Archives for 2016

Looking Back at 2016

As the sun sets on what can only be described as an “interesting” year, time for some reflections, thoughts, and hope for what is to come in 2017 both cinematically and for the world as a whole.

A bunch of wouldas-couldas-shouldas. Normally I am eager to run to my latest multiplex or art house theater to see the latest and greatest. Well, 2016 seemed to provide a mixed bag for me. While I still averaged about one trip to the movie theater a month, overall, until pretty late in the calendar, not many films I felt were “must sees.” This and the fact that my work-life balance in 2016 got totally out of joint meant that I had a bit of a scaling back of my viewing and coverage of many films. Among some missed opportunities this year included:

Sure this is a short list which will over the years grow as I look back and attempt to play catch up, but for now, these are films I really wish that I had seen while the getting was good.

And yet there were more than a handful of pleasant surprises… some were covered here and some have yet to be covered. Chief among this lot is the Irish indie Sing Street, which screams of nostalgia for that wonderful musical decade (the 1980’s) in a refreshing and entertaining way. More on this in an upcoming post.

Increased access and availability to decades worth of world cinema. One of the more pleasurable experiences I have had in mixing old and new when it comes to my luv of cinema is that the possibilities of “discoveries” becomes nearly limitless. And now, thanks to specialist streaming services like the TCM-Criterion collaboration Filmstruck, the world of cinema is a few clicks of a remote or keystroke away. My first film viewed using this service was the 1943 French horror film La Main du diable. Based on my reaction after plucking this title out of the catalog, I am sure that over the course of this next year (paid subscription through 2017), I will definitely get my money’s worth.

The year in which I saw The Passion of Joan of Arc. I discussed this film around the time I saw it at the 2016 TCM Film Festival, but it is worth mentioning again. Simply stated, seeing this film on the big screen with live musical accompaniment was a truly transformative experience for me. I cannot say enough about this film.

… also the year I saw I, Daniel Blake. Speaking of transformative cinematic experiences, Ken Loach’s latest reduced me to a puddle of tears. It is definitely a film that I found myself recommending over and over again to folks.

Not all ‘boyhoods’ are created equally. I know that everyone is praising Moonlight right now, but believe it, it is well deserved.  I said it at the time and it holds up even more now that I have had months to meditate on it – Moonlight, a poetic story of a young man coming up in a world that may not totally understand him, is everything that I think films like Boyhood could only aspire to be. And I say that as someone who liked Boyhood.

Looking ahead to 2017 …

This probably is worthy of its own post in the coming days since it requires a level of research on my part, but as I always do, I go into the new year with my eyes and ears open. Maybe because of the world events which surround us all, I am really (really) looking forward to going to the movies as a form of escape. What does that mean about the frequency of and selection of the films I see? Only time will tell. But starting in mid-January, I look forward to covering the Sundance Film Festival – again from afar (scheduling will not allow me to travel out to Park City this year). I have taken a look at the films scheduled, but now plan on really going deep, as in recent years, I have used the films screened at Sundance as a barometer of gauging what most to look forward to in the next twelve months.

But let me not get ahead of myself. Even before my ‘remote coverage’ begins, I am starting the new year off right by seeing Fences tomorrow.

So that is me done – see you next year!

 

Star Wars’ Rogue One – A Standout Standalone in the Galactic Series

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was just about any and everything you could hope for in a story where you (kinda?) know what the overall outcome is. Or at the very least, it is a story which will answer some of those lingering questions a Star Wars movie fan might have had, but were not addressed elsewhere.

Like most films I have gone to the theater to see as of late, I went into Rogue One actually knowing very little about it in terms of plot. Of course, I can’t take full credit for this, since it was widely reported that there were several reshoots done to “correct” some of the issues the studio (Disney) had with the movie even as information was being shared with the public. In most cases, knowing this bit of information would not leave me feeling that good about the movie’s prospects, but I was confident that Disney would spare no expense to prevent a stinker of this magnitude from being dumped into cinemas across the world. With the general popularity and acclaim which came from their first outing as outright owners of the Star Wars property (last year’s The Force Awakens), it seemed a certainty that they would not let the side down.

