“Suffragette” — a very cool poster.

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Movie Review: “Learning to Drive”

benPeople who only know Ben Kingsley for his breakout performance in the epic “Gandhi” or his recent years of playing the go-to Brit villain would be surprised by the variety in his non-Jaguar commercial resume.

There was the arm’s-length romance set against the release of aquarium-bound sea turtles, “Turtle Diary,” and the darkly romantic longing of a backwater spy of “Pascali’s Island.”

“Learning to Drive” fits in with that part of his repertoire, a mild-mannered not-quite-romantic romance about a Sikh driving instructor and the harried, depressed and distracted student, a woman going through a traumatic divorce.

Kingsley is Darwan, a dignified and somewhat stiff Sikh, a workaholic who seems to support an apartment full of Sikh men who turn out to be illegal immigrants.

By night, he’s a cabbie. And then, after a morning visit to the temple (Kingsley is meticulous and respectful in his practice of rituals), he checks into his day job — as a very patience, quite conscientious driving instructor.

Wendy (the vivacious Patricia Clarkson) meets Darwan on the worst night of her life. Her husband (Jake Weber) is leaving her, trying to escape her clutches in a cab. And she takes the fight — profane and weepy and physical — into Darwan’s taxi.

When she leaves a parcel in his car and he returns it, he leaves his card. On an impulse, with her daughter (Grace Gummer, Meryl Streep’s other daughter) living on a farm in Vermont, Wendy resolves to finally learn how to drive. But she changes her mind in the sober light of day. Darwan has to trick her into sitting behind the wheel.

He quietly and patiently gives her a step-by-step instruction. Wendy, a book critic always lost in her thoughts (GREAT trait to have, if you’re a New York City driver), absent-mindedly follows them. And then snaps to attention. Not happening, she says, after getting halfway out of the parking space.

“You have to go forward now,” Darwan prods. “I haven’t taught you to back up.”

The comedy here comes from their gentle, sentimental friendship. Wendy is struggling with the loss of a spouse of 21 years, the fact that maybe her inattention contributed to the split. Darwan has a past of his own, and he’s being nagged into an arranged marriage (to Sarita Choudhury, who first gained fame for “Mississippi Masala”).

“Learning to Drive” was written by the screenwriter of “What Lies Beneath” and directed by the comedy-impaired Isabel Coixet (“Elegy,” “My Life Without Me”). It was conceived as a project aimed at older viewers, and it works well enough — charming scenes, the odd bit of comically frank profanity or explicit sex.

But close-ups here are used as pandering to the actors, not in service of the story. Scene after scene is chopped up with unnecessary attempts at “moments” played with a single face in the frame. The editing is unusual enough to call attention to itself, never a good thing.

The characters are roughed out nicely. Wendy’s temper is always getting the better of her. The lady has quite the foul mouth.

“I think it’s time to discuss road rage.”

But Kingsley is entirely too stiff and proper in this part to suggest any heat between them, and even if that serves the script, the film cries out for more warmth. It’s a chilly piece, scattered funny situations and laugh-out-loud lines, and a good cast performing them.

“Learning to Drive” needed more culture clash, more scenes between student and teacher, more sparks — even if they’re kind of chaste.

“Love is the road to God.”

“I unfriended God a long time ago.”

A little more of that, and a little less attention to recreating Sikh rituals or Wendy’s ongoing break-up might have helped “Drive” take off.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: R for language and sexual content

Cast: Patricia Clarkson, Ben Kingsley, Sarita Choudhury
Credits: Directed by Isabel Coixet, script by Sarah Kernochan. A Broad Green release.

Running time: 1:30

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Movie Review: “No Escape”

es2Hand it to Pierce Brosnan. He’s never turned in that License to Kill for an AARP card.

He shows up as a sort Bond ex Machina in “No Escape,” a genuinely harrowing thriller about an American family trapped in the middle of a Southeast Asian coup.  He’s the back-slapping barfly who is, of course, more than he seems when he bumps into the Dwyers on the flight in.

