Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Release: Friday, May 3, 2019 (limited) 

→Netflix

Written by: Michael Werwie

Directed by: Joe Berlinger

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile may appear on the surface as a redundant exercise. Do we really need another take on the American nightmare that was Ted Bundy? Like it or not we have come to know the man behind at least 30 murders of women down to his jaw structure, down to the most grisly details of his most heinous actions. We’ve even taken note of his days working as a call taker at a suicide prevention center in Seattle.

Extremely Wicked justifies its own existence through the harrowing perspective it shares, that of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer. The dramatic feature from highly influential documentarian Joe Berlinger is based upon the memoir written by the real Kloepfer (Kendall her pen name), and paints a picture of domestic bliss slowly rotting, one in which its stars, a chillingly effective Zac Efron and an equally impressive Lily Collins, dance delicately along a clearly defined yet precarious line dividing dramatization and reenactment. These are challenging roles to portray without sensationalizing, and with the guidance of Berlinger’s sensitive direction they rarely, if ever, hit a false note.

The one exception being the way the former High School Musical star interprets his character’s reaction to the final sentencing, Efron putting on a waterworks display that feels out of sync with his character’s alien-like indifference to the lives he took. The tears are a little too theatrical even considering the antics that went down in those trials. Indeed those trials were a circus in which you might recall Bundy throwing out his own defense team and acting as his own legal counsel, even having the audacity to take advantage of an obscure Florida law that allowed him to propose during his second murder trial (in 1980) to witness Carol Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario in the movie) — a former coworker at that Seattle crisis center, a stalwart of Team “Of Course I’m Innocent, Look at Me!” all the way up to the point of their divorce in 1986, three years before Bundy’s execution.

Scodelario does well to garner our sympathy — she’s nothing more than another victim, albeit a lucky one, of Bundy’s brutally manipulative mind-game. But if Boone was just played for a fool, Kloepfer was essentially a concubine of Bundy’s deceitful charade, her heart held hostage by a smooth talking, intelligent predator. In one of the movie’s heaviest moments we see all of that come down on her, the reality that she had blindly allowed a serial rapist and murderer to help raise her own child, Molly. He, in return, secured the unconditional love of an innocent child. It’s upsetting stuff. As time marches on Collins’ performance becomes more gesticulative and broad, Liz disappearing in a haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol-fueled depression as her own concern turns to fear and tensions between the two continue to mount as the lie continues, evolves. Yet her work is never less than sickeningly effective in communicating how trapped this woman must have felt, pinned between a romantic idyll of the man she’s with and the ugly reality of his face routinely showing up in the papers.

It’s the intense focus on this relationship, on a perception of normalcy that also justifies Extremely Wicked‘s stylistic choices, namely the omission of graphic violence and even the abductions themselves. We more often than not see Bundy fleeing the scene in his beige VW beetle and in a calm, cool and collected state even in the face of suspicious lawmen. (Side note: if you thought the casting of Efron, a known sex symbol, was an interesting choice, A) you’ve missed the point completely and B) it’s not as weird as seeing Metallica’s physically imposing frontman James Hetfield as Officer Bob Hayward, a Utah patrolman and the first officer to arrest Bundy. It’s a double-take moment, yet the casting isn’t completely out of left field, as Berlinger co-directed the Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, back in 2004. And for what it’s worth, he acquits himself well in his first ever scripted performance.)

Berlinger is no stranger to potentially upsetting and controversial material. His Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries exposed a terrible real-world witch hunt that had condemned three young men either to execution or life in prison for a crime in which they ultimately were found innocent. Yet his work has also had a profound, real-world impact. The release of those films actually expedited the release of at least one of those men in the West Memphis Three case. I’m not so sure this film has had the same sobering effect. More of film Twitter seemed to get hung up on the hunky casting (again, by design) and whether or not Efron even had it in him to convince you of Bundy’s extreme wickedness (he does).

