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by Bill Gibron

23 Dec 2008

World War II remains the ultimate cinematic backdrop for elements both within and outside the conflict’s control. On the one hand, there are so many fascinating and intricate parts to the global confrontation that Hollywood can easily extract any number of compelling stories. In addition, the battle lines are so clearly drawn between good (the Allies) and evil (the Axis) that the metaphysical clashes tend to match the actual combats themselves. Perhaps this is why the new Tom Cruise/Bryan Singer effort Valkyrie seems to strange. It offers up an initially interesting story that’s ending is obvious, and then tries to paint a group of high minded Nazis in a sympathetic - nay heroic - light. Fact or fiction, it’s a confusing combination that only works halfway.

Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg considers himself a good German. He also considers himself a lax Nazi. Hating where the party is going, especially in light of issues both political and person, he wants to help the Fatherland. As a result he is drawn into a plot to kill the current leader, Adolf Hitler, and replace him with an exiled member of the nation’s elite. In order to do so, von Stauffenberg needs a pair of accomplices. General Friedrich Olbricht will help with the bureaucratic ends, and his immediate superior General Friedrich Fromm (himself unhappy about the Reich’s war strategy) is willing to turn a blind military eye. All they need is a plan, and it comes in the form of Project Valkyrie. Under the executive order, should anything happen to the Fuhrer, the army is to step in and maintain order. Von Stauffenberg decides to use this plan as a means of assisting in an all out coup. Now, all they need to do is assassinate Hitler…

For the first 50 minutes or so, Valkyrie feels like your standard above-average espionage thriller. It takes your typical recruited protagonist, puts him into a group of well meaning but disorganized individuals, figures out a way to get everyone on the same page, and then sets the various conspiracy cogs through their clockwork, suspense-filled paces. We watch in patent disbelief as men within Hitler’s own ranks determine the fate of their Fuhrer, and marvel at how easy their planned assassination will be. Indeed, a great deal of the title strategy (built on a policy that allows an elite corps of troops to arrest and detain the SS) is built on orders, communication, assumptions, and a strict sense of loyalty. Such a scheme could not work today. Technology and an innate suspiciousness would keep the people in power long after any bombshell - true or false - had dropped.

Still, when working with this material, Bryan Singer shows some tension building acumen. As Valkyrie moves from moment to moment, creating scenarios destined to come back to haunt our characters later, we feel ourselves slowly shifting toward the edge of our seat. When Cruise finally makes his way to Hitler’s country bunker, his briefcase loaded with some Third Reich erasing TNT, we are truly taken over with anticipation. We want to see how all this plays out, if Cruise will be captured, how the rest of the plan is executed, and oddly enough, what will bring about the attempted coup’s collapse. Since we know Hitler survives (though the movie tries to trick us into questioning such a conclusion), we sense the next big reveal will be how these well considered and best laid plans unravel.

Unfortunately, the last act of Valkyrie is its very weakest link. It’s like watching Seven Days in May meshed with a great deal of supposed historic happenstance. Without giving much away, the success of the overthrow depends on how the Bureau of Communication handles the incoming flood of material from both Cruise’s and Hitler’s camps. If we are to believe the screenplay, it all came down to a gut check by a couple of middle management flunkies. Had they made a different call, everything we know about Nazi Germany may have been vastly different. In the meantime, we are forced to watch actors of highly distinct caliber play phone tag, each one trying to secure a section of the country for their future leader-in-waiting (a dull Terrance Stamp).

Granted, this seems like the way events resolved themselves. Most political power struggles are not gun battles with bullets blazing by the key players, and Singer has a problem matching the intricacies of the film’s first sections with these events. But Valkyrie knew this originally, and it doesn’t seem phased about going out with a whimper. Cruise even tones down his jackboot machismo, allowing small layers of doubt to cloud his otherwise iron cross resolve. The former A-lister is very good here, avoiding any bad German accenting by employing that by now formulaic slow dissolve from native language to English. He’s also good at playing the center of a rising storm, especially when given the floundering favors of Brit bystanders Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, and Kenneth Branagh.

