DVD review: Just Like Heaven (2005)

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The following review was first published in DVD Monthly magazine in 2005.

Sub-heading suggestions: Reese almighty/High spirits/Spirited away/While she was sleeping.

Starring: Reese Witherspoon, Mark Ruffalo, Jon Heder, Donal Logue, Dina Spybey, Ben Shenkman

Director: Mark Waters

Distributor: DreamWorks Pictures Original Release: 2005

The Lowdown: When ER doctor Elizabeth’s overworked, socially undernourished existence is brought to an abrupt halt by a wayward truck, she soon finds her spiritual form sharing her flat with lonely semi-alcoholic, widower architect David. But is Elizabeth really dead? Why can only David see her? And can stoner bookshop employee Darryl help?

Review: While few men would balk at the prospect of suddenly discovering Reese Witherspoon was their room-mate, Just Like Heaven is a rom-com with a supernatural twist. For as with Brad Pitt at the start of Meet Joe Black, here we’ve barely had a chance to get familiar with the overworked singleton lifestyle of Witherspoon’s medic (a sort of cross between Bridget Jones and the one of the cast of ‘ER’) before she has a close encounter with a runaway lorry and is killed.

However, as with the unfortunate couple in Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice, the next thing she knows she’s back in her apartment and railing against the intrusion of new resident David.

We’ve been here before, of course. In addition to the films already mentioned, Just Like Heaven draws on everything from (most obviously) Ghost, to the 1930s Topper movies and even has shades of While You Were Sleeping. But happily Just Like Heaven is (just) cute enough to get away with it’s somewhat less than groundbreaking premise.

Partly this is down to Reese Witherspoon. While (as with Sweet Home Alabama) she’s clearly working with less incisive material than in her best work (Election, Pleasantville) she is never less than her usual luminous and quirky onscreen self. As David, Ruffalo is less good, never really proving that he has the aptitude either for physical comedy or for the dour ‘sad Tom Hanks in Sleepless In Seattle’ type romantic lead role the screenplay demands of him, though this isn’t a serious problem.

Indeed, comedic honours probably go to Jon Heder who as semi-psychic alternative bookshop assistant Darryl is good in his first significant if small post-Napoleon Dynamite role, a sort of stoner answer to Whoopi Goldberg’s character in Ghost.

The film has its problems. For one thing, it’s rarely that funny. The early scenes detailing Elizabeth and David’s fractious first encounters wherein both argue vigorously over who is intruding upon whose flat are fine. Elizabeth (who like the ‘dead people’ in The Sixth Sense doesn’t know she’s a ghost) reasons that the drunken David is a vagrant who has wondered in off the streets. But the film gets funnier once David recognises Elizabeth is more than a product of his lonely alcoholic mind and enlists a range of solutions to vanquish her from the flat: namely a New Age guru, some amateurish ‘Ghostbusters’ and a priest who repeatedly intones “The power of Christ compels you!” to no discernible effect.

Some too, might lament that Waters, who did, after all, direct the dark edged Mean Girls in addition to cheerier fare such as Freaky Friday hasn’t produced a blacker film. But darkness and romantic comedy can be uneasy bedfellows and it’s probably to its benefit that Just Like Heaven is good-natured to its core.

Sadly, the extras never really rise above the average. The ‘Making Of’ featurette is the usual promotional fare and is supplemented by a similar and fairly unnecessary ‘Meet the Cast’ featurette (high court judges aside, even before Walk The Line was there anyone out there unfamiliar with Reese Witherspoon?). And despite the slightly surprising revelation that the film is based on a French novel (Marc Levy’s ‘If Only It Were True’), you’ll soon find your attention wandering during the filmmaker’s commentary.

Although in fairness this isn’t really the sort of film that readily lends itself to hours of dissection and analysis. For make no mistake: while this won’t linger long in the memory, Just Like Heaven is against all odds, one of the better romantic comedies of the past year. It’s just that as with ‘Great Films Starring Hilary Duff’ and ‘Intelligent Statements Made By President Bush’ this isn’t exactly an overcrowded field.

