Posts Tagged ‘Drama’

Dyatlov Pass Incident Double Feature! Devil’s Pass (movie) and Dead Mountain (book)

January 24, 2014

devilspassA few weeks ago I checked out a book from my local public library about something called the “Dyatlov Pass incident.”  When I got home, I set it on my dining room table and then kind of forgot it was there.

The following weekend, I was in the mood for a crappy horror movie, and I noticed this flick called Devil’s Pass was available for streaming at Netflix.  It sounded intriguing: I love movies set in snowy nowheres, and it was directed by Renny Harlin — admittedly not a great sign but at least I’d heard of him.

As soon as the movie started, I was astonished to discover it was about the same thing as the book I’d just picked up — the Dyatlov Pass incident — something I’d never even heard of until this bizarre coincidence.

What a bizarre coincidence!

Also: what a fascinating story!  And man, is it ever the perfect fodder for a horror or sci-fi movie — why there haven’t been more of them, I have no idea.  Before I get into specifics about the movie and the book, though, let me fill you in on a little background.  This part is the true-story part.

In the winter of 1959, a group of young adults in Russia decided to take a break from school and go ski-hiking into the Urals.  They started out as a group of 10 (8 men, 2 women), but not long into the trek, one of them fell ill and had to turn back.

The other 9, led by Igor Dyatlov, a 23 year-old student at Ural Polytechnic and highly skilled climber, had no concerns about their trip, despite the fact they were climbing in the snowy nowheres of Siberia in January — certainly not my first choice for camping.  These guys knew what they were doing, though, and they were having a great time doing it.  Photos from their trip show them goofing around, enjoying camp, laughing.  It was clearly a blast.

At least, it was until it wasn’t anymore.

After their deadline to get back to town came and went, the group’s friends began to get worried.  They soon put together a search team and headed up along the same path the Dyatlov group had taken.

For five days, they found nothing.  On the sixth day, they found the group’s tent, eerily set up inside as though the group had just been there and would be back any moment.  Food was laid out.  Several of the hikers’ boots were lined up by the tent entrance.  But at the back of the tent was an ominous sign: a huge slash in the canvas, clearly made from the inside, as though something terrible had been coming in the front and the rear was their only way out.

Eventually, all the hikers’ bodies were found, and it became clear they had fled in a panic, separating from each other and running in wildly impractical, random directions.  Most of them had frozen to death alone — they were all drastically under-dressed for the weather, many in what amounted to pajamas, and, as the boots in the tent had suggested, several were in their stocking feet.  In Siberia.  In January.

Disturbingly, though, two of the bodies showed evidence of some kind of violence — one had a crushing head injury, the other was missing her tongue.  Another two were found in an embrace, next to the embers of a small fire. And, weirdest of all, several of them had high levels of radioactivity on their clothing.

Leading to the question: WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?

First, the movie’s theory.  Devil’s Pass is about a group of film students who decide to follow the path the Dyatlov group took and make a documentary about the incident.  It’s essentially The Blair Witch Project, only set in Siberia instead of New Jersey — this, for me, was not a bad thing.

After days of hiking in, the group finally gets to the place where the Dyatlov tent was discovered, and decide to call it a night, pitching their own tent essentially on the same spot where Igor’s had been. This, incidentally, would also not be my first choice for camping.

While the others are setting up, the team leader and her buddy head out for some early poking around.  It’s just trees and snows and hills and rocks and stuff — until they come across something plenty weird: a door.   A door in the side of the mountain.  Thumbs up!

From there, the movie gets even more intriguing. Annnnnnd then it takes a sharp turn towards Hilariously Dumb.  All in all, though, it’s not a terrible flick and I’d say it’s well worth a rental if you’re interested in some really crazy theories about what happened to Igor and his pals. Why the hell not?

deadmountain

Speaking of really crazy theories, let’s move on.  The non-fiction book Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident is written by a journalist, Donnie Eichar, who essentially does the same thing the kids in the movie did — he goes to the Northern Urals and hikes the same path, in the hopes he’ll discover something no one else has and finally put to rest the decades-old  question, WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?

