THOR: RAGNAROK (2017)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 2 hours 10 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Sequences of Sci-Fi Violence and Action, and brief Suggestive Material

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Written by: Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost

(based on the THOR comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber & Jack Kirby)

Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Hopkins & Benedict Cumberbatch

THOR: RAGNAROK is the third THOR film and the seventeenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. With the exception of 2008’s THE INCREDIBLE HULK, THOR was easily the weakest origin story in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. THOR: THE DARK WORLD served as an entertaining sequel, but couldn’t reach the heights of the rest of MCU’s second phase of films. THOR: RAGNAROK is easily the best THOR yet (not exactly high praise) and is a highly entertaining mythological superhero romp. While I don’t think this third THOR is nearly as awesome as some folks have been making it out to be, there’s loads of fun to be had and it’s a big step up in quality from the rest of 2017’s MCU offerings (including the vastly overrated SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING and the slightly underwhelming GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: VOL. 2).

Two years after the events in THE DARK WORLD, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has discovered that his mischievous adopted brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has taken over the home world Asgard and his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) has been banished. While on the journey to bring his dear old daddy home, Thor discovers that an ancient prophecy is coming to light and it might spell doom for all Asgardians. Unfortunately, god of death Hela (Cate Blanchett) has returned and seems hellbent on conquering Asgard. All the while, Thor has wound up stranded on a junk planet in the clutches of the cruelly kooky Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). In order to save his people from destruction, Thor must fight his way through gladiator battles, unite with old friends and new faces, and find a way to stop the seemingly undefeatable Hela.

RAGNAROK follows the usual superhero formula and is fairly by-the-numbers in terms of its plot. There’s an evil bad gal who’s bent on world domination, an ancient prophecy that might be fulfilled, and a story arc that must be experienced by our main hero that causes him to grow even more powerful. However, THOR: RAGNAROK does something extremely well that the other THOR films only did occasionally well. It’s funny, really funny. Not just in scenes that feature Tom Hiddleston’s Loki (who still remains a charming fan favorite) either, but also in nearly every moment. RAGNAROK contains more laughs than pretty much any other MCU entry, with the sole exception being the first GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY.

Viewers who watch RAGNAROK in search of other Marvel goodies will receive those in spades too because this plot also serves as the best HULK movie never made. To elaborate further, Thor’s entrapment on the junk planet is blended with the much celebrated PLANET HULK storyline. Hulk’s inclusion gives Thor another hero to relate to and shows that Hulk can star in a great movie that doesn’t need to involve all of the other Avengers. Also, the end credits scene promises serious stakes for the upcoming INFINITY WAR (which hits next May) and Benedict Cumberbatch squeezes in five minutes of (very funny) screen time as Doctor Strange. Tessa Thompson adds a fresh new heroine to MCU’s mix as the hard-drinking, harder-hitting Valkyrie, while Idris Elba doesn’t get receive much to do as Heimdall.

RAGNAROK mainly falters in its big antagonist. Cate Blanchett’s Hela looks cool as all hell. Her intimidating costume design and weaponized black spikes that fly from her body are pure eye candy. Sadly, that doesn’t translate into her as a character though, because she’s just another bland baddie who wants to take over the world. I found her slightly reluctant lackey Skurge (played by Karl Roden) to be a much more interesting character and his story arc (though familiar) was far more satisfying. Hell, I even felt that Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster was a far superior villain to Hela. Grandmaster had an odd kookiness to him and still came off as threatening, though simultaneously hilarious. I guess I’m saying that I wish Hela had been more interesting and that Grandmaster had even more screen time.

If you are a Marvel Cinematic Universe fan (and you should know if you are by the seventeenth film in the long-running franchise), then you’ll find a lot to enjoy in THOR: RAGNAROK. The by-the-numbers plot may be familiar, but the hilarious, colorful and spectacle-loaded execution kept me smiling from ear to ear as the entire movie played out. The film’s main problems arrive in Hela looking cool, but being rather bland. However, Goldblum’s Grandmaster is worth the price of admission alone. RAGNAROK also injects a few much-needed risks into the MCU that will likely pay off in big ways during INFINITY WAR. THOR: RAGNAROK comes highly recommended!

Grade: B+

PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (2008)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

MPAA Rating: R for Pervasive Strong Brutal Violence, Language and some Drug Use

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Directed by: Lexi Alexander

Written by: Art Marcum, Matt Holloway & Nick Santora

(based on THE PUNISHER comics by Gerry Conway, Ross Andru & John Romita, Sr.)

