Review: ‘Gone in the Night’ (2022), starring Winona Ryder

August 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

John Gallagher Jr. and Winona Ryder in “Gone in the Night” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Gone in the Night” (2022)

Directed by Eli Horowitz

Culture Representation: Taking place in Sonoma County, California, the dramatic film “Gone in the Night” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and one African American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman’s boyfriend abruptly disappears after they’ve rented a vacation cabin in a remote wooded area, and she tries to solve the mystery of what happened to him. 

Culture Audience: “Gone in the Night” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Winona Ryder and don’t mind watching a dull, convoluted and insipid mystery.

Dermot Mulroney in “Gone in the Night” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Gone in the Night” is supposed to be a mystery thriller. But the only baffling mystery is how anyone involved in this tepid and messy dud of a movie thought that it was worth getting made. Winona Ryder fans, you’ve been warned. “Gone in the Night” is one of the worst movies she’s ever done. Not only is Ryder’s talent completely misused and squandered in this wasteland of a film, but all of the cast members are also stuck portraying hollow characters in a sluggish story with a moronic ending.

Directed by Eli Horowitz (who co-wrote the terrible “Gone in the Night” screenplay with Matthew Derby), “Gone in the Night” (originally titled “The Cow”) had its world premiere at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas. The change in the movie’s title is the only improvement made to this creatively bankrupt slog of a film, which has barely enough of a story to fill a short film. The reason why the original title was “The Cow” is explained in the last 15 minutes of the movie.

“Gone in the Night” is not a horror movie, although it might try to fool people that it is if you’ve seen some of the movie’s publicity images of Ryder in character, looking terrified with blood spatter on her face. The first third of the film takes place in that constant horror cliché: a house in an isolated wooded area. But don’t expect anything scary to happen in this cabin in the woods.

The monotony of “Gone in the Night” begins with an unmarried couple driving at night to said cabin in the woods, which is located in an unnamed city in Sonoma County, California. (“Gone in the Night” was filmed on location in Sonoma County.) Kath (played by Ryder) is introverted and cautious. Max (played by John Gallagher Jr.) is extroverted and a risk-taker. Their contrasting personalities are on display when they encounter a problem after arriving during the night at their rental cabin, which they got through an unnamed service that sounds like Airbnb.

Kath and Max find out that another couple got booked for the same cabin at the same time. And neither couple wants to leave. At first, Kath wants to leave, since she’s the only one in this couple who has a driver’s license. But then, Kath changes her mind because Max wants to stay, and Kath doesn’t want to drive at night.

The other couple at this cabin are Al (played by Owen Teague) and Greta (played by Brianne Tju), who are both in their 20s. Kath is in her early 50s, while Max is in his late 30s. Kath and Max have been dating each other for about one year, which is the same period of time that Al and Greta have been a couple. It’s mentioned later in the story that Kath (a continuing education teacher) met Max when he was a student in her hydroponics class.

Right from the beginning, it’s obvious that something is off-kilter about Al and Greta, who both wear matching green rain ponchos. Al is a little hostile about the booking mixup, but Greta convinces Al it would be okay to let Kath and Max temporarily stay in a spare room for the night. This is the part of the movie where things could get intriguing. Instead, “Gone in the Night” fizzles and never recovers.

“Gone in the Night” is so shoddily written, not much else is revealed about these two couples during the time that they spend together and have boring conversations. At one point, it’s mentioned that Al and Greta are in an unconventional relationship. Kath mentions that she tried being married once but she didn’t like it. The two couples find a board game called Pillow Talkers, which is supposed to encourage intimacy. Players of the game read cards that dare them to do something semi-erotic.

All it results in is a not-very-interesting scene where a card is read saying, “The elbow is an erogenous zone. Prove it.” And then, Greta licks and kisses Max’s elbow. Kath and Al watch with some discomfort, as Greta and Max mildly flirt and laugh with each other for the rest of the game. Kath eventually has enough and announces that she’s going to go to sleep.