The book is written in alternating chapters, with half of them set in the present day, focusing on the author’s research, interviews, and travels, and the other half set in 1959, telling the story of the Dyatlov group (reconstructed thanks to the hikers’ journals and camera, as well as interviews with friends and search party members).

Everybody in Russia seems to have a theory about what happened to the Dyatlov party, with no two theories alike.  Those theories range from alien abduction to a Soviet military conspiracy involving a secret radioactive weapon the group had accidentally stumbled across them testing out.  The conspiracy theory is strengthened somewhat by the fact the government had been unwilling to help during the search, and later refused to release any of their own information about the incident and the victims.

Assessing and dismissing most of the major theories one by one, Eichar finally proposes yet another idea, only this time, the theory is based in science and is supported by scientists specializing in exactly that very scientific thing — a thing I will not describe so as not to spoilerize you.

The problem is, after such build-up — such suspense, such drama, such crazy, crazy weirdness — Eichar’s theory was kind of a super-bummer let-down for me.  Partly because it’s really the only theory that makes any sense whatsoever, which means it’s probably truly what happened.  Which means, ugh, how awful.  Frankly, alien abduction probably would have been a gentler way to go.

So, what the hell happened?  The answer is we still don’t know for sure and we may never know (though, apparently, there are more super-secret documents the Russians won’t release — suspicious!).  Yet despite the fact that after reading the entire book, you still won’t really know anything more about what happened than you did when you started (which is to say: nuttin’), it’s well worth reading anyway, just so you can meet Igor and his friends, follow them along their journey, and mourn their tragic deaths.  If what Eichar thinks happened really is what happened, it seems the least we can do for those poor kids.

As soon as you turn the last page, though, pop in Devil’s Pass so you can end your own journey to Siberia with some serious eye-rolls and snorty giggles.  Really, Renny Harlin?  Really?  That’s what you’re going with?  Of all the possibilities?  You cheeseball.

Recommended!

Movie: Devil’s Pass: Netflix it | Amazon Rental
Book: Dead MountainBuy from an Indie Bookstore | Buy from Amazon | Browse more book reviews | Search book reviews

MOVIE: Sarah’s Key (2010)

January 6, 2014

70153543This thoughtful, heartbreaking film tells the story of two different people in two different times, their lives linked together by an apartment in Paris, France.

The first is a little girl named Sarah, a Jew living in France in 1942.  The second is a an American expat, Julia, married to a Frenchman, Frédéric, who has just inherited an apartment in Paris that belonged to his grandparents.

Julia is a journalist, and as the film opens, she’s been assigned by her magazine to do a feature on the infamous 1942 “Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup” of the Jews in France.  As she digs into the story, she finds her interest piqued further when she learns Frédéric’s grandparents had moved into that Paris apartment just a few weeks after the Roundup took place.

Struck by the coincidence, Julia begins to research the apartment, soon discovering that a Jewish family had lived there just before Frédéric’s family moved in — Sarah’s family.

Sarah’s story opens on the day of the Vel’ d’Hiv, when she is awakened by the sound of the French gendarmes pounding on her front door.  As her mother moves to open up, 10 year-old Sarah ushers her little brother, about 4 years old, into the closet, hands him a little container of water, and tells him not to move until she comes back for him.  She locks the closet, slips the key into her pocket, and dashes into the hallway before the policemen are any the wiser.  Sarah and her mother are whisked outside, where her father catches up to them, and the three are quickly taken to the Velodrome d’Hiver, a large cycling stadium where all the Jews are being held until they can be moved out en masse to internment camps.

When Sarah and her parents realize what’s happening — that they and about 13,000 other Jews (30% of them children) are about to be taken away forever, they panic.  But there’s nothing they can do; there’s no way to escape, no way to get the key to the closet to someone who can help.  A few days of astonishing hell later (no bathrooms, no food, no water, stifling temperatures — think the Superdome in New Orleans, Julia tells her colleagues, times a thousand), the family is moved to the French-run Beaune-la-Rolande internment camp.  The adults are soon separated from the children and sent to Auschwitz, where most of them are eventually killed.  The children stay behind a short while longer, before also being shipped off to their deaths.

