Martin Teller's Movie Reviews

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The End

Posted by martinteller on March 26, 2016

It’s time for me to pack it in. This blog has run its course. Not only am I watching fewer (way fewer) films than I used to, but I write about them even less. Writing about them has become a burden rather than a joy. When I sit down with a movie, I feel this neurotic urge to take mental notes, like I should start composing a review in my head because really I ought to be writing about it. And that gets in the way of experiencing the damn thing. So I think it’s best to end it. By officially putting a period on this paragraph, those voices in the back of my mind can quit nagging me about the next one. Not having to think about whether or not I’m going to review a film will help me enjoy the act of watching them more.

I put over 13 years into this thing. For about two, maybe three of them I think I actually did some pretty decent reviews. According to my spreadsheet, there are over 5700 reviews on this blog. Out of those, there are maybe 50 I’m pretty proud of. Not a great ratio, but I’ll take it. It was really nice to know that a few people were out there reading my stuff. There’s an ocean of movie review blogs out there, and I have no illusions… mine will quickly be forgotten by the handful of people who noticed it. As it should be. It was just me voicing my opinions on movies, which I never really knew much about anyway. I know what I like, and every once in a while I could articulate the reasons why.

Thanks for stopping by!

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The Look of Silence

Posted by martinteller on March 14, 2016

We’ve been binging on the show “Hannibal” lately. More like hate-watching, for a bunch of reasons I won’t get into. But one of the reasons is that the show came out of the gate with absurd levels of gore (although apparently Botticelli’s naked ladies have to be blurred out because painted depictions of nipples and vaginas are disgusting, right?) and has to keep upping the ante in order to keep being “disturbing”.

Not one thing in that show is half as disturbing as this documentary. Because where the killers in “Hannibal” usually have some ridiculously complicated psychology behind their actions, the Indonesian paramilitary Komando Aksi are real, and they don’t explain away their murders as a love of mushrooms or some such nonsense. It seems rather that they killed simply because they could, because the military stood behind them and allowed them to purge the country of “communists”.

This is of course Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow-up to The Act of Killing. It does not have the same surreal flourishes as its predecessor (though it is exceptionally well-shot). It may, in fact, feel redundant to some. We see again that these killers have no remorse, or if they do, they are burying it under deep layers of justification. They will happily discuss the nature of their killings, but get cagey when pressed on why they did it, how they feel about it, or why they didn’t try to stop it.

The film mostly centers around Adi, the brother of a man whose murder was particularly savage. Adi confronts (gently… like the softer version of Kenzo Okuzaki in The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On) those who participated in or were aware of his brother’s killing. He’s an optometrist, an almost too-poetic touch as he tries to bring some clarity to the situation. What he and Oppenheimer reveal is our awful capacity for unspeakable violence and the rationalization of it. And it also probes our capacity for forgiveness, and how we attempt to make sense of an insane world.

While this may not bring anything new to the overall picture of Act of Killing, its more personal approach makes it just as engaging. And it’s just as chilling. Rating: Great (90)

IMDb

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another big dump of little reviews

Posted by martinteller on March 14, 2016

The Wolfpack – This is an interesting story, but it seems like it should have been more interesting. The buzz around the film was that “these boys learned everything they know from the movies!” so I expected the movie-watching to figure more into how the Angulos’ minds and personalities were shaped. But either that wasn’t a big factor or it wasn’t touched on. The movies were just their entertainment. And as a cinephile, I guess I was disappointed that their cinematic obsessions appeared to be mainly Tarantino and Batman. I guess overall it was engaging but it wasn’t what I’d imagined the story to be, which is why expectations are bad. Rating: Good (73)

Call Me Lucky – I don’t think Barry Crimmins is an especially funny comedian (he’s okay) but he is a compelling individual. I’ve really got nothing else to say about this. A solid doc. Rating: Good (75)

Riffraff (rewatch) – I don’t buy as many DVDs/Blu-Rays as I used to, but I still sometimes make hasty purchases for movies I don’t really need to have in my collection. Riffraff is right on the edge. It’s very entertaining, and I enjoyed my second viewing. But will there ever be a third? When am I going to wake up and say to myself, “Man, I really want to watch Riffraff today”? I can’t picture it, but for now I’ll hold on to it. Rating: Very Good (86)

