Movie Review: The Guest (2014)

November 29, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

The-Guest

The Guest is an unusual one. It takes a simple premise — about a handsome, mysterious stranger who shows up on a doorstep claiming to know the deceased son of a bereaved family — and develops it into a dark, slightly comical psychological thriller where you never really know what’s going to happen next.

Downton Abbey alumnus Dan Stevens is virtually unrecognizable as David Collins, a dark and mysterious stranger who shows up on the doorstep of the Peterson family, claiming to have served in Afghanistan with their dead son Caleb. I had no idea that I had just watched Stevens, who is British, in A Walk Among the Tombstones, where he has dark hair and trimmed facial hair. Here, he looks completely different, almost like a young Nicholas Brody from Homeland, with reddish blonde hair, an All-American smile, and a somewhat sinister brand of charm.

Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and The Guest

Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and The Guest



Anyway, David is gradually welcomed into the family, offering a friendly ear for the father (Leland Orser) to air his grievances at work, taking on the bully problems of the youngest son (Brendan Meyer) at school, and impressing the friends of the young daughter (Maika Monroe) at parties. But of course, David is not quite who he seems, and eventually shit has to go down.

The stuff that happens in the guest feel familiar, and yet it’s not easy to recall where you have seen it before. Collins sets himself up as a likable antihero — he does things seemingly out of kindness and justice, things we wish we had the courage and ability to do, but at the same time he is so obviously unstable that we know we must maintain our distance. Every time a new scenario pops up you wonder if David is to be naughty or nice.

The result is a little cheesy, but it’s also plenty of fun because the film is smart enough to not take itself too seriously. It’s violent and unsettling when it wants to be, but there are times when it allows you take a step back and see how wickedly absurd the whole thing is. 

A film like this wouldn’t work without quality performances, and a big part of why it excels is because of Dan Stevens. He’s cool, he’s charming, and he can also be terrifying. There’s something about the facial expressions of David that he gets just right. Maika Monroe is actually also pretty good, as are the rest of the family.

The Guest ultimately feels like a low-budget B-movie, but boy is it a damn good one. It’s the type of film that will surprise you with how enjoyably watchable it is if you rent on DVD when there’s nothing else or come across it on late night TV. I haven’t seen any of director Adam Wingard’s other movies, but now I am intrigued by his handling of the material and wouldn’t mind checking out seemingly crappy horrors on his resume such as You’re Next and the two V/H/S films.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Stretch (2014)

November 27, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Stretch-Poster

Usually, when a Hollywood film with a list stars ends up having its release delayed, before being pushed to a VOD debut, it means the movie probably stinks. In the case of Stretch, however, it says a lot more about the stupidity and conservative nature of Hollywood more than anything else. Stretch is undeniably weird, wacky, and all over the place, but it is also one of the most original and gut-bustingly hilarious oddball comedy in years.

Patrick Wilson stars as a down-and-out limo driver nicknamed Stretch, who came to Hollywood years ago with dreams of making it big some day. Instead of becoming a star, he’s dumped by his gorgeous gal (Brooklyn Decker) and develops a dangerous gambling habit that has him owing a sizable chunk of money to some very dangerous people. To make ends meet, he works for a limousine service that caters to Hollywood stars and wannabes, taking over the client list of a former driver, Karl (Ed Helms), who blew his brains out because the job made him so depressed.

Stretch’s luck appears to make a turn for the better when he runs into Karos (Chris Pine), a mysterious billionaire who offers to give him a very generous tip for being an extra accommodating driver. And so begins a wild night of mayhem that will involve gangsters, police, hookers, exes, bad acting, brilliant acting, reality TV stars and smartphone hook-up apps.

Stretch is a crazy romp, and I mean that in the best of ways. There’s a sharp satirical edge throughout, taking stabs and bites at Hollywood along the way, and the jokes and one-liners are fast and furious. The pace of the entire film is frantic, as Stretch keeps getting bounced from place to place and bumping into memorable and bizarre characters.

Writer and director Joe Carnahan, who has credits like The Grey, Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team on his resume, does a fine job of making Stretch a finely tuned mess where as audiences we are just happy to go along for the ride.

