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Black Widow (2021)

If you ask anyone who their least favorite Avenger is, every one of those participants will have the same exact answer: Hawkeye. If you ask that same group who is their second least favorite Avenger, chances are that a clear majority are going to next say Black Widow. The character has been part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) since 2010 in Iron Man 2, a full decade of idling to gain her solo movie to the point it became a long-running question in the fanbase. Then they killed the character in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame and then also announced she would be getting her solo movie, and the fanbase said, “Wait, now?” Delayed a full year thanks to COVID-19, Black Widow is Marvel’s first theatrical release in almost two years and will likely benefit from some low expectations and eagerness to get back to the big screen spectacle of summer movies.

It’s not Black Widow’s fault that she’s paired with a super soldier, essentially Batman in a flying suit, a nigh indestructible god, and a giant raging id monster. There’s a significant gap between that upper tier of the super powered Avengers and the two non-powered members, Lady with Guns and Guy with Bow and Arrow. It’s hard to compete with all of that, and the glimpses we’ve been given with previous MCU movies haven’t exactly been the most nuanced or dimensional for Black Widow (remember her dubbing herself a “monster” because the state took away her ability to bear children?). We’ve had hints about past troubles and regrets, but it’s never been explored with any significance… until now.

Taking place shortly after the events of 2016’s Civil War, Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from American authorities. She reunites abroad with her estranged sister, Yelena (Florence Pugh), who has recently broken free of the chemical mind control of the sinister Widows program. Yelena and Natasha were living as sisters for three years as a cover family of Russian agents, with Alexei (David Harbour) and Melina (Rachel Weisz) as their parents. They were whisked back to Russia, separated, and thrown back into the Widow program where they were trained to be elite assassins by Dreykov (Ray Winstone, barely flirting with a Russian accent). The combative sisters are being chased by S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, other killer Widows still under the chemical-induced mind control, and Dreykov’s best hunter, the ruthless Taskmaster, a masked warrior who can learn and mimic the moves from other fighters. Natasha and Yelena decide the only way to stop Dreykov is to reunite their old family once again.

I’m a little confused by the general indifference Black Widow seems to have generated from critics and fans because I thought, while with some flaws, that this is still a good movie that I would say is on the cusp of being above average for the MCU’s already high bar. Perhaps, again, this movie is benefiting from lowered expectations. I wasn’t going in with too many demands considering my personal investment with the Black Widow character was minimal prior to her sacrificial death. I wanted a fun movie that provided further insight into her character, considering this would likely be the last time we see Natasha in the MCU. I was surprised how emotionally engaged I became with her movie. While the action is fine, it was the dramatic parts that really grabbed me. This is the first MCU movie where I was looking forward to the breaks in action more than the actual action. The pre-credits flashback (to mid-90s Ohio no less) sets up this fractured family dynamic that serves as the core of the movie, the question over whether these relationships ever really mattered on a deeper level or whether each person was simply playing their assignment. It makes for intriguing drama about vulnerable characters sifting through the small measures of happiness they’ve had and the difficulty of reaching out to people that are important to you. Natasha is in a delicate yet reflective place considering her isolation. The movie is structured like a Jason Bourne-style spy caper, jumping from one locale to the next, but it’s more of a family drama about hurt people reconciling and reconnecting. On its own terms, it’s a real family movie.

There are some major themes and some serious subjects with Black Widow and they are well handled and tied to the character journeys. The opening titles, set to a melancholy cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” covers human trafficking. This is a story about the systems of abuse, primarily abusive men demanding control from throngs of women, and it’s about overcoming abuse and establishing support systems. For Natasha, she made some hard choices to defect to S.H.I.E.L.D., and many others have suffered because of her decision to escape. Many women could not escape their tormentors, and the level of control only became more methodical. Yelena talks about being conscious of everything but unsure what parts of you are really your own doing, and this seems eminently relatable about victimhood. The movie is about breaking free of unhealthy relationships, coming into your own control, and finding healthy families even if they are troubled and a work in progress. That’s why the family moments resonated as much for me. Real attention was given to the supporting characters in Natasha’s orbit.