The only other detail I carried into the theater with me was that Rogue One sits as a bridge between Revenge of the Sith (Episode 3) and A New Hope (Episode 4). That aspect was intriguing to me because I am sure there are about a million stories they could tell that could serve the larger narrative justice – it was more a question of which one they would choose. Overall, it is a welcome addition and can provide any newbies to the franchise a reasonable excuse to gingerly pass by the largely disappointing prequels and start with this movie instead. Sure you miss some of the finer details of the Darth Vader origin story, but from this point in the story, you can figure it out and what you don’t figure out you can have filled in for you by your squad.

What Rogue One aims to do (and accomplishes in my opinion) is to set itself apart in so much as being a Star Wars story that is both familiar and new to us. In terms of setup, Rogue One is more or less a standalone episode. It is therefore essential that the filmmakers take some time to establish these new characters and contextualize them for the audience based on our prior knowledge of the Star Wars universe (or galaxy). Top to bottom, I felt connected to the cast of characters we were introduced to. Further congrats to the creatives at Disney for committing to populating the story with such a diverse array of individuals.

Of course, the challenge is to plot this out (not rushing it) but also move the story along at a pace which continues to engage the audience. My suggestion for those fans who tend to go into their sci-fi space adventures expecting wall-to-wall action packed sequences is to be patient. All of the setup we are given in the beginning culminates with a closing 45 plus minutes that has some really riveting and intense set pieces that are reminiscent of many a wartime-action epic motion picture you may have previously seen on the big screen.

We are also treated to a few “Easter Eggs” that uniquely ties the episodes together. Check your local internets to see if you found some of these gems in your viewing 🙂

Also worth noting that Rogue One is also one of, if not THE  darkest chapter in the Star Wars movie franchise to date (rivaling The Empire Strikes Back [Episode V] for that title IMO). Mind you, it totally makes sense considering where in the larger story we are, but still, be prepared. Be very prepared. Stripping away all the sci-fi and special effects, you are left with a narrative that carries a great deal of pathos and emotional weight. By the end of the proceedings, you may feel that the film’s conclusion was inevitable, but the construction and actions in the film are more than enough to capture your attention and keep you engaged up until that point.

There is probably a whole bunch else that I am leaving out of reaction to Rogue One, but I think you can tell I liked it.

What did you think? Sharing is caring – so hit the Comments section with your thoughts.

Hot Take: Doctor Strange (2016)

This month saw the release of yet another installment of the Marvel cinematic world – Doctor Strange.

Benedict Cumberbatch is Doctor Strange."

Benedict Cumberbatch is Doctor Strange.”

If I am to be honest, my ever expanding cinematic wish list did not include this title, but lo and behold, I found myself on a Saturday morning in a 3D IMAX theater on opening weekend. Go figure.

Brushing my initial ambivalence aside, I must admit that the end product turned out to be a pleasant surprise. Doctor Strange manages to take some very obscure concepts (at least by comic – to screen standards) and turn them into an accessible and cinematically stunning action adventure film. It is a rare moment when I recommend watching a film in 3D, but if you hadn’t seen this in this format, you did miss some pretty awesome sequences, that if nothing else, would leave your head spinning.

One thing that Doctor Strange and most of these Marvel films have going for them is the ability to draw top-notch talent. Sure, there is a part of your brain that chuckles at the thought of “thespians” like Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swindow, et al, donning goofy costumes and running down the streets, but you know what? Talent is talent and ultimately they all acquit themselves well enough, enough so that I was thoroughly entertained, whether the beat was dramatic or lighter in tone. Not much else one can ask for.

Another item worth noting is that the film felt a lot brisker than its 115 minute run time would suggest. I really felt like once the opening sequence launched, we were taken straight into the story with a few (if any) loose ends bogging the story down. Me likey.

If there was a negative point for me to make about Doctor Strange is that while it was a solid film, at the end of the day it is more or less “forgettable” in the pantheon of all the characters that we have seen on the screen to date (a result of genre sensory overload, perhaps?). That said, I suspect this is to be expected since the character is not one that I can ever claim to have known about until news broke about the development of the movie. My guess is that like always, we will have to take a “wait and see” approach in determining how seamlessly this chapter slides into the world of Nordic mythology, American Idealism and a huge green fella.