Starring: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, Colin Salmon, Doug Hutchison, Dash Mihok & Wayne Knight

After the financial success of 2004’s THE PUNISHER, it seemed like a sequel was inevitable. Thomas Jane was primed and ready to go, but a long-stalled production and numerous script rewrites caused him to walk away. Lionsgate decided that it would go the Sony SPIDER-MAN route before that was even a thing and turned WAR ZONE into a full-blown reboot as opposed to a follow-up to the first film. For those keeping score at home, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is the third attempt to kick off a Punisher franchise. As one might expect, history repeated itself and now Frank Castle has flown the coop to Netflix. WAR ZONE seems to be the most polarizing Punisher film out there. Some people love it for its carnage-laced lunacy, while others consider it be a bastardization of the heavily armed anti-hero. I fall somewhere in the middle.

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Years have passed since Frank Castle’s family was gunned down in a mob hit. Frank secretly survived the attempt on his life though and turned to a bloodthirsty vigilante lifestyle. Armed to the teeth with guns, bombs, and knifes, Frank Castle has become The Punisher. Over the past five years, the Punisher has been systematically wiping out large mob figures. Frank’s latest attempt to take out a crime family has gone awry. By gone I awry, I mean that the Punisher has accidentally gunned down an undercover FBI agent and left one psychotic gangster (nicknamed Jigsaw) horribly disfigured, but alive. While the Punisher considers possible retirement, the FBI forms a task force to take Frank down and Jigsaw plots a gruesome revenge.

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Out of the three PUNISHER films, WAR ZONE is by far the best looking of the bunch. The visuals are colorful as lots of neon colors are used and a slick atmosphere hovers over practically every scene. The film is also insanely violent beyond belief. With the exception of a couple of noticeably bad computer effects (some cheap-looking fire and fake squirting blood), the violence is very well executed (pardon the pun) with lots of practical effects being utilized. Frank doesn’t spare anyone that he doesn’t have to. We see faces punched into a pulp, limbs blown clean off, impalements, necks being broken, and, of course, lots of bullets flying every which way. Stuntwoman-turned-director Lexi Alexander certainly seems to be having a blast behind the camera as her vision of the Punisher is the goriest version to hit the screen yet.

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If only the plot was up to the same level of creative violence on display, because this storyline feels disappointingly generic. We’ve seen this storyline used before in other comic book adaptations before WAR ZONE and it seems like it was the Punisher’s turn to play out the familiar by-the-numbers formula. As Frank Castle, Ray Stevenson is more entertaining to watch than droopy-eyed Dolph Lundgren, but lacks the charisma and likability of Thomas Jane. He’s an okay action hero, but I never felt like I was watching the Punisher. The two characters (an obsessed cop and a straight-laced FBI agent) on the anti-Punisher team are fun to watch, but seem to be constantly forgotten in the proceedings. Their presence does lead to the film’s single funniest bit of dark comedy in the film though, which I kept replaying and it made me laugh every single time. Also on the sidelines are Wayne Knight making the most of what he can in the role of a weapons dealer and Julie Benz playing a typical damsel-in-distress.

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As far as villains are concerned, WAR ZONE has two very colorful baddies and a lot of bland side thugs. The two main antagonists are Jigsaw and his cannibalistic brother, Loony Bin Jim. These two are entertaining enough to watch in moments, but can be obnoxious in chewing the scenery. Dominic Cooper (300) is hidden under layers of make-up as Jigsaw and plays a purposely exaggerated Brooklyn gangster with a very ugly mug. That’s about all there is to this villain. One scene in which he tries to recruit fellow gangsters is over-the-top, but his final moments are his best scenes in the film. Doug Hutchinson (Percy from THE GREEN MILE) plays Loony Bin Jim with a deranged delight. Though his character can occasionally be grating alongside Cooper’s Jigsaw, he receives some of the film’s more disgusting moments.

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PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is about as over-the-top and ridiculously gory as a PUNISHER movie can possibly be. It lacks the brooding tragic nature of the Thomas Jane adaptation, but remains consistently entertaining as a blood-soaked B-movie with an A-movie’s production values. The film’s slick look, insane amounts of violence, and professional direction make it worth a watch, even if the performances, plot, and silly moments can be annoying. For me, PUNISHER: WAR ZONE is snuggled comfortably in between the ’89 Lundgren B-flick and ’04’s origin story. There’s nothing really wrong with that as all three PUNISHER films can be enjoyed for entirely separate reasons.