But the harshest criticism lands at Singer’s doorstep. He’s like a great athlete who has no finishing move. The Usual Suspects is often remembered for its brain-busting twist, not for how said denouement was directed. Singer still fumbles material that should soar (the opening attack of Cruise and his men in Africa), while handling routine scenes in an amazing, unexpected manner. This is especially true of a meeting between Von Stauffenberg and the enigmatic Hitler where Wagner becomes key. They sequence crackles with a series of ominous implications that are hard to shake. But once everything turns to phone calls and map marking, Valykrie looses its ferocity. Instead, it turns typical and unspectacular. And of course, there’s the whole “good Nazi” underpinning to confuse things further.

If you don’t mind the fluctuation in focus, if the tripwire midsection can get your through the labored last act, Valkyrie will be a solid success. It will hit all the right marks while portraying heroism from a unique and somewhat unusual perspective. Historians may argue over the accuracy, and those demanding as much bang for their buck as possible will be underwhelmed at best. Still, there’s enough interest and intrigue here to carry across a substantive mainstream entertainment. Trying to get Americans to buy the enemy as noble is never an easy proposition, and some may say that focusing on Von Stauffenberg and his exploits is a losing cinematic proposition. But Valkyrie manages to just rise above such criticism. It’s passable, if far from perfect.

by Bill Gibron

23 Dec 2008

In cinema, the shelf life for style is apparently three years. Back in 2005, critics were beside themselves praising the monochrome magic of Robert Rodriguez’s astonishing take on Frank Miller’s graphic novel noir, Sin City. From its hardboiled nostalgia to its star studded speaking order, it was seen as the next step in technology tweaking traditional storytelling. Now, a mere 36 months later, messageboard nation is ready to tear Miller’s solo project, an adaptation of his Will Eisner comic strip update of The Spirit, a new arthole. Where once things were fresh and flashy, they’re now called overly familiar. Where the comic book god was once praised as a new fangled visionary, this cheesy, campy creation is about to be crucified - and for no good reason, actually.

Central City is a metropolis awash in crime and corruption. Chief among the felonious perpetrators is scientific genius and murderous madman The Octopus. Along with his right hand henchwoman Silken Floss, he’s manipulated his own DNA to make himself invincible. Now he wants the fabled blood of Heracles to become immortal. The only thing stopping him is a pair of unnecessary advisories. One is Sand Saref, an international thief who is desperate for the fabled Golden Fleece that Jason and the Argonauts sought. The other is The Spirit, a masked crimefighter with a lot of questions about his own strange healing powers and a past as a member of the police force. Not even his doctor gal pal Ellen Dolan can figure him out. Naturally, all of these dispirit characters will come face to face when both the blood, and the fleece, turn up.

Sure, it plays like a forgotten chapter in Miller’s continuing flirtation with old ‘40s cinema. Sure, it’s so over the top and outrageous that it begs to be mocked and ridiculed. Granted, Gabriel Macht is not the kind of marquee name (or recognizable face) in the lead actor realm that one relies on to hold a film together, and choosing him requires a leap of faith on the filmmaker’s part that’s hard for any audience to swallow. And just because you put a bevy of supposedly hot babes in your female-ccentric movie doesn’t mean the results will be sexy, captivating, or alluring. So what, exactly, saves The Spirit? What keeps it from becoming an irredeemable bomb ala Battlefield Earth, The Love Guru, or any other predestined stinker?

Three things, actually, and none have to do with Miller’s middling direction. Copping a millions moves from a half century of Tinsel Town trickery, there are only glimpses of the familiar graphic novel brilliance we’ve come to expect from one of his projects. There’s none of 300‘s slo-mo gore zoning, or City‘s slam bang Mickey Spillane on speed bravado. The color scheme stays squarely in the old school dramatics of black and white, and Miller’s eye tends toward the hero shot more than any meaningful moviemaking sensibility. Indeed, The Spirit could best be described as a series of static “wows” followed up by limited or almost nonexistent narrative needs. This is a movie that assumes a lot of plotline prescience. Miller clearly expects that the audience doesn’t want everything spelled out for them, so he simply tosses away the entire primer and goes bonkers.

