Film review – The Great Gatsby (2013)

31 May 2013
The Great Gatsby: Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Baz Luhrmann’s attempt to transform F Scott Fitzgerald’s seminal 1925 American novel into a crowd-pleasing spectacle film is admirable if not always successful. It is an unnecessarily faithful adaptation that puts on screen Fitzgerald’s critique of American society in the 1920s expressed though the misadventures of wide-eyed bonds salesman and failed writer Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) and his larger-than-life neighbour Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose famed extravagance only exists in order for him to win back a former love – or at least the ideal of that former love – Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan).

The production and costume design by Luhrmann’s long-term creative partner Catherine Martin are astonishing, not just reproducing period detail, but evoking the film’s themes and character detail. Gatsby’s house bursts with energy and yet is cavernous and empty, while the bleak industrial wasteland between West Egg and New York creates a brutal contrast between the working class and the partygoers, as well as revealing the bleak reality of what lies between the comforts of home and the glamour of the big city. The costumes are attractive and detailed; yet contain important character details from Nick’s awkward bowties and tightly fitted suits suggesting his perpetual status as an uncomfortable outsider, to a terrific scene where Gatsby must declare his emotions and his soaking wet white suit leaves him looking transparent. Later Gatsby attempts to impress Daisy by throwing his collection of expensive shirts down upon her, literally overwhelming her with not just his material possessions, but the material possession designed to most literally conceal his class, background and insecurities.

The use of CGI technology wonderfully complements Martin’s design to create the space of the film, and in turn to visually represent many of the themes in the film (and novel). Wild zooms across the bay between the Gatsby’s home and the Buchanans’s home emphasises the gulf between new money and old money, as well as how close yet how far Gatsby is to the ideal of Daisy. Using the 3D to depict Gatsby’s hand reach out into the depths of the screen towards the green light across the water is one of the moments where Luhrmann’s lack of subtlety works. A similar moment is Gatsby’s grand entrance with its rushing zoom into his face while fireworks explode in the background. It is contrived and bordering on self-parody, introducing the extent that the myth of Gatsby is a construct fashioned out of cheap thrills.

Where The Great Gatsby is most let down is its approach to the extravagant party scenes during the first half of the film. The hedonistic world of drinking, wealth and general excess is all on screen in Martin’s design, but the constant moving camera and rapid editing prevent the eye from ever fully soaking in the spectacle. Any sense of excitement that builds during many of these important sequences is frustratingly kept simmering just below the surface due to the film’s refusal to ever let a moment play out in any tangible way.

However, it is tempting to ponder if the scenes of anti-spectacle are deliberate attempts to mimic Nick’s bewilderment and over stimulus while also keeping the audience at arms length to suggest the hollowness and lack of substance behind the American dream at its most decadent and insincere. This would be the most forgiving conclusion and it does fit in with the themes of the film and novel, however, it is difficult to ignore that the same problems afflicted Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge! Furthermore, it is possible to deliver engaging visual cinema that does not become what it is commenting on, as demonstrated in the film adaption of The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) where the film remained thrilling without becoming the violent spectacle that it critiqued. 

Curiously a lot of the problems with the spectacle scenes in The Great Gatsby are the constant intrusion of story information when the narrative should have been taking a backseat. This adaption remains remarkably close to the novel in terms of key plot points, which is not necessarily a good thing as condensing, altering and omitting aspects of a novel are important steps in novel to film adaption. This must be done not just to transpose literary storytelling techniques into visual storytelling techniques, but for the practical factor that adaptations too close to the source material run the risk of becoming overly long, as is the case here.

It does not help that the film introduces the concept that Nick’s first person narration is the result of him first speaking to a sanatorium doctor (played by Jack Thompson) and then writing down his memories and recollections. Not only does this lose the immediacy of the story by presenting it all as a flashback, but it draws out the film’s running time with unnecessary over-explanation. It seems as if this was done to make the film as broadly accessible as possible. However, the presence of a narrator in a film does not need to be justified and there are too many times where the narration spells out aspects of character that were already ascertained visually by the excellent performances by the cast.

