Festival Report

Let’s start with the festival report.

Brad Bird’s talk Sunday night was every bit as good as I’d hoped. It was amusing, thoughtful, and intelligent. In other words, he used funny voices and said almost nothing with which I didn’t agree.

He talked mostly about the death of showmanship, decrying such trends as smaller theaters and screens, commercials before the trailers, the dominance of home video, and haphazard projection that ruins brand-new prints. Although he also blamed studios and filmgoers, “Exhibitors,– he concluded, “have to pick up the ball.– He also predicted that small, intimate movies may soon stop playing in theaters and go directly to video, and warned that “We better preserve the great single-screen theaters.–

If you loved The Incredibles’ Edna ‘E’ Mode, you know that Bird is quite the vocal acrobat. His voices included an intimidated theater employee (“I was told that was the way the movie was supposed to look–), a snarling beast (his reaction when Pixar’s DVD folks wanted to talk home video and he was thinking movie theater), and performed Edna on request during the Q&A session.

I also caught The Alloy Orchestra double bill Monday night. Blackmail was a strange experience. Separate talkie and silent versions were common in the early sound era, but I never before had a chance to compare both versions of the same movie. I own the talkie Blackmail on DVD, and for long chunks of the running time, this was the same movie. But it was a silent.

And it was better than the talkie. Certain scenes in the talkie drag on, presumably to show off all that talk. This time, no scene lasted longer than appropriate.

By the way, am I the only one who thinks Donald Calthrop, who played the blackmailer in Blackmail, is a dead ringer for Kenneth Branagh?

The Phantom of the Opera is what it is–”a simple melodrama raised to the level of art by the sheer force of atmosphere. And in this presentation, the atmosphere was thick and heady.

Color had a lot to do with it. The two-color Technicolor process used for the ball scene was nothing new–”I’ve never seen a print without it. But this new print, commissioned by The Alloy Orchestra, also recreates the original extensive tints, as well as the old Handschiegl hand-cut stencil technique used in one scene to turn the Phantom’s cape red. This stenciling was the only disappointment. I’ve seen impressively accurate, authentic stencil color (try the Silent Shakespeare and Hell’s Angels DVDs), but here, it was just a splotch of color in the right general location.

Speaking of atmosphere, The Alloy Orchestra added plenty to each film, especially Phantom, where the title itself suggests music. This trio (funny how the word orchestra is used these days) is definitely one of the most exciting things happening in silent movie music today. I doubt Andrew Lloyd Webber could have improved it.

On to other news. As The Reel San Francisco festival continues at the Balboa, personal appearances by filmmakers and historians have become the standard. Almost every night there’s some appropriate person introducing at least one movie on the double bill. Kudos to Gary Meyer for getting these people to commit.

Finally, I just heard that Pacific Film Archive Director and Senior Curator Edith Kramer is retiring this summer. What a loss. Few equal her commitment to film as an art form, or her talent as a programmer and educator. I interviewed Edith for Oakland City Magazine last year, and found her to be generous with her time and a stimulating conversationalist. Edith deserves a long and happy retirement, but to lose Anita Monga and Edith Kramer within a few months–¦that’s sad news for Bay Area film fans.

But I’m still here, with this week’s recommendations and noteworthy movies.

Noteworthy: The Riverside, Kabuki, Friday night. I don’t know if this new Iranian film is any good, but I’m gambling the price of a festival ticket that it is. The plot is reminiscent of No Man’s Land; this time with a young bride stepping on a mine that will go off if she lifts her foot. But this one, according to the program notes, is more a “a metaphor for human sorrow, displacement and hope– than a black comedy of war’s dehumanization.

Recommendation: Harold and Maude and Play It Again, Sam, Balboa, Friday and Saturday. Here’s your chance to see two of the great comedies of the early 70’s on one double bill. Harold and Maude, with a young Bud Cort falling in love with an elderly Ruth Gordon, balances between –˜60’s idealism and –˜70’s nihilism like no other movie, while Play It Again, Sam showed us, five years before Annie Hall, that Woody Allen could tell a real story and still be funny. Co-star Susan Anspach will speak both days before the 8:45 show. Part of the Balboa’s Reel San Francisco festival.

