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by Bill Gibron

18 Jan 2009


2008 was an interesting year for fans of the comedy classic Mystery Science Theater 3000. Not only did Mike Nelson and his creative collective - Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett - keep their take on the type - Rifftrax - alive and thriving, but original series creator Joel Hodgson jumped back into the in-theater commentary biz with his latest enterprise, Cinematic Titanic. Bringing along former cast mates Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Mary Jo Pehl, and J. Elvis Weinstein, he set up a vague, very familiar premise utilizing silhouetted figures making fun of really bad films. Unlike his previous cable TV hit, there were no robots or outer space set-ups to be found.

Over the last 12 months, this new enterprise has self-released five hilarious installments - The Oozing Skull, The Doomsday Machine, The Wasp Woman, Legacy of Blood, and a revamp of the MST masterwork Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. They’ve also toured around the country offering a “live” version of their experiments. Now 2009 starts off right where the group began. Its latest offering, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks, is yet another rotten attempt at entertainment exposed and upended by our loveable band of comics. The narrative centers around the current Count Frankenstein (a thoroughly embarrassed Rossano Brazzi), his staff of bumbling bit players (including Wild Wild West‘s Michael Dunn as the requisite dwarf) and a countryside inhabited by not one, but two ancient cavemen (Loren Ewing, and the oddly named “Boris Lugosi”). 

When the Count’s fetching daughter Maria and her best buddy Valda show up at the castle, they are just in time to indulge in the madman’s latest act of playing God. When the villagers discovered the primitive people, they did what every rational backwater burg would do - they bludgeoned one of them to death with a rock. Using his lightning collection device, the Count has transplanted a girl’s brain into his ‘Goliath’s’ head, and has brought ‘it’ back to life. When Valda learns of the evil experiments she immediately throws herself at the aging scientist. In the meantime, the servants play hide the superstition behind each others back, our little person is banished to a nearby cave, and remaining Neanderthal Ook gets his revenge on all who sought to make his species extinct.

As an example of mid ‘70s ersatz exploitation, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks is rather anemic. While there is some minor nudity (Maria and Valda swim topless in one scene) and a tiny bit of grue thanks to implied brain surgery, this is clearly a last gasp attempt at getting wayward teens to take a trip to the local drive-in. The sensationalized title, along with the promise of something even more promiscuous (the trailer apparently emphasized the bare bodkins on display) must have been pretty potent back in the day. Even with its lackluster thrills and total lack of chills, there are still those who think kindly on this poorly dubbed import from Italy. The presence of Dick Randall (Pieces) behind the scenes as producer and director probably helps.

Yet this is clearly a hunk of hackneyed horse apple, a laborious attempt at creating macabre out of a moldy, middling molehill. Period authenticity goes immediately out the window when the villagers are shown. Some are dressed like extras from any number of Hammer horror efforts. Others apparently walked onset in jeans and t-shirts. There are lapses in logic, incomplete subplots, a total lack of suspense, and a weird sort of halting homoeroticism between Dunn’s dwarf and Lugosi’s incomprehensible Ook - which means, of course, it’s the perfect fodder for Hodgson and his co-workers in wit. Like the best episodes of MST (and now CT), we are treated to laugh out loud moments of sublime cinematic slamming.

Before things get going, we are warned about a new piece of technology about to be employed. Alternatively known as the “Boob” or “Breast Blimp”, this zeppelin shaped shadow is used whenever our lead actresses decide to get randy and drop blou. Immediately upon being utilized, several male members of the cast dismiss its necessity outright. While it only appears twice, it is a refreshing and funny device. Elsewhere, the by now familiar ‘frame stop’ skit sequence is attempted, this time giving Trace an opportunity to complain about the treatment of the Frankenstein name in the film. Unfortunately, everyone else seems to think he’s picking on Frank Conniff, and a big misunderstanding begins.

