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Hot Potato (1975) June 26, 2011

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 1970s films, Bad Films, Non-Asian , add a comment

Director: Oscar Williams  Main cast: Jim Kelly; George Memmoli; Geoffrey Binney; Irene Tsu; Judith Brown  Territory: USA

By 1975, Warner Bros were struggling to find a vehicle to propel Jim “Enter the Dragon” Kelly into the big time, and Hot Potato is a rather transparent attempt to recreate Bruce Lee’s hit on a smaller budget and with a wider audience in mind.  And without Robert Clouse behind the camera…

Filmed entirely in Thailand, and with a deliberate variation on the Enter the Dragon score, Hot Potato is a sequel of sorts to the earlier Blaxploitation flick Black Belt Jones, although this is an entirely different animal.  Whereas the earlier film was a low-budget, gritty, urban action film, this has a mainly white (and Asian) cast, comedy sound effects, and family-friendly humour.

The plot features a Han-lite villain in Mr Rangoon, whose villainy is somewhat vague but, of course, ruthless.  He and his cronies kidnap a senator’s daughter for ransom, leading the US military to send in its top man – Jones (Kelly).  Thankfully, he is not once referred to as “Belt” in this instalment.  Jones recruits his team – a random pair of idiots – and heads off to find Rangoon and rescue the hostage.  Along the way, they encounter their contact, who is…gasp…a woman.

For years, Hot Potato and its predecessor have only been available on grainy, full screen, bootleg releases.  However, Warner Bros have now released these films, along with Black Sampson and another Kelly vehicle Three the Hard Way in their Urban Action Collection (sadly only available on Region 1 at present) and the difference is quite staggering.  While the audio is still shaky (some performers’ voices appear to be overdubbed – quite badly), the widescreen, remastered (I assume) presentation transforms the film, making it seem much more than a cheap action movie.  And for fans of Hong Kong cinema, you get to see Yuen Biao, Lam Ching Ying and Eric Tsang as stuntmen – although they reappear in virtually every action scene, making it seem like Rangoon has infinitely regenerating henchmen.

Sadly, it still doesn’t disguise the fact that it really isn’t a very good film.  While well meaning, the crude and corny humour and “zany” characters can often irritate.  The comedy isn’t particularly funny (and has dated very badly indeed) and the attempts at depth – Johnny Chicago (Binney) has a tragic secret, and falls for the senator’s daughter’s double - are entirely superficial.  In fact, it’s the latter’s death at the hands of Rangoon that provides the best laugh.  But don’t worry; the heartbroken Chicago gets over it very quickly.



Hot Potato is regarded very badly amongst genre fans – even more so than Black Belt Jones.  And while I’m probably one of its biggest supporters, even I have to admit it is sometimes a bit of an ordeal to sit through.  And what the title refers to is never alluded to – all of which means this particular potato is half baked indeed.

Le Doulos (1962) December 1, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Film Noir, Non-Asian, 1960s films , 2 comments

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville  Starring: Serge Reggiani; Jean-Paul Belmondo; Monique Hennessy  Territory: France

Freshly released from prison, Maurice (Serge Reggiani) immediately commits murder and plans a robbery – talk about not letting the grass grow beneath your feet!  When he tells his girlfriend Thérese (Monique Hennessy) about a new job, he trusts acquaintance Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) although he hears rumours that he is a police informer.  When the robbery goes wrong – and the scene gets overrun with cops – Maurice bitterly blames Silien for blabbing to the authorities.  But the truth may be more complicated…

With its ever-weaving storyline and deliberately misleading narrative, Le Doulos (which means “hat” but is also a slang term for a police informer) is another film noir masterpiece from Jean-Pierre Melville that often reminds me of the better works of Hong Kong auteur Johnny To.  Like To’s latter-day noirs, the plot seems to make little or no sense at first – only revealing what it’s all about in its own sweet time when it’s good and ready.  Which means plenty of patience is required, but ultimately the rewards are greater.

