Ian Thomas Malone

A Connecticut Yogi in King Joffrey's Court

Monthly Archive: April 2020

Wednesday

29

April 2020

0

COMMENTS

Classic Film: So Dark the Night

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Nobody likes to be told they’re too old for anything, let alone love. Finality has a way of sucking all the hope out of a soul, leaving little but the regrets of missed opportunities. Humanity needs something to live for.

So Dark the Night explores the mindset of Henri Cassin (Steven Geray), an aging Parisian detective on holiday in the countryside, where a young girl Nanette (Micheline Cheirel) becomes infatuated with his talents and sense of worldliness. The sudden death of Nanette and her boyfriend/betrothed wreaks havoc on the small town. Henri’s efforts to uncover the killer lead to shocking discoveries that bring about many questions as to the nature of human consciousness.

Director Joseph H. Lewis does a remarkable job crafting each scene, often relying on uncomfortable camera angles. Many shots are partially obstructed by various points off the inn, creating a sense of claustrophobia as Henri struggles to search for the truth. The audience is frequently made to feel like a fly on the wall from room to room, listening in on intimate conversations.

Geray carries the narrative with his performance as the awkward protagonist. Henri is a strange man, a gentleman with a pleasant demeanor who leaves you feeling more uncomfortable in each passing scene. He’s a hard figure to root for, without leaving any obvious reason why.

So Dark the Night is a brisk noir gem that meticulously builds suspense over the course of its short runtime. There are no subplots. Lewis weaves character development in on the fly, always with his eye on the mystery.

The payoff has grand ambitions in its depiction of mental health, perhaps a bit lofty for 1946. Whether its diagnoses are fair or not, the film presents plenty for its audience to chew on long after the credits have rolled. So Dark the Night is bound to make many uncomfortable, but fans of noir will find plenty to enjoy.

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Wednesday

29

April 2020

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Clementine Suffers From a Subpar Script and Aimless Narrative

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A lake house seems like the perfect place to get away after a bad breakup. Unless your ex happens to own said lake house. Whether or not that’s an inevitable recipe for disaster leaves open soon wiggle room, the kind that Clementine is eager to explore.

Karen (Otmara Marrero), a lesbian in her early thirties, just wants to get away for a while, seeking solitude as she tries to get her affairs in order. Staying at a nearby cabin, the much younger Lana (Sydney Sweeney) seeks companionship, the kind of association born out of a shared sense of isolation. Lana has secrets of her own, but the comforts of solitude offer a kind of deceiving refuge.

Director Lara Gallagher relies almost entirely on her two leads to carry the film. Marrero and Sweeney are competent actresses, but their characters lack the much needed chemistry required to make the story compelling. The narrative loses practically all of its steam as a result.

The script doesn’t do the film any favors either. Gallagher sticks to quiet, minimalistic dialogue that does come across as quite realistic. The trouble with this dynamic lies in where it’s aiming its attentions, often the pseudo-philosophical musings of a stoned teenage girl. Sweeney is more than capable of delivering these lines in a manner that sounds authentic, but she can’t do much to make it sound interesting.

With a reliance on camcorders and landlines, Clementine often feels like a period piece. The absence of cell phones and other distracting forms of technology help heighten the tension, drawing the two leads together in the absence of much else to bide their time. Gallagher does a good job with the film’s aesthetics, an intimate setting where the kind of romance she hopes to kindle could believably take place.

Clementine gets by on the strength of its leads for a while, but the weak script and thin narrative let all of the air out long before the credits roll. There’s a lot to be explored in the realm of gay breakups, which haven’t received much attention from filmmakers. For a while, Gallagher keeps the intrigue up, but it’s not sustainable. Even worse, the third act possesses a plot twist that basically feels like a cheap stunt.

Intrigue isn’t worth much when it’s forced to run on fumes. Clementine is far more boring than it has any right to be. A fascinating premise that’s competently crafted, the film’s script undercuts its potential. A real shame.

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Wednesday

29

April 2020

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Exploring Star Trek: Voyager

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EI is back! Join host Ian Thomas Malone and special guest Robert L. Lively for an exciting discussion of the new book Exploring Star Trek: Voyager. Edited by Rob, this collection of critical essays covers a wide range of Voyager’s most fascinating topics. Ian contributed a chapter to the book on The Doctor and the humanity of technology. Enjoy a discussion on what made the journey through the Delta Quadrant such an important part of Trek lore.

