My December movie-watching (NOT a top-ten list)

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Jan 2, 2006 (Updated Apr 15, 2010)


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The Bottom Line "Le Samourai" and "Sanjuro" are still among my favorites; for the whole year (with breakdowns and a 36-best list) see www.epinions.com/content_4624588932

As movies still lacks the kind of general/comparative categories music has (and that the movie CLs would like added), I am again hijacking (or still holding it hostage) this one for jottings on the movies I watched during December. Most of them could be classified as "melodramas," but not the 10-best of all time.

My jottings on the movies chronologically by their initial release years (with any discussions of more than a paragraph separated with "---"s):

I've seen The Philadelphia Story (1940, 5 stars) multiple times, and just the ending at least twice more. I think that Katharine Hepburn was a limited actress, but the part of Tracy was tailored for her, and she's almost as good as Cary Grant. I know that James Stewart's Oscar was in significant part a consolation prize for not getting one for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." Not that he's bad, but Grant's is the memorable male performance from the movie. The movie is not as wild as some screwball comedies but does what it tries to do perfectly.

The House on 92nd Street (1945, directed by Henry Hathaway [The Dark Corner, Kiss of Death], 3.3 stars) is a tight spy drama (urban but mostly daylit) made as propaganda for the efficiency of the FBI and its leader, J. Edgar Hoover who is shown early on and whose orders are teletyped to Agent Briggs, played by Lloyd Nolan, who is in charge of investigating transmission of information about plutonium enrichment to the Nazis. As in the more noirish 1948 Street with No Name (which was still blatantly an FBI propaganda film), there is an undercover agent (William Eythe, Tallulah Bankhead's boytoy in "A Royal Scandal") being run by Nolan who takes great risks, but not the ambivalences of the more interesting undercover agents. Besides shooting in FBI facilities with real employees, Fox (Darryl Zanuck) received surveillance movies of the German Embassy in Washington before Dec. 7, 1941.

Vacation from Marriage (also known as "Perfect Strangers," 1945, produced and directed by Alexander Korda, 3.3 stars) was very predictable (especially knowing that marriages might be endangered but were always triumphant in 1940s movies), though propagandizing women taking on responsibilities soon shifted to propaganda aimed at ridiculing any ambitions outside the domestic sphere (the postwar "feminine mystique" about which Betty Friedan later wrote). The movie has the comic timing of Robert Donat, Glynis Johns, and (!) Deborah Kerr going for it, and provides Kerr a hairstyle at the start of truly impressive ugliness (from which to metamorphose into a swan). Donat's voice is always a pleasure to listen to, and Glynis Johns was delightful in a sort of Ann Sothern gal-pal part. The screenplay by Clemence Dane won an Oscar for "best original screenplay "(yeah, I know the sense of "original" the category means, but still!). It is filled with cliches about stuffiness and military service as self-realization and spouses maintaining assumptions about each other's helpless dependence. And a literal removal of a wall opening unguessed vistas... But watchable because its stars carry the schematic story and cliched roles.

Although I found Sam Fuller unengaging (and his stories suspect) in the bonus features on the Criterion DVD of Pickup on South Street (1953), but the splendid transfer to DVD, and watching again the great performances by Thelma Ritter and Richard Widmark convinced me to rate the movie 4 stars.

Seven Men From Now (1956, directed by Budd Boetticher, 4.8 stars) is a scenic 78-minute B-western in which Lee Marvin plays a sort of evil twin of super-straight-arrow Randolph Scott. The center of the movie is a scene of Pinteresque indirect attack (by Marvin). The movie made me believe that there is something to the Boetticher cult (and the 2005 documentary on him showed him to be a very interesting and candid guy).