Rather than trampling on the victims’ memory by dramatizing their last moments alive, Berlinger instead focuses on the emotional and psychological disintegration of Kloepfer who for so long denies the deranged duplicitousness that allowed her boyfriend to freely move in between their shared sanctuary and the streets of an unsuspecting America as he engaged in a spree of murders that, at its height, saw women disappearing at a rate of one every 30 days. Extremely Wicked is a film about juxtaposition, the seemingly impossible contrast between sweet naivete and outright monster. It leaves you feeling dirty. Violated. It’s a disturbing account of factual events that needs little graphic imagery to convey the evil and the vile.

Recommendation: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (which takes its long-winded title from the official opinion handed down by the judge presiding over the trial, the Honorable Edward Cowart, played by John Malkovich) I’d imagine works pretty well as a companion piece to the documentary. Me, though, I’ve had my fill with this drama. Biggest takeway: the performances are uniformly good and some truly unsettling. I never thought I’d say I would be scared of Zac Efron. (Some offense intended.) Film also features strong input from Haley Joel Osment as one of Liz’s concerned coworkers, and Jim Parsons as a Florida attorney tasked with presenting some of the most disgusting details you’ll probably ever hear from this particular horror show.

Rated: R

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “People don’t realize that murderers do not come out in the dark with long teeth and saliva dripping off their chin. People don’t realize that there are killers among them. People they liked, loved, lived with, work with and admired could the next day turn out to be the most demonic people imaginable.”

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Trash Fire

Release: Friday, November 4, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Richard Bates Jr.

Directed by: Richard Bates Jr.

Richard Bates Jr’s third film revolves around a family you’ll be glad you’re not a part of. That might be the understatement of the year. You’ve never seen family dysfunction like this, unless of course you have seen Psycho.

Not that I’m suggesting the relatively immature Trash Fire wakes up the echoes of Hitch’s classic. After all coincidence plays a large part here — that its director shares the surname of one of the most recognizable movie villains of all time compels me to draw comparisons more than anything. However, there is one other element these films share, one that’s harder to ignore, and that’s the influence of a severely troubled matriarch. In Psycho it was mother. In Trash Fire it’s grandma. Dear, sweet old grandma.

The film opens on a sour note, introducing us to miserable Owen (Adrian Grenier) who is unloading on his therapist about how when he was younger he planned to commit suicide after his parents died so he wouldn’t have to feel guilty about it. He literally resents being alive and goes out of his way to make the prospect (of living) a nightmare for those who dare get near him, such as his longtime girlfriend Isabel (Angela Trimbur), whose friends and family he can’t even pretend to tolerate.

When Isabel tells Owen she’s pregnant, the couple is confronted by a life-altering decision. It’s not the one you might expect, given Owen’s toxic cynicism forged in the crucible of an abusive childhood — one that, when finally explained, makes me wonder who really had it worse, Owen or Norman. We are led to believe that in some ironic twist of fate rearing a child might be the best thing for the couple. A second chance for a thoroughly broken man, a ray of hope for his long-suffering concubine.

To feel more comfortable about such a commitment Isabel establishes one condition: They must pay a visit to Owen’s grandmother Violet (Fionnula Flanagan) and sister Pearl (AnnaLynne McCord) so she can meet his family and he can make amends after years of estrangement following a house fire that indeed killed his parents and rendered Pearl an “abomination” and a shut-in.

Trash Fire struggles early despite its bold, frothy opening. The first half is spent building up the “relationship” — necessary toiling for the horror that’s soon to come. Once the story shifts to granny’s house the film really goes to work, endeavoring to strip what little humanity there is from the proceedings. Flanagan, whose age and frail physicality emphasize the film’s gleeful perversion, is legitimately terrifying. She is the quintessential religious zealot, a termagant whose TV is set only to channels vomiting fire-and-brimstone sermons and who instantly takes a dislike to Isabel, for she reminds her of the “whore” that was her own daughter.

Down the back stretch of this 91-minute production you’ll find nods to more well-established horror mythologies — shades of The Ring, Carrie and yes, Psycho, come and go, all while Trash Fire‘s slavish devotion to nihilism is intended to both support the film’s brazen title and separate its familiar content from the pack. And yet, the petulance reminded me of Gaspar Noé’s attempts at being as shocking as possible in Irreversible, where he famously introduced ultra-low-frequency sound in the film’s opening half hour, the intent being to physically yet subtly make viewers feel ill.