Carnival of Souls (1962), a.k.a. Why Do I Put Myself Through This? Halloween Edition

First off, Happy Halloween Night, guys and ghouls!

Secondly – as the title of this post indicates – why do I do this to myself?

Mind you, I really do like watching scary films, but usually in mixed company where my sheer terror can be diffused by the enjoyment of watching the film with a group of people.

Well, not this time – this time, I flew solo in a weekend binge of scary movies on TCM and arrived at Carnival of Souls. Actually “re-arrived” – I have seen this film before, but a time ago, which means fragments of the plot specifics slipped through my sieve of a memory; I did recall a sketch of the outline: shortly after surviving a car crash, Mary Henry (played by Candace Hilligoss) embarks on a trip westward to Utah, where she is set to start a new job as a church organist. Along the way, she encounters a creepy apparition (the film’s director Herk Harvey) and is drawn to a long-ago abandoned pavilion by the lake.

Once settled into her new life, Mary continues to have episodes which she cannot explain, including continued reappearances of the apparition, all leading up to a frightful conclusion.

Made for an estimated $33,000 and produced by industrial filmmakers, Carnival of Souls is a brilliant example of how to scare your audience with simple yet effective “tricks,” tricks which left me peeking through my hands:

  • foreboding, suspenseful organ music
  • dispossessed movements of characters
  • character movement toward the camera (= camera is the 1st person POV)
  • cutaways which yield the occasional (and effective) jump scare

So yeah, it was enough to put the frighteners on my this past Saturday night. And with that, I highly recommend this cult classic, which is available on Criterion disk (DVD/BluRay) as well as in the public domain. When accessing make note of the running time. There is a 78-minute theatrical version as well as an 84-minute director’s cut.

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Kicks (2016)

Kicks (2016) has been out in cinemas for around a month, but I think it is worth a mention as it is an inspired feature film debut from of one Justin Tipping (who was also the film’s co-writer alongside Joshua Beirne-Golden). With a cast that combines newcomers as well as emerging talent (Kofi Siriboe, Mahershala Ali), Kicks is an entertaining and sometimes trippy journey around the Bay Area featuring teenage Brandon (Jahking Guillory) in the central role.

Film still from KICKS.

Film still from KICKS.

Brandon longs for a pair of Air Jordan 1 sneakers and through his ingenuity, finds a way to procure a pair. Of course, that is not the story … it just sets into motion a series of events which leads our young protagonist, along with best friends Rico (Christopher Meyer) and Albert (Christopher Jordan Wallace) traversing the urban landscape of the Oakland/Bay Area in search of recovering his now-lost treasure.

Kicks is not so much a statement of “sneaker” culture, although it is there around the edges. Instead, it feels like another film in a trend that I can only describe as being the “atypical” (by Hollywood standards) story centering on young black men in the inner city. These young men are not the now trope-ish “urban” characters that we often see on the silver screen. This idea even extends broadly to the less than virtuous characters, who are given additional character layers that allow the audience to connect with them in a refreshing way. In other words, these are simply kids and people trying to get by in the world the best way they know how to. It just so happens to be a world that may a bit unfamiliar (in the cinematic and real sense) from the average teen coming of age drama we are used to seeing. The story of Kicks and its characters is yet another example of why the diversity pipeline in our entertainment is so important.

In fact, in reading the production notes it is worth citing that as Tipping was working on his screenplay, he found inspiration from many of the films he grew up with – The Goonies as well as the films of the 1980’s, courtesy of John Hughes and Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment. And in many ways, I do see that – the days-long journey or quest to a yet to be determined destination, which ultimately leads our main character and his cohort to realize that there is more to them and the world around them than they had anticipated.

Kicks is not a perfect picture – for example, there are a lot of messages to process packed into its 87-minute running time (is that really a problem?) – but it does not take away in any way from the good work that Mr. Tipping has put together as a start to his career in feature films. In fact, his next credit according to IMDB is as the screenwriter of Lowriders a film for Universal Pictures starring Demian Bichir, Eva Longoria and Melissa Benoist.