What does work is Samuel L. Jackson’s bad ass kitsch as The Octopus. Sure, his version of the Spirit’s arch-nemesis is about a billion miles away from the character’s origins, but the shape-shifting savagery of his villain is a bad joke joy to behold. Just seeing this bad mofo in Nazi drag is worth the price of admission. So is his disconnected accomplice, Silken Floss. As played by Scarlett Johannsson as a half serious, half sketch comedy creation, this mannered moll is the perfect real world balance to Miller’s overreaching hypereality. Then there’s the dialogue, an amalgamation of every private dick diary entry meshed with tons of treble entendres. The result is like listening to a Depression era radio broadcast born out of a madman’s unproduced memoirs. There are times when you literally laugh with and at the movie for being so audaciously cornball.

And then there’s Gabriel Macht as the title character. Guaranteed to generate as much positive geek buzz as negative, he’s an interesting combination of naiveté and spree killer. It’s clear that The Spirit takes his crusade seriously, and during his pre-Octopus stand-offs, his manner is brusque, cruel, and sometimes rather heartless. He’s also a lug with the ladies, easily winning them over only to screw them in the less corporeal meaning of the term. While more or less an unknown, Macht makes all these divergent personality traits work. We never once doubt the Spirit as a hero, a heal, a protector and a pariah. It’s one of Miller’s main strengths that his leads comes across as flawed if still formidable. Even with his old school sarcasm, there is something noble about this vigilante’s cause.

Yet none of this will matter to a fanbase still reeling from the visual buzz created by filmmakers as imaginative as Zach Synder. Others will lament the return to Sin City‘s comic panel mockery. If you’re already predisposed to hate whatever Miller is making this time, skip The Spirit. You’ll just make yourself angry as everything you suspected about the project pans out as true. But if you’re willing to give this novice a shot at making his own statement, if you’ll let Macht and Jackson and Johannsson and the others gyrate within the material, then you may find yourself pleasantly surprised by the results. The Spirit is not a classic. It may even indicate that Frank Miller is the most flogged of the apparently already dead one trick ponies. Taken on its own terms, however, it’s a beautiful bit of balderdash.

by Bill Gibron

21 Dec 2008

The Coen Brothers remains the most predicable unpredictable artists in Hollywood. You can be guaranteed that the minute you think you have them pegged - post-modern nostalgists, retro Hollywood revisionists, kings of meta-mainstream quirk - they turn around and surprise you. They move so easily between genres, exploring film types and formats that should be overly familiar (crime dramas) or elusive (black comedies) to work. And yet here they are, following up their Oscar winning take on Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men with another brilliant slab of their slightly surreal satire. Burn After Reading may be second tier Coens at its core, but when you’re dealing with the pair of talents this massive, average remains outstanding.

When he’s demoted to a desk job, CIA field agent Obsourne Cox decides to quit, and simultaneously blow the lid off the bureau with his tell-all memoirs. His wife, Dr. Katie Cox, has been having an affair with tacky Treasury man named Harry Pfarrer and she wants a divorce. Her paramour, on the other hand, is too busy playing the Internet field to commit. Meanwhile, a pair of oddball gym employees - personal trainers Chad Feldheimer and Linda Litzke - stumble across the CD with Osbourne’s “secrets” on it. She wants plastic surgery to recapture some of her youth. He just wants to help. So it’s time to extort some cash. When Pfarrer finds out that someone is sneaking around, trying to blackmail the Coxes, he takes matters into his hot headed, horndog hands. While Chad and Linda think everything is simple and straightforward, they are unaware of the involvement of forces both friendly, and fiendish.

There is nothing more satisfying than seeing A-list actors working without a safety net of familiarity, and Burn After Reading (now available of DVD from Focus Features) offers such precarious performance pleasures. Where else but in a Coens comedy would we find a sheepish CIA agent, a mean-spirited (and incredibly selfish) Treasury representative, a plastic surgery obsessed gym employee, her dimwitted co-worker, and a series of ancillary individuals who accent and expand on each one and the main players. And when you consider the cast the brothers bring on - Oscar winners George Clooney, Frances McDormand, and Tilda Swinton, along with Academy nominated accomplishes Brad Pitt and John Malkovich - you just know you’re in for a rollicking good time. And indeed, Reading lives up to its reputation. It’s fast, witty, weird, unexpected, grim, clever, and above all, expertly made.

