GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019) – Mixed Bag of A-List Actors and Mediocre Giant Monster Battles

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GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS (2019), the latest American made Godzilla film and sequel to Warner Bros.’ GODZILLA (2014), is a well-acted action-filled monster movie that somehow in spite of these strengths is sadly underwhelming.

And that’s because this movie contains an odd mix of often ridiculous plot points combined with a tone that simply takes itself way too seriously. Instead, the film should have gone for one or the other. A campier tone would have aligned itself better with the goofy superficial plot points. Likewise, a much more realistic and gritty storyline would have fit in better with the film’s serious feel. As it stands, the movie mixes both, and it just doesn’t work.

Following the 2014 Godzilla attacks which left the world a different place, the secret organization Monarch is in charge of monitoring all the new giant monsters which have been discovered in various places around the globe (silly plot point #1), but the U.S. government and military want to shut down Monarch so they can destroy the monsters and save the Earth. But the Monarch scientists argue that the monsters really aren’t here to destroy the Earth but to save it from its worst enemy: humankind.

Top Monarch scientist Dr. Emma Russell (Vera Farmiga) and her husband Mark (Kyle Chandler) lost their son in the previous Godzilla attack, and his death caused them to separate, and Emma alone is raising their daughter Madison (Millie Bobby Brown). It also caused Emma to have extreme ideas about these monsters, and so she aligns herself with the dubious Jonah Alan (Charles Dance)— cue evil villain music!— and the two plan to release the giant monsters so they can unleash their wrath on the world and “cleanse” it of its human cancer.  Hmm. Where have I heard this before? Is that Thanos I see whispering into Dr. Russell’s ear?

But Dr. Russell isn’t arguing a la Thanos that half the population has to be wiped out by the monsters, only some of it, and that at the end of it all there will be new growth and the planet will be greener for it.  Come again? 

Of course, when this starts happening, the rest of Monarch and the U.S. military go ballistic, and they not only form an uncomfortable alliance to thwart Emma’s efforts, but they also call in Mark Russell to help them. Mark is mostly interested in finding and saving his daughter, and speaking of Madison, once she learns what her mom has planned, she changes her tune about which parent she wants to be spending time with.

Things grow more complicated when one of the monsters, King Ghidorah, is discovered to be from another planet, and he decides that he’s going to control and lead all the monsters in a battle against Godzilla for supremacy of the Earth.

Godzilla? That’s right! This is a Godzilla movie!  Funny how I haven’t mentioned him yet. Real funny. Not. Which is to say more Godzilla in this story and less elaborate saving-the-world-nonsense would have been most welcome.

Anyway, it’s up to Godzilla to take on King Ghidorah and ultimately save the world.

But as you may surmise from this plot summary, it’s a helluva convoluted way to tell a story about everyone’s favorite fire-breathing radioactive giant lizard!

Poor Godzilla. He was supposed to appear in this movie more than he did in the last one, the 2014 film, and while that may have been the case, it sure didn’t feel like it. For a movie that’s called GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS it sure seemed like he took a back seat to the other monsters in this one..

The best thing that GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS has going for it is its cast. It boasts a really strong cast of actors, led by its three principal leads.

Vera Farmiga as Dr. Emma Russell and Millie Bobby Brown as daughter Madison were both excellent. This is Millie Bobby Brown’s film debut. Brown, of course, plays Eleven on the hit TV series STRANGER THINGS (2016-19) so her effective performance in this movie is no surprise.

Vera Farmiga is one of my favorite actresses working today, and while her movie performances have all been superb, it’s her work on the TV series BATES MOTEL (2013-17) based on PSYCHO (1960) where she played Norma Bates that I think is among her best stuff. Her interpretation of Norma Bates was much more nuanced and three-dimensional than the character ever was before in both the Hitchcock movie and Robert Bloch’s original novel.

