Borderlands (Zev Berman, 2007): 6.5/10

The Magic Flute (Ingmar Bergman, 1975): 7/10

La Guerre Est Finie (Alain Resnais, 1966): 7/10

Speed Racer (The Wachowski Brothers, 2008): 8/10

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Monday, January 29, 2007

This weekend in movies

I saw three movies in the theater this weekend (it's my goal to see 100 in theaters this year, which is an expensive, but really desireable, goal), here's a brief recap of one and a deathmatch of the other two.

Smokin Aces (Joe Carnahan, 2006)

Much like Let's Go to Prison, I felt like I was on another planet from all the reviewers I read of this film. It's not boring, nor the bland Tarentino rip-off you might expect (Tarentino never made a film this octane-driven, nor really this entertaining). Characters come in and out of the movie, but never feel extraneous, and the performances are all-around top notch. The best come from Jason Bateman (a brilliantly hilarious, although much too small performance as an alcoholic lawyer), Ryan Reynolds (who really isn't smarmy at all as a young FBI agent), and Jeremy Piven as Buddy "Aces" Israel himself.

Piven (who I never much cared for before this movie and last week's Saturday Night Live, now I'm drooling at the prospect of watching all three seasons of Entourage) gives a tremendously funny and pitiful performance as Israel, who I think is one of the most interesting characters of the past ten years. Buddy is in constant fear of his life, yet is a reprehensible douchebag who you somehow care about. Plus, he's probably done a kilo of coke in the past day, and has that insane paranoia/dementia that only comes with a lot of cocaine. The movie could have been all about Piven's Buddy and I would have been very happy, but everyone in the film is great (including Common and Alicia Keys' acting debuts). Forget the reviews, if you're looking for a fun, tense, incredibly entertaining film with a hiigh body count, this is for you.


Almodovar knows how to write women and Godard doesn't. I really think it's as simple as that. Volver has the most realistic, amazing female characters ever written by a man, ever. Almodovar makes these women infinitely complex, bruised, and yet so strong; not only are they amazingly realistic women, they're a great family who hate each other, but love each other even more in the end. The women in 2 or 3 are just mouthpieces for Godard's pretentious world view; they are prostitutes or salesgirls who alternately hate themselves and love their lives, which is completely realistic, but Godard's dialogue just drips intellectual elitism (it's not a problem to make films about wanting to be more than a common person, but NOT when you so obviously disdain the common person). I didn't, couldn't, believe anything these women said - the dialogue and scenario was all inorganic. That was probably Godard's point, but I just don't give a fuck. Why he decided to stop making movies about people (A Woman is a Woman is truly amazing!) and instead about abstract ideas (hello, Hail Mary and Notre Musique) is an understandable choice, but he went about it in the wrong way, and totally sucks. Final note: in a battle royale, Truffaut would roundly kill Godard, who I am starting to think, while enjoying some of his films, is one of the most overrated filmmakers of all time. Anyway, Almovodar and Penelope Cruz are an unbeatable match, her Raimunda ridiculously sexy and almost unbearably real.

Afterthought: I don't hate Godard as much as this livejournal rambling makes it seem, but I did also see2 or 3 in an upper-class neighborhood theater with 50-something liberals, which more or less castrated the revolutionary nature of Godard's experiment. My thoughts on Almodovar's brilliance still stand, though.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Just a little note from me

Do you ever get burned out on movies? I do. I've been trying to watch of things over the past week or so, but nothing has been inspiring. Even after I thoroughly disliked Peter Greenaway's 8 1/2 Women, I couldn't quite find the words to write about it here.

I just wanted to let those of you readers know why I haven't been writing much lately - since the beginning of the year, in fact. It's not because I don't like doing it, writing about film is something I absolutely love to do, but because I think I've honestly been watching too many movies. So, I've cancelled my account with the video store in town, and am ready to just watch those things I get from Netflix and the public library. I've got Pasolini's Porcile coming, and I am going to be seeing Volver and Smokin Aces in theaters this weekend. Hopefully, these will help me get a little bit of my groove back.

