Now Showing, May 3 2012

by David Larsen / 03 May, 2012
New this week: reviews of Good For Nothing, Starbuck, The 5-Year Engagement, and The Grey.


A Dangerous Method This appears to be a three-legged stool of a film, supported equally by major performances from Viggo Mortensen as Sigmund Freud, Michael Fassbender as Carl Jung, and Keira Knightley as Sabina Spielrein, Jung's patient and lover, and one of the first female psychoanalysts. In actual fact it is a film powered by Mortensen (a brilliant Freud), Fassbender (a fascinating Jung, though the particular ways in which he fascinates will be exasperatingly familiar to anyone who's seen his last half dozen films; it isn't that he's any less good here, but it would be nice if he'd add some new strings to his bow), and the excellent work of director David Cronenberg, screenwriter Christopher Hampton (adapting his own play), production designer James McAteer, and cinematographer Peter Suschitzky. That's a long list of very able people, and all of their efforts taken together just about make up for Knightley's unfortunate mix of over- and under-acting. This is a fine film built around material of major significance, intelligent, visually beautiful, full of well turned dramatic moments and challenging ideas. It's also the latest in a long line of Keira Knightley films that could have been quite a lot better if the female lead role had been given to someone else. DL

American Pie: Reunion The useful lesson to take from the American Pie franchise is that when you have a surprisingly sweet, surprisingly successful teen sex comedy, you should avoid the temptation to make it into a franchise. Since this temptation is a financial one, it is not, generally speaking, going to be resisted. We did not see this latest Pie. Perhaps it's splendid. Perhaps you'll win lotto this week. Anything is possible.

Arrietty Adaptation of Mary Norton's Borrower stories from Japan's Studio Ghibli, home base of the great animator Hayao Miyazaki. He did not direct this flawed, charming film, though he did work on its script – which is interesting, because the script is by far the weakest aspect. Arrietty is the only daughter of what may be the last Borrower family left alive: tiny people living under the floorboards of human houses, and venturing out at night to "borrow" the supplies they need. The sequences in which Arrietty and her father explore the giant human world are vivid and astonishing, and would be enough to sell the film to small children even if it had no other charms. It has plenty. A shame about the incoherent subplot in which a comedy villain sets out to prove Borrowers exist; but if this isn't one of Ghibli's classics, it's still a lovely offering. DL

A Separation Very few of the people I've discussed this Iranian masterpiece with in the nine months or so since it screened at last year's film festival have failed to report that it blew them away. The subject matter is severe, though not extreme: a couple in the throes of a contested divorce get caught up in a legal dispute with another couple, less educated, less prosperous, and far more religious than they are. Director Asghar Farhadi attends to each of the four litigants with a spacious, careful respect; this is multiple perspective storytelling raised to a high art, and the acting, like the camera work, is so unshowy you could almost fail to notice how good it is. Without much in the way of stylistic bells and whistles, Farhadi earns himself a place at the very top of his profession. Full review here. DL


Battleship Liam Neeson, a friend commented recently, is fast emerging as his generation's Michael Caine: has talent, doesn't care what he does with it. With Wrath of the Titans and this board game adaptation (read that phrase again, slowly) out this month alone, the less distinguished end of his filmography may soon rival the mighty Caine's for oceanic depths of wretchedness. Or perhaps not; the truth is that we couldn't bring ourselves to watch this one. Transformers meets Battle Los Angeles, judging by the trailer: and may God help us all.

Beauty And The Beast 3D This might be a good moment to wave the flag for 3D. Remember 3D? The never-seen-that-before expansiveness that made Avatar more than just a well dressed collection of cliches? (We insist on this point). A brand new tool in the toolkit, a whole new way to think about shot composition, a wow factor that actually let film-makers do new stuff. TT3D was magnificent. How To Train Your Dragon, there was a great big screen experience. (The flying scenes! Pure delight). We know of at least one novel being written in the wake of Wernor Herzog's Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. And meanwhile, of course, every other Hollywood would-be blockbuster is being released in why-bother retrofitted 3D, older "classics" are leaping hopefully back onto screens at higher ticket prices than ever before, and audiences could be forgiven for yawning. We saw The Avengers in 3D without quite noticing the 3D was there. And there are older Disney films we'd love to see back in theatres, 3D or 2D - okay, preferably 2D - but were we really going to get excited about Beauty and the Beast's acquisition of an all-too-appropriately-thin layer of illusory depth? Someone make 3D fun again. Please.


