Dilettante's Diary

Dec 31/09

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Favourite Works: 2004-2013
Two Novels by BARBARA PYM
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How Fiction Works
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Housekeeping
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Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition 08
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Head to Head
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Notables of 2007
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Ring Psycho (Wagner on CBC Radio)
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Me In Manhattan
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MOVIES
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The date above is the date on which the page was started. As new reviews are added, they will appear towards the top of the page and the older reviews will move further down.

Reviewed here: Pineapple Express (DVD); The Hangover (DVD -- re the Ending); Inglourious Basterds (DVD); Taking Woodstock (DVD); Paul Blart: Mall Cop (DVD) The Soloist (DVD); Marley and Me (DVD); In Search of Time (Science)

All civilizations since time immemorial have declared some sort of holiday at this time of year so that their members can catch up on movies that they missed during the year just ending -- or in any previous year. So watch this space for more DVD reviews in the next few days.
 
Pineapple Express (DVD) written by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg; directed by David Gordon Green; starring Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Kevin Corrigan, Craig Robinson, Gary Cole, Rosie Perez, Amber Heard, Ed Begley Jr., Nora Dunn.

Dale, a humble process server, accidentally witnesses a murder involving some big operators in the drug trade. Realizing that the murderers may have spotted him, he runs for cover. Where to? To Saul, his friendly neighbourhood drug dealer. Trouble is, Dale left a roach at the scene of the murder and the killers will be able to trace the rare brand of marijuana in the roach – "Pineapple Express" – to Saul. So now the two of them are on the run. To add some tension to their flight, Dale is scheduled to show up for a dinner to meet the parents of his demure highschool girlfriend. Plus, the two guys discover that they’re caught in the middle of a war between two major drug lords.

Not exactly an original idea – witnesses to a murder are forced to run for cover. But you might expect that any movie from David Gordon Green, director of such originals as All The Real Girls and George Washington, would have something special about it. In this case, it’s the fact that the two fugitives are stoned most of the time. That makes for some lovely sequences, like the one where they engage in a balletic round of leapfrog while stranded in a forest. It also means that they’ll stop in the middle of a hectic chase to argue at the top of their lungs about the quality of their friendship.

None of this would work if the two members of the duo didn’t play well off each other. These two do. James Franco plays Saul, the one whose connection to reality is tenuous, at best; Seth Rogen takes on the role of Dale, the somewhat more mature one (everything’s relative, after all). While the "Making Of" documentary on the DVD spews the usual fawning over each other by all the actors, it does include the very interesting information that the two leads were originally slated to play each other’s roles: Mr. Rogen as the space cadet and Mr. Franco as the more responsible one. The switch to the casting as filmed was surely inspired by the gods who watch over movie making.

Many comic duos have functioned according to a similar dynamic. For me, the precedent that comes to mind in this case is Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. As with Mr. Martin, Mr. Rogen has a certain classy air about him – in the right role – even when he’s up to his eyes in you-know-what. His attractiveness has a lot to do with the appeal of the movie. If he doesn’t do it for you, the movie might not either.

Although events transpire in a fast-moving and entertaining way, the yelling and violence fall outside my comfort level. Most of the dialogue consists of "shit," "like," "bitch," "dude," "bro," and "fuck." Still, a good line surfaces here and there, as in the one that goes something like, "I have lots of feelings and you just managed to hurt every one of them." (Not an exact quote.) Throughout the movie, people have a miraculous ability to get up and fight again when you thought they were dead, especially in the finale, consisting of about fifteen minutes of shooting and killing and exploding. (Probably just what’s needed to bring in a certain viewer demographic.) As for whether or not the elaborate mayhem is cleverly handled, it’s impossible for me to say, because I can never follow what’s going on in this sort of fracas.

Rating: C minus (Where C = "Certainly worth watching")

 

Hangover (DVD -- Follow-up to review on June 6/09 page)

Ok. Now I've seen the ending. It's reasonably satisfying. On the whole, the movie has an impressive way of tying up loose ends. Little details that didn't look significant -- a dorky satchel, for instance -- end up having plot consequences. That sort of thing pleases me. As a result of which, the movie inches its rating up from a C minus to C.

