Sunday, 29 September 2013

Moonrise Mud in the Badlands and the Scarlet Summer Kings Go Boating

Wreck it Ralph -  Rich Moore (Walt Disney) -  Tapping into a strain of arcade gaming nostalgia and Nintendo ‘Bosses,’ this film has some witty nuances and entertaining sequences. Overall, however, it is let down by the capitulation of originality as far as characters are concerned. John C. Reilly voices the fat-fisted hulk with a heart; an archetypal bear-like benevolence trapped in the role of ‘baddie’ who reveals his syrupy goodness by befriending a plucky and precocious girl, voiced by Sarah Silverman. Inevitably the ‘nobility’ of the friendship becomes as grating as Silverman’s ‘lil cute rebel’ voice…. but it is essentially a kid’s film…so, you gotta pick your arguments, and I am not really the intended demographic here. All in all, fun and occasionally brilliant, but from an adult perspective, not in the same league as other classic or great animation features. 6.5/10

Singing in the Rain – Gene Kelly & Stanley Donen – Having seen Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange at an impressionable age, I find it hard to detach the title song from Malcom McDowell’s perverse and eerie rendition of it, accompanied by a spot of ultra violence. That said, it is not an entirely traumatic echo as, despite being tonally miles apart, I still loved A Clockwork Orange and remember it as a formative, film- watching experience. To return to Singing in the Rain: the dancing is (of course) breath taking, hilarious and spectacular; the songs are all memorable and to (nearly) all familiar gems of musical history (although a lot are from other Broadway/filmic sources); Gene Kelly’s smile is almost frighteningly professional, as if each pearly peg of that immaculate grin was a flashing bulb of Hollywood fame, fortune and failure; Donald O’Conner’s dancing in ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ is a form of comedy athletics/gymnastics that jumps, falls and throws itself back to the spectre of Buster Keaton et al. It also became clear in watching Singing in the Rain how much of a narrative debt The Artist owes to its story. An exuberant and humorous portrayal of cinematic history from silence to sound, wherein the expressive smile and magnetism of a lead actor turns to music and dance to survive. 8/10

The Scarlet Empress – Josef Von Sternberg – Marlene Dietrich plays Catherine the Great, from her childish naivety through to a domineering strut of sex wielding, womanhood. A ‘womanhood’ problematically transfigured, in her empowerment, as a cross dressing and titillating role-play of masculinity. She strides through the palatial corridors, dressed in a male uniform (tailored with promiscuous flair) to usurp her frail and mentally deranged husband. It is all fairly ridiculous and feels far less successful than Blonde Venus, the title role of which seemed to far better optimise Dietrich’s ambiguous appeal. The most impressive element of the film is its astoundingly artistic sets, composed of lavish rooms, macabre statues, monolithic doors and a consistent, extravagant eye for detail. There is also a brilliant montage at the beginning, in which scenes of torture and mythologised barbarism skip from topless women burnt at the stake to a man tied inside a bell as human clapper (recalling a detail from Fantomas). 6.5/10 

The Apartment – Billy Wilder – Jack Lemmon plays C.C. Baxter, a well-meaning man that allows colleagues to stay in his apartment out of generosity. These favours gradually spiral out of control, until his tenancy is governed by the possibility of promotion and office politics. Amidst which there is the possibility of love and the subsequent decisions to be made between life and work. The high-rise ant nest of Baxter’s company is beautifully realised in a black and white panorama of desks and regimented lighting. We are introduced to a monochrome grid of tired faces, typing, endless calls and the tyranny of the office clock. It is from out of this anonymity that Baxter’s selflessly generous character becomes so immediately endearing. The film moves with the same witty ease and charm that Baxter initially exudes with such uncomplicated ease, however as the narrative progresses an unexpected undercurrent of tragedy and neurosis slips into play. The film grows into a sophisticated examination of the sublimated tensions festering between loneliness and success. All of the struggling concerns that a company policy of corruption invokes, the delusions its titles offer and the entrapment we feel, locked in lines and lines of others enrolled in the same daily grind; all of this is articulated through Wilder’s intelligent comedy. When Baxter can never be at home in his home, when his own tenancy is subject to the invasive exploitation of the workplace, and when connections in love are made to seem so fragile, everything seems perched between resounding vulnerability and the scattered lifelines of companionship – whether or not these lifelines are illusory, or fraught with deception is a matter of luck. All of which brings the unfinished game of cards between Baxter and Fran (Shirley Maclaine) into focus; when Baxter finally says he loves her, the response is not reciprocal affirmation but a private joke: ‘Shut up and deal!’ A line that at first seems like a wonderfully cheesy sign off, but that with reflection becomes more and more pertinent. 8/10