Grade: B-

THE TRANSPORTER: REFUELED (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Violence and Action, Sexual Material, some Language, a Drug Reference and Thematic Elements

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Directed by: Camille Delamarre

Written by: Luc Besson, Bill Collage & Adam Cooper

Starring: Ed Skrein, Ray Stevenson, Loan Chabanol, Noemie Lenoir, Gabriella Wright & Tatjana Pajkovic

Out of all the action films from the early 2000’s, THE TRANSPORTER seemed like the least likely to get a reboot. While I may not necessarily be the biggest fan of the TRANSPORTER series, the first two films served as constant guilty pleasures throughout my junior high and high school years. My enjoyment of those first two movies was to a degree where I had enough nostalgia to be intrigued by the trailer for the latest film in this ridiculous, over-the-top and unintentionally hilarious franchise. My interest and hesitant hopes were misguided as REFUELED ignores what worked about this franchise and becomes a bloated, dreary affair. Serving as an origin story for the title hero, this reboot doesn’t entertain or excite.

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Frank Martin is a former mercenary turned shady transporter. Running on a strict set of rules, Frank will transport anything for anybody as long as the deal agreed upon stays set in stone, he doesn’t know what he’s transporting, and his employer’s identity is kept anonymous. All of Frank’s rules get broken when he’s hired by a quartet of prostitutes as a getaway driver. The situation drastically changes when it’s revealed that the hookers have taken Frank’s father hostage and force our Transporter to aid them in a mission to take down a powerful Russian human trafficker. Frank finds himself kicking ass, taking names, and falling for Anna (the leader of these prostitutes turned rebels) along the way.

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Much like James Bond is now played by Daniel Craig and Mad Max is now played by Tom Hardy, Frank Martin has left Jason Statham behind and replaced him with Ed Skrein (who left GAME OF THRONES to do…this?). Skrein isn’t exactly Statham. Despite how tough he tries to act, you can’t help but feel that Skrein is just a little boy trying to wear a grown man’s Statham suit. His action hero antics seem somehow more over-the-top than any other entries in TRANSPORTER franchise (which is saying something). Frank Martin was a man of few words in the original movies and Skrein talks entirely too much for his own good. It almost feels like Luc Besson is trying to take a CASINO ROYALE route in rebooting this series, by fleshing out an origin story for how Frank fully became the Transporter. However, none of it works. Throw in Ray Stevenson as Frank’s father (who at least seems to be having some fun with his role) and a bland group of sexualized heroines, then you’ve got yourself what might be the biggest step backwards for a movie series this year. Also, the villain is a boring Russian pimp who comes off like a thousand other action movie baddies who we’ve seen in recent years.

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If there’s anything nice to be said about THE TRANSPORTER: REFUELED, those compliments stem from one decent action scene and slick visuals. This movie looks good. You can tell there was a budget behind the scenes. The locations are gorgeous and well-shot. That isn’t enough to keep me interested when the movie drags between action scenes and then phones in really stupid excuses for a random beat-down (e.g. Frank punches out a guy that tells him he can’t park his car). This screenplay drags between set pieces and it’s not even as if any of these set-pieces are any particularly impressive. For the most part, they come off as desperate and eye-rollingly random. Only one sequence actually did the trick for me and it involved Frank taking down a bunch of guys at the back of a night club. That sequence was the only moment in the film that combined the silliness and cool action that made the first TRANSPORTER so damn enjoyable. It certainly doesn’t help that this film feels like two hours and only clocks in at just over 90 minutes (including a pointless, useless epilogue).

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I know this pun has probably been made in other reviews, but I’m still going to state the obvious. This isn’t so much of THE TRANSPORTER: REFUELED as it is THE TRANSPORTER: RUNNING ON FUMES. Ed Skrein was not a good replacement for Statham in the role of Frank Martin. He just feels all-wrong for the part. The rest of the cast is just as bland and boring as Skrein’s performance is, with the possible exception of Ray Stevenson. Save for one action scene, the car chases and fights in this movie are filled with an annoying amount of quick-editing and slow-motion that ruin any potential they might have originally had. The movie does get a couple of points for being unintentionally funny, but it’s mostly going at 10 mph when it should be speeding at over 100. Thus far, REFUELED is easily the worst action movie I’ve sat through this year…but I didn’t bother with AGENT 47. Take that as you will.

