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by Bill Gibron

7 Dec 2008

Johnny Depp is in (supposedly). So is his own personal Goth guru Tim Burton (reportedly). If we are to believe trade tattletales like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, the provocative pairing, currently working on a big screen adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (the former as the Mad Hatter, the latter as filmmaker), will follow up such spectacle with a re-vamp of Dan Curtis’ seminal horror soap opera, Dark Shadows. That’s right, Depp is lined up to bring tortured romantic and resident neckbiter Barnabas Collins to Twilight tweaked fan girls (and boys) everywhere. And given their exemplary track record - Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - expectations have a right to be high.

Yet, oddly enough, Shadows is not a solo gig. Sure, Barnabas resurrected the series when creator Curtis’ House of the Seven Gables goof was tanking in the ratings, and he’s an integral component to its lasting legacy and success. But without an accomplished cast around him, actors who can understand the dynamic that drove Shadows to classic cult status, the whole thing could turn out rancid. We’re not talking retro here - we don’t want to recreate the original players. But Curtis knew how to play to his company’s strengths, and if Burton is smart, he’ll do something similar with the cinematic version. Anyway, with Depp out of the way, here are our picks for the rest of the troubled Collins clan and their merry band of employees, enemies, and hangers-on:

The Men

Roger Collins - as played by “Big” Louis Edmunds, Roger was one of several Shadows’ characters of questionable conviction and perplexing personal ‘orientation’. The “was he/wasn’t he” argument rages on, even with subplots involving phantom wives and hateful offspring. So a modern actor of equal ambiguity needs to be found, and though he’s poised as a leading man, Jude Law could easily fill the (wo)man-crush character perfectly. Besides, being whiny and desperate are practically trademarks for the slight UK stud.
Quentin Collins - this one’s tough. David Selby walked the fine line between seduction and insanity for so long he appeared both romantic and ridiculous at the same time. When he wasn’t making cow eyes at anything in a skirt, he was battling his own inner lycanthrope (the character was cursed to be a werewolf, you see). We suggest Cillian Murphy, the amazing Irish actor who was Scarecrow in Batman Begins. If anyone can manage both real and ethereal animal magnetism, it’s this enigmatic, slightly askew actor.


Willie Loomis - ahhhhh…..Barnabas’ own sycophantic whipping boy, a character who literally feels the wraith-like wrath of the vampire’s pent up passions whenever the mood struck his master. If you’ve ever seen John Karlen whimper like a wounded pup, you’ll immediately understand why Paul Giamatti is the man to replace him. Willie has to be both resilient and weak, easily manipulated but frequently stricken by a strong moral code. The Sultan of Sideways could definitely bring that to the role - and much, much more.
Count Petofi - every good thriller needs a villain, and NO, the living dead lothario is not the bad guy here. Shadows was subversive in frequently making the monsters the protagonists of their surreal story arcs. So this crazed warlock with a missing magical hand would be the perfect Burton-like nemesis. He’s flamboyant yet ferocious, evil with just enough irony to make him both loathsome and loveable. And who better than Phillip Seymour Hoffman to essay the role’s many maniacal complications.

Aristede - in the TV series, this character was nothing more than a well dressed dandy with murder on his mind. He did the dirty work while his master Petofi took all the glory. Plotwise, he makes a perfect parallel and juxtaposition to Willie. As for casting, the current Aristede would have to be someone with a piercing stare and a “Hello Sailor” aura. We go with Twilight‘s Rob Pattinson. He’s got the broody menace and undead façade down pat.

