Lucy

Posted July 27, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, science fiction

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What are the movies trying to tell us about Scarlett Johansson? Of late, she’s been seen (or, in one case, merely heard) in three idiosyncratic sci-fi films directed by people with more on their minds than simple escapism. Spike Jonze’s Her wedded Johansson’s purr to a super-advanced operating system; Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin offered her as an alien harvesting men; and now, in Luc Besson’s Lucy (Luc with a y?), Johansson plays an unwilling drug mule whose cargo of experimental blue powder, leaking into her bloodstream, allows her access to more and more of her brain. In the Besson-verse, this means Johansson becomes the ultimate badass, able to bend matter to her will, until eventually, like Samantha in Her, Lucy slips the bonds of the material world.

What matters to the sane viewer is not whether Lucy is scientifically plausible — it isn’t — but whether it’s an entertaining riff on its hefty themes (like, what is human, man?) — and it mostly is. Which doesn’t mean I don’t have many questions about it. Lucy starts out an ordinary young woman with understandably intense emotional responses to her plight — in a nice nod to realism, Besson has her barf at the sight of gangster bloodshed — but as her brain grows, as in so many of these parables, her heart seems to shrink. Johansson becomes dead-eyed and rather spooky, rattling off complex dialogue in a flat affect. She comes across as more inhuman than she was as actual nonhumans in Her and Under the Skin. Reason trumps feeling, I guess — though another nice touch finds Lucy phoning her mom and tearfully sharing infant memories she can now access — but a main character without fear makes for a movie without emotional stakes.

Lucy is probably easy to parody, what with its nods to landmarks of furrowed-brow cinema — at one point, Lucy touches fingers with a curious pre-evolved monkey; finally, Scarlett Johansson as the Monolith! — sometimes playing like Limitless remixed by Godfrey Reggio. It comes complete with a thesis statement, spoken by Johansson in sullen voiceover: “Life was given to us a billion years ago. What have we done with it?” The peak of human endeavor, apparently, being the ability to take out a hallway full of Korean thugs with a lordly wave of the hand. For extra gravitas, Besson brings in Morgan Freeman, filling the same role he did in the recent and thematically similar Transcendence. Where Johnny Depp sought to crown himself the world’s benevolent cyber-king, though, Lucy just wants to survive, to pass along information as a cell does. Is this the difference between a deus ex machina and a dea ex machina?

Ultimately, Lucy is more interesting as the final panel of the 2013-14 Scarlett Johansson “what is human?” triptych than it is in and of itself. It has its giddy moments, though. When Lucy teams up with a cop (Amr Waked) and takes him on a leadfoot tour of Parisian streets, or when she achieves oneness with every electronic device in Freeman’s lab, Besson shows a muscular imaginative glee that’s hard to fend off. The director of La Femme Nikita, The Professional and The Fifth Element has never been a thinker; despite Lucy‘s feints towards philosophy, it’s really about the cool visual, the dispassionate masklike beauty of a young woman serving up a bit of ultraviolence. Lucy was not based on a comic book, but it might as well be; essentially, Luc Besson is in the comic-book business.

The Purge: Anarchy

Posted July 21, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, science fiction, sequel, thriller

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The disappointing thing about the Purge movies is that the marketing makes them look spookier and more radical than they turn out to be. The first one, from last year, used a promising if unoriginal premise — every year in futuristic America, there’s a 12-hour window of officially ignored criminality — as the backdrop for a standard home-invasion thriller. Now The Purge: Anarchy employs the same concept as wallpaper for an action-thriller that swipes alternately from The Warriors and Escape from New York but lacks the style of either.

As the annual Purge is about to kick off, we meet a variety of civilians preparing for the long night. The mother-daughter duo Eva (Carmen Ejogo) and Cali (Zoe Soul) plan to hole up in their apartment. The troubled young couple Shane (Zach Gifford) and Liz (Kiele Sanchez) are on their way to her sister’s house. A mystery man (Frank Grillo) arms himself and goes out into the chaos. Eventually all these people wind up under the protection of Mystery Man, whose name, Wikipedia informs me, is Leo, even though I don’t think I heard it mentioned in the film.