Patrick Wilson is legendary in this, and Chris Pine is as funny as I have ever seen him. Other supporting cast members such as Jessica Alba, Brooklyn Decker, James Badge Dale and Ed Helms all Play their parts with the requisite amount of fun. The highlights for me, however, would have to be the extended cameos from David Hasselhoff and Ray Liotta playing spoof versions of themselves, as well as Kevin Bigley playing ex-reality TV star Faux Hawk.

The film does get wrapped up a little too neatly and resorts to more conventional Hollywood tactics down the stretch, no pun intended. Notwithstanding its flaws, however, Stretch is an undeniably brilliant farce and one of the most hilarious and energetic popcorn movies I have seen in quite some time.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: As Above, So Below (2014)

November 27, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

AASB

I once had an opportunity to visit the Catacombs of Paris, which stores the remains of about 6 million people, back in 2008. I arrived a few minutes after closing time, however, and the opportunity was lost. I was curious about the place, but I was also secretly glad that I didn’t end up going in. I could feel the creepiness of the place even from the outside on ground level, and given that I don’t love confined spaces, I have concluded that it was probably for the best.

I remember wondering at the time why there haven’t been more horror movies made about the place. Someone must have read my mind, because that’s exactly what As Above, So Below is all about.

If I were constructing the typical premise for a Catacombs movie, it would be about tourists getting lost in there and running into scary things like ghosts or monsters. That’s more or less what I thought As Above, So Below was going to give us. Instead, the film turned out to be more like a treasure hunt movie with elements of a psychological horror and supernatural horror that tries admirably to avoid the most obvious clichés. It ends up being one of those films that’s not exactly good — it does have moments of creepy effectiveness — but it’s at least a little different to what you might have expected.

You get a good feel for how preposterous the film is going to be in its early scenes, when a young scholar (Perdita Weeks) discovers the mythical Rose Key in Iran as part of her goal to track down the Philosopher’s Stone, which can, you know, turn stuff into gold and grant eternal life and so forth. She also happens to be extremely young, attractive, has two PhD’s, and is an expert in martial arts. Totally believable.

Anyway, she travels to Paris, and with the aid of a former lover, translates Da Vinci code-style clues that lead her to the Catacombs. They assemble a local team to guide them in, commencing an adventure that grows more and more bizarre — and terrifying — as they venture deeper into the ground.

While the film explores some of the real-life weirdos that occupy the Catacombs, most of the energy is spent on this fictitious treasure hunt not all that different from those depicted in the National Treasure movies and the Dan Brown adaptations. Actually, it goes even beyond those films, veering into Indiana Jones territory. These parts of the film are not particularly scary, and the way the characters solve the riddles are typically trite. They rattle off various verses no one understands, before realizing they made a mistake, rattling off more versus no one understands to rectify the situation. Stuff like that.

The atmosphere is largely there thanks to the setting, though the film doesn’t really turn into a full-fledged horror until much later. From the point it does, the progression becomes fairly stereotypical, though there are a few effective scare tactics to keep the film afloat for the most part. Credit for not sinking exclusively to “boo” scares and cheap tactics and for coming up with an ending that’s not the same as every other low-quality horror in recent memory, but unfortunately, As Above, So Below is just not consistently frightening enough considering the natural benefits of its premise.

The film is presented as found footage, which I usually hate, but in this instance I can see some merit in taking this route. First person video footage helps in bringing out the macabre atmosphere and claustrophobic nature of the catacombs, giving viewers an idea of just how suffocating and eerie the place really is. Most importantly, The film uses multiple cameras — each of which are attached the heads of the characters — to give us the best view of what is happening. The level of shakiness and incoherence is also kept to a minimum. It may not be realistic, but it’s as good of an approach to found footage I have seen, because it gives us the advantages of the first-person perspective without emphasizing all of the disadvantages.

The end result is an unusual horror film that’s not all horror and not all scary. And yet it is undeniably creepy in moments and semi-interesting because of the premise. I’d therefore say As Above, So Below is above average, below good.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014)

November 25, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

HG

If I’m going to be honest then I might as well say it: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is a well-executed disappointment.