We’ve already seen the bemedaled prime minister and his staff slaughtered in the film’s opening scene. And the guy with the beard and jovial accent is, well, Pierce Brosnan. We know this “Hammond” fellow is going to come in handy when the chips are down. As they will be in about a day.

Jack (Owen Wilson) has a much-needed new job as a hydraulic engineer. Annie (Lake Bell) is his leery wife. Their four-star hotel seems like an island in the middle of something else entirely (The country is never identified as Cambodia or Laos or Thailand).

“Welcome to the Third World,” Jack crows.

“Actually, it’s the FOURTH world,” she snaps.

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Then the mayhem starts. Mobs with guns and machetes, wearing those red scarves that we remember as the trademark of the Khmer Rouge, take to the streets, overwhelming the riot police and then the army. They hack up or shoot anyone in a suit, especially foreigners. Yeah, there’s something about Jack’s work that is inspiring this, but the analog the filmmakers were going for is straight-up savagery –Khmer Rouge.

There’s no cell service, no escape from the hotel. But they’ve got to get to the embassy. And the Dwyers have to do this with two somewhat traumatized pre-teen daughters.

Filmmakers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle (“As Above, So Below,” “Quarantine”) serve up a horrific string of “Sophie’s Choice” situations, in between the breathless chases and brutal violence. Children are hurled off buildings, parents must weigh, in an instant, how their sacrifice might keep the others alive.

Because at every turn, ugly, progress-and-foreigner hating locals are butchering everyone in sight.

“No Escape” reminded  me of the British films about the Zulu Wars from the 1960s — a sea of savage brown people indiscriminately hating and hacking up whites. The way the movies got away from that Cowboys/Indians racism was to turn those few-against-many tales into zombie pictures. Nobody can reason with a zombie. Nobody cares when zombies are mowed down. It’s no surprise that the Dowdles cut their teeth in horror films.

Planting a speech where Hammond justifies the locals’ rage is only going to provoke eye-rolls. And much of what has happened before that has crossed into melodrama, with each nick-of-time delivery from death, each narrow escape.

Which kind of gives the lie to the title, doesn’t it? As visceral as the film often is — and Bell really SELLS the fright and the awful choices they’re facing — you have to guess, early on, where the sacrifice will come from and who will be delivered from the restless natives.

At least that deliverance is bit ironic, if you know your Indochinese history.

2stars1

MPAA Rating:R for strong violence including a sexual assault, and for language

Cast: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan
Credits: Directed by John Erick Dowdle, script by John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle. A Weinstein Co. release.

Running time: 1:43

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Movie Preview: “Youth” promises breathtaking photography, sunny Italy, and a bunch of Oscar winners

Paolo “The Great Beauty” Sorrentino directed “Youth,” with Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Rachel Weisz all plopped into Italian locations in a tale of talent, art, age and beauty.

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Movie Review: “7 Chinese Brothers”

brothersJason Schwartzman may be a little old for the part, but there’s something of a “voice of his generation” spin to his role in “7 Chinese Brothers.”

Larry, his character, is sarcastic, smart and utterly disgruntled. Nothing works out for him, which may be why he’s become Every Employer’s Nightmare.

He steals from the tip jars and the bar at the Buca di Beppo restaurant where he works. And when he’s fired, he promptly keys the car of a colleague who made his life tough there.

He mocks the application form at the Quick Lube joint where he applies next. Lupe (Eleanor Pienta), the cashier, is immune to his charms.

“Cannot BELIEVE you guys hired me,” he cracks. “Has anyone ever gotten fired on the first day?”

Once employed, he’s instantly bullied into stealing change from customer’s cars

Larry drinks almost constantly, visits his equally smart-mouthed granny (Olympia Dukakis) and cadges drugs off his pal, an orderly/nurse there (Tunde Adebimpe).

His most profound conversations are with his French bulldog, and through them, we pick up on his intelligence and just the sort of limited expectations the world offers somebody like him in this race-to-the-bottom economy.

