Bonus Podcast: Oscar Nominations Reaction

In this bonus episode we are discussing the 2022 Oscar Nominations. Our take on the acting categories and best picture. The discussion touches on the performances of Kristen Stewart, Nicole Kidman, Olivia Colman, Andrew Garfield and Denzel Washington. We lament the exclusion of Ruth Negga and raise a glass to Lady Gaga’s fun and fascinating press tour for House of Gucci. For this conversation Murtada welcomes back Izzy from Be Kind Rewind

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Other movies discussed include West Side Story, The Power of the Dog and Parallel Mothers and of course the two Cate Blanchett movies that were nominated for best picture Don’t Look Up, and Nightmare Alley.

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Bonus Podcast: The Buzz on Sundance Movies

In this bonus episode we are discussing the many films we screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. For this conversation Murtada welcomes Li Lai, founder and editor in chief of Mediaversity Reviews to discuss a few films including Bill Nighy in Living, Emma Thompson in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande and two films for both Dakota Johnson (AmI OK? and Cha Cha Real Smooth) and Regina Hall (Master and Honk for Jesus Save Your Soul).

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Other movies discussed include Rebecca Hall in Resurection, Fire of Love, Palm Trees and Power Lines, Nanny, After Yang, Call Jane, Free Chol Soo Lee, and Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power. We also discuss whether the selection reflected a diversity of voices.

For more context check out Murtada’s letterboxed list.

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Sundance 2022: Good Luck to You, Leo Grande

For my coverage I’m writing shorter reviews of first impressions. Thoughts about the films I watched and plan to delve into more when they are releasd. Here’s the first dispatch on Emma Thompson in Good Luck to You, Leo Grande.

In Good Luck to You, Leo Grande Emma Thompson reminds us why we need movie stars. Why do we build that relationship over time and cherish it. Thompson is a great actress and here she’s playing a fictional character not herself. Yet so much of how I reacted to this performance was based on the history I have with Thompason. My idea of her screen persona and why I’ve always loved watching her.

Thompson is Nancy Stokes, a 50-ish widow who’s never had an orgasm in her life. She hires a sex worker (Daryl McCormack) and the film follows the two as they try fulfilling Nancy’s desires and fantasies over three encounters.The screenplay by Katy Brand and the direction by Sophie Hyde are both breezy, unfussy and McCormack is a clear comforting presence. A good foil for Thompson. 

But this is all Thompson. And again our history with her. When she sits down to tell a sex memory, just lying in bed. No fuss in language, or camera movements. Just Thompson. We believe her but more than that we feel for her. We do that because we are also thinking of Margaret Schlagel and Elinor Dashwood and Lauren from Love Actually. Our feelings about her and her new wonderful performance crash into each other and the spillover is pure joy.

Review: Being the Ricardos

Early on in Being the Ricardos the cast and crew of I Love Lucy are assembled for a table read of an episode of the show. It’s sometime in 1952. Something is off, they can’t land the jokes. Is it the writing? The actors? The film takes a jump into Lucille Ball’s head. She starts to imagine the show alive. And with that she’s able to pinpoint what’s off and of course fix it. This must be a film about Ball’s creative process? Alas that was a brief interlude, though it’s repeated a couple more times, how Ball (Nicole Kidman) creates or how her show is conceived are not top of mind for writer/director Aaron Sorkin. Instead he’s concerned with Ball being accused of communism, of how the show deals with her second pregnancy and if her husband and creative partner Desi Arnaz Jr (Javier Bardem) is faithful in their marriage.

The film takes place during one production week of I Love Lucy, or as the logline puts it “from Monday table read through Friday audience taping.” Somewhat entertaining, Being the Ricardos plays well as a behind the scenes look at I Love Lucy. Then it starts cramming a few too many plots into its “one week with Lucy” premise. The aforementioned fractured marriage even comes replete with flashbacks about how they met and fell in love. The second pregnancy subplot comes with stock characters representing the network and advertisers. We will deal with Lucy’s involvement with HUAC – The House Committee on Un-American Activities – later in this review. All seemingly interesting subplots. However each is peripherally introduced, quickly dealt with and neatly resolved. There’s no nuance, no complexity to any of it. Nothing grips the audience or resonates. 