Fear not, I know I'll rediscover how much I love writing about movies, but consider this a quasi-hiatus. Probably not really a hiatus at all, but one worth explaining. Thanks for reading, and don't give up the ship.



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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)

One of my most anticipated films of the past few months, Pan's Labyrinth finally opened here this weekend, so my brother and I caught a Friday night showing. I haven't been in a theater so busy in quite a while (since Borat, I think), and that's always an experience that I really like. Jenna (whose opinion I always trust) called this movie her third favorite of 2006, so I had high hopes, plus the trailers and leaked stills online were absolutely gorgeous and terrifying at the same time. Unfortunately, the same trailers and stills made me believe that the film was set more in this fantastical world, rather than what it actually was, mostly in the dark time of Franco's Spain. The quasi-false advertising may have dashed some of my hopes, but I still felt the movie was a pretty good one.

Ofelia (a not spectacular - I am terrible for saying that about a child, I know - performance from Ivana Baquero) travels with her mother (Ariadna Gil, who is radiant and tragic) to the country home of her new father, Franco's Captain Vidal, a sadistic man with a strong cruel streak. To escape the tragedy of her life, Ofelia invents (or really discovers, up to the viewer entirely) a fantasy world through a labyrinth where she is the reincarnated Princess Moanna, and where Pan gives her dangerous and scary tasks to complete in order to take her rightful place back in the immortal world. The special effects in Ofelia's world are truly spectacular, although lacking in the film; the best part of the movie, the Pale Man, is only onscreen for less than five minutes, and I really think he was underused by del Toro.

del Toro decides to put most of his focus on the reality of the civil war still brewing around them, and the double layers of betrayal between the Captain and some people close to him. The personal story of the rebels and their accomplices is a good, inspiring one, and it undercuts Vidal's extreme cruelty very well, but is lacking when compared to Ofelia's magical one. That is probably del Toro's point exactly, but it lead to a bit of disappointment on both me and my brother's parts. A great movie to be sure, but not quite the amazing one it could have been. Still, I recommend this to almost anyone.


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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Notes on a Scandal (Richard Eyre, 2006)

One of the films that's making a big buzz this awards season, Notes on a Scandal is a dark, thoroughly pessimistic view of human nature, and the reasons behind love and friendship in general. Cate Blanchett plays Sheba, the magnetic new art teacher at a British school, and Judi Dench is Barbara, the spinsterish old maid of the school, who says of herself, "No one likes me, but they respect me." Sheba, who has trouble as a new teacher keeping control of her classes, is helped one day in the discipline area by Barbara, and they're friends from then on.

Barbara soon becomes obsessed with Sheba, and when a major indiscretion on Sheba's part becomes revealed only to Barbara, she decides to take advantage of her knowledge in order to make sure Sheba and she are friends forever. Dench plays the creepy, creepy Barbara to perfection, eliciting sympathy and interest at the beginning of the film, and rising wariness and then disgust as the movies go on. I think Barbara's character makes us despise her more than she deserves; there are revelations in the film that make the audience, at the same time, more sympathetic and more repulsive at the same time. That's a hard role to fill, but Dench does it with great skill and grace. Blanchett as Sheba, the "bourgeois bohemian," as Barbara so perfectly describes her, is, at times, equally selfish and frustrating, but the nature of the story makes our sympathies lie with her rather than Barbara. This is frustrating, as neither woman is totally angel nor devil, but is the nature of film.

Bill Nighy also gives a truly tremendous performance as Sheba's much-older husband; the two of them together, with their two children, one of whom is disabled, are a picture of marital content, and then of what exactly can go wrong with a marriage that seems so right. The story falls apart in the last third of the movie, but the across the board strong performances make this a movie worth seeing, and worth awarding. I haven't seen many films more pessimistic and almost nihilistic, unrelentingly (until the end, sort of ) dark in a while, which makes it painful and very uncomfortable to watch at times, but worth your time.


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Saturday, January 13, 2007

Salo (or the 120 Days of Sodom) (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975)

Note: this entry is taken almost entirely (although edited for more clarity) from my movie journal ramblings the day after watching Salo. It took me a little while to be able to get my thoughts on paper, but once I started, it was hard to stop.