Kyle Chandler is always enjoyable in nearly every movie he’s in, and he’s been in a lot, from light fare like GAME NIGHT (2018) to more serious stuff like MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) to small supporting roles like in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013), Chandler always makes a lasting impression. His work here in GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is no exception.

When these three actors are on-screen, the movie is at its best and most watchable, and the good news is they’re on screen a lot, but the problem is they are stuck in a ridiculous storyline and are often uttering some very superficial and god-awful dialogue that really detracts from the seriousness of their performances.

Incidentally, Kyle Chandler also appeared in Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2005) which is not part of the current Warner Bros. giant monster universe, and he’s set to appear in the next film, GODZILLA VS. KONG.

The supporting cast is every bit as good as the three leads.

You have Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins (THE SHAPE OF WATER [2017]), Ziyi Zhang, and Bradley Whitford as fellow Monarch scientists. Watanabe and Hawkis are reprising their roles from the previous Godzilla movie, and in Watanabe’s case, he’s playing Dr. Serizawa, a name that goes back to the original GODZILLA film from 1954.

Bradley Whitford gets the liveliest lines in the movie, but strangely, his frequent attempts at humor seem to misfire repeatedly. Again, it’s that odd mix, and his campy lines seem out-of-place with the serious tone surrounding him.

David Strathairn plays Admiral William Stenz, another character back from the 2014 film, and Charles Dance does his villainous best at bad guy Jonah Alan, although at the end of the day the character is pretty much all talk and no action. In short, he does very little here.

The true villain is King Ghidorah, which brings us finally, to the monsters. After all, you don’t see a Godzilla film for the actors. You see it for the monsters. So, how do the monsters fare here?

Well, the main monsters here are Godzilla, King Ghidorah, Rodan, and Mothra, and while they are all given modern-day looks, I can’t say I was all that impressed. It sounds strange to say this, but with all our current CGI technology, I find that I prefer the old-fashioned man-in-suit monsters from Toho’s glory days. These monsters all look okay, but nothing about them I find special nor memorable.

In the Toho films, for better or for worse, the monsters, both good and bad, had personality. The monsters here have no personality. They are quite simply generic and not at all cinematic, which is a major knock against this movie, and quite frankly against the other Warner Bros. monster universe films. If the Marvel superheroes lacked similar charisma that series would have never gotten off the ground.

Also, I did not like the look of this movie at all. Most of the action takes place during various weather events and storms, and so it’s always difficult to see what the heck is going on. For example, the film’s climax takes place in Boston, and at Fenway Park specifically, and I have to say it’s one of the poorest and most fake looking interpretations of Boston I’ve ever seen in a movie. What could have been iconic and devastating is instead cartoonish and superficial.

GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS was directed by Michael Dougherty, and he also wrote the screenplay with some help from Zach Shields. This is the same creative team that gave us the horror movie KRAMPUS (2015), a film I actually liked quite a bit. In fact, I enjoyed KRAMPUS more than I enjoyed GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS.

Dougherty gives us plenty of monsters and monster battles, but since 1) the monsters didn’t look outstanding, and 2) the settings of these battles were often in storms and difficult to see, as presented here, the monsters’ presence didn’t really lift this one to great heights.

The screenplay is superficial at best. It never gives us real terror— real people are noticeably absent here—- other than the scientists and a few military types, we see no one else reacting to the monsters. The film lacks real world emotion big time.

While it attempts to be an homage to earlier films at times, like the use of the Oxygen Destroyer, a weapon from the 1954 GODZILLA, it does it all in a fleeting manner that never really gets to the heart of the matter.

Dougherty has a cast of seasoned and talented actors that make this movie better than it is,  but he doesn’t really help them out. They are in few cinematic scenes and more often than not are uttering lines of dialogue that are pretty bad.

So, where do I stand on GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS? For the most part, I did enjoy this movie, especially when watching Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, and Kyle Chandler, but whenever Godzilla and his fellow monsters showed up, I would lose interest, and for a Godzilla movie, this is NOT a good thing.