I had expected this to be the case when I heard that they were, like every other successful major book franchise these days, splitting the final book of the series into two films. This lit up alarm bells in my mind straight away, because having read the books, I already knew that  Mockingjay had the least amount of action and “wow factor” of the trilogy. It may have barely worked for Harry Potter and Twilight, but the final books of those series are nearly double the length of Mockingjay. 

The story picks up when Catching Fire left off: after destroying the Quarter Quell Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is rescued by the mysterious District 13 while her games partner, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), remains a captive of the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). With no more excuses to toss her back into the arena, this time the film is all about surviving on the outside and being groomed by District 13 president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) into the “Mockingjay”, the symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol.

Consequently, Mockingjay  is a very different film compared to the other two. It’s darker and arguably even more intense because there’s a lot more death and destruction and the stakes are no longer just confined to the artificial world of the Hunger Games. The fate of Katniss, all the people she cares about, and even the entire world, lies in her unwilling teenage hands. Rather then making observations about the world of reality television, Mockingjay  explores political propaganda and the sacrifices of rebellion and consequences of war. It’s heavy stuff, but for the most part these themes are handled effectively and delicately.

The decision to split the final book meant that director Francis Lawrence (who did Catching Fire) was forced to stretch about 390 pages of material over what I presume will be about 240-250 minutes. By comparison, the adaptation of Catching Fire was 391 pages into 146 minutes, while for The Hunger Games it was 374 pages into 142 minutes. The first two adaptations were taut and action-packed affairs that largely kept close to the book editions. On the other hand, even if you litter Mockingjay with some additions not from the book, it’s just technically impossible for the film to keep pace with its predecessors.

This is not to say the film is bad — far from it. The overall standard of the production is still very good, on par with its predecessors. Lawrence makes the most of what little action he has to play with, creating some marvellous set pieces filled with high intensity that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats. The additional running time also afforded more opportunities for contemplation and character development, taking the accumulated emotions from the two earlier films and building them up to the next level.

The performances are still top notch. Jennifer Lawrence may have had a tumultuous time recently, but in the Hunger Games world she’s as solid as ever. This was arguably the most difficult performance for her thus far because in this film she has to be a “bad actress” at times and a genuinely inspiring icon at others, and sometimes somewhere along that spectrum — and yet she manages to knock it out of the park. Josh Hutcherson doesn’t get to do nearly as much in this one, but the scenes he’s in are dynamite. Liam Hemsworth, on the other hand, is relatively wooden by comparison. Gale is one of those key characters who has a bit of a raw deal in this story because he’s never really central to the narrative, and Hemsworth doesn’t do much to elevate the character above that.

New additions like the ever-reliable Julianne Moore and Game of Thrones‘s Natalie Dormer are positives to the ensemble while also boosting star power, though for me the standout supporting performance still has to be the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose presence as former head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee makes you realise just how much of a loss his death is to the acting community. It was initially a little jarring to see him on screen, but he’s so good that after a while you just see him as the character rather than the deceased actor.

My difficulties with the film ultimately lie in what comes between all of its well-executed moments. Every now and then a scene feels a tad longer than it needed to be. Some reactions and conversations are drawn out when they probably didn’t have to be. It may be imperceptible at first, but they adds up over the course of the film and stick out like obvious time-fillers by the end. You could even argue that, with the exception of a couple of key occurrences, the entire film was one long, unnecessary filler.

It’s a shame, because I think Mockingjay had the potential to be one heck of a 140-150 minute movie that could have been on the same level as the first two films in terms of overall quality. Instead, they had to be greedy and split the book into two films, meaning that each one would be that much slower and that much less eventful. When you break it down, not a whole lot happens in this film. The impact of this decision becomes pronounced when the film ends on what’s supposed to be a semi-cliffhanger but feels more like an anti-climatic “is that it?”

If you’re a fan of the franchise then you’ll have no choice but to watch Mockingjay, Part 1 and then Part II when it comes out next year. And it annoys me that I’ll have to spend double the money for the series finale when a book perfect for a single film adaptation is being stretched unnaturally into two. I’m not saying Part I isn’t still a relatively entertaining and enjoyable experience; I’m just saying it isn’t as good as The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and more importantly, not as good as it could have and should have been.