The Wrong Man (rewatch) – On the fence about this one, too. I’ve always maintained this is underrated Hitchcock, and I still do. It’s not edge-of-your-seat thriller stuff, but there’s a lot of noir and new wave atmosphere to it. But having seen it three (maybe four?) times now, I’m not sure I would gain anything from an additional viewing. Another one I’m keeping “for now”. Rating: Very Good (85)

Mukhsin (rewatch) – No doubts about keeping this one, I just wish I had a decent copy of it. Sadly, it looks like Yasmin Ahmad’s “Orket trilogy” (as well as the director herself) is going to fade further into obscurity, without ever getting a proper release. The third film in the trilogy is the lightest and loveliest of them, even if one can’t help missing Sharifah Amani (though her sisters do an excellent job). I don’t like “championing” movies and telling people they “should” watch this or that. But it would please me if the trilogy (starting with Sepet) gained a wider audience, and maybe attracted the attention of a studio willing to do a worthy home release of the films. Rating: Very Good (88)

About Elly – One of Farhadi’s best, almost up there with A Separation. I would try to avoid reading anything about the content of the film. In fact, I shouldn’t say any more myself. An excellent study of human behavior and relationships. Rating: Very Good (87)

Zoolander (rewatch) – I got Carrie to rewatch this with me, even though she’s not a fan. She is still not a fan. I’m slightly less of a fan. There aren’t as many big laughs as I thought there were. On the other hand, very very little about the movie bugs me, and almost everything is worth at least a smile. It’s a stupid movie, but it’s a stupidity that speaks to me. It’s a comfortable stupidity. Rating: Good (77)

Bedazzled – On the flipside, this movie (the Harold Ramis remake, not the original) is the stupidity that speaks to Carrie… and not to me. I tried to embrace the absurdity of it, get into the spirit of what they were trying to do. It didn’t happen. I had one good laugh, when Fraser is talking with all the sand in his mouth. The rest of it just didn’t do it for me. I can’t decide if Brendan Fraser is the worst choice or the best choice, but one thing I’m sure of is that they tried to nerd him up waaay too much in the beginning. It doesn’t work for Fraser, and it doesn’t work for where the character ends up. Rating: Poor (52)

Edge of Doom (rewatch) – Ah, we’re back to Noirs I Probably Didn’t Need to Buy. EoD is great, it’s a dark as hell movie with real tension and real bitterness. If I was building a library of Film Noir You Should See, it would have a spot. But for my personal collection? Do I need to see it a third time? I don’t think so. Besides, it can get kind of annoying after a while to watch Farley Granger run around and getting mad about a “I want a big funeral!” Because even though this is his best work besides They Live By Night, Granger is a lousy actor. Rating: Very Good (86)

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Walden (Diaries Notes and Sketches)

Posted by martinteller on February 27, 2016

Three years ago, I watched Jonas Mekas’s epic 5-hour “diary film”, As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty. I fell in love with it and placed it among my top 100 films. Mekas’s home movies were edited into a sustained ecstatic burst of joy and delight, a celebration of love, family, nostalgia. And yet it was with some hesitation that I made a blind purchase of this new Blu-Ray collection, featuring this, his first diary film. Would the gamble pay off?

Well, yes and no. Walden is much in the same spirit, jittery handheld footage melded with an often unrelated soundtrack, highlighting moments that Mekas felt worth highlighting. And some of these moments are indeed beautiful and sweet and filled me with that same sense of joy. But too often Mekas is more concerned with events than moments. Early in the film, the first appearance of The Velvet Underground. Near the end, John and Yoko’s “bed-in”. Significant events in cultural history, but even though Mekas was there, the personal perspective is lacking. And he doesn’t bring anything to make them interesting, either. It’s just… yep, you were there to film it.