To that end, the villains exemplify the themes by design, especially Taskmaster serving as a literalization of Natasha facing off against the sins of her past, much like in 2017’s Logan where Old Logan fought young Logan. Fans of Taskmaster from the comics may well be disappointed by the adaptation because the character was very sardonic and, in here, never utters a word (there is a certain Deadpool-in-X-Men Origins: Wolverine reminiscence). More could have been done but the villain represents the consequences of abandonment. I appreciated that even until the final moment, the villain could be redeemed and meant something more than simply another masked heavy to be blown apart. Dreykov, on the other hand, is just a typically awful abuser and his lack of definition fits. He’s a general stand-in for the toxic control of men accustomed to power and the dismissal of female agency. He’s dull but more a designated symbol.

The traveling Black Widow family van is the real draw of this movie. I have been a Florence Pugh fan since her star making turn in 2017’s emotionally disquieting Lady Macbeth, and I welcome her and Yelena into the MCU with open arms. Pugh (Midsommar) is terrific and full of sarcastic wit, at one point criticizing Natasha’s familiar three-point “superhero landing.” She’s also convincing in all the action and gunplay. Even better, there are several dramatic scenes that allow the talented actress to tap into her prowess. She could make me cackle, then the next minute impress me with the finesse of her leg-swinging attack movements, and then the next make me feel something as she tearfully reflects that her cover family was the best years of her life (as the youngest, Yelena had no idea until they ran off that they were all Russian agents). Her combustible yet affectionate relationship with Johansson imbued so much more emotional investment into the Black Widow character for me. Harbour (Hellboy, Stranger Things) is inhaling any available scenery as a past-his-prime Russian super soldier still holding onto his glory days as a communist answer to Captain America (he eagerly asks Natasha if Cap ever mentions him, so hopeful it’s adorable). He’s a regular source of comedy but also has a credible paternal warmth to him as he tries to don the mantle of fatherhood like a costume that no longer fits quite as well. Unfortunately, Weisz (The Favourite) isn’t on screen as much as the other members of the family unit but I still greatly enjoyed watching her finely attuned deadpan delivery.

From an action standpoint, Black Widow will mostly suffice but there is little to really get the blood pumping. The chases and fights are entertaining without delivering anything new. The third act involves an extended set piece with characters plummeting from the sky amid fiery debris. It’s at least visually interesting and the action high-point of the movie. Under director Cate Shortland (Lore, Berlin Syndrome), the action is easy to follow even as it escalates into big video game carnage and explosions. The lack of development in the action would be more of an issue for me if the non-action elements, the story and acting, weren’t as involving. I feel like Shortland was hired for the dramatics and performances and character moments, less so the explosions.

It took eleven years, one more thanks to COVID, but Black Widow finally has her starring vehicle and the MCU is finally back on the big screen (or your home screen via Disney Plus and thirty additional dollars). I watched the movie with my girlfriend and cheerfully noted it would be the first theatrical Marvel movie we watched during our year-plus courtship, thus a real milestone in modern geek dating (we’ll have many opportunities ahead as there are six more Marvel movies scheduled between now and summer 2022). I was surprised how much I enjoyed Black Widow once it had reassembled its family dynamic and I hope to see the extended Romanoff family members in future MCU editions. It’s a late but welcomed swan song for Natasha Romanoff and her checkered past. For the first time, I felt for her character, and part of that was the result of enjoying her family nucleus and the pathos they brought. Black Widow is a serviceable action movie with fun characters and potent dramatic interactions with heavy, well-realized themes. I’m baffled by the general critical indifference (I have a lot fewer qualms than I did with 2019’s Captain Marvel). It’s the rare big movie where the quiet moments are the high-points, and twenty-plus movies in, that’s at least something new from the juggernaut that is the MCU.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Little Women (2019)