Recommendation: Mean Girls, Clay, Friday and Saturday, midnight. If you judge movies by their ad campaigns, this is a standard-issue coming-of-age comedy for girls in their early teens. And it certainly provides the ingredients for commercial, genre success. But it’s also thoughtful, intelligent, and genuinely funny.

Noteworthy: Dial “M” for Murder, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. This is not great Hitchcock, but it has the unique status of being the only 3D movie made by a great director. The Stanford can show proper, dual-projector 3D, but if they’re showing Dial “M– that way, they haven’t announced it. On a double-bill with Saboteur, which is also not great Hitchcock, although it’s definitely better than Dial “M– for Murder.

Recommendation: Downfall, Parkway and Rafael, ongoing. Yes, it humanizes Hitler, but as human beings go, he doesn’t come off as someone you’d want to hang with, let alone run your country. A frightening and fascinating study of the collapse of a society that never should have existed in the first place, and a meditation on the danger of unquestioning faith.

Noteworthy: The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday afternoon and Kabuki, Sunday afternoon. This three-hour documentary by Adam (Century of the Self) Curtis examines how leaders use fear to control their populations. Part of the San Francisco International Film Festival.

Recommendation: Ran, Castro, Sunday. Kurosawa’s last epic, and his last masterpiece, retells King Lear as a sweeping tale of chaos in feudal Japan. Beautiful, moving, and profoundly sad, it makes Shakespeare’s original seem upbeat by comparison. Unlike Shakespeare, Kurosawa considers what his king did before he became old, and it isn’t pretty. The film, on the other hand, is as visually gorgeous as movies get.

Noteworthy: Gentleman’s Agreement, Lark, Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. One of the few studio-era Hollywood films to deal with American anti-Semitism, this is no masterpiece. But it was courageous in its time, and it’s an excellent example of a postwar trend in serious, socially-conscious films that was killed by the blacklist.

Noteworthy: Vertigo, Balboa, Sunday and Monday. What? I’m not recommending Vertigo? Everyone else thinks it’s a masterpiece, but I find it one of the most overrated films of all time–”slow, uninvolving, and self-consciously arty. For great Hitchcock, give me Rear Window or Notorious. Author Aaron Leventhal (Footsteps In the Fog) introduces the Sunday showings. On a double bill with Woman on the Run. Part of the Balboa’s Reel San Francisco festival.

Sex with Movie Stars

People fantasize about sex with movie stars. That’s often what makes them movie stars instead of merely actors. I discovered just how strongly those fantasies can hold us when I read that Uma Thurman smokes. It bothered me, the way it would bother me if a potential lover suddenly lit up. It’s ridiculous, of course. There will never come a time when Thurman lights up after sex and I’ll have to breathe it.

Smoking wasn’t an issue when Rudolph Valentino set hearts aflutter, but sex sure was. Women went wild about him, and men fumed. They hated Valentino. And yet, a decade later, few men objected when their wives and girlfriends fell for Errol Flynn.

Maybe they were just more media-savvy by 1935; more accepting of celluloid fantasies. But I suspect that the problem was Valentino himself. He was different. Italian. Exotic. And not altogether, well, manly. No red-blooded American male wanted to be Rudolph Valentino, but they sure wanted to be Flynn. It’s easy to accept your lover fantasizing about sex with your own fantasy of yourself.

That made Errol Flynn the perfect movie star. Half the audience wanted to be him, and the other half wanted to bed him. Many probably wanted both.

In many ways, the identity fantasy (by which I mean wishing to be the character onscreen, not the flesh-and-blood actor) is a greater pull than even the sexual one. I’m a bigger fan of Groucho Marx than I am of Uma Thurman, but I’ve never wanted to sleep with him (and not just because of that cigar). I want to go through life smug, satisfied, and with a clever quip for all the Margaret Dumonts of the world.

And there’s the catch. We can’t be movie stars. Even real movie stars aren’t as glamorous as their onscreen alter egos. We can enjoy our fantasies, of course, but at some point we have to live in the real world. That’s the hard part.

I’m not Groucho Marx, and I usually come up with clever quips five minutes too late. So I’ll just be myself, and give you this week’s recommendations and noteworthy movies.