To learn more about the book, check out its page on McFarland’s website

You can follow Rob on Twitter @Rob_LIV3LY

 

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Tuesday

28

April 2020

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Classic Film: In a Lonely Place

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Movies capture brief snippets of their subjects’ lives. Even grand epics have to contend with the reality that each day represents a much larger chunk of time than even the longest feature. In a Lonely Place beautifully presents this dynamic, a narrative that captures the impermanence of romance.

Dixon “Dix” Steele (Humphrey Bogart) is a Hollywood screenwriter with an ego that hardly matches his career. Facing years without a hit, Dix is far too lazy to put in the effort to change his fortunes after being asked to adapt a book, instead relying on a restaurant hat-check worker Mildred (Martha Stewart) to come over and share the details of the book. Mildred is murdered after leaving Dix’s apartment, naturally leading to some suspicion, though neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame) is able to provide an adequate alibi for his whereabouts.

The bulk of the narrative focuses on the burgeoning relationship between Dix and Laurel, lovers brought together by tragedy. Dix, shown to have quite the temper, exhibits deteriorating mental health as he remains unable to shake the cloud of murder from his old friend Brub Nicolai (Frank Lovejoy), now working as a detective. Dix is a classic Hollywood blowhard, full of self-importance as his looks and personality attract many to his orbit.

Bogart gives one of the best performances of his career, elevating the odious Dix into a figure of great intellectual depth. He’s a man past his prime, and not completely unaware of that reality. It is an especially frustrating variety of stubborn to wear one’s flaws so blatantly on one’s sleeve.

Grahame is every bit Bogart’s equal, adding a degree of tragedy to In a Lonely Place’s already bleak narrative. She’s able to walk right into the lion’s den, dance with the devil, and still elicit sympathy for having fallen into Dix’s web. It’s a beautiful performance that leaves the audience’s emotions drained by the end.

Moments in Hollywood are fleeting by nature. Plenty of narratives have consumed themselves with this stark reality. It’s a place where dreams go to die, even in success. The happiest of circumstances can produce tragedy.

Set almost entirely in an upscale apartment community, In a Lonely Place often operates like a stage play. There is a great burden placed on the actors to constantly keep the tension alive, aided by a foreboding score. The pacing feels almost real time, capturing the essence of love’s fleeting moments.

In a Lonely Place is a triumph of the noir genre. Bogart captivates even while behaving insufferably, an intoxicating charm that operates in sync with the narrative. For a seventy-year old movie, the film feels as timely as either. Love is all-encompassing, until the point where it isn’t.

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Tuesday

28

April 2020

1

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Homeland Ends with a Thud

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The world has changed quite a bit since Homeland premiered in 2011. The series has had to adapt to a landscape where a completely incompetent executive branch feels less and less outlandish. In the world of alternative facts, fiction has an uphill battle to compete with reality.

For a show that had its fair share of ups and downs over the course of its eight seasons, Homeland worked best when it focused on its characters. Claire Danes and Mandy Patankin often carried the series, aided by superb supporting players such as Rupert Fiend and F. Murray Abraham. With figures such as Nicholas Brody, Peter Quinn, and Dar Adal long absent from the fold, a final adventure with Carrie Mathison and Saul Berenson seemed like just what the show needed as it prepared for the endgame.

Most of season eight focused on a tug-of-war over a flight recorder of a downed helicopter that killed the presidents of America and Pakistan. Considering that previous seasons have featured hacked pacemakers and CIA car bombs, it does seem fairly radical for the show to feature a mundane explanation for the helicopter crash devoid of terrorism or Russian interference. Carrie’s ability to retrieve the device, irrefutable evidence for a president eager to entertain the counsel of the far-right, meant the difference between war and peace.

Homeland has repeatedly emphasized the power of the individual to change the world. Carrie, Saul, Brody, and Quinn each changed the course of history through their actions. Carrie embodied everything that James Bond has exemplified over his fifty-year tenure. Homeland worked best when Carrie was a kick-ass spy.

Season eight featured a completely unhinged Carrie, not just because of her bipolar disorder that the show often treats like a superpower. Carrie spent most of the season wandering Pakistan, in bed with the Russians, untethered from the confines of American foreign policy. It might have been fun if it wasn’t so aimless.

The pacing for the whole season was completely off, an issue that became far more of a problem as Carrie and Saul returned to America. The season never really felt like it had twelve episodes’ worth of story, but still managed to feel rushed by the end. Worst of all, Homeland pulled the tired trope of the mystery-asset, unbeknownst to Carrie for the duration of the series. Such a secret completely undercuts the relationship between Carrie and Saul that served as the bedrock for the show.