Carnage Curious: Roman Polanski's adaptation of this four-hander stage play is so intelligently shot and so well cast that the limits of the source material become glaringly obvious... and yet, being so intelligently shot and so well cast, it's still a treat to watch. Two New York pre-teen boys get into a fight. One knocks the other's teeth out, and the parents of the evil-doer go over to the victim's apartment to apologise to his parents. Much back-handed courtesy ensues; and then things go downhill; and then things go off a cliff. Jodie Foster reminds you just how good she can be; her role is perhaps the juiciest, but Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, and John C Reilly all shine as the other warring spouses. Polanski's direction is a masterclass in getting the most out of a small set without resorting to attention-getting weird camera placement stunts - brief opening and closing sequences aside, the film takes place entirely in one small New York apartment, but it never feels cramped or visually static. The play ultimately wastes its best satirical opportunities in favour of over-the-top couples-on-the-warpath humour, but it's hard to object too strenuously when it's done this well. DL


Documentary Edge Film Festival ‘Spoiled for choice’ best describes this year’s programme, with categories ranging across arts, politics, global and social change, and of course portraits of interesting or exceptional individuals. It’s impossible to give a summation here, except to say you’re likely to find a thing or three to grab your particular interest. Suggest you browse the catalogue, or better still, where it’s very easy to navigate to whatever that interest might be. But here are some titles worth checking out: for the head, Four Horsemen, Public Speaking, and the category Arab Spring; for the heart, Hitler’s Children and Yakel 3D; for the funny bone, Exporting Raymond and Big in Bollywood; and for Trekkies, The Captains, natch. Auckland 26 April – 13 May; Wellington 17 May – 3 June. Longer review here. HW


Event Cinemas Retro Showcase Starting this month and running through June in Auckland, Wellington and Hamilton, an array of classics from the 30s to the 90s, the way they were meant to be seen: on a big screen. The 13 titles, which include favourites such as Gone With the Wind, Dr. No and Bridge on the River Kwai, all have great entertainment value. With a damp autumn predicted, what better way to pass it than Singin' in the Rain? Dates and cinemas:


Footnote From Israel, a delicious tale of father-son and academic rivalry that expertly juggles comedy, thriller and satire while pitching its characters into excruciating moral and ethical dilemmas. So well written that our sympathies are torn every which way even as another part of our brain sees the absurdities in the situation. The Israeli cast is perfect, and vanity, jealousy and sheer stubbornness have never been quite so funny ... or painful. HW


Good For Nothing It's a Western. It was made in New Zealand. South Otago and the McKenzie Country stand in (brilliantly) for the mid-American plains. Cohen Holloway (Boy, Eagle Vs Shark) plays Clint Eastwood, or at least, Clint Eastwood as he might have been, were the classic Eastwood characters of yore more inclined to rape people, and more troubled by erectile dysfunction. Holloway's great, and the film looks magnificent - first-time DOP Mathew Knight should be getting lots more work offers. The potential difficulty is the rape-driven storyline, in which Holloway's Man With No Name abducts Isabella Montgomery (Inge Rademeyer, very good in her first screen role), a young British woman with a lot of romantic ideas about the American West. Director Mike Wallace sets out to explode every one of these ideas, and his humour is so dry you could frequently miss it altogether: especially while his hero is attempting (and failing) to rape his heroine. Male impotence is the film's grand comic theme, and it works very nicely in a running gag about a sheriff who can't shoot straight, but the funny side of rape is harder to locate than Wallace possibly realises. The thing which ultimately sold me on the film despite its wince-inducing moments is the John Psathas score, at once so original, so stirring and so evocative of the great Western soundtracks of the past. Psathas has never scored a film before. He's going to be in hot demand internationally as a film composer from now on; not that he needs the work, but I hope he takes some of it. I haven't been this impressed by film music in a long time. The first thing I wanted to do after watching the film was to find out more about his contribution, and happily, Guy Somerset has an interview with him here. DL