The film is a mixed bag to be sure, and while I enjoyed it more than GODZILLA (2014), I still prefer the Toho films of old, from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  Now, Toho continued the Godzilla series into the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, even making the critically acclaimed SHIN GODZILLA (2016), and while those films in general are okay—I like the aforementioned older ones more—, they’re about on par with this current Warner Bros. series.

The next film, GODZILLA VS. KONG, slated for release in 2020, is one that while I’m definitely interested in, based upon the Warner Bros. films so far, I can’t say I’m excited about.

So, GODZILLA: KING OF THE MONSTERS is okay, but since the best part about it is NOT Godzilla, I don’t think Godzilla himself would approve, and for me, that’s all you need to know about this one.

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LOGAN (2017) – Fitting Final Chapter for Wolverine

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You can’t run away from your past, especially if you’re a killer with a heart.

That’s the theme which runs through LOGAN (2017), the latest Marvel superhero movie about everyone’s favorite X-Men, the Wolverine, and it’s a theme that’s backed up by frequent references to the classic western SHANE (1953) starring Alan Ladd as a former gunslinger also haunted by his past.

And in the case of LOGAN, it’s more than just a figurative canker, as in this movie Logan’s murderous past is literally poisoning him from within.

When LOGAN opens, a gang of thugs pick the wrong limo to car jack, because resting inside the vehicle is Logan (Hugh Jackman) and he doesn’t take too kindly to people messing with his property.  But we quickly see that this is an older and weaker Logan, and where in the past his alter ego Wolverine would have made quick work of these thugs, now it’s a much more difficult job.  Wolverine takes care of these baddies, but it’s more of a struggle than we are used to seeing.

That’s because the story takes place in the near future, in 2029, a time when all the mutants are now a thing of the past, and Logan is trying his best to live out his life under the radar.  He’s living in Mexico, in very poor conditions, and with the help of fellow mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant) he’s caring for a very fragile and elderly Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart).   This is no easy task, since Professor X is prone to seizures, and when he has them, his extraordinarily powerful mind becomes a dangerous weapon and disrupts the world around him.  So, Logan has to keep the professor constantly medicated to prevent him from having seizures, and a lot of the money Logan earns running his limousine service goes towards purchasing these meds.

One day, Logan is approached by a woman Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez) who begs for Logan’s help.  She wants him to protect a young girl  Laura (Dafne Keen) who she says dangerous people are after.  Logan isn’t interested in helping and tells her to go away, but later he is approached by a man named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) sporting a powerful mechanical hand who questions Logan about this woman, claiming he needs to find her because she stole something from him.  And when Professor X tells Logan about a young girl who is a mutant, Logan ignores him as well, telling the professor there simply aren’t any mutants being born anymore.

But Logan is wrong, and when Pierce and his men locate Gabriela, Laura escapes in the back of Logan’s car, and suddenly it’s up to Logan and the ailing Professor X to protect her.  And while Logan initially is not interested, Professor X  tells him just who she is and who her father is, and that point, for Logan, there’s no going back.

I really enjoyed LOGAN, so much so that’s easily my favorite of the Wolverine movies.

The first thing that stands out about LOGAN is that it is Rated R.  As such, there is a lot of language and bloody violence throughout, things not typically found in a superhero movie.  I’m sure this movie was able to be made as an R rated vehicle because of the extraordinary success at the box office of DEADPOOL (2016) which was also rated R.  And while the language in LOGAN is nowhere near as raunchy as the language in DEADPOOL, the film certainly earns its R rating.

The violence and the language both work here because they are integral to the story.  It’s the way Logan talks, and anything less wouldn’t have seemed as realistic.  Likewise, the violence reflects the ugliness which Logan is trying to forget.  LOGAN is an adult tale, and as such, is completely at home with its R rating.

