (Stormy Weathers), Annie Ross (Tess Trainer), Lori Singer (Zoe Trainer), Buck Henry (Gordon Johnson), Huey Lewis (Vern Miller), and Lyle Lovett (Andy Bitkower).


The Player (1992, Robert Altman)

Whatever his faults (and faulty films), Robert Altman never bought into what anyone said about him–not his critics, not his audience. The Player is an overtly hostile outing. Altman never had much nice to say about the film, as I recall, but he doesn’t try to say nice things with the film itself. He makes this unbelievably concise, unbelievably expository, unbelievably cynical film–the agreement for the viewer is unconditional capitulation to the film’s “dream.” Movies, now more than ever. The Player is a film for the film literate. It doesn’t come with a syllabus, but the references target a particular audience. Altman fans, actually. Altman makes The Player as indictment against those who like his work, yet went to go see The Player.

Hostility is one thing, indifference is another, but The Player is practically open warfare against the viewer. It’s amazing.

Of course, it is based on a novel. Presumably that novel had a similar plot; The Player tracks Tim Robbins’s somewhat successful, but not successful enough Hollywood executive through a murder investigation. The investigation’s into him. At the same time, the sharks are circling at the studio and darn if he just doesn’t want to romance the dead guy’s lady friend.

Altman sets everything up real fast. Not just the ground situation, but the film’s visual language. After an ambitious, self-aware lengthy opening shot, photographer Jean Lépine and Altman keep the moving camera. Only now there are lots of graceful cuts into the movement–Maysie Hoy and Geraldine Peroni’s editing of the film is a sublime achievement. Writer Michael Tolkin (adapting his novel) owes everything to them because Robbins’s romance with Greta Scacchi would never have worked without Hoy and Peroni. Altman doesn’t want the characters to be real because he doesn’t think they deserve it. Then he goes out of his way to make the viewer dislike the characters. But he directs the actors to play it less Hollywood and more real. And Hoy and Peroni cut it do make as emotionally effective as possible. Tolkin’s script’s plotting, especially of the relationship between Robbins and Scacchi, is phenomenal. Maybe his best move in the film, because with a different score, I’ll bet The Player could have been noir. But Altman didn’t want to do a noir, because he hates the characters.

It’s a real complex situation and expertly directed. Altman finds a way to mimic interview style for the many celebrity cameos. Even though The Player is a movie about real Hollywood, it’s clear who is a part of it and who isn’t. Altman’s so dismissive of it all, whether it’s the real Hollywood or the imagined. It’s kind of sad, really, as one of the film’s ideas is that older films were more sincere through their filmmaking. And Altman (and The Player) crap all over that idea. Twice. Like I said, it’s hostile.

Altman’s animosity aside, everything else about The Player is great. Sure, Tolkin’s script only works because of the filmmaking–which is another great meta commentary on the plot–but it does work and it works well. He’s got some great moments for actors and Altman has a phenomenal cast. Dina Merrill has a small but great part because Altman understands how an actor’s performance can resonant through a runtime. The Player is masterful work. Resentful, maybe, but more masterful for it.

Great supporting turns from Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Cynthia Stevenson, Brion James, Lyle Lovett. Scacchi’s good as the love interest but it’s not a great part.

Excellent music from Thomas Newman. Breezy music. The Player is all about smooth movement, whether shots or narrative pace.

And then there’s Robbins. He makes the movie. Robbins makes the movie so much he gets to walk away from it for a while and it’s still his movie (maybe because it takes him so long to get introduced properly in the first place). But Altman gets it, he knows how to make this movie be great and he wants the viewer to know they’re awful for making him do it. We aren’t in on the joke, we are the joke.

Love it.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Altman; screenplay by Michael Tolkin, based on his novel; director of photography, Jean Lépine; edited by Maysie Hoy and Geraldine Peroni; music by Thomas Newman; production designer, Stephen Altman; produced by David Brown, Nick Wechsler and Tolkin; released by Fine Line Features.

Starring Tim Robbins (Griffin Mill), Greta Scacchi (June Gudmundsdottir), Cynthia Stevenson (Bonnie Sherow), Vincent D’Onofrio (David Kahane), Fred Ward (Walter Stuckel), Brion James (Joel Levison), Angela Hall (Jan), Peter Gallagher (Larry Levy), Whoopi Goldberg (Detective Avery), Lyle Lovett (Detective DeLongpre), Sydney Pollack (Dick Mellon) and Dina Merrill (Celia).