By my count, this is approximately the 182nd version of Louisa May Alcott’s Civil War sisterhood. There must be something universal about the trials of the March sisters and their struggles for independence, agency, love, and happy endings on their own turns. Greta Gerwig, fresh off her Oscar nominations for Lady Bird, has given Little Women a decidedly modern spin. The story flashes back and forth between past and present, sometimes in consecutive shots, and feels full of authentic youthful energy. It’s also the first adaptation I’ve watched that has fixed the problem of Amy (Florence Pugh, affecting), widely regarded as the least liked sister. Through Gerwig’s telling, she becomes a self-determined woman, just like Jo (Saoirse Ronan), who recognizes the social trappings holding her back but chooses to do her best within this unfair system rather than rage against it. It’s like an empathetic reclamation for this often reviled character. The enjoyment of Little Women is how vibrant and different each of the March sisters is and how an audience can see degrees of one’s self in each little woman. Jo is by all accounts our lead and her struggle to be a successful writer pushes her against conventions of the era. There is an invented and very amusing bookend where Jo bickers with a blowhard male publisher (Tracy Letts) about “women’s melodrama.” It’s a meta commentary on Alcott’s book herself, especially with the helping of marriages and happy endings by story’s end. Ronan is a force of nature in the film and sweeps up everyone around her with charm. Meryl Streep is supremely amusing as an older rich aunt bemoaning the girls won’t get anywhere without marrying a wealthy man. The limited options for a working-class family are given great consideration, but it’s really a movie that seems to pulsate with the exciting feelings of being young, having the world stretch out before you, and chasing your dream, rain or shine. It’s also gorgeously shot and feels so assured from Gerwig as a solo director. There are a few detractions for this new 2019 Little Women, the biggest being how confusing it can get with its melded chronologies. If this is your first exposure to Alcott’s story, I fear you’ll get lost more than a few times trying to keep everything in order. The love story with lovesick pretty boy Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) feels tacked on even though it’s a feature of the novel. This newly structured, reinvigorated, charming remake of a literary classic feels definitely of the period and of today. It’s the first Little Women adaptation that made me realize how timeless this story really can feel in the right hands. It may be the 182nd version but it might be the best one yet.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Midsommar (2019)

I was not a fan of Hereditary. It had some admirable craft and a potent sense of dread, but it felt like it was being made up as it went and little came to much without exposition that was literally highlighted. I worried the same was about to transpire with writer/director Ari Aster’s newest indie horror darling with the critics, Midsommar. It has many of the same faults I found with the earlier Hereditary yet I walked away mostly pleased from his campy, weird, and disturbing follow-up. I’m still processing why I hold one over the other, so come along with me, dear reader, as I work through this conundrum.

Dani (Florence Pugh) and her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) are hanging on in a relationship past its prime. Each is wondering whether to end it, and then tragedy strikes and Dani’s family is killed in one large suicide. She’s lost to her grief and Christian feels compelled to comfort her and guilty to leave. He invites her to a retreat he had been intending with his friends (Will Poulter, William Jackson Harper) to the idyllic home of a Swedish-born pal, Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren). The group travels to the northern reaches of Sweden to attend the pagan mid-summer festival, an event that happens once every ninety years, but things are not what they appear and soon it may be too late to leave.

From a technical perspective, Aster has some serious skills even if they don’t fully amount to much. His decision to film the majority of the film in bright sunlight provides a disarming contrast to most horror films that use darkness and our primal fear of it as the backdrop for their scary shenanigans. It produces a different landscape for the movie and the illusion of tranquility that will be shaken. The photography by Pawel Pogorzelski is often gorgeous in its framing and deliberate shot compositions. Aster’s command of technical craft and his ability with actors gives him such a great starting point with his projects. I just wish they amounted to more than the sum of their parts, and I’m not sure Midsommar is different.

It’s hard not to notice that Midsommar is decidedly less ambitious and more streamlined than Hereditary, and I think this has positives and negatives. First, it makes the film more condensed and accessible. It’s also a smart move to personalize the story through the experiences of Dani and her recovery from trauma. The plot presented is pretty predictable; you’ve seen enough other cult movies to know what should be ominous and what decisions will be regretted. I strongly suspect that Aster recognizes that his audience knows these things and that’s why the narrative isn’t built around what will happen next but more so how will Dani respond to what will happen next. There’s a deadly ritual at about the hour mark that just about everyone and their invalid grandmother will be able to see coming, though that doesn’t take away from the sick brutality of the moment and some stomach-churning prosthetics. However, even though I knew it was coming, the dread was more palpable for me because I knew it would trigger Dani, so I was lying in wait to observe her response and how it reopened her fresh emotional trauma. Midsommar is filled with these moments, where the audience may know what’s coming but not exactly how Dani will respond, and that personalization and emphasis on her perspective made the simplification work.