 

Inglourious Basterds (DVD) written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Brad Pitt, Mlanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brhl, Til Schweiger, Gedeon Burkhard, Jacky Ido, Denis Menochet, Syslvester Groth.

If you’re anything like me, you’re gonna spend the whole movie wondering what the hell’s going on. (Which is one way of saying that the movie hold’s a person’s attention.) On the other hand, unlike me, you’ve probably read enough about it beforehand (including this review) to clue you in.

Essentially, what we have is a fictional group of Jewish US soldiers, under the command of Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who have become notorious Nazi killers. One of their trademark tactics is the scalping of their victims, just one of the touches of gratuitous violence and gore the movie indulges in. Thanks to the confluence of various coincidences, these guys find themselves setting their sights on the top prize(s). This immerses them in the crazy world of Nazi film-making and the artistic ambitions of Joseph Goebbels.

But it takes a while for that narrative direction to emerge, given the irregular style of the movie. The action flashes forwards and backwards, including some imaginary sequences. Sometimes we get a reprise of a brief scene for no apparent reason. Dorky music often seems to be sending up the whole business. Sometimes we even get cartoonish messages pasted on the screen to identify a character. At times the tone is extremely tense; at other times farcical. Besides which, when it comes to watching the DVD at home, the small screen makes it hard to read the subtitles for the considerable batches of German and French.

If Mr. Tarantino had wanted to deliver this straight up, it could have been a typical war/adventure movie. He proves  that he can handle suspense terrifically well – as in the opening scene where a Nazi officer pays a call to a farmer who may be harbouring Jews. And the climax of the movie builds to tremendous tension.

But those misspellings in the title  warn us that Mr. Tarantino has subversive intentions. And why shouldn’t he? That old business of the obvious good guys and bad guys is getting a little shopworn, isn’t it? So Quentin Tarantino decides to give the whole thing a comic spin. Who else would, at the height of the tension, insert a scene with Brad Pitt, as a redneck soldier from Tennessee, trying to pass himself off as an Italian with an accent so terrible that "Buon Giorno" comes out sounding like a brand of bubble gum?

In this role, Mr. Pitt plays against his image as a super-cool sex symbol. He’s obviously enjoying himself – which makes for enjoyable watching. Not so enjoyable as a character, but equally fascinating to watch, is Christoph Waltz as the smarmy Nazi who has earned himself the title of "Jew Hunter." While oozing charm all over the place, he keeps everybody on edge with his suspicions about their accents and birthplaces. Nobody will ever be able to do a role like this again, now that Mr Waltz has wrapped it up and launched it into orbit, from whence it will never return. The extremely beautiful Mlanie Laurent offers another kind of fascination in her portrayal of a Jewish woman who gets a chance for revenge on the man who killed her family members.

Rating: C minus (Where C = "Certainly worth watching")

 

Taking Woodstock (DVD) screenplay by James Schamus; based on the book by Elliot Tiber and Tom Monte; directed by Ang Lee; starring, Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman; with Emile Hirsch, Liev Schreiber, Paul Dano, Jonathan Groff.

Since the famous 1969 Woodstock concert is now seen by many as the defining moment of my generation, and since I was oblivious when it happened, it seemed like a good idea to find out how it all came down, particularly regarding the behind-the-scenes preparations, as conveyed in this account based on the memoir of Elliot Tiber.

When Elliot (here played by Demetri Martin) finds out that the Woodstock planners have been booted from their original venue, he invites them to check out his home town of Bethel, in upper New York state. As the youngest-ever president of the local Chamber of Commerce (at about 30 years old), Elliot finds the festival team a new site in a huge field owned by a willing farmer (Eugene Levy). Everybody else in town bitterly opposes the invasion of hippies expected to rape and steal relentlessly. When the festival promoters take over Elliot’s parents' rundown motel as their headquarters, anti-Jewish rancour towards the family erupts among townsfolk. The process proves a coming-of-age for Elliot, as he explores his own organizational abilities, his sexuality and his status vis a vis his parents.

