Category Archives: Film

Film: Captain America: Civil War

Civil_War_Final_PosterBoasting the same creative team as its outstanding predecessor, Captain America: Civil War (2016) once again centers on a perfectly realized hero, but this time surrounds him with an army of major characters from every corner of the MCU, pitching them into memorable conflict. Even with sky-high expectations, this movie totally delivers, a wildly entertaining romp that further strengthens Cap’s legacy as Marvel’s most accomplished and consistent franchise.

In the wake of the roster shakeup at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America (Chris Evans) now leads a new team, and Civil War opens with them on assignment, tracking the nefarious Rumlow (Frank Grillo) in Lagos, Nigeria. Alas, the operation results in another highly public case of tragic, collateral damage — and for the United Nations, it’s a tragedy too far. Thus the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement to bring the Avengers under stricter government control, since their track record of costly catastrophes has called their very efficacy into question. Cap strongly disagrees with the Accords, but they’re just as strenuously supported by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), whose fraught superhero career as Iron Man has led him to see the Avengers’ exploits in a negative light. With Cap and Tony rallying the factions, a polarizing rift forms in the Avengers, which grows more serious when Cap gets wind of a criminal conspiracy the Accords may prevent him from pursuing. He forms a team of like-minded Avengers to secretly pursue the case — only to come up against Tony’s opposing team, who are just as determined to sideline Cap and his rogue allies.

With an absurdly large cast to cram into the proceedings and so many moving parts to the plot, Captain America: Civil War could have been a flailing kludge, but instead it’s an impressive Rube Goldberg contraption, layering coherent plot and interesting themes atop its kinetic, eye-popping spectacle. When it comes to vision, theme, and execution, I still believe Winter Soldier is the superior film, but Civil War is a worthy extension of those ideas, and also finally examines a heretofore unspoken elephant in the MCU’s room: collateral damage. It’s a gripping debate the audience should be (and has been) asking, not to mention a timely reflection of the state of the union, and the script handles it intelligently. Mercifully the opposing sides don’t square off arbitrarily; thoughtful arguments and character motives inform the touchy debate, and the film remains true to the characters’ histories and personalities. It makes for legitimate, organic conflict, and the fact that we’re invested in characters on both sides lends emotional weight to the resulting clash. Which isn’t to say this isn’t a fun film — it’s chock full of humor, both verbal and visual. But, again like Winter Soldier, serious themes bubble along under the wisecracks and flying fists.

Of course, for me the true joy of the MCU has always been the characters. These icons are lodged in my brain from many, many years of comic fandom, and it’s been terrific to see them brought to live-action life, at times more effectively than the source material. Civil War is particularly satisfying on this score. Chris Evans, of course, is the key, and I’m still impressed with how he’s perfected what could easily have been two-dimensional patriot, turning him into arguably the MCU’s most important presence. Downey Jr.’s snarky, silver-tongued Tony Stark is as effective as ever, and while sometimes the story seems overly heavy with his tedious manpain, his inner conflict — guilty conscience warring with massive ego — makes him the perfect and necessary foil to Cap’s earnest selflessness. Black Widow’s role in the proceedings feels somewhat reduced this time, but Scarlett Johansson once again proves herself the ensemble’s unsung hero, serving here as a middle-ground voice between two stubborn positions. Her superstar presence seems effortless, and Black Widow’s shifty perspective and wicked-cool fighting style has never been rendered so effectively. (Where the hell is her solo movie?)