Although some two hours shorter than As I Was Moving, it feels longer. When the movie gets into that wonderful, random rhythm it’s fascinating. But there are three sections where it gets rather bogged down. One is a visit with Stan Brakhage and his family. While there are a few items here and there that elicit a smile — Stan’s wife Jane riding a mule, for example — it spends too long just documenting rather than finding the special parts. It’s boring in the way we expect home movies to be boring. Another section spends far too long at the wedding of film historian (and with Mekas, co-founder of the Anthology Film Archives) P. Adams Sitney. Clearly Sitney was a close friend… so why does this feel so distant and impersonal? It’s mostly a bunch of people milling around in a tent. And lastly, there’s a section entitled “Wendy’s Wedding”. I don’t know who Wendy is, but for what must be 7 or 8 interminable minutes, we watch her dance in a nightclub, wearing her bridal gown and caught in stuttering fragments by the strobe light. Fun and interesting for maybe a minute or two. Mekas tries our patience.

If this sounds like a lot of kvetching, it’s because I had hoped for a more consistently enjoyable experience. Mekas is perhaps still finding his voice here (speaking of his voice, his spoken musings on the soundtrack are still wonderful). One of the most memorable aspects of As I Was Moving was his clear love for his wife and children. This was before they were part of his life, so some of the best scenes here are when he delights in the loves and children of others. I would say about 70% of the film is what I wanted… the rhapsodic observations, the latching on to images of beauty, the reminder to take a minute to enjoy life rather than just living it. He needs to apply more of his personal touch to that other 30%. Hopefully Lost, Lost, Lost will be more successful in that regard. Rating: Good (73)

IMDb

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A Special Day

Posted by martinteller on February 21, 2016

All of Rome is out on the streets for a parade celebrating the arrival of Adolf Hitler. All except Antonietta (Sophia Loren), whose housework prevents her from it. When the family myna bird escapes out the window, she discovers that another tenant in the building is also staying home that day: eccentric radio announcer Gabriele (Marcello Mastroianni). And so two lonely strangers develop a bond and reveal themselves.

Ettore Scola passed away just one month ago. My only previous experience with him as a director was the magnificent We All Loved Each Other So Much, which is playful and often heartwarming. This is a more somber affair, especially against the background of rampant fascism. Throughout the film, we hear the radio rhapsodizing about the Fuhrer and Il Duce and the display of power. The cinematography by Pasqualino De Santis appears sepia-toned at first, but you soon realize that the color has simply been desaturated to the point that only the red of the Nazi flag stands out.

The performances by Loren and Mastroianni are quite good, ad one would expect from such talents. Unfortunately to me it lacked a ring of truth. This type of instant connection is very popular in film (far less common, though not unheard of, in real life). Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. To me, this one didn’t. I can make an objective rationalization for it that applies to these characters, but still it feels too convenient to me. I felt like there needed to be some additional something to make these two open up to each other.

Nonetheless, it’s a sensitive and engaging in film, even if I didn’t entirely connect with it. De Santis’s camera prowls around wonderfully, for example in Loren’s introduction when the camera comes in through the window (perhaps inspired by Antonioni’s The Passenger a couple of years earlier). When the shot is repeated at the end of the film, it has added weight and significance, and seems more invasive than inviting. Rating: Good (77)

IMDb

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a bunch of stuff I’ve watched recently and didn’t write about

Posted by martinteller on January 23, 2016

I’ve slowed down in my movie consumption, and slowed down even more with writing about them. So here’s a quick and dirty brain dump of the films I’ve seen in the past few months that didn’t get reviewed:

Ex Machina – Premise felt both clever and too familiar. It had some engaging Kubrickian style, but my interest waned a bit as it went on. Rating: Good (78)

It Follows – Disappointing throwback with a lot of nonsense. The kind of movie that makes you go “Why don’t they just…?” and that’s annoying. Mildly scary. Rating: Fair (62)

The Dark Matter of Love – A documentary of special interest to me and Carrie, because we’ve been tossing around the idea of adoption/fostering. Obviously it can be a rewarding experience, but there are right ways and wrong ways, and this shows some of the wrong. Interesting story, but I’d like to see a broader perspective. Rating: Good (77)