Sounds like a great idea for a movie. Why doesn’t it work, then? Mainly, I think, because the setup is too stagey. Not in terms of the main event, though. Apart from the overuse of terms like "dig it", "far out" and "groovy," the mood of the thing comes across with a ring of authenticity: the music, the instant friendships, the mud, the rain, the psychedelic drugs, the hash brownies, the nudity. While we don’t actually see any of the concert – except from a great distance, thanks to obvious digital imaging -- the movie does a great job of conveying the ambiance of the scene on the fringes. Emile Hirsch gives us the inevitable Viet Nam veteran suffering from PTSD. Paul Dano makes a sweetly dreamy-eyed druggie and the hunky Liev Schrieber, as an ex-marine-transvestite who heads security for the event, demands to be seen by anybody who cares about marvels on screen.

Until the festival planners actually set up shop, though, there’s a lot of elaborate explaining, including lame expository dialogue. It’s as if director Ang Lee, conscious of his status as an auteur, took too much trouble to create a well-crafted drama. To my mind, the project might have worked better if it had been shot in a semi-documentary style – more or less on the fly, presenting us with fragments that force us to put the story together for ourselves rather than this spoon-feeding.

Of all the phony elements in the production, the most glaring would be the performance of Imelda Staunton as Elliot’s mother. In Vera Drake (see Dilettante’s Diary review on the "Movies" page, towards the bottom of the navigation bar), she so fully inhabited that nice, well-meaning working class Brit of the 1950s that it was hard for me to think of her as any other character. So I’ve been keen to see her again. Which leads me to the sad realization – for the first time ever in my movie-going career – that you can regret seeing an actor in a certain role. Here, she plays Elliot’s mother, an angry Russian Jewish immigrant who is nasty beyond all believing. The acting is so overdone – with a bullish stomp, a constant scowl and a raspy snarl – that you wonder how any director could have allowed what turns out to be one of the worst performances ever seen on screen.

Rating: D minus (Where D = "Divided" i.e. some good, some bad)

 

Paul Blart: Mall Cop (DVD) written by Kevin James and Nick Bakay; directed by Steve Carr; starring Kevin James, Jayma Mays, Keir O’Donnell, Raini Rodriguez, Shirley Knight, Stephen Rannazzisi, Peter Gerety, Bobby Canavale, Adam Ferrara.

Friends who liked it warned that this might not be my type of movie. Too true! We have Kevin James as Paul Blart, a fat, blundering mall cop who finds himself locked into the mall one night with a band of desperadoes determined to take over the premises. He’s forced to eject them single-handedly. By way of subplot, there’s his attraction to a young salesclerk (Jayma Mays) whose personality is modelled on the charms of an inflatable doll. I think we’re supposed to find something likeable in loser Blart who lives with his mom. The theme goes back at least as far as the 1950s movie Marty, starring Jackie Gleason. Looking very closely, I could detect a faint spark of self-deprecating humour in Mr. James but the script (by himself and Nick Bakay) never provided the wherewithal to ignite it. Compared to this movie, Observe and Report, on a similar theme, looks like a masterpiece of comic invention (see Dilettante’s Diary review, May 10/09). I’m told that Paul Blart’s methods of finally out-smarting the bad guys showed some ingenuity, but one hour of this comedy had such a depressing effect that I couldn’t watch any more without a housecall from my shrink – who was on holiday.

Rating: F (i.e. "Fergeddaboudit")

 

The Soloist (DVD) written by Susannah Grant; based on the book by Steve Lopez; directed by Joe Wright; starring Robert Downey Jr., Jamie Foxx; with Catherine Keener, Melsan Ellis, Tom Hollander, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Justin Martin.