The next day, Kath finds a distressed-looking Al in the woods. Al tells Kath, “They’re gone. Your fucking dude was groping my girlfriend … And they ran off.” And this is where “Gone in the Night” slides further into idiocy. Instead of looking for Max to find out for herself what’s going on with him, Kath goes back to the cabin and assumes that Max’s disappearance is his way of dumping her. She’s very nonchalant (and ignorant) about not caring to find out if what Al said is true.

Instead of finding out what happened, Kath just goes home and complains to her friend Laurel (played by Yvonne Senat Jones) that she’s better off without Max. “It felt like effort,” Kath says of dating Max. “I’m done with effort.” That also describes the “Gone in the Night” filmmakers’ attitude toward crafting a good story for this movie.

After not hearing from Max for a number of days, Kath finally gets an inkling that maybe something is really wrong with Max’s disappearance. Instead of using common sense and contacting Max’s family members and/or friends to find out where he is, Kath calls the owner of the cabin—57-year-old Nicholas Levi Barlow (played by Dermot Mulroney—to try and find out Greta’s address. It’s a dimwitted decision because there’s no guarantee that Max is with Greta at Greta’s address.

Kath’s lie is that Greta left a book behind in the cabin, and Kath wants to return the book to Greta. Its a badly thought-out-fabrication because Nicholas says he doesn’t want to violate Greta’s privacy by giving out her home address, so he offers to give the book to Greta if Kath will give the book to him. Caught in this lie, Kath then admits she wants Greta’s address because she heard that Greta and Max ran off together.

The movie gets even more ludicrous when Nicholas offers to help Kath play detective to find Greta and Max. The rest of “Gone in the Night” consists of embarrassingly dimwitted and tedious scenes of Nicholas and Kath snooping around and acting like stalkers until the full truth is revealed of what happened to Max and Greta. During this investigation, Nicholas crosses paths with a former business partner named Ramon (played by Alain Uy), who worked with Nicholas in a biotech start-up company.

There’s nothing remarkable about anything in “Gone in the Night,” which drags on and on until the movie’s witless ending. The last 15 minutes of the movie give the impression that screenwriters Horowitz and Derby weren’t quite sure how to end the story and rushed through some sloppy thoughts because they wanted to finish the screenplay by a certain time. All of the cast members look like they’re going through the motions. The only motions that viewers will feel compelled to take while watching “Gone in the Night” are falling asleep, or finding ways to endure watching this slow-moving train wreck until the bitter end.

Vertical Entertainment released “Gone in the Night” in select U.S. cinemas on July 15, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on August 2, 2022.

Review: ‘Abandoned’ (2022), starring Emma Roberts, John Gallagher Jr. and Michael Shannon

July 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

John Gallagher Jr., Emma Roberts and Marie May in “Abandoned” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Abandoned” (2022)

Directed by Spencer Squire

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional small town of Duboisville, North Carolina, the horror film “Abandoned” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A husband and a wife move into an isolated house that was abandoned for years, and then sinister things starts to happen. 

Culture Audience: “Abandoned” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Emma Roberts and to viewers who don’t mind watching shoddily made and monotonous horror movies.

Michael Shannon in “Abandoned” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Abandoned” is how to describe any hope that viewers might have that this dull and idiotic horror flick will be scary or interesting. It’s the type of derivative haunted house movie that’s just recycled trash. The terrible ending of “Abandoned” is just one of many examples of how this creatively bankrupt dud fails at even ripping off good horror movies.

Directed by Spencer Squire, “Abandoned” is so bad, it looks like the stars of the movie don’t really want to be there. Erik Patterson and Jessica Scott co-wrote the atrocious “Abandoned” screenplay, which tepidly regurgitates over-used plot devices that have been in dozens of movies about haunted houses.

There’s the family moving into a house that has a sinister history, but the family doesn’t know or doesn’t care. The house is usually in an isolated area. And there’s usually at least one young child in the house, in order for viewers to be more alarmed that any evil spirits lurking around could harm the child or children.

All of these clichés on their own or together don’t necessarily mean that a movie is going to be horrible. It’s when a movie does nothing compelling with these clichés that the filmmaking becomes lazy and irritating. “Abandoned” is an example of what not to do when making a movie about a haunted house.