But not Sarah.  Determined to get back to her brother before it’s too late, she and her new friend Rachel manage to charm one of the French guards into letting them slip under the wire.  When Rachel becomes extremely ill on their way back to the city, Sarah seeks help from a farmer and his wife, who offer to take them both in and protect them.  Despite being utterly exhausted, Sarah refuses to stay — she must get back to Paris, to her brother, and if they won’t take her there, she’ll go alone.

And so, they take her. And when they finally arrive, Sarah races up the stairs, pounds on the door, and is greeted by a little boy of about 12 years — Frédéric’s grandfather, it turns out.  She pushes past him, runs to the closet, unlocks it — and, well, you can imagine.

From there, the two stories weave together further as Julia becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to Sarah.  She never showed up on any of the lists of Jews killed in WWII — but where is she?  What she eventually discovers about the rest of Sarah’s life is a powerful testament to the devastating long-term effects trauma and loss have on those who are left behind to live.

Despite the obviously depressing storyline of this film, it still somehow manages to end on a more-or-less optimistic note — a bittersweet ending to a very bitter tale.  Even when life doesn’t go on, life still goes on, after all — a family can heal. The truth can help.

The Vel’ d’Hiv round-up is something I had never heard much about until seeing this movie.  After looking into it more, I can understand why France would want to bury as deep as they could their shameful complicity with the Nazis, and their wholesale sending-to-slaughter of so many of their own (the Vel’ d’Hiv is just one of several similar events in France during the early days of the war, by the way).  Initially, I assumed this was a decision that had to have been based squarely in fear — France was already occupied by Germany 1942 and its people must have been terrified of where that occupation was leading, and too afraid not to cooperate.  But the more I read, the more it became clear that, at least at the state level, the French (Vichy) government didn’t mind too much the idea of packing off their Jews — from the elderly right down to the infant.  As long as I live, I will never understand things like this — and thank god for that.

This film was based on a novel of the same name by Tatiana de Rosnay, and as soon as I’ve recovered from seeing the movie, I’ll definitely be seeking out the book.  Highly recommended, though be prepared for a heavy experience — rare is the WWII movie that doesn’t provide one, I suppose.  It’s worth it.

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Drama, Mystery, War
Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Mélusine Mayance, Niels Arestrup, Frédéric Pierrot,  Aidan Quinn

MOVIE: The Kings of Summer (2013)

December 31, 2013

kingsofsummerThis incredibly charming film is about two best friends, Joe and Patrick, sophomores in high school, who, one summer, decide they’ve had enough of their obnoxious parents and run away to live in the woods.

There, along with a third kid they hardly know, a delightfully weird little dude named Biaggio who attaches himself to them and won’t let go (“What is this kid doing here?” Patrick asks. “I don’t know,” Joe replies, “I’m afraid to tell him to leave — I don’t know what he’s capable of.”), they build themselves a pretty remarkable little house and begin going about the business of becoming men, sparsely-haired, teenaged mustaches and all.  (For 90 seconds of Biaggio awesomeness, by the way, go here — you can thank me later: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xqvImEZkHDI.)

As is usually the case with these things, it’s not long before a girl shows up and throws a long, blonde monkey wrench into the works, breaking up the band, so to speak.  Meanwhile, back at home, Patrick’s parents and Joe’s dad (Nick Offerman, essentially playing Ron Swanson with a teenage son), are working with the police to try to find their boys.

Patrick’s parents, who are the kind of lame-o dorks we all perceive our parents to be when we’re 15, mostly just seem befuddled.  It’s Joe’s dad who has the real transformation — after his wife died a few years back, he became emotionally shut-off from his kids, a gruff father with a lot of strict rules.  As the summer progresses, though, his initial fury over Joe’s behavior softens into exactly the kind of heartache I imagine most parents feel when their children leave home, the kind of heartache that reminds you why you put up with those crappy teenage years in the first place.

This is an utterly delightful film — overall one of the sweetest, warmest, and funniest pictures of 2013 for me.  Absolutely, totally, and completely recommended.  Go watch it right now.  RIGHT NOW, I SAID.