All of this is to say that the nastiness employed here works but only when you are susceptible to it, when exposure is minimal. There comes a point in Trash Fire, perhaps when we see Violet pleasuring herself to those televangelists, where the maliciousness diminishes in effect and threatens to undermine Owen’s legitimate problems. On a second viewing, I suspect familiarity will do considerable damage. For a once-through, however, Trash Fire is entertaining in its own weird little way.

Recommendation: Pitch-black comedy supposedly courses through the veins of this quirky and downright uncomfortable indie horror. As the people over at The AV Club aptly put it, perhaps only the most bitter nihilists will find the film funny. I did find the film amusing in fits and starts but more than anything I admired the bold performances put on by Adrian Grenier and Fionnula Flanagan. But now I want to watch something where the latter plays a nice lady. Maybe a grannie who bakes cookies. Something, anything, to cleanse the palate.

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “For as long as I can remember I’ve been waiting for my parents to die. And there they were, dead.” 

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Me & Earl & the Dying Girl

Release: Friday, June 12, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Jesse Andrews

Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon

I’d like to dedicate this piece to my good friend Andy, a man of rare intelligence and passion for rock climbing that the Knoxville community and the world at large lost far too soon.

Me & Earl & the Dying Girl may be unafraid of confronting brutal realities but it has little interest in festering in sorrow and solemnity. In fact the blunt title is a strange acknowledgement that things are going to be okay. Much like Rachel’s frilly purple pillow it cushions us if even just slightly from the gut-punch we prepare ourselves for throughout this meditation on life’s transience.

Sure, there’s a sense of inevitability and dare I say it, predictability, that casts a pall over Greg (Thomas Mann), Earl (RJ Cyler) and Rachel, a.k.a. ‘the girl’ (Olivia Cooke) and the last few weeks of their high school lives but Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and his idiosyncratic crew would be damned if the weight of the material is going to get the better of them. In spite of its originality — first and foremost in the form of a knock-out performance from Mann, whose previous work didn’t exactly instill confidence in his acting prowess — I hesitate to say my relationship with Earl is one of complete, albeit beautiful, cliché. Rarely have I been so impressed with the value a movie places not only on youth but on life itself. To say I emerged from the theater with my outlook even remotely altered would be the cherry on top of that cliché sundae but hey, can I just say it anyway?

I was moved, yes. Yes I was.

That’s him and Earl . . .

The Part Where I Tell You About The Plot.

Greg’s informed by his overbearing mother (Connie Britton) that a school friend — Greg insists she’s just an acquaintance — has been diagnosed with leukemia. His father (a very hippie Nick Offerman), reiterating that the situation “sucks quite a bit,” shares mom’s concern that Greg ought to befriend Rachel during this difficult time. Greg knows Rachel would see through the idea, but goes anyway. And lo and behold she sees right through the idea; she doesn’t need anyone’s pity. Over time, however, Rachel becomes drawn to Greg’s peculiar sense of humor and aggressively self-effacing nature, though he hesitates to place the ‘friendship’ label on any relationships he shares with his peers. Especially with Earl, a longtime “co-worker” with whom he eats lunch daily in Mr. McCarthy (Jon Bernthal)’s office . . . because of air conditioning and fears of getting caught up in any sort of clique constituting the chaos that defines Schenley High’s cafeteria.

Aside from social awkwardness, the pair share a passion for spoofing canonical films. One day class hottie Madison (Katherine C. Hughes) gets wind of this and asks them if they would make a film dedicated to Rachel. Given that their previous efforts are of a rather immature and bizarre nature — avant garde wouldn’t be the worst way to describe them — Greg is primarily concerned with coming up with something that would feel appropriate. When Earl tells Rachel about the idea to make this film, we witness the fall-out: Greg’s self-conscientiousness and Earl’s open honesty clashing with brutal force, with little thought given to how shallow and pointless the conflict really is.