Mud – Jeff Nichols – A triumphant exponent of the ‘Matthew McConaissance’ (featuring such other diversions from his ‘comic’ past as Magic Mike, Killer Joe and The Paperboy), this atmospheric film deals adeptly in the American tradition of outward-bound boy adventures. After discovering Matthew McConaughey as a fugitive living off the land, his makeshift house a boat - inspiringly suspended in the trees, two boys decide to help him evade the law and reunite with his girlfriend (a ‘diamond in the trailer-park rough’ Reese Witherspoon). The young protagonist, Ellis (maturely played with nuance by Tyler Sheridan), is experiencing his parents moving towards divorce and the potential loss of their houseboat, consequently the encounter with ‘Mud’ presents a romantic alternative to life: still with a belief in love and living in harmony with the natural world that forms the, now threatened, backbone of his houseboat home. Ellis’ father, played by Ray McKinnon, red cap perpetually pulled down over lank, greasy hair, imbues his character with a vulnerable tragedy in which a grim acceptance of life’s lot – his failed marriage and the impending loss of a home – perfectly counters Mud’s childlike and heroic romanticism. Between these two flawed poles of masculinity Ellis attempts to negotiate morality and maturity, the spectre of adolescence looming over his (and the film’s) impulse for childhood escape.

The performances, especially from both child actors (Tyler Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) and a charismatic McConaughy, are consistently strong throughout. Nichols has a talent for conjuring the story’s environment; the river, forests, seedy parking lots and motels, are all visually realised with a near tangible atmosphere. Perhaps the film’s only fault lies in its decision to provide an extended climax that, with its more overtly filmic action, arguably weakens its otherwise controlled and textured portrayal of growing up, masculinity and the natural world. 7.5/10

Children of Men – Alfonso Cuaron – A vivid, dystopian evocation of England gripped, along with the rest of the world, in an anarchic state of entropy induced by a fertility crisis. Pregnancy is seemingly impossible and youth is an exotic rarity reported with celebrity fanaticism. Cuaron expertly re-imagines England as a bleak but believable (sometimes disturbingly familiar) wasteland in disarray. His muted, dark and greying pallet, recalling the portentous ambience he brought to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Clive Owen is perfectly cast as the convincingly rugged bastion of masculinity, unto whom the future of mankind (no less) is entrusted. Michael Cane has an entertaining turn as an old hippie, fond of weed and fart jokes but fortified with a wholesome moral compass - and all the other necessary liberal credentials needed to ornament this familiar, cut out character. The film balances between its viscerally grimy portrait of England and the palpable, mounting desperation of revolution with a memorable aesthetic that comes close to the shaky realism of war footage. 7.5/10


Badlands – Terrence Malick – I had no idea how much of True Romance (1993, dir. Tony Scott) was indebted to, and parodied, Malick’s quietly bizarre and beautiful tale of mismatched runaways. Kit Carruthers is a ‘garbage man’ turned nonchalant killer, played with the blank faced swagger of Martin sheen (strangely reminding me of the reinvented persona of Arctic Monkeys’ frontman: Alex Turner, who seems to have similarly adopted a 50s James Dean chic), Holly, played by a young Sissy Spacek, becomes his eerily unquestioning companion. The story was based on the Starkweather-Fugate killing spree of 1958, in which a fifteen-year-old girl and her twenty-five-year-old boyfriend killed her entire family and several others in the Dakota badlands. 

