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Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 1 July 2018 05:58 (A review of Cake (2014))

The ingredients are all there but the batter never mixes correctly in Cake. A stellar performance from its star cannot hide the deficiencies in the rest of the film, nor can it entirely keep you interested, as there’s no one and nothing for her to work with or against. Jennifer Aniston deserved all the accolades she got, and probably deserved that withheld Oscar nomination more than Felicity Jones’ long-suffering wife in The Theory of Everything, but there’s nothing else going on throughout Cake to invest in.


Cake treats the central event of what caused Aniston’s Claire to wind up as a chronic pain sufferer with the beginnings of one hell of a prescription pill addiction as a mystery, but what they think are breadcrumbs are actually gigantic signposts. By the time Cake gets around to unraveling the mysteries at its core, we’ve already not only figured them out, but met them with an indifferent shrug. This is what happens when all of the other characters are stick figures and blank slates for the main characters to act and project upon.


Why is it that primarily comedic actors only get props for doing drama? Aniston’s quirky, comedic work on Friends was career making, and she’s done plenty of respectable comedic film performances, but it’s typically films like The Good Girl and Friends With Money that crop as proof of her acting talents. None of this is to say that Aniston’s performance in Cake is not worthy of the reams of praise heaped upon it, but it needs to not be treated as some kind of heretofore unknown talent.


Aniston goes deep into the physicality of the character, and her choices to telegraph and demonstrate living with chronic pain feel correct in both the micro and macro levels. Even better is how someone dubbed “America’s Sweetheart” forsakes that likable image so completely and relishes playing someone so incredibly selfish, mired in grief, and frequently terrible in her self-destructive, sardonic actions. There’s no warm fuzzy feeling in her Claire. She’s a woman at a crossroads and sinking in emotional turmoil, and Aniston does her best to make the emotional catharsis of the ending work.


She can’t quite pull off the trick, but that’s got little to do with the strength of her work and more to do with the weakness of the script and the faux-deep directing choices. Cake doesn’t want to examine the outside world that’s pressing in on Claire’s privileged existence, and it reduces several Mexican characters to variations of the Magical Negro and its two male characters to gender-flipped supportive players with nothing much to say or do but act as a springboard. It’s Aniston’s show, and she makes a meal of it, but it’s a goddamn shame that nothing else rises to her level because then we really could have had something here.

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Something’s Gonna Happen

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 25 June 2018 04:01 (A review of Something's Gonna Happen)

This EP of Marshall Crenshaw covers wasn’t released until 2003, but they were recorded for a never-to-materialize album in the late 80s/early 90s. For those who know anything about Ronnie Spector’s career that would put us right around the time of the Eddie Money duet “Take Me Home Tonight,” the iconic use of “Be My Baby” in Dirty Dancing, and just after her comeback album Unfinished Business, a respectable if dated pop/rock affair.


Listening to these songs it’s obvious what drew Spector’s attention to them. Crenshaw’s retro-minded pop/rock ditties recall the sounds of Buddy Holly, Brenda Lee, and the Wall of Sound. Her voice sounds right at home on songs like “For His Love,” which gives her a chance to flex her that quiver and sensual need in her voice, and “Favorite Waste of Time,” which provides ample room for her sass.


If there’s any misstep here, it’s “Communication.” Proof that while Ronnie Spector’s voice was plenty versatile and dexterous, it’s no match for rockabilly guitar and a heavy twang. Her voice evokes the big city, of steam coming up from subway grates, of neon lights, and romantically staring off into the night sky while sitting on the fire escape. It’s just an odd match of singer and style, even if she does sing the hell out of it.


But one misstep cannot undue the thrill and joy of listening to Spector wrap her iconic vocal style around these songs. Handclaps, several backup singers, and a propulsive oldies beat populate Something’s Gonna Happen. It’s the title track that emerges as the best of the bunch as Crenshaw’s naughty little track sounds tailor made for Spector’s bad girl of rock and roll persona. Even Crenshaw approved, stating “Ronnie’s version of those songs are my favorite of any covers that I’ve had so far; I think they’re just beautiful.” Something’s Gonna Happen is the strongest set of solo material from Spector after 1999’s She Talks to Rainbows.