Final Verdict It’s not going to change the world but if you do fancy a Friday night date movie, you could do a lot worse.

Rating FILM: 6 EXTRAS: 5

Text By Chris Hallam

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DVD review: The Men Who Stare At Goats (2010)

Review first published on Movie Muser, 2010  http://www.moviemuser.co.uk/

Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges, Kevin Spacey, Robert Patrick. Directed By: Grant Heslov

Fox Mulder was right. The truth really was out there, all along. But, as Jon Ronson’s excellent 2004 non-fiction book demonstrated, the reality of what certain elements of the US military and government were up to in the 70s and 80s, was far stranger than anything in The X-Files.

There’s the army general, for example, who became so convinced that he could will his body to pass through solid objects that he actually physically ran into his office wall. He failed to go through it. He just crashed into it.

Then, there are the military operatives who, taking their cue from an earlier science fiction franchise, named themselves “Jedi warriors”. And then there are the men who stare at goats themselves: a crack division who become convinced that they could actually kill animals merely by deploying their ‘psychic’ powers while staring at them, causing their hearts to explode. Goats are judged to be the perfect test subjects for these experiments, it is revealed. While many soldiers felt uncomfortable staring at dogs, it is apparently much harder to forge an emotional bond with a goat.

Yet while the book was by turns hilarious and fascinating, there are causes for concern here. For one thing, this isn’t a documentary. Director Heslov has gone down the route of dramatising a non-fiction book – a feat attempted before by Richard Linklater on his version of Eric Schlosser’s ‘Fast Food Nation’. The result then was a failure. Ewan McGregor is also cast unconvincingly as a fictional American journo (presumably based on the book’s author Ronson, which is odd as both men are British anyway) partly, it is presumed, so the ‘Star Wars’ star can make play of the story’s Jedi references.

The film also makes little attempt to confront the darker aspects of the book. The bohemian freethinking of the First Earth Battalion ultimately led to some of the torture methods used in the War on Terror, but this is only alluded to here.

Despite everything, this still manages to be a consistently entertaining, compelling and amusing film. It doesn’t hurt that a bit of effort has been made on the extras, although neither the commentary from director Heslov or from the book’s author Ronson are as exciting as they could have been. Other featurettes, however, give added weight to a narrative that is always difficult to fully believe.

This is, however, fascinating enough to overcome most of its flaws. And yes, in case you’re wondering, one goat did die during the many goat staring experiments. It may well have been just a coincidence, but for safety’s sake, perhaps don’t try it out on your hamster at home. Just in case.

Bonus features:

Goats Declassified: The Real Men of the First Earth Battalion Featurette

Project Hollywood: A Classified Report From The Set Featurette

Audio Commentary with Director Grant Heslov

Audio Commentary with Author Jon Ronson

Character Bios

Deleted Scenes

Rating: 4 out of 5


Overall Verdict:

Undeniably a bit of a mess, but the story is bizarre and fascinating enough to win the day.

Reviewer: Chris Hallam

Book review: Roger’s Profanisaurus: War and Piss/Viz The Pieman’s Wig 2019

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Viz Presents: Roger’s Profanisaurus: War and Piss. Published by Dennis.

Roger Mellie, the Man on the Telly is to adult comic Viz what Dennis the Menace is to The Beano, what Judge Dredd is to 2000AD or what Dan Dare was to The Eagle. He has been in every issue of Viz since Chris Donald first started selling copies of his home-produced comic nearly forty years ago.
The premise is simple: Roger is a TV presenter wholly unsuited to TV, largely because he has a tendency to swear virtually every other sentence. Typical episodes see him being barred from hosting Blue Peter after drawing attention to the size of a puppy’s penis and attempts to pitch TV shows, The Bollock Naked Chef, Celebrity Bumhole and Call My Muff.