Recommendation: Notorious, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. One of Hitchcock’s best. In order to prove her patriotism, scandal-ridden Ingrid Bergman seduces, beds, and marries Claude Rains’ Nazi industrialist, while true love Cary Grant grimly watches. Sexy, romantic, thought-provoking, and scary enough to shorten your fingernails. On a double bill with his early Young and Innocent.

Recommendation: Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Life of Brian; Galaxy Theater (San Francisco), Friday through Thursday. Monty Python at their best, together on a double-bill, for a one-week engagement at a theater I’d generally not include on this site.

Recommendation: The Maltese Falcon, Balboa, Saturday and Sunday. The ultimate Dashiell Hammett picture, the second-best directorial debut of 1941 (after Citizen Kane), an important precursor to film noir, and perhaps the most entertaining detective movie ever made. Part of the Balboa’s Reel San Francisco festival, it’s on a double bill with Dangerous Female, an earlier, pre-code version of Hammett’s novel. Noir City’s Eddie Muller and Hammett author Joe Gores introduce the Saturday evening shows; “Hammett in SF– tour guide Don Herron the Sunday evening shows.

Noteworthy: State of Cinema Address, San Francisco International Film Festival, Kabuki Theater, Sunday, 5:00. Animation writer and director Brad Bird (Iron Giant, The Incredibles) will discuss the state of the art. I appreciate an animator who not only does excellent work, but has a name like a cartoon character. Should be interesting.

Noteworthy: Edgar G.Ulmer-The Man Off Screen, San Francisco International Film Festival, Kabuki Theater, Monday, 10:00am and 6:15. This documentary explores the poverty row auteur’s career. For 30 years, he knocked off cheap exploitation movies with a creativity and panache that’s astounding considering his budgets and schedules. His best-known film, Detour (1945) pretty much started film noir.

Noteworthy: Blackmail, San Francisco International Film Festival, Palace of Fine Arts, Monday, 7:00. Hitchcock’s first talkie was also his last silent (it was common in those days to make two versions of the same film). I’ve seen the talkie, which is weird, creepy, crude, but fascinating. The silent, I’ve heard, is better. I plan to find out Monday night. One of two silents that night accompanied by the Alloy Orchestra.

Recommendation: The Phantom of the Opera, San Francisco International Film Festival, Palace of Fine Arts, Monday, 9:15. I haven’t seen the musical, but the original silent Phantom is a tough one to beat. The demasking scene will stick in your memory for life. The newly-restored print recreates the original tints, 2-color Technicolor, and painted stencil colors. The second Alloy Orchestra presentation of the evening.

Recommendation: The Seven Year Itch, Castro, Monday and Tuesday. Billy Wilder’s other film with Marilyn Monroe is no Some Like It Hot, but it’s still a funny and observant look at sex drives and fantasies in the 1950’s. On a double bill with How to Marry a Millionaire, one of the first two CinemaScope movies, and thus of historical interest even if it’s not really all that good.

Noteworthy: Princess of Mount Ledang, San Francisco International Film Festival, Kabuki Theater, Thursday, 8:00. This Malaysian historical epic, based on two 15th century legends, caught my eye as a movie that might be worth going to.

Best of Youth

Just a quick, off-schedule announcement. I went to the Balboa yesterday and finally saw The Best of Youth. It is, quite simply, fantastic–the best two-part, six-hour movie since Godfather I and II. Originally made for Italian television, it follows the fortunes of one family, a close circle of their friends, and the Italian people as a whole, from 1966 to 2003.

Okay, I’m a sucker for historical epics. I love to sit in a theater for hours, watching fictitious people cope with the changes brought about by actual historical events. I’m no expert on recent Italian history. I remember the Communist terrorists who made headlines there for many years, but I have no idea whether the movement to reform insane asylums that provides one subplot is historical or entirely fictitious (I suspect it was historical). But during that time in the Balboa, I felt that I had lived with these people through all those dramatic decades. But it was life, as Alfred Hitchcock said, “with the boring bits taken out.”

Best of Youth plays at least through Thursday at the Balboa. I should know in a few days if the run will be extended another week after that. Parts 1 and 2 require separate admissions, and the schedules switch from day to day, so you can see, for instance, Part 1 at 7:45 tonight and Part 2 at 7:45 on Monday. The Balboa’s Reel San Francisco festival runs on the theater’s other screen.