“Abandoned” opens with an exterior scene of an isolated farmhouse in the fictional small town of Duboisville, North Carolina. (The movie was actually filmed in Smithfield, North Carolina.) An unseen young female can be heard screaming in the house: “You promised me I could keep one!” And then, gunshots are heard.

Forty years later, married couple Sara Davis (played by Emma Roberts) and Alex Davis (played by John Gallagher Jr.) are being given a tour of the house by a real-estate agent named Cindy (played by Kate Arrington), who is nervously eager to make this sale. Sara and Alex have brought their infant son Liam (played by Marie May) with them. Liam seems to get agitated as soon as they go inside the house, and he begins crying. Get used to hearing a baby shrieking and crying, because this movie overloads on these sound effects.

Of course, viewers can easily deduce from the opening scene that this house’s history includes at least one brutal murder. Unlike other haunted house movies where the new residents didn’t bother to get that background information, “Abandoned” has the house buyers getting that information before they purchase the house. Predictably, the house is being sold at a “too good to be true” bargain, but the house has been on the market for years.

Sara asks Cindy why the house has been for sale for such a long period of time. Alex quickly says, “I don’t want to know.” Sara responds in an insistent tone, “I want to know.” Cindy then reluctantly tells Sara and Alex that years ago, a teenager named Hannah Solomon shot her infant brother, her widowed father and herself in the house.

Cindy also hands Sara a legal-sized envelope with all the details. Later, when Sara opens the envelope, she sees news clippings about the killings and police photos of the dead bodies. How morbid. What kind of real-estate agent gives this gruesome file to a house buyer? Only a weird real-estate agent in a dumb horror movie like “Abandoned.”

Sara has this nonchalant reaction when stating that she still wants to buy the house: “We’ll take it. You know, I don’t mind a little haunting. Besides, it’s all in the past. We’re focused on the future.” Who talks like that? Only stupid house buyers in a terrible horror movie like “Abandoned.”

Alex is a veterinarian who plans to use the barn on the property as his veterinary clinic. However, the barn doesn’t have electricity. Alex expects farmers to be his main clients. However, the property is at least a one-hour drive away from the nearest farm. And so, with no electricity yet for his would-be veterinary clinic, and his potential clients living so far away, Alex has already set up major obstacles to get his veterinarian business started in this home.

Meanwhile, it’s soon revealed that Alex and Sara are moving out of an unnamed city to a rural area because Sara has been battling depression, and they want a calmer environment for her. Because the most logical place to go for more peace and quiet is a house that you think might be haunted. Who makes moronic decisions like this? Only the targets who put themselves in harm’s way in a mindless horror movie like “Abandoned.”

Soon after moving into the house, Sara notices that Liam refuses to breastfeed. And so, expect to see a lot of tedious whining from Sara about how she doesn’t like it that she has to bottle-feed milk to Liam. There are also time-wasting scenes of Alex visiting the nearest farmer to try to get some work for Alex’s fledgling veterinary business.

Sara likes to snap a rubber band that she wears around her wrist. Don’t expect the movie to explain why she has this odd habit. There’s a vague mention that Sara was getting medically treated for her depression. However, she stopped taking her medication because she was breastfeeding Liam. And now, Liam refuses to breastfeed. Sara still doesn’t want to take the medication in case Liam will start breastfeeding again.

But wait: “Abandoned” isn’t quite done using up all the over-used haunted house clichés. There’s also the creepy and secretive person who just shows up in the lives of the house’s new residents. In the case of “Abandoned,” it’s Chris Renner (played by Michael Shannon), a neighbor who wants people to call him Renner. And the way that Renner shows up is very rude and stalker-ish.

When Sara is in an upstairs bedroom, she turns around to find Renner in the room. He’s holding a case of beer as a housewarming gift, as if it’s perfectly normal to walk into a stranger’s home uninvited. During this conversation, where Sara doesn’t seem bothered at all that a stranger came into her house uninvited, Renner says that he knew the Solomon family that was killed in the murder-suicide. He also mentions that Sara looks like Hannah Solomon.

