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Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

When it comes to sequels we have been spoiled in recent years by Marvel and the latest Star Wars episodes.  But with last week’s entry into the Alien universe we were reminded that most of the time it doesn’t work out.  The usual model for a sequel is to try and repeat earlier success which involves repetition of the more popular elements.  Once that decision is made creative compromises are engaged and the resulting project is likely to be unoriginal and more conservative in scope, probably losing the edge that made the first film so successful.

Obviously there are exceptions.  But never has this principle been more clearly evident than in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies.  The Curse of the Black Pearl is a great summer popcorn movie with a truly eye-opening performance by Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow.  Depp has stumbled and slurred his way through four sequels now and has yet to recreate that initial magic.  Probably because the good Captain is too eccentric to be anything other than a supporting player as I pointed out in my review of On Stranger Tides.  Movie star Johnny Depp, however, has to be the lead.

In this one he does step back a little to share the stage with a couple of younger leads.  Henry Turner, played by Brenden Thwaites, is the son of Will Turner, played by Orlando Bloom and Elizabeth Swann, played in a cameo by Kiera Knightley.  Henry’s driving ambition is to free his father from the curse that puts him on the crew of the Flying Dutchman, destined to sail the ghostly seas forever.  He meets Carina Smyth, played by Kaya Scodelario, an astronomer who keeps being mistaken for a witch.  She is looking to unlock the secret of a diary that her unknown father gave to her when he left her as a baby on the steps of an orphanage.  The two mysteries are related of course and both hinge on finding the Trident of Poseidon, which can break all sea curses.

Jack Sparrow stumbles in the story because Henry believes that the captain can find the Trident.  But Jack’s a little down on his luck and once again his past is catching up to him in the form of Captain Salazar, played by Javier Bardem.  Salazar was captain of a Spanish pirate hunting ship who Jack stranded in the Bermuda Triangle back many years ago.  Now Salazar has escaped and he and his crew have supernatural powers and are looking to rid the seas of Captain Jack Sparrow.

Well it may have something to do with my exceedingly low expectations, but God help me, I kind of liked it.  To be sure it is a pale imitation of The Curse of the Black Pearl but it has many of the elements that made that film work.  The look of the film, sort of macabre without being gross or scary, has been consistent throughout the series.  The images here don’t seem quite as inventive.  But is that because they are no longer new as they were in back in 2003?  Who knows?

It has much the same kind of off-hand humor.  At one point an exasperated Carina asks, “Are all pirates this stupid?”  They think about it for a little bit and then nod their heads and say, “Pretty much.”   There are many more examples of that.

I do have to say that I really didn’t get much involved emotionally with either Henry or Carina.  It wasn’t that the two actors did a bad job but I just didn’t find their stories that compelling.  This isn’t a film that’s going to appeal to deep emotions.

In the end it is an enjoyable summer movie.  You probably won’t remember much of the plot by the time you get home but you’ll have been entertained for a couple of hours.  What more can you ask of a sequel?


Alien: Covenant

Okay Alien: Covenant is a sequel to Prometheus which was a prequel to the Alien films.  Except at the time they denied that it was a direct prequel.  Or something.  If their intention was to create confusion: mission accomplished.  The thing is that Prometheus really stunk.  So much so that they waited five years to give us another entry into that universe.  If you read my review of it, you’ll see I declared the Alien universe dead. At least creatively.

Well the misses in the franchise are certainly piling up.  Ridley Scott is a great filmmaker but he can’t make a good movie out of a bad script.  Is he given better material to work with this time?  This script is written by first time screenwriter Dante Harper and John Logan who is the creator and chief writer for one of my current obsessions, the series Penny Dreadful.  So I went in hopeful.

People are pushing out into the universe, looking to colonize new worlds.  The Covenant is a colony ship manned with a crew of fifteen people, many of them couples who are heading to a known habitable world.  They are in hibernation for most of the trip but can be awoken in emergencies.  Two thousand colonists are in suspended animation for the entire trip and there are 1600 frozen embryos.  An android, Walter, played by Michael Fassbender, remains active for the entire multi-year journey just to make sure everything runs smoothly.