Movies for the Week of April 15

I’m extremely busy this week, so I’ll skip the usual essay and go directly to this week’s recommendations and noteworthy movies.

Wait! Before I do that, I should let you know that I’ve added a Readers’ Feedback page to the site. I’m always eager to read your comments. Send them to me by clicking // protects email from bots user = ‘webaddress'; site = ‘bayflicks.net'; message = ‘here'; document.write(‘‘); document.write(message + ‘‘); here.

Okay, now I’ll go directly to this week’s recommendations and noteworthy movies.

Noteworthy: It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Castro, Friday. I can’t really recommend this three-hour, big budget, slapstick comedy, even if some people consider it a classic. But I have to admit that I loved it when I was a kid. What’s more, the Castro will be screening a dye transfer Technicolor print from 1966, which is bound to look spectacular.

Recommendation: The Big Lebowski, Lumiere, Friday and Saturday, midnight, and the Red Vic, Wednesday and Thursday. This Coen Brothers gem was originally panned–a disappointing follow-up to their previous endeavor, Fargo. Well, it isn’t as good as Fargo, but it’s still one hell of a funny movie.

Recommendation: Office Space, Act 1 & 2, Friday and Saturday, midnight. If you’ve ever worked in a soul-killing office, at the mercy of a boss who was evil-incarnate, you’ll like this one.

Recommendation: Strangers on a Train, Stanford, Saturday through Monday. One of Hitchcock’s scariest films, and therefore one of his best. A rich, spoiled psychotic killer (isn’t that the worst kind), cozies up to a moderately-famous athlete and then convinces himself that the two of them have agreed to trade murders. The Stanford is showing Strangers on a Train on a double-bill with Sabotage.

Recommendation: The Ten Commandments, Castro, Sunday. I can’t really call DeMille’s overblown epic a great film, or even a good one, but it’s absolutely the best bad movie ever made. Nearly four hours long, it’s corny, melodramatic, beautiful to look at, and often hilarious, but never, ever boring. I’m a religious Jew; I take the story of the Exodus very seriously, but that doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of DeMille’s great unintentional comedy. This is the silly way to get in the mood for Passover.

Recommendation: Himalaya, Pacific Film Archive, Monday afternoon. Himalaya takes you to one of the most remote places human beings call home. This isn’t a documentary, but a dramatic film cast almost entirely by actual inhabitants of Nepal’s harsh Dolpo region.

Recommendation: The Conversation, Balboa, Thursday, Friday. Francis Ford Coppola made this modest study of paranoia and alienation in-between Godfathers I and II, and it’s every bit as good as the two epics that surround it. Gene Hackman stars as a surveillance expert who finds himself caring about the young couple whose privacy he’s been hired to violate. Perhaps even more than Coppola, this film belongs to the great editor and sound engineer Walter Murch. On a double-bill with Petula as part of the Balboa’s Reel San Francisco festival.

San Francisco International Film Festival

The good news: The San Francisco International Film Festival starts in two weeks. The bad news: So does Passover, resulting in some serious scheduling conflicts between must-see movies and my other religion. It’s a good thing my family now follows Sephardic rules for observing this eight-day festival–that means I can eat popcorn.

The festival runs from April 21 through May 5, primarily at the Kabuki Theater, with some special events at the Castro and Palace of Fine Arts. For those who don’t want to travel to San Francisco, some films will get repeat showings at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive and Palo Alto’s Aquarius Theatre. (Did you know that the Aquarius was built in 1969? Does that surprise you? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I’m showing my age.) The festival will show 185 films, including 14 world premieres and 22 North American premieres. Tickets are already on sale.

There’s a lot to do and see between the opening night screening of Costa-Gavras’ new comedy (yes, you read that right) The Ax, and the closing presentation of Craig Lucas’ “scathing show-biz satire” The Dying Gaul. The big events include a State of the Cinema speech by writer-director Brad Bird (The Incredibles), plus life achievement awards for director Taylor Hackford, screenwriter Paul Haggis, and actor Joan Allen. Documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis (Century of the Self) will receive the Persistence of Vision Award (the festival will also screen his latest work, The Power of Nightmares: The Rise of the Politics of Fear). And the Mel Novikoff Award goes to Anita Monga, the long-time Castro programmer whose firing last fall so upset us all. Not surprisingly, her award ceremony (which will include a screening of Jacques Becker’s 1957 thriller Touchez Pas Au Grisbi),will not be at the Castro.