The ‘Burbs (rewatch) – Showed this to Carrie, I think it might have been on Halloween. It didn’t hold up quite as well as I’d hoped (Carrie rightfully accused the plot of getting tiresome), but there’s some pretty funny bits in it. Lots of quotables. Rick Ducommin is so great. Rating: Good (75)

Spooky Buddies – Hoo boy. We briefly developed a masochistic taste for these Air Bud spinoffs featuring 6 golden retriever puppies getting into wacky adventures. Most of the cuteness factor is annihilated by the paper-thin characters, awful jokes, and overall cheapness. Somehow we made it all the way through this one, maybe because it was Halloween or maybe because of the novelty of seeing Harland Williams in it. I rated this a lot lower at first, but in retrospect it wasn’t that horrible. Still… not good. Rating: Poor (44)

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 – Well, certainly if you care, you’ve seen it already and know what kind of problems it has. The series has always been spotty, but this was definitely the weakest and least enjoyable. Rating: Fair (61)

The Martian – It has some moments and the production is very convincing, but the dialogue and story are both full of clichés (how many times did we hear some variation of “we ran the numbers”?). There’s no real tension as Damon instantly “sciences the shit” his way out of pretty much every obstacle. Rating: Poor (57)

Pitch Perfect 2 – In the music biz, they call this the Sophomore Slump. While it doesn’t exactly copy the first movie, there’s nothing that fresh here. I’m struggling to remember any of the funny bits… or any of the songs. Rating: Fair (65)

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens – Sure, you could nitpick the shit of it like a giant nerd, or you could take a chill pill and enjoy one of more entertaining big-budget-blowouts in recent memory. I just had a lot of fun at this movie, and I enjoy most of the new characters. Is it a retread? Sure, in a way, but I think the franchise needed a return to its roots. Looking forward to seeing where this goes next. Rating: Very Good (87)

Anne of Green Gables – Carrie shared one of her childhood favorites with me. I never read the book and knew little about the story, but I found it pretty enjoyable. Great performances by Dewhurst and Fansworth. And a lovely, bucolic atmosphere. Some minor complaints, but I’ve forgotten most of them. Rating: Good (74)

India’s Daughter – Yeah, this is super fucked-up and will make you cry and make you angry. While the film seems to be singling India out and wagging a finger, it reminds us at the end that other countries (including the US) have a long long way to go in how we handle rape. Rating: Very Good (86)

Singin’ in the Rain (rewatch) – Carrie had never seen it, it was time. Pleased to say it went over very well. The “Broadway Medley” part bothers me less and less each time. It didn’t feel as long as I remembered it. I could still do without it, but that “crazy veil” portion is really something. I also wish there was a little more Debbie Reynolds in it, she’s not nearly as prominent as I thought she was. But at least we get a generous serving of Jean Hagen, who is frickin’ hilarious. Rating: Great (94)

World of Tomorrow – Don Hertzfeldt’s latest popped up on Netflix, so I took the opportunity to check it out (even though I could have easily done so earlier). His best work? I’m still fond of Billy’s Balloon but it’s been a long time, I’d have to reevaluate it. It’s definitely witty, clever, original and moving. He’s approaching the sort of hopeful sadness that I love in Vonnegut… this feels like a very Vonnegut kind of movie. Rating: Very Good (87)

It’s Such a Beautiful Day – I also took the opportunity to finally see this other Hertzfeldt. This hit a lot of similar notes, but with a more personalized touch. The first part I didn’t think was that great, but it gets better as it goes on. Rating: Very Good (85)

Exporting Raymond – I don’t think I’ve ever watched more than 3 minutes of “I Love Raymond”, but I heard show creator Phil Rosenthal on a podcast and he was so delightful that I wanted to check out his documentary about trying to adapt the show for a Russian audience. Lots of interesting bits here, from the ex-military chauffeur who enjoys studying seashells, to the obstinate costume designer who insists that a busy housewife dress in haute couture. Would like to see a little more probing about the roots of the cultural differences, but an enjoyable watch. Rating: Very Good (80)

