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The Movie Report
Volume 52

#199 - 201
July 8, 1999 - July 27, 1999

all movies are graded out of four stars (****)

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#201 July 27, 1999 by Michael Dequina


The Haunting poster The Haunting (PG-13) *
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I never thought I'd see the day when Lili Taylor would carry a big-budget, big studio summer blockbuster wannabe. But here she is, the indie queen herself, playing the lead in $80-million-plus The Haunting. One could be led to believe that Taylor's surprising involvement would indicate a popcorn film that manages to blend the best of the worlds of art and commerce. Alas, this all-flash, no-substance--and no scare--thriller is a textbook example of the soulless, money-burning Hollywood hype products she had so valiantly rebelled against throughout her entire career. Hope you enjoyed cashing that paycheck, Miss Taylor.

I suppose I could see why The Haunting attracted the attention of talent such as Taylor and co-stars Liam Neeson and Catherine Zeta-Jones. It's an adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel The Haunting of Hill House, which had been memorably adapted to screen, also under the title The Haunting, by Robert Wise in 1963. Also, the man at the helm is Jan DeBont, who made his directorial debut with one of the best and most exciting action thrillers of the decade, 1994's Speed.

However, The Haunting continues a disturbing trend that has been evidenced in DeBont's work since Speed: an emphasis on effects and pyrotechnics over story. He was able to get by with this approach on the utterly-brainless-but-fun Twister, but it did not serve him well on the misbegotten Speed 2: Cruise Control and is certainly the case here. Granted, the storyline of The Haunting does play like a countdown to the inevitable grand effects sequences. Eleanor (Taylor), Theo (Zeta-Jones), and Luke (Owen Wilson) agree to stay in the large, isolated old New England mansion named Hill House for an insomnia study conducted by psychologist Dr. David Marrow (Neeson). Dr. Marrow, of course, has a hidden agenda--it is not insomnia but fear he is interested in, and the creaky, creepy Hill House provides the perfect venue. But he and his three test subjects--especially the frightened but fascinated Eleanor--get more than they bargained for when things do more than go bump in the night.

This is when the special effects kick in and the film should kick into gear. The physical effects of the living sets, the digital effects used for the various ghosts, and the sound effects that lends every bump its boom are of the highest technical order. But all the polish can't gloss over one cold, hard fact: none of what the effects bring to life is the slightest bit scary. The eye candy is especially enticing, but audiences are more likely to be in awe of their visual splendor than scream in fright. With no jolts nor a sense of a haunting atmosphere, the lapses in logic in rookie screenwriter David Self's hole-ridden script are made all the more clear.

As safe as this trip in a haunted house is, there was one moment during The Haunting where many the screening audience did jump in their seats (some even screamed). Did it have anything to do with one of those digital phantoms? No. The "living" set design? No. What caught viewers so off guard was... a basic prop skeleton, no more special than any one you can see in a typical B-movie. Isn't it nice to know that these big Hollywood budgets are being used so effectively?


Mercenary 2 VHS Mercenary 2: Thick and Thin (R) no stars
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Never heard of a Mercenary 1? Neither have I. Needless to say, one needn't have seen the original to understand this direct-to-vid (as was the first) sequel which pairs the titular gunman (Olivier Gruner) with a wisecracking accountant (Robert Townsend) whom he is hired to rescue. Then again, one needn't possess a single brain cell to understand this embarrassing blend of routine shoot-'em-up and painfully forced "repartée" between Townsend and the stiffer-than-Seagal, less-intelligible-than-Van Damme Gruner. (Touchstone Home Video)

Shattered Image poster Shattered Image (R) ** 1/2
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Jessie (Anne Parillaud) is a onetime rape victim spending her honeymoon in Jamaica who has recurring dreams where she is a coldblooded assassin... who, in turn, has dreams that she is a onetime rape victim spending her honeymoon in Jamaica. It's an intriguing, often bewildering, premise, and scripter Duane Poole eventually ties the parallel plot threads together in an equally intriguing way. Unfortunately, before they reach their resolution, Poole and director Raul Ruiz fail to keep the storylines from following some all-too predictable paces. (Universal Studios Home Video)