There is something so enticingly spacious about Malick’s debut (after his short Lanton Mills, 1969), not only the wide-open landscapes but also the conversational dynamics, the narrative’s development and the meandering ambiguity of morality…everything calls out to be re-visited, inhabited and explored. The film, like its stretching roads, fields and desserts, suggests a terrain of freedom, devoid of judgment – but also, hauntingly bereft of reason or certainty. The killing, their relationship and the nature of the American landscape are all wide open for the mapping of interpretation. What Malick provides, both in the film’s music and cinematography, is sparsely poetic, contemplative and enduringly resistant to the confines of resolution. What happens to Holly? What really was their relationship? Why was she not more moved by her parent’s death? What even was Kit’s character? Childish psychopath, enamored simpleton, detached delusional, romantic, hero, villain, neither, all? I enjoyed this a lot more than Days of Heaven (which I need to re-watch, as I feel I was somehow in the wrong mood or something) and felt it brilliantly strange, troubling, haunting, comical and mysterious. And…whilst depicting a relationship at its very heart, it remains almost coldly, distanced from decipherable emotion, meanwhile seeming paradoxically saturated with a natural, elemental feeling. A breathing character latent in the landscape which reflects, sometimes compensates and ineffably elaborates the troubled emptiness of Kit and Holly as they travel through its uncharted expanse. 8/10  


Where the Wild things are – Spike Jonze – I felt cynically opposed to what I assumed, with an internalised sneer, would be the sentimentalist tactics of this film: oh, I see, fantastical monsters eh? But with a moralising, growing-up poignancy eh? Sorta like a Never Never land for the furry…I see your game, Wild Things…and I ain’t buying…you can build strange dens, howl and playfully knock down trees, but no siree – no allegorical, tear jerkin’ Jim Hensen, Gruffalo grumbling puppetry is gonna hold my heartstrings hostage!

I cried. I mean, I was a bit hungover…but mainly that was irrelevant…it was beautiful. Begone foul cynicism and embrace this tender, imaginative and visually startling film. Complete with a terrific soundtrack (from Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs), it unravelled any sense of superior distance I had puffed up in misguided preconceptions and provided a genuinely moving, well-written and exciting evocation of childhood imagination. It is an imagination that this adaptation of the children’s book respects is also twinned with a vivid and troubling anxiety. Hugely and unexpectedly enjoyable. 8/10


Blues Brothers – My viewing of this is inevitably soured by experiencing it through a legacy of formulaic, recycled ‘one big gig’ films, that hinge on the drama of a climactic concert to structure their otherwise non-descript story’s of bromance, romance or any other insipid relationship wheeled out for caricature. The iconic, suited capers of John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd in this classic comedy were too unrelentingly goofy and drawn out for my liking. I can imagine at a different point in my life, maybe this would have been really enjoyable…as opposed to just fairly annoying. I can’t deny the brilliance of the cameos (James Brown, John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin etc.) and the flashes of quotable fun, but overall I was quick to tire of its goofy exuberance. The car chase is too long. 5/10  

Julie and Celine go Boating – Jacques Rivette – At over three hours in length this bizarre odyssey of the meta-theatrics of cinema, character and who we watch, when we watch, what we watch…requires a certain mood of patience. Being in such a mood I embarked on this wonderfully strange adventure, experiencing a fluctuating waltz between boredom, whimsical humour, unsettling confusion and the compelling sense of a character’s own mental and fictional collapse. It is comparable, in its thematic fascination with female identity, film and boundaries between worlds and states of consciousness, with Bergman’s Persona and Lynch’s Mulholland Drive. However this is not as artfully cerebral as Persona or as dark Mulholland Drive, instead it is wonderful and rare example of a film that allows itself to travel through its own shifts of tone and meaning, at its own pace. Scenes can languorously slide from mild eroticism, playful banality, nonsense and comedy, to tragic melodrama, surrealist dialogue and the shadows of a more disturbing, psychological emphasis. 

The film centres around two female friends that use boiled sweets to return to a house in which a cinematic melodrama is unfolding, and in which they are forced to partake like roles in the cracked logic of an unfinished play. The rest of the film floats around this central premise (based on Henry James’ novel, ‘The Other House’), using a fragmented sequencing of recollection and interruption pieced together alternatively by the two girls and our own wandering interpretations. In its uncanny and looping passage through memory and attention the film encourages narrative and its characters to reflexively question themselves just as we, the audience, are engaged in a parallel process…identity is swapped and chronology is circled, like the orouboros bracelet of a snake biting its own tail, dreaming in a moibus strip of who and when Rivette conjures a dazed and inventive exploration of watching and knowing, and how neither are ever reliably one-way or settled. 8/10 