DOWNLOAD: “Something’s Gonna Happen”

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A Bay of Blood

Posted : 2 months ago on 14 June 2018 05:00 (A review of A Bay of Blood)

Is this Mario Bava’s most violent film? It seems entirely possible as it contains thirteen deaths, each a series of escalating gore and slaughter until it all culminates in a sick joke. Bava’s particular brand of giallo was built upon nihilism, but A Bay of Blood feels completely unconcerned with narrative coherence in favor of shocks, titillation and splatter.


If Psycho was the first steps of the slasher genre then A Bay of Blood went a long way towards hardening the template. It plays like a dry-run of Friday the 13th at several moments, not only in its segue of horny teenagers in the woods getting hacked to pieces with a machete but in its several lingering shots of the shimmering, simmering body of water that becomes a repository for several secrets. Consider Bava’s film a historical curiosity with a direct line to draw to the Friday series (including two kills borrowed over for Friday the 13th Part Two) but later day bratty imitators such as Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.


It all starts off beautifully with a sequence that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hitchcock film, and then it just keeps going revealing how the film will play out. There’s a disregard for spatial and narrative coherence in favor of shocks for the sake of it. Why open with one graphic and shocking murder when you can have two? Even if the second one dilutes the first and just makes you go “wait, what?” instead of the intended reaction.


The biggest frustration with Bava here was his flagrant disregard for a story. Things just happen, relationships are just thrown about with no good rhyme or reason, and supporting players appear just to up the body count. It doesn’t add up to much of anything, but it’s entertaining to watch while it unspools and bleeds out before you. It’s all red herrings to keep the plot moving along fast enough for you to never pause long enough to think about what is happening and why. It’ll appease the gore hounds the most, but I’ve seen better Bava.

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House of Frankenstein

Posted : 2 months ago on 14 June 2018 04:59 (A review of House of Frankenstein (1944))

Six films into the franchise and Universal finally decided to make their all of their premiere monsters team-up in House of Frankenstein, an entertaining mid-tier entry that should’ve been better. You get five for the price of one here, as the Monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula, a mad scientist, and his hunchback assistant all appear. But wait, there’s more! You get the flooded ruins of Castle Frankenstein, the damaged property of Ludwig Frankenstein miraculous erected and in working order, a lovely gypsy girl, torch wielding townsfolk, and Boris Karloff returning to the franchise – all of that in 71 minutes!


The gag is that House of Frankenstein barely involves the Monster and has no relatives bearing the name. The plot is actually an elaborate revenge story about Karloff’s mad scientist using the various creatures to do his dirty work, be it kidnapping, seducing, or killing his enemies. Dracula and the Monster are big names with small presences here, but Larry Talbot gets a plum supporting part. It averages out to be just enough material for each of them to prove worthwhile and logical for their appearances to mean something.


Talbot and Lon Chaney Jr.’s continued anxiety, disgust, and emotional crisis in the role make for humanizing moments that reveal the eternal struggle of good and evil at play in the best of these films. You root for Talbot’s cure, be it a way to relieve the curse and a return to normalcy or the peace he seeks in death and no longer having to fear or worry. Talbot’s possibly the most developed and interesting of the major monsters as his continual resurrections only anger him and he longs to no longer kill or cause destruction.


The same can’t be said for Karloff’s mad scientist. He’s a man who relishes his villainy, and Karloff makes a meal of the part. It’s thinly written stuff, but he plays it like its going to win him an Oscar. Even better is the strange poetry that emerges as the story progresses and he becomes the reanimator for the Monster. Once he was the stitched together son and now he’s the patriarch, the master of afterlife and the man who dared to play god. His character also exhibits a strange protectiveness of the Frankenstein legacy and lineage, a plot point that becomes unexpectedly poignant by his mere presence in the role.