The obvious Melville devices are in place – trenchcoats, hats (lots of hats – it seems everyone is wearing a hat or at least standing next to someone who is) and a laconic approach to dialogue.  The lighting is also used dramatically, especially in the dingy house occupied by the ill-fated Gilbert at the start of the movie.  Film historian Ginette Vincendeau remarks about Melville’s films being about “the uphill struggle to failure” and this statement succinctly hits the nail on the head.

Le Doulos’s habit of keeping the viewer in the dark may be frustrating, but it also makes you want to go back and watch the film again straight away – always the mark of a great film.  Me, I’d love to watch it again right now, but more Melville films are waiting…

Bob le Flambeur (1956) November 25, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Film Noir, Non-Asian, 1950s films , 3 comments

Director: Jean-Pierre Melville  Starring: Roger Duchesne; Daniel Cauchy; Isabelle Corey  Territory: France

Set in the Pigalle and Montmartre districts in Paris (which has changed surprisingly little since this film was made in 1956), Bob le Flambeur tells the tale of an ex-bank robber and fanatic gambler Bob Montagné (Roger Duchesne).  Bob is down on his luck and losing what little money he had left.  When an old colleague mentions that a casino can take as much as 800 million francs during the Grand Prix, the temptation proves too much for Bob and he starts assembling a team to steal the money.

Bob le Flambeur is a gangster film noir that builds atmosphere and mood rather than assaulting the viewer with gunfights and chases.  Which works mainly in its favour, with some rather interesting character relationships surrounding the titular Bob.  Respected on both sides of the law, Bob now thinks his criminal career is behind him.  He’s friendly with Inspector Ledru (Guy Decomble), a man whose life Bob saved (although the reasons why he did so are open to interpretation), while still friends with the underworld.  He’s a father figure to his protégé Paolo (Daniel Cauchy), but draws the line when a pimp comes running to him looking for help when he beats his woman too hard.  When the beautiful Anne (a gorgeous Isabelle Corey) wanders into Bob’s life, he ignores her obvious charms and advances and instead takes her under his wing, even manoeuvring her towards the more age-appropriate Paolo. 

Bob le Flambeur
The locations are superb, with Bob’s apartment overlooking the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur (where I couldn’t help flashing back to a full-blown panic attack I had fifty years later on the rooftops) and the gritty Pigalle area.  Melville weaves a dark but intriguing story, and the characters demand the seemingly leisurely pace of the movie.  The film, like the other Melville films I’ve seen has a very cynical ending, and this one really does demand some mulling over after seeming like a slap in the face. 

The film’s low budget can be seen in a couple of scenes, especially when gunplay is needed.  Annoyingly, Melville felt the need for a narrator (Melville himself) to add colour to the script, and I felt this detracted from the overall effect of the film.  But on the whole, Bob le Flambeur is a fine film with what I’ve come to expect of the auteur’s moral ambivalence.  This one might not be the most obvious choice in the film noir canon, but it is full of style, character and has dated about as well as the Hollywood movies that it is clearly inspired by.  And, by God, Isabelle Corey looks damn fine…

Super Snooper (1980) April 26, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, Action, 1980s films, Non-Asian , add a comment

Director: Sergio Corbucci  Starring: Terence Hill; Ernest Borgnine; Marc Lawrence  Territory: Italy; USA; Spain

Conscientious cop Dave Speed (Terence Hill) accidentally gets irradiated with Red Plutonium in a government experiment while serving a routine traffic violation ticket.  The accident bestows super powers on him, much to the exasperation of his long-suffering partner Sergeant Dunlop (Ernest Borgnine).  The only problem is, Speed’s powers abruptly disappear whenever he sees the colour red…

This is one of those films that seriously wowed me as a kid.  So much so, in fact, that out of, say Jaws, Star Wars and Super Snooper, I would have had a tough time choosing my favourite.  I think the fact that the movie was not readily available on home video added to the mystique a lot.

Seeing it as an adult is a different experience altogether, and of course time has a harsh way of treating comedy sometimes.  Directed by Sergio Corbucci of Django and The Great Silence fame (two films I really must get around to re-watching and writing about at some point), there is a feeling that this movie was banged out quickly.  Certainly it had no budget to speak of.  But cheap quickies are often what this blog’s about, and Super Snooper remains a fun film if you have low expectations and don’t examine the cracks too carefully.