There are further waves of terrific support, familiar from earlier movies. Falcon (Anthony Mackie) was one of the best things about Winter Soldier, and Civil War continues to deploy him winningly, as well as adding some neat bells and whistles to his armory. His humorous rivalry with Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) — pitting Cap’s oldest best friend against his newest one — is a riot. I’ve never been much of a Bucky Barnes fan, but Winter Soldier serves an important story function and Stan more or less hits the right notes, considering his character is written as a haunted cipher. The film also imports War Machine (Don Cheadle), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and the Vision (Paul Bettany), to varying effect. Best are perhaps Scarlet Witch and the Vision, fleshed out nicely by Olsen and Bettany after their rushed Age of Ultron intros; here they begin to develop a quirky, awkward rapport, as befits their unlikely history in the books. Alas, Cheadle is woefully underutilized, while Renner merely makes for a passable Hawkeye, whose presence felt forced. I’m still disappointed that Joss Whedon imported the Ultimates version of Hawkeye instead of the more fun original Hawkeye; it will always feel like we have a slightly broken version of my favorite character. That said, I’d rather have this Hawkeye than no Hawkeye at all, and there’s at least a nice, spirited argument between Hawkeye and Stark that made me nostalgic for the old hothead archer in the goofy purple suit. Finally, there’s motherfucking Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), fresh from his breezy solo film. Rudd is again hilarious, easily the funniest presence in a film full of tough competition. Ant-Man is turning out to be a wonderfully cinematic hero, his outlandish powers and chaotic fighting style bringing consistent laughs and brilliant action setpieces to the table. I wasn’t expecting to like him so much in this context, but he turned out to be a major highlight.

Two new characters, however, truly transform the landscape of the film, and look to do the same for the MCU moving forward. One of them is brilliantly introduced and integrated: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who looks to be a breakout star. His emergence is true to the classic character while also organically growing out of the plot. Boseman has gravitas to spare, and the film’s depiction of his fierce fighting style and thoughtful heart is perfect. I’m less enamored of the second new face: Spider-Man (Tom Holland), or his latest incarnation anyway. Civil War‘s Spider-Man is…well, he’s like a gourmet cupcake…on a pizza. Don’t get me wrong, Holland is wicked fun as a geeky teenager fumbling his way into the superhero world, but his presence here makes zero sense. Not only is he untraditional Avengers material, but (spoiler alert) the fact that he’s recruited by Stark seems utterly at odds with Stark’s tortured conscience. Inviting a teenager into a war zone, in the context of this story? I’ve heard Spider-Man is important to the source material, but he seems incidental here, his drive-by participation leaving an aftertaste of product placement.

With so many big personality heroes on screen, it’s easy to overlook the understated villain of the piece: Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl). But I think he deserves special mention as a uniquely nuanced antagonist, and a different kind of villain — quietly motived, deadly focused, with an agenda that’s far from earth-shaking but that ties cleverly into all the broader goings-on. It’s a smartly conceived and executed character, and Brühl brings him expertly to life.

All in all, then, it’s another rousing success of a Marvel movie, a thoroughly satisfying assemblage of eyeballs kicks and snappy dialogue and colorful action. Yes, Spider-Man is incongruous, and for crying out loud, surely Marvel can stir up a few more female superheroes to make this less of a dudefest? But aside from those caveats, this one’s a Marvel geek’s delight, slotting in nicely behind Winter Soldier as the MCU’s second-best movie.

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Film: Phoenix

PhoenixChristian Petzold’s Phoenix (2014) is slow, deliberate, and energyless, but oddly effective for all that. In the aftermath of World War II, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin after being liberated from Auschwitz. Disfigured in the war, Nelly’s face is reconstructed, making her unrecognizable. This vastly complicates her primary goal: reconnecting with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Their reunion leads to a thoroughly uncomfortable and unexpected new turn in their relationship.

The atmosphere and production values of Phoenix are first-rate, bringing the bleak post-war years of Germany vividly to life, and Hoss is mesmerizing as the traumatized, unreadable protagonist. But the film is also static, protracting the tragic scenario’s infrequent story beats; it felt like a short film dragged out to feature length. This made for tiresome viewing…and yet, in the end, the patient narrative strategy pays off in a rather elegant and powerful final moment. An unimpressive resolution might have left me regretting the watch, but Petzold nails it, rescuing the difficult build-up with an ending that is perfect. This one’s probably not for a wide audience, but it’s liable to resonate with certain afficionados of understated international cinema.

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Film: Sisters

sistersWhatever possessed the Criterion Collection to feature Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973)? Offering the merest glimmer of De Palma’s later technical prowess, it’s a trainwreck of a camp thriller that I can only speculate Criterion thought made for an interesting historical curio.

