Recent Movie Roundup 27

The blockbuster movies of 2017 are winding down--there's really only The Last Jedi left to go--and then it'll be time for Israeli movie theaters to furiously start scheduling the year's Oscar movies before the ceremony (still bereft of release dates: The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Lady Bird, and probably several others I'm forgetting).  Here are my thoughts on a few of the stragglers (though really, only one of them has proven to be a bona fide blockbuster) in what has proved to be a strong year for solid popcorn entertainment, even if there have been no genuine exceptional examples of the genre (except possibly Get Out, which is really more of a horror movie).
  • Blade Runner 2049 - I have trouble deciding how I feel about Denis Villeneuve's 35-years-later follow-up to Ridley Scott's cult classic.  On the one hand, this is a beautiful, evocative work of science fiction of the kind one doesn't get to see in the movie theater very often.  On the other hand, it's self-indulgent, overlong, and most importantly, adds almost nothing to the original movie.  You see this most distinctly in the film's decision to reveal, in its opening minutes, that this iteration's blade runner, the cop tasked with "retiring" runaway replicants, is a replicant himself.  There's an obvious argument for choosing to front-load this shift to the story, thus forestalling much of the debate that has come to consume the original movie (which is especially valuable since "is Deckard a replicant" is literally the most boring, pointless question you can ask about the original Blade Runner; no matter what answer you come up with, it tells you nothing about the character, his world, or his story).  But it also means that the already-not-particularly-deeply-buried subtext of the original movie--that this a world in which the distinctions between human and inhuman are imposed by the demands of capitalism, and have nothing to do with how human replicants actually are--is right there on the surface.  The same is true of the film's backbone of story, in which Officer K (Ryan Gosling) must track down a child born to a replicant, and brutally suppress the knowledge that such a thing is even possible.  It's a profound reduction of the original Blade Runner's humanism--which extended to recognizing the personhood of flawed, murderous beings like Roy Batty or Pris--to suggest, as Blade Runner 2049 does, that replicants can only "prove" their humanity if they have fertility (which, in typical Hollywood fashion, is treated as interchangeable with female fertility).

    Or maybe the problem lies with the original concept.  Villeneuve has shown himself to be an exceptional director, including of SF stories, and he pulls out all the stops with 2049, all-but gorging the viewer on cyberpunk cityscapes, dust-covered ruins, junk deserts populated by dehumanized scavengers, and the corporate-architecture-on-acid interiors of the offices of Wallace corporation (the inheritors of the original movie's now-defunct Tyrell).  But it doesn't take very long in this rather overlong movie to realize that all this splendor is in service of very little in the way of ideas.  As Aaron Bady wrote last year about another work, all robot stories are ultimately about slavery, and there's really not that much you can say about that concept when your starting position is "are slaves human?"  Blade Runner 2049 keeps teetering on the verge of interesting SFnal ideas, such as the fact that K spends much of the movie trying to convince himself that he is the child he's been looking for.  Or his holographic live-in girlfriend, Joi (Ana de Armas), an AI playing house with a robot, each trying to convince the other that they are real people even as they consume each other like the products that they are.  Or the idea that the world's economy now includes replicants like K or the prostitute Mariette (Mackenzie Davis), who live as pseudo-humans, consuming resources such as food and living space even as they're viewed as subhuman.  But the film is too caught up in homages to the original movie (including a brief and not very satisfying appearance by Harrison Ford) to ever give these ideas the space they deserve.  For all its visual expansiveness, its world feels narrow and predictable.  It never manages to be more than a retread of what came before it, a variation on a theme.

