Friday, 7 October 2022

Movie Review: Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977)

A military drama, Twilight's Last Gleaming wields the threat of launching nukes, but sinks into the silos.

In Montana, disgraced former Air Force General Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) breaks out of prison along with convicts Powell, Garvas, and Hoxey (Paul Winfield, Burt Young, and William Smith). They infiltrate and take control of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile launch site. With his finger on the button that could launch nine nuclear warheads towards the Soviet Union, Dell connects with his former commander General Martin MacKenzie (Richard Widmark) and demands to talk to US President David Stevens (Charles Durning).

Dell wants Stevens to publicly release top secret documents revealing the futility of the Vietnam War. MacKenzie crafts a plan for a military assault on the silo base to end the takeover, while Stevens weighs his options with a group of advisors.

Twilight's Last Gleaming enjoys an impressive-looking set at the silo base, and the opening facility penetration is decent when swallowed with a liberal dose of just-go-with-it. But while a rogue General could have plenty of reasons to initiate global destruction, releasing the minutes of a White House meeting about a past conflict must be close to the bottom of the list. Walter Wager's novel may have worked on paper, but the script by Ronald M. Cohen and Edward Huebsch rarely extracts tension out of the doofus premise, and director Robert Aldrich makes matters worse by extending the exercise to a wholly unnecessary 146 minutes.

Minutiae replaces substance and the pace slows to a crawl. Several sequences consist of Dell and his crew in the launch room waiting for President Stevens and his advisors to make a decision, with MacKenzie playing the role of joker in the pack. Aldrich attempts an artificial injection of energy with overuse of split screens, and twice resorts to prolonged handle-this-gizmo-with-care-or-it-will-explode scenes. 

Burt Lancaster and Richard Widmark are always watchable and come close to rescuing a few moments. An unlikely choice for President, Charles Durning appears suspicious of his own abilities to convince. He is surrounded by veterans like Melvyn Douglas and Joseph Cotten spouting their lines with earnest plasticity. 

The final act throws logic to the wind, the previously cold and calculating Dell succumbing to a bout of idiocy but only after Stevens opts for a ludicrous plan to end the showdown. The plot suddenly veers towards unearned notions of grand self-sacrifice, further hastening Twilight's Last Gleaming's descent into darkness.

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Thursday, 6 October 2022

Movie Review: Dreamgirls (2006)

A musical drama, Dreamgirls is a glitzy rags to riches story infused with powerful singing and overheated passions.

In Detroit of the 1960s, car dealer and part-time music promoter Curtis Taylor (Jamie Foxx) spots energetic amateur trio The Dreamettes, consisting of temperamental lead singer Effie (Jennifer Hudson), patient Deena (Beyoncé Knowles), and good-natured Lorrell (Anika Noni Rose). They perform music written by Effie's talented brother C.C. (Keith Robinson). Curtis signs the trio as background vocalists for soul star and rampant womanizer Jimmy "Thunder" Early (Eddie Murphy).

Curtis is eager to develop new sounds and grow the group's appeal with white audiences. He changes their name to the Dreams and turns them into headliners. He also designates Deena as the lead, much to Effie's disappointment. The group achieves huge success into the 1970s, with Deena and Curtis becoming a power couple and Lorrell maintaining a long-term relationship with Early. But Effie cannot accept her back-up role, and internal divisions threaten to tear the group apart.

An adaptation of the hit Broadway musical by Henry Krieger (music) and Tom Eyen (lyrics), Dreamgirls is unofficially but obviously based on the story of The Supremes, Diana Ross, and Motown Records. Written and directed by Bill Condon, the movie struts with confidence stemming from the close-to-real-life grand drama, and sparkles with colour, costumes, hairdos, and stage lights for a mostly exhilarating 130 minutes.

Tracing the formation and breakthrough of The Dreams up to Effie's departure, the first half is by far the stronger part of the film. The drive to success carries the scrappy but unified energy of underdogs taking on the music world, powered by the group's innocent nothing-to-lose ambition and Curtis' more machiavellian vision.