Somewhere in there is a revolutionary faction opposed to the Purge, but aside from serving as a deus ex machina (both Purge movies are full of last-minute rescues) they don’t amount to much. More is made here of the Purge essentially being an elitist culling of the 99%, with the rich paying to kidnap or hunt the poor for fun. But the politics of this is callow compared to two other recent dystopian thrillers, Snowpiercer and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The action, on the rare occasions that you can make out what’s happening, is uninspired; the putatively ghastly sight of prowling killers in ironically innocent masks is muted when we find out what they’re really up to. Random cruelty, to me, is scarier than conspiracy theories, which arise from the human need to impose order where there is none. There’s certainly order in the universe of The Purge, which makes the conflict comprehensible and dull and politically questionable even if you’re on the side of the 99%.

By virtue of getting out and about, and having a more varied cast than Ethan Hawke and his family, The Purge: Anarchy packs marginally more entertainment value than its predecessor. Ultimately, though, it’s boring to watch and to think about, and sadly, these movies are meant to be thought about. But they’re overtly political in a way that reminds me of a high-school kid who’s just discovered radicalism. The writer/director of both films is James DeMonaco, who may for all I know have a shelf full of Noam Chomsky, but one of the executive producers is Transformers perpetrator Michael Bay, whose low-budget horror-flick shingle Platinum Dunes is behind the films. Bay is decidedly a one-percenter, and I would reflexively distrust anything supposedly radical with his name on it. These movies are like something that would be shown to the poor folks of Panem in The Hunger Games to pacify them, keep them from actually doing anything.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Posted July 13, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, one of the year's best, science fiction, sequel

dawn-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-5At the end of 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, most of us were killed off by a man-made virus, while the simians of the world, led by the super-smart chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis), took to the trees and set about enjoying life without humans. Now, in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, it’s around a decade later; Caesar has set up an enormous community of primates near an abandoned dam in San Francisco. Caesar has taught sign language to his subjects, and some, like him, can even speak (I agreed to forget that apes can’t physically speak no matter how smart they are). But there are, it turns out, some humans nearby, and they want to reactivate the dam to get the power back on.

It’s a simple conflict of interests, but the characters on either side are written with an appealing depth. We can see and empathize with all viewpoints. The humans’ leader (Gary Oldman), for instance, who wants to decimate the apes if they won’t allow access to the dam, is not a mustache-twirling sadist but simply a frightened and grieving man charged with protecting his small pocket of humanity. On the other side, the intelligent and peaceable Caesar has a scarred and badass adviser, Koba (Toby Kebbell), who hates humans because they tortured him in the lab. There’s a chilling moment when Caesar refers to “human work” in the dam, and an enraged Koba points to each of his scars, grunting “Human…work! Human…work! HUMAN…WORK!” in a rising line of disgust, and we think, Well…yeah…hard to argue with that.

Caesar is heroic and noble and, as a result, sort of dull next to Koba, who becomes the movie’s anti-hero. He’s sardonic, even satirical — he dupes a couple of idiotic gun-toting humans by engaging in what I can only call simian minstrelsy — and remorselessly vicious. He scares us, and yet the sight of him on horseback wielding two machine guns is inescapably exciting. We’re seeing primal fury, pain, revenge. Koba does evil things in the name of eradicating what he sees as the key threat to his, well, people. In outline it’s the same MLK/Malcolm X conflict we saw between Xavier and Magneto in the X-Men films, but it feels more real here, the guilt more intimate, because in the real world there are no superpowered mutants but there certainly are monkeys who continue to be experimented on and subjected to agony in our labs. The new Apes films show the chickens coming home to roost: how long can humans deal stinging blows to nature before nature bites back?

So Dawn becomes something of a war movie, or a pre-war movie, because we’re told that the humans have succeeded in contacting the military, and the next Apes will no doubt be the big throwdown. But here, at least, we’ve sown the seeds for Caesar’s making good on his earlier promise, “Apes do not want war. But we will fight if we must.” Caesar is quite the speechmaker, to the point where he can hold a decent conversation with the kinder-hearted of the humans, such as Jason Clarke as a more temperate leader (he’s Oldman’s right-hand man, in an inversion of the Caesar-Koba dynamic) and Keri Russell as a doctor who tends to sick or wounded apes. Caesar knows there are good humans, and doesn’t have a problem using the language of the enemy, since he doesn’t see them as such. Koba uses English sneeringly, or when he needs to be heard above the din of battle; he has a screechy, ugly speaking voice that suggests English tastes bad in his mouth.