It starts with a weird meet-cute in New York City: French-Canadian model Danielle Breton (Margot Kidder) pranks advertising man Philip Woode (Lisle Wilson) on a Candid Camera-style game show, and afterwards they go out for a drink. Their one-night stand goes awry the next morning in Danielle’s apartment, when Philip is brutally murdered by her unhinged twin sister Dominique. From the next building, the crime is witnessed by crime reporter Grace Collier (Jennifer Salt), whose previous criticism of the NYPD delays the response enough for Danielle and her creepy ex-husband Emil (William Finley) to cover up the crime. But Grace pursues the story, ultimately learning that Danielle and Dominique were conjoined twins who were surgically separated, and…well, why spoil the “surprise.”

Early in his career, De Palma developed a reputation as a technically accomplished knockoff artist. His penchant for mimicry is on full display here; Sisters is a shameless Hitchcock homage, replete with third-rate references to Psycho, Rear Window, and Suspicion, while also attempting similar story tricks (such as major point-of-view shifts). There’s even a Bernard Herrmann score struggling valiantly to class up the joint. But aside from some interesting split-screen sequences, there’s not much artistry here: the production values are grubby, the acting uneven, the plot turns telegraphed, the story elements incredibly hokey. Ultimately, the mystery is resolved in multiple infodumps: first, through convenient documentary footage, and later through the unnecessary confession of a villain. The affair ends on a comically silly rimshot.

Is Sisters a knowing satire of itself? Viewed through that lens it’s at least mildly entertaining, leaning into its campy characteristics and thriller clichés. Witness Kidder’s thick French accent, Dolph Sweet’s skeptical cop, Charles Durning’s mansplaining private detective, and Finley, whose villain resembles a cross between John Waters and Heinrich Himmler. (He might as well be twirling his moustache.) A late, trippy hypnosis sequence in a psychiatric hospital steers the proceedings into David Lynch territory, which is a welcome left turn, stirring even more what-the-fuck into the soup . But I’m not sure I’m ready to give the film credit for clever self-awareness. Even at its best it’s a clunky diversion; otherwise it’s a tacky, derivative mess.

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Film: Foreign Correspondent

696_DF_box_348x490_originalWhile lesser known than Hitchcock’s other comic thrillers, Foreign Correspondent (1940) is an enjoyable and perhaps underrated wartime adventure bearing many earmarks of the Master of Suspense’s best. When the publisher of a New York newspaper gets fed up with the insubstantial European reporting of his staff, he goes off the board in search of a new voice: Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea), a snarky crime reporter rechristened with the unlikely pseudonym “Huntley Haverstock.” Sent to Europe, Jones gets the scoop he’s looking for when the leader of a peace organization, Van Meer (Albert Bassermann), is murdered right in front him. Jones’ pursuit of the assassin, which thrusts him into the path of cute-meet love interest Carol Fisher (Laraine Day), leads to a nest of German spies, whose sabotage of the European peace talks is prelude to war.

Foreign Correspondent’s obscurity is understandable: the humor is subtle, the pacing is occasionally slow, and the plot is on the rambly side. But it’s an entertaining wartime morale booster, and may be an underrated entry in Hitchcock’s canon. McCrea makes for a genial hero, Day is charming, and they’re surrounded by effective villainy and support: particularly notable is George Sanders as the droll “ffolliott.” The pre-war backdrop creates a menacing atmosphere that contrasts nicely against the light-hearted banter, which turns serious at just the correct moments. And finally, it boasts the famous setpieces for which Hitchcock is known: the assassination scene, the quiet windmill sequence, and especially the dramatic plane crash. Fans of Hitchcock’s body of work, and of this filmmaking period in general, will find plenty to enjoy.