In contrast, the second half fragments into separate and less compelling narratives, the major characters navigating different trajectories. Effie struggles to rediscover herself; Jimmy Early spirals towards the industry's scrapheap, his love life competing with his career for wreckage awards; Curtis and Deena are wealthy beyond their dreams but also increasingly miserable, his attempts to turn her into a movie star a stuck-in-place sideshow. Happily, most of the threads are gathered up in time for the rousing final show. 

The cast finds a pleasing balance between acting and singing talent, with Eddie Murphy a standout presence. Jennifer Hudson's committed singing sometimes crosses over into barely controlled shouting, but overall the performance numbers, while numerous, are kept reasonably short. Jamie Foxx provides a business-focused anchor, and the cast also includes Danny Glover as Early's old-fashioned first manager. 

Dreamgirls is a dream-big-but-beware-the-pitfalls story, familiar for sure but attractively mounted with an abundance of glamour and glitter.

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Saturday, 1 October 2022

Movie Review: The Bodyguard (1992)

A woman-in-danger thriller and romance, The Bodyguard enjoys megawatt star power but suffers from sloppy plotting.

Ex-Secret Service agent and now private bodyguard Frank Farmer (Kevin Costner) is considered the best in the business. He reluctantly agrees to provide protection to superstar chanteuse and star movie actress Rachel Marron (Whitney Houston), who is receiving death threats. Frank finds Rachel's life chaotic and security lax, and proceeds to add cameras and fencing at her estate. He also meets Rachel's young son Fletcher and sister Nicki, publicist Sy (Gary Kemp), long-term manager Devaney (Bill Cobbs), burly bodyguard Tony (Mike Starr), and chauffeur Henry.

Rachel and Frank are initially hostile to each other, but she initiates a seduction and they sleep together, disrupting his job focus. As the death threats continue and turn to acts of violence, Rachel is nominated for an Oscar, and Frank has to sort our friend from foe with the lavish Academy Awards ceremony approaching.

The teaming of hot Hollywood star Kevin Costner with music charts diva Whitney Houston ensures bedazzlement. Costner effectively delivers his stoic quiet-man-with-a-past persona (Frank blames himself a bit for failing to prevent the Reagan shooting). In her film debut Houston is a hesitant actress, but deploys her extraordinary voice to belt out hits like I Have Nothing (used as a slogan by Rachel's predator), thumping dance tune Queen of the Night, I'm Every Woman, Run to You, and the eternal I Will Always Love You. To director Mick Jackson's credit, the songs are used judiciously and don't interfere with the flow.

Lawrence Kasdan's script has just enough fragments of interest to build momentum, but Jackson does struggle to justify the 129 minutes of running time. The chemistry between Costner and Houston is tepid at best, not helped by an emotionally psychotic romance scripted to switch between mushiness and hostility every 15 minutes. An interlude in the country at the cottage of Frank's father manages to be obtrusive, incongruous, and incoherent, backfiring in all sorts of nonsensical directions.

Kasdan does capture the chaos of a music star's life and surrounds Rachel with a long list of jealous or conceited suspects, encouraging a guess-the-villain game. The reveals take too long to arrive within a bad combination of blurted confession and faceless depravity, although a suitably chaotic final act at the Academy Awards ceremony injects frazzled energy. The Bodyguard brings out the big guns, but demonstrates wayward aim.

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Friday, 30 September 2022

Movie Review: The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

A poker drama, The Cincinnati Kid mixes high-stakes card action with less impressive romantic entanglements and some muddled era representations.

In New Orleans of the 1930s, Eric "the Cincinnati Kid" Stoner (Steve McQueen) is the hottest up-and-coming poker player. His mentor and friend is the aging Shooter (Karl Malden), who is married to the much younger Melba (Ann-Margret). The Kid's girlfriend Christian (Tuesday Weld) is growing disgruntled that she does not get much of his attention.

The revered Lancey "The Man" Howard (Edward G. Robinson) arrives in town with a well-earned reputation as the best poker player alive and promptly defeats wealthy businessman Slade (Rip Torn). Next up is a much anticipated showdown between Lancey and the Kid, with Shooter and Lady Fingers (Joan Blondell) recruited as dealers. The Kid has to contend with Christian's sour attitude and Melba's unconstrained lust, while Shooter comes under pressure to influence the game's outcome.