Dawn is confidently directed by Matt Reeves, who made Cloverfield better than it had to be and Let Me In better than I’d expected a remake of Let the Right One In to be. Here he makes a Planet of the Apes sequel way better than it has any right to be, slowing down to capture moments between human and human, between ape and ape, between ape and human — these moments are the spine of the action. When the apes, led by the shrieking Koba, go to battle with the humans, it’s both electrifying and saddening. We’re there for what the poster — ape on horseback waving a gun — promises, but what leads to that visual is a nauseating tangle of grief and pain and mutual distrust. Dawn will be put to work as a stand-in for any current intractable conflict — I’ve already seen the ape/human conflict compared to the Palestinian/Israeli mess. But it feels more elemental than that. Humans, by accident of evolution, became the alphas on Earth, the apex predators, with every other species reduced to the insulted and the injured. Those who rush to find real-world political analogues are perhaps willfully ignoring what Koba so simply and eloquently refers to as human work.

Snowpiercer

Posted July 5, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, adaptation, comic-book, one of the year's best, science fiction

20140705-190719.jpgThe morosely spectacular Snowpiercer shouldn’t be taken literally. Here is an allegorical science-fiction epic that unfolds aboard a massive train, streaking through the snow-clotted wasteland that used to be civilization. (In July 2014, the movie tells us, we pumped some super-coolant into the atmosphere to curb global warming; it worked too well. Oops.) The poorest folks are stuck in the “tail” of the train, while the one-percenters live it up near the front. A few brave 99-percenters, led by Chris Evans as the bearded, sullen Curtis, decide to move ahead car by car. That’s the movie. It is a thing of pure cinematic beauty, the movie you want in your deck when arguing for the artistic potential of action films. If you must, it’s Runaway Train meets Brazil — Kurosawa and Gilliam, together at last.

It can’t be coincidence, either, that Snowpiercer features a character named Gilliam (John Hurt), an ancient sage minus an arm and a leg, for reasons we eventually discover. Some of the details in the world-building here are so odd they feel about as realistic as anything else; like the director Bong Joon-ho’s previous breakout hit The Host, and indeed like much of South Korean cinema, Snowpiercer is a highly unstable mix of action-flick grimness and surreal monkeyshines. Tilda Swinton, for example, trots into the proceedings with horse teeth and ugly glasses as an officious marshal who explains that the poor are a shoe, and therefore do not belong on the head. Even she looks normal, though, when we reach the train car where children learn the wonders of the man who built the train, a lesson as told by a pregnant teacher (Alison Pill) who packs a machine gun and trills happily at a piano.

Snowpiercer rattles and hums with visionary life, front-loaded with economical character moments, as The Host was, so that by the time we reach the action, it means something. Violence is not cool or a joke to Bong Joon-ho; it ruins lives and cuts down characters we’ve come to like. This sets his work aside from, and high above, the glib head-bashing in Gareth Evans’ Raid films. The fights are not cleverly choreographed — they’re clumsy, gnashing affairs. Bong is more interested in the microcosm represented by the train in each of its cars; a close reader will probably eventually devote more thought to the relevance of the compartments, which lead inexorably to the Kurtz of the piece, Wilford (Ed Harris), the train’s architect and god of the engine. Ayn Rand would like him.

Most action films today go down in a bitter, indigestible lump, like the protein blocks we see the poor passengers subsisting on here, made out of ground-up cockroaches. The new Transformers atrocity serves up dead roach chunks from sea to shining sea. Snowpiercer tastes and chews like the steak enjoyed in the engine room, nutritious and full-blooded, made of hearty red meat. If the movie were playing on more than a relative handful of screens nationwide, Chris Evans would get deserved props for a haunted anti-hero much removed from Captain America, and the terrific Song Kang-ho, star of The Host (and again playing Go Ah-sung’s father), would take his place as a wooly icon to shelve alongside Toshiro Mifune and Runaway Train‘s Jon Voight.