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#200 July 15, 1999 by Michael Dequina


Eyes Wide Shut poster Eyes Wide Shut (R) ****
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The late Stanley Kubrick's long-awaited final film, Eyes Wide Shut, is the perfect example of a true NC-17 film--but not in the way one would be led to believe. Ever since production began on the film way back in the fall of 1996, rumors have been swirling about the sexual content of the film: "Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman bare all and really do the nasty"; "Tom wears a dress"; "Tom lusts after teenage Leelee Sobieski"--if the reports were to be believed, Eyes Wide Shut would turn out to be a high-budget, A-list porn film. Fanning the flames of speculation was the now-familiar scene of a nude Cruise and Kidman making love in front of a mirror, the first taste of the film made available to the public.

Having seen the actual film, I advise anyone ready to don their raincoats for a showing of Eyes Wide Shut to think twice. Yes, there is some strong sexual content (some of which was altered to receive an R rating, but more on that later), but not the wall-to-wall fornication as had been whispered. Rather than being sex, Eyes Wide Shut is about sex--a film that explores this adult theme in a sensitive, mature, and thoughtful manner. If that isn't a film that could not better exemplify a rating that simply means, in its literal definition, "No one 17 and under admitted," then I don't know what is.

Kubrick isn't above a little playful teasing, and that's what he does for the opening section of Eyes Wide Shut, which appears to suggest all manner of ensuing tawdriness. The opening shot is of Kidman's character, former art gallery manager (not psychiatrist nor medical doctor) Alice Harford, doffing her duds and baring nearly all. Once fully dressed, she and her husband, Dr. Bill Harford (Cruise) make their way to a swank party thrown by wealthy friend Victor Ziegler (Sydney Pollack, in a role once meant for Harvey Keitel). At the soirée, a tipsy Alice engages in a dangerous flirtation with an anonymous partygoer while eyeing her husband getting friendly with a pair of seductive models.

Not too long after that, a fully nude female form appears onscreen, but not in the way one would expect. Similarly unexpected is the turn that soon comes in one astonishing Cruise-Kidman bedroom scene, which reveals itself to be the film's driving dramatic force. While this scene is all about sex, it is not of sex; in fact, it is of words describing sex, and in decidedly inexplicit terms. What lends this scene such power, however, is the hypnotic effect that comes when all facets of cinema are triumphantly married: photography, editing, writing, and especially directing and acting. A description of what the scene literally entails would sound deceptively simple and thus completely fail to do it justice. Directed with remarkable precision and control by Kubrick and quite simply the most triumphant moment in Kidman's entire acting career, this scene is the first of Eyes Wide Shut's fair share of haunting moments.

This charged encounter sends Bill off into the streets and the film into its main (for lack of a better term) action, where in one, long night, he is simultaneously repulsed and enticed by various sex-related situations he happens to stumble upon. The decadent centerpiece of his journey (and of the film itself) is a now-notorious orgy sequence, made even more controversial by the addition of some obvious digital effects work used to obscure some sex acts--and hence secure an R rating. From what I understand, no genitalia nor glimpses of penetration could be seen in Kubrick's unobstructed view, which is just as well--the point of the scene is not to titillate but to create an unsettling atmosphere where desire and carnal curiosity becomes tinged with danger and outright fear. (The atmosphere is stunningly bolstered by Jocelyn Pook's chilling minimalist score.) The point still comes across in the censored version, but undoubtedly diluted, for the unconvincing CGI work just serves to distract more than anything else.

This bit of censorship (which Warner Bros. insists was approved by Kubrick before his sudden death in March) also shows just how out-of-touch the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings board is. It fails to realize that it's not the presence of sex that matters but its context and intended effect. For all the scandalous associations that come with an orgy, there is nothing exploitative about the sequence; it is far more disturbing than it is the slightest bit arousing (which it isn't), and the sex is a means to a cinematic end and not the end itself.