At one point in the movie Professor X and Laura are watching SHANE (See my review at this site)  on TV, and the professor tells her that they are watching a very famous movie. More than that, SHANE with its story of Alan Ladd’s gunslinger Shane trying to forget his past serves as a backdrop to the main theme of this movie.  Logan wants out, but he finds he cannot turn his back on the people who need him.  In an interview, writer/director James Mangold cited SHANE and Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN (1992) as inspirations behind LOGAN.

I enjoyed the way Mangold directed this movie.  The action scenes work, and the pacing is good, until the end, when things definitely slow down.  The most exciting sequence in the film is probably when Logan, Professor X, and Laura befriend a farming family— another SHANE reference— and later that night they are attacked by Pierce and his men and their new “secret weapon.”  It’s the most intense sequence of the movie.

The violence is effective and fits in with the story being told here. It also looks a bit more real here than in other R-rated action movies. Often an R rating means nothing more than the ability to show blood, and in this day and age, the blood is CGI -created and very fake looking. The violence in LOGAN looks real.

There’s also a seriousness to the movie that sets it apart from a lot of the other Marvel superhero flicks.

Mangold also directed the previous film in the Wolverine series, THE WOLVERINE (2013). LOGAN is a much better movie than THE WOLVERINE and plays more like another Mangold movie that I really liked, the western remake 3:10 TO YUMA (2007) starring Christian Bale and Russell Crowe.

The screenplay by Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green is also very good, which comes as no surprise since all three of these guys have extensive impressive writing credits. In addition to the theme of trying to forget one’s past, the story also deals with getting old.  Both Logan, and to a greater degree, Professor X, are nearing the end of their lives, and to watch them at this stage of their life journeys is interesting.

Like the rest of the world, I’ve always enjoyed Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, and while he can play the character in his sleep by now, his performance here in LOGAN is a step above his usual work because of the added element of the age factor.  In the very first sequence of the movie we are introduced to an aged Wolverine. In previous movies, Wolverine would have made short work of the men attacking him, but here, it’s a major struggle for him. It’s a cool scene, a neat way to open the film, and it sets the stage for Jackman’s superior performance.

And not only is Logan dealing with the normal aging process, but he’s sick.  The years of having metal inside his body have been slowly poisoning him to death.

Equally as good as Jackman is Patrick Stewart as Professor X.  In fact, probably my favorite part of LOGAN is the chemistry between Patrick Stewart as Professor X and Hugh Jackman as Wolverine. Their banter is a highlight of the film.  They are both terrific actors, and they really work well together.

It was a lot of fun to see Patrick Stewart playing Professor X again. He’s been sharing duties with James McAvoy, who plays the character in the rebooted series featuring younger X-Men.  As such, the character of Professor X has struck gold in these movies, as he is portrayed by two top-notch actors, Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy. You can’t go wrong with either portrayal.

While I liked Dafne Keen as Laura,  she didn’t blow me away. Part of it is the writing of the character. She doesn’t say a whole lot, and a bulk of her scenes are strictly action scenes where she’s helped out by some CGI effects.  As such, she is less effective than she might have been.  Laura reminded me a little bit of the character Eleven played by Millie Bobby Brown in the TV show STRANGER THINGS, but ultimately was not as interesting.

The supporting cast was okay.  I found Stephen Merchant rather blah as Caliban.  I liked Boyd Holbrook as Pierce, but ultimately, he just becomes a glorified henchman. As the movie goes on, there’s less and less for him to do.

Like other Marvel movies, LOGAN struggles with its villain.  As much as I enjoy the Marvel movies, you can pretty much bank on it that the villain in the film is going to be sub-par, which I find really puzzling. You’d think more effort would go into creating memorable villains in these movies.

The main villain here, the man Pierce works for, is Dr. Rice (Richard E. Grant) and he’s as dull as they come.  He pretty much put me to sleep.