The reason so many of us critics are going slightly nuts over Snowpiercer is that, like many foreign films, it does so effortlessly what Hollywood has mostly forgotten how to do. It tells a simple story swollen with symbol and meaning, side dishes which we can either feast on or disregard. It’s edited not for inane adrenaline but for emotional impact, suspense, dread, awe. This hurtling microcosm, cleaving through an uninhabitable void, is a world unto itself, filled with desperate heroics and callous escapism and everything inbetween. As for the gentle-faced Bong Joon-ho, he is very much in the Guillermo del Toro mold, a storyteller who burrows around in genre and tries to expand it from within. Bong has also assumed the mantle of Terry Gilliam in more ways than one: For his troubles, and his vision, distributor Harvey Weinstein has punished Bong’s film by releasing it in a trickle. Bong refused to cut twenty minutes out of Snowpiercer, so Weinstein has made it so that most of the people who would like to see it on the big screen — where it demands to be experienced — won’t be able to. Weinstein should no longer pretend to care about film, and Bong should no longer do business with vulgarians like Weinstein.

Life Itself

Posted June 29, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary, one of the year's best

roger-ebert-gives-a-thumbs-up-after-receiving-a-star-on-the-hollywood-walk-of-fame-in-hollywood-inWell, Roger, you made it. You’re in a movie. Not only that, you’re its star and focus. Life Itself is based partly on your memoir of the same name. Readers who are not you will no doubt wonder why I’m addressing this review to you, who are not here, and not to them. Well, it’s because you had a knack for writing reviews seemingly addressed to me and me only, and millions of other readers likely felt and feel the same way. You didn’t bother much with film theory or ten-dollar words. You wanted everyone to understand you: the film buff, the folks at the bar, the kid who was just starting to develop critical thinking. The movie about you is likewise straightforward. It doesn’t exclude anyone. It doesn’t get fancy. It just tells your story.

The documentarian Steve James, whose great film Hoop Dreams you tirelessly promoted, has directed Life Itself with open eyes and no fear of showing you in your least glamorous moments. You allowed James to film you undergoing an undignified throat-suction procedure, and then you emailed him that you were glad his movie would show what is seldom seen in a movie. You always respected that in a movie: something you hadn’t seen before, and something that told the truth. That suction bit, hard as it is for the rest of us to watch, is almost the defining moment of the movie, since we know it’s there because you wanted it there. You also wanted the movie to tell the truth about your lost years as an alcoholic, when you would kill hours in bars and take home women who were bad for you.

Finally you met, and married, a woman who was good for you: Chaz Hammelsmith Ebert, whom you called “the great fact of my life.” You would no doubt be grateful to know that Chaz comes off beautifully in the movie, yet still human, someone who could get frustrated with you when you didn’t feel up to doing things you needed to do. There is a scene where you don’t want to climb some stairs, and Chaz says you have to, and eventually you do it. Many of us have lived this scene in one or both of the roles. We can all be annoying and stubborn at times, and you were no exception. You would have respected a movie that touches on realities of human relationships that Hollywood usually ignores.

Many of your friends, some famous (Scorsese, Herzog) and some only known in Chicago newspaper circles, speak movingly on your behalf. One friend, of course, is absent: Gene Siskel, who died in 1999. Gene’s widow, Marlene, says at your funeral in the movie that when you were still alive she felt as though she still had a piece of Gene left. Life Itself devotes a chunk of time to your prickly partnership with Gene, with many amusing outtakes of you two roasting each other. But Marlene reads aloud a letter you sent her in your later years, saying that as you got older and sicker you thought more and more about him. You soldiered on without him, first with other critics and then as a solo act, something Gene might have snippily said would never and should never happen. But in the end he probably would have been proud that, just as you were losing your ability to speak, you gained a new voice on Twitter and in your blog. You were both tough Chicago newspapermen who wanted to keep going no matter what.