Most unforgivable from a seasoned screenwriter is an awkward framing device. Three writers from the show are shown in a present day setting introducing and commenting on the main action. This is a dramatic cop out for Sorkin. He can’t coherently bring together the different strands of his screenplay so he utilizes this lazy concept to make it make sense. 

Kidman is known for her inconsistent accents. She always sounds Australian with a Los Angeles affectation, no matter where her character is supposed to be from. Whether Russian (the recent Hulu show Nine Perfect Strangers) or American (Big Little Lies and many others throughout her career). Here the accent is good for once and she dropped her voice an octave or two to mimic Ball’s. However beyond the voice work, her performance is subdued and remains at an emotional remove. Maybe it’s because Ball is mostly shown at work; a place where emotions are checked. However when playing one of the most animated people in the history of entertainment, a little passion is called for. 

Bardem brings charm and effervescence to the film. With his performance you understand why Arnaz was a popular entertainer. Unlike Kidman. However both performances are only skin deep and do not grapple with why Lucy and Desi’s fracturced marriage endured as long as it did. We get neither the attraction nor the competitive nature of their relationship that the script is harping about.  

Kidman fares better with the sweet mentoring relationship Ball has with a writer played by Alia Shawkat. Acknowledging that even though they are from different generations and have different takes on how to use their voices as women in the workplace, they got each other’s back. Maybe more of that Sorkin.

The script is uneven and broad. This could be any workplace in the 1950s. None of the dilemmas and interactions are specific enough despite the constant name dropping. Sorkin’s dialogue cadence is also played out at this point. Why do Lucille Ball, Steve Jobs and the fictional denizens of The West Wing all speak in the same back and forth repetitive cadence? It makes all of Sorkin’s work sound the same. As a director he brings no panache and no point of view, we never get a sense of the story in the way he frames the actors. It’s just mid shot to close up to wide shot, rinse and repeat. No rhythm or sense of drama. He’s also saddled with shoddy looking CGI on Kidman and Bardem in the flashbacks as the younger Lucy and Desi.

Most unforgivable is the coda that resolves the “red scare” subplot. You may skip this if you do not want to be spoiled. Before the taping the show, Arnaz calls J Edgar Hoover to prove Ball is not a communist and then the studio audience watching literally applauds Hoover. It is such an odd note that I’m still reeling from it. The film is asking us to admire Hoover for coming to Ball’s rescue. But it raises so many questions. Did she actually need to be rescued? From what exactly? How are we supposed to feel by this resolution that implies that HUAC was actually a good thing that happened to Ball when we know – FROM HISTORY – it ruined many lives and McCarthysim became a shorthand for fear, biased accusations and unhinged governmental power. Sorkin, you got some explaining to do. 

Being the Ricardos is in theaters this Friday December 10 and on Prime Video December 21.

Spencer or Twirling with No Substance

Kristen Stewart as Diana Spencer

Halfway through Spencer I began to question whether I have ever liked Pablo Larrain as a filmmaker. Earlier this year his adaptation of Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story was unwatchable. I did not care for The Club (2015). But I had to remind myself that I liked No (2012), Jackie (2016) and Neruda (2016). Maybe this new one will end up in the like column as well. Alas it did not.

Spencer is supposedly the story of the weekend country sojourn in which Princess Diana of Wales, née Spencer (Kristen Stewart), decided to divorce Prince Charles (Jack Farthing). It’s told like a ghost story; a woman in peril in a big house, surrounded by dubious people, some might be in her corner, others want to sabotage her. It’s Diana as Rebecca (1940). And it’s as alienating as much of Larrain’s work. Though done with top notch craft and an aesthetic recognizable to most cinephiles.