The Women

Elizabeth Collins - as the moldy old matriarch of the Collins clan, Joan Bennett added a little Golden Era Hollywood glam to Curtis’ serialized spook show. She even got some good subplots now and again. For this go around, another grand dame would be suitable, and one imagines that Judy Dench would be just peachy. If you want to go American however, and a tad more hysterical, how about Meryl Streep? She’d look amazing in a black wig and widow’s garb.
Victoria Winters - the eternal victim at Collinwood, this nanny turned plot necessity has to have hidden strength and outward helplessness. Maggie Gyllenhall showed both when she took over the role of Rachel Dawes in The Dark Knight (replacing another left-field possibility, Katie Holmes). Equally important, Jake’s older sister can easily act as the center of the storyline. Fans will never forget how original star Alexandra Moltke began each episode with the immortal lines, “My name is Victoria Winters…”
Maggie Evans - as one of two ingénue parts in Shadows, you just know Burton will be bucking to have his current sweetie (and mother of his children) Helena Bonham Carter as with Victoria or Maggie. While she’d probably make a better Angelique or Dr. Julia Hoffman (GOD forbid!), here’s hoping nepotism is cast aside, and someone like Kate Beckinsdale or, going less glamorous, Michelle Monaghan, is given a shot. Either one would make an easy, breezy interloper within the Collins family circle - and, even better, represent the Earthly presence of Barnabas’ long lost ghost love Josette.
Angelique - in her prime, Kathleen Turner would have been perfect in this part. Our witch (wickedly essayed by Laura Parker) with a memory and vengeance-oriented mind like a steal trap had to get tongues wagging and spines tingling with her certifiably insane sexiness. With Ms. Body Heat well past her prime, a current crazed coquette needs to be found. And while Angelina Jolie would seem like a box office given, we’d prefer to see someone like Naomi Watts chewing up the supernatural scenery. Or how about Elizabeth Banks. She’s beautiful, and can play batsh*t!
Dr. Julia Hoffman - it is literally impossible to replace the gaunt gal gravitas of Grayson Hall. She was all nicotine-stained bone structure and maiden aunt magnificence. Poised perfectly between early middle age and post-menopausal, Hall made Hoffman’s romantic lust for Barnabas into the most unique of unrequited loves. Taking her place would be tough, but here’s betting that someone like Joan Allen could handle the part brilliantly. She’s the right age, and carries the same combination of glamour and almost gone to seed as Hall.

The Kids

David Collins - the natural inclination here is to pick one of the many overused faces in the contemporary wee one’s talent pool (Freddie Highmore, we’re looking at you). But we’d prefer to see someone who has been relatively overlooked since stinking up the place as the post-millennial Damien in the awful Omen remake. But looking at him now, almost three years since that flop film, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick would make an excellent David. He already knows how to play evil. It’s all the other wimped out facets of the Collins kid that might cause him issues.
Amy Jennings - with a lineage that’s as confusing as any character’s in the show (she’s the child of ancillary personnel in the Collins’ legacy, yet then maintains a direct relationship to the family…huh), Amy is David’s partner in high-strung crime. While Abigail Breslin could probably handle it, we’re looking for someone a little more haunted and inherently spooky. And as big Sis Dakota is looking a tad awkward these days (and way too old), we’d go with her pint-sized sibling Elle Fanning. 


by Bill Gibron

7 Dec 2008

It’s the most hair-raising horror story ever. It’s enough to keep the most jaded adult up at night. The mere scope of the subject is so outrageous, so far beyond the capacity of most human imagination that an “out of sight, out of mind” response becomes an easy way of dealing with it (“it’s somebody else’s problem” coming in a distant second). Yet when one looks at the headlines or listens to the news these days, there’s no escaping it. It shaped the last election and threatens to undermine everything this country has created for the last 232 years. If you believe the terrifying documentary I.O.U.S.A., America is headed for a financial crisis of monumental proportions - and apparently, we are probably too late to keep it from happening.

Centering around the Fiscal Wake Up Tour, initiated by former United States Comptroller General David Walker (with substantial support from The Brookings Institute, The Concord Coalition, and the Heritage Foundation), director Patrick Creadon proposes four reasons - or “debts” - for our current capitalistic meltdown. The first is obvious - National Debt. The second, Savings Debt, puts the spendthrift credit addicted citizenry directly in the line of fire. The Trade Debt deals with our dependence on foreign investment, goods, and jobs to keep our country moving, and the last item - Leadership Debt - places much of the blame at the doorstep of post-modern politics. In essence, we’ve lived in a “too good to be true” system since Watergate wiped out our faith in government - and we’ve been unwilling to change it. 