The second part of the film, where the narrative becomes more melancholic and reflective, is comparatively more subdued stylistically. The colour palette becomes darker, the camera movement settles down and the shots are less busy. Luhrmann’s love of melodrama seeps into the second half of the film, achieving moments of pathos that audiences have not seen from him since Romeo + Juliet (1996). In this regard The Great Gatsby works better than Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012) where the film’s bold theatrical style felt increasingly inappropriate as the story developed into its far more interior and tragic terrain.

Annoyingly The Great Gatsby seems determined to continually undermine audience good will. All the themes from the novel concerning the decline of the American dream, social hypocrisy and class divisions are present in the film and very blatantly expressed through Gatsby’s foolish and tragic pursuit of Daisy’s affections. Luhrmann’s bold and unsubtle approach to film style ensures that these themes are on the surface and as widely digestible as possible. Yet sometimes that blatant thematic signposting does become overwhelming, such as the excessive cuts back to the Doctor TJ Eckleburg billboard, which features giant eyes in glasses to remind us that everything is under scrutiny. And while The Great Gatsby is never as bad as a film like Flight (Robert Zemeckis, 2012) in terms of simplistic song placements that literally describe what is happing on screen, the scene where ‘Love is the Drug’ is used to accompany a pill-taking scene is distracting and clumsy, especially considering how well other pieces of music are used.

As with Moulin Rouge! Luhrmann adopts a mostly anachronistic approach to the film’s score, using contemporary songs to complement the images on screen. While the contemporary music for Moulin Rouge! was adapted to evoke the film’s time period, the music in The Great Gatsby is used in a way more akin to the way Sophia Coppola used music in Marie Antoinette (2006). It is there to give contemporary audiences the sensation of listening to music from the time period, rather than faithfully replicating the period music, which arguably would not have the same effect on viewers today. So in the case of The Great Gatsby, instead of hearing the provocative and rebellious music of the time – jazz – Luhrmann delivers a soundtrack with a heavy hiphop component. It is debateable if such a technique is necessary; in The Aviator (2004) and the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire (2010 – ongoing) Martin Scorsese very successfully conveys the wild and raucous parties of the 1920s using period music. Nevertheless, it is a stylistic device that Luhrmann has adopted, like Coppola did and like the writers of the television series Deadwood (2004-2006) did when they chose to use modern profanity in the dialogue. And in the case of The Great Gatsby it almost always works, giving a much-needed pulse to the larger party scenes and adding to the layers of melodramatic romance in other key scenes.

Like Marie Antoinette shots of empty rooms filled with debris announce that the party is over. Both are films about insular people thrust into a world of excess that has removed them from reality. Both Gatsby and Marie suffer for love and both are scapegoats for the indulgences of others. And both films are mixed packages directed by bold and stylistic filmmakers whose successes still deserve to outshine their lesser works. The Great Gatsby is so close to being a great film, let down by its own refusal to exist in the moment, either reminding the audience it is told as a flashback or moving too quickly onto something else as if a few moments into the future is always far more important than the present. And like Marie Antoinette time will hopefully be kind to The Great Gatsby, as the disappointment of initial expectation fades and re-evaluations start to emerge, suggesting that perhaps Luhrmann’s plan all along was to make something as unobtainable as Gatsby’s dream of Daisy, and as transparent as the American Dream when depicted as a soaking wet white suit, covering the shivering body of a self-deluding, morally compromised man.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013
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Film review – Shame (2011)

6 February 2012
Shame: Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) and Sissy Sullivan (Carey Mulligan)

Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) and Sissy Sullivan (Carey Mulligan)

In The Lost Weekend (1945) Billy Wilder portrayed alcoholism as a serious affliction rather than a delightful and humorous eccentricity. In The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) Otto Preminger debunked the cliché of the drug-fiend to reveal that narcotic addiction afflicts even ‘respectable’ members of society. In Shame video artist and Hunger director Steve McQueen does something similar with the condition loosely described as sex addiction. The protagonist Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) is not a comical sex maniac, but an outwardly stable and content man whose life is inwardly dictated by the need to continually orgasm, whether by masturbation, paying for prostitutes, looking at pornography or having sex with willing strangers.