In addition to the limited cinematic release, audiences have the opportunity to catch Kicks on digital via Amazon, OnDemand, iTunes, GooglePlay, etc., with a DVD/BluRay release on December 6th.

NYFF54 Feature: I, Daniel Blake (2016)

Ken Loach‘s brilliant I, Daniel Blake is a scathing portrait of a welfare system drowning in a sea of bureaucracy.

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Our way into this story is through “everyman” Daniel Blake (Dave Johns), a 59-year-old Geordie (hailing from Newcastle). Recently disabled by a medical condition and unable to work, Daniel is getting nowhere in his efforts to get relief from the government services, which are allegedly put in place to help someone in his situation. He finds himself in a nightmarish, Groundhog Day scenario that involves an endless stream of paperwork, ambivalent government officials and roads that lead absolutely nowhere. It feels like a scene out of some far-flung dystopia – but no – it is this world,  this England, circa now.

During one of his fruitless expeditions to the Benefits office, Daniel meets recently-arrived-to-Newcastle single mother Katie (Hayley Squires) and her two young children, Dylan and Daisy, who were forced north due to affordable housing shortages in her London hometown.

Through the tears, there are still those precious nuggets of joy and the occasional laughter to be found in the film. But overall, this is a story about an extremely vulnerable segment of modern British society which by and large has been (cynically) left behind.

There is one moment involving Katie that absolutely took my breath away. Even as I recount it now, my eyes are welling up. In a scene that can’t last more than 15 seconds (if that), I was overcome by an avalanche of emotions. Kudos to Ms. Squires for her performance, which doesn’t feel like a performance as much as a channeling of the plight endured by many women who are struggling to make a way for themselves with some dignity and self-worth.

And that is the thing – not for one moment do you see these people as taking advantage of a social safety net or being “skivers,” as they are often portrayed in much of the press. They are people that through circumstances (i.e. LIFE) find themselves in a place where they need a helping hand to get through a rough patch. Thanks to a script from long-time Loach collaborator Paul Laverty, I, Daniel Blake subtly keys the audience into the fact that the system in place seems to be doing quite the opposite of helping those in need. By hassling and creating unbelievable obstacles in their path, the establishment succeeds in stripping away as much of individual’s self-worth as possible, to the point of making many resign themselves to their lot in life, ultimately and simply giving up. It is a powerful message to be presented in such a gentle manner.

Even as the film came to an end and I could sense where it was going, the tears continued to fall down my face. Life is not a fairy tale and even when given a cinematic treatment, it can deliver the most painful of punches to the gut.

That said, it is clear why I Daniel Blake took home the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It is a memorable film that must be seen.

I, Daniel Blake is scheduled for release in the UK this Friday (October 21). And after making a few more film festival stops on this side of the pond, the US will get a limited release starting on December 23rd – just in time for major awards consideration.

NYFF54 Spotlight: Moonlight (2016)

You may have noticed that recently I have not posted with the frequency I once did. Several reasons – chief among them – I am just a tad busy lately (or maybe I have stated that before). But almost more importantly, 2016 has been an odd year for me cinematically. I have generally enjoyed the films I have seen to date. But if I am honest with you, my awesome readers, nothing has really gotten me overly excited. In the back of my head, I felt/hoped that come fall, the tide would change and we would enter my moviegoing sweet spot. Dear friends, I think we have arrived at that place.

This past weekend, I ventured to the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Lincoln Center to attend the 54th annual New York Film Festival. My Sunday was spent watching Moonlight (which we will discuss below) and Ken Loach’s latest (more on that later this week).

Moonlight marks the follow-up to writer/director Barry Jenkins’ previous feature, 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy.

moonlight

Based on a story by Tarell Alvin McCraney, this is a narrative told in three chapters which are chronicling the life of Chiron as he proceeds on his journey from young boy to young man in a Miami blighted by drugs and violence. But that is not the thing that worries him most – throughout all these stages of his life as portrayed on screen, we see him dealing with and ultimately coming to terms with who he is and what that means to truly embrace his sexuality.