Margaret – Kenneth Lonergan – A precocious 17 year old, Lisa, witnesses a traumatic road accident in which a woman is knocked down and killed by a bus. The rest of the film’s narrative follows Lisa in her painful attempt to emotionally digest what her part in the accident may, or may not, have been. At the age of 17, the trauma of the event is shrouded, accelerated and exacerbated by an onslaught of severely unfortunate adolescent experiences, all of which are in turn warped in the wake of the accident. In the midst of such formative experiences, the accident embodies an intrusion of the ‘real’ (not in an overly theorised Lacanian sense…more of a, ‘in a life of self consciously, privileged New York existence, scenes of death are, as in most places, hard hitting’ kind of ‘real’) and visceral gravity of life, death, mortality and all the gore stained consequences therein. In short, it is a experience that exceeds the remits of her classroom confidence and high school, social buoyancy…to be fair, holding a dying stranger in your arms, as her blood matts your hair and her fading eyes wildly search your own – is probably going to put most people, regardless of maturity, out of kilter. Paired with a condensed sightseeing tour of wayward, coming of age, anguish (trying drugs, loosing friends, losing virginity, seducing a teacher, struggling against family, loosing any sense of self) the accident reveals a ‘reality’ incompatible with what, until now, was always a hypothetical morality. The performances are consistently strong, especially Anna Paquin and J. Smith Cameron – as Lisa and her mother, Joan. In fact it is the scenes between mother and daughter that are perhaps the most riveting in the film. Anna brings all the right notes (in all their uncontrollable discordance) to the vulnerability, violence and immaturity of Lisa’s emotions, while J. Cameron lends Joan’s character a believable and lonely fatigue, caught between stoic endurance and the brittle imminence of a break down. It is the characters, performance and dialogue that, each in part, are so compelling and strong. Unfortunately, the sum of those parts feels overly ambitious and misguided.

The film was cut down to 150 minutes, on the studio’s insistence and with help from Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker (a regular editor with Scorsese). The version I watched was the extended three hour cut. Lonergan clearly had ambitions of portraying a panoramic portrait of New York, alongside and through the tale of Lisa. This aspiration, for a more transcendent evocation of New York and its multitude of stories, is demonstrated through labouring long pans of cityscape vistas and cut-aways to bustling streets and crowd shots. There is also the interesting, but not entirely successful, decision in the film’s sound to fade up background conversations so that we hear snippets of other stories. One of the continually reoccurring motifs, even if only auditory, in the film is interruption and overlapping. Whether through intrusive sound or conversation, there is always the sense that Lonergan wants us aware of the teeming life that animates the restless city, and that the film’s narrative is just one of thousands that busily coincide and walk past each other every day. The other, perhaps more pertinent, reason is to underline Lisa’s growing realisation that she is not the centre of the world. While the technique is interesting, it soon becomes too transparently exercised. The effect is not dissimilar to punctuating a piece of art with explanatory and patronising sticky notes, keen to outline ‘themes’ at every step; or, as the annoyingly predictable English teacher (Matthew Broderick) routinely asks, after reading an extract of Shakespeare, or some other piece held in hushed reverence: ‘What’s going on here?’

 Unfortunately what often seems to be ‘going on’ in the film works as an unintended parallel to Lisa’s teenage hyperbole and hysterical need to ‘operatically’ fictionalise life. The film introduces nuanced and well-written characters only to then uncomfortably consign them to the service of some ‘grander ‘cinematic theme. The debates in Lisa’s history class that hotly entangle post-911 tensions feel contrived and cumbersome, the cultural differences explored in Joan’s new boyfriend seem underdeveloped and at times reductive, while the continual need to assert this as inseparable from New York, in all its vast plateaus of flux and activity, becomes tiring and obvious. When Lisa throws her emotions around with painful and energetic abandon it is wince inducing, but for the right reasons: she is out of her depth. Whereas when Lonergan attempts to draw attention away from the immediacy of his characters to a more overarching, ‘bigger picture,’ it feels as though he is dangerously close to adopting the same ‘out of depth,’ dress up and confusion that Lisa’s immaturity struggles with. It is an ambitious and, in parts, very impressive film that feels let down by an anxious need to be whole, as though Lonergan was concerned that the relationship between mother and daughter was not substantial enough for the film. Or, perhaps nearer to the crux of its editing issues and eventual length, is an anxiety that our ability, as an audience, to engage and expand on that relationship needed a wider frame of reference to justify its significance. All of which leads to a heavy handed elaboration of the film’s ideas at the sad neglect of its own dramatic potency, dressing up the kernel of its achievement – in the portrayal of an intelligently rendered mother/daughter relationship – in the diluting pursuit of a ‘message’. Impulse. In conclusion: Magaret has genuinely fantastic acting and flashes of excellent character interaction but overall feels too concerned with what it, as a film, intends to be and do ‘overall’. 7/10