With The Hustler swinging open the door to grim smoke-filled backroom duels, The Cincinnati Kid arrives with a similar formula of the hot young talent (McQueen) challenging the veteran reigning champion (Robinson). Writers Ring Lardner Jr. and Terry Southern adapt the Richard Jessup novel with verve, and Norman Jewison directs with a sweaty immediacy to wring maximum tension out of men sitting around the table, encouraging McQueen and Robinson to naturally match actors with characters.

And when Jewison stays close to the poker table, the energy level buzzes. The audience is trusted to know the five card stud rules or quickly catch up, and regardless, the strategy propelled by bluffing, gamesmanship, and penetrating personality traits registers through facial expressions and body language. The showdown between Lancey and the Kid extends for several days and occupies the entire third act, and despite breaks for sleeping and eating, the pressure only builds towards the legendary final pair of hands.

The scenes without cards being dealt are comparatively limp. The Kid and Melba attend an entirely superfluous cockfight, the romance between The Kid and Christian stutters into painfully strained territory, and all three of Steve McQueen, Tuesday Weld, and Ann-Margret are dressed and styled according to 1960s fashions, despite the 1930s setting. Nothing substantive is revealed about The Kid's earlier days, and no explanation provided for the odd pairing of the vivacious Melba with boring has-been Shooter.

The dream cast makes up for plenty of deficiencies. While McQueen is adequate playing his usual nervy-cool persona, veterans Robinson and Malden provide superb senior heft, Rip Torn is suitably oily, and Joan Blondell breezes in as a dealer riding a flamboyant past. Ann-Margret (openly zesty) and Weld (quietly smoldering) embody classic opposites, while Jack Weston and Cab Calloway make up the numbers around the table with restless colour.

Although some of the cards have questionable value, The Cincinnati Kid deals from a crisp deck.

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Movie Review: Phone Booth (2002)

A single-setting suspense thriller, Phone Booth is a compact psychological sniper drama, although the one-note premise unsurprisingly bumps up against obvious limitations.

In Manhattan, Stu Sheppard (Colin Farrell) is a cocky and fast-taking publicist, happy to obfuscate his way through life. Married to Kelly (Radha Mitchell), he is also romancing waitress Pam (Katie Holmes) and calls her regularly from a phone booth near Times Square to avoid cell phone records.

But today Stu answers a call at the booth from a mysterious Caller (Kiefer Sutherland), who threatens Stu's life with a sniper rifle. The Caller wants Stu to reveal his infidelity to Kelly, and apologize for all his other transgressions. After the Caller shoots dead a pimp interfering with the call, the police descend on the scene, as do Kelly and Pam. Captain Ed Ramey (Forest Whitaker) has to try and untangle a dangerous situation.

Written by Larry Cohen and directed by Joel Schumacher, Phone Booth was filmed in ten days and in sequence. The film's events take place in real time, Stu's ordeal wrapping up in 81 minutes, and the desired mood of taut efficiency is effectively sustained. Schumacher's agitated camerawork adds to the disorienting sense of suspense caused by an unseen foe.

The basic theme of repentance and owning up to a pattern of nefarious behaviour is compelling, but also dragged out as Cohen struggles to keep Stu in the phone booth. The plot details surrender to illogic, most obviously to keep Kelly and Pam in danger, and some of the dialogue exchanges meander towards superfluous profanity in search of cheap shock value.

But Colin Farrell stands up to the role's rigours and carves a sweaty path from slick to desperate and frantic, literally holding the film in his hand. On the other end of the line Kiefer Sutherland's voice suggests a worthy villain. Unfortunately the script affords him God-like powers until the moments that matter most, and the duel between the two men deserves better motivation than Stu's small-scale sleaze. 

Without withstanding much scrutiny, Phone Booth answers the call.

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Movie Review: Showdown At Boot Hill (1958)

A ponderous western, Showdown At Boot Hill is an uneven collection of stranded philosophical ideas. 