I finally saw Salo after years of seeking it, having heard that it's the most disturbing film of all time. This is a movie whose reputation always precedes it, but it's also a film that I can say without (much) pretension that most people who have seen it aren't smart (or educated, more likely) enough to really appreciate it. There are so many posts on IMDB (my guilty pleasure of the film world) about how it's not shocking or disturbing or whatever someone may have expected. This isn't a film for 16 year old gore freaks, as it may have been portrayed to be. A lot of people, it seems, come into this film expected Guinea Pig, and they're sorely disappointed. Instead, it's about human cruelty, life during wartime, things like that. If someone doesn't at least understand the basics of Dante's Inferno and Italisn fasciscm, they won't completely (as completely as one can, anyway) get what Pasolini was trying to say, pure and simple. Sure, many of the actions shown are shocking in and of themselves, but just to take them as that (and more, to be disappointed in the non-shocking nature of those acts in a void) is immature and ignorant. This is possibly the most misunderstood movie of all time.

The one element that sticks out to me above all others to write about (although what a tough choice that was!) is Pasolini's decision to base the film solely on the persepctive of the victimizers, in direct contrast to that of the victims. The president, his libertine companions, the whore-storyteller - these are the only people that we as the audience get to know. They are in plain view, yet enigmatic; completely taboo- and secret-less, yet not completely understandable (based on their very committment to depravity and full disclosure). We only see the victims through the eyes of those in power, and I actually began to feel disgust for the victims from time to time. The only things the victims say are basically pleas - to their captors, to their god, to whomever will listen. Then, near the end of the film, they turn on one another in order to avoid punishment. We, like their captors, want to find out their secrets, and at the same time are disgusted they would stoop so low as to sell one another out to avoid their inevitable fate. But it shouldn't be surprising - the whole film, the victims are almost infuriatingly meek, unwilling at all to stand up (except one unfortunate girl, who takes her fate in time anyway), defend themselves, challenge their fates - nothing.

We get angry with these children (because they are little more than that) and their weaknesses until we realize that we have fallen right into Pasolini's trap! How easy it is to hate the victim! How simple it must have been for fascism to succeed in Italy! And so on. So in his great brilliance, Pasolini puts the audience simultaneously in both groups' shoes: we are disgusted by the victims for being so weak (and reflecting in ourselves the same qualities), we see human nature (however disgusting and brutal) apparent in the captors; yet we are the same as the victims - we, without argument, swallow the scenes set before us, as disgusting as we find them. And we do swallow our fate in watching the film blindly, but it doesn't change anything, just the same as the victims' meekness changes nothing in their fate as well! That's what the victims realized, and so there we are, right back at the beginning of Pasolini's vicious cycle.

An impossible movie to truly enjoy watching (or to give a number rating), Salo is yet a brilliant one, the most misunderstood, misinterpreted in film history. It is also arguably one of the most important films ever made, one that caused the murder of its genius creator. The Criterion disc states that Pasolini's goal was to impart this lesson: "Moral redemption may be nothing but a myth." That's heavy stuff, something few people willingly want to think about, but one Pasolini wanted to force us to. He is very successful, but the notoriety associated with the film does nothing but harm its intellectualism. Maybe when Criterion rereleases this film sometime this year, and it becomes readily available and not rare, will these issues be thought of popularly as a part of the movie, not just the shit-eating. Salo is a trial, one worth undertaking, but only if one is willing to accept the intellectual/spiritual challenges, not only the fortitudinal one.

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

Scarlet Diva (Asia Argento, 2000)

I have a ridiculous girl-crush on Asia Argento, so it's always hard for me to be honest about what I feel about her films, but here goes. Scarlet Diva is Argento's directorial debut, a transparently autobiographical film about Anna Battista, a popular Italian actress who actually wants to direct, gets pregnant, and experiments a lot with sex and drugs. Asia Argento, a popular Italian actress who wanted to direct, got pregnant, and experimented a lot with sex and drugs, wrote and directed the film on digital video, giving it a voyeuristic and home-movie feel. While the dialogue and scenarios are at times incredibly stilted and awkward, Argento really gives all of herself to this movie, something that is to be admired and rewarded, I think.