Larrain and screenwriter Steven Knight have a good premise. They are trying to tell a story of finding the fortitude to break away from a life that’s suffocating while being completely isolated. However they run out of narrative threads quickly and spend the rest of the movie repeating themselves. Diana, isolated with no one to trust. The servants in the big house (Timothy Spall, Sean Harris and Sally Hawkins among them) might be spying on her for the royal family. Or are they her allies? Repeat over and over again. Then so many scenes of Diana running. Along hallways, in the meadows. And so much twirling. So much twirling. So much of it that it bears repeating. The movie’s true title should’ve been “Twirling With No Substance.” Who knew it would be Larrain who would inherit the mantle from Terence Malick in this most dubious of categories.

There is nothing about what Knight wrote or what Stewart plays that is specifically about Diana. The details are vague. This could be about any anonymous rich white lady trapped in a cult. One who has access to fancy clothes, castles, maids and personal cooks. Stewart plays her like a haunted woman trapped and she’s effective. However she neither looks nor sounds like Diana. Inhabitation is not necessary with biopics, sometimes just a nod to the real person is enough. See Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland. But there’s not even a nod here. If this wasn’t called ‘Spencer” we wouldn’t be talking about awards. Nor would a swath of the potential audience be interested. So maybe it’s a calculated move. Let’s make a movie about a haunted woman trying to escape from a cult. Any woman, no need to be specific nor add any recognizable details. But still call it Spencer. Boo! Awards. Buzz. Magazine covers. Box office though might not materialize if enough people catch on to what it really is. 

Impersonation aside, Stewart is no more than fine. She plays this woman as very frightened, as if she’s in a gothic horror film. Whispery breathy voice, quizzical look. It fits the framework Larrain put her in. However the critical response to this performance is baffling. Even within Stewart’s limited oeuvre it doesn’t stand out. She’s been much more affecting with Olivier Assayas in Clouds of Sils Maria (2015) and Personal Shopper (2017).

All of this would have been forgotten if Spencer actually had a story to tell. This is a bunch of scenes shot well, with actors repeating the same notes over and over in different but limited locations. There is nothing to see here.

NYFF Review: C’mon C’mon

About the hundredth time characters in Mike Mills’ C’mon C’mon expressed themselves clearly and verbosely and said exactly how they were feeling at that moment, I almost lost it. Who has this clarity? Who can articulate their feelings so eloquently at every waking moment of their lives? Who are these people? They must be aliens from an alternate universe of never ending therapy sessions. These people have done the work and figured themselves out. Even the 10 year old kid. Movies are not real, I understand that. Yet this is one that wants to be taken as reality, while not realizing what a fantastical world it has built. And a false one at that.

The film stars Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny, a radio talk show host who’s making a documentary about what children think of the future. He’s going around the country interviewing young people when his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman), asks him to take care of her child, Jesse (Woody Norman). She has to leave town to deal with the child’s father (Scoot McNairy), who’s in the grips of a manic episode. Obviously uncle and nephew will make a deep connection. Though tentatively at first, perhaps running into some misunderstandings. Yelling, tears and laughter will be involved. And if you guessed Jesse will be interviewed for his uncle’s program and make a profound statement, then you’ve hit the jackpot.

Yet none of the events that happen on screen feel real. Interspersed through the main narrative are the interviews Johnny conducts with kids in LA, New York and New Orleans. I guessed we were supposed to feel the anxiety of the next generation and their hopes. I said I guessed because what was on screen was merely false platitudes that rang hollow. The exception is one young person speaking about losing faith in the adults who are supposed to help but can’t.

In flashback we see Johnny and Viv taking care of their late ailing mother. Again we are supposed to understand the enormous grief and the years of pent up frustration between the siblings. But because they keep telling us in the present how they were feeling at the time, it doesn’t make the impact Mills hopes for. The last straw for me was using the oldest trick in the book; the precocious child who asks the “difficult” questions. Boy did I roll my eyes. Cheap and teetering on insufferable.

