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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

‘Dear White People’: Provocation for a purpose

When I graduated from the University of California, San Diego, the world was a far different place. This was the mid-1970s, and the turbulence of the previous decade – the political assassinations, the racial strife and even the Vietnam War – seemed to be behind us. Ahead lay a decade of prosperity, the end of the Cold War and far more tolerant attitudes toward both race and gender relations.

Wait, what? Who am I kidding? Prosperity, sure. But for whom? And the murderous political struggles that marked the 20th century? Well, they just evolved into ever more complicated grabs for power that are less about political ideology than about who controls the world’s economy and what religion best represents your favorite deity’s will.

No, I would love to be able to say that as time has passed, and through all the sacrifices that were made during two great world wars, we’ve all learned how to get along, how to care both for one another and for the only planet we have to live on. That, though, would be mere wishful thinking.

No, America is virtually unrecognizable from when most citizens would be proud to wear an “I Like Ike” button – which is a point emphasized by such movies as “Dear White People.” Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Justin Simien, “Dear White People” – though not as funny as I prefer my satire to be – is a thought-provoking look at the current state of race, both on college campuses and off.

The film continues its run at AMC River Park Square.

Friday’s openings: To the stars … and beyond

After months of interminable trailers — which forced me, finally, to close my eyes and hum to myself so I could ignore seeing the same images over and over — Christopher Nolan's “Interstellar” is scheduled to open on Friday. And that's not all. “Birdman,” the new offering by Mexican-born filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, is coming, too.

Friday's mainstream openings are as follows:

“Interstellar” (IMAX and reg but no 3D): Earth is dying, and Matthew McConaughey is the only one who can save us. Question: Will he be driving a Lincoln?

“Big Hero 6” (3D and regular): This animated feature tells the story of a young boy and his friends teaming up with an inflatable robot to fight for justice. Alternate title: Drones Are Us.

“Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)”: González Iñárritu, forever known as the man who gave us the superb “Amores perros,” explores the life of a former movie star (Michael Keaton) who takes one last fling at fame. Let's hope he fares better than George Reeves.

“On Any Sunday: The Next Chapter”: A documentary follows a bunch of athletes. Only this time they're riding motorcycles, not surfboards. S'right, brah!

“Laggies”: Seattle filmmaker Lynn Shelton gives us this look at a 30-something woman (Keira Knightley) who's having a bit of trouble growing into adulthood. Like, that's a new story?

And at the Magic Lantern? Three documentaries open:

“Botso”: We learn about a World War II survivor who created a new life for himself in a small Southern California town. No, it's not Clint Eastwood.

“Art and Craft”: One of the world's most infamous art forgers looks back at his “career.” No, it's not Walter Keane.

“The Kill Team”: Moral question plague an American soldier in Afghanistan who refuses to engage in war crimes. No, it's not Oliver Stone. 

Lack of originality trumps good ‘St. Vincent’ cast

Bill Murray is something of a comic institution. He wasn't among the first “Saturday Night Live” cast members (he replaced Chevy Chase, coming on in the second season), but he did become one of the most popular. And unlike some SNL alumni (Chase, for example), Murray has enjoyed a varied movie career — scoring in blockbusters (“Ghostbusters”) and art films (“Lost in Translation”).

But … he can't do everything. He can't, for example, save a movie such as “St. Vincent,” which suffers from both a lack of originality and a fair bit of shallowness. Despite the presence of Murray and others, including Melissa McCarthy and Naomi Watts, “St. Vincent” is … well, let the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio explain:

One of the oldest plotlines in Hollywood history involves irascible men who bond with – and who are mellowed by – children. From the animated feature “Up” to Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” from “The Bad New Bears” to “The Karate Kid,” such films bear storylines that follow a typical formula.

One, the grump and the kid meet cute. Two, though thrown together by circumstance, they soon discover some sort of common ground. Three, they get closer, often by breaking the rules. Four, some sort of difficulty inevitably arises. And five, in resolving said difficulty, intimacy is developed and lessons are learned. Wax on, wax off. You get the idea.