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Film: Jubilee

jubileeHulu has a metric fuckton of bizarre Criterion movies available for streaming, and leave it to me to start with one of the weirdest: Jubilee (1978), a stream-of-conscious punk rock dystopia. This plotless melange of guerilla filmmaking has an incongruous Shakespearean frame: Queen Elizabeth I (Jenny Runacre), with the assistance of an occultist, conjures a spirit guide who transports her forward in time to a dark future that looks an awful lot like 1970s London. There she witnesses the anarchic behavior of her nation’s future, through the antics of a chaotic gang of artists, arsonists, layabouts, and musicians who wallow in a dying culture of media saturation and societal decay.

Nothing says “anything goes” like seventies cult cinema involving the British punk rock scene; Jubilee is random, uneven, paceless, and full of transgressive behavior and nihilistic political theory. It’s also got raw punk music from musicians like Adam Ant, Toyah Wilcox, and Sioxsie and the Banshees, among others. (Ant and Wilcox have substantial roles in the film.) While vast stretches of its running time are dull and amateurish, it does have a surprising cumulative effect as its mumbly blend of political commentary, grimy visuals, eccentric performances, and half-baked SF tropes spin inexorably into tragicomic nightmare. A broad viewership likely won’t respond to this relic, but it does earn its cult notoreity and I got a kick out of its grungy, experimental camp.

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Film: That Man from Rio

thatmanfrom rioI went way off the board looking for a movie to watch this weekend, and found That Man from Rio (1964), a quasi-Hitchcockian adventure travelogue that thinks it’s devilishly charming, but is not. It does catch the eye, though, thanks to stunning cinematography that showcases the amazing scenery of Brazil.

When a valuable statue goes missing from a Paris museum, it quickly becomes apparent that someone’s attempting to reassemble the set to which it belongs. The only person who knows where the second statue is hidden is Agnès Villermosa (Françoise Dorléac), the daughter of one of the scientists who originally found the statues. Naturally, the thieves kidnap her to help them find it…which prompts her bumbling, zany fiancé Adrien Dufourquet (Jean-Paul Belmondo) to trail after her. He follows them across the ocean to Brazil, racing chaotically to rescue her and solve the mystery.

This is one of those fast-paced, cheesy, technicolor movies of the 1960s that desperately tries to cash in on the formula of North By Northwest. Alas, its lacks that movie’s clever charms, and worse, the film’s gender politics make Hitchcock look like Anita Sarkeesian. Adrien’s erratic heroics display a sociopathic disregard for any innocent bystander in his wake — picture 24′s Jack Bauer by way of Jerry Lewis, a colossal comedic misfire. And the plot is basically a MacGuffin surrounded by contrivances.

So it’s a mess, but kind of an attractive mess, thanks to the appealing Dorléac and some eye-popping visuals. The breathtaking vistas of Rio de Janeiro and, more interestingly, the then-nascent city of Brasília provide a vivid widescreen backdrop; it makes for a neat time capsule. It also has an erratic stream-of-consciousness flow that does have infectious, anything-goes plot turns, like Adrien’s fast friendship with an adorable shoeshine boy named Sir Winston (Ubiracy De Oliveira), who randomly becomes his right-hand man. Belmondo may be no Cary Grant, but I grew to respect his physical presence as he enacts a number of spectacularly dangerous high-rise stunts and realistic and painful-looking fight scenes. On points this one failed for me, but it was at least weird and different enough to keep me diverted while I was folding my laundry, and does possess some quirky assets. A curious relic.

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Film: Deadpool

deadpool_movie_poster_by_tldesignn-d9ofd43The Netflix series Daredevil, with its dark storylines and neo-noir ultraviolence, originally struck me as a glimpse at the seedy underbelly of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But as it turns out, there’s a level below that one, a darker, bloodier, raunchier level, and that’s the gleefully incorrect Deadpool (2016).

Clever, crass, meta, and alinear, Deadpool tells the dizzying, antiheroic story of Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), a former Special Forces killer who makes his living as an intimidating thug-for-hire. Wilson is an unlikeable jerk, but he delights in taking it out on even bigger, more unlikeable jerks. Wilson’s match-made-in-heaven romance with snarky prostitute Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) is interrupted by a cruel twist of fate, which leads Wilson into the employ of Ajax (Ed Skrein), an evil scientist who wants to unleash Wilson’s inner mutant. And thus, Deadpool — one of the MCU’s most entertaining assholes — is born.