It’s just a damn shame that this same kind of thoughtful examination or smart casting couldn’t extend to the hunchback, Dracula, or the Monster. John Carradine was a wonderful character actor, but he’s a dud as Dracula. He completely lacks mixture of Old World charisma and erotic danger that Bela Lugosi effortless brought to the role, and this Dracula feels too modern, earth-bound, and American. The effects to transform him from skeletal remains to corporeal entity are dream-like and artful in their artifice, so at least his limited appearance isn’t a total strikeout.


Once again, we’re sacked with a hunchback character that pines for a gypsy dancer that won’t return his affections. They can call him Daniel all they want, but Quasimodo by any other name is still Quasimodo. Nothing original is done with the part since Karloff’s Niemann can easily scan as a Frollo stand-in, or they forced this Quasimodo clone into the shape of an Igor/Ygor/Fritz. Both readings can easily scan as accurate.


Despite being dubbed House of Frankenstein, the Monster only appears in a small amount of the finished product. Consider it the curious case of the Monster as he spends much of his time as a cadaver that must be brought back to life, yet again. The makeup looks cheap here, and the most action the Monster does is throwing Daniel out a window and being thawed out of the ice. How’d we make it six films deep in this franchise only to end with the Monster being a glorified cameo and no Frankenstein to rebel against? Still, the scenes between the Monster’s lifeless corpse and Karloff are fascinating for their meta-textual entertainment.


Still, House of Frankenstein is a minor entertainment. It manages to make the meeting of this many flagship characters a coherent narrative, and that’s no small trick to pull off. There’s enough moody, inky shadows and omnipresent smoke and fog to give it some personality, which is a major step-up from both Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein. And there’s the joy in watching Lon Chaney Jr. and Boris Karloff play off of each other while surrounded by a laboratory or carnival caravan, and that’s a pretty joyful experience for me. It may not live up to the hype that putting all of these characters together would engender, but it’s still a fun lazy Saturday afternoon entertainment.  

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The Ghost of Frankenstein

Posted : 2 months ago on 14 June 2018 04:59 (A review of The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942))

The Universal Monsters contained a troupe of players both behind and in front of the camera, many of whom performed double or triple duty by working on various entries in the sub-franchises. Think of how Boris Karloff played the Monster, a mummy, and a mad scientist, or how Bela Lugosi was Dracula, Ygor, and a lycanthrope in The Wolf Man. Yet  it’s Lon Chaney Jr. that emerges as the lone actor who played nearly every major monster at least once, vampire in Son of Dracula, werewolf in The Wolf Man, the Monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein, and the mummy in The Mummy’s Tomb. The only parts he didn’t play were the Invisible Man, the Phantom, and the Gill-man.


Not too shabby for an actor to get a chance to run-through many of the major icons of horror cinema, but it’s a damn shame that his crack at the Monster is so poor. Chaney Jr. brought enormous amounts of tragedy and neurotic energy to his Larry Talbot, in the process he crafted a character and performance that stands besides the deservedly iconic work of Lugosi and Karloff in Dracula and Frankenstein. Here he seems to merely be hitting the same beats and poses as Karloff without bringing the same amount of interior conflict and carefully modulated sympathy.


It insist just the notable absence of Karloff that causes The Ghost of Frankenstein to go sideways, but the clear lack of funds on display and a script that’s as stitched together as the Monster work against it. The injection of footage from Whale’s 1931 masterpiece point out just how much is missing here. At least we’ve got Lugosi making his second and final appearance as Ygor, and he’s once again delightfully hammy in the part. He goes beyond Brechtian styles of performance and straight into flagrant disregard for the interiority and craft of acting while chewing the scenery. He’s entertaining to watch, far more than Cedric Hardwicke and Lionel Atwill who feel bland here. It’s not really their fault, though.


The Ghost of Frankenstein is all dressed up with nowhere to go. What do you expect from a film that introduces a secondary Frankenstein heir with flippancy towards continuity with the prior film? There’s the gloriously improbably story beat to place Ygor’s brain in the Monster’s body, this livens things up for a bit as it’s just so completely bonkers that your reaction to it is but a surrendering to its insanity. While The Ghost of Frankenstein is a disappointment, it has the courage to go down in outlandish self-immolation filmed in as generic a manner as possible.