Now comes “St. Vincent,” a film written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Theodore Melfi, which has comic god Bill Murray playing the grump and talented newcomer Jaeden Lieberher playing the kid next door. Pretty much everything else is … you know, predictable.

Murray plays the title character, a guy who spends his days either betting on the horses or snuggling a pregnant prostitute (Naomi Watts). Vincent is overdrawn at the bank, in debt to his bookie and has no problem driving drunk. Then one night, after crashing into his fence – and doing an unfunny Three Stooges pratfall in his kitchen – he awakens to find his car smashed by a tree limb dislodged by a pair of movers. This is how he meets his new neighbors, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 10-year-old son Oliver.

Seeing an opportunity, Vincent demands that Maggie reimburse him. Before long, Maggie – through desperation – recruits Vincent to watch Oliver after school. For ready cash, of course. And soon the two are off to the races. Literally. And the rest of the traditional formula follows, even to the point where Oliver – preparing a school report on identifying Saints who live among us – discovers, naturally enough, that underneath his boorish exterior Vincent is a pretty nice guy.

All of this would be just too much to take – for the 377th time – were it not for the cast that writer-director Melfi managed to snare. Pre-teen Lieberher is quite good in the kind of role played by everyone from Jackie Coogan to Tatum O’Neal. McCarthy, for once, actually creates an empathetic character out of her single mom facing the trials of divorce. And Irish actor Chris O’Dowd plays a thoughtful priest and teacher with a wry sense of humor. Terence Howard shows up briefly, but only Watts feels miscast, her Russian accent as fake as her rubber belly.

Murray, as usual, does less acting than impersonating the kind of character he crafted during his days on “Saturday Night Live” and perfected working for filmmakers as contemporarily cool as Sofia Coppola, Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson. The ever-present wink – or smirk – he wears lets us know that he’s in on the larger joke, whatever it is. It’s an affectation that amplifies his performance even as it limits his ability to do much more than hint at something deeper.

Fortunately for the movie “St. Vincent,” neither depth nor originality is required.

Tonight at Auntie’s: On the road in a vintage RV

Above: This stock photo gives some idea of the sights life on the road can provide.

If you've traveled, you know the difficulties involved with airports. The prices, the lines, the security stations, etc. So it's no wonder that some people prefer to take their homes with them on the road.

That's not to say that RV owners don't face challenges. In her memoir “Snowbirds: How a Road Trip in a Vintage RV Put Love and Adventure Back in a Marriage,” author JoAnne Bender recounts the experiences she shared with her husband driving around the country.

A description on Amazon.com reads as follows: “A woman talks her husband into buying a vintage RV, and soon the couple depart on a two thousand-mile road trip from Spokane, Washington, to the Texas border … and back. She's completely enamoured with the RV’s charming interior; he's just hoping all the rig's mechanical problems have been fixed. Along the way, they face breakdowns aplenty, but the little turquoise RV also provides bushels of life lessons and lots of aha moments—from how to navigate an older RV over hill and dale to how best to stock a motor home to the joy of seeing a flaming red sun set in a desert sky. Somewhere between the mile markers, the couple realize plenty of adventures still await them … in their marriage and in the forty-year-old RV they’ve grown to love.”

Bender will read at 7 tonight at Auntie's Bookstore. The reading is free and open to the public. For further information, click here.

Friday’s openings: Can you laugh on Halloween?

Above: Friday is Halloween. Enjoy the night, find someone to hug, then go see a movie.

Seems as if messages are on the movie menu this week. From racism to media manipulation, Friday's openings promise to offer a bit of education along with the standard dose of entertainment. Let's hope the mix is a good one. Friday is, after all, Halloween.

Friday's openings are as follows: 

“Dear White People”: Racial issues arise for black students attending an Ivy League college. Village Voice critic Stephanie Zacharek calls this first-time feature by Justin Simien “one of the sharpest and most audacious comedies of the year.” Yeah, but will we laugh?

“Blue Room” (in French with English subtitles): A sexual fling is remembered in different ways by the two participants, catching a man by surprise. And it leaves him feeling bleu. 

“Pride”: Based in fact, this “Full Monty” replica explores the partnership of gay activists and Welsh miners in 1984. Again, is this a laughing matter?