Unfortunately it gives way to a larger rift between Greg and Rachel, the latter who is trying her hardest to deal with the reality of not knowing what the next day brings. All those weeks giving way to months of shared time in her bedroom, a room occupied by a diverse collection of pillows only an indie film could get away with drawing attention to on more than one occasion. Has all this time meant nothing? Was it just Greg’s parents ordering him to be there the reason he kept returning? Greg describes the friendship as doomed, but we’re not exactly sure how serious he is about that sentiment.

And this is the girl.

The Part Where I Act Like I Know How to Critique a Film.

Pervading Earl is a refreshing directness — from the performances to the tight framing of this hectic school environment and the surrounding neighborhood; from physical execution to the various thematic threads, nearly every aspect of the production lives and dies by its willingness to be casually confronting. It’s a film that allows a conversation about death and the fleetingness of existence to come about organically, although there are of course meanderings into subplots involving popsicles, “accidental” drug-taking, and peculiar food only Nick Offerman would be into for real.

As Rachel, Olivia Cooke exudes braveness and it’s a quality that clearly rubs off on her young co-stars. The distinction of most memorable performance may go to Mann but Cooke is damn good. Parenting as a function of the way we grow and experience is wisely given a substantive role as well. Molly Shannon as Rachel’s mother is unhinged but empathetic. She may be a little off her rocker and too often a poor role model for these kids but she’s a single parent desperately trying to deal with her daughter’s illness. Similarly, Greg’s parents are borderline obnoxious but they explain a great deal about Greg’s off-kilter personality. Matured and young adult alike aren’t alienated by unrealistic writing; they’re imperfect, sometimes off-putting but more often than not relatable.

Based on Jesse Andrews’ debut novel of the same name, Earl shares more in common with the ‘me’ in its title: like Greg, the narrative is equal parts profound and humble. Drama doesn’t draw attention to itself until a final tear-jerking sequence of events that simultaneously surprise and confirm early suspicions. The narrative is straightforward but as anyone who has navigated the halls of high school will attest, that journey is anything but. When you factor in a life-altering experience such as the one facing Rachel and those that she’s involuntarily surrounded by, all bets are off on how anyone is going to fare come the end of the storm. Speaking for myself, this isn’t life-changing stuff but it is life-affirming. This is surprisingly uplifting for a film with ‘dying’ as part of the title.

Recommendation: Gomez-Rejon’s sophomore effort proves an emotional experience, a beautiful representation of a difficult high school experience. It’s a great companion piece to 2012’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Simmering with brutal honesty and endearing personalities, Earl isn’t always fun and games but as a big fan of films that refuse to sugarcoat its themes, I find it’s an easy one to embrace. And anyone who can appreciate really off-beat characters are sure to find plenty to sink their teeth into here.  

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 105 mins.

Quoted: “So if this was a touching romantic story, this is where our eyes would meet and we would be furiously making out with the fire of a thousand suns, but this isn’t a touching romantic story.”

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The Theory of Everything

theory-of-everything-poster

Release: Wednesday, November 26, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Anthony McCarten 

Directed by: James Marsh

If you want to talk ambition, meet British director James Marsh. He once thought it realistic to stuff everything Stephen Hawking-related into a two-hour romantic drama. There are obvious issues with such a strategy. Not so obvious perhaps are the compromises he’s made in producing something worth watching.

Or, maybe they are. Either way, it looks like it will still be some time before we get the definitive guide on the inner workings of one of the greatest minds this world has and likely will ever see.

Marsh (Man on WireShadow Dancer) blends elements of the standard biopic with those of a romantic drama while infusing the production with at least the pretense of science. More often than not intellectual stimulation is sacrificed in favor of powerful emotional recoil at the sight of a body enduring prolonged deterioration. Yes, the experience fails to manifest as an interesting journey as much as a heartrending commitment to watching what we already are aware has happened. But it’s a perfectly inoffensive approach all the same.