It isn’t long before Sara starts having nightmares, none of which looks very original or horrifying. In one of the nightmares, she’s surrounded by a swarm of flies. When she tells Alex about these nightmares that seem real to her, it just leads to yet another horror movie stereotype: the woman who is not believed and is then labeled as mentally ill.

Alex thinks that Sara’s depression is the reason for everything bad happening in their lives. And irresponsibly, he believes the depression will just go away because he thinks it’s post-partum depression that will disappear when Liam gets older. For someone who has a medical degree, Alex is certainly a dimwitted doctor.

Sara confesses to Alex how she feels about parenthood: “I thought it would be the best thing that would ever happen to me. It’s not.” Sara says of Liam: “I look at him, and I feel so uncomfortable, like he’s an intruder or something.” Alex’s response is the worst “in denial” medical advice ever when he tells Sara: “That’s just the depression. It’s not you. It’ll go away.”

Eventually, secrets are revealed about the house and the Solomon family. These secrets are not surprising at all and are foreshadowed very sloppily in “Abandoned.” In addition to having mediocre-to-bad performances from all of the cast members who mostly play witless characters, “Abandoned” is extremely lethargic and fails to deliver any truly terrifying scenes. Simply put: At any point in watching “Abandoned,” viewers are more likely to fall asleep in their seats rather than be at the edge of their seats.

Vertical Entertainment released “Abandoned” in select U.S. cinemas on June 17, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on June 24, 2022.

Review: ‘Underwater,’ starring Kristen Stewart

January 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart in “Underwater”
Kristen Stewart in “Underwater” (Photo by Alan Markfield)

“Underwater”

Directed by William Eubank

Culture Representation: The movie’s characters are a predominately white, educated crew of underwater explorers (with one African American and one Asian) who are tasked with drilling for resources in the deep ocean when they come under attack and fight for their lives.

Culture Clash: Telling a story with an implied environmental message, “Underwater” shows what happens when deep-ocean creatures fight back against humans who plunder their territory.

Culture Audience: “Underwater” will primarily appeal to those looking for a suspenseful sci-fi/horror movie that won’t be considered a classic but will provide about 90 minutes of escapist entertainment.

Kristen Stewart in “Underwater” (Photo by Alan Markfield)

Kristen Stewart: action hero? Taking massive cues from Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character in “Alien,” Stewart goes from brainy, introspective crew member to kick-ass warrior, as she takes on deep-sea monsters in the sci-fi/horror film “Underwater.” After starring in the 2019 comedy reboot fiasco of Columbia Pictures’ “Charlie’s Angels,” Stewart (who’s been making mostly arty indie films for the past several years) has taken another step into major-studio action fare—but in 20th Century Fox’s “Underwater,” she’s going for scares instead of laughs.

During the opening credits of “Underwater,” there are flashes of media headlines and news reports about unconfirmed sightings of mysterious creatures in the deep ocean. According to the headlines, a major corporation named Kepler has been mining the deep oceans for resources, and hasn’t been giving full explanations for why employees have apparently disappeared from the underwater drilling sites. These elaborate, high-tech facilities (which are seven miles below the ocean surface) look like a cross between a factory, a spaceship and an underground bunker. They’re so high-tech that the Kepler workers living in these facilities for weeks or months at a time don’t need to wear oxygen masks or submarine suits when they’re in the building.

Within the first five minutes of the film, we’re barely introduced to Stewart’s mechanical/electrical engineer character Norah Price (who looks pensive as she brushes her teeth, muses about her isolation in a voiceover, and thinks about her broken love affair with her former fiancé) when the facility is hit with a massive explosion that kills many people in the crew and destroys the emergency equipment. Six of the surviving crew members, including Norah, find each other and agree to a desperate plan to walk across the ocean floor to an abandoned facility named Roebuck, in the hopes that Roebuck’s emergency equipment still works so they can escape or call for help.

The other five crew members are crew captain Lucien (played by Vincent Cassel), a take-charge Frenchman who has a 14-year-old daughter waiting for him at home; marine biology student Emily (played by Jessica Henwick), an inquisitive type who scares easily; operations expert Smith (played by John Gallagher Jr.), who’s in a romantic relationship with Emily; systems manager Rodrigo (Mamoudou Athie), a solid guy who has a dorky side; and wisecracking Paul (played by T.J. Miller, who can’t seem to break out of his typecast as a supporting character who’s socially awkward and talks too much). They soon find out what caused the explosion (Hint: It wasn’t faulty equipment.)