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Son of Frankenstein

Posted : 2 months ago on 14 June 2018 04:58 (A review of Son of Frankenstein (1939))

Universal’s horror branch was in decline when the success of a double feature re-release in 1938 of Dracula and Frankenstein provided a shot in the arm. Cut to 1939 and the brand new entry in the dormant Frankenstein franchise, a film that found Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi teaming up for the first time in an entry in the Universal Monsters mega-franchise. They’d both put in the work in genre trailblazers and immortal classics, so the chance to see them team-up was a recipe for success. It’s just a shame that Son of Frankenstein doesn’t quite live up to the thrill of seeing them slathered in putty and chewing on the scenery.


The absence of James Whale in this film is pronounced as much of Son of Frankenstein looks and feels anonymous. Whale’s first two entries contained symphonies of light and shadow, of horror and pathos, of queer subtext and Pre-Code salaciousness, and none of that is here. Much of the gruesome stuff is alluded to more than seen, so you won’t find anything as tragic or terrifying as the creature throwing a little girl into the lake and accidentally drowning her here.


The greatest of the Universal Monster films create a world consumed by shadows, ever-present smoke and fog, and a fairy-story version of European hamlets that feel displaced from time and space. They create a mood, or they give you a performance that transforms the monster into a misunderstood antihero (think of Lon Chaney Jr.’s sweaty, panicked work in The Wolf Man). That seems mildly missing here as we’re instead treated to a son discovering the family legacy, becoming obsessed, but still restoring order in the end. It’s a solid concept, a nice twist on a series that was establishing motifs and themes, but it’s lacking a certain spark. (Forgive the pun.)


A more expressionistic look and feel would have done wonders. Son of Frankenstein was the last of the “A” movies in the series before they transitioned to solid “B” movie fare, and the film functions as something of a transition. It’s not quite a large step-down in quality, but there’s a certain attention to craft and detail that’s lacking here. I suppose that’s what you get when you trade an auteur like Whale or a journeyman like Rowland V. Lee. He keeps the whole thing moving, assembles a pleasing cast, and keeps the basic template in place so it’s not a massive comedown but a noticeable slide.


Basil Rathbone as titular son reclaiming his family’s inheritance and complicated legacy makes for a natural presence in the Universal Monsters canon with his erudite carriage, stiff manners, and Gothic romance looks. While Lionel Atwill gives his Inspector Krogh stiff and withheld emotional textures and body language, and he makes another pleasing addition to the various lawmen of the franchise. But it’s Bela Lugosi as Ygor that steals the show as he goes completely off the nails (gloriously so) in crafting a (literally) broken man hell-bent on revenge.


It’s a shame that Karloff’s final appearance as the creature reverts him not only to a mute but a mere pawn for Ygor’s machinations. Karloff brought unbearable amounts of conflicted agony and a poetic yearning for connection to his version of the Monster in the two prior films, and here he merely functions as a grunting, flailing golem. No wonder he grew tired of the role and left is behind right after this. He would eventually return to the Frankenstein films, but as a mad scientist where his mild lisp and droll diction wrapped around purple prose to grand, theatrical effect. Karloff’s exit from the role would mark the beginning of the end for the Monster as a headline player in the Universal Monsters franchise.


In fact, the next sequel, The Ghost of Frankenstein, would prove to be his final solo outing, as the Monster would only now appear in crossover monster features like Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man or House of Frankenstein. If you were to see this particular film as a signpost, it would be as the starting point of the decline and overabundance of sequels of the Universal Monsters. There would remain bright spots, later entries like Creature from the Black Lagoon for example, but the mystery, atmosphere, and dream-like horror of the likes of The Bride of Frankenstein was rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

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Golden Earrings

Posted : 2 months ago on 14 June 2018 04:57 (A review of Golden Earrings (1947))

Part espionage thriller, part romance, and still Golden Earrings is a dull entry in Marlene Dietrich’s career. The dust had barely settled from WWII when this was unleashed, and this had somehow managed to turn the Nazis into a vague non-threat. It’s also grossly ahistorical in its presentation of the Romani people given that hordes of them were slaughtered during the Holocaust. But hey, Golden Earrings is all about being upbeat, patriotic and patting yourself on the back for being inclusive unlike those damn Nazis.