As a point man, Walker is wise, articulate, and engaging. But at present, he appears to be playing to a jaded, jingoistic crowd. According to Creadon, Americans are still locked in a sense of entitlement. Like Veruca Salt, or Freddie Mercury and Queen, we want it all and we want it now. We don’t think about socking something away for the proverbial rainy day (unlike the Chinese, who take their $10 a day salary and still manage to save 50% of their earnings yearly) and overreaching in all aspects of our life - McMansions, overstuffed SUVs, crass creature comforts. But I.O.U.S.A. also illustrates how this relatively minor portion of the population ruins it for everyone else. By failing to restrain their own purse strings, there is a ripple effect down to the mired middle class and the working poor. That’s because, just like their elected representatives, the inferred wealthy wield power, and as a result, they dictate the kind of “voodoo” economics that got us in this mess in the first place.

One of the most fascinating elements of this documentary is the timeline explaining the US debt since 1776. There has rarely been an era when we’ve run at zero, and the Clinton surpluses are explained away as tagged-on treatments of the always available Social Security Trust Fund excesses. But with the Boomers about to hit retirement, and the current state of the economy balanced on the backs of policies that propose “spend now, pay later…much, much later”, I.O.U.S.A. argues that a breakdown is inevitable. Walker and his primary co-conspirator Bob Bixby (of Concord) seem exasperated in their conclusions, and the tour hopes to alert the country to the problem. But even with alarming statistic that would disturb even the soundest mind ($57 TRILLION debt in 20 years?!?!?), it’s apparently ‘head in the sand’ time.

As an entertainment, I.O.U.S.A. is occasionally confounding and always jaw-dropping. Creadon piles on the problems with such relish that the potential solutions get some incredibly short shrift (a musical montage? That’s the way to explain our potential path to escaping penury?). There’s also one too many ‘nobody’s listening’ moment, opportunities where Walker and his wise men are shuttled aside for more “audience friendly” news stories. The reliance on the next president seems prophetic, since the recent campaigns offered a clear contrast between business and usual and outside change. Yet I.O.U.S.A. argues that no quick fix is available. Tough times will call for equally harsh remedies - and the talking heads are convinced that Americans won’t cotton to such sacrifices.

Indeed, there’s plenty of blame to go around here, arguments pro and con regarding the realities of the world vs. our need for instant gratification and material satisfaction. When a skit from Saturday Night Live spoofs an infomercial offering a one page book entitled Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford, the clueless responses from the fake couple contain too much truth to be completely satiric. Clearly, the situation here is so bad that it’s almost impossible to laugh at. And don’t let left wing arguments about Bush’s War/Tax Cuts or Neo-Con criticisms of Pork Barrel spending throw you off. Together, they make up less than 10% of the overall budget and problem..

No, in 2008, the US is stuck paying service on an already massive debt, maintaining Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, and waiting for the fateful day when our foreign investors decide to pull rank. Like the old cliché says - it’s never fun to say ‘I told you so’ - but Walker has been pitching that party line for almost a decade. Oddly enough, one of the few Cabinet members to carry his torch - Secretary of the Treasury Paul O’Neill - was fired by the President (via Vice President Cheney). Under the current administration, no news was not only good news - no bad news was great. For decades, propaganda and ineffectual policies have brought the nation to the verge of collapse. As I.O.U.S.A. argues, it may be too late to save this flat-lining patient.

by Bill Gibron

7 Dec 2008

It’s hard to argue against the notion that mosaic maker Isaiah Zagar has led the most charmed of professional lives. Over the course of his near five decades as an artist, he’s had the relative free reign to transform derelict buildings in his hometown of Philadelphia into amazing works of architectural wonder. He’s had a wife (Julia) who adores him, two sons (Ezekiel and Jeremiah) who take after his creative mantle and a growing appreciation from both society and scholarship. He never seems to want for anything, and goes about a grueling daily ritual of work after decades doing the same. So why did he have to go and mess it all up? Why did he have to give into longings that, as his advanced age, should have been relegated to the salad days of a misspent youth?

In his fascinating documentary, In a Dream, youngest Zagar boy Jeremy is determined to discover what makes his sometimes distance dad tick. Following him around with a camera, the beginnings of a biography emerge. But then things take a strange, almost surreal turn. Brother Zeke separates from his wife of 10 years, and the pain causes him to return home, grow isolated, and disappear into drug addiction. Then, one day, out of the blue, Isaiah announces that he’s having an affair with his assistant. The family that withstood mood swings, hospitalizations, and an initial disinterest in the now heralded mosaics suddenly shifts from eccentric to everyday, the pain of rehab and martial discord dissolving years of pleasant memories.