Approaching the Elephant – Documentary in the “fly on the wall” Frederick Wiseman/Allan King style about some young starry-eyed folks trying to start up a Free School in New Jersey. A thought-provoking look at good intentions gone wrong… or right, depending on your opinion. There are a few moments of triumph, but for the most part, to me it looked like barely-contained chaos… and a lot of disfiguring accidents just waiting to happen. At times the adults become children when trying to treat the children like adults. Rating: Good (77)

Xiao Kang – This isn’t a movie, it’s a trailer for the Vienna Film Festival. But it’s by Ming-liang Tsai, so of course I was gonna watch it. It’s a minute or so of Kang-sheng Lee poking around in a forest. I love Lee and I love Tsai, but let’s be honest… whether I’m rating this as a short film or as a trailer, it doesn’t do much for me. Rating: Poor (48)

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Bride & Prejudice

Posted by martinteller on January 3, 2016

Not really in the mood to structure a proper review, so I’m just gonna riff on this one.

Martin Henderson is a terrible Mr. Darcy. This guy has absolutely zero going on besides a somewhat pretty face. He’s bringing nothing to the table. Carrie — a diehard “Pride & Prejudice” fan — says Mr. Darcy is supposed to be brooding. Henderson is merely pouty.

Some of the faults of the film are faults in the source material… Lizzie/Lalita always believes the last thing to hit her ears, and she’s also too virtuous. Certain characters are too broad. But I feel director Gurinder Chadha has to take the blame for some of the clichés, and the numerous straw man arguments in the film. I appreciate the idea of criticizing superficial cultural tourism, but it’s done so bluntly here that there’s no nuance to it. No one of any tact or intelligence would actually say “I don’t need to go to India because we have yoga.”

The film is both a celebration and a sendup of Bollywood, which can go both ways. If you take the Lalita/Darcy romantic montage at face value, it’s painfully ridiculous. If you view it as camp, it’s enjoyable. The colorful dances make for some of the film’s best moments… but they also feel like standard Bollywood dance moves cobbled together, without a character of their own. The songs are fun, but not especially memorable.

The humor is not as bad as Bollywood movies often are. It’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but(I quite liked the line about screwing in a light bulb with one hand while petting a dog with the other, and none of the jokes/gags are terrible. The worst offender is Nitin Ganatra, whose broad performance as Kohli is pretty hard to stomach at times.

The attempts to modernize the story mostly work. Arranged marriages are not entirely out of vogue in India, so an Indian setting makes a lot of sense for this tale.

Man, it really needs a better Darcy though. I just keep coming back to how lame Henderson is. Aishwarya Rai is a good enough actress to sell her part, but she can’t make Henderson seem appealing. Even in the movie’s otherwise fun blooper reel, he comes off like a dud. The film has some enjoyable elements, but they’re hampered by Henderson, cliché, and a dearth of subtlety. Rating: Fair (60)

IMDb

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The World of Apu (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on January 1, 2016

This was the one I was most looking forward to seeing again. It was one of my favorites by one of my favorite directors, and just missed being in my top 100 (it did find a home in my 101-250 list). I had fond memories of the film’s emotional power and Soumitra Chatterjee’s performance… not only his first with Satyajit Ray (there would be a dozen more) but his first ever.

With that kind of preamble, you can probably guess where this is going, if you haven’t already peeked ahead at my score. Previously I said Aparajito was my least favorite of the trilogy. Now it’s unquestionably this one. It’s the most problematic of them. We can start with Chatterjee. Although he is certainly charming and pulls off a few great moments, he is definitely not at his best at the start of his career. His performance often comes off as forced, especially when he’s called upon to laugh (we can blame writing in part for that, he’s made to laugh at things that aren’t very funny).

It’s difficult to discuss the movie’s other flaws without getting into spoiler territory. But there are two key relationship developments that seem to come too easily, and Apu’s character could be better defined, and frankly more likable. He does something that really makes you lose any sympathy for him. It can be justified, and obviously there’s nothing inherently wrong with a flawed protagonist, but it’s… well, it’s problematic. When I watch this movie, the little criticisms keep poking at me, even though I don’t necessarily think they ruin the film.