Kubrick, his co-scripter Frederic Raphael (working from the "inspiration" of Arthur Schnitzler's novel Traumnovelle), Cruise, and Kidman's end is to create a probing and painfully real examination of a marriage, relationships in general, and basic human desire and nature. Clocking in at well north of the two-and-a-half-hour mark, there is bound to be a slow stretch here and there, and one late plot revelation is a bit too easily predictable; but overall, there is nary a false note in the execution. Though receiving equal star billing and delivering an outstanding and revealing (in every way) performance, Kidman's presence definitely takes a backseat to that of her on- and off-screen husband, who dominates the screen time. Cruise's innate likability and average-guy appeal makes him the ideal audience surrogate for this foray into the sexual underground; one can completely relate to his fascination and fear of all that he witnesses. The secondary roles are also well-cast, from Pollack (who, in the end, is probably a more effective choice for his role than Keitel could have been) and Sobieski (as a fetching nymphet) to a hilarious Alan Cumming as a hotel desk clerk who makes no secret of his interest in Bill. The one strained performance comes from Marie Richardson, who bears a passing resemblance to her role's original portrayer, Jennifer Jason Leigh (who was replaced when she was unavailable for reshoots); though stiff and awkward in her single scene with Cruise, her work is far from ruinous to the film.

It would take something much larger than that to detract from the vision of Kubrick, to whose control the audience completely surrenders. The common reaction once the end credits began to run was a simple "hmm," and while it doesn't sound that way, that is a good thing. Eyes Wide Shut is thought-provoking, but the film's spell goes beyond that; it makes you want to think about it afterward. That feeling even permeated this week's gala premiere of the film; in post-screening interviews, many of the celebrities in attendence expressed their need to think about what they had just seen.

That, right there, makes me somewhat grudgingly grateful that the film didn't end up hitting screens with the dreaded NC-17 rating. Eyes Wide Shut is a rich, challenging work, and as such, it is certain to fly clear over the heads of a baffled American moviegoing public; consequently, the film is all but certain to die a quick--and much-talked-about--box office death. And in this entertainment/political climate of scapegoating, had the film been released with an NC-17, fingers would have been pointed at the rating, rendering it even more useless than it already is. If one of the biggest, if not the biggest, movie star in the world is unable to make an NC-17 film commercially viable (regardless of its subject matter, challenging or otherwise), then no one would ever want to touch the NC-17 ever again. There is no excusing Warner Bros.'s tampering with Kubrick's work, but at least it leaves the door open for another name star, another high-profile director, and a major studio bold enough to take risks meant to be seen exclusively by an adult audience. However, the sad case remains that it is sure to be a very long while before anyone dares to think of entering that doorway again.

The Wood poster The Wood (R) ***
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So-called "urban" films almost always tend to be consigned to a box office ghetto of their own, rarely connecting beyond its target African-American audiences, even if the film has cross-demographic appeal. Even with the promotional muscle of MTV Productions behind it, The Wood is not likely to be an exception to the rule, but this warm and funny, if somewhat uneven, film deserves to be.

The film's title refers to Inglewood, California, and if anyone outside of the Southern California area knows about the city, it's for either one of two reasons: (1) it's the home of the Great Western Forum, longtime arena to the Los Angeles Lakers (at least until this coming fall); or (2) it's known for its gang activity. The latter would be the obvious angle to pursue, but aside from the gang connections of one secondary character, writer-director Rick Famuyiwa admirably skirts the issue. Famuyiwa grew up in Inglewood, and his take on the city is an affectionate portrait that could be of any given community; it has many different qualities (including, as it is, gangs) that contribute to its unique flavor.