“Nightcrawler”: Jake Gyllenhaal stars as guy who, desperate to find work, becomes an ethics-challenged freelance crime reporter. Sounds like your average TMZ reporter.

“Before I Go to Sleep”: After suffering trauma, a woman wakes every morning with no memory. 

“Saw 10th Anniversary”: Just in time for Halloween.

Reeves to world: I don’t do stunts

During one of the many interviews that Keanu Reeves did in advance of the “John Wick” opening, he referred to the parts he has played in action films — specifically “The Matrix” trilogy. But he was quick to differentiate between doing “stunts” and doing “physical acting.”

You've done so much stunt work…
I haven't done any stunt work… I don't do any stunts.

You're flipping over people and firing guns.
But if I'm doing it, it's not a stunt. Stunt men do stunts.

What do you do?
I get to do some physical acting. I get involved in some action but they're not stunts. I flip over guys, I get flipped, I run, I jump, I play.

Makes me like the guy. Not every actor is this honest.

Spokane Tribe of Indians Heritage Day

Join the Spokane Tribe of Indians on Wednesday, Nov. 5 at Spokane County Fair & Expo Center for Heritage Day. All ages are invited to this free, public event with exhibition dancing, a live river salmon exhibit, wildlife displays, language presentations, archeology displays and many educational hands-on areas including a beading booth.

“Heritage Day is a great way to experience the rich cultural heritage, history and contributions of the Spokane Indians to the local area and community,” says Spokane Tribal Council Chairman Rudy Peone. “With a wide range of activities, exhibitions and educational information, there is something for everyone.”

For more information, contact Tammy Kieffer of the Spokane Tribe at (509) 722-5835 or Chris Clifford of Mojo-Lab at (509) 232-0803.

John Cleese: Walking among the Pythons

On any given day in history, a diverse collection of people share a birth date. Among those born on Oct. 27: English explorer Capt. James Cook (1728), Isaac Singer (inventor of the sewing machine, 1811), Theodore Roosevelt (1858), Emily Post (etiquette expert, 1865), Lee Krasner (artist, 1908), Dylan Thomas (1914), Ralph Kiner (1922), Roy Lichtenstein (artist, 1923), H.R. Haldeman (1926), Sylvia Plath (1932), Maxine Hong Kingston (1940), John Gotti (mobster, 1940), Roberto Benigni (1940), Marla Maples (former Mrs. Donald Trump, 1963) and Kelly Osbourne (daughter of Ozzie, 1984).

My favorite, though, is John Cleese. One of the six founding members of the comedy troupe Monty Python, Cleese is familiar as the tall one — the bowler-hatted civil servant working in the fictional Ministry of Silly Walks. But Cleese is almost as well known for his tenure on “Fawlty Towers,” his starring role in “A Fish Called Wanda” and his performance in two of the “Harry Potter” movies: “Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone,” “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.”

I first began watching “Monty Python” in the early 1970s when I was still an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego. But I never really appreciated the series until 1975 when I made my first trip to England. While traveling through the Lake District, we stayed at a B&B. After dinner, I heard laughter coming from the communal television room. It was there that I encountered several Brits convulsing over the Pythonites and their strange blend of silly/intellectual antics.

I can't remember what the episode was playing. But I want to think it included the “Dead Parrot” sketch, which features Cleese and Michael Palin, with Cleese playing a customer attempting to return a Norwegian Blue that is most definitely not resting but definitely demised. Click on the embed below and you'll see.

So, happy 75th birthday, John Cleese.

Sleater-Kinney sells quick

Sleater-Kinney, the all-girl punk band, burst out of Olympia in the 1990s and recorded seven albums before going on hiatus a decade ago. Since then, the band members have gone on to other projects, none as high profile as guitarist Carrie Brownstein, who co-created and starred in the IFC series “Portlandia.”

When news came out on Monday that Sleater-Kinney - which also features vocalist/guitarist Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss - was releasing a new record in January and going out on tour, the world noticed. And even better for Spokane fans, that tour was starting right here, on Feb. 8, at the 1,400 seat Knitting Factory.