Super Snooper

Yes, there are some pretty glaring anomalies.  It strikes me as really odd, for instance, that after Speed’s accident, Dunlop is busted down to traffic cop and out directing cars immediately following his friend’s apparent death.  But I’ve come to accept such oddities as being in line with European sensibilities and just kind of go with the flow these days.

There are a few nods to Hill’s westerns with Speed’s love of cowboy hats and beans, and the knockabout humour is all present and accounted for.  The tale of Speed’s downfall is told in flashback (a device I have a particular weakness for, as regular readers will attest to) and you can’t help rooting for the guy.  As a side note, I happen to think this film had quite an influence on my views on the death penalty – how can such a nice guy as Dave Speed be on Death Row?  So file Super Snooper alongside The Green Mile in your video collection!

Super Snooper is only sporadically funny these days, but there’s still at least one belly-laugh in there and the hokey effects just add to the charm.  To say nothing of the catchy and damn impossible to forget disco theme tune.  Nostalia is what it used to be.  Almost.

My Name is Nobody (1973) April 21, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, Action, 1970s films, Non-Asian , 3 comments

Director: Tonino Valerii; Sergio Leone (uncreditted)  Starring: Terence Hill; Henry Fonda  Territory: Italy; France; Germany

“Sometimes you run smack into your destiny on the very road you take to get away from it.”  So says young gun Nobody (Terence Hill) to aging gunfighter Jack Beauregard (Henry Fonda) in the Leone produced My Name Is Nobody.  Leone also had a hand in directing this film about saying farewell to the old West, and his stamp is to be seen all over the movie.

This was the last western that Fonda appeared in, and was shot at the tail end of the Italian Western craze.  It’s therefore ironic (or incredibly prescient) that the film is about bowing out and riding off into the sunset in style.  When Beauregard first meets Nobody, he thinks he’s another young hotshot come to take him down, when in fact he is a besotted fan.  Nobody tries to persuade the gunslinger to go out with a bang by taking down the Wild Bunch (no, not that Wild Bunch), a group of a hundred-and-fifty bloodthirsty cutthroats who use the local goldmine to smelt their stolen gold.  Nobody doesn’t take no for an answer despite Beauregard’s disdain and apathy for his plan, and takes to dogging him with a mix of praise and provocation.

My Name is NobodyLeone’s involvement is evident right from the start of the film - a tense, long scene is drawn out involving little dialogue and lots of close ups of craggy-faced outlaws before a brief (blink and you miss it – I did) and brutal gunfight.  It’s hard to see at this point how the film ended up as a comedy, and that is perhaps the biggest criticism you can make of the film – the tone is quite inconsistent.  Obviously, Hill’s now established brand of physical humour and geniality was a box-office draw, but he sometimes feels out of place in the film, particularly as he is the titular character.  While inconsistency of tone is a mild complaint, the one thing I really objected to was the inclusion of a “slap fight” virtually identical to the one in Trinity Is Still My Name.  It smacks of laziness and unoriginality to lift a scene almost directly from a previous film, especially one that was such a hit.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to enjoy in My Name Is Nobody, especially if you like Italian Westerns.  Ennio Morricone, a man synonymous with Leone and the Italian Western, provides the score, and of course provides a fantastically memorable set of compositions.  The theme to the Wild Bunch (no, still not that Wild Bunch) is a little goofy, and includes a synthesized snippet of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries.  It suffers the distinction of being catchy, memorable and annoying all at the same time, and was stolen wholesale for this Hong Kong film (mystery solved, if you skip to the last paragraph of that review).  Nobody’s theme, though, is simply brilliant.

My Name is Nobody seems to have been crafted with genuine love, and from the first few frames feels like a last hurrah for the genre.  While some might have preferred a less comic send off, the film has a valid message to deliver.  And humour has a way of tempering such devices as sentimentality, and I’ve seldom seen an action comedy film that handles emotion as well as this. 