Three silent films will screen with live musical accompaniment, all at the Palace of Fine Arts. On Saturday, April 23, the American Music Club will accompany Frank Borzage’s Street Angel. Then, on Monday the 25th, the Alloy Orchestra will supply the music for the silent version of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail and a newly-restored print of The Phantom of the Opera. (Like many films of 1929, Blackmail was made with separate talkie and silent versions; I’ve only seen the talkie, but many people prefer the silent.)

And what about new movies? I haven’t seen any of them, but I can still tell you what you can safely skip. A number of scheduled films are already signed up for commercial, art house theatrical release. If you don’t care about “I saw it first” bragging rights, skip these and go to movies that you might not get a chance to see again. I’ll mark these films when I post the SFIFF schedule on my web site.

The festival won’t open for another two weeks. You might want to see some of these movies while you wait:

Recommendation: The Lady Vanishes, Stanford, Friday through Sunday. The best (and almost the last) film Alfred Hitchcock made in England before jumping the pond.This is Hitchcock light–starting out as a gentle comedy and slowly building suspense, but never taking itself seriously. Unfortunately, the Stanford has it on a double-bill with Suspicion, an early American effort (although set in England) that’s one of Hitchcock’s worst.

Noteworthy: Moulin Rouge, Pacific Film Archive, Saturday night. Not the Baz Luhrmann musical, but John Huston’s 1952 Toulouse-Lautrec biopic. Shown as part of Russell Merritt’s Crying In Color series, this movie is best known for its experimental use of Technicolor, and Houston’s battle with Technicolor consultants over that experimentation.

Recommendation: Young Frankenstein, Balboa, Monday. Mel Brooks’ one great comedy does for classic Universal horror films what Blazing Saddles did for westerns, except that it never has to strain for a laugh. Nor for its warm, sweet spirit. Perhaps Gene Wilder’s contribution, as writer as well as star, makes it so special. Wilder will be there in person from 5:30 to 7:00, signing his new book. Also on the bill is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a movie whose appeal I’ve never understood (yes, I have seen it with a young child, and no, I didn’t like the book, either).

Recommendation: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Parkway, Thursday evening. The biggest and the best of Sergio Leone’s “spaghetti” westerns was the Pulp Fiction of its day, reveling in its own amorality and bringing you along to enjoy the ride. It’s violent, beautiful, iconic, and funny, with the best performance of Eli Wallach’s career and that incredible Ennio Morricone score. Part of the Parkway’s Thrillville series, the evening will also include Frank Novicki performing “his own unique brand of spaghetti-hula guitar music,” whatever that means.

TiVo

Let’s talk about TiVo and other personal digital recorders. They’re wonderful gadgets, but like all wonderful gadgets, they come with undesirable side effects. (I know this site is about films in theaters, but if you love movies enough to come here—or subscribe—you probably think about how you watch them at home, as well.)

Here’s the great thing about TiVos (against the wishes of the embattled TiVo company, I’m using the term generically to mean all such devices): They completely divorce the experience of watching TV from any concerns about when a show is actually broadcast. You just go through your favorite channels’ onscreen schedules, and when you spot something you might want to see, you press the Record button. If you follow that routine weekly for Turner Classic Movies, the Fox Movie Channel, and the Independent Film Channel, you’ll record a lot of terrific movies.

Of course, this doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to see them all—little things like having a life tend to cut into TV-watching time. But it’s okay that most of the movies you record disappear unseen when the TiVo needs to make room on its hard drive. The great thing is that when you want to watch a movie at home, you have a nice selection to choose from.

But with all those pre-selected movies, you’re less likely to find some wonderful, little-known gem simply because it happens to be on. For instance, I discovered The Big Country, a wonderful and intelligent 1958 western that deserves a bigger reputation than it has, because TCM happened to start it just as I felt like watching something. If I had owned a TiVo back then, I wouldn’t have caught it.