Because the frantic action begins so early in the film, the “Underwater” screenplay by Brian Duffield and Adam Cozad doesn’t leave much room for character development. The actors do the best that they can with the generic characters and mostly forgettable dialogue that were written for them. The movie’s biggest asset, under the choppy direction of William Eubank, is the way it ramps up suspense, even if there are glaring plot holes the size of the ocean where these crew members are trapped. The visual effects for the sea monsters also achieve their intended impact, but the creatures’ very existence in the ocean (much like Godzilla) requires a huge suspension of disbelief. And cinematographer Bojan Bazelli serves up some compelling shots that might give some people the feelings of dizziness or claustrophobia if the movie is watched on a big screen.

However, the “Underwater” filmmakers don’t want viewers of this movie to think too hard, because then you’ll start to ask questions that unravel the plot, such as: “How could creatures of this size and quantity escape detection for so long?” Even if one company tried to cover up the existence of these monsters, their impact on the environment would be noticed already by too many marine biologists and people who work directly in the ocean. Monsters in outer space make more sense if they’re supposed to be undetected by humans on Earth. And at least in the world of Godzilla, millions of people in that world know that Godzilla is a creature that lives in the ocean. In “Underwater,” these monsters are a total surprise to the unlucky crew members who encounter them.

Just like a lot of movies whose plot is driven by suspense, “Underwater” also has a “race against time” element because (of course) the survivors are running out of oxygen. But this plot device is conveniently ignored when these so-called trained underwater professionals waste a lot of oxygen by talking too much. Paul, the annoying motormouth, is the chief culprit. In order to enjoy this movie, you can’t pay attention to the screenplay’s inconsistencies in how their underwater suits are supposed to work.

And since this is a horror movie, not everyone is going to get out alive. But there will be moments of further disbelief when certain characters go through things that would kill someone in real life, and then they survive, and you’re left wondering, “How are they still alive…and with their hair still neatly in place?” And—this is no joke—you can see freshly applied beauty makeup on one of the actresses’ faces after her character has supposedly gone through underwater hell. There must be some industrial-quality waterproof lipstick they have in that underwater bunker. There’s also a small stuffed animal that gets carried around as a good luck charm that somehow doesn’t get lost or destroyed during all the mayhem. “Underwater” is not a movie made for people who pay attention to these kinds of details.

“Underwater” is certainly not the worst horror film of 2020, and the movie’s ending should be commended for not being a total cliché. However, if you want a horror flick with memorable characters and a solid plot, then you’ll have to look elsewhere.

20th Century Fox released “Underwater” in U.S. cinemas on January 10, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘American Woman’

May 3, 2019

by Carla Hay

Hong Chau and Sarah Gadon in "American Woman"
Hong Chau and Sarah Gadon in “American Woman” (Photo by Ken Woroner)

“American Woman”

Directed by Semi Chellas

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The dramatic film “American Woman” (starring Hong Chau) has the unfortunate coincidence of having the same title as another dramatic film named “American Woman” (starring Sienna Miller), with both movies about females who’ve gone missing—although each movie has very different reasons for why these females have disappeared and why people are searching for them. The “American Woman” movie starring Hong Chau and directed by Semi Chellas is the one with the world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it will be released after the Miller-starring “American Woman” movie.

At the beginning of the “American Woman” movie starring Chau, Chau’s Jenny character is being interrogated by a law-enforcement officer for a serious crime. The rest of the movie is a flashback to what led to Jenny’s arrest. We find out that Jenny is a Japanese-American who has been living in 1970s upstate New York, doing renovation work for a racist retiree named Miss Dolly (played by Ellen Burstyn).

Jenny’s background is murky, but during the course of the movie, we find out that she’s no mild-mannered fixer-upper. She’s been heavily involved in radical, anti-government activities that include bombings and robberies in the name of protests against the Vietnam War and the establishment. And she’s an FBI outlaw. Miss Dolly suspects that Jenny is hiding from the law—but Miss Dolly isn’t quite sure what crime(s) Jenny has committed—and she uses that suspicion to take advantage of Jenny by making her work long hours for below the market wage.