Trinity Is Still My Name (1971) April 14, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, 1970s films, Non-Asian , 3 comments

Director: Enzo Barboni (as EB Clucher)  Starring: Terence Hill; Bud Spencer  Territory: Italy

The unlikely heroes of Trinity (Hill) and Bambino (Spencer) return in this fun but light follow-up to the immensely successful They Call Me Trinity.  There’s hardly any plot to speak of, but the film rips along at a brisk pace nonetheless.

Trinity Is Still My Name’s emphasis is very much on comedy, and some of it is still pretty darn funny.  The opening scene, where Bambino gets one over on four not terribly bright outlaws sets the tone perfectly.  In a set-up reminiscent of Blake Edwards at his best, Trinity then goes one better on the same outlaws – and then their parents go one better still!

Trinity is Still My Name

There are a few running gags as the duo hopelessly try their hands at becoming outlaws, and again, the humour has travelled surprisingly well.  But after about half an hour, a nagging feeling of there being something missing creeps in.  And after a while, I realised that there still hadn’t been any indication of plot or direction.  Instead, Trinity Is Still My Name moves from one comic sketch to another with hardly a moment to draw breath.  Eventually, there is a small attempt to add a story concerning some corrupt monks, but by then it feels tacked on and somewhat out of place.

Which is all a bit of a shame, because in many ways Trinity Is Still My Name is superior to its predecessor.  I don’t think anyone can say it’s not as funny as They Call Me Trinity, but as a standalone piece of work, it doesn’t stand up as well.

They Call Me Trinity (1970) April 6, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Blogroll, Comedy, Action, 1970s films, Non-Asian , 2 comments

Director: Enzo Barboni (as EB Clucher)  Starring: Terence Hill; Bud Spencer; Farley Granger  Territory: Italy

When I first saw the movies of Jackie Chan, which introduced me to Hong Kong cinema, I was struck by an unshakeable sense of familiarity about them.  It took me a while for the penny to drop, but eventually I realised that they bore more than a casual resemblance to the films of Terence Hill.

Terence Hill was pretty darn massive in my little 10-year-old world, and watching him on the big screen was a joy that was seldom bettered.  Seeing as how our family didn’t go to the cinema very often, I’m surprised how many I’d seen before the home video systems became popular.  Ironically, one film I don’t believe I ever saw was They Call Me Trinity, perhaps his most popular and enduring film.

They Call Me Trinity

Telling the tale of a horse thief and his brother (Spencer and Hill, respectively) posing as lawmen in a small frontier town, the duo abandon their dishonest intentions and intervene against an unscrupulous landowner intent in driving away a settlement of peaceful Mormons.  The heroes, despite being ne’er-do-wells, are just and moral, the victims are humble and noble, and the villains are very bad indeed.  Throw in some slapstick from Hill and some grumpy brute-force shenanigans from Spencer, and you have a template that if Jackie Chan had done a scene-for-scene remake in the early eighties with himself in the title role and Sammo Hung in the role of Bambino, no one would have batted an eyelid.

I never could understand as a ten-year-old why people’s lips didn’t match up to the dialogue in Terence Hill movies – the concept of foreign language movies was completely alien to me then (and besides, Terence Hill is American, right?  Right??), but most of the dialogue in They Call Me Trinity seems to have been spoken in English, and where it wasn’t, there was one hell of a good dub job done.

It’s all good fun, and bears repeated viewing surprisingly well.  Some of the humour hasn’t aged too well (another thing Hill’s films have in common with Chan’s) but there’s still enough to raise a smile at the very least.  And if you’re in the right frame of mind, there will be a few chuckles to be had as well.  But, again like the films of Jackie Chan, the fun comes from the good-natured struggle of good versus evil (with a lower case “e”) and the physical humour on display.  Stuff like this will always be worth watching.

In Bruges (2008) January 21, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Thriller, Non-Asian, 2000s films , 2 comments

Director: Martin McDonagh  Main cast: Colin Farrell; Brendan Gleeson; Ralph Fiennes  Territory: United Kingdom

After accidentally shooting a child dead on his first mission as a professional hitman, Ray (Farrell) and his more experienced partner Ken (Gleeson) are told by their foul-mouthed boss Harry (Fiennes) to flee the country and go to Bruges (it’s in Belgium).  The pair are told to act as tourists, do a bit of sightseeing and await further instructions.  Ken laps up the culture of the picturesque town, but the prospect of spending up to two weeks in the “shithole” is more than Ray can stand.  Seeking diversion elsewhere, Ray meets lovely local girl Chloe (Clémence Poésy), a doped up racist dwarf and a “poofey” skinhead.  But when Harry’s order comes through, the sightseeing is definitely over, and both men must make a very difficult decision.