Bob “Somebody Up There Likes Me” Byington’s film is random and silly and very short. Like Tunde Adebimpe’s debut film, “Jump Tomorrow,” the only word that sums it up is “twee.”

But there’s a hint of profundity in the depiction of a brotherhood/sisterhood of minimum wage slaves — convenience store clerks who help you get the best deal on vodka, managers who cut you a break when hiring.

And for all that it doesn’t amount to, “7 Chinese Brothers” — And no, I didn’t catch what the title means. An REM song, apparently every bit as random as this. — Schwartzman gives this slight comedy enough juice to make it worth 75 minutes of your time.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated, with fisticuffs and profanity

Cast: Jason Schwartzman, Tunde Adebimpe, Eleanore Pienta, Olympia Dukakis, Stephen Root
Credits: Written and directed by Bob Byington. A Screen Media release.

Running time: 1:15

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Movie Review: “We Are Your Friends”

fri2Dear Zac Efron;

We are your fans. Maybe even your friends. But we won’t be either for much longer, if you can’t escape drivel like “We Are Your Friends.”

It’s got music, so we can totally see why you’d be drawn to it. You get to be the Top Dog/Top Hunk with talent and the hot girlfriend in a group of pals living together, frolicking and stripping off their shirts, horse-playing together. Oh, and hustling girls into dance clubs in The Valley.

We get that, too. Nothing wrong with playing that homoerotic card. Again.

But this is a “Step Up” movie without the dancing, “A Star is Born” without Streisand, a musical about “rocking a party” from the mixing board, and a house techno-house music primer about “listening” and the value of organic sounds.

How did you miss the laughable irony in this script about a laptop digital musician who finds his “one track” by collecting real world sound effects on his smart phone?

Most ironic of all? Your star vehicle gives Wes Bentley — yes Wes Bentley — his best role in years playing your drunken, sell-out DJ mentor, the guy who teaches you to “listen.”

Efron plays Cole, a struggling 20something DJing (for free) at clubs in the San Fernando Valley, longing for the day he’s a Star in L.A.

His high school pals are a collection of cute “types.” There’s the tattooed short-fused joker (Jonny Weston), the drug dealing hustler (Shiloh Fernandez) and the nerdy soul of the gang, Squirrel (Alex Shaffer).

They “promote” this local club, passing out fliers and hustling up business, of which they get a cut. Only they never get a fair one. Should they fall in with the high-living mortgage scammer (Jon Bernthal) who promises them unethical riches?

Not so fast. Cole meets James Reed (Bentley, of “The Hunger Games” and scads of Z-movies). Reed’s the star, almost too jaded to enjoy the easy booze, easy drugs and easy women that come with being famous enough to coast on past glories. He has a hot assistant to come home to (Emily Ratajkowski), but not a lot of friends.

He takes an interest in “San Fernando,” his nickname for The Kid. They work on that “one track” that will launch Cole. If Cole can hold his liquor, keep his mouth shut about what he REALLY thinks of the older man and keep his hands off the man’s voluptuous, ill-used lady friend.

It’s all poolside parties and closeups of cleavage and EXTREME close-ups of bikini-clad bottoms, “put your hands in the air” moments in the synth-beat Muzak the DJ is spinning.  It’s about dreams and morality and what you’re willing to do to make it, and there’s no logic to it, from the moment the veteran DJ takes an interest in giving away his throne to a two-fisted Valley boy.

But here’s what works. Cole narrates his story, and he explains Techno, to those of us immune to its charms. It takes talent, and a technician’s expertise with synthesizing sounds. How does a DJ “rock a party?”

“You zero in on their heartbeat,” find that magic rhythm in the 128 beats-per-minute range, and they’re putty in your hands.

But “We Are Your Friends” has no heartbeat. It flatlines, early on, save for the odd droll drunken moment from Bentley or the camera’s occasional ogle of the shapely Ms. Ratajkowski. Tragedy strikes, quarrels are solved by magic and everybody spends way beyond his or her means. Because it’s a movie.