Mission to Mars (2000, Brian De Palma)

If it had been made earlier–even with the same flawed script–Mission to Mars would probably have been more successful. Many of its failings relate to the CG special effects. Stephen H. Burum is incompetent at lighting them, but they also bring an artificiality to the film’s tensest sequences. So, while Ennio Morricone might have a fantastic piece of music for a suspense sequence and De Palma might be directing it fine, it doesn’t work out right because of the CG and Burum’s ineptness.

Mars has a lot more problems–Connie Nielsen being one of the bigger ones, the plot, De Palma’s inability to create a transcendent scene (it’s more literal than a grade school documentary about helium balloons), some other terrible supporting performances–but there are a lot of strengths. At the center of the picture are Gary Sinise, Tim Robbins and Don Cheadle as three NASA buddies. All of them are fantastic. Even with Sinise inexplicably wearing eyeliner. His hairpiece, while awful looking, is more understandable.

And the film does have a certain amount of earnestness and general wonderment. It takes De Palma about a half hour before he lets the film have that wonderment, which is a poor choice since he’s already taken it to Mars once without any grandeur. It’s a gee whiz adventure picture from someone who doesn’t know how to feel gee whiz.

Jerry O’Connell is good; otherwise, the supporting cast is lousy.

Mars fails, but does so very unfortunately and very interestingly.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Brian De Palma; screenplay by Jim Thomas, John Thomas and Graham Yost, based on a story by Lowell Cannon, Jim Thomas and John Thomas; director of photography, Stephen H. Burum; edited by Paul Hirsch; music by Ennio Morricone; production designer, Ed Verreaux; produced by Tom Jacobson; released by Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Gary Sinise (Jim McConnell), Tim Robbins (Woody Blake), Don Cheadle (Luke Graham), Connie Nielsen (Terri Fisher), Jerry O’Connell (Phil Ohlmyer), Peter Outerbridge (Sergei Kirov), Kavan Smith (Nicholas Willis), Jill Teed (Reneé Coté), Elise Neal (Debra Graham), Kim Delaney (Maggie McConnell) and Armin Mueller-Stahl (Ramier Beck).


Green Lantern (2011, Martin Campbell), the extended cut

The saddest thing about Green Lantern has to be the editing. Stuart Baird, amazing action editor of the last twenty or so years, cut together this malarky. It’s not Baird’s fault, exactly, how ugly Lantern plays—cinematographer Dion Beebe’s responsible for the shots not matching in lighting and Campbell composed them. But Baird’s always had a grace about his cutting. None of it is present here.

Or maybe James Newton Howard’s godawful score distracts from it.

The problem is Campbell and not because he can’t somehow make the shoddy CG work (though the fighter jets look okay… not real, but better than the space stuff). He isn’t directing his actors. If Campbell’s not taking the time to try to turn the crappy script into something good, why should anyone bother to see what he does with it….

I’m not talking about Ryan Reynolds. He’s terrible, sure, but there are a lot worse performances here. Blake Lively is atrocious, so is Mark Strong. Well, he’s more laughable than atrocious. Gattlin Griffith, as a young Reynolds, is hilariously bad.

More shocking than Reynolds is Campbell getting a phoned-in performance from Tim Robbins. I’ve never seen Robbins waste his time like he does here. Even Jay O. Sanders is bad, in what should be an easy role.

There’s no way Green Lantern would have been good with this script, but it could have been better. I hate blaming Campbell, who’s done excellent work; he should’ve taken an Alan Smithee on this garbage.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Martin Campbell; screenplay by Greg Berlanti, Michael Green, Marc Guggenheim and Michael Goldenberg, based on a story by Berlanti, Green and Guggenheim and a character created by John Broome and Gil Kane; director of photography, Dion Beebe; edited by Stuart Baird; music by James Newton Howard; production designer, Grant Major; produced by Berlanti and Donald De Line; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ryan Reynolds (Hal Jordan), Blake Lively (Carol Ferris), Peter Sarsgaard (Hector Hammond), Mark Strong (Sinestro), Angela Bassett (Doctor Waller), Tim Robbins (Robert Hammond), Temuera Morrison (Abin Sur), Jay O. Sanders (Carl Ferris), Taika Waititi (Tom Kalmaku), Geoffrey Rush (Tomar-Re), Michael Clarke Duncan (Kilowog), Jon Tenney (Martin Jordan) and Clancy Brown (Parallax).


Twister (1989, Michael Almereyda)

Twister tries very hard to be avant-garde, but ends up just being a quirky family comedy. Worse, director Almereyda changes up the narrative style about fifty minutes into the film. Although Twister is based on a novel, Almereyda’s style is more appropriate for stage. The first half or more takes place on one set–Harry Dean Stanton and family’s house–with very long scenes. One can imagine, for long while, Twister on stage.