All throughout the running time of this spastic spooky vision, the collective tears into the film, finding fault with just about everything. They especially hate the rather short loin clothes worn by Ook, the completely ineffectual work of the village police, the very creepy May/December dalliance between the Count and Valda, and anything to do with Dunn, Lugosi, and Ewing’s Goliath. Oddly enough, a couple of four letter words litter some of the later comments. While nothing as pronounced as the F-bomb, it’s unusual for a self-marketed series to censor one type of material - female nudity - and yet allow the cast to use a more blue style of satire. As with many installments in the Cinematic Titanic series, there is definitely a more adult tone toward the funny business. But apparently, the mammary is verboten.

Still, as a starter for the year to come, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks proves that 2008 was no fluke. As Nelson, Murphy and Corbett continue to make fun of every current blockbuster that hits the Cineplex (Rifftrax are audio only, remember), Hodgson and the rest of the ex-Mystery Science staff keep plugging away at a true performance paradigm. Sure, both efforts are exceptional, providing the kind of well-placed ridicule that gives film purists palpitations. But even the most die hard lover of cinema can’t truly defend this erratic Euro-trash. Pondering, plodding, and preposterous, Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks is truly terrible. But when placed in the talented hands of the geniuses at Cinematic Titanic, it turns into a cracking comedy gem.

by Bill Gibron

15 Jan 2009


Sports films can no longer function as mere history or information. Thanks to the mandates of the genre, physicality must match ideology like poorly drafted teammates to a star. If it works - and it rarely does - the stereotypical set up reveal layers of dimension and universal depth. If it merely motors along on talent and persuasion, like the new film about Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis The Express, the journey is enjoyable if slightly stilted. Within this formulaic film, new to DVD from Universal, is an interesting tale about one man, his dream of mimicking his idol, the abject racism of the day and how talent and tenacity managed to trump such intolerance…sometimes. Unlike the theatrical experience, however, the disc here fills in many of the gaps the effort failed to address when it was released back in October. It still doesn’t make the experience any more invigorating, however.

When he was young, Ernie Davis learned to run. It was a necessary survival skill in a small town where segregation and racial hatred ruled. Later, as he grew, Davis learned to use said talent to become an All American athlete. When colleges came calling, he had two choices - the University of Football, otherwise known as Notre Dame, or upstate New York school Syracuse. With an undeniable legacy left behind by a graduating Jim Brown, Davis soon found himself under the tutelage of no nonsense coach Ben Schwartzwalder. After an uneventful Freshman year, the newest Orangeman soon becomes a national name, leading his team to a National Championship and the first ever Heisman Trophy for a black player. Success in the NFL seemed certain - that is, until something unexpected came along to shatter his dreams.

The Express in nothing more than a less successful Brian’s Song set in the days of Jim Crow and unconscionable white supremacy. With trailers that give away one major reveal, and a narrative which foreshadows the final plot twist, this is an amiable if predicable portrait. Directed by Gary Fleder (Thing to Do in Denver When You’re Dead) with all the faked flash of a Tony Scott knock-off, we understand almost immediately where this story of struggle is going. Davis is introduced as a decent little kid picked on horrifically by a band of bullheaded boy bigots. Within seconds, his fleet footed abilities are revealed, and soon the shift is away from prejudice and onto pre-college success. When Dennis Quaid enters the picture as Ben Schwartzwalder, the equally pigheaded coach from Syracuse, we sense a confrontation ahead.

But in one of the few surprises in this otherwise routine biopic, our fabled football sage isn’t a raging extremist - unless you’re talking about football. Then, Schwartzwalder is as old school as George Halas and Vince Lombardi. His is a hard work and waste nothing ethic, the kind of aggressive approach that made Jim Brown into a legendary figure in the NFL. We see the fabled running back as he readies to play with the Cleveland Browns, and his active recruitment of Davis is one of the film’s few sparkling sequences. Otherwise, Brown is held up as a kind of compare and contrast with his protégé. Big Jim gets the concept of social isolation and fights to rise above it. Ernie is as sincere as his name suggests, shocked when faced with separate drinking fountains and restricted hotels.