Most of the power of this film lies in Argento herself, who is a pleasure to watch (visually), and also is almost magnetic with the intensity with which she devotes herself onscreen. It's almost as if we are watching a documentary on Argento's lost years, and it's a fascinating one. The reason I can most recommend this film on is because Argento is a female experimental artist, and I respect and seek that out. She's more mainstream, obviously, than experimental artists in the art field, but in film, it's to be admired. Scarlet Diva is a radical (feminist!) document on female sexuality, vulnerability, culpability, love, and, most of all, artistic power. Battista (as Argento herself) is treated as a sex object by every man she knows, when all she wants to be is an artist. It's almost painful to watch Anna almost get raped several times, when all she wants is to discuss the film she wants to direct. Are being a sexual female and an artist incompatible? That's one of the questions Argento wrestles with in the film, and in her life. (The more I write about the plot, the more painfully obvious that there's nothing fictional about it!) But for Argento fans like myself, or someone interested in a particularly sexually charged, radical feminist interpretation of postmodern life, I definitely recommend it. It's not (visually) bad for a first-time director, not at all.


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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957)

This is another film that I feel sort of silly writing about; everything I want to say, I'm sure, has been said countless times and by better people than me. But in my estimation, Nights of Cabiria is Fellini's masterpiece, surpassing 8 1/2 by a pretty big margin. The story of tiny Cabiria, a Roman prostitute who will have you know that she owns her own house. She's been abused by every authority figure, from her mother, who started prostituting her at 15, to Georgio, who opens the film by pushing Cabiria in a river, nearly killing her, and running away with her purse. This man had spent a whole month with Cabiria just to do that, but she still believes in him for a while. She tries to explain the incident away, as maybe he had gotten scared when she fell in the river and ran away, but once he doesn't return for a few days, she finally gets the awful truth. This doesn't stop her from being any less optimistic about love, however, from her night with famous actor Alberto Lazzarri, to Oscar, the man she thinks she finally finds true love with.

Fellini sets Cabiria up for disappointment every single time, but we never end up hating him, nor does Cabiria's bad luck ever seem manufactured. She is just a woman who has been dealt a raw deal by life every single day, yet finds a way to persevere in spite of her desperate surroundings. In fact, Cabiria is the only one in her life who does not realize what kind of life she's living - from her friend Wanda (a beautiful perfomance by Franca Marzi) to the friend that tries to offer his pimping services to her, everyone seems to have an idea on how Cabiria could make her life better. She knows that only love will do that.

I was a bit reluctant to see this movie at first, even though it has such a sterling reputation, because I was pretty annoyed with Giulietta Masini's performance in La Strada (but less so in Juliet of the Spirits) - the extremely childlike, naive Gelsomina sorely grated on my by the end of the film. Masini takes Gelsomina's naive characteristics, but combines them with adult emotions and fragility to make Cabiria a fully developed, believeable person. Francois Truffaut said it best, I think: we love Masini (and Cabiria) in the movie because Fellini does, and translates that love to every single frame in the film. This is a movie of and about love, perfect and imperfect.


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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Scenes from a Marriage (Ingmar Bergman, 1973)

I have a pretty small attention span for movies sometimes. I really like movies that intersperse their talkiness with sex or laughs or whatever. It's a product of my generation, I guess. But every once in a while, a movie like Scenes from a Marriage comes along to prove me wrong. Every single scene is pure talk, mostly between Johan (Erland Josephson) and Marianne (Liv Ullmann), the couple whose marriage and aftermath are detailed in the film. (Note: I watched the 2.5 hour theatrical version available on the Criterion disc, but I will definitely be going back for the 5 hour TV version someday.)

Johan and Marianne start the film as a young-ish couple, married for ten years, being interviewed by a local paper. Johan is dominating the conversation, almost uncomfortably so, and whenever Marianne starts talking personally, the interviewer interrupts to take a picture or ask another question. This sets the tone for the film - Marianne's dominance by Johan, and how she finds and defines herself. Johan has a similar quest, but one that is more complex than Marianne's. Both start these quests only after their separation and divorce.