The Following – Christopher Nolan -  Now known as Mr. BACKWARDS MEMENTO, INTELLIGENT BLOCKBUSTERING, INCEPTION-DREAM WITHIN A DREAM WITHIN A DREAM WITHIN A BATMAN RENAISSANCE, Nolan…this film was back where it all started. His first feature is a low budget and inevitably amateur (in some ways) tale of many twisty turny twists, following the life of a writer who gets deceived into a life of crime. What is interesting is how clear, even from this formative and raw stage, Nolan’s characteristics are. Prefigured in this film is the predisposition for ambitious narrative ploys – see Memento, the violence and noir-like leanings – Dark Knight etc – and the twisty turny twisting of Inception and probably The Prestige (though I haven’t seen it – hence the ‘probably’). These field notes of directorial development aside, the film itself – taken out from the ‘Nolon context’- is fairly shaky. Scenes are overcrowded with theatre-like dialogue, actors struggle with acting, the black and white feels uninterestingly used except for providing immediate shorthand for ‘noir’ and, in the end, it is hard to invest much in the characters and story when they are subject to so many stumbles. 6/10

Moonrise Kingdom– Wes Anderson – I realise this is entirely my opinion and this film has been highly (and though it may seem contradictory to say so, given my own opinion, rightfully) praised…I fell that, in short: TOO FAR Wes, TOO FAR.  Of Anderson’s films I have seen – and enjoyed – Bottle Rocket, The Royal Tenebaums, The Darjeeling Ltd and Fantastic Mr. Fox  (really need to see Rushmore)…for me Moonrise Kingdom would not be included in the aforementioned list of ‘enjoyed’ Anderson outings. The other films I have seen had adult relationships, which, despite being manicured into Anderson’s delightfully detailed wardrobe of eccentricities, felt connected, at some level, to emotion. Fantastic Mr. Fox was never going to be about moments of human pathos or emotion but, through the individual and innovative animation (and its origin with Roald Dahl, as a child’s story), had no need to tick such boxes to succeed. Unfortunately Moonrise Kingdom feels essentially grounded in a comparable world of child-like adventure (despite obviously attempting to explore nervous dabbling in ‘growing up’ and momentary insight into adult relationships) without having the charm of the animation. I am not ridiculously suggesting that a film that centres around children, albeit on the cusp of hinting adolescence, need be exclusively child-like – of course not – BUT, when emotional reach and sophistication is a short sighted as it is here – it begins to feel childishly limited. The quirk of Wes Anderson’s immediately recognisable aesthetic is in full, saturated and suffocating swing…with Anderson’s other films I would avoid ‘quirky’ or ‘quirk’ as they call to mind the pejorative connotations of superficial strangeness or ‘quirky’ ’s   less loved sibling: ‘kooky’. Well, this is neither ‘quirky’ nor ‘kooky’ but a full-blown chocolate box of pastel coloured mannerisms. So meticulously choreographed, colour coordinated and calculated, that the film feels closer to a lifeless museum of Wes Anderson dolls; every film of Anderson’s has indulged this neat cabinet of curiosities effect, but have never before been so nauseatingly cloying and unrelenting. I felt the majority of emotion or interest was eclipsed by the queasy sensation of being force fed very ornate, quaintly decorated tea-cakes, while sat in the manufactured nostalgia of a vintage clothing shop… and then, trying my best to choke down the remarkable icing and attention to detail, listening to the saccharine voices of a children’s choir on a plastic record player…on repeat. At the beginning of this review I said praise for this film was assigned ‘rightfully’…which seems, granted, contrary to my teacake spitting distaste…but the thing is, regardless of ‘taste’ – it cannot be denied that Anderson’s flourishes of formal detail and control, the insistence and attainment of his particular vision…are all, technically, very impressive. It still made me feel irritable and slightly sick. 5/10