It was refreshing to see such an emotionally raw drama amidst this setting. All too often when portraying communities of color in such a landscape, the story is fraught with what I can only characterize as a tale of hypermasculine “urban strife and turmoil.” And sure, those are important stories to tell, but it is equally important for there to be a representation that also allows this to fall to the periphery for the sake of telling a simple, beautiful story of a young man and his life and times.

Funny enough because of the structure of this film, I reflected on another recent film that similarly explored a young man’s “evolution” and coming of age (I will let you guess which one I am referring to). And while I enjoyed that film, I feel like Moonlight takes that idea and reaches new heights; it really captures those pivotal chapters of the young man’s life in a more controlled, economical and easier to process manner.

And while this is Chiron’s story, Moonlight is a film that is truly an ensemble piece where each of the principle characters – regardless of their station in life – have in them a strain of humanity which allows the audience to connect with them. Credit (of course) goes to the wonderful cast, which includes Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Alex R. Hibbert, Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders and Jharrel Jerome. They all bring this story and its characters to life.

There is so much more I want to say about Moonlight but I want to leave it to you to see what Barry Jenkins has beautifully constructed.

La Belle et la Bête (2014)

When I initially endeavored to cover La Belle et la Bête (2014) I thought it would be a great idea to watch the Jean Cocteau 1946 version as a companion piece. Alas, that never happened – because – life. I would say based on this viewing, I am determined to eventually give it a look. But for now, I’ll stick to reviewing this version.

First a little background. I definitely have a mixed history with the story of Beauty and the Beast as both a source material and an adaptation.  While I have not seen the Disney animated ‘masterpiece’ from 1991, I was more familiar with the late 1980s television version featuring Ron Perlman and Linda Hamilton. Sadly I am old and remember it well. All this to say, that, I generally thought I knew the basics of the story; in other words, I knew enough to get by and not be surprised by the lack of singing candelabras or tea cups.

Or rather, I THOUGHT I knew. As I tucked in and watched this French language version, directed by Christophe Gans and starring Léa Sedyoux and Vincent Cassel (they of the title respectively), I found myself post-screening having to do some additional research about the 1740 story as told by French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve (later abridged by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont in 1756).

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In fact, let me go ahead and share with you (who may also be similarly uninitiated) the film synopsis which will adequately set the stage for the story:

The year is 1810. After the wreck of his ships, a financially-ruined merchant (André Dussollier) exiles himself in the countryside with his six children. Among them is Belle (the “beauty”), his youngest daughter.

One day, during an arduous journey, the merchant stumbles across the magical domain of the Beast (Vincent Cassel), who sentences him to death for stealing a rose.

Feeling responsible for the terrible fate which has befallen her family, Belle decides to sacrifice herself and take her father’s place. At the Beast’s castle, it is not death that awaits Belle, but a strange life in which fantastical moments mingle with gaiety and melancholy.

They learn about each other, taming one another like two strangers who are total opposites.

As for the film itself, credit to the director, cinematographer and the set design/visual effects teams. They really created a stunning and mystical landscape that seemed to be lifted straight from the imagination of a person reading the fairytale. The visual style was so enthralling that I was engaged all the way through. The live action blended seamlessly with the CG. Sure I knew it was CG, but that is a concession I was willing to make in allowing the film to push the limits of projecting an otherworldly fairyland onto the screen.

That said, once I got past the reverie, I did feel like there were issues with the plotting of the story. In spite of the fact of my prior knowledge that Belle (“Beauty”) would eventually fall in love with the “Beast,” the film did the bare minimum (and possibly less than that) to convince me of the progression of Belle’s feelings.

I also get the sense that there was an effort to convey a sense of gritty realism in the tale at particular moments. In general, this felt a little incongruous to my sensibilities and the initial escapism and whimsy conveyed by the images I saw on screen. But then again, maybe I should remember my literary history and that the origins of fairytales often were not filled with an unending stream of sunshine, rainbows and magic.

Although the film was produced in 2014 and premiered at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival, La Belle et la Bête is finally getting an American release.

Starting today, check the official website for showtimes (http://beautyandthebeastfilm.com/) in select markets around the country.

Definitely Binge-Worthy: The Get Down (2016)

As I get my act together regarding building my television presence online (better late than never I guess), I will use this established space to wax poetic about my latest televisual, or ‘Netflix-ian’ obsession.