As Life Itself goes on it becomes more cinematic, as if your fading life force were naturally resolving itself into the movie it would become. It is difficult for those of us who were fond of you to see you so frail and to see the increasingly depressed-sounding emails you were sending Steve James. You sensed the movie was nearing its conclusion. You wanted to see more; you wanted to see what happened next. You didn’t want to leave Chaz and your stepchildren and stepgrandchildren. For all that, Life Itself doesn’t milk your death for cheap tears. Chaz soldiers on without you, as we all must do when bereaved, and carries on your website and your life passion. She’s sad, Roger — we all are — but she’s going to be okay, and the movie notes that. Beyond all that, your life has made for a sharp, intimate, honest and compelling film. Congratulations, Roger. Thumbs up.

Redwood Highway

Posted June 22, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: comedy, drama, underrated

11945_388969124578176_5236639086043232091_nJudi Dench is fantastic, but there are other septuagenarian actresses. One such is Shirley Knight, who turns 78 in a couple of weeks, and who provides the rock-solid center for the perfectly pleasant comedy-drama Redwood Highway. Knight is Marie, a widow and grandmother who passes the days at an Oregon retirement community. The place looks comfy as such places go, but Marie hadn’t planned to die there. She takes off, unannounced and without her resented cell phone, for lengthy walks by herself. This drives her adult son Michael (James Le Gros) nuts; she has a spiky, unstable relationship with him and with her granddaughter Naomi (Zena Grey), who’s about to get married.

The embittered Naomi, who knows Marie doesn’t approve of her fiancé, leaves her a message saying not to bother to come to the wedding. Marie, alas, is not the type who will do what she’s told to do, or told not to do. She sets out on foot, again unannounced, with a backpack and a bit of food swiped from the community snack table, on the eighty-mile journey to the wedding site. The premise may sound similar to last year’s overrated Nebraska, but I assure you this is the far better film, starting with the fact that Shirley Knight — who’s in almost every scene — wipes the floor with Bruce Dern’s monotonously irascible performance. Marie is what used to be called a “tough old broad,” but also vulnerable and eventually grateful for help. Fairly quickly, she figures out she’s not going to be able to make the trip solely on her own steam.

Knight’s Marie may be the sort of stubborn person it’s difficult to have in one’s own life — there’s some degree of sympathy for Michael, who moves heaven and earth to track Marie down once she goes missing from the community — but she’s terrific company for an hour and a half. Marie moves briskly and with purpose, and she speaks the same way to people she isn’t sure of. Knight makes her a tragicomic figure leaning towards comic; Marie doesn’t pity herself, so we don’t either. It helps that with one exception, when Marie happens across a couple of meth-heads at a deserted motel out in the boonies, everyone she meets is nice to her (and even one of the meth-heads doesn’t want to cause her any trouble — she reminds him of his grandma). Redwood Highway thus becomes a fable of kindness. It’s soothing, and no big points are being made for or against Marie or her rural surroundings (another reason I prefer it to Nebraska, which was nasty to everyone and everyplace on the screen).

Director Gary Lundgren picks the supporting cast well. Marie meets a widower played beautifully by Tom Skerritt, who reminds us of his effortless command of decency. There’s one moment when Skerritt rests his head on Knight’s shoulder, and it’s incredibly intimate and romantic even though the plot steers clear of romance. Michelle Lombardo is warm and nurturing as a young bartender who insists on giving Marie a bed to sleep in for a night. Twin Peaks fans will be happy to see Catherine E. Coulson, the Log Lady herself, as Marie’s best friend at the retirement community; her appearance is brief but winningly tremulous. None of these people are ridiculed; the script, by Lundgren and James Twyman, allows each character his or her humanity, and we feel they all have lives outside of Marie’s story, perhaps worthy of their own movies. About Skerritt’s character, who still tends the “artisan art” shop he and his wife once started, I would happily know more. And what about one of Marie’s old flames, a deaf old duffer who lives off the grid with, unaccountably, a Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” sticker in the front window of his cabin?