    As we saw last year with Westworld, trying to tell a slave story with robots almost inevitably skews the racial and gender politics of your story to an extent that can render it worse than useless.  Once again, these are issues that 2049 could have done interesting things with.  The fact that almost all the replicants we meet are white, or that non-white humans seem to have been relegated to the outskirts of even the degraded, dystopian society at the film's center, could have been a commentary on how racial prejudice plays out in a society in which it is possible to manufacture an underclass.  Instead, it's treated as so unremarkable as to not even require an explanation.  Similarly, the increasingly oppressive images of female commodification and objectification that keep cropping up in the movie--the giant, holographic naked women that K walks past in the city, the statues of equally naked women he encounters in the ruins of Las Vegas, the naked female replicant that Niander Wallace (Jared Leto in a distracting, tedious performance) fondles and then murders--end up feeling cynical and self-satisfied.  Yes, the film is calling attention to the misogyny of its world (and a premise where sexbots, again almost always female, are de rigueur), but once again it has nothing to say about the issue once it's raised it, and its actual female characters are mostly devoid of personality.  Joi, for example, can only "prove" that she is a person by expressing devotion to K that goes beyond her programming and eventually gets her killed, while Mariette proves hers by being catty to Joi, reminding her that she isn't real.  It's enough to make you root for the film's villain, Wallace's assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), a replicant who seems to realize just how disturbed and monstrous her boss truly is, but who nevertheless kills remorselessly for him because it's her only way to express her anger at her enslavement.  It's only in Luv that 2049 achieves anything close to the complexity of the original Blade Runner, and it's fairly typical of this latter-day repetition's shallowness that it doesn't seem to realize this.

  • Thor: Ragnarok - Marvel has spent several months pumping up Taika Waititi's attempt to revitalize its least successful (critically and artistically, if not financially) sub-franchise, bombarding us with lush posters and trailers that parade its psychedelic, 80s-arcade-inspired visual style and irreverent sense of humor.  It's perhaps inevitable, then, that the actual film, enjoyable and fun to look at as it is, doesn't quite live up to the hype.  Waititi and the film's writers make several very smart choices when they come to craft the third solo outing for their title character.  They play up the fact that he's a bit of a dimwitted jerk, and they constantly put him in situations in which these qualities get him into trouble, as he bites off more than he can chew and incorrectly assumes that everyone around him will be impressed by his pedigree and fighting prowess.  Ragnarok quickly wraps up the dangling threads of plot left by The Dark World, and then sends Chris Hemsworth's Thor and Tom Hiddleston's Loki on a quest to find their missing father, which quickly becomes more serious when they encounter Hela (Cate Blanchett, chewing the scenery with tremendous and exhilarating gusto), their hidden older sister, who wants to claim the throne of Asgard and use its armies to conquer the multiverse.  This, through yet more convolutions of plot, leads to the brothers being dumped on a junkyard planet, and to Thor being made to fight in gladiatorial combat against the reigning champion, who turns out to be Mark Ruffalo's The Hulk.

    It's all a lot of fun, but also a bit much, especially when you consider that there's a parallel storyline about Hela's takeover of Asgard, and a redemption story for lost Asgardian Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, fantastic despite the really unfortunate choice to attempt an accent) who has been drinking away her traumatic memories while procuring fighters for the fey, casually psychopathic Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum), the majordomo of the games arena.  These are all great performances who make the film feel vital and exuberant, not to mention extremely funny (though it must be said that every genuinely funny joke, there's at least one moment that's more like "isn't it funny that we chose to make a joke, here, where another movie might be serious?").  Taken together, however, they're a bit of an assault, and the film doesn't really give any of them enough time to shine.  Despite what the film's trailers promise, Ragnarok isn't really a buddy comedy--the Hulk is only prominent for a few, albeit extremely funny, scenes in the middle of the movie--but instead yet another journey of self-discovery for Thor, as he remembers that beneath his bluster, he genuinely cares about his people and the fate of the world.  And while the choice to stress (and puncture) Thor's arrogance, even as it reaffirms his sense of responsibility and his courage, means that Ragnarok is a much more satisfying iteration of this story than either Thor or The Dark World, it is still, ultimately, the same story we've seen before and probably will again, albeit in a much shinier and more humorous guise.  That might be enough for MCU fans who are more attached to the character than I am, but for those hoping that Ragnarok will seriously break the mold, it might be wise to manage expectations.

  • Justice League - There's a part of me that thinks that in another year, Justice League might have been received more positively.  I think we've gotten all we're going to get out of the (richly deserved, but in hindsight a little overwrought) collective hate-on of the DC movies occasioned by Batman v Superman and Suicide Squad.  And with Wonder Woman's success and the behind the scenes upheaval at Justice League indicating that WB have definitely gotten the memo, a little indulgence might have been in order.  The problem is, Justice League comes to us at the tail end of what has, completely unexpectedly, been a truly excellent year for superhero movies.  Think about it: until the third week of November, the worst superhero movie of 2017 was Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which wasn't bad so much as redundant and a little mean-spirited.  And aside from that, we've enjoyed a slew of extremely well-made crowdpleasers such as Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok, as well as some more adventurous fare like Logan and Colossal.  That Justice League, in comparison, is merely rather dull, with a tepid villain and character work carried almost exclusively by its actors, might have been enough in a weaker year, but it won't fly in 2017.