Roger’s Profanisaurus is, however, and an ever expanding dictionary of swearwords. This latest edition contains 20,000 rude words, phrases and explanations and is literally longer than all three books in the Lord of the Rings trilogy combined.

Typically politically incorrect examples include:

golden deceiver n. A blonde piece who looks gorgeous from behind, but is actually a right dog from the front. A backstabber, a back beauty.

bloatee n. The type of carefully toped beard favoured by the chubbier male, in the vain hope that it will demarcate his chin from his neck and thus indicate where his face stops. As sported by hopelessly optimistic pie shifters such as Chris Moyles, Johnny Vegas, Ric Waller, Lisa Riley etc.

You’ll feel dirty after reading it.

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Viz: The Pieman’s Wig 2019. Published by Dennis.

Roger, of course, features alongside the other regular favourites in this year’s Viz annual.

Other highlights include: Tiny Cox: The Pocket Particle Physicist: a one-off in which the celebrated TV scientist is shrunk to miniature proportions and fun with the usual favourites, Mrs Brady: Old Lady, Major Misunderstanding, Biffa Bacon, Sid the Sexist, Farmer Palmer and Buster Gonad and his Unfeasibly Large Testicles.

Book review: The Snooty Bookshop

The Snooty Bookshop by Tom Guald. Published by Canongate.

Some things are almost impossible to review. The good news is that this selection of fifty literary-themed cartoons (presented here in the form of postcards) is definitely very good: original, funny and clever. Go and buy it.
The bad news? Well, as the cartoons are rather unique in flavour, it’s rather hard to convey what they are like if you haven’t already seen them in The Guardian Weekend magazine or elsewhere (admittedly, more of a problem for me than you). So perhaps just enjoy this selection of typically surreal lines from the book:
‘Tips For Getting Your Novel Published During A Skeleton Apocalypse’.
‘Cookbooks By Dog-Owning Atheists’.
‘”Deeds not words.” said Mrs Tittlemouse and went off to town to smash windows with her toffee hammer.’
A very clever little book which you’ll find yourself returning to again and again.

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DVD review: This Country Season One & Two

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Cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe live in an unnamed village in the Cotswolds. Although both have finished school, they are poorly educated and are still yet to break out of their childhood habits. There is literally nothing to do in the village and the suspicion is that the longer they stay there, the more likely they are to turn into one of the assorted eccentric weirdos who already roam the landscape. Indeed, they are already well on the way.

The duo are in fact played by real-life brother and sister, Daisy May Cooper and Charlie Cooper who also wrote the series which is filmed in a mockumentary format. The Mucklowe’s only real ally in the world – although a much underappreciated one- is the well-meaning vicar (Paul Chahidi).

Kerry is almost invariably dressed in a football t-shirt and lives with her mother, who rather like Howard’s mother in early episodes of the US sitcom, Big Bang Theory, is an unseen presence (in this case, voiced by Daisy May Cooper herself) endlessly shouting inane instructions or complaints to her daughter in an agitated rasping voice.

Kerry is, a formidable presence in her own right:
“I’ve got enemies in South Cerney,” she boasts boldly at one point. “I’ve got enemies in North Cerney, I’ve got enemies in Cerney Wick. I’ve got enemies in Bourton-on-the-Water. There’s a tea rooms there and under the counter they’ve got a panic button and if I take one step inside, they can press that.”
Both she and the hapless Kurtan are great comic creations. This Country is not a series that benefits from extensive hype: it is perhaps best discovered for yourself.

But it is nevertheless, quite brilliant.

Book review: Soupy Twists! by Jem Roberts

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Soupy Twists!: The Full Official Story of the Sophisticated Silliness of Fry and Laurie, by Jem Roberts. Published by: Unbound

It has now been thirty years since the TV debut of ‘A Bit of Fry and Laurie’. This news should be ample cause for celebration in itself. Running for four series between 1987 and 1995, the show was occasionally patchy, in common with every sketch show ever made (yes, even The Grumbleweeds) and ran out of steam before the end. The “yuppie businessman” sketches, generally featuring an over-use of the word “damn” often seemed to run on forever.