Headhunters Slickly made and edited, this Norwegian crime thriller will make you laugh more than you expect. It’s not exactly black comedy, but there’s a looniness that owes much to the Scandinavian sense of humour. Adapted from one of Jo Nesbø’s non-Harry Hole novels, its protagonist is a top corporate headhunter with a criminal career on the side – a juxtaposition that matches shifts in tone and genre that shouldn’t work, but do, and turn the piece into a diverting ride. Full review here. HW


In Search Of Haydn If ever a film was made for radio, this collection of talking heads and still photos is it. Juliet Stevenson is writer-director Phil Grabsky's chief mouth-piece, voicing an uninspired but reasonably informative script which walks us through the life of the late 18th century's "other" great composer, "the man Mozart and Beethoven looked up to". The rich sampling of the music is the main attraction, and the film certainly opens a door worth walking through. But would Haydn - puckish, lively, brilliant Haydn - like it? Glad as he'd be that we still listen to him, I think he'd be horrified to find his life could look this boring. DL


Jiro Dreams of Sushi The perfect subject for an unlikely hit biographical documentary meets not quite the perfect film-maker. Jiro Ono is a Japanese sushi chef. Actually, he's the Japanese sushi chef, 85 years old when this film was made and widely viewed as the zen master of his field. People wait months and years for a booking at his little Tokyo sushi bar, where he serves them whatever he thinks they ought to eat: the simplest of food, prepared by a living exemplar of the principle that you should devote your life to perfecting your art. And what kind of father and boss does a man like that make? We meet Jiro's various apprentices, one of whom is his son and presumptive heir; they're stoical about the decades they're expected to devote to learning to cook rice, after which Jiro may, possibly, allow them to invest further decades in learning to slice fish. It's fascinating material, but it presents director David Gelb with a problematic challenge: when your subject is constantly emphasising the importance of getting the little things right, your audience is likely to pay more attention than usual to your editing, your choice of music cues, and, generally speaking, your broad-spectrum technical competence. To say that Gelb's work is not up to Jiro's standards is to put it kindly, because few people's would be - but a lot of directors would come far closer than he does. DL


Mirror Mirror We did think about going to this - Julia Roberts as Snow White's evil step-mother, how could that not be fun? But the director is Tarsem Singh, who most recently delighted us with Immortals. Actually, we didn't really think about going to this.

My Week With Marilyn The weighting between frustration and pleasure here is finely balanced: Michelle Williams does a remarkable job of bringing Marilyn Monroe into her every move and gesture, and she's backed up by a long list of fine British character actors in fine British character acting form. (Kenneth Branagh's Laurence Olivier is a masterpiece of self-mockery). But director Simon Curtis can't quite decide whether he's making a Serious Homage To The Tragic Screen Goddess or a sweet coming-of-age comedy about the kid detailed to spend a week as her minder, and therefore, well placed to make both, he fails to make either. Full review here. DL


Spud A dated little curiosity from South Africa, adapted from what’s claimed to have been a best-selling children’s novel from 1990. My question is, surely even back then the character clichés, boarding schoolboy humour and escapades must have seemed gaggingly stale? OK, there’s an attempt to insert some contemporary political context – Nelson Mandela’s release – into the main character’s coming-of-age story, but the entire endeavour is a clumsy, drawn-out mess that you watch – assuming you stay – with growing disbelief. Spud, by the way, is the nickname for someone whose balls haven’t dropped. So, except perhaps for small boys still in the tits-and-farts phase, Spud, I’m afraid, is a dud. HW

Starbuck Charming French-Canadian comedy based around one of the great comedy film tropes of our time, the Boy-Man Who Needs To Grow Up. Patrick Huard plays David Wozniak, a middle aged loser perpetually supported by his long-suffering family and on the verge of being dumped by his long-suffering girlfriend. Who is, it transpires, pregnant, and disinclined to see David as a good potential father figure. While he's dithering over how to respond to this unwelcome turn of events, he discovers he is, in fact, a father figure already: long ago, he raised some much-needed quick cash by selling his sperm to a fertility clinic. He now has 533 children. And they're challenging his anonymous donor status in court. Surprisingly witty, surprisingly sweet, and in the end, surprisingly moving. DL