Similarly universal, if more than a little formulaic, is its story, which tracks a group of three friends over a span of 13 years. The main character is Mike (played as a teen by Sean Nelson, as an adult by Omar Epps), who moves to The Wood from North Carolina in 1986. In junior high he immediately clicks with Wood natives Roland (played as a teen by Trent Cameron, as an adult by Taye Diggs) and Slim (played as a teen by Duane Finley, as an adult by Richard T. Jones), and together they come of age through high school. As is with the case of all young men of the teen age, sex dominates the brain, and in a sense The Wood can be seen as a (slightly) less crass cousin to American Pie; there are no outrageous gross-out gags, but the trio's attempts to initiate themselves are humorous in how they are so firmly grounded in honest reality.

As can be gleaned from the actor credits, there is also a parallel story that follows the trio as adults, and, unfortunately, it is not as interesting as the teenage story. In 1999, it's Roland's wedding day, and hours before the ceremony, he's nowhere to be found; Mike and Slim eventually do locate him, but he's plagued with doubt. The flashbacks are meant to punctuate the contemporary action, but the '99 scenes feel like needless interruptions in the story that runs through '86 and '89. This is no fault of the likable and charismatic actors, even if Epps is called on to address the camera directly for the film's first 15 minutes.

While I found that device to be distracting, it is in line with the theme of the film, which is this idea of community and belonging, which, of course, can be broken down to friendship. Over the course of The Wood, one really grows to know and like these people as well as get a keen feeling of their place and time; by the film's final toast, one feels as if they are indeed part of The Wood.

In Brief

Arlington Road poster Arlington Road (R) ***
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The "neighbor-from-hell" bit has been done before--and quite badly--in the awful 1992 thriller Consenting Adults and the even worse recent video release Under Pressure. Fortunately, screenwriter Ehren Kruger and director Mark Pellington have gotten the idea right in this stylish and unsettling thriller. One of the reasons why this film succeeds where those others did not is that it isn't quite so cut-and-dried. As professor and terrorism expert Michael Faraday (Jeff Bridges) suspects his seemingly innocuous architect neighbor Oliver Lang (Tim Robbins) of being up to no good, certain events and actions can indeed be read in two different ways; there is a palpable air of mystery along with paranoia, for one often believes that Michael's conspiracy theories are wild figments of his imagination.

Nonetheless, Kruger's script does accumulate some inconsistencies and lapses in logic along the way, becoming a bit more abundant in the later stages. But Pellington's creepy and atmospheric visual and audio style (which works much more effectively in a thriller context than in a dramatic one, as in his underseen 1997 debut, Going All the Way) and the pitch-perfect performances (not only Bridges and Robbins, but also Joan Cusack and Hope Davis as Oliver's wife and Michael's girlfriend, respectively) keep the viewer completely engrossed up to the film's suspenseful jolt of a finale.

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#199 July 8, 1999 by Michael Dequina


American Pie poster American Pie (R) ***
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If you see the trailer for American Pie in the theatre, temporarily leave the auditorium. If you see the commercial on TV, change the channel. This raucous teen sex comedy's most powerful weapon is the element of surprise--a tactic that, based on their full disclosure marketing campaign, Universal seems intent on ruining.

But even if you have already caught a glimpse of an ad or two, there are still a good amount of big, unexpected laughs in this unapologetically raunchy romp from screenwriter Adam Herz and director Paul Weitz, both making their debuts in their respective fields. What isn't so unexpected, however, is the thinness of the premise. Four seniors (Jason Biggs, Chris Klein, Thomas Ian Nicholas, and Eddie Kaye Thomas) vow to be virgins no more after prom night. C'est tout.

It's not like anyone buying a ticket to American Pie is looking for plot innovation; they are looking to laugh, and indeed they will. Along the way, though, viewers will be meet a variety of keenly defined characters--an uncommon occurrence in this era of Can't Hardly Waits and She's All Thats. The focal guy is Jim, a nice, if bashful and hopelessly desperate (as evidenced in the infamous scene that lends the film its title) guy made very sympathetic by Biggs, who is like a younger and much more likable David Schwimmer. Thomas's mochachino-drinking Finch is given the last amount of screen time of the four, but, like the even more peripheral players, such as sex advice-dispensing Jessica (Natasha Lyonne) and gabby geek Michelle (Alyson Hannigan), he carves out a memorable niche.