Grade: D

BIG GAME (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 27 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Sequences of Intense Action and Violence, and some Language

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Directed by: Jalmari Helander

Written by: Jalmari Helander & Petri Jokiranta

Starring: Samuel L. Jackson, Onni Tommila, Felicity Huffman, Victor Garber, Ted Levine, Jim Broadbent & Ray Stevenson

In 2010, a little Finnish movie by the name of RARE EXPORTS got a small theatrical release. That film was a decidedly darker take on the legend of Santa Claus and wound up being one of my favorite movies of that year. I eagerly awaited to see what director/writer Jalmari Helander would do next. Over four years later, we’ve now been given his sophomore feature: BIG GAME. People planning to watch this movie should know in advance that this isn’t a massive action-packed extravaganza. Instead, it’s a family friendly adventure that would fit right in during the 80’s with GREMLINS, GOONIES, and MONSTER SQUAD audiences. BIG GAME is a fun homage to cheesy adventures of yesteryear that wholeheartedly embraces every cliché that comes with that territory.

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Oskari’s thirteenth birthday has arrived and he is going on a ceremonial trip through a thick forest countryside to become a man. Oskari’s solo hunting venture through Finland’s woods takes a surprising turn when Air Force One (conveniently flying over Finland) is shot down. Miraculously, the President of the United States has survived and is rescued by Oskari. The destruction of Air Force One was only the first step in an assassination plot conceived by a traitorous secret service agent and a demented big game hunter. Oskari and the cowardly President must work together if they plan on getting out of the woods alive.

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BIG GAME isn’t a full-blown action flick and is purposely ridiculous. I think that the marketing has made this film look like something it isn’t and that’s upsetting some folks who wouldn’t necessarily be fans of stuff like RARE EXPORTS. The movie may be clichéd to a fault, but that was entirely intentional and helps boost the fun/nostalgia factor being dished out. The script is a basic, by-the-numbers story, but the execution is where everything shines in BIG GAME. The film looks gorgeous. RARE EXPORTS had a beautiful visual style too and BIG GAME benefits from using the same cinematographer. As far as the effects go, they all look up to snuff and far better than recent CGI messes that have been brought to the screen (I’m thinking of a few scenes in the latest TERMINATOR). If there are any major complaints that I have with this film, they lie in the pacing and a really short running time. The story certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome, but rather, understays it. I wanted the film to last longer, especially given that one certain glaring plot thread isn’t tied up in a satisfying way.

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BIG GAME sports a cast with some famous faces. Samuel L. Jackson plays the President of the United States, but is far from his conventional bad-ass hero archetype. Instead, this President is a wuss from the get-go (as evidenced by a newspaper headline that reads “Lame Duck President”). Though I imagine that a few Jackson fans will be pissed that he’s not kicking ass and taking names for most of this film, I thought it was a lot of fun to see him in an unconventional role. Ray Stevenson is clearly having a blast as the corrupt secret service agent and seems like he’s naturally built for the part of a villain. He was awesome as a big bad gangster in DEXTER Season 7 and pretty much seems to be channeling that same fun, charismatic baddie in this film. Onni Tommila isn’t a well-known face to Americans, but he was the awesome leading kid in RARE EXPORTS and shows that he has a knack for this type of role yet again in BIG GAME. Ted Levine and Jim Broadbent pop up as two of the President’s men in the White House. It was amusing to see White House staff members’ react to the mayhem playing out in the Finland countryside, but these scenes feel unneeded and really slow down the action when it does get going.

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Much like RARE EXPORTS, BIG GAME isn’t a movie for everybody. It’s purposely ridiculous, over-the-top, and very campy. I don’t think it’s on the same level of RARE EXPORTS, but this sophomore effort remains a wholly enjoyable (surprisingly) family friendly adventure that serves it’s purpose in being a fun B-flick with really excellent cinematography and locations. BIG GAME should entertain its intended audience and is well worth checking out as long as you keep your expectations at a reasonable level.