Redwood Highway moves at Marie’s pace, strong and purposeful, and arrives smoothly at its conclusion. Shirley Knight’s bullheaded performance reassures us that Marie will carry out her adventure, that she isn’t going to expire of a heart attack out in the woods or something stupidly melodramatic like that. Sometimes we don’t want to have to worry about what’s going to happen next in a movie; sometimes we just want to be pleasurably curious about what happens next, and we like Marie and want to be with her on her journey. The film’s synopsis tells us that Marie “discovers that you’re never too old to learn something about life and about yourself”; please ignore that, because it makes the movie sound much more softheaded than it is. It is, among other things, a sharp distaff rejoinder to the male-centered, sour-faced Nebraska; it’s what Nebraska might have been if it had forgotten about Bruce Dern and Will Forte and gone off to follow June Squibb.

Big Joy: The Adventures of James Broughton

Posted June 14, 2014 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

the-pleasure-garden-x-5551_1Big Joy is a flavorful and affectionate documentary about a narcissist, James Broughton, who seemed to be a satellite around the cinematic and poetic revolutions of the ’50s, but whose name doesn’t seem to have endured alongside his peers. Partly, I think, it’s because Broughton’s work, his experimental short films and his verse, doesn’t seem to express much outside a diaristic impulse to record what was going on in his life and his head at the time. He was more effective, it seems, as a mystic and guru, throwing his arms out and accepting the young in their quest for love. This is a charitable way of saying that Broughton was a classic horny old goat. His films are full of young men with their kits off and their bits out.

One wonders if a James Broughton would be possible today, when it is leagues more easy (though still not 100% safe) to be openly gay in America. Broughton was in at least two serious hetero relationships; one was with revered film critic Pauline Kael and yielded a daughter, the other was a marriage to designer Susanna Hart that produced another daughter and a son. The son, Orion, is the only offspring willing to appear in Big Joy, though it seems as though he was about as neglected by Broughton as his siblings were. In the mid-’70s, at age 61, Broughton met 25-year-old poet Joel Singer and fell hard for him; he ditched Susanna and their two kids and ran off with Singer, who stayed with Broughton until his death in 1999 at 85.

What I’m getting at here is that if Broughton was a narcissist and a skunk with women, it wasn’t necessarily his fault; the times made him that way. This was a man who hit sexual maturity decades before Stonewall. Like William Burroughs, he fell into the societally approved man/woman thing as a cover story. Then he figured out he could express a lot of his yearnings through his art. His films aren’t stark like Kenneth Anger’s, nor brooding like Maya Deren’s. They embrace the juice and happy furry chaos of life, and his poems read a little much like kiddie poetry, not imagistic or sensual but straightforward odes to playfulness. Finding his voice as an artist and as a gay man, relatively late in life (he was 33 when he made his first short film), must have been cathartic for Broughton. Still, I wouldn’t want to have been the wife unceremoniously dumped with two kids at home while Broughton achieved beautiful oneness with his new boyfriend.

The movie uses ample footage from Broughton’s films, which helps keep Big Joy visually spiky and arresting. Broughton had an eye, although he was far from a technical wizard — the avant-garde cinema of mid-century America wasn’t about technique, though a lot of it sure influenced later masters like Scorsese. From what we see and hear of his work, there isn’t much darkness or pain in it. It’s wish-fulfillment, full of good cheer. Which may be another reason Broughton has more or less been forgotten. His work lacks the chiaroscuro Cold War hysteria and paranoia of that of his peers, all of whom seemed to be flashing tabloid Weegee snapshots of the horror of being an outsider. Broughton projected his own idealized fantasies — he was essentially a romantic comedian.

It seems that Broughton peaked creatively with 1953’s The Pleasure Garden, which took a prize at Cannes, though Pauline Kael generously called his 1971 This Is It (starring Orion as a toddler) “a perfect little object.” After his Cannes triumph, Broughton actually had nibbles from Hollywood, which he blew off, to Kael’s consternation (“This,” she told him, “is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made”). He didn’t want to pimp his angels out to the studios; he wanted to keep making little 8mm baubles. He was, I guess, a naïve artist, oblivious to the almighty buck — though Big Joy is tight-lipped on the subject of what exactly Broughton lived on for all those years. He was fortunate enough to get in on the ground floor of a San Francisco art movement that swept him up and probably kept him in benefactors for decades. That phenomenon seems unlikely to repeat. So, no, a James Broughton would be impossible today.


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