Clearly, the Coens see Washington DC and all its blatant bureaucracy as the stuff of comedy gold. Yet unlike their How to Sort of Succeed in Business By Being a Butthead send-up The Hudsucker Proxy, the US government never loses its War on Terror sheen. This is a post-modern mess of incomplete policies, overtired executives, and a bottomless pit of possibilities when it comes to covering up the flaws in same. The battle between Malkovich and his superiors, Pitt and McDormand and the various glass tower threats, and Clooney and his own innate and ever-growing paranoia are a joy to behold. These stars sink their teeth into the script, wringing laughs out of lines that would seem like nothing but standard federal doubletalk without their efforts. Yet the Coens aren’t beyond moving into areas both uncomfortable (Clooney’s crass sex addiction) or unexpected (the last act bursts of violence) to up the ante.

Indeed, as the Making-of material included as part of the home video release, we see a group of highly paid, often praised professionals clearly working within the confines of a cinematic stage of one-upmanship. Pitt and Clooney are the two biggest clowns, their Oceans 11 - 13 familiarity responsible for more than a little of the onset rowdiness. But Swinton and McDormand are not beyond being goofy. Each one has a history with various members of the cast and crew, and the links allows for a looseness and a camaraderie that clearly shows up onscreen. The Coens make it clear that they like to work with actors in a “theater company” style approach. They have faith they can pull off the differing roles being assigned to them, secure in the knowledge that they are the rights ones to realize their aims.

All throughout Burn After Reading, such strategies clearly complement the narrative. As with many Coen films, the McGuffin-esque element at the center of the story - the CD with all the supposed secrets - is really just a catalyst for conversations, confrontations, and calamities. It allows the inner facets of everyone’s personalities to become manifest, to make the desperate even more frantic, the clueless even less enlightened. This is especially true of Malkovich and his cronies. In a post-millennial world where America has lost its international espionage touch, the bumbling, Keystone cop kind of way these officials flounder around, looking for answers, is just one of Burn After Reading‘s many resplendent charms.

Just be aware that this is Coens coasting at its very best. We’re not talking about literal masterpieces like Miller’s Crossing, Barton Fink, or Fargo. It’s not even the clever cult epics of films like The Big Lebowski or O Brother Where Art Thou? Instead, this is proof that, when not dealing with ideas outside their control (Intolerable Cruelty, The Ladykillers), the Coens can come up with a quasi-classic, even in their sleep. It was decades before the duo was finally given the credit they so richly deserved. Amazing how, in one fell awards season swoop, they went from outsiders who were lucky to get financing to auteurs with outsized expectations from both audiences and critics. Burn After Reading is clearly not their best. But even in a lesser state, the Coen Brothers are still astonishing.

by Bill Gibron

21 Dec 2008

Complex and intricate stories usually don’t lend themselves to sequels. By their very nature, however, they should be ripe for revisiting. After all, so many divergent factors make up their effectiveness that pulling a few out for a second (or third) go round not only seems logical - it feels mandatory. Franchise creators rarely look at the source in total, though. They pick and choose through the various elements, honing in on ones they can easily repeat, readily manipulate, and hopefully expand upon. The end result usually looks nothing like the multifaceted and meaning original. Pulse 3 is the third take on material featured in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s sensational Kairo. Now Westernized and shuttled straight to DVD, what worked as a mesmerizing take on the meaning of life is now a holding dock for dull horror clichés.

Seven years after her mother tried to kill her as part of a worldwide techno-spirit plague, young Justine can’t shake the fact that she doesn’t belong as part of some failed foster family in a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome survival camp. She longs for something more, and finds it when an illegal computer ends up in her hands. Chatting with an unknown man named Adam, Justine is compelled by visions of her mom and messages from beyond stating that she must help the far off stranger. So she decides to head out into the wilderness, her sights set on the big city. But in this vast wasteland inhabited by the spirits of the dead, our heroine may not make it - and what she finds once she arrives may not be what she anticipated, either.

The problem with Pulse 3 (new to home video from Genius Products, the Weinstein Company, and Dimension Extreme) is instantly recognizable. It makes itself known the moment actress Brittany Finamore finds a forbidden laptop - technology being verboten in her post-apocalyptic shanty town - and starts cyber-flirting with a man who makes her feel more mature. That’s right, it’s the same old rebellious teen tripe enhanced by the possibility of frequent paranormal cold showers. Naiveté vs. the standard adolescent angst. All throughout the opening of this unnecessary sequel, Justine pouts and preens like she’s the only person to lose a loved one in the phantom Armageddon, and the writer/director Joel Soisson decides to indulge her. The he takes on a routine road trip, just to make matters more aggravating.