Grade: B

INSURGENT (2015)

Review by Derrick Carter

Running Time: 1 hour 59 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense Violence and Action throughout, some Sensuality, Thematic Elements and brief Language

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Directed by: Robert Schwentke

Written by: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman & Mark Bomback

(based on the novel INSURGENT by Veronica Roth)

Starring: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Octavia Spencer, Jai Courtney, Ray Stevenson, Zoe Kravitz, Miles Teller, Ansel Elgort, Maggie Q, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet, Mekhi Phifer & Ashley Judd

I was not a fan of DIVERGENT. That movie felt like an overly derivative mess that didn’t have a satisfying story, was filled with bland characters, and lowered even further by a cliché-ridden script. I really, truly hated DIVERGENT. So why am I reviewing INSURGENT? Apparently, I’m a glutton for punishment and asked people on Facebook if they wanted me to keep covering the series until its conclusion. They said yes, so here I am. INSURGENT is slightly better than DIVERGENT. It’s shorter, doesn’t waste time with unnecessary set-up, and manages to smuggle in a couple of cool action scenes. However, new problems arise in really stupid plot developments and eye-rolling moments that give Edward and Bella some competition for most unconvincing couple of the new millennium.

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When last we left the land of DIVERGENT, Tris’s parents had been killed, the fabric of an unstable class system was in question, and our group of fugitive heroes had escaped from the clutches of the evil Jeanine. Tris, Four (Tris’s lover), Peter (Tris’s nemesis) and Caleb (Tris’s brother) are hiding out in peaceful territory, but soon find themselves being ruthlessly chased by Jeanine and the Dauntless. It turns out that Jeanine (or as someone has referred to her, Female President Snow) has recovered an important artifact that can only be opened by a powerful Divergent. As Tris’s few surviving loved ones are threatened, this teenage heroine discovers that she’s the only hope of opening this artifact. That’s pretty much the plot right there. There are action scenes and encounters with other Factions, but INSURGENT has about as much going on as DIVERGENT did plot-wise. It’s familiar and basic stuff that’s made to look overly complicated and unnecessarily convoluted.

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INSURGENT thankfully doesn’t bother giving us a flashback set-up sequence, but still packs in plenty of young-adult clichés all over the place. The characters remain hollow and the cast appears to know that they’ve moved on to bigger things since DIVERGENT. Shailene Woodley (FAULT IN OUR STARS) is a one-note action heroine as Tris and still manages to garner plenty unintentional laughter on occasion, but also looks bored with the material she’s been given. Ansel Elgort is a woeful coward stereotype and doesn’t get a significant amount of screen time. Naomi Watts and Kate Winslet both seem present only to pick up an easy paycheck, though Blanchett gives the best performance of the whole film. The biggest blow comes in Miles Teller as the lame comic relief character who mainly serves as a convenient trigger for two plot points. Teller has recently come off of the amazing WHIPLASH and I couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy for starring in this sequel.

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INSURGENT’s visuals look good and more focus is placed on the post-apocalyptic world this time around. The ideas are still dumb and overused, but watching a crumbling futuristic society was slightly more interesting than watching a teenage girl try to become a member of a club…I mean, Faction. Though there isn’t an abundance of them, INSURGENT has good action scenes. I was enjoying myself during a shoot-out, a well-done chase scene and simulations that are the best scenes in the film. This being said, there are still lots of unintentional laugh-out-loud bits. My favorite of which involved Four yelling at someone “My name is Four!” and walking away from a dinner table like a pouty brat who constantly whines about nobody understanding them. In all honesty, that might be a portion of the film’s target audience though.

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The bad doesn’t stop there as the script feels downright lazy. This was based on a novel and I understand that part of these story problems birth from unoriginal source material, but there’s no excuse for how poorly written some of this stuff is. For example, there’s a huge plot point hinging on what’s inside this artifact and this is frequently brought up throughout two hours. When it’s ultimately revealed, it’s very underwhelming (not that I was expecting much to begin with) and insulting to the viewer. The discovery also more than reminded me a little of a certain other young-adult adaptation that came out last September, where that reveal also felt like a cop-out. I rolled my eyes so much during INSURGENT that I bordered on a possible hazard of vision problems.

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Going off the last note of INSURGENT, I’m really not sure what else of this story needs to or can be told. This opinion stems partially from just how bad these first two movies have been, but also because I really don’t think there’s much more of a story left to tell (let alone for TWO more films!). Seeing as HUNGER GAMES is ending this year, the young-adult void has been momentarily filled by the DIVERGENT series and THE MAZE RUNNER, though I’m really looking forward to the upcoming I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER. INSURGENT manages to be a miniscule hair above DIVERGENT in running time, but it’s just as convoluted and poorly executed as the first film. Now I’ll just go back to pretending that this series doesn’t exist until ALLEGIANT: Part 1 (of course!) hits next March.

Grade: D

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