Kings of Summer – Jordan Vogt Roberts -  Three teenagers build an improvised den in the woods, vowing to live off the land in an adolescent arcadia, escaping their various home lives and family situations in favour of  a simple, honest and at-one-with-nature joy. A summer of independence and self-sufficient living.  The camera observes the awe-inspiring American forest and landscape with a style between Attenborough-style nature documentaries and Malick-style ‘magic hour’ golden light and camera flare. Making it all very easy on the eyes, added to which the director has a fondness for occasionally overused slow motion montages. However, this is not simply a pleasing spectacle of sunlight and leaves – the tone is intelligently comic, with witty dialogue (a terrific array of sardonic infuriation and misery is spouted by the protagonist’s Dad, played by Nick Offerman) and a hilariously bizarre stroke of genius in the character of Biaggio (played by Moises Arias) – a very short, Indian boy who joins the two friends without much reason or explanation but provides continual oddities of conversational gold. At one point, striding through a river and wielding a stick or found sword, the lead boy, Joe (played by Nick Robinson) turns to Biaggio and utters something like: ‘However you ever felt so alive, so wild, so (* brandishes stick/sword *) so Manly??’ To which Biaggio calmly replies ‘I like to think of myself without gender…is that a problem?’ There is a short pause, following this unexpected assertion. Joe then replies ‘It’s not great.’ On another moment Biaggio confides in Joe, after a girl pays him attention: ‘Im gay.’ Joe replies, ‘really?’ Biaggio, matter of factly continues, ‘yes, my lungs fill up with fluid every time the season changes’ to which a bewildered Joe responds, ‘that’s cystic fibrosis…’ After which Biaggio changes the conversation and decides he might in fact like the girl, leaving Joe muttering about how ‘cystic fibrosis’ is not a casual thing, it’s serious shit. There is a blank faced absurdity to all of Biaggio’s random comments that makes him consistently and beautifully comic. In addition to looking great, escaping suburban banality in the natural grandeur of the forest, being surprisingly witty and entertaining, it also imaginatively portrays ‘coming of age’ euphoria. The film celebrates the bonding of friends and explores inevitable tensions of change, it conjures the lust, excitement and disappointments of infatuation, the timeless chapters of possibility that ‘summer’ can encapsulate at that age, and – in the figure of Joe’s father, the difficulties of re-building life after the end of a marriage. This is a brilliantly made, fun and imaginative jostling of characters all resisting, anticipating and coming to understand what exactly in life is changing – and maybe what has to change. 8/10

Princess Mononoko – Hiayao Mayazaki – I was pretty tired when I watched this, so feel like my review will short-change the detail of the film – which was, in expected Studio Ghibli fashion, exuberantly imaginative. At the film’s core – behind the battles, beasts, and oddly Tolkien-like vibes, is a meditation on nature and mankind…the wrestling and not uncomplicated relationship twixt the two. The ‘spirits of the forest’ are memorably iconic creations from the Ghibli universe: like small lunar dolls, ticking their bulbous eyed blank faces, somewhere between Moomins and haunted milk bottles. Elsewhere there is the eponymous ‘Mononoko’ who is an agile wolf riding warrior, packs of wild and giant boar and the amorphous and translucent spirit that stalks the forest, morphing between a deer and a ghostly enormity. The narrative begins with Ashitaka defending a village from a giant boar who has been possessed by a demon, the demon is vividly depicted as a writhing mass of carmine strands – like warring red maggots throbbing and burrowing, the film does not hold back on its blood erupting evil. Having saved the village and killed the possessed boar, Ashitaka is subsequently scarred with the mark of ‘hate and rage’ leaving purple prints blotched across his arm. As a result he embarks on a journey to see whether or not the life and soul destroying curse can be lifted. Spectacular images of strange creatures are definitely the best thing going in this film…the translated Americanisms in the stunted dialogue – complete with the anime disregard for lip-syncing gets a tad annoying at times. 7/10

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