Shame opens with a flashforward/flashback sequence where the events of several hours are edited together out of sequence to convey Brandon’s ritualistic lifestyle. Not unlike Henry Mancini’s score for the opening of Touch of Evil (Orson Welles, 1958), Harry Escott’s music for the opening of Shame distinctively features a repetitive percussion to suggest a bomb about to go off; a continuous countdown to Brandon’s next release. As he methodically walks naked around his sparse apartment, often his head is out of shot but his penis displayed, frequently close to the centre of the frame, indicating how much it has defined his life. The production design emphasises industrial design, to suggest Brandon’s mechanical and compulsive sexuality. Shots in the film contain a strong depth-of-field and appear to be shot with a long focal length to visually flatten out the scene and render it lifeless.

Sex for Brandon is functionary. Like with substance addiction, the joy of the ‘hit’ has long gone and all that’s left is the necessity to feed the addiction. Very little emotion can be seen on his face, other than an intense look of concentration. On the subway when he makes eye contact with a woman and communicates his intentions with a steady gaze, there is something absent from his eyes. She conveys a range of emotions to indicate she is flattered, aroused, nervous, apprehensive and even a bit scared, while he just maintains his look of hopeful expectation. She’s not an object of desire for him or even some kind of sexual prey; she’s simply an opportunity to feed his addiction.

The illusion of control plays a big part in Brandon’s condition. He has created an isolated life that allows him to feed his addiction, although a moment early in the film where he nervously reacts to his work computer being taken away suggests that he is not as on top of his impulses as he likes to believe he is. He also underestimates how a sex life based on artificial representations of sex through pornography, prostitution and anonymous encounters in alleyways, has hijacked his ability to form intimate relationships. In a key scene he is unable to perform with a potential romantic partner and then has no problem re-enacting with a prostitute a sexual encounter he saw a couple of days before. Both scenes take place in an open white room, dominated by a large, black widescreen television representing how sexual imagery and sexual representations have overridden real sexual connections.

Brandon’s sister Sissy (Carey Mulligan) intrudes into the insular world he has created for himself, first through a series of answering machine messages that play while he is trying to masturbate, and then by showing up at his apartment and moving in with him. As a contrast to his ordered and almost ritualised life, Sissy is chaotic, disruptive and breaks down boundaries between Brandon’s private and professional life. She is also the only person Brandon relates to and is burdened with her own compulsive need to be loved. They are two sides of the same coin: Brandon is emotionally detached while Sissy is overly emotional, and yet both are bonded by an unexplained shared experience that has prevented them from being able to forge real relationships. In a mesmerising sequence consisting of close-ups on both their faces, Brandon watches Sissy sing at a bar. The deep love that they have for each other and the sorrow they feel for being so disconnected is expressed on their faces, revealing they are damaged people who are more than their compulsions.

Sexual politics are never the primary focus of Shame, even though issues of sexuality and representation underpin the entire film. While Brandon’s sexual appetite has been defined by the patriarchal commodification of sex, which reduces women to titillating body parts rather than whole beings, the film is careful not to suggest that Brandon is exploiting anybody or harbours aggression towards any of the women he has sex with. He is the product of a sexualised society rather than a victim or perpetrator of it. Women for Brandon are frequently the means to an end, but that doesn’t mean he hates them. Shame even includes a homosexual scene to indicate Brandon’s quest for sex is based on the need for the release rather than fulfilling any actual desires, sexual or otherwise. The double edged-sword is that this scene seems to also exist to use homosexuality to suggest Brandon’s downward spiral, which is disappointing considering how smart and sensitive the rest of the film is.