The same goes for Oz (Klein), the jock who turns over a sensitive new leaf en route to the big score; and Kevin (Nicholas), who is anxious to go all the way with his girlfriend Vicky (Tara Reid). But their respective plot threads eventually point up to American Pie's shortcoming. Oz's newfound gentle side wins him the genuine affection of jazz ensemble singer Heather (Mena Suvari), and he finds himself feeling the same way; and issues of true love play a major role in the Kevin-Vicky relationship. Needless to say, these forays into more earnest territory don't quite gel amid the air of tawdriness.

Audiences will be too busy eating up the many hilariously inspired moments in American Pie to remember, let alone think, about any serious issues it misguidedly touches upon. That's the whole point of the exercise, anyway--having a good time, and audiences are certain to have a blast.

Run Lola Run poster Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt) (R) ****
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About halfway through the 81 breathless minutes of Run Lola Run (Lola Rennt), a sense of paralyzing fear came over me. It had nothing to do with what was unfolding onscreen; rather, what had frightened me so was the thought of the inevitable fucked-up American remake, with some "hot" young "star" like Jennifer Love Hewitt as the titular heroine, whose numerous running scenes would provide ample showcase for Hewitt's least bland feature--rather, features.

So until that dark day comes--and it will, I'm sure of it (if I thought of it, at least one Hollywood bigwig already has)--one should savor the flavor and originality of Tom Tykwer's electrifying German action thriller, which was perhaps too outré to earn a spot among the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Not so outrageous, and, admittedly, rather conventional, is Tykwer's setup: Lola (Franka Potente) must somehow come up with 100,000 marks in twenty minutes to save her boyfriend Manni (Moritz Bleibtreu) from mobsters.

Tykwer takes that simple thread and, pardon the pun, runs with it. It's been said before, but the statement "it's like nothing you've ever seen before" couldn't be more true about Run Lola Run. He uses every trick in the book--animated interludes, lightning-fast edits, still frames, slow motion, you name it--and perhaps even a few more to capture the adrenalized anxiety of Lola's desperate quest. My description makes the film sound like it's all flash and no substance, but what makes Tykwer's approach so ingenious is how it reinforces and enhances the story rather than distract from it.

This could not be more the case than with one recurring trick that is pulled throughout the film. After Lola encounters certain strangers, the audience sees that character's ultimate fate through a series of Polaroids flashed on the screen; without giving too much away, these destinies change with certain variations in events. (That may not make complete sense, but it does once you see the film.) It's a tongue-in-cheek, seemingly throwaway narrative adornment, but it reflects what the film is really about--not Lola, not her boyfriend, not her run; it's about the different directions life can take, and the little catalysts that can make big changes. The point is eloquently made in the film's pre-credit sequence, where the camera zigzags its way through a crowd of people, stopping at random people as a faceless narrator ruminates on how the questions and so-called answers in life are perhaps one and the same.

That summation makes Run Lola Run sound heavyhanded, pretentious, and perhaps overreaching, but that theme doesn't hit one over the head while watching the film, which has the sense to take itself less-than-seriously. (Case in point: Lola's literally shattering screams.) First and foremost, it is a thrill ride, as exciting and suspenseful an action film as one is likely to see all year long--with a minimum of violence and bloodshed. That the film also holds up to a deeper thematic analysis after the fact makes it an even more impressive accomplishment.

trick poster Head On poster trick (R) ***
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Head On ***
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A simple "trick" is what young Gabriel (Christian Campbell) has in mind after he picks up male go-go dancer Mark (John Paul Pitoc) one lonely night on a New York subway. But what they get is something more than either of them bargained for: countless obstacles, from Gabriel's pushy best friend Katherine (Tori Spelling) and his even pushier (straight) roommate (Brad Beyer) to bitter drag queen Miss Coco Peru (Clinton Leupp), prevent the two from sealing the deal. However, that's just as well; as their shared night grows longer and longer, Gabe and Mark experience, as the press notes say, "something more gratifying than a one-night stand."