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But dammit Peter, thanks largely to the formidable combined intellect of comedy’s foremost Steve and Hugh (no offence, Punt and Dennis), A Bit of Fry and Laurie was far more often good than bad.

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Consider: the song “Kicking ass,” a parody of US foreign policy values which concludes: “We’ll kick the ass of cancer and we’ll kick the ass of AIDS,
And as for global warming, we’ll just kick ass wearing shades. We don’t care whose ass we kick, if we’re ever all alone, We just stand in front of the mirror, and try to kick our own.”

Or Fry: “I think it was Donald Mainstock, the great amateur squash player who first pointed out how lovely I was.”

Or Laurie: “Then I was Princess Anne’s assistant for a while, but I chucked that in because it was obvious they were never going to make me Princess Anne, no matter how well I did the job.”

Or Fry’s: “I can say the following sentence and be utterly sure that nobody has ever said it before in the history of human communication: “Hold the newsreader’s nose squarely, waiter, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers.”

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Of course, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Jem Roberts’ excellent book reminds us just what a formidable body of work the talented duo have produced together: Jeeves and Wooster, Blackadder (including the famous scene in which Fry’s Iron Duke punches Laurie’s Prince Regent repeatedly), countless TV adverts specifically for Alliance and Leicester (“Mostin!”), their early Young Ones appearance, operating the celebrity gunge tank on Comic Relief, Peter’s Friends and much much more. Roberts also fully covers their formidable solo careers including Laurie’s spell as the highest paid TV actor in the world, in the long running House, probably the only thing many overseas readers seeing this will know him for. Fry has, meanwhile, appeared in everything from IQ (a 1995 movie comedy starring Walter Matthau as Einstein) to QI. His intense overwork was, of course, symptomatic of problems that would lead to the Cell Mates debacle in 1995.

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Laurie and particularly Fry’s lives have, of course, been well-documented already: as a writer on the history of Blackadder and a biographer of Fry’s slightly older technology-obsessed friend, Douglas Adams, Jem Roberts has written about the boys before himself. He deserves all the more praise then for shedding new light on them – and uncovering and reproducing many new unused A Bit of Fry and Laurie scripts – in this fresh, thoroughly enjoyable and engaging biography of Britain’s brightest ever comedy partnership.

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DVD review: Upstart Crow Series 3

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Upstart Crow, that is, the further adventures of Will Shakespeare, returns for a third series. As before, Shakespeare (David Mitchell) is depicted as a normal if somewhat conceited man, simultaneously brilliant while full of human flaws. He alternates between his humble Stratford domestic existence with wife, Anne (Liza Tarbuck), somewhat embarrassing parents (Harry Enfield and Paula Wilcox) and children (notably Helen Monks) and his busier London life dominated by his flamboyant contemporary, Kit Marlow (Tim Downie) and assistant Kate (Gemma Whelan).

Ben Elton’s sitcom has always had something of the air of a Blackadder II tribute act about it (not forgetting, of course, that Elton co-wrote that superb mid-eighties series). Will is essentially a less sinister Edmund, Marlow is Flashman, Greene (Mark Heap) is Lord Melchett, while Kate is a female…er…”Kate” (short for “Bob”) while Baldrick was basically a much dirtier Bottom (Rob Rouse). Ahem…

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There is also a definite sense of fatigue creeping in. The issue of Marlow’s impending murder is dealt with rather unsatisfactorily and there is also an over-reliance on extending words (for example, “strap on a pair of boobingtons”) for comic effect. It’s lazy and not even very Shakespearian. There are cameos by ex-Young Ones Nigel Planer and Ade Edmondson and, separately, by Edmondson’s daughter, rising star Beattie Edmondson.