New-in-town Luke Welch (Charles Bronson) is a combination Marshall and bounty hunter, emotionally intimidated by his lack of physical stature. He guns down popular fugitive Con Maynor, but cannot claim the $200 bounty because the resentful townsfolk refuse to confirm the dead man's identity. Luke has to wait around the town facing local hostility whipped up by businessman Sloane (Robert Hutton), who admired Maynor. 

The local doctor/barber Doc Weber (John Carradine) sympathizes with Luke's predicament and offers abstract words of advice. Luke attempts to initiate a romance with hesitant hotel server Sally Crane (Fintan Meyler), who prefers a plain lifestyle in contrast to her saloon madame mother Jill (Carole Mathews). With Luke's prolonged presence upping tensions, more violence is threatened.

An early starring role for Charles Bronson, Showdown At Boot Hill is more odd than good. Louis Vittes' story and Gene Fowler Jr.'s directing are both clearly inspired by the man-against-town theme of High Noon, but here budget and talent limitations truncate any ambitions of profundity. So while it's interesting that Luke has an inferiority complex, Charles Bronson can never look uncomfortable in his skin. And the town closing ranks by refusing to certify a dead man's identity is a flimsy source of tension, not helped by a failure to expand on the context of outlaw Con Maynor's popularity.

As a result, the meagre running time of 71 minutes feels longer, as the lonely hearts romance between Luke and Sally gets bogged down in circular conversations about confidence and assertiveness. The plot meanders towards the debris of the relationship between Sally and her mother Jill, and men who enjoy saloon girls and are keen to test themselves against fast guns like Luke. The central bounty hunting story and the town's loyalty towards a fallen gangster are all but forgotten until the dead man's brother appears for the burial, setting up an unusual  - if not confusing - confrontation.

The lanky John Carradine is an indomitable presence and the most prominent supporting character, a patient seen-it-all veteran with a bullet-in-the-knee story. The rest of the secondary cast members fail to rise above stock representations. Showdown At Boot Hill stumbles onto some quirks, but lacks both quality and cohesion.

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Movie Review: The Carpetbaggers (1964)

A business-and-romance drama, The Carpetbaggers is fueled by a tortuously obsessed personality.

In the 1920s, Jonas Cord Jr. (George Peppard) inherits his father's chemical business, and proceeds to build an audacious empire centred on the burgeoning airline and film industries. His long-term associates include ex-cowboy Nevada Smith (Alan Ladd), who raised Jonas from a young age, level-headed lawyer McAllister (Lew Ayres), and airplane pilot Buzz Dalton (Ralph Taeger).

A driven workaholic, Jonas also has a tumultuous lustful relationship with his father's young widow Rina Marlowe (Carroll Baker), and eventually turns her into a movie star. He marries - then ignores - Monica Winthrop (Elizabeth Ashley), before courting starlet Jennie Denton (Martha Hyer). Along the way Jonas tangles with sleazy agent Dan Pierce (Bob Cummings) and studio boss Bernard Norman (Martin Balsam). 

Inspired by Howard Hughes, The Carpetbaggers adapts Harold Robbins' novel into an effective cinematic experience. John Michael Hayes wrangles a cohesive but still epic 150 minute screenplay out of the book, and Edward Dmytryk hustles the sprawling narrative along, never dawdling or pausing to contemplate. The outcome is a sustained rhythm mixing business compulsion with warped romance, both propelled by voracious character traits.

The film tackles business issues head-on, and presents Jonas as never likeable but nevertheless fascinating, a demanding cut-throat overachiever and impossible boss, but also a willing and constant learner. The emotional underpinnings for his behaviour are only hinted at, until the suitably bombastic final act revelations. George Peppard fits the role well, his stone cold expressions capturing an antipathy only satisfied when exerting control and achieving domination, consequences be damned.

Dmytryk infuses the aesthetics with the gaudy look of greed and lust, and most of the romantic scenes are dripping with undertones of conquest and egomaniacal seduction. With a lot of ground to cover, the editing demonstrates a preference for bold brevity bordering on choppiness, powered by Elmer Bernstein's brass-and-drums dominated music.