For me, the surprise from Kapo (1959) was less that Gillo Pontecorvo (Battle of Algiers, Burn!) could get sentimental (which I already knew from the 1957 "The Wide Blue Road" with Yves Montand) than that the American actress Susan Strasberg  could act. She had a demanding part as a Jewish girl who sees her parents being led, naked, to the slaughter, and is given a uniform and identity of a black-star inmate (ordinary criminals having a better chance of surviving than Jews or political prisoners). As Terese, Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima, mon amour) helps her survive and she learns how to survive better than her teacher (she becomes one of the kapos (short for Kameradenpolizei), who are provided privileges such as rations for policing fellow inmates). The movie has the sort of documentary look "Battle of Algiers" was to have, and the concentration camp set was so realistic that it considerably upset the set's Yugoslav neighbors (so that "It's just a movie" signs were posted on the approaches to it). Toward the end, the grim destruction of humanity adds a very sentimental romance with a Soviet solider (the handsome French actor Laurent Terzieff, the centaur in Pasolini's "Medea" and the betrayed patriot in Rossellini's adaptation of Stendahl's "Vanina Vanini") turns the movie into a more conventional melodrama of love and sacrifice. Despite the appearance of Nobility, the movie ends with hordes of corpses. 5 excruciated stars for the first half, 3 for the second.

I watched the original (1960) "rat pack" Ocean's 11 again, and by the next morning had forgotten most of what I'd seen (again). I've been rebelling at being manipulated to root for heists succeeding, don't find Francis Sinatra charming herein, found the plot preposterous as were the stereotyped roles of Akim Tamiroff and Richard Conte. Sammy Davis, Jr. was somewhat amusing driving a garbage truck, and Cesar Romero camping it up as an successful gangster. Not much of a movie: 2.9 stars. Was it directed? It's hard to believe that the boys paid much attention to Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front, Porkchop Hill), though there is a military connection: the operation is planned as an assault by combat veterans. The movie does show the old Vegas, before it aimed at drawing families.


Tsubaki Sanjuro (1962, directed by Akira Kurosawa), which was presented as being a sort of a sequel to "Yojimbo" is another dark comedy about a ronin (masterless samurai). I watched it again after watching "Kill," which was also based on Shugoro Yamamoto novel sarcastically titled Peaceful Days. Toshio Mifune has the part of the uncouth but savvy tactitian who saves nine hot headed (or blockheaded) earnest samurai from their own folly and tries to limit the number of corpses in rescuing a horse-faced chamberlain who has been seized by a corrupt superintendent. The ronin picks Tsubaki as his name. It means camellia, and camellias floating down a stream are central to the plot. I plan to write more about both version. 5 stars

Le Samourï (1967, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, with Alain Delon as a hitman with only a caged finch for company) is one of my favorite films. Not having seen it in decades, I was somewhat concerned my memory had overestimated it. The Criterion DVD both reassured me that it is a great (and seminal) neo-noir and provided interesting bonus features of Melville and discussions by the authors of two books on Melville (Rui Nogueira and Ginette Vincendeau)

"Kiru" (Kill! 1968, directed by Kihachi Okamoto) is a more violent and more comic adaptation than Kurosawa's ("Sanjuro") of Shugoro Yamamoto novel sarcastically titled Peaceful Days in which Tatsuya Nakadai got to play the fun part of Genta, a samurai who quit being a samurai out of disgust at loyalty to unworthy masters, but retained both his formidable swordsmanship skills and insight into what his opponents (including a humorless professional, the part Nakadai played in Kurosawa's version). Nakadai was no stranger to being tortured onsceen (see The Human Condition), but rarely (at least in movies that have been exported) had chances to show his comic timing. This movie shows that his talent extended to comedy (as moments form "Kagemusha" suggested). As Hanji, the peasant who aspires to become a samurai, Etsushi Takahashi was also excellent (something of a Sancho Panza for the tall Nakadai's Genta, who takes on a quixotic mission and has to keep Hanji and a band of seven earnest stooges from being killed for their follies. Although I think that Kurosawa was wise to simplify the plot and combine characters, Okamoto's version is very interesting and entertaining (and showcases Nakadai's versatility, not least in contrast to the psychotic killing machine he played for Okamoto in the 1966 "Sword of Doom").