The whole film is pretty much in closeup, examining the expressions of these people, and how they fit or contradict their words. Bergman is very interested in this film in the dichotomy of actions vs. words, as Johan claims to want a divorce, yet pretty desperately fights against it. The scene (episode on Swedish TV) where Johan and Marianne sign the divorce papers is a harrowing, intense one that made me feel a little wiped out after watching it, but the characters obviously felt the same way, as their relationship improves exponentially after that. I don't want to give too much of the details away, because even though this is a film built on ideas rather than actions, it's an amazing experience to see how these people change and evolve. I can't say enough about this film; it's honestly Bergman's masterpiece and one of the best films ever made. This review was a little babbling, but I could honestly go on forever about this film (and I probably will one day) about the rawly honest emotions portrayed in the movie. It's life, it's real, and it's amazing.

9.5/10 (I'm wary to give any movie a 10, but this might deserve it)

RIYL: Fanny & Alexander

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Thursday, January 04, 2007

2006 Year-End List!

We're a few days into 2007, so it's high time I posted my top ten of 2006 list. I sort of agonized over this (hindsight is 20/20, really), and I still could do more work on it, but enjoy nonetheless!

10. The Science of Sleep (dir. Michel Gondry)

Although it moves dangerously toward silly melodrama at times, every single scene, every shot has Gondry's trademark childlike sense of wonder in it. Stephane's dreams are intensely beautiful and full of wonder, yet are still particularly adult and existential. Gael Garcia Bernal had a damn good year, starting on this list with a solid performance as Stephane. Bernal makes Stephane, who's a childish jerk, into someone we really care about.

9. Jonestown: The Life and Death of the People's Temple (dir. Stanley Nelson)

The documentary of the year, Jonestown takes an event that all of us have at least incidental knowledge of, and makes it into something real and effective. The Jonestown massacre is usually portrayed as a mass suicide, but after seeing Nelson's documentary, I am convinced that it was murder by Jim Jones, a man who started out with a noble mission, but ended up paranoid and murderous. The testimonies from the two sole survivors of the Jonestown incident made me shake with their emotion. Definitely speaks to both the cruel and kind sides of human nature, at their most base.

8. Candy (dir. Neil Armfield)

Candy is on this list almost solely on the basis of its overall strong performances. Heath Ledger is one of the best actors of his generation, and gives a tortured and effortly realist performance as Dan, heroin addict who can't (and doesn't want to) kick his habit. Abbie Cornish broke out this year in her role as Candy, Dan's girlfriend who seemingly has more to live for, yet ruins her life with heroin as well. Geoffrey Rush is simply amazing in the supporting role of Dan and Candy's mentor, a functional addict who deals to them, yet tries to warn them about what they're getting into. Candy is both a heart-breaking and painfully realistic view of drug addiction, from the brilliant beginning to the ultimate tragedies.

7. The King (dir. James Marsh)

The other film on this list that rests almost completely on the strengths of its amazing performances. Bernal had his best performance of the year as Elvis, a young Marine on leave who just wants to reconnect with the man who may or may not be his father. Elvis is at first sympathetic, as he just wants a family, but becomes more and more obsessive and threatening, but so subtly that we almost don't notice. Bernal doesn't make Elvis a typical villian, and it took a great actor (the best of his generation, I'm sure) to make that apparent. William Hurt and Paul Dano are also very effective in their self-righteous characters, one who learns the errors of his ways, as the other doesn't. Pell James and Laura Harring are given less to do, but are still fascinating in their roles. This is an epic, almost Biblical story of family, love, and revenge, one that deserves to be seen much more than it was.