There was a small presale early in the week through the band’s website. It sold out in four minutes. Still, Knitting Factory manager Matt Judge said early in the week there would be ample tickets available when the show went on sale to the public this morning.

Maybe ample was too strong a word. In Judge’s words, the “system got CRUSHED by consumers!” By 10:20 a.m., there were only 100 seats left. Within a few minutes, those were gone, too. Judge called it a record selling show for Spokane’s Knitting Factory.

A few things may be at play. First off, the band hasn’t yet announced concert dates in Seattle and Portland – although as Brownstein tweeted on Monday, “Stay tuned for more tour dates!! Duh!” Still, it’s possible hardcore fans from the West Side are happy to trek to Spokane to see Sleater-Kinney. Add to that the fact that it’s the opening date on the tour, and that might pique people’s interest even more. Factor in Brownstein’s visibility, and it’s easy to see why this show sold so fast.

The new album, “No Cities to Love,” comes out on Sub Pop Records on Jan. 19. The first single, “Bury our Friends,” was released this week. Check out the video below:


‘Fury’: visual flash, no meaningful center

I went to see the movie “Fury” the other day and … well, let me explain by way of the review that I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:

World War II has been over for nearly 70 years, yet filmmakers are still mining that unspeakable exercise in mass death for material. When done well, as with the two HBO miniseries “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific” and in Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-nominated “Saving Private Ryan,” the result is often a telling, tragic look at the fruitless absurdity of war. When done poorly, well … the results can be everything from pure propaganda – 1968’s “The Green Berets,” say – to simple violence porn – the prime example being any of Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo” movies.

Somewhere in the mix sits “Fury,” writer-director David Ayer’s story of an American tank crew struggling to survive the final few weeks of World War II’s European campaign. Let’s not get into how the war’s major tank action was the Battle of Kursk, which took place in the summer of 1943 and involved not Americans but Russians facing the invading Germans, because that’s a whole other movie – one that Hollywood isn’t likely to waste money making.

Ayer’s film is set in April, 1945, barely a month before Germany’s fall. Hitler has called for total resistance, which means that the crew of “Fury” – the name given to the American tank commanded by SSgt. Collier (Brad Pitt) – isn’t going to enjoy an easy stroll into Berlin. In fact, Collier’s tank is the sole survivor of a recent action that killed one of its five-man crew. The replacement gunner they receive is a clerk-typist named Norman (Logan Lerman), whom Collier has to quickly indoctrinate into the ways of war.

That includes both the crimes of war – forcing him to shoot an unarmed German prisoner – and the spoils of war: ordering him to have sex with a young German woman. Both actions are certainly controversial, but they certainly shouldn’t come as a surprise: Ayer obliterates any notion of nobility in the movie’s opening scene when Collier brutally stabs a German soldier through the eye socket.

But brutality isn’t the problem with “Fury.” Not the sight of hanged children, of tanks rolling over pancaked corpses, of soldiers being immolated like grilled steaks, of stray rounds causing heads to explode like piñatas – not even the ruthless attitudes of Collier and his crew that have been honed by too much exposure to horrors that would give John Wayne nightmares.

No, the problem is that Ayer presents all this with no sense of larger purpose. The acting is competent – with Shia LeBeouf standing out – but the characters are mostly cliché. Worse, Ayer’s narrative arc features action scenes, followed by a long sequence in which Collier and Norman develop a sort of bond, then a close filled with even more action. That bond never fully develops, much of the action seems more convenient than actually believable, and Ayer leaves us with an ending that is more about visual flair than anything significantly meaningful.

War, of course, tends to lose meaning for those caught up in its barbarism. That fact obliges filmmakers such as Ayer to work that much harder to provide it.

Friday’s openings: Chapter two includes sex

After asking for, and receiving a late email from AMC River Park Square, I've decided to add a whole new post about Friday's movie openings. As you can see in the post below, I reported that the two mainstream openings in area theaters are “John Wick” and “Ouija.” I updated that post to include AMC's addition of “St. Vincent.”

Now for three more:

“Addicted”: A gallery owner's sexual obsession threatens her career. Her emotions are 50 shades of something. 