After the ship is damaged in a freak solar storm, Walter takes the crew out of hibernation to make repairs.  Unfortunately, their captain, played (briefly) by James Franco in an uncredited role, is killed when his hibernation unit malfunctions.  This leaves his wife, Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston, bereft and Oram, played by Billy Crudup, in command.

While repairing the ship they get a transmission from a nearby world that upon investigation looks even more promising than the one they are headed toward.  Oram decides to go for the two birds in the bush and they divert course.

I don’t think it’s spoiling anything to say this turns out to be a bad choice.

The planet turns out to be the destination of the Prometheus.  That ship’s android, David, also played by Michael Fassbender is still around, although Elizabeth Shaw, played in Prometheus by Noomi Rapace (You only get to see still pictures of her here) is long dead.  David saves the Covenant’s survey team from the initial attack of the Aliens.  But it turns out that he may not be entirely trustworthy.

Well this film is better than Prometheus but that’s hardly surprising.  It doesn’t depend on people making stupid choices to advance the plot.  Unless you count diverting the mission in the first place and they explain why that mistake was made pretty well.

Michael Fassbender gives excellent performances as the two androids, portraying the subtle differences between them expertly.  Katherine Waterston has a way of doing all these heroic things while looking like she’s on the verge of panic.  She has the talent to portray strength and vulnerability in the same action.

It is a visually stunning film which is what you would expect from Ridley Scott.  The dark claustrophobic interiors and the overcast exteriors give the film an exotic and menacing air.  It is a technically accomplished movie.

There are a few things that bother me, however.  For one thing, the first film and its direct sequels made the company the almost omnipotent villain.  Their greed in wanting to get an Alien to Earth in order to weaponize it is what motivates them.  Here the filmmakers have changed that.  I won’t detail how because that would spoil the ending but it’s an attempt to lay some pretentious philosophy on a plot that can’t sustain it.

Another problem is Scott’s approach to the franchise.  Alien is a great horror film and Scott seeks to repeat that accomplishment.  But when James Cameron made Aliens, he sought to turn it into an action franchise.  Cameron knew that as a horror vehicle Alien is something of a one trick pony.  Once you see those pods, you know what’s going to happen.  And the sight of Aliens bursting out of bodies loses its impact over time.

When I reviewed Prometheus, I said that any further films in the Alien franchise would be pointless.  I’m going to have to stand by that assessment.  This does nothing to advance the mythology of series and as a prequel it doesn’t convincingly fill in any gaps either.

That doesn’t mean Alien: Covenant is bad.  It’s just that I can’t see any reason for it to have been made.

The Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

At last we have crossed the vast desert of the post Oscar/pre Blockbuster season to come to Marvel’s first offering of the summer.  We can thank DVD’s, Netflix and other streaming services for our survival of this terrible trial.  It was a harrowing journey.

When the first Guardians came out three years ago, I wondered how people would respond to the strangeness of this premise.  The property was one of Marvel’s more far out ideas.  I needn’t have worried.  It was exciting and funny and it all worked brilliantly, becoming one of Marvel’s most popular and most acclaimed films.

Now the same crew is back again but the questions are different: Will they feel the need to top the spectacle of the first one?  Will they begin to take themselves too seriously?  Will they ever take another chance?

The answer to that last one is sadly “no.”  And that’s a shame because the first film was all about taking chances, introducing a new tone and setting to the Marvel universe.  Now their main concern is not messing things up.  Normally I would chalk that up to the natural course of things but when you consider the whole catalog of Marvel films, it’s a troubling development.  They’ve never been adverse to risk-taking before.

All that being said, go see this movie.  It’s a used formula sure, but it works.

The Guardians have grown into a tight knit team under the leadership of Peter Quill, played by Chris Pratt.  Acting as mercenaries they travel the galaxy, taking jobs and getting by.  Like any tight-knit group they have their conflicts.  Quill has growing affection for Zamora, played by Zoe Saldana, which sometimes she seems to return and sometimes not.  Rocket, voiced by Bradley Cooper, is uncomfortable with how close everyone is getting and is intent on stirring up trouble.   Drax, played by Dave Bautista, remains a loose cannon who when he takes initiative can make things either better or worse.  And Baby Groot, voiced by Vin Diesel, is just adorable, stealing every scene he’s in.