The black and white cinematography gives the audience something nice to look at while watching what’s inherently not a cinematic story. It’s mostly people on the phone talking about their feelings. The cast acquits themselves well, especially when you consider they are tasked with being in constant open wound mode. This a more relaxed Phoenix, reminiscent of his work in Her (2013) and miles away from Joker (2019). Hoffman has to play 90% of her scenes talking into an iphone, maybe Mills is trying to make a point about how we communicate today or something. Wish he could’ve varied the technology so we could see Hoffman in more than just the one mode. Though all the actors try their hardest to bring empathy to their characters; something was missing. Like what Annette Bening was able to do in Mills’ previous film 20th Century Women (2016); add a dose of no nonsense to the saccharine proceedings.

C’mon C’mon played the Spotlight section at the 59th NewYork Film Festival and will be released on November 19th.

Review: The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Early on in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, two fans from Baltimore on a trip to the big city, visit backstage at Cafe Society with the legendary singer (Andra Day in a star making debut performance). There’s wonder in the small talk they share, the awe they show her. She invites them to sip champagne and everyone in the room – including her entourage of husband-manger, dresser and assistant – talk about where in Baltimore they are from. We get to know what Holiday meant to Black people in America at that time; the late 1940s. And we know that she understood that and took her responsibility seriously. I smiled and settled in thinking “this is gonna be good.” Biopics rarely examine why celebrities mean so much to us. Alas it was not to be. That was it about Holiday’s giant place in Black people’s hearts in this country.

A good biopic is usually one that has a few revelatory insights about the life it’s trying to depict. Or is telling the story of a particularly interesting moment in that life. Cradle to grave biopics don’t work and filmmakers have mostly stopped making those. Director Lee Daniels and screenwriter Suzan-Lori Parks – adapting the book by Johann Hari – have that particular story they want to tell. They chose the time in Holiday’s life when the FBI was trying to frame her for narcotics because they couldn’t stop her singing the wrenching ballad Strange Fruit. That song tells the story of a lynching in vivid detail and was a rallying cry for Black people fighting for equality at that time.

Unfortunately choosing to tell this story means that the film spends a lot of its running time focusing on Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes), an undercover FBI agent who framed Holiday and eventually fell in love with her. The way they carried on their affair while Holiday was touring America and trying to kick her heroin addiction could’ve made for an interesting film. But the love affair doesn’t hold the audience’s attention. We never understand why Holiday liked Fletcher, except perhaps because he lookes like Rhodes. But there’s no heat. There’s more heat in Day’s scenes with Tone Bell who plays her abusive manager / boyfriend Joe Levy.

This is such a disservice to Day who gives a wondrous and fully committed performance. Lowering her voice to mimic Holiday’s gravely talking voice and changing her singing register to perform the songs, she’s never anything less than mesmerizing. Whether she’s on stage as Holiday singing or showing us the toll of heroin and abuse on her body, she knocks it out of the park. This is one of those instances when a first time actor finds a role that fits them like a glove and immediately becomes a star with the promise of years of spellbinding performances.

In choosing to center their story around Strange Fruit, Daniels and Parks know they need to withhold the song until just the right moment. However by the time we get there we have seen so many repetitively staged and edited scenes of Holiday singing that it loses some of its heft. Still Day delivers it beautifully and ensures it doesn’t lose any of its allure giving us a moving and enthralling moment. The song is preceded by a long winding scene in which a crane camera follows Day around through the big moments from Holiday’s life that led her to Strange Fruit. It’s brilliant and I loved it and snapped to attention recognizing this as a Lee Daniels film.

Daniels is a true auteur. There’s no mistaking his recognizable stamp on any film he makes. His filmmaking thrives in chaos. You’d think a story this sweeping, a personality this hypnotizing will play to his strengths. Instead of the enthralling chaos he gave us in Precious (2009) The Paperboy (2012) or even The Butler (2013) what we get here is haphazard storytelling. Only once in a while – like the scene mentioned above – does his brilliant chaotic filmmaking appear. Some scenes are strong, some are casually tossed off as if no director was present. Day is out of this world great but some of the other performances, from good actors with proven records  – Rhodes and Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead – feel like their worst takes made it to the finished film. While others – particularly Miss Lawrence and Da’Vine Joy Randolph – benefit from playing opposite Day and conjure easy rapport with her, elevating their scenes. 

Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Andra Day, and Miss Lawrence in THE UNITED STATES VS. BILLIE HOLIDAY

The United States vs. Billie Holiday has talent with pedigree behind it and a fascinating icon at its center, but the result is not up to par. Still I wholeheartedly recommend it because Day’s performance needs to be seen and cherished.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday will stream on Hulu starting Friday February 26th.

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Sundance 2021 Wrap Up

In lieu of a regular episode this week we are discussing the many films we screened at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Murtada Elfadl welcomes back writer and critic Valerie Complex to discuss a few films including Rebecca Hall’s Passing, Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah and Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s Flee, among many others. We also give out our awards for best perfromances and choose the one film you can’t miss at the festival.

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Topics Discussed:

  • Excellent virtual experience; Sundance presented the best experience of all festivals.
  • Documentaries are more innovative than narrative films at the festival.
  • Some docs discussed include Captains of Zaatari, Summer Of Soul, Misha and the Wolves and our favorite Flee.
  • We give out our own acting awards to Clifton Collins Jr. in Jockey, Daniel Kaluuya in Judas and the Black Messiah and Ruth Negga in Passing.
  • Further discussion of Passing and its queer subtext.
  • Sundance awards winner Coda; why it won and did it deserve all these awards?
  • Movies that surprised us including Violation and Pleasure.

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Sundance Review: Passing

Ruth Negga and Tessa Thompson in Passing by Rebecca Hall.

A few minutes into Passing, Ruth Negga appears. She’s Clare Kendry, who is in New York accompanying her husband (Alexander Skaarsgaard) on a business trip when she spots an old friend Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) in the lobby of the Drayton Hotel. Resplendent in 1920s garments, blond hair and a mischievous smile on her face, Negga’s the cat that ate the canary personified on screen. Over the next few minutes she flirts with, cajoles and charms Irene into visiting her suite, staying and having drinks despite Irene being very uncomfortable. Irene can’t resist Clare and we in the audience cannot take our eyes off Negga for a second for fear of missing a gesture or a look. This is a performance so electrifying it demands attention from the very first second the character appears. 

Passing, adapted from Nella Larsen’s novel and directed by Rebecca Hall, is the story of these two light skinned Black women living during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. Irene occasionally passes for white for convenience. To take refuge in a cool hotel lobby during a heatwave. Clare passes for white all the time, she’s married to white man who doesn’t know she’s Black. When Clare moves to New York she decides to revive her friendship with Irene despite the latter’s discomfort with her lies and way of living. But close they become, as Clare longs to spend more time among Black people. 

Larsen’s novel is rich with themes about identity and race. About the masks people put on and take off to survive. The relationship between Irene and Clare is complex. Do they like each other? Are they jealous of each other? Does Irene want Clare’s daring and carefree attitude? Clare seems to covet Irene’s sense of purpose and satisfaction with her lot in life. Hall threads the very fine line of including as much as she can from the source while not overwhelming the film. More often than not, she holds back rather than spell out anything. Her script is so subtle demanding the audience pay attention. Not to the words the characters are saying but rather to the performances the actors are giving.

And in Thompson, and particularly Negga, Hall hits pay dirt. Thompson holds the film together with grounded feeling as she’s in every scene. Irene is a woman who doesn’t say much, who holds her cards close to her chest. Thompson manages to convey her inner turmoil with understated panache. Negga comes in with reckless abandon and steals the film. This is a showstopping performance. She conveys the utter chaos of the character while maintaining the actor’s exacting control. Negga drops her voice when needed to amplify a point. She looks straight into the camera to throw off the audience from the conclusions we thought we made about the narrative and her character. 

Everytime Negga looked at Thompson I thought to myself, “does she want to fuck her or kill her?” That sexual subtext was in the book but it’s more overt in the movie because of the performances. These women are clearly drawn to each other. They might want to trade places. The way they look at each and sometimes touch, they definitely feel a sexual charge. What I wish the movie had more of is the feel for Harlem in the 1920s. This is more a chamber piece set in a few rooms and hallways, concentrating on a few characters.  

