‘The Northman’: Vikings, Revenge, Blood, and Guts at the Gates of Hel

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The Northman (CREDIT: Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features)

Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke, Bjӧrk, Willem Dafoe, Oscar Novak

Director: Robert Eggers

Running Time: 137 Minutes

Rating: R for Lots of Blood and a Fair Amount of Skin

Release Date: April 22, 2022 (Theaters)

If nothing else, Robert Eggers movies are experiences. Sometimes, in the case of The Witch, it’s an experience I very much want to be a part of. Other times, in the case of The Lighthouse, it’s like: hoo boy, this might be a little too much for me. His third feature, The Northman, lands somewhere in the middle. It’s his longest but also perhaps his most straightforward. That might have something to do with the fact that the main character is a legendary Scandinavian figure who served as the direct inspiration for Hamlet. I encountered that factoid after watching the movie, but it makes sense in retrospect, as the story beats are plenty familiar. Despite the hallucinogenic flourishes, this is your classic tale of revenge and bloody familial entanglements.

It’s Viking Times! 895 AD, specifically. Young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) doesn’t have a care in the world, but then his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) kills his father (Ethan Hawke) and takes Amleth’s mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) as his own queen. If you’ve ever seen The Lion King, you know what’s coming, as we leap ahead several years, with our hero (now played by Alexander Skarsgård) returning with a girlfriend in tow (Anya Taylor-Joy as the witchy Olga of the Birch Forest) and ready to take back what’s his. Now, at this point, you may find yourself thinking, “Hey, didn’t Skarsgård and Kidman play husband and wife a few years ago?” To which I must let you know, The Northman does not flinch at the ickiest of its implications.

Basically, if you’ve ever been watching a Shakespeare production and wished that it was even bloodier, and a whole lot muddier, and also featured plenty of psychedelic freakouts, then The Northman is here for you! And if you also wanted a deadly mashup of lacrosse, handball, and rugby thrown in for good measure, then you can rest easy. I don’t want any beheadings in my own personal day-to-day, but I can approve of a few fictional decapitations serving as the cherries on top of a Robert Eggers sundae. It’s a healthy way to get the violent urges out of our systems.

The Northman is Recommended If You Like: Revenge served as cold as historically possible

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Fratricides/Avunculucides/Matricides/Nepoticides

Jeff’s Wacky SNL Review: Willem Dafoe/Katy Perry

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SNL: Katy Perry, Willem Dafoe, Chris Redd (CREDIT: NBC/Screenshot)

Oh hello there, you’re reading my review of the TWELFTH episode of the FORTY-SEVENTH season of Saturday Night Live. Who’s the host? That’s an important piece of information, and the reality is that it is American actor Willem Dafoe. Also noteworthy: the musical guest is Katy Perry, who’s known for performing songs.

For this episode, since we’re in the middle of winter, I’m ordering sketches from least cold to coldest. It’s a subjective rubric, sure, but hopefully you can see what I’m going for.

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At the ‘Nightmare Alley,’ the Circus Gets Pretty Dark

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Nightmare Alley (CREDIT: Kerry Hayes/20th Century Studios)

Starring: Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, David Straitharn, Holt McCallany, Mark Povinelli, Mary Steenburgen, Clifton Collins Jr., Tim Blake Nelson, Jim Beaver

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Running Time: 150 Minutes

Rating: R for Some Gunfire and a Little Hanky Panky

Release Date: December 17, 2021 (Theaters)

If you can’t trust circus folk, who can you trust? Actually, if Nightmare Alley is to be believed, carnies are the only people who can be believed (well, most of them anyway). It’s everyone else who’s trying to pull one over on you. This movie is two and a half hours long, which is to say: it takes Bradley Cooper’s Stanton Carlisle way too long to realize the truth about Truth. That’s probably because he’s fooling himself.

The movie itself is pulling a trick on us as well. Considering its spooky title, and its writer-director, we’re primed for some horror, or at least something supernatural. But instead it’s a full-on noir thriller, with all the moral prisons, femmes fatales, and cigarettes to prove it. We first meet Stanton burning away his past, quite literally. Then he wanders into the local big tent, and it’s unclear if he actually has any plans for anything at this moment. Only later do his machinations come to the fore. He gets roped into a job, which at first pays him a mere 50 cents (it would have been a dollar if he hadn’t snuck into the geek show), but then that’s followed up by steadier employment at the next town, and soon enough he’s one of the top mentalists around. That trajectory eventually leads to him teaming up with a psychologist (Cate Blanchett) for a con to bilk some big, big money out of a rich man (Richard Jenkins) who’s overcome by Stan’s promises that he can commune with the dead. But of course, there’s enough doubt and double-crossing in the air for everything to go sideways.