Shame is nevertheless an impressive addition to the small group of films that attempt to explore the nature of addiction. It’s a more conventional film than Hunger, but it still showcases McQueen’s remarkably ability to generate tension through long takes and to use the production design to communicate complex and difficult issues without overstatement, judgement or sensationalism. Despite the themes of detachment Shame is somehow also a beautiful film with just enough warm light glowing around the screen’s edges to keep the audience entranced.

Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Drive (2011)

26 October 2011
Drive - Driver (Ryan Gosling)

Driver (Ryan Gosling)

In this unofficial prequel to Blade Runner Ryan Gosling plays an early replicant model who yearns to be human. He’s a machine programmed as part stunt man, part mechanic and part getaway driver – a being who is at one with the cars he is almost indistinguishable from. When he wears a prosthetic mask he may as well be exchanging one blank face for another. Known simply as Driver, his programming is threatened when he begins to develop empathy after meeting Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son. After years of observing humanity, the feelings of love that have been awakened within Driver have lead him to compute that he can join the human race by becoming part of a family as a husband and father. Despite receiving support from his friend and manager Shannon (Bryan Cranston), who is Geppetto to his Pinocchio, Driver soon gets in the way of far more powerful forces who prefer their machines to remain subservient. While not yet a fully formed person, Driver responds violently, the only way his programming allows him to.

That’s one way to read Drive. The far more conventional way is to see it as a slick neo noir film about a loner who gets on the wrong side of local mobsters Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) while trying to help a woman he has fallen in love with. He’s a combination of one of Paul Schrader’s lonely men and the Man With No Name, with a few tendencies borrowed from the pixelated protagonists of the Grand Theft Auto gaming franchise. After Bronson (2008) and Valhalla Rising (2009), Drive is the third film in a row by director Nicolas Winding Refn that explores violent lone men. While the previous two films featured lead characters who embraced their capacity for violence, Driver wants something more.

Drive - Irene (Carey Mulligan)

Irene (Carey Mulligan)

While the title Drive obviously reflects Driver’s extraordinary prowess behind the wheel, it also indicates that the film is about what drives him. Prior to meeting Irene he merely exists, but afterwards his life has purpose leading him to put everything at risk. So in classic film noir style Irene is the cause of his undoing, but only in the sense that she awakens the humanity within him that for whatever reason was long dormant. He becomes driven by the need to see that Irene is protected and provided for. She doesn’t seduce him nor is he driven by sexual desire. The film explicitly depicts the attraction between them as being played out through him adopting the domestic role of father and husband, often with the lyrics ‘And you have proved to be a real human being and a real hero’ playing on the soundtrack.

Stylistically Drive is a triumph of minimalist cool, reflecting the focus and precision Driver brings to everything he does. The major ‘fault’ with the film is that the opening sequence, depicting Driver at work as a getaway driver, is such a brilliant piece of intense and visceral cinema that there is no way for the rest of the film to live up to it. However, it comes pretty close with the first part of the film evoking 1980s crimes thrillers by Michael Mann and William Friedkin, before the graphic and almost dreamlike violence in the second half of the film brings to mind some of Sam Peckinpah’s later films. The result is a gorgeous fusion of pulp genre cinema with an almost abstract approach to characterisation. The 1980s inspired synthesiser heavy dream-pop soundtrack is just an added bonus.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Never Let Me Go (2010)

21 March 2011
Never Let Me Go: Ruth (Keira Knightley), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)

Ruth (Keira Knightley), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)

Early in Never Let Me Go, the seemingly privileged English boarding school children learn what it is that makes them different. It’s not a moment that is presented as a dramatic twist but as a matter-of-fact delivery of information. The children in the film learn about who they are in the same way that the audience and the readers of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 2005 novel learn; through the non-sensationalised confirmation of a suspicion that we all strongly harboured but had hoped would not be true. The approach and early reveal of the concept that makes Never Let Me Go a sort of alternative-history film is one of the indications that it is not a science-fiction film but a deeply beautiful and melancholic drama. The concept is not even really used to facilitate the exploration of ‘what if?’ type issues that characterise more philosophical science-fiction texts. Instead, Never Let Me Go is about the sad love triangle between Kathy (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield) and Ruth (Keira Knightley), three of the children who must face life from a very different perspective to the rest of us.