Considering the number of similar films attempting to fashion glamorous takes on the lives of many an ill-fated genius or savant — Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind being one of the most memorable in recent years — it’s hard not to feel the nagging tension of having been there, done that this time around. Howard’s muse happened to be brilliant economist John Forbes Nash. The crux of that particular film revolved around schizophrenia and how it nearly eroded the passionate love shared between an ailing Nash and his fiercely determined wife Alicia Lardé. Fast-forward to 2014 and you simply change the variables. The constants remain, though: bodily dysfunction, emotional trauma, and the very human ability to somehow ignore and even triumph over it all.

The Theory of Everything plays out like the autobiography Professor Hawking will probably never write. (That’s not intended as a cruel joke, in any way, shape or form. I simply just don’t envision this man ever writing one.) And by rights, it should. While camera angles hew intimately to Hawking’s views of the world, it’s his first wife whose work has most directly inspired this particular Oscar-hopeful. Adapted from her memoir ‘Traveling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen,’ the film logically detours away from the scientific to focus on the romantic aspects of a life less ordinary.

Leaning on mush and sentimentality does not crush Marsh’s project, luckily enough. After all, he has been afforded a pair of breathtaking performances in the form of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. The pair of young performers will seem inseparable after this. In the last several weeks, a certain someone has been knocking on this blog’s door with more questions about whom he should consider grooming next for the big stage in the Dolby Theatre. Now it would seem to be the young and freckled Londoner’s turn to be called upon. What he accomplishes in Theory is nothing short of revelatory in practice.

Twisted, pained expressions dominate Redmayne’s facial features for the film’s later stages, a development made all the more heartbreaking when given his cheerful, exquisitely nerdy countenance early on. It’s one aspect of the film that absolutely demanded perfection regardless of the surrounding material or narrative flow. Redmayne understood this and courageously ran with what will down the road be described as one of his career’s most challenging and daring decisions.

This is also Felicity Jones’ finest hour. She is a force to be reckoned with alongside the towering Redmayne, channeling her inner Jennifer Connelly appropriately. As Jane Wilde, Jones exudes strength and bravery in a situation that would surely demolish both in any ordinary mortal. There is nothing theoretical about the performances here. The film radiates sincerity and the rapport between Jones and Redmayne single-handedly elevates a somewhat pedestrian narrative. That much is most certainly clear.

What’s less clear is how much Marsh actually appreciates Hawking himself. Regrettably The Theory of Everything ends terribly. The final scenes threaten to drown out any sense of originality on the subject, as the narrative merges with the collective populace’s impressions of the guy: he’s no doubt an inspiration. But we know this already. That’s why there’s now several movies made about him. These last shots may resonate, but they resonate for the wrong reasons. It becomes evident in Theory‘s awkwardly sweeping yet rushed conclusion (why do these stories always end in big auditoriums or conference halls?) Marsh doesn’t want to put too fine a point on the harsh reality of Stephen’s triumph. He doesn’t want to betray the public perception of the iconic wheelchair-bound professor.

That’s why he saves one of the film’s most inspiring lines for the very last moment. Too bad I can’t say the same for this review.

eddie-redmayne-in-the-theory-of-everything

3-5Recommendation: Arguably laden with cheese and sentiment, The Theory of Everything features a lot of heartbreak and cold science (of at least the medical variety) to help try to balance the equation. Two incredible performances help stabilize it a little more, though ultimately this is a movie that belongs on the Hallmark channel more than anywhere else. This is a light year away from being a bad film, but it’s just as far from being original or truly moving. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “There should be no boundaries to human endeavor. We are all different. However bad life may seem, there is always something you can do, and succeed at. While there’s life, there is hope.”

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Blackfish

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Release: Saturday, January 19, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

Somehow, that scene towards the end of Free Willy, where the captive orca soars through the air over Jesse and over the rocky causeway in a single symbolic act of escaping to freedom — yeah, that doesn’t seem so moving anymore having sat through a documentary about the inhumane treatment of dozens more trapped in captivity. Free Willy did have Michael Jackson in its soundtrack, though. That movie definitely had that going for it. . .