And yet, for all that, there are frequent flashes of brilliance here. The use of language is often superb as with Mitchell’s hilarious sex monologue in the first episode. Ben Miller brilliantly sends up actor Mark Rylance as the Tudor actor, Wolf Hall and Spencer Jones continues his excellent piss-take of Ricky Gervais. The cast, particularly Whelan and Downie are also consistently great.

And, as in real life, all does not always necessarily end well. The final episode is surprisingly, beautifully and wonderfully poignant.

Release date: October 8th 2018

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DVD/Blu-ray review: I Feel Pretty

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DVD/Blu-ray review: I Feel Pretty

Out now

Directed by: Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein

Starring: Amy Schumer, Michelle Williams, Emily Ratajkowski, Rory Scovel, Aidy Bryant, Busy Philipps

Renee Bennett (Amy Schumer) struggles in life. Working in the basement of an office block, running the website of a major cosmetics firm, she aspires to apply for the position of receptionist. But, crucially she lacks confidence. She is in fact perfectly attractive but being slightly overweight she feels anxious about her own appearance, a feeling re-enforced by the large number of models who are cast in the film alongside her.

She’s so big that she actually breaks the exercise bike she’s pedalling on in the gym. This sequence is played for laughs but completely fails to amuse. For one thing, the accident – were it real – looks quite painful. For another, Renee immediately walks out humiliated, as if it’s her own fault. Although it’s quite possible she might feel like this, nobody challenges this view in the film: clearly the accident was her own fault. She was too fat to go on an exercise bike. Stupid girl! In reality, she’s nowhere near overweight enough to have broken a fully functioning exercise bike. She should be suing them.

Later on, guess what? The same thing happens again. It’s still not funny, but this time has plot implications. Having just watched the sequence in the fairground from the 1988 film, ‘Big’, Renee has desperately wished under a fountain, not to be “big” (quite the opposite) but to be beautiful. Now, soon after, thoroughly concussed after her second accident, she becomes convinced she’s very beautiful. In fact, no magical transformation has occurred. She’s physically exactly the same.

The film really isn’t very funny at all. That said, it is mildly amusing seeing Renee convinced she has been suddenly radically transformed. For a while anyway. She grows confident enough to land her dream job and make a big impression on the boss of the cosmetics firm (Michelle Williams – atypically annoying in a sub-Marilyn Monroe performance). She also lands a boyfriend – a genuinely nice guy (Scovel) – although a surprisingly ordinary one in the circumstances. She ultimately ends up getting too snobby and alienating her friends (Bryant and Philipps).

Amy Schumer is a major name in comedy these days and one senses I Feel Pretty has good intentions behind it. But the film misdirects its fire somehow (Schumer didn’t write it) and, crucially, for a comedy,  it just isn’t funny.

Worst of all: it doesn’t even have the song, I Feel Pretty, in it.

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Blu-ray review: Game Night

Game Night

Thirty-something couple, Max and Annie Davis (Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams) like games. Nothing weird, just simple quiz games, or perhaps charades or Pictionary, usually with a group of friends once a week at their house. Ultra-competitive, the couple first met during a particularly exhilarating quiz session while Gary even managed to incorporate his successful marriage proposal into one of their ‘Game Nights’.

The only awkward point about this arrangement is Gary, their next-door neighbour. An intense and socially maladjusted cop, Gary (Jesse Plemons) is more the ex-husband of a friend than a friend in his own right and with his marriage now a thing of the past, Max and Annie are not particularly keen to invite him over.

The other fly in the ointment is Brooks (Kyle Chandler), Max’s rich, successful and similarly competitive brother. Brooks’ occasional visits have a way of getting under Max’s skin. Indeed, it is during a special “Game Night” apparently initially organised by Brooks, that Brooks is kidnapped. Here the fun begins: is the “kidnapping” just part of a game or has Brooks been genuinely abducted after getting involved in some shady business dealings? And, more to the point, if, as seems likely, Brooks is in genuine trouble, will Max and Annie and his four game-obsessed friends ever realise what’s going on?