In Bruges is a superb black comedy thriller with some of the sharpest dialogue and some of the most believable and likeable central characters I’ve seen in a long time.  The expletive-riddled script is full of great lines, whether they be withering comments on Belgium, pondering killing someone if they are armed with a bottle and defending their family, or simply giving advice to overweight Americans.  It manages to be funny, touching and thought provoking at the same time, and probably would not have come off as successfully as it did if not for the fantastic cast.

I’m slowly realising that I’m becoming a great fan of Brendan Gleeson.  I first enjoyed him in the much maligned (unjustly, in my opinion) Lake Placid (where I thought he was an American), thought he was great in 28 Days Later (where, not recognising him, I thought he was a Cockney) and he’s nothing short of superb in this (where he uses his natural accent). 

Colin Farrell is excellent too as the troubled hitman who is so devastated at accidentally killing a child he contemplates suicide.  That we don’t want him to do this is a credit to the way his character is scripted and Farrell’s performance.  His immediate distaste and apathy at the setting provides much of the comedy of the film which is in stark contrast to his partner’s view.  However, there is a genuine feeling of camaraderie and friendship between the two men and this eventually develops over the course of the film into something akin to a father/son relationship. 

'if someone comes at you with a bottle...he's got to take the consequences'

Their boss - the often talked about Harry - is saved for later.  Ralph Fiennes plays him rather manically (which, under the circumstances is understandable), but even then he is given a character of certain depth, being a family man who adores his kids while being a man who can kill without a moment’s thought.

It’s the supporting characters that add the finishing touches in such style though.  Chloe is a perfect foil for Ray, and their frank discussion over a civilised dinner in a fancy restaurant is a highlight of the film.  She’s a filmmaker and her associate - an arrogant American thrill-seeking acting dwarf (Jordan Prentice) - is a source of innocent wonder for Ray.  Whilst high, we learn from him which side Vietnamese midgets will fight on in the inevitable race war between black and white while he laments that “you don’t know how much shit I’ve had to take off black midgets”.  Along with Yuri, the alcove-obsessed gun seller and Chloe’s not so bright friend, you have some of the most colourful supporting characters you could ever want.

Make no mistake, though, In Bruges is not some screwball comedy filled with kooky characters and crazy situations.  It has a very dark and thought-provoking vein running though it which is only highlighted by the fairytale, almost otherworldly, setting.  This is director Martin McDonagh’s first feature film, and if it’s anything to go by we could be looking at the start of something really special.

Shanghai Knights (2003) September 21, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, Non-Asian, 2000s films , 3 comments

Director: David Dobkin  Main Cast: Jackie Chan; Owen Wilson; Fann Wong; Donnie Yen  Territory: USA

An assassin kills Chon Wang’s (Jackie Chan) father, stealing the Imperial seal.  When Chon learns of this, he heads directly to New York to collect his share of the loot he had acquired at the end of Shanghai Noon, only to find that Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson) has already squandered it and is now a waiter-cum-gigolo.  Together with Chon’s sister Lin (Fann Wong), they head off to London in search of the men responsible for the murder and stumble upon a plan of regicide that will affect both England and China.

Firstly, Shanghai Knights is a completely different animal from its predecessor.  There are surprisingly few references to the first film and the knowing nods to pop culture icons have become sledgehammer blows.  David Dobkin takes over directorial duties from Tom Dey for this outing, and this may be the reason the film’s whole attitude is so different while retaining the same principal stars and the same scriptwriting team.