Having double-crossed their latest clients, a race called the Sovereigns, the group goes on the run and encounters Peter’s long lost father, a being named Ego, played by Kurt Russell.  The Sovereigns leader, Ayesha, played by Elizabeth Debicki, hires Yondu, played by Michael Rooker to capture the Guardians and bring them to the Sovereigns.

This is a tremendous cast.  When it comes to casting Chris Pratt father, Kurt Russell is really the only way to go and their scenes together are great.  Pratt, himself, has Quill down cold and the rest of the regular crew picks up where they left off.

So while it isn’t quite the bold stroke that the first one was, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is well worth your time.

And a great start to the summer.

Kong: Skull Island

In Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong there is a lot of stuff about man invading nature’s realm.  They tie the theme into works by Joseph Conrad, specifically The Heart of Darkness.  Kong: Skull Island has a character named James Conrad, a tracker played by Tom Hiddleston so director John Vogt-Roberts and screenwriters Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly are mining the same vein.  A lot of the visual vocabulary is lifted from Apocalypse Now which is of course an adaptation of The Heart of Darkness.  It seems to be a pretension that filmmakers of modern Kong movies can’t resist.

The film takes place in 1973. The Vietnam War has just ended and the country is in disarray.   A secret government agency, headed by Bill Randa, played by John Goodman, is trying to get funding to mount an expedition to an uncharted island in the South Pacific.  The island, which resembles a skull and is thus dubbed Skull Island, has just been spotted by satellite.  It has never been visited before because it is surrounded by a permanent storm system.

Randa secures a military escort in the form of an air cavalry unit led by Colonel Preston Packard.  Packard is angry about the way the war ended and therefore is game for one last assignment even though his men just want to go home.  So he happily packs his choppers onto a ship and takes them through the storms and over the island.  And that’s when the giant ape attacks.

The whole thing is derivative of course and normally I wouldn’t have a problem with that.  But towards the end of the film, I discovered that I wasn’t into the plot and didn’t really know why.  After some thought, I think the reason is that even their attempts at psychological and thematic depth are borrowed from other projects that did it a hundred times better.  In that respect it was like watching a Baz Luhrmann movie.  They could have cut most of that stuff, made the movie about a half hour shorter and it would have been better.

This is obviously a great cast with Hiddleston, Goodman, Jackson, Brie Larson and John C. Reilly.  But they seemed as disengaged from the movie as I was as if they knew the script was regurgitated swill.  The performances are universally phoned in.  Even John C. Reilly’s who plays Hank Marlow a WWII fighter pilot who was stranded on the island with a Japanese pilot.  Marlow fulfills the Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now role.  He could have really hammed it up in this role, but he either chose or was directed into uninspiring choices.

The effects are fine.  They look realistic and well integrated into the action.  But you know all that takes is money and I’m sure any CGI artist in Hollywood would be excited to bring Kong to life.

I’m probably being too hard on this film but the previews made it look so good.  And when I walked out of the theater, I was so disappointed.  It was like someone broke a promise.

Oh well, I guess I’m always up for watching a giant ape smash stuff and it does deliver in that department.


Logan is an X-Men film, the latest installment in a long successful super-hero series.  It is also the second collaboration between director James Mangold and star Hugh Jackman of solo Wolverine movies. You would think that all those movies that came before would serve as an obvious prologue to this one, that they would be the reference points one thinks of when watching this film.  But surprisingly the film that keeps coming to mind as I process Logan is Kickass.

This may seem to be a strange juxtaposition to those familiar with both films but there is one obvious similarity.  They both have murderously violent preteen girls.  And both films show these characters in graphic and disturbing action.

To me the question for both films is are these disturbing images justified and necessary to the themes of their respective movies?  I fear that I was never really able to answer that question for Kickass, which probably means that the answer is “no.”  But what about Logan?