Game Night is a good, lightweight piece of evening entertainment boosted by a strong cast which includes TV’s Catastrophe star, Sharon Horgan and a wonderfully intense turn from Plemons as cop next door, Gary. There are lots of fun film references – Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury play a couple under strain after she blurts out that she once had sex with a celebrity whose name she won’t reveal – and Rachel McAdams and Billy Magnussen particularly demonstrates again their real comic flair, the latter as Ryan, the least intelligent person in the film.

At one point, it is revealed, Max’s stresses about Brooks are hampering his attempts to help Annie conceive: an unnecessary element in what is essentially a far fetched escapist comedy. This aspect also makes Max and Annie seem even more like Chandler and Monica Bing in the later episodes of TV’s Friends.

But in general, this is an enjoyable, forgettable diversion: a welcome Saturday night alternative to your own game of choice, be it Risk, Scrabble or ‘Naked’ Twister.

Blu-ray: Out now

Released by: Warner Bros Home Entertainment

Bonus features:

Gag Reel

An Unforgettable Evening: Making Game Night Featurette

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What happened next: the Seven Dwarfs

sevendwarvesthanksgiving1The years after Snow White left the forest to marry the Prince proved to be difficult for the seven dwarfs.

Speaking at their annual meeting, Doc identified two clear threats to the mine’s future. First was the obvious demographic time bomb: all of the dwarfs were ageing, male and childless. Secondly, production was suffering from the fact that only three of the seven dwarfs – Happy, Grumpy and Doc – were actively working regularly. Sleepy was often absent on account of his chronic lethargy, Sneezy was almost perpetually off sick. Dopey, meanwhile, frequently simply forgot to turn up for work. Bashful suffered such from such chronically low self-esteem that he could rarely be dragged out of his room.

In addition to a long-term suggestion that in future, dwarfs be given more promising names (Doc’s own name was conveniently vocational, but what chance had Dopey ever stood?), Doc proposed a recruitment drive. Within weeks, the mine had five new dwarfs: Botany, Philately, Arty, Greedy and Paranoia.

Doc privately anticipated problems with Greedy and Paranoia while Dopey was forced to admit he had thought there was a dwarf in the group called Greedy already. But with their respective private interests in flowers, stamp collecting and art, Botany, Philately and Arty soon became a credit to the team. That Easter, Arty even produced a long portrait of the twelve dwarfs sitting at a long table, eating supper together. Noting one of the dwarfs in the picture didn’t have a beard, Paranoia began to speculate that one of the dwarfs was secretly female. But it actually turned out to be Dopey.

Greedy betrayed the other dwarfs soon afterwards. Paranoia exposed him: he had privately sold the mine on to unscrupulous developers. The mine was closed almost immediately and converted into luxury flats

Confronted by Grumpy at a meeting, Greedy defended himself:

“It’s simple economics.” he argued, lighting a cigar. “Sure, the mine’s making money now but what about in ten years? It was only a matter of time.”

Some thought Greedy sounded like the evil Queen who had been overthrown some time before. “There is no such thing as society, only individual dwarfs.” He went on. “The state doesn’t owe you a living, you know. You should all get on your bikes and whistle while you look for work.”

In practice, the community was devastated. Some of the dwarfs briefly found employment when Greedy opened a call centre but they lost their jobs again when he relocated it to Mumbai a few weeks later.

His self-esteem shattered, Bashful spent more and more time in internet chat rooms. Dopey spent more time in bed than Sleepy and the other dwarfs noticed his room started to smell suspiciously of acrid smoke. Doc, too, who actually had no formal medical training (his doctorate was in Media Studies), struggled to find work. Even Happy was on Prozac.

The only distraction for the dwarfs was that Snow White had returned, her marriage having failed after the Prince had cheated on her. “There were three of us in this marriage,” she said. The dwarfs weren’t sure about the Prince’s new wife at first but ultimately concluded she was closer to the Prince in age and intellect and probably had more in common with him than Snow White had.

But aside from that, Greedy aside, nobody lived happily ever after.

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