The previews for this one made me wonder how it could be anything but a re-working of the theme of Shine, the movie that made Geoffrey Rush a star: a young prodigy’s musical career gets sidelined by mental trouble but then some friend comes along and helps put him back on the track to fame and glory. Here, you have Jamie Foxx playing the real-life Nathaniel Ayers, a cellist who dropped out of the prestigious Julliard school of music when the symptoms of schizophrenia (mainly in the form of tormenting voices) started to plague him. Now he’s living on the streets of Los Angeles. Robert Downey Jr. plays Steve Lopez, the reporter for the LA Times, who tries to help Mr. Ayers while writing newspaper columns about his plight.

Granted, the two movies have a lot in common. But The Soloist, a much grittier, more realistic piece, has little of the romance and melodrama of Shine. In fact, the movie precedent that comes closer to The Soloist is Joe Gould’s Secret, the account of New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell’s obsession with the eccentric, homeless and possible genius, Joe Gould.

Early in The Soloist, a few clichs of the musician-bio genre worried me: somebody tells the performer that his playing makes them hear "the voice of God" and the bromide about "the world is waiting for you" surfaces a couple of times. (I always want to ask: is the world also waiting for all those other hopefuls who may or may not make the big time?) I was also bothered by the looming threat of that assumption that every human being necessarily falls into a trance at the sound of beautiful music. That was one of the problems with the much acclaimed Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. (See Dilettante's Diary review, July 18/06.)

In the end, though, the movie offers no sugary glamour or false hope. Instead, it presents a fascinating study of the nearly intractable problems of trying to help homeless people who are mentally ill. To what extent can you force people to do what’s good – i.e. what you think is good – for them? When is it appropriate/possible/legal to curtail a person’s free will regarding the way he or she chooses to live?

The two actors in the principal roles accomplish the not inconsiderable feat of banishing any thoughts about their being involved in making movies and big bucks. They come across, rather, as complex, troubled individuals. The pain in Jamie Foxx’s eyes is all to evident as he spouts his verbal diarrhoea, meanwhile playing a game of hide-and-seek with the man who’s trying to help him. As that man, Robert Downey Jr. clearly doesn’t relish the role of saviour. He’s simply a somewhat compromised man, like most of us, who feels maybe he shouldn’t turn down an opportunity to do some good. The fact that he may be exploiting the object of his charity by writing about him does not escape his notice.

Great work comes from actors in smaller roles, not least of them the bit players who portray the troubled people hanging out at the Lamp Community centre, a social services agency catering to the mentally ill and homeless. As Steve Lopez’s ex-wife and his editor at the Times, Catherine Keener doesn’t fail to add the welcome note that she brings to many movies: the presence of a very contemporary woman, a beautiful and intelligent one who can respond to most of life’s ambiguities with earthy laughter. Nelson Ellis does a great job as the social worker whose job requires him to represent the official line on questions of diagnosis, treatment, therapy and legalities but who also manages to maintain a hip, street-smart openness to his clientele.

In keeping with the quality of the script and the acting, the movie offers many other pleasures, particularly in the visual department, thanks largely to director Joe Wright and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey. The photography captures the grubby beauty of inner-city LA – much emphasis on dirty concrete – in a noir-ish way. But, when Mr. Ayers sits down under an expressway to play on a donated cello, the camera pulls back and up, following some airborne pigeons on a glorious flight of fancy. Later, a riotous splash of colours conveys the effect of a Beethoven symphony.

Glorious as the sound may be in the musical sections, one caveat about the dialogue: much of the mumbled speech was very hard to catch on our sound system. Several instances of Mr. Downey’s muttering into a cellphone or a tape recorder were practically indecipherable. Not that one would want these characters to sound like students spitting out consonants in elocution class. One can only hope that the surround-sound arrangements in a movie theatre would make much of their diction more intelligible. But one big advantage of the DVD is the inclusion of fascinating interviews with the real Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers.

Rating: B (i.e. "Better than most")

 

Marley & Me  (DVD) written by Scott Frank and Dan Ross; based on the book by John Grogan; directed by David Frankel; starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston; with Alan Arkin and Eric Dane

You might assume that I would automatically hate this movie just because it’s about a loveable, mischievous dog. But there are other reasons.