The supporting cast is impressive, from the friendly stoicism of Lew Ayres to the scheming of Martin Balsam and Bob Cummings. Carroll Baker (manipulative), Elizabeth Ashley (hopeful), and Martha Hyer (opportunistic) create a triangle of naturally flawed women grappling with Jonas' troubled psyche. Most notable is Alan Ladd in his final screen role, providing the one robust anchor in a stormy life.

Embracing boardroom and bedroom lubriciousness, The Carpetbaggers crackles with connivance.

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Wednesday, 21 September 2022

Movie Review: Operation Mincemeat (2021)

A spy drama, Operation Mincemeat benefits from the real story's ingenuity, but suffers from distracted padding.

The setting is Britain in 1943, with the Allies readying an invasion of Sicily. Lieutenant Commander Ewen Montagu (Colin Firth) and intelligence officer Charles Cholmondeley (Matthew Macfadyen) are placed in charge of an audacious operation to deceive the Germans into believing Greece is the actual invasion target. The plan hinges on planting the dead body of a supposed British military officer on the beaches of Spain as a victim of a plane crash, with "secret" papers in his briefcase revealing the invasion plans. 

The operation receives Churchill's support, but head of intelligence Admiral John Godfrey (Jason Isaacs) remains sceptical. Ewen and Charles are supported by loyal assistant Hester (Penelope Wilton) and researcher Jean Leslie (Kelly Macdonald). With Ewen's marriage in trouble and his family out of the country, he develops an attraction towards Jean. Godfrey further complicates matters by pressuring Charles into spying on Ewen's brother, a suspected communist sympathizer.

Directed by John Madden and written by Michelle Ashford, Operation Mincemeat enjoys elegant production values, a capable cast, and a strong sense of time and place. The remarkable real events helped shape World War Two's destiny, and ensure inherent narrative power and persistent engagement. The so-bizarre-it-may-work idea of finding a random drowned corpse and creating a waterproof backstory to fool the enemy propels the best scenes.

But the film leans too far towards surrounding the central plot with human interest. The stifled love triangle between Ewen, Jean, and Charles persistently gets in the way. The subplot of Charles seeking to repatriate his deceased war hero brother and succumbing to Godfrey's pressure tactics to spy on Ewen barely flickers. The running time meanders over two hours, too often focusing on the wrong things, the actual operation frequently marginalized.

The lack of balance defangs the drama, and the final act suffers the most. Once the planted dead body washes up in Spain, Madden has to rush through a haze of barely defined Spanish officials, German agents, and British emissaries to track the fake intelligence's progress towards Hitler's desk. The main characters are reduced to standing around waiting for the clack of incoming messages. Some scattered bits of tension survive, but with the historical outcome well known, the resolution is content with fading out.

Colin Firth holds his ground and delivers an upright performance, and Matthew Macfadyen is a capable deputy. Kelly Macdonald finds a range of understated emotions portraying a resourceful woman stepping up to the table but also uncertain about Ewen's romantic intentions. A bit of humour is thrown in through the character of James Bond creator Ian Fleming (Johnny Flynn), a supporting member of the intelligence team.

Neither shaken nor stirred, Operation Mincemeat is serviceably mixed with overstuffed olives.

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Saturday, 17 September 2022

Movie Review: The Water Diviner (2014)

A post-war drama, The Water Diviner explores themes of recovery from tragedy and broader cross-cultural understanding. An appropriately somber mood is compromised by too much plot.

In 1919, Australian farmer Joshua Connor (Russell Crowe) is still grieving the death of his three sons in the Gallipoli campaign three years prior. Their bodies were never recovered. When his wife Eliza succumbs to her anguish, Joshua makes the long journey to look for his sons' remains in Turkey. He finds the victorious Allies in control of the country, with Australian Lieutenant Colonel Cyril Hughes (Jai Courtney) leading an excavation of Gallipoli battle sites to recover and identify fallen soldiers. Major Hasan (Yılmaz Erdoğan) of the defeated Turkish army provides reluctant help.

As Joshua searches for the remains of his sons, he tangles with Hasan, who was on the battlefield when the Connor boys died. Joshua also gets involved in the life of widowed innkeeper Ayshe (Olga Kurylenko) and her young son Orhan. Joshua and Hasan move from adversaries to allies, and have to survive skirmishes with the invading Greek army.