    Justice League wastes little time in assuring us that it's changed and eager to do better.  After an opening scene that feels almost like a coda to Batman v Superman, and especially its Nietzsche-for-dummies take on Superman as a living god whose existence gave humanity a sense of purpose, the film jettisons all that thematic weight in favor of pure comic book storytelling--an alien villain who wants to destroy the world.  The problem is that as tepid and juvenile as Zack Snyder's ideas were in Batman v Superman and Man of Steel, they were at least ideas.  When Justice League abandons them, it's left with nothing but warmed-over Avengers.  And unlike that movie, it lacks humanizing points of interest to make us care about its shopworn, underwritten plot.  The villain, Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds in motion capture as some sort of horned demon), has no personality, and his motivations are as generic as they come.  His plan--to collect a set of McGuffins with which he can construct a mega-McGuffin--is so boring that the film itself can't be bothered to take an interest in it, quickly racing through the interim acquisitions so that it can get to the main event.  But this, too, is fairly perfunctory, a CGI extravaganza with little flair or excitement.  Joss Whedon, parachuted in to freshen up the film's script (and take over directing duties from Snyder after a family tragedy, which can't have improved the film's action scenes) tries to recreate the magic he managed with Avengers with some very obvious Whedonisms.  But these almost invariably fall flat, and in a few cases, are actively skeevy.

    Justice League thus ends up resting on the shoulders of its characters, which is to say its actors.  This is not the worst thing.  Gal Gadot and Ben Affleck continue to do good work as the grown-ups in the room, weary soldiers who recognize the enormity of the task before them but also the necessity of seeing it through.  Jason Momoa is given almost nothing to work with as renegade Atlantean Arthur Curry, aka Aquaman.  One senses that his backstory is being held back for his own movie, but in Justice League this means that Arthur comes off as blustering and thoughtless.  Happily, Momoa has so much charisma that he manages to make even this underwritten type leap off the screen, but Aquaman's handling is typical of how Justice League approaches its characters, reducing them to types instead of making a case for them as complicated heroes in their own right.  Ezra Miller's Barry Allen, for example, is laden with the bulk of the film's comedic moments.  He's up to the task, but along the way the film loses sight of Barry as a person, and his only dramatic scenes are retreads of material only recently (and more effectively) covered bin The Flash.  The most interesting character is Victor Stone, aka Cyborg (Ray Fisher), but even that comes down to the actor's choices, amping up Victor's ironic detachment as he's slowly taken over by an alien machine.  (Henry Cavill's Superman, who returns halfway through the story, is probably Justice League's biggest misstep.  There's a palpable attempt to move away from the brooding, joyless Superman of the Snyder movies, but Cavill can't seem to unbend sufficiently to actually make Superman heroic, or even likable.  He ends up coming off as a condescending jerk.)

    Buried deep in the core of its underwritten character interactions is Justice League's sole claim to originality, the barest hint that it has an idea of how to distinguish the DC movies from the MCU without wallowing in unearned angst.  As in Wonder Woman, this comes down to the difficulty of continuing to fight for an inherently broken world, and there are some solid and refreshingly unsensationalistic exchanges between Batman and Wonder Woman over the figures they could both cut in a world without Superman.  Unfortunately, Justice League is completely the wrong movie for these conversations to happen in.  Unlike Avengers, it can't figure out how to tie together its characters' personal problems and the threat to the world.  It becomes, instead, a story of how its heroes kicked a nondescript villain's ass and along the way got their groove back, but this is far too thin a frame on which to hang not just this overlong, CGI-heavy movie, but an entire cinematic universe.