The Artist Silent, black and white film about a silent film star. The film industry's touching tribute to itself? No: this is slight, but its charm is real, its technology-driven unemployment storyline has obvious contemporary resonance, and it pulls off several coup de cinema moments that will stay with me a long time. Features yet another in the recent long line of bravura performances by dogs. Full review here. DL

The Avengers Superhero movie agnostics, here is your test case: if you don't like this one, you're never going to like any of them. This is not quite to say that writer/director Joss Whedon has squared the circle and produced the perfect marriage of big budget action and old fashioned storytelling, but my god, it's hard to imagine anyone getting much closer. To put it at its crudest, this is a film where the fight scenes have actual characters in them. I could have done without the rent-a-villain hordes of aliens who turn up in the final act (no spoiler; we see them coming from the first scene) so that our cast of heroes, having fought each other a bit and then other people a bit, can take things to the next level (in the computer games sense) and fight a city-levelling, world-threatening army a bit; or rather, I'd have liked it if the aliens had been slightly less anonymous. And that final battle does go on rather. But it's so cleanly composed as an action sequence, so easy to follow, and, thanks to the work Whedon's put into building his subplots and establishing his characters, it's so full of moments that have meaning: it is in fact a character-driven final battle, a thing which any student of the works of Michael Bay might have taken to be a contradiction in terms. And the process of getting to it is just pure fun. Robert Downey Jnr and Tom Hiddleston get the best of Whedon's many good lines, playing Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Loki (evil brother of Thor), respectively, and their big scene together was my favourite one by far; but this is an ensemble film, and none of the characters is neglected. Even the Incredible Hulk gets to be a real person here, and many another character who's annoyed or baffled me in previous Marvel films serves a meaningful purpose. I still rank the much-neglected Serenity - another ensemble action movie requiring a degree of investment in a previously established story universe for full appreciation - as Whedon's best work on the big screen. But only by a whisker. Interview with Brian Michael Bendis, writer of the Avengers comics and consultant on the movie, hereUpdate: I forgot to mention that I saw this in 3D, which tells you all you need to know on the format choice question. If I were seeing this again, and I most likely will, I can't think of any reason to pay more for the 3D version; on the other hand, if someone insists on thrusting 3D tickets into your hand, the 3D isn't the murky, irritating kind that sabotages your enjoyment. DL

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Not to be mistaken for any kind of masterpiece, but don't underrate the professional expertise required to put a good, likeable ensemble culture-clash comedy together. Director John Madden throws a dream cast of senior British actors - Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Penelope Wilton - into a run-down Indian "luxury retirement facility", and they have a satisfying amount of fun there. At its weakest when it tries to be serious and meaningful, but never less than pleasant. Longer review here. DL

The Descendants I would like to pretend I'm astonished and horrified that this cute little exercise in fishing the shallows while dressed for big game emerged as a strong contender for Best Picture. That's to say, I would like to pretend that the Oscars don't routinely reward trivial emotional stuntsmanship, because I enjoy betting on them, and I like the frocks. But back in the world we actually inhabit - the world of harsh truths and difficult confessions, the world this George Clooney vehicle purports to be about - I am forced to admit that my frustration and occasional boredom did not completely stop me enjoying yet another round of "Clooney plays Mr Flawed Nice Guy". His Hawaiian man of business, clearly a terrible husband and father, has to man up and help his daughters face their mother's imminent death. Oh dear: it comes out that she was cheating on him. Does George search his soul? Goodness no. But we're meant to feel sorry for him, and assume meaningful growth is taking place. What - as either of the daughters might put it - ever. DL

The Five Year Engagement Comedy-drama with some nice comedy and some affecting drama, but a high degree of dissonance between the two. Jason Segal and Emily Blunt play a young couple trying to make a life together as their careers pull them in different directions. He puts his work on hold to support hers (of course he does; even today, few people would think it film-worthy if the polarity were reversed), and the consequences of this relationship-saving decision turn out, oh the irony, to be relationship-threatening. A much more satisfying treatment of the tensions between romantic ideals and harsh realities than the recent Like Crazy, but marred by the same very basic problem: the more the lovers start getting on each other's nerves, the more they become genuinely irritating. Many great moments, but I walked out of the theatre wishing the film had opted either for more comedy, or for less. DL