[Netflix it | Amazon Buy/Rent]

Genre: Drama, Comedy
Cast: Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Nick Offerman, Erin Moriarty, Craig Cackowski, Megan Mullally

MOVIE: Gravity (2013)

December 10, 2013

gravityRemember way back in 2006, when Les Stroud and Bear Grylls were co-Boyfriends in Chief, and I shared with you guys the list I keep of places I never, ever want to go to due to the fact: gruesome, terrifying death?

Yeah, well, you can now add “OUTER SPACE” to the top of that list. Yes, put it in all caps. In fact, do it like this — huge and insanely, blindingly red:

1. OUTER SPACE

I always thought I wanted to try space walking one day. Now I’m pretty sure I can never watch NASA TV ever again.

GOOD GOD.

Highly recommended, just like everybody else has told you it was.  Don’t forget to breathe.

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: HOLY SHIT, Science Fiction, Drama
Cast: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, that other astronaut guy whom: alas, we hardly knew ye.

(p.s. WordPress, why you gotta be so weird with the formatting?)

MOVIE: Into the White (2012)

December 4, 2013

intothewhiteSet during WWII, or, more specifically, in the middle of the snowy nowhere in Norway during WWII, this little gem of a film tells the true story of two British and three German soldiers forced by extremely cold circumstances to work together to survive.

It starts with an air battle in the blinding snow.  Both sides end up going down — the British plane shoots the German one and then crashes itself.  Freezing, the two groups of crew miraculously manage to stumble across the same little cabin in the aforementioned middle of the snowy Norwegian nowhere — kismet!  Unable to do anything until winter abates and they can hike out, the five men have to learn to live together — something that comes much easier for the two eldest officers, who are about as war-weary as they come, than for the two young bucks who pretty much want to blow each other up REAL BAD (the roles of prisoners v. guards switch a few times, depending on who happened to grab the gun while the others were sleeping).

As time passes and tedium sets in, the men slowly get to know each other — something facilitated greatly, as is often the case, by the exciting discovery of a bunch of liquor stored under the floor boards.  Ultimately, grudging respect turns into full-on friendship, and they begin to make plans for getting out together and going home.

Annnnnd then the Norwegians ski in and ruin everything.  Ach, typical. (Oh wait, I’m part Norwegian. . . never mind, we’re awesome.)

Based on a true story (you can read about it here), this movie was incredibly engaging and entertaining.  It was also a pleasant surprise to see both Rupert Grint (Ron from the Harry Potter films) and Florian Lukas, whom I first saw in the mountain climbing film North Face and find just utterly and ridiculously handsome.  Grint did a surprisingly good job being cocky, which I would not have figured him for.

Good acting, great story, cute guys — what’s not to like?  Recommended!

[Stream on Netflix | Buy or rent from Amazon]

Genre: Drama, War, Foreign (in German, Norwegian, and English with subtitles)
Cast: Florian Lukas, David Kross, Stig Henrik Hoff, Lachlan Nieboer, Rupert Grint

MOVIE: Mud (2013)

June 12, 2013

mudEllis and his BFF Neckbone (“Neck” for short, because: obvs), are 14 year-old boys growing up poor in Arkansas.  Ellis lives on a houseboat on the Mississippi — his father is a fisherman — and he and Neck spend a lot of their free time zipping up and down the waterways in a boat, exploring the myriad islands that pepper the region.

One day, Neck takes Ellis to one of those island, eager to show him a discovery.  Out exploring, see, he’d come across the coolest thing — a big speedboat (I guess; I know naught of boats) stuck at the top of a tree, probably in the aftermath of a flood.  Excited to have found what amounts to a free tree house, the boys climb up and begin to explore, only to find the lower deck stocked with fresh food, a sure sign someone else got there first.

Just minutes later, they meet exactly whom — a tall, lanky, grubby-looking character named Mud (McConaughey).  Though Neck is wary, Ellis is immediately taken in by Mud’s personality, and his story.  He’s there, he tells the boys, waiting for the love of his life, Juniper (Witherspoon), to show up so the two of them can run away together.  The hitch?  He killed her last boyfriend in a fight — protecting Juniper, he says — and that guy’s extremely violent family is out for revenge.  What he needs is for Ellis and Neck to get him the supplies necessary to get the boat down and running again, and to find Juniper and pass her a few notes about the plan.