I am also conflicted about the use of black and white. On one hand making a film about colorism and draining it of color seems strange. Yet the film looks gorgeous and the actresses would not have “passed” to modern eyes if not for the black and white cinematography. Aesthetically it’s definitely the right choice as it fits with the other austere and deliberate choices Hall makes. From her sparse script to the intimate atmosphere that’s all inside Irene’s mind. 

Passing is a confident, sometimes bold, directorial debut for Hall. It is also Ruth Negga’s most magnetic moment on screen. And for that it’s well worth cherishing.

Michelle Pfeiffer in French Exit

We first meet Frances Price (Michelle Pfeiffer) in her huge Upper East Side mansion. The brown wood and the enormous space she lives in indicates immediately how wealthy and insular she is. Her son Malcolm (Lucas Hedges) and his girlfriend (Imogen Poots) announce their engagement to each other but are afraid to tell Frances. Another indication that Frances might not be the easiest person to deal with. And when a few scenes later she calls her lawyer a pig in French to his face, making sure he knows it and she gets away with it, the characterization is complete.

The lawyer was telling Frances that her wealth is no more. She’s forced to accept a friend’s offer of a free apartment in Paris. Across the ocean she and Malcolm go, bringing along their cat Little Frank, named after her dead husband. She plans to live in Paris as long as her money lasts which by the way she spends won’t be that long. The filmmakers behind French Exit, screenwriter Patrick DeWitt adapting his novel and director Azazel Jacob, understand  that these insular privileged characters would be odd. They would act idiosyncratically, they would be unknowingly rude, they would not have a concept for how much anything costs. They live in their own world. So when the cat starts talking – in the voice of Tracy Letts – you go with it. Looking at them with any real world framework or rule book is a futile task. You might as well turn off the movie. 

But Azazel also understands how perilous Frances’ situation is. So while the tone of the film is arch allowing the audience to laugh and enjoy how rude and cruel Frances can be. He also knows that he needs an actress to bring out the loneliness of Frances and he hit the jackpot in casting Pfeiffer who follows the film’s tone to a point. As we go along she slowly starts peeling off the affect, to show us the melancholic undertones of Frances. That’s when the performance finds its apex. 

In Paris Frances and Malcolm start collecting a few eccentric friends, building a sorta family. There’s a sad widow (Valerie Mahaffey) who’s very enamored with Frances. A fortune teller (Danielle MacDonald) who sleeps with Malcolm.  A soft spoken private investigator (Isaach De Bankole) who’s tasked with finding Little Frank when he runs away. Each of these characters brings another offbeat comedic note that provides levity but doesn’t add much to this quirky world we are watching besides showing us how isolated Frances increasingly becomes. She can’t make real connections, they have to be strange like her or she has to buy their companionship. 

Hedges plays Malcolm with limited expressions of exasperation and despondensy. You don’t understand why these two women would be attracted to him. We only get faint glimmers of the rich boy’s insouciance that could be what attracted them. But it doesn’t matter, the real showstopper here is Pfeiffer. She’s the reason to watch. She could have played this role like an imperious 1940s Bette Davis character; a Regina Giddens (The Little Foxes) or Fanny Skeffington (Mr. Skeffington). All haughty gestures and clipped tones. Perhaps that would have made it more memorable. It certainly would have made it more gif-able, more fun and catnip to awards bodies. But Pfeiffer is getting at something more interesting than paying homage to a proven screen persona. That would be expected, instead she’s interested in locating a center of sorrow and regret that drives this woman. She even recedes to the background in group scenes and lets Mahaffey steal their scenes together. She’s staying true to Frances’ nature, a rich woman used to having lots of space between her and others. A woman who can’t be bothered to react to people except with dismissal until she is forced to face reality. This is most evident in a heartbreaking scene where Frances acknowledges that her life is riddled by cliches.

French Exit is a film to savor and bask in. There are no immediate takeaways or blazing memorable scenes or even a loud performance to start a conversation. These are not characters you fall in love with or want to spend lots of time with. It’s not a film that elicits a definitive opinion right after it ends. However a few days later I keep thinking about it.

French Exit screened as the closing night selection of this year’s New York Film Festival will be released in February 2021.

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