Temmere said…
It looked to me like maybe a couple hundred Asgardians made it onto that ship at the end of Thor: Ragnarok. I assume that, prior to that movie, there were at least a few thousand of them, which means that upwards of 90% of that race has been exterminated, and the rest don't really have a future to look forward to. Ragnarok, essentially, portrayed the destruction of Asgard and the genocide of its people. You wrote in a tweet recently that the MCU movies were serious when the occasion called for it, and I thought, "Yeah, until Ragnarok."

(I also think the fans singing Valkyrie's praises need to think about the fact that she was enslaved innocent people and murdered others who got in her way, crimes the movie never for a moment addresses.)
McAllen said…
I think the movie wants us to believe that everyone still alive on Asgard (other than Hela) got on the ship before Ragnarok, though it did seem like an implausibly low number of people.

I like Valkyrie, but the slaver thing bothered me, too. The movie does sort of call her out for it, but in the same way it calls her out for drinking, as something bad for her rather than something bad she's doing to other people.
In general, I find the politics of Thor: Ragnarok questionable. The film has enjoyed a lot of praise for its supposed anti-colonialism, but I find its handling of that theme well-intentioned at best. Like most MCU movies before it - and especially Winter Soldier - it can pay lip service to subversive ideas, particularly questioning the apparatus of the imperial state, but in the end it'll always side with power. So the film's ending undermines - perhaps inevitably - its supposed message. I was less bothered by the supposed genocide of the Asgardians (which, I agree, the film pretty much expects us to ignore) and a lot more troubled by the way the film - after two hours of drumming it in that Asgard was pernicious, malevolent lie - expects us to be on its side. To actually be fine with Thor taking his people to Earth in order to colonize it, because he's pals with Tony Stark so surely that'll be OK.

That said, I think Waititi's directing, casting, and design choices do a lot to counter the problems with the script. As a lot of people have noted, Ragnarok is two different movies depending on whether you're paying more attention to the script, or the visuals. Valkyrie is a good example. As you both say, she's a slaver, and the film doesn't do nearly enough to call her on that. The much quoted essay Thor and his magic patu points out how much her storyline echoes one familiar from narratives of colonization, of the dissipated indigenous person who loses touch with her culture and even preys upon her own people, but is given a chance at redemption by rediscovering her heritage and honor.

Of course, within the story, Valkyrie is not a colonized person. She's a member of an imperialistic race whose depression stems from having failed to sufficiently suppress evidence of her culture's exploitation of others. But because of Thompson's casting (she's only the second black woman in a central role in an MCU movie, and the first who hasn't been painted a non-human color) and of how Waititi has directed her, she evokes an indigenous character even if the script can't support that meaning. It's not really enough - and especially when you know that like the rest of the MCU before it, the questions Ragnarok raises are ones we're going to be expected to ignore going forward - but it's still more effective than a lot of other films in the genre.
Retlawyen said…
On Blade Runner, I generally agree with you. Probably my only disagreement is that I thought Jared Leto's take on 'evil creep' was pretty persuasive. Like, there isn't a lot in the part of Wallace for an actor to get into, but I think he did the best I could ask for. Maybe I'm guilty of failing to imagine what a better portrayal could have looked like though.

Thor: I felt like this one was almost an overcorrection to the plowing of BvS and Man of Steel. Like, the author was like "oh, you want jokes? Jokes are what makes movies good. Gotcha, Loud and Clear. All Jokes All The Time!"

Like, Hela is committing mass murder and pauses to lament that her victims aren't paying sufficient attention to her demands. Are we supposed to laugh along with that? Who is she speaking for the benefit of? She doesn't intend anyone who hears her to survive.

Korg leads a slave rebellion, and successfully gains his freedom...and can't be bothered to care about it. He is jaded and wry before, and jaded and wry after. (To say nothing of the newly freed gladiators installing Loki just because they need someone to tell them what to do, I guess? How many chances does this clown get? What happened to 'go away ghost!'? Krog knows this guy is one of the Grandmaster's buds.)

Justice League: I liked this one quite a bit. I agree with you that Batman and Wonder Woman deliver, and I was pleasantly surprised by how well the new folks did. I left that movie thinking that a Flash and a Cyborg movie would both be great, though apparently we aren't getting the Cyborg one and instead we get one about Aquaman?