Ishiguro’s novel was told entirely from Kathy’s point-of-view and the prose reflected the fact that the events she was describing came from her memories. The film maintains this reflective approach but naturally some narrative details are omitted, others are condensed and others are made more explicit. With so much consideration for the way film functions as a visual art form that is distinctively different from literature, Never Let Me Go is an extremely impressive exercise in the adaptation of a novel that if merely reduced to its plot points would have not been terribly interesting cinema. Instead, the audience is left feeling the same sensations that were created by the novel and this makes the film an extremely successful adaptation. The atmosphere, tone and overall meaning of the novel are preserved through the film’s performances and visual style.

Never Let Me Go: Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)

Ruth (Keira Knightley) and Kathy (Carey Mulligan)

Director Mark Romanek (One Hour Photo) helms the film and with the aid of writer Alex Garland (28 Days Later…) fleshes out Kathy, Tommy and Ruth on screen. In the novel Ishiguro beautifully captured the idea that the trio never truly emotionally developed as adults and that their limited world-view forever possessed a childlike quality. The film’s strategic use of dialogue and its strategic omission of dialogue maintains this childlike quality with the actors then also bringing so much poignancy to their roles. As the less sympathetic character Ruth, Knightley gets less opportunity to shine but certainly holds her own. However, Mulligan and Garfield are astonishingly good and provide several heart shattering moments in just a glance. The combination of childlike wonder, hopeful curiosity and sad realisations that the pair bring to Never Let Me Go is incredibly moving.

However, what truly makes Never Let Me Go such a wonderful adaptation and film in its own right, is the glorious visual style that captures the mood of gentle melancholy. Adam Kimmel’s cinematography is an extraordinary accomplishment with its shots of the mist filled English landscape drenched in radiant light. In fact, the lighting and camera positioning throughout Never Let Me Go is close to perfect with its balance of warm light and foggy landscapes capturing the characters’ spark of life that bursts through the gloom of prewritten destiny. Rachel Portman’s score further emphasises the tender sorrow underpinning the film.

Never Let Me Go: Tommy (Andrew Garfield)

Tommy (Andrew Garfield)

Never Let Me Go is a remarkable film that may frustrate audiences expecting a science-fiction story or some book lovers who like their adaptations direct and literal. However, its potentially niche appeal will likely only enhance the love that its admirers have for it because of the special and almost fragile quality that it possesses. Far from being a grand morality tale, Never Let Me Go is an impressionist work that takes its grim scenario to facilitate a beautiful and satisfyingly melancholic story of mortality, destiny, love and loss.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Film review – Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010)

19 September 2010
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps - Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas)

Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas)

Michael Douglas’s Gordon Gekko character from Oliver Stone’s 1987 film Wall Street embodied capitalism at its worst. Gekko was a corporate raider whose desire to generate wealth for its own sake eclipsed any sense of moral or legal accountability. However, Wall Street reportedly had the bizarre counter effect of actually inspiring people, who were turned on by the idea that greed is good, to become stockbrokers. If stockbrokers today really have modelled themselves on Gekko then is it any wonder that the resulting financial culture of unsustainable lending and speculation led to the 2008 market crash? With this in mind it makes perfect sense for Stone to resurrect the Gekko character in order to explore the events leading up to, and the outcomes of, the Global Financial Crisis.