By the end of the whole plot, Stan essentially circles back to his original destitute and anonymous status quo. I was struck by both the futility and durability of his con man nature. The Universe, or the Fates, or God or whatever, or simply the randomness of existence has decided that his deception can go only so far. And while his reach exceeding his grasp might send him down to rock bottom, he’ll find a way to survive in the gutter if he has to. But why not do it a little differently? If Stan were a real person, and he were my friend, I would remind him that he seems happiest when he’s just hanging out with the circus crew. He found a family, but the genre that he lives in has ensured that he’s a nowhere man who’s never fully at home anywhere.

Nightmare Alley is Recommended If You Like: Hucksters, Snow, Trenchcoats, Biting heads off chickens

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Cold Reads

‘Spider-Man: No Way Home’ Actually Presents Many Ways Home, What with the Multiverse and All

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Spider-Man: No Way Home (CREDIT: Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures)

Starring: Tom Holland, Zendaya, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jacob Batalon, Jon Favreau, Marisa Tomei, Alfred Molina, Benedict Wong, Jamie Foxx, Willem Dafoe, J.K. Simmons, Thomas Haden Church, Rhys Ifans, Tony Revolori, J.B. Smoove, Hannibal Burress, Martin Starr, Angourie Rice

Director: Jon Watts

Running Time: 148 Minutes

Rating: R for The Usual Punching and Stabbing, Perhaps a Little Darker Than Usual

Release Date: December 17, 2021 (Theaters)

Hey, it’s our friendly neighborhood Spider-Man back on the big screen! Or maybe, that should be our friendly neighborhood Spider … Men? (Hey, wasn’t there another recent movie that asked that same question? With so many years of comic book history to draw upon, you can be multi-universal in multiple ways.)

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‘The French Dispatch’ Presents a Journalistic Panorama

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The French Dispatch (CREDIT: Searchlight Pictures. © 2020 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved)

Starring: Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Elisabeth Moss, Jason Schwartzman, Fisher Stevens, Griffin Dunne, Wally Wolodarsky, Anjelica Bette Fellini, Anjelica Huston, Jarvis Cocker, Tilda Swinton, Benicio del Toro, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Léa Seydoux, Lois Smith, Henry Winkler, Bob Balaban, Denis Menochet, Frances McDormand, Timothée Chalamet, Lyna Khoudri, Alex Lawther, Mohamed Belhadjine, Nicolas Avinée, Lily Taleb, Toheeb Jimoh, Rupert Friend, Cécile de France, Guillaume Gallienne, Christoph Waltz, Jeffrey Wright, Mathieu Amalric, Stephen Park, Winston Ait Hellal, Liev Schreiber, Edward Norton, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Hippolyte Girardot

Director: Wes Anderson

Running Time: 103 Minutes

Rating: R for Art Model Nudity, Surprising Sexual Partners, and Some Language Here and There

Release Date: October 22, 2021 (Theaters)

The French Dispatch is about the staff and subjects of an American magazine that covers a small but colorful fictional French town. It’s published as an insert in the Liberty, Kansas Evening Star newspaper, so it’s basically like a midwestern Parade, but with the vibe of The New Yorker. Which all begs the question: who is the intended audience of The French Dispatch*? (*The fictional newspaper, that is, not the movie of the same name. [Although by extension, you could ask the same thing about the movie, though that conversation would be a little different.]) It feels like somebody dared Wes Anderson to create an anthology film of the most esoteric stories ever and he then declared, “Challenge accepted.” As I watched I wondered what made these stories worth telling, and I believe that the answer is: they’re worth telling because they’re worth telling. So in that way, The French Dispatch is very much like Little Women.

The fictional French town in this movie is called Ennui-sur-Blasé, which literally translates as “Boredom-on-Blasé,” but there’s no way you’ll be bored while watching a film that’s as overstuffed as this one. Overwhelmed, perhaps, but not bored. (But if somehow you are bored, please let me know about your experience. It’s interesting when someone’s reaction is so different than mine!) The anthology structure is composed into five sections, two to set the context and three to dive deep. First up is an introduction of the staff, particularly editor-in-chief Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), a my-way-or-the-highway type, except when he readily makes concessions to his writers’ peculiarities. Then travel writer Herbsaint Sazerac (Owen Wilson) takes us on a bicycle tour to provide color for the town. The fleshed-out stories include the journalist-subject pairings of Tilda Swinton covering incarcerated artist Benicio Del Toro; Frances McDormand covering student revolutionaries led by Timothée Chalamet and Lyna Khoudri; and Jeffrey Wright as a food journalist covering the story of a police officer’s kidnapped son that also features a very talented chef.