Deadpool manages to both embrace and subvert the very formula that made it possible, and as such it’s a refreshing change of pace for the MCU…if you can use the word “refreshing” to describe something so rude, bloody, and full of taboos. It’s an R-rated Marvel film, filled with gratuitous language, nudity, and graphic violence, and while in some ways that makes it a departure from canon, it also feels like an inevitable consequence of the super-powered world in which it’s set. While meta in-jokes and fourth-wall breaks set it aside, it still benefits from the origin-story paces and messy, chaotic finale structure of the usual MCU fare, making it both of its milieu and beside it.

In retrospect, I found myself asking: do we really need another white, male antihero? The answer is a resounding no, and yet I find myself curiously defensive of Deadpool, who is slightly out of step with the antihero archetype. In a universe increasingly cluttered by similarly motivated heroes, Deadpool is an aberration, holding up his middle finger to them all…an unforgiving, foul-mouthed wild card. Ryan Reynolds seems game for anything, and goes all in on the role to hilarious effect. He’s matched kink-for-kink and quirk-for-quirk by Morena Baccarin, who is typically fantastic, although I wish her character hadn’t been quite so girlfriended. (Irritating to learn that her character was based on a superhero in her own right; sadly there’s no evidence of that here.) They’re surrounded by a pro forma smattering of C-list Marvel characters who serve their various heroic, villainous, and comic-relief functions well enough.

Deadpool doesn’t break much new ground, and its smarmy offensiveness is likely to repel certain viewers, but it’s a funny, disgusting, in-your-face romp and I found it gloriously diverting.

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Film: Female Agents

220px-Femmes_de_l'ombreWhile its inexplicably poor English title doesn’t do it justice, Female Agents (2008) is a compelling World War II spy film about, well, female agents. (I guess someone decided Les Femmes de l’ombre — “Women of the Shadows” — was too…eloquent?) Inspired by real events, the film depicts a daring operation to rescue a British geologist from the clutches of the Nazis before he can reveal the Allies’ D-Day invasion plans. Executing the mission: a Dirty Dozen-like crew of female agents, led by the daring Louise Desfontaines (Sophie Marceau), an experienced SOE officer. Louise recruits former cabaret dancer Suzy Desprez (Marie Gillain), ex-prostitute and convicted murderer Jeanne Faussier (Julie Depardieu), and untested demolitions expert Gaelle Lemenech (Déborah François) to parachute behind enemy lines. There they’ll rendezvous with radio operator Maria Luzzato (Maya Sansa) and, together with other French Resistance operatives, liberate the imperiled geologist from a German army hospital — all before a shrewd Nazi officer named Heindrich (Moritz Bleibtreu) can interrogate the truth out of the scientist and uncover the Allies’ invasion plans.

Female Agents is loaded with quality: it’s got production values to burn, gripping action, interesting historical detail, and first-class verisimilitude. But its primary asset is that it’s a war epic with a refreshing focus on female characaters. Certain directorial choices, alas, veer into unnecessary male gaze; in this respect it occasionally reminded me of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. But by and large it’s a moving and tragic portrait of brave women coming together under impossible circumstances, anchored by superb performances from the entire cast — especially Marceau, who is stellar. Its brutal, heartfelt narrative is reminiscent of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, a comparison I wouldn’t make lightly– certainly not as eloquent or quite as shattering, but derived from the same powerful stock.

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Film: Time Lapse

Time-Lapse-2014-movie-posterOnce again my soft spot for science fiction cinema of the low-budget, thought experiment variety has paid off. Time Lapse (2014) doesn’t look like much at first blush, but it escalates impressively into a compelling Twilight Zone-y bottle show. Its creepy echoes linger long after the final credits.