During these slow, somber cross country treks, Pulse 3 goes from mildly interesting to horrifically dull. Ms. Finamore is not a compelling presence, and her voice-over conversations with Adam are standard juvenile gal, suave lothario stereotypes. When she turns up at Caleb Wilke’s farmhouse, we anticipate the standard stalk and slash. And after a weird late night inference of something more…sexual, the truth about the man’s intentions is made clear. There are times when Pulse 3 plays fair with our expectations. When Wilke tries to satisfy his dead wife’s death wish, the repeated F/X of her shotgun suicide are very effective. And later on, when Justine must confront a Houston overloaded with specters, the atmosphere is tense and unsettling.

But Soisson makes the typical mistake of most low budget filmmakers - he substitutes speeches for scares. When a forgotten plotpoint individual from Pulse 2 returns to discuss the nation’s “nuclear” solution to the ghost problem, the science-psycho-babble actually sounds solid. But then we get the typical ranting villain variation on fear, and we grow weary of all the yakking. Even worse, much of the explanation for how this will all work (think electronics and EMP - duh) gets tangled up in what are supposed to be shades of psychosis and incomprehensible motives. All throughout Pulse 3, things happen without the necessary context to make them real, or scary, or interesting. Even the finale is filled with cheap tricks, a foot chase, and a couple of low brow “boo’s”.

All throughout the course of his DVD commentary, Soisson, along with actress Finamore, producer Mike Leahy, and Editor Kirk Morri discuss their approach to this project, and in some instances, you wonder exactly what movie they are talking about. They’ve got masterwork on their minds. The use of greenscreen, so effective in creating an otherworldly ambience in Pulse 2, looks cheesy and unnecessary now. The behind the scenes featurette gives the standard slap on the back look at how a movie like this is made, and overall, there is a pride and a sense of satisfaction that just doesn’t gel with what we see onscreen. Indeed, much of the added content plays like people trying to convince us of a failed projects inherent worth. It doesn’t work.

Frankly, not much in Pulse 3 does. This is a clear letdown from the previous Soisson helmed sequel, and a massive move away from the genius that was Kurosawa’s original. In Kairo, the main theme explored life and the value (or lack therein) of living. As the few survivors wandered an ever desolate landscape, how they clung to what little they had left and how they validated trying to carry on became something almost epic. The American version was all about cellphones run amok. Thanks to the miniscule budgets involved in both, Pulse 2 and 3 could not explore such electronic spectacle. Soisson is stuck trying to tingle your spine with what is in essence, a character study. Instead of going to a big bang end of the world, his film goes for the small and personal. It’s a literal case of too little, too late.

by Bill Gibron

20 Dec 2008

There is nothing wrong with earnestness. Trying too hard usually validates the effort. But when it comes to comedy, being obvious can often lead to being unbearable. Sometimes, it’s better to use subtlety to sell your satire than big, broad strokes. Such is the case with Andrew Fleming’s Hamlet 2 (new to DVD from Focus Features). Treading ground familiar to any failed artist in the audience, the director behind Dick and the horrendous In-Laws remake hopes we’ll root for ridiculously eccentric loser Dana Marschz. While it’s true that the farcical pheromones streaming off this failed actor should be enough to keep us interested and engaged, the tone is so wildly uneven and the results so unspectacular that we never develop a vested entertainment interest.

Life is pretty horrible for out of work thespian Dana Marschz. Having landed in Tucson, Arizona and teaching at a podunk high school, he longs for the days when he was a star - or at the very least, the center of a residual providing herpes commercial. When budget cuts force other classes out of the curriculum, Marschz finds his group inundated with thuggish teens with no desire to participate. Then he discovers that drama is the next to go. Hoping to raise spirits - and some money to save the program - he writes his own script, a sequel to Shakespeare’s most famous play. With added musical numbers, and ample sex and violence, the production becomes a lightening rod of local controversy - and typical to his life, Marschz finds few people to stand by and support him. 