The French Dispatch is a love letter to a time and a place when you could throw whatever budget you felt like at whatever story you felt like covering. Based on the accounts of people who were involved in that era, that characterization actually isn’t that far off from how 20th century American journalism really was run. But it’s so different from journalism’s current state of affairs that it might as well be from another universe. Appropriately enough then, The French Dispatch felt to me like it was beaming in from an alternate dimension. I don’t know how these stories could have ever possibly been conceived, but I’m glad that I’ve now experienced them.

The French Dispatch is Recommended If You Like: The New Yorker, Symmetrical geometric arrangements, French pop music, Skinny mustaches

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Bylines

‘The Card Counter’ Has a Lot More On Its Itinerary Than Gambling

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The Card Counter (CREDIT: Focus Features)

Starring: Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan, Willem Dafoe

Director: Paul Schrader

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for A Hotel Rendezvous and Hellish Scenes of Explicit Torture

Release Date: September 10, 2021 (Theaters)

The Card Counter stars the darkly handsome Oscar Isaac as numerically blessed gambler William Tell. He drifts from casino to casino, careful to keep his winnings modest so as not to attract too much attention, all the while letting us in on his methods via voiceover narration. Then Tiffany Haddish shows up as La Linda, a scout who would like to recruit him onto the World Series of Poker circuit. These are two distinct acting flavors, but I have a suspicion that they’re going to go great together, so I’m happy to be on board, no matter where this story ends up going. And it certainly must be emphasized that this affair is written and directed by Paul Schrader, who’s known for his morally probing character studies when collaborating with Martin Scorcese (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull) and when busting out on his own (First Reformed). It’s always essential to have a variety of voices collaborating on a movie set, and The Card Counter is mighty fine evidence of that.

Just when we’re ready to settle into this movie’s groove of gambling games and existential reflection, it lets you know that there’s actually a whole lot more going on. It turns out that this isn’t Paul Schrader’s Poker Movie, but rather, Paul Schrader’s Guantanamo Boy Movie. In a past life that isn’t so past, William Tell was a big deal military interrogator stationed at that notoriously torture-filled base. And now he’s on a mission to confront that past. His plan goes in unexpected directions when he meets up with Tye Sheridan’s Cirk*, who has his own personal connection to William’s former boss, Major John Gordo (Willem Dafoe). (*That’s “Cirk,” like “Kirk.” When he introduced himself as “Cirk with a C,” I wondered if that “C” came at the beginning or end of his name.)

It’s worth noting that I find the milieu of most gambling establishments to be terribly oppressive. Luckily, though, The Card Counter makes things a little more bearable with its uniformly compelling, as well as some genuinely goofy moments, like the flag-clad poker players chanting “USA! USA!” Those moments of levity, as well as the positively steamy chemistry between Isaac and Haddish, are essential for getting through the absolute muck that is the Guantanamo portion of the story. I’m not really sure what William or Cirk’s plan is, or if they even have a plan but are instead just cool and collected enough to give off the illusion that they have it all together. Maybe counting cards is just a way to find some order in a profoundly disordered world. If that means we’ve got a movie that’s half tightly coiled, half messy beyond all comprehension, then that sounds like a deal worth going in on.

The Card Counter is Recommended If You Like: First Reformed, Fisheye lens detours, Sour insides wrapped up in a savory exterior

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Flops

With ‘Motherless Brooklyn,’ Edward Norton Takes Us Back to the Era of Mid-Century Urban Gumshoes, with a Purpose

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CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Edward Norton, Bruce Willis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Willem Dafoe, Bobby Cannavale, Cherry Jones, Michael K. Williams, Ethan Suplee, Dallas Roberts, Leslie Mann, Josh Pais, Robert Wisdom, Fisher Stevens

Director: Edward Norton

Running Time: 144 Minutes

Rating: R for Involuntary and Voluntary Profanity, and a Classic Mix of Guns, Knives, and Fists

Release Date: November 1, 2019

Motherless Brooklyn is basically Chinatown but if the lead character had Tourette syndrome. You’ve got a bigwig public official trying to control the city’s municipalities, a woman with surprising and controversial parentage, and a protagonist who gets his face roughed up when he starts to get involved way over his head. Comparisons to one of the most acclaimed crime films of all time can make for impossible-to-meet expectations, but this directorial effort from Edward Norton proves that there is plenty of room to play around in this sandbox. The mysteries come hard and intriguingly as private investigator Lionel Essrog (Norton) uncovers a web of power and corruption in 1950s New York City. What was his mentor Frank (Bruce Willis) getting involved with when he got himself killed? Why is city planner Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) the most powerful man in the city? Why do people within the orbit of young activist Laura Rose (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) keep finding themselves in deadly trouble? These are all compelling questions, and reason enough to give Motherless Brooklyn a go.