Like last year's entertaining Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss, sexual orientation is moot in first-time feature director Jim Fall's breezy, single-day-spanning romantic comedy. The point is not that the main characters are homosexual but that they are, like anyone in the world, searching for some type of human connection--not just with others, but with themselves, for aspiring Broadway composer Gabriel must learn to find the passion within himself to fuel his work. Adding greatly to the film's universal accessibility is the likable pair of leads and an able supporting cast--yes, even notorious over-hacktress Spelling, who is perfectly cast as the histrionic and pretentious off-off-off-Broadway hacktress Katherine.

On the other hand, "accessible" and "likable" aren't exactly the words I'd apply to Head On, a dark 1997 Australian gay-themed drama just about to receive exposure on this side of the Pacific. The main character of Ari (Alex Dimitriades) is about as unlikable as one can get: lazy and selfish, he spends his days and nights indulging in drugs and reckless, anonymous sex when not arguing with his strict (and completely oblivious) Greek parents and anyone else who dare cross him. Consequently, as director Ana Kokkinos unflinchingly tracks one typically destructive 24-hour span of Ari's directionless existence, one watches with the same emotional detachment with which Ari tackles his own life.

But there is a method to this madness, and a universal, if rather bleak, message to the film. "I'm not going to make a difference, I'm not going to change a thing," concludes Ari late in the film, and while most people are afraid to admit it, that's pretty much the futile fate of every single person on this planet, regardless of what good one attempts to make of one's life (a certain recent outside event has certainly taught me that); it's just that Ari bears no illusions about himself or how the world works. It's a testament to the sheer gutsiness of Dimitriades's uninhibited performance that the audience bears no illusions about Ari either. Head On is certainly a film more easily admired than enjoyed, but there is much to admire in this bold, unsettling film.

In Brief

I'm Losing You poster I'm Losing You ** 1/2
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The one time the titular line is uttered in Bruce Wagner's adaptation of his own novel of the same name is within the context of a cellular phone conversation--as in, one is "losing" the signal on the phone. But the "loss" that is the main concern of this downbeat drama is the ultimate one--loss of life. Television producer Perry (Frank Langella) learns he has terminal cancer at the beginning of the film, and that is indeed just the start of it. His struggling actor son Bertie (Andrew McCarthy) sells life insurance policies for dying AIDS patients, and he falls in love with a deceptively healthy-looking HIV-positive woman (Elizabeth Perkins). When Bertie's adoptive sister--and natural cousin--Rachel (Rosanna Arquette) begins to learn the truth about her birth parents' deaths, it sets her life on a morbid journey of self-discovery. And so on.

Well-acted and competently directed, I'm Losing You does accomplish what Wagner has obviously set out to do, which is create this overwhelming and exhausting sense of melancholy. But a few flaws in his script keep the film from being a complete success. Some late-inning plot developments are forced and contrived; even less convincing is the annoyingly inconsistent character of Rachel, who undergoes radical shifts according to the needs of the plot. As the film wears on, the title could very easily be something Wagner says in reference to the audience.

An Ideal Husband poster An Ideal Husband (PG-13) ***
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A happily married politician (Jeremy Northam) enlists the help of a womanizing bachelor friend (Rupert Everett) to thwart a blackmail scheme perpetrated by a woman (Julianne Moore) who holds proof of a deep, dark secret. The story could not sound more contemporary--but it isn't. An Ideal Husband is an adaptation of Oscar Wilde's 1895 play, and such timely subject matter lends all the period costumes, British accents, and lavish sets a nice air of freshness. But that's just an added delight in scripter-director Oliver Parker's light, agreeable farce, whose stellar cast also includes Cate Blanchett as Northam's innocent wife and Minnie Driver as Northam's sister. Out of the strong ensemble, it is Driver who impresses the most; her dead-on timing and easygoing, self-effacing manner would be a natural in a contemporary, Meg Ryan-esque romantic comedy. It is the exquisite teamwork and byplay, however, that make the film such a delight to watch.

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