Somehow shoving a glamorous star personality into brownface and a black wig doesn’t a compelling enough reason for a film make. Dietrich gives the role her all, but everything seems beneath her magnetic spell. Without a strong director, not just Josef von Sternberg but the likes of Billy Wilder or Orson Welles, Dietrich seems like a vessel with nothing to fill her and no one to nurture her post-modern acting style. She looks ridiculous under all that bronzer and those false eyelashes, and she doesn’t generate much heat with Ray Milland as her British spy who meets her, disguises himself as her dead husband, and learns an important lesson about tolerance while slowly falling in love along the way. If Golden Earrings isn’t the nadir of both of their careers, then I shudder to think of what could possibly be worse.    

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The Flame of New Orleans

Posted : 2 months ago on 14 June 2018 04:56 (A review of The Flame of New Orleans (1941))

Glamour puss extraordinaire Marlene Dietrich gets a chance to poke gentle fun at her icy, remote goddess persona in The Flame of New Orleans. We’re a long way from the sustained romantic luxury and exotic stylization found in the Josef von Sternberg films here, and Dietrich actually exhibits personality here rather than function as another prop in the elaborate tableau. It’s just a shame that the rest of the film isn’t up to her level. Roland Young is stuffy, Bruce Cabot is a pleasant surprise in the Clark Gable-esque role, Anne Revere gets a chance to play high society instead of frumpy matron, Theresa Harris finds perfect synchronicity with Dietrich as her maid/co-conspirator, but it’s all in service towards a script that starts with a hooky narration and never expands beyond that initial impression. The Flame of New Orleans is a lightweight affair, an amiable obscurity buried within the Dietrich myth that’s fun to discover in a career box set or retrospective wedged in-between towering greats like The Shanghai Express and Witness for the Prosecution.   

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Ultra-Lounge, Vol. 1: Mondo Exotica

Posted : 2 months ago on 14 June 2018 04:52 (A review of Ultra-Lounge, Vol. 1: Mondo Exotica)

Ah, exotica, that most bizarre of subgenre of American jazz popular in the late 50s through the mid-60s that was an aural ersatz approximation of world music through an atomic prism. It didn’t actually sound anything like real music from a Hawaiian luau or the folk sounds of the Amazon, nor did it resemble anything out of the Andes or African tribal drums. Exotica was a pure fantasy creation that sounded right at home in the clean, rounded futuristic spaces viewed on The Jetsons.


Exotica relied upon a combination of rhythms (bongos, conga, bamboo sticks, vibes) alongside found sounds (jungle cat roars, primate shrieks, and bird calls most prominently) to give the vaguest sense of travelogue and safari-like adventures. The whole thing is infinitely preposterous, and then you add in the relative lack of singing in favor of siren-like vocal ululations and chants to make the entire thing sound like the soundtrack of a whacky sci-fi adventure.


Does this sound like a good time to you? Well, it should. Exotica remains a camp delight for those seeking it out. Lucky for you that Ultra-Lounge, Vol 1: Mondo Exotica exists to find a thorough sampling of the various types of exotica all in one place.


Martin Denny, the biggest purveyor of the sound who dubbed it “pure fantasy,” gets the largest amount of selections with six (“Swamp Fire,” “Hypotique,” “Misirlou,” “Jungle Madness,” “The Girlfriend of the Whirling Dervish,” “Quiet Village”), and this is as it should be. You’ll essentially get another Denny song every third track. “Swamp Fire” sets the tone right out the gate, and if your first impression is something along the lines of “what the hell is this?” then you’re not alone. Exotica takes a while to wrap your brain around as it sounds carbon-dated to its era and delightfully space age.


If Denny’s strange lounge music populated with animal shrieks doesn’t make you think of the swinging sixties, then surely 80 Drums Around the World’s “Caravan” will do it. There is a breakdown in “Caravan” that wouldn’t sound out of place as the backdrop to a bunch of go-go dancing bikini girls on the beach. It’s charming in just how obtuse and kitsch it is.