What might give some viewers pause, however, are Norton’s more unique directing and acting flourishes. Casting himself as someone who involuntarily spouts out a string of profanity and general word salad could certainly be controversial. But I think he handles it empathetically and sensitively, suggesting that we are all messed up in the head and that so much (or perhaps all) of life is the struggle to either keep that noise at bay or let it be part of who we are. Possibly even more controversial is the generally affected milieu embodied in the performances, music, and production design that basically shouts, “This is the 1950s!” It could play as indulgent nostalgia, but it avoids that pitfall by serving an essential thematic purpose, as Motherless explores what is lost when poor and minority neighborhoods are pushed aside in the name of urban beautification. Moses Randolph is a person who has somehow made himself a hero to the people while brushing away all the inconveniences that stand in his way of unmitigated power, while Lionel Essrog is forced to have his inconveniences be a constant part of his daily life. Take a wild guess which one of them is better company.

Motherless Brooklyn is Recommended If You Like: Chinatown, Mid-20th Century New York City

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Fedoras

‘The Lighthouse’ is a Terrifying Portrayal of Isolation That May Just Be Too Much to Bear

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CREDIT: A24

Starring: Robert Pattinson, Willem Dafoe

Director: Robert Eggers

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for Sexual Content and Violence Covered in Mud and Seawater, and Uniquely Accented Profanity

Release Date: October 18, 2019 (Limited)

Very scary quite contrary. Ooey gooey muddy yucky.

Movies like The Lighthouse make me wonder if it should be standard practice to hand out programs to filmgoers as they enter the theater. While there is no shortage of assets in 2019 to consult to help with any cinematic confusion, there’s a big difference between visiting Wikipedia or Reddit afterwards and actually having a booklet in hand while watching. (It might be too dark to read during the actual show, but there’s something to be said for the security blanket quality of its mere presence.) Director Robert Eggers’ last film, The Witch, had the very helpful tone-setting subtitle “A New England Folktale,” which calibrated my filmgoing faculties exactly where they needed to be. Meanwhile, The Lighthouse, featuring Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe as a couple of lighthouse keepers struggling with isolation and their growing antagonism twoards each other, is a much more throw-you-over-the-edge-without-a-life-preserver affair.

That’s not to say that I need, or even want, my hand held throughout The Lighthouse. It’s fine, and probably better, that certain things remain a mystery. Like the mermaid that Pattinson gets it on with that’s probably just a vision, though it’s hard to tell for sure in this landscape. Also, why is that seagull so angry? These are discussions I’m happy to have after watching a sensorially pummeling movie like this one! But while watching, I’d prefer it if I wasn’t constantly asking myself, “Where am I?” If Eggers had just given us one little crumb, like a subtitle along the lines of, for example, “A Sea Shanty,” I think I would have been able to digest this one a little more properly.

But despite this major reservation, I cannot dismiss The Lighthouse entirely. I will always encourage visionary cinema, even if I’m not a fan of the particular vision. And this black-and-white freakout about the horrors of isolation, presented in a claustrophobic 4:3 boxy aspect ratio, certainly qualifies as a vision. So I’ll remain open-minded to re-evaluating this ish in the future, but for now it feels like a silly slosh through the mud and an overindulgent assault on our senses.

The Lighthouse is Recommended If You Like: You Were Never Really Here, Mandy, The Witch

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Seagulls

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Aquaman’ is Overstuffed, But It’s Got Some Fun, Wet Weirdness

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CREDIT: Warner Bros. Pictures/DC Comics

This review was originally published on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Jason Momoa, Amber Heard, Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Nicole Kidman, Temuera Morrison

Director: James Wan

Running Time: 143 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Combat Taking Place Undersea and the Sea Being Turned Into Weapons

Release Date: December 21, 2018

Everybody loves Aquaman. (Unless you have an opposing claim to the throne of Atlantis, that is.) This wasn’t always the case. In fact, it used to be that in all corners of the pop culturesphere, he was the biggest punch line among all well-known superheroes. But now Arthur Curry is everyone’s buddy. Although, in terms of how much he’s keeping his identity a secret and the level of hero worship, this movie does not make it entirely clear what the world thinks of him. It seems like the audience is expected to come in with some familiarity of last year’s Justice League. But that team-up picture was not completely comprehensive about how the terrestrial world felt about him. Suffice it to say, Jason Momoa is pretty much able to play him like the jolly giant that he is, and one scene that tells us all we need to know features a gang of bikers who look like they are about to beat him up but instead excitedly request a selfie.