3.25 stars out of 5

NaNoWriMo Update 3: Hijacked by Serial Podcast

November 24, 2014 in Best Of by pacejmiller

Serial-2

It’s been a little while since my last unofficial NaNoWriMo update, and there is a good reason for that. After being derailed by work and whatever else last time, my progress has been more or less halted by my latest distraction/addiction: Serial.

If you haven’t heard of it, I’d recommend that you stop whatever you’re doing right now and check it out. I’m not a podcast guy. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that I haven’t found much time for them — until now. Following several recommendations, I decided to check out this weekly spinoff from This American Life, where host Sarah Koenig explores a 15-year-old murder mystery, one aspect of the cold case per show.

I started listening to it under the presumption that the whole thing was a radio play, where everything was scripted and performed by voice actors. Even then, I was captivated by the Koenig’s storytelling and the way the case unfolded before my ears. When I discovered that the case was actually real, and that the recordings I heard on the show were real — hory shet, my mind was blown.

You should find out for yourself what the fuss is all about, but in short, the case revolves around the murder of 17-year-old student Hae Min Lee back in 1999. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life imprisonment, but he continues to maintain his innocence. It’s one of those bizarre cases where nothing really seems to make sense — witnesses are shady or unrealiable, the defense may have been inept, the police may have been corrupt, and memories are contradictory or non-existent — and yet there’s nothing concrete that can prove Syed’s innocence. There are ample arguments for and against Syed, and from what I can gather the opinion is split right down the middle. I’ll give my 2 cents on the case below.

Adnan

I ended up breezing through the first 8 episodes of the show, finding time to listen to it on the run and during exercise (OK, and during work too). I recently listened to the 9th episode and will be eagerly anticipating the 10th, the release of which has been delayed an extra week because of Thanksgiving. In the meantime, I’ve gone back and re-listened to some episodes to see if there are some things I may have missed.

It’s a fantastic concept, allowing listeners to try and solve this riveting case together. Pieces of information are added every week as the picture becomes either clearer or more muddled, and it is up to the individual to come to their own conclusions. As the popularity of the show has grown, more people have come forward with information they think might help shed light on what happened. Given that the show is recorded week by week, there are still new developments happening all the time, including recent news that Syed, now 34, is trying to get an appeal on the basis that he had ineffective legal representation.

The podcast is now listened to by millions, and it has generated unprecedented interest in the case, with new websites dedicated to compiling the available evidence. The podcast homepage is already filled with great stuff you can trawl through during or after listening to the show each week. I’ve tried to steer clear of a sub-Reddit for people to discuss the show because I have fears that I will become so immersed I won’t have time for anything else. But don’t let me try and stop you.

Anyway, I’ve gotten completely off track. What I want to say is that I haven’t been doing any of my NaNoWriMo writing at all, and that I probably won’t until next month. That is all.

Thoughts about the case

Here are my thoughts about the case. Bear in mind, I am fairly certain that we will never get to the bottom of whether Adnan killed Hae, not unless someone confesses. I also happen to flip flop between guilty and not guilty just about every week. Accordingly, these are purely my own worthless speculations based on what I have gathered from listening to the podcast thus far.

I think there are several scenarios available to us:

1. Adnan is guilty as charged, and Jay either helped commit the murder or was an accessory before/after the fact

2. Adnan is innocent, and Jay is the real murderer who framed him, either to help himself get off as part of a plea deal and/or for some ulterior motive such as jealousy of Adnan’s closeness to his Jay’s girlfriend

3. Adnan and Jay are both innocent, but Jay was coerced by police into framing Adnan out of fear they would pin it on him instead

There are other variations, but these are the basic three. Out of the three, I am inclined to believe that No. 1 is most likely. I want to believe Adnan is innocent, and I initially believed that he was. Jay’s story to the police is a completely incoherent mess that keeps chopping and changing. Nothing is really consistent in his narrative. He’s also a shady guy who has a propensity to lie.