Neck is pretty “no way,” but Ellis, currently watching his parents’ marriage — and thus his whole world — crumble around him, is inspired by Mud’s yarns of everlasting love in the face of strife.  Which is how he quickly finds himself smack in the middle of Mud’s problems, danger (physical and emotional) and all.

This is a really beautifully made and thoughtful film, with astonishingly solid acting chops on both the boys at its helm.  The kid who plays Ellis in particular (Tye Sheridan) exhibits an incredible depth in a very 14 year-old sort of way (“I know everything, I am brave; I know nothing, I am afraid” is how I would describe that way).  The river as metaphor for the unknown, unforeseeable, and slightly scary paths we travel as we grow up works as well as it always does (think Huck Finn).

McConaughey employs his usual charms here, but this time with a hint of the unbalanced thrown in for good measure and to good effect.  He also gets an A for effort at looking ugly, never easy for him, though in putting in the crooked teeth, they might’ve made them slightly less Tony-Curtis-in-The-Great-Race white (*gleam*).  Mud is a complicated man with a complicated past, and he’s battling a set of very serious demons, as well as more than one delusion.  Watching Ellis get sucked into the “romance” of Mud’s life, only to get a series of smacks in the face from reality in response, is an incredibly gripping and moving experience.

Also:  Sam Shepard.  ‘Nuff said.

Highly, highly recommended!

[Prequeue at Netflix | View trailer]

Genre: Drama
Cast:  Matthew McConaughey, Michael Shannon, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, Tye Sheridan, Joe Don Baker, Jacob Lofland

MOVIE: Dark Tide (2012)

April 17, 2013

darktideA few recommendations I would like to make, having recently seen this film starring Halle Berry and her husband (!!) Olivier Martinez (note: I express “!!” because I had no idea they were married to each other, though that sure explains why they were in this stinker together):

1.  Shark divers, like cops, who are one day away from retirement should always call in sick that last day.  If you absolutely MUST go to work, do not do anything work-related whatsoever.  Especially if Halle Berry tells you to.

2.  Rich idiots who want to dive with Great White Sharks should just be dropped into a GWS feeding zone the first hour of the tour — none of this trying to talk them out of their “sharks would never bite ME because I am RICH” attitude.  They’re going to die a horrible death anyway.  Why wait until dusk when it’s that much harder to see them getting their comeuppance?

3.  Speaking of dusk, isn’t that, along with “dawn,” the time of day shark experts are always telling people NOT to go diving in shark-infested waters?  Because the sharks are more likely to attack at those times of day?  See above, re: don’t do anything Halle Berry tells you to do.

4. Why do I keep telling you not do anything Halle Berry tells you to do?  Because Halle Berry’s characters are always ruled by their emotions and those emotions totally get everybody killed in this movie, even though her character and all her character’s buddies keep trying to tell us none of it was her fault.  IT WAS TOTES ALL HER FAULT.

She does look really great in that bikini, though.  I’m assuming that was the primary reason she was cast in this shark bomb.

5.  If you decide to rent this movie because you, like me and my mom, are a total sucker for shark movies, allow me to suggest: NO.

[Netflix it  (available for Watch Now) | Buy it]

Genre:  Drama, SHARKS
Cast:  Halle Berry, Olivier Martinez, Ralph Brown, a bunch of other people you’ve never heard of

MOVIE: Killing Them Softly (2012)

April 1, 2013

killinghtmeThis movie is about a hit man, played by Brad Pitt, hired to take out two idiots who rob a poker. . .

. . . zzzzzzzz . . .

And then there’s something about Obama calling us a “community” but how we’re not really a community because everybody’s all alone in this miserable world of constant fakin’ it. The end.

(I don’t know — you watch it and tell me.)

[Netflix | Buy/Rent from Amazon]

Genre: Obfuscation
Cast:  Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini, Ray Liotta, Scoot McNairy, Ben Mendelsohn, Vincent Curatola, Max Casella, Sam Shepard

MOVIE: Arbitrage (2012)

January 12, 2013

I actually saw this movie months and months ago — while it was out in theaters, it was also available for streaming via Amazon, and my husband and I rented it one night when we suddenly found ourselves — wonder of wonders! — home together AT  THE SAME TIME!  (An election season MIRACLE that all spouses of political reporters can surely relate to.)