And as good as LOGAN is, it doesn’t sustain its excellence all the way to the end. It starts off great, and up to that farmhouse scene, about two-thirds of the way in, it’s firing on all cylinders, but then it just fizzles out.

The final act is a letdown, and nowhere near as compelling as first two-thirds of the movie. And this is where not having a formidable villain really hurts, because you don’t have that to fall back on. If you have a memorable villain, then you are locked in until the end because you are waiting for that final confrontation. Without the villain, you’re not really waiting for anything, other than for the movie to be over.

LOGAN runs for two hours and seventeen minutes,and it could have easily been about 20 minutes shorter.

And while the final act is much less interesting than what came before it, the ending of the movie, the final frame, is a good one.  So, you have an excellent superhero movie that runs a bit too long and forgets itself for its final 30 minutes or so before ending with an exclamation point.

All in all, LOGAN is a fine entry in the Marvel superhero universe, a more adult tale than usual, and a fitting final chapter to the Wolverine story.

—END—.

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

Season One of Netflix’ STRANGER THINGS Perfect Mix of Horror and Nostalgia

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STRANGER THINGS (2016) premiered on Netflix earlier this year to instant acclaim from critics and audiences alike, which is no surprise since it’s one of the best new shows on television.

It’s one of those rarities of rarities in that its eight episode first season was pretty much perfect.  Nearly everything in this show worked and worked well.  And I say first season because it’s already been renewed for a second season.

STRANGER THINGS takes place in the 1980s, which is the first fun thing about this show. It captures the mood and look of the 80s perfectly, from vintage movie posters like from John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982) to the hairstyles, clothing, and sets, from the old style televisions to land line telephones.

The whole thing plays out like a long lost John Carpenter movie.  Even the music score by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein is reminiscent of Carpenter’s film scores.

There are a ton of other 1980s film references and homages as well. So many in fact I could write an entire column just on its 1980s horror homages alone, from the episode names themselves, like “The Body” a reference to the Stephen King novella, to character names, to other neat touches like having the sheriff’s uniform and his vehicle as well as the deputies’ uniforms being identical to the ones used in JAWS (1975).  Okay, so that one’s a 70s reference.  So, if Sheriff Jim Hopper’s uniform had you thinking of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody, there’s a reason for that!

STRANGER THINGS takes place in a small town in the 1980s.  It opens with a man running in panic from some unseen threat inside what looks to be some sort of research or government building.  We hear growls, and the man is snatched away by an invisible presence.

The action switches to four middle school friends.  Mike Wheeler (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin Henderson (Gaten Matarazzo), Lucas Sinclair (Caleb McLaughlin), and Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) are playing Dungeons and Dragons in Mike’s basement.  After their game, they bike home.

Alone, Will sees what looks like a monster in the road, and he flees as fast as he can back to his home.  When he gets there, no one is home.  The unseen monster pursues Will into his house.

Later, when Will’s mom Joyce (Winona Ryder) and older brother Jonathan (Charlie Heaton) come home, they discover that Will is missing.  Joyce goes to their sheriff, Jim Hopper (David Harbour) and demands that he find her son.  Hopper advises her to take a deep breath, that nothing sinister ever happens in their town, and that he will look for her son. Hopper actually has deep wounds when it comes to children, since his own daughter recently passed away from cancer.

The news of Willl’s disappearance rattles the town.  Friends Mike, Dustin, and Lucas decide that they have to be the ones to find their missing friend.  One night in the woods while they are searching for him, they find a mysterious girl who’s about their age wandering in the woods.  She says she is running from some bad men, and so they take her back to Mike’s home, where they hide her in his basement.  Her name is Eleven (Millie Bobbie Brown), and she also seems to know about Will, as she tells them he is still alive.  More than this, she possesses certain powers which Mike and his friends cannot ignore.

Meanwhile, Joyce receives a strange phone call in which she hears weird cackling sounds, but she’s also convinced she heard her son’s voice on the line. She believes he’s still alive.  Her oldest son Jonathan blames himself for Will’s disappearance, because he wasn’t home that night, and he makes it his mission as well to find his little brother.