'He did it' #2

The action is shifted from the Wild West to Victorian England, much to the film’s detriment, I feel.  The England depicted in Shanghai Knights is full of tired clichés – with street urchins, Jack the Ripper, bad teeth and an extremely forced reference to spotted dick that wouldn’t have passed the early stages of a Carry On script.  The main problems, though, is the film’s annoying tendency to make every character turn out to be a fictional rendition of a real person and the fact that the film is riddled with anachronisms, geographical anomalies and factual errors.  I’m not one for picking faults in films, but these anomalies are so glaringly obvious they can’t be ignored.  I’ve since learned, in doing a little research for this review, that these mistakes are all intentional and are intended to be “fun” - which I find a little doubtful.  Even so, this makes the film even more annoying in my opinion. 

The inclusion of Fann Wong as Chon Wang’s sister is tolerable – she’s very easy on the eye – but the fact that Lucy Liu’s character is dismissed with a single line also seems very strange.  Mind you, that’s more explanation than Chon’s wife gets (remember her?).  That’s really the problem with this film, I think – it just seems so slapdash and half-baked.  There are a couple of good gags in here (one of which is lifted directly from the prequel) and Owen Wilson’s delivery is, as usual, top-notch.

Fann Wong; Jackie Chan; Owen Wilson 

Jackie’s setpieces suffer from the same problem as Shanghai Noon – I feel there is too much here that we’ve seen before in his Hong Kong films.  There are a couple of standout moments, as there always are, and the Singing in the Rain reference is something Jackie’s probably been trying to crowbar into one of his films since the eighties.  There is, however, a surprising lack of actual fighting from the star.  Instead, the action mainly involves Jackie trying not to fight, settling for disarming and/or incapacitating his enemies. 

Donnie Yen appears in this film – a fact that surprised me even on second viewing.  While the match up of Yen vs Chan is many action fanboy’s wet dream, the result is literally forgettable.  However, Aidan Gillen’s comic-book villain Rathbone (in one the film’s countless and pointless references to Sherlock Holmes) is worse.

I don’t know why these US Jackie Chan film franchises insist on fish-out-of-water scenarios all the time.  I could have quite happily taken another film in a Wild West setting, and I think there would have been more than sufficient material to be gotten out of the characters.  Instead we have a film that feels strangely apart and disconnected from its predecessor.  That said, I’d have preferred a third instalment of this over a third Rush Hour film even before I’d seen the result.  It seems unlikely, but maybe one day Chan and Wilson will reprise their characters and return the Wild West where they belong.

Shanghai Noon (2000) September 17, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, Non-Asian, 2000s films , 7 comments

Director: Tom Dey  Main Cast: Jackie Chan; Owen Wilson; Lucy Liu  Territory: USA

Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) is kidnapped and taken to America.  Three Imperial Guards are sent to bring her back.  Loyal subject Chon Wang (Jackie Chan) also goes along for the ride, but finds trouble in the shape of not-so-desperate outlaw Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson).  The two become unlikely partners, however, when O’Bannon learns of the fabulous fortune he can obtain if he helps rescue her.

The fan response to Shanghai Noon on its release in 2000 was a little muted.  There was disappointment over an obviously CGI stunt involving a jump between two separated carriages on a train, a couple of recycled gags from Jackie’s Hong Kong movies, and an apparently staged outtake with a locked door.  However, you can’t help but look upon the film now, out of context, and think of it as a highlight of his output from the noughties.

'He did it' #1 

Where Rush Hour had Chris Tucker, Shanghai Noon has Owen Wilson.  Wilson can be described as the anti-Tucker, with his laconic Texan drawl the antithesis of Tucker’s frenetic motormouth.  It’s all subjective, but I would take Wilson over Tucker any time; although people who like deliberately annoying characters may disagree.

Wait - I can explain... 

The plot will win no awards for originality, and the whole thing is just another fish-out-of-water cop-buddy comedy movie with the action taking place in the old West instead of modern urban America.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, and the script has enough gags to gloss over any deficiencies.  While I feel the action scenes in Shanghai Noon aren’t as good as those in Rush Hour, the film hangs together much better and is genuinely funnier (although, again, Tucker fans (if they do actually exist) may disagree).  When Chon tells O’Bannon his name, the latter scoffs: “John Wayne?  That’s a terrible cowboy name!” and the scenes involving Chan’s scene-stealing horse are a delight. 

The sense of fun generated by Shanghai Noon is infectious and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable film.

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