It’s about a billionaire named Robert Miller (Richard Gere) who manages a hedge fund along with his eldest daughter Brooke.  On the surface, he seems to have the perfect life — heck, he’s even married to Susan Motherfrakkin’ Sarandon, for pity’s sake (Note: that’s not her real middle name, BUT IT SHOULD BE).  Underneath that idyllic exterior, though — well, not so much with the idyll.

As it turns out, you see, Miller’s been desperately trying to sell off that hedge fund, not so he can retire, as he keeps telling his family, but so he can get as far away from it as possible before anybody figures out he committed fraud a few years back to cover a loss he thought would be temporary (like that ever works out, you hedge fund knuckleheads).

Things go from bad to worse, though, the night Miller and his young mistress Julie decide to go for a drive and end up in a terrible car crash that leaves Miller all bruised up and Julie dead in the seat next to him.  Rather than calling the cops to report the accident, Miller moves Julie to the driver’s seat (it’s her car) and flees the scene, afraid the scandal will cost him the sale of the hedge fund he so desperately needs.

Tim Roth plays the detective called out to the accident scene, and can quickly tell the body’s placement in the car doesn’t add up (because he’s an expert on body language, dead or alive, ever since starring on that show Lie to Me, duh).  As with most movie detectives, he hates rich people, so when he hears a rumor Miller had a connection to the victim, he immediately goes after him like my kitten Otis with a ball of yarn.  No surface left unstringed, and no stopping until there is no string left to strung.  Or something more grammatically correct than that.

This movie doesn’t have a lot of originality in terms of storyline, but it’s still very compelling, and what drives that the most, in my opinion, is the complexity of Miller’s character.  Described here, he sounds like a total bastard, right?  He’s ripped people off to make a profit for himself, committed fraud, and left his dead girlfriend behind in a car in the middle of a freezing cold night, simply to avoid putting a crimp in his business style.  What an asshole!

The thing is, though, the more the movie progressed, the more I felt terrible for Miller instead of angry at him.  The scene in which Brooke confronts him about the fraud, after prepping the books for the sale of the fund and finding evidence of her father’s cookery, was an intensely powerful and painful one, and Gere’s performance was spot-on flawless.  He’s sort of playing a bad guy who doesn’t know he’s a bad guy, really.  He’s a man taken down by hubris, rather than simply by greed or conscious evil-doing, which makes him a much more interesting character than, say, Bernie Madoff.  He’s conflicted and complicated — and so is our reaction to him.

Arbitrage isn’t a movie that stands out all that much, I wouldn’t say.   It’s not one I’m likely to take the time to watch again, for example.  But it was a nice little surprise, well-written and strongly acted, and it’s one definitely worth a rental now that it’s out on DVD.  Recommended!

[Prequeue it at Netflix | Watch it now via Amazon]

Genre:  Drama
Cast:  Tim Roth, Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, William Friedkin, Brit Marling, Monica Raymund

MOVIES: We Bought a Zoo (2012) and Zookeeper (2012)

January 12, 2013

Still playing 2012 catch-up — here are two movies about zoos I saw last year, neither of which really needs a full-length review, so both of which I’m going to haikiew (haiku-review) for you instead.  I enjoyed both of these films, and I think they’d be excellent picks for parents looking for funny, good-natured movies to watch with their kids, but they aren’t, like, brilliant or anything.

weboughtWe Bought a Zoo

Widower buys zoo
To save family from grief.
It’s cheesy but sweet.

Cast: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Patrick Fugit, Colin Ford, Elle Fanning, Angus Macfadyen, Peter Riegert
[Netflix it | Buy it]

zookeeperThe Zookeeper

Talking animals
Counsel lovelorn zookeeper.
Also cheesy but sweet!

(Hmm, notice a theme?)

Cast: Kevin James (kinda have a dorky crush on Kevin James, by the way, which is why I rented this one) Rosario Dawson, Leslie Bibb, Ken Jeong, Donnie Wahlberg, Nick Nolte, Adam Sandler, Sylvester Stallone, Cher, Judd Apatow
[Netflix it | Buy it]


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