On the other end, Midsommar is very obvious with its very obvious influences. I’m hesitant to cite by name these influences because it gives away the game as far as where the plot is headed, but if you’ve seen the trailer then you likely already have a healthy guess. Again, it feels like Aster knows what his audience is anticipating because the homages are apparent. There’s literally a bear suit at one point and a homemade lottery system to determine participation. It’s all right there, in your face, and yet the movie doesn’t move beyond these unsubtle reference points. Midsommar ends exactly where you would expect it to end and without a more satisfying sense of resolution to tie things up. While it hinges on the choices made by Dani and her response to them, it doesn’t go into the consequences or implications of those choices, and leaves the audience hanging for more meaning never to materialize.

Lord knows they could have carved some of that needed resolution from the overindulgent 140-minute running time. Much of Midsommar is methodically paced to build its unnerving and inquisitive atmosphere, to better immerse the audience in the peculiar rites and customs of this secluded cult. But a little goes a long way and after so many rituals it can become repetitious. There’s at least twenty minutes that could have been trimmed to makes this movie less meandering. The woman sitting behind me at my screening openly complained, during yet another ritual, “When is this going to be over?”

I was genuinely surprised to be laughing as often as I did, and that’s because Midsommar has a very intentional camp element at its disposal. The cult rituals and behaviors are meant to be creepy but also goofy as we view them from the perspective of the outsider. It’s the same perspective that informs the whole movie. We’re learning alongside the characters about what this hidden world is like, layer by layer, and there’s a sense of discovery that helps drive the film and kept my interest attained. These are pretty stupid characters because they should be turning around and running for home time and time again, and yet they stay behind. It becomes an unexpected dark comedy watching them ignore the many warning signs that are obvious to the audience. It’s dumbfounding that after everything these characters would still drink what they are served. Horror is rife with stupid characters being ignorant to obvious dangers, but this movie turns it into consistent humor. There are moments of pure weirdness that just forced me to laugh heartily, and it definitely feels like that is the intended response. How else should one respond when a nude woman interrupts sexual coitus to start singing in your face?

The characters aren’t exactly the Ugly American depictions we’ve come to expect in movies where we root for their demise in a foreign setting. Nobody matters except for Dani and Christian, and even he is more a foil for her. He’s not a bad person but he’s also not helping her. The movie is dominated by Dani and her emotional journey. There are many scenes of her breaking down and Pugh (the breakout from the underseen Lady Macbeth) is our emotional anchor. Her performance is more grounded than Toni Colette’s in Hereditary and a respite for the audience to come back to. The empathetic community of the pagan cult provides a comfort she is searching for. Pugh feels like a normal person struggling under trauma and relatable relationship woes.

With two horror movies under his belt, Aster’s style and signatures as a filmmaker are coming more into focus. He emphasizes atmosphere and mystery at the expense of plot. His movies have creepy images and moments, and Midsommar definitely has its spooky share, but these moments can also feel rather arbitrary. Why does someone wear a bear suit and not a moose suit? It doesn’t matter because it’s just atmospheric ephemera that doesn’t tie into the plot. Why is there a “seer” with elephantitus who happens to be the byproduct of inbreeding? Because it looks weird, and never mind that that much inbreeding would take generations. The world building feels at the behest of the imagery and not the other way around. Also, you’ll know you’re watching an Ari Aster film if there’s older full-frontal nudity, an emphasis on mental illness, suicide, religious cults, and wailing women. I mean like loud, painfully prolonged caterwauling. There are even moments where the cult acts like a chorus to the cries, climaxes, and wailing of others, and it goes from being weird to being obnoxious rather quickly.

I predict Midsommar is going to be another hit with critics and self-styled horror elites and leave most general audiences bewildered and frustrated (Hereditary received a D+ rating from opening day audiences via CinemaScore). It’s hard for me to see a broad audience willingly hopping aboard Ari Aster’s wavelength, which seems engineered to be insular. It prizes creepy atmosphere at the behest of plot and structure, the pacing can be stubbornly slow and repetitious, and you’re left wondering if anything amounted to anything. At least with Midsommar I feel like stripping down the narrative and streamlining made me more empathetic with the main heroine and her reactions, but it does make for a less ambitious and more predictable film that, despite being in bright sunlight, is content to stay hidden in the shadows of its influences.