Well, it is a heavy film that earns its R rating, with a dystopian tone that permeates every frame.  It takes place in 2029.  This future isn’t as bleak as the one the X-Men averted in Days of Future Past but it’s still pretty grim.  No Mutants have been born for twenty five years and the existing ones are either in hiding or dead due to a never explained incident that occurred in Westchester years earlier.  Wolverine, played by Hugh Jackman is working as a limo driver in El Paso, Texas.  He lives across the border in Mexico in an abandoned factory with Charles Xavier, played by Patrick Stewart and Caliban, played by Stephen Merchant.  Professor X is suffering from dementia, which is very dangerous in a telepath as powerful as he is.  Wolverine knows he has to keep the professor as far away from centers of population as possible.  He’s trying to save enough money to buy a boat so they can live out at sea beyond the reach of the authorities who are looking for them.

But Wolverine is far from well himself.  Something is poisoning him and his near instantaneous healing powers are slowing down and not doing a complete job anymore.  His body is covered in scars.  He’s drinking a lot and has a graveyard cough.

So when he’s approached by Gabriela, played by Elizabeth Rodriguez, to help her and a young mute girl named Laura, played by Dafne Keen, get to some place in North Dakota, he’s too wrapped up in his own problems to be sympathetic.  But as is the way of these things, the situation is forced on him.

Gabriela was a nurse at a facility in Mexico City where a company was trying to develop super soldiers using mutant DNA.  It was full of young kids who all had extraordinary powers.  But eventually the company decided they were too uncontrollable and ordered the program stopped and the children eliminated.  The nurses who worked there sneaked as many of them out of the facility as they could, but the company in the person of Pierce, played by Boyd Holbrook is in hot pursuit.  Pierce finds Gabriela and Laura, who has Wolverine’s DNA and thus his instantaneous healing and adamantine skeleton and claws, by surveilling Wolverine and tracking him to the abandoned factory.  The race to North Dakota is on.

It’s a good film, despite my reservations.  Even though it drags a little in the middle, it’s very well paced and the acting is terrific, especially Jackman and Stewart.  Patrick Stewart deserves special recognition because this is Professor X as we’ve never seen him.  He’s in decline, vulnerable, confused but still dangerous if unpredictably so.  Stewart captures his fear and resentment perfectly in an almost Shakespearean performance.  I don’t know if he’s ever played Lear but he should.

The body count concerns me.  Especially since most of it is inflicted by Laura.  The filmmakers try to create some resonance with the movie Shane, specifically that last scene where before Shane leaves he explains to Joey that taking a life means crossing a line that can’t be uncrossed.  But of course, Laura crossed that line long ago.  There’s a scene where she watches that scene and the look in her eyes is devastating.

Maybe the theme is the question of whether or not she’s responsible.  Laura was, after all raised to be a weapon and at her tender age can she be expected to know when she shouldn’t be, especially since the company that ran the facility where she grew up didn’t want these children shown any love or compassion at all.  Contrast that with how Professor X treated his charges at the school for mutants.  He tried to provide them with a well-rounded education as well as how to defend themselves.  If all Laura knew was coldness and her only training was how to kill, can she really be blamed if she kills?

I suppose in this world of child soldiers that is an important theme.  Maybe we all need to know that in those situations redemption is possible.  In Shane Joey learns lessons about the uses of power before he has any.  Laura doesn’t have that advantage.

And I also suppose that the idea of an innocent childhood may well be a vestigial element from the baby boomer era.  Shane after all is a benchmark movie from that time.  It’s something we all watched growing up.  But these days it seems just a little naïve.  The issues are more complicated now and maybe Logan reflects that.

I’m still having trouble getting my head around it though.

2016 Oscar Picks

Since I’ve officially given up on the Animated Feature category, I have now seen every nominated film I need to see.  As you may remember I pick films in the acting, directing and Best Picture categories.  Once again thanks to the mighty for guidance.  They get one or two of the winners wrong every year but they are unerring when it comes to the films that might get nominated.  In the years that I’ve been relying on them, I’ve never been surprised.

It may be that I’m getting old and jaded but it seems to me that this has been a good year for movies but not a great one.  With the possible exception of Loving, which in my view was snubbed in two important categories, I’m not really passionate about any of these films.  And I’m downright hostile to at least one of them.

As always these are not my predictions about who will win.  For that you need to go to  These are the films that I would choose among the nominated entries.

Here we go:


Supporting Actress

This may very well be the strongest category this year.  All these performances are terrific and deserving.