Cinderella Liberty (1973, directed by Mark Rydell, 3.1 stars) is a slow but fairly engaging portrait of an unusual family formation: a bar hooker/pool-hustler (Marsha Mason), her streetwise 9-year-old son by a black sailor (Kirk Calloway), and a career (-by-inertia) sailor stuck in (pre-Microsoft, pre-Starbucks) Seattle while his personnel files are lost (James Caan). All three are excellent and develop characters that are not really offbeat, but are outside the ruts of Hollywood movies—and of plausibility. Especially considerable suspension of disbelief is necessary to believe the Caan character (seemingly channeling Jimmy Stewart), particularly his quick rapprochement with the busted officer character played by Eli Wallach's. It seems that it coulda/shoulda been better, especially with outstanding urban cinematography by Vilmos Zsigmond,. (The movie, however, would have been better without Paul Williams's song). The screenplay was adapted from his own novel by Darryl Ponicsan, who also wrote the novel on which "The Last Detail was based.

As the title character in Butley(1974, directed by Harold Pinter from the autobiographical play by Simon Gray, 4.2 stars), Alan Bates reaped awards on the London and Broadway stages. I don't sympathize with his feeling put-upon and am appalled by his cruelty. I am more sympathetic to Jessica Tandy's character, though I imagine that I would have revolted at her classes. Bates sinks his teeth into the character, a change-of-pace from his roles as a bulwark for women on the verge in "Far From the Madding Crowd" and "Diary of a Mad Housewife." An American Film Theater presentation, like Pinter's "The Homecoming," the indoor pressure-cooler atmosphere would be dissipated by "opening up" the play. It is definitely character-driven (acid-repartee-driven?) and Pinter zeroes in on the characters. The video transfer is not good (and/or the original film had deteriorated), but for a portrayal of self-destructive academic (who was supposedly writing a book on T. S. Eliot, but has taken up quoting Beatrix Potter, prefiguring the shift in interest from canonical dead white males to popular culture) Bates roaring and loathing himself almost as much as those he regards as his intellectual inferiors is in the league of Richard Burton in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?".

Female Trouble (1974, directed by John Waters, 1.1 stars). Tasteless might be entertaining, but tasteless and boring isn't. (There are John Waters movies—even ones with Divine—that I find entertaining, but this one is just shrill in a lame attempt to satirize the cults of celebrity and beauty.)

Report to the Commissioner (1975, directed by Milton Katselas, 3.2 stars) has two great chases, some very muddy motivations, fine performances from Yaphet Kotto and Tony King and the debut one of Richard Gere.

Casanova (1976, directed by Federico Fellini, 1.8 stars) is impressively dull. Even the grotesqueries (starting with the hairstyle imposed on Donald Sutherland in the title role). The movie is my answer to the "When did Fellini lose it?" question (others reach back to "Juliet" and there are even some who like this and the later Fellini movies; indeed, I like "Ginger and Fred" [1986] to some degree myself). The tedium is somewhat relieved by two wild musical scenes.

I recalled being amused by the title characters of Jonathan Demme's 1980 movie Melvin and Howard (Paul LeMat and Jason Robards, Jr.) and by Mary Steenburgen's Oscar-winning performance as Lynda, Melvin's perky first and second wife. I watched it again for the women: in addition to Steenburgen (Cross Creek), I wanted to see Pamela Reed (whose performance in Tanner '88 I recently enjoyed; here she played Bonnie) and noir femme fatale Gloria Grahame (who plays Mrs. Sisk). There is a sweetness to the f__kup Melvin, the shaken-up billionaire recluse, the long-suffering Lynda, and the more sensible Bonnie, and it's still a charming little movie with some very funny bits. 4.2 stars.

Gaetano Donizetti's bel canto opera Lucia di Lammermoor (1982, directed by Kirk Browning), a "Live from the Met" telecast with Joan Sutherland in the title role, reminds me that (1) "La Stupenda" (as the Italians dubbed he) could hit any note in the soprano repertoire and (2) with such an awesome vocal instrument to display, she did not concern herself particularly about developing the characters. She didn't just stand and sing, but only gestured at acting. I am not sure whether it was tenor Alfredo Krauss or the part of Edgardo (and the whole last scene) that seemed superfluous, but in addition to the voice of "la stupenda," this cast included impressively powerful singing from baritone Pablo Elvira (as Enrico, the villain who tricks and misuses his sister [tracks 6,16]) and bass Paul Plishka (particularly when Raimondo keeps bloodshed from occurring in the church [23]). The sextet with chorus [22] is one of the great ensemble numbers in all of opera. As Sutherland holds a high-C at the end of it, I knew that the audience was going to go wild, as they did (long and loudly). As cinema, this telecast is unsatisfactory, but, as a document of a great singer and her fans, it is excellent. And the superlative singing is well-captured. Cinema 2, acting 2, singing 5.