However, I’m not here to make comparisons between this film and that one. Such is not the intention of Blackfish, either, a rather unsettling documentary on the subject of orcas (a.k.a. “killer whales”) and how they are treated and how they behave in unnatural, oppressive environments — places that we, the general public, have come to call “theme parks.” In particular, one aquatically-oriented park, SeaWorld, is under investigation here as former trainers come out of the woodwork to explain (more like confess) their time with the company. They detail several disturbing company policies and procedures, often becoming emotional during the interviews; they go on the record with details surrounding the death of one of SeaWorld’s most experienced orca trainers -–Dawn Brancheau — and the surprising lack of an impact that her passing made upon the money-hungry powerhouse.

Interestingly enough, aside from the multitude of trainers not a single SeaWorld employee chose to be interviewed for the film. Are they to blame, though?

This documentary is quite damning: time and again it showcases the company glossing over completely inescapable facts. We see archived footage of real trainers falling victim to attacks from the very orcas they are training. The consistency with which corporate execs attempt to paper over each incident of an orca’s abnormal aggression being taken out on their employees (read: trainers) is simply stunning. Most of the time, as the documentary adequately reveals, these incidents (one of which did indeed result in a death) are explained away as trainer error, and that no incident has ever happened due to the whale being an aggressive mammal. Especially because they’re closely-monitored when cooped up in a concrete pool. Yeah, right.

Even more fascinatingly, Blackfish demonstrates the behavioral changes many (if not all) orcas presented in this story display as they get plucked out of the open oceans and dropped into what are essentially fish tanks in which they will perform stunts and tricks for the rest of their lives. Think of it like a freshman mixer, except everyone there is pretty damn hostile, and whose egos are much too big to share a room with others.

Never before did I, personally, view these exhibitions as much more than kitschy, relatively harmless avenues to seek family entertainment, but the film unveils a much more grisly, troubling reality lurking under the surface. I won’t venture to say that it reveals the true nature of humankind as such, but it certainly reveals the true nature of the business mentality. It’s alarming at best, and this is where the film really becomes brilliant.

One of the ways in which it’s so effective and engaging is the psychology behind the documenting of facts itself. There’s a certain level of trepidation you are likely to experience throughout: and that is, whether you should feel guilty about what humans have done (and continue to do) with these majestic mammals, or if you should feel terrible for those trainers who risked (and sometimes sacrificed) their lives to working with them in these kinds of environments. The complex truth behind it all is that you probably should feel both.

We get swept up in the story of Tilikum, SeaWorld’s largest orca whale — at 12, 000 pounds, he’s described as twice as large as the next largest mammal SeaWorld currently has to offer in their Orlando park, and his story is the most tragic note struck upon in the film. This particular orca has killed three trainers, two of which were SeaWorld employees, and the third an employee of Sealand of the Pacific (consider it to be a ghetto version of SeaWorld, with even more deplorable conditions for the whales) since being separated from his mother and natural habitat and thrust into the corporate trading game of what are now deemed valuable investments for a variety of parks to consider obtaining. These beasts may be exhilarating to see in real life, up-close. . . and behind railings — but the real question is, at what cost are those ticket purchases to go see Shamu. . . or Tilikum, truly worth? Human lives? The psychological torment of our fellow mammals? Shouldn’t it be more captivating (for the lack of a better word. . .) to see them roaming in their natural habitat, spontaneously existing?

This remarkable film, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, addresses all of these concerns, plus a myriad of others. It’s well worth everyone’s time to see Blackfish, troubling as it may be.

im-pretty-goddamn-ginslick

4-5Recommendation: Speaking from a point of view from someone who’s not an animal rights activist (though I am in no way against them), this film you must absolutely see. Rent, download (I’ll even turn a blind eye to illegal downloads if that’s the way you’re going to be able to access this) — you have to get your hands on this film. It is not only well-crafted, but the subject matter is potent, both emotionally and spiritually. You’ll fall in love with a few non-human characters you may not have known much about otherwise. That’s about the bare minimum of the experience you’re going to get when sitting down to watch this one.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 80 mins.

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