The dog’s owners, for instance. Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson start off as this unbearably cute couple who are constantly cracking quips to the point that it looks like they’re auditioning to be in a sitcom. Later, come the typical hassles of parenthood, their self-dramatizing angst earns no sympathy from this department. (From the book that author John Grogan wrote after Marley and Me, you can see that his marriage was far more interesting than this stylized Hollywood version. For a review of that second book, The Longest Trip Home, see Dilettante’s Diary July 17/09.)

In terms of the actors’ performances, Ms. Aniston manages to strike an authentic note as a harassed mother but Mr. Wilson’s performance as hubby and dad never quite convinces me. It’s not that he’s inadequate, exactly. It’s just that I miss the weird charm he brings to his off-the-wall roles in other movies. Maybe, given his beach boy looks and his shambling manner, the "straight man" part doesn’t suit him; or maybe the script simply hasn’t developed his character sufficiently.

Same for Marley, the dog. Far from being "the worst dog in the world", as the script would have it, he’s just a rambunctious canine whose foolish owners too quickly abandon any effort to discipline him. Somewhat anomalously, for a character who figures so prominently in a movie’s title, he isn’t even central to much of the proceedings. Throughout most of the second half, which deals mainly with the vicissitudes of the Wilson character’s career as a journalist, Marley pretty much watches from the sidelines.

Eventually, however, the movie does deliver a message about the good effect that a loyal dog can have on a family – a moral that I wouldn’t necessarily condemn if the process of making the point were more interesting.

Rating: E (as in the Canadian "Eh?" i.e. iffy)

 

In Search of Time (Science) by Dan Falk, 2008

Casual visitors may get the impression that we at Dilettante’s Diary deal only with artsy subject matter. The devoted reader will know, however, that we occasionally venture into other areas. Science, for instance. Studies of evolution interest us a lot. So does the question of time. It strikes us as one of the great enigmas. Is time real? Why do we have a sense of time "flowing"? How do other cultures think – or not think – of time?

That last question, along with related anthropological and historical issues, gets the full treatment in this book by Dan Falk. We find out how various civilizations – on our planet, at least – have thought of time, from the most ancient evidence, up through the Industrial Revolution and on to the still surviving Stone Age tribes of our time. We learn what sorts of clocks were devised, how various calendars have been established and what adjustments have been required in shifting from one system to another – hey, where did those ten days go? Predictions of how our world will become toast in a billion years or so prove very diverting.

Through most of this material, the reading is smooth and pleasurable. Now and them, however, alarm bells sound. For instance, this excerpt from a footnote on page 14:

In this book I use the term hominid to mean all members of the human family, including Homo sapiens and their extinct bipedal cousins – roughly speaking, all the primates that have ever walked upright, beginning approximately 4 million years ago. Some anthropologists now use the term hominid more broadly so as to include the great apes – this is, in fact, the new technical definition – and would use the term hominan to refer specifically to human and human-like species.

Is there a problem of logic here or is it just that I can’t get a meaning that is obvious to another reader? As I read the passage, the author is saying that he includes the primates in the term hominid. By way of distinction, he says anthropologists now include the great apes in the term. But the great apes are primates, aren’t they? Then where’s the difference in the two uses of the term? Or is Mr. Falk using "primates" in a way that does not include the great apes? Can it be used that way?

Bothersome stylistic tics crop up too. The author frequently uses brackets when the bracketed material could just as well be included in the unbracketed content of a passage. Similarly, footnotes are often used for material that would better be included in the main text. It’s as if the making of footnotes has become a knee-jerk reaction on the part of the author. (You have to wonder if that’s the result of the fact that word processing systems have made the creation of footnotes so easy.)

Then, there are banal statements and truisms that don’t help to create a good impression of the author. For instance: "A certain degree of memory loss is normal with aging...." and "Even geniuses can be led astray". In a discussion of personal flying devices as envisioned a century ago, Mr. Falk says, "...our planes typically carry many people (often hundreds), and do so primarily over long distances." Who are the intended recipients of this startling information?