“16 Stones”: Description courtesy of IMDB: “A modern day adventure about the search for special stones touched by the hand of the Lord and brought to the Americas.” Question: Did someone trade a cow for those stones?

“23 Blast“: A sudden blindness forces a high school football player to question whether he can continue playing the sport he loves. What, he can't turn to officiating?

‘Decasia’ makes art out of film ruin

Last week I posted an announcement for a fund-raising event for the Spokane International Film Festival. It involves a special showing of the documentary “The Return to Homs,” which will be shown at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Magic Lantern.

But SpIFF isn't done. A special screening of the art film “Decasia,” in partnership with the Spokane Film Project and also planned as a fund-raiser, will be shown at 7:30 tonight at The Big Dipper. “Decasia,” which was released 2002 and was added to the National Film Registry in 2013, is described as “a beautiful, non-narrative film that is like looking at a fascinating, kinetic, abstract painting.” Filmmaker Bill Morrison compiled the film from “decomposing found footage,” 35mm prints gone bad, and paired it with an original score by Michael Gordon.

Writing in the New York Times, Dave Kehr described Morrison's film this way: ” 'Decasia' seizes on those transitional moments, when the readable images of nitrate film are slipping into the many odd and curious distortions caused by the decay of the physical medium. Some images seem to flake away; some blossom into glowing effects that suggest the solarization that was a popular technique for evoking the psychedelic experience of the ’60s; others suffer distortions like those of a fun-house mirror; still others seem to be invaded by swelling masses of bacteria, like something you would observe in a petri dish.”

Commenting on the irony of film giving way to digital technology, Kehr wrote, “No simple nostalgist, Mr. Morrison comes to emphasize the cyclical nature of creation. The new devours the old, which will be devoured in its turn.”

Tickets to this special showing of “Decasia,” which has a 70-minute running time, are a suggested $5 and will be available at the door. The Big Dipper is located at the northeast corner of Washington St. and 2nd Ave.   

Friday’s openings: Keanu and a ouija board

Note: This post has been amended to include the film “St. Vincent” at AMC River Park Square.

One of the mysteries of Hollywood is … how has Keanu Reeves managed to have a career? Yeah, he was decent in “Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure” and “The Matrix” trilogy. Overall, though, not a thespian. Yet he endures.

Which you will see on Friday when Reeves's latest movie, “John Wick,” opens. The whole of the weekend's mainstream movie offerings, as of Tuesday afternoon at least,  is as follows:

“John Wick”: Reeves plays a former hitman gradually pulled out of retirement. Does he down the blue or the red pill?

“Ouija”: Some teens play the creepy board game and get threatened by an evil force. I wonder: Does it want them to do their homework?

“St. Vincent”: Bill Murray stars as what IMDB describes as a “misanthropic, bawdy, hedonistic war veteran who lives next door” to a young boy whose parents have recently divorced. Can you say role model?

And at the Magic Lantern (besides picking up “My Old Lady” second run):

“Listen Up Philip”: A self-absorbed writer awaits publication of his novel. Jason Schwartzman, typecast again.

“The Return to Homs”: A documentary about young men living in the embattled Syrian city of Homs. Forget the jokes; nothing about the Syrian situation is funny.

And make sure to enjoy.

Bela Lugosi: Happy 132nd birthday

Lots of famous people were born over the years on Oct. 20. Among them, English architect Christopher Wren (in 1632), French poet Arthur Rimbaud (in 1854), Kenyan strongman Jomo Kenyatta (in 1891), Sen. Wayne Morse (in in 1900), pundit Will Rogers Jr. (in 1911), columnist Art Buchwald (in 1925), baseball Hall-of-Famer Mickey Mantle (in 1931), actor Jerry Orbach (in 1935), news broadcaster Connie Chung (in 1946), rocker Tom Petty (in 1950), rapper Calvin Broadus (Snoop Dogg, in 1971) and too many more to list here.

But my favorite: Bela Lugosi (in 1882). The star of “Dracula” had been acting in films for 14 years, mostly in what is now Romania, when he got his big break, portraying the title role in Tod Browning's 1931 adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel. Though he starred in a number of other Hollywood films, from “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1932) to “The Black Cat” (1934), Lugosi's heavy accent and his growing dependence on pain drugs limited his opportunities.