Suspension of disbelief is important for practically all spy narratives. There are little things here and there that Homeland could be forgiven for, such as Saul’s lack of security detail despite being National Security Adviser, especially after the death of a president. The series finale expects the audience to believe that Carrie, currently charged as an accessory to murder of that same president, is staying in Saul’s home without anyone batting an eye. That’s really just the tip of the iceberg for the plot holes, including a UN basement shootout, that become apparent in the absence of substance.

Homeland went out with a whimper, a final season lazily crafted as a betrayal of the show’s key relationship. Carrie didn’t need to go out as the hero or the villain, though one or the other might have been nice. Instead, there’s an aura of indifference that hangs over the head of the protagonist as she leaves America for presumably the last time. Like her daughter Frannie, Carrie’s legacy is largely left forgotten as the series limps toward its final bow.

Homeland was terrible as often as it was great. Eight seasons is a long time to be on the air. Final seasons generally work best when they remind the audience of why they fell in love with the show in the first place. For Homeland, season eight represented all the reasons why this show leaves behind such a complicated legacy.

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Thursday

23

April 2020

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The Garden Left Behind Is a Compelling Transgender Narrative with Lofty Ambitions

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The past few years have seen a push for narratives focusing on the transgender community to strive beyond the misery that has unfortunately dominated our stories. The transgender experience is more than a parade of misfortune, constant harassment and bigotry. Watching The Garden Left Behind, one might not be so sure of that.

Tina (Carlie Guevara) is a transgender woman struggling to support herself and her grandmother (Miriam Cruz) in New York City. Life as an undocumented immigrant presents many unique challenges for her transition, limiting her access to healthcare and job opportunities. Tina has a good support system with her friends, but lingers in a clearly abusive relationship.

Director Flavio Alves deserves a lot of credit for meticulously crafting an authentic trans narrative. There are plenty of actual transgender actors playing the roles, hardly a given in film.   Guevara works wonders with the material, bringing a degree of authenticity desperately needed with the film’s rather wooden script.

The Garden Left Behind suffers from an unclear sense of purpose. The narrative bites off way more than it can chew in a ninety-minute runtime. Broadly, it mostly centers around Tina’s quest to go on hormones, but there are several scenes dedicated to broader trans activism that feel out of place. The film repeatedly makes the mistake of thinking it has to weigh in on every element of the trans experience, often at the expense of Tina’s story.

Alves leaves far too much on the table regarding Tina’s relationship with her grandmother, a loving woman understandably confused by her granddaughter’s transition. This dynamic is needlessly complicated, culminating in a truly bizarre scene between Tina’s grandmother and one of her friends, which should have involved Tina herself given the turn of the narrative.

The film’s third act is an over-the-top nightmare scenario for transgender people, irresponsibly venturing into the territory of trauma porn. Alves plays fast and loose with transphobia, including a lot of pointless slurs that provide little more than shock value. Cisgender audiences may find the constant barrage of misery compelling, but there’s just too much being thrown out all at once.

Compelling performances bolster a lackluster script that plays too hard for shock value. Alves’ film is worth a watch for cisgender people, but trans folk may want to avoid. The Garden Left Behind represents a step forward for trans visibility on screen, but the narrative bites off way more than it can chew.

 

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Wednesday

22

April 2020

0

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Classic Film: Donkey Skin

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Plenty of fairytales, especially the centuries-old sort, contain plotlines that come across as quite problematic in modern times. Sleeping Beauty saw resolution through a nonconsensual kiss, Cinderella escaped an abusive household through marriage, and the Little Mermaid traded her voice, her agency, to be with a man. Traditional heteronormative storytelling once made it easy to gloss over these decidedly sexist tropes.

The French tale of Donkeyskin puts other fairytales to shame with its very premise. A princess flees her household after the king decides he wants to marry her, his own daughter, after the death of the queen. The fact that the kingdom earns its wealth through a donkey that defecates gold and jewels plays a natural second fiddle to incest in this scenario. The 1970 film Donkey Skin (French title: Peau d’âne) does not really try to make sense of the narrative, but rather to simply entertain its audience along the way.

As the titular princess “Donkey Skin,” Catherine Deneuve puts forth a captivating effort. Donkey Skin finds herself often lost in the absurdities of her surroundings, but Denevue engages with the terrain in a way that makes it easy for the audience to follow along. It’s a silly kind of story, but one presented with passion and obvious delight.

Director Jacques Demy paints vivid landscapes from the castles to the wilderness where Donkey Skin seeks refuge. The script is serious when it needs to be, but never loses its wit, finding great satire in the fairytale genre as a whole. The film’s musical numbers poke fun at the era, full of vanity and casual cruelty.