The more I listen, however, the more I am convinced Adnan is guilty. I’m not saying the jury should have found him guilty in a court of law — I probably would vote not guilty myself because there is definitely reasonable doubt based on how flimsy the evidence is — but my gut feeling is that he committed the crime. I could write forever about this, but essentially these are the things that suggest to me Adnan has things to hide — things that cast doubt on his overall story of innocence.

– I don’t buy Adnan’s claim that he did not know Jay very well. It makes little sense that he would lend his car and brand new phone to just a “casual acquaintance,” even if they occasionally smoked weed together. It’s also not disputed that Jay often drove Adnan to track practice. Perhaps their culture is different to what I am accustomed to, but it feels like Adnan is trying to distance himself from Jay to make Jay’s story less believable. The “You’re pathetic” Adnan said to Jay before Jay took the stand could be construed in different ways (either “you framed me” or “you ratted me out”), but to me it suggests that they knew each other better than Adnan is letting on.

– I don’t buy Adnan’s insistence that he simply can’t remember anything from that day. As raised in the podcast, our memories are generally unreliable about even recent occurrences, but when something big or important happens we’re much more likely to remember that day, or at least bits and pieces of it. And the day Adnan said felt like “any other day” was the day his ex-girlfriend disappeared and he got a call from the cops about it. He said he remembers the call, but simply thought that Hae was going to be in trouble for running away. However, it’s not every day that your ex-girlfriend disappears, and it’s not every day you get a call from a cop about it.

– Adnan was supposedly still on good terms with Hae after she disappeared. And yet, unlike all her other friends, he did not try to page her after her disappearance. Not even once. That doesn’t smell right. His excuse was that he got the latest updates from friends at school, so it wasn’t like he didn’t care. But if that’s the case, he would have realized that the disappearance was serious only a few days (not weeks) after it happened, at which point it would make sense for him to try and recall if he could remember anything helpful from that fateful day, especially since he got a call from the cops. He might have been only 17, but there’s no way he wouldn’t piece the two together. Hae’s body was found 4 weeks after she disappeared. It might have be really difficult, but not impossible, if he really tried, to recall something — anything — at that stage. If I was being accused of murder, I’d be wracking my brain to remember an alibi, but he offers nothing. Sure, it was in the days before social media, but what about stuff he had written at school? Wouldn’t family and friends have been able to jog his memory? Heck, wouldn’t the call log have done that? It would be more convincing if he said he can remember some things about that day but none of it had anything to do with Hae, but to plead bad memory on absolutely everything comes across as an attempt to minimize the possibility of tripping himself up when questioned.

– I am absolutely baffled by Adnan’s lack of animosity towards Jay, at least outwardly. Jay is the ONLY reason Adnan is in prison for life, and Jay most likely knew something about the murder because he led the police to Hae’s car. If Adnan truly had nothing to do with it, then shouldn’t he feel at least a little angry towards the guy who framed him and would likely be Hae’s real killer? And yet in conversations with Koenig he says he blames himself for associating with the wrong people? That fails the smell test again. He doesn’t even appear to have wondered WHY Jay would kill Hae or frame him. If it were me those questions would be eating me up inside and I would at least try to come up with a theory of why I ended up in this predicament. Instead, of trying to build a case against Jay (“I don’t want to accuse anyone”, Adnan says), he simply says that the case against him built by the prosecution “doesn’t add up?” WTF?

– Adnan reasons for saying that he would have confessed to the murder if he was guilty don’t convince me. He says his parents would sleep better at night if they had an answer to the mystery rather than thinking that their innocent son is stuck in prison for life. He would still be their son and they would still love him knowing that he isn’t doing too badly in prison. That’s fine, but that’s also assuming that Adnan doesn’t have a problem with ending any possibility of ever getting out. He’s still relatively young, and as long as he can deny guilt there is a chance he can be set free some day, especially in light of the problems with the prosecution’s case.