A Christmas Story(1983, directed by Bob Clark [between "[between "Porky's II" and "Rhinestone"], 3 stars) is a tale narrated by Jean Shepherd of his childhood in Indiana. It has the look of a toss-off made-for-tv movie, though it was released theatrically by MGM. The heroic fantasies of the boy are very kitschy and the movie is a cartoon with live actors (Melinda Dillon as a sit-com mother buffering the children from a cranky husband is good). It's mostly predictable, though I enjoyed the visit to the department-store Santa, and was happy that the family got to have duck instead of turkey.

I’m not sure whether I saw Love on the Run (1987, directed by François Truffaut, 3 stars) when it first came out, since about half of it is flashbacks to the earlier four movies in the saga of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud). The movie seems more like Truffaut’s “The Man Who Loved Women,” with many women dissecting a man with whom they had been involved than like the earlier (and better) installments of the Antoine Doinel saga. The Criterion DVD includes an interview with Truffaut in which he worried that Doinel had not evolved from the earlier installments and had become a caricature. He had good reason for such concern. Sill, the movie provides pleasures both from the earlier movies and from seeing the actresses again. Léaud runs and looks frantic or tired a lot, but has surprisingly few lines.

It may (must?) be that I don't "get" Mike Leigh. Almost every time I've tried to watch one of his much-acclaimed movies, my patience is quickly tried (and I'm a veteran of many a European art movie). The 1990 "Life Is Sweet" is no exception. It has twins (Claire Skinner and Jane Horrocks) so antithetical that it seems all contrivance. As the father, tripped up by a spoon and breaking his leg, Jim Broadbent seems silly to me (and I think Broadbent has been great in other films). And Alison Steadman's giggling mother quickly got on my nerves. Others find the portrayal of this weird family "touching." For a highly appreciative take, see thevoid99's review. (The one Leigh movie I found tolerable was "Secret and Lies." I found "Naked" particularly annoying.) From me, 2 stars is a leap of faith in the approbation of the movie by others.

Tanner '88 (1988, directed by Robert Altman, 4 stars) an 11-part HBO miniseries with Michael Murphy, Pamela Reed, and Cynthia Nixon still in character in mockumentary 2004 recollections took some getting into, and was obviously made with a small budget, but I got hooked... and depressed that Tanner's assessment that the "war on drugs" was counterproductive still eludes the sanctimonious hypocrites that rule the US.

Sweet Bird of Youth (1989, directed by Nicolas Roeg, 3.5 stars) has a genuine aging screen superstar (Elizabeth) in the part of Alexandra del Lago (created on stage and in the 1962 movie version by the great Geraldine Page), but has a way-too-old and grounded Mark Harmon as the self-loathing fading golden boy of a Gulf Coast town (the part originated on screen and stage by Paul Newman).

Pontecorvo: The Dictatorship of Truth (1992, directed by Oliver Curtis, 5 stars) is a fascinating documentary about Gillo Pontecorvo's making only two more films after the Oscar-winng "Battle of Algiers." It includes very interesting interview footage of Pontecorvo and the great Ennio Morricone who scored it and (even more memorably) the underrated Burn!. The documentary is available on the second of the three-disc Criterion DVD of "Battle of Algiers," along with tributes to that movie from five currently active directors and another excellent "making of" documentary with more recent interview footage. That Pontecorvo (1) has filmed commercials, and (2) has not directed movies is even more a mystery 14 years later. He has not directed a feature film since 1980 and presumably never again will.