So Zac, even though you’ve sexed up your image and moved years past that “High School Musical” image, following a chunk of your generation into Techno seems cynical and misguided. Which is why “We Are Your Friends” is the classic “August Movie,” when filmgoers all come up empty, panning for cinematic gold among the dregs of summer.

1half-starfri1

MPAA Rating:R for language throughout, drug use, sexual content and some nudity

Cast: Zac EFron,  Emily Ratajkowski, Wes Bentley, Jonny Weston,  Shiloh Fernandez, Jon Bernthal
Credits: Directed by Max Joseph, script by Max Joseph, Meaghan Oppenheimer and Richard Silverman.  A Warner Brothers release.

Running time: 1:36

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Movie Review: “Sinister 2”

sinister2James Ransome played the unnamed deputy who survived the mayhem of “Sinister,” but lost his job over trying to save the family headed by a writer who has stumbled into a cache of supernaturally murderous home movies.

So he’s the lead in “Sinister 2,” now a nameless ex-deputy traveling the land, looking for houses where mass murders have occurred and burning them down. He’s stopping the chain of events, he thinks, that lead to those home movies.

And to his credit, Ransome never lets on that he’s in a sequel so aimless that they didn’t even care to give his character a name.

He isn’t tough and he’s certainly not fearless. The ex-deputy sees ghosts, feels the rage of an evil presence and lets us see the fear. But by golly, he’s got a mission and a purpose. He doesn’t let that stop him. Ransome gives this guy a humanity and beguiling awkwardness that are more than this quick-and-dirty knockoff deserve.

The awkwardness comes into play when he comes to a house, with a deconsecrated church out back, and the lovely Courtney (Shannyn Sossamon) is living there with her two little boys. She’s hiding out from her ex, who has his finger in every corner of this rural Indiana county. The ex-deputy stops shivering in fear at the apparitions he sees in that tumbledown church and helps her out of a child custody confrontation.

Courtney’s sensitive son (Robert Daniel Sloan) sees dead children. They talk to him, play old 78 rpm records in the basement and make him watch snuff films — families murdered by electrocution, beheaded by alligators, burned on crosses.

The ghost-kids need Dylan to watch these. Perhaps they expect him to grow up into Eli Roth.

The scares are few and far between, here. The most frightening moment — mom, grabbing the boys and fleeing a supermarket where the locals have her cornered — is a result of a messy divorce, not the intervention of the supernatural.

“Sinister 2” has so little connection to the first film (save for the home movies) that if you see enough horror movies, you will strain to recall the original. There’s no Hawke here (he’s since pulled an Oscar nomination for “Boyhood”) to job our memories, and little hint that a better movie inspired this one.

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But Ransome, last seen in “Tangerine,” gives his character humor and a hint of pathos — fair value, in other words. Let’s hope that he, like Hawke, is in a position to not have to show up for “Sinister 3.”

1half-star

MPAA Rating: R for strong violence, bloody and disturbing images, and language

Cast: James Ransome, Shannyn Sossamon, Robert Daniel Sloan
Credits: Directed by Ciarán Foy , script by Diablo Cody. A release.

Running time: 1:37

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Movie Review — “Hitman: Agent 47

hit

A dog dumped into the dog (movie) days of August, “Hitman: Agent 47,” arrives as the “worst reviewed movie of the summer.”

But is it the worst of the worst? Not if you’ve seen “The Curse of Downer’s Grove,” or “Amnesiac.”

A violently stylish Euro-thriller that serves up the architectural wonders of Berlin and Singapore in its exteriors, and Zachary Quinto battling Rupert Friend in its interiors, it’s like every other killer-in-a-black-suit since “Pulp Fiction.”

Only no fun, no thrills, no empathy for anybody. Yes, it’s based on a video game. Surprised?

Katia (Hannah Ware) could use a little empathy. She’s on the run, hunted by this menace (Rupert Friend of “The Young Victoria”) with a shaved head and a bar code tattooed in the crease of his neck. He is “Agent 47.”

“That’s not a name.”

“No, but it is mine.”