The meat of the story, in a movie that has about a half-dozen active plot threads, is the half-Atlantean/half-human Curry attempting to ascend to the throne of Atlantis. As the eldest son of Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), it should be his birthright. He does not really want to be king, though, but the throne’s current occupant, his younger half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson), is planning a war against land dwellers. But that storyline gets interrupted while Arthur and his love interest/personal conscience Mera (Amber Heard) ascend back to the surface and go on a scavenger hunt to track down a MacGuffin. So for about a half hour, the two globehop and track down clues, turning Aquaman into Indiana Jones for a stretch. Then all the other Atlanteans re-appear, and just about every plotline finds time to be resolved, because this sucker is nearly two and a half hours long.

But there is still some time to leave a few threads dangling, as the sequel must always be set up, which means that a few key issues are left unelaborated amidst all the bloat. The ostensible reason that Orm wants to start a war is because of all the pollution that ends up in the oceans. But that explanation feels so throwaway and never really plays into the conflict between Orm and Arthur. And there is no sense of whether terrestrial humans are or are not going to take responsibility for all their wastefulness. Ultimately, this movie jumps all over the place and does not know where to focus, but there are thrills to be had in odd details, like an octopus playing the drums, an Atlantean fighter sticking his head into a toilet for wet relief, and Randall Park’s all-too-brief appearance as a scientist sounding a call of alarm. And it bears repeating: everyone loves Aquaman (even though he is occasionally called an imbecile).

Aquaman is Recommended If You Like: Jason Momoa’s bonhomie, Water-based weaponry, Superhero movies that stretch past two hours

Grade: 3 out of 5 Water Spears

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Vox Lux’ is a Traumatic and Entrancing Journey Through Pop Music Stardom

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CREDIT: NEON

This review was originally posted on News Cult in December 2018.

Starring: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Willem Dafoe

Director: Brady Corbet

Running Time: 110 Minutes

Rating: R for School Shooting Violence, Drug Use, and Staten Island Accented-Profanity

Release Date: December 7, 2018 (Limited)

There is a scene about midway through Vox Lux in which pop star Celeste Montgomery (Natalie Portman) is at a diner with her daughter Albertine (Raffey Cassidy, who also plays the teenage Celeste), expounding about how the press is always hounding her, and it turns into this incomprehensible rant about the misbegotten state of the world. She sounds like someone who watched Fight Club too many times as a teenager, specifically the scene in which Tyler Durden espouses his whole philosophy. But the causes of Celeste’s unique psychology can actually be traced to much more intense external forces. The armchair nihilist philosophizing is just gravy.

The adult Celeste is the product of two adolescent experiences that no teenager is naturally wired to perfectly handle. Both of these types of experiences on their own can, and have, resulted in long-term negative effects for many people. But together they produce … well, they produce Vox Lux. Celeste’s journey begins by surviving a shooting at her middle school, which is obviously traumatic enough to produce scars that last a lifetime. During her recovery, she writes a song to create some love out of the violence, and it ends up becoming a huge hit and leads into a full-on pop music career. But teenage stardom is not ideal for most people, and Celeste does not buck that trend. Fast-forward to the present day, in which at 31 years old she is emotionally still a child.

The culmination of Celeste’s story is hardly surprising, but director Brady Corbet makes it entrancing even at its most disturbing. This is a truly singular whirlwind of a person, and even knowing how messed up her personal life is, we can see how she remains compelling through and through to the public at large. The final 15 minutes or so take place at her new tour’s kickoff performance at her hometown of Staten Island. Considering the series of crises on the way to getting her to the stage in one piece, I thought that this moment was going to end with her collapsing or otherwise failing to finish the show. But instead, she is a wonder to behold, as bedazzling as any modern pop star at the top of her game. This triumph is even more stunning considering the struggle leading up to it. Celeste becomes more admirable while simultaneously remaining as much of a cautionary tale as ever. She remains a symbol by holding up the weight of circumstances that are so much heavier than any one person could possibly bear.

Vox Lux is Recommended If You Like: The Spectacle of Pop Music, Black Swan, Staten Island accents, Actors playing the same characters 20 years apart

Grade: 4 out of 5 Losses of Innocence

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