Part of the pleasure within The Express is watching Schwartzwalder and the team respond to the growing controversy caused by their newest recruit. At first, there is lots of contention and chest puffing. One player in particular makes it his personal cause to give Davis nothing but ethnic oriented grief. But as he starts shining, and by example bringing the team into the national limelight, the differences cool. Soon we see a united front against the ridiculous laws and ways of a pre-Civil Rights South. A trip to Texas for the National Championship game is especially illuminating, since almost everything that happens both before, during, and after the contest speaks volumes for the misguided way of America circa the ‘50s. Had there been more of this material, The Express would play like a leatherheaded Malcolm X. And the DVD offers up deleted scenes, historical information, and a commentary that explains why some of the facts were “altered” to conform to commercial filmmaking.

Indeed, Fleder seems to think that audiences won’t indulge in a film that spends most of its time in controversy and anger. So The Express offers up some moments of minor romance, and the typical non-erotic comedic male bonding that sports tend to mandate. In the lead, Rob Brown makes a convincing Davis. Not required to do more than play proficiently and look iconic, the Finding Forrester co-star fits the bill. Much better is Omar Benson Miller as the larger than life lineman Jack Buckley. Like an overprotective father to Davis’ ill-prepared novice, he’s a gentle joking giant and jester. Some ancillary support comes from Charles S. Dutton (as Davis’ ‘blink and you’ll miss him’ Grandpa) and Soul Food‘s Darrin Dewitt Henson as Brown.

As for Quaid, he’s the film’s toughest fit. While Schwartzwalder was in his late ‘40s when Davis first stepped onto the Syracuse campus, his big screen reflection feels too young for the part. Quaid can give convincing curmudgeon, but his boyish good looks keep getting in the way. Even when Fleder gets in close to accentuate the star’s crow’s feet, the 54 year old’s sunny disposition belies his (and the character’s) age. Besides, we expect more sour mash sass from a man who took a small university and built it into a strong athletic contender. Quaid tries to gruff up his gumption, but it never comes across as organic. And in a film which needs that strong outer source, Schwartzwalder is an incomplete core.

With an ending that attempts to balance triumph with tragedy and a feeling of incompleteness overall, The Express ends up being more and less of the same simultaneously. Anyone with even a minor degree in narrative predictability can see where all the nose bleeds and blurred vision is going, and the link to the classic 1971 weeper is undeniable. Besides, if we didn’t already understand Davis’ place in sports history, his lack of professional stature still wouldn’t be so surprising. When it sticks to the issue of race and how the Syracuse players responded to same, the movie makes us think. The rest of the time, however, The Express suffers from the same creative cruise control that has long since sunk the spotty sports genre.

by Bill Gibron

12 Jan 2009


For a long time, fans of Hong Kong action movies have complained about the “Americanization” of the genre. No, not the obvious bows to Western convention copied by film directors desperate to bring some style to their spectacle, but the brutal, mostly unnecessary desire by US studios to overdub dialogue and substitute scores. A perfect case of this revamp attitude is Jackie Chan’s Police Story 3. The third in the successful series for superstar Jackie Chan, it was a huge hit in 1992. But it wasn’t until after Rumble in the Bronx proved the Asian actor’s box office power in the States that the film was retitled, redubbed, and given a slick urban hip-hop sheen. Now, Dragon Dynasty is offering purists a chance to see the film outside the English and rap realm. Sadly, however, some of the more controversial cuts remain intact.

After several successful cases, the Hong Kong police want to promote Inspector Chan Ka Kui. The chief, however, countermands his supervisor Uncle Bill Wong and requests that their “supercop” take a deadly assignment on the mainland. With the help of Interpol director Jessica Yang, the policeman will infiltrate a coal mining prison, rescue a wanted drug dealer, and deliver him back to his mob boss leader, Big Brother Chaibat. All goes to plan, and soon Ka Kui and Yang are working for the criminals as brother and sister. As they prepare for a massive deal with a disgraced dope smuggling general and his many minions, the lawmen think they’ve finally won. Leave it to Ka Kui’s jealous girlfriend May to mess things up. She exposes her undercover lover, leading to a standoff between our heroes and the hard-boiled villains.