But something about the Zagars will endure, and as In a Dream deepens, the means of survival becomes clear. Everyone here has issues. In a matter of fact conversation, Isaiah discusses how an older man taught him the joys of fishing - and the confusion of molestation. Later, Julia can’t fathom why, on the day she was supposed to visit Zeke in the hospital, her husband would drop his random bombshell of infidelity. Through insanity and institutionalization, the radical tone of the ‘60s and the rarified appreciation of the ‘90, the Zagars tend to mirror their times. When things were tumultuous, out of control, and wildly experimental, so were they. When society swung toward a more conservative bent, expressions of art were reconfigured as idiosyncratic urban renewal.

And what amazing works they are. Son Jeremy clearly appreciates what his dad has built up over all these years, and much of In a Dream‘s running time is taken up with long, languishing looks at these vast visions. Details include sexual in-jokes, family portraits, shards of reflective mirror, and wholly random junk. When looked at on a larger scale, we see cosmic considerations, the whole of mankind, and the intimacies of one man’s flawed persona made public. The fact that, at near 70, he still puts in the endless hours to realize his lofty ambitions is matched only by the boundless imagination his work demonstrates. It’s also clear why the Zagars threaten to unravel so often - in their lives, Isaiah’s efforts are everything.

Yet this is not a portrait of a man disassociated from reality. Even when we learn of sanatorium stays, it’s depression, not imaginary pixies, which populate his mind space. No, all Isaiah wants to do is create. It’s so obvious that when Julia mandates he leave post-betrayal, he’s unable to do much of anything. He becomes inert. Throughout the film, we hear his family discuss the need to keep moving forward, to forget the past, put it behind, and find the doorway into a new and more productive future. While In a Dream argues that this may be the reason each family crisis goes megaton nuclear, it also exposes the far too comfortable reliance on the past to explain present problems. Like the sexual abuse he experienced as a boy, Isaiah processes the experience and then moves on.

Thanks to some amazing archival material (all of the Zagars chronicled the family for many years) and a little bit of filmmaking as fate, In a Dream blooms and then blossoms. We are staggered by the scope of Isaiah’s pieces, some encompassing entire buildings. We are curious about money and how it’s made (a gallery is mentioned, but that’s it). Some stories are left unfinished (Zeke seems on the road to recovery, but we never learn where it eventually leads) and there’s an almost cliché kind of closure at the end, something suggesting that, when people find their soulmate, it’s almost impossible to shake the connection.

Still, one can’t deny the power of people who pure their heart and humanity into every waking hour and each expression of imagination. For all his flaws - and In a Dream hints at too many to handle in 77 minutes - Isaiah Zagar stands as a shining example of one man constantly fighting to fulfill his own vision of the world he wants to live in. Not just the clever combinations of broken tiles, sketched symbols, life stories, and colored grout. It’s the way he sees his wife, his children, his choices, and the inevitable fall out that comes from it all. In a Dream may suggest where the Zagars spend most of their time. But in the case of any artist (and those within his sphere of influence), everything is reveries. There’s no need to be asleep, or awake. That’s just the way it is.

by Bill Gibron

6 Dec 2008

“The Troubles” - what a calm, contemplative way of describing the dire and often deadly confrontation between the government of England and the independence movement in Ireland. In truth, the conflict was (if past tense is even appropriate) a complicated collection of competing ethnic, religious, and socio-political agendas wrapped up in decades of hatred, bloodshed, violence, and vengeance. As a subject, it’s too extreme, even for the most accomplished filmmaker. The scope alone would render any realization small and inconsequential. While he’s worked in the medium before, first time filmmaker Steve McQueen is new to the realm of the feature length domain - and to make matters more tenuous, he’s taking on the story of one of the “Troubles” most important figures - Bobby Sands.