Nate’s Grade: B-

The Commuter (2018)

Liam Neeson has been bedeviled on an airplane. He’s been bedeviled on a train. At this point, Neeson is going to find trouble on every form of public transportation. The Commuter is the fourth collaboration between America’s favorite geriatric action star and director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown, Non-Stop, Run All Night). None of those movies had the success of Taken but several had some pleasures or an intriguing mystery or hook. The Commuter makes Non-Stop look like Agatha Christie in comparison.

Michael MacCauley (Neeson) is an ex-cop-turned life insurance salesman who commutes into New York City every weekday. He recognizes many familiar faces on the train, except for Joanna (Vera Farmiga), an expert on human behavior. She makes a strange offer: find a passenger by the code name of “Prynn” before the last stop and he’ll receive $100,000. The passenger, a high-value witness, will be less well off. Michael taps into his old cop instincts to deduce who might be the desired target. As each stop passes, he has less time to figure out the identity and decide whether he’ll go through with it all.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that the plot is so bizarrely similar to 2014’s Non-Stop, with Neeson as a former cop trapped on a mode of travel, being harassed by a mysterious figure, and tasked with discovering the identity of someone on-board before it’s too late while he’s possibly being set up to take the fall. It’s almost as if the producers said, “Hey, let’s get the director of Non-Stop, the star of Non-Stop, and why don’t we just make Non-Stop but, like, on a train?” And then that man bought a new house in celebration of his genius. I look forward to the next entry in the Neeson-Stuck-on-Transportation Trilogy where he’s stalking a ferry approaching Niagara Falls and being blackmailed into finding hidden diamonds. The major problem, besides being so recycled that it could have been retiled Phoning It In: The Movie, is how nothing makes sense at all. With lower-rent genre thrillers, things don’t always have to make the best of sense. Even the best thrillers suffer from leaps of logic but are excused because of how engaged we are in the movie. With The Commuter, I was so detached from the movie that I was impatiently waiting to get off on the next stop, no matter what was waiting on the other side.

The villainous scheme is predicated on so many people doing so many stupid decisions that are far more complicated than they have any right to be. First, this villainous organization essentially looking for a witness on the train has been tipped off from an inside source in the FBI. Except this source cannot say what that witness looks like. Also, why is the FBI allowing such an important witness travel by his or herself minus protection and among the public? I know for a fact that there’s an FBI office in New York City. The FBI members picking the witness up also don’t know what this person looks like, which again begets stupidly bad communication. The bad guys are also pretty bad if they have to resort to such efforts to suss out a witness. Can’t they find somebody to hack a phone? The bad guys steal Neeson’s phone to limit his communication. Yet, as he does in the movie, he simply asks another passenger to use their phone. What was the point of all of that? The villains also immediately inform Neeson that his family has been kidnapped, allowing little room for raising he stakes. Why don’t they wait to see who gets off and leaves with the FBI and use a sniper to take them out? Maybe it’s not about killing the person but destroying the evidence, so in that case you do random bag checks from a train worker. That’s it. Then there’s the nickname given to the target (“Prynn”). Who gave birth to this nickname and why would the witness carry the one item in public that would confirm their identity? If that’s the case, why did any of the bad guys need Neeson? He seems best served as a patsy considering he acts like a maniac, at one point pointing a gun at people and making demands, before settling back and assuring the passengers he’s trustworthy. That’s what stable people do, naturally. Why should anyone believe anything this guy says?

Here’s an example of how dumb this movie is. There are a few characters introduced in the opening act that you know will come back again because of the economy of characters and because name actors don’t take do-nothing parts in genre fare (unless you’re Chloe Sevigny in The Snowman, apparently). I’m waiting for confirmation that one of these characters is revealed to be working with our nefarious villains. A character has a very specific phrase they share with Neeson. Then, upon figuring out who the sought-after witness is on the train, he or she relates their story about bad cops and how one of them used the exact phrase. Fine, as expected, but then Neeson doesn’t respond. It triggers nothing from him even though he had only been with these people hours ago. It’s only later when this same phrase is said for the THIRD time does Neeson finally connect the dots. If a magic phrase is going to be the trigger then why have this extra step? It just makes Neeson look dumb and it doesn’t speak well to the film’s opinion of its audience.