With nearly ten minutes missing from this version of the film and a desire by The Weinstein Company and its martial arts imprint to label this edition “Ultimate”, fans of Jackie Chan and Police Story 3 have some serious issues to consider. On the one hand, Dragon Dynasty does its typical bang-up job when it comes to sound, image, extras and overall packaging. We get interviews with Chan and incredible co-star Michele Yeoh, as well as talks with director Stanley Tong and ‘FoJ’ (friend of Jackie), bodyguard and training partner Ken Lo. Heck, even Hong Kong film scholar and sometimes producer Bey Logan is back for another of his effervescent, informative commentaries. But to take a movie originally running 101 minutes and trimming it down to 91 seems like a shame. And since we are supposed to believe that this DVD trumps all others, the absence of said sequences is troubling.

Don’t be mistaken - Supercop (as it was retitled) is still a great film, not matter the final content. It represents a perfect pairing in Chan and Yeoh, a chemistry that calls into question any other combination with the performers. It offers fights o’plenty and a plethora of pulse-elevating stunts. It illustrates how favored actors and familiar characters can lead to all manner of entertainment options, and ends with one of the most classic car/helicopter/train chases ever. As a matter of fact, if you watch closely, you can see some of the moves Matrix action coordinator Woo-ping Yuen more or less “borrowed” for his work with the Wachowskis. Add in the usual amount of Chan-inspired self-deprecating humor, a nutty subplot involving Insp. Chan Ka Kui long suffering girlfriend May, and a viable villain in Chaibat, and you’ve got all the elements for a first rate rollercoaster thrill ride.

And director Tong truly delivers. This is a perfectly paced effort (which naturally makes you wonder about the missing minutes) with the narrative unveiled in calm, considered chunks. When Ka-Kui is asked by Brother Panther to visit the undercover cop’s ancestral “home”, the drawn out process towards a police-inspired familial set-up makes for a nice level of nervousness. Similarly, when Chan is hanging from a helicopter, clearly performing his own stunt several HUNDRED feet above the Hong Kong skyline, the inherent vertigo is frightening. Tong plays up the bidding relationship between Chan and Yeoh, making Maggie Chueng’s May (a series mainstay) seem almost unnecessary.  He even milks laughs out of “Uncle” Bill Wong’s inspired drag act.

For their part, The Weisteins and Logan argue for the changes. The discussion centers on how to successfully market a foreign film to novice viewers and the various reasons for Chan’s success in the West. They complain that those arguing for the inclusion of the lost footage have rarely seen it, suggesting that its initial inclusion was somehow superfluous. The also explain a “culture-ccentric” view of the entire process, stating that Hong Kong crowds want a more “serious” look at their crime stories, while Americans crave big, dumb spectacle. While they have a point - and the added Q&As are indeed excellent - what true aficionados want is the complete film, flaws and all. They want to judge what should and should not be in the final cut, not someone who senses they know better.

Whatever the controversy come messageboard debates, one thing’s for certain - Supercop (or Police Story 3, whatever you want to call it) is a super film. It breezes by on the charm and physical acumen of its leads, and leaves nothing behind in its pursuit of big screen, balls to the wall thrills. The notion that Americans couldn’t appreciate Chan in his “native” form is foolish. Nothing done for this US version countermands the elements that make Master Jackie a worldwide phenomenon. He is still one of the bravest, most affable actors in all of action filmdom. And his physical grace matches his personal courage flawlessly. Nothing can rewrite that bit of show business truth. While it may not actually represent the “ultimate” edition of the film, the DVD of Supercop is sure to please even the most diehard martial arts maven.

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.

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