The Grey So. Very. Bizarre. It's hard to write about the things that make this Liam Neeson man vs nature thriller so improbably ridiculous without getting into serious spoiler territory, but to put it in the most general terms, writer-director Joe Carnahan (whose The A-Team pleased me much more than it seemed to please a lot of people) wants to pull off the big double: on the one hand, a high octane popcorn film about a group of plane wreck survivors trying to get out of the Alaskan wilds while a pack of territorially enraged wolves picks them off one by one (bad choice of plane crash site, guys), and on the other, a serious contemplation of What It Is To Be A Man. The two ambitions aren't necessarily incompatible, but Carnahan's notion of well wrought manly dialogue is embarrassingly naff, and when Neeson's character starts reciting his father's poetry, it's time to turn and run. ("Live... and die... on this day. Live... and die... on this day". Seriously?) Other challenges: a portentous, self-hating Neeson voice-over, and frequent anguished flashbacks to his happier, pre-wife-loss days. And I give very high odds you'll hate the ending. DL

The Hunger Games The sun has nearly set on Twilight, and Harry Potter has finally graduated from Hogwarts. Where will the devoted teen audience dollars come from now? Fear not, Hollywood execs, Suzanne Collins's futuristic dystopia trilogy is here to save you: and in a startling plot twist, Gary Ross's adaptation of the first book is cracking good. The usual gotta-race-through-too-much-exposition science fiction book-to-film problem gives the introductory scenes a slight ADD feel - Ross's fondness for ultra-short takes even in contemplative moments doesn't help - and the basic shape of the story is highly predictable. But it's predictable the way a good "underdog runs the table" sports story is predictable, and the intelligent, economical writing, the pleasantly off-the-wall production design and the clean camera work all provide the necessary back-up to Ross's best decision: casting Jennifer Lawrence in the central role. I've seen Lawrence in five films over the last two years, and only Winter's Bone has made full use of her abilities; she isn't stretched here, but she lifts the film from adequate-plus to thoroughly entertaining. Excellent supporting work from Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and a quite unrecognizable Stanley Tucci. DL

The Lorax One of the great Dr Seuss books. Much has been written about the ironies of a big corporation making hay out of this anti-consumerist story. We will not be adding to the conversation, because Helene was busy when the media screening was held, and David considers the book sacred and is trying to pretend the film does not exist.

The Lucky One Romance drama with Zac Efron. Not seen. We actually have some fondness for the Zac; not seeing this was an accident of timing, not a principled decision.

The Most Fun You Can Have Dying Nope, sorry, not much fun at all. I was initially impressed by first-time Kiwi director Kirstin Marcon's take-no-prisoners stylistic flair, so nicely matched to her main character's screw-you, take-it-or-leave-it attitude to life. And, indeed, to death: Michael (Matt Whelan) is 20-something, and on initial acquaintance a somewhat typically shallow good-time Kiwi boy, and as the film opens he's faced with the ultimate reality check. He discovers he's terminally ill. Spoiler alert for the next sentence: friends and family rally round and raise the money for a long-odds experimental treatment, and he steals it, and runs off to Europe to kiss life goodbye in style. Or to eke out a protracted period of furious and futile denial; there's some ambiguity to his response, and if the film had explored this more I might have ended up more impressed. But the story takes a hard left when he meets and falls for Sylvie (Roseanne Mesquida), who is, from her very first long drag on her cigarette, an appalling congeries of cinematic cliches. Marcon's abilities are clear; the film snaps and crackles with energy, and it looks great, thanks to the excellent work cinematographer Crighton Bone does throughout. But in the end Michael's self-absorbed shallowness, which ought to be the film's starting point and only a part of its subject matter, is allowed to set its whole tone. DL

The Pirates: Band of Misfits British claymation specialists Aardman (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run, Arthur Christmas) deliver the best kids' movie of the holidays. (Yes, alright, I ran screaming from the prospect of having to watch The Lorax, so that should be "probably the best"). It's not a classic for the ages, but it's well crafted, full of quirky humour, and one hundred percent loveable. The only warning note is that the 3D, while perfectly inoffensive, doesn't add a lot of value; you'll get just as much fun at the lower 2D ticket price. A lot of the jokes will fly over very small heads, but the story (endearing klutzy Pirate Captain goes all out to win Pirate of the Year, with the possibly self-interested and untrustworthy help of shifty-eyed naturalist Charles Darwin and his supercilious chimpanzee butler) will keep them entertained. DL