Gekko for the most part is not the focus of the film but a strange spectre who lurks in the background of the narrative as part mythical legend, part fallen angel and part broken man. Since the first film he has spent eight years in prison, lost his family and lost his wealth. Nevertheless, he is still something of a hero to a new generation, including Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) an already highly successful proprietary trader who is living with Gekko’s estranged daughter Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Jake is attempting to make his fortune from investing in green energy, which is the next major boom market. Young, confident and hungry for success Jake is a gentler version of the type of characters from the original film and somewhat of an idealist, despite what he tells himself.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps - Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) and Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan)

Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) and Winnie Gekko (Carey Mulligan)

Stone’s politics are still worn proudly on his sleeve but he has mellowed somewhat as the expression of those politics is no longer so aggressive and his visual style has significantly calmed down from the Brechtian excesses of his 1990s films. After World Trade Centre and W, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is his third film made very closely after the events the films are examining. However, Stone and screenwriter Allan Loeb’s ability to make sense of what happened and incorporate those events into a compelling drama is very impressive. Meeting scenes set inside boardrooms could have been deathly dull but Stone communicates the significance of such meetings with his engaging directing style. The film is full of financial jargon that a layperson will not be able to fully understand but it is all contextualised in a way that gives you a sense of what is being spoken about. Like listening to an unfamiliar dialect or slang, you always have a sense of what it going on even if some finer details are lost.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is probably as good a film about the GFC as can be expected. It also explores the fascinating position that renewable energy has in the market, the growing role of new media, the devastating impact of credit culture and, of course, the intrinsic immorality of relentlessly pursuing money over all other considerations. Stone also meditates on what people value most when they look back on their lives and issues of fatherhood (literal and symbolic, inspiring and brutal) also play a big role. The film does undercut itself badly with an unconvincing and contrived final scene and then credit sequence, but it is otherwise a compelling drama and a convincing vehicle to return Douglas to the screen as the infamous Gordon Gekko.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film review – An Education (2009)

23 October 2009
Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

Based on the autobiography of British journalist Lynn Barber and adapted by Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy), An Education is a coming-of-age film about Jenny, a 16-year-old girl who starts a relationship with a much older man. An Education is the second English-language film directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig with the first being the very impressive romantic comedy/drama Wilbur Wants to Kill Himself – a film about a suicidal man. Scherfig is clearly drawn to highly unconventional feel-good material because despite the weird and uncomfortable dynamics at play in An Education it is a strangely seductive and sweet film.

Stylistically everything about An Education suggests that it is romance film. The soft lighting, gushing music and gorgeous 1960s London setting are all designed to conflict with the fact that the film is about a highly questionable relationship between a confident yet naive school-girl and an older man who is clearly not all that he seems. Jenny is played by Carey Mulligan, an emerging actor whose more prominent recent roles include a part in Public Enemies and playing Kitty Bennet in Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice.  Mulligan is astonishing and commands the screen with the assured graceful vulnerability of a young Audrey Hepburn. As Jenny she is both sympathetic in her desire to break away from her routine existence to embrace life and infuriating in her recklessness. Jenny is a likeable, strong, intelligent and assured character who is still capable of making huge errors in judgement. She’s not too far removed from the titular character in Juno except Jenny speaks, behaves and rationalises far more convincingly.

David (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

David (Peter Sarsgaard) and Jenny (Carey Mulligan)

The supporting cast in An Education is terrific and Peter Sarsgaard (Orphan, Elegy) gives what is possibly his best performance as the mysterious David. Alfred Molina (Spider-Man 2) is wonderful as Jenny’s taskmaster father and Dominic Cooper (The Duchess) is suitably foppish as David’s playboy best friend. Emma Thompson has a couple of over-the-top yet very amusing scenes as the bigoted principal at Jenny’s school.

Scherfig is an intriguing director who is deceptively skilled at taking material that could be considered dark or unsettling and turning it into something very accessible.  There’s a lot going on under the surface of An Education but at face value it is simply a very warm, funny and enjoyable film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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