Yet for all the pitfalls he could face, the artist turned director has delivered the astonishing, masterful Hunger. In a minimalist way which uses visuals to explain the deepest ideological divides and a single, 17 minute take to clarify all motives, McQueen condenses four decades of fighting into a single, epic overture. We watch as British guards go about their daily lives, anxious about being the victim of IRA sponsored crime while committing the kind of atrocities that earned them a spot in such a dead pool. We see the prisoners’ outrageous responses, from smearing feces on their cell walls to refusing to bathe or maintain personal hygiene. Without going into unnecessary expositional detail, McQueen shows us how bodily fluids were used as protest, how messages were transported among inmates and their loved one, and why Sands stood up to a English policy which deprived he and his fellow inmates of their basic rights and “political prisoner” status.

Certainly, some of the earliest images come at us free of almost mandatory context. We wonder who the characters are, picking up bits and pieces of personal information along the way. Dialogue is kept to a bare minimum, individuals interacting within an assumed set of facts. When we first meet Sands, it’s almost by accident. Physically beaten and restrained by the British guards before being taken into an area for an obligatory bathe, the animalistic nature of his responses offset the well considered conversation he later has with a visiting priest. During this spellbinding sequence, McQueen locks the camera down to capture the pair in profile. Bantering back and forth, mixing clear indications of position with occasional jokes, it’s one of the few cases where performance, previous visual clues, cinematic style, and the given content come together to almost singlehandedly restructure the film.

Indeed, Hunger can be looked at as a nightmare in three sections. Act one puts us smack dab in the middle of the “No Wash” protest. Part two takes us through the creation of the hunger strike. And the last segment shows, in horrific detail, the toll the stand takes on Sand. The sequences where open sores are dabbed with ointment, when an emaciated and skeletal man is carried like a pile of old rags from room to room, are heartbreakingly excruciating. As McQueen’s camera lingers on these images of pain, actor Michael Fassbender (who went on a doctor -ontrolled crash diet to look the part) registers the emotional will - however so slight, sometimes - that made Sands a martyr for the cause.

But if Hunger were just set-up, followed by suffering, we probably wouldn’t find it so fascinating. Because McQueen keeps things so closed off and isolated, because he lets us in little by little to what the “Troubles” mean to both sides of the conflict, we soon find ourselves locked within the dissension. It’s hard to champion either ideology, especially when Hunger narrows it down to a plaintive power struggle where brutality and hostility have usurped rationality. There are comments that mock the UK approach, while the terrorism employed by the IRA is explained, but never excused. In the end, we see how personal the battle has become. As Sands dies slowly, an assassination is carried out that’s shocking in its coldness and casualness.

In fact, it’s clear that Hunger is meant as both a testament to, and a condemnation of, everything the Troubles stood for in 1981. As tensions would rise, ebb, implode and then slowly ease (right now, The Belfast Agreement of 1998 keeps things relatively quiet and, dare it be said, peaceful), such outsized actions appear insane. We are meant to look at the constant beatings, the strong arm stances and immovable moral coding and smirk at how arcane it all seems. Yet Hunger also has a place in our post 9/11 mindset, a Thatcher dense reminder that both sides of an issue can take actions that lead to nothing but death and destruction. The perceived power in such a scheme is almost always dissipated by the lack of prudence inferred from the outside.

All politics aside, Hunger definitely announces McQueen as a filmmaker to watch. Like painter turned auteur Julian Schnabel with last year’s sensational The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, the value of being an artist first, a director second is showcased here. Both men understand the inherent value in images, in keeping things simply, straightforward, and stark. There is no need for messy details or busy art direction. Instead, by carefully choosing what you intend to show, by making sure every picture within your film frame counts, you have the potential of making something truly special. Like the story of a former magazine editor who suffered a paralysis so severe he could only communicated by blinking his eye, the isolated torment and agonizing end to Bobby Sands’ life sounds like the stuff of stifling, stilted cinema. Hunger, and the man behind its making, proves just the opposite. 

by Bill Gibron

5 Dec 2008

In the highly competitive and lucrative world of CG animation, there’s Pixar…and then everyone else. While it’s clear that companies like Dreamworks, Fox, and the House of Mouse itself, Disney, have made great strides to catch up to John Lasseter and the gang, no one can top recent, award-winning masterworks like Wall-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and Cars…that is, until now. Yep, leave it to the newly inspired workers of Uncle Walt’s world to finally step up their game (with a little outside help) and deliver one of 2008’s most rock solid family entertainments. While Bolt may not be the timeless classic of its partner’s predecessors, it shows that efforts like Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons were little more than mere mediocre warm-ups.