The Raid Ultra-violent martial arts action doesn't get much better than this. A bunch of Indonesian cops go into a crime lord's high-rise compound and fight their way up towards the Big Boss. Exceptionally well choreographed, high energy fight scenes make up 85% of the story; which is not quite to say there's no story. The sort of film where an audience's collective gasp at some exceptional act of brutality constitutes applause, though at the end my audience did, in fact, applaud. A classic of the form. DL

The Skin I Live In In years to come, perhaps it will be clearer just where, and how, this fits into the canon of Pedro Almodóvar’s work. For now, it’s a curious cocktail of ideas encompassing madness, revenge and a Frankensteinian obsession with perfection, which looks arresting onscreen, but fails to transcend its melodramatic and thriller impulses to express clearly what it wants to say. There’s always the possibility, of course, that it’s not meant to “fit”, and that this is simply the director exploring and experimenting. Whatever, there’s an uncharacteristic lack of humanity about it. Then again, it’s just occurred to me that given it involves a plastic surgeon experimenting, and not in a good way, on a human guinea pig, that lack of humanity just might be his point. Full review here. HW

The Way “You don’t choose a life, Dad; you live one” is the line that tells you what you’re in for. Just so you know. Which isn’t to say this road movie is just an episodic greeting card, but it does have flat patches and the kind of plot predictability that has you knowing what’s going to happen just before it pops up on the screen. Never mind. It has great scenery, since it’s a kind of tourist doco for Spain (interestingly, the landscape looks a lot like New Zealand). An American widower (Martin Sheen) travels to Spain to collect the body of his son, killed when walking the 800km Camino de Santiago, a popular pilgrimage from the French Pyrenees to the Atlantic coast. Dad then decides to do the walk too, but has to suffer some unwanted companions: an irritatingly cheerful Dutchman, an acid Canadian and a garrulous Irishman (sounds like the basis for a joke, but at least the actors here are capable of lifting them above mere stereotype). Sheen does his crusty old bugger routine, and much international bickering ensues before the inevitable hugging and learning. And only after lots of shots of walking, drinking and smoking, some minor jeopardy and a final extraordinary piece of religious theatre which I won’t spoil by divulging. Directed and written by Emilio Estevez, Sheen’s son. The better-behaved one. HW

The Women On The 6th Floor The pitch for the film probably went something like, “culture clash meets class conflict”, and there’s plenty of fun to be anticipated when Spanish maid Maria replaces a French maid in the Paris household of the middle-class Jouberts. (This did happen in the 60s, when Spanish women sought work and refuge from Franco across the border). Life-changing events ensue from this meeting of Parisian detachment and Spanish exuberance, and although you can see them coming a mile off, they’re played out with light cheerfulness rather than delving into their underlying psychology. Sandrine Kiberlain, who was wondrous in Mademoiselle Chambon, is rather wasted here as Mme Joubert, inevitably upstaged by the bevy of Spanish ladies engulfing her stockbroker husband (Fabrice Luchini), who can’t seem to believe what’s happening to him. Not total froth, but not particularly demanding either. Review here. HW

21 Jump Street The advance word on this unlikely-sounding remake-iconic-TV-drama-as-parody-film project is that it works. We are intrigued, but we haven't yet seen it.


We Need To Talk About Kevin Whether you have read Lionel Shriver’s novel or not, and are therefore prepared or not for the terrible act that lies at its centre, you will not fail to admire Lynne Ramsay’s ability to build to the revelation of that act with an extraordinary visual and emotional power. It’s a twisty, mysterious journey through the eyes, mind and memories of a mother – played brilliantly by a gaunt and haunted Tilda Swinton – traversing the rarest but very worst of fears of parenthood with empathy and sensitivity. Review here. HW

Wrath of the Titans From the director of Battle: Los Angeles, the sequel to the awful remake of the film that wasn't that great to start with. Really determined reviewers would have forced themselves to watch this, in case it turned out to be bearable. Sorry. We were afraid we might accidentally gouge our eyes out.

Click here for more stories and reviews by David Larsen, here for more stories and reviews by Helene Wong.
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