Let’s just call Hamlet 2 Waiting for Guffaws, and be done with it. Sadly, said laughter rarely comes, if at all. Treating its sad sack subject as the butt and beneficiary of all its jokes, this one note nonsense hopes to trick us into thinking its irreverent. Some of the subterfuge comes from Fleming’s partner in crime. Pam Brady is touted as one of the minds behind South Park, but her work as both producer and occasional writer cannot begin to match that magic that creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone contribute to the show. Somehow, one imagines that if she left the animated series today, Park could somehow muddle through without her. Besides, if her contributions here are to be based on her work with the cartoon, she clearly added little besides scatology and random F-bombs.

No, the bigger problem with Hamlet 2 is with its basic format and structure. Dana Marschz is indeed a douche, an unhinged hambone that doesn’t recognize his own flailing ridiculousness. Watching him struggle and fail should be patently funny stuff. But Fleming and Brady want us to champion his chumpness instead. We’re supposed to see a hyper-sensitive dreamer and hope that all his freak show fantasies come true one day. But he’s not loveable or even likeable. He’s a self-absorbed git. And since that’s the case, most of his backstory is bunkum. His relationship with wife Brie is a radiant red herring, used to add silly fertility jokes and waste time between teacher/student shenanigans. Besides, Catherine Keener is so disconnected from this material she appears to be channeling the spirit of some other actress in a totally different film.

It’s the same with the movie’s pale post-modern gimmick - the ironic introduction of Elizabeth Shue as…Elizabeth Shue. In a Being John Malkovich kind of moment, we get the comment on the comment, the “Hollywood’s a Bitch…and Boy Don’t You Miss It” mantra spelled out in supposed self-lampoonery. Reduced to a wide eyed washout of her former Oscar nominated self, Shue sends signals that mix us up even further. Truly, she’s in on the joke, but in such a blatantly, ‘aren’t I ginchy’ manner that you can’t help but feel sorry for her. The minute star Steve Coogan goes apeshit over her existence in his town (as a nurse, of all things), she gets a few career credits - Leaving Las Vegas, Adventures in Babysitting - and then she’s Marion Ravenwood. It’s like Woody Allen introducing Marshall McLuhan in Annie Hall and then not giving the media guru his punchline.

And speaking of Coogan, has any actor been so undeniably good at being so godawful annoying before? He’s like walking psoriasis, his performance making you itch from its outright irritability. He doesn’t interact with his fellow cast mates, many of whom represent the newest level of bottom feeding fame spawns the media has to manufacture. Instead, Coogan comes on like a drunken uncle, palpable and unfiltered, hoping to be inspiration but typically resulting in petulance. We never care for his aims, never want to see him succeed. In fact, the way Hamlet 2 should work is via the standard “failure = focus” paradigm. Marschz should see his play flop mightily, its lack of competence turning him inward and toward the area where his unknown acumen is best suited. Instead, we get a backwards happy ending, one that feels as fake and phony as any other supposedly whacked out aspect of the film. 

If Hamlet 2 has a single saving moment, it’s the play within a film fiasco which gives this entire exasperating effort a title. Much of the material on the relatively basic DVD - commentary, behind the scenes feautrette, deleted sequences - centers on it. While much of the material tanks, the song “Rock Me Sexy Jesus” manages to overcome its lunkhead lyrics to get us clapping, and you can’t help but cheer when the amateur performers put on the Bard. But even then, there is so much ancillary anarchy surrounding it (including an unnecessary Amy Poelher as an angry ACLU attorney) that our focus is constantly forced elsewhere. As a matter of fact, much of this movie is misdirected, literally walking away from what’s witty to indulge in situations that seem left over from earlier, unpolished drafts of the script.

Indeed, Hamlet 2 feels like initial ideas not fully fleshed out - the components of a comedy quickly and cheaply crammed together to see if they will actually meld into something special. While it’s never easy to grade humor - it’s as personal a genre as horror or romance - it is simple to see where someone’s idea of cleverness goes instantly off the rails. Hamlet 2 is preplanned irreverence, offering nothing organic in the way of cheek or mockery. Though it offers up ideas and individuals who should find a way to work, the movie just tries too hard to find an answer. The result is more scattered than a sophomoric slam dunk.

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