Questionable word usages cause further trouble. The author feels that the term "myriad" requires the preposition "of" after it. Another unnecessary (to my mind) insertion of a preposition occurs with the verb "to relish," meaning to enjoy something. The author seems to feel the verb does not take a direct object but needs to be followed by the preposition "in". As in: "Today we can relish in the mythology..." and "[Einstein]...relished in the seclusion that the bucolic town provided." (Is Mr. Falk equating "relish" with "revel"?) To me, this use of relish evokes a mental picture of somebody’s enjoying something so much that they’re wallowing in it as in a dish of relish.

Why mention such flaws, several of them admittedly trivial-seeming? Because it’s a question of confidence in the writer. When dubious usages occur, you begin to wonder how far you can trust a writer. Is his mind compatible with yours? Can you be sure that he will take you where the subject matter must go? It’s like signing up with a guide for a foray into the deep jungle. You may have heard that he’s an expert on the territory but you begin to notice worrying things: he’s extremely overweight, he seems to suffer from high blood pressure, and his sense of humour rubs you the wrong way. Are you then completely comfortable about the prospect of this guy’s leading you into the risky terrain?

Such questions are crucial, come the more difficult parts of this book. For my money, this author lets us down on subjects like relativity, quantum theory and time travel. He burbles enthusiastically, with cheery exhortations to make the material seem accessible, but he’s plunging far too rapidly into the thickets of hard science without looking back to make sure that I am following. I’m trapped in the tangled vines created by undefined terms and statements that assume I know more than I do. A second careful reading of some of this material cleared up a few points for me but the mass of impediments was still overwhelming.

Is this a problem with Mr. Falk’s writing? Maybe not, given that he has won several awards for his science journalism and is generally regarded as one of Canada's leading science writers. Maybe the problem is this reader's insufficient mental acumen.  (My deficiencies in that department have often been pointed out to me.) I can’t help wondering, though, whether another factor is at work here. There can be no doubt that Mr. Falk has checked his manuscript with the experts in the field. From my own experience of journalism, however, I know how it goes: you phone your source, you read the pertinent passage, your expert congratulates you on its perfect clarity or helps you to rectify any inaccuracies. Then your source endorses your text as irreproachable and crystal clear. But it’s clear to that person because he or she is an expert in the field. Is said expert capable of assessing whether or not the material is clear to the average reader? No.

But what about editors – aren’t they supposed to speak up for the average reader? One might have thought that was the way it worked in some golden age of publishing. Nowadays, everybody knows that editors in publishing houses can’t afford the time to decode difficult scientific passages. If an author assures an editor that the experts in the field have guaranteed the accuracy of the text, who is that editor to demur? That, I think, is why we have so many science books that are acclaimed by experts and awarded prizes – again by experts – but are baffling to you and me.

However, once Dan Falk gets through the dense scientific terrain, he comes to the aspect of the subject that most interests me: the question about whether or not time is real or whether it is just a trick of our human perception that creates the sense of something like time flowing through our lives. His fascinating exploration of the question brings in the opinions of physicists, philosophers and even science fiction writers. Their conclusion? It seems none of them can say for sure what time is.

Some of them, though, lead me to a sense that the passage of time is only a trick of our minds as a result of the fact that we have the faculty of memory. Without that, existence in this universe consists of nothing but one big "now" moment. It’s only when our brains start interfering that confusion sets in about the nature of time. We raise questions on the subject and think we can solve them. But our brains are over-extending themselves; they can’t handle the job they’ve taken on.

As Mr. Falk points out, Toronto physicist Lee Smolin, in his book, The Life of the Cosmos (1997), said that trying to deal with the question of time "brings me closer than I like to the limits of what my own mind has the language or the means to conceive." Even Einstein, reportedly, recognized the problem. According to Rudolf Carnap, a colleague of his, the great genius was much bothered by the difficulty of trying to explain what "Now" means: "That this matter cannot be grasped by science seemed a matter of painful but inevitable resignation."

Far be it for me, then, to feel that I should be able to settle the question.

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