Naomie Harris’ mother in Moonlight is a study in low key acting.  Which is amazing because another actor could very well have relied on stereotype and cliché in the role of a junkie neglectful mother.  Harris avoids that and believably redeems her character later on in the movie.

Nicole Kidman plays almost exactly the opposite type of mother in Lion.  She and her husband adopt two Indian orphans.  One becomes a disappointment but she never gives up on him no matter how much his behavior hurts her.  Kidman conveys this woman’s strength and compassion.

Michelle Williams delivers a solid performance as Casey Affleck’s ex-wife in Manchester by the Sea.  For the most part she’s on an even keel, approaching him carefully because the marriage ended badly.  She has one scene where she provides the fireworks and it is masterfully done.

Viola Davis is great in everything she does and her performance as the longsuffering wife in Fences is no exception.  Fences is basically a filmed play in which everybody gets their speeches and their moment.  Davis makes the most of hers.

I would give the award to Octavia Spencer for her role in Hidden Figures.  She is terrific in what I would call respectful defiance.  She persistently and politely points out to her supervisor just how unfair it is that she has all the responsibilities and duties of a manager but without the title or the pay, which they won’t give her because of her race.  Spencer shows this woman’s spirit, intelligence and determination.


Supporting Actor

Lucas Hedges fails to evoke any empathy for his character in Manchester by the Sea.  This may be due to the script which makes a serious miscalculation with the orphaned teenager, but Hedges does nothing notable to overcome it.

Michael Shannon’s dying badass detective is the best thing in Nocturnal Animals.  He is methodical and professional until he exhausts all the legal means of bringing a murderer to justice and then he believably crosses the line.

I think Dev Patel overdoes the moping in the second half of Lion.  It really drags the plot down and cancels out a lot of the sympathy we have for the character.

Jeff Bridges isn’t exactly stretching in this performance as a dogged Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water but boy is this an entertaining performance.  You can see his confusion and indecision once he figures out why his two quarries go on a bank robbing spree but there is also his determination to uphold the law no matter what.

I would give the award to the favorite Mahershala Ali for his role as the drug dealer in Moonlight.  He undercuts cliché by making his character compassionate and even wise while at the same time contributing to the problems of his neighborhood.  It takes a great performance to encompass both those things and Ali delivers.


Leading Actress

Isabelle Huppert plays a cold unsympathetic character in Elle and does nothing to make us feel an ounce of sympathy for her.  It was a mess of a movie so it wasn’t entirely her fault but she is complicit.

Emma Stone is a beautiful and talented actress but she can neither sing nor dance and I have no idea how she got cast as the lead in a musical.

Meryl Streep actually can sing pretty well but chooses to sing badly in Florence Foster Jenkins.  It is a brave performance about a rich woman who deludes herself into thinking she has talent.

Natalie Portman gives a powerhouse performance as Jackie Kennedy in Jackie.  She handles both the scenes of hysterical grief and the ones where her hidden strength and intelligence emerge with equal skill and dexterity.

But the award should go to Ruth Negga for her masterful performance as a black woman illegally married to a white man in Loving.  Her chemistry with co-star Joel Edgerton is an amazing achievement especially since the characters are so different.  Negga really nails it here.


Leading Actor

Let me start by saying if Joel Edgerton had been nominated for Loving, I would give the award to him.  But he wasn’t so I can’t.

Ryan Gosling stole Edgerton’s place in the nominations.  Gosling is one of the best actors in his generation, but he can’t sing or dance.  Why was he cast in a musical?

Viggo Mortensen turns in an eccentric and prickly performance as a demanding counter cultural dad in Captain Fantastic.  It’s not easy being one of his kids but you can see why they love him.

Andrew Garfield gives us an impeccable Appalachian accent as a conscientious objector in Hacksaw Ridge.  He shows us the bravery of this man.

Denzel Washington breathes fire as the flawed patriarch in Fences.  An angry blowhard, he expects a lot from everybody around him but not so much from himself.

Casey Affleck gets the nod for his turn as a grieving guilt-ridden man suddenly charged with caring for his deceased brother’s teenage son.  He has the range to play the same character in both the flashbacks where he’s rather feckless and fun-loving and in the later scenes where he’s depressed and self-loathing.



Damien Chazelle seriously miscast the leads in La La Land.