The costumes are gorgeous, completely over the top. Each royal character’s wardrobe looks like it was designed to achieve maximum flamboyance, layers upon layers of excess. For a musical comedy, Donkey Skin is a so visually delightful that you could practically enjoy it on mute.

The film has plenty of head scratching plot holes, the product of a script with minimal regard for developing its characters or narrative. The story is content to be pretty boiler-plate, moving along briskly over the course of its ninety-minute runtime. Demy has a firm grasp of pacing, throwing plenty at his audience without lingering in one spot for too long.

Refreshingly absent is any sense of moral purpose. Donkey Skin relishes its lavish costumes and beautiful imagery while keeping its narrative light and fluffy. It’s a charming film that lovingly adapts a bizarre story. Some fairytales find themselves bogged down in complications born of problematic scenarios.

Donkey Skin is the kind of story that’s weird to an extent that you wouldn’t even want to even talk about its core dilemma. Incest is not generally the kind of topic that makes for casually silly material. Demy relishes in presenting the eccentric, crafting the kind of film that can’t help but endear itself to its audience.

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Monday

20

April 2020

0

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Better Call Saul Looks to the Endgame

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Prequels face a unique challenge. A show like Better Call Saul is expected to present some new revelations about Jimmy McGill that justify the show’s existence without too drastically altering the framework of the Breaking Bad character audiences know and love. On top of that, the show has to juggle its own original characters as well as those belonging to its predecessor series.

The early seasons of Better Call Saul are drastically different from the show it is now. Part of that can be laid at the feet of meth/chicken kingpin Gus Fring, given Giancarlo Epsosito’s dominating performances. Fring’s presence facilitated the separation of Jimmy and Mike for several seasons, slicing off a piece of Saul to service the events of Breaking Bad that Jimmy wouldn’t need to be a part of.

Season five has largely been about putting the pieces back together. After last season sidelined Jimmy’s legal career, Goodman is heading full throttle into the world of the cartel. The show has done an excellent job setting up its final season to directly lead in to Breaking Bad, while building off its own strong foundation.

For all the time Better Call Saul dedicates to the meth trade, season five works best when the focus is on Jimmy and Kim. Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn are marvelous together, painting lines of obvious affection into the common sense desperation that ties the two together. Kim deserves better than Jimmy. The audience knows that, but Wexler sure doesn’t. The character’s absence from Breaking Bad doesn’t exactly bode well for her fate, but the flash-forward black and white introductions to each season offer a glimmer of hope for their relationship after Jimmy’s time at Cinnabon is up.

There are bits and pieces of narrative that hinder season five from fully utilizing its short ten-episode seasons. Howard Hamlin was a pivotal part of the show’s early years. That is very obviously no longer the case, beyond Patrick Fabian’s skills as an actor. Time spent on Hamlin is time that can’t be used for anything else, a tough storyline to justify with so much else going on.

The eighth episode of the season, “Bagman” appears designed to be the series’ version of The Sopranos’ iconic “Pine Barrens” episode. The long takes shot in the blistering heat represent a triumph for the series’ artistic endeavors, the kind of stuff that establishes Saul on equal footing as Breaking Bad. Jimmy isn’t a man destined to become an arch villain like Walter White, but rather broken in a different sense.

It is perplexing to think about “Bagman” existing as part of the same narrative that was once dominated by Jimmy’s feud with his older brother. Chuck’s legacy doesn’t quite loom as large over season five, with its eyes focused more on Breaking Bad. That’s neither a good thing or a bad thing, perhaps most noteworthy because Saul is a prequel destined to be evaluated by its relationship to its source material.

Season five represents a high point for the series as Better Call Saul juggles obligations to its predecessor against its own established lore. Wexler and Fring could easily be given their own series after Saul, an idea that’s both a testament to the series and indicative of its core predicament. There are too many interesting things going on in each season of Saul to adequately capture in a ten episode run. Six seasons is hardly enough to tell this story.

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Friday

17

April 2020

0

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The Painted Bird Is a Harrowing Trek Through the Horrors of War

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There are more films based on World War II than anyone can reasonably count. Based on a 1965 novel of the same name, The Painted Bird carries with it a certain unspoken understanding of the horrors that took place during that monstrous time. Filmed on 35mm black and white film while utilizing sparse dialogue, director Václav Marhoul possesses a masterful grasp of the unspoken, crafting a quiet, harrowing epic.

The narrative follows a young boy (Petr Kotlar) as he makes his way through war-torn Eastern Europe, trying to return home after the death of his aunt. The boy finds a few kind souls along his journey, but the vast majority of the people he comes across treat him as subhuman, treating him as a slave among plenty of other horrors. Humanity is scarce across the savaged region.