He ultimately ended up working for Ed Wood, dying during filming (in 1956) of what would become what many consider one of the worst film's ever made: “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (released in 1959). Wood, who had shot footage of Lugosi for use in “Plan 9” and another unfinished film that was to be titled “The Ghoul Goes West,” completed filming of “Plan 9” by casting his wife's chiropractor as a stand-in.

Many actors have portrayed Dracula, from Lon Chaney Jr. to Louis Jordan, Christopher Lee to Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Gary Oldman to … yes, even Adam Sandler. But as with the role of James Bond, which will always be associated with Sean Connery, Lugosi's performance remains the one to which all others are compared.

Ultimate irony: Martin Landau would go on to win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar in for portraying Lugosi in Tim Burton's 1994 film “Ed Wood.”

Anyway, happy birthday, Bela Lugosi.

‘Gone Girl’: a stylish study in gimmickry

Nathan Weinbendeer and I share movie-reviewing chores at Spokane Public Radio. This is good because, though we agree on most things, we come at movies often with a far different perspective — the product of, if nothing else, the 40-odd-year difference in our ages. Since we try to cover as many movies as we can, and since we are both limited to one review a week, we usually don't comment on the same movies — except for when we tape Movies 101.

This week, though, is an exception. We disagree so much on David Fincher's “Gone Girl” that we agreed that I should add my voice to the mix. That way, with two perspectives, you readers/listeners can better decide what your own views are.

So, then, my SPR review of “Gone Girl” follows:

A couple of summers ago, I read Gillian Flynn’s novel “Gone Girl” and, for about half of it, I was enthralled. Well, enthralled might be a little strong, but I definitely felt pulled into Flynn’s twisted exploration of marital discord.

For the life of me, though, I cannot remember how Flynn ends her novel. That’s because at a certain point, her plot goes in a completely unexpected – at least to me – direction. And from that page on, “Gone Girl” ceased to be a serious read and reverted to what I’d call an immensely readable literary curiosity. A more accomplished, if you will, Dan Brown experience.

This, then, was one reason why I wanted to see director David Fincher’s adaptation of Flynn’s novel. I’ve long been a Fincher fan, admiring both the visual narrative and intellectual backdrop he’s given to films as different as “Se7en,” “Fight Club,” “The Social Network,” “Zodiac” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” I was anticipating what he would do with “Gone Girl,” even if Flynn was listed as the resident screenwriter.

And my reaction? Mostly disappointment, which seems perfectly appropriate when talking about what is a plot line based on little more than narrative gimmickry.

“Gone Girl” tells the story of Nick and Amy Dunne. It begins with Nick (played by Ben Affleck) examining his wife, Amy (played by Rosamund Pike), musing about cracking open her skull so that he might be able to pin down her thoughts. But told from Nick’s point of view, at least at first, the narrative actually portrays Nick as a right guy soon immersed in a mystery.

One day Nick discovers Amy missing, and their living room bearing signs of a struggle. Concerned, he calls the police … and just that quick Fincher’s movie – following Flynn’s novel – becomes a curious blend of social commentary, would-be social satire and police procedural. Given Fincher’s abilities – not to mention track record – you would think that he’d find a way to handle all of that effectively. Which he does, but only to a point.

Oh, the police part works well enough, if you overlook the strange casting decisions that include Neil Patrick Harris and, yes, Tyler Perry. And so does some of the social commentary/satire, mainly because of Affleck’s natural sense of beefy smarm and Pike’s android-probe stare and ice-princess charm.

But the rest? What the movie tries to say about social media is pretty obvious, especially the points about perception being more important than reality and that a lie repeated long and hard enough can easily become an accepted representation of the truth. And Flynn’s observations about the societal roles of woman and the implicit difficulties of marriage become meaningless when that all-important plot twist – which I won’t expound upon – is revealed.

In the end, it all feels muddled, as if Fincher struggled – and failed – to find just the right plot device to help propel a movie, based on a book that is one big he-said/she-said – yes, gimmick – from beginning to end.

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