As the star of TV’s biggest action hit, Bolt is a very sheltered dog. As a matter of fact, the production company has kept him in the dark about his fictional hero status. He’s never left his trailer in over five years. So when he is accidentally separated from his on-air “person”, child star Penny, and winds up thousands of miles from Hollywood in NYC, he’s one disoriented dog. Hooking up with a cynical alley cat named Mittens, Bolt is eager to get back to his master. But as he soon learns, he’s not possessed of the super powers that make his adventures on TV so successful. This causes a whole new set of problems. Eventually, the duo meets up with starstruck hamster Rhino. Together, the trio attempts to stay alive, travel across the country, and reunite with Penny and the production team.

Back before the PC ran everything, Bolt would have been the kind of movie the Disney Company made in their sleep. It’s slick, sophisticated, incredibly well scripted, and sprinkled with enough ani-magic fairy dust to keep both the adults and the wee ones totally sated. From the pitch perfect voice casting - yes even Miley Cyrus - to the wonderful action sequences that set up Bolt’s complicated persona, first time directors Byron Howard and Chris Williams never miss a bravura beat. Instead, they take what could have been cloying and maudlin, aimed directly at the diminished demo that the House of Mouse has been milking for nearly three decades, and deliver something startling and a whole lot of fun. You may feel slightly manipulated, but cute pets in trouble can do that to a viewer.

John Travolta, who voices our canine lead, does something truly remarkable here. He manages to make us forget his own international superstardom and through the force of his performance, gets us to care for a pen and ink pooch. This isn’t the first time an actor’s strengths have lent credibility and potency to an animated effort, but Travolta’s work in Bolt is just outstanding. So are the supporting players, including the tween phenom as girl in peril Penny, comic Susie Essman as gnarled New York kitty Mittens, voice over artist Mark Walton as Rhino, and some surprise cameos (Malcolm McDowell, James Lipton) in luminous lesser roles. With art design that suggests humanness without really getting into realistic detail, all aspects of Bolt are polished and professional.

But perhaps the biggest surprise here is how Disney has managed to make a successful commercial film that doesn’t feel like a crass, calculated cash grab. For years now, the minds behind such hapless 2D dreck as Home on the Range, Brother Bear, and about a billion direct to DVD titles, have threatened to become irrelevant within the medium they helped create. Full length feature animation would be nothing without Walt’s way with storytelling…and product selling. But since the advent of home video, all Disney has cared about is the bottom line. Money, not emotional satisfaction, has been its main priority. But with Bolt, you can sense that shifting. You can see where elements that may not play directly into the studio planned parental babysitting (the over the top stunts, for example) have instead been embraced, utilized to accent the sense of adventure and over cinematic wonder. 

Also, there’s a lot of heart in this film. Bolt’s earnest affection for Penny really comes through, and while always playing the party pooper, Mittens gets a Las Vegas moment that’s truly telling. Rhino may be the movie’s only obvious effort at smile driven attention grabbing, what with his goofball mugging and pop culture shout outs. Yet within the context of everything else, it works, as does Miley’s mandatory song (gotta keep all revenue streams open, right?). In fact, Ms. Cyrus is not a weak link here by any capacity. The drawl has been toned down substantially, and Penny doesn’t resemble the Hannah Montana star one bit. If you weren’t told this was Miss Best of Both Worlds, you’d never really guess her temporary A-list identity.

Indeed, the inherent charms of Bolt make issues like cross-promotion and product placement seem ancillary, or even obsolete. It’s rare that we get lost in such fictional derring-do, that a bunch of moving bitmaps can charm us in ways that even live action films lack. But thanks to the imagination of the powers who used to rule the cartoon artform, we can escape for 80 minutes of merry mutt hijinx. And for those lucky enough to experience the film in Disney’s new 3D process, the picture is IMAX-level remarkable. The amount of depth and detail is truly astounding. As Pixar moves forward with its future projects, Disney is relying on their newfound affiliation to keep, as well as reconstruct, its position as the industry’s leading light. Bolt proves that the link is definitely working.

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