Actually, when I think about it, this post is not that far off from the theme of my blog.  The program that I will be discussing has a cinematic tie-in, courtesy of Baz Luhrmann, who is one of the creators of this awesome project. I am speaking about the 6-part limited series The Get Down.

The Get Down

At the start of Episode 1, it is a certainty that our chief protagonist, Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Figuero, (Justice Smith) has made a success of himself – we see this in the structure of the story – we have snippets of a contemporaneous, narrative performance by an adult Zeke (Hamilton’s Daveed Diggs) that immediately cut back to the South Bronx, 1977 – the primary setting for our story. Zeke and his crew – Shaolin Fantastic (Shameik Moore), Marcus ’Dizzee’ Kipling (Jaden Smith), and his brothers RaRa Kipling (Skylan Brooks),  Boo-Boo Kipling (T.J. Brown, Jr.) traverse the urban landscape, propelled by the lyrically-gifted Zeke, who is using his penchant for composing a mighty fine verse as a vehicle to fly high and escape his present circumstances.

There is also the burgeoning love story between Zeke and Mylene Cruz (Herizen Guardiola), a young lady who is also trying to break free from her surroundings and the strict religious upbringing through the power of her voice. Her saving grace of sorts is her loving uncle Francisco “Papa Fuerte” Cruz (Jimmy Smits) who also happens to be a big cheese around these parts – he seems to have his hand in everything – from community development to music producing.

I think I should probably pause here because I really feel like I am giving a whole lotta plot away. But that is the thing. Over the nearly 6 hour run of the series a lot of stuff is happening, often simultaneously. But the storytellers do a really good job of structuring the story and the movements of the characters in such a way that you don’t feel overwhelmed. And sure Zeke, is the central figure in the machinations of the plot, but to be honest, this is an inspired, ensemble piece where no character is wasted.

Musically, the audience is treated to a blend of the nascent days of hip hop music (cheers to Nas, who I believe also is actually pitting the verses that adult Zeke performed), the glorious days of disco and club music which bellowed in the nightclubs and dance halls of New York City.

Nevertheless, I am not saying that it is a perfect or exacting recounting of the South Bronx of the late 1970s – one that is generally characterized as being mired in urban blight. As one would expect, especially in the first episode (directed by Luhrmann) it is given a ‘Luhrmannian’ luster, vibrancy, grandeur and escapism that were very not much markers of the era if you were living it.

But for all the glamor and glitz, there does lie a raw undercurrent that conveyed the times as they were – from wanton acts of violence and the sense that everything may not turn out the way the audience would want or expect, there is enough forbidding present to create a sense of unease.

Plainly stated, The Get Down is worth your eyeballs. It is Netflix’s costliest production to date and while the buzz around it (from what I have seen) is largely positive, it is not getting the streaming traffic that would probably make Netflix happy given the expense. Which is a shame.

In a world where we continue to bang on and on about representation of all manner of story being told and covering the multitude of the human experience, this is a story worth telling and worth being seen.

Back to School (another TCM/Ball State Course Offering)

First, it was film noir. Now we are taking a deep dive into the world of cinematic comedy.

With younger people everywhere either back in school or getting very close to going back, now is an excellent time for the intellectually curious among us in the adult set to get in some learning of our own.

Largely due to the success of last year’s Turner Classic Movies and Ball State’s film noir collaboration on the Canvas LMS, we are back at it by taking a look at slapstick comedy.

TCM_Slapstick_sharePart of the homework in the course, titled, TCM Presents Painfully Funny: Exploring Slapstick in the Movies, will require you watch some films – and like last year, TCM is providing the accompanying programming of 56 films dating from 1915-2004; here is a look at the scheduling, which starts on September 6th as part of the TCM Series called Ouch! A Salute to Slapstick.

And best of all folks – it’s FREE. Go at your own pace or challenge yourself and work towards a certificate of completion. Full disclosure – last year I was passionate and enthusiastic about taking the course but life got into the way and I ended up not completing the course, but I relish the opportunity to learn and share a learning experience with a community of equally passionate cineastes.

If you get a chance, you should check it out!

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