Many an overlooked old movie achieved classic recognition because of television—It’s a Wonderful Life, for instance. In a world where we all have easy access to so much that we know we want to see, how will we rediscover the works that should never have been forgotten?

But let’s move from The Big Country to the big screen. A couple of interesting film festivals opened this week, and I apologize for not mentioning them in last week’s Lincoln’s Log. With one of them, the Sonoma Valley Film Festival, I also have to apologize for not posting the full schedule online; with screenings at four venues and special events elsewhere, it would make the page enormous and unwieldy. But I do supply a link to the schedule.

Produced by an organization called Cinema Epicuria, the Sonoma Valley Film Festival (March 30-April 3) is as devoted to food and wine as to movies, and even has a “Culinary Director.” The movies aren’t necessarily about food, however, but such topics as love, adoption, Judi Bari, and El Salvador’s civil war. Other events include a tribute to Berkeley-based producer Saul Zantz, and acting and screenwriting workshops.

The Fearless Tales Genre Fest (March 29-April 3) is less concerned with food—unless you’re dining on human flesh. Dedicated to horror and science fiction, it ignores Oscar winners like Zantz to honor low-budget goremeister Gordon Lewis. But the movies look like fun—if you can stomach them.

Speaking of all things scary, the Stanford has released its April schedule—a Hitchcock festival. Interestingly enough, four of the five double-bills give us an early British movie with a later Hollywood one.

So what’s worth seeing in theaters over the next week?

Recommendation: Downfall, Rafael, ongoing. Yes, it humanizes Hitler, but as human beings go, he doesn’t come off as someone you’d want to hang with, let alone run your country. A frightening and fascinating study of the collapse of a society that never should have existed in the first place, and a meditation on the danger of unquestioning faith.

Recommendation: American Werewolf in London, Castro, Friday night. Do I really need to say much about this funny and scary horror film? If you like your scares laced with humor, interesting characters, and the plausible impossible, you’ve probably already seen it. But this time, director John Landis will be there in person. Part of the Fearless Tales Genre Fest.

Noteworthy: Earthdance, Oakland Museum, Friday night. Described as a “Short-Attention Span Environmental Film Festival,” this short subject collection tends towards the whimsical (appropriate for April Fools Day), with an animated short about Shiva and a housefly and a comedy about a superhero battling litterbugs. There are also a couple of films that just show nature set to classical music. Among the serious entries is a 20-minute documentary about trophy hunting.

Noteworthy: Antique Smut, Red Vic, Friday and Saturday. Dirty movies from the first half of the 20th century. Might be fun, possibly erotic, and almost certainly bizarre.

Recommendation: Ghostbusters, Act I & 2, Friday and Saturday, midnight. Well, when was the last time you saw this special effects extravaganza on the big screen? (Okay, the Act I & 2 isn’t the Grand Lake, but it’s still be bigger than your TV.)

Recommendation: Sideways, Parkway, ongoing engagement starts Friday. A wonderful dramatic comedy about the human talent for self-destructive behavior and the thin line between enthusiasm and addiction.

Recommendation: Million Dollar Baby, Parkway, ongoing engagement starts Friday. For once I agree with the Academy; if this wasn’t the best film of 2004, it was close.

Noteworthy: Crying In Color: How Hollywood Coped When Technicolor Died, Pacific Film Archive, Sunday afternoon. Film historian Russell Merritt will discuss how Hollywood managed the esthetic transition from color as the exception to color as the rule—specifically in melodramas. Then he’ll screen Scaramouche, a swashbuckler made shortly before that transition. Scaramouche is no Adventures of Robin Hood, but it climaxes with one of the greatest swordfights of all time.

Noteworthy: My Dinner With André, Pacific Film Archive, Monday afternoon. This strange film, just two men talking in a fancy restaurant, was the surprise art-house hit of 1981. think of it as Before Sunrise without scenery or sex appeal.

Recommendation: Annie Hall, Pacific Film Archive, Thursday. Almost every Hollywood film deals on some level with romantic love, but very few capture the complex, dizzying ups and downs of that common experience with any accuracy. And no other captures it as well, or as hilariously, as Annie Hall.

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