Kenneth Lonergan gets great performances from his cast in Manchester by the Sea.

Mel Gibson’s bloody-mindedness serves him well in Hacksaw Ridge depicting the horror of mechanized warfare.

Barry Jenkins developed a consistent tone over the course of three different time periods in Moonlight.  He also got some very good performances out of his cast.

Denis Villeneuve gets my vote for the winner.  He uses the entire vocabulary of film to produce a thoughtful and engrossing science fiction film.


Best Picture

Loving was the best film I saw in 2016 but it wasn’t nominated so…

I think I’ve made my feelings about La La Land pretty clear by now.  It is the heavy favorite to win but it will go down in history as one of Oscar’s biggest mistakes.

Lion drags too much in the second half to be one of this year’s best films.

Any of the rest of these could win and I wouldn’t be upset.

Hacksaw Ridge is a compelling film with visceral images that really gets across the horror of war.

Moonlight is a thoughtful character study with good performances.

Fences has great performances but struggles to overcome its theatrical origins.

Hell or High Water is an entertaining crime movie in the tradition of Bonnie and Clyde.

Manchester by the Sea is an engrossing domestic drama slightly marred by one miscalculation in the plot.

Arrival is a near perfect film with unforgettable images and powerful yet understated performances.  It’s a little cold for me to give it the big award but it’s certainly deserving of recognition.

Of the nominated films I would give the Oscar to Hidden Figures.  It is an uplifting movie about underdogs prevailing over prejudice.  That is just the sort of film the Oscars were created to celebrate.


So there you have it.  The Oscars will be handed out on February 26.  As usual, make some popcorn and enjoy.

20th Century Women

Free spirited single mother, Dorothea, played by Annette Bening, is trying to raise her teenage son, Jamie, played by Lucas Jade Zumann.  It is 1979 in Southern California and Dorothea runs a boarding house.  Because of Dorothea’s warm personality, her tenants are drawn into the lives of her and Jamie and they form an impromptu family.  Dorothea had Jamie late in life so the generation gap is their case is huge.  Like any teenager, Jamie is becoming sullen and disobedient.  This distresses his mother who hates to see him grow apart from her.

At first she tries to get her male tenant, William, played by Billy Crudup, to serve as a role model for Jamie.  But William, who likes working with his hands, and Jamie, who’s more thoughtful, don’t really connect.  So when that fails Dorothea asks Abbie, played by Greta Gerwig, her female tenant, and Julie, played by Elle Fanning, Jamie’s best friend, to try and talk to him about his life.

But these two have their own trials.  Abbie is going through a cancer scare and Julie has severe self-esteem issues that result in her sleeping around with multiple partners that do not include Jamie to his great frustration, even though she comes over most nights and sleeps in his bed.  And what Jamie really wants is to understand his mother just as she wants to understand him.

First of all let me say that the movie is too long.  It drags in several places and they could have used more time in the editing suite to get it down to an hour and a half.  It has one of those false endings where it feels like the story has wrapped up but the movie goes on for another twenty minutes.  Plus great amounts of exposition is delivered through narration by Jamie, Dorothea and later the other characters.  So the film could have been a lot longer.  In my view narration adds a certain pretension to a film.  “This is a story worth commenting on.”  20th Century Women is about a teenage boy maturing a little bit and his mother not being able to handle it, hardly the stuff of epics.

But there’s a lot in this film that’s intriguing.  Writer/Director Mike Mills has created a troupe of interesting and quirky characters and put them in bizarre situations.  Despite the pacing problems the script has some very good dialog.  It also has a real sense of the passage of time.  The main plot takes place in the space of a few days but everything that happens is predicated on how the pasts of these characters have shaped them.  That’s true in any story but Mills really manages to emphasize the point.

20th Century Women is about people trying to understand each other.  One generation desperate to learn about another and a boy trying to understand girls.  Jamie tries to get his mother to talk about what she’s going through.  He wants to know about why she never tried to remarry and what she originally saw in his father.  She tries to listen to Talking Heads and Black Flag, hoping that will give her insight into what Jamie is thinking.  This movie has a great soundtrack by the way.

In short this movie has some wonderful moments and a few good laughs.  It is also messy, sad and confusing.  Sort of like life.

October 2017
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