The directorial debut of Russell Crowe, The Water Diviner is loosely inspired by real events. The title references Joshua's ability to find water wells in otherwise barren land, a talent that may also translate to locating his fallen sons on a scarred battlefield filled with ghosts. The film's scope is ambitious, almost epic, and combines a father's intimate search with cultural detente. Whether in rural Australia, on the desolate Gallipoli terrain, or within a bustling Istanbul, Andrew Lesnie's cinematography is suitably grand, and portrays Turkey after the Great War as a stunned nation seeking a path to recovery. Efficient flashbacks to grinding trench-to-trench battles are effectively gory but avoid excess.

When the narrative remains focused on healing the wounds of war, The Water Diviner maintains promise. But the script by Andrew Knight and Andrew Anastasios crosses from expansive to cluttered. Joshua's journey is bogged down in the affairs of the widow Ayshe, who is being pressured into marrying her brother-in-law. Whatever the film wants to say about local culture is lost when the evolving friendship between Joshua and Hasan takes centre stage, followed by the re-emergence of a ragtag Turkish militia to counter unexplained Greek aggression. A surrogate father-son bond between Joshua and Orhan also starts and stops more than once, but not before branching off into a dead-on-arrival subquest for Orhan's father.

Crowe eventually remembers the core plot and gathers up the search-for-the-missing-sons story, achieving some moments of true poignancy. But by then the initial dramatic thrust is dissipated and replaced by unnamed Greek enemies, silly narrow escapes involving cricket bats, and an obligatory overture towards romance.

Crowe directs himself in a soulful and restrained performance, and finds a good foil in Yılmaz Erdoğan's patient portrayal of Major Hasan. Olga Kurylenko is competent but predictable as Ayshe, while the underutilized Jai Courtney brightens proceedings. The Water Diviner finds some wells of inspiration, but also digs then abandons too many holes.

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Movie Review: From Noon Till Three (1976)

A western spiced with sly humour, From Noon Till Three toys with romance and action in a clever expression of the gap between legend and reality.

In the late 1800s, the outlaw Graham Dorsey (Charles Bronson) rides with the little-known Buck Bowers gang. On the night before they rob the bank in Gladstone, Graham has a prophetic nightmare that the gang will be annihilated. The next morning he lies his way out of the robbery and waits for his colleagues at the grand house of the wealthy and beautiful widow Amanda Starbuck (Jill Ireland).

Amanda is initially fearful and resentful of Graham, but he artfully worms his way into her heart with elaborate lies, and they become lovers over three idyllic hours. The rest of the gang is killed or captured, and Graham is forced to flee a chasing posse. When Amanda is vilified for consorting with an outlaw, she unexpectedly takes control of her fate, creating a legend in the process.

Written and directed by Frank D. Gilroy (adapting his own novel), From Noon Till Three is uneven in pacing and tone, but dares to be different while still respecting traditional western constructs. The plot features familiar components, including the outlaw gang, bank robbery, and chasing posse, all infused with subversive twists. The two central characters are worthwhile adversaries and both undoubtedly whip-smart, but outlaw Graham Dorsey is also a womanizing liar (if not an outright coward), and despite her blazing red dress, Amanda's true colours are cold and opportunistic.

The entire second act is an elaborate romance. The real-life husband and wife team of Charles Bronson and Jill Ireland have rarely been better together on the screen, and here engage in flirtatious theatre covering the spectrum from lust and hostility to the grandest love. Gilroy stages their affair at a mysteriously majestic mansion jutting out of the barren landscape, and allows star chemistry to flourish. An idyllic waltz in the music room provides an appropriate highlight.

Once the lovers are separated, Gilroy injects plenty of humour into the widening chasm between selling a story and gritty facts. The afternoon of love is propelled into the sphere of swoon-worthy legend with searing commentary on the power of marketing, celebrity worship, and the public thirst to believe in the fantastic. The myths of the west are built on tall tales, real people consumed by inflated retellings of ultimately outsized exploits.

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