Regardless of how nonsensical a thriller comes across, as long as it delivers the suspenseful genre goods, much can be forgiven. This is another area where The Commuter doesn’t perform well. There’s one decent hand-to-hand fight filmed in a long take that has a solid visceral appeal, but other than that this movie takes turns either looking ugly or like its budget wasn’t simply enough. The location calls for very cramped and limited environment that will require some combat ingenuity that the movie just isn’t up to the task for. Watching Neeson stalk from car to car, playing his Columbo detective games with resolutely stock characters (Lady Macbeth’s breakout star Florence Pugh deserves better), is not as fun as it sounds, and it doesn’t sound that fun. Maybe if the rote characters were better drawn, if the evil scheme was a bit cleaner, if the hero was more morally compromised, then maybe the downtime wouldn’t be as boring. There’s a ridiculous derailing sequence and then there’s another twenty minutes after. Collet-Serra can only bring so much to the movie, and the script doesn’t have enough clever inventions or reversals to spur much in the director’s imagination. As a result, everything feels like a deflated by-the-numbers thriller that would be better appearing on late night TV.

Neeson (Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House) is on action autopilot as he settles into the shed skin of one of his past Collet-Serra performances. He’s gruff, he’s cunning, he’ll take your best and keep swinging, and as he reminds the audience at three separate points, he’s sixty years old. He can still offer simple pleasures, and if your only requirement for entertainment is watching Neeson punch people and things, then The Commuter will fulfill your needs. His character is supposed to be placed in a moral question of self-interest but there’s never any doubt. If Neeson was a corrupt cop, I think that would be a better character arc and starting point for a guy questioning selling out a stranger. I’m surprised at how generally wasted every actor is, notably Farmiga (The Conjuring 2), who is literally only in two scenes on screen (her role is mostly nagging phone calls). She’s the only person given a little personality. Perhaps that’s because we already know where her allegiances lie so the sloppy screenplay doesn’t have to keep her an inscrutable suspect to interrogate.

The Commuter is a dumb ride to the generic and expected, and then it just keeps going. If you’re really hard up for entertainment and have a love affair with Neeson’s fists, I suppose assorted thrills could be found, but for everyone else this is one to miss.

Nate’s Grade: C-

Lady Macbeth (2017)

Cool, calculating, impassioned, and razor-sharp in its shrewd storytelling, the period film Lady Macbeth is worthy of the title of Shakespeare’s manipulative anti-heroine. Katherine (newcomer Florence Pugh) is recently married and expected to fulfill her wifely duties. Except her husband demands she stay inside and he also wants nothing to do with her physically. While away, she strikes up an affair with Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis), one of the servants hired to tend the estate. She finally feels desired but also free, able to do what she wants and without the stifling control of patriarchal forces. There are three impediments to Katherine continuing to enjoy her status and relationship, and each one requires another step into moral turpitude. Lady Macbeth does a very effective job of developing taut tension born out of its premise. Every plot point naturally leads to another, creating more frisson and conflict. It pushes an audience into an uncomfortable position of deciding how far their sympathies will align with our put-upon protagonist. The ending is fitting but will likely produce a lot of heavy sighs and foot shuffling out of the theater. Pugh delivers a star-making performance in a role we’ve seen often in nineteenth century literature, the oppressed woman yearning for autonomy of body and mind. However, this isn’t an unrequited romance of furtive glances and pearl clutching, this is a meaty psychological thriller seeped in murder. Pugh expertly portrays a fascinating figure, a woman capable of cruelty to stake her claim in a cruel world. She commands the screen. A great reoccurring image is Katherine sitting on a settee and going through breathing exercises, as if to get into character for what she must do. Lady Macbeth (based upon the Russian novel Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk) is a tightly wound psychological thriller that brings a darker, absorbing carnality to the bonnet drama.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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