Safe (1995, written and directed by Todd Haynes, 2 stars) is S-L--O---W. Julianne Moore (again) goes plays a well-off homemaker going quietly crazy. She has stress? Increasing sensitivity to environmental pollutants, at least, although being a spoiled child who has never grown up seems as likely to me. She is quite diffident and can look to be suffering bravely, but nothing happens in the two hours running time and none of the characters is remotely interesting. The movie has something of the look of Douglas Sirk films, and a female martyr, but Sirk managed to make his heroines and their martyrdoms interesting that Haynes seems to have missed (at least here, I haven't seen "Far From Heaven," also starring Moore).

The Story of the Weeping Camel (2003, directed by Byambasuren Davaa and Luigi Falorni, 3.3 stars) is a slow story about a family in southern Mongolia and one of their camels that gives birth to a white camel and rejects it. The two sons (one quite young) go off to the city to bring back a musician to inspire pity (or the mothering instinct) in the camel for its firstborn. Being fascinated with life in Central Asia, I was interested to see the life of a family with herds of sheep, goats, and camels. Others have been more interested in the camels (the two-humped kind).

"Cinema Paradiso" (1989) was a great and much loved movie, written and directed by Giuseppe Tornatore (The Legend of 1900, Malèna). The 2003 "director's cut (Cinema Paradiso: The New Version) shows that the cutting, credited to Mario Morra (Battle of Algiers, Burn!) was work of genius. That is, what was cut, primarily the story of the film-maker's lost love with a girl from an elite family, swamped the story of the boy Toto and the town's misanthropic film-projectionist Alfredo (the Basset-hound-faced French actor Philippe Noiret dubbed into Italian, as in his other greatest screen triumph, "Il Postino") and the magic of movies. Young lovers torn apart has, um, been done before and done better, and those who loved the version of "Cinema Paradiso" that won shelves of award may be curious about the postadolescent story of Toto, but 29 of the 30 interim years is not in the 47 minutes that had been put back either. The longer story turns Alfredo into a darker (not to mention meddlesome) character. As the adolescent Toto, Marco Leonardi (Like Water for Chocolate, Once Upon a Time in Mexico) is pleasant to look at, but the compelling performances are those of Noiret and of Salvatore Cascio as the child Toto. (5 stars for the released version, 3 for the director's uncut one). The DVD has both versions. For anyone who has not seen the movie, I would strongly recommend starting with the 1989 version. Then, a viewer who wants to know more will likely discover or relearn that "less can be more," and, more specifically, that a masterpiece was cut out of a fairly mediocre love story.

Young Adam (2003, adapted from Alexander Trocchi's novel and directed by David Mackenzie, 3 stars) is a slow and unpleasant portrait of a failed writer as an brutish horn-dog, though it provides opportunities for Ewan McGregor to get naked multiple times as he mounts women in the dirt, takes one against a pole, and sometimes even does it in bed (with a very subdued Tilda Swinton). Joe Taylor (McGregor) is quite unlike the Michel Simon character in Jean Vigo's "L'Atlante" (the classic two men and a woman on a barge movie, a considerably less bleak movie). The resentful Peter Mullan is more in that mould. I guess that "Young Adam" is supposed to be a "slice of life," despite the murder melodrama. Some of the dialogue is difficult to hear and sometimes the Glasgow accent makes what can be heard unintelligible to me. David Byrne's score works well, but I found the movie unsatisfying even after I started to care a bit what happened to the characters.

I was disappointed by The Triplets of Belleville (2003, directed by Sylvain Chomet, 2.2 stars), particularly the music (of which there is a whole lot). The ugly animation was sometimes interesting and the plot odd, but, alas, pointless. The movie seemed much longer than it is (it's runtime is 78 minutes) and the characters, except for the overweight dog, bland or outright unlikeable.

"Une femme de ménage"/The Housekeeper (2003, adapted, produced, and directed by Claude Berri, 2 stars) is a very predictable (and therefore tedious) movie about male menopause (embodied by (Jean-Pierre Bacri)) being easily manipulated by a buxom young woman (Emilie Dequenne). She doesn't really love him? Quel surprise! Perhaps Berri should stick to the 19th century...

Cachorro (Bear Cub) 2004, written and directed by Miguel Albaladejo, 4.2 stars) reminded me of (the original version of) "Cinema Paradiso," with a fatherless boy and a gruff but caring father figure. In addition to showing a family of choice (of Madrid gay bears), it provides a reminder of gay men being a part of their families of origin, too—and in some instances the one taking greatest responsibility for the welfare of other members.