And while he initially expected this to be a simple case, the more Sheriff Hopper investigates, the more he realizes that something very sinister and deadly is descending upon his town, especially since the clues lead to a top secret government research base located just outside their town run by a shady scientist Dr. Martin Brenner (Matthew Modine).

There are so many cool things about STRANGER THINGS it’s difficult to know where to start.  If you’re a 1980s horror fan, you can have a field day with the show based on its references to that decade alone.

But aside from that, the story itself is a strong one, and it’s tight.  It fits perfectly within the eight episode season.  There’s no fat on this monster, and there aren’t any dull episodes either.  (Hear that, FEAR THE WALKING DEAD?)  STRANGER THINGS starts out intense and it stays that way, never letting up.  And the intensity actually increases during the final couple of episodes.

The main story of Will’s disappearance works and is the force which drives this series along.  Who isn’t drawn into a story about a missing child?  And then it builds.  What exactly is going on inside that strange government facility?  What is Dr. Brenner up to?  What exactly is that monster that is on the loose and where did it come from?  Where’s Will?  What is up with Eleven?

And the characters and the actors who play them are phenomenal.

When talking about STRANGER THINGS though, you have to start with the kids.  Finn Wolfhard who plays Mike, Gaten Matarazzo who plays Dustin, and Caleb McLaughlin who plays Lucas, are all excellent.  Wolfhard is also going to be starring in the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s IT.  Noah Schnapp who plays Will is also very good.

But the best performance by a child actor in STRANGER THINGS is Millie Bobby Brown as Eleven. Brown is amazing in this role.  Eleven is the most interesting character in the series, as you don’t know much about her at all at first and the more you learn about her, the more interesting she becomes.  The best part of Brown’s performance is she captures Eleven’s sensitive side.  Her scenes with Mike are tender and innocent.  Of course, she can make an effective bad ass as well when she has to use her powers.

Natalia Dyer is very good as Mike’s older sister Nancy, especially later on as her character becomes more involved in the hunt for the monster.  Likewise, Charlie Heaton is excellent as Will’s older brother Jonathan.    I thought Heaton’s performance was one of the best in the series.  I really enjoyed his scenes later in the season when he teams up with Nancy looking for the monster.

I’ve seen David Harbour in a bunch of movies, from the Daniel Craig Bond flick QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008) to this year’s SUICIDE SQUAD (2016), but I’ve never seen him as good as he was here as Sheriff Jim Hopper, with the possible exception of his chilling portrayal of a sadistic kidnapper in the Liam Neeson movie  A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES (2014).  Harbour was excellent in that movie as well.

But this is a terrific role for Harbour.  He’s perfect as the responsible yet haunted small town sheriff, the man who does his job well in spite of the ongoing pain of his young daughter’s death.  One of the reasons I enjoyed Harbour so much here in STRANGER THINGS compared to other things he’s done is simply because a lot of his previous roles he played weasels and jerks. It was fun to see him play a hero for once.

For me, though, the best performance by far in this show belongs to Winona Ryder as Will’s mom Joyce.  Honestly, I’ve never been much of a Winona Ryder fan.  She blew me away in this show, and for me, this is easily the best thing I’ve seen Ryder do.  She’s flawless as the panicked mother who refuses to believer her son is dead.  She’s terrific to watch in this series.

And Matthew Modine makes for an effective cold-hearted scientist as Dr. Martin Brenner.

The monster here is pretty cool looking too.  It reminded me of the CLOVERFIELD monster’s baby cousin.  And it was just as frightening.

STRANGER THINGS was created by Matt and Ross Duffer, who work under the name The Duffer brothers, and they deserve a lot of credit here.  They also wrote and directed most of the episodes.

I loved STRANGER THINGS from start to finish and can’t wait for Season 2.

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