6. Manderlay (dir. Lars von Trier)

Much better than the overblown Dogville, mostly due to the surprisingly strong performance of Brice Dallas Howard. Howard is far more the character of Grace than Nicole Kidman ever was, idealistic and naive, yet with a core of bitterness and anger right underneath. Grace comes to Manderlay plantation, kicks the white owners out, that had been keeping their black workers as slaves, and institutes a democracy on the plantation that the workers never really asked for. Is it about white liberal guilt? Maybe it's about our situation in Iraq, or colonialism in general. Who knows! I think that every liberal, especially white ones, needs to see this movie to examine their own possible self-righteous qualities. I am convinced von Trier is a genius, one of the most controversial and debatable ones out there.

5. Battle in Heaven (dir. Carlos Reygadas)

I'm not quite sure that this officially came out in 2006, but I definitely saw it this year and fell in love with Reygadas because of it. The sexually explicit (Brown Bunny has nothing on it) story of a man who kidnaps a child with his wife, but the child dies (none of this is ever seen) and he becomes consumed with guilt over the child, and also is afraid of being caught by the police. He is also obsessed with the girl he drives around (he's a chauffeur), a rich girl who is a prostitute for fun. All these plot lines are almost secondary to the atmopshere, the scenery, the absolutely stunning photography. Reygadas (as in Japon) used all non-actors, but they give perfomances so stunning (especially Anapola Mushkadiz as the rich girl) that one would think they've been acting forever. Some (many) have called this film boring, but I think that it's devastating and beautiful, and about what it means to be human and look for redemption, both from God and from yourself.

4. Hostel (dir. Eli Roth)

It's hard to believe that Hostel was 2006 as well; it dropped on us in January, and the Splat Pack was born. Roth has an incredible love of and talent for horror films, and he almost single-handedly brought back gore to the American horror film. And it's just what was needed after a few years of PG-13 madness and Asian remakes. Hostel is full of blood, gore, boobs, and severed limbs, and I wouldn't have it any other way. It's sadistic, yet fun to watch; I had to cover my eyes once in the theater, but have watched it on DVD several times since. The initial hype was all too much, and I was almost disappointed in the film at first, but I have come to appreciate it as a great horror film, one that has inspired a new trend in mainstream horror. I can't wait for the sequel in April! Other great horror films of the year that almost made the list were the Hills Have Eyes remake (Aja makes it better than the original) and The Descent, a surprisingly underrated terrifying story.

3. Talladega Nights/Beerfest/Let's Go to Prison

It was a great year for comedy, as evidenced by these three awesome, underrated films. As serious as I try to be about film, there's very little I appreciate more than being able to have a great time in the theater, and there are no films that did this more for me this year than these three films. I saw all multiple times in the theater, and have the first two on DVD already. It was also the one time I really felt that after reading reviews, I had seen a completely different movie than the reviewer. Forget the bad reviews, these are more than movies about NASCAR, beer, and prison. If you're looking for laughs, silly ones and more subversive ones, go with any of these. I promise you'll have a good time.

2. Children of Men (dir. Alfonso Cuaron)

I saw this two days before the end of the year, and it blew my mind. I will probably post on it in more depth in the near future, but Cuaron is a ridiculously talented directors. The war scenes are unlike things I have ever seen onscreen, and everything is filmed in a way that it is both acceptable to the mind and yet incredibly unbelievable. The performances are all very strong, especially Clive Owen and newcome Claire-Hope Ashitey as the duo that has to, well, save the world. The movie is depressing and anarchic, yet uplifing at the same time. The thing we all, as humans, have in common is a tie to the future, the hope that the world will continue after we're gone, and this movie illuminates this desire. Even the ambiguous end can mean what you want it to mean, can be either pessimistic or optimistic, as you care to see it. See this movie.

1. Borat (dir. Larry Charles)

As if this was a surprise to anyone. I've said all I really wanted to say about the film in my review linked above, but it is an angry, aggressive, Jewish kick in the ass to this funny country. But above all, it's hilarious. It's more than two naked men running around, I promise you. Forget the hype and see it if you haven't already.

Some runners-up:
The Fountain, Babel, Breakfast on Pluto, Clerks 2, Lunacy, L'Enfant

Disappointments of the year:
Wristcutters: A Love Story (my least favorite of the year), The Woods, Lady Vengeance

Plus, there were a lot of movies I didn't see that might have made the list: The Departed, Volver, Tideland, Perfume.


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