Of course, there’s a lot to like as well. There are powerful emotional punches. Chatterjee does have some terrific moments, and Sharmila Tagore (making her debut at age 12!) is wonderfully endearing. Subrata Mitra’s cinematography is simply stunning, there are breathtaking images. Shankar’s score is evocative and beautiful. And overall, it’s a good story that does interesting things with the themes of loss, soul-searching and redemption. But, sadly, I’ve lost some love for it. Rating: Very Good (85)

The World of Apu is replaced in my top 250 list with Yasmin Ahmad’s Sepet, which I recently revisited and fell even more in love with.

IMDb

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Top 10 Discoveries of 2015

Posted by martinteller on January 1, 2016

It’s no secret that my interest in movies has waned (as has my interest in writing about them… there are a several movies I saw that never made it to this blog). I watched fewer films in 2015 than any of the previous 14 years. Additionally, a higher proportion of what I watch is now devoted to newer releases and revisits. So what used to be a top 20 list of older movies I discovered in the past year is now reduced to a top 10. These are all the non-new films I saw in 2015 for the first time that I rated 85 or higher. It’s a smaller list, but it’s a good list, and re-reading these reviews has started to rekindle my interest in cinema a little bit.

 

1. Kokoro

“It has a profound impact as it examines the psychological, spiritual, and moral complexities of its characters.”

2. Watership Down

“The film handles death in a way that makes it both terrifying and poignant, haunting and lovely.”

3. Deep Water

“A thoughtful piece of work, a thorough meditation on misguided human endeavor.”

4. Intimate Lighting

“It all has such an easy-going tempo that it goes down smoothly.”

5. The Ape Woman

“The movie never quite goes in the direction you think it will, and the characters are not easily shoehorned into easy boxes.”

6. Hedwig and the Angry Inch

“Although undoubtedly campy, it has a sincerity and a solid emotional core that shines through.”

7. Time Stood Still

“Both sides of this generation gap are presented with sympathy and understanding.”

8. Gone to Earth

“The bold colors help lend the film its faintly surreal aura, an otherworldly patina.”

9. Imitation of Life (1934)

“Stahl’s [version] has much to recommend it as well, and is even more daring for its time.”

10. Titli

“Compelling, honest and sometimes touching portrait of a mother-daughter relationship.”

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Aparajito (rewatch)

Posted by martinteller on December 15, 2015

I’ve always said that although it’s called “The Apu Trilogy”, Pather Panchali is really about Durga and Aparajito is really about Apu’s mother, Sarbojaya. But on this viewing, I realized that I was wrong about the second part. The narrative does put some of its focus on the mother, but I would say most of it is devoted to Apu’s life and viewpoint. It’s about his choices and his aspirations. He is more than a pair of eyes here… he has agency and introduces change.

I also said in an earlier view that I think Ray judges Apu too harshly here, but again I’ve changed my mind. I don’t see judgment being passed. Whether Apu could have done things differently (and whether it would had any impact either way) is up for debate… the film doesn’t force an opinion on it. It’s hard to discuss specifics without getting into spoiler territory, but to me he doesn’t do anything out of line. In essence, he is a kind and thoughtful person, but like any adolescent he’s starting to form a life for himself. Ray’s humanist slant invites us to explore emotion and motivation rather than assign blame. It’s one of the things I love about his work. No one is condemned outright for their flaws and mistakes.

Of the trilogy, this is one I think about the least, and the other two provoke greater emotional reactions. For that reason, it remains my least favorite of the three. But all of them are exceptional films, and the poetry of Aparajito is apparent in its observation of daily life, its connections between people and their surroundings, and the great empathy we feel for the characters. Within the film itself we see the transition from (in the first half) the loose, anecdotal structure of Ray’s debut to the more straightforward narrative style (in the second half) that would characterize most of his work. It does not come off as a disjointed movie, however, but rather a natural flow… perhaps as Apu’s life gains purpose and direction, so does his story. Rating: Great (90)

IMDb

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