– How easily Adnan has adjusted to prison life is also a potential red flag. An 18/19-year-old Muslim in the post-9/11 world in a maximum security prison full or murderers and rapists sounds like a rough deal, and yet Adnan claims he has no problems with anyone and is generally well-liked. It’s possible that he’s just been lucky, but it also raises the possibility that he perhaps really is the sociopathic manipulator prosecutors insist he is. It certainly would explain why there are people who say “the Adnan I know couldn’t have done this.”

– Jay told Chris, another friend, that Adnan killed Hae. This was independent of him telling the police, which lessens the likelihood that he concocted the story out of thin air. There was also the anonymous caller, who told police to look into Adnan. It is not believed that the call was made by Jay, which suggests other people know something about the murder.

– It wasn’t like the police didn’t have other suspects. Jay was a suspect. Mr S, the guy who found the body, was a suspect. Hae’s new boyfriend, Don, would have been a suspect until his alibi proved to be ironclad. And yet they decided to go after Adnan based on Jay’s testimony. If the testimony was so flimsy and the cops just wanted to to pin it on anyone it makes you wonder why they didn’t just pin it on Jay, given that he was obviously involved somehow and was giving them contradictory information.

– One thing that hasn’t been raised in the show so far is the fact that Adnan and Hae spoke on the phone the night before she disappeared. This is huge, because we’re supposed to believe that the breakup was relatively amicable and that both of them had moved on with their lives without hard feelings. The phone records show that Adnan called Hae 3 times between 11:27pm and 12:35am. The first 2 calls lasted 2 seconds each, meaning she likely hung up on him. The third and final call was a minute and 24 seconds, meaning there was time for words to be exchanged. What was Adnan doing calling her so many times in the middle of the night, and why did she hang up on him twice? And wouldn’t something like this have helped Adnan jog his memory?

Hae Min Lee

Hae Min Lee

My theory of what happened is rather simple. I think trawling through Jay’s witness statements and trying to make them match up with cell phone records and contradictory accounts from potential witnesses is all a waste of time. It’s all a big red herring. The reason I say that is because I don’t believe the timeline established by the police based on what Jay told them is what happened at all. Forget about the contradictions offered by the Nisha call; forget about the cell towers; forget about the library encounter with Asia — none of these things will fit because the timeline is wrong.

Based on Jay’s actions and what he has said I think it’s fairly clear that his primary aim was to cover his own ass. So he made up a version of the story in which he was not involved at all — without having thought about how all the other evidence would match. When the police tightened their noose around him he admitted to some involvement, and when a plea bargain was on the table he admitted to some more. By then it was too late to change his story, so maybe he went along with whatever police wanted him to say to build a stronger case against Adnan. But there’s little doubt that he knows something about the murder. So I agree that Jay’s story is not to be trusted as a complete version of events, but the one thing he has been consistent about through the whole thing is that Adnan did it. He’s adamant about that, even 15 years later. Unless there is something huge we haven’t been made privy to, I can’t think of a reason why he would make up this lie and stick to it so strongly and consistently.

So what I believe is that Adnan killed Hae. It may have not happened the way prosecutors say it happened, where it happened and when it happened, but the bottom line is that he did it. I also believe that Adnan and Jay are much better friends than they let the police believe, which would explain why Adnan would seek Jay’s “help.” The extent to which Jay is involved — whether he was there when it happened, whether he participated, whether he just helped bury the body — is not that important; what’s relevant is that he was involved enough to know Adnan did it. Jay initially tried to pretend he didn’t know anything when questioned by police, but he eventually caved under the pressure and gave Adnan up.

Adnan pled bad memory on everything because he didn’t want to be tripped up and he believed there was not enough evidence to convict him. He could have pointed the finger back at Jay, but he’d rather both of them get off than both of them go to prison. His lawyer, the late Christina Gutierrez, may not have done as bad of a job as we’ve been led to believe. She was a successful attorney who likely made tactical decisions to not go after certain witnesses (like Asia) and to not let Adnan testify because she knew they wouldn’t help the defense. Or maybe she knew Adnan was guilty so she threw the case. Either way, her later disbarment for mismanaging client money in my opinion is not relevant to her competency in court (as annoying as her voice is).

That’s enough rambling for now. I understand I could probably write as much about why Adnan is not guilty, but this is the way I feel about the case for the moment.

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