Marhoul divides the film up into segments divided by a character’s name. This approach works quite well for the nearly three-hour runtime, preventing the audience from getting too overwhelmed by all the terrors. The narrative is pretty relentlessly brutal right from the start, sequence after sequence of jaw-dropping imagery that never really lets up.

The boy functions as a reactionary protagonist, spending most of the film responding to the circumstances laid out before him. Kotlar is an excellent young actor, mostly demonstrating the boy’s emotions through nonverbal cues. Hollywood mainstays Stellan Skarsgård and Harvey Keitel pop up briefly, but the film belongs to Kotlar.

The film uses a mix of Slavic, Czech, German, and Russian, but dialogue is deployed in such a way that the narrative almost feels more like a silent film. Full scenes go by with barely any need for subtitles. The landscapes are beautiful, but the black and white cinematography and horrific actions depicted prevent the audience from spending too much time admiring the views.

The Painted Bird does take a bit of time to find its footing, a slow burn content to take its time. The film picks up steam in the second act, having laid out the terms of its narrative in a way that keeps you engaged without constantly guessing what will happen next. Though largely a bleak story, Marhoul finds small slivers of hope in places where you’d least expect to find them.

The runtime is a bit of a liability. Three hours is a long time to spend with a young protagonist who barely speaks, but the length of time helps solidify the hero’s journey, a duration designed to be as epic as his voyage. The narrative is designed to be exhausting, which Marhoul achieves early on. A few of the scenes appear to exist to serve that goal exclusively, a dynamic that’s perhaps a little too demanding on the audience.

The Painted Bird is a fantastic film that journeys to the very bottom of humanity depravity. It is certainly not for everyone, but Marhoul crafted a minimalistic masterpiece that packs an emotional wallop. Few narratives leave you quite as drained by the end, in desperate need of a hug.

 

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Thursday

16

April 2020

2

COMMENTS

Sonic the Hedgehog Undercuts Its Hero by Turning Him into a Generic Bore

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Sega built its entire video game empire off the concept of edginess. The company’s “Sega does what Nintendon’t” marketing campaign in the 90s set it apart from the family friendly image of its primary competitor. While much of that contrarian messaging was abandoned by the time Sega left the home console market, fond memories of the Genesis’ mature library live on in the hearts of many gamers.

Sonic the Hedgehog exuded cool from every blue quill in his body. Sega’s mascot wasn’t exactly edgy or risqué, but conducted his ring-collecting business with an aura of hip strikingly absent from Nintendo’s signature Italian plumber. Sonic served as a postmodern icon for what family friendly could mean in the 90s.

The Sonic present in 2020’s Sonic the Hedgehog is decidedly not cool. He’s not quite a loser, but instead a sad desperate loner with no friends. He lives an isolated life where his only company are comic books and the speed that allows him to play sports by himself. This Sonic is the kind of person you might feel bad for, but also probably wouldn’t want to hang out with either.

Sonic the Hedgehog takes Sega’s standard bearer for the concept of cool and commits the unthinkable. Sonic is boring. He’s not very funny. His interactions with local sheriff Tom (James Marsden) possess the makings of a buddy comedy, but the whole endeavor is too desperate to be enjoyable. The whole ordeal is just plain sad.

As arch nemesis Dr. Robotnik, Jim Carrey supplies most of the film’s laughs. Carrey puts forth a zany, over-the-top effort full of physical comedy reminiscent of his 90s output. It’s vintage Carrey, albeit with a little rust around the edges that becomes more obvious as the film progresses. He’s not exactly phoning his performance in, but maybe gets a little tired of revisiting the past.

The plot is pretty silly standard fare for a children’s movie based on a video game. Sonic travels to San Francisco in search of magic mushrooms to escape from Robotnik, but of course the real treasure are the friends made along the way. The generic morals aren’t exactly a problem, but it’s deeply bland stuff for a character crafted to be the antithesis of the mundane.

Is Sonic the Hedgehog really supposed to be a kid’s movie? The simple answer is yes, but it’s clear the filmmakers intended to play hard toward the 90s nostalgic crowd, many of whom may have kids of their own. Carrey’s presence further solidifies the legacy play, but this Sonic isn’t designed to be pleasing to anyone except for young children.

Sonic the Hedgehog is a pretty depressing experience. There is a temptation to disregard its futilities as the product of adults getting their hopes up for an experience crafted for children, but it doesn’t try very hard to be a good kid’s movie either. Sonic is a cool character. It’s unclear why he needed to be so generic and lame in this narrative. Everyone deserves better.

 

 

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