I am also onboard with your take that Superman was bafflingly written. The movie seemed really intent on impressing us with just how powerful he is. Like, the scene where he beats up the team, him dunking on Flash in the save civilians contest, Batman's line about him being more powerful than a planet, etc. But, I guess, I wasn't ever really doubting that? I don't think anyone was? Maybe instead he could do some of that inspiring that they tell us he is good at?
Chris said…
"Like most MCU movies before it - and especially Winter Soldier - it can pay lip service to subversive ideas, particularly questioning the apparatus of the imperial state, but in the end it'll always side with power."

I realized a little while ago during rewatches that Marvel basically spelled out its politics in its very first movie as a sort of post-Iraq-War-America logic of "wrong for the right reasons, right for the wrong reasons." It does this through the character of the antagonistic reporter hounding Tony, whose name I can't even remember. The reporter is right about everything - beginning with her labeling Stark as the Merchant of Death but continuing well into the movie so that even after his change of heart, Tony still needs her to stick the news of the Ten Rings' atrocities in his face before it occurs to him that, oh yeah, maybe I should try to clean up my mess. But the movie really really REALLY doesn't want you to notice that about her, and goes out of its way to paint her as shrill, shallow, unserious, hypocritical, and otherwise bad.

That pretty much sets the tone for the "politics" of the entire rest of the franchise, most especially but not limited to the whole SHIELD mess. Yes, our heroes have lots of flaws, but that doesn't mean anyone else gets to hold them accountable, or that the people pointing out those flaws don't still suck. It's kind of depressing in how well it mirrors real life, in which, as many people have pointed out, you basically need to have been wrong about every major political decision of the last twenty or thirty years in order to be considered a Very Serious Person in the upper rungs of the media.

Surely if there's a reaction to Batman v Superman among these films, it's Justice League. Thor: Ragnarok is very clearly an attempt to course-correct after the chilly reception of The Dark World, but its comedic tone strikes me as being in keeping with at least parts of the first Thor, not to mention Waititi's own back-catalog. It speaks well of Marvel, I think, that they were able to step back and let Waititi make a movie that reflected his voice while still staying within the established template of the MCU (something they failed to do with Edgar Wright and Ant-Man).

Anyway, as I said, the idea of treating Thor like a dumb lug works for me (and in general I find myself responding much more positively to films that poke fun at superheroes, and don't expect me to take them seriously, than to films that want me to accept them as heroes even as they behave violently and selfishly). I agree that the film's politics are a lot thinner than it pretends they are, but I don't think the jokes are parachuted in (as they absolutely are in Justice League). Waititi has a voice and an approach, and it involves not taking his subject matter too seriously. Given that the MCU in general refuses to face up to the full implications of its stories, it makes a lot more sense to do that with a lot of gags, and with a fundamental refusal to let the main characters off the hook.

Making the hero's critics into bad guys or in some way pathetic is an old trick (just think back to the original Ghostbusters and how it turns a public servant making the extremely reasonable argument that a dangerous and poorly-understood technology shouldn't be in use in the center of a dense urban area, and turns him into an emasculated villain). But in the case of the MCU there's also what Stan Lee called "the illusion of change". You can have the most monumental events in your story, which create the impression that nothing will ever be the same for your heroes. But somehow you slant your plot so that in the end, everything ends up almost exactly the way it started - maybe with different names and locations, but fundamentally the same.

So you get Tony Stark blowing up his suits in Iron Man 3, but in Age of Ultron he's already back in one and no one comments on this (and this is not even to mention how his actions in Ultron are swept under the table). And you get the incredible drama of Captain America dismantling SHIELD in Winter Soldier, but by the next movie he's basically operating within another secret organization, this one even more unaccountable (and privately funded) while on TV Nick Fury immediately starts SHIELD up again. The same will no doubt be true of the destruction of Asgard. Whether or not the Asgardians settle on Earth, there aren't going to be any meaningful changes to their social structure or governing ideology (as evidenced by the fact that the house of Odin is still in charge through Thor, even after everything that's been revealed about them).

To a certain extent, I think it's time to stop getting mad about this (I'm not saying I'm going to, but I think I should). This is clearly the kind of story Marvel is going to tell, and there's honestly no reason for them to stop. It might be time to accept that the kind of embroidery and commentary that canny directors like Waititi do around the edges is the best we can hope for.