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Closer (2004, directed by Mike Nichols, 3.6 stars). Mike Nichols has a talent for adapting stage-plays to the screen (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Angels in America) and is not afraid of portraying unlikeable characters (Roy Cohn in “Angels,” everyone here). I found the motivations of the characters somewhat difficult to fathom and how much time had passed between scenes even more difficult in Patrick Marber’s adaptation of his 1997 play (which won several awards, including the London Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Comedy[!]). Natalie Portman and Clive Owen (especially together) were very impressive; Julia Roberts and Jude Law were also there, though sometimes it seems that Roberts is not really there and she does not seem irresistible. (And neither of the women seems quite masochistic enough to hook up with the very nasty dermatologist Owen plays.)

The ensemble from the Mozart/Du Ponte opera “Cossi fan tutti” is beautiful, but in that opera the characters are playing at infidelity, whereas those in “Closer” are not playing. They are conniving, but in dead earnest. The eclectic soundtrack also gives prominence to Damien Rice singing “The Blower’s Daughter.” Some of the dialogue remains stagy (artificial), and the movie seems longer than it is, but the sharp-image cinematography of Stephen Goldblatt keeps it from looking like a filmed play.

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Speaking of ensembles, the Irish interMission (2004, directed by John Crowley, 3.6 stars) throws the audience into the lives of multiple characters. Eventually, I gave up on expecting the stories to connect very much. The movie raises the recurrent question about whether the movie is misogynist or is portraying misogynist characters. Over the course of the movie, two women are punched and the point of view of the movie is of alienated young males (how unusual is that?). Some foolish middle-aged ones are the main enemies, and Deirdre O' Kane eventually has a satisfying revenge on the husband who up and leaves her for Kelly MacDonald. Colin Farrell is t-r-o-u-b-l-e, not least for himself. Cillian Murphy plays a confused who seems unable to get away with anything (not yet the Scarecrow!), including a really stupid test for his girlfriend (MacDonald). Brian F. O’Byrne has even worse luck, but I couldn’t help laughing at his failed attempt at revenge. There are some romantic plotlines and more than a few absurdist difficulties, but a comedy the movie is not. (I was able to understand everyone, though O’Byrne was near the edge of my ability to comprehend Dublinspeak. Forms of the f-word are very ubiquitous.)

Tanner on Tanner (2004, directed by Robert Altman, 3.3 stars).is an inferior sequel to "Tanner '88," but like it mixes politicians and fictional characters. It is offputting much longer (3 of 4 episodes in contrast to 2 of 11) than the earlier movie and is unlikely to appeal to the dwindling band of Bush admirers.

Brokeback Mountain (2005, directed by Ang Lee, 4.8 stars) has midriff bulge problems but outstanding performances all around and striking Alberta mountain scenery.

The Spaghetti West (2005, an IFC documentary, 4 stars): I've seen five Italian westerns (filmed in Spain, all instigated by Sergio Leone). I was surprised to learn that there were 600 of them between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s (talk about "pattern exhaustion") and that the four major directors in the genre were all named "Sergio." I'm especially fascinated with the variety of Ennio Morricone film scores, so particularly enjoyed hearing what he had to say. Franco Nero was the most entertaining of the interviewees.

Budd Boetticher "A Man Can Do That" (2005, 3.4 stars) showed that the legendary director was an engaging and interesting guy and showed and explained some of what has made him a cult figure.

My strong negative response to The Dying Gaul (2005, directed by Craig Lucas from his own adaptation of his play, 2.9 stars) may be idiosyncratic. Lucas did a good job of opening the play out and there are uncomfortably good performances by Peter Sarsgaard and Patricia Clarkson. I think the melodramatic results follow from the dynamics of the triangle, though I don't believe the rashness of the triangle formation.

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I am impressed that I kept a New Year's resolution through an entire year, which will provide me systematic data on what kinds of movies I see.

Although I was disappointed by a number of critically acclaimed movies, I had the consolations of returning to "Le Samouraï" and "Sanjuro," and seeing the new Criterion DVD of "Kill!".

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