It revolves around a trio of young roommates in a low-rent apartment complex. Finn (Matt O’Leary) is a starving-artist painter, who moonlights miserably as the complex’s superintendent to make ends meet. His responsible girlfriend Callie (Danielle Panabaker) is an aspiring writer. And Jasper (George Finn) is a shifty layabout with a gambling problem. They share a congenial but impoverished existence, but their fortunes change dramatically when the old man in the apartment across the courtyard disappears. When they go to his apartment to check on him, they find a huge, mysterious-looking camera pointed at their apartment across the way, and a wall covered with Polaroids of the three of them, all shot from the same angle through their living-room window. But this isn’t just creepy voyeurism: to their surprise, they learn that the camera has been taking a picture every day, exactly one day into the future…and what they see starts to inspire, and eventually control, them.

The film’s opening minutes are unimpressive: its spare interiors, tiny cast, and limited scope betray its economic limitations. A handful of awkward early line deliveries make it look like this might be a clumsy, second-rate affair. But it recovers from these missteps quickly once the simple SFnal premise is discovered, decrypted, and explored. Soon enough the material improves, the cast rallies to it, and the film becomes surprisingly gripping.

The story unfolds in nifty, stake-raising episodes, as each new grainy Polaroid poses a new mystery for them to solve. A major plot thread, naturally, involves gambling: Jasper’s greedy future self starts posting race results in the window to line his pockets. But knowing the future, it turns out, ultimately enslaves them to it…driving them, each in their own way, a little bit mad. This spirals the proceedings from a playful examination of the trope to chilling, noir twists and turns.

Unfortunately the story’s ingenious resolution kind of spits on one of the characters, but I was quick to forgive that and other blemishes in light of the film’s structural cleverness and ominous vibe. Sometimes financial constraints lead to creative solutions, and Time Lapse makes the most of its meager raw materials, spinning them into something special. A modest but spellbinding watch.

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Film: Interstellar

interstellar-posterIs there anything more dispiriting than a widely acclaimed movie that’s virtually unwatchable? Interstellar (2014) is the kind of self-involved mess that only a 900-pound auteur can generate, a bloated, pretentious excuse for a science fiction epic that drowns its incoherent story in an ocean of imbalanced noise. What a trial!

On a dying Earth in the future that consists entirely of Midwestern cornfields, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former NASA pilot and frustrated engineer who’s been forced to redirect his talents toward the world’s most pressing problem: food. His farming career is interrupted when a strange gravity anomaly in his house delivers to him, in binary code, the coordinates of a NASA facility hidden in another nearby cornfield. Turns out there’s a secret project underway to send a scientific team into space, through a wormhole in Saturn, to search for a habitable planet — before life on Earth becomes unsustainable. It’s a chance to save humanity, and Cooper jumps at it. With no training whatsoever, he  assumes command and leads the expedition into an interstellar realm full of cosmic mystery.

Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have written good scripts, but oh boy, this isn’t one of them. Full of thin world-building and random scientific babbling, it’s a tedious, unstreamlined blend of quasi-philosophical musing, clumsy exposition, and nauseating love-will-save-all mysticism. As if sensing this, the score drowns the dialogue in thundering sound effects and circular, anesthetizing Hans Zimmer music. In retrospect, this may in fact be a cagey decision, like smothering a recipe’s failings in salt and butter to distract from iffier ingredients. Alas, Zimmer’s score isn’t salt and butter. It’s full of overblown, grandiose sentimentality that somehow slows the pace of scenes that are already interminable. So, deliberate strategy or otherwise, it’s quite possibly the worst sound design in cinema history.

The cast, which includes Anne Hathaway, Michael Caine, Jessica Chastain, and Matt Damon, is full of firepower struggling vainly to bring life to unconvincing dialogue. The tone is one of unrelenting pathos for a dying humanity that I cared less and less about with each passing minute of its three-hour running time.

Yes, there are stunning visual effects and occasional moments that push the old sense-of-wonder buttons. But  this is a terrible movie, and worse, it’s a terrible movie that thinks it’s a brilliant one. Alas, simply believing you’re 2001: A Space Odyssey doesn’t make it so.

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