It's kind of depressing in how well it mirrors real life, in which, as many people have pointed out, you basically need to have been wrong about every major political decision of the last twenty or thirty years in order to be considered a Very Serious Person in the upper rungs of the media.

Having said the above, I would love it if some MCU property acknowledged that the reason we keep seeing the same characters around even though they keep screwing up is the tendency for certain types of people - white, rich, connected - to fail upward. I still maintain that this is what happened with Maria Hill - from the implosion of the government agency she was running straight to the private sector, anyone? But it's very much something you need to read into the text.
Brett said…
Thor: Ragnarok was a re-tread in more ways than the Thor self-discovery plot. This is the third Thor movie that has raised the "unfinished business/chickens coming home to roost" plot element, and the third to leave it kind of under-developed and incomplete.
I would go so far as to argue that Thor did a better job with many of the political ideas that Ragnarok is being praised for addressing. Hela is in many ways a less complicated Loki - it's easier to separate our disapproval of her with our recognition that she has a point in her criticism of Asgard, whereas Loki's storyline in the first Thor is a tangled psychodrama in which it's hard to know who or what to root for. And, of course, Loki is himself a colonized person, right down to changing his skin color in order to fit in with with his captors/adoptive family. Meanwhile, Hela's criticism of Asgard in Ragnarok comes from its own former general, while the voices of Asgard's actual victims are completely absent.

Having said that, using a white British actor as your stand-in for colonized people is highly problematic, even before you get to the blue skin business, so once again Waititi's casting choices give Ragnarok a weight of significance that its story doesn't really earn.
Z said…
I, too, wasn't sure what to do with BR 2049- though my uncertainty took the form of going to see it five times, so I suppose I wasn't *that* uncertain. Perhaps because I felt that some of the points you found potent were more prominent than its shortcomings (with which I generally agree). I didn't find that it was asking so much whether slaves were human, or positing that fertility was key to their humanity (an independent locus of reproducton would seem to be more crucial for their autonomy than determining their moral worth per se, and thus a reasonable focus of the replicant rebels and Lt. Joshi; Wallace's interests would seem to run precisely opposed to birthable replicants on every count, a recurring sticking point for me) but rather flatly acknowledged that they were, and proceeded to depict them all as realistically damaged by the denial of their humanity by others. There was something very sinister in Joshi making K recount his 'childhood' story, which they both know is meant to make him both complete in his human capacities *and* wholly subservient to her wishes, which are violent at best and leaning towards the prurient. Everyone knows the replicants are human, but slavery is often a matter of willful forgetting of equality, not genuine ignorance, and I thought that component was handled sensibly.

The other component that I thought was relatively high concept, and got under my skin, was the total abandonment of the notion, common in 'robot' movies, that moral consideration and personhood had something to do with the transcendence of programming. K discovers that his Joi is not wholly unlike other Jois- but that also means that the other Jois are just as capable of her bold acts of devotion. K finds out that he's not a Very Special Boy- but then, isn't he still, if he has the memory, and the need?- and he goes from one kind of heroism to another supporting breed that was more both more common and more selfless.

And in that same vein, I loved Luv, and my only real disagreement might be the notion that the story didn't acknowledge her complexity- I felt that she was essentially focal, with K serving to consistently deliver plot but the interspersed moments with Luv carrying most of the brunt of the interesting and tragic points about replicant life. She continues to define her self worth ('I'm the best one' sent a shiver down my spine every time) in terms of the approval of a person that demonstrated the limits of his care simply by bringing her to life as a tool, and while she does not possess the tools to overcome that dependence, she still 'lives' the most of nearly any character, expressing desire and care towards K (she notably doesn't kill any replicants), is moved at the sight of a birth (and a murder), and brings her rage to bear on Joshi, along with finding the latitude to deceive Wallace.

The question I haven't seen anyone ask is, does Luv remember the horse too? Is she *also* a Very Special Girl?
Unknown said…

Great comment. I saw the film 3 times myself. And while I agree wholly about the films problems, like you, the pros outweigh the cons for me. I don't feel any hesitation calling it my favorite movie of the year.

(At least so far. I have high hopes for Shape of Water.)
Marcello Ursic said…
I have a semi-relevant question (as he co-wrote the score for Blade Runner 2049): what do you think of Hans Zimmer?

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