He’s been sent to get Katia, daughter of a famous scientist who’s gone into hiding. He has a black suit, bulky with pistols packed underneath it. He wears a black overcoat and carries a black bag loaded with black knives and guns and killing toys. He always gets his quarry.

John Smith (Quinto, of “Star Trek) shows up and offers to save Katia. He, too, wants to know where the scientist-dad is.

The movie has all of the promise a thriller with Quinto brawling, shooting and trash talking Friend can offer. Which isn’t a lot. Ware’s Katia evolves from helpless “package” to active participant, as Katia has the ability to reason out situations super-fast with a kind of genetically-engineered clairvoyance.

Director Aleksander Bach manages the obligatory car chases and shootouts with skill, if not panache. He puts Ware into a swimsuit and gets his product placement (Beretta firearms, Audi automobiles) in. Veteran character actors Thomas Kretschmann and Jurgen Prochnow have thankless bit parts.

It’s all perfectly silly, and Friend, at least, strains to put his tongue in his cheek through all the mayhem.

It often seems that “Agent 47” is more concerned with landscape, buildings, offices and subway stations than it is with characters. It’s a lost cause and we lose interest long before we’re shown the exotic architecture of Singapore.

1star6
MPAA Rating: R for sequences of strong violence, and some language. |

Cast: Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Kretschmann, Jurgen Prochnow
Credits: Directed by Aleksander Bach, script by Skip Woods and Michael Finch. A 20th Century Fox release.

Running time: 1:36

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Movie Review: “The Gift”

gtThere’s always been an edge to Jason Bateman that showed us a nasty piece of work waiting to get out. That’s nicely exploited in Joel Edgerton’s “The Gift,” a psychological thriller about a husband and wife inconvenienced, then harassed by a former high school classmate of the husband.

It works for the film in giving Bateman his meatiest role in years, playing a man who dismisses the “loser,” the guy nicknamed “Weirdo” Gordo back in school. It works against the film because we can see it almost in an instant, long before his wife (Rebecca Hall). But knowing that doesn’t rob “The Gift” of its third act surprises, which are numerous and doozies.

Simon and Robyn are shopping to furnish their huge home when Gordo recognizes Simon in a store. He’s awkward, plainly less sophisticated. It says something of Edgerton’s skills that the guy a scary, hulking presence in “Animal Kingdom” and “The Great Gatsby” (he was Daisy’s brutish husband, Tom) physically shrinks, here. His face and his screen baggage suggest “menace,” but the performance has a bit of kicked puppy about it.

Gordo insists they exchange numbers, and Robyn is a little surprised when a gift turns up on their doorstep — How did he get their address? — and a bit more surprised that Simon didn’t call him to thank him. Gordo starts showing up during the day, looking for Simon, so Robyn invites him to dinner. He seems needy, gifting them for every kindness.

And Simon is a little testier and snarkier than usual around him. “Did he seem right to you?” Robyn starts to wonder what’s in the two men’s shared past. And we start to wonder about Robyn’s history, too.

Meanwhile, Gordo gets needier and more intrusive. Simon mocks him behind his back, to their neighbors and his colleagues and to Robyn. Robyn’s sympathy is aroused.

Edgerton, whose writing credits include the tight Aussie thrillers “The Rover” and “The Square,” ratchets up the tension without really ramping up the suspense. We know bad things are coming, but we cannot figure who is the most responsible.

But Simon’s confident assertiveness to this “nuisance” in their lives is too telling. That’s not Bateman’s baggage. Edgerton’s passive response to this aggression isn’t his baggage, either. We’re distracted, a little, by the guessing game we’re playing with the filmmaker when we should be drifting toward the edge of our seats.

Robyn, a “door half-open” kind of person, according to her husband, always wants to err on the side of kindness. But Hall, as she has in many films, seems too passive even as Robyn is starting to unravel the history and figure out what to do.

Still, when the payoffs arrive, they are jarring and at least possible, if not entirely plausible. That ensures we don’t take this “Gift,” a smart, adult thriller, for granted in a summer swamped by comic books and jokey spy pictures.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating:R for language

Cast: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
Credits: Written and directed by Joel Edgerton. An SFX release.