Les Baxter, the godfather of the sound, gets four choices and they display how instrumental he was in laying the foundations. His songs sound less ornate and bizarre than others, compare his “Atlantis,” a dreamy little instrumental, Bas Sheva’s guttural moans and chants on “Lust” and you’ll hear how his ideas only grow once taken up by other artists. Baxter was clearly doing lounge music to everyone else’s dreamscapes of galactic frontiers and surf riders.


Another major player in the genre was Yma Sumac, a Peruvian singer blessed with a ridiculously large vocal range that she puts on full display on both of the choices here. “Babalu” gets transformed far away from its standardized form, you know it most readily from Ricky Ricardo’s persistent playing of it on I Love Lucy, and into something that sounds like a campy Amazonian Moon Queen’s band would play. While “Wimoweh” closes out the album, and it’s the closest that Ultra-Lounge, Vol 1: Mondo Exotica gets to a song played straight. Sumac still lets her backup singers deliver the chorus lines while she hits notes in the highest parts of her range and does a few runs. Sumac’s two songs are daffy and elegant, kitsch and sophisticated at the exact same time.        


Mondo Exotica keeps its track listing firmly on the side of the more digestible and accessible pieces of exotica, and it’s an inspired hour of strange, weird sounds. It becomes nearly narcotic in just how obtuse it all is. The Ultra-Lounge series was clearly off to a good start with this set that wisely alternates between the biggest players (Denny, Baxter, Sumac) and lesser-known choices (the Out-Islanders, 80 Drums Around the World, Tak Shindo). The whole collection emerges as a piece of essential listening for your next intergalactic beach party and cookout on Venus.


DOWNLOAD: Yma Sumac’s “Babalu,” the Out-Islanders’ “Moon Mist,” Martin Denny’s “Quiet Village”

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Lu Over the Wall

Posted : 3 months ago on 18 May 2018 09:03 (A review of Lu Over the Wall)

A confusing, charming mess of a takeoff on The Little Mermaid, Lu Over the Wall is several different films vying for attention, all of them various degrees of good. If you could, just for a minute, imagine what would happen if a Miyazaki film was rammed through a Looney Tunes filter, and I’m talking about a Bob Clampett/Tex Avery brand of free associative lunacy here, with a dash of rock and roll movie and coming-of-age story as garnishes. Picture this, and you’ll come very close to approximating the chaotic reverie that is Lu Over the Wall.


The problem isn’t that director Masaaki Yuasa is lacking in ideas, but that he’s got too many of them buffeting against each other at any given time. We must absorb the mermaid mythology that the film deploys, and keep various characters straight, including their personal tragedies and relations to one another. It becomes a Sisyphean task, and the quicker you learn to let go coherence and embrace the chaos the better your enjoyment will be.


Lu Over the Wall spits in the face of logic and just proceeds to entertain us with vibrancy, slapstick, pleasingly kooky pop/rock, and the sight of mer-dogs. Here, mermaids closely resemble vampires in their inability to make direct contact with sunlight and turn you into one of their ranks through a fang-filled bite. Lu also doesn’t look like any mermaid I’ve ever seen previously. Her head resembles a jellyfish attached to the body of a koi, and she grows legs and starts dancing whenever she hears music. Her love for music and dance proves infectious as she causes mass breakouts of what looks like an Irish jig in the small fishing village’s denizens.


Look, none of this makes any sense, and your mileage will inevitably vary on how interested you are in watching the closest approximation of a Bob Clampett Studio Ghibli cartoon. Me? I tuned right into its crazy wavelength shortly after its quiet introductory scenes gave way towards Lu manipulating the water around her into gigantic cube shapes that took flight. And that’s not even counting the sight of an enormous humanoid shark wearing a suit and smoking a pipe wandering the streets! Lu Over the Wall isn’t anywhere near perfect, but it’s a damn entertaining and original run through a well-worn mythology. That counts for something.

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