And Almereyda gives his actors a lot of leeway. Sadly, Crispin Glover uses that leeway to do his persona thing; his scenes are often exasperating. More detrimentally, Suzy Amis doesn’t create a character–some of the fault belongs to Almereyda, whether the script or the direction–but it’s mostly Amis’s fault. Watching Amis and Glover opposite the rest of the cast is often painful. The disconnect is visible.

Almereyda opens up the film in the last third and makes it into that quirky family comedy. He drains the life out of the film, which was at least an interesting project before.

Still, Stanton is fantastic, as are Charlayne Woodard, Dylan McDermott and, especially, Lois Chiles.

The narrative’s big problem is having two entries into the family. McDermott returns, one entry, then Chiles moves in, another. It’s like Almereyda wasn’t paying enough attention to notice.

As Amis and McDermott’s daughter, Lindsay Christman is quite good. Jenny Wright is okay, until she starts doing a Glover impression.

Great Tim Robbins cameo too.

Twister‘s aggravating, but still somewhat interesting.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Almereyda; screenplay by Almereyda, based on a novel by Mary Robison; director of photography, Renato Berta; edited by Roberto Silvi; music by Hans Zimmer; production designer, David Wasco; produced by Wieland Schulz-Keil; released by Vestron Pictures.

Starring Dylan McDermott (Chris), Suzy Amis (Maureen), Crispin Glover (Howdy), Lindsay Christman (Violet), Charlayne Woodard (Lola), Harry Dean Stanton (Eugene), Lois Chiles (Virginia), Jenny Wright (Stephanie) and Tim Robbins (Jeff).


Howard the Duck (1986, Willard Huyck)

It’d be interesting to know how much of the relationship between Howard and Lea Thompson got toned down, like if Huyck and Katz originally had them more visibly romantically involved. It wouldn’t be interesting to see cut scenes or even to read old drafts of the script, it’d just be interesting to know. Seeing cut scenes or reading the script would require one to endure more of this intolerable production.

Howard the Duck has absolutely nothing to recommend it. Casting Richard Kiley as the Voice of the Cosmos aside, it’s worthless. All I could think, as the terribly acted Duck got to Earth and met Thompson was–these people wrote American Graffiti. The duck planet scenes at the beginning, which should have been amusing and inventive is more instead tired. There’s no exuberance to the scenes, they’re mundane. As a director, Huyck is never willing to acknowledge Howard the Duck‘s idiocy. It’s about a talking duck who gets it on with a human girl. It ought to be dumb, fun and outlandish–and aware of it. Instead, it’s all about not selling out the music for the man. It’s embarrassing to watch it, much less to imagine having participated in its making in any capacity.

I’m not real familiar with the comic books, but the movie Howard is a unfunny whiner who’s mad he had to get a job. I can only figure the comic book Howard is probably a funny whiner. The occasional promises of a smoking and drinking duck are never realized (he gets whisked to Earth before he lights his cigar and his beer later magically disappears into PG-land). Sadly, Howard the Duck probably isn’t even the worst of the atrocious teen-minded sci-fi movies on the mid-1980s, just the most famous.

The acting is unspeakable. Lea Thompson has never been really good so her inability to act opposite a guy in a costume who talks (the cast of “Alf” did far better) is no surprise. But Tim Robbins? Robbins is awful. Jeffrey Jones is awful. Some of the blame has to fall on the script and direction, but good acting might have made it a little less unbearable.

As for the costumed Howard the Duck… the costume’s not detailed enough to be convincing in regular shots. It looks like a television commercial. And Chip Zien’s vocal performance as Howard might be the worst thing in the movie, which is a hard thing to be.

The only other thing worth commenting on is John Barry’s score. When I saw his name in the opening titles, I figured at least the music would be good. It isn’t. It’s John Barry trying to be zany. It’s a metaphor for the whole movie–a bunch of squares pretending to be zany and not even managing to make an unconventional failure.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Willard Huyck; screenplay by Huyck and Gloria Katz, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Steve Gerber and Val Mayerik; director of photography, Richard H. Kline; edited by Michael Chandler and Sidney Wolinsky; music by John Barry; production designer, Peter Jamison; produced by Katz; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Lea Thompson (Beverly Switzler), Jeffrey Jones (Dr. Walter Jenning), Tim Robbins (Phil Blumburtt), Paul Guilfoyle (Lieutenant Welker) and Ed Gale & Chip Zien (Howard T. Duck).


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