Running time: 1:48

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Movie Review– “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine”

jobsssThe difference between an “authorized” biography and one that isn’t sanctioned by the subject and his or her family/company is laid bare in “Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine.”

“Official” biographer Walter Isaacson, whose all-access, occasionally unflattering biography is the basis of a feature film starring Michael Fassbender this fall, is nowhere to be found in Alex Gibney’s documentary, “The Man in the Machine.” Even though CNN produced it and Isaacson used to work for them, he’s a no show.

But match the honored biographer’s work up against America’s greatest documentary filmmaker, and the movie scores in a lot of the most important regards. Gibney, whose Scientology and Enron (“The Smartest Guys in the Room”) and Wikileaks and CIA torture films (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) are compelling, damning indictments, turns his camera not just on Jobs, but on the Cult of Apple. And the mirror shows just how much spin, hype and makeup it takes to hide all of the beloved company and its iconic founder’s blemishes.

Gibney begins by scratching his head over all the North American weeping over Jobs’ death.

“What accounted for the grief?”

After all, he was just a guy who made and sold stuff, right? And he didn’t even make it, took credit for things he badgered others into designing and exploited cheap Chinese laborers to manufacture.

“The Man in the Machine” proceeds to answer that question. Jobs saw himself as a paradigm shifting figure, someone who would change the way we relate to technology. And to millions the world over, he was. Through marketing and advertising and design, he made computers friendly, phones more connective, music more personally accessible.

The film traces the evolution of the man, his early exposure to gadgets and tech, his absorption of the book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” his embrace of Eastern philosophy and pursuit of elegant, human-scaled design.

His contemporaries might gripe about credit hogging, idea-theft and “short-cuts” he took — with employees, patents, taxes and business practices — until the day he died. But Jobs changed the world.

Gibney finds the contradiction in Jobs’ pursuit of zen practices through travels and his mentor. But time and again, he finds a spoiled, cruel predator and technocrat more at home naming a computer “Lisa” than accepting his firstborn child of that name as his own.

He was a man “with the focus of a monk, but none of the empathy.”

And all these people swooning over the “stuff” Job kept selling them (at staggering markups)? They’re the real story, here — more connected to the world, electronically, but quite possibly disconnected from it inter-personally. Like their hero.

“His STUFF was beloved. HE wasn’t beloved.”

Gibney goes further than the decades of “Yeah, he’s a jerk BUT” accounts of Jobs, finding the mania for the work but also the flawed philosophy Jobs espoused but never let himself practice. Was what he was doing making the world a better place, as Jobs’ guru asked of him?

The film burnishes Jobs’ image for an hour, taking him to the iPhone announcement peak and covering familiar ground. It’s the second half where the darkness takes over, the tax dodges, bullying the press, anti-competitive conspiracies that have kept Silicon Valley wages low and altered American immigration policy to suit Big Tech’s needs.

The Gizmodo iPhone “leak” episode, a bit of strong-arming that Jobs carried out even as he knew was dying and what it would do to his legacy, steps front and center. Jobs had a special Silicon Valley police force raid the house of a reporter who came into possession of a prototype phone, brutal harassment that showed his true colors to all.

Gibney uses interviews, fresh and archival, and a court deposition and reporters’ memories of long-exposure to Jobs for his evidence. And it’s damning, from the financial cheating to the lack of philanthropy to the arrogance that let him think he knew better than modern medicine how to treat his cancer.

For all his bluster about Apple and “Think Different,” Jobs had more in common with the 19th century robber barons than with pick-your-sainted-visionary. He was more Edison than Tesla, more Rockefeller than Carnegie.

And if the film of Isaacson’s book doesn’t touch on this, then it’ll feel like a whitewashing.

3half-star

MPAA Rating: R for some language.

Cast: Steve Jobs, many who worked with him and knew him

Credits: Written and directed by Alex Gibney. A Magnolia/CNN Films release.

Running time: 2:08

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