We see that Jenny is writing to someone named Michael, who’s in prison. Michael is part of a mysterious underground network of radicals that has committed a series of bank robberies and bombings throughout the United States. Their crime spree includes kidnapping a newspaper heiress named Pauline (played by Sarah Gadon), who’s joined the group in their criminal activities and may or may not have been brainwashed. (The Pauline character is obviously inspired by the real-life Patty Hearst.)

In Jenny’s letter to Michael, she agrees to help hide and take care of three of the group’s fugitives while they write a book that explains their political beliefs and why they’ve committed extreme crimes. Jenny knows that the underground network is financed by criminal activities, so by taking care of these fugitives, she knows that she will have to commit other crimes too. We find out later that the mysterious “Michael” in the letter is Michael Fisher, one of the leaders of the underground network, and Jenny (who also uses the name Iris) is his girlfriend, and she has a history of making bombs.

Jenny quits her job, and she buys an old car from Miss Dolly before she leaves. The fugitives are staying in Monticello, New York, at an isolated farmhouse that they’ve rented under aliases. The outlaws whom Jenny has been tasked with caring for are heiress Pauline, who’s been nicknamed “Princess”; bossy Juan (played by John Gallagher Jr.), a domineering jerk; and Juan’s romantic partner Yvonne (played by Lola Kirke), who is very passive and somewhat afraid of Juan.

In one scene in the movie, we see why Yvonne might be afraid of Juan. When Juan orders Pauline to do something, and she responds, “Don’t tell me what to do,” he hits her in the face. Jenny also has an independent streak, so she naturally clashes with Juan too, but since Juan and the rest of the group are dependent on Jenny to do their grocery shopping and other outside activities, Juan doesn’t get physically abusive with Jenny. Pauline and Jenny’s mutual dislike of Juan bonds the two women in a budding friendship, which foreshadows what happens later in the movie.

“American Woman” is not as suspenseful as it could have been, simply because the movie reveals in the very beginning that Jenny has been arrested. The film often moves at a slow pace in order to depict the isolation and secrecy experienced by the people who are hiding out from the law. There’s a tension-filled scene in the film where the owner of the farmhouse—a middle-aged man named Bob (played Matt Gordon)— unexpectedly shows up, and Jenny has to quickly make up a lie for why she is there. Later in the story, Juan threatens Jenny at gunpoint to force her to commit a serious crime, and it sets off a chain of events in the third act of the film.

“American Woman” is based on Susan Choi’s novel of the same name. The Jenny character was inspired by the real-life Wendy Yoshimura; Jenny’s boyfriend Michael Fisher is inspired by the real-life Willie Brandt (leader of the Revolutionary Army); and Juan and Yvonne are inspired by the real-life couple Bill and Emily Harris, the members of the Symbionese Liberation Army who hid out with Patty Hearst in rural New Jersey, with the help of Yoshimura.

Because “American Woman” is told from Jenny’s perspective, the other characters (except for Pauline, whom Jenny befriends) are written as somewhat one-dimensional. Even though the actors handle their roles capably, there’s a disconnect in how “American Woman” writer/director Semi Challas depicts the outlaws on screen: These characters are supposed to be firebrand radicals, but they’re written as somewhat dull and soulless. Viewers watching this movie will have a hard time believing that these outlaws are so passionate about their cause that they want to write a book about it, because the movie portrays them as lethargic and un-creative.

As the protagonist, Jenny is an introverted character, so the movie might make some people impatient to see more action taking place. This is not the kind of movie that will satisfy people who want everything to be wrapped up neatly in a tidy bow, like a crime procedural TV episode. Because the main characters in the movie are deeply unhappy people, and because we know that it’s only a matter of time before the law catches up to them, there are no real winners here.

UPDATE: Elevation Pictures will release “American Woman” on digital and VOD in Canada on June 30, 2020. